The Mayan Caper


“I suggested that such a hermetic control system would be completely disoriented and shattered by even one person who tampered with the control calendar…”

William S. Burroughs

From Primate Poetics:

Jennie Skerl’s 1985 book was one of (if not the) first books in which Burroughs was taken as subject for serious academic study…Here is what she writes about Burroughs’ use of Mayan imagery in ‘The Soft Machine’

The priest-rulers are associated with the power imagery Burroughs uses for his Mayan and Minraud fantasies. Puerto Joselito is Burrough’s reinterpretation of Frazier’s ‘The Golden Bough’ and a critique of religion in Reichian terms. It is both an homage to and a reinterpretation of ‘The Waste Land’.

The theme of power is given its most detailed treatment in ‘The Mayan Caper’, a historical fantasy on Mayan civilization (seventh routine). ‘The Mayan Caper’ is the single most significant section of the ‘The Soft Machine’ because of its central placement in the text, because it is the longest sustained narrative, and because it gives the most straightforward exposition of how a control system can be dismantled. The Mayans are presented both as the historical beginning and the epitome of “civilization”: a social order in which a few control the many through manipulation of word and image. Literacy only makes the system more sophisticated. The Mayan priest-ruler class controls the mass of peasants through their calendar, a word-and-image system that orders time, space, and human behaviour. The calendar is the basis for the Mayan’s agricultural economy, their hierarchical system of classes, and their religion. The priests exert total mind control and thus have total mastery over the peasant’s bodies. The power imagery associated with the Mayans is the same as that of the Minraud people in the Nova mythology: religious sacrifice, insects, ants, centipedes, scorpions, crabs, lobsters, claws, white heat, and the city. The first part of the ‘I Sekuin’ routine, which immediately follows ‘The Mayan Caper’, makes the link to Minraud explicit and again emphasizes the importance of the Mayan fantasy as the classic type of all control systems.

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