Burroughs-ian Gnosticism: In His Own Words

By Sven Davisson

From the Archives Ashé Journal, Vol 4, Issue 3, 469-483, Fall 2005.

Burroughs explicitly linked his philosophy to Manichaeism—a third century Persian religion.  Manichaeism was founded by a young preacher, Mani, in the early to mid third century of the common era.  Mani was heavily influenced by Gnostic Christianity—calling himself a “disciple of Christ” and the “Paraclete,” or biblical healer.  The Manichaens incorporated many existing belief systems into their world-view.  From Mandeanism and Gnosticism, they appropriated a strongly held belief in cosmic dualism.  It is in this sense that Burroughs links his philosophy to that of the third century religion.  Burroughs’ fiction and nonfiction work (as the two are not readily separable) is best characterized as mythology.  He himself described his effort as writing the mythology for the space age.  His philosophy has many parallels to early Gnosticism that go beyond this simple invocation of Manichaeism dualism.

Burroughs first encountered the concept of the Johnson Family while still a boy reading the book You Can’t Win by Jack Black.  First published in the 1920’s Black’s autobiographical account of hobo life was immensely popular in its day.  Burroughs describes the Johnsons in The Place of Dead Roads:

‘The Johnson Family’ was a turn-of-the-century expression to designate good bums and thieves.  It was elaborated into a code of conduct.  A Johnson honors his obligations.  His word is good and he is a good man to do business with.  A Johnson minds his own business.  He is not a snoopy, self-righteous, trouble-making person.  A Johnson will give help when help is needed.  He will not stand by while someone is drowning or trapped under a burning car.(1)

In his essay “The Johnson Family,” Burroughs elaborates on the Johnsons’ philosophical placement within his mythic system—explicitly linked them to Manichaeistic dualism:

The Johnson family formulates a Manachean position where good and evil are in conflict and the outcome is at this point uncertain.  It is not an eternal conflict since one or the other must win a final victory.(2)

In contrast to the honorable world of hobos and criminals, Burroughs describes a type of person known simply as a ‘Shit.’  Unlike the Johnsons, Shits are obsessed with minding other’s business.  They are the town busy body, the preacher, the lawman.  Shits are incapable of taking the honorable road of each-to-his-own.  Burroughs describes the situation in his essay “My Own Business” thus:

This world would be a pretty easy and pleasant place to live in if everybody could just mind his own business and let others do the same.  But a wise old black faggot said to me years ago: ‘Some people are shits, darling.” I was never able to forget it.(3)

In Burroughs’ mythology, the world is one of conflict between the Johnsons and the Shits.  A Shit is one who is obsessively sure of his own position at the cost of all other vantages.  Burroughs describes Shits as incapable of minding “their own business, because they have no business of their own to mind, any  more than a small pox virus has.”(4)  This is more than a offhanded analogy.  For Burroughs, Shits are, in actuality, virus occupied hosts—chronically infected by what he terms the Right virus.  “The mark of a basic Shit,” Burroughs reminds us, “is that he has to be right.”(5)

The war between the Johnsons and the Shits is an epic one that runs throughout Burroughs writing.  Though of immense proportions, like the Gnostic battle between good and evil, the cosmic war is not figured across eternity.  It has an end and, for Burroughs, that end is imaginable.  It does not come without immense conflict, however.  Burroughs tells his reader, “The people in power will not disappear voluntarily.”(6)  There is no turning back, once the battle is met.  “Once you take up arms against a bunch of shits there is no way back.  Lay down your arms and they will kill you.”(7) “Hell hath no more vociferous fury than an endangered parasite.”(8)  And remember: “The wild boys take no prisoners.”(9)

In discussing his mythology, Burroughs describes a classic Catch-22: “He who opposes force with counterforce alone forms that which he opposes and is formed by it…  On the other hand he who does not resist force that enslaves and exterminate will be enslaved and exterminated.”(10)  Burroughs’ work begs the question, how does one resist the forces rallied against one without taking on the virally-tainted of the opposing force.  To imagine a permanent solution proves an easy flirtation.  In his essay “My Own Business,” Burroughs writes that “one is tempted to seek a total solution to the problem: Mass Assassination Day.”(11)

In The Place of Dead Roads Burroughs imagines a scenario where the Johnson Family organizes into armed squads who fan out to hunt the virally infected.  Some Johnsons are assigned as “Shit Spotters” whose task it is to move out into cities and small towns across the country recording those who exhibit virus occupied behaviors.  Acting upon the intelligence thus gathered, sharp shooters follow-up eliminating the detected Shits.(12)  Ultimately Burroughs tempers his fantasy.  He observes, “Probably the most effective tactic is to alter the conditions on which the virus subsists.”(13)

In truth, indifference will prove the end of the Shit problem.  “Conditions change, and the virus guise is ignored and forgotten.”(14)  Burroughs envisions the Shit position obsoleted by changes in normative culture:

This trend toward sanity has brought the last-ditch dedicated shits out into the open, screaming with rage.  Victimless crime, the assumption that what a citizen does in the privacy of his own dwelling is nonetheless someone else’s business and therefore subject to denunciation and punishment is the very lifeline of the right virus.  Cutting off this air line would have the same action as interferon, which blocks the oxygen from certain virus strains.(15)

And slowly the Shits are ignored into a dull celluloid sunset.

Like many of the early Gnostics, Burroughs believed that humanity was tainted from birth by outside elements.  Within his writing, all humanity is infected from the outset.  “We are all tainted with viral origins.”(16)  “[T]he whole quality of human consciousness, as expressed in male and female, is basically a viral mechanism.”(17)  He posits a theory of ‘inverse evolution.’  Also like the early Gnostics, Burroughs cosmology contains a parallel to the Fall.  He suggests that “Man did not rise out of the animal state, he was shoved down to be an animal to be animals to be a body to be bodies by the infamous Fifth Columnists.”(18)

Due to this viral mechanism, the cosmic conflict is configured within the domain of our own bodies.  Burroughs wonders if “the separation of the sexes” isn’t “an arbitrary device to perpetuate an unworkable arrangement.”(19)  Theorist Robin Lydenberg writes that Burroughs sees “the only possible relationship between two sexes defined in binary opposition to each other is one of conflict.”(20)  For Burroughs this arena of perpetual conflict, enacted through and on the zone of the body, is one of the largest elements standing between humanity and the potential to mutate into something with even a slight chance of survival.

Lydenberg continues:

Burroughs attributes the polarization of reproductive energy to structures of binary opposition which set two incompatible sexes in perpetual conflict, channeling the flow of creative energy into a parasitic economy based on power and property.(21)

Burroughs suggests that this division has trapped humans in a state of neotany, arrested evolution (A.E.).  He writes, “I am advancing the theory that we were not designed to remain in our present state, any more than a tadpole is designed to remain a tadpole forever.”(22)  Within his mythology, there is very little hope that humanity will make it out.  The necessary mutation that might spur us back onto the evolutionary path may prove unattainable.  Bleakly, he writes in The Western Lands:

Man is indeed the final product.  Not because homo sap is the apogee of perfection, before which God himself gasps in awe—“I can do nothing more!”—but because Man is an unsuccessful experiment, caught in a biologic dead end and inexorably headed for extinction.(23)


“It is inconceivable that Homo sapiens could last another thousand years in present form.”(24)

New York City: Jasmin Awad
Burroughs did believe in reincarnation.  In interviews, he described it as a ‘given.’  “I have written [in The Place of Dead Roads], Kim had never doubted the existence of gods of the possibility of an after-life and Kim is my alter ego and spokesman like Larry Speaks.”  Birth, however, “is something to be avoided… the worst thing that could happen.”(25)  For Burroughs, it seems, the real trick is not to be born in the first place.  “The human condition is hopeless once you submit to it by being born…almost.  There is one chance in a million and that is still good biologic odds.”(26)  Almost, and the slightest glimmer creeps in.

As Burroughs sees it, the only escape possible for humanity is biologic mutation.  This is nothing less than an evolutionary jump into the unknown—a complete and total movement away from what one knows as human.  Burroughs writes in The Western Lands: “A problem cannot be solved in terms of itself.  The human problem cannot be solved in human terms.”(27)  And in his essay “Immortality” he warns us that “Mutation involves changes that are literally unimaginable from the perspective of the future mutant.”(28)  The mutation he envisions represents “A step into the unknown, a step that no human being has ever taken before.”(29)  Once one takes the step there will be no turning back.  “Evolution would seem to be a one-way street.”(30)

The Gnostics believed that the world was created by an evil being, the Demiurge known as IALDABOATH.  This being was an abortive creation of Sophia, the embodiment of cosmic wisdom, formed when she took creation unto herself without the knowledge of the non-dual prime-entity.  The Demiurge is unaware of his own origin and thinks of himself as the one and only GOD of his creation.  One finds strong parallels to this cosmology within Burroughs mythos.  The world is actually at the mercy of a ephemeral, but all too real, force Burroughs calls simply ‘Control.’  In The Western Lands he writes, “We are controlled by the Powers.  Not one, but many, and often in conflict.  It is all part of some Power Plan.”(31)

Burroughs views the modern period as characterized by an insidious display of Control’s raw authority unprecedented in history.  Within his fiction, he depicts a world of “control madness,” which is predicated on the modern wholesale presentation of image and word, constructed through careful manipulation of the media, the state, religion and advertising.  For Burroughs, the modern world is characterized by “random elements” that have come to power through accidental conditions.  Modern leaders are the “unwitting” agents of control.  Thus, “the iron-willed dictator is a thing of the past.”(31)

Auschwitz, Emma HolmwoodThe modern world is a horrific terrain of constructed knowledge—organically directed toward the eradication of all free thought.  Contrasting this modern manifestation of Control with its historical antecedents, Burroughs writes, “To confuse this old-style power with the manifestation of control madness we see now on this planet is to confuse a disappearing wart with an exploding cancer.”(33)

Just like humanity’s precarious position in a state of neotany, Burroughs sees that the presence of Control is not perpetual.  Again the cosmic conflict is not eternal.  For Burroughs humanity is in “the last game.”(34)  In The Western Lands, Burroughs writes of Control’s ultimate plan:

The program of the ruling elite in Orwell’s 1984 was: ‘A foot stamping on a human face forever!’  This is naïve and optimistic.  No species could survive for even a generation under such a program.  This is not a program of eternal, or even long-range dominance.  It is clearly an extermination program.(35)


The door closes behind you, and you begin to know where you are.  This planet is a Death Camp… the Second and Final Death.(36)

Just like the evil God of the Gnostics, Burroughs concept of Control masquerades as the axiomatic, natural laws of the Cosmos.  In The Job, Burroughs notes, “All control systems claim to reflect the immutable laws of the universe.”(37)  Control wears the mask of religion, temporal law enforcement, the righteous politician.  The greatest tactic of Control represented within Burroughs’ work is that of the One God Universe (OGU):

Consider the One God Universe: OGU.  The spirit recoils in horror from such a deadly impasse.  He is all-powerful and all-knowing.  Because He can do everything, He can do nothing, since the act of doing demands opposition.  He knows everything, so there is nothing for him to learn.  He can’t go anywhere, since He is already fucking everywhere, like cowshit in Calcutta.

The OGU is a pre-recorded universe of which He is the recorder.  It’s a flat, thermodynamic universe, since it has no friction by definition.  So He invents friction and conflict, pain, fear, sickness, famine, war, old age and Death.(38)

Compare this One God with the Gnostic conception of the Demiurge.

For Burroughs, the notion of One God is simply a method employed by Control.  It is akin to the Mayan calendric system in which each moment was predictable as it was pre-recorded.  No matter the holy book or the messenger, the notion of One God proves little more than a palliative film shown to prisoners on Death Row.  In such a system, resistance is a dangerous move:

So the One God, backed by secular power, is forced on the masses in the name of Islam Christianity, the state, for all secular leaders want to be the One.  To be intelligent or observant under such a blanket of oppression is to be ‘subversive.’(39)

While describing his concept of the One God Universe, Burroughs outlines his contrasting view of a Magical Universe.  “The most basic concept of my writing,” he writes, “is a belief in the magical universe, a universe of many gods, often in conflict.  The paradox of an all-powerful, all-seeing God who nonetheless allows suffering, evil, and death, does not arise.”(40)  Like the Gnostics, Burroughs held the belief that through contact with this magical universe, one could break free of the confines of the One God Universe, thus moving outside the grasp of Control.  Burroughs image of the Garden of Alamout is analogous to the way the Gnostics employed the vision of the Kingdom.  A glimpse of either is transformative—a Gnostic vision taking one above the realm of the evil creator god, the Demiurge or Control.   For Burroughs, through dream visions, one becomes a god:

You need your dreams, they are a biologic necessity and your lifeline to space, that is, to the state of God.  To be one of the Shining Ones.  The inference is that Gods  are a biologic necessity.  They are an integral part of Man.(41)

Burroughs appropriates the Egyptian notion of an after life, a paradise known as ‘The Western Lands.’  Unlike the Christian or Islamic heaven, entry to the Western Lands is by no means guaranteed.  It does in fact lie at the end of a very dangerous journey—one in which portions of the soul struggle to reach immortality.  Burroughs asks his readers to compare his mythological description of the Western Lands with the shoddy images of paradise promised by the proponents of the One God Universe:

Look at their Western Lands. What do they look like?  The houses and gardens of a rich man.  Is this all the Gods can offer?”(42)

“Well, I say then it is time for new Gods who do not offer such paltry bribes.  It is dangerous to think such things.  It is very dangerous to live, my friend, and few survive it.  And one does not survive by shunning danger, when we have a universe to win and absolutely nothing to lose.  It is already lost.(43)

In The Place of Dead Roads, he tells us unequivocally:  “This is no vague eternal heaven for the righteous.  This is an actual place at the end of a very dangerous road.”(44)

Burroughs sees that historically “the Gods held all their keys and admitted only favored mortals.”(45)  This was the case in the Egyptian system, described in their Book of the Dead, where gods and demons had to be placated, propitiated and answered with their sacred names throughout the nearly impossible journey across the wasteland between earthly life and the Western Lands.  Like the Gnostics, Burroughs’ mythology proposes, no matter how remotely, the possibility that one may discover the secret key (gnosis) that opens the secret represented by the Western Lands.  Again like the Gnostics, Burroughs understood that this metaphorical key unlocked not just one revelation, but everything in an instant.  This is the vision of the Kingdom conveyed by Jesus, or the Illuminator, in the Gnostic scriptures.  Burroughs writes, “Once you find the key, there are not just one garden but many gardens, an infinite number.”(46)

Throughout his own Book of the Dead, Burroughs frequently warns us of the treacherous nature of the journey:

The road to the Western Lands is by definition the most dangerous road in the world, for it is a journey beyond Death, beyond the basic God standard of Fear and Danger.  It is the most heavily guarded road in the world, for it gives access to the gift that supersedes all other gifts: Immortality.(47)


The Road to the Western Lands is devious, unpredictable.  Today’s easy passage may be tomorrow’s death trap.  The obvious road is almost always a fool’s road, and beware the Middle Roads, the roads of moderation, common sense and careful planning.  However, there is a time for planning, moderation and common sense.(48)

Within his mythology, Burroughs appears to suggest that the end is all but a given.  The final trains are moving inexorably toward the gates of the camp.  There are many ways in but no exit.  For humanity, stuck for millennia just moments before mutation, there is no escape for the soul.  No windows, but the smell of the charnel fires are a dead give-away.  Perhaps it is too late and we have already moved past the evolutionary point of no-return—already dinosaurs in dénouement.  But with Burroughs, there is always an almost.

Burroughs’ close friend and collaborator Brion Gysin reminds us: “The outbreak of Armegeddon made things infinitely more complicated but all that much more urgent.”(49)


Burroughs, William S.  Cities of the Red Night. New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1981.

_____.  “Immortality,” in The Adding Machine: Collected Essays. London: John Calder Publishers, 1985, 127-136.

_____.  The Job.  New York: Penguin, 1974.

_____.  “The Johnson Family,” in The Adding Machine: Collected Essays. London: John Calder Publishers, 1985, 74-7.

_____.  “My Own Business,” in The Adding Machine: Collected Essays. London: John Calder Publishers, 1985, 15-8.

_____.  “My Purpose is to Write For the Space Age,” in William S. Burroughs at the Front: Critical Reception, 1959-1989, Jennie Skerl and Robin Lydenberg, eds.  Carbondale, IL: Southern Illinois University Press, 1991.

_____.  “No more Stalins, no more Hitlers” on Dead City Radio (sound recording), New York: Island Records, 1990.

_____.  The Place of Dead Roads.  New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1983.

_____.  Port of Saints. Berkeley, CA: Blue Wind Press, 1980.

_____. The Western Lands. New York: Penguin, 1987.

_____.  The Wild Boys: A Book of the Dead.  New York: Grove, 1978.

_____.  “Women: A Biological Mistake?” in The Adding Machine:Collected Essays. London: John Calder Publishers, 1985, 124-6.

Gysin, Brion.  The Last Museum.  New York: Grove, 1986.

Lydenberg, Robin.  Word Cultures: Literary Form and Theory in the Radical Writings of William S. Burroughs.  New York: Routledge, 1988.

Maeck, Klaus.  William S. Burroughs: Commissioner of Sewers.  New York: Mytic Fire Video, 1986.

1. The Place of Dead Roads, iv.

2. “The Johnson Family,” 75-76.

3. “My Own Business,” 15.

4. Ibid, 16.

5. Ibid, 16.

6. The Job, 74.

7. “The Johnson Family,” 77.

8. “My Own Business,” 16.

9. The Wild Boys, 148.

10. The Job, 100.

11. “My Own Business,” 17.

12. The Place of Dead Roads, 155-6.

13. “My Own Business,” 18.

14. Ibid, 18.

15. Ibid, 16.

16. Cities of the Red Night, 25.

17. Ibid, 25.

18. Port of Saints, 105.

19. “Women: A Biological Mistake?” 126.

20. Lydenberg, 162.

21. Ibid, 156.

22. “Women: A Bioloogical Mistake?” 125.

23. The Western Lands, 41.

24. Ibid, 223.

25. Maeck.

26. 84

27. The Western Lands, 27.

28. “Immortality,” 135.

29. Ibid, 135.

30. “Women: A Biological Mistake?” 125.

31. The Western Lands, 188.

32. “No more Stalins, no more Hitlers.”

33. The Job, 60.

34. The Western Lands, 254.

35. Ibid, 59.

36. Ibid, 254.

37. The Job, 43.

38. The Western Lands, 113.

39. Ibid, 111.

40. “My Purpose Is to Write for the Space Age,” 268.

41. The Western Lands, 181.

42. Ibid, 184.

43. Ibid, 184

44. The Place of Dead Roads, 171.

45. Ibid, 171.

46. Ibid, 171.

47. The Western Lands, 124.

48. Ibid, 151.

49. Gysin, 105.

Photos: Kenneth C. Zirkel, Jasmin Awad, Emma Holmwood