The “Ugly Spirit” was the impetus for William Burroughs’ writing career. He attributed the accidental shooting and killing of his wife to the influence of such an elemental force, and his vast output of literary and artistic endeavors was the result. Unquestionably, this body of work placed him among the great visionary minds of the twentieth century.
As with many other artists and writers throughout history, who have also been creatively compelled, or at least re-routed by the suffering of those close to them, Burroughs’ career raises the philosophical dilemma of “moral luck”: the question whether or not behavior destructive to others that results in ‘art for the greater good’ is somehow morally less reprehensible. This is especially relevant when the concept of ‘forces beyond one’s control’ constitutes an essential element within the work itself.
By proposing the extenuating circumstance of an “Ugly Spirit,” Burroughs makes his role in the event seem less overt. He casts himself as unwitting accomplice almost, as victim even, and the idea of his having to “write his way out” can be viewed as a kind of penance, a form of atonement. In light of his methods, this is a fascinating irony. He dedicated almost his entire literary career to promoting the very elements of drugs and guns that had contributed to the event and he consistently contended that “…women were a biological mistake.” He also claimed that he often intentionally invoked so-called demonic entities as aids to his work.
These apparent contradictions are intrinsic to his worldview: “Control,” “being controlled,” “luck,” “chance,” “ritual violence” and “evil influence” are clearly elements that inform his work, but they contain within them a larger idea.
Implied in this scenario is the concept of sacrifice: the ‘regrettable fact’ that some must suffer in order that the greater good prevail. The Judeo/Christian and Mayan worldviews both incorporated sacrifice as necessary and justifiable for the promotion of their agendas, and both included a version of this same “Ugly Spirit” routine. Burroughs in effect, extrapolated his personal experience into the greater experience of the world at large. Sacrifice, particularly the sacrifice of youth, and its promotion and justification by the Biblical/Darwinian driven status quo, is a feature of Ah Pook is Here, Naked Lunch and his fiction in general.
Contrary to the idea that Darwinism undermines religion, it essentially endorses its basic conceit; the notion that human sensibility is the supreme evolutionary achievement and the “survival of the fittest” are fundamental to both. Religion merely introduces contrary forces in the form of evil that create obstacles to this dynamic. Anthropomorphosizing this energy into demons and devils makes the concept accessible to a larger audience – particularly children – who must be indoctrinated ASAP.
Demonic possession is not a new idea. The claim that forces beyond our control compel us to act ‘out of character’ has been accepted throughout history by many cultures. “The Devil made me do it” is a well-worn line of defense. But what exactly is an Ugly Spirit, how does one confront it and to what end? How does one contend with a power of that supposed magnitude? Is it something that can be appealed to and appeased? In bowing to it, as it were, are we anticipating some sort of benefit or dispensation, some level of assistance, the way we do with the other side of the good-evil equation? But what can evil possibly have to offer? It cannot lessen our personal quota of it, because that would be contradictory to its essential character. Nobody in his or her right mind would want more of it because evil by definition is chaotic, painful and remorseless. It cannot be predicted or controlled.
So why would the many black magic practitioners throughout history want to invoke such an idea? Why would Bill Burroughs who was “struggling” as he put it, to come to terms with such a thing, deliberately attempt to bring it – or its cronies – into the world… into the house even? In describing his painting methods he referred to his muse “… Humwawa, Lord of Abominations … his head a mass of entrails…” who would arrive with his brother “Pazuzu Lord of Fevers and Plagues,” whose “…breath [was] the stench of dung and the perfume of death…” A fun pair apparently, whose company and influence he appeared to derive pleasure from.
In a sweat lodge ritual, he succeeded in actually seeing his adversary…” a spirit with a white skull face, but no eyes, and sort of …wings.” A human form in other words albeit blind, but with the ability to fly. To his guide, getting the evil from ‘in here, to out there’ was an achievement. An adversary when seen, said Burroughs, is disarmed.
It’s here that the notion of Ugly Spirit appears to diverge from its more profound implications and takes on a more conventional fictional interpretation. The notion of moral luck considers the possibility that none of our actions may be culpable – or praiseworthy – since they are entirely contingent on genetic, environmental and circumstantial influences beyond our control. Assigning a form to that idea, particularly a conventional form of evil, completely reduces its significance. Moral luck involves the question of free will and this it seemed was a fundamental part of Burroughs’ ongoing literary enquiry: the debate between a predetermined Word/Image track as he called it and the possibility of being free moral agents. Describing the forces countering free will in such Marvel comic book, bad-guy terms diminishes the idea, certainly if proposed in defense of a crime.
Apart from their changing shape, what makes these and many other embodiments of evil interesting is that they do in fact have bodies; bodies that incorporate all-too-familiar aspects of the human experience. They are generally unpleasant, distasteful, foul individuals often disfigured or distorted by facial and/or bodily decay. All the bad aspects in other words, sometimes cobbled together with details from other ‘unpleasant’ life forms such as bats, rats, rabid dogs, snakes, reptiles, spiders and bugs etc. The conventional representation of the Devil is a goat-headed individual, and it also apparently smells bad.
To describe living humans with facial or bodily disfigurement as evil would be outrageously un-PC, yet this lingering throwback to medieval times is still the vogue. Associating evil with animal characteristics is also atavistic. Evil, both in ‘fact’ and fiction, is invariably nevertheless cast in this mold.
In keeping with the notoriety of goats, the Devil above all embodies sexuality: rampant, indiscriminate and invariably violent. Sex is the element that appears to unite most personifications of evil and forms the basis of the manner by which and for which they are sought after. Rituals involving naked adherents in orgiastic frenzy are part and parcel of the summoning process. “The Great Beast” and occult ‘magician’ Aleister Crowley is revered on that account for his theatrical use of sex to conjure up otherworldly insight. In the long run, however, the insight seems more to do with control of this world than any other, in which respect his ‘eenie, meenie, minie, mo’ routines don’t hold a candle to the likes of Charlie Manson or Rasputin. When it came to manipulating the ladies, these guys were in another league altogether.
Crowley went for the conventional kinky stuff: having women actually have sex with animals, eat excrement, have the kids watch etc. That was what made him so popular with his voyeuristic, reading audience. But what was actually invoked by these shenanigans? Where was the MAGIC? Sticking ‘exciting’ objects into a vagina produced what exactly… besides a hardon for the master of ceremonies?
(Burroughs refers to Crowley on occasions and they appear to be connected in their numerological obsessions as well as their demonic preoccupations. Burroughs almost has the patent on 23 his “…number of death” and it permeates his fiction. Crowley on the other hand adopted 666 as his nom de guerre – the number of the devil. Between them they appear to have nailed it: The earth’s axis tilts 23(.4)º from vertical leaving 66.6º leftover – clearly the Earth is thoroughly evil)
Sex with animals is hardly remarkable, it’s been part of the human experience since the get go. The hybrid monsters described throughout history are surely the imagined progeny of such romantic liaisons – even the Gods did it after all. One of the great questions of anthropology it seems, is whether men had sex with horses before they figured out how to ride them or vice versa. “Stump broke,” the country vernacular for a compliant horse or cow, has conceivably been with us a long time. (The term for animals that will back up willingly (so I’m told) whenever a man stands on a tree stump with his pants down.) Kinsey reported – in the twentieth century – that between 40 and 50% of males interviewed in rural settings admitted having had sex with the livestock. It was Christianity that put the damper on that sort of thing and then only in fits and starts. Anxious to maintain the distinction between lowly animals and exalted humans, church ‘fathers’ began patrolling the sex boundary early on and obviously it was crossed sufficiently often, or the need wouldn’t have arisen.
Initially it was simply frowned upon as a boyish (or girlish) habit that would eventually be grown out of, but as the perception of animals changed, so did the perception of the act. Punishment for bestiality was once on a par with that for masturbation and homosexuality, and was included among the many rules in the Old Testament Bible. The animals involved were also considered culpable and sometimes also punished. With that, the line between us and the rest of the world became uncomfortably blurred, so the practice gradually subsided. The invention of fables also served to lessen the distinction, since animals became imbued with very human characteristics.
In the twelfth century, all that changed. When the fine ideas of hell and purgatory were invented, the possibility of evil animalistic spirits moving back and forth between here and there became an obvious corollary. If human souls were substantial enough to be rogered indiscriminately in the after life, then the devils that did such things were also conceivably substantial enough to do the same thing in this one. The concept of inter-dimensional demon traffic was officially established and bestiality became one if its popular inroads. Punishments for sex with animals became that much more severe as a result. The concept of “witches” and their “familiars” was suddenly the justification for sexually abusing, torturing, and murdering women all over Europe – and the Americas. Women as the conduit to life were obviously in the front line when it came to blame for the evil in the world. They were vulnerable, weak, easy marks for the Devil – mistakes even. They were so ‘crazy’ they blamed one another. And with the crusades, a hundred years war, a mini ice age and umpteen rounds of bubonic plague thrown in, there was plenty to work with.
But that was our superstitious past.
During the “Satanic panic” of the 1980’s and 90’s, daycare centers in America doubled as covens for twentieth century devil worshippers: mostly elderly women accused of a catalogue of evils from sodomizing little children, to… “flying” unaided… chopping off “a baby’s head” and making a child drink its blood… taking a child “ in a plane to see goat-men”… forcing one to “ride naked on a horse on the beach”… taking pornographic pictures… and of course dressing as “witches.” A wide spectrum of obscenities eagerly lapped up by judge and jury and a media ardently fanning the flames. Just as they’d done in the good old days, inquisitional experts scrupulously photographed and examined the children’s sexual parts for signs of the devil’s ingress and egress.
The McMartin Daycare Case was the longest criminal trial in U.S. history. By the time it went to trial – four years after the first complaint – it had employed “…3 fulltime DAs, 14 investigators from the DA’s office, 22 task force officers, 2 fulltime social workers, 20 part-time social workers, a fulltime detective and 4 part-time detectives. They had searched 21 residences, 7 businesses, 3 churches, 2 airports, 37 cars, and a farm, but had come up empty-handed. They had interviewed 450 children and 150 adults and conducted lab tests on clothing and blankets, all to no avail. They had excavated the schoolyard looking for tunnels that the children had described, but found nothing. The true victims spent years behind bars for evils they never committed, received death threats, were assaulted, were terrorized in prison, and had their school set on fire. The local church militia touted placards saying the ringleader “…must die.”
Ten years later, in the wake of the Columbine shootings, Bill O’Reilly interrogated Marilyn Manson also on the subject of corrupting children. In his guise as “…reverend in the Church of Satan” and with his “lewdness” on stage, surely he must accept some responsibility for the evil abroad? Manson, a far more insightful individual than his inquisitor, respectfully, calmly dismissed the idea – paternally almost. ” “But why,” pleaded O’Reilly,” …why the eye, why the nail polish…why the bizarre presentation, which can be misinterpreted?…those lonely kids…tend to gravitate to people like you.” They should of course be gravitating towards the likes of O’Reilly: God-fearing men who see nothing at all bizarre in their own presentation. As if a jacket and tie and shiny shoes and hair combed in parallel lines to the sides were the absolute irrefutable statement of normalcy and reasonableness. A uniform that most assuredly attracts to its ranks far lonelier kids: kids who will grow up to rig elections, crash banks, push psych drugs to kids, order drone strikes, bomb women and children…
Grow up to actually see evil in the form of form.
We had it right when we were kids. In dark rooms, under the bed, in the woods at night, it was there. Without form, terrifying. It was waiting before we got here, it will be here when we leave. If you see it you disarm it said Burroughs, but it cannot be seen. It has no face. We gave it one. We dressed it up, like a doll, gave it shape, gave it names, gave it sex, assigned it friends, every one of us differently according to our needs. It’s the opposite of everything good we told ourselves – what’s good for me, what’s good for us.
But every idea exists by virtue of what it is not. Without evil there can be no good. If one goes they both go. Black/white, male/female, life/death, it’s both or neither.
In his film monologue Journey On The Plain, director Bela Tarr describes human history as a “river of blood.” It’s an indictment of sorts, a cry of despair. But that is only the half of it. It is also a river of laughter, a river of joy, a river of triumph. It is both. Surely that is the true evil – the sacrifice we are forced to make.
MALCOLM MC NEILL’s two books about his creative interaction with author William Burroughs were published at the end of 2012. A German edition is scheduled for this summer.
A collection of his Paraphilia Magazine essays, titled REFLUX, was published in 2014 by Apophenia: http://www.amazon.com/Reflux-Malcolm-Mc-Neill/dp/0692229108