John Geiger Interview
INTO-GAL: In your biography of Brion Gysin, Nothing Is True Everything Is Permitted, you quote William Burroughs writing to Gysin in 1982: ‘The whole concept of place is dead and it’s nostalgia to cling to it. Time was every creative person had to be in Paris, London, New York, Rome, San Francisco, LA, even New Orleans and Chicago. And the outlying areas like Tangier, Santa Fe, Tasco... That’s all over and done with. Went out when the jets came in...’ Did you think about that much when you were writing the book?
JOHN GEIGER: It’s interesting that on the one hand Gysin really defied place—his whole life seemed to be lived in opposition to the concept of place, in the sense that he didn’t have a nationality. He was born in England, grew up in Canada, became a naturalized American, a U.S. citizen, then lived in France and Morocco, but he always referred to himself as being Swiss, which was the nationality of his father’s antecedents. Yet he was one of those fireflies attracted by bright lights and he always ended up in the places where the action was. He wanted to be in Paris, he wanted to be in New York and he wanted to be in Morocco—when he was there, there was a lot going on. Burroughs often lived in large cities, but he didn’t have the same fascination with the social life of cities—he had other agendas.
In your book Gysin talks about how the introduction of electricity in Tangier seemed to destroy the magical possibilities. I was interested to know what you thought about that, and this idea of a flight from imperialism. Maybe he’s an artist of the future—in some ways his work has become more and more ahead of its time. It’s interesting that his work was rejected in New York in the ’60s. Did the kinds of journeys he made interest you as a writer?
I thought that, very much, Brion Gysin lived the life of an explorer. He had that sort of mindset. He had almost an anthropological attitude to his travels, and of course he was an historian and he was highly educated, largely self-educated, but he had a vast base of knowledge upon which he could construct enormous structures and ideas. And so he went to these places, as he himself put it, when the going was good, before the flights were really convenient, before there was a mass influx of European and American tourists. He was there before all of that, so he saw a world that was really in its dying moments. And he described it, he recorded it in his journals, and certainly his published writings are very much narratives of a place that doesn’t exist any more. You’re right, in the sense that he was experiencing a medieval world but as an artist and a thinker he was very much inclined to the future; his ideas transcended many centuries. He had a great fascinatio! n with the ancients, with classical civilizations, so it is an interesting aspect of his personality that he was able to bridge the very old and the not yet here.
You’ve been working on this book for many years. What was the thing that really began your interest in Brion Gysin?
What surprised me was the discovery that Brion Gysin grew up in Edmonton, Alberta, which still has some very ‘old west’ sensibilities about the place, so you can well imagine what it would have been like in the 1920s, when Brion was there, growing up and receiving most of his schooling. It was a very conservative, small frontier town perched on the edge of the great forests of the North. It struck me as being remarkable that this kind of person could’ve come out of that kind of place. I think that exploration in our own time has been undertaken by people like William Burroughs and Brion Gysin, and I think in the case of Burroughs, a book like The Yagé Letters is very much a narrative of exploration, in the same way Ernest Shackleton’s narratives are. So to me, I was just conducting research into another very different manner of exploring. Those things together caught my interest. I was already aware of Gysin, but interestingly not throug! h Burroughs so much, although in hindsight I had seen his name obviously—you can hardly read Burroughs without seeing Gysin’s name or some reference to his ideas—but it was really through Paul Bowles that I first discovered him.
It’s interesting that right at the end of Semiotext(e)’s Burroughs Live, in a discussion with Allen Ginsberg, Burroughs mentions that Brion was a potent shaman. Certainly he had an erudite involvement with magic, and his availability to intuitive principles seems quite advanced. How did you take those things into consideration when you were writing the book?
When I first spoke to William Burroughs about the biography—he was an enthusiastic supporter—he made it very clear to me that the approach should be a conventional biography, and he felt that Brion needed to be taken seriously, and that there had been enough homages and remembrances, that really someone ought to just examine his life very carefully and set out the facts of that life. So, obviously his interest in ‘the other way,’ in what Burroughs called ‘the magical universe,’ was integral to Gysin’s character. I mean it’s something that he learned from the very earliest moments of his life from the Indian people he was encountering. Brion Gysin was always different, he wasn’t a normal child anymore than he was a normal adult, and consequently he found himself hanging out with people who were marginalized, even when he was a child. In the context of Canada in those years and p! robably even to this day, those people were aboriginal people, they were North American Indians. It was through those interactions that he first took magic mushrooms—that was when this interest really first took hold and he was introduced to an alternative approach to life and thought.
He was quite young?
He was probably 7 or 10 years old, I can’t remember exactly. They were given to him by a young aboriginal girl, probably a little older than him. So he was introduced early on, both to those experiences with the mushrooms and also the attraction to the mystery of native lifestyle and thought was something that really remained with him, and it was something that he sought out when he moved to Tangier. But the whole interest in magic surfaced in his New York years, of all places, with Eileen Garrett, and his friendship with her. She published him, both his book To Master—A Long Goodnight, and A History of Slavery in Canada. Garrett was a medium, and one of the most remarkable psychic forces of the 20th century, and a founder of The Parapsychology Foundation. So during even his time in New York he sought out this ‘other way.’
That led him to the desert and the space of the Sahara that he wrote about in The Process.
I think there was something about the desert that reminded him oddly of his childhood, and in his writings when he described the desert he often described it in a way that was evocative of the snowfields of his youth. Bowles said that about him, that he understood the desert in a way that few people alien to that geography do—his understanding seemed to be innate.
When did you first see his paintings?
I saw them first in Paris. There’s some at the Pompidou Center, and there’s a lot of his material, which I was able to view some of, at the Museum of Contemporary Art for the City of Paris, and the Gallery de France has a very large collection. I also instigated a traveling exhibition of Gysin’s art in Canada. There’s a book that was just published by Thames and Hudson inspired by that exhibition.
How did his paintings affect you?
The calligraphic works are really interesting, and he talked a lot about the magical, you know, the grid and so forth. I see a lot more of the Dreamachine in them than I do evocations of magic. It’s just remarkable the extent to which his experiments with strobe affected his visual art. If you look at them and you experience the Dreamachine, the relationship becomes clear very quickly.
The origin of that grid came from a curse that was planted in his restaurant, the 1001 Nights, in Tangier. He saw it as a traditional example of a cabalistic square, and its formal qualities affected the direction of his painting.
It certainly did have an affect. It was just one of these incidents, these magical interventions, that altered the course of his life. The remarkable thing about Gysin is that he lived to be 70 years old, and through much of that time he had no obvious source of income, aside from the time when he was operating this remarkable restaurant, 1001 Nights. But he was a great raconteur and story-teller, and his mother had actually been a professional story-teller, so there was a family tradition. In fact the scene in Morocco with independence, the end of the interzone, or the international zone, the international mandate over that part of Morocco, was fundamentally altering the economy, in terms of tourism and the other sorts of goings-on associated with the interzone.
You could travel there without a passport, right?
Yeah, exactly. And there were all sorts of strange transactions involving large sums of foreign currency. There were all sorts of things that were pretty much free to do, which were suddenly banned. So this obviously had an enormous impact on his restaurant, and he basically got to the point where he was shutting it for a part of the year. It had been very successful, the food had been great, it was sort of a legend, but its time had passed for these and other reasons. But Brion had a wonderful gift for story-telling, so the whole end of his career as a restauranteur became related to this incident where this curse was found. And suddenly everything made sense to him. The failure of the restaurant made sense, it was actually not the result of the altered economy of Tangier, it was the result of this curse—that’s how he saw life. It was just one of these incidents, and there were a number of them, that really altered the course of his life. He ! might’ve lived a much more traditional artistic life, but he was always outside of that, and that was very much to his advantage as an artist.
In Paris, Burroughs’ and Gysin’s tape-recorder experiments extended the space of the Beat Hotel well beyond the confines of the walls...
Well the tape-recorder experiments grew largely out of the cut-up. The thing about Brion is that he could take existing ideas, and sort of adapt them. When he introduced it to Burroughs, suddenly its application in the kind of writing that Burroughs was doing seemed to have a kind of revolutionary effect. Both of them spoke of this whole idea that narrative novels and narrative fiction are not inherently true to life, that life is always being interrupted by random elements. So he introduced that to literary work, Minutes to Go and the experiments that he and Burroughs and others were working on at the Beat Hotel. Tape was another way of approaching this, so they would actually physically cut up the tape, and then they’d put it back together again and study the results.
It’s interesting that when Gysin showed the Dreamachine to Peggy Guggenheim in the early ’60s, Alfred Barr of MoMA, who was with her, said: ‘The kinetic thing is over, what it is now is Pop.’ So a unique psychedelic invention got stalled by a fashionable stance. At some level there’s a kind of universal corporatization of art at the present time, and the track that Brion Gysin and William Burroughs have taken could be a model for others to investigate.
Yeah. Also it was their actual physical hunger, the fact of how they lived, that added such force to their work. There were times when Gysin was at the Beat Hotel when he was literally starving, and in a way that hunger and the ability to withstand it I think drove some of his most interesting ideas. The fact is that he was prepared to put himself at risk, he was prepared to live on the edge, and the same is true of Burroughs, very much so. They were involved in exploration—it’s not a safe business.
It’s like the magical universe opening up when you don’t have any food in your body.
That’s right, it’s like fasting, or like the desert monks, or people who put themselves in these kinds of extreme environments where stimulations are different. When you’re hungry or sleep-deprived, things that they were encountering, these have a quantifiable neurological impact. So obviously this is going to alter their vision and sense of reality.
In the rush to monetize all space, the word ‘poverty’ has an intention behind it to degrade people who’ve lived in harmony with the earth, without money. It’s harder to live that way in cities though...
Well Burroughs and Gysin somehow succeeded! They wanted to pursue their own path, and they didn’t want the state to interfere with it. There’s nothing more destructive to a radical thinker or an artist than having a padded crib built for them by the state.