If Brion Gysin had not existed, it probably would have been necessary to invent him, as the saying goes. Pre-eminent multimedia psychedelic shaman of the latter-half of the twentieth century, Gysin was something of a jack-of-all-trades: artist, calligrapher, entrepreneur, kinetic sculptor, novelist, performance artist, photographer, poet, raconteur, restaurateur, and traveller in this-and-other worlds. Brion did it all.
Even a brief list of the names he crossed paths with sounds like a veritable who’s who: Laurie Anderson, Francis Bacon, David Bowie, Paul Bowles, Ira Cohen, Ornette Coleman, Max Ernst, Marianne Faithfull, Leonor Fini, Jean Genet, Keith Haring, Billie Holliday, Brian Jones, Timothy Leary, Iggy Pop, Genesis P-Orridge, Patti Smith, Gore Vidal – and, of course, his long-term friend and collaborator, William Burroughs – are among the friends, fellow-travellers and sometimes collaborators that have spoken of their admiration for the man and his work. As his biographer, John Geiger, wrote:
Brion Gysin may be the most influential cultural figure of the twentieth century that most people have never heard of.
‘Brion Gysin’ was originally John Clifford Brian Gysin, born 19 January 1916 in Taplow, Buckinghamshire, England. He never knew his English-born father, who had emigrated to Canada, just in time to marry and father a child, before joining up and getting sent back to Europe to die in the First World War. After moving back to Edmonton in Canada with his young widowed mother, Gysin always preferred to stress his Swiss ancestry via his paternal grandfather, but even then he would complain later in life concerning the ‘delivery’ of his birth:
Wrong address! Wrong address! There’s been a mistake in the mail. Send me back. Wherever you got me, return me. Wrong time, wrong place, wrong colour.
The young Gysin wanted to “have adventures and see visions” and figured that Paris was the place. Moving there at 18, his career as a painter should have got off to a spectacular start: a chance encounter with Marie-Beth Aurenche – then still the first Mrs Max Ernst – gave access to the hottest scene in town, the Surrealists. Without formal art tuition, Gysin got some basic tips from the Argentinian spitfire, Leonor Fini, but the main lesson came from visiting Ernst’s studio and seeing that the objective was “to make the paint make the painting.” Barely 19, Gysin was soon invited to exhibit alongside Ernst, Fini, and Valentine Hugo – as well as Dali, Magritte and Picasso – but before the show’s opening his work was taken down by poet Paul Eluard, on orders of the ‘Pope’ of Surrealism, André Breton. Gysin never really found out why, but he was sure the fact he had just come out as homosexual had something to do with it. Whatever the reason, it was a crushing blow.
Disillusioned, Gysin took off travelling, first to Greece and then Algeria. On his return to the States in 1939 he met a number of former Surrealists who had fled war in Europe. He shared a studio with the Chilean Roberto Matta, the beginning of a lifelong friendship, and also worked on Broadway as a scene painter, befriending the successful songwriter John La Touche. A lifelong enthusiast of cannabis, Gysin also started to hang out and ‘turn on’ with Black Jazz musicians such as Billie Holliday. Another significant connection was Eileen Garrett, celebrated society medium and psychic, whose abilities landed her in trouble with the authorities. During a séance, Garrett had apparently been contacted by the spirit of the captain of the British dirigible R-101, who gave such convincing details concerning the airship’s terrible crash that she was arrested under the Official Secrets Act on suspicion of espionage!
“That’s My Music!”
Serving during the Second World War, Gysin became a naturalised American, changing his name officially from ‘Brian’ to ‘Brion’. In the army Gysin was sent on a 18-month course to learn Japanese, including calligraphy, later to have a major impact on his art. He also met Tex Hanson, grandson of Josiah Hanson – inspiration and basis for Harriet Beecher Stowe’s 1852 bestselling novel Uncle Tom’s Cabin. Through this friendship and the access it gave him to the world of Black Canadians, Gysin wrote To Master – A Long Goodnight, which was published in 1946 thanks to Eileen Garrett. This and the related text, A History of Slavery in Canada, won Gysin one of the first-ever Fullbright Scholarships. He used the money to travel to Tangier, Morocco with his new friend, composer and novelist Paul Bowles. Together they would explore the trance music of the ecstatic brotherhoods, and one day in 1950, attending a festival on the beach outside Tangier, Gysin had what would be for him a decisive encounter:
…it was the first time I’d seen large groups of people going into trance – [that in itself] was enough to have kept my attention, but beyond and above all of that I heard this funny little music, and I said: “Ah! That’s my music! – I just want to hear that music for the rest of my life. I wanna hear it every day all day.”
It turned out to be the music of the Master Musicians of Joujouka, a collective of Berber Sufi trance musicians originating from the small village of that name, south of Tangier in the foothills to the west of the Rif Mountains in northern Morocco. As Gysin would later write in respect of his first encounter with the stirring, primal, hypnotic music of reeds, pipes, and goat-skin drums:
Magic calls itself The Other Method for controlling matter and knowing space. In Morocco, magic is practiced more assiduously than hygiene though, indeed, ecstatic dancing to music of the brotherhoods may be called a form of psychic hygiene. You know your music when you hear it one day. You fall into line and dance until you pay the piper.
After managing to attend the Festival of Bou Jeloud in Joujouka for the first time, Gysin recognised that:
Their secret, guarded even from them, was that they were still performing the Rites of Pan under the ragged cloak of Islam.
Gysin’s interpretation was that Bou Jeloud was an avatar of the Greek god Pan that survived from pagan times, as had been put forward by the pioneering socio-biologist, Edvard Westermarck, in his 1933 study Pagan Survivals in Mohammedan Civilization. So, the “magical music” of the Master Musicians was, quite literally, a manifestation of the Pipes of Pan.
Meeting William S. Burroughs
In Tangier, Gysin would also meet the American writer William S. Burroughs – who later became his greatest friend and collaborator – but at first neither made a particularly favourable impression. Burroughs was still in the throes of a full-on heroin addiction, and had not yet written the monstrous masterpiece, Naked Lunch, that would make his name. He dismissed Gysin as catering – quite literally – to Tangier’s expat community of “uppity queens” with his restaurant, The 1001 Nights. It boasted Arab dancing boys, an in-house residency by the Master Musicians of Joujouka, and Gysin’s friend Hamri – ‘The Painter of Morocco’ – was main cook. It all ended in tears, though. Brion would later tell how he had been the target of a curse intended to oust him from his business:
…while getting the restaurant ready I found a magic object, which was an amulet of sorts, a rather elaborate one with seeds, pebbles, shards of broken mirror, seven of each, and a little package in which there was a piece of writing, and the writing when deciphered by friends who didn’t even want to handle it, because of its magic qualities, which even educated Moroccans were not anxious to get in touch with, but it said something like, an appeal to one of the devils of fire, the devil of smoke – to take Brion away from this house: as the smoke leaves this chimney may Brion leave this house and never return…
The Third Mind
Relocating to Paris, after briefly enjoying the hospitality of the Princess Ruspoli, Gysin moved to completely the other end of the social spectrum, moving in to the nameless fleapit hotel at 9 Rue Gît-le-Cœur in the Latin Quarter. It was here in Paris that Gysin would run into Burroughs again, and this time they hit it off. Burroughs, likewise, moved into the so-called ‘Beat Hotel’ and the two of them embarked on their own equivalent of the poet Rimbaud’s “sustained and systematic derangement of all the senses” – the psychic fusion they referred to as “The Third Mind.” Gysin helped steer his new friend through the emotional rapids of heroin withdrawal, and allowed Burroughs to watch him at work on his art. Burroughs was wide open without the safety blanket of junk, and Gysin felt vulnerable and exposed working in front of his new friend. He rarely if ever let people see him paint, saying it was a more private act than masturbation. It must have been incredibly raw bonding indeed. It was as if the first cut-up they created together, this “project for disastrous success” as they called it, was with their very souls: and it was out of this commingling that all their subsequent collaborations would proceed. The very notion of ‘The Third Mind’ was itself a kind of psychic cut-up, named for the idea in Napoleon Hill’s 1937 self-help book, Think and Grow Rich:
No two minds ever come together without, thereby, creating a third, invisible, intangible force which may be likened to a third mind.
The atmosphere around Burroughs and Gysin in those early days at the Beat Hotel was steeped in the occult, with daily experiments in mirror-gazing, scrying, trance and telepathy, all fuelled by a wide variety of mind-altering drugs. Scrying is the very old and almost universal practice of gazing into a crystal ball, mirror, or other reflective surface, so as to access a form of spirit vision, usually for the purpose of divination. Brion conducted scrying marathons, sitting cross-legged in front of the mirrored armoire in his tiny room for up to 36 hours, tears streaming down his face from unblinking eyes, as friends passed the occasional cigarette, cup of coffee, or joint to help keep him going. He described how:
…you see great galleries of characters, running through… scientists… in their sort of 19th century labs… whole events or whole scenes sort of frozen… And faces which never existed, and great chieftains of unknown races, and so forth and so on, going back and back further and further in time and history… after certainly more than 24 hours of staring… where there seemed it was a limited area that one could see only a certain distance into, uh, where everything was covered with a gently palpitating cloud of smoke which would be about waist-high… that was the end, there was nothing beyond that…
From tales of Hassan-i Sabbāh, Old Man of the Mountain and Master of the Assassins, to magic and music in Morocco, Brion was a spellbinding storyteller. As psychedelic guru Timothy Leary later wrote:
Brion dispenses blessings, visions, communications, poetic sermons, and wicked gossip – the world of the occult is his planet. Gysin is one of the great hedonic mystic teachers.
The Cut-Up Technique
September 1959, and Brion Gysin was using a Stanley knife to cut through paper to make mounts for some drawings he was working on. In the process Gysin sliced into copies of the New York Herald Tribune spread out as a cutting mat. Seeing the various strips of paper and reading the chance combinations his blade had produced, he laughed so uproariously the neighbours were concerned for his sanity. When Burroughs returned, Gysin showed him the results – almost as an afterthought, “an amusing Surrealist diversion” – but Burroughs was immediately struck by the technique and its potential:
The cut up method brings to writers the collage which has been used by painters for fifty years. And used by the moving and still camera… And photographers will tell you that often their best shots are accidents… writers will tell you the same. The best writing seems to be done almost by accident but writers until the cut up method… had no way to produce the accident of spontaneity. You cannot will spontaneity. But you can introduce the unpredictable spontaneous factor with a pair of scissors.
Gysin himself felt that, ultimately, he was unable to make the cut-ups work for him the way they worked for Burroughs. Instead, he focused more on permutations: he would take short, simple phrases and run them through every conceivable combination and juxtaposition, producing hypnotic, mantra-like formulae, such as:
Come to free the words
To free the words come
Free the words to come
The words come to free
Words come to free thee!
But even with such an apparently impersonal process as this, Brion the self-mythologiser was able to see occult forces at work, claiming:
The permutations discovered me – because permutations have been around for a long time; in the whole magic world permutations are part of the Cabalistic secret…
The notion of ‘Cabalistic secrets’ also applied to the latest developments in Gysin’s visual art: he had begun painting calligraphic works, based on the writing of Japanese in vertical columns and Arabic to be read right-to-left, overlaid in grids inspired by the very ‘magic square’ that had been used to curse him in Tangier. The results ranged from the subtle to the truly complex, each uniquely his own. As the painter George Condo would later remark:
[Gysin] built up an authentic Eastern painting in an authentic Western manner.
A startling visionary experience Gysin had in the back of a bus in December 1958 lead to the next experimental revelation. As he recorded in his diary:
Had a transcendental storm of colour visions today in the bus going to Marseilles. We ran through a long avenue of trees and I closed my eyes against the setting sun. An overwhelming flood of intensely bright colours exploded behind my eyelids: a multidimensional kaleidoscope whirling out through space. I was swept out of time. I was out in a world of infinite number. The vision stopped abruptly as we left the trees. Was that a vision? What happened to me?
When Burroughs later read The Living Brain by W. Grey Walter, he made the connection with his friend’s strange visionary experience immediately. Walter, an American-born British neurophysiologist, had been researching the effect of controlled flicker on states of consciousness via the use of precisely calibrated stroboscopes, and with the help of early EEG equipment had put forward a model of varying brainwave frequencies corresponding to different states of consciousness. Apparently a flicker rate of 8-to-13 cycles a second induced what Walter dubbed “alpha rhythms” which “predominantly originate… during wakeful relaxation with closed eyes” and, interestingly, also during REM sleep (i.e. during dreaming.) Obviously Brion had experienced a spontaneously-occurring flicker experience, no doubt caused by the exact rhythm of the sunlight flickering through the trees as the bus drove past, thought Burroughs. The question was, though, how to reliably reproduce the flicker effect? The answer came from their young friend, Ian Sommerville, a gifted mathematician, who had also read Walter’s book, and wrote:
I have made a simple flicker machine; a slotted cardboard cylinder which turns on a gramophone at 78 rpm with a light bulb inside. You look at it with your eyes shut and the flicker plays over the eyelids. Visions start with a kaleidoscope of colours on a plane in front of the eyes and gradually become more complex and beautiful, breaking like surf on a shore until whole patterns of colour are pounding to get in…
Gysin was quick to promote both the ‘Dreamachine’ and his discovery of it – going so far as to register a patent, Procedure and apparatus for the production of artistic visual sensations (although many later felt that the credit really should have gone to Sommerville.) Ever the charismatic raconteur and self-mythologiser, Gysin spun a web of wonder about “his” flicker device, creating a suitably esoteric and esteemed pedigree, telling interviewers:
…one knows of cases – in French history, Catherine de Medici for example, had Nostradamus sitting up on the top of a tower… and he used to sit up there and with the fingers of his hands spread like this would flicker his fingers over his closed eyes, and would interpret his visions in a way which were of influence to her in regard to her political powers… they were like instructions from a higher power… Peter the Great also had somebody who sat on the top of a tower and flickered his fingers like that across his closed eyelids…
Of course, it was too good to be true. For all that the “cosmonauts of inner space” of the Beat Hotel thought that the Dreamachine could be “the drugless turn-on of the 60s” illuminating the world for the price of a light-bulb, it was never really going to have the kind of mass appeal they might have hoped for. Marianne Faithfull – who would meet Gysin for tea in Mayfair during her “lost years” – recalled her first impressions of the Dreamachine, and her answer gives some sense of the associations that probably stopped the device from catching on commercially:
I remember going to an exhibition of Brion Gysin, and there was the Dreamachine… I mean I knew it was really special ‘cos I think I was tripping… Only a magical creature could think up something like that – it is like a wonderful idealistic idea, but you know it’s never gonna fly…
Here To Go
In his 1969 novel The Process, Gysin declared rather grandly:
Of course the sands of Present Time are running out from under our feet. And why not? The Great Conundrum: ‘What are we here for?’ is all that ever held us here in the first place. Fear. The answer to the Riddle of the Ages has actually been out in the street since the First Step in Space. Who runs may read but few people run fast enough. What are we here for? Does the great metaphysical nut revolve around that? Well, I’ll crack it for you, right now. What are we here for? We are here to go!
In 1974 Gysin was hit badly by a diagnosis of cancer, followed first by unsuccessful cobalt treatment and then a colostomy. He returned to Paris “to die” he said – but eventually began to rally, and with the help and encouragement of friends resumed work. He wrote to William Burroughs:
…I have decided to come back and finish my life’s work. Like the Old Chinese Painter I intend to work on to the point where I can bow three times and disappear into my picture.
At the recommendation of David Bowie, Iggy Pop looked up Brion in Paris, later remembering: “Brion Gysin – what a beautiful guy. His painting is beautiful. He was a real human being.” English Cut-Up writer Terry Wilson recorded interviews with Gysin for what would become his definitive statement, Here To Go: Planet R-101, and also helped edit The Last Museum. New York graffiti artist Keith Haring visited Brion and later paid this moving tribute:
I feel honoured to have known Brion and shared a short but timeless moment of our lives. He was my teacher, a role he took on with great passion. Perhaps the greatest teacher I will ever have, for he taught by example…
Others that made the pilgrimage to Paris to see Gysin included Genesis P-Orridge and Peter ‘Sleazy’ Christopherson of Industrial music pioneers Throbbing Gristle. They had been vocal about the influence of Burroughs, Gysin, Cut-Ups and the Third Mind from the beginning, and continued to pay tribute in successive projects Psychic TV and Coil. P-Orridge would later write, “Gysin was a transmediator, a 20th century renaissance man, a multi-media explorer and innovator,” and also that he and Burroughs were “cultural alchemists and practicing magicians,” while Christopherson’s partner in Coil, John Balance, simply acknowledged “Brion Gysin is a Teacher.” After his death, in a video tribute recorded for the Dublin Here To Go Show in 1992, Burroughs stated unequivocally:
Brion Gysin is the only man I have ever respected, the only person of either sex. He was completely enigmatic because he was completely himself.
In the final analysis, Gysin was perhaps right to complain that, as well as being born the “wrong colour” in the “wrong place,” he had also been born in the “wrong time”: what becomes more clear with each passing decade is that the single biggest misfortune of his various lives and careers was to have been born too soon. Brion Gysin is a prime example of the 21st century magical multimedia artist, psychedelic explorer, and techno-shaman, and he belongs to the Future. His Time is Now.
I talk a new language. You will understand. I talk about the springs and traps of inspiration. Who Runs May Read.
– Brion Gysin (1916–1986)
Back In No Time: The Brion Gysin Reader, ed. Jason Weiss (Wesleyan Univ. Press, 2001)
Brion Gysin: Dream Machine by L. Hoptman, w/ J. Geiger, J. Grauerholz, et al. (Merrell, 2010)
Brion Gysin: Tuning in to the Multimedia Age, ed. J. Ferez Kuri (Thames & Hudson, 2003)
Here To Go: Planet R-101 by Brion Gysin & Terry Wilson (RE/Search, 1982; Creation, 2001)
The Last Museum by Brion Gysin (Grove/Atlantic, 1986)
Nothing Is True, Everything Is Permitted: The Life of Brion Gysin by John Geiger (Disinformation, 2005)
The Process by Brion Gysin (Jonathan Cape, 1969; Overlook, 2005)
The Third Mind by William S. Burroughs & Brion Gysin (Viking, 1978; Grove, 1982)
William S. Burroughs, Throbbing Gristle, Brion Gysin, ed. Vale & Juno (RE/Search, 1982)
© New Dawn Magazine and the respective author.
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