The Western LandsWilliam S. Burroughs
THE WESTERN LANDS
William S. Burroughs is the author of numerous works including Junky, Naked Lunch, Interzone, The Cat Inside, the trilogy consisting of Cities of the Red Night, The Place of Dead Roads, and The Western Lands, and The Letters of William S. Burroughs, 1945-1959 (edited by Oliver Harris). His newest work is My Education: A Book of Dreams. He lives in Lawrence, Kansas.
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First published in the United States of America by
Viking Penguin Inc. 1987
Published in Penguin Books 1988
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Copyright © William S. Burroughs, 1987
All rights reserved
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The western lands/William S. Burroughs,
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FOR BRION GYSIN
1916 - 1986
The Western Lands is the final volume of a trilogy written over the last thirteen years. Cities of the Red Night was published in 1981, and The Place of Dead Roads in 1984.
The author wishes to acknowledge Norman Mailer and his Ancient Evenings, for inspiration; Daphne Shih, for lemur and prosimian material; Peter L. Wilson and Jay Friedheim, for research on Hassan i Sabbah; Dean Ripa, for the lore of snakes and centipedes; David Ohle, for his painstaking work in transcribing my typescript; Gerald Howard, for seeing the finished work from the first sketchy pile of manuscript, and for his patient faith; Dorian Hastings, for careful copyediting; Andrew Wylie, for his valuable assistance and encouragement, and his dedication; Richard Seaver, for having faithfully guided Cities of the Red Night and The Place of Dead Roads to publication; Brion Gysin, for introducing me to Hassan i Sabbah and teaching me how to see; and James Grauerholz, for assembling and editing this book, and the other two, and for all the years.
The old writer lived in a boxcar by the river. This was fill land that had once been a dump heap, but it was not used anymore: five acres along the river which he had inherited from his father, who had been a wrecker and scrap metal dealer.
Forty years ago the writer had published a novel which had made a stir, and a few short stories and some poems. He still had the clippings, but they were yellow and brittle now and he never looked at them. If he had removed them from the cellophane covering in his scrapbook they would have shredded to dust.
After the first novel he started on a second, but he never finished it. Gradually, as he wrote, a disgust for his words accumulated until it choked him and he could no longer bear to look at his words on a piece of paper. It was like arsenic or lead, which slowly builds up in the body until a certain point is reached and then . . . he hummed the refrain of "Dead Man Blues" by Jelly Roll Morton. He had an old wind-up Victrola and sometimes he played the few records he had.
He lived on a small welfare check and he walked a mile to a grocery store once a week to buy lard and canned beans and tomatoes and vegetables and cheap whiskey. Every night he put out trotlines and often he would catch giant catfish and carp. He also used a trap, which was illegal, but no one bothered him about it.
Often in the morning he would lie in bed and watch grids of typewritten words in front of his eyes that moved and shifted as he tried to read the words, but he never could. He thought if he could just copy these words down, which were not his own words, he might be able to put together another book and then . . . yes, and then what?
Most of his time he sat on a little screened porch built onto the boxcar and looked out over the river. He had an old 12-gauge double-barreled shotgun, and sometimes he would shoot a quail or a pheasant. He also had a .38 snub-nosed revolver, which he kept under his pillow.
One morning, instead of the typewritten words, he saw handwritten words and tried to read them. Some of the words were on pieces of cardboard and some were on white typewriter paper, and they were all in his handwriting. Some of the notes were written on the inside bottom of a cardboard box about three inches by four inches. The sides of the box had been partially torn away. He looked carefully and made out one phrase: "the fate of others."
Another page had writing around the side and over the top, leaving a blank space three by seven inches on the right side of the page. The words were written over each other, and he could make out nothing.
From a piece of brown paper he read: "2001."
Then there was another white sheet with six or seven sentences on it, words crossed out, and he was able to read:
"well almost never"
He got up and wrote the words out on a sheet of paper. 2001 was the name of a movie about space travel and a computer called HAL that got out of control. He had the beginning of an idea for a ventriloquist's act with a computer instead of a dummy, but he was not able to finish it.
And the other phrase, "well almost never." He saw right away that it didn't mean "well almost never," that the words were not connected in sequence.
He got out his typewriter, which hadn't been used in many years. The case was covered with dust and mold and the lock was rusted. He set the typewriter on the table he used to eat from. It was just two-by-fours attached to the wall and a heavy piece of half-inch plywood that stretched between them and an old oak chair.
He put some paper in the machine and started to write.
I can see a slope which looks like sand carved by wind but there is grass or some green plant growing on it. And I am running up the slope . . . a fence and the same green plants now on a flat meadow with a mound delineated here and there . . . he was almost there . . . almost over the fence . . . roads leading away . . . waiting. . . .
Lying in bed I see handwritten notes and pages in front of my eyes. I keep trying to read them but I can only get a few words here and there. . . . Here is a little cardboard box with the sides torn half off and the writing on the inside bottom and I can read one phrase . . . "the f
ate of others" . . . and another on a piece of paper . . . "2001" . . . and on a page of white paper with crossouts and only about six sentences on the page . . . "well almost never" . . . and that's all. One page has writing all around the edges, on one side and the top. I can't read any of it.
The old novelists like Scott were always writing their way out of debt . . . laudable . . . a valuable attribute for a writer is tenacity. So William Seward Hall sets out to write his way out of death. Death, he reflects, is equivalent to a declaration of spiritual bankruptcy. One must be careful to avoid the crime of concealing assets . . . a precise inventory will often show that the assets are considerable and that bankruptcy is not justified. A writer must be very punctilious and scrupulous about his debts.
Hall once admonished an aspiring writer, "You will never be a good writer because you are an inveterate check dodger. I have never been out with you when you didn't try to dodge your share of the check. Writers can afford many flaws and faults, but not that one. There are no bargains on the writer's market. You have to pay the piper. If you are not willing to pay, seek another vocation." It was the end of that friendship. But the ex-friend did take his advice, probably without intending to do so. He applied his talents to publicity, where no one is ever expected to pay.
So cheat your landlord if you can and must, but do not try to shortchange the Muse. It cannot be done. You can't fake quality any more than you can fake a good meal.
Wenn Du dies nicht hast dieses Sterben und Werden,
Bist du nur ein trübe Gast auf der dunklen Erden.
When you don't have this dying and becoming,
You are only a sad guest on the dark Earth.
The ancient Egyptians postulated seven souls.
Top soul, and the first to leave at the moment of death, is Ren, the Secret Name. This corresponds to my Director. He directs the film of your life from conception to death. The Secret Name is the title of your film. When you die, that's where Ren came in.
Second soul, and second one off the sinking ship, is Sekem: Energy, Power, Light. The Director gives the orders, Sekem presses the right buttons.
Number three is Khu, the Guardian Angel. He, she, or it is third man out . . . depicted as flying away across a full moon, a bird with luminous wings and head of light. Sort of thing you might see on a screen in an Indian restaurant in Panama. The Khu is responsible for the subject and can be injured in his defense—but not permanently, since the first three souls are eternal. They go back to Heaven for another vessel. The four remaining souls must take their chances with the subject in the Land of the Dead.
Number four is Ba, the Heart, often treacherous. This is a hawk's body with your face on it, shrunk down to the size of a fist. Many a hero has been brought down, like Samson, by a perfidious Ba.
Number five is Ka, the Double, most closely associated with the subject. The Ka, which usually reaches adolescence at the time of bodily death, is the only reliable guide through the Land of the Dead to the Western Lands.
Number six is Khaibit, the Shadow, Memory, your whole past conditioning from this and other lives.
Number seven is Sekhu, the Remains.
I first encountered this concept in Norman Mailer's Ancient Evenings, and saw that it corresponded precisely with my own mythology, developed over a period of many years, since birth in fact.
Ren, the Director, the Secret Name, is your life story, your destiny —in one word or one sentence, what was your life about?
Billy the Kid: ¿Quién es?
And what is the Ren of the Director?
Actors frantically packing in thousands of furnished rooms and theatrical hotels: "Don't bother with all that junk, John. The Director is onstage! And you know what that means in show biz: every man for himself!"
Sekem corresponds to my Technician: Lights. Action. Camera.
"Look, boss, we don't got, enough Sek to fry an elderly woman in a fleabag hotel fire. And you want a hurricane?"
"Well, Joe, we'll just have to start faking it."
"Fucking moguls don't even know what buttons to push or what happens when you push them. Sure, start faking it and leave the details to Joe."
Look, from a real disaster you get a pig of Sek: sacrifice, tears, heartbreak, heroism and violent death. Always remember, one case of VD yields more Sek than a cancer ward. And you get the lowest acts of which humans are capable—remember the Italian steward who put on women's clothes and so filched a seat in a lifeboat? "A cur in human shape, certainly he was born and saved to set a new standard by which to judge infamy and shame."
With a Sek surplus you can underwrite the next one, but if the first one's a fake you can't underwrite a shithouse.
Sekem is second man out: "No power left in this set." He drinks a bicarbonate of soda and disappears in a belch.
Lots of people don't have a Khu these days. No Khu would work for them. Mafioso Don: "Get offa me, Khu crumb! Worka for a living!"
Ba, the Heart: that's sex. Always treacherous. Suck all the Sek out of a man. Many Bas have poison juices.
The Ka is about the only soul a man can trust. If you don't make it, he don't make it. But it is very difficult to contact your real Ka.
Sekhu is the physical body, and the planet is mostly populated with walking Sekhus, just enough Sek to keep them moving.
The Venusian invasion is a takeover of the souls. Ren is degraded by Hollywood down to John Wayne levels. Sekem works for the Company. The Khus are all transparent fakes. The Bas is rotten with AIDS. The Ka is paralyzed. Khaibit sits on you like a nagging wife. Sekhu is poisoned with radiation and contaminants and cancer.
There is intrigue among the souls, and treachery. No worse fate can befall a man than to be surrounded by traitor souls. And what about Mr. Eight-Ball, who has these souls? They don't exist without him, and he gets the dirty end of every stick.
Eights of the world, unite! You have nothing to lose but your dirty rotten vampires.
A hundred years ago there were rat-killing dogs known as "Fancies." A man bet on his "Fancy," how many rats he would kill. The rats were confined in a circular arena too high for a rat to jump over. But they formed pyramids, so that the top rats could escape.
Sekhu is bottom rat in the pyramid. Like the vital bottom integer in a serial, when that goes, the whole serial universe goes up in smoke. It never existed.
Angelic boys who walk on water, sweet inhuman voices from a distant star. The Khu, sweet bird of night, with luminous wings and a head of light, flies across the full moon . . . a born-again redneck raises his shotgun. . . .
The Egyptians recognized many degrees of immortality. The Ren and the Sekem and the Khu are relatively immortal, but still subject to injury. The other souls who survive physical death are much more precariously situated.
Can any soul survive the searing fireball of an atomic blast? If human and animal souls are seen as electromagnetic force fields, such fields could be totally disrupted by a nuclear explosion. The mummy's nightmare: disintegration of souls, and this is precisely the ultrasecret and supersensitive function of the atom bomb: a Soul Killer, to alleviate an escalating soul glut.
"Stacked up, you understand, like cordwood, and nonrecyclable by the old Hellfire expedient, like fucking plastics."
We have to stay ahead of ourselves and the Ivans, lest some joker endanger national security by braying out, "You have souls. You can survive your physical death!"
Ruins of Hiroshima on screen. Pull back to show the Technician at a switchboard. Behind him, Robert Oppenheimer flanked by three middle-aged men in dark suits, with the cold dead look of heavy power.
The Technician twiddles his knobs. He gives the O.K. sign.
"Are you sure?"
The Technician shrugs. "The instruments say so."
Oppy says: "Thank God it wasn't a dud."
"Oh, uh, hurry with those printouts, Joe."
"Yes, sir." He looked after them sourly, thinking: Thank Joe it wasn't a dud. God doesn't know what buttons to push.
However, some very tough young souls, horribly maimed and very disgruntled, do survive Hiroshima and come back to endanger national security. So the scientists are put to work to devise a Super Soul-Killer. No job too dirty for a fucking scientist.
They start with animals. There are some laboratory accidents.
"Run for your lives, gentlemen! A purple-assed baboon has survived '23 Skiddoo'!"
"It's the most savage animal on earth!"
The incandescent baboon soul bursts through a steel door, it rips like wet paper. Had to vaporize the installation. Lost expensive equipment and personnel. Irreplaceable, some of them. Real soul-food chefs, you might say; cordon bleu.
Well, trial and error. We now have Soul-Killers that don't quit. State of the fart, sure, the Big Fart. We know how it's all going to end. The first sound and the last sound. Meanwhile, all personnel on Planet Earth are confined to quarters. Convince them they got no souls, it's more humane that way.
Scientists always said there is no such thing as a soul. Now they are in a position to prove it. Total Death. Soul Death. It's what the Egyptians called the Second and Final Death. This awesome power to destroy souls forever is now vested in far-sighted and responsible men in the State Department, the CIA, and the Pentagon.