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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…



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