Studying the Beat Generation is like snatching at quicksilver. Unlike other literary circles with definite rosters the Algonquin Round Table, for instance, or the Inklings the Beats were an amorphous thing, a globetrotting collection of poets, junkies, and hangers-on whose ongoing synergy and mutual influence makes cataloguing them beyond the requisite Kerouac/Ginsberg axis an ultimately arbitrary task. Do we include Neal Cassidy, who was a fairly mediocre writer but the hero of On The Road? Or the San Francisco poets (McClure, Ferlinghetti, et al) who were there for the debut of “Howl” but not for the writing of it? Do we include Diane Di Prima and Carolyn Cassidy, or were the Beats, as several of them would have it, a He-Man Woman-Haters’ Club? What about latecomers Charles Bukowski and Bob Dylan, both of whom get lumped in with the Beats by virtue of their styles?
And then there’s William S. Burroughs, who was there from the beginning, mentoring Jack and Allen and letting them edit and shop his work around, but who steadfastly refused the Beat label throughout his life. If Burroughs is in there, then we must also consider the man who was arguably his greatest influence, his longtime collaborator Brion Gysin. It was Gysin who invented the celebrated “cut-up” technique scissoring pages of divergent texts along various axes then lining them up at random to create found prose that Burroughs used to construct The Naked Lunch and with which will forever be linked. It was Gysin who fostered Burroughs’ obsession with Hassan i Sabbah, legendary messiah of the cult of Hashishim, or Assassins, and pushed Burroughs into painting, the secondary vocation of his waning years (although, being Burroughs, a good deal of his painting involved the use of firearms). Painter, mystic, muse Gysin remains one of the most influential yet least considered of the figures orbiting the Beat Generation sphere.
Here to Go
Terry Wilson’s collection of extended interviews with Gysin, Here To Go, is perhaps the best document available on a wide scale that gives Gysin his due. Originally published by the essential counterculture press Re/Search in 1982, the book reads like a verbal documentary, with abrupt jump-cuts between the interviews and text from works by Gysin and Burroughs, particularly Gysin’s cult books The Process and Brion Gysin Let the Mice In. The setup is effective, providing points of reference for the conversation while at the same time keeping the reader off-kilter order by means of chaos, a collage approach that fits well with the mind and life behind Gysin’s work.
Originally a Surrealist painter until Andre Breton kicked him out of the movement during his first exhibition in 1935 a group show in Paris that included, among others, Picasso and Man Ray Gysin was the ultimate expatriate, claiming and abandoning citizenship in four different countries until settling down in Tangier in 1950. It was there that he met the Master Musicians of Jajouka (whom he would later introduce to Brian Jones of the Rolling Stones, the first of the many Western rock stars who keep “discovering” them) and opened a restaurant, the 1001 Nights, for the sole purpose of giving them a place to play so he could hear them nightly. It was also in Tangier that Gysin met and forged his close relationship with William Burroughs. The two men who, despite popular opinion, were never lovers were bound by their often vicious misogyny, a mutual disdain for the linear, and their unshakeable belief in psychic powers and insidious conspiracies. If Naked Lunch reads like an assault by some lunatic absurdist Gatling gun, it’s Gysin who passed the ammo.
As an interview subject Gysin is as all-over-the-map as his work, now at ease and pleasant as he describes the mechanics of the Dreamachine, a stroboscopic device for producing drug-free hallucinations, and now acerbic and haughty as he explains how the source of all evil is communication, begun when Adam found there was someone else in Eden who demanded he speak to her. At times Wilson’s faithful transcription (every “uh” is reproduced here) can be annoying as the conversation bogs down, especially when the squeaking tape recorder makes a noise and no opportunity to comment on it is lost, but get Gysin going and he is a real raconteur, relating in vivid detail his attempt to visit Alamout, the mountain fortress of Hassan i Sabbah. Really wind him up and you’ll get a marathon polemic on why Man is a “Bad Animal” (in extreme summary, ants are the only other species that takes slaves and destroys its environment) that leaves one exhausted.
And winding Gysin up is Terry Wilson’s job here. A friend and collaborator of Gysin’s, Wilson functions here much the same way Ron Popeil functions when he’s hosting an infomercial, pretending to ask questions he already knows the answers to just to move things along. While no pretense is made that this is any sort of journalistic endeavor, after a while one wonders why Gysin didn’t simply write the book himself. As I’ve stated elsewhere, the unique value of the interview format is its ability to catch the subject bare-assed, to get to the person by asking the questions the art doesn’t answer. In this wise it’s always better that the interviewer be an objective stranger, especially when dealing with someone like Gysin, who trades in the abstract and the esoteric. When Gysin claims that the sound experiments he and Burroughs did by looping and re-looping audiotape resulted in “a language no one had ever heard before,” he should be called on it audio-looping, like the cut-up, produces distortions and combinations that force the mind to turn on its comprehension axis, thus stirring creativity and providing an impetus for art, but its value as art in and of itself is questionable at best. An objective reporter would have raised the question; Wilson just nods.
Still, given the dearth of material about Brion Gysin, we’ll take what we can get. Both for his own accomplishments and for the connections he made between the worlds of art, literature, music, and postmodern thought, Gysin deserves much better treatment than relegation to a footnote in the history of the Beats, much more consideration than simply as a “friend of Bill.”
We all know how critical it is to keep independent voices alive and strong on the Internet. Please consider a donation to support our work as independent cultural critics and historians. Your donation will help PopMatters stay viable through these changing and challenging times where costs have risen and advertising has dropped precipitously. We need your help to keep PopMatters strong and growing. Thank you.
"PopMatters (est. 1999) is a respected source for smart long-form reading on a wide range of topics in culture. PopMatters serves as…READ the article