Yage Letters

Last week I finally made time to pop into the Albion Beatnik Bookshop, in Oxford's Jericho district. There's some great stuff in there, and even though the 'Drugs' section (unhappily labelled 'Addiction') is a bit thin (and, ahem, could almost certainly include the occasional book about magic mushrooms) I managed to pick up a copy of The Yage Letters by William Burroughs and Allen Ginsberg.

More travel writing than trip-lit (though increasingly I'm hard put to tell the difference), the book nonetheless describes Burroughs and Ginsberg's journeys through South America in search of ayahuasca, told through letters dispatched between the two during the 50s and 60s. Burroughs fucks and drinks and injects and curses his way through Bogota and Peru, and while his bleak misanthropy is refreshingly savage , invigorating almost - 'the most inveterate drunk, liar and loafer in the village is invariably the medicine man' - he is a hard man to like.

Ginsberg comes across as altogether more human, playful and concerned, and the angsty way he wrestles with life, death and what the fuck it's all about, while wretching his guts out into the Amazonian night, is all too familiar. Burroughs, ever the junkie, ever the liar, squirms and wriggles away from honest self-examination. When the yage kicks in, he reaches for the sedatives. By contrast, Ginsberg's warm humility and willingness to go there is infectious.

'I am only a busybody meddling in human affairs vainly trying to assert the Supremacy of the Soul - which can take care of itself without me & my egoistic assumption of the Divine, my presumption that the Eternal needs my assistance to exist and preserve itself in the world.'

'There's no need to communicate the News of God. Those who seek, find...All's taken care of in Perfection.'

Gurus and religionists take note.

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