A calligraphic “spell” by Brion Gysin circa 1959/60. Projected onto Gysin’s body during his multimedia experiments as part of “Domain Poetique” in Paris. Breaking the boundary between word and body, inner and outer projections of nonverbal meaning. From the collection of Genesis Breyer P-Orridge
At that time many other writers/painters were discovering the relationship between writing and painting. Gysin’s ideas on the magical-technological approach to writing were, as Burroughs recognized, a way out of the identity habit, and a writing that eludes time, so Gysin thought, was still 50 years behind painting in this respect. It was from this perspective that the “Cut-up” technique was discovered.
“[…] while cutting out a mount for a drawing in room #25; I sliced through a pile of old newspapers …and thought of what I had said to Burroughs some six months earlier about turning painting into writing. I picked up the raw words and began to piece together texts which later appeared as the first cut-ups in Minutes to Go.”
They both realized the importance and power of their discovery and how using this technique they could disrupt the linear time sequence of writing thereby destroying ordinary patterns of conditioned word associations. The cut-ups acted as an agent for simultaneous integration and disintegration, imposing another path on the eye and thought. Allen Ginsberg wrote “It meant literally altering consciousness outside of what was already the fixed habit of language-inner-thought-monologue-abstraction-mental images- symbol-mathematical abstraction.”
Gysin and Burroughs saw these new writings as spells: “I sum on the little folk-music from the Moroccan hills proves the great god Pan not dead. I cast spells; all spells are sentences spelling out the work look that is you.” (Let the Mice In, Gysin)
Burroughs himself said he
“[…] couldn’t read them a second time as they produced a certain kind of very unhappy psychic effect. They were the sort of texts that you might use for brainwashing somebody, or you might use them for the control of an enormous number of people whom you drove mad in one particular way by one sort of this application of this dislocation of language, where by sort of breaking off all their synaptic attachments to language you would maybe acquire a social dominance over them which one considered completely undesirable.”
There is no doubt that these fears are justified as magical techniques are often tested and used by intelligence agencies of all governments.
These discoveries were not confined to the written word. They also used tape-recorders and early computers. With the help of mathematician Ian Sommerville (1941-76) they produced permutation and machine poetry. The permutation poems are acknowledged as influences by minimalist composers Phillip Glass, Terry Riley and Steve Reich. Some of these influences are noticeable in the live performances of Throbbing Gristle. Some of this is documented by Burroughs in The Electronic Revolution and his LP Nothing Here Now but the Recordings. With filmmaker Anthony Balch (1937-1980) they made Towers Open Fire; The Cut Ups; Bill and Tony; and Dream Machine. When watching these films one has the sensation of flashing backwards and forwards in time creating a flurry of deja-vu experiences.
Gysin and Burroughs together had created what they termed “The Third Mind”:
“Not the history of a literary collaboration but a fusion in a praxis of two subjectives that metamorphose into a third it is from this collusion that a new author emerged as an absent third person invisible and beyond grasp decoding the silence.”
During their time together staying at the Beat Hotel, they both identified themselves with Hassan I Sabbah—“The Old Man of the Mountain” who in the 11th century terrified establishment Islam from a mountain fortress at Alamout (in Iran). His motto “Nothing is True, Everything is permitted” became theirs. They considered the Beat Hotel as their “Alamout” from which to “Blitzkrieg” the citadels of enlightenment whipping up a complete derangement of the senses as preached by earlier Hashashins like Arthur Rimbaud and Charles Baudelaire.
Gysin believed that homosexuality was a kind of cut-up. According to Terry Wilson, he believed that ordinary heterosexuality reinforced human time by reproducing it. Orgasm was like a flash bulb capturing the same picture; the difference lay in the fact that homosexuality involved no physical reproduction. Gysin was a shaman, taking long hours, once as long as 36, to gaze into a mirror. Food, cigarettes or joints were handed to him as he sat there.
“All sorts of things, great galleries of characters running through. I got to the point where all images disappeared, eventually after more than 24 hours of staring there seemed to be a limited area where everything was covered with a palpitating cloud of smoke, which would be about waist high… there was nothing beyond that.”
Gysin rejected any claims that such activities were dangerous: “People who have some sort of mystic discipline are forever telling you that any personal experimentation is dangerous, you must do it according to the rules they have laid down, and I’ve never agreed with that either.” (Here To Go, Wilson)
Both of Gysin’s major novels, The Process and Beat Museum-Bardo Hotel have their roots in magical philosophy. The Process is based on the Islamic maxim that “Life is like a vast desert.” In the book the central character sets out across such a desert which takes a whole lifetime to cross. The process can be read as “The Life Process.” The book is also about “Intercultural Penetration,” his own experience of Moroccan culture reflected in the central character’s total immersion into Arab life.
The second book Beat Museum-Bardo Hotel is a story inspired by the death of Ian Sommerville in a car crash. It is heavily influenced by The Tibetan Book of the Dead, itself a description of after death experience. This eerie and surreal book has never been published in its entirety.
What it was that Sir Ernest Shackleton’s party encountered on their harrowing crossing of South Georgia is a question that has confounded historians, and
inspired Sunday sermons for generations of true believers. The apparition— which the explorer called the Fourth Presence—impressed Shackleton as being not of this world. It made its appearance near the end of the explorer’s grandly named Imperial Trans-Antarctic Expedition of 1914-16, an expedition which came perilously close to ending in mass disaster. The fact that it did not is the foundation of Shackleton’s legend. The expedition’s ship Endurance was trapped and then crushed by ice in the Weddell Sea even before he could embark on the attempt to traverse the Antarctic continent. The retreating crew made an escape from the ice in small boats to Elephant Island. Knowing there was no chance any search for the expedition would find them there, Shackleton decided to leave the majority of his crew behind, take a small boat, its seams patched with artist’s paints, and risk the extreme perils of the ocean south of Cape Horn, “the most tempestuous area of water in the world,” in order to reach a whaling station on the British possession of South Georgia, 800 miles away.
After braving gales and freezing temperatures for more than two weeks, the six men arrived at South Georgia in the midst of a hurricane, the small boat driven ashore on the opposite end of the island from their destination. Leaving the others with the boat, Shackleton, Commander Frank Worsley, who had captained the lost Endurance, and Tom Crean, second officer, made an arduous 36 hour crossing of the ranges and glaciers of the island. They marched in moonlight and in fog. They ascended carefully, roped together, threading around crevasses and across snowfields. They had slender rations and went virtually without sleep. At one point, they stood on an ice ridge, uncertain of what was over the other side because of a sharp incline. With a bank of fog threatening to overtake them, they opted to plunge into the unknown. At that point, only they knew the whereabouts of all the other expedition members. Had they dropped to their deaths, the entire expedition might have been doomed. Instead, they placed their fate in Providence, and survived. During their traverse, Shackleton later reflected, “we three fellows drew very close to each other, mostly in silence.” They eventually shambled into the whaling station, barely recognizable as civilized men. Rescuers were dispatched to collect the others, and all of the Endurance’s crew survived the ordeal. They were not untouched by the experience. “We had reached the naked soul of man,” Shackleton wrote in South, published in 1919.
In writing his narrative, however, Shackleton had struggled with something unspoken. Leonard Tripp, a friend and confidant, was present as the explorer tried to come to terms with it. Shackleton had tears in his eyes: “You could see that the man was suffering, and then he came to this mention of the fourth man.”1 Shackleton explained his struggle in South: “One feels ‘the dearth of human words, the roughness of mortal speech,’ in trying to describe intangible things, but a record of our journeys would be incomplete without reference to a subject very near to our hearts.” He revealed in the narrative that he had a pervasive sense, during that last and worst leg of his journey, that something out of ordinary experience accompanied them, a presence: “I know that during that long and racking march of 36 hours over the unnamed mountains and glaciers of South Georgia it seemed to me often that we were four, not three.” He had said nothing to the others, but then three weeks later Worsley offered without prompting: “Boss, I had a curious feeling on the march that there was another person with us.” Crean later confessed to the same strange sensation.
Shackleton at first did not mention the Fourth Presence to anyone else, and the passage alluding to it, which Tripp heard him dictate, was omitted in the original draft of South, written by Shackleton in collaboration with Edward Sanders in Australia in 1917. The presence does, however, appear on a
separate sheet of paper labelled “note” in another typescript of the manuscript. Apparently Shackleton initially withheld the passage, before deciding to include it in the final version of the manuscript. He did, however, allude to it during some of his public lectures. Recalled one person who attended a banquet in London given in his honor: “You could hear a pin drop when Sir Ernest spoke of his consciousness of a Divine Companion in his journeyings.”
Frank W. Boreham, in his 1926 book A Casket of Cameos, cites as “testimony concerning his Unseen Comrade” an account given by Ada E. Warden, who was present for a lecture by Shackleton given shortly before his death, in 1922. Said Warden:
After repeating the story of the appalling voyage in the open boat from Elephant Island to South Georgia, he quoted the words from the one hundred and thirty-ninth Psalm: “If I take the wings of the morning, and dwell in the uttermost parts of the sea, even there shall Thy hand lead me and Thy right hand shall hold me.” He repeated the words most impressively, and said they were a continual source of strength to him.2
So was the Fourth Presence, as the one listener at a Shackleton lecture surmised, the guiding, protective hand of the “Divine Companion,” and as Boreham declared, “the Son of God”? Or was it something of equal mystery, if not glory and power?
Boreham, a British writer and Baptist minister who lived much of his life in New Zealand and Australia, took Shackleton’s use of Scripture as proof of his abiding Christian faith, and hence as a clue to the true identity of the presence. Boreham found support for his conviction in Daniel 3:24-5:
And Nebuchandnezzar the king was astonished, and rose up in haste, and spake, and said unto his counsellors, Did we not cast three men bound into the midst of the fire? They answered and said unto the king, True, 0 king.
He answered and said, Lo, I see four men loose, walking in the midst of the fire, and they have no hurt; and the form of the fourth is like the Son of God.
“Boss, I had a curious feeling on the march that there was another person with us.”
Wrote Boreham: “Flame or frost; it makes no difference. A truth that, in one age, can hold its own in a burning fiery furnace can, in another, vindicate itself just as readily amidst fields of ice and snow.” In either case the same conclusion applied, Boreham argued: “the form of the fourth is like the Son of God!”
So was the Fourth Presence, as the one listener at a Shackleton lecture surmised, the guiding, protective hand of the “Divine Companion,” and as Boreham declared, “the Son of God”? Or was it something of equal mystery, if not glory and power? In their accounts of Shackleton’s expedition, historians have struggled with it, speculating that it was an hallucination, that the “toil (was) enough to cloud their consciousness.”3 The possibility was even raised that it was “an attempt on Shackleton’s part to court publicity, at a time of national emotion, by producing his own ‘Angel of Mons.’4 This is a reference to the First World War legend that an angel had appeared in the sky during the British retreat from Mons during August 1914, safeguarding the British army. A journalist and writer of fantasy literature later said he had invented the angel. However, the writer Harold Begbie, who knew Shackleton and wrote an appreciation of the explorer in 1922, also authored On the Side of the Angels, which attempts to document that British soldiers believed that angels had appeared to them.
None of the men who experienced the Fourth Presence on South Georgia were ever definitive on the subject of their belief. In remarks made to Begbie, Shackleton remained ambivalent: “We were comrades with Death all the time, but I can honestly say that it wasn’t bad. We always felt there was Something Above.” Shackleton clearly felt he had undergone a mystical experience, but did not elaborate. Begbie put it this way: “He was really profoundly conscious of the spiritual reality which abides hidden in all visible things.” A naval officer recalled Shackleton alluding to the presence during a conversation: “He attempted no explanation. ‘In religion I am what I am’ were his Vuords.”5 Whatever it was they encountered, it remained with them to the end. In one of his later lectures, Worsley, who died in 1943, referred to a party of four men making the crossing of South Georgia. Afterwards, his wife, Jean, pointed out his error. Worsley was stricken. “Whatever will they think of me,” he said. “I can’t get it out of my mind.”6
T. S. Eliot described the phenomenon in Part V of The Waste Land, first published in 1922, the year of Shackleton’s death:
Who is the third who walks always beside you? When I count, there are only you and I together But when I look ahead up the white road There is always another one walking beside you.