magic, danger, fear

magic, danger, fear: the first words I jotted down last night, sitting in the hushed gallery space of the Parasol Unit, listening with intense concentration to Ian MacFadyen talking about the Third Mind. We were there for On beat, an event billed as exploring ‘some of Beat culture’s most evocative moments and its ongoing legacy today’, and organised by Parasol Unit in conjunction with the October Gallery. Outside, London shivered; in the gallery, the audience sat surrounded by Jannis Kounellis‘s striking sculptures, while the panel of speakers took us into other (mental) regions. Ian MacFadyen spoke first, with quiet and focussed intensity, about the cut-up techniques discovered and employed by Brion Gysin and William Burroughs, and how far this was from a mere literary experiment, but rather a means of ‘blitzkrieging the establishment’, a scorched earth policy. Undermining ‘self-expression’, casting doubt on the nature of the self – and here lies real psychological danger. Gysin as a ‘heretical historian’. Burroughs and Gysin challenged the Aristotelian either/or dichotomy; they wanted to ‘recruit a different kind of existence’. Ian’s passionate engagement with these lived ideas held the audience enthralled.
Barry Miles spoke next, his focus ostensibly Burroughs in London, though he ranged more widely, in a richly anecdotal talk. It was fascinating to learn that in the early seventies Burroughs created his own calendar of 23 day months, and tried to live by that for several years; just one example of the ways in which he continually challenged everyday reality. Barry also mentioned Nightwood by Djuna Barnes as influencing (if I’m not misquoting) Burroughs’ writing of The Soft Machine. Connections, names, scribblings, filling up half a dozen pages of my notebook.
Canadian poet and artist Peter Jaeger, currently writing a book about John Cage, talked about the materiality of language – language as a thing, an object, to be manipulated. He performed several poems, constructed from cut-ups of The Naked Lunch and Frank O’Hara’s Lunch Poems, which were full of odd and often funny juxtapositions. But I was most taken by the last piece Jaeger performed, a long poem (whose title I didn’t catch) structured around the 108 beads of a Zen mantra (again, I hope I’m not misrepresenting this) and referencing Philip Whalen, with Cage-like silence replacing some of the 108 points. Each line a counterbalanced statement. Writing about the poem on my blog is not a statement concerning writing about the poem on my blog. Rigorous and difficult listening that had me on the edge of my seat, and in some oblique way thinking about Earle Brown’s astonishing 1965 String Quartet.
Lastly, Marcus Slease read several collaged stories, drawing on Burroughs and Mark E Smith’s lyrics amongst other texts for Northern Cream, and a t-shirt slogan as the starting point for the very funny flash fiction I Love Beaver.
And then questions and answers, discussion, spilling out, continuing the threads as we tramped out into the bitterly cold night, more notes jotted down: Coolidge, Mishima, the desire to transcend the self, to transcend language, the danger of writing. Invigorating stuff.

Peter Jaeger, Marcus Slease, Ian MacFadyen and Barry Miles, Parasol Unit, Wharf Road N1, 15th January 2013
Peter Jaeger, Marcus Slease, Ian MacFadyen and Barry Miles, Parasol Unit, Wharf Road N1, 15th January 2013

2 thoughts on “magic, danger, fear

  1. Jim Pennington

    An astute and accurate summary of what was, indeed, an invigorating evening. I’d like to recommend for further reading on Burroughs’ time in London a book referenced by both Miles and MacFadyen – Observed While Falling by Malcolm Mc Neill.

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