Cut-ups and Van Gogh kicks – the artistic techniques of William Burroughs

When it comes to the work of Beat generation legend William Burroughs, I’m conflicted. I’m conflicted because I love his non-fiction; his fascinating personal letters, and his experimentations with writing and art as epitomised in The Third Mind with Brion Gysin. But when it comes to his fiction, I find it an utter slog, crammed with purposely repetitive and repulsive descriptions and characters, and a black humour which I personally find quite cold and empty. Having said that his work is revolutionary in some respects, and has provoked real change which only the greatest literature can do. I put this revolutionary power down to his ongoing indebtedness to art, and even to junk, which, as Marshall McLuhan identifies, both enable one to ‘reprogram the sensory order’ (‘notes on Burroughs’ 1964). Burroughs had been drawn towards art from the very beginning, when he was still compiling scrapbooks and mottley collages of images and writings using newspapers and cut-outs from his journals. His writing was also uniquely visual, as Allen Ginsberg described, Burroughs’s ‘thinking process as primarily visualisation rather than verbalisation… [he] thinks in pictures’ (The Best Minds of Our Generation, pp. 179-180). When he was trying to describe his psychedelic experiences with various drugs, he endlessly expressed his burning need to paint what he saw… he craved art and what the ability it endowed the great artists. Lost in the abyssal whirlwind of yage, he wrote Ginsberg in the 50s whilst adventuring through the Peruvian jungle, of ‘This insane overwhelming rape of the senses… everything stirs with a peculiar furtive writhing life like a Van Gogh painting… if I could only paint I could convey it all’ (letters of WSB, ed Harris, p.180). He’d sought out these so-called ‘Van Gogh kicks before’ – “Did I ever tell you about the time I got on a Van Gogh Kick and cut off the end joint of my little finger?”, from ‘the finger’, 1954) – and, back in 1939 he cut off part of his little finger to try and impress a then love interest (Jack Anderson). Unfortunately, though perhaps understandably, the relationship was short lived and ill-fated. In later life he would create his own uniquely and characteristically violent, shocking and yet serendipitously beautiful ‘shotgun art’, this whilst going about town with art icons like Gysin and even for a time Francis Bacon.

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Burroughs – ‘screaming ghost’ (1982)

But Burroughs’s greatest artistic device was the cut-up.. that unique intermediary point between art and literature, between poetry and prophecy. In 1951, a pre-famous, junk-ridden Burroughs accidentally shot and killed his wife Joan Vollmer in a William Tell-style trick shot gone disastrously wrong… he was haunted, plagued by the idea that some part of his unconscious had deliberately shot and killed her. He once recalled a cut-up he made whilst in Paris a number of years after Joan’s death which read: ‘raw pealed winds of hate and mischance blew the shot’. He expanded that “for years I thought this referred to blowing a shot of junk, when the junk squirts out the side of a syringe or dropper owing to an obstruction. But Brion Gysin pointed out the actual meaning: it was the shot that killed Joan’ (Word Virus, p. 94). His haunting past was still ever-present.. lying, lurking under the thin veil of language, and only accessible by way of the cut-up. This movement of language into the realm of art by way of the cut-up, cutting up poetry and prose, restructuring them, and then stitching them back together, was thus seen not just as some ‘cheap Dada trick’ (as Kerouac termed it) in Burroughs’s eyes, but as a technique which provided genuinely prophetic, sometimes purgative and revelatory power…by harnessing its power, Burroughs could become something like a literary priest (he was obsessed with the Mayan priest’s power over language which came from their uniquely visual languages) …. performing endless textual exorcisms..

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“mischance blew the shot”… by David West

Despite popular belief, the technique was not originally created by Burroughs, and was rather inherited from Gysin in 1959. Gysin had created the technique (which held affinities with the method of Dada superstar Tristan Tzara, who formed poetry using random phrases pulled from a hat) when he began cutting up sections from a newspaper and haphazardly reconstructing them into poetic lines. When he told Burroughs of the method, an author who was forever trying to escape Control, and especially the controlling systems of language on the unconscious, he immediately acknowledged its potential and significance, particularly to his own unique branch of fiction which so often worked at reforming consciousness in new and revolutionary ways. Burroughs called it a ‘painterly’ technique, and he shared Gysin’s view that ‘writing is 50 years behind painting’ in its capacity to tap the unconscious undercurrents in society, and so, to move writing into the realm of art through the cut-up, meant endowing his work with newfound, piercing properties. The cut-up is a method which exposes the frailty of language, and unveils the word (… “IN THE BEGINNING WAS THE WORD”… he so often quoted derogatively) as a flimsy structure, as facade which can easily be manipulated, taken apart, and rewritten. He later expanded his use of the method to other forms like sound and video recordings and these were methods he saw as being capable of  reconstituting and rewriting reality itself.

Burroughs and the cut-up influenced countless other iconic artists like Michel Basquiat and musicians like David Bowie (see here for Bowie using the technique to devise song lyrics), whose works have likewise absorbed the creative power of the method. In his instruction manual-cum-philosophical treatise with Gysin, The Third Mind, Burroughs talks us through the method in great detail, and reveals how he often cut-up other authors and poets and philosophers to form his cut-ups… writers like Rousseau, Rimbaud and Eliot, can be found peppered throughout the Nova trilogy in various hacked-up forms. Want to try it yourself? There’s a set of instructions by Burroughs (which can be found here) which talk you through exactly how to use the technique and form your own unique works.

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5 thoughts on “Cut-ups and Van Gogh kicks – the artistic techniques of William Burroughs

    1. Awesome Victoria! Yes he lived one heck of a life.. most of his fiction is just a twisted version of his life too really isn’t it.. have you read ‘and the hippos were boiled in their tanks’ which he wrote with Kerouac about the Kammerer murder?? I’d really recommend that as it’s a great autobiographical work but written as a novel!

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  1. Burroughs cut-ups remind me, obliquely, of the phenomenon of “The Footage” in William Gibson’s novel “Pattern Recognition”.
    In the novel, our heroine, Candice Pollard, is obsessed with this thing called “The footage”. She’s some kind of intuitive advertising guru who can know if advertising is going to work just by looking at it. Anyway, “The Footage” is a series of anonymous postings on the net of short movie clips which are hauntingly beautiful but somehow out of order or not making sense in the usual way. She thinks it might be some kind of next generation advertising campaign, but doesn’t know the secret of them.
    Of all of Gibson’s books I found this one the hardest to get into. (I started to read it and stopped three times before I got there.) But I really loved it once I’d read it. If I hadn’t enjoyed so much of his previous work I don’t think I would ever have read it at all. As I read, I kept looking for the overall pattern of the story (which is interesting considering the title of the book) but I couldn’t find it until much further into the story than I expected. When I finally got into reading it I had given up on the overall pattern and was just enjoying Gibson’s description of the details of things happening around his main character. It was almost like Gibson was asking his readers to intuite the main story in much the way his main character does.
    Anyway, thanks for a really interesting post. 🙂

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    1. That sounds really interesting Jo, and I see what you mean by the link with the cut-ups.. you often notice patterns in Burroughs narratives.. a connecting up at various points, through random characters, settings, or even words… I’ve only read neuromancer by Gibson, but really need to check out more of his work! I keep meaning to read his short stories as I love SF short stories! And thanks for following my blog ☺️

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