That everything was seen to be illusion-“nothing is true”-meant that everything was permitted, a phrase seized upon by Burroughs and Gysin as a summation of the philosophy of Hassan~i-Sabbah. (It was used by Nietzsche in Thus Spoke Zarathustra in 1880.) Burroughs used it as a trope, along with Hassan’s name, cutting it up and giving it many shades of meaning. Decades later, in The Western Lands, he was to confess that perhaps his approach to Hassan-iLSabbah had been faulty and that, “with a carry-over of Christian reflexes,” he had used Hassan’s name “like some Catholic feeling his saint medals.”
Around lunchtime on the first of October 1959, Brion Gysin was in room 25 of the Beat Hotel, cutting mounts for some drawings, slicing through the mat boards with his Stanley knife and simultaneously slicing through the pile of old copies of the New York Herald Tribune he was using to protect the table. When he finished, he saw that where the strips of newsprint were sliced, they peeled back and the words on the next page showed through and could be read across, combining stories from different pages. He found some of the combinations so amusing that the people in the next room knocked on the door, concerned that he was having a hysteria attack. Burroughs had been to lunch with two reporters from a magazine and on his return, Gysin excitedly showed him his discovery. Bill agreed that the results were amusing, but immediately recognized its importance as a technique and pronounced it to be “a project for disastrous success.” He could see that cut-ups literally enabled you to “read between the lines” and find out what the newspapers were really saying.
Together they began experimenting, initially with the magazines in Gysin’s room: the Saturday Evening Post and Time. They picked the best word and phrase combinations and used the results as poems, but quickly became frustrated by the mundane words at their disposal. They began Placing the strips of newsprint on texts by Rimbaud and Shakespeare and the results showed a marked improvement. As Burroughs said, “A page of Rimbaud cut up and rearranged will give you quite new images-real Rimbaud images--but new ones. [. . .] Cut-ups establish new connections between images, and one’s range of Vision consequently expands.” He recognized the importance of good source material. “I could see right away all the possibilities of cut-ups, where you have one image, you can have six out of that. What cuts up well are images, so you take Rimbaud and start cutting it up you get all sorts of quite good Rimbaud. We made a number of experiments, cut up my own texts, cut up other texts, cut up the Bible and Shakespeare and the classics, cut up experiments.”
Cut-ups held an obvious appeal for Burroughs, whose work was already fragmented. The Naked Lunch, with its lack of narrative or character development, its episodic presentation and random order of chapters, has sometimes been mistaken for a cut-up text even though it was written before their discovery. Burroughs was well aware of the idea’s antecedents: Eliot’s The Waste Land, the first great cut-up collage; Tristan Tzara’s poems made from words pulled from a hat; the “Camera Eye” sequence in USA by Dos Passos. Burroughs said, “I felt I had been working toward the same goal; thus it was a major revelation to me when I actually saw it being done.”
Slicing lines of text from articles was cumbersome and they quickly Progressed to an easier system. A page of text from a book, a magazine, a newspaper, or a letter was simply cut into four sections. The margins were trimmed off and the sections were moved against each other until a likely Phase or sentence was found. This was typed out on a new sheet of paper. ilk process was repeated for as long as it produced interesting new word combinations. They went through Rimbaud, Ezra Pound, T. S. Eliot, Life magazine features, whatever came to hand, and typed out anything that might their eye. They did not paste up the juxtaposed pages; there was no point. In cutting the pages with scissors, some words were cut in half and could be combined to make not just new phrases but new words: cut words.
There were many different methods of cutting text, but they all had one thing in common: they introduced a random juxtaposition of text; to give new word combinations. Only those lines of literary interest were typed up on a separate page. Sometimes Burroughs would only get one 0, two lines from the combinations offered and move on to another. These new pages might themselves be cut up, removing the material even further from its source.
Naturally they wanted to share their discovery with everyone, and soon Gregory Corso and Sinclair Beiles were engaged in cut-ups as well. Beiles had been persuaded to move to the hotel by Gysin, who thought that he really belonged there, with them, after his sterling work on getting The Naked Lunch into print. Corso was torn between his desire to be part of the experiment and join in the enthusiasm and excitement it was causing, and his core belief in the power of the muse. His contribution consisted mostly in cutting up the work of others: letters from friends, a poem by Allen Ginsberg, a stanza or two of Shelley. When the results of these initial experiments in cut-ups were published as Minutes to Co, Corso dissociated himself from the other three contributors, writing, “I join this venture unwillingly and willingly. Unwillingly because the poetry I have written was from the soul and not from the dictionary; willingly because if it can be destroyed or bettered by the ‘cut-up’ method, then it is poetry I care not for, and so should be cut-up. [. . .] to the muse I say: ‘Thank you for the poesy that cannot be destroyed that is in me’-for this I have learned after such a short venture in uninspired machine-poetry.”
Sinclair Beiles took the opposite path and cut up his source texts-articles from the Observer, Life, Encounter-again and again until they had such a density as to be bereft of meaning. The arguments between the four of them became so intense that Beiles, who was already in a mentally fragile state, had to sometimes leave the room to throw up. His mother later accused Burroughs of driving her son mad. Beiles has given two similar accounts of what appears to be a conscious imitation of Tristan Tzara’s pulling words out of a hat: “The four of us got together in Gysins room. We cut up bits of books and put them in wooden bowls. We then extracted piece after piece and put them together. The result was Minute to Go.” As this is his memory of his involvement, there must have been at least one experiment of this type.
The first extension of the cut-up method was when Brion Gysin applied it to tape recordings. They read aloud texts taken from poems and news\ paper articles and recorded them. Then the tape was rewound and new passages were cut in at random. Where these cut-ins occurred the old words were wiped off the tape and replaced by the new ones, often giving some interesting juxtapositions. Burroughs wrote, “I would say that my most interesting experience with the earlier techniques was the realization that when you make cut-ups you do not simply get random juxtapositions of words, that they do mean something, and often that these meanings refer to some future event. I’ve made many cut-ups and then later recognized that the cut-up referred to something that I read later in a news‘ paper or in a book, or something that happened. To give a very simple example, I made a cut-up of something Mr. Getty had written, I believe for Time and Tide. The following phrase emerged: ‘It’s a bad thing to sue your own father.’ About three years later his son sued him. Perhaps events are pre-written and pre-recorded and when you cut word lines the future leaks out.”