I’ve been reading Scientologist! William S. Burroughs and the ‘Weird Cult’ by David S. Wills. (Beatdom Books, 2013) It’s an excellent book, that describes in clear and engaging prose the development of William Burroughs’s ideas and beliefs, particularly his shifting attitude towards Scientology.
For me, it’s been interesting to learn just how seriously Burroughs took Scientology. As Wills points out, Burroughs considered himself a sceptic who based his beliefs on facts. But Wills also shows us that what Burroughs meant by “fact” was quite subjective. A “fact” for Burroughs tended to be anything that he happened to believe in. (p.26) Burroughs believed in many of the theories and methods of Scientology, and so they were facts for him. Of Scientology, Burroughs wrote to his friend Allen Ginsberg: “You see it works.” (p.66)
Scientology does seem to have worked very well for Burroughs, since not only was he able to mine the literature of Scientology for material for his “cut-ups” (a method of writing where pages are cut into pieces and rearranged to create new combinations of words), but also some concepts of Scientology, such as the “reactive mind”, became ideas so central to Burroughs’s writing that it is impossible to imagine what sort of books he might have gone on to write had he never learned of such concepts. Brion Gysin joked that Burroughs was one of the few people to make more money out of Scientology than they made out of him. (p.122)
Perhaps the most interesting bit of Wills’s book is the final chapter, where he describes Burroughs’s break with Scientology. We learn that however valuable he found some of the Church’s ideas and methods, he hated what he saw as the religious, controlling and organisational aspects of Scientology. For Burroughs, the ideas of Scientology offered the promise of escape from systems of control, but this promise was negated by the fact that Scientology wanted to control its own members, by determining what they could read, who they could see, subjecting them to tests, and so on. Interestingly, Burroughs believed that what he had gained from Scientology was a deeper understanding of methods of control, since in his view the means that Scientologists used to control their members were very similar to those used by governments and their agents. (p.148)
But Wills shows us that although Burroughs broke with Scientology he never gave up on its ideas altogether. Towards the end of the book, Wills looks at how some of Burroughs’s later works contain ideas from Scientology. For example:
“In [The Place of] Dead Roads, Burroughs’s alter ego, Kim, thinks about space travel as his ‘only purpose,’ and a means of escape. He considers the necessities for leaving this planet – namely a change in biological form in order to adapt to the environment of space. And what is the environment of space? ‘SILENCE.’ Humans need to evolve in order to deal with silence. It was from Scientology that Burroughs took the idea that silence is important, a method of avoiding triggering an engram.” (p.203)
That Scientology remained an obsession for Burroughs is something that is often overlooked, according to Wills. (pp.4-5) I’m glad I read Wills’s book, as I think it’s given me a deeper insight into Burroughs’s later work.