Tuesday, July 13, 2010

Seven Souls and Surviving Death


The first post in this series is called William Burroughs in the Studio. Start there for the complete story.

How to Survive Death seems a prominent theme of Seven Souls. It comes across in the words William Burroughs speaks from his book, The Western Lands. The poignancy of this recording and the magick around it are possibly due to Burroughs' necessity for this information. He was 75 at the time, clearly aware of his body's mortality.

The Western Lands ends with the passage:

The old writer couldn't write anymore because he'd reached the end of words,
the end of what could be done with words, and then...

British we are and British we stay.

How long can we hang on in Gilbraltar
where the tapestries
where mustached riders with scimitars hunt tigers.

The ivory balls one inside the other, bare seams showing.

The long tearoom, mirrors on both sides.

The tired fuchsia rubber plants,

shops selling English marmalade and Fortnum and Mason tea.

Clinging to a rock like the rock apes
, clinging always to less and less.
In Tangier, the Parade Bar is closed.

Shadows are falling on the mountain.

Hurry up please, it's time.


This passage, which also ends Seven Souls, was not one of the selections Bill Laswell chose. Burroughs, or something, felt compelled to include it. Perhaps something to do with the old writer's necessity and willingness to confront death. This was no academic exercise.

In his last journal entry before he did die, seven years later, William Burroughs describes love as "the most natural painkiller that there is."

At another Seven Souls session a few days later, Bill Laswell and Nicky Skoplelitis arrived with a number of books they'd just picked up. Bill set them up on the ledge against the wall of the control room. I took them to be research materials. One of them jumped out. It had a bright red cover with thin black lettering that read The American Book of the Dead. This was my first exposure to this book by E.J. Gold. It was soon to play a significant role in my researches.

Death was a subject I had been investigating for over 5 years before meeting Bill Laswell and William Burroughs. My interest in death first piqued at a time when I was feeling depressed and despondent over the seeming inability to effect any real change in my life. I was probably guilty of taking P.D. Ouspensky a little too seriously from reading The Fourth Way, his erudite study and application of Gurdjieff's system. The book is good at bringing home the point of the mechanical nature of ordinary life, especially the self-observation of one's own robotic nature, but, for me, it lacked any practical solutions to the dilemma.

One day, not knowing what to do, I picked up a copy of Carl Jung's Collected Works and opened it at random. The oracular method of bibliomancy, sans Bible, has often proved effective. Now, nearly 30 years later, I don't remember exactly what the passage I turned to said, but the gist was: In many tribal cultures, death is used metaphorically and symbollicaly for rituals marking rites of passage and other major life changes. Jung talked about the death/rebirth archetype. How, in many different cultures, there always seemed to exist beliefs of some kind of rebirth connected with death.

Death as a metaphor for causing change to occur in accordance with Will, finally gave a place to work from. A practical method of transformation. Die to the old self, take rebirth as something new, to simplify it greatly. The secret to success is in learning to navigate through the 'land of the dead,' or the 'bardo', as it's also known. A general effect of using death ritually and transformationally is to give a much greater appreciation for life. Training to handle death brings vitality and potency to life. Anytime a musician really connects with music, or anytime anyone successfully meditates, they undergo a "death" of their everyday personality.

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