By Dave Teeuwen
Though William Burroughs died in 1997, a steady stream of work taken from his archives has been published on what seems like an almost yearly basis. This is due to various scholars around the world digging into the available work to “look beneath the hood” on many of Burroughs’ texts to see what else could have been if financial constraints were eliminated or reticent publishers were convinced. Of particular interest has always been The Third Mind, the William Burroughs / Brion Gysin visual and textual collaboration that began in the 1960s, went through various incarnations, and was eventually published in 1978 by Viking. A version that is much closer to the book originally envisioned by Burroughs and Gysin is being prepared for release.
Davis Schneiderman has been publishing about William Burroughs and his work for more than 20 years now. He co-edited Retaking the Universe: William S. Burroughs in the Age of Globalization in 2004, contributed to Naked Lunch @ 50: Anniversary Essays in 2009, and has written extensively on Burroughs in other venues. He has performed in celebration of the Burroughs centennial and partnered with the European Beat Studies Network and the Chicago Humanities Festival, among others. He has also contributed to RealityStudio in the past. Schneiderman is Krebs Provost and Dean of the Faculty (and Professor of English) at Lake Forest College, north of Chicago.
His latest project is a collaboration with Marcus Boon and the Burroughs Estate on a reconstruction of the The Third Mind as originally conceived, and a companion volume — The Book of Methods — tracing Burrroughs and Brion Gysin’s long collaboration. Burroughs and Gysin’s 1978 The Third Mind took a different form after many years of almost-but-not-quite getting the original book to market.
What are your major interests in Burroughs’ work?
One part of my answer is embedded in your question, as I have spent my career as it relates to Burroughs advocating for a focus upon the work rather than the mythopoetic qualities of the man. Biography is important, but it’s never the key: the Romanticization of the author overtaking a careful study of the writing and production often does more to obscure than to reveal.
After that first principle, I have also been interested in the works that most directly challenge linearity, and the collaborative aspects that attempt to power such challenges. Much of Burroughs’ work fits the former, but it is his long collaboration with Brion Gysin and the texts, images, and collages that collectively make up the various iterations of The Third Mind that have, in recent, years, held my particular interest.
This is such an important point. I think that the biography of Burroughs is so prominent in many new readers’ minds that it often obscures the work before they get to reading anything. Do you think it will change in the future? Do you think people — and publishers — will be able to wean themselves off of the mythos and focus more on the work?
I performed at several events celebrating the Burroughs centennial in 2014; at one, held around midnight with an air of late-night revelry, a young woman was dressed as a heroin needle. I think that’s missing the point (so to speak), but I am not sure the fascination with Burroughs’ life will persist as time passes. I suppose there will be people who will treat him like Byron, but the fact that Byron was, in fact, a Romantic poet makes a biographical reading feel always “natural” to the subject. Because some aspects of Burroughs’ life that come in for, if not celebration then fascination, are often those that our culture is rightly no longer celebrating, I expect a separation over time.
Can you describe how the The Third Mind project came about in the 1960s? What was the initial motivation for Burroughs and Gysin and how does it differ from his 1960s work in small magazines?
This is one of the most circuitous tales in publishing, and it’s one threaded with false starts and disappointments. Gysin’s letters of the late 1960s, in particular, focus upon the book’s unsteady prospects with an almost desperate sense of mission, and when the book finally arrives in compromised form in the 1970s, the triumph of its publication is due in no small part to Gysin’s doggedness. Yet, the collaboration begins when Burroughs and Gysin first strike up a partnership in Paris in the late 1950s, continues in a series of 1963 letters that first suggest the concept, accelerate in 1965 with the curation of previously published works and the production of the collages (in New York City), and continues with the lead-up and let-down of the aborted 1970 Grove Press edition, which was almost complete before abandonment. Many of the Burroughs texts in The Third Mind appeared in small-press publications, but the “cohesiveness” of the concept — a how-to book — is what differentiates the work as a “whole” from any individual small press contributions. The Third Mind includes, for instance, material from My Own Mag, but it also excludes scads of small magazine pieces. In one sense, it’s an anthology, and a thematic one at that.
My sense of Burroughs’ use of the small mags in the 1960s in which he published experimental pieces was as an outlet for his work, a testing ground for ideas he was working on and to promote projects like The Third Mind. Is that accurate?
Yes, and no. The Third Mind emerged somewhat organically — powered by his artistic kindship with Gysin — but I don’t think we can easily say how Burroughs’ projects nested inside each other. Burroughs produced work steadily and with admirable dedication. The old story that he was primarily a novelist who also — incidentally, by the way, as an afterthought — also made small press works and media experiments is clearly wrong, but that doesn’t mean the opposite is true.
It wasn’t that he saw his project as a totalizing one, but that each work should be shared in the forum to which it was best suited. A good example of this was the invitation from Playboy to produce what ultimately became “St. Louis Return” (rejected by Playboy and ultimately published in The Paris Review.) Because Playboy did not want a three-column “experimental” text, Burroughs took the kill fee and moved on. Yet, there is no question it sacrificed a larger immediate audience for a publication that would accept what he was producing.
If Gysin’s “doggedness” is what ultimately got the book published, how would you rate Burroughs’ feeling about the project?
This is a fascinating aspect to the story. Burroughs was always supportive of The Third Mind and of Gysin, but, at times, Gysin felt Burroughs was not supportive enough. This feeling came to a head in the late 1960s as Gysin’s novel The Process failed to make a significant impact, as Gysin felt Burroughs was dragging his feet on publishing a (supportive) review. Gysin experienced a motorcycle accident in Tangier that he psychically “blamed” on Burroughs’ lack of attention. All of this is connected to the implosion of The Third Mind with Grove.
Marcus Boon and I are working on two volumes, a new edition of The Third Mind as “originally” conceived in partnership with the Burroughs Estate and a companion volume, The Book of Methods, which will in part tell the story I note here in more detail.
How close to the original concept of the book was the Grove Press edition that did not get published? How close to being published is ‘close’?
There is no single, stable edition of The Third Mind. It depends upon when you take the snapshot, but it’s fair to say that the Grove Press edition closely matched Burroughs’ and Gysin’s ambitions for the project at the time. The later Viking edition expressed a significantly altered ambition, and, compared to the 1970 edition, is clearly a compromise product. Yet, to judge them against each other privileges the illusion of a stable project. The Third Mind is what you find depending upon where you look in the timestream, which is why the story of the collaboration as told in The Book of Methods serves as a travel guide through these multiple iterations.
Can you describe what your Third Mind will look like and how you came to determine what version of the book would be the most accurate depiction? Is it very visual or a mix of text and visual elements?
To be clear, and I know this is not what you mean, it’s definitely not “my” (and Marcus Boon’s) The Third Mind, although he and I have been collaborating since 2004 and there is a clear meta-collaboration on top of things. This is Burroughs and Gysin’s work, presented in collaboration with the Burroughs Estate. The amount of time Burroughs and Gysin worked on the project may end up being the same amount of time Marcus and I have worked on the two related projects. So, for The Third Mind, we are providing editorial suggestions and direction in collaboration with James Grauerholz. We would not be in a position to engage in this work without James, whose entry into Burroughs’ life comes after the 1970 debacle but before the 1978 edition. Not only was James there when it happened, but he also remains a source of steadfast wisdom as the steward of Burroughs letters and manuscripts.
With that in mind, our process has been to consult relevant archives — those are in New York, Atlanta, Ohio, Arizona, Los Angeles, Paris, etc. — and to determine where the “story” and the mechanicals of the 1970 edition reconcile or deviate. It’s been an immense forensic puzzle, helped mightily also, by an excellent (then) undergraduate researcher Frankie Paar at Lake Forest College.
The edition, to your last question, is a mix of these types of works: collages, text pieces (many republished in the Viking editing), unpublished typescript texts (some with visual elements), and pieces previously published in places like My Own Mag (but not included in the Viking edition).
If Gysin felt Burroughs was dragging his feet, how did the version that was finally released in the 1978 compare to what they envisioned? How did it effect their relationship?
The swale of the relationship around the failures of The Third Mind changed as Gysin rebooted the project as Oeuvre croisée (the French edition) followed by the Viking edition. They both were pleased to have the work appear.
Now, the Nova Convention celebrating Burroughs only included Gysin as a “last-minute” invited participant (which Gysin took as a slight), and that didn’t help matters, but the dynamic, while never completely returning to the proximate intensity of the early days, had settled into a level of love and acceptance that would persist through Gysin’s death.
Compared to the edition of The Third Mind released by Burroughs and Gysin in the 1970s, is this new edition more visual? Is there text in the 1970s edition that will not appear in this edition for editorial reasons?
Absolutely. There are 70 or so collages that were prepared or finished in 1965 that were slated for publication in the aborted Grove edition. The 1978 Viking had only around 25 (smaller, and black in white). The 1978 Viking edition had a number of texts added after the 1970 edition’s failure; so, yes, the new edition will exclude those while including a significant series of typescripts that were not published in 1978 as well as the rest of the collages. Some of the post-1965 content includes the introductory commentary by Gérard-Georges Lemaire, and a fragment from the early Naked Lunch screenplay (not at all related to the Cronenberg film).
In terms of forensics, how have you been able to determine the order of the material? Was there a true set ordering of the material in the plans?
Copious staring and tequila. In all seriousness, the book was in the mechanicals stage when it was aborted, so an intended order is evident. Yet, the file had been damaged to remove the collages so they could become free-floating art objects. We had to cross-correlate different guide files.
What kind of guidance does the archive material offer for establishing a more definitive version of this book?
There is no definitive version but the 1970 aborted edition is the closest we have to the intended form of the project once it moved from an embryonic idea in 1963 letters through composition in 1965. This is a project that exists in multiple forms, and it depends what you are looking at, and when. It’s like Monet’s paintings of the Rouen Cathedral transmogrified into a drum sample and spliced back through a conch shell.
What was the most difficult aspect of this project and how did you work through it?
The project has loomed large for Marcus and me for more than 15 years. The story of how this has come to pass is an interesting one, and is full of its own stops and starts. One challenge, aside from understandable COVID slowdowns in archival work, are also those of life. On the cusp of a major research trip in 2010, my father-in-law passed away unexpectedly. I delayed the trip, as I needed to, but it was a reminder of how the making of art (or of scholarly research about art) requires time and space of its own. Beyond logistics, the project itself is many-tentacled, and the attempt to understand, define, and articulate its scope has been the “invisible” work that occurs offstage.
When the book is published, do you see it as being able to replace the edition published in 1978?
Definitely not. This is a version of the book from a different time. We’ll tell that story, but it’s always n+1.
Some of Burroughs’ revisions were based upon market considerations, and the idea of revisions fits well into the larger project of cut-ups to destabilize meaning. Why should there be “forever” editions of any work, rather than snapshots that are presented at certain moments? At its worst, this practice appeals to completionists who want all “outtakes” for the “archive” — but that mindset still prioritizes one edition as the “master tape.” I think of Samuel Beckett or Raymond Federman, who, rather than translate their works, “transacted” them, allowing the linguistic change to evolve into new material as the material conditions so evolved. Despite the fact that Burroughs wrote exclusively in English, his many cut-ups of cut-ups of cut-ups accomplish a similarly digressive feat.
Where do you see The Third Mind as existing in the overall oeuvre of Burroughs’ work?
A word like oeuvre is useful in a general sense, but often useless when applied to a project as deliberately deterritorializing as Burroughs’. The project is not a totalizing one, but one more concerned with puncture and slippage.
The Third Mind, as well as the many other highly visual texts that Burroughs worked on in the 1960s and 1970s are unusual in the work of a writer. They definitely pushed the technological possibilities of the times he created them in, in terms of creating a manageable budget for a project. How do you feel he compares to other writers working in similar mediums or similar intellectual spaces? How does the visual work he did figure in the overall project that was his career?
There is a long tradition of visual work integrated into fictions — Steve Tomasula, W.G. Sebald, Anne Carson, Andre Breton, Claudia Rankine, William Gass — and while I have collapsed time in my examples, I see Burroughs and Gysin’s collaboration as notable for the visual and collaborative aspects of the work. For Burroughs, his technological innovations would not have been possible absent figures such as Gysin, Ian Sommerville, Anthony Balch, etc., and so it’s difficult to “read” this work in isolation from his partners. To return to an earlier question, the “Romantic” reading of Burroughs centers him in the story of his practice, which ignores the interesting structural tensions of the relationships he held with so many others.
Sometimes I have the feeling that some Burroughs scholars see the action of the cut-up as an all-encompassing metaphor or theme or vocation that Burroughs applied to his work at all times after October 1959. What do you think of this and how does The Third Mind fit into this concept of the cut-up?
Just as the Romanticized “Junkie” Burroughs can lead to a dead end, so does its shadow doppelgänger — the “Burroughs with scissors.” The myths of Burroughs’ production, corrected and demolished and re-presented most effectively over time by scholar Oliver Harris, have done much to replicate and spread his reputation, and the myths of the Cut-Ups are equally misleading. While this aleatory work is extremely compelling to me, and to many others, to fetishize is to ossify. We have to see the limits even if we dream of the expanse. As to how The Third Mind inhabits the concept, that’s the story we seek to share in our work on The Third Mind and The Book of Methods, and Marcus Boon and I hope interested readers will come along for the slice.
I think that the Romanticized Burroughs is something I see most, even now, when I discuss his work with people online and in-person. How do you see this Romanticization influencing work about Burroughs now and what do you hope to see in regards to future projects about Burroughs?
I don’t mean to suggest that people should not be interested in biography, and I well understand the pull of the Beat / counterculture figures as anti-heroes who “revolutionized art and life,” etc. Yet, if you start to scratch the surface of that narrative, you’ll find it is indebted to many of the historical underpinnings and assumptions that our world is rightly rethinking. To think one’s sense of Kerouac begins and ends for all time with the teenage reading On the Road is not a highway I want to travel for too long. The reason I will still revisit Naked Lunch (as I will reread Proust or Morrison or Acker or Genet) is that I understand these texts less with each reading. These books are not puzzles to be solved but questions to be asked again and again, from new and different angles. For that, I need to ask the text, rather than to impose an idea, or a series of ideas, about what the author represents. As for the future, Cut-Ups are one predictor, but they are most right when they produce results — when a cut from the past is reinforced by subsequent events — and easy to enjoy without outsized expectations when they don’t.