Perilous Passage by Terry Wilson
Originally published in 2004 ‘Perilous Passage – The Nervous System and the Universe in Other Words’ by Terry Wilson is being republished in 2012. It describes the author’s apprenticeship under the tutelage of the avant-garde artist and writer Brion Gysin; along with a wonderful passage about Wilson’s experiences in South America with ayahuasca. The book is the final part of his ‘Green Base Trilogy’, which includes ‘Dreams of Green Base’ (1986) and ‘‘D’ Train’ (1985). He has also previously published ‘Here to Go’ (2001), a book of interviews with Gysin that documented his life, work and philosophy.
As with all engaging and from-theory literature Perilous Passage – The Nervous System and the Universe in Other Words (2012) employs both its content and its form in order to draw the reader into a novel and interesting relationship with the text: “The “Reader” – under the impression that he is “reading” – receiving these signals from some dissonant strata of our nervous systems” (Wilson 176). The method Wilson utilises stems from his friendship with Brion Gysin (1916-1986) and William Burroughs (1914-1997) who developed the cut-up technique. Before saying something about how the method has been used here, it is necessary to first say something of Gysin and Burroughs in order to put some background into the text.
Brion Gysin was a painter, writer and performance artist, a fringe member of the Beats and good friend of the writer William S. Burroughs. It was Gysin who ‘re-discovered’ the cut-up technique in the 1950s. It involved cutting up a text and rearranging it into novel narratives, and which was part of a wider project of trying to implement artistic methods within literature (in this case collage.) Burroughs put the technique to work in his infamous book Naked Lunch (1959). The two men later collaborated on The Third Mind – a book first published in France in 1977 and in English a year later. It included short fiction pieces, poetry by Gysin and an interview with Burroughs. Taken as a whole, the book showcases the cut-up technique and further develops the theory as the ‘Third Mind’ – which is the product of what is described as the ‘Process’. In Perilous Passage, Wilson uses the Process to recount his own relationship with Gysin, generally centred around the times before and after the artist’s death.
The flickering room, breathing mosaics with Bedaya and the Old Man – the Old Man’s finger – “Remember THAT?” – The psychic phantasmagoria, a cosmic Disneyland of mock horror . . . awe-inspiring but somewhat tiresome – total impossibility – the mirrors – Suspension in space the whole city spread out below – A Vertiginous landing-strip, coming toward us . . . (Wilson 135)
Pseudonyms are utilized throughout the majority of Perilous Passage and it has the effect of dramatising the historical threads of the book; lifting the ‘reality’ of the content into the Third Mind. Subtle pointers, as to the factual underpinnings, become necessary groundings that give the work its stability as creative non-fiction, yet which does not stifle the creative process of the narrative. Passages are, more often than not, short and intense and they elude to glitches of consciousness; moments when the author-reader-character form new conscious strata. These bubbles of thought and conversation manifest across time and space; one moment in Paris, 1976, through Tangiers, then in London, 1965 and so forth. The attraction of this non-linear method, for the reader, is that they are transported along thought processes not normally found in more standard narratives, resulting in an understanding outside the normal flow of space-time.
Snippets of consciousness transform grand, sweeping, narrative ideas. For example, there is a regular intervention of espionage-conspiracy-paranoia in the text: “We are moving to another hotel – (we do this a lot. For security reasons)” (Wilson 123). Rather than this socio-political paranoia creating an arching narrative form – which would demand conclusion – it enters the text as micro-episodes that rely on a moment of convolution – the mash-up of set and setting. Paranoia becomes other than a reliance on the externality of subsequent situations and becomes internalised moments of thought within the text, reliant on the novel constructions but not one another.
I shift my gaze back to twisted vertiginous snakes vines chromosomes entwined labyrinths as ever flashing zigzagging comic helix punctuating language spelling out the same message again like a tickertape symbol control system processed by a hebephrenic computer high on aguardiente – Ends (Wilson 185)
The above quote is taken from the final chapter that details Wilson’s experiences in South America doing a course of ayahuasca sessions – following in the footsteps of Burroughs himself who chronicled his own ayahuasca journey in The Yage Letters (1963). Aside from the cultural element of visiting the shamans of Peru, being fleeced for money for one, Wilson’s approach to the experiences is quite literary, so far as he employs Henri Michaux – specifically his book Miserable Miracle (France, 1956) – as a former for them. Michaux, while recognising a multiplicity of elements within his own mescaline experiments, felt the task to be, more often than not, arduous. This sense crops up in Wilson’s descriptions as well but, allied with the Process, his words become other than the experiences and ayahuasca becomes a filter through which the Third Mind is further developed. The lack of grammar in the above quote, for example, explodes any sense of cohesion: “Well, I suppose we’ve all been derailed once or twice in our time, somewhere along the line . . .” (Wilson 188).
Perilous Passage, beyond the character relationships, is about the normal two-dimensional limits of reason-rhyme-narrative-thought, or rather it is about taking those linear limits and twisting them until they snap and shatter; before reconnecting in novel appreciation – appreciation of Gysin, Burroughs and Wilson’s friendships therein. If, as a reader, you wish to be challenged, not in the sense of War and Peace but in the sense of a psychedelic experience perhaps, then Perilous Passage is indeed an excellent read. It shifts the priorities of how your thoughts are constructed in reading and becomes a novel break in consciousness itself. Overall, a fascinating and engaging read.