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A Word in Your Era: William Burroughs explains Brion Gysin’s ‘Cut-Up Method’

I have always thought William Burroughs was a terribly superstitious man. His life was tinged by the strange, the paranormal and the occult. Whether this was his interest in the number “23”; or his hours spent gazing into mirrors in search of visions; or his belief that he could negate curses by repeating his own (“Go back, go back…” etc); or that he could, somehow, divine the future from Brion Gysin’s “Cut-Up” techniques.

Of course, he couldn’t. But he was always smart enough to suggest he could (for what it’s worth), while at the same time creating distance through the wry aside, the knowing wink, to escape any suggestion he was deluded.

Put it this way, if some acquaintance buttonholed you at a party, with a relentless, monotone whine of how they closed down a Scientology office by repeatedly playing recorded tapes outside the premises, you would make your excuses and head for the canapes.

Burroughs claims as much here, in his explanation of Brion Gysin’s “Cut-Up Method.”

When you experiment with Cut-Ups over a period of time you find that some of the Cut-Ups in re-arranged texts seemed to refer to future events. I cut-up an article written by John-Paul Getty and got, “It’s a bad thing to sue your own father.” This was a re-arrangement and wasn’t in the original text, and a year later, one of his sons did sue him.

Then comes the knowing aside…

Purely extraneous information, it meant nothing to me. Nothing to gain on either side.

Before he goes on to confirm his acceptance of some mysterious powers of divination.

We had no explanation for this at the time, it just suggesting that when you cut into the Present the Future leaks out. Well, we certainly accepted it, and continued our experiments.

Burroughs liked adopting the ways of a shaman.

He claimed he had been possessed by an “Ugly Spirit” that had made him kill his wife, Joan. He later painted this Ugly Spirit with a shotgun full of paint, before attempting to exorcize it in a sweat lodge with Allen Ginsberg.

Of course, this was (as Francis Wheen might say) mere “Mumbo Jumbo.” Fancy. The kind of narrative writers of pot-boilers concoct. Burroughs’ first influence was the dime store fiction he read as a child, in particular Jack Black’s autobiographical You Can’t Win, and we all can recognize the influence in his work of T. S. Eliot, John Dos Passos, and even Raymond Chandler. However, I’ve often jokingly considered (in a moment of whimsy) that many of Burroughs “Cut Up” novels veer closer to Geoffrey Willans’ Nigel Molesworth books of the 1950s—a reading of Down With Skool, Whizz for Atoms or even Back in Jug Agane contains much of the episodic style, the pastiche, the rebellious boys, alien life forms, revolution and violence. Though, admittedly, Molesworth is far funnier.

But back to “Cut Ups.”

Every generation will at some point lay claim to the originality of a previous one. The “Cut-Up Method” was not a new idea. DaDaist Tristan Tzara had used it as a way to compose poetry, literally on-the-spot, reciting various cut-up words picked at random from a hat. Arguably, the inspiration for Tzara was Cubism and the painter Braque, more than Picasso, who used newspapers and print in his paintings and collages.

This “Cut Up” technique was adopted by the Surrealists, who always liked to take other’s ideas, and by artists,  such as Hans Arp and Kurt Schwitters, who created their own language out of words and sounds to make original poetry.

Then, of course, there’s the Modernist writers like Eliot (The Wasteland) and Dos Pasos (U.S.A.), who developed their own highly successful (and greatly imitated) “Cut-Up Method.”

So, it comes to this: the idea artist Brion Gysin knew fuck-all about DaDa, or Tzara, or Eliot, etc. is, frankly, unbelievable. That he did accidentally cut through newspapers and magazines, etc, and saw the possibilities, I don’t doubt. What I do question is that they had no knowledge of those artists and writers that came before—considering how Gysin and Burroughs were both well-read and claimed to be knowledgeable of these artists and writers work. Now, if I can just prove that link to Nigel Molesworth…ahem.

Gysin and Burroughs certainly made “Cut Up Method” contemporary through the use of tape recorders and film—which continues to influence to this day, but arguably even this was not original.

Animator Matti Niinimaki’s short film Cut Ups uses an edited version of Burroughs description of Gysin’s “Cut Up Method,” to make a rather delightful film.

Previously on Dangerous Minds

A Complete Disorientation of the Senses: William Burroughs’ and Anthony Balch’s ‘Cut-Ups’


Posted by Paul Gallagher
04:08 pm



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