Skip to main content
Ages 13+
Under 13

Elements From William Burroughs' Magical Universe


Writer Mathew Levi Stevens collected the books, practices and methods of Burroughs’ eternal search for magic.

William S. Burroughs, the Beat Generation’s great, tampered with several methods and systems throughout his life. And while his genius is undeniable, he also argued against the idea of being a “person of genius”, and instead said he had no genius, he was no genius; he was possessed by genius. “To me ‘genius’ is the nagual: the uncontrollable –– unknown and so unpredictable –– spontaneous and alive. You could say the magical”, he stated in an interview. Carlos Castaneda’s echoes of the world can be heard from behind his words. Burroughs was a traveller that sought magic everywhere, and who developed an “addiction” of sorts —the same he had for writing— which was translated into an enormous corpus of experiences and lectures.

black sun bill






















American writer Mathew Levi Stevens, who met Burroughs when he was a young man, has devoted his time to collecting elements from Burroughs’ magical universe (that because of their enormity are almost unfathomable), and as preamble to his next book he leads us through some of the places where the beatnik traced the mysterious. “To Burroughs behind everyday reality there was the reality of the spirit world, of psychic visitations, of curses, of possession and phantom being” he says.

His interest in systems and practices that came from “strange” lands –– beyond the limits of mainstream religions or scientific materialism –– led Burroughs to travel across South America and drink Yage (today known as Ayahuasca); to become involved with Scientology (which he later dismissed as a “wrong step”); to attend seminaries by Master Erhard; venture into the Silva Method; investigate parapsychology and sensorial deprival, among many other practices, Stevens says. On one occasion, after being asked what he believed in, he answered:

In the magical universe there are no coincidences and there are no accidents. Nothing happens unless someone wills it to happen. The dogma of science is that the will cannot possibly affect external forces, and I think that’s just ridiculous. It’s as bad as the church. My viewpoint is the exact contrary of the scientific viewpoint. I believe that if you run into somebody in the street it’s for a reason. Among primitive people they say that if someone was bitten by a snake he was murdered. I believe that.

The magical, psychic, spiritual and occult are present in his fiction. From astral journeys to the descriptions of the rituals he attended, his references range from Aleister Crowley to the Necronomicon, all intertwined with “neo-pagan” concerns about the environment, man’s impact on nature and the Industrial Revolution, always stressing “quantity, and not quality”.

Burroughs was a frontline cosmonaut in the sphere of the occult (an essence which is particularly evident in his later writings). He was sometimes sordid, sometimes luminous and carnal –– A wizard that cast a spell on literature (method Carlos Castaneda also employed, in his own way), and who fought with the “horrendous spirit” who “possessed” him throughout his life intermittently.

There is much we can learn from the author, or simply experience through him, if only we let ourselves be charmed by his literature, which is also, for those interested, overflowing with interesting references to magic. Stevens presents a small list to us with the essential texts for a metaphysical education, which Burroughs himself gave him:

Breakthrough – Konstantin Raudive

Journeys Out of the Body – Robert A Monroe

Magic: An Occult Primer – David Conway

Psychic Discoveries Behind the Iron Curtain – Sheila Ostrander & Lynn Schroeder

Psychic Self-Defense – Dion Fortune

Real Magic - Isaac Bonewits

Las enseñanzas de Don Juan – Carlos Castaneda

Related Articles