Nagual Art by William S. Burroughs

william_burroughs.jpgWilliam S. Burroughs, like Yukio Mishima, is a difficult writer. Like Mishima, I am not sure if I will ever get around to reading his books in full, but I can not help but admire, even secretly envy this author’s insight and perception—even if at times it is shaded by a cruel, cynical undertone which, although an understandable response to the madness of this world for some, I personally cannot stomach.

Of all the beat writers, Burroughs was the only one not to be strongly influenced by Buddhist thought—a strong interest of my own from years gone by, and thus a reason for my semi-disdain. Still, he has a razor-sharp humour, a straight to the point, spade is a spade clarity, and an obvious talent with words—although it took the insistent encouragement and personal assistance of friends Kerouac and Ginsberg before he finally recognised the fact, first beginning to write aged well into his thirties.

Nagual Art by William Burroughs

In the Carlos Castaneda books, Don Juan makes a distinction between the tonal universe and the nagual. The tonal universe is the everyday cause-and-effect universe, which is predictable because it is pre-recorded. The nagual is the unknown, the unpredictable, the uncontrollable. For the nagual to gain access, the door of chance must be open. There must be a random factor: drips of paint down the canvas, setting the paint on fire, squirting the paint. Perhaps the most basic random factor is the shotgun blast, producing an explosion of paint into unpredictable, uncontrollable patterns and forms. Without this random factor, the painter can only copy the tonal universe, and his painting is as predictable as the universe he copies.

Klee said: ‘An Artist does not render Nature. He renders visible’.

That is, he glimpses the nagual universe—the unseen—and, by seeing, makes it visible to the viewer on canvas. If the door to the random is closed, the painting is as predictable as the universe—it can only copy, and for many years painters were content to copy Nature. What I am attempting then, can be called Nagual Art.

The shotgung blast that exploded a can of spray paint, or a tube or other container, is one way of contacting the nagual. There are, of course, many others. The arbitrary order of randomly chosen silhouettes, marbling, blotting . . .

He who would invoke the unpredictable must cultivate accidents and randomness . . . the toss of a coin, or a brush, the blast of a shotgun, the blotting of color and form to produce new forms and new color combinations.

He can carry the process further by arbitrarily inserted silhouettes, the outline of a man, a house, a tree, can be as random as an explode paint can, leaves dropped at random on the surface, grids, masks, circles, pieces of broken glass on picture puzzles, and word. I have used a phrase like ‘Rub out the word to wind’ then translated this phrase into Egytian glyphs. The word is being used, not for its meaning, but as image.

Since the nagual is unpredictable, there is no formula by which the nagual can be reliably invoked. Of course, magic is replete with spells and rites, but these are only adjuncts, of varying effectiveness. A spell that works today may be as flat as yesterdays beer tomorrow.

The painter is tied down to the given formulae of form and color applied to a surface. The writer is more rigidly confined, to words on a page. The nagual must be continually created and re-created. The bottom line is the creator. Norman Mailer kindly said of me that I may be ‘possessed of genius’. Not that I am a genius, or that I possess genius, but that I may be, at times, ‘possessed by genius’. I define ‘genius’ as the nagual, the unpredictable, spontaneous, capricious and arbitrary. An artist is possessed by genius sometimes, when he is so lucky.

January 1989

  • Larry Keiler
    Posted at 16:04h, 29 March

    The only book by Burroughs I’ve ever been able to finish is Naked Lunch, and that was many years ago. I do have some recordings he did much later when he had already become a pop icon, and I find those interesting. His long nasal drawl seems to define him precisely.

    What intrigues me is that Burroughs was able to be as successful as he was despite being plagued by addiction. I forget where I saw it, but I once saw an interview where he discussed so matter-of-factly what sorts of prescription drugs were his favourites.

    This article about nagual art is intriguing. It makes me think of Erik Satie, somehow, who certainly was “unpredictable, spontaneous, capricious and arbitrary.” He plucked finely-cut gems from the universe of sound and gave them silly names.

  • Jaitra Gillespie
    Posted at 13:19h, 01 April

    Thanks for that Larry. In all honesty I only once started a book by Burroughs, and didn’t make it very far into the film of Naked Lunch either. I am however very much interested in him as a person—his ideas, the era he was a part of and to some extent the life he lived, and the fact he did so much despite a major addition suggests at the very least an incredible strength of personality, and reminds me somewhat of anecdotal stories of Indian meditation masters in the 60s who took drugs at their student’s insistence, but to absolutely no effect, just to show that drugs are a very poor imitation of the depth and heights of human consciousness.

    I had a friend once with a similar lifestyle—I myself instinctively drew back from his particular excesses, but at the same time watched fascinated from the sidelines, marveling at his sheer will and also capacity, despite the fact both seemed to be slowly, and by his own hand, going up in flames…

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