(In Paris during the 1970s Brion Gysin pointed out to me that it was extremely significant that the very first chapter of The Book of Genesis in the Bible is known as “The Creation.” He also chose to point this out in an early permutation poem “In the beginning was the WORD and the WORD was God.”)
I first met William S. Burroughs in London, at Duke Street, St. James, in 1971 after a brief series of postal correspondence. It actually felt and seemed strange, as I had discovered his existence via Jack Kerouac as the mysterious character “Bull Lee.” Confirmation of his being an actual person led me to the porn district of Soho in 1965, where I snagged a copy, a first edition actually, with dust jacket by Brion Gysin, of Naked Lunch. It had been prosecuted for obscenity, so porn shops were the only places in those days to buy Burroughs, Henry Miller, and Jean Genet and pretty much everything else I was consuming as confirmation, vindication and affirmation as a 15- year-old. Six years after beginning my Beat odyssey via books, my very first question to him, a living, breathing, Beatnik legend in the flesh was… “Tell me about magick?”
William had a cut out, cardboard, life-sized photo of Mick Jagger standing by his bookcase. Its significance was the rite of “Performance” not rock and roll.
On the television set were a full bottle of Jack Daniels, and a remote, the first I ever saw. William was not in the least surprised by my question. “Care for a drink?” he asked. “Sure” I replied, nervous and for one of the only times ever in my life, in awe. “Well… Reality is not really all it’s cracked up to be, you know,” he continued. He took the remote and started to flip through the channels, cutting up programmed TV I realized he was teaching me. At the same time he began to hit stop and start on his Sony TC cassette recorder, mixing in “random” cut-up prior recordings. These were overlaid with our conversation, none acknowledging the other, an instant holography of information and environment. I was already being taught. What Bill explained to me then was pivotal to the unfolding of my life and art: Everything is recorded. If it is recorded, then it can be edited. If it can be edited then the order, sense, meaning and direction are as arbitrary and personal as the agenda and/or person editing. This is magick. For if we have the ability and/or choice of how things unfold—regardless of the original order and/or intention that they are recorded in—then we have control over the eventual unfolding. If reality consists of a series of parallel recordings that usually go unchallenged, then reality only remains stable and predictable until it is challenged and/or the recordings are altered, or their order changed. These concepts lead us to the release of cut-ups as a magical process.
What Bill explained to me then was pivotal to the unfolding of my life and art. Everything is recorded. If it is recorded, then it can be edited. If it can be edited then the order, sense, meaning and direction are as arbitrary and personal as the agenda and/or person editing. This is magick..
At this point we broke open the hard liquor and each downed a large glass. Soon (it seemed) the bottle was empty.
What I was then told changed the unfolding of my life in every possible dimension and concept of the word. He told me about how during the Chicago Democratic convention in 1968 he had walked around recording the background noises of the Yippie demonstrations, the riots, the Mayor Daley repression and violence. As he walked, he would randomly hit record at intervals “cutting-in” the most recent sounds around him creating a collage
that was non-linear time. What he observed happening was that as a configuration of “trouble sounds” occurred (i.e. police sirens, screams, chanting of slogans) the actual physical manifestations and/or expressions of those sounds also increased in what we think of as the “real” physical world. His next experiment was to work with “passive” environmental audioscapes in order to check his evidence and see if it could be replicated. As William explained it to me later, in what became an apocryphal action, he had decided to check more “scientifically” the theories he had been assembling with Brion Gysin regarding “reality” being a linear recording. A malleable medium or element that was subject, as such, to the intervention of edits and erasings, rub-outs and re-sculpting if you will. Not far from Duke Street (where he was then living in voluntary exile, a choice I would find myself compelled to make years later) was a basic British/Greek cafe called the Moka Bar where he might sometimes relax and get the classic English breakfast of chips, baked beans, fried eggs, fried tomatoes, mushrooms and toast with a large cup of tea, or an instant coffee. Nothing special. Nowhere special. The perfect place, in fact, to encounter arrogance and snobbery, abruptness and poor manners on the part of the very people indentured to one’s service. On one of those days, a day when all is over-colored, over-laid, and over-bearing, William was treated with great disdain, with rudeness beyond belief. Crass, crude, rude, nasty and aggressive, insulting behavior quite beyond the acceptable pale of manners. Such was the rudeness and unpleasantness experienced by William that he swore never to eat there again. But, more than that, his disgust and anger was so intense and intentional, so unforgiving and angry in the moment that he felt quite compelled to experimental “sorcery” (his word to me, take note). What form did his curse take? Here follows the first lesson in contemporary intuitive and functional magick.
William took his Sony TC cassette recorder and very methodically walked back and forth in front of the offending cafe, at breakfast-time and other times of day, making a tape of the ongoing street noises that made the sonic background of its location. A field recording encapsulating a typical day via street sounds. Next he went back to his apartment and at various random places on the same cassette he recorded “trouble noises” over bits of the previous recordings. These were things like police car sirens, gunshots, bombs, screams and other types of mayhem culled primarily from the TV news. Then he went back to the cafe and again walked up and down the street outside playing the cut-up cassette recording complete with “trouble noises.”
Apparently the tape does not need to be played very loud, in fact just a volume that blends in so that passers-by on the other side of the street, or a few feet away would not notice the additional sounds as implanted fictions. This process was repeated several times, quite innocuous to any observer. “L’hombre invisible” at work. Within a very short time, the cafe closed down! Not only did it close down, but the space remained empty for years, unable to be rented for love, or money.
Brion Gysin in his Paris apartment in 1984 during a conversation about the real temperature at which water boils in order to make perfect mint tea. Photograph from the collection of, taken by and © of Genesis Breyer P-Orridge 1984/2003.
Previously unpublished Polaroid photograph of the reel-to-reel tape recorder used by Burroughs and P-Orridge to conduct experiments based upon the techniques of Konstantin Raudive to attempt to record the “voices” of dead spirits onto tape using no microphone. This occasion was on Hiroshima Day, August 6th, 1981 in “The Bunker” on the Bowery, New York. Photograph © 1981/2003 Genesis Breyer P-Orridge
We would do well to consider at this point, that each individual human being is inevitably the center of their own unique universe/sensory/experiential world. Only YOU are physically present every single second of your personal life and as a result, any person, or event that takes place without your physical presence is a part of somebody else’s unique universe. Of course, there are times when others are present and then they will tend to assume you are all in one universe together. However, ask any cop if they get the same
story from a variety of witnesses, or the same description of a suspect, and you will be told in no uncertain terms, that nobody sees or hears the same thing at the same time as someone else, nor do they share equal abilities to describe or recall what they imagine their memories have recorded. In other words, consensus reality is, just that, an amalgamation of approximate recordings from flawed biomachines. The background of our daily lives is almost the equivalent of a flimsy movie set, unfolding and created by the sum total of what people allow to filter in through their senses. This illusory material world, built ad hoc, second to second, is uncommon to us all. It will only seem to exist whilst our body is passing through it. After that its continued existence is a matter of faith, and our experience of it seeming to have a continuity of presence, i.e., if we find we can apparently go back to a place that seems solid. It is quite possible that the energy or phenomenon that glues together a repeatable experience of solidity and materiality on this earth is the pressure of billions of human beings simultaneously, and in close proximity, believing in what they see and hear. Bear in mind that history is the collected recordings of subjective previous people(s) and our species. What has survived, what was memorized or stored in some form is usually assumed to be the story of our unfolding species. Nevertheless, we are more than aware that certain events are written up with agendas included: bitter families, dogmatic religions, democracies, and totalitarian regimes all collude in this process of editing. It has crossed my mind that this entire planet is a recording device itself. As archeology and anthropology and forensic science progress we are able to discover and reveal endless detail of happenings going back millions of years. Also, side-by-side, we have almost every period of human species history still continuing today. The bushmen in Africa live in a basically prehistoric way; tribes in New Guinea in the Stone Age; other peoples in a barbaric Middle Ages; entire communities in middle America live almost in a fundamentalist Victorian era; and yet others, in somewhere like Silicon Valley or Tokyo, live in a technological science fiction future. This is a remarkable thing. Infinite micro-realities existing simultaneously, by their very activation creating an appearance of “reality” and infinite, social, macro-realities parallel and colliding and competing for supremacy and with it the power to edit and describe a global “reality.”
Ask any cop if they get the same story from a variety of witnesses, or the same description of a suspect, and you will be told in no uncertain terms, that nobody sees, or hears, the
same thing at the same time.
At this point I feel it helpful to remind the reader that this essay is necessarily, as part of an anthology, only an over-view of the complex and wide-ranging evidence consistently to be found in the creative works, in all media, of William S. Burroughs and Brion Gysin. My thereby implicit proposal is, that whilst Burroughs was indeed a classic literary figure of the 20th century; and Gysin a classic 20th century “renaissance” artist, who together bequeathed to us through intuitive science, method and a prophetic appreciation of meaning, a pivotal approach to questions of perception and the nature and origin of literature and art, they can only be fully appreciated, and, perhaps, finally understood, in terms of their central and passionate inner agendas and obsessions when re-considered and re-assessed as serious, conscious and masterful creative /cultural alchemists and practicing magicians, a mission for which I have taken the linguistic liberty of coining the term/occupation “Cultural Engineer.”
Burroughs listens intently to the Raudive recordings for any evidence of messages from spirits of the dead. Photograph © 1981/2003 Genesis Breyer P-Orridge
As their works as this unexpected brotherhood unfold after their collaborations begin at “The Beat Hotel” in Paris during 1957 to 1963 and meticulously thereafter, one is immersed with them in a fascinating journey into pre-material consciousness, a place where direct and indirect
communications with the nervous system occur; where nothing is fixed or permanent. Everything is true and permitted; where ancient programming holds prisoner the possible truths of who and what we are, and where even words are potential enemy agents and distortion devices that assist in the suppression of our potential as beings. This wordless “Interzone” was so “inconceivable” to even such a libertarian poet as Allen Ginsberg that he felt it ”…threatened everything.” It is not uncommon for people to demonstrate symptoms of fear and insecurity when the very fabric of their protective safety blanket “reality” is scattered, shattered, shredded and then further cut- up to reveal a central possibility of divinity and love within all things and perceptions of things. It can be painful to release the last connection to an inherited linear space time “reality” assembled from filtered essence of solidifying mundanity. In a magical universe, everything and every thing is malleable, changeable, interconnected at invisibly deep levels, levels so subtle and sub-atomic that consciousness and intention can affect them.
“Intention is the work of envisaging and enacting will”
-Ray L. Hart in “Unfinished Man and the Imagination”1
In an oft quoted moment, Gysin proposed to Burroughs, “Writing is 50 years behind painting,” by which he meant that painting had begun to call into question all the traditional boundaries and templates. Even reason and object were arbitrary and unnecessary markers. By his introduction of the cut-up in all its manifestations, Gysin, the accomplished “shaman” as Burroughs so rightly designated him, gave his compadre the magical tool(s) required for a lifetime’s astonishing—recorded as literature—revelation. Their intricate and dazzling story and their functional, demystified techniques and process continue to leak into present time in preparation for various possible futures. I believe that a re-reading of their combined body of work from a magical perspective only confirms what they themselves accepted about themselves, that they were powerful modern magicians. To view them otherwise does a great disservice to us all. In this post-digital age, as we each construct our own personal “reality tunnels” it is my conviction that a positive unfolding of our species, and an evolution that is nondestructive and anathema to polarization, is absolutely central to our survival with ethical honor.
This wordless “Interzone” was so “inconceivable” to even such a libertarian poet as Allen Ginsberg that he felt it
In the ever more metaphysical world of physics, a parallel sequence of “discoveries” equivalent in their importance to science as the “cut-ups” system of magick is to culture, has potentially reshaped our understanding of the universe and “reality.” According to physicist David Bohm (and simplifying as best as I can as a lay person) any apparent separation between matter and consciousness is an illusion, an artifact that occurs or is assembled only after both consciousness and matter have unfolded into the “explicate” world of objects and linear/sequential time. As one might expect the other realm would be the “implicate” world, which would be all those inner “worlds” (including thought) that take place outside linear time, and sensory confluence. What is coming to be accepted as a non-material field of consciousness? Bohm’s researches suggested to him “…at the sub-quantum level, in which the quantum potential operated, location ceased to exist. All points in space became equal to all other points in space, and it was meaningless to speak of anything being separate from anything else.” Interestingly, a Cheyenne/Apache shaman told me years and years ago that there was no word for death in his clan; instead they used the word “separation“” to express the concept. Similarly, the Shiva holy man Pagalananda Nath Agori Baba spent many patient hours deprogramming my Western linear materiality in order for me to be better able to grasp the concept of his “path of no distinction.” The Egyptian sage Hermes Trismegistus explained this absolute elsewhere idea hundreds of years ago when he was recorded as saying “The without is like the within of things and the small of things is like the large.”
“Writing is fifty years behind painting.”
So now, finally, after thousands of years, we have a consensus of great significance born of this unprecedented and radical intersection between mystic, scientist, shaman and artist. Partly for lack of adequate language and partly to camouflage their subversive ideas in order to stay alive, various enlightened visionaries, often the “heretics” of their era, have employed brain-twisting metaphors to describe the Universe of objective “reality” as an illusion. What scientists are trying to describe to us now is a Universe where, according to thinkers like Niels Bohr and others, subatomic particles require an observer to come into existence and without an observer’s presence they do not come into existence. Even more remarkable that away from us, each