PRINT Summer 1979


The Third Mind

William S. Burroughs and Brion Gysin, The Third Mind (New York: The Viking Press, 1978), 194 pages.

Experimental work, in pen or brush, explodes the meanings of words and/or images, subjecting them to the impact of violent clashes, to violent perturbations of structure. Caught between an otherness of the self and a fetishism of the machine, poets and painters algebrize metaphors and permutations: a rose is a rose is a rose, but this is not a pipe. The Dadaists, more than any other vanguard group, reduced art to a game in which the dice were loaded with irony. Games, of course, follow rules, and breaking the rules of a language game is a game for poets. In our century no one has yet played it with greater skill than did Raymond Roussel, the author of Impressions d’Afrique.

Brion Gysin, who coauthored, with William Burroughs, The Third Mind, was the agent who initiated the conjuror of Naked Lunch to the delights of the permutations of rhetoric. In his novel The Process, the English-born Gysin describes with fantasy and wit the mirages of sand and mind experienced by the most adventurous wanderers of the Sahara, Arab mystics, dope addicts, worshippers of Rimbaud and of Lawrence of Arabia. Too visual and gifted not to be a painter, Gysin, in his frottages of the 1940s, failed to recognize in these oils his own self. In the early 1960s he attracted attention with his Dream Machine, actually a flicker machine consisting of a slotted cylinder with a light bulb inside that revolves on a phonograph turntable. When one puts one’s eyes close to a slot in the cylinder, paintings on an inner cylinder change aspect depending on the speed.

The idea of permutations came to Gysin upon seeing the Divine Tautology I AM THAT I AM in print. It looked to him asymmetric, and he discovered that he could correct this effect by switching the last two words, turning the tautology into a question: AM I THAT, AM I? In his book Brion Gysin Let the Mice In (1960) the permutations of the Divine Tautology cover seven pages of text.

The Third Mind extols the advantages of artistic and literary cut-ups and mix-ups. In an article included in this book Gerard Georges Lemaire explains that “the main intention of Brion Burroughs [sic!] and William Gysin [sic!] has been to free the text from the page, to free the word from the surrounding matrix. Not actually, but by placing the text and graphics at the extreme limits of readability” (p. 20). This goal is achieved by nonartistic means, as Lemaire points out:

The cut up, that mechanical method of shredding texts in a ruthless machine (take a page of text and trace a median line vertically and horizontally. You now have four blocks of text: 1, 2, 3 and 4. Now cut along the lines and put block 4 alongside block 1, and block 3 alongside block 2. Read the rearranged page), a machine that could upset semantic order–that method has a history that goes back to Dada. In his Manifestos Tristan Tzara set down the principle of cutting up the pages of a newspaper, throwing the words into a hat, and pulling them out at random. (p. 14)

Among the rare collaborations of authors Lemaire mentions those of André Breton and Philippe Soupault, of Breton and Paul Eluard, which gave birth to the now famed Les Champs magnetiques and L’Immaculée Conception. According to Lemaire, however, “The ultimate sublimation of subjectivity, the automatism extolled by André Breton, . . . led to no new perspective, . . . to no literary extension capable of crossing the frontiers of the individualism that connects the work and its producer.” Why should it, since Surrealism seeks to activate the individual’s inner struggle? Surrealism does not sublimate; it aggravates!

Burroughs determinedly turns his back to the inner world: “What I want to do is to learn to see more what’s out there, to look outside, to achieve as far as possible a complete awareness of surroundings, Beckett wants to go inward. First he was in a bottle and now he is in the mud. I am aiming in the other direction: outward” When asked if he was able to think for any length of time in images, with the inner voice silent, Burroughs answered that he had trained himself to read a passage “without the words making any sound whatever in the mind’s ear,” but also to “start thinking in images, without words.” To the question “Why is the wordless state so desirable?” he replied, “This is the evolutionary trend.” In another chapter, he seems to throw more light on this obscure problem when he says that “you cannot will spontaneity, but you can introduce the unpredictable spontaneous factor with a pair of scissors.” Burroughs’ view of the poet in relation to the outside world is mechanistic. He believes that art and science are merging and he wants the artistic world to merge with Madison Avenue: “Pop art is a move in that direction . . . Already some very beautiful color photography appears in whiskey ads . . . Science will also discover for us how association blocks actually form.”

It seems to me that the mechanical blocks of associations signed by Burroughs and Gysin come out of the same Union Square “factory” that produces Warhol’s screened images. Remember that the Beatniks’ mentor was Charles Olson, who sought to free poetry from all traces of subjectivism. After World War II Kerouac and Ginsberg gravitated around a man ten years their senior, William Steward Burroughs, a graduate of Harvard. Lemaire reminds us that when Kerouac collaborated with friends in writing collective poems he developed a form of “literary communism,” which, however, was limited to a “community of goods and interests” and, therefore, “made of the Beatniks a movement that, in the final analysis, was in no way different from the currents that had preceded it, whether those of Bloomsbury or Futurism.” Disagreeing, Gysin states that the Beatniks “thought they had come to change the world. And to a great extent they succeeded. When in 1959 an English-language edition of Naked Lunch was published in Paris, neither one of us thought we would ever see it appear in the United States of America.” Naked Lunch could hardly have been published in America but for the Kinsey Report, which triggered revolution by reappraising sexual behavior in statistical terms rather than by the clinical standards of Freud.

Gysin’s contribution to the mechanization of the process of writing consisted in fusing the idea of a newspaper cut-up, of Tzara, with Raymond Roussel’s code of permutations. Comment j’ai ecrit certains de mes livres (How I wrote some of my books) is a treatise in which Roussel explains the principles that rule his compositions. When this work first appeared, shortly before World War II, it caused a sensation in Surrealist circles.

The automatic writing of the Surrealists, the elaborate punning of James Joyce and now, perhaps, Gysin’s cut-up method, as practiced by Burroughs, produce a form of rhetoric that fits into the category of modern writing since the knowledge of the process writing becomes a prerequisite to the enjoyment of the work. Rereading Burroughs’ Nova Express I realized that his method of composition tends to substitute a synchronic presentation of events for the diachronic one of both the novel and lyrical poetry. Historical sequence is sacrificed for an elaboration of linguistic games. Now writing poems and painting pictures are forms of activity that are supposed to enrich our lives. This is tantamount to saying that their value is moral. Futurist songs of triumph find their counterpart in Ginsberg’s howling rage, and also in Burrough’s sadistic dissections. Joyce’s genius was to have substituted an epic yardstick of magnified hours for Homer’s historical one.

The collaboration of two artists does not engender a third mind, but only a new oeuvre, whether novel, poem or painting. Nor does its potential reader become a third mind (let us leave the third man to the detectives, and the third eye to metaphysicians).

As for the grid, upon which Gysin’s system is based: it is enjoying a revival of popularity. At its best, the grid is a support of illusions; at its worst, it becomes an instrument of oppression. Barnett Newman must have sensed this when he remarked that Ad Reinhardt was never able to paint a truly black picture. To do so Reinhardt would have had to cancel the grid. Mondrian eloquently showed the way out of the dilemma, exposing his equivalences to the arbitrariness of choice.

Nicolas Calas