Tuesday, 4 March 2014

The Hieroglyphic Silence

William S. Burroughs  (1914 - 1997) was a writer pioneering non verbal experiments like the cut up, in writing, in movies and in recordings.

I invited him in Rome for a Poetry Festival in 1979, and translated him on stage. Some of his concepts still stay with me, like that of Hieroglyphic Silence, the silent center of perceptual experience.

He relates Hieroglyphic Silence with the birth of the Egyptian Language, which was born in the Western Desert in Prehistoric times, by the way of simple images.
I visited the very places where the first water pictograms were ever drawn,  a stretch of deep desert  near the Egyptian-Libyan-Sudan border.

Processes like double exposure, the Lartigue Effect and chance encounters  I relate with the split between the signifier and the signified which is at work as well in a photo as in a word. The silent core of the Unconscious from where primal experience springs in dreams.

Burroughs knew about the split from the linguist  Korzybski, well before  it became paramount to photography  when Barthes introduced Photograpy to Semiology in his 'Camera Lucida' (1980).

Here are two WSB pieces about Hieroglyphic Silence which I find quite relevant for Experimental Photography.

Pictograms indeed are a very old device by which the Ancient Egyptians began Reportage, mixing it with a fair dose of Magic. This Burroughs had to say in an interview by Conrad Knickerbocker:

You seem primarily interested in bypassing the conscious rational apparatus to which most writers direct their efforts.  
I don't know about where fiction ordinarily directs itself, but I am quite deliberately addressing myself to the whole area of what we call dreams. Precisely what is a dream? A certain juxtaposition of word and image. I've recently done a lot of experiments with scrapbooks. I'll read in the newspaper something that reminds me of or has relation to something I've written. I'll cut out the picture or article and paste it in a scrapbook beside the words from my book. Or, I'll be walking down the street and I'll suddenly see a scene from my book and I'll photograph it and put it in a scrapbook. I'll show you some of those. I've found that when preparing a page, I'll almost invariably dream that night something relating to this juxtaposition of word and image. In other words, I've been interested in precisely how word and image get around on very, very complex association lines. I do a lot of exercises in what I call time travel, in taking coordinates, such as what I photographed on the train, what I was thinking about at the time, what I was reading, and what I wrote; all of this to see how completely I can project myself back to that one point in time.  
In Nova Express, you indicate that silence is a desirable state.  
The most desirable state. In one sense a special use of words and pictures can conduce silence. The scrapbooks and time travel are exercises to expand consciousness, to teach me to think in association blocks rather than words. I've recently spent a little time studying hieroglyph systems, both the Egyptian and the Mayan. A whole block of associations—boonf!—like that! Words, at least the way we use them, can stand in the way of what I call nonbody experience. It's time we thought about leaving the body behind.  

Out of body experience were of course related with death and reincarnation, the main social event in Ancient Egypt. Burroughs attempted a description in this section of   The Third Mind, 1977):


“I am the Egyptian,” he said, looking all flat and silly, and I said: “Really, Bradford, don’t be tiresome.”
All right, let’s put it apple-pie simple with a picture of a wedge of apple pie there, containing fifty-three grams of carbohydrates.(See the L-C diet.)
Well now, if you don’t know the word for apple pie where you happen to be and want it, you can point to it or you can draw it. So, when and why do you need a word for it? When and why do you need to say, I want apple pie, if you just don’t care how fat you get?
You need to say it when it isn’t there to point to and when you don’t have your drawing tools handy\ In short, words become necessary when the object they refer to is not there.
No matter what the spoken language may be, you can read hieroglyphs, a picture of a chair or what have you; makes no difference what you call it, right? You don’t need subvocal speech to register the meaning of hieroglyphs. Learning a hieroglyphic language is excellent practice in the lost art of inner silence. “It would be well, today, if children were taught a good many Chinese ideograms and Egyptian hieroglyphs as a means of enhancing their appreciation of our alphabet.” If you are able to look at what is in front of you in silence, you will be able to write about it from a more perceptive viewpoint.
What keeps you from seeing what is in front of you? Words for what is in front of you, which are not what is there. As Korzybski pointed out: whatever a chair may be, it is not a “chair.” That is,it is not the label “chair.” 
So, now try this: pick up your Easy Lessons in Egyptian Hieroglyphics, by Sir E. A. Wallis Budge, and copy out the following phrases:

p. 104; They fall down upon face their in land their own.
p. 173; Stood the prince alone in the presence of the gods.
p. 181; The lock of hair which was in.
p. 79; the wind
p. 202; Giver of winds is its name.
p. 190; coming forth waiting for thee from of  old
p. 200; night that of the destruction of the enemies
p. 208; come thou to us not having thy memories of evil come thou in thy form
p. 103; In the writing of the god himself he writeth for thee the book of breathings with his fingers his own.
p. 195; Shall it be that thou wilt be silent about it.

Now, having memorized the above passage, turn to the hieroglyphs on the following page and read in silence.

(N.B. You might liken this blog to a photomontage where the chunks of text work like pictograms freely associated to the photographs. They might recur in the future in different associations - the same way one walks the same streets but sees different things in new associations - see Psychogeography).

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