Observed while Falling is the account of the Word-Image Novel Ah Pook Is Here, an idea conceived by writer WILLIAM S. BURROUGHS and artist MALCOLM MC NEILL in London in 1970, abandoned after seven years, lost for twenty-five, then rediscovered and published four decades after it began.
Ah Pook Is Here was a book about Time; the ways in which it is perceived, the methods of controlling it and the possibilities of traveling within it. Burroughs contrasted the Judeo-Christian temporal model with that of the ancient Maya and proposed a fictional modern-day reenactment of the actual confrontation between these two views that had occurred five hundred years ago. It was a story in which characters from the past using the formulae within sacred texts traveled through Time to determine the outcome of that future event.
William Burroughs was not a conventional writer and Ah Pook, the Mayan Death God, is no ordinary character. The interaction between them would result in an actual manifestation of the ideas they evoked. An intersection of the Mayan and Judeo-Christian temporal views is now implicit in the events surrounding "2012", and just as it had been foreseen in the book, Apocalypse is considered by some to be the inevitable conclusion. The context in which these events occur was also anticipated by the book: the invasive system of Control devised by its protagonist John Stanley Hart is reflected in the very real methods of the current Western political ideology.
Burroughs was a visionary author; he had the ability to "write ahead". It was his contention that the fundamental purpose of writing was "to make it happen" and in light of recent events, Ah Pook Is Here certainly validated that idea. It confirmed his sense of the inherent potential of words: their ability to access and convey information beyond the constraints of linear time.
Ah Pook was a project in which images were added to the mix. They became the catalyst for increasing the likelihood of such an idea occurring. In the course of the collaboration inexplicable real events did in fact "happen" that appeared to mirror those in the book. The most significant of these, however, would not be realized until many years after the project had been abandoned and after Burroughs himself was dead. The unprecedented nature of that event and its direct bearing on the premise of Ah Pook Is Here is what led to Observed While Falling being written.
Mc Neill was 23 years old when Ah Pook began. Given Burroughs' intense literary persona and dramatic personal history the project represented a daunting formative learning experience. It was a creative collaboration that would nevertheless endure for almost a decade, during which time Burroughs asked him to create images for several of his other texts and became godfather to his son. It was a friendship and understanding that could only be made possible through such a process of interaction and allowed for a unique view of the writer's working philosophy and sometimes, idiosyncratic methods. The first section of Observed While Falling recalls the history of that relationship, which lasted until the author's death in 1997. It also demonstrates the added prescience of Ah Pook Is Here as a Graphic Novel ahead of its time
The second chapter describes the unusual circumstances surrounding the revival of Ah Pook Is Here and the implications of the narrative with respect to current events. It considers the Mayan view of Time from that perspective and reveals the way words and images working together were able to make the character of Ah Pook himself actually "happen."
The last section completes the journey through Time and recounts the process of achieving the publication of Ah Pook Is Here. It describes how the images recovered the collaboration from obscurity and continued to express its fictional narrative in real terms more than thirty years after they were first conceived.
… Confrontational revolutionary groups were a feature of the early seventies. Germany had its Baader Meinhoff gang, Italy had its Red Brigades and England had its Angry one: a group of young urban guerillas that had decided to confront the status quo head on. They'd bombed the homes of judges, high-ranking police officers and politicians as well as banks and army facilities. And as an indication of feminist solidarity they'd also blown up a 'dolly-bird' boutique in London, and a BBC broadcast van in protest of The Miss World competition. Their perceived form of anarchy, which amounted to at least 25 bombs* so far, had now run unchecked for over a year and the police were at their wit's end trying to catch them.
When combined with the ongoing round of anti Vietnam war demonstrations, free rock concerts, skinhead mayhem and all-round drug taking, blowing up the place was a clear indication that the post-war baby boomers were getting out of hand.
To top things off, the OZ Magazine 'School Kids' Issue had just been published: "...the most brazen and disgusting attempt to corrupt young boys and girls yet made in Britain."*
The OZ *editors had handed over one of the issues to a half dozen teenagers and given them free rein to do whatever they wanted. The result was a criminal charge not only of producing an "obscene article" but of conspiring to "corrupt the morals of young children."
A star witness for the prosecution was England's beloved Rupert Bear. A children's comic book character who'd been around since the '20's. Rupert was (and still is) a human child with a bear's head who lived with his mum and dad and had all kinds of adventures in a place called Nutwood. His pals were also human, some with animal heads, others not.
Rupert wore plaid pants, a look that would later be adopted by punk rockers. Right now though his pants were off. His bear's head had been pasted onto a human body drawn by Robert Crumb. Some teenage pervert had given our Rupert a woody for God's sake!
The magazine was so innocuous it was hardly worth buying, but the resulting obscenity trial, would be the longest in English history. The three editors receiving hefty jail sentences and getting their hair cut off.*
Given the number of erections that were starting to crop up in Ah Pook the event was a caution, but in the light of the trial's final outcome not something to be concerned about. It was spring after all, erections were everywhere. And in case I was unfamiliar with what one looked like, Bill suggested another field trip.
He got in shape everyday with a spell in his Orgone Box, an incongruous, Tardis-like structure in his bedroom, oddly reminiscent of an outhouse.
It was a homemade affair comprised of layers of organic and inorganic materials - wood and metal basically, with some rabbit fur thrown on top for good measure - with a door and a seat inside like a privy. Like a privy, the door also had a hole cut in it, presumably to let light in or alert others if it was already occupied. (Ideally the subject should be naked.) The purpose of the device was to accumulate orgone, the quintessential energy named by its discover, Willhelm Reich. A normal healthy flow of Orgone said Reich, was expressed through orgasm. The more flow the better.
Bill swore by its effects. Sometimes after twenty minutes in the box he said, he could "go off without even touching it." He invited me to try.
I sat in a couple of times, but fortunately or not, the way it is when you don't have your own piano to practice on, I wasn't able to manage a spontaneous outburst.
On his advice I'd read Reich's books, and when the documentary WR:Mysteries of the Organism opened, he suggested we check it out. It was the first time an erection had been shown to the general public he said. "It's historical!"
The scene in question starred the Chicago Plaster Casters. A couple of art gals who'd made a career out of casting the upright cocks of rock stars. Seeing a fifteen-foot, grainy hard on, on-screen was a novelty, but somehow anti-climactic.
"So what did you think?" asked Bill.
"Great." I said "It's a start."
Not long after he decided to clarify what kind of "start" I might have in mind…
…Compared to what he'd talked about at our first meeting, it was anti-climactic and as far as a book was concerned, as difficult as it had been with Cyclops. Apart from Percy Jones and Hiroshima, there were no real scenes, just a long exposition of Hart's methods. Methods that now included many references to artists and drawing - an idea that was
When I was working on Cyclops I really knew nothing about Burroughs, even so, I'd somehow made Mr. Hart look just like him. Mr. Hart the bad guy that is.
Hart the newspaper tycoon, who was loosely based on Randolph Hearst, came from a wealthy background, went to Harvard to study the Maya then set out to discover the secrets of control. In our first meeting Burroughs revealed that he too came from a wealthy background and had also studied the Mayans at Harvard. He too was fascinated by the control system contained within their books.
Writers naturally create surrogates of themselves in their fiction but this seemed a bit obvious. Especially since the character now looked like him. Burroughs' alter ego was also contemporary; the events that precipitate his downfall occur in 1970. The author was writing himself into his own book.
With all the references to artists and drawing, he now appeared to be writing me in as well. He'd even introduced a 23 year-old protagonist. The line between fact and fiction was somewhat fuzzy here. Who exactly was talking to who?
It was oddly disconcerting but then who was I to argue? In the book, or out of the book, my role was the same. Mr. Hart/Mr Burroughs was quite clear on that - in caps no less:
"GO OUT AND GET THE PICTURES. THE UGLY PICTURES. IF YOU CAN'T FIND THEM MAKE THEM. AND IF YOU CAN'T MAKE UGLY PICTURES YOU'RE JUST NOT UGLY ENOUGH FOR THIS JOB."
Drawing a "whiff" of something that couldn't be shown seemed like a tricky proposition, so I decided to let it slide for a while. Along with the "computerized associational networks" on which the "whiffs" were to be "hinted" at. Addressing the matter of Hart's age also seemed like a problem for later. According to the time-line he was at least 108 years old now and still going strong.
My first assignment I decided was to look for viruses.
Guy's Hospital Gordon Museum is the oldest and largest of its kind. Medical memorabilia have been accumulating there since the 1800's. Since it's only accessible to the 'trade', a medical student friend sneaked me in as an 'Operating Theatre Technician'.
We were the only visitors. Along with the bones of giants, dwarves and several headed babies we were treated to the preserved remains of murder victims, bizarre suicides, dissected criminals, abnormal births and human anomalies of every description. Pickled organs and body-parts in jars rounded out the show.
Anatomy was something I'd studied in Art school and I'd taught myself taxidermy as a teenager*. Guts and dead bodies, didn't bother me. This was bodies from a different point of view though: Mr. Hart's point of view. These images were to be recorded and manipulated in order to create fear and death. There was certainly evidence of it here.
The skull of a woman caved in with an axe : the stomach of a suicide who'd swallowed scalding water; the arm and shoulder of a man, flash-fried when it had touched the third rail. In terms of the assignment there was also plenty of disease, but disease often leaves little of itself behind. Viruses are self-serving microscopic termites that burrow into flesh and bone until all that's left are the ravaged remains of the victim. Even those would disappear if not for formaldehyde and extremely competent sculptors.
A hanged man had been sliced into sections horizontally from head to foot then perfectly modeled in wax. (Even the rope tear on his neck had been faithfully reproduced.) Studying the slices close up was a disquieting sensation. Nothing in the intricate arrangement of tissues was extraneous or arbitrary. Everything worked toward a single purpose: to sustain life. All of which was beyond our comprehension or control.
Viewed on a larger scale, the human body had the mystery and complexity of an alien landscape. On a molecular level, unknown to the sum of its parts, it was accident and opportunity waiting to happen. Manipulating such forces would be a monumental undertaking, as Mr. Hart would discover. Drawing pictures to express that idea likewise. What death looked like was apparently a secondary consideration. As Bill had indicated, it was about drawing out "…the feeling"…
…San Francisco also had its own Angry Brigade: The Symbionese Liberation Army. A couple of days after I arrived, they kidnapped newspaper heiress Patty Hearst.
In April, she helped them rob a San Francisco bank. In May, a S.W.A.T. team gunned down leader Donald De Freeze and five other members in Los Angeles. Patty wasn't among them. The San Francisco cops and the FBI stepped up the search encouraging people to report unusual characters moving into their neighborhoods.
A couple of days later they showed up at my place.
Nob Hill was a fairly respectable area, but I was surprised that someone considered me worth a call. Maybe it was the odd hours I kept. I preferred working at night. When the downstairs doorbell rang around lunchtime I was still in bed.
As the two men came up the stairs it occurred to me they might be Jehovah's Witnesses. I was struck by the plaid pants. Not something you see very often in England I thought. "FBI" announced one of them. Especially on a police officer.
They came in, arranged themselves side by side beside the door and flipped their badges. Reference material I thought. I leaned in for a closer look.
"We're making enquiries about the Patty Hearst kidnapping," said one of them. "Have you seen any strange or unusual people in the building lately?"
A tricky question under the circumstances.
"No" I said.
He handed me a stack of about thirty black and white photographs secured with a rubber band; about the size of baseball cards; mostly pictures of black guys. "Have you seen any of these people?" he asked.
Things were beginning to blur. I explained that I'd only just arrived in San Francisco but he insisted I look anyway.
"Well this is Donald DeFreeze" I said. "He's dead."
"That's OK," he said, "just keep looking."
Which I did, until his partner suddenly pointed to the wall above my drawing table and announced:
"That's Patty Hearst's grandfather! And so's that! And that's Hearst Castle. And...." And he was right. There were also pictures of cops, terrorists, atomic bombs and dead people. And replica guns on the table.
When I looked back they were both reaching for the hips of those pants.
It was an odd sensation. Two versions of a similar idea were in the same room together; one real, one imaginary. The cops were part of the real part and so were the guns. But then again, even that was strange. I was English. Cops with guns was something I'd only read about, or seen in the movies. And I'd never seen cops in plaid pants. It was like a dream. For a moment I didn't feel like I was anywhere at all.
"What exactly do you do?" asked one of them.
"I'm an artist." I said, "working on a book...based on Randolph Hearst...Randolph Hearst senior... a kind of science fiction story...by William Burroughs...he wrote it years ago..."
There was a beat then the moment passed. The idea went its separate ways. The hands came off the pants.
One of them pointed to the Ah Pook artwork – the picture of the vigilantes running through the woods.
"What's happening there?" he asked.
"It's a time in the future," I said, "when law and order breaks down."
He studied it for a while then turned to me with a concerned, knowing look.
" Frightening." he said.
As they left, he handed me an FBI wanted poster. Of the five people shown only one was still alive - Patty Hearst. "If you see any of these people let us know." he said. At this point anything's possible I thought.
There was no cryptic advice this time, but I did have a second quote for the back of the book:
"Frightening" - The FBI …
…The money ran out in no time. I was flipping a coin sometimes to decide whether to buy milk for tea, or a pack of cigarettes for the day. Inevitably I had to look for freelance work. It was my first New York summer and the apartment had no air conditioner. It also had no table. When I finally picked up illustrations for National Lampoon and Marvel Comics, I had to paint them resting on my knees. Bill suggested I work at the loft whenever I needed, and gave me a key.
He'd started a monthly column for Crawdaddy Magazine called Time of the Assassins and for a few months I also supplied illustrations for that.
I was at the loft one evening finishing up one of them when he came home from a dinner party. He'd had a few drinks naturally. He came over and placed a piece of hash on the desk.
"Here! I got a present for you!"
"Well thanks Bill. I'll smoke it later."
"No man! It's not dope! It's aphrode-e-e-e-siac! Ted Morgan gave me a bunch of it. Got it down in South America. Says it really works."*
"Great! I'll save it for a special occasion."
We talked about the picture for a while then he wandered off. Five minutes later I noticed it was very quiet. As I was packing up my stuff to leave I saw the back of his head on the other side of the kitchen counter. He still had his hat on. It wasn't moving. I figured he'd fallen asleep in the chair so I crept over to wake him.
When I came around the corner of the counter, I found him very much awake… sitting in his boxer shorts staring intently down at his crotch.
"Not-a-fu-cking-twitch!" he said.
Another time when I stopped by I found him busy at the stove. Plastic shopping bags covered the kitchen counter. He'd read an article in High Times magazine proposing that opiates could be extracted from lettuce. Lactuco virosa - wild lettuce - does have such properties. Head lettuce from Chinatown does not. Nevertheless, Bill had decided to commit himself to an all day vigil over a saucepan to prove things one way or the other, watching pounds of lettuce distill down to a black tar. When I asked him later how it had turned out, he said that it had tasted like shit and it hadn't done shit. As always, he knew whereof he spoke.
It made sense that he would encounter the occasional dud. His quest for mind-altering chemicals covered a territory few if any, have dared countenance. In the course of his life, he sampled just about everything in the pharmacy and washed it down with just about everything in the liquor store. That the endeavor resulted in one of the most far-reaching imaginations in literary history is testament to his methods.
Given the fact that he would continue to create to the ripe old age of 83, his liver by rights should be in The Smithsonian…
…The unassembled nature of the artwork wasn't the real issue. Any publisher could see from looking at the dummy and a couple of finished frames what the book would look like. The real problem was content – more specifically the translation of word content into image. "Words imply. A painting has to specify." It wasn't the Martian's arm that was in question.
As Peter put it euphemistically: "... this project is too far out and/or expensive for the more conventional publishing houses." Meaning: the explicit nature of the artwork precludes any mainstream publishing investment whatsoever. Or: the moment I'd started making pictures of Bill Burroughs' ideas, Ah Pook had been dead in the water. It ended at the beginning.
In keeping with the reciprocal nature of the process, I'd done exactly what Mr. Hart had told me to do : "GO OUT AND GET THE PICTURES. AND ESPECIALLY THE ONES WE CAN'T PRINT." The book had demonstrated its basic contention: the Images of Sex and Death are tightly censored by the status quo in order to assert Control.
Job done. Q.E.D. after seven years of work.
Cheaply produced comics and magazines that feature this kind of material are tolerated because they're marginal publications. Similarly, the porno industry, being a fundamental part of the status quo, is allowed to publish so called 'explicit' material, but that environment is also tightly controlled.
Ah Pook fell into neither of these categories. It wasn't cheap to produce and the material was far too intellectual to pass as pornography. Porno and ideas are antithetical. 'Less plot more twat' is axiomatic to the idiom.
Despite the reality being the sine qua non of all mammalian life, representations of penile erections shall not be found in any section of Barnes and Noble Booksellers. It's likely to be that way for a long time to come. It was only a few years earlier, that Bob Guccione had shocked America by revealing that women had pubic hair. Penthouse was a landmark publication, but in order to soften the blow, it still had to photograph the precious four square-inches of turf as Lenny Bruce put it, through a diffusing screen.
Hard on its heels came Richard Nixon's "War on Pornography". The year we signed the contract with Straight Arrow, he declared that so long as he was "… in the White House there [would] be no relaxation of the national effort to control and eliminate smut from our national life." Nixon had a particular problem with gay folks. In San Francisco he said, they were everywhere. Not "… just in the ratty part of town", but in the "upper classes" as well. It was "… the most faggy goddamned thing you can imagine." So pervasive in fact, that he wouldn't " shake hands with anybody from San Francisco."
And as for The Comics Code Authority:
General Standards Part C:
1) Nudity in any form is prohibited, as is indecent or undue exposure.
2) Suggestive and salacious illustration or suggestive posture is unacceptable.
3) All characters shall be depicted in dress reasonably acceptable to society.
4) Females shall be drawn realistically without exaggeration of any physical qualities.
Women as human skin suits becomes a complicated issue within these restraints - even if their "physical qualities" aren't exaggerated. Quality is an impossible thing to illustrate anyway, although it could be argued that few things are as honest as an erection: It's one of the sincerest indications of feeling and intent. (At that time at least. Viagra would ultimately put paid to the idea) To complicate matters, the erections depicted in Ah Pook were mostly being passed around amongst guys - some of whom were part something else. A factor that goes beyond the pale as far as obscenity is concerned and one which further diminished the possibilities of mainstream investment.
Regardless of the censorship issues, at the time there simply wasn't a market for illustrated books of that nature at all. It would take George Lucas to establish that. After Star Wars, full color, illustrated fantasy, science fiction books and magazines became a billion dollar industry almost overnight. A market that increased commensurate with cheaper and cheaper means of reproduction.
But that was in 1977. By then I'd already quit…
…The human heart perfectly demonstrates this distinction. It also marks time incrementally and is without doubt the measure of life. But the measure is qualitative in that each beat is a direct response to the context in which it occurs. The rhythm changes according to the way time is experienced. It is both a barometer of time felt and an odometer measuring time spent*. By implication it is also an indicator of time yet remaining, and it was this feature that may have held significance for the Maya.
From the evidence, the Maya were a highly sophisticated culture adept in mathematics, astronomy, architecture, agriculture, literature and the arts. In seeming contrast they also had a predilection for ritualized violence. Human sacrifice featured prominently in their worldview, which from the modern western perspective makes it difficult to reconcile. Their preoccupation with the heart makes these spectacles particularly gruesome especially when the records suggest the very young were sometimes the victims. Horrifying as they were however, these events appear to have been more than a simple demonstration of power.
The intellectual expertise of the Maya was applied noticeably to the study of time. They traveled back and forth computationally over millions of years. When the human heart in its capacity as reservoir of potential time is included in this endeavor, the ritual of sacrifice becomes a little more complex.
The offering up of the heart suggests a form of bartering in which time is exchanged for time. The highly potent time of the young is sacrificed in the interests of the larger time of the group. A form of appeal in other words in which the great repository of all time is asked to take back some of the concentrated material and redistribute it amongst the living. There is nothing novel in the idea. Sacrifice of "virgins" and the "unblemished" has been a feature of many cultures. Prescriptions for correct procedure are a staple of the Old Testament Bible. The "purest", most "attractive" and most sexually viable of any life form naturally contain the greatest potential for qualitative life expression. As time currency they command the highest possible rate of exchange.
It wasn't the violence of these rituals that disturbed the Europeans. As Don Frey de Las Casas and the good Bishop Landa himself pointed out, they would introduce a level of carnage the likes of which the Maya had never imagined.* Neither did they have a problem with murdering the innocent. Greed, righteousness and boredom combined to create scenes of appalling horror and misery for young and old alike. Human sacrifice did not seem to have warranted especial attention at all; it was simply one more feature of a cultural worldview that was systematically being pilfered and destroyed from every angle. The irony in that process however, must have given the clergy pause for thought.
Human sacrifice was fundamental to their own religion: the sacrifice of a perfect human being had been perpetrated in the interest of validating and extending their own lives. "He died that we might live." etc. It was the act from which their entire Progress driven dynamic proceeded. But theirs was an exalted ritual; the Mayan practice worldly and profane. From a linear perspective a thing of the past. It simply wasn't the way things were done anymore.
From our point of view it all seems reprehensible; the superstitious insanities of a time gone by. Following hard on the heels of these events came the Renaissance and after that the Enlightenment. Then the Industrial Revolution and all the benefits of the modern age: The Twenty-First Century, from which we look back on the horrors of the past with a more reasonable, more informed, more progressive sense of self.
In year one of that century however, nine months in appropriately, an event occurred that shook that conviction to its core.
An unparalleled spectacle of violence was staged in 2001 in which a few thousand innocent civilians were again clearly sacrificed for the purpose of prolonging time. A ritual that was no less primitive, no less gruesome and no less beyond the control of the populace than the sacrificial rites of the Maya. In the interest of global economics and the furthering of its geo political agenda the system of barter practiced by a 'barbaric' culture centuries ago was revealed to be as current and efficacious as ever.
The dramatic scope of the spectacle was designed to resonate with a Hollywood-indoctrinated audience, but its purpose and method were no different than they had ever been: symbolically placing "innocent" human beings at the highest vantage point and destroying them for all to see, then orchestrating the reaction of the survivors to further the agenda of the status quo: to make more time that is for Control to control…