“The Yage Letters”: William S. Burroughs and Allen Ginsberg on Ayahuasca’s “complete derangement of the senses”

By on November 30, 2015

In January 1953, William Burroughs began a seven-month expedition into the jungles of South America, making his hasty escape from Mexico City, where he had been sentenced for the bizarre shooting of his wife, ostensibly to find yagé — the common name for Ayahuasca, the name of this documentary, which is narrated by Burroughs himself — the fabled “soul-rebooting” hallucinogen of the Amazon region treated as a traditional spiritual medicine and usually consumed in shaman-led ceremonies.

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In this short excerpt from the documentary — likely directed by Rodrigo Salomon, director of the Salomon Arts gallery — Burroughs narrates the story of a curandero on the Putumayo River in Colombia and his desire to pass on his knowledge of plant medicine to his sons before it is lost forever. This may be all that survives from the documentary, as there’s not much info about it online, and no one seems to know much about it.

Burroughs had traveled throughout South America in the early 1950s and sought out yagé in the hopes that it could relieve or cure his powerful addiction to opiates.

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Yagé is typically made into an enthogenic brew from Banisteriopsis caapi vine, boiled over a fire and combined with the leaves of Chacruna or Chagropanga plants, creating a drinkable liquid infused with a potent short-acting hallucinogen, N,N-Dimethyltryptamine or DMT, probably the most powerful psychoactive drug known (or close to it), a pyschedelic compound of the tryptamine family.

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Burroughs believed that ingesting yagé enabled you to be able transmit telegraphic powers, similar to mental telepathy, and he claimed to use it to travel through time and space.

He describes his experiences with it somewhat matter-of-factly, including the resulting nausea, numbness, vomiting, convulsions and minor hallucinations that are a result of ingesting the drug. He described how it eventually left him with a strong paranoid feeling before its effects wore off:

“It was like going under ether, or when you are very drunk and lie down and the bed spins. Blue flashes passed in front of my eyes…The assistant was outside lurking there with the obvious intent to kill me. I was hit by violent, sudden nausea and rushed for the door hitting my shoulder against the door post. I felt the shock but no pain. I could hardly walk. No coordination. My feet were like blocks of wood.”

“This is the most powerful drug I have ever experienced,” he wrote of the drug he subsequently called “the ultimate fix.” “Yagé is not like anything else. It produces the most complete derangement of the senses.”

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In 1950, Burroughs had read a paper about yagé that had been written by American botanist, explorer, and teacher Richard Evans Schultes.

Here’s an excerpt from Schultes’s obituary, published in the Harvard Gazette in 2003:

During his many years in South America, Schultes traced the journeys of Richard Spruce, 19th century naturalist, whose account of travel in South America he had read as a child. In his explorations Schultes suffered hunger, beriberi, repeated bouts of malaria, and near drowning. He lived with the Indians for extended periods, eating their food and learning the names they used for the plants that were a part of their daily lives. He understood two Amazonian languages, those of the Witoto and Makuna, but language did not seem to be essential for communication in his jungle world. He believed that tribal chiefs were gentlemen, bemoaned their westernization and earned from them the title of “white witch doctor.” In reflecting on his experiences he wrote, “The ethnobotanical researcher…must realize that far from being a superior individual, he – the civilized man – is in many respects far inferior….”

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The Yage Letters — which includes excerpts from the notebooks Burroughs kept on his own adventures, in particular the essay “In Search of Yage” — is supplemented with the Burroughs-penned letters he wrote home to his friend Allen Ginsberg, and they were first published ten years later, in 1963, by City Lights, the San Francisco-based counter-culturish imprint founded in 1953 by poet Lawrence Ferlinghetti and Peter D. Martin.

The original book is fairly slight, just 68 pages and 18,000 words in total, and the original City Lights-published version did not feature an introduction or any notes. Burroughs’s writings are padded out further Ginsberg’s own account of his experiences with yagé years later, after he had also traveled through South America, in 1960.

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Allen Ginsberg (1926-1997) had a much different (read: negative) experience with yagé than Burroughs (1914-1997) had, and Ginsberg — who details the composition, preparation and ritualistic use of Ayahuasca more than Burroughs does — refers to his psychedelic experience with it this way: “I felt like a snake vomiting out the universe.”

“I vomited with eyes closed and sensed myself a Serpent of Being … covered with Aureole of spiky snakeheads miniatured radiant & many colored around my hands & throat — my throat bulging like the Beast of Creation, like the Beast of Death.”

Throughout the 1960s, Ginsberg had used many drugs — LSD, peyote, marijuana and others — in an attempt to expand his consciousness, believing that while he was under the influence he could create a new kind of poetry, and he actually wrote a number of books while experimenting, but he didn’t enjoy the hallucinatory visions.

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Photograph of Ginsberg and Burroughs by Hank O’Neal

Ginsberg summed up his experience in an epilogue for The Yage Letters this way:

San Francisco
August 28, 1963

To whom it may concern: Self deciphers this correspondence thus: the vision of ministering angels my fellow man and woman first wholly glimpsed while the Curandero gently crooned human in Ayahuasca trance-state 1960 was prophetic of transfiguration of self consciousness from homeless mind sensation of eternal fright to incarnate body feeling present bliss now actualized 1963.

Old love, as ever,

Allen Ginsberg

The Yage Letters has subsequently been published by other companies, including Penguin Books, who describe the book as “a mix of travel writing, satire, psychedelia and epistolary novel.”

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About Bryan Thomas

Bryan Thomas has been a freelancing writer/critic for All Music Guide, assistant editor for the When You Awake blog, and a contributor to Launch, Music Connection, Big Takeover and numerous other publications and entertainment websites, blogs and zines, most of them long gone. He's written more than sixty sets of liner notes. He’s also worked for over twenty years at mostly reissue record labels -- prior to that he worked in bookstores and record stores, going all the way back to the original vinyl daze. He lives in the Miracle Mile neighborhood of Los Angeles, CA.