46. Robert A Monroe – Journeys Out of the Body (1972)

I am coming to understand that when Burroughs champions one of his pseudoscientific causes the bar for “believability” is not determined by the cause itself, but rather by the extent to which it fits in to Burroughs’ own ideas.

For example, his interest in Scientology seems to link back to dianetic’s use of playback, which ties back to Dunne’s time tracks and ultimately his grandfather’s Calvinism. The theory of thetans and engrams also helpfully coalesces with Reich’s theories of orgone.

In other words, the pump was already primed. Burroughs came to Scientology not because he was lost, but because he had a very clear idea of what he was searching for, and Scientology seemed to have it.

This, I expect, will turn out to be the same when it comes to Raudive, Shriver, and the possession materials he reads in his later years. It certainly appears to be the case with Robert A. Monroe.

Monroe’s Journeys Out of the Body is one of Burroughs most oft-cited texts. From ’72 onwards he references it steadily, in interviews, writings – both fiction and non-fiction – and in his own notes and diaries… and correspondence.

The book itself, however, hardly seems worthy of such notice. I was expecting a lot more. Really, it’s exactly as you’d expect: Monroe almost falls asleep, then rolls over and leaves his body. He can then travel around as a disembodied spirit, pinching people and seeing what they’re upto.

The evidence the books provides is, as expected, very flimsy and consists of anecdotes where Monroe sees what someone’s doing before bed even though they’re in a different country, or pinches someone and they wake up with a bruise.

Monroe sees the world separated into three “Locales”. The first is our waking world, the second is like a dream world (it seems like our everyday one but everything is mixed up and the normal rules don’t apply), and finally there is Locale III: the spiritual plane. Standard psychic stuff, if with a new scientific jargon applied.

Burroughs’ Missouri background (“the show-me state”) meant he was always drawn to evidence, although he was never too picky about how this evidence was gathered. He liked the idea of scientific research into paranormal phenomena and Monroe promised this.

So did many others, however, and Burroughs never cited them as much.

The parts of the book that leap out as particularly Burroughsian are:

  1. The conviction that escaping the body means attaining immortality
  2. A vision of a book appearing before him (Burroughs transcribed passages from books he read in dreams)
  3. A vision of a tape reel snapping and then tying back together, suggesting reality/time is a tape being played
  4. A vision of heaven where a succession of coloured lights (a la Tibetan Book of the Dead) give way to pure blue (Reich’s orgone) and finally an intense feeling of “HOME” (this perhaps being an inspiration for the later Western Lands and similar writings)
  5. Monroe describes paranormal explorers as a revolutionary underground and also says sex is easier and less inhibited in the spirit realm (or Locale III, as he terms it)
  6. A very minor thing, but Monroe’s first out of body experience shows him putting his hand through the floor as if it’s water. This is something the shaman do in Chuckchee Mythology; an anthropology book that Burroughs cites (perhaps in Ah Pook[???])

There is plenty, then, that ties Monroe’s book to Burroughs’ pre-existing ideas. One can imagine him reading through it and having a succession of Eureka moments as he recognises his own psychic breakthroughs reflected back in the experience of someone else.

But why does he keep returning to this book?

The answer lies in the essential and foundational role that out of body journeying plays in Burroughs’ worldview. His exploration of Tibetan and Egyptian books of the dead are important here, but so it his notion of space travel, borrowed from Brion Gysin.

Space is the future of mankind, for Gysin, not just as a species but on an individual level. We all need to prepare for space travel as we will not be able to take our bodies with us. Gysin, as was his way, never fully explained this. Burroughs believed he’d cracked in in the idea of wandering free of the body.

I’ve noticed that his citations from Don Juan drop off just as his interest in Monroe picks up. In Don Juan there is an ambiguity as to whether a mental journey is really happening, or whether it’s “just” imagination and the “real” person is left behind as a comatose body on the floor.

Don Juan says his apprentice really becomes an eagle, but the apprentice isn’t sure.

Monroe has no such quibbles; perhaps because he makes his journeys alone, no guide required, and perhaps because he does them sober, with no need for yage, mescaline or other heavy psychedelics.

When Burroughs mentions Monroe he is merely pointing in the direction he believes we all must travel in. He was a fan of simple, step-by-step instructions, and Monroe provides these. Learn the exercises, do them yourself, and find something that works for you.

You too can travel into space. As this planet has only “minutes to go”, as he and Gysin once wrote, it would seem that this is the only way one can hope to survive.

So, yes… Monroe’s book is quite boring and unconvincing, but that’s not its main function. By studying it, I’ve hopefully found a useful key by which to unlock more of Burroughs’ otherwise-cringeworthy paranormal fascinations. He is never interested in them in themselves, but only in what they can do for him.