Richard Hell’s Mysterious Control

For a junkie the daily fix is like Russian roulette—every time the needle pierces flesh, there’s a pause in which bliss and oblivion hang in the balance. Similarly, for a writer there’s danger in that moment when pen touches paper—who can tell whether the silence will be followed by inspiration or blankness? Perhaps no one understands this better than Richard Hell. Runaway Rimbaud, New York poet, and publisher, Voidoid voice of the Blank Generation, and today a rehabilitated drug addict churning out words with a vengeance, Hell’s more than familiar with the crapshoot gallery of fate.

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conduit: Do you ever use techniques similar to Burroughs’s cut-up method, where chance plays a part in how the wording appears?

richard hell: I’m trying to think about if I’ve ever done that exactly. I don’t think I have, but I definitely respect how things out of my control have an effect on a piece of work. In fact, I think the welcoming of so-called chance into artwork in the twentieth century is pretty important. I mean, I’m sure there are specific examples of it happening before the twentieth century, but I don’t know them, while I do know that it definitely matters recently.

Still, that doesn’t mean it’s used uniformly now either. When Burroughs used chance, it was different from when Duchamp or John Cage did it. Burroughs was really strange. He had all these notions about discovering hidden meanings. That’s what he thought he would find when he did cut-ups. He thought there were all kinds of secret patterns going on in life that were not visible to, you know, normal perception, but that there might be ways of uncovering them. And he thought that cut-ups were one of these ways. Like they were kind of a Ouija board or TV feed or something like that.

I mean, there was an aesthetic component too, but he mainly thought that since his cut-up sentences had been freed from the deliberate manipulation of language and born of chance, they would reveal things to him and let him discover things about reality. Like they would tell him something about the future, for instance. Like, “something terrible is going to happen tomorrow, be careful.” He was really weird that way.

Burroughs was always looking for ways to get out of his ego, out of his own control, out of the ways that he usually interpreted things. Cut-ups was just one of them. He tried Scientology. He tried Orgone boxes. He had all kinds of strange ways of trying to do this.

And the Surrealists and Dadaists employed chance too. People like Duchamp and John Cage also relied on chance, though in their case it was more in the spirit of Bresson or Buddhism—the way things happen is exactly as they should be. [Laughter] I think that was a big part of it for Cage at least. And for Duchamp too, though in his case it was more ironic and amused, and bent on puncturing the pretensions of high artists, “retinal” artists.

Of course, ultimately, all of these experiments in chance just ended up providing evidence that predestination is also a factor, and that you can’t really escape who you are. For instance, I can immediately tell a Burroughs cut-up from a Corso cut-up. And the way that John Cage uses chance to write a silent composition is going to be very different from the way another composer employs chance in his music.