Writing Art History Since 2002

First Title

ART AFRICA, issue 07. Guest edited by Kendell Geers.

There’s more than a touch of self-importance in the way they pose for the photograph. It’s most obvious in the way they hold their cigarettes, like would-be film stars – Humphrey Bogart, Yves Montand, with a touch of Montgomery Clift. But you can also detect a sense of achievement; the idea that they have stumbled upon something revolutionary and sublime.

The date is 13 April 1960. The place is the English Bookshop in the Rue de Seine on Paris’ Left Bank, a few blocks from their informal headquarters, a nameless flea-ridden lodging a.k.a. the Beat Hotel. On the left of the black and white picture you see Swiss born Canadian surrealist Brion Gysin. For a guy with a bitchy reputation he seems almost jovial, saying something to William Burroughs who is standing next to him, looking pale and gaunt, as befits the author of two controversial novels, Junky and The Naked Lunch. Spring has set in, but Burroughs is still wearing his hat and long coat. Digesting Gysin’s wit, he manages a faint smile, which makes him look momentarily handsome.

Publisher Jean Fanchette, the man in the centre of the photo, doesn’t seem to have heard Gysin’s musings. The short, dark Mauritanian looks straight into the camera, a cigarette dangling from the left corner of his mouth – the cocky attitude of a prize fighter. Proud to publish his foreign friends.

But it’s the fourth man we’re really interested in, the one on the far right. He too has a cigarette dangling from his mouth. But no way does he match Fanchette’s natural cool. His suit is far too big for his skinny frame. And he seems giggly with excitement. Not without reason. After all, here he is, Sinclair Beiles, 29, a meddling South African poet, unknown in his own country, lining up for a book launch with some of the great American avant-gardists. ‘I am an invention… my poetry is a publicity stunt’, he once wrote, as if it all happened to someone else. While the folks at home were still recovering from the shock and horror of the Sharpeville massacre a month ago, he’s here living it up in Europe’s cultural capital, embracing the bohemian lifestyle that he has always aspired to. Real Bohemia is now waiting for him. The proof is right there, on the other side of the window, in the English Bookshop: neat little piles of blue books titled Minutes To Go, a title that sprung from his overstimulated brain, when he urged his fellow writers: ‘You’ve got to get this going, there are only minutes to go.’

The little blue book with the remarkable white calligraphy and a wrapper that read Un reglement de comptes avec la literature (‘To settle a score with literature’) was a joint effort between Brion Gysin, William Burroughs, Sinclair Beiles and delinquent American poet Gregory Corso, who didn’t attend the launch. It was Fanchette who had the guts to publish this 62-page limited edition of experimental prose for his fledgling Two Cities Editions. The four labeled their work ‘cut-ups’, an experiment in slicing up and re-arranging existing pieces of writing.

Each one had his own idiosyncratic approach, which offered an insight into the various psyches. Corso, who was the most skeptical of the whole endeavour, had simply cut up his own poems, which despite the slicing still made sense as poetry. Gysin had envisaged the book to be a surrealist manifesto, a way to obliterate poetry, and had written something in that vein. Burroughs was more serious about the idea. He had managed to craft painful juxtapositions of different texts, focusing on personal obsessions such as the latest developments in cancer, gene and virus research, themes he would further explore in his next books. Beiles had taken the idea of cut and paste to its extreme, sticking close to the Dadaïst principle of upsetting and unsettling the existing order. His contributions were journeys into a hectic, unstructured world where senses were of a different order, and logic was completely alien. This was psychedelia in words: druggy, disorientating, absurd, emanating from a channel hopping mind. He came up with lines like ‘Some AND has taken to ruling by decree, piping twenty cartons under emergency and a great bowl of laws…’ There were no conventions, there was no hierarchy; this was largely unexplored territory, which perfectly suited Beiles’ lateral thinking. For a while he became convinced that he and his gang had unleashed a virus that would affect literature forever. He liked to think of it as a machine destroying itself by de-and-re-contextualising words and language. To his mother he wrote: ‘We cut up anything from Shakespeare to Freedom declining the steady soliloquy in Life Magazine. An antidote to the absurd South African Black/White duet or spiritual deadlock. They guaranteed a way out.’

Minutes to Go would go down in history as ‘the first cut-up book’. At the time, however, it didn’t cause much of a stir. There was the odd review, but most critics didn’t know how to deal with this experiment. Additionally, Fanchette was having financial problems and didn’t have the means for proper distribution or promotion. For a while it even looked as if the book would never see the light of day, when he couldn’t cough up the print bill of 300 dollars. Eventually Gaït Frogé, owner of the English Bookshop, put up the money and ensured that one thousand copies got printed. It received a second edition eight years later, through California publisher Beach Books.

Sinclar Beiles, Book: Minutes to Go. Image courtesy of Fred de Vries

By then Burroughs was well on his way to international fame, and anything with his name on it would be of huge interest. He, El Hombre Invisible, would become a guru for the underground, from gloomy post-hippies to punks, post-punks, and hip-hoppers. Corso, whose drug dependency would wear him out, never reached the same stature, but he too became an icon, thanks to influential fans such as Patti Smith. Gysin didn’t really care for prose. His interest was in multimedia, and he would build a reputation in his own right.

That leaves Sinclair, the eternal outsider – too restless, too different, too diffident, too bipolar, too stubborn, too South African to be accepted into the Beat pantheon. He was an odd man, Beiles; equal parts wandering Jew, trust fund kid and a mad surrealist poet. He was born in 1930 in Kampala, Uganda, the only child of Jewish South African parents who had moved to East Africa because his father found a job there as a chemist. When the boy was six the family moved back to South Africa. In Johannesburg Beiles went through tough times. His parents divorced and he detested his stepfather, a very strict man. At school he played the clown, an attempt to impress fellow students and make friends. His unruly behaviour caused his parents such concern that they decided to send him for electroshock therapy. It didn’t help. While he studied Social Anthropology and Psychology at the University of Witwatersrand, his conduct became increasingly erratic. South Africa and its conservative apartheid policies proved too suffocating and dangerous for him. His mother, scared that he might end up in jail, decided to send him overseas. In the early fifties he boarded a ship in Cape Town. His life as a wandering Jew had commenced.

In late 1956 Beiles met Burroughs in the Moroccan seaside town of Tangier, which had gained fame and notoriety as a capital of permissiveness (think money, business, sex, narcotics) and had attracted conmen, bored aristocrats, writers and artists. It’s not surprising that the Beats, with their penchant for physical and chemical experimentation, also washed up here. Burroughs had arrived in 1954, after travels through America’s Deep South, Mexico and Columbia. He fell in with the scene of international vagabonds and Arab rent boys. For a while he loved it. He kicked his heroin habit, wrote like a maniac, enjoyed the young boys and relished his position as an outsider. He also made some friends. One of them was Brion Gysin, who ran a legendary Tangier restaurant called 1001 Nights.

Beiles had arrived in Tangier with a French girlfriend, following up on a story about a spectacular diamond theft, which he covered for a South African newspaper. Subsequently he landed a job as a columnist for the Tangier Gazette, an English language weekly for the expat community. His columns, which he wrote under the name The White Knight, dealt with social life in the town, but didn’t expose the edgy, seedy eccentricities of Tangier and its motley crew of inhabitants. They did however mention an early encounter with ‘Bill’ Burroughs at ‘the round table’ of a local restaurant. The two became acquaintances.

After three years Burroughs grew sick and tired of Tangier’s seediness; he found the 8-year old street urchins circling around his hotel, looking for loot in the form of goods or flesh, increasingly off-putting. In January 1958 he swapped Tangier for Paris, which was still quite affordable and had a substantial artistic expat scene, as well as a large American military contingent. Beiles and his girlfriend left around the same time, also heading for the French capital. Initially he stayed in a hotel on Île de la Cité, but after bumping into his old Tangier buddies and assisting Burroughs with the editing of his groundbreaking novel Naked Lunch he too opted for a space in the Beat Hotel, where madness was the main currency.

The first cut-ups happened in October 1959 in Gysin’s room. While working on a mound for a painting, Gysin sliced with his Stanley knife through a pile of newspapers. He thought the exposed strips of paper looked amusing, and arranged them in a mosaic, which he showed to Burroughs, who immediately saw it as a majestic invention: a way to subvert language and open up literature, away from narrative, characters and plot, into unchartered territory. He became totally engrossed, mixing Shakespeare and Eisenhower, Beckett and the Herald Tribune, cutting up Rimbaud. This was like a primitive form of artificial intelligence, where different meanings appeared semi-autonomously.

It wasn’t completely new of course. Dadaïst Tristan Tzara had experimented with this kind of juxtaposition in 1920, and painters had done similar things on canvas. But Burroughs didn’t see it as a prank or artsy gimmick. He thought of it as a way of un-conditioning the mind. And after months of experimentation and ‘deciphering new texts’ he had even started to find subliminal messages in the word collages. Minutes to Go was the spring-board to his subsequent cut-up trilogy: The Soft Machine (1961), The Ticket That Exploded (1962) and Nova Express (1964). 

As with all scenes, the Beat Hotel also fizzled out. The intensity, the drugs, the sex, the paranoia, it all became too much. The hotel closed in 1963. Time to move on. The ways of Burroughs and Beiles parted. Burroughs went on to London. Beiles, according to Barry Miles in his book The Beat Hotel, had been driven mad by the cut-ups and was hospitalised in January 1961. His mother came to the hotel to berate Burroughs for ‘driving my son mad.’ Beiles subsequently returned to Johannesburg, but his perennial restlessness put him back on the ‘Karma Trail’. This time he went to Greece, which had become the new Bohemian paradise.

For a couple of years cut-ups led a relatively quiet life in experimental magazines. But then a new generation of musicians discovered Burroughs. The Beatles, who else, brought the avant-garde into the mainstream when they recorded their sound collage ‘Revolution 9’ for their ‘White Album’, building on the slogan of its day: ‘Do not adjust your brain, there is a fault in reality.’ Some ten years later underground bands such as Cabaret Voltaire, Crass, Throbbing Gristle and Laibach used the juxtaposition of samples for their harrowing post-punk collages. And of course on the other side of the Atlantic hip-hop artists drew heavily on the cut-and-paste method. Some paid tribute to the masters. Burroughs was the most revered, and can be heard among others on albums by Material, Laurie Anderson and The Disposable Heroes of Hiphoprisy.

Beiles, meanwhile, led a less celebrated existence in Johannesburg’s Yeoville, where he settled in the 1980s. He often talked about recording with the New York beatniks The Fugs, which never materialised. He did, however, record with Paul Riekert of South African industrial band Battery 9, although the music has not yet been released. The only Beiles on CD can be found on the album Hobomusique by the Italian electronic outfit Edmondo. They invited Beiles to read his poem ‘Mao Tse’, to which they put beats and sounds. Hobomusique was released in 1999, the year before the South African poet died in the Johannesburg General Hospital.

Sinclair Beiles never was a Beat, although occasionally he was masquerading as one, like on that black and white picture, taken in Paris in April 1960. ‘No, I don’t identify myself with the Beats at all,’ he told the British underground magazine Wordworks in 1975. ‘The journalists have imposed this term on people who were very disparate, but who have nevertheless got along as friends, but who have never belonged to a school.’

Fred de Vries (Rotterdam, 1959) is a Dutch writer/journalist, who moved to South Africa in 2003 and has been working on and off on a biography of Sinclair Beiles, tentatively titled ‘Catastrophes; The Life of Sinclair Beiles’.

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