Ian MacFadyen’s astounding book-length essay about the avant garde artist-poet-novelist Brion Gysin, “A Trip from Here to There,” knocked me out. It had just been posted at RealityStudio, so I was raving about it — couldn’t help myself — to anyone within listening distance.
Along came a savvy, multilingual writer I’m acquainted with, precisely the kind of guy I figured would be interested: an intellectual world citizen, so to speak, a self-described “outsider” born in Egypt, educated at Harvard, now an erudite graduate professor of comparative literature in New York, not to mention an authority on Proust and the author of a highly regarded memoir, a collection of essays, and a couple of novels.
Well … he drew a blank. Gysin? Never heard of him. He had heard of William Burroughs, though. Hooray for that.
Here’s a video clip of Gysin with Burroughs in an excerpt from a 1966 film by Antony Balch, which illustrates some of what MacFadyen is talking about:
And for the benefit of that writer-professor and anybody else who has never heard of Gysin, here are three excerpts from MacFadyen’s huge essay. Not an “easy read,” it’s a brilliant piece of devoted scholarship that moves between two poles: clear narrative material often based on biographical facts and abstruse speculation based on linguistic and visual analysis … in other words, lingo spew of a very high order.
Even more than William Burroughs’s belief in Gysin (“He was the only man I ever respected. I have admired many others, esteemed and valued others, but respected only him.”), MacFadyen’s homage — the depth of it, the weight of it, the insights and style of it — is the truest ballast of the BG sailship.
Let’s begin with …
“BG” is Gysin’s monogram, but as a sound poet and as an artist who used letter and calligraphic forms, he was aware of the symbolism of these two letters and their combinatory resonance, their euphonic expressive meaning. Gysin had read Plato’s Cratylus, a Socratic dialogue on the creation of words through appropriately sounded letters, and he would have paid close attention to the work’s subtitle, “On the Correctness of Names,” because he felt that his own name was not correct, and he would struggle for years to write it right. For example, he would sign his work “Brion” followed by a monogram or motif or ideograph for “von Listel,” signifying “from Listel,” in Switzerland, after his grandfather. Then he ditched the symbol, before signing himself “Brion Gysin,” only later, in many cases, to write simply “Brion” over the top of the previous signature. In 1958 he might sign a work “Brion Gysin,” but in 1959 this would be reduced to “Brion” with the von Listel motif returning, while in 1960 he signed a number of works with the minimal “BG.” Terry Wilson remembers seeing a 1940s copy of Harpers or Vogue in which, in the society pages, there was a picture of Gysin and Felicity Mason attending a party or reception for Beni Montessore, and Gysin was identified in the text as “Brion Gysin von Listel,” using what Burroughs would later mock as his “phoney ‘von’.” But Gysin’s confusion with his name went far beyond the imposture of the aristocratic. If his evident dissatisfaction and awkwardness with his own name seems surprising in an artist now known for placing his own name, as it were, center stage in his own creations, it testifies to a profound discomfiture that was at the heart of the process of questioning his “mistaken identity,” without which the script of his “true name” would never have been developed. His problem signature, with its continual variations, influenced the creation/discovery of his “signature script” of proliferating, calligraphic “BG”s — as if the sign for “self” that was self-consciously blocked on the quotidian level, could be unleashed and run rampant on another plane of signification. Gysin would sign works “BG” too, but this does not mean that his feelings for his own initials were unambiguous, or simply an expression of ego — on the contrary, it was precisely the undoing of these representations of identity, their physical mutability over their semiotic fixity, that he pursued. Even when his “signature script” was in place, it functioned both as a confirmation and a dispersal of the integrity of the name. Gysin explored the idea that a word resembles, indeed embodies, in its shape and sound, through alliteration and visual associations, what it describes — that meaning is influenced by the shape and sound of individual letters, and by their combinatory effects. Language was magical because, although a word is not the thing it names, it may have a visual and sound resemblance to it, and it is this euphony that is vital in poetry. Gysin deconstructed syntax through cut-up and permutation, he coined portmanteau words and he painted texts and wrote on paintings and he created his own personal script — in all these ways he attacked and played with language, both spoken and written, revealing meanings hiding in language and at the same time revelling in his mockery of the fixity of linguistic referents. In the case of his use of his own initial letters, this reaches a terminal paradox — he undoes his own name in the work, deconstructs and permutates and explodes it, and then signs it with those very same letters, in his own name. The one who signs himself with the singular “BG,” who authenticates an image of multiple “BG”s, is both related to and yet quite separate from the one who strews his emblematic initials through calligraphic script — that confirmatory signature is of a different written order to the swarming plethora of signs in the image, and not only because of the distinction between art and its validation, or between writing as image and writing as sign/ature. The “BG” of the picture is “open,” to use Gysin’s terms, open, that is, to interpretation and multiple readings, whereas the signatory “BG” is “closed” and functions as a legal and professional verification of authorship. The two exist and operate in different dimensions — though they seem to occupy the same plane, they function on quite different planes of reference. They testify to the gulf between an art of signing and the signature as artistic guarantee — in fact, it is the calligraphic script of the image which is the absolute artistic guarantee, not the appended lower right corner appellation. The calligraphic “BG” is the mark of the self-created, the notarised “BG” is the problematic identity of the woman-born. There is another fracture in Gysin’s sign: “B” and “G” rhyme, they are sound-related, but otherwise, the two letters are at permanent war, and Gysin, for whom these initials were of vital significance, surely knew this. To homage John Michell and his charming book Euphonics — “B” is the letter of the physical Body, the Blooming and Bucolic, it knows no Bounds, while the “G” is disGusted by this BiG Buffoon, it wants to cloG it, Grease it up, Gum it, and then Gash its Binary Bubbles with the savaGe horizontal pointed stroke of its Graver, its Greve, the Balloon of the “B” punctured by the Gravity of “G.” Further, even as Gysin brought the two letters together in a supposed singularity of identification, he knew that “B” opens and “G” closes “the B-eginnin-G” of his own existence, and his own signifying script as it repeatedly inscribes the brief trip from “B-irth” to the “G-rave”.
Let’s move on to …
A Thousand and One Performances
The calligraphic art is a special form of that ritualized performance which was clearly essential in Gysin’s art and life — creation was a physical act, both knowing and casual, requiring grace of movement, a learned and practiced skill rising to a level where it became effortlessly stylish, and then quite miraculous. The cut-up technique was described in detail by its creator as a form of performance, insisting upon the physical act and its ritual stages, and though no audience was required in this case, in other areas it was precisely an audience which Gysin desired in order to demonstrate the process of creation, the manifesting performance of art, rather than the objects created — art as literally a way of being in the world, in which Gysin’s body and mind, image and spirit, could be harmoniously resolved. A Dreamachine may be used by several people simultaneously, and Gysin enjoined others to make their own and see the whirl, just as he encouraged them to practice cut-ups, while akin to this were his collaborations with Burroughs and Ian Sommerville and Ramuntcho Matta, among others — participatory and collaborative projects were embraced by Gysin, they were extensions of his philosophy of creativity, in which the mystique and power of the individual artist were not compromised but enhanced through processes of the Third Mind. The spectacle combining music and dance and light which Gysin produced in his restaurant in Tangier, the Thousand and One Nights, is especially revealing of his view of art as the sensual, aesthetic exercise of skill, the creative act as a bravura demonstration of prowess, and a contribution to a group enterprise. For Gysin, the restaurant was a theater, with a specially created and decorated environment and ambience — a dream palace for the pleasure of the senses. But he also found himself in an ambiguous, sometimes uncomfortable role — as the proprietor he was at a social disadvantage with the wealthy, aristocratic elements of the clientele. Extremely sensitive to the nuances of class and social standing, his own aspirations to be in society, including his phoney “von Listel” imposture, were compromised by his commercial, functionary status and the stigma of “trade.” The Tangerine social scene was Proustian in the extreme, and Gysin was respected and admired and yet dismissed as declassé by those who patronized his restaurant, while for the diehard bluebloods Burroughs would be absolutely persona non grata. Even Yvonne and Isabelle Gérofi of the Librairie des Colonnes, 54 Boulevard Pasteur, saw Burroughs as an invisible man defined by a ratty old raincoat rigid with filth — “Burroughs était sale à un point inoui . . . Son imper se serait debout de crasse . . .” This is an exemplary case of the social elite literally looking down their noses — and they didn’t like Genet’s leather jacket much either . . . By comparison, Gysin’s was a suitably class act in Tangier, in every sense, but nevertheless he was a businessman, a manager and a majordomo, and despite his erudition and perfect manners, and his talent for intrigue, he would never be entirely “socially acceptable.” He was mentioned in the Tangier Gazette, for example, but as a restaurateur supplying pastries to a cocktail party. He hobnobbed with the great and the good, he was known in high society and to the nouveau riche Hollywood types, but his market value was in fluctuation, his style impeccable but his background and credentials somewhat murky or a little too fantastic . . . In fact, he found himself caught between a class and a culture, to neither of which he belonged by birthright, although he aspired to be accepted by both — he really was the Man From Nowhere, the one who put on a show for the aristo expats and wealthy travellers, the paid facilitator holding aside the velvet curtain, providing entry to the magical world of another culture and time, whilst feeling a biological trick had been perpetrated on him, a screw-up in the birth lottery. The dancing boys and musicians performed in true Moroccan style, but this was a theater of illusion and deception in every sense, and could be seen as merely a costume cabaret of cultural otherness put on for the wealthy white social set — the procured spectacle could not be separated from its colonialist and economic context, while Gysin would be characterized as a “purveyor of Moroccan exotica.” Although Gysin was the impresario, he was also inamorata about the nightly performances, and for him the Thousand and One Nights was always more than a commercial venture, it was artistic, inspired, transporting — which may explain how he came to lose the business. For Gysin, this was a lesson to learn for his future art career — the artist discovers the magic, presents the most captivating show, welcomes his wealthy patrons . . . and gets out with the shirt on his back. Nevertheless, the musicians and dancers created a brilliant experience which reinforced his appreciation of art as physicality, sensuality, dexterity, illusionism, excitement, pleasure and laughter. In November 1955 Christopher Isherwood visited the restaurant and wrote in his diary:
The boys were very interesting to watch — their negligent grace, their vague yet exact gestures, their delicately mocking salutes, when you gave them money, which they tucked in their turbans. Their hip movements and flirtatious play with their scarves is exquisitely campy and yet essentially masculine: this is in no sense a drag show. In the most beautiful of the dances, the boy carries a whole tray of glasses and lights on his head. Later the boys sang with one of the musicians, and I felt they were really enjoying themselves.
(Burroughs’ negative description of the dancing boys refers to a later incarnation of the place, when Hamri and the original musicians and dancers had quit.) The impresario enjoyed himself, too, though his creative investment was doomed. It may be that Gysin’s performances with Sommerville at the Domaine Poétique and the ICA and elsewhere were sublimated homages to the Thousand and One Nights — movement, art, music, color and light combined in the creation of a magical environment, where one could forget oneself and be lifted up, moved and fired through all the senses. The restaurant had been a disaster, financially and emotionally, it was a place where “some unforeseen, complex, cataclysmic catastrophe” occurred practically every night, Gysin said — well, of course it did, and he loved it, the chaos and the intrigue, the rising and falling waves of the Pipes of Pan, the pirouettes and floor-rolls of the dancers, the cloakroom full of mink coats, the thin beams of light streaming from the perforations of Moroccan brass lanterns retroactively prophetic of the Dreamachine, the fated beauty of it all . . . When he was expelled from his Eden, the true magic of the Thousand and One Nights disappeared before the “Under New Management” sign went up. But here’s the trick: he took it with him, he never lost that feeling, and the rapture stayed with him, long after the lights went out.
Wrapping up with …
Uher / Iki Ga Nagai — Iki Ga Mijikai / Kireji / Chod
Gysin’s work is profoundly transcultural and historically polymathic in its philosophical and aesthetic influences, but this was not at all a magpie, maverick approach — all the diverse elements of his immense learning are synthesized in his own personal cosmogony. Gysin’s thinking was an intellectual and intuitive process of syncretism through which he discovered surprising connections between quite different media, genres, subjects and philosophies. But this was only the beginning of the process — he then proceeded through a series of steps or actions to extend and combine the possibilities, sometimes mixing the ingredients and chopping them up, sometimes carefully laying them out and rearranging them like data on a spreadsheet. It was curiosity in action, making the latent visible, procuring the unexpected, delightful result, not the sought-for outcome of logically deterministic cause-and-effect . . . He looks at the German manufacturer’s name on his tape recorder — “UHER.” Suddenly he sees, and hears, “(YO)U/HER,” and these two pronouns generate “I,” “THOU,” “HE,” “SHE,” “IT,” “WE,” “YOU(FEM.),” “YOU(MASC.),” “THEY,” providing the conceptual framework of his 1969 novel The Process, at the centre of which is the tape recorder, the “UHER that both records and wipes out the words” — the “YOU/HER” words of those speaking subjects who exist as subject pronouns, both created through language and then erased by it, for despite the tape transcriptions, “from the book alone, nothing emerges.” Gysin is both deadly serious and wonderfully playful in the ways in which he exploits and expands and puns upon the linguistic possibilities of this theme — the tape machine is both a metaphor for, and the literal embodiment of, the circulation of language, the telling of tales in an alpha-omega loop, equated with the twin reels of the tape recorder and the ouroboros smoke rings of kif. Gysin transposes and syncretizes linguistic usage, treating figures of speech as literal and taking the literal as representational. Likewise, he recognized “Word symbols turning back into visual symbols” in the form of magnetic particles on tape, and made calligraphic “pictures to be read,” while translating permutated poems into abstract symbols and then into drawings . . . His work exemplifies the synesthesia of all media and the transference and translation of experience through all the senses — it is the quintessence of Rimbaud’s program in his 1871 letter and his “Alchemy of the Word,” and the expression of Gysin’s hallucinogenic experiences as well as his multiple artistic gifts. …
Now you know some of it.