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Brion Gysin (1916-1986)

English visual artist, writer, and performance artist Brion Gysin (1916-1986) was one of Burroughs’s most trusted friends and his closest collaborator. Burroughs remembered Gysin as “the only man he ever respected.” Interdisciplinary, inter- and multinational in scope, Gysin is credited for being ahead of his time, transcending generic boundaries, and experimenting with new media. Gysin’s calligraphic painting style was heavily influenced by Arabic calligraphy he discovered in Morocco, his study of Japanese, and black magic spells. His writing also incorporated experiments with audio tape, cut-ups, and permutation poems.

Paul Bowles introduced Burroughs and Gysin in Tangier, Morocco, where Gysin owned a restaurant at which he employed the Master Musicians of Jajouka. Burroughs and Gysin initially did not mesh and did not see much of one another in Tangier. Gysin and Bowles had known each other since the 1930s, and in 1950, on Bowles’s invitation, Gysin first visited Tangier. Between 1958 and 1963, Gysin and Burroughs reconnected and developed a deep bond at the Beat Hotel in Paris. Burroughs spent as much time in Gysin’s Room 25 as in his own. They shared many interests and beliefs, including fascination with conspiracies, magic, and altered states of consciousness. They incorporated the maxim of Hassan-i-Sabbah, leader of an eleventh-century Persian sect known as the Assassins, which stated: “Nothing is true, everything is permitted.” Gysin introduced the Old Man of the Mountain to Burroughs through Betty Bouthoul’s 1936 book Le Grand Maître des Assassins (The Master of the Assassins.) Hassan-i-Sabbah emerged as a character in several of Burroughs’s books, first appearing in the Naked Lunch in “Hassan’s Rumpus Room.”

After leaving the Beat Hotel in 1963, Gysin returned to Tangier, where he remained until the early 1970s when he joined Burroughs in London. He soon moved back to Paris, where he lived until his death in 1986. Gysin continued to exhibit his artwork in Paris, though without much commercial or critical success. He was diagnosed with colon cancer in 1975 and lung cancer in 1986. Gysin died of a heart attack in 1986.


From his very early days as a writer, Burroughs thrived on collaboration and the mental stimulation and encouragement a trusted and like-minded partner could provide. Burroughs found this in Brion Gysin. Their series of collaborative experiments with art, language, and technology began with the cut-up. The cut-up technique comprises pages of typed or printed text—cut first vertically, then horizontally—and rearranged to create new pages, new images and new meanings. Gysin discovered the cut-up in 1959 when creating a mount for a drawing. He had sliced through several layers of newspapers and magazines and paired the resulting fragments.

Cut-ups have been compared to Tristan Tzara’s creation of a Dadaist poem by pulling words from a hat: arbitrary, deconstructive, and spontaneous. But the cut-up method combines the randomness of the cuts with meaningful selection and artistic decision of juxtaposing and pairing them. Burroughs said, “A page of Rimbaud cut up and rearranged will give you quite new images—real Rimbaud images—but new ones…Cut-ups establish new connections between images, and one’s range of vision consequently expands.” The cut-up displaces and distorts linearity and expands language and human consciousness by forming and reforming narrative structures. Burroughs’s pre-occupation with control focused on language’s central role as a control agent, as a virus embedded into consciousness. The cut-up became a weapon with which Burroughs could fight the control machine of language, a remedy for the word virus.

Some writers, particularly Gregory Corso, did not appreciate having their material appropriated for the cut-ups, although the source material for Burroughs’s cut-ups was often his own. Burroughs explained that all writing is cut-ups, a conglomeration of words overheard, read, absorbed from various sources. The cut-up acknowledges and exposes layers of reality, consciousness, and external influences. The cut-up, too, democratized writing. Gysin and Burroughs insisted that “Poetry is for everybody.”

William S. Burroughs and Brion Gysin
The Third Mind. New York: Viking Press, [1978.] 
Unrevised and unpublished proofs.

Gysin and Burroughs described the result of their synergy as the product of a “third mind,” a superior mind and “unseen collaborator.” The Third Mind is an accumulation of their cut-ups, scrapbook layouts, and photo montages.

Brion Gysin
Letter to Paul Bowles, July 14, 1965
Paul Bowles papers

Gysin sends Bowles news of his and Burroughs’s cut-up book, eventually published under the title The Third Mind over ten years later in 1976; Gysin’s report signals the first of the difficulties with the book’s publication. He also notes that Burroughs seemed to prefer the first title “Right Where You Are Sitting Now.” Gysin updates Bowles on his attempts to market his Dream Machine, asks after Bowles’s wife Jane, and informs him of his desire to be in Morocco.

Brion Gysin
Postcard to Paul Bowles with photo-collage, January 3, 1979
Paul Bowles papers

Brion Gysin
Let the Mice In. Edited by Jan Herman. With texts by William Burroughs & Ian Sommerville. West Glovers, Vermont: Something Else Press, 1973. 
Presentation copy inscribed by Gysin to his close friend British writer Felicity Mason (1917-1993), dated November 1, 1974.

This collection of the trio’s collaborations and experiments include pieces on Gysin and Sommerville’s Dream Machine, “The Invisible Generation,” which examines experiments with audio tape, and “Permutated poems of Brion Gysin as put through a computer by Ian Sommerville.” The frontispiece photograph shows Gysin at work on one of his trademark calligraphic paintings. Burroughs met Ian Sommerville (1940-1976) at the Beat Hotel in 1959, during which time he nursed Burroughs through codeine withdrawal. The two became lovers, and although the romantic aspect of their relationship eventually diminished, Burroughs considered theirs a romance and intimate friendship that changed his life. Sommerville helped Burroughs organize his files and manuscripts, and his technological expertise and early computer programming skills assisted Gysin, Burroughs, and filmmaker Anthony Balch’s genre-defying experiments into new media, long before the term new media was coined. Sommerville appears as The Subliminal Kid in The Ticket That Exploded and Technical Tilly in Nova Express. Sommerville died in a car accident in 1976.

Brion Gysin
The Exterminator. San Francisco: Auerhahn Press, 1960. First edition. 
Designed and printed by David Haselwood. Cover calligraphy by Gysin.

Not to be confused with Burroughs’s 1973 compilation Exterminator!, this Burroughs-Gysin cut-up collaboration was the eighth book produced by David Haselwood’s San Francisco Auerhahn Press. Haselwood published other authors associated with the Beats, including John Wieners, Michael McClure, and Philip Lamantia. The Exterminator is a mix of essays, poetry, and fiction; Burroughs described the work as a “cosmic opera,” anticipating his highly experimental cut-up period to follow.

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