|The Third Culture||
| He Confuses
1 And 2 And The 200 I.Q.|
"Mr. Byars By Mr. Brockman" [7.17.97]
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. Cordially, 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 fist fights; 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, and is responsible for the motto of the club. 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.