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On His 100th Birthday, a Conference Considers William Burroughs’s Humanist Legacy

Jean-Jacques Lebel (left) and Barry Miles (right) at "William Burroughs, le dernier humaniste?" (all photos by Yuri Zupancic)
Jean-Jacques Lebel (left) and Barry Miles (right) at “William Burroughs, le dernier humaniste?” (all photos by Yuri Zupancic unless indicated otherwise)

PARIS — With determined indeterminacy, young Mathilde Louette initiated a perplexing but hip four-hour English-language celebration of William S. Burroughs’s 100th birthday on December 12 in Paris, where the writer lived, on and off, between 1958 and 1966. In her introduction to the Burroughs-inspired talks, discussions, and presentations, Louette reminded us that it was a Parisian publisher, Maurice Girodias, whose daring publishing house Olympia Press first put into print Monsieur Burroughs’s unforgettable, non-linear narrative work Naked Lunch, a dreamlike, highly sexual, and drug-charged stream of freely associated vignettes that, taken together, make for an impressionistic masterpiece (one that was briefly banned in Boston).

To begin the celebration in fascinating fashion, professor Didier Girard copiously explored Burroughs’s work in comparison to automatons (self-operating, human-like mechanisms) and two literary outcasts: Jean Genet and Denton Welch. Then author Benoît Delaune spoke on the creative cut-up technique and its implications. He reminded the audience that Burroughs, as influenced by Brion Gysin (an artist known primarily for his rediscovery of the Dada master Tristan Tzara‘s cut-up technique and for co-inventing the flickering kinetic sculpture “Dreamachine”) popularized the literary cut-up technique in works such as The Nova Trilogy (1961–64), named after his 1964 novel Nova Express. (Do watch Andre Perkowski’s film adaptation of Nova Express.)

Didier Girard at "William Burroughs, le dernier humaniste?"
Didier Girard speaking at “William Burroughs, le dernier humaniste?” (click to enlarge)

In brief, the cut-up method consists of cutting up and randomly reassembling various fragments of something to give them completely new and unexpected meanings. Burroughs, who died in 1997, employed the cut-up method so as to achieve an anti-narrative procedure that involved randomly splicing together phrases from various sources and inserting them into his own text. However, Delaune failed to mention that Burroughs and Gysin worked together in the early 1960s on a publishing project called The Third Mind that employed the cut-up method. It was the basis for an interesting art show of the same name at the Palais de Tokyo in 2007 that was curated by Ugo Rondinone.

In his excellent biography of Allen Ginsberg, I Celebrate Myself, Bill Morgan recounts some of the genesis of Burroughs and Gysin’s  cut-up collaboration. (Ginsberg remained highly skeptical of the method for some time, but, following his travels in India, came to appreciate it — though he never employed it.) Gysin in the mid-’50s pointed out to Burroughs that collage has been a regular tool in painting and graphic arts for half a century. This came as late news to the Beat writers, so it is perhaps unsurprising that Ginsberg’s first exposure to Burroughs’s use of the cut-up was met with disdain. Ginsberg considered it something along the lines of a parlor trick and speculated that Burroughs had lost his mind from lack of sex. Morgan recounts that, as a joke, Ginsberg and Peter Orlovsky cut up some of their own poems, rearranged them, and sent them to Burroughs with the note: “Just having a little fun mother.” But Burroughs was dedicated to the random cut-up method and often defended his use of the technique. When Ginsberg and Orlovsky arrived in Tangiers in 1961, Burroughs was working on an even more advanced use of the cut-up; he and Ian Sommerville were cutting and splicing audiotapes and Burroughs was making collages from newspapers and photographs while proclaiming that poetry and words were dead.

The poster for "William Burroughs, le dernier humaniste?"
The poster for “William Burroughs, le dernier humaniste?” (courtesy École Normale Supérieure)

Nevertheless, Burroughs soon began work on a cut-up novel, The Soft Machine. It drew on material from The Word Hoard, a collection of Burroughs’s manuscripts written in Tangier, Paris, and London that, taken together, created the enormous manuscript that served as the basis for many of his cut-up writings: The Soft Machine, Nova Express, The Ticket That Exploded (collectively referred to as The Nova Trilogy or Nova Epic). Even Naked Lunch was taken from sections of The Word Hoard. Burroughs also produced a text called Dead Fingers Talk in 1963 that contains excerpts from Naked Lunch, The Soft Machine, and The Ticket That Exploded combined together to create a new narrative.

Burroughs, through his artistic collaborations, combined the cut-up technique with images, Gysin’s paintings, and sound from Somerville’s tape recorders. (Some of these recordings can be heard here.) Sommerville was regularly speaking of building electrical cut-up machines.

Following Delaune’s talk, Burroughs biographer Barry Miles and artist and scholar Jean-Jacques Lebel had a expansive discussion about Burroughs’s time in Paris at the Beat Hotel (at 9 Rue Gît-le-Cœur). It was a warm exchange that recounted an interesting incident that occurred between Marcel Duchamp, Burroughs, Ginsberg, and Orlovsky. At a party thrown by his father, Lebel introduced the three stoned and drunk Beats to Duchamp. Orlovsky decided it would be appropriately Dada to cut Duchamp’s tie off (as Tristan Tzara reportedly did) and went ahead. Mortified, Ginsberg got down on his knees and started passionately kissing Duchamp’s knees, while the smacked-out Burroughs took it all in.

Benoît Delaune at "William Burroughs, le dernier humaniste?"
Benoît Delaune at “William Burroughs, le dernier humaniste?”

The centenary celebration concluded with the screening of “The Cut-Ups” (1966), an incredible, trance-inducing short film that Burroughs made with Antony Balch. This was part of an abandoned project called “Guerrilla Conditions,” a documentary on Burroughs that was filmed throughout 1961–65. Inspired by Burroughs and Gysin’s technique of cutting up text and rearranging it in random order, Balch had an editor cut his footage for the documentary into little pieces and he imposed random control over its reassembly. Included in “The Cut-Ups” are shots of Burroughs acting out dystopian scenes from Naked Lunch. “The Cut-Ups,” “Ghost at n°9 (Paris)” (1963–72) — a posthumously released short film compiled from reels found at Balch’s office after his death — “William Buys a Parrott” (1982), and other films can be seen here.

Even if we set aside the uncomfortable fact that in 1951 Burroughs shot and killed Joan Vollmer, his common-law wife, in a drunken game of “William Tell” at a party above the American-owned Bounty Bar in Mexico City, I found it rather a stretch to classify Burroughs as a humanist. An avant-garde, posthuman artist is one that works on situated rather than universal objectivity, creating meaning in art through the play between constructions of information patterns and the randomness of the on-off switches of digital binary systems — something roughly synonymous with the cyborg theory of Donna Haraway’s A Cyborg Manifesto. My takeaway differed vastly from the conference’s premise, especially after seeing Burroughs again in the context of the random chance operation of the cut-up. I came to see Burroughs as one of the first visionary posthuman artists, one already investigating the issues of control and decontrol that are so relevant to our age of post-Snowden meta-paranoia.

William Burroughs, le dernier humaniste? took place on December 12, 2014, at the Department of Literature and Languages of the École Normale Supérieure in Paris.

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