Image of Ah Puch, the Mayan god of death and king of the underworld, Metnal. He is represented as a corpse or skeleton wearing bells, sometimes possessing the head of an owl, itself an omen of death in Mayan culture (Lost Art of Ah Pook, 15). The spelling “Ah Pook” is a variation of “Ah Puch.”
Adrian Hill on Malcolm Mc Neill and William S. Burroughs’s Ah Pook Is Here
The following is a three part exploration of Malcolm Mc Neill and William S. Burroughs’ word-image collaboration during the 1970s. This is part two. See part one here, and check back next Tuesday for part three.
Ah Pook is Here—Play By Play
What is the story of Ah Pook is Here? Even reading the text several times doesn’t necessarily provide a definitive answer.
What follows is a high-level description of scenes from the text in the order that they appear—along with some commentary—and cross-referenced with images from The Lost Art of Ah Pook in an attempt to contextualize the art within Burroughs’ narrative framework. If the scenes seem to be disjointed, well, that’s because they are—even in the original text.
In the foreword to Ah Pook is Here, Burroughs elucidates the notion of death as an organism that reproduces itself through life. His premise: “The Mayan codices are undoubtedly books of the dead; that is to say, directions for time travel” (APIHOT,15). Unpacking this phrase involves an understanding of Burroughs’ conceptions of time and control.
As Mc Neill explains it, given the current state of humanity and the world at large, it’s hard to imagine that human civilization is sustainable. This may suggest that the actual reasons for reality to be unfolding as it is have something to do with a design beyond our usual assumptions.
God? Naaaahh… Burroughs calls it Control, and explains that it feeds on death. The propagation of life is the means towards an end—to cultivate lived experience. Through the process of living life, “limited” (as opposed to absolute) time is cultivated. Relatively speaking, death cannot exist without the existence of time. Conversely, as Burroughs puts it: “Time has no meaning without death. Death uses time.” And “time is that which ends” (APIHOT,15-16). By extension, in order for Control to feed on death, death must have a human host in the form of lived experience.
The Mayans predicated their worldview on their relationship to time, as it manifested itself in worldly events such as the rising of the sun, the phases of the moon, the seasons and their relationship to the cultivation of crops. Author Ronald Wright points out:
Inquiry into the mystery of time has been called the soul of Maya culture. Their very name is cognate with may, a word for “cycle”—so the Maya can truly be called the people of time (Time Among the Maya, 28).
Burroughs postulates that the Mayan priestly class intentionally exercised fear and control over illiterate workers, and through their authority the priests could continue to reproduce the priestly caste in future generations without fear of reprisal. Following Burroughs’ premise that the Mayan codices are directions for time travel, he continues: ‘If you see reincarnation as a fact then the question arises: how does one orient oneself with regard to future lives?” (APIHOT,15).
In Observed While Falling, Mc Neill provides an acute description of reincarnation:
Reincarnation, as it’s commonly perceived, is an emotionally charged subject for which there can be no conclusive argument for or against. It’s a spiritual palliative evoked by the same sense of apparent meaninglessness and inequality that prompts other compensatory visions of afterlife. In the case of reincarnation, an elaborate system of checks and balances in which each completed life is compensated or penalized according to the conditions experienced, then returned to suffer the consequences of misdemeanors or enjoy the pleasures previously denied. It’s a personal conviction that cannot be gainsaid or disproved, since it is predicated on faith (OWF, 133).
Mc Neill’s clinical stance is refreshing, though correspondences between his own life and one past life in particular suggest that there may be instances where at least a relationship to them is troublingly difficult to deny. The question remains: what is the nature of that relationship?
Immediately prior to the bombing of Hiroshima, two Japanese boys masturbate while looking at a pornographic magazine. In a parallel scene, a couple is having sex. The bomb explodes. (LAAP, 33, 84-85) Who actually gave the order to drop the bomb? Control.
The explanation goes like this:
You see, I was building up an identikit picture of the man…probably a Mayan scholar…certainly rich…obviously obsessed with immortality…Perhaps a Rosetta Stone exists. Perhaps some of the codices survived the book burnings of Bishop Landa. Could this man have discovered those books and learned the secrets of the Mayan Control Calendar? The secrets of fear and death? And is this terrible knowledge even now computerized and vested in the hands of the far-sighted Americans in the State Department and the CIA? (APIHOT, 22)
John Stanley Hart
In “Inside the Control Machine” from The Third Mind ™, Burroughs reflects on the power dynamic between Mayan priests and peasants, drawing a parallel to modern civilization:
The Mayan control system required that ninety-nine percent of the population be illiterate. The modern control machine of the world press can operate only on a literate population. We proceed to an interesting series of repetitions and juxtapositions detected in the press (TM, 92).
Spread from “Inside the Control Machine.” The Third Mind, 92-93
The text follows with a word collage constructed from newspaper articles and headlines, highlighting the media’s tendency to communicate world events as an instrument to deliver fear and control.
In Ah Pook is Here, John Stanley Hart is characterized as a megalomaniac—he’s loosely based on Randolph Hearst—whose intent is to control humanity through the media and an imposition of a didactic, monotheistic religious view of reality.
Hart’s quest for power begins when as a child, he resolves he will live forever. As an adult, Hart attends at Harvard. He “dedicates himself to immortal studies” (APIHOT, 22, LAAP 88-89) beginning with the Egyptians, then the ancient Mayans. While examining the Dresden Codex (LAAP 12-13), Hart catches a glimpse of death, and is driven to find out more.
Convinced that there exist ancient books that hold “the secrets of fear and death,” Hart and his oldest friend Clinch Smith go in search of these tomes at the site of ancient Mayan ruins. The books are discovered in a temple with skeletons of the dead wrapped around them. Clinch Smith suggests that the magic the books possess should be used for the betterment of humankind. But Hart disagrees, murders Smith, and takes the books for himself (LAAP, 27, 34-35, 86, 87). Hart realizes that Smith’s family will know he killed Smith, and sets out to do the same to the rest of the family. Mrs. Smith reportedly dies in a car crash; her son Guy Smith escapes to South America to live in hiding. Mr. Hart then takes a train back to New York. On the train, he begins to examine the Mayan codices in greater detail.
The Gods Escape
They are all there: the gods are listed off as Mr. Hart identifies them in his trove of manuscripts. “Look at these poisonous color maps where flesh trees grow from human sacrifices” (APIHOT, 29, LAAP, 90). The images in the codices are unleashed; the pictograms come to life with Mr. Hart’s witness to the power and significance of these symbols. Suddenly, “Mr. Hart coughs violently and covers his face with a handkerchief” (APIHOT, 29, LAAP, 90).
The “Polar Star God” disguises himself as a train porter and offers Mr. Hart some tea, which Hart accepts (LAAP, 90). Staring outside the train window, Hart witnesses a traveling carnival. He sees the Vulture God inhabiting one of the carnival booths, standing in front of a naked kneeling youth who sports both an erection and a dog mask. The Vulture God makes eye contact with Mr. Hart, laughs, and emulates a cough in mockery of the man.
The carnival booths assume the narrative function of panels in sequence, with the youth appearing in the next booth sprayed with decay from the Vulture God’s cough, the dog mask now melded to his face. In the next booth, the youth’s physical appearance has deteriorated even further. In his sickly form, he “fucks a black woman in a kneeling position, his body giving off a dry musty smell. And they are both humming a frequency that sets a spoon rattling in the saucer” (APIHOT, 30).
A snake-bird mermaid in an aquarium weaves through a “gelatinous material” and metamorphoses into a “male twin,” then passes through the substance again and reverts back to a female. Suddenly, a carnival spectator jumps into the substance and also assumes the form of her male twin. “The two twins turn bright red with pleasure and twist in rainbow copulations” (APIHOT, 30).
Further hallucinatory machinations ensue. By the time Mr. Hart returns to New York, the gods have all escaped. Little is left in the Mayan codices other than “fear and death.” Mr. Hart intends on occupying a space in the Mayan pantheon as “Hunab Ku The One Divine” (APIHOT, 31). Hunab Ku, an unseen god due to his never assuming a physical form:
…was in short the operator of the control machine and in consequence did not include himself as data… However, having reprogrammed the machine to eliminate the troublesome ‘good’ Gods and those of ambiguous allegiance, Mr. Hart will soon encounter an acute time shortage. DEATH now freed from all control will use up all the TIME. And any control machine needs time… (APIHOT, 31).
As the “human instrument of Control” (OWF, 116), Hart will use every imaginable technique to manage human experience. Consider the following:
We think in images. “Mr. Hart has all the pictures” (APIHOT, 36).
We hear words or sounds. The Whisperer “…can imitate any voice and make Jones whisper out the dirtiest sex words from ten feet away (APIHOT, 37, LAAP 72).”
We have feelings: “Fear is the pictures of your fear. Show someone a picture of himself in a state of fear and you put him in a state of fear (APIHOT, 33).
Mr. Hart’s “anti-dream plan” (APIHOT, 32) includes the Oriental Exclusion Act, income tax laws, and the Harrison Narcotics Act. Mr. Hart explores the use of viruses as a means of control, but settles instead on researching Electric Brain Stimulation: “…just install your electrodes at birth and your control is now complete” (APIHOT, 40).
Mr. Hart feeds on fear and control; it is his junk.
Imagine that there is a limited amount of control in your world. Your goal is to gain as much of that control as possible. The way that you accumulate greater and greater amounts of control is through invoking fear in more and more people. You scare them with pictures, negative voices and feelings, instilling in them a deep and enduring sense of insecurity.
Mr. Hart’s challenge is that as he continues to control more and more in his world, the limited remaining amount that he can control continues to diminish. Since Mr. Hart feeds on this control in order to survive, once it is used up he is afraid he will die. For this reason, Hart is driven to travel through time to where the drug he so desperately needs remains bountifully available.
The hypothesis that the Mayan codices were instructions for time travel stems from an interrogation of the reasons that priests were obsessed with calculating dates on the Mayan calendar—not just into the future, but also into the past. Why? “…To make more time” (APIHOT, 17)—for the same reasons as Mr. Hart.
Audrey Carsons, Guy Smith and Old Sarge
There are six main supporting characters who weave their way through Ah Pook is Here, and three appear at this juncture in the story. Audrey Carsons is described as Mr. Hart’s “alter ego and nemesis” (APIHOT, 26); Guy Smith “… is a buck-toothed incarnation of the Mayan Death God at an early age” (APHOT, 27). Recall that the son of Clinch Smith, who was murdered by Mr. Hart, evaded Mr. Hart’s reach by moving to South America. Since then, Smith and Carsons have studied the “Death Arts” in the Bolivian highlands, and “are learning to fly on the wings of death” (APIHOT, 27). Old Sarge is the archetypal soldier—he “has the close-cropped iron-gray hair and ruddy complexion of the regular army man” (APIHOT, 26).
Old Sarge explains how to prepare physically for being shot, using bandits lined against a wall for the purposes of example. Audrey and Guy are then situated in an indeterminate war zone. Audrey is shot, and Guy fires at the sniper who had Audrey in his sights, before pulling Audrey to cover (APIHOT, 27, LAAP, 104-105).
Cumhu, Ouab, and Xolotl
With the introduction of Cumhu, Ouab, and Xolotl in the next narrative wave, the story arc of Ah Pook is Here begins to disintegrate. Burroughs’ descriptions become increasingly surreal. We enter into a dreamscape where human and animal forms combine and genders collide. Cumhu is “an iguana boy,” Ouab is “the cat bird boy,” and Xolotl is “a pink salamander boy with enigmatic golden eyes” (APIHOT, 41-42, LAAP, 22-23).
The Mayan ruins where Clinch and Hart discovered the ancient tomes are now infested with the stench of disease. What were formerly agrarian crops have now become barren fields. From a side street, a sickly man riddled with insect skin and hair emerges, only to be struck by a large rock thrown at him from behind. A posse of ten men chase the insect mutant down and kill him (LAAP, 92-93).
Cumhu, Ouab, and Xolotl approach the lynch mob, and the crowd disperses.
The three figures are searching for Pilde, “the dream drug that gives the user power to travel in time” (APIHOT, 42). They find the drug among the Painless Ones, a deserter group resistant to being controlled by the lure of pleasure or the threat of fear. They are immune to the priests’ manipulations and have consequently been sentenced by the ruling elite to live in exile. To maintain and boost their immunity, the Painless Ones consume the Yellow Drug, concocted from gold and made using a method known only to the Painless Ones (LAAP 94-95).
Later, Cumhu comes out of a Pilde trip in which he is standing on the steps of ancient ruins carved from red sandstone. He smells the sex-infused odor of spoors (LAAP, 58-61, 96). A snake called the Xiucutl, which “causes death in erotic convulsions” (APIHOT, 43) tries to strike Cumhu. Cumhu avoids the Xiucutl but manages to mash its head with his heel before it can prepare to attack once more. The snake’s egg lies in its nest; Cumhu picks it up, and the egg is absorbed into his skin, whereupon further hallucinations ensue.
An idyllic scene in the country. A cottage. Some of the phrases found in these passages are repeated almost verbatim in the prose poem that follows soon afterwards in the text, with references to the “snake of stars.”
Burning cities…crowds running and screaming diseased faces…Suddenly the crowd sees him with the egg in his hand…Snatching up stones and clubs they run towards him screaming, ‘FEVER EGG…’ (APIHOT, 44, LAAP, 36-37, 82-83).
Cumhu throws the egg and it bursts in the air, spraying the crowd below. Young delinquents break into a storefront and find “…devices that look like pinball machines with a machine gun…” (APHIOT, 45, LAAP, 83). They fire them at one another and instantly become sex-driven perverts. The youth choose to turn the machines on the crowds outside:
People are tearing their clothes off, fucking in doorways, taxis, shops and on the streets and sidewalks…Police cars and cops and ambulance attendants are drawn into a twister of frenzied flesh that heaves around the statue of Eros…(APIHOT, 45, LAAP 78-81, 110, 166, OWF, cover).
When Cumhu’s drug-induced fantasy subsides, he realizes that the Painless Ones are in fact the undead; “They are the souls of renegade junky priests” (APIHOT, 46). This explains their indifference to both pleasure and pain; the Yellow Drug allows them to maintain their immunity to Control.
In the same way that “time is running out” as more and more of it is accumulated, so too do the amounts of available pleasure and pain associated with embodying a human host diminish as the priests kill in greater and greater numbers—to the point where no more life can be taken. At this juncture, the priests become the Painless Ones. They have killed themselves through overconsumption:
You see, in order to replace life he must live it, that is, experience pleasure and pain, that is, identify with the host he will kill. When he ceases to identify with the host he is killing himself (APIHOT, 46).
Burroughs suggests that the lost books of the Mayans included frequent representations of the gods conducting intercourse, one of the reasons for which they were burned by Bishop Landa. The sex act in this context becomes an additional vehicle for the gods to inhabit a human host. The Foreword to Ah Pook is Here explains that in the Dresden Codex:
Familiarity with death and consequent immunity is conveyed by actual copulation. A glyph depicts the Moon Goddess copulating with a death figure, and we may assume that the books destroyed by Bishop Landa contained many such scenes (APIHOT, 17).
Following the introduction of the Painless Ones in Ah Pook is Here, Ixtab, the Goddess of Ropes and Snares, mistakenly attempts to seduce the Painless Ones, only to realize that they are like herself. To inhabit a host through the act of copulation, the host must be a living being.
A series of confrontations with death assuming different forms follows— in one cryptic account, “Ah Pook kills the young Corn God and Ah Pook stands there in a standoff, coming around the other way” (APIHOT, 46). Death comes from all directions.
In an Oedipal moment, Cumhu kills his father and steals the ancient, sacred books that belonged to him. In his last dying words, Cumhu’s father admonishes his son for breaching the sacred covenant, unlawfully traveling back in time (LAAP, 100).
“While Mr. Hart is making all the mistakes in the book the boys are moving into the present time position” (APIHOT, 46). A showdown looms in the distance.
At this point in the narrative, Burroughs inserts a twenty-one line prose poem. It is an odd inclusion, an intermission between two acts, an ode anticipating events to follow. In brief, the poem paints a picture of spoor diffusing through the air, an odorless cloud that burns any life traveling in its path. As the spoor spreads through a desolate town, it begins to develop an acrid fragrance. Laughter from “Le Comte” (literally translated from the French, “The Count”) can be heard in the distance.
In Ah Pook is Here, death engaged in human sexual activity is a motif tethered to the notion of “buying more time.” In the foreword, Burroughs remarks on the relationship between death and the dying:
This identification may take the form of actual copulation with death. Death, who can take either male or female form, fucks the young Corn God and the Corn God ejaculates 400 million years of corn from seed to harvest and back. This operation requires actual corn and an actual human body to represent the young Corn God (APIHOT, 17).
In the first scene following Burroughs’ poem, Audrey Carsons is described as “standing in for the young Corn God.” Carsons is accompanied by “the buck-toothed young Death God, Chinese Mexican Mayan I don’t know Japanese person sometimes young old street old street boy face. He is the Dib, Anubis the Jackal God’”(APIHOT, 47, LAAP, 23).
Now the scene is a desolate Palm Beach. Everyone’s wearing jock straps. In the midst of a scene of arid desertion, we hear the singing of “thousands of robins” (APIHOT, 47). A Painless One named Jimmy the Shrew arrives on a bicycle. He has been using the Yellow Drug, and is now sick with leprosy. He fucks himself back to health, using Audrey Carsons as his vehicle for wellness (LAAP, 38-39).
The boys discover a menswear store where they pick out some stylish early 20th century suits to protect themselves from the impending cold. Audrey Carsons coughs up blood: he is showing signs of contracting tuberculosis (LAAP, 101-102).
As the boys travel through town, they encounter an animal resembling a cross between “a porcupine and an opossum,” which Dib calls a Lulow. A bad omen (APIHOT, 49, LAAP, 101).
They find a diner inhabited by the local lowlifes. In the diner, Audrey Carsons approaches an old Chinese man and speaks an arcane phrase in Chinese that he’s used to ill effect in the past. This time in response, he is told to go to the Globe Hotel. In the hotel, a Japanese man and a black man, both hooligans, exchange gold from The Dib for two semi-automatic pistols with silencers and bullets; two blue eggs, roughly the same size as a robin’s; and drugs to sustain Audrey Carsons’ condition (LAAP, 22). They clear out in a hurry (LAAP, 103).
Narcs bust into a hippy pad. In a parallel scene, narcs burst in on two lesbians making love and cuff them. Now, while having intercourse, Audrey and Dib are also attacked. The two eggs are thrown toward the narcs who instantly disintegrate.
Meanwhile, Back At the Mansion…
At his estate for a dinner party, Mr. Hart is checking those in attendance off his guest list. He notices Audrey Carsons’ name on the list; then he notices signs of deterioration on his cheekbone. In a private room Mr. Hart frantically begins to try to eradicate the marks using cosmetic creams and lotions. Hart recollects a letter published in one of his newspapers from one Mrs. Murphy (who also makes appearances in Burroughs’ The Soft Machine). She expresses no remorse—in fact a certain glib satisfaction—in the fact that a guard dog was reported to have almost killed a four-year-old child.
Audrey and the Dib are now retreating down the stairs of the room they were just in when they were ambushed by the narcs. Mrs. Murphy happens to live in the building, and comes out from her room in the hopes that she will see the two boys taken away in cuffs by the authorities. Instead she’s shot in the temple.
Mr. Hart is now onto the boys, and unleashes the full force of the police at his disposal. In an airport, Audrey is disguised as a naval reserve officer and the Dib as his pregnant wife. Old Sarge and Cumhu, Jimmy, and Xolotl assume the identity of United Nations ambassadors. Guy is disguised as Old Sarge’s son, and Ouab stands in as a nuclear scientist.
The group raises the alarm when one of them walks through a metal detector. A security team appears with machine guns, but an order from the FBI to hold fire allows the group to board their plane. As Audrey and the Dib order the pilots to take off, virus B-23 is unleashed on the city below. Carnage ensues, with dead bodies strewn across the surface of the earth.
Barrack outside St. Louis, Missouri, windows boarded up and overgrown with vines. Jimmy, Cumhu, Audrey, Ouab, the Dib and young Guy are sleeping on army cots (APIHOT, 54).
Old Sarge orders his compatriots to “fuck out some weaponry” (APIHOT, 54). In spite of an ancient law forbidding sex between Cumhu and Xolotl, they indulge. A “pulsing black egg” appears:
The egg cracks and a Black Captain steps out. These beings are black all over, even the teeth, huge eyes black and shiny, the pupil glowing like a distant star with a faint cold light (APIHOT, 54).
The Black Fever is unleashed. Its effects are comparable to being stung by a swarm of bees. Mrs. Worldly arrives at a posh hotel and is greeted at the reception desk by Audrey Carsons. When Mrs. Worldly tries to check in, Carsons tells her that he’s never heard of her. The former expresses outrage, and her body promptly swells and explodes. Audrey orders the bellboys in the lobby to carry what remains of Mrs. Worldly’s body outside.
Back at the barracks…
Now Old Sarge orders Audrey and Ouab to “…fuck out a red biologic on the double” (APIHOT, 55). From out of a pink egg emerges a Reddie, a boy with female breasts.
The American First Rally and Beyond
At an American First rally, Reddies in Boy Scout outfits defecate on the podium and use the flag to wipe themselves. Suffering from the Red Fever, blood explodes from the Reddies’ mouths and assholes as they collapse on the ground, simultaneously releasing “Acid Leprosy” from their armpits (APIHOT, 56).
A posse on its way from the south lynches anything challenging them along the way. The posse is headed off and then destroyed by the Reddies. Disease spreads uncontrollably worldwide, and death no longer controls time. “The biologic bank is open” (APIHOT, 56). Cross-fertilization between species brings new forms of mutant life into existence at an unprecedented rate.
The following scenes begin by presenting parallel events taking place with Guy Smith and Audrey Carsons in a point and counterpoint format. Even if you’ve read Burroughs before and you’re familiar with his regular inclusion of homoerotic content, you can only truly get a sense of the extremity and outrageousness of Ah Pook is Here’s grand finale if the frequency of “boy” references is made explicit.
Guy Smith wakes up from a phantasmagorical erotic dream:
In a broken strawberry a red bat boy sprawls with his legs up.
A green shrew boy with trembling ears jacks him off…Fish boys in sky boats towed by singing fish…
Bird boys with fragile gliders over burning suburbs cross with car lights…
A fibrous plant boy rides a giant rat in a Mayan swamp and cuddles the baby Corn God (APIHOT, 57).
Audrey Carsons recalls a scene from his young adulthood, in which he passes through a rite of initiation to enter a “tree house gang.” He is penetrated by a Mexican kid and passes out at the very moment he ejaculates.
The red bat boy, fully erect and coated with a musky lubricant all over his body, jumps from an extraordinary distance and lands between Guy’s legs.
Cumhu positions himself behind Audrey and pulls down Audrey’s pants:
Flesh stick turned in his ass by a boy with a blue egg growing from his back as he propels a boat with blue farts.
Boy bent over with a flute up his ass played by a balloon-cheeked musician (APIHOT, 58).
A lean boy with bad skin sticks a steering wheel up Audrey’s behind. And as Audrey ejaculates, an ensemble of car horns sounds.
A boy crouching on his hands and knees is flogged with rose switches:
Boys fuck a transparent fish in an orange pod eating oranges the juice dripping form their mouths blown away in orange clouds over the ruins of Palm Beach…(APIHOT, 59).
The bat boy has sex with Guy and the two meld into one being.
Boy with flaring bat ears bent over with a flute up his ass his body spattered with red itching hairs and opalescent acne as he ejaculates gurgles of light…
Boys vomit blood and roses over outhouses where boys jack off spurting robins and blue birds…(APIHOT, 59).
The tree house: Audrey bites into a blue fruit—seemingly with a will of its own–and his skin color changes to the bright blue of a peacock. He is launched into a fantastic scene:
A blue egg growing from his spine pops butterflies blue birds and strange-winged creatures over the ruined suburbs where screaming crowds run below him (APIHOT, 60, LAAP, 66-67, 110).
Boys with birds flying out the ass in the black and sepia puffs are eaten by a blue bird demon and shit out ejaculating in blue pods…
Boy with quivering blue flesh is sucked into a bell under a gallows…
…Cumhu fucks the Painless One and they streak across the sky like a rocket.
Boys with fragile glider jetted by nitrous farts that billow out autumn leaves and fades sepia photos…
A boy whipped with a transparent fish sprouts fish wings… (APIHOT, 60).
The provocative imagery continues. Old Sarge and the Dib fly by in an antique biplane and wave from above.
Cherubim blow golden horns up the ass of boys with legs spread the scrotum a huge pink egg in which a red cock pulses…
The eggs explode in a musky purple smell of incense and ozone, trailing clusters of violet light…(APIHOT, 60-61).
And then it all ends. The boys are boarding a ship, the Mary Celeste, and sailing off into the sunset. A journalist asks what has become of Mr. Hart. Audrey directs the reporter’s view toward the wall of Mr. Hart’s manor in the distance. Graffiti adorns its walls:
AH POOK WAS HERE.Here lived a stupid vulgar son of a bitch who thoughthe could hire DEATH as a company cop (APIHOT, 61).
The final scenes in Ah Pook is Here come across more as orgiastic hyperbole than a serious treatment of the premises presented in the foreword to the text, and their embodiment in the form of John Stanley Hart. Once the shock value wears off, what is the reader left with? It’s an important question to ask of Burroughs’ fictional prose. You could call it weird gay porn were it not the case that the imagery is so poetic. After all these pages, all these visions, what has actually taken place?
Burroughs drew a parallel between the rigid control system of the ancient Mayan priests and modern western civilization. Ah Pook is Here was designed to serve as a parable demonstrating the similarities between the two empires, and the inescapability of western civilization’s collapse based on its current trajectory.
Mc Neill suggests that (ritualized violence in the form of sacrifices aside) the evangelical, Judeo-Christian, positivistic, and military-industrial perspectives that inform Eurocentric values are in diametrical opposition with Mayan culture. The indigenous worldview recognizes the connectedness and interrelationship between all things. The European march through time toward “progress” in the form of resource extraction and the expansion of the empire is in contradiction with the notion of time standing still, and it would have been unintelligible to the Maya.
In describing the initial logic behind Burroughs’ “argument” Mc Neill remarks:
The battle against ‘evil’ cannot be won, simply because the concept of good relies entirely on bad in order to exist. Everything is determined by that which it is not. In order for bad to be banished from the world, good would have to go with it. The only way such an idea can be removed from human experience is by removing humans altogether. By truly “ending human consciousness as we know it.” Given the mind-numbing insanity that prevails, this is not such a bad idea.
It was the conclusion of Ah Pook is Here (OWF, 121).
The conclusion serves as a critique of Control, and “According to Bill, like all mundane systems of control, it contains within its methods the seeds of its own destruction (OWF, 117).
It is not the only conclusion, however—and the conclusion that found its way into the Calder publication is hardly what one would expect, based on developments in the early pages of Ah Pook is Here.
In a letter to Bryon Gysin—written by Burroughs from Paris on October 30, 1973 the author explained:
Malcolm Mc Neill has left for San Francisco to finish the book there and I wrote a bang up kiss kiss bang bang ending just as you suggested.
Mc Neill expresses his dissatisfaction with Burroughs’ ending:
It’s only religious indoctrination that suggests that all other life on earth is somehow inferior. The human ideals of care, altruism, and sincerity are all clearly evidenced in the rest of nature. Boredom, duplicity, and the need to control, on the other hand, are not. The added disappointment of Ah Pook’s conclusion to me was that Bill, in his text-only version, reneged on that idea (OWF, 121).
According to this perspective, compassion is expressed in nature through the relatively peaceful coexistence of species in a delicate balance with one another, based on ecological principles. Suggesting an alternative to the uniquely dialectical worldview expressed in Burroughs’ representation of Control did not find its way into the actual conclusion to Ah Pook is Here. Rather, Burroughs chose to lapse into a rhapsodic sexualized reverie.
Not only that, but the scenes Burroughs describes were largely inspired by Mc Neill’s artwork, and not the other way around:
A series of sex scenes had been tacked on to the end—male-to-male sex, obviously. I’d used ejaculated birds, bats, and other creatures as a graphic transitional device in the sequence after Virus B23, but now they were presented literally. Young guys actually ejaculating goldfish, cherries, and so on. And now there were bat boys with flutes up their asses, Audrey with a rubber steering wheel up his ass, and boys on hang gliders powered by “nitrous farts.”
All the old human conditions had been destroyed forever, but the ‘tree house’ remained intact. It wasn’t disturbing anymore, just depressing (OWF, 87).
The seeds of a moral imperative lie deep within Ah Pook is Here. Due to the experimental nature of Burroughs’ prose, his fantastic subject matter, and the virtual absence of any complex character development in the story, it is impossible for the reader to identify (on a personal level) with any of the personae who populate his text. Burroughs’ writing has been ghettoized by academics as “postmodern,” though Burroughs was not consciously reacting to the modernist literary aesthetic. Due to the inaccessibility of the author’s prose, interpreting Ah Pook is Here is a predominantly intellectual activity, as opposed to involving empathy or a combination of an empathetic and intellectual reading. It could even be argued that Burroughs’ preoccupation with sex is a form of psychological displacement, compensating for his lack of emotional intimacy with others, as is best evidenced by the estranged relationship he had with his son, William “Billy” S. Burroughs Jr..
Reading Observed While Falling, however, situates Ah Pook is Here within the context of Malcolm Mc Neill’s personal experience, providing the reader with a tangible reference point through which to access and identify with the material. That said, Observed by Falling is a highly conceptual work. The level of abstraction and free form association found in Mc Neill’s personal story is unusual for a memoir—but, after all, this is an unusual tale. Mc Neill is as compelling, playful, and talented a writer as he is an artist. Consider the following passage, in which Mc Neill lapses into a poetic circumscription of his story’s myriad tangents:
What’s in an image?
What’s in a word?
Art, art not. Drawing, pulling, gravity, grave. Now here, nowhere. Current, flow. Influence, confluence, coincidence. Correspondence. Circuit. Current, present. Pre-sent. Past before us. Giving way. Tidings (OWF, 130).
There is a heavy personal commitment present in Observed While Falling as well. In the Los Angeles County Museum of Art show, William Burroughs: Ports of Entry, which included 150 “illustrations for, and images created in collaboration with” (OWF, 105) William S. Burroughs, no mention was made of Mc Neill’s collaborations with Burroughs. Nor were Mc Neill’s collaborations with Burroughs mentioned in the “ten-page bibliography, filmography, and discography at the back” of the 192-page publication accompanying the show (OWF, 105). The disappointment Mc Neill rightly expresses from the absence of any acknowledgment of his contributions with Burroughs is palpable.
… The Unspeakable Mr. Hart … dinosaurs, electronic gadgets, Mayans…
… Mr. Hart, Clinch Smith, Harvard, Egyptian art, Mayan art …
… cops, cadavers, executions, newspapers … (OWF, 17)
If you haven’t read Ah Pook is Here, you’ll find it next to impossible to understand that the bold italic passages that riddle the first part to Observed While Falling, entitled “Bill Burroughs” are all direct references to Burroughs’ text. Those passages have become increasingly familiar to me, now that my own relationship to the work is bordering on intimate after nine months of reading Burroughs, reading aboutBurroughs, and trying to make sense of Ah Pook is Here, Observed While Falling, and The Lost Art of Ah Pook is Here.
But what does it all mean? Even though Burroughs wasn’t motivated by an overtly political agenda, he nonetheless managed to challenge the literary orthodoxy of his day through the unique approach that he took in his writing. He defied genre; his personal history and the marginal subcultures through which he navigated informed his work, and, in turn, through his work’s existence the dominant culture and its colonial values were questioned.
Those bold italic passages—interspersed through Observed While Falling—track Mc Neill’s process as he created artwork using various points of entry into the text of Ah Pook is Here. They are interspersed with references to Mc Neill’s artistic progress and publishing developments along the way.
Access to the text of Ah Pook is Here allows the reader to recognize how Mc Neill’s artwork elucidates and illuminates Burroughs’ words, bringing them to life. Many of Mc Neill’s drawings are not just randomly generated, fantasy-inspired images; they are a literal interpretation of Burroughs’ descriptions.
Access to the text also allows us to see how Mc Neill expanded Ah Pook is Here by taking Burroughs’ writing in new directions through his unique visual composition, sequencing and stylization. The absence of a literal correlation between the text and some of the art in The Lost Art of Ah Pook makes one recognize that Mc Neill was also responding to Burroughs’ writing on a visceral, emotional level. The artwork resonates because it is in tune with the text.
For the text to be cleaved from the artwork is simultaneously the most intriguing and frustrating quality in the story of Ah Pook is Here. In his White Review interview, Mc Neill put it this way:
When the Europeans destroyed the Mayan culture the language became undecipherable. The textual narrative was gone. All that remained were the images – the architecture, sculpture, murals, and a handful of incomplete books. One of those books inspired Ah Pook is Here: a book of words and images about a book of words and images in which the narrative had been lost. Forty years later Ah Pook is Here has become that book. It has realized its own idea.