Academic journal article Tamkang Review

"Time Junky": Shamanic Journeyings and Gnostic Eschatology in the Novels of William S. Burroughs

Academic journal article Tamkang Review

"Time Junky": Shamanic Journeyings and Gnostic Eschatology in the Novels of William S. Burroughs

Article excerpt

The Shaman as Con Artist

William S. Burroughs's space age and, at the same time, Wild West version of the Gnostic mythos is at all points informed by shamanic praxis, however recuperated by the novelist in twisted, Western terms such as drug addiction with its attendant street cons. Certainly, Burroughs's research into the effects of psychoactive agents surpasses even De Quincey in its thoroughness. "One more shot--tomorrow the cure," writes Burroughs (Naked 91) with every bit of De Quincey's old junky optimism. But while fellow junky De Quincey seems to have stuck mainly with laudanum, Burroughs searches through the pharmacological agents of the earth, ostensibly to find a cure for heroin addiction. This search leads him to discoveries that transcended merely intellectual comprehension to extend into a spiritual dimension that informs an underlying Burroughsian poetics of shamanic dismemberment and reassembly into the Gnostic holism which constitutes experiential "knowing."

Depending on what formal definitions are imposed, there might seem a discontinuity between what I have elsewhere called "the shamanic paradigm" (1) and the Gnostic sensibility I impute to Burroughs. Actually, it is my further contention that such a perceived discontinuity is, in the West, a culturally sustained illusion, and one that Burroughs is concerned in dissolving. In previous essays I have contended that Western forms of magical praxes lying beyond the boundaries of orthodox religious law (such as Gnosticism, Hermeticism and Rosicrucianism) represent a collision between the shamanic impulse which Winkelman describes as "an innate, human, biologically based drive with adaptive significance" (7) and the monolithic, usually monotheistic religions which branded such practices as heretical. Western history, unlike, say, the history of China, is a history of radical discontinuities. Magical and mythic modes of apprehending the world were not absorbed but rather bodily ejected by the rationally-oriented post-Ionian Greek philosophers. With the incursion of the Romans, and the Roman Catholic Church into the British Isles there was a firm line in the sand drawn between the old Celts, traditionally a shamanic, Goddess-based society, and the new, mandatory Christian schema imposed upon them. The schism created by the Protestant Reformation also had the effect of marginalizing those sects, such as the Anabaptists, who had found ways to use the old folk knowledge (such as healing through manipulation of invisible, subtle or spiritual forces) associated with shamanic praxis.

In the West, then, a solid wall was erected between magic and religion, between "primitive" tribal beliefs and the more logocentric, formally structured systems of worship currently in dominance. That this has not necessarily been a world-wide phenomenon is illustrated by the fact that in Mandarin Chinese, for example, there is no single term to distinguish between a shaman in a tribal context and a sorcerer. In the west a sorcerer is of a type related to Faust--one who has bargained his soul in hopes of gaining what he shouldn't have been trying to discover in the first place--whereas a shaman remains a ethnographic term, relating most directly to the spiritual explorer, healer, psychopomp and conjuror of otherworldly landscapes found universally in aboriginal tribes. As for the sorcerer, westerners consider he is either fraudulent (at very least fictional) or evil; as for the shaman, most modern ethnologists leave the morality and authenticity of shamanic activities to questions of cultural relativity, and try to envisage the shaman's liminal world in which relative dualisms such as good and evil cannot be absolutely divorced from another.

In actuality, however, the wall between magic and religion is not nearly as formidable as those who erected it would have us believe. Folk customs such as divination, healing through activation of spiritual energies and even the gaining of information through access to trance states, has continued, sometimes as a disguised form of Christianity (as, for instance, we find in Hoodoo and Voodoo traditions in the West Indies and Southern United States), and sometimes in defiance of canonical law, as we find in Wiccan and some Native American traditions. …

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