Wednesday, June 11, 2014

Brion Gysin: "What are we here for? We are here to go!"

"Of course the sands of Present Time are running out from under our feet. And why not? The Great Conundrum: 'What are we here for?' is all that ever held us here in the first place. Fear. The answer to the Riddle of the Ages has actually been out in the street since the First Step in Space. Who runs may read but few people run fast enough. What are we here for? Does the great metaphysical nut revolve around that? Well, I'll crack it for you, right now. What are we here for? We are here to go!" (Brion Gysin, The Process, 1971) 

In one late interview the writer, artist, and creative provocateur  Brion Gysin [1916-1986] put his multimedia career in perspective by saying the art world thought of him as a writer, and the writers thought of him as an artist. "I should have been one or the other," he said, somewhat ruefully. 

By the 1980s, Gysin was a performer as well -- he'd written for Broadway in the '40s, but here he was onstage singing new lyrics he'd written and describing himself as "the world's oldest living rock star." It's all the more ironic that Gysin's work remains largely undiscovered in this multimedia age his work helped create. His legacy, long overshadowed by others of more fame or infamy, remains elusive as ever.  While living in Paris at 9 Rue Git-Le-Coeur in the late 1950s, he accidentally sliced through some newspapers with a knife and became fascinated with the resulting jumble of text -- half of one sentence became the end of another, unrelated one. 

He began to experiment with this technique, slicing up newsprint, books, and other materials. He refered to these as "cut-ups," and when he demonstrated the process to William Burroughs, Burroughs asked if he could try it himself. "Go ahead, that's what it's for," Gysin replied. Describing this in an interview published in Terry Wilson's book Here to Go: Planet R-101, Gysin says:
I suggested to William that we use only the best, only the high-charged material: King James' translation of the "Song of Songs" of Solomon, Eliot's translation of "Anabasis" by St. John-Perse, Shakespeare's sugared "Sonnets" and a few lines from "The Doors of Perception" by Aldous Huxley, about his mescaline experiences.
The resulting text of Gysin's first experiment with cut-up text -- as can be expected from such diverse sources -- is at once mysterious and glorious, beautiful, and maybe the finest example of the process Gysin himself created. Unfortunately, "The Poem of Poems" was never published in its entirety during his lifetime. An excerpt appeared in the Burroughs / Gysin cut-up collaboration The Third Mind (1978) and mistakenly credited to Burroughs -- once more undercutting Gysin's contribution.

... This fair child of mine (roses and bitumen)
I make my old excuse:
He shall have the gift of song.
Praise deserves his beauty's use.
O, if thou couldst answer with studs of silver
this were to be new made!
What ease to our way
walled with silver, gold and beryl! ....

The full text finally appeared in 2001. Jason Weiss' Back in No Time: The Brion Gysin Reader helps to restore Brion Gysin's legacy, after so many of Gysin's works have become unavailable, hard-to-find, or have simply slipped out-of-print. There are excerpts from his first published novel in 1947, five chapters from The Process, a scene from Gysin's unpublished script for Naked Lunch. There is a large selection of his cut-ups, as well as uncollected magazine pieces, scores and lyrics, and reproductions of his unique calligraphy. Full texts are included of his permutated poems, "I Am That I Am" and "Junk Is No Good Baby," as well as "The Poem of Poems."

Unwittingly, Gysin handed Burroughs a writing tool the author would use extensively in his career (The Ticket That Exploded, The Soft Machine, Nova Express, and Exterminator!). He also achieved notoriety and an underground fame that Gysin neither sought nor desired. Because of this visibility Burroughs -- although he was careful to credit Gysin as often as possible -- became famous for the cut-up technique. Gysin (whose multifaceted career as a musician, writer, painter, and calligrapher contines to defy categories) went on to write The Process (1971) and The Last Museum, an edited version of a much larger work about the imagined fate of 9 Rue-Le-Coeur itself as a Buddhist zendo, published posthumously in 1986.
"Language is an abominable misunderstanding which makes up a part of matter. The painters and the physicists have treated matter pretty well. The poets have hardly touched it. In March 1958, when I was living at the Beat Hotel, I proposed to Burroughs to at least make available to literature the means that painters have been using for fifty years. Cut words into pieces and scramble them. You'll hear someone draw a bow-string. Who runs may read, To read better, practice your running. Speed is entirely up to us, since machines have delivered us from the horse. Henceforth the question is to deliver us from that other so-called superior animal, man. It's not worth it to chase out the merchants: their temple is dedicated to the unsuitable lie of the value of the Unique. The crime of separation gave birth to the idea of the Unique which would not be separate. In painting, matter has seen everything: from sand to stuffed goats. Disfigured more and more, the image has been geometrically multiplied to a dizzying degree. A snow of advertising could fall from the sky, and only collector babies and the chimpanzees who make abstract paintings would bother to pick one up." [Brion Gysin from Cut-Ups: A Project for Disastrous Success].

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