Jürgen Ploog: A Terminal Landing

It is with great sadness that we mark the death of Jürgen Ploog, a wonderful writer and a man of great charm, elegance and warmth who graced several EBSN conferences. Jürgen was to have been one of the keynote speakers for the Paris half of CUT-UPS@60 this September, an opportunity, we had hoped, to recognise his importance to the Beat field and beyond.
Oliver Harris

Jürgen Ploog: A Terminal Landing
Edward S. Robinson

Jan Herman wrote that Jürgen Ploog ‘was widely regarded as one of Germany’s premiere second-generation Beat writers’, going on to observe that ‘his narrative fiction—like that of William S. Burroughs, a mentor with whom he was associated—was more experimental and closer to Brion Gysin’s or J.G. Ballard’s than to Jack Kerouac’s or Allen Ginsberg’s’.

Ploog’s reputation beyond his native Germany is perhaps limited to just a couple of things: his hour-long interview with William S. Burroughs which featured on Claus Maeck’s documentary Commissioner of Sewers, and his 2008 English-language novella, Flesh Film. However, this presents an extremely reductive perspective of a literary career that spanned some six decades. As such, the news of his death on 19th May 2020 represents a sad loss to the Beat community.

Appreciation of the ‘European Beats’, the second generation of writers who took their cue from Burroughs’ Nova trilogy has been slow in coming and somewhat sparse: it’s only post-millennium and with the advent of a renewed interest and what might be considered as a net-based third generation that their significance has come to be given fair appraisal

On a personal level – and it seems reasonable, since it’s on a personal level that we all process losses – these two things have a particular degree of connection: it was as a fan and scholar of Burroughs, at the beginning of a doctoral thesis in 1999, that I found Commissioner of Sewers, and was particularly taken with Ploog’s direct and intelligent questioning of the author. But this was not simply an interview, but a conversation between associates: with contact between the two dating back to the 70s (there are some great archive photos of a young-looking Jürgen Ploog and even a relatively young-looking Burroughs from 1976: Ploog would have been 31, Burroughs 62).

Just short of a decade later, I provided the introduction to Flesh Film, published on-line through The Reality Studio, and a further decade later, a segment of that introduction would appear on the flaps of the dust jacket of the print edition, which truly did Ploog’s unique artistry justice, with the text interspersed with a number of his visual collages.

In between, I had the good fortune of corresponding with him while researching Shift Linguals. Not only did he provide detailed insight into his own writing methods, but also his thoughts on the application of the cut-up method more broadly. More than this, he was generous with his support and encouragement for my project, as well as correcting me on a few points and offering suggestions. As a novice fumbling to find my way in a vast and difficult field, I was immensely grateful, and always will be.

I would also discover the wealth of writing he had done since 1961, particularly as an early adopter of the cut-ups as devised by Burroughs and Gysin in 1959, not least of all Cut Up or Shut Up, the three-way collaboration between himself, Jan Herman, and Carl Weissner, published in 1972. The late 60s and early 70s were something of a wave-crest for cut-ups in Europe, with the publication of Claude Pélieu’s With Revolvers Aimed… Finger Bowls (1967), and Carl Weissner’s The Braille Film (1970), as well as the emergence of Weissner’s magazine Klactoveedsedsteen, which ran from June 1965 to the autumn of 1967, culminating the seminal Klacto/23 International, UFO, and Gasolin 23, the latter two mags being produced in collaboration between Weissner, Ploog, and Jörg Fauser, with Gasolin 23 running sporadically between 1971 and 1986.

The Reality Studio piece on Gasolin 23 observes that ‘As with Klacto, Gasolin 23 was notable for its experimentalism and its quality roster of contributors, which included William S. Burroughs, Charles Bukowski, Allen Ginsberg, Andy Warhol, and many other notable writers drawn from the international vanguard’.

As such, Jürgen Ploog was a key figure in bringing the cut-ups to Europe, and, perhaps more significantly, propagating the method in the way Burroughs espoused at the time, when he wrote ‘Cut-ups are for everyone… Anybody can make cut-ups. It is experimental in the sense of being something to do” (The Third Mind: 31). In the summer of 1960, Burroughs wrote to publisher Dave Hazelwood concerning The Exterminator, the follow-up to Minutes To Go: “I think you realize how explosive the material is […] Are you willing and able to publish – To put it in the street? Please answer at once. Minutes to go believe me”. “To put it in the street” was vital to Burroughs’ strategy for the cut-up assault on the invisible forces of control. Ploog was at the forefront of the resistance movement against the tyranny of language control, not only creating, but circulating work that ‘cut through the mutter lines’.

Ploog’s own first major publication, Cola-Hinterland was published in 1969, but its availability only in German is likely to have limited its wider appreciation. He would later appraise this work critically, describing it as ‘early cut-ups in rather crude form (as first cut-ups are). Using language as material with little regard for plot or readability.’ However, the English-language Cut Up or Shut Up (which featured an ‘introduction’ by Burroughs which ran as a ‘tickertape’ across the top of every page) was something special. A true adoption of the ‘third mind’ principle Burroughs spoke and wrote of in such detail and at length, the text sees the authors meld seamlessly into one cut-up voice, in what still stands as one of the most impressive and exciting cut-up collaborations in print.

In an email to me in 2007, Jürgen explained his first encounters with the cut-ups had been through underground publications in the early 1960s, and how the method subsequently came to define his own work:

In 1958 I started training to become an airline pilot. At that stage I was interested in travelling & my writing was influenced by Kerouac’s. After starting to fly regularly, I noticed that I could not continue in the fluid continuity of Kerouac’s narrative. My life consisted of interruptions both geographically (outwardly) & psychologically (state of mind). Being in different countries constantly plus jet-lagged changed my outlook on the (my) world. In other words: I found out that life indeed is a cut up & needed to find a way of adjusting my writing accordingly.

For Ploog, his day-job and his literary career were closely interconnected, and it would be a fair summary to say that he was very much as much an airline pilot as a writer, and that if his experience of travel informed his writing, then his writing equally provided a means of understanding that experience. ‘I often wonder what the cut-up technique does to the writer’s mind over a period of time, & if it has the same effect on the reader,’ he speculated.

As his measured and self-critical approach to his writing demonstrated, Jürgen Ploog was continually refining his method, and was transparent in acknowledging that cut-ups require work, and don’t simply fall into place: ‘Like Burroughs I edit my work’.

How random is random? I tell you its [sic] is not very random. It tells me what to write about & how. It sets the tone for where I want to go in my writing.  Randomness is a major factor in my writing. I have little control over what material I use when I sit down to write. Usually I don’t know what I will write about when I start to write (generally speaking it is the same way to this day). I feel this gets the best results. The material can later be shifted, rearranged, cut out or expanded. Often I re-write older pieces because I feel they have to be clarified or provided with more detail. So random is only the first step but the results are in no way binding or have to be left untouched.

This refinement reached its peak with Flesh Film, a cut-up novella that combined abstraction and pulpiness to potent effect. This was a text that transcended technique for technique’s sake, and hauled the reader along on an intense journey. If one thing should be associated with Jürgen Ploog, it’s the importance of the journey: that sense of movement, of temporal dislocation.

That the book was written in English (with sections originally written in German translated expertly by Carl Weissner) not only meant that it had a wider appeal and accessibility, but was also a factor in its sublime quality. ‘My feeling’, he wrote, ‘is that Cut-up is easier in English (as in comparison with German) because English is more flexible & semantically not so determined.’

Words can easily take on different meanings. This fact poses a difficulty with translation. The semantic diversion cannot be transcribed without using other words, meanings, situations. I can write (with limitations) English texts when using the cut-up method which I could not do without it.

This keen interest and awareness of language and its malleability was what made Jürgen Ploog such a strong exponent of the cut-ups. The attention to detail, to the nuances of meaning, but also being alive to the effects of juxtaposition and incongruity, was not only the outward demonstration of a keen intellect, but someone avidly devoted to the development of his craft. He was also acutely aware of the barriers presented by language, as well as the way translation can ‘mutate’ interpretation:

As for the effect on verbal control mechanisms, the translation will not hamper it since it is the “spiral” use of words that carries it. The main thing is the “anti-semantic” use of words which is there in the original (to a large extent) also in the translation. But in general a translation is always just an attempt to create the same version of expression in another language.

Everything is a version of something else, and the gap between language and perception remains a challenge to any author. However, over the course of his career, Jürgen Ploog strove to create writing that was closer to the perception of life as lived, ad to convey the disorientation of postmodern existence. You don’t need to be in eternal transit for this to be relatable: flicking through TV channels is a global journey that can be undertaken in seconds without moving an inch. We’re nowhere near having evolved to deal with this, but through his writing Jürgen Ploog devised a mode of writing that created some kind of bridge between experience and expression. As a literary legacy, it’s no small feat.

So while we mourn the loss, and the arrival at this final destination, we should be sure to celebrate the journey.