William Burroughs – 1975 – 1

William S Burroughs – Photograph by Allen Ginsberg – © The Estate of Allen Ginsberg

Today we begin a four-part transcription of a class given by William Burroughs (“Poetry Academy – Writing Methods Class”) on June 12 1975 at the Naropa Institute.

WSB: (We covered) territory in the last class and I’ll recapitulate very briefly some of that. I spoke about pictorial scripts and the difference between a pictorial script and an alphabetical language. And I think that the development of a practical pictorial script might be a real step towards a universal language. However, the grammar of Egyptian hieroglyphs is very complex, and the length of time required to write the scripts an obstacle, which I don’t think you could deal with by even attempting to write the script. And, instead, the attempt should be made to reduce the script to several hundred basic elements that can be represented on slide projectors, or incised on stamps, and perhaps eventually adapted to the typewriter (sic – Editorial note – n.b. Burroughs is speaking in 1975). I think the practice of conversing in this script would be a very useful exercisein concrete thinking. If you can’t show it, then you can’t convey it. And also, no one can really argue in a pictorial script, he can only present alternatives to a given proposition. I think the practice in non-verbal communication would impart more precision in the use of language and increased understanding of the nature and function of words.

I spoke about (Alfred) Korbyski and the various errors in Western thought he points out, and I recommend it to you, this book [Science and Sanity] which you can get at the Plants and Books on Pearl Street (local bookshop). And I spoke briefly about ESP. Now there are very very few good books on the subject so I’d like to mention a few – There’s this Magic-An Occult Primer by David Conway, which I think is a very good book, I mean out of a whole bookstore-full of these books, there are only about four or five that I think really are informative and useful. There’s also, you probably most of you know Psychic Discoveries Behind The Iron Curtain, and they have..the same authors have now brought out a book called, I think, A Psi Handbook, (A Handbook of Psi Discoveries) which is very much more precise, tells you exactly how to do Kirilian photography and all the experiments that are mentioned in the Psychic Discoveries Behind The Iron Curtain. There’s a book by Monroe, Robert A Monroe, called Journeys Out Of The Body, which I think is the most informative and accurate book on astral projection, and that can also.. I think they also have that in the Plants and Books [sic – Boulder book(store)] there. This book called Real Magic, by P(hilip) E(mmons) I(saac) Bonewits who actually has a masters degree in magic from Berkeley), it’s..it’s got some good information in it . The style is breezy, and, even at times to the point of being obnoxious, but, there is some information. One point.. one point he makes here I’ll read –  “There are still more reasons why so many people as possible around the world should have access to the sort of information this book contains. Part of them has to to do with a top secret government organization known among other names as the United States Parapsychological Corps. The Corps was an outgrowth of the teams of astrologers our generals hired during World War II to tell us what Hitler’s astrologers were telling him Then someone found out that the Russians were doing experiments with telepathy between orbiting cosmonauts and the ground. And, of course, the British had the head-start on everyone. And suddenly the idea occurred that a spy who could read minds would be invaluable and the concept of ESP-ionage was born” – That’s an example of his style! – “Who came up with the idea first we will never know but by this time every major nation in the world has a Psi-corps composed of researchers and volunteers working upon applying a parapsychological phenomena to international politics and international control. In the United States, for example, (actually, the United States is the country we have the most data about), recruits are made of various psychics, occultists, adepts at psycho-chemistries, and others with talents or knowledge wanted. The volunteers have little or no choice in the matter. Then they are trained by methods of hypnosis, sleep-teaching, and out-and-out brainwashing to increase their powers and to use them only for the United States. In the United States itself the major training centers are at the American University in Washington DC, the headquarters of the National Security force, known as “The Citadel” in South Carolina, some coal-mines in West Virginia, and an ultra-secret training-center in the Nevada desert, just outside, the perfect town for testing psychokinesis and ESP” – (he’s talking about Nevada, of course – the use of ESP in gambling) –  “The Russians also have an equivalent organization and their training centers are in Moscow, Kiev, Leningrad  and Stockholm. The British have been the most practical, their major center is near Monte Carlo. A point that I find most amusing is that while Red China does not have a Psi-corps, it has some of the best magicians in the world (the Chinese didn’t invade Tibet and carry back scores of apprentices for nothing)” – That’s interesting.
I surmised this some years ago when everyone said it was sheer paranoia, that the United States would pay any attention to ESP

Now, I talked (also) about a very simple exercise that I call “the walk exercise”, which is walking around the block, or wherever, and then sitting down and writing that up and trying to remember precisely what you were thinking at a given point (say, whether you saw a tree, a squirrel, a bridge or another person?) . And it’s the remembering, that.. (of)what you were thinking, that will put you back there.
And I mentioned an exercise of seeing everyone on the street, subway, etcetera, before he or she sees you  – but sooner or later, however, someone will see you, and (then) you will try to guess why he saw you, what were you thinking when he saw you.

So here I was. doing this exercise. I got out at Sheridan Square [in the West Village, New York City]. Right in front of the door, an old pandhandler didn’t see me. Crossing towards Christopher Street, I was seen by a middle-aged man, reddish-face, stout, grey overcoat, grey felt hat. He could’ve been a shopkeeper, small business man, almost too ordinary-looking. And he saw me, looked right at me and our eyes met. No expression at all. It wasn’t friendly, hostile, suspicious, just blank registration like a camera shutter click.
Now what was I thinking?. I was thinking, “Well, I will have to walk across town anyway to get over to Broadway so I might as well walk over to Ninth and Broadway and pick up some clothes at the cleaners and then take the subway down to Canal and Broadway”. My guess is that this man was thinking something equally as banal and the two streams of consciousness coincided for no other reason as being on the same level at the same time. And on the subway a plump Chinese man saw me (just a quick glance, blank, incurious, but, unmistakably, he saw me) . Why? – Same reason, more or less. Same side of the street. (The Chinese are very old hands at this game, remember).

Another exercise.. (I said there are many extensions of the walk exercise) and another exercise is “walking on colors”. You pick out all the reds on a street , focusing only (on) red objects – brick, lights, sweaters, signs, and then you shift to green, blue, orange, yellow. I usually do it until I run out of one color – and then I shift to another. I mean, I don’t see any more blue on the street so I”ll shift over to red or green. Anyway, I was walking on yellow when I saw an amphibious jeep, near the corner of 94th Street and Central Park West, and it was called “The Thing”. And this reminds me of “The Thing” I knew in Mexico. He was nearly seven feet tall and he played “The Thing” in a horror movie called “The Thing” (and so everybody called him “The Thing”) . Now I hadn’t thought about “The Thing” in twenty.. more than twenty years, and would not have thought about him except that I was walking on yellow at that particular moment. In other words, if you practice any of these exercises, it will bring back memories through association that you wouldn’t have thought of otherwise. And immediately the story of a horrible Mexican Weekend came back to me as related by Kells Elvins.

Kells’ wife and “The Thing” had been invited to the country house of a rich Mexican. And looking forward to swimming-pools, luxury, good food and drinks, they inadvisedly accepted.So they arrive at a barren stone castle with hardly a stick of furniture, where drunken machos (that means much man, muya macho  – and also much-sonuvabitch!) We’re blasting at terrified cats woth pearl-handled 45’s, while the cats ran around and around trying to escape, which they couldn’t do because the doors were locked and bullets ricocheting all over the castle (of course much more dangerous to human spectators than to the cats, that were small and moving much faster). So, of course, Kells and his wife and “The Thing’ were in favor of an immediate withdrawal, but they were locked in like the cats. And the machos five foot six in elevator shoes, they hated “The Thing” because he was taller, so they held him at gun-point and took turns spitting drinks in his face. We had to wait until they all passed out before we could finally escape. Such is a weekend in Mexico. But this scene (that) I hadn’t thought of in years was all triggeredby the amphibious yellow jeep, and those things will occur in using this exercise.

Another thing, you’ll find that there is a relation between what you are thinking and what you are seeing. Now, you often will be thinking of something, and you’ll look up and see a street sign that will tie right in with what you’re thinking, or, conversely, you may see something that will relate to..will set off a chain of associations (like “The Thing”) >

But here’s one a little bit more complicated. I turned into 133rd Street, off Amsterdam (I was going to my class at New York’s City College) and a fire-truck came down the street and on it was written “Careless Smoking Habits”. The truck went by and then on the wall was the word.”Michael”. Well, “Michael” (Mikey Portman) is an old friend of mine and he was a junkie, in London, and he used to smoke in bed, and he set mattresses on fire all over London (and he was really a chronic repeater). And then, just up the street, there was the word, “Winky”, and “Winky” was the nick-name of Michael’s father. You turn up a lot of these coincidences and it’s simply a matter of keeping your eyes open because these things go on all the time. And sometimes this can be alarming. I remember a young man recently came to see me and he said he was going crazy because everything that he saw had meaning, related to him, or people that he passed on the street seemed to be saying something that referred to him. And I said, “They are. You’re the one that’s hearing it. It’s yourstream-of-consciousness”. So, when people become aware of something like that that goes on all the time, it can be upsetting and they can get paranoid

 Now I’ll go on to  the cut-up method, which I was just getting into in the last class. The cut-up method enables the writer to touch and handle his medium, move words about (his own words or anyone else’s words), cut and make new words, just as the painter tests colors on his palette. Now to show this process in operation, I gave one example of cutting-up a walk, here is one cutting up Arthur) Rimbaud
Now this first page was made from Rimbaud as I leaf through the Illuminations, picking a phrase here and a phrase there and typing them out on the page. Now that, in a sense, is a cut-up already, because I was just going through and picking a word here, two words there, and so on. Now what determines the selection? -Well, an individual scanning pattern is like the scanning patterns in operation that determine what you notice in the street. In other words, it’s the same process, if you leaf through a book or a magazine, just picking what catches your attention, it’s the same process, in a way, as walking down the street. Now, in the street, this will be different with anyone (I mean, what you notice on the street will be quite different, as I say, if you have four people walking down the same street and you could see what they saw, it wouldn’t look like the same street) – and this will be different, the selections will be different, with anyone who shuffles around Rimbaud like this, or any other writer. He will chose different phrases because they intersect with his scanning pattern of the moment – If it is Sunday, for example, he maybe drawn to a poem called “Sunday”. In short, choice is determined by a complex network of associations in which the entire past life and conditioning of the dealer is involved. Sex is, of course, a strong determinant in scanning patterns. People notice other people in the street to whom they are sexually attracted, and, similarly, they may notice and use sexual images in the pages they’re scanning (and if they are inhibited, they may precisely avoid these images) . Now this procedure can be compared to table-tapping, tarot or the I Ching
Now the table-tapping by mediums to invoke Milton or Shakespeare  usually results in some excruciatingly bad poetry conveyed through the ouija board, but when you use the actual words of your poet as your tarot cards, your tapping is more likely to produce results, since you’re using the words and images of the poet to invoke his presence.

I’ll give an example of this. Rimbaud, incidentally, cuts up very well because you have very concrete images and you can see how they can be shifted around, for example, you have “corridors of black gauze and banners of raw meat”, well you can have “corridors of raw meat and banners of black gauze” and each are valid and visual. But here is…I’ll just briefly go through. This is the first selection that was scanned out of the book as I leafed through it. It is, in a sense, already a cut-up but then I further randomized it and fashioned it by actually cutting and rearranging it.

“Horrible discovery in Greece. The old fool’s cockeyed in a dirty main street” (I think this must refer to (Paul) Verlaine, who was frequently cockeyed). Boats were hauled towards the sea and old prints. The little boy waves his arms by weather vanes and cocks in the bursting showers, Jackals howling across deserts of time growling in orchard told me it was Spring. Military laundry in a dream – (I get a flash of uniforms and socks and underwear, showers, naked figures) – Pale reflection stirred this fugitive ship – (I get a picture of a ghost ship with a ghost crew stranded somewhere) – Surrounded by waterspouts, we’ve all been pale lunar figures crystal arms lanterns in leaves purple perfumes in corridors of black gauze. A bell of rosy fire rings in the clouds. Golden chains from star to star, Rushing of human nights,eyes vacant, flowering sweetness of arctic flowers raining in gusts of frost Mysterious music of black gauze, banners of raw meat. Nakedness on pink and orange sands washed by the rainbow. Sea sound of cities the red night. Amber and crystal bone clash of icicles against the stars”

Now, in cutting this up, incidentally, I got a title for the novel I was writing, which is called Cities of the Red Night. Now, as you cut it. We cut the page and rearrange the sections which gives us new meanings and images:

“Horrible burns and odious sweating boats of rosy fire” –  (You see, you’ve got a fire on a boat) . The little boy waves his arms from star to star. A rushing hum a shower cock bursting eyes vacant madam has installed a piano – (You get a picture of a kid jacking-off in the shower while “Madam” is playing this piano, the landlady is playing the piano) -Nakedness on pink leaves purple perfumes of cities of the red night – (there I got my title) – Arctic flowers in Spring military laundry showers the bunks all empty crystal arms in amber (crystal bone)

Now we cut the page and rearrange new meanings and images:
“Horrible the red night that country fire the old fool’s cockeyed rushing from star to star – (you get a drunken space-ship captain) – Pale reflections wreckage of the star ship waterspouts revolving pale remains – (and rearrange the sections which gives us “purple perfume of burns the clash of icy boats corridors of raw meat” -gauze in corridors of raw meat” – that gives you a picture of a military hospital, where, you know, the people (are) covered with bandages)”old prints gather flesh” – (then you see an old print of a military hospital – rearrange the sections which gives us “icy burns passages of old prints” – now rearrange the page and cut “the red night”) . In other words, as you cut and rearrange, you keep getting new words, new images from the original material.

Now, of course, the cut-ups, as I’ve pointed out, have been used in music for a long time and they have had other applications. They’ve also been used in films and.. how consciously… of course the line between editing (what goes on in the cutting-room) and any random process is a very thin line, I’m sure that cut-ups are pretty standard in films. So I’m going to say something now about films.

to be continued –  tomorrow

[Audio for the above can be heard here, beginning at the beginning of the tape and  comcluding at approximately twenty-four minutes in]

One comment

  1. I think the practice horrible, the clash of now, now I'll go, now the table-tapping – and this will be different – what you notice on the phrase, it's the same process, this exercise is a cut-up already

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