November 24, 2014
Burroughs the Scientologist
by Jacob Karpathian
What is is that we all want to know? The future, of course. And Williams Burroughs came up with a way of reading the future: the “cut-up” method.
The cut-up method requires cutting up a pre-existing text and reassembling its parts to create a new text. Brion Gysin introduced Burroughs to the technique at the Beat Hotel. Supposedly Gysin had accidently discovered the cut-up while slicing some papers on top of a newspaper with a razor blade. Finding the juxtaposed fragments of the newspaper interesting, Gysin began using the technique as a to create prose.
When Burrough claimed that some of the cut-up seemed to refer to future events. He explained that he cut up an article written by John Paul Getty and rearranged the text and to spell out, “It’s a bad thing to sue your own father.” A year later, one of his sons sued Getty. Burroughs said that this suggested “when you cut into the present the future leaks out.”
And BOO-HOORAY has teamed up with Emory University to present a new exhibition on Burroughs cut-up method.
Perhaps one of the most interesting aspects of the exhibition is the connection between Burroughs cut-up method and his involvement with Scientology. Gysin introduced Burroughs to Scientology through John and Mary Cooke, who were trying to recruit Gysin. Burroughs became especially interested in Scientology’s Auditing via E-meter. He thought that these audits could be cut up to create particularly revealing.
However, the cut-up technique existed long before Burroughs’s experiments in the 1960s. In 1920, Tristan Tzara wrote the Dada Manifesto On Feeble Love and Bitter Love, explaining how to make a Dadaist poem by cutting up a newspaper article, shaking up the words in a paper bag, and copying them down in the order that you pull them out of the bag. This poem will resemble you, Tzara writes, even if “unappreciated by the vulgar herd.” Oh, the state of modern man.
While Burroughs eventually became disillusioned with Scientology, the E-meter auditing played a large role in his cut-up trilogy and the films Burroughs made with Gysin. For more on the cut-up method, check out the Boo-Hooray exhibit.