Notes on the origin of the phrase “Nothing is true, everything is permitted.”
The source for this is acknowledged by Burroughs himself in Minutes to Go, p. 61: “‘Nothing is true—all is permitted.’ Last words Hassan Sabbah. The Old Man of the Mountain quoted from ‘The Master of the Assassins’ by Betty Bouthoul.”
Barry Miles makes a couple of mistakes on this point in The Beat Hotel.
(1) Miles (slightly mis-) quotes the passage from Minutes to Go and then claims:
Bouthoul does quote Hassan’s last words in her book but these are not the words. The phrase: ‘Nothing is true—everything is permitted’ is the title of Chapter 13 of her book. The suggestions that these were his last words comes from the fact that the line itself is a Cut-up from her book. (Miles, p. 204)
This line is indeed a chapter title in Bouthoul’s book, but Bouthoul does in fact quote this phrase as HiS’s last words elsewhere in her book, and they are not cut-up.
[HiS is on his deathbed, with 3 of his chief lieutenants keeping watch] :
Au milieu de la nuit, Hassan les pria de le laisser seul: “Adieu, dit-il, et souvenez-vous que mon esprit veille. Tant que vous serez dignes de lui, dignes de le comprendre, il vous conseillera…”, et plus bas encore il souffla à Buzurg-Humid: “Souviens-toi…souviens-toi : rien n’est vrai, tout est permis…” A la fin de la nuit Hassan mourut.” (Bouthoul, p. 196).
[In the middle of the night Hassan asked them to leave him alone. “Good bye,” he said, “and remember that my spirit watches. As long as you are worthy of it, worthy of understanding it, it will counsel you…,” and lower still he whispered to Buzurg-Humid, “Remember…remember….nothing is true, everything is permitted.” At the end of the night, Hassan died.]
(2) Miles also claims that the first appearance of HiS in WSB’s work “was in Naked Lunch in the section called ‘Hassan’s Rumpus Room’[…]” (p. 204). But I can’t see any reason for supposing that this “Hassan” is based on Hassan i Sabbah. The Hassan of “Hassan’s Rumpus Room” is, I believe, the character called elsewhere in NL “Salvadaor Hassan O’Leary,” one of the chief liquefactionists. This Hassan’s behavior and characterization bears almost no resemblance to how WSB will later treat HiS. In addition, Bryion Gysin claims that he did not show Bouthoul’s book to WSB until after the publication of NL:
But perhaps the most penetrating book on the real meaning of the mysteries which served the Master in his deadly purposes is a volume in French signed by Betty Bouthoul. The book itself is a mystery and as such I gave it to my good friend William Burroughs, a short time after he had published Naked Lunch. (Gysin, “A quick trip to Alamut,” p. 39)
(3) In the endnotes Miles opines that “Burroughs presumably read [Bouthoul’s book] in translation” (p. 291)—but I can find no evidence that Bouthoul’s book has ever been translated into English, or any other language. Either WSB himself read it in French, or perhaps Gysin gave a running translation.
Als die christlichen Kreuzfahrer im Orient auf jenen unbesiegbaren Assassinen-Orden stiessen, jenen Freigeister-Orden par excellence, dessen unterste Grade in einem Gehorsame lebten, wie einen gleichen kein Mönchsorden erreicht hat, da bekamen sie auf irgend welchem Wege auch einen Wink über jenes Symbol und Kerbholz-Wort, das nur den obersten Graden, als deren Secretum, vorbehalten war : “Nichts ist wahr, Alles ist erlaubt”…Wohlan, das war Freiheit des Geistes, damit war der Wahrheit selbst der Glaube gekündigt … Hat wohl je schon ein europäischer, ein christlicher Freigeist sich in diesen Satz und seine labyrinthischen Folgerungen verirrt? kennt er den Minotauros dieser Höhle aus Erfahrung?… Ich zweifle daran [….]
[Nietzsche, Zur Genealogie der Morale. in, Kritische Gesamtausgabe. Hrsg. Colli & Montinari, v. 6:2, p. 417]
When the Christian crusaders in the Orient encountered the invincible order of the Assassins, that order of free spirits par excellence, whose lowest ranks followed a rule of obedience the like of which no order of monks ever attained, they obtained in some way or other a hint concerning that symbol and watchword reserved for the highest ranks alone as their secretum : “Nothing is true, everything is permitted.”—Very well, that was freedom of spirit ; in that way the faith in truth itself was abrogated. Has any European, any Christian free spirit every strayed into this proposition and into its labrynthine consequences? has one of them ever known the Minotaur of this cave from experience?—I doubt it [….]
[Nietzsche, On the genealogy of Morals. Trans. Walter Kaufmann (NY: Vintage Books, 1967): p.150]
The Assassins’ slogan is often mistaken for Nietzsche’s coinage and derived from Dostoevsky ; e.g., by Danto [in, Nietzsche as philosopher (Macmillan, 1965)] : it “must surely be a paraphrase of the Russian novelist he so admired” (p. 193).
In Dostoevsky’s Brothers Karamazov we encounter the idea that, if mankind lost the belief in God and immortality, “everything would be permitted.” But what matters to Nietzsche in this section is the first half of his quotation, “nothing is true,” which has no parallel in Dostoevsky. [.…]
Incidentally, Nietzsche never read The Brothers [….].
Bouthoul, B. Le grand maître des Assassins. Paris: Armand Colin, 1936.
———-. Le vieux de la montagne. Paris: ….
Burroughs, William S., et al. Minutes to go. Paris: Two Cities Editions, 1960.
Gysin, Brion. “A quick trip to Alamut: the celebrated castle of the hash-head Assassins.” in, Gysin, Who runs may read (Oakland/Brisbane: Inkblot/Xochi, 2001): 35-60.
Hammer-Purgstall, Joseph von. Die Geschichte der Assassinen aus morgenländischen Quellen. Stuttgart: J.G. Cotta, 1818.
———-. The history of the Assassins: derived from Oriental sources. Trans. Oswald Charles Wood. London: Smith & Elder, 1835.
Miles, Barry. The Beat Hotel: Ginsberg, Burroughs, and Corso in Paris, 1958-1963. New York: Grove Press, 2000.
Murphy, Timothy S. Wising up the marks: the amodern William Burroughs. Berkeley: Univ. of California Press, 1997.
Nietzsche, Friedrich. On the genealogy of morals ; Ecco Homo. Trans. Walter Kaufmann. New York: Vintage Books, 1967.
———-. Zur Genealogie der Moral. In, Kritische Gesamtausgabe. Hrsg. Giogio Colli & Mazzino Montinari. Bd. 6:2. Berlin: Walter de Gruyter, 19–.