Norman Mailer – Ancient Evenings (1983)

Burroughs cites Ancient Evenings as the primary influence behind his final epic Cities trilogy. Before this book, he had spoken positively of Mailer as a person but tended to dismiss his work. Only The Naked and the Dead is consistently cited by him, and he often compares it unfavourably with James Jones’ From Here to Eternity as a true representation of military life.

Ancient Evenings is a historical novel of sorts. It follows a young man from the moment of his death, through his brief wanderings in the afterlife until he is visited by his great grandfather, High Priest and former Royal Charioteer, Menenhetet, and regressed to the mind of himself as a child.

After this first disorientating fifty pages, the rest of the novel takes place on one evening. Menenhetet tells the new Pharaoh, Ramses IX, about his ancestor, Rameses III, who he served under in his first life.

Burroughs’ reasons for liking the book are clear. Not only does the world of Ancient Evenings accept the full spectrum of Egyptian magic as real (from reincarnation to curses, flying Kas to the voices of Gods) but it portrays all of this magic as sex magic. Well, sex and shit.

The brutality and barbarity of life in the first great civilisation – its wonders and its sufferings – are lived out through endless rapes, sexual ménages, dismemberments and betrayals. Men sleep with men, the Pharaoh sleeps with every woman he meets, armies rape captives on a horrifying scale, and the very lives and powers of the Gods are exhibited through who is raping who and who is putting whose seed inside whose body.

The all-pervasive sex, portrayed with all the scent and pungency that Burroughs favours in his own sex scenes, comes to weigh so heavy on the text one feels, like the oversexed Pharaoh, that there can’t possibly be any more to wade through. Never before have I read a book that so perfectly captures the feeling of desire exhausted, of sex purely as compulsion, as duty almost.

Despite being 700 densely-packed pages, there were only a few moments that stood out as direct influences on Burroughs. It seems the major influence was merely thematic – it showed Burroughs that such an epic scale historico/religious time travelling sex romp was possible.

Other than that, we might look at the ancient Language of the Gods. The Gods, we are told, had hieroglyphs of such power that one merely had to think the concept “chair” and “Lo! – there was a chair!”. This would have resonated with Burroughs, who had the same idea planted in his head by reading Vico as a student.

Here, the Language of the Gods only remains in the form of Secret Names. These names are held in the bowel, and so Menenhetet’s is revealed to his Pharaoh only after the Pharaoh rapes him while showing him his secret tomb.

The Pharaoh’s lion, whose mind can be read both by the Pharaoh and by Meni, eats the hands of the Pharaoh’s opponents as they are piled up after a battle with the Hittites. Although these kill him – the splintered wrist bones bursting his intestines – the act of eating them grants the lion visions of a future city: a city of sky scrapers and endless glass.

Perhaps a vision resembling Burroughs’ own “Composite City”, glimpsed in the Amazon rainforest during a yage ritual?

Another meaningful moment was the young protagonist’s recollection of his nursemaid, Eyaseyah, who took his “Sweet Finger” in her mouth when she wanted him to fall asleep. As mentioned in my blog post about Dianetics, I suspect either Hubbard’s book or this one inspired the later recollection of a screen memory by Burroughs where exactly this occurred to him.

Burroughs revealed under dianetic analysis that he believed himself to have lived, in a past life, in ancient Egypt, and that he committed a murder there and hid the body. The possibilities of the “deep track” are explained by Menenhetet in this book as a blurring between past, present and future scenes. Such a blurring underlies the Cities trilogy; a set of books far more fragmentary and dreamlike than Mailers which, despite describing dreams, time travel and the transmigration of souls, manages to contain them within a relatively linear narrative.

The river of faeces makes an appearance: one of Burroughs’ favourite bits of the Egyptian Book of the Dead, as we have seen.

Finally, we might consider an important influence to be found in Mailer’s intuitive understanding of ancient Egyptians’ relationship to their Gods. Their Gods are not physical beings, like the Greeks and Roman Gods; they are disembodies entities that can be many things all at once. Horus is the father and son of Osiris. He is also the sun and moon, which are his eyes; and the sun is also Ra. And all things are Ra as well… unless they are doing battle, in which case they might be Osiris and Set.

Many are the scenes where Gods are invoked during the sexual contortions of the Pharaoh and his various hangers-on. Sexual parts are Gods, actions are Gods, and Gods move freely between the bodies and breath of the participants, emerging at times in their voices and personas. Mailer paints a convincing, if terrifying, vision of a pagan society where all things are sacred, all profane, and power is all that counts.

Overall, I can’t say I enjoyed this book as much as Burroughs’ clearly did. It could have been cut down to two or three hundred pages and made the same impact, I think. Still, I look forward to rereading the Cities trilogy and seeing just how close the inspiration is.