Burroughs-Gysin Excursus

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Brion Gysin: Dream Machine at the Institut D’Art Contemporain Villeurbanne / Rhone-Alpes. 16 October — 28 November 2010.

by Ian MacFadyen

Gysin Homage One | Burroughs-Gysin Excursus | Gysin Homage Two

Brion Gysin, A Trip from Here to There, 1958

Burroughs-Gysin Excursus: Magic Amulet / Silence to Say Goodbye, Brion Gysin / Hassan I Sabbah / Skywriting, I Give You — You Give Me — Me Give You I / Mirror Breathing, Hedonist of the Spirit / Gone to Persia

Magic Amulet / Silence to Say Goodbye

Brion Gysin, Projection with William BurroughsIn The Ticket That Exploded there’s an acknowledgement from Burroughs: “The closing message is by Brion Gysin.” This message takes Burroughs’ cut-up phrase “silence to say goodbye” from the final paragraph of the text, and re-cuts and effectively permutates it vertically through five lines — “To say good silence by / Good to say by silence / By silence to say good / good good / Bye.” The phrases are handwritten versions of the printed phrase on the opposite page, and these lines in English are then alternated with lines of Gysin’s calligraphy — suggesting the transposition of alphabetical letters into pure script, as in a phrasebook guide to a foreign language, except here the calligraphy, though graphically it seems to echo parts of the English script, cannot itself be deciphered and so cannot be spoken — it is a silent writing which can only be “read” in silence, dematerializing the alphabetic and removing the phonetic. The original phrase taken from Burroughs’ text, and Gysin’s permutations of it, literally “say goodbye” — in accord with Burroughs’ preferred way of ending a book with a series of goodbyes from the characters, such as “Ladies and gentlemen, these our actors bid you a long last good night.” In Gysin’s calligraphic epilogue, the textual “goodbye” itself physically, graphically dematerializes, fading out, the script bidding adieu to the alphabetic / phonetic language of Burroughs’ book and by extension signalling an apparently terminal farewell to all referential, potentially spoken discourse. This single-page text embodies the idea of learning to read (and think) in silence, and its dual strategy of calligraphy and permutation is crucially combined with a third form of writing — that of the magical amulet, a protective written script worn by cabalists and mentioned by Daniel Defoe in his Journal of the Plague Year (1722). It was believed that the evil spirits, thought to reside in certain words or letter permutations, like “ABRACADABRA,” could be ritually exorcised by systematically permuting the letters of the words. These permutations were configured in triangular and cross and diamond shapes, the symmetrical visual forms of the texts created by the systematic removal of letters, line by line — “ABRACADABRA / BRACADABR / RACADAB / ACADA / CAD / A.” Gysin wrote that

The permutations discovered me — because permutations of course have been around for a long time; in the whole magic world permutations are part of the Cabalistic secret . . . the Divine Tautology.

The amulet lies at the heart of Gysin’s permutations, it is the ancient magical device which Gysin and Ian Sommerville computerized — making the machine function magically, employing the binary system for a supernatural purpose. Gysin’s message at the end of The Ticket That Exploded is composed in the form of an X, a Hex sign, in which two triangular-shaped texts meet, point to point, in the center of the page — X. This visual geometric form is composed and delineated by script — that is, the image is created through the arrangement of written and calligraphic lines and letters. Gysin’s Hex X is an hermetic, cabbalistic image which traditionally represented the meeting of earth and spirit — “As above, so below.” A similar form was also used in Taoist magic charms to protect the body from evil (yin) influences — such graphic amulets were calligraphically composed on colored papers, and would subsequently be burned, the destruction of the calligraphic spell being part of the magical process. The lower, rising, aspirant triangle of Gysin’s X is clearly distinguished from the descending triangle — the decipherable words in the top triangle appear to become purely calligraphic in the inverted triangle below, the alphabetical words distorted in an inverted reflection. The inversion suggests an unreadable reversal — so that the X symbol may connote “As above, so not below,” distinguishing and separating the earthly and the spiritual, with the spiritual, dematerialized, non-referential part of the diagram in the lower, not the higher half of the equation. But on closer inspection it’s possible to make out parts of letters in the apparently abstract calligraphy below — we can make out approximations of the “g” and “y” of “goodbye,” the “b” and “y” of “bye” … But then we see the signature in the lower right, “BG,” and recognise that these implicit calligraphic letter-parts belong equally to the name “Brion Gysin” (or “gysin”) — morphed and distended through his calligraphic signature motif, suggestive manifestations of his “bean sprout” script, Gysin’s initials turning into script but also seemingly echoing elements of the original English phrases. Looking back at the higher triangle we can now re-read the lines in English in a different way: “To say good silence bg / Good to say bg silence / Bg silence to say good / good good / Bge.” In fact, we can transpose the two readings, and even superimpose and alternate them — now one, now the other. In addition to recognizing the equivocation between Gysin’s initials and the original words, and working with it, we can now look at the alternating calligraphic lines in the upper triangle which again reveal Gysin’s signature initials . . . but as in the lower triangle, these are fractured, inchoate, turn into lines which may be felt but not linguistically transposed. It is truly the “Silent Writing of Brion Gysin,” as Burroughs called it, and it is so in a triple sense — Gysin wrote it, his name is hidden “silently” in the script, and it is a primer for learning to read and think in silence, non-phonetically, without articulating the sounds of letters. We may still see and read and say aloud or voice internally that “Bee” of “B” and that “gee” of “g,” but these initials and their sounds are stages in a process of undoing and resisting alphabetic decipherment, scriptural referentiality, and phonetic signification — a calligraphic unravelling of linguistic constructs, a process of learning to see whilst unlearning the act of automatic reading.  

Brion Gysin / Hassan I Sabbah / Skywriting

Brion Gysin and William Burroughs circa 1980The meaning of Gysin’s amulet message may be tracked further through examining an important description of Gysin’s writing by Burroughs, which links Gysin and Hassan I Sabbah, and connects Gysin’s linguistic dematerializations with Sabbah’s heretical message. Burroughs was indebted to Gysin for having told him about both Sabbah and Wu Tao-tzu, and in particular he linked Gysin and Sabbah because they had given him and taught him the meaning of the immortal razor, “Nothing is true. Everything is permitted.” It is this shattering truth which is incarnated in the “silent writing” of Gysin / Sabbah, the writing which says “Goodbye” to imprisoning rationality, duality and the limitation of human consciousness. It is “silent writing” because those who know keep their silence, while beyond the words of the razor, no more need ever be written. In “CUT-UPS: A Project For Disastrous Success” (1964), Gysin quotes Burroughs’ words — “See the Silent Writing of Brion Gysin, Hassan I Sabbah, across all skies!” This makes an absolute link between Gysin and Sabbah, connecting them as the joint authors and co-practitioners (as well as co-conspirators) of “Silent Writing” — this is the writing of the terminal message in The Ticket That Exploded, in which phonetic, referential writing dematerializes, Gysin (and by extension Sabbah) bidding the reader of the conventional alphabetic text goodbye, leaving only silence, that is, a writing which cannot be spoken or internally articulated. At the end of Dead Fingers Talk the phrase “Silence to say goodbye” is actually spoken by / attributed to Hassan I Sabbah who transmitted his heretical Word via his assassins across vast distances not via books, despite the reputed mythic library at Alamut, but through the hashish visions of his neophytes, scorning death from his “windy bodiless rock” high up there in the sky . . . Burroughs insists that we “see” the silent writing of Gysin / Sabbah “across all skies” because it is the heretical Word, not written as indelible law, as holy writ, but written on the sky, and like sky-writing made from a small aircraft, the message is pictured as fading out like smoke against the blue, like one of those transitory aerial advertisements from the 1920s and ’30s, an aerobatic stunt pilot’s smoke slogan disappearing in billboard heaven. The silent writing of smoke is also the writing of the smoker’s art — kif words, the hashish visions of Sabbah’s sect communicated secretly, telepathically. In Burroughs’ lexicon, “the sky is thin as paper” and so the heavenly signboard of the sky is equated with Gysin’s paper ground, while his calligraphic writing vanishes like smoke as the ink leaves the brush — iki ga nagai / ik ga mijikai. Sabbah is seen by Burroughs as scornful of the material world, pursuing higher, esoteric pursuits in his eagle eyrie — he belongs to the sky not the earth, as in the phrase “The white Sabbah cancels this earth.” Burroughs also connects this silent, disappearing writing with Gysin’s invocation of the Chinese artist-sage — in the section of The Ticket That Exploded entitled “showed you your air,” the phrase “established this art along the Tang dynasty” appears, a phrase taken from Gysin which references Wu Tao-tzu disappearing into his painting, while in Burroughs’ cut-up text “The Last Post Danger Ahead” (1965), the “goodbye” of departure is specifically liked to the Chinese artist — “Goodbye, Mister. I have opened the gates / torn September sky.” The gates are the picture gates which Wu Tao-tzu opened by the act of painting them, while the linking of “goodbye” and “sky” pictures the artist as disappearing through a tear in the (painted) sky. Hassan I Sabbah’s historical and mythic disappearance into the fortress of Alamut, his withdrawal into secrecy and silence, his retreat from the world, is equated with Wu Tao-tzu’s creative vanishing act. Burroughs’ homage to Gysin/Sabbah is polemical, a manifesto statement, but it is linguistically linked to many other instances in which Burroughs employs the phrase “to say goodbye,” and connects this with “sky,” a combination which, through all its various appellations (“distant,” “torn,” “thin,” “silver” etc), is insistently melancholic and nostalgic, as in the closing line of the 1965 “Ore From Dream Mine Used To Make Palm Sunday Tape” — “fading streets to a distant sky . . Body sadness to say ‘goodbye.'” This is used repeatedly by Burroughs to connote a remembered brief encounter, a sexual tristesse, as in ‘Unfinished Cigarette’ (1963) — “Remember ‘Oh yes goodbye Meester?'” The cut-up, recycled, recombined phrases are essentially memento mori fragments themselves, they show their use through the layers worn through in places . . . like lines from an old song. In fact, the recurrence of “sky/goodbye” is in part a function of its rhyming connection, so often used in the popular songs Burroughs knew and references — in this way “sky/goodbye” pays homage to the potency of cheap music, the redolent rhymes of fleeting times, and the painful recognition of loss. This only hints at the great pleasure to be found in Burroughs’ recombination of phrases in different contexts, through which complex meanings and feelings accrue, so that his polemical, exclamatory advocacy of “Silent Writing” may take on the late afternoon hues of regret and the fragility and transitory nature of existence. He urges us to “See” the “Silent Writing” — what we may see is the word “Goodbye” fading out against a thin eggshell blue sky, as we look out at a windy intersection, a cobblestone street perspective moving to its vanishing point, smoke letters blurring in the wind, and we hear that old song going around on the Victrola . . . That is, we bring to a redeployed Burroughsian phrase the potent history of its multiple signification in his oeuvre . . . Moments of loss in Burroughs often invoke the wind which blows everything away in time (like Kerouac’s newspaper blowing down Bleeker Street) and appropriately he has the wind blowing away the word “goodbye” — “Wind wipes away ‘goodbye, Meester.'” One of the early 20th century pioneers of skywriting, Art Smith, always literally “signed off” his work with the paradoxical message “Good Night,” the words floating against the midway holiday blue sky — and the silent sky-written “signing off” of Burroughs, Gysin and Sabbah is a “Goodbye” counterpart, a farewell message which must dissolve high above and far away, an image of loss and regret despite its ostensible polemical purpose. It’s also possible that Burroughs and Gysin were thinking of this parting message as prophetic, an Exploded, no-return Ticket, at some level a recognition of the inevitable farewell to the Beat Hotel and the Third Mind — they would disappear like the extinct Karankawa Native American tribe who once lived in the Gulf Coast of Texas, who communicated by sending smoke messages through the sky . . . Well, they too, like Sabbah, made their own “silent writing across all skies,” and then they disappeared forever in time, like the smoke language they had made . . . Gysin is referenced and quoted by name in Burroughs’ work as well as appearing as the character Waring in Cities of the Red Night. But although he is specifically cited in the cut-up texts, stories and novels, in many instances the influence of Gysin, from conceptual ideas to particular phrases, is present but unacknowledged — this is not at all the result of oversight or negligence on Burroughs’ part — for example, he would correct Daniel Odier and say, “I did not write that. Mr Brion Gysin [did],” and he often introduced Gysin’s name into interviews, repeatedly crediting Gysin’s inventiveness — the cut-up technique, the Dreamachine (along with Sommerville), the use of arbitrary symbols in place of words, his “silent writing” and his paintings, and more. In fact, it was impossible, especially given the nature of the cut-up in all its aspects, to determine who had originated and developed or contributed most to certain ideas and texts and visuals, and it was also absolutely against the psychic creative imperative of the Third Mind process, in which it was precisely the symbiotic which was courted and embraced. “No one owns words,” or ideas, and although Burroughs would “put his brand on them,” as Gysin said, that was a testament to Burroughs’ talent and style — otherwise, this was “Operation Open Bank.” The two men worked on and from the same notebooks and scrapbooks, their work meshing to the point where their words and images became inseparably conjoined, indistinguishable, totally psychically attuned, testimony to the openness and intensity and free-flowing exchange of their working relationship and their bond of friendship. In the cut-up texts we find Burroughs and Gysin’s ongoing dialogue, not without its philosophic differences, recorded as an integral part of the created work published under Burroughs’ name, as in “Ancient Face Gone Out” (1964) where a character comments, “May I suggest that you opposed Mr. Gysin because you had no choice?” While in “Unfinished Cigarette” (1963), the “author himself” intervenes in order to state that “Here I would seem to disagree with Mr. Gysin . . .” These are testaments to a process, the psychic dialectic of their work, which would last both their lifetimes, which never truly ended, even many years after the great Beat Hotel days were over. They would continue to draw upon that body of work they’d created together, but there were also many ideas and ways of thinking and feeling which they’d shared, quite in addition to the physical source material, and these would stay with them and find new forms in their different oeuvres. Paradoxically, but appropriately, while their individual achievements are uniquely their own, and reveal their crucial differences of style and sensibility, yet in each man’s work there is the indelible collaborative hallmark — the ghost image of the other, the “silent writing” of the spiritual brother.  

I Give You — You Give Me — Me Give You I / Mirror Breathing  

Loomis Dean, William Burroughs and Brion Gysin at the Beat Hotel, 1959The phrases “shift lingual . . . free doorways” and “shift lingual . . . vibrate tourists . . .free doorways . . .” appear in Minutes To Go, in Burroughs’ cut-up of a prose poem by Sinclair Beiles. The conjunction “shift lingual” would appear many times in Burroughs’ cut-up texts and novels, and it seems like a good description of the cut-up technique itself — the semantic and phonetic shifting of letters and words made by physically moving sections of texts to different positions, the cutting of texts into four squares or six rectangles or three columns and the transposition of their parts. In The Ticket That Exploded the phrases from Minutes To Go have been transformed into “Shift body halves — Vibrate flesh — Cut tourists,” and clearly and specifically relate to the splicing of photographic facial images of Burroughs and Gysin by Ian Sommerville in 1960, and to the body and facial superimpositions of Gysin’s projected slide performances, with Burroughs instructing: “Break photograph — Shift body halves [. . .] along the middle line of body — ” Not only does the word “shift” transfer a specifically linguistic application to a visual one, invoking the human form and its bisection, but the merging of two individuals, the essence of Third Mind psychic symbiosis, becomes the actual subject of the writing, and one that is thematically fertile for Burroughs — Gysin’s visual explorations of body image through what Burroughs calls “the divide line” and “the Other Half” become generative in Burroughs’ text, fuelling variations on a technological theme of ego loss and body loss, a sci-fi scenario of separation from the self and osmosis by “the other,” a writing of fiction which engages repeatedly with the material at descriptive, polemical and speculative levels, as if the critical explication of Third Mind techniques and the fictional scenarios to which they give rise cannot be separated — the motor engine of the Third Mind is both the driving force and the subject of the writing. If to “cut-up” was always implicitly the desire to “see through,” here the cut-up of language becomes the cut that separates the projected visual image of the body from its psychic recognition, severing and transposing psychic-physical identity by hybridizing the physical form — “half one half the other shifting back and forth speed-up slow-down line cutting the two halves apart . . .” In fact, this body makeover takes its place in an extrapolated “True History” of the Third Mind as actual public performances of the Third Mind made by Gysin, Burroughs and Sommerville in the early 1960s are remembered and recuperated and developed in mutated form throughout The Ticket That Exploded — “Plays on stage with permutating sections moved through each other Shakespeare, ancient Greek, ballet — Movies mix on screen half one half the other — plays in front of movie screen synchronized . . .” There are “Flicker cylinders,” paintings are “projected on screens [mixing] colour and image,” and “a battery of tape recorders” play back music intercut with the spoken cut-up word, and this “Exhibition” is described as “a vast amusement park” — a melange of music, image, light, and recordings. . . The multimedia technology of the Third Mind, including Dreamachines, tape recorders, slide projections, the cut-up technique of linguistic and visual transposition, Gysin’s calligraphic and hallucinatory art — all these are used as actual creative and technical tools, declaredly inspiring and creating the text, but also, and most importantly, generative of the thematics and scenarios which run through the work. Not only is it impossible in this context to isolate the particular influences of Burroughs on Gysin, and vice versa, fixing these textually, in relation, but it is, actually, utterly beside the point — the blinding of the boundaries of authorship and control is the desired and inevitable result of the spiraloid sender-receiver loop in which sender is receiver, undifferentiated and unidentifiable, while this process itself becomes central to the book’s variations on the theme of technological domination and the rerouting of the “sending” techniques of the control apparatus in order to achieve liberation from the cybernetic. The Third Mind cannot be dealt with by a materialist criticism dependent upon the citation of particular instances of linguistic quotation or the use or appropriation of a particular idea — in this case, Gysin’s splitting of the body was itself in early and absolute accord with Burroughs’ long fascination with ventriloquial possession and physical and psychic dissociation, and the confluence of the two men’s concerns then ranged through a multiplicity of ideas and written, visual, and written-visual forms to the point where their “respective positions” were atomized — on the page. But far beyond this, there are the inestimable “residual” effects of a process in which we can intuit yet never know the actual collaborative effects, feeling something linked which nevertheless cannot ever be precisely located. We might say that the Third Mind emerged from and was then systematized in order to explore a pre-existing state of potential connectedness between the two men, developing an innate, mutual desire to lose and discover themselves through the creative meshing of their different personalities — it was a real Performance, and Donald Cammell may well have picked up on it, as Peter Wollen and others did. It is unusual, even aberrant, for two people to be so attuned as Burroughs and Gysin were — though this may have ironically reinforced Burroughs’ exploration of the symbiotic theme in The Ticket That Exploded, in which Tin Pan Alley songs and advertising corn are segued in with the splicing of the “Other Half,” the vitriolic, engineered cut-up lambasting of the heterosexual and queer definitions of the lucrative, satisfying, and parasitic relationship. The Third Mind was a process which challenged and usurped claims that originality is synonymous with individuality — it was a desire to relish the impossibility of ever knowing or being able to say where one “author” or “artist” began and the other ended, the creative bliss of losing all boundaries. Critics have said that Gysin “gave” Scientology to Burroughs, that he gave him Hassan i Sabbah, and the cut-up technique, and the Islamic esoteric, and Wu Tao-tzu, and permutations, and his own visual art . . . Absolutely true, and yet totally wrong. What was “given” would have been useless unless there had been an understanding of the absolute receptivity and empathy and reciprocation of the other — the permutation cylinder-spinner meets the scholar of the Mayan codices, the mushroom taker greets the ayahuasca adventurer, the Herodotus expert and Norman Douglas afficianado swaps tales and anecdotes with the Great Collector of arcana and strange lore, the projected shape-shifter says “Hello Yes?” to the creator of the Talking Asshole routine . . . The cut-up had therapeutic potential for both Burroughs and Gysin, and its uncanny productions, allied to a systematically machinistic process, were also extraordinarly evocative and attractive to both men, but the psychic connection finally transcends the historical and material requirements of critics who wish to really know what happened — and the how and the why. They’re on the wrong track. Burroughs read from The Soft Machine by candlelight, and when he stopped, Gysin knelt and kissed his hand, while Burroughs venerated Gysin’s art, a visionary beauty which inspired him as no other artist’s work ever did — each regarded the other as a true Master. But when Burroughs famously reiterated that Gysin was “the only man I ever respected,” this respect, a profound deference to, and an awareness of the difference of another as other, acknowledges, paradoxically, the very individuality and recognition of mastery which actually predisposed Burroughs and Gysin to collaborate in the first place, and made the cross-pollination and hybridization of the Third Mind possible. Instead of “collaboration,” we should institute the true meaning of the word recognition. If the cut-up is practised alone rather than as part of a group activity (such as the Surrealists’ combinatory art parlour game, the exquisite corpse), this does not mitigate its collaborative authorship — simply because the practice is not physically collective, though we know that the Third Mind scrapbooks exactly and most emphatically exemplify just that, the ethos and the impetus and the results, and their discussions and reverberations, though not always apparent or registered or acknowledged indelibly in the resulting texts, does not mean that those texts are not in fact the results of collaboration — indeed, they may be so in ways quite beyond our current understanding of the term “collaboration.” One example: Burroughs’ quartering of a text by cut-up, cutting a page into four parts and rearranging them, is absolutely akin to Gysin’s quartering of his paintings in 1959, in which 4 sections were fitted together whilst suggesting their potential for interchange — one example can be seen in Loomis Dean’s photograph of Burroughs and Gysin in room 25 of the Beat Hotel taken for LIFE magazine in 1959. That image itself, significantly, was part of a 4-part photo owned by Tony Balch. 4 was the Sufi correspondence of the elements and the colours in Gysin’s cosmogony — Red Hot Dry Fire, Yellow Hot Wet Air, Blue Cold Dry Earth, Green Cold Wet Water. In this sense, the division of a text into 4 parts was not “originated by Burroughs” — it was part of the collaborative ethos of the Third Mind, whose practitioners were informed by an extraordinarily wide-ranging erudition and cultural and aesthetic and philosophic and scientific curiosity. In Islamic art it is necessary that the individual artist submit to a greater vision and design — a willed giving up of the self to a creative, transcendental process, and this spiritual abandonment of self is repeatedly invoked by both Burroughs and Gysin, in preference to technological ignominy and ideological oppression. Gysin’s art is indebted to the philosophy of breath in Japanese calligraphy, and he also drew, literally, on the page, from the magical squares of occult ritual, but his cross-fertilizing, pan-cultural work also pays a profound homage to Islamic art and to Sufism, so that his linguistic, graphic and material layering is a philosophic layering, too, and the X format of the closing message in The Ticket That Exploded is, among other things, a version of The Reflective Mirror in Sufi thought and its relation to the Breath of the Compassionate. The X is a diagram in Sufism of the process of spiritual reflection and the transmission of the Divine Word. The mirror is the point at which the two triangles meet in the X, the upper triangle representing the divine, spiritual light which is reflected downwards toward the phenomenal world, the triangle below. Each and every created form has its own particular Divine Name, as He made it so, and because these names are countless, their reflection must be unified through addressing their divine origin and original unity. It was particularly pertinent for Gysin that in this mirror, repeatedly polished and addressed by the postulant, the emptied self would perceive its true form and discover its True Name, would know itself through a revelation passed down from the realm of light and consciousness through the “dark mirror” of man’s limited vision — this would take the form of the Divine Word. The polishing of the mirror is achieved by blowing upon it and this breath is the transformative breath of the craftsman, the maker, homo faber, who chants the Divine Names throughout the creative process, so that through the act of application, dedication and supplication, the Divine Breath will issue and manifest itself — the recognition of a previously unknown Name. . . This Sufi breathing out in order to bring the True Name into existence, the act of creation as a transmission of the Divine Breath, was clearly at the spiritual heart of Gysin’s life and work — and in the closing message of The Ticket That Exploded we can see that it is indeed his “own,” his “divine” name which is reflected in the calligraffti of the lower triangle, his bean-sprout emblematic calligraphy embodying his own breathing, his very own, transmitted, unspeakable name. The one who seeks his “own secret name,” as Gysin surely did, can only do so through supplication, by disappearing into the Great Work, by breathing in and out through his own brief span and his own, reflective creative contribution to Creation. What the artist achieves in this quest for the Creator of the Divine necessarily comes from outside himself, from elsewhere, and that is where Gysin sought Him, always, in the place of the other . . . God is a cut-up artist. God loves the alien. God is a shape-shifter, a transducer. God is a projected interior vision, a Trip from Here to There. God is a practitioner of the Third Mind.

Terry Wilson and Brion Gysin on Monitor

Hedonist of the Spirit / Gone to Persia

A Conversation with Terry Wilson about Hassan I Sabbah and the Psychic-Technological Techniques of the Beat Hotel

IM: In 1973 Gysin visited Alamut, Hassan I Sabbah’s ruined fortress on the edge of the Caspian Sea. Gysin would subsequently say that he knew less after the trip than he’d known before, but at the same time he claimed that “one knows a great deal from actually visiting such a place.” Is this one example of Gysin’s “method of contradiction,” contrasting a certain kind of intellectual knowledge with an actual experience of place? Like he advised you to visit the castle at Fontevrault where Genet wrote The Miracle of the Rose, because he said you’d “learn a great deal from just being at base itself . . .” 

TW: Well, there’s fast, fleeting knowledge as against silent knowledge which only works if the person is capable of shutting off his inner dialogue — the voice inside . . . One of Burroughs’ main themes, of course, is the importance of achieving inner silence — to wipe out the interior dialogue and open the floodgates of intuitive, special knowledge, to see the essence of something. . . And of course, there are various techniques, a whole number of techniques which may be used. 

IM: What happened to Gysin when he visited the Castle of Alamut? Obviously something very powerful and shocking totally freaked him out.

TW: Immediately after visiting Alamut, Brion began to get ill — possibly an illness which had its roots in that motorcycle accident he’d had with John Hopkins in Tangier, nearly slicing his foot off. Well, he’d gotten through to this area where it was very difficult to exist with this knowledge . . . He was fond of repeating, “To know these spaces is to love them,” but then he found he didn’t love them — or they didn’t love him. . . His feelings of psychic terror at Alamut were connected with an illness destroying his body, hence afterwards the body became important to him as something to maintain, as against Burroughs’ advocacy of non-body experience. Of course, Brion had always been a very strong man, a skin diver, and so on, and now he was being destroyed, he was falling apart . . . So he moved away from Burroughs’ position after Alamut, the separation of mind and body, leaving the body behind, all of that . . . What exactly happened to Brion at Alamut, no one can say — he certainly didn’t like to talk about it . . . Of course, Alamut is very high, there’s altitude sickness, and there’s vertigo . . . 

IM: Vertigo as in Hitchcock’s film — not just the fear of physical heights, but the terror of falling out of oneself, losing all psychic boundaries . . . Gysin told you that he felt “psychically attached to the place,” but at the same time he also said he felt “pushed over the precipice,” that he was “tumbling into the precipice” . . . 

TW: Yeah. The myth of Hassan I Sabbah may, as you say, have rebounded upon Gysin at Alamut. He didn’t like to talk about it afterwards, and likewise the motorcycle accident. . . The piece he wrote about Alamut for Rolling Stone was rather lighthearted and deceptive, and in any case they rejected it. He certainly didn’t deal with the psychic fear he’d experienced in that piece. Typical of Brion to keep it light and play it down in that way, and hide the psychic reality of that situation. He did make certain guarded public statements about how the thing had hit him . . . Soon after getting back from Alamut, he was sitting in Sanche de Gramont’s — Ted Morgan’s — house in Tangier and when he got up he was bleeding . . . I remember not long before he took that trip to Alamut, Brion was dreadfully preoccupied and very, very tense. And William’s attitude to the trip was, “Rather you than me!”. . . William had no intention of going there himself. 

IM: What was the fascination of Hassan I Sabbah for Gysin and Burroughs? Why this identification?

TW: Well, Brion identified William as Sabbah and vica versa, William describing Gysin as “the only authentic heir to Hassan I Sabbah” and of course, “See the Silent Writing of Brion Gysin, Hassan i Sabbah across all skies!” I guess there is a tendency to want an authority figure from the past, with magicians and sorcerers tracing their particular lineages of authenticity . . . Sabbah was a very good candidate, an ideal candidate one might say — after all, he was the most radical and the most elusive of spiritual leaders and as far as possible from one of Burroughs’ “Slave Gods.” Brion and William saw him as a figure outside the control system . . . The actual fascination with Sabbah is explained in Burroughs’ The Place of Dead Roads where Sabbah creates “actual beings, designed for space travel,” his Paradise Garden at Alamut is a “mutation center” where “the human artefact can evolve” — and Sabbah creates new beings, new creations from the adepts at his disposal. William’s talking there about the idea that man can only mutate through a change in consciousness, that evolution, other than in terms of consciousness, is a nonsense . . . So you create a new kind of consciousness in yourself, and pass it on to your followers . . . Well, any bunch of brujos with their groups of apprentices are trying to do this, to fundamentally revolutionize consciousness — there’s the Master who’s been through this process himself and now he’s doing the same with his own little group . . . There are many modern examples, but the aspect of extreme physical violence in the case of Sabbah was of course a lure for William, the Old Man sending out his Assassins to kill someone — very radical!

IM: Were they attracted because of the idea of Sabbah holing up in this totally remote place — that in effect he’d made himself invisible and bodiless, existing, if you like, out of Time? He made himself the Great Untouchable . . . 

TW: Well, Alamut was an inaccessible fortress where Sabbah’s special teachings lived on . . . “Outside Time”? The initiates were almost certainly being taught techniques to escape from Time and to live outside Time — outside earthly, linear Time . . . 

IM: Burroughs claims that they aspired to “freedom from rebirth and death”.

TW: “The stopping of the world,” as Casteneda put it, to stop the accustomed, habitual, material world . . . Well, you shut down that inner dialogue and the world is no longer the same, it’s utterly changed . . . The profundity of this silence can make the world terrifying and this is something no one wants to hear about . . . And this is what Gysin I think experienced in extreme form at Alamut . . . Yes, he had maybe used the Alamut scenario, conveniently so, to express this state of mind . . . Minutes before leaving on the trip he was so preoccupied and tense, not at all lighthearted, hardly said a word to me . . . Paul Bowles was forever saying that Brion pushed too far with substances and techniques to change his consciousness, that it was practically suicidal, like William’s comment that Brion’s “life and sanity are at stake when he paints” . . . Well, I would say that he was a hedonist of the spirit, and he went so far because he liked being frightened, he enjoyed being scared. 

IM: Scared to death . . . Except the terrors of Alamut finally scared him back into the body, hanging on for grim life, which is also dear life . . . The techniques which fascinated Burroughs and Gysin in the Alamut mythos, or in the scenario which they constructed, were telepathic control and same-sex practices . . . 

TW: William believed that Sabbah became a Ka for his adepts — communicating at any distance whatever . . . His theory is that Sabbah contacted the non-dominant brain area, his own and then his initiates’, which connected with Julian Jaynes’ ideas in his book on the Bicameral Mind . . . In South America you can still find this happening in a few places where the bulldozers haven’t moved in yet.

IM: Gysin and Burroughs identified with Sabbah’s situation maybe because they lived the whole thing out right there in the Beat Hotel in Paris, that was their fortress, their castle, their eagle eyrie . . . They sought to make Alamut and 9 rue Git-le-Coeur transposable sets . . . They saw themselves as Assassins of the Third Mind . . . 

TW: The Beat Alamut, sure . . . At the time of the cut-ups they felt under tremendous pressure, and the windows of the Commissariat of Police right across the Seine from their hotel . . . They felt under siege, beleagured, and yes, they identified with both Sabbah’s strategies as they understood them, and with his situation . . . Remember that both Brion and William were fascinated by military strategy, and they’d both read Clausewitz, Machiavelli, John von Neumann . . . So, yes, Sabbah as military strategist and heretical outsider provided the perfect model, hence Burroughs’ message to Brion, “Blitzkreig the Citadel of Enlightenment!” 

IM: They really did their homework on Sabbah, they’d read Barthold and Corbin, and Marshall Hodgson, everything they could find, and they knew Freya Stark’s book and Ridley’s book, both from the 1930s, and they knew about the Ismaeli lineage which of course they themselves would one day be written into by Hakim Bey . . . At the same time they were applying the military strategies of Sun Tzu and The Master of Demon Valley, and, as you say, Clausewitz and Machiavelli . . . And they were protective and possessive about it, they knew Guy Debord and the Lettrists and then the Situationists were into Clausewitz and Sun Tzu and Sabbah, too, and they resented it . . . They had no idea that one day all these business gurus would come along and follow the Japanese, implementing Sun Tzu’s teachings as core models in teaching marketing and selling techniques — like the art of haragei in Japan, which Gysin knew through his studies of Japanese philosophy, which is now understood and treated as primarily a set of psychological business tools in the West . . . But for them, back then, it was applying those warrior strategies to the psychic techniques they were developing, and using recording technology as weaponry, and composing these incendiary polemics aimed at the overthrow of so-called “reality” . . . Assassins incarnate, or reincarnate, centuries down the line . . . Heady stuff, to say the least. 

TW: The intention was the same as Sabbah, but the means different. Burroughs and Gysin were trying out magical techniques on technology, and this was something entirely new. For example, using tape recorders to cut up the Word and rub out the Word, using these devices in ways they really hadn’t been intended for, to learn to silence that inner voice and to think in silence . . . As I said, as William said to me, we’re talking here about an area which no one wants to know about. Brion and William together were working with tape recorders, and remember that tape recorders were not widely available at that time and, as you’ve said, maybe today we’ve become immune in some ways . . . But what they were doing was radical and of course William never did anything by half — and so there was bound to be resistance and downright hostility to what they were doing, and they operated on that basis . . . So that was the importance of the Sabbah myth, the idea of Blitzkreig, technological Blitzkreig in the face of this hostility . . . Naturally, people settle themselves into a system with a pedigree, like a young writer allying himself with Rimbaud — The Time of the Assassins, like that . . . It’s understandable and nothing wrong with it, but in the case of Brion and William and Sabbah — they were operating in the area of the secret and forbidden, and their message was one of total resistance . . . They re-invented Sabbah, sure, he gets a make-over. And they found the idea of an all-male community attractive, even though so-called experts in the field would dispute it. Also the use of hashish and other drugs, and the actual dispatching of one’s opponents — all this was attractive to them, certainly. But it wasn’t just repeating ideas and strategies, the conventional wisdom and platitudes, Burroughs as Sabbah and we are all programmed, etc . . . They were making their own . . . Even though the whole area is ineffable, and much of our own speculation derives from Burroughs and Gysin’s speculation, they were writing about their own area of expertise, an area which they explored rigorously . . .

IM: As you say, the whole area is ineffable. 

TW: Don Juan Tuesta, a well-known Central American practitioner, describes sorcery in general as “a deceit in the service of truth.” You can read about him in The Three Halves of Ino Moxo by Cesar Calvo, a very good book, incidentally. And that definition would certainly apply to such a lineage idea as Sabbah — a linear idea in a non-liner universe as far as the practitioner is concerned, but you have to give people an idea of solidity, and this would apply to the “product” as well. Bowles said to me, “One is trying to tell the truth which transcends mere fact.” Hassan is a story for people, to keep them afloat, you don’t want them to feel like everything solid has been pulled out from underneath them . . . My books are reportage, as close as I could get it to the experiences concerned, experiences which of course I was remembering, or trying to remember . . . In that sense, all my books are “a deceit in the service of truth,” and hopefully they transcend “mere fact” . . . Everyone keeps asking, “Did this really happen?”, like they’d be more comfortable if they were told, “Absolutely, it definitely happened.” But what do they mean by “this”? What’s their definition of an event? What do they think writing is in relation to whatever it is they’re imagining happened . . . in “the past,” whatever that might be . . . Always invoking some nebulous mental construct like “the past” and believing in it . . .  

IM: The tape techniques, the tape experiments, they were not at all metaphoric, they were to be applied literally — the Voice Inside isn’t “like” a tape recording, it most definitely is a recording, an original trace deep in the psyche, manifesting as interior jabber . . . So presumably one can externalise it through a machine, and play it all back, and speed it forward, chop it up at will, and then, perhaps, learn to erase it entirely, from within, at source . . . 

TW: Yeah. 

IM: So . . . They more than courted the Sabbah mantle, but then the consequences for The Third Mind were heavy. . . I mean, it turned out it really was a “Project For Disastrous Success,” and it all came down on them . . . As well as the terror he experienced at Alamut, Gysin had good reasons maybe to pull back, to distance himself from the whole scene. He’d proselytized and polemicized on behalf of their techniques, he’d opened the whole area up, “Operation Open Bank,” all of that, and then he went into retreat, and he was criticized, you know — black magic, damaging Burroughs’ career, jack of all trades, everything like that . . .  

TW: Brion was extraordinarily psychically adept, but he would always end up being resentful, feeling betrayed and exasperated with everything . . . ranting against ingratitude and disappointment . . . Of course, I’m talking about that period when he was ill, and getting iller, and how much that might, or must have had to do with it, who knows? 

IM: Sabbah was certainly of increasing interest and relevance in a number of quarters from the late 1950s onwards, and I think maybe that interest, that fascination was a premonition or even a kind of imaginative rehearsal for all the terror and the war on terror that we’re now stuck with, that’s going down everywhere . . . Sabbah and his Assassins were not only invoked by Burroughs and Gysin, and by Situationists, and even by Timothy Leary, but there was Bernard Lewis’ scholarly book in 1967, and increasing academic interest from historians and theologians and political strategists, and then there were these thriller novels in the 1960s and ’70s, like Paul Taboori’s The Invisible Eye and Ian Todd’s Ghosts of the Assassins, these potboilers or at least not particularly literary novels that were essentially written in the spy thriller genre, with the return of assassination as a political weapon, you know — international political intrigue and a secret sect dating back to the 12th century, James Bond and the Ismaeli Connection kind of thing . . . But of course, that’s just one more way for the myth to get around, and these appropriations now seem prophetic, or at least timely . . . But what’s also interesting is that Gysin and Burroughs’ fascination with Sabbah in turn influenced so many artists and writers, so that the myth of Sabbah, their myth, in effect, the twinning of Sabbah and their own lives and work, has now become an integral part of avant-garde pop culture — like the end of Cammell’s Performance, where Turner/Chas, the assassin, leaves a note, “Gone to Persia” and we see these Victorian slides of mountains and a castle in Persia, and it’s Alamut . . .There were these misunderstandings and difficulties between Cammell and Burroughs and Gysin, but Cammell was one of those artists who was really taken with the Sabbah story, as he got it directly from them, and he used it in his own way, like Turner’s place in Performance, it’s the Old Man’s Paradise Garden recreated in Powis Square in 1968 and decorated by Christopher Gibbs, the bath tiles modelled on a Persian carpet . . . And of course Cammell and Roeg had seen Balch’s The Cut-Ups in ’66, it’s an example of the influence Burroughs and Gysin and their collaborators had on other actual artworks which would not have existed in that form, and maybe not at all, if it hadn’t been for them.

Continue on to Gysin Homage Two

Written by Ian MacFadyen (Lyon-Paris-London, October 2010) and published by RealityStudio on 28 February 2011. Photographs of the Brion Gysin Retrospective in Villeurbanne, the Gysin Paris locations, and Spirit Manifestations by Ian MacFadyen.

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