William Burroughs: unlikely mentor for neurologist writer Andrew Lees

A couple of years ago, at a European Beat Studies Network conference in Tangier, I interviewed a character named Davis Schneiderman. I asked Davis what William Burroughs meant to him. He said ‘Different people have their different Burroughs. But no one has Burroughs. That’s the secret. There is no Burroughs, at least not in a way easily communicable in a few words.’ I was reminded of this when I read Andrew Lees’s Mentored by a Madman: The William Burroughs Experiment.

Andrew is a medical doctor and Professor of Neurology at the National Hospital in London. He is one of the three most highly cited Parkinson’s researchers in the world and included in Thomson Reuters 2015 List of the World’s Most Influential Scientific Minds. Andrew’s Burroughs is someone with an enormous amount to teach the medical scientific establishment. His Burroughs is very different from mine and perhaps yours. Which is one of the reasons why it was such a pleasure to talk to him.

I interviewed Andrew via Skype. He wore a suit and tie. Behind him was a wall of ring binder folders and a Dreamachine, the flicker device designed by Brion Gysin and Ian Sommerville to trigger hallucinations. That evening Andrew was taking part in an event at the October Gallery in London, talking to Burroughs expert Jim Pennington about his book and the part El Hombre Invisible played in his medical career. As someone more used to talking to doctors at keynote presentations, the prospect of diving all the way into Beat world made Andrew a little nervous.

I started by asking Andrew whether he thought Burroughs would have been a good doctor. (Burroughs was initially intrigued by psychoanalysis and studied medicine in Vienna until 1937, when living under the Nazis became too much to bear. Until he became thoroughly disenchanted with psychoanalysis, Burroughs got a kick out of analysing his friends. Kerouac, in particular, wasn’t so sure this was a good idea.)

Burroughs had a rational way of thinking in relation to scientific matters. Although he wasn’t taken seriously by Richard Schultes or the botanists on the Anglo-Cocoa Commission expedition he did show courage and scientific method in his investigation into yagé in Colombia and later in Peru. Psychiatry first attracted him to a possible career in medicine but I think his approach would have been better suited to neurology.

Many of Burroughs’s scientific notions were considered harebrained but I believe he only got involved with things like the orgone box and scientology because he wasn’t taken seriously by the scientists and doctors he tried to collaborate with. That’s the problem the institutions of science- they’re rigid and nowadays there’s an obsession with specialisation. Someone with unorthodox ideas like Burroughs had is hard to accommodate.

I asked Andrew if he saw Mentored by a Madman as being in any kind of literary tradition.

I’m a doctor-writer which of course has a distinguished tradition. Doctors are used to narrative and the good ones are both intuitive and excellent observers, qualities helpful for creative writing. I didn’t want to write a dry self-serving memoir and I haven’t focused on the art of doctoring in the book.  Burroughs doesn’t have much to teach people about how to be a good doctor but he can teach the young to be lights unto themselves and not accept as gospel what is in the textbooks. Burroughs was a great self-experimenter and despite its successes, self-experimentation is now denigrated as subjective, risky and biased. He also anticipated all the terrible developments that have come to pass in the business of health management. Government regulatory roadblocks and university bureaucracy are as much at fault in stifling research into new treatments as is big pharma. I’d have been frightened to write this book when I was younger for fear of chastisement by my employers and some parts of the medical establishment.  

And what has been the reaction to Andrew letting the cat out of the bag with his acknowledgement of Burroughs’s influence on him and his work?

When I speak to my colleagues about Burroughs, the people who’ve heard of him are 1960s medical student veterans like me.  Some considered Naked Lunch repulsive and offensive and were put off Burroughs for life. I have to say that’s how most of it seemed to me on first reading, although I did find it funny. The routines of Dr Benway may seem like a parody but his general manner and behaviour were not far off what some of my surgical teachers were doing at the time People are intrigued by my book but most of them will struggle to make sense of it if they have never read Burroughs   

How true is the book and how much is fictionalised?

I used the word ‘fantasia’ to describe Mentored by a Madmen. Disconnected ideas and a few fly agarics are thrown in to boot but it’s all true. As far as Burroughs is concerned, I never met him so I’m at a disadvantage. I’m simply creating intersections with Burroughs’s writing in areas that have relevance to Parkinson’s research.

Those of us who are admirers of Burroughs have our own version of the man/writer/thinker, what’s yours?

My Burroughs is one of my teachers, my unlikely mentor. I have taken at face value the things he wrote about which many scientists would consider to be crazy. In a subliminal way he’s informed a lot of my major discoveries and this book is a way of belatedly acknowledging his contribution. In the 1960s, I came to a Faustian bargain with Burroughs. He allowed me to complete my medical studies provided I continued to pay attention to what he had to say

How do you think the perception of Burroughs has changed over the years, from when you first discovered him?

My children and their friends are not really aware of Burroughs, which I think is a great pity because I feel he has much to teach all of us. Their generation never really rebelled and I don’t know if that’s a good or bad thing. Maybe being aware of Burroughs might have made them question things more in the way it did me. When I read Burroughs today his ideas seem as fresh and pertinent as they did in the sixties and perhaps even more accurate.

What are your favourite Burroughs texts?

Naked Lunch, Junkie – from which I learned about mechanisms of addiction – the essays in The Adding Machine, and, of course The Yage Letters. Oliver Harris’s introduction to the most recent edition is almost as interesting as the text itself.  I also really like Ghost of Chance, published in 1991, which has been described as ‘an important story about environmental devastation’. Burroughs wrote the book as a plea for people to save the endangered lemurs of Madagascar. This from the man who tortured cats all those years before.

After I read and thoroughly enjoyed Mentored by a Madman I went back to The Yage Letters. Were you aware that Burroughs writes ‘Nothing human is foreign or shocking to a South American’ and you refer to a hospital motto in Latin that translates as ‘I am a human being, I consider nothing that is human foreign to me’?

No I wasn’t.  ‘Humani nil a me alienum puto’ comes from Publius Terentius Afer, AKA the 2nd century BC Latin playwright Terence, and is often rendered as ‘I am a man, and reckon nothing human is alien to me.’ We all knew the motto at the hospital and tried to adhere to it as a guiding principle in medicine.

It’s intriguing. A very Burroughs connection. It’s also highly appropriate since both of you are writing about your fascination with what it is to be human. What will you write next? Is there a Burroughs connection?

I want to describe in more depth how reading the Sherlock Holmes stories helped me in my diagnostic skills and explore the neurology of crime. Kerouac and Ginsberg both drew parallels between Burroughs and Sherlock Holmes – a private space investigator if you will.

Last question. I see you have a Dreamachine. Why is this?

People with Parkinson’s hallucinate and describe seeing little people who don’t speak, as well as animals. No-one knows the mechanisms that cause this but I’m experimenting with the Dreamachine and stroboscopes using functional magnetic resonance imaging to try and find out.

With that, we finished the interview but, as is the way when two Burroughs fiends start talking, meandered on for a while. I asked Andrew if latahs really exist. He told me he’d seen one in Indonesia. It’s been suggested that latah is triggered by an exaggerated startle reflex where people who are strongly startled will cry out. In remote communities the phenomenon has been culturally adaptive and may serve some sort of comedic purpose. As well as jumping to startle, some of these individuals exhibit echoing of sounds, coprolalia and automatic obedience. Nothing human is foreign indeed.

After reading Mentored by a Madman and talking to Andrew, I can only agree with the Burroughs quote on the cover of his elegant book: ‘The time has come for the line between literature and science, a purely arbitrary line, to be erased.’

In this, as with so much else, Burroughs was a man way ahead of his time.