HE CONFUSES 1 AND 2 THE 200 I.Q. [7.17.97]
Mr. Byars By Mr. Brockman


On Saturday, May 24, I received the following email message from the Swiss art curator Hans Ulrich Obrist:

"Dear John,

I just got a very sad message that James Lee Byars died yesterday in Cairo. Very sick he spent the last 2 ,3 months of his life near the pharaohs.


Hans Ulrich."

On a visit to New York, Hans Ulrich had noticed that my office walls are covered with the framed works of art by James Lee, which, in each case, are pieces he mailed to me or stuffed under my door. Inevitably they were constructed out of exotic papers he had found in Chinatown and on which he either wrote in a his highly stylized script or microprinted lists of questions in a type size so tiny as to be unreadable to the naked eye.

James Lee, who defined the sophisticated edge of that world of ideas had been my neighbor, closest friend, and a collaborator of sorts. He had spent a number of years in Japan and had a decided zen-like epistemology in which there was no distinction between art and life. As one of us used to say (I sometimes get confused here): "what comes before performance?" In his case, the performance was an exercise in the interrogative. James Lee liked questions.

In The First Reader, Gertrude Stein wrote about how Johnny measured Jimmy and how Jimmy measured Johnny until the characters became meaningless and what remained was the act of measurement. She was the first writer who made integral to her work the idea of an indeterminate and discontinuous universe. Words represented neither character nor activity: they were "not imitations either of sounds or colors or emotions." Language was an intellectual re-creation. Through an emphasis on such stylistic devices as repetition she used language to deny meaning and representational concerns. As she pointed out, she would "write as if the fact of writing something were continually becoming true and completing itself, not as if it were leading to something." A rose is a rose is a rose. And a universe is a universe is a universe.

It was in this spirit that James Lee (Jimmy) and I (Johnny) began an intense dialogue around 1970 that sprang, in part from his interest in my early book, By the Late John Brockman (1969) and my fascination with his notion of "Einstein, Gertrude Stein, and Wittgenstein," which, by the end of our collaboration, had become "Einstein, Gertrude Stein, Wittgenstein, and Frankenstein." We walked in Central Park nearly every day; we talked incessantly; we had dinners; we wore his plural clothing; we had fistfights; we asked each other the questions we were asking ourselves; we sought to write what he called "the perfect book." He liked "sentences that go 100 ways at once. You can't tell where the subject is, you can't tell what the subject is."

James Lee inspired the idea that led to the Reality Club, which became Edge during the 1990s and the advent of the Web. And he was responsible for the Edge motto. He believed that to arrive at an axiology of societal knowledge it was pure folly to go to a Widener Library and read 6 million volumes of books. (In this regard he kept only four books at a time in a box in his minimally furnished room, replacing books as he read them.) This led to his creation of the World Question Center in which he planned to gather the 100 most brilliant minds in the world together in a room, lock them behind closed doors, and have them ask each other the questions they were asking themselves. The expected result, in theory, was to be a synthesis of all thought. But between idea and execution are many pitfalls. James Lee identified his 100 most brilliant minds (a few of them have graced the pages of this Site), called each of them, and asked what questions they were asking themselves. The result: 70 people hung up on him.

It took nearly two years of starting and finishing each others sentences, but we did write the book. Dozens of notebooks, hundreds of handwritten pages, were reduced to 100 sentences, one to a page. I publish it here for the first time.

— JB

p.s. A week after receiving news of James Lee's death, I went to my farm and found the following message on the answering machine time-stamped May 16. "Johnny, Jimmy — send ten thou right away for "The Perfect Book." Wire money to Byars, American Express, Cairo. Johnny, I'm dying in a hotel room in Egypt. Five hundred a day to eat through a tube. Johnny, this is it. Send the money. Call your publisher. Jimmy. Cairo. Click."

James Lee Byars

(The New York Times, May 24, 1997:) "BYARS-James Lee, internationally renowned artist whose work concentrated on minimal hermetic forms, reduction towards essence and absence, and an acute sense of the ephemeral, died on Thursday, May 23, 1997, at the Anglo-American hospital in Cairo, Egypt. He was 65 years old."


Mr. Byars By Mr. Brockman

1. He confuses l and 2 the 200 I.Q. .

2. He likes sentences that go 100 ways at once. You can't tell where the subject is, you can't tell what the subject is.

3. Wears his hat to deny his head.

4. He wants it written so that at the end of the book you can't imitate, can't possibly think of anything he's done. Written so each sentence has in all its parts an openness.

5. Lines that are too easy can't attract complexity: have to write for subtle people, not for the world.

6. Is self-conscious option enough?

7. Like a dream, like a vision, like a bubble, like a shadow, like dew, like lightning was his 8th name.

8. All of his publicity improves with xerography. Does that have anything to do with evolution?

9. The book: artifice. Show them your notes.

10. All questions consist of establishing the notion of asking followed by a nominative?

11. Black, brown, white, yellow and red, please. If you'll say it twice you'll like it.

12. At first sight do you perceive the full potential of a circumstance?

13. The Chinese make books to go on their sleeves. We don't make sleeves like that.

14. Between the brain and the cerebellum.

15. Imagine, you had an experience.

16. He can't remember it before he pays attention to it.

17. Thank God for the names of the body.

18. He was an out-patient at the insect hospital at Amedidad .

19. People pay twice for describing.

20. He exercises in his morning bath by thinking about walking.

21. Buy my head for life, think of you only, won't think of anything else.

22. His product's fame.

23. Speaking and writing styles are always the same. Nobody can write, nobody can talk.

24. Dismiss yourself.

25. The great personal hallucination: he.

26. I comma the complete history of the world?

27. He wants sentences that are descriptive yet transitive: imagine something that isn't.

28. Don't get any closer than fifth or sixth say.

29. Is there an imaginary question?

30. He married 12 women by mail and lived with them hypothetically.

31. The sentence, being strong, on both sides being equivocal.

32. The world is so fantastic why make up?

33. He's the poet laureate of the United States. (Poet is a comfort word and he has no intention of its meaning.

34. Which questions have disappeared?

35. To accomplish the extraordinary, you must seek extraordinary people. That's a question.

36. He's my new paradigm.

37. Quote 10% of this book and they'll call you a genius. Quote 50% and they won't want to talk to you.

38. What the hell's 100 years?

39. He collected a million minutes of attention.

40. When blindfolded he always returns to his point of origin because his right step is bigger.

41. I'll have to think about it; I just thought about it.

42. He showed the nine month memory of a policeman.

43. Every line in this book is 100% true.

44. Ho ho ho ho is the universal laugh generator. It's the same in all languages.

45. If he can't say it he doesn't know it. If he can say it, it doesn't matter.

46. Suddenly he's a collar, a necktie, and a lapel?

47. It's funny to be news?

48. Put your hypotheses in general language, not intellectual language.

49. Paper bullets of the brain.

50. His tongue's insured for $50,000.

51. Shut your mouth dame, or with this paper I shall stop it.

52. He knows what I know that nobody knows and you can't find out and there's no point in describing what you don't know.

53. Who can talk of one anymore.

54. He whistled e=mc2 all year long.

55. Just to name things.

56. He's the incorrigible pronoun problem.

57. Plural clothing: not at all facetious because people really will look like this or maybe people do look like this in other places. Maybe they do have their heads connected or maybe they do all come out of a single structure and maybe this is a simulation situation. Anyway, it's funny.

58. I can repeat the question but am I bright enough to ask it?

59. He's not difficult, he's just not interested in you or your ideas.

60. What was an animal?

61. Mathematics ha-ha.

62. This question is capable of questioning itself?

63. His head weighs 25 lbs.

64. The idea of her life shall sweetly creep into his study of imagination.

65. Success is when you tell him something he doesn't know.

66. Exalt idea.

67. What questions are you asking yourself?

68. The brightest of all angels. His first words to God: "Give me a world to run."

69. He built and mass-produced the mechanically operated gyp proof whorehouse.

70. Meditate the putrifying corpse.

71. He earned his fictitious doctorate degree by asking for all hypotheses in simple English from all different disciplines that gave it to him in advance of the procedure.

72. He can't read a book about anything.

73. Do all possibilities exist in any?

74. He's trying to hold on to his body, his life: it's a horrible experience.

75. It must be an answer of the most monstrous size — that must fill all demands.

76. If you can't say it, better believe you don't know it. That's the guise of easy mystics.

77. If you ask for something that doesn't exist you deserve it on the intelligence of the request.

78. Numbers don't count?

79. He's the person they pretend doesn't exist.

80. From fairest creatures we desire increase.

81. He still has a notion of possession.

82. For there was never yet philosopher that could endure the toothache patiently.

83. He's so in love with the cosmos that he has to pretend anger.

84. A single line can be a complete autobiography.

85. Words pay no debts (if you're so smart why aren't you rich?).

86. He's making his fame by saying "He's right."

87. He sat in a pink silk airplane and invited teachers and students in to speculate about pretend.

88. The question becomes the argument becomes very complexing because people demand explanation.

89. Knowledge always complete.

90. He "sees" words as they are spoken (never having learned how to think).

91. Think yourself away?

92. He displayed and edited 3 people as public information.

93. The earth at least?

94. Have we eaten of the insane root?

95. Epitaph: kicking the shit out of physical phenomena.

96. The only thing left for him is the unreal.

97. Men whose heads do grow beneath their shoulders.

98. As many lies as will lie in this sheet of paper.

99. The extraordinary god at the japanese shrine deals with all forgotten material.

100. But these are only words.

James Lee Byars & John Brockman
New York City, 1971

(Copyright © 1971, 1997, 2004, 2007. All rights reserved.)