Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Posts Tagged ‘William S. Burroughs

The flicker effect

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In 1953, the neurologist and roboticist W. Grey Walter published an extraordinary book titled The Living Brain. Among his many other accomplishments, Walter was a pioneer in the use of the electroencephalograph to study the brain’s electrical activity, which was described here for the first time for a wide popular audience, although his book become more famous for the chapter “Revelation by Flicker.” It described how stroboscopic light could produce epileptic seizures and other neurological reactions, including one particularly memorable anecdote: “A man found that when he went to the cinema he would suddenly feel an irresistible impulse to strangle the person next to him.” And when Walter tested the equipment on his own team, he became aware of some unusual effects:

In the biological sciences it is a good principle to be your own rabbit, to experiment on yourself; in electroencephalography the practice is widespread, convenient, and harmless. Whenever a new instrument is to be tested or calibrated, normal subjects from among the laboratory staff are used as “signal generators”…When we started to use high-power electronic stroboscopes to generate flicker, with the aim of testing the hypothesis of resonant synchronization in epilepsy, we took a large number of records from one another while looking at the brilliant flashing light…The tests were entirely satisfactory and in fact gave us much information which will be discussed later, but as well as that we all noticed a peculiar effect. The effect was a vivid illusion of moving patterns whenever one closed one’s eyes and allowed the flicker to shine through the eyelids.

Walter characterized these patterns as “whirling spirals, whirlpools, explosions, Catherine wheels,” quoting an evocative passage from a memoir by Margiad Evans, a poet who suffered from epilepsy:

I lay there holding the green thumbless hand of the leaf while things clicked and machinery came to life, and commands to gasp, to open and shut my eyes, reached me from across the unseen room, as though by wireless. Lights like comets dangled before me, slow at first and then gaining a fury of speed and change, whirling color into color, angle into angle. They were all pure ultra unearthly colors, mental colors, not deep visual ones. There was no glow in them but only activity and revolution.

After investigating further, Walter concluded that the imagery wasn’t an optical illusion caused by the light, but a phenomenon that occurred within the eye or brain itself, and that it involved more than one sensory system. (Walter doesn’t mention this in particular, but after reading his description of “whirling spirals,” I was surprised that it hasn’t been more widely used to explain away the vision of the chariot—with its mysterious “wheel within a wheel”—of the prophet Ezekiel, who has been diagnosed with temporal lobe epilepsy.) And his work with strobe lights inspired a number of interested readers to try it out for themselves, although to rather different ends, in the fifties equivalent of neurohacking.

One was John W. Campbell, editor of Astounding Science Fiction. After reading The Living Brain, he wrote—but evidently never sent—a long letter to Walter himself, and he also built a “panic generator” with a flickering fluorescent tube in his basement workshop. (The idea of using flickering lights to induce hypnotism was a familiar one in the genre, and it had appeared in stories including Campbell’s short novel The Elder Gods and in L. Sprague de Camp’s “The Exalted.”) When he tried the device on his family, his wife’s throat tightened up, his stepson felt asthmatic, and his daughter’s head hurt, but it bothered Campbell for just ten seconds. He was, he proudly noted, “immune.” Writing to his father, he said that he thought that it might have therapeutic value:

The only way a human being exposed to this device can continue to think coherently is by shifting his method of thinking. He either changes his method—his frequency—or is hopelessly scrambled in panic. The device, however, doesn’t tell him to think; it simply forces him to think in some new manner. The result is that the problems he’s been denying existed, the ideas he’s been refusing to consider—all of these will now come into sight, and he’ll be forced to at least consider them. The one sure and certain thing is that he can not continue to think in the terms he has been!

This insight inspired one of Campbell’s best editorials, “The Value of Panic,” as well as a premise that he gave to G. Harry Stine, who wrote under the pen name Lee Correy. The resulting story, “Design Flaw,” was about an experimental rocket plane plagued by a series of accidents that turn out to be caused by a flashing screen that provides landing data, which accidentally interferes with the pilot’s alpha rhythms.

A few years afterward, Walter’s work had an even more striking afterlife, and it serves as a reminder of the surprising overlap in those decades between science fiction and the counterculture. On September 14, 1960, William S. Burroughs wrote enigmatically to his friend Brion Gysin: “Also will see Grey Walter when he returns from vacation.” He followed up two weeks later: “I heard Grey Walter. Most interesting and will make a flicker date with him in Bristol.” Burroughs also wrote to Walter directly about “possible therapeutic applications in drug addiction” and “the effect of flicker on the creative process,” neatly tying together the two major threads of his career. His interest in the flicker effect emerged from the same impulse that led to his ongoing dalliance with Scientology, and he often mentioned the two in the same breath in his letters. And it led Gysin and his collaborator Ian Sommerville to build the Dream Machine, a rotating cylinder with flashing slits that was viewed with the eyes closed. In an interview, Burroughs vividly described its effects: “Elaborate geometric constructions of incredible intricacy build up from multidimensional mosaic into living fireballs like the mandalas of Eastern mysticism or resolve momentarily into apparently individual images and powerfully dramatic scenes like brightly colored dreams.” And he closed in terms that echoed Margiad Evans, who had spoken of “lights like comets”:

“Flicker” creates a dazzling multiplicity of images in constantly altering relationships which makes the “collages” and “assemblages” of so-called “modern” art appear utterly ineffectual and slow. Art history is no longer being created. Art history as the enumeration of individual images ended with the direct introduction of light as the principal agents in the creation of images which have become infinitely multiple, complex and all-pervading. The comet is Light.

The creeps of the cosmos

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“Of course Scientology attracts all the creeps of the cosmos,” the novelist William S. Burroughs wrote to the poet Allen Ginsberg on October 30, 1959. “You see it works.” Burroughs had just been introduced to the ideas of L. Ron Hubbard through the mystics John and Mary Cooke, whom he had met through their mutual friend Brion Gysin in Tangiers. Gysin, who is probably best remembered today for his development of the cut-up technique, had recently built the Dream Machine, a flicker gadget made of a light bulb placed on a record turntable. The device, which Gysin assembled with the help of an electronics engineer named Ian Sommerville, was designed to stimulate the brain’s alpha rhythms when viewed with the eyes closed. It was inspired by a discussion of “the flicker effect” in W. Grey Walter’s book The Living Brain, and it hints at the striking extent to which the counterculture was venturing into territory that science fiction had previously colonized. John W. Campbell had utilized a similar setup while working with Hubbard himself to access his buried memories in 1949, and after reading Walter’s book, he built what he called “a panic generator” with a fluorescent bulb in his basement. And the fact that Hubbard’s work was circulating among the Beats at the same time reflects how both communities—which seemed so different on the surface—were looking for new approaches to the mind. (Science fiction, like Scientology or Beat culture, has a way of attracting “all the creeps of cosmos,” and for similar reasons.)

I’m not an expert on Burroughs, so I can’t speak directly about the influence of Scientology on his work, but there’s no question that he remained actively interested in Hubbard’s ideas for the better part of a decade, even as he came to question and finally reject the authoritarian tendencies of the church itself. (This article from io9 is the best discussion I’ve found of the subject online, although it makes one factual misstatement, which I’ll mention in a moment.) In a letter to Ginsberg from a few days before the one that I quoted above, Burroughs wrote: “The method of directed recall is the method of Scientology. You will recall I wrote urging you to contact local chapter and find an auditor. They do the job without hypnosis or drugs, simply run the tape back and forth until the trauma is wiped off. It works. I have used the method—partially responsible for recent changes.” And shortly afterward: “I have a new method of writing and do not want to publish anything that has not been inspected and processed. I cannot explain this method to you until you have necessary training. So once again and most urgently…I tell you: ‘Find a Scientology auditor and have yourself run.’” Burroughs’s letters over the next twelve years, which have been collected in the volume Rub Out the Words, are liberally sprinkled with terms drawn from Hubbard’s writings, and when you read them all in one sitting, as I recently did, you can’t help but be struck by how long Burroughs circled around Scientology, alternately intrigued and repulsed by the man of whom he insightfully wrote: “I would not expect Mr. Hubbard’s system to crack mazes the existence of which it does not allow.”

And Burroughs went remarkably far. In 1968, he underwent a two-month training session at Saint Hill Manor, the headquarters of Scientology in the United Kingdom, and he appears to have achieved the level of at least OT III, or The Wall of Fire, which is when members pay to learn the story of Xenu. In the article from io9 that I mentioned above, the author writes: “Absent from Burroughs’s writing are any references to body thetans, Xenu, the Galactic Confederacy, Douglas DC-8 airliners, volcanic hydrogen bombs, or other beliefs more recently associated with Scientology.” Another recent book on Burroughs and Scientology calls this material “conspicuously absent” from his writings. In fact, it clearly appears at several points in his correspondence. In a letter to John Cooke on October 25, 1971, for instance, Burroughs wrote:

So leaving aside galactic federations and Zmus [sic] there may be some validity in Hubbard’s procedure and I would be interested to make a systematic test on the E-Meter…Exactly how are these body thetans contacted and run? Are they addressed directly and if so in what terms? Do they have names? Do they have dates? Are they run through the alleged shooting freezing and bombing incidents as if you are an auditor running an internal parasite through these incidents?

These are unquestionably references to the Xenu material, as is a letter that Burroughs wrote to Gysin a few days later, in which he casually refers to “Teegeeack”—Hubbard’s word for earth millions of years ago—and “Teegeeack hitchhikers.”

I don’t know how much the Church of Scientology was charging for this information in 1968, but it must have amounted to hundreds or thousands of dollars, and it’s hard to imagine how Burroughs would have avoided paying it in full. And he believed in aspects of it long after he had become aware of Hubbard’s shortcomings. On October 4, 1967, he wrote to his son:

Point about Scientology is that it works. In fact it works so well as to be highly dangerous in the wrong hands. The curious thing about L. Ron Hubbard who devised this system is that he is very uneven as a writer and a thinker. This tends to put people off. You find very profound and original thinking together with very shallow and banal thinking, so you have to read every word very carefully.

Burroughs was expelled in 1968 after publishing articles that were critical of the church, and he later said of its founder: “Hubbard has the satisfied look of a man who has just sold the widow a fraudulent peach orchard, but he is engaged in something much more pernicious than old style con tricks…His real specialty is spiritual theft.” If Burroughs stuck with it for so long, it was for much the same reason that Campbell once gave to Eric Frank Russell: “Why, for God’s sake, do you think I thought dianetics was so important? Hell, man, because I knew it was, because I tried it, and it helped.” Burroughs might have said much the same thing, even as his suspicions of its methods and origins continued to grow. As he wrote to Barry Miles in 1970: “I feel sure that there is an undisclosed source for this material. Probably science fiction.”

Quote of the Day

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I think that words are an around-the-world, oxcart way of doing things, awkward instruments, and they will be laid aside eventually, probably sooner than we think. This is something that will happen in the space age.

William S. Burroughs, to the Paris Review

Written by nevalalee

April 19, 2011 at 7:57 am

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