32. D.H. Lawrence – The Plumed Serpent (1926)
The Plumed Serpent is regarded as one of Lawrence’s lesser works. It’s often lumped alongside Kangaroo, his last novel, as a sad example of a writer who has past his prime but continues to slog on anyway.
For Burroughs, this absolutely was not the case. The Plumed Serpent was, for him, a truly inspirational novel. It raised the notion of old gods coming back, usurping the new. This was an idea he worked through for the rest of his life.
He attended an academic conference on D.H. Lawrence where – after one academic dominated the conversation to such an extent that Ginsberg had to tell him to “shut the fuck up for a second” – Burroughs was the only one to celebrate the uniqueness and creativity of this novel.
It might have been the only Lawrence novel he’d read, as well. He makes a number of references to Lady Chatterley’s Lover, but these could quite easily have been based on his impressions of the novel taken from the press furore surrounding it. He shows no special understanding of it, nor of the rest of Lawrence’s oeuvre.
His own pornographic homosexual imagination could also be considered the antithesis of Lawrence’s red-blooded heterosexual celebration of passion. Lawrence’s sex is all about rhythms and souls, where Burroughs prefers far more direct imagery, to say the least.
“God is always God”, the prophet Ramon tells Kate, “but man loses his connection [and] can never recover it again until some new saviour comes along”.
Ramon is the one to bring the Gods back, and he does so in the form of Queztalcoatl, the Aztec Plumed Serpent.
The novel begins with Kate in Mexico City. She sees the dirty, poverty and ugliness, attributing it to the deracinating coupling of Catholicism and capitalism. She attends a bull fight and is horrified by the lack of spirituality – it is not a ritual so much as pure, ugly cruelty. Stupidity even.
Depending on when Burroughs read this book, it either prompted or accurately summarised his own feelings about Mexico City. An initial sympathy for Mexicans’ extraordinary ability to mind their own damned business, was soon replaced by a typically Burroughsian horror at the death, decay and squalor of the Latin capital.
Where Burroughs fled into the rainforests to the South – a journey described in The Yage Letters and Queer – Kate instead moves inland. She follows Ramon up to the Mexican hinterlands; a landscape of Haciendas, sweat-drenched peon labourers, and the relics of Azteca.
In Lawrencian fashion, Kate soon finds that here, beyond the mechanised modern world, men are men and women are women. She finds herself in love with Cipriano – Ramon’s general and the practical mind behind the rebellion – and is transformed through ritual into an Aztec priestess.
Lawrence’s rendering of Gods, rituals and embodiments is less dramatic and otherworldly than Mailer’s Ancient Evenings, being typified by characters swept away by passion rather than actually possessed, and yet its believability is such as a result that a sceptical atheistically-inclined figure like Burroughs in his younger years could quite easily get on board with it.
The later Burroughs too would find the Word magic there that, as a concept, he was so enthralled by. The Gods’ names “are like seeds, so full of magic – and unexplored magic!”
Don’t waste your time praying to Jesus or Mary – as Burroughs would later say (somewhere – I can’t find the quote anymore) – they’re busy enough. If you want to really monopolise a God’s attention, you’ve got to pray to the forgotten ones. Now there are Gods who’ll appreciate a prayer or two!