William S Burroughs (1914-1997)
Continuing from last week’s William Burroughs June 12, 1975 Naropa class, we continue with the Q & A session, Burroughs covers a wide variety of topics.
Student: … It isn’t a question but, it was Lev Kuleshov who made the (cinematic) experiments
WSB: Oh was it.. Let me write that down,
WSB: How do you spell it?
Student: The actor was (Ivan) Muzzhukhin
WSB: Did you see it?
Student; What was the Roeg film? What was the Nicolas Roeg film?
WSB: Performance. With Mick Jagger. It was a good film. I don’t think it did very well at the box office. You didn’t see it? – Yeah.. good film… Pardon?
Student: Bruce Conner.. Bruce Conner is said to have invented the compilation film..
WSB: Yeah, well…
Student: …which is a cut-up…
WSB: I don’t understand…
Student: Historians see Bruce Connor as the inventor of the compilation film.
WSB: What do you mean exactly by a “compilation film”?
Student: Well, the same.. same thing
WSB: You mean..
Student: A cut-up.
WSB: You mean an actual random cut-up?
Student; Well, er, no, it’s not that random, right..
WSB: Yeah. Of course, well, that’s another thing you can do with films. You can take a number of filmed scenes.. Is that what you mean by “compilation”?
Student: Well, it’s all very different scenes
WSB: Yes. Or you could.. Say, you could take all riot scenes and string them together, you could go through any number of Western movies and just pick out the gunfights and run a whole sequence of those. Those are very interesting because you have an accumulating effect – Yes?
Student: Someone mentioned to me once that the sound of screeching brakes is like the collective unconsciousness memory of dinosaurs trying to get into their caves, or when they’re small mammals, and it’s quite disturbing – and I’ve had some unpleasant dreams – and also the smell of gas, as coming in your windows when you’re having sex, or when you’re sleeping, has some strange affects on your consciousness – usually I’m frightened (of)..
WSB: The smell of what?
WSB: Oh, you mean the thought of whatever, yes..
Student: And, the combinations working on possible.. Well, they know that the sounds, high-level sound levels, unnerve people prone to violent irritability. And there’s always a shoot-out at the entrance to the Lincoln Tunnel because people are freaked out from the carbon monoxide outside in New York. But, (as) Anne (Waldman) said, in the other comments about these things, you know, (it’s) more in terms of alternating.. altered consciousness, actually. In other words, New York heads, you know..
WSB: Well, you’re speaking about….
Student: In other words, just like your tape-recorder (experiment) going down the street.. This.. these things, which are part of the environment of the city alter consciousness.
WSB: Yes. They do. And… but, of course, screeching breaks has a meaning for city people, that it wouldn’t have for someone who hadn’t been around cars that much. I mean..
screeching brakes, and everyone, of course, turns around. That’s one thing you could hardly get away with on a tape-recorder without people knowing that it was a recording.
Student: Is this the idea of “The Whisperer” in (The Last Words of) Dutch Schultz ?
Student: You know, “The Whisperer” in Dutch Schultz?
Student: Is the idea that we’re behind him, maybe?
WSB: Well the principle there is what is known as “waking suggestion“, which means that if someone’s attention is concentrated on something else, and someone comes up beside you and whispers “Coca Cola”or something (or whatever they’re whispering), that that will affect their unconscious. But it’s not the same thing as subliminal. It is not subliminal, That is, you would hear it if your attention was not focused on something else. Now, if you take a tape-recorder and take a walk and then listen to it, you’ll often find things that are said in quite a loud voice that you don’t remember, because your attention was somewhere else.
Student: I used to stand a lot when I was sleeping, say, on cross-country drives, they’d be times when I would hear conversations that would just pop into my head, that weren’t significant, they were just totally insignificant voices that, like, I’d never heard (before) – and it didn’t affect me anyway, so.. there were these conversations that would just come and go. Is that kind of the same thing as….?
WSB: Now, wait a minute.These were..these were conversations in your mind?
Student; Yeah, like (tentative), Just (stumbling) off a sentence, or a phrase, or a thought.
WSB: However, you were in a..
Student: (…like typical) situation and..
WSB: Okay, and you were in a car?
Student: In a car, yeah.
WSB: Yeah. Well, of course, there have been cases of people who were actually turning on radio broadcasts, sometimes with the gold metal in their teeth.
Student: This thing was more like what you’re talking about, (communication) between a brother and a sister, or something like that..
WSB: Well, it’s hard to say just what the source of that would be. It seemed to have nothing to do with you, and no..?
Student: No, it didn’t affect my life in anyway.
WSB: Well, where had you… Had you been without sleep?
Student: I’d say maybe for two days.
WSB: Oh, yeah, well, that would probably.. that probably would account for it. I mean, not really account for it, because.. but we know that does happen – that people will hear conversations like that with people that appear to be separate, in their heads, after a certain length of time without sleep. But just why that occurs? That doesn’t explain, in fact, why that occurs.
Student Like in the street when you make a connection but you don’t consciously record it?
WSB: Yeah, your attention was obviously on something else, but it wasn’t… You could’ve heard it, you would have heard it, if the…if your attention had been there. Yes?
Student: Are you familiar with (Sergei) Eisenstein? who was more (well-known than) the experiments of Kuleshov. He did a lot of things with environmental montages. Like, he did theater – he’d take people into factories and act a performance out, using smells, and.finally he found that film was much more manipulative, so he got into that. He wrote a lot of essays on montage, and did cut-ups, but he controlled them..
Student (2): No organization whatever
WSB: They were arranged probably?
StudentL It was editing
WSB: Yeah, yeah.. Well, I haven’t seen too much of his work. I saw Thunder Over Mexico years ago, a very fine film.
Student: He didn’t edit that
Student: He didn’t edit that
WSB: He didn’t?
Student: No – And I was told that it was made by the director who had made Tarzan? [Sol Lesser]
WSB: Really? You mean Thunder Over Mexico!, was… – I didn’t know that,
Student: Is the technique that you talk about for cutting up word images completely random? – I get a little confused as to like….when I went.. after the talk you gave the other day, I was thinking further, like the next day, about the piece that you cut up into quarters, and it came to my mind that I didn’t really understand what you did with those four pieces.
WSB: Oh, well, I’ll show you. Suppose you have a… Well, I’ll take a page here. If you had this page [Burroughs demonstrates] ..so you cut it (it has text on). Then you fold it over this way, and then fold it that way. Now you cut it. Now you’ve got now four pieces, right?. So, one-two-three-four. Now this is one very simple cut-up. So you put number one with number four (that is, this section.. you see what I mean? – this section here, is now.. this section here is now with this section…
WSB : …and this section’s with that section)
Student: Okay, yes
WSB: That’s just a.. one very simple way of cutting up a page, There are any number of ways you can do it. You can cut it up into confetti if you want to, and take it out of a hat.
Student: I cut up pages into.. the way I cut it.. the way I cut them up.. It was after I first read Brion Gysin‘s work, (like five years ago, or something), and I remember that there was quite a lot of arrangement on my part, in terms of, like, not only selecting the phrases (not a lot of times, just various.. spontaneous.. but there was some..) . In other words, what I’m trying to think about was – this was probably random what I was doing, and I was trying to get a notion of the process that you were talking about. Is it totally random? – or is it playing back and forth between editing and random and changing in and out?
WSB: It’s definitely playing back and forth. Sometimes I’ll cut up a page and only get one sentence.There’s no reason why you can’t edit in the arrangement. All you have done is you’ have introduced at some point a random factor, where you shuffle the image around. So I’d say just how random it is is another question. That is, you could do it in your mind, presumably (and) you could see how it would come out. It’s difficult. It’s something sort of like playing chess in your head or something like that. And, of course, the variations that you could get on one page, from one page, are practically infinite. But, generally speaking, it is a matter of editing as you choose what’s what, and you can change it around any way, There’s no obligation to have it.. to just leave it the way it comes when you cut it.
Student: It seems like in a film there’s a much more striking kind of effect – that you do it totally random, that you don’t see what you’re putting together. Is that the technique of using cut-up?
WSB: Yeah. Sure, Because you’ve got all the images there. Well, the point is, you can cut a film and rearrange it and you don’t know exactly where those cuts are going to come in and what it’s going to look like, right?
WSB: And then you look at it, and you might select the ones that work best. You wouldn’t have to use it all, (unless you wanted to). In this film, we did. We did use it just as it fell.
(for one thing, we didn’t have time to do anymore rearranging) – Yes?
Student: I was wondering (if you could speak on the Surrealist work) appearing in the 1930’s with Andre Breton. It seems that they were fooling around with some ideas that were related. I don’t know if you have time to describe the things that were similar to the what you were (working on)?
WSB: Oh sure. I’ve got something on that here. As a method, the method pre-dates the explicit statement of Brion Gysin’s. There was Tristan Tzara, the man from nowhere, who proposed to create a poem on the spot by pulling words out of a hat (which is more or less the same idea – but he didn’t really make it explicit and carry it further than that).
Anne Waldman: He said cut up a newspaper
Anne Waldman: He said cut up a newspaper and put those together
WSB: Oh, is that what he says
Anne Waldman; And pull out lines.
WSB: And pull out lines. Well that was very very similar to what happened in Minutes To Go, what Brion did in Minutes To Go. And Anatole France used scissors and paste in very much the same way a film is cut in the cutting room. Well that may not be right. I think he just, like he took a sentence, a whole sentence here and pasted it over there (and that’s what happens in the cutting-room – they say, “well, this scene, we can take this scene out and put it over here” – but that’s quite a conscious and contrived process, it’s not completely random, although it could readily become so. I mean, if he…) – Yeah?
Student: I just wanted to say something about the effectiveness of The Wild Boys on a friend of mine. He’s a painter and his thought processes are very visual, and he.. and I gave it to him as a book to read, and he didn’t read that much and (you know, he was a very) straight, normal, ordinary kid. After reading (especially the sequences in the arcade show) he just…his whole sexual code was rearranged….
WSB: What book was that?
Student: The Wild Boys
WSB: Oh, The Wild Boys.. There were some types in The Wild Boys, not that many, but some – Yeah?
Student: Can you talk more about this technique of Mozhukhin and the montage and…
WSB: Yeah, I talked about that in the last class. You see Brion said that writing was fifty years behind painting. That this is something from the old montage method that had been used since the turn of the century, actually, in painting , which is really closer to the facts of perception than sequential painting – that if you walk, particularly (in an) urban.., particularly in a city, if you walk down a street (and) put what you’ve just seen on canvas, well, you’ve seen fragments – you’ve seen half a person cut in two by a car, and scraps of street signs, and reflections, and so on. So this is just the application of that method to writing. That is, you’re doing the same with words, you’re just fracturing them and rearranging the fragments into a montage – Yeah?
Student: When you say a montage in painting, I assume you mean, like, the collages of Max Ernst?
WSB: Yeah, yeah, there were.. collages and montage, yeah
Student: Your experiment with taking the recorder down the street, you know and actually taping before, and the one with the tv, with playing a different soundtrack with the visual image, (noticing) that the audience pays more attention to the soundtrack than to the visual image. Does that explain anything?
WSB: It would seem to me, yes. In other words, I think the soundtrack determines, to some extent, what they see (that is, if they.. if they’re watching a tv program, if the soundtrack is in anyway applicable to what’s on the image, the image-track, then they will accept that.
Student You think, turning down the soundtrack. it’s more indistinct than the visual track, and then people will.. they will then rearrange to hear what they see?
WSB: Yeah, you could do that, sure. There are any number of variations on that. You can.. It can be a similar program (it doesn’t necessarily have to be, you can have a completely inappropriate soundtrack and see whether that.. how far that will.. you know, how long it will take people to realize that there’s something wrong with it – Yeah?
Student: In terms of the experiment of the tape recorder, walking down the street, how can we be sure that somebody hasn’t already don’t that to us?
WSB: Well, I think we’d be pretty sure if they have – because.. I know there was some kind of a government experiment in Paris years ago, and that I heard about, in 1959, they blocked out.. there were whole sections of Paris, and made recordings of whole sections (and whether they played them back or not, I don’t know, but it’s quite likely that they did).
There again, if you’ve got a message on your tape-recorder, what you’re dealing with is “waking suggestion” – that is, the people’s attention is focused on crossing the street, etcetera, and therefore they don’t consciously hear what you are… what you have recorded, but it affects their unconscious mind. – Yes?
Q: Do you know anything about the effect of, like, the double-bind technique on audiences?.. Are audiences capable of making a kind of synthesis of these..
WSB: Are audiences capable of what?
Q: …making some kind of synthesis of these direct contradictions, like – what was that one you quote? – “Listen very closely. This is not important”. Do you know what kind of affect that kind of assertion can have on an audience?
WSB: No, I’ve not seen any experiments that could strictly be called, you know, deliberately trying to apply the double-bind. – Yeah?
Q (2): In children it causes schizophrenia (so I would bet it causes schizophrenia in adults)
WSB: It causes what?
Q (2): It causes schizophrenia (being subjected to) the double-bind.
WSB: Well, the double-bind, of course, is only disorienting in so far as the people accept the person that is expressing it as an authority figure. That is, a mature audience is not going to be upset by someone saying, “Pay close attention. This is not important”. It is when this is done consistently over a period of time, (particularly to children by their parents), that it results in schizophrenia.
Q (2): So when you say you think it would be disorienting…
WSB: Yes..yeah, I think it would be disorienting, I don’t think it would cause schizophrenia…
Q (2): I don’t think the double-bind can be resolved so (people need to be) protecting themselves (from it)
Q: In comedy routines it’s used a lot, for comedy fashion, throwing in double-binds just to get an audience reaction of laughter.
Q: In the case of painting, I think every attempt that I’ve ever seen where an artist was involved in using random procedures, the effect always wound up being extremely aesthetic..anyway
WSB: Extremely what?
Q: Aesthetic..extremely.. you know, almost fit in with everything else being done.And I don’t know if that’s because people are trained to integrate material, particularly the … nothing can look radical anymore, in a certain way..
WSB: In painting, you mean?
Q: Yeah, but I wonder if the same is true in just about everything
WSB: Yes, of course it’s a question of people getting used to things, like I say they had very strong reactions to the first non-representational paintings (which, by our standards, are not all that non-representational. I mean, like Cezanne…
Q: I was thinking of it more from the artist’s point of view, that the artist always manages to make something aesthetic out of it.. doesn’t really ever leave it really raw.
WSB: Well, yeah, if that is his intention – although I think a lot of modern art doesn’t… is deliberately non-aesthetic. I mean the (Andy Warhol) soup cans and stuff like that
Q: That’s already become extremely aesthetic, by now – even the soup cans.
Q: In the physical random cut of a film, how did you decide where?… Did you do it by numbers? – by edge-numbers? – or.. ? how did you.. like, in longer pieces of film?
WSB: Frankly, I wasn’t there when he did it. But, no, you have to.. you have to cut them in to sections of a certain length and rearrange them according to some very definite sort of mathematical plan – this one goes here and that one goes there. There are, of course, any number of ways you can do it. And I see very little use in that one-frame fragmentation, which is.. it’s very strange to watch (though I haven’t seen it used as a device). I mean, of course, you do have to have one-frame shots, right?, that only a person that’s pretty experienced will catch, only someone who’s seen a lot of films is going to catch a one-frame shot. But I meant taking one frame and.. and scrambling them, so that you have a variation in the image, a cut of the image, every twenty-fourth-of-a-second.
Q: Supposedly, the average viewer needs about three frames to perceive an image…
WSB: That’s right, yeah
Q: ..but if you montage, like if you have a series of one-frames for, say, ten minutes, then the eye picks up one image that it holds..
WSB: You mean if it recurs enough times?
Q: …but if there’s ten images in a row that go by in a second, then the eye will pick up one image and retain it and the rest will just go into the subconscious.
WSB: I’d like to see more experiments with the one-frame variations, because I only saw this one we made and, as I say, it fell to pieces after this particular view, being run through a few times – Questions?
Q: Do you have all.. If you have each page, and then cut it up, how do you cement chapters, longer pieces..?
WSB: Oh. No, I don’t do that. I will often write a chapter, just a straight narrative, and.. (I don’t do this all the time at all – see, I only use it in certain instances). Now I may get a page, say an image page of prose with a lot of pictures in, and so I say, “Well, I’ll cut that up and see if I get anything worth using”. In other words, cut-up seems to work well – it’s a technique and it works well on some occasions and not on others. It’s good for delirium (for instance), depicting states of confusion and delirium – Yeah?
Q: Was cut-up used extensively in Naked Lunch?
WSB; They weren’t used at all in Naked Lunch. I didn’t really hear about it.. I mean..as a real procedure until Brion (Gysin) showed it to me in 1959, but that was after the publication of Naked Lunch. There were no cut-ups as such in Naked Lunch.
Q: Which of your books does the cut-up method begin appearing in?
WSB: Well, of course, the first statement was in Minutes To Go, and then The Exterminator, which was…those were.. just two pamphlets about cut-ups, with examples of cut-ups. Then I used it quite a lot in Nova Express and The Soft Machine, and The Ticket That Exploded (I think, in hindsight, rather too much, because now I use it rather sparingly) – Questions?
Q: What’s the status of your novel [Queer] that’s your unpublished novel?
WSB: No, it hasn’t been published yet. There’s a copy in the archives of it, but it hasn’t been published and I have no intention of publishing it. I think it’s rather amateurish, I mean it’s like picking up something you wrote in high school. [Editorial note – Queer was subsequently published in 1985, (and again, in a revised edition, in 2010) with an introduction by Allen Ginsberg]
Q: What archive is that?
Q: What archive?
WSB: That is..manuscripts, all my manuscripts, etcetera, and in it’s in Vaduz, Liechtenstein. Something called the “International Center of Arts and Communications”, which is not functioning yet, but, presumably, will be. Yes. Further questions? [Editorial note – The William S Burroughs “Vaduz” Archive was organized and shipped off , in 1972, (in sealed cartons) to the Liechtenstein financiar Roberto Altman. It was subsequently sold to Robert and Carol Jackson of Cleveland, Ohio, who in turn, in 2004, sold it to the NewYork Public Library, where it now resides as a part of the Berg collection]
Q: What about Akbar del Piombo?
Q: Akbar del Piombo
WSB: It’s Norman Rubington. I don’t know how that rumor ever started that I was Akbar del Piombo, I’m not. It’s… Norman Rubington wrote those books. Fuzz Against Junk, and, I don’t know, a couple of others.
Q: I’m not sure if I heard you correctly (saying) that either Anatole France or Andre Gide cut up pages but did not use them randomly?
WSB: I don’t know if he did or not. He said he used scissors to write with.
Q: Anatole France?
WSB: Anatole France, yeah – and Anatole France, incidentally, is how the Surrrealists got their start, if you will remember.
Q: That seems very logical, doesn’t it?
Q: That seems (a) very logical reason to…
WSB: Sure. Well what I think he did. He’d take a.. He just was rearranging sentences – that he cut out a sentence and said, “Well, I’ll put it over here, and this sentence belongs there”. I mean.. but he was beginning to sort of touch and handle his material, and he did this with scissors and paste. Now whether he got to the point of cutting through a sentence and then trying to make new sentences and new words that way, I don’t know. I rather doubt it from reading what he’s written, which seems pretty old-fashioned, very sequential writing
Student: Years ago, I was reading that you wrote, (or) brought out an edition called “Pataphysics”? – Were there really a lot of French writers who were Surrealists and that were later associated with an organization of Pataphysics, or is that just a… [Editorial note – questioner is confused here – Burroughs, though in the tradition of Alfred Jarry and the Pataphysicians was not involved with the movement per se]
WSB: What’s the organization?
Student: Pataphysical Society, or something like that [Editorial note – Jarry died in 1907, The Collège de ‘Pataphysique was founded in Paris in 1948]
Anne Waldman: [correcting him] – This was a feature in the Evergreen Review [Evergreen Review 13, (1960) – “What is Pataphysics?” – (Burroughs does not appear in this issue) – and it was sort of invented, but it was an actual group of people ...I don’t think it continues, though..
WSB: Yeah, I’ve heard of them.
Anne Waldman: Post-Dada stuff
WSB: Post-Dada – Yes –
Student: (Eugene) Ionesco did that.
WSB: What’s that?
Anne Waldman: Pataphysics
WSB: Pataphysics, yeah.
Student: Whatever it was
WSB: They got out of a magazine, I think, a couple of issues anyway.. One of those French movements. Any further questions?
to be continued
Audio for the above can be heard here, beginning at approximately forty-six-and-a-half minutes in and concluding at approximately seventy-five minutes in]