Scientologist! William S. Burroughs and the "Weird Cult"

By Harris, Oliver | Journal of Beat Studies, January 1, 2014 | Go to article overview

Scientologist! William S. Burroughs and the "Weird Cult"


Harris, Oliver, Journal of Beat Studies


Scientologist! William S. Burroughs and the "Weird Cult" David S. Wills (Beatdom Books, 2013).

In 1984, I asked William Burroughs, "What is the connection between Dianetics and the cut-ups?" and I have been waiting a long time for someone to explain his answer. I had arrived in Lawrence straight from the archives at Columbia University where, among many unpublished letters, I discovered the startling sequence from October 1959 in which Burroughs announced his simultaneous discoveries of cut-up methods and Dianetics. I had transcripts of these revelatory letters with me when Burroughs replied briskly and precisely with just two words to my question about the connection: "None whatever." Thirty years ago, it was well known that Burroughs had become involved with the Church of Scientology in the late 1960s and early 1970s and that he had engaged in a series of public battles with L. Ron Hubbard in the pages of such magazines as Mayfair and Rolling Stone, culminating in Burroughs' Ali's Smile/ Naked Scientology (1978). At least I thought I knew that history well. David Wills reveals there is a good deal more to it, and although his book has too many flaws and limitations to be the one I have waited three decades for, it does go some way to explaining the baffling answer Burroughs gave in 1984.

For Burroughs, the rewriting of history was both a creative strategy and a biographical temptation-"Few things in my own past I'd just as soon forget," as his narrator puts it in The Ticket That Exploded-and his attempt to erase Scientology from the origins of his cut-up project is a reminder that for many years he infamously dismissed as "absurd" the true circumstances in which he shot and killed his wife, Joan Vollmer, in 1951. In fact, you might say that these denials are themselves connected and that Burroughs embraced Scientology and tried to turn Dianetics: The Modern Science of Mental Health into a creative method precisely in order to cut up the past. Certainly, his denial of Dianetics is significant since it has a material bearing on understanding his most important experimental work. Scientologist! William S. Burroughs and the "Weird CulC focuses more on the psychology of the man than the creativity of the artist, which is one of its major flaws, but it has the great merits of being the first book to take the subject seriously and the first to dig into the archives-this time the vast and rich resources in the Berg Collection of the New York Public Library-to build on the truth that cut-ups did indeed go together with Scientology from the very start.

Burroughs' letters in October 1959-which climax with his insisting to Allen Ginsberg that "I tell you: 'Find a Scientology Auditor and have yourself run'"-were published twenty years ago, and the fact that they have attracted little attention since is one of David Wills' starting points. He sees it as a failure of imagination to realize that, back then, it was possible to take Scientology entirely seriously as a therapeutic science and an even greater failure of nerve to recognise that Burroughs' interest could have been both deeply serious and long lasting. More than that, he challenges the biographers and critics for effectively airbrushing out the unwelcome truth that the great iconoclast and skeptic could possibly have been such a credulous dupe. In effect, and quite rightly, Wills insists that it's time to give up the defensiveness inherited from an earlier period in Beat studies history, when sympathetic critics who championed Burroughs were battling academic marginalisation and mockery. Although Wills indulges in his own mocking of Burroughs-"he never did learn to stop believing incredible claims and bizarre promises"-it is this refusal of hagiography that allows him to rewrite the central narrative line of Burroughs' life and make visible the place of Scientology in it.

Scientologist! presents Hubbard's ideas about language, trauma, and control as logical and seductive for a man both acutely aware of how psychologically damaged he was and desperate to do something about it. …

The rest of this article is only available to active members of Questia

Already a member? Log in now.

Notes for this article

Add a new note
If you are trying to select text to create highlights or citations, remember that you must now click or tap on the first word, and then click or tap on the last word.
One moment ...
Default project is now your active project.
Project items
Notes
Cite this article

Cited article

Style
Citations are available only to our active members.
Buy instant access to cite pages or passages in MLA 8, MLA 7, APA and Chicago citation styles.

(Einhorn, 1992, p. 25)

(Einhorn 25)

(Einhorn 25)

1. Lois J. Einhorn, Abraham Lincoln, the Orator: Penetrating the Lincoln Legend (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1992), 25, http://www.questia.com/read/27419298.

Note: primary sources have slightly different requirements for citation. Please see these guidelines for more information.

Cited article

Scientologist! William S. Burroughs and the "Weird Cult"
Settings

Settings

Typeface
Text size Smaller Larger Reset View mode
Search within

Search within this article

Look up

Look up a word

  • Dictionary
  • Thesaurus
Please submit a word or phrase above.
Print this page

Print this page

Why can't I print more than one page at a time?

Help
Full screen
Items saved from this article
  • Highlights & Notes
  • Citations
Some of your highlights are legacy items.

Highlights saved before July 30, 2012 will not be displayed on their respective source pages.

You can easily re-create the highlights by opening the book page or article, selecting the text, and clicking “Highlight.”

matching results for page

    Questia reader help

    How to highlight and cite specific passages

    1. Click or tap the first word you want to select.
    2. Click or tap the last word you want to select, and you’ll see everything in between get selected.
    3. You’ll then get a menu of options like creating a highlight or a citation from that passage of text.

    OK, got it!

    Cited passage

    Style
    Citations are available only to our active members.
    Buy instant access to cite pages or passages in MLA 8, MLA 7, APA and Chicago citation styles.

    "Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences." (Einhorn, 1992, p. 25).

    "Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences." (Einhorn 25)

    "Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences." (Einhorn 25)

    "Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences."1

    1. Lois J. Einhorn, Abraham Lincoln, the Orator: Penetrating the Lincoln Legend (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1992), 25, http://www.questia.com/read/27419298.

    Cited passage

    Thanks for trying Questia!

    Please continue trying out our research tools, but please note, full functionality is available only to our active members.

    Your work will be lost once you leave this Web page.

    Buy instant access to save your work.

    Already a member? Log in now.

    Search by... Author
    Show... All Results Primary Sources Peer-reviewed

    Oops!

    An unknown error has occurred. Please click the button below to reload the page. If the problem persists, please try again in a little while.