William S. Burroughs and Malcolm Mc Neill’s Lost Mayan Caper

Edward S. Robinson

For many Burroughs scholars, the cut-ups provide a rich seam of exploration. Not only do they offer a seemingly infinite intertext, the unravelling and reconnecting of which represents an academic adventure on a vast scale, but they also contain – and simultaneously correspond with – Burroughs’ highly detailed and often complex theories concerning word as virus and language control. While Naked Lunch introduced the concept of control mechanisms through addiction – both literally and as a metaphor– by means of ‘The Algebra of Need’, the texts which immediately followed presented a total, all-encompassing concept of control mechanisms that operate on a galactic scale. The trilogy consisting of The Soft Machine, Nova Express and The Ticket that Exploded is so rich and complex both in terms of contents and theoretical context that the critical work devoted to its analysis to date, although rapidly expanding, still represents only the first exploratory digs in what promises to be a deep and enriching excavation.

Yet for all of the attention Burroughs and his cut-up texts have received of late, the period which followed the decade of wild experimentation that spanned 1959-1969 remains in relative shade. Indeed, with the exception of The Wild Boys, the majority of texts Burroughs produced in the 1970s are not widely known. Ah Pook is Here, Burroughs’ collaboration with artist Malcolm Mc Neill, developed between 1970 and 1977 is certainly one of Burroughs’ lesser-known works, and there are very few mentions of this post cut-up text in any of the major studies of William Burroughs’ output. At best, this is a grave oversight, for Ah Pook is in many respects pivotal to his theories concerning language. In conjunction with The Book of Breeething, Ah Pook expands significantly on the ideas contained within the trilogy of cut-up novels. As such, rather than warranting the status of a ‘minor’ text, Ah Pook provides a vital insight into the development of Burroughs’ theories and writing practices at the mid-point of his career. The precise reasons for the lack of critical attention devoted to Ah Pook and The Book of Breeething remain largely unclear. However, their general lack of availability may be a leading factor, as well as the timing of their original publication. Sandwiched in between his major trilogies of the 1960s and 1980s, and published during a time when Burroughs was out of favour in commercial terms, Ah Pook failed to make an impact on publication, and has subsequently remained overshadowed and consequently overlooked. What’s more, Ah Pook – as published – is a comparatively short and in many ways a seemingly unassuming text. In my book, Shift Linguals, I had hoped to make some small gesture toward redressing the balance.

But when I embarked on the arduous task of clearing permissions for excerpts quoted in  Shift Linguals in 2010, the passages from Ah Pook is Here proved to be a stumbling block. Alexandra Levenberg, my point of contact at the Wylie Agency, which manages the rights to many of Burroughs’ works, wrote to me saying, ‘I regret to report that we will not be able to grant permission rights for you to include any material from AH POOK IS HERE in your book. The Burroughs Estate is now involved in a new publication project for this book, and prefers to decline to grant any permission requests for excerpts from AH POOK at this time.’[1] While I was disappointed by the fact I was going to have to make some cuts to what I considered an extremely important section of the book, I was at the same time excited. After all, part of the fascination of Ah Pook is Here is its unusual – even unique – position in the Burroughs oeuvre. Moreover, the timing couldn’t have been better.

The recent interest in Mayan culture – in particular the imminent end of the 13th B’ak’tun on the long count calendar – has reached close to fever pitch (as even the most cursory Internet search will reveal) and renders Burroughs’ book somewhat prescient, despite the fact that Burroughs’s appropriation of the Maya was somewhat idiosyncratic and at odds with most scholarly and archaeological understanding of the Maya, both at the time and now. Paul H. Wild notes that ‘readers without some knowledge of Maya archaeology can easily be led astray while attempting to elucidate Burroughs, including the writers of two book-length critical studies, Eric Mottram, The Algebra of Need (1977), and Timothy Murphy, Wising Up the Marks (1997)’.[2]

The focus of this paper is twofold. In the first instance, I will discuss the somewhat obscure origins and difficult publication history of Ah Pook is Here. The second aspect of the paper is given to a consideration of the book’s (re)publication and its timing, and of its heightened relevance given the current interest in the Mayan calendar, and the apocalyptic so-called ‘December 2012’ prophecy.

For those unfamiliar with the story, Ah Pook tells of billionaire newspaper tycoon John Stanley Hart, who is on a quest to discover the secret of immortality. He uses a formula he finds in ancient Mayan books to create a ‘Media Control Machine’ using images of Fear and Death, but ends up getting on the wrong side of Ah Pook, the Mayan Death God.

Cut to the present, and panic has spread due to the questionable belief that the end of the 13th B’ak’tun equates to the end of the world. This is no doubt because the 13th B’ak’tun is the last period marked out on the Mesoamerican Long Count calendar, and its end therefore can be seen as marking the end of time, as it were. 13 b’ak’tuns is described by the ancient Mayans as the ‘amount of time between one creation and the next’. Calculated as beginning in 3114 BC, the end of this 5,125 year period has been calculated as corresponding with the date of December 21st, 2012 A.D. Coinciding with the Winter Solstice, this date also sees an extremely rare alignment of the Ecliptic (path of the Sun) with the Galactic Equator (Equator of the Milky Way). This intersection has been calculated as taking place at exactly 11:11 am GMT. It’s theorised that the point at which the December solstice sun crosses the Galactic Equator is precisely the location of the ‘dark-rift’, or ‘xibalba’ which translates roughly as ‘the place of fear’, believed to be the road to the underworld. This conglomeration of events would thus herald the arrival of Ah Pook the Destroyer (although there are numerous names for this particular deity), who ruled over Mitnal, the land of death, the lowest and most horrific of the nine hells.

To consider the book within the context of Burroughs’ career, the three major biographies report that the 1970s were tough for Burroughs, and this is nowhere more explicitly stated than in Ted Morgan’s Literary Outlaw (1991), which describes Burroughs beginning the decade at a low ebb following Kerouac’s death in 1969, and disillusioned with literature after growing to dislike the scene in London.

Returning to New York in February 1974 after 24 years in exile, Burroughs, then aged 60, took up a teaching position at City College, but finding his students to be largely unreceptive, grew frustrated and declined further teaching work. Creatively, Burroughs was also at a crossroads. Believing the cut-ups to have failed, declaring ‘there is a point of diminishing returns’, many critics and readers alike had written him off as a spent force in creative terms.[3]

 And so Burroughs began to push in different directions in the wake of The Wild Boys (1971), which he claimed contained ‘not more than five per cent, if that’ of cut-up material.[4] Although these works would mark a significant departure in terms of contents and presentation from their predecessors, Burroughs’ stated abandonment of the cut-ups shouldn’t be mistaken for an abandonment of the theories behind them, and if anything, Ah Pook and The Book of Breeething are every bit as preoccupied with the way language and perception are intrinsically linked and with the power of language and its manipulation as the Nova trilogy.

As Burroughs writes in the book’s introduction, Ah Pook Is Here was originally planned as a picture book modelled on the surviving Mayan codices. Malcolm Mc Neill was to do the illustrations, and I was to provide the text.’ Burroughs and Mc Neill first worked together – albeit separately and without having met – on a comic strip called ‘The Unspeakable Mr Hart’ which appeared in Cyclops magazine, established by Mc Neill and International Times editor Graham Keen. It wasn’t until after the comic folded and Burroughs called the 23-year old illustrator, saying ‘I want to meet the guy who knows how to draw me’ (Mr Hart bore an uncanny resemblance to the writer, even though Mc Neill had never so much as seen a picture of Burroughs when he created the character) that the two met up and the collaboration cemented.[5] Initially a continuation of ‘The Unspeakable Mr Hart’, the project developed into Ah Pook.

Interviewed in the summer of 1973, Burroughs had predicted the book would be completed and published around a year in the future. However, the project took substantially longer, and after its conception in 1970, Mc Neill left London and followed Burroughs to continue working on the project, which in the event took a total of seven years before it eventually stalled. The initial budget that afforded Mc Neill a few months of full-time commitment to the project ran out, and subsequently the publisher who had taken on the project, Rolling Stone’s Straight Arrow Press, folded. Mc Neill suggests that the lack of finance in itself contributed to the project’s demise as the process of stopping and starting and working only on a part-time became increasingly difficult to sustain. The book was never completed.

As Burroughs also explained, the project was fraught with difficulty and seemingly destined to failure:

 Over the years of our collaboration there were a number of changes… owing partly to the expense of full-colour reproduction, and because the book falls into neither the category of the conventional illustrated book nor that of a comix publication, there have been difficulties with the arrangements for the complete work.[6]

Mc Neill had produced over a hundred pages of illustrations in various stages of completeness, and Burroughs a substantial quantity of text. As no publisher was willing or able to print such a volume, the version which was finally published by John Calder in 1979 in Ah Pook is Here and Other Texts alongside The Book of Breeething and The Electronic Revolution features Burroughs’ text alone, without Mc Neill’s illustrations.

The three texts contained within this volume are significant on a number of levels. In the first instance, they bring new dimensions to Burroughs’ attack on the systems of control that run through the printed media, and in some ways share common ground texts like Marshall McLuhan’s Understanding the Media (1964) and The Medium is the Massage (1967) in their focus on the juxtaposition of word and image. In the second, they signify his increasing fascination with non-linguistic modes of communication. As Burroughs explained,

The written word is of course a symbol for something and in the case of a hieroglyphic language like Egyptian it may be a symbol for itself that is a picture of what it represents. This is not true in an alphabet language like English… we may forget that a written word is an image and that written words are images in sequence that is to say moving pictures.[7]

To consider it from a Saussurean perspective, the relationship or signification between signifier and signified is – or can be – comparatively direct in hieroglyphic or pictorial languages, whereas in alphabetic languages, the thing in itself becomes more distant, removed by additional layers of separation, from the written representation.[8] To view this from a Burroughsian perspective, then, hieroglyphic or pictorial languages could (theoretically, at least) allow less scope for manipulation than alphabet languages and facilitate a more direct – and rapid – correspondence between perception and representation.

Mc Neill’s comments on the relationship between word and image and how this informed his own working methods while developing the visuals for Ah Pook is Here are also illuminating, and warrant quoting at length:

Words evolved out of pictograms and hieroglyphs. They are images. Conceivably a picture is worth a thousand words but it‘s a thousand times quicker to write a word than make a picture. I talk about that in my book:

―Describing an image with text is very different from actually painting one. Words imply; a painting has to specify. In the case of a ‘realistic’ painting, specify every square inch. With Ah Pook it was an often overwhelming discrepancy.

I summed it up one time with Bill:

I said, ―If you write: “The spaceship landed in the field and the Martian stepped out and waved,” that’s fine. You’ve created an image in my mind that’s very clear. But it’s completely unspecified. If I have to make an image of the same scene, I have to figure out what kind of field it is, what time of day it is, what kind of spaceship it is, how it works, how it lands, what kind of door it has, and what the Martian looks like. I even have to figure out how long his arm is.”

Bill thought for a moment then he said:

“You’re right Malcolm. So how long IS a Martian’s arm?”

Conversely a word can evoke a thousand pictures – each one very different depending on the observer.[9]

Although this interest in visual representation is perhaps most apparent in The Book of Breeething, which represents Burroughs’ sole foray into mixing alphabetic language with hieroglyphs and other pictorial images, the concept for Ah Pook is Here was one that would have ultimately realised Burroughs’ objective to recreate ‘moving pictures’ in a written text, an idea which was central to much of Burroughs’ work since the discovery of the cut-up method. The book was conceived ‘as a single painting in which text and images were combined in whatever form seemed appropriate to the narrative’. This would not only forge a synergy between form and content – as the cut-ups had, although Ah Pook would have taken the concept much further, but also result in a continuous sequence of images and words, effectively recreating the film experience in print. As Malcolm Mc Neill explained to me,

The Mayan Codices were created on single pieces of parchment then folded accordion style into pages. This corresponded perfectly with the underlying theme in Ah Pook of books as a means for time travel. Time could be viewed holistically as a single event or broken down into a linear narrative and viewed page by page. The event could also be viewed out of sequence which tied in with cut-ups and breaking down the word image track.[10]

This evolving approach to linearity marks another bridge between the cut-ups and the Red Night trilogy of the 1980s, which is commonly cited as representing Burroughs’ return to narrativeafter the anti-narratives of the 1960s, while time travel, which had become an established theme in the Nova trilogy would remain a focus of his subsequent work. Another key factor is the way this new approach to linearity, events, and narrative corresponds with Burroughs’ longstanding obsession with presenting events in a way that was closer to experience, and the desire to produce narrative that was closer to real time and perception. In fact, it’s fair to say that Burroughs was obsessed with time.

Summarizing what he believed to be mankind’s certain evolutionary destiny, he said: ‘Man is not looking for space. He’s looking for more time. The space program is simply designed to transport one insoluble temporal impasse somewhere else’.[11] Meanwhile, Timothy S. Murphy notes that ‘Scholars disagree, but Burroughs insists that the Maya codices, which he studied in Mexico in the late forties and early fifties “are undoubtedly books of the dead; that is to say, directions for time travel”’.[12]

That the Mayan concept of time differed radically from contemporary Western time constructs proved to be of great importance to Burroughs, as Mc Neill explained: ‘Apart from the odd temporal anomaly of a parallel collaboration, the whole notion of how time is perceived came to define the nature of the confrontation between the Judeo / Christian worldview and that of the Maya – both in the book and out of the book. The Mayan view was cyclical, the European linear’.[13]

Perhaps it’s an inability to properly grasp a truly cyclical concept of time that provokes such panic as the end of the 13th b’ak’tun grows near. Many scholars of the ancient Maya contend that the end of the known long count doesn’t signify the end of the world, but merely a turnover to the next cycle in a potentially infinite series. Others emphasise the ‘time between one creation and the next’ aspect, suggesting it marks the end of the world as we know it, the dawning of a new era, a revolution, marked by a radical shift in consciousness. Today, this may seem unlikely. But, just as Burroughs had perceived the cut-ups as a ‘failure’ in that they did not immediately ignite a change in the way readers and writers approach narrative at the time, so it may be that Ah Pook will, in time, reveal itself as the definitive text of the new era.

Nevertheless, Burroughs was always conscious of the limits of his own time, and assumed the role as an agent for change. As such, he was aware that publication remained vital to propagating his ideas, and so he and Malcolm agreed to compromise in order to bring Ah Pook into the public domain. However, further obstacles presented themselves before the book finally appeared in 1979 – without any of Mc Neill’s illustrations. Mc Neill recalls,

When Bill and I decided to publish the text on its own, naturally I created a cover for it. I adapted the horizontal image intended for the illustrated version in which the American astronaut confronts Ah Pook. You won’t remember that sequence. It begins on page 23 (appropriately) when Hart shows up at the police post with the body of Clinch Smith. It introduces Ah Pook to the reader and to Mr Hart, reprises the Hiroshima opening sequence, sets up for the reenactment of the firing squad in the Death Academy, moves through Los Alamos and culminates in the colonial, Bible based, either/or worldview of the astronaut confronting that of the Maya; the culture it had obliterated centuries before. Apart from summarizing the premise of the book it is/was classic Burroughs.[14]

In the final edit, this section of text was cut, and the book appeared with completely different cover art. Mc Neill continues the story:

I gave up on Ah Pook in 1977. Coincidentally Star Wars was released around the same time and from then on everything changed. Suddenly illustrated fantasy books, science fiction magazines and longer-form comics became a million dollar industry. Metal Hurlant arrived from France in the form of Heavy Metal and ‘Graphic Novels’ became an official genre. Even so there still wasn‘t a market for extremely graphic ones. Ah Pook still had a problem.[15]

Since then, times have changed. Burroughs’ reputation as one of the 20th century’s most innovative writers is now established, and the fact that graphic novels are now commonplace substantiates the claim that with Ah Pook, Burroughs was, once again, way ahead of his time. Print technology too has undergone immense change, and the advent of the Internet has revolutionised publishing. So why is Ah Pook still not in print? Mc Neill gave me a few – albeit sketchy – reasons for this, citing difficulties in agreeing certain technical aspects with the Burroughs estate.

In the final chapter of his memoir, Observed While Falling: Bill Burroughs, Ah Pook and Me, in a section entitled ‘Box 23’, Mc Neill writes candidly on what he saw as the primary stumbling block in bringing the text to print. Quoting a letter from James Grauerholz, Burroughs’ long-time assistant and his executor, Mc Neill reveals that James was ‘“not at all happy” with the way he had been characterised’ in Mc Neill’s manuscript, and ‘urged’ him to ‘revisit’ his memories.[16] He had initially believed that Fantagraphics’ obtaining the rights to republish Burroughs’ text, with the original artwork, alongside Mc Neill’s memoir, would finally see the work receive a full commercial release as envisaged. The 2011 publishing date was planned to bring attention to that fact ahead of the mass of material in circulation regarding the so-called 2012 Mayan prophecy. Sadly, this was not to be. Mc Neill states that having received Grauerholz’s approval for a revised version of the manuscript, correspondence subsequently ceased, once again calling a halt to the project.[17]

Mc Neill’s project was finally published in October 2012, as two separate volumes. Observed While Falling: Bill Burroughs, Ah Pook, and Me, and the illustrations for Ah Pook, published as The Lost Art of Ah Pook Is Here: Images from the Graphic Novel appeared in  in two separate volumes. The Lost Art of Ah Pook does not include Burroughs’ text. However, Mc Neill’s memoir provides a unique account of one of Burroughs’ less well-documented periods, and as such makes for an illuminating, insightful, and accessible read. Meanwhile, The Lost Art of Ah Pook contains Mc Neill’s illustrations in all of their strangeness, and highlights their extreme and intricate detail, although the concertina-style pages have not been incorporated: instead, the page formatting and construction is entirely conventional. The Lost Art of Ah Pook also reveals just how incomplete the book was. This compels us to consider the question, could it have ever been completed, and if so, how long would it have taken? It equally compels one to lament what may have been had circumstances been different. There is no question, however, of the staggering scope and ambition of the project.

While it’s therefore unlikely that the book will ever appear as intended, whether or not the images and text will appear together in a single volume at some point in the future remains to be seen. If the world does end on 21st December 2012, the chances are slim. Still, some would argue that we’re already living in Armageddon, and as Mc Neill observes, ‘The end is always nigh. In 1999 the media drummed up a massive scare of planetary collapse through Y2K. Then after that came 9/11, Swine Flu, and of course Global Warming. An impending sense of doom keeps people anxious, which is the key element in any form of control: keeping those you would control off balance’.[18]

And therein lies the key to the significance of Ah Pook, and it all comes back to control. Ah Pook is indeed here. Now.     

 Works Cited

Burroughs, William S. 1959 – The Naked Lunch. 1966. The Soft Machine. London: Corgi Books, 1970.

––. 1964. Nova Express. London: Corgi Books, 1968.

––. 1967. The Ticket That Exploded. London: John Calder.

––. 1971 The Wild Boys: A Book of the Dead. London: John Calder, 1982.

––. 1979. Ah Pook is Here and Other Texts. London: John Calder.

Hibbard, Allan (ed.). 1999. Conversations with William S, Burroughs. Jackson: University Press of Mississippi.

Lotringer, Sylvère (ed.). 2001. Burroughs Live: The Collected Interviews of William S. Burroughs 1960-1997 Los Angeles and New York: Semiotext(e).

McLuhan, Marshall. 1964. Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man. London: McGraw-Hill.

McLuhan, Marshall and Quentin Fiore. 1967. The Medium is the Massage. Harmondsworth: Penguin Books.

Mc Neill, Malcolm. Email interview with the author, February – April 2011.

––. 2012. Observed While Falling: Bill Burroughs, Ah Pook, and Me. Seattle: Fantagraphics.

––. 2012. The Lost Art of Ah Pook Is Here: Images from the Graphic Novel. Seattle: Fantagraphics.

Miles, Barry. 1992. William Burroughs: El Hombre Invisible. London, Virgin Books.

Morgan, Ted. 1991. Literary Outlaw: The Life and Times of William S. Burroughs London: Pimlico.

Murphy, Timothy S. 1997. Wising Up the Marks: The Amodern William Burroughs. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Nosnibor, Christopher. ‘Ah Pook is Coming: An Interview with Malcolm McNeill’ in

Paraphilia Magazine, issue XI, April 2011.

Robinson, Edward S. 2011. Shift Linguals: Cut-Up Narratives from William S. Burroughs to the Present. Amsterdam and New York: Rodopi.

Saussure, Ferdinand de ([1916] 1983): Course in General Linguistics (trans. Roy Harris). London: Duckworth.

Skerl, Jennie, & Robin Lydenberg (eds). 1991. William S, Burroughs at the Front: Critical Reception, 1959–1989. Carbondale and Edwardsville: Southern Illinois University Press.

Wild, Paul H. ‘William S. Burroughs and the Maya gods of death: the uses of archaeology’ in College Literature 35.1, Winter 2008, pp. 38-57.


[1]                      Email dated 13th October 2010

[2] Paul H Wild, ‘William S. Burroughs and the Maya gods of death: the uses of archaeology’ in College Literature 35.1, Winter 2008, pp. 38-57. Wild comments that ‘Burroughs’s thematization of Maya priests as gods of death is not consistent with either the archaeological views of the 1950s or of the present, but for different reasons. In the 1950s when Burroughs studied the Maya at Mexico City College, they were believed to have been a benevolent theocracy, but in the mid-1980s some leading Mayanists came to believe that there were no Maya priests at all.’ He adds, ‘It is self-evident that the Maya priests’ telepathic control “machine” (which can be reprogrammed to self-destruct) is pure fantasy. The extent to which Burroughs fabricated his priestly gods of death out of his own imagination and thematic needs urges close examination of his related Maya motifs–hieroglyphs as “transparent language,” priestly manipulation of the “secret” codices, or the sacrifice of the hanged man.’

 

[3] Oliver C. G. Harris, ‘Cut-Up Closure: The Return to Narrative’ in William S. Burroughs at the Front: Critical

                 Reception, 1959-1989, ed. Skerl & Lydenberg, p. 253.

[4]                      Philippe Mikriammos, ‘The Last European Interview’, 1974. Reproduced in Conversations with William S.     

                Burroughs, ed Allan Hibbard, p. 85.

[5]                      Christopher Nosnibor, ‘Ah Pook is Coming: An Interview with Malcolm McNeill’ in Paraphilia Magazine XI, p.

                103.

[6]                      Burroughs, Ah Pook is Here and Other Texts, p. xi.

[7]                      Ibid., p. 66.

[8]                      Ferdinand de Saussure, Course in General Linguistics, p. 67.

 

[9]                      Nosnibor, Paraphilia Magazine, p. 106.

[10] Nosnibor, Paraphilia Magazine, p. 107.

[11]  Regina Weinreich, ‘Women are a Biological Mistake’, reproduced in Burroughs Live, ed., Lotringer, p. 516.

[12] Timothy S. Murphy, Wising Up the Marks, p. 148.

[13] Nosnibor, Paraphilia Magazine, p. 108.

[14]  Email 10th March 2011.

[15] Nosnibor, Paraphilia Magazine, p. 104.

 

[16]  Malcolm Mc Neill, Observed While Falling, p. 142.

[17]  Ibid, pp. 142-143.

[18]  Nosnibor, Paraphilia Magazine, p. 109.

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