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Travels with William

Karl Whitney

Mentored by a Madman: The William Burroughs Experiment , by Andrew Lees, Notting Hill Editions, 192 pp, £14.99, ISBN: 978-1910749104

A few years ago I was hospitalised with unexplained chest pains that were thought to be a heart attack, or a stroke, but turned out to be neither. I was thirty years old, and since then I’ve suffered from varying degrees of back pain that have been explained through various hypotheses but never adequately diagnosed. During that period, I’ve been prescribed a variety of medication, much of which I can dose myself with according to how I feel and how much pain I’m suffering at the time. Guesswork and experimentation have played a part in my treatment, and they play a part in how I drug myself on a daily basis. Medicine, I’ve learned, is far from an exact science.

Professor Andrew Lees is a neuroscientist who is interested in these very questions: the relationship between medicine, chance and self-experiment – and particularly experimentation with psychoactive drugs such as ecstasy, LSD and the Peruvian enethogenic concoction yagé, also known as ayahuasca.

And this is where William Burroughs comes in. Burroughs, an experimentalist in life as well as fiction, assumes a heroic position in Lees’s book, representing the intersection of art and science, of empiricism and experimentalism. “The fusion of his ideas with my own scientific meanderings,” Lees writes, “had allowed me to see things in a completely different light.”

The productive tension in this book, which originated as an essay for the Dublin Review of Books, lies between the constraint of officialdom and the freedom of artistic and scientific possibility. Burroughs bridges that gap. Although Lees threads thoughts on Burroughs’s deep interest in drugs and medicine throughout the book, this is in effect an analytical memoir of Lees’ own career, and Burroughs stands as a relevant proxy for the psychological outsiderdom necessary for a medical insider such as Lees to function on a creative level. Mentored by a Madman is a fascinating archaeology of intellectual influence.

Those influences were found in the white heat of London’s sixties counterculture. But first Lees, Liverpool-born, had to get there. Early in the book, he arrives in London to attend an interview at the London Hospital Medical College in Whitechapel. As a schoolboy his imagination had been captured by “adventurers who had made journeys into the unknown”, naval explorers such as Álvaro Cabral and Amerigo Vespucci. He also mentions that he “kept diaries of garden birds and had learned the importance of accurate observation and precise recording”. To the young Lees, the empirical and the imaginative seem melded together. The interview is successful, and he returns to London eighteen months later.

His time at medical school is all dissection of cadavers (“Our corpse was a man called Wolynski, portly, with a gargantuan head and sparse body hair”) and Sunday afternoon walks along the East End docks, “through a wasteland of blood and beer”. He also ventures into bohemian, swinging London, wearing, on nights out in Soho, his “grey striped hipster flares, Ravel shoes and a skin-tight ribbed crew neck sweater worn over a blue crepe shirt”.

Given the well-sketched context of these first years in London, it is fitting that he credits the Beatles for his discovery of Burroughs. Specifically, the writer’s appearance on the cover of the album Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band sparked his interest: “amidst the rows of famous faces he was on the second row next to Marilyn Monroe and above Oscar Wilde. […] A connection with Paul McCartney and Barry Miles at the Indica bookshop had got him on the cover. He seemed to have come out of nowhere.” The discovery of Burroughs comes at a point when, Lees writes, “the conformity of medicine was suffocating me”.

It is important to underline that Lees finds in Burroughs not merely a diversion from the pressures of his vocation – his interest in the writer isn’t just an avocation to distract from medicine. He sees Burroughs as an outlaw – an untenured, untethered renegade neuropharmacologist whose discoveries are sprinkled through his life and work. The connections between Burroughs and medicine are strong, primarily through his brief time as a medical student in Vienna in the 1930s and his lifelong interest in, and addiction to, drugs. Doctors recur as characters in his fiction, and Lees draws parallels between these fictions and his own personal experience. The Doc Benway character in Naked Lunch reminds him of “my surgical teacher CT’s old-school gentlemanly demeanour combined with his penchant for drastic and fearless intervention. […] He rarely spoke directly to his patients. In theatre he threw scalpels and humiliated his assistants. His power was absolute and his decision-making infallible. He gave the impression that he had a visceral contempt for the frailty of the human organism.” While he professes his admiration for Benway’s “subversion of the medical model”, it is clear that Lees is also moving towards an understanding of medicine as not merely a physical process but also a holistic, near-spiritual calling.

There is a danger in all of this that the specificity of Burroughs might be lost to a hazily defined image that comes to symbolise much of what mainstream medicine isn’t. How can he stand for both the empirical cruelty and indifference to the sick and dying and the unspoken, shamanic rituals that a successful doctor covertly engages in in an effort to convince a patient back towards health? I surmise that biographically Burroughs can’t do this, but that his symbolic function for Lees stretches beyond mere biographical interest in the writer’s life, or intellectual engagement with his ideas. Burroughs becomes for Lees a place outside medicine where intuition and imagination have a much freer rein. The book is an act of hero-worship that, in the enactment of that worship, modifies the conception of the hero. I visualise Burroughs as a cigar-smoke infused, book-lined room to which Lees occasionally removes, and I’m not surprised that by the time he leaves the books have been thoroughly rearranged. The work of writers to which readers feel close affinity can become utopian spaces wherein we redefine ourselves, and them.

The connection between Burroughs and Lees becomes most convincing once Lees begins to investigate Parkinson’s disease. During Lees’s first house physician appointment in St Stephen’s Hospital on London’s Fulham Road, an elderly man who had worked on the London Underground is admitted. His symptoms began with a slight quiver in his finger while collecting tickets; within a year, his hands became stiff, forcing retirement. Five years later, when Lees first saw him, his facial features were frozen into a ‘reptilian stare’, his hands shuddered, he could only take small shuffling steps, and saliva dribbled from his mouth.

The elderly man mentioned to Lees that he had read a newspaper article about how the symptoms of Parkinson’s could be combated by the use of an amino acid, L-DOPA, that boosted levels of dopamine in the brain. L-DOPA (short for L-3-4-dihydroxyphenylalanine) is a naturally occurring molecule found in the pulses of the cowhage plant, used in Ayurvedic medicine. Lees prescribed L-DOPA for ten days, and an improvement was obvious after a few days. By the tenth day, “he got out of his chair and shuffled to the end of the ward”. Lees was convinced that this and other similar drugs held the key to cures for degenerative brain diseases. After a spell in the Salpetrière hospital in Paris he returned to London and concentrated his attention on neurology.

It became clear that L-DOPA was yielding diminishing returns, or having unintended consequences: some patients found it less effective over time, while others suffered spasms or hallucinations. Lees turned his attention instead to bromocriptine, which stimulated dopamine and thus could potentially act as an anti-Parkinson drug. Like the banned LSD, bromocriptine was synthesised from ergot compounds derived from rye fungus. As with L-DOPA, it turned out to have unusual side effects: hallucinations, but also dramatic changes in behaviour – one woman began to compulsively squander her pension money on bingo, falling behind on rent. When Lees checked with the drug’s manufacturer, it was confirmed that two other cases of pathological gambling had been reported in bromocriptine patients.

The manufacturer, Sandoz, had previously employed Albert Hofmann as director of medical research – in 1938 he synthesised LSD, and in 1943 he took the world’s first intentional acid trip. Bromocriptine was derived from the same source as LSD, and marketed by the same company. Progressive medical treatment of Parkinson’s was thus intimately bound up with the chemicals underpinning the counterculture of the sixties and seventies. The book is therefore in part Lees’s attempt to wrestle with why he turned on, tuned in but didn’t drop out.

In Naked Lunch, Burroughs had written about a ‘cure’ for drug dependence called apomorphine: “The apomorphine cure is qualitatively different from other methods of cure. I have tried them all. […] I can say that I was never metabolically cured until I took the apomorphine cure.” In 1951 it had been used by Robert Schwab, a neurologist at Massachusetts General Hospital, as a treatment for Parkinson’s – he recorded an improvement in stiffness and shakes. Later George Cotzias of Brookhaven Laboratories, New Jersey confirmed the potential of apomorphine and suggested that it might be used to counter the side effects of L-DOPA.

Enthusiastically embracing self-experimentation, Lees tracked down a supply of apomorphine from the pharmacy of London’s Royal Marsden Hospital, then injected himself with one milligram. He felt relaxed, experienced a ten-minute erection, and the sedative effects ebbed away after half an hour. Its effects on patients were “far more powerful than anything I had witnessed” with earlier drugs such as bromocriptine. “The drug that had rescued Burroughs from ‘The Sickness’,” Lees writes, “had come to the aid of a group of desperate individuals with the shaking palsy.” He wonders whether his belief in the drug’s potential was drawn directly from Naked Lunch.

Burroughs frequently sneaks into the narrative in this way, typically when Lees is attempting to retrace his intellectual processes, often at several decades remove. His writing is characterised by precision, especially when discussing his own experience as a doctor: his descriptions of patients’ symptoms, the effects and side-effects of medication are models of clarity. Similarly, his biographical sketches of the relevant elements of Burroughs’s life and work are excellent. But his efforts to find lessons in his interactions with Burroughs sometimes fall short of his characteristic lucidity, perhaps because Burroughs both suggests and resists instrumentalisation: his direct experience of yagé and apomorphine makes him a useful object lesson in self-experimentation, but when Lees outlines how Burroughs influenced his career, it gets both generic and dubiously specific:

Burroughs was continuing to teach me things that had a direct bearing on modern medical practice. He made me entertain doubts about the dogmas of science and the preconceptions and received opinions that compromise objectivity. He reminded me to go on challenging authority and to try to break down my own ingrained habits through mindfulness.

Lees finds in Burroughs’s novella Blade Runner: a movie (a book with no direct connection to the 1982 Ridley Scott film), a book whose précis appears to demonstrate that free medical care in America would lead to dystopian unintended consequences, “a warning that the National Health Service was under threat from Government-appointed quangos and people who had no feel for what looking after sick people involves”. Here Lees domesticates Burroughs’s libertarianism: he comes to stand for Lees’s own feelings of hostility towards the health system in which he works. I am not saying there is an “authentic” Burroughs that Lees is missing out on here, merely that it fascinatingly demonstrates the pliability of the Burroughs figure, one that Lees is actively reshaping over the course of this book.

Lees returns to Burroughs in times of crisis, at points when the neurologist feels estranged from his profession. “By 2010,” he writes, “the feelings of alienation I had experienced as a final year medical student had returned and were slowly turning me into a belated but committed freedom fighter”. The health sector, he feels, was becoming increasingly commercialised. Patients were becoming consumers, research was carried out purely for commercial gain, or for publicity. Big pharmaceutical companies “had all but baled out from drug development in Parkinson’s disease”. He becomes nostalgic: “the heroic era of neuropharmacological research had long vanished and self-experimentation was denigrated for its danger and lack of objectivity”.

This nostalgia encourages him to undertake a third-eye-opening trip to the Amazon, outlined in a chapter titled “Yagé Trip”. Aged sixty-six, he sets out on what he terms “a new journey of radical empiricism […] I wanted to see whether yagé could infuse my monochromatic research canvas and open up vivid new scientific perspectives.” The guiding spirit of this journey, is, of course, Burroughs, who had read about the hallucinogenic vine yagé in 1952 and travelled to Peru and Colombia in 1953 to sample its effects. Lees travels through Brazil to Colombia, consuming yagé in a cabin behind an adobe in the presence of its owner, Dona Angélica Floréz, who “begins to intone in her quivering, sibilant voice” as Lees closes his eyes and begins to see “yellow and green iridescent zigzag spectra and indigo and argent helices”. He visualises landscapes, and finds that yagé ‘confirms my belief that I am just an element linked inextricably to a whole and that I can never stand apart […] I could now see into my own mind.”

Lees’s trip is an inevitable consequence of his relentless advocacy of self-experimentation, while also being a kind of gonzo investigation of the roots of the medicine he has previously prescribed to Parkinson’s patients. Simultaneously, it is a retracing of the trajectories of Burroughs in an attempt to make sense of the relationship between Lees and his hero. The concluding chapter tries to outline the influence that Burroughs had on Lees’s career and thought, but I’d venture that it’s the irreducible nature of Burroughs that continues to fascinate him, something that doesn’t lend itself to neat summary, something that stretches beyond the page and into life in a way that is messy and compelling and defies logic. Burroughs doesn’t easily fit into Lees’s narrative – he’s not quite a frustrated researcher or doctor, but neither is he the complete opposite of an empirical investigator (at one point Lees compares Burroughs to Sherlock Holmes).

Ultimately then, this book exerts a fascination precisely because of its contradictions, and especially because of the figure of Burroughs. “Encountering William Burroughs when I was a student had been a fortunate accident that had almost culminated in me rejecting medicine for a life of vagabondage,” Lees writes – but this seems an overstatement. At no point does it seem that Lees was on the verge of quitting medicine, although he suffers at various points crises of faith. But the countercultural urgings of Burroughs encourage such dramatic flourishes and allow Lees to consider fringe elements of medicine that he might otherwise have ignored. Mentored by a Madman is most fascinating in its attempts to explain how Lees, entranced by a counterculture of which Burroughs was his chosen figurehead, shaped artistic influence into scientific outcome.


Karl Whitney is the author of Hidden City: Adventures and Explorations in Dublin. His work has appeared in the Guardian, the Irish Times and the London Review of Books.

Space to Think, an anthology bringing together more than fifty of the best pieces to have appeared in the Dublin Review of Books since its foundation ten years ago, will be published in October. Selling in the shops at €25, it is available now for pre-order at a special price of €20 (to collect in Dublin) or €20 + post and packing charges as appropriate for shipping to addresses in Ireland and internationally. To buy online, follow the steps from the home page of our website.

One piece featured in Space to Think is the blog post from 2014 “Cruel Cruel, Margaret Stackpoole” on the Dublin poet James Clarence Mangan’s love life. Here is an extract:

Despite the tall tales, nobody seems to have had a bad word to say about Mangan. Undoubtedly, this is to do with his troubled life and soul. Yeats, Joyce and many others admired this larger than life figure who sacrificed his health and life for his aesthetic and embodied the romantic idea of the artist. His life was indeed rough; he died at the age of forty-nine, but the suspicion remains that he exaggerated its horrors.

One straw in the wind suggesting he may not have been exactly chained down in Hades is the reasonable social life enjoyed by the author of “Dark Rosaleen” in premises around D’Olier Street and Dame Street, mixing and drinking with contributors to various literary journals. He also seems to have been able, albeit in his somewhat dysfunctional manner, to attend to a matter of the heart.

The Stackpoole family lived on Mount Pleasant Square in the suburb of Ranelagh and it seems Mangan was on visiting terms ... Indeed, it seems he took a particular shine to Margaret Stackpoole, a daughter of the house. According to Yeats, and by common assent, she was the prettiest of three daughters.

John Mitchel, in his account of Mangan’s life, seems surprised that the poet could have been on visiting terms at such a grand address and implies that he was out of his league. Of course Mitchel knew him in the later 1840s when Mangan was addicted to opium and wandered around Dublin with green tinted glasses, a massive cloak and large conical hat, frequently attracting the attention of disrespectful urchins, much like those who followed Leopold Bloom when he left the Freeman office some sixty years later.