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Nothing Is True, Everything Is Permitted: The Life of Brion Gysin

by John Geiger
320 pages,
ISBN: 1932857125


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George Fetherling
by George Fetherling

Few of the other figures associated with the Beat movement were smarter or more gifted than Brion Gysin, the vanguard visual artist and writer who died in Paris in 1986. Yet he never attained their level of recognition, partly because he was not skilled at husbanding his c.v.
Here is how his biographer John Geiger describes him in 1950, at the midway point in his life: "In half a lifetime he had accomplished many things, but by any conventional measure he had also accomplished very little. He was a scholar without necessary academic credentials; he was a promising painter who had not exhibited in over a decade; he was a writer whose attempts to get published had met with little success, leaving him in 'deep chagrined despair.' For all his intellectual sophistication, personal flamboyance, eminent acquaintances, and radical creative impulses, Gysin had failed to divine a career for himself. At 34, he was ready for something to happen."
What happened can be expressed in a word: Tangier. In those days, the Moroccan city was an international no-man's-land, rather as Shanghai had been, run by the British, French and Spanish, a freewheeling and indeed sometimes wild place, as colonies often are (at least for the coloniser). In its atmosphere of laissez-faire and license, Gysin rediscovered his creative energy. One can hardly imagine a community less like Edmonton, where Gysin grew up.
Three years ago, the British publisher Thames & Hudson produced a large attractive book on Gysin's art-Tuning In To the Multimedia Age, edited by JosT FTrez Kuri. Among the assorted critics and curators who contributed essays was one biographer, John Geiger, who promised to produce a full-scale study in the future. Nothing Is True, Everything Is Permitted: The Life of Brion Gysin is that book. It is an engaging work distinguished by its thoroughness and common sense. It also reclaims Gysin as a Canadian, one on whom a childhood in Manitoba and Alberta left its mark.
"Memories of the West crept into his early surrealist landscapes, with train tracks reaching across empty flat horizons, and into his pen and ink sketches of grotesque figures draped in furs," writes Geiger, an editor at the National Post who is also known for his writings about the Arctic. "Later, memories of the Canadian prairies influenced his illusionist desert landscapes [ . . . ] Gysin could fill an empty space; it was something he knew from his earliest experience." In other ways, too, some part of Gysin remained connected to Canada, and in his last years he became interested in writers such as Michael Ondaatje.
He was born in 1916 at a Canadian military hospital in England shortly before his father, a Canadian officer, was killed in battle. On the surface, his was a normal Canadian childhood that included selling subscriptions to Maclean's door to door. Yet we can see how his experiences outside even the realm of the plausible rose up in response to cues in his personality. For example, on Dominion Day, 1922, a group of Natives hired to perform for guests at the Banff Springs Hotel introduced the six-year-old Gysin to the psychedelic properties of certain mushrooms.
Adolescence brought terrible unhappiness and danger, for Gysin was gay in a society that had no sympathy or even tolerance for homosexuals, and in the middle of the Depression he fled to Paris to study art. In 1939, at the age of 23, he had a solo exhibition there. By then he already had established some storied friendships, as when Jane Bowles took a liking to him and then introduced him to her husband Paul (then a composer, not yet a novelist).
Geiger tells a story of Paul Bowles's indignation at a woman "who was chattering loudly and playing with her emeralds" during the premiere of Stravinsky's "Dumbarton Oaks Concerto". Only Gysin with his intrinsic understanding of the pop arts "recognized the woman who was the source of the irritation as Coco Chanel." After the concert, the party went back to Gysin's hotel where one of his scapegrace bohemian friends "sought to impress the Bowleses and Gysin by using a Tibetan bow to shoot flaming arrows out the window into the Champs ElysTes." Geiger is especially skilled at letting drop such accounts of odd behaviour with a straight face that does not disguise his delight in them.
Gysin had long been interested in African-American and African-Canadian culture (and eventually published a history of Canadian slavery). So in 1940 when he removed to New York, he got to know Billie Holliday and others as well as the new white artists such as Jackson Pollock. His painting, for he had not yet begun to work in what the next generation knew as performance and installation, continued there, but in Geiger's telling he made a strategic misstep. "Against notions conventional in the visual art trade at the time, he also tried his hand at writing."
This isn't a critical biography, but Geiger writes knowledgeably and with a level head about his subject's art and also his books. In the end, he finds some of the latter more important, particularly his novel, The Process, published by Doubleday in 1969, "a cut-up of memory and pure invention." That is, it relied in part on the random juxtaposition of found texts, an area in which he worked with William S. Burroughs, whom he met at an exhibition in 1954. Geiger writes that he considered the results of such experiments "amusing, recalling similar techniques by the surrealists-automatic writing, for example, or Zurich Dadaist Tristan Tzara composing a poem by pulling words out of a hat." Earlier, he had expressed to Burroughs "the need to use painters' techniques in writing, his argument being that 'writing is 50 years behind painting.' Cut-ups allowed writers to use words in the manner that the painters used paint, as raw material."
Gysin had moved to New York after the Second World War broke out in Europe, but was drafted into the American army. He petitioned to be allowed to enter the Canadian forces instead. After interviewing him and reviewing his records, an army assessor wrote, with splendid understatement, that "this soldier has led a very unusual and unorthodox life." He also noted Gysin's sharp intelligence and many unusual talents. For example, he was one of those hyper-fortunate people who pick up languages easily. He not only mastered Arabic but actually learned Mandarin and written Chinese without resorting to teachers. Ottawa thought he might be useful in intelligence work and sent him to the Japanese-language school in Vancouver, where his classmates included Judy LaMarsh and Arthur Erickson. He excelled there, but the war ended before he could be deployed. Japanese calligraphy later played an important role in his painting, as did the Arabic alphabet-sometimes together.
And so it was that he gravitated to Tangier, which Noel Coward described as "a sunny place for shady people" and where, Gysin noted, occultism was "practised more assiduously than hygiene." Through most of the 1950s he operated a restaurant there, known to all expats and visitors. His interest in food extended to the fact that he was the originator of the notorious recipe for marijuana fudge that the elderly Alice B. Toklas included in her eponymous cookbook. Evidently Toklas once took a nibble of the dish.
"Do you think it will take me for a ride?" she asked Gysin.
"A trip, darling, a trip," he corrected her.
In the late 1950s he was resettled in Paris, living at the establishment he christened the Beat Hotel, where he met the leading Beats and continued his odd relationship with Burroughs. "They lived in near proximity to each other in Paris, New York, and London," Geiger writes, "and while they collaborated on several books and many experiments, their relationship went beyond any conventional notion of collaboration to a virtual state of symbiosis," Geiger writes. "They did not become friends, however, until after leaving Tangier."
Political developments drove them out of Tangier, which had been returned to Moroccan control, and cultural developments-the mass media's sudden fascination with the Beats-would ultimately cost them their privacy in Paris. As Burroughs remarked with uncharacteristic sagacity, "We were living on borrowed time as well as borrowed money and very little of it."
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