If you’ve never heard of the late English / Canadian / American / French / Moroccan artist Brion Gysin, you’re not alone. Even if you have heard of him, it’s probably been in the form of fragmentary anecdotes about his role on the periphery of the Beat movement, introducing the “cut-up” method of literary collage to William Burroughs’ already nonlinear narratives. Or as the inventor of the hallucinogenic kinetic strobe sculpture called the Dreamachine.Or as the discoverer and promoter of Moroccan trance music stars the Master Musicians of Jajouka. Or as the guy who gave Alice B. Toklas that recipe for hash brownies. Maybe you’ve even heard that he was a painter.
Until quite recently, most awareness of Gysin — who died of cancer in 1986 — derived from a flurry of interest following the publication of TheThirdMindin 1978. Originally compiled in 1965, the book collected Gysin and Burroughs’ collaborative works regarding the cut-up method. While some of the critical response was hostile — many of Burroughs’ early supporters felt that the cut-up method had completely derailed his credibility (not to mention intelligibility) as a novelist — TheThirdMindhad a profound impact on young, literate post-punks. Throbbing Gristle’s Genesis P. Orridge introduced Gysin’s work to San Francisco’s RE/Search Publications, which dedicated a third of one of its widely disseminated paperback journals to him, then published another project-in-limbo: a collection of fascinating interviews with Gysin titled HereToGo.While Gysin was able to parlay this attention into a minor bit of literary celebrity, his untimely illness and eventual demise nipped the revival in the bud, and he sank back into semiobscurity.
This may be about to change with the publication of John Geiger’s NothingIsTrue—EverythingIsPermitted:TheLifeofBrionGysinby the Disinformation Company. Long overdue, this thorough, evenhanded report of the facts of Gysin’s life and work finally brings together the widely divergent strands of creativity and adventure into a single narrative, free from the entertaining but unnecessary self-mythologizing (and self-pity) that skewed Gysin’s own accounts. Geiger is best-known as co-author (with forensic anthropologist Owen Beattie) of FrozeninTime,the best-selling investigative account of the doomed 1845 Franklin Expedition to find the fabled Northwest Passage. While this helps account for the assured journalistic tone of EverythingIsPermitted,it also makes you wonder how a governor and fellow of the Royal Canadian Geographical Society got interested in a kif-chuffing, magick-practicing queer Surrealist poet/painter gone native in Morocco.
“I was living in Edmonton, and was astonished to discover that Gysin grew up there,” Geiger tells me via e-mail. “I had trouble imagining he could have come from such a place. Edmonton in the ’20s was a very small, very conservative town. When I spoke to Burroughs about it, he said Gysin considered it ‘Nowheresville.’ What fascinated me was how he got out, how he avoided a life of complacency and predictability. I mean, his mother was determined that he would become a librarian . . .”
Geiger’s revelations about Gysin’s childhood make for some of the most compelling and sympathetic passages in the book — father dead in the WWI trenches of Europe before Brian’s (the eccentric spelling came later) first birthday, mother’s subsequent marriage to an older drugstore manager/Indian agent later annulled “by reason of malformation, or frigidity and impotence of his parts of generation,” a sickly half sister who died at age 8, and seven grueling years at a more-English-than-the-English boarding facility called Mr. Nightingale’s Westward Ho! School for Boys. When Mom shipped him off to a Catholic boarding school in Somerset, England, he never looked back, using his exile (and the passport typo of his first name) as a chance for self-reinvention — a project that was to take up the remaining five decades of his life.
He began at school by discovering his sexual orientation and interest in modern literature and abstract art. At 18, instead of returning to Canada, Gysin made for Paris — attending the Sorbonne, frequenting Gertrude Stein’s salon and turning tricks to buy Henry Miller novels. Not yet 20, he was invited to participate in a high-profile Surrealist exhibit alongside Magritte, Ernst, Dalí and Picasso, only to be excommunicated by the famously purge-happy André Breton the morning of the show’s opening. This was a pivotal experience for Gysin, who never quite trusted the art world — or anyone else — again. And it set the pattern for innumerable cultural transactions to come — misinterpretations, exclusions, backstabbings — that can largely be traced to Gysin’s deeply ingrained expectations of betrayal.
He hightailed it for New York at the outbreak of WWII, was drafted in 1944, and wound up learning Japanese calligraphy in the Canadian Intelligence Corps and writing a book-length account of the real Uncle Tom, Josiah Henson. He was granted U.S. citizenship after the war, but by 1950 wound up back in Paris at loose ends, until prewar Left Bank café acquaintances Jane and Paul Bowles invited him to spend the summer in Morocco. He stayed on and off for 23 years, opening a legendary restaurant called 1001 Nights, with the Master Musicians of Jajouka as house band, exploring drugs and Scientology, and enjoying the freedoms of the International Zone. It was there he first encountered Burroughs, though it would be a few years before their personalities clicked. When Morocco achieved independence in 1956, 1001 Nights shut its doors for good.
Gysin and friends
1958 saw Gysin back in Paris, painting again, and hooking up with Burroughs at the legendary “Beat Hotel” — a sleazy, decrepit rooming house that served as the European headquarters for Allen Ginsberg, Gregory Corso and other Beat luminaries — where he helped him edit the soon-to-be-notorious novel NakedLunch.The next few years saw one of the most exciting creative collaborations of the 20th century, as Burroughs and Gysin egged each other on in their formal and magickal assault on the precincts of language, working on a large number of texts, including those collected in TheThirdMindand the Burroughs-attributed novel TheTicketThatExploded,as well as a remarkable series of notebooks filled with collages of cut-up text and found photography organized around calligraphic grids inked by Gysin.
These collages, along with the DreamachineGysin developed with English electronics whiz Ian Somerville, were the hits of the William Burroughs exhibit “Ports of Entry” at LACMA in 1996, though Gysin received little credit. Much of the problem was due to the fact that Gysin was all over the place — at the same time as the cut-ups and Dreamachineresearches, Gysin was doing pioneering work as a sound artist and concrete poet, and producing a remarkable body of paintings that apply the same fiercely lyrical deconstructivism as the cut-ups to the primary visual linguistic mark-making gesture of calligraphy. Rooted in the Automatist branch of Surrealism, and bearing some resemblance to artists like Mark Tobey and Richard Pousette-Dart, Gysin’s paintings were nevertheless outside the frame of reference of contemporary art, and in spite of their considerable beauty and historical significance, remain largely unknown.
After Grove Press bailed on TheThirdMindin 1965, the fever pitch abated somewhat, and Gysin began to coast a bit, though his influence crept through the subculture, especially affecting rock lyricists like David Bowie and Michael Stipe — writers who aren’t obliged to make sense. By the time of his death he was in a peculiar position of semifame from which he has yet to emerge. In 1998, the Edmonton Art Gallery assembled a comprehensive survey of his career — focusing serious museum attention for the first time on his visual art. At one point, the curators were in negotiation to take the show to L.A. and New York, but it only made it as far as Winnipeg. (The gorgeous catalog, TuningIntotheMultimediaAge,with essays by Geiger, Burroughs, Corso, Barry Miles and others, is nevertheless still available from Thames & Hudson.) Several CDs of his recordings have been in and out of print, as have most of his books. HereToGowas recently reissued by Creation Books, but TheThirdMindhas been out of print for decades, fetching upward of $50 on Amazon. Still, there seems to be a groundswell of interest, and ironically — considering Gysin’s life was dedicated to undermining the authoritarianism of conventional and habitual patterns of communication — Geiger’s biography is just the kind of solid narrative that can galvanize mainstream acceptance of some of the artist’s more mind-altering ideas.
“As one of the obits about him said, ‘he threw off ideas like a train does sparks,’ ” Geiger tells me. “Those ideas have been smoldering and are starting to burn. They could yet explode.”
NOTHINGISTRUE—EVERYTHINGISPERMITTED:TheLifeofBrionGysin| By JOHN GEIGER | The Disinformation Company | 320 pages | $28 hardcover