burroughs review of gysin’s “the process”

In 1959, Gysin wrote : ” Writing is 50 years behind painting.” He attributed this time lag to the fact that the painter can touch and handle his medium, whereas the writer cannot. The writer does not yet know what words are. He deals with abstractions from the source point of words. Few writers are even trying to establish tactile communication with words. Words are secret untouchable objects, is it not? Superstitious awe of one’s medium is crippling, and cripples fall behind. This cultivated distance from the medium also places writing behind film and TV, regardless of content. Unless writing can bring to the page the immediate impact of film, it may well cease to exist as a separate genre. We are no longer living in the 19th century. The omniscient author who can move into the past, the future and the minds of his characters is an outworn device.

In “The Process”, Gysin has eliminated the obtrusive explanatory author. Nothing is presented that the character speaking could not know from his own point of observation. Any writer of film scripts must specify his source of information. “It was Saturday evening in July 1923.” Fine, thank you, but how does the audience know it isn’t a Saturday afternoon in September 1923? I do not imply that novels of the future will read like film scripts, with little or no descriptive writing. It is hoped that film scripts will come out to read more like novels. The more accurate and poetic the descriptive writing, the more vividly scenes will be presented to the reader.

In “The Process”, description is done on location. It consists of a number of narrations, all done in the first person by different characters. The sections are entitled: I, THOU, IT, SHE, WE, YOU (fem.), YOU (mas.), THEY. These voices are recordings on the Uher of Ulys O. Hanson of Ithaca, New York, a pot-smoking Negro professor skilled in scholarship-, foundation-, grant- and sponsor-hopping, a traveler through a great desert where the fabulous Himmers juggle precarious phantom empires over heat waves and atomic testing sites.

His tape recorder is the point of observation that brings each narration into present time. We do not see the director or the scriptwriter. Their presence is always inferential. We do not see Hanson, who records, plays back and changes the tapes. He himself is another recording, made by someone who does not appear. Hanson is entitled to make the last recording, for Thay Himmer has given the emerald seal, Beginning and Ending of the Word. He himself is another recording.

SHE says the first word was “Hello”. SHE means to say, right enough, the first word was enforced recognition of another being inside the human body. The body was recognition of word. The body was word made flash (a slip of the typewriter, or was it?) The body was word made flash … picture … flesh. The body is three : two who talk and one who records. The last word is not spoken from a human throat. The last word is spoken from the Emerald. Word is once again outside. Only the recordings remain. The Emerald is a tape recorder, the visible world its recordings.

Unexpected rising of the curtain can begin with a tape recorder against a white wall. There is a round opening in the wall, thru which we see the blue sky of Africa. A black hand presses the button PLAY …

“I am out in the Sahara, heading due South, with each day of travel less sure of just who I am, where I am going, or why. This desert is so long, it can take a lifetime to go from one end to the other, and a childhood to cross its narrowest point. I made that crossing in another continent.”

… tenement hallways, stickball games, paved playgrounds, subway turnstiles … Hanson is writing a letter to the Foundation … sand-dunes, a jolting truck, smell of hot iron and acrid exhaust fumes. Hanson fills his kif pipe. Black Greaser, the driver’s assistant, on a flute made out of an old bicycle pump, is playing a windy tune …

Oh, we’ll cross the Sahara and never come back …

Scenes rise from the recorder … a fort from Beau Geste, where the commandant forbids him to go or turn back … arrangements with a Tuareg guide … “All day long, under the white hot silvery tenting of the sky, we advance through the country of fear. The watering eye of the mirage is The Great Show of the World, a vision of glittering marshes just out of reach. Your camel lets out a terrible bellow and roars off to take a deep gulp of the stuff … ”

Nothing there to drink but a tape-recorder … “This cool freshwater lake, fed by deep underground springs, rises unexpectedly from a waste of black stone. Now man and beast can drink their fill and bathe in the limpid waters … ”

Scenes rise from the tape recorder … kif smoking sessions with the Mystic Brothers, who go into trances and leave their bodies … “You may not pass here in a lifetime” … the journey is circular and returns to Tanja.

THOU … Hanson, or Hassan as the Arabs call him, Hassan Merikani, is trying to sleep in his Tanja house, despite tappings from next door, the wall is broken with a hammer, and there is Hamri framed in the broken wall … “Were you really astonished when I came through the wall right into your room?” … Hamri, who comes from the mountain village of Joujouka, where the Rites of Pan are still celebrated, Hamri, the smuggler king of the trains, who was ruined at 15 because he forgot the boy he was visiting has a wicked sister, Hamri the painter, Hamri, who is not at all content just to be recording … “Mektoub, it is written.” And now Hassan Merikani, the Master of Ceremonies, introduces that interplanetary vaudeville team, the Himmers …

This pair, who travel through Africa with a million dollars tossed casually into a suitcase, leaving a wake of riots and devastation behind them, as all travelers in present time must do, riding a surfboard on the wave of present time, which is of course what the city desk calls NEWS …

“But we have nothing to do with it, really, it’s just that we happen to be there when it happens, or, more precisely, just after it happens, you understand … ”

(Thay and Mya taxi thru a riot-torn city, the riot always just behind them, the suitcase with the million dollars bouncing around on the roof of the cab) … and now the one and only Thay Himmer, Doctor of Grammatology, Advanced Student of Ismak, Hereditary Bishop of the Farout Isle :

HE … “I’ve been thru the whole gamut, from Voodoo to MRA, from Scientology to Subud, I’ve been thru every branch of Eastern Mysticism. All the women in my family have been ardent theosophists, followers of Madame Blavatsky and Annie Besant, in close contact with Swami Vivekananda and Krishnamurti : aunts, great-aunts, always talking about Gurdjieff, prana and all that sort of thing, or trailing around in trances at home. So, you see, I know both the practical and theoretical side of the business, since childhood, you might say, and I proclaim to one and all that Morocco is the Wild West of the Spirit … HIYO SILVER … ”

And he jumps into a sacred spring where no Christian foot has ever washed before, and gets himself initiated into a self-flagellating cult at great personal danger … “dancers around me began splitting their heads with great earthen pots, which they broke on their skulls with the sound of coconuts cracking. One woman kept spinning, until her hair stood out like spokes stiff with blood, splashing everyone around like a lawn-sprinkler … the brothers were all pinned to the walls with long kebab skewers, thrust right thru the gut and hammered into the walls, as the Initiator thrust a long icy cold finger into my abdomen, finding the place, and I woke in a clinic on the outskirts of Tanja … ”

He is a dauntless initiate, a bigtime Player in the Game, an interplanetary agent shimmering with eerie authority from some tenuous lost place far away and long ago, or, if you like, the high priest of some future cult clothed in robes of Perhaps.

“Well, this Operation Seal … (a seal balances the world on its nose and is rewarded with a small fish) … Beginning and End of the Word … In the Beginning was the Word. In the beginning of what, exactly? What we call recorded history goes back mebbe 10,000 years, and there can’t be any new roles, because it is all pre-recorded, the world is contained in that Word, the Saharan Scarab you hold in your hand … the scarab sign in Egyptian picture writing means become, you know. And there is some veteran ham on stage who thinks he is becoming … Nothing new here really, any native can understand, it’s just a question of information storage, all the possible combos. And if you have all recorded history stored in one artifact, well, that’s it … The World is shadows on the wall which flicker briefly over the recorder and return to silence.”

And now it is my privilege to introduce another bigtime Player, the eternal SHE …

SHE has married the richest boy in the world … SHE has synthesized BOR BOR, the female dream dust, and she dreams about an African Empire, based at HER air-conditioned fortress of Malamout, deep in the Sahara, with Hassan as her Prince Consort … Eyes old, unbluffed, unreadable, portentous as the mushroom cloud over an atomic testing site, riding a bulldozer of Present Time, hard-drinking, outspoken, overwhelming, the incomparable Mya Himmer :

SHE … “Just say the WORD, Hassan, and you are Emperor of Africa, have you seen the Foubla faggots, my dear, the most beautiful boys in the world, and that’s official, and me married to the Richest Little Kid in the World, the best things in life are stolen, you know, you are feeling the BOR BOR? No, don’t panic, it will make you see things more clearly, what you’ve known all along, so don’t be silly and say you won’t be Emperor of Africa, after all, it’s a game, and we’ll cheat you if we can, now isn’t that fun? You only have to say it, you know, the Word … ”

IT … lists the computerized properties and assets played by the Himmers in a game of computerized chess … “All the headings refer you to the very complete electronic Library we have here … BIO KEY is the name of our pharmaceutical combine in Mexico … weight for weight, steroids are worth about 17 times their weight in gold … Madame Mya is sitting on the biggest steroid bank in the world … C is for Chemistry … remember Chemistry, of course things can be done in other ways, but there is nothing quite like a double dry Martini, or the right steroid at the right time, or a heroin/coke speed ball, or even the quite unmistakable LSD BOR BOR … F is for Foubla … here are some of the pictures of the boys during their annual orgy … the hormone content of their entire Foubla nation out there, nearly two million of them carried about in a briefcase … ”

YOU (fem.) … “You yourself pointed out that immortality was the only proposition out there pushing … Behind the gritty whisper of the sand, I hear a rasping silence like white sound feedback … present time is draining away from this point, like the sand in an hour-glass … ”

YOU (masc.) … “Of course the sands of present time are running out from under our feet. What are we here for? We are here to go? It still takes a pair to beat old terrestrial death and roll out replicas all over the Universe. All we need is the Emerald … ”

The last tape is THEY … The Himmers make a brief, dimmed-out appearance, transformed into a dull couple from Illinois. Hassan is on his way on the train again, with his kif pipe, to a teaching job in Algut School. The mirage of BOR BOR is gone. The tapes shred to dust. The recorder turns to an Emerald seal, slowly covered by dust and drifting sand. THEY have all spoken. The Emerald was a tape. The Process was the Recorder.

This is a book you will want to read and reread. It will tell you what is happening in present time. How things are made to happen or not to happen. In Present Time. It is also first class entertainment. Start to read it and you will find that it reads itself.


  1. kei & yuri
    Posted February 25, 2008 at 1:36 am | Permalink

    By any chance have you read Nothing Is True Everything Is Permitted?

  2. niqnaq
    Posted February 25, 2008 at 7:47 am | Permalink

    that would be the book by a certain J Geiger about Gysin. No, I tend to avoid biographies. But I am pleasantly surprised to see that Gysin’s own “The Process” is back in print!

  3. kei & yuri
    Posted February 25, 2008 at 8:41 pm | Permalink

    We’re not crazy about biographies either but this is some crazy stuff. We bought it in hardcover on impulse and felt rewarded.

  4. niqnaq
    Posted February 26, 2008 at 6:06 am | Permalink

    i might just get both, then – the geiger book and the novel!

  5. kei & yuri
    Posted February 27, 2008 at 3:54 am | Permalink

    It has all these great weird anecdotal stories. In one, Gysin was always the more fashionable and confident, and in the later sixties period of Burroughs’ popularity he was making Burroughs wear these mod with-it happening clothes that looked hilarious on William.

  6. dteeuwen
    Posted July 25, 2009 at 3:18 pm | Permalink


    Just wondered what your source is for this review. It’s somewhat different from the Village Voice version.


    Dave T

  7. niqnaq
    Posted July 25, 2009 at 3:42 pm | Permalink

    I just looked at the two John Geiger books mentioned in the comments above, and at the paperback edition of “The Process” published by Tusk Ivories, and it doesn’t seem to to be from any of them. If I remember where I got it, I shall post the info.

  8. Tom
    Posted September 20, 2010 at 7:49 pm | Permalink

    This review reminds me of Elie Ayache’s “Blank Swan” and makes me wonder what Burroughs would say about it.

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