Monthly Archives: April 2014

Brave New World: Dystopian Procreation and Censorship

Aldous Huxley

Aldous Huxley

 

Brave New World, Aldous Huxley’s fifth novel, was written in 1931 and published in the United Kingdom in 1932. From its publication it was an incredible success for Huxley—its first year sales in Britain alone reached 23,000 copies. Today it is still considered the most popular of all his published works, which include more than 11 novels, 7 short story collections, 8 poetry collections, and 23 essay collections. (Sawyer 83-84). Brave New World, begins by setting up two key points of the book—eugenics and expectations for human behavior—starting with the description of “A squat grey building of only thirty-four stories. Over the main entrance the words, CENTRAL LONDON HATCHERY AND CONDITIONING CENTRE, and, in a shield, the World State’s motto, COMMUNITY, IDENTITY, STABILITY” (Brave New World 3). Although this motto is not mentioned again within the text, reappearances of mental conditioning to create “stable” citizens and communities is continuously show up in the novel.

Beyond this three-part motto, however, Huxley’s novel is a negative interpretation of the impact technology and industry can have on society. The novel is set in London, specifically 632 A.F. or 632 years “After [Henry] Ford” introduced the Model T car in the United States, making the time in the novel 2540 A.D. (Sawyer 80-81). As the “After Ford” time frame indicates, Henry Ford’s industrial innovation of the assembly line and mass production are highly esteemed in the world of Brave New World to the point of replacing religion and gods. Characters use phrases, such as ,“For Ford’s sake” rather than “For G-d’s sake” to express their frustration and it is the name “Ford” that the highest ranked person in the world, the Controller, calls upon when asserting his control (Huxley 191). Furthermore, the assembly line has been integrated into all parts of life in the novel. From the first dealings with genetic material, characters are part of the assembly line. Babies are created and manipulated in laboratories rather than within human bodies and people working on the genetic material have particular duties that remain the same, such as Lenina’s job to inject fetuses with immunizations. This segmentation of small jobs in order to create a larger product, in this case, human beings, continues in the upbringing of children. Children are raised by a specific set of guidelines by the state and families no longer exist, so they are educated by numerous individuals who each have a specific set of tasks. For example, some people are in charge of monitoring the audio sleep learning of babies and children while they grow, others write the material that is being read to the children, and others still will provide food to the children. This piecemeal assembly-line method is consistently used throughout the lives of children until they become new cogs in the machine. The references to Ford’s mechanical innovation, an invention contemporary to Huxley, are not the only reference to movements in Huxley’s lifetime. In addition to Ford, “Freud” is mentioned with great esteem in the novel. When the Controller is talking about psychological matters he changes from calling himself “Our Ford” to “Our Freud.” The reason given for this within the novel is that, “Our Freud had been the first to reveal the appalling dangers of family life” (39). In fact, the methodology for dealing with children and the abolition of the family is described as being in response to Freud’s theory of the inherent problems of human development and interaction.

While Brave New World is currently recognized as both a dystopian and science fiction (SF) novel, at the time of its publication it was interpreted primarily as a satirical response to the extensive literary tradition of utopias in literature. In particular, it contradicted the assertion of contemporary authors, such as H.G. Wells, who used speculative literary works to consider how scientific innovation and technological advances could ultimately lead to a “perfect,” utopic world. Instead, as William W. Matter points out in his essay “The Utopian Tradition and Aldous Huxley,” Huxley and other utopists began to “espouse an increasingly popular and pessimistic negation of the machine.” In this moment of divide

Brave New World

Brave New World

between the technological-based utopists and the technology questioning utopists Brave New World was published and dystopian fiction gradually grew in popular culture. Rather than an idealistic approach to utopia, such as the “perfect” utopias in Well’s Men Like Gods, Huxley imagined a world that had intense regulations and limitations on individuality in order to uphold the façade of a utopia.

From the year of its publication to the present, this dystopian, science fiction novel has been highly contentious. In the same year as its publication Brave New World was banned in Ireland (“Banned and/or Challenged Books”). In the United States alone Brave New World has banned or challenged for its depictions of sexual content, drug use, and suicide in Miller, MO (1980); Yukon, OK (1988); Corona-Norco, CA (1993); Foley, AL (2000); Mercedes, TX (2003); and Coeur D’Alene, ID (2008). Similarly, there have been complaints about the negative attitudes about family, religion, marriage, and monogamy in the society in Brave New World. Although these were all depicted in a tongue-in-cheek way, describing a negative space that was almost the opposite of Huxley’s own desires for society, the content challenges continue to this day. The American Library Association ranked Brave New World as 52nd on its list of the “100 Most Frequently Challenged Books of 1990-2000,” putting it in the company of other dystopian novels, such as Lois Lowry’s The Giver and Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale.

While Brave New World is frequently interpreted as an independent novel, it was actually followed by a second book by Huxley, entitled Brave New World Revisited. In this nonfiction collection of essays, Huxley re-examines topics he addresses in Brave New World—such as overpopulation, propaganda, chemical persuasion (drugs), and hypnopaedia (sleep education)—and considers how they have developed in the twenty-seven years since publishing Brave New World. The conclusions he draws are frightening. Many writers of dystopia and SF (science fiction) write about uncomfortable truths, such as Margaret Atwood’s candid discussion of the anti-abortion state in The Handmaid Tale. In fact, one definition of SF is that “SF envisions, creates, an alternative world which comments on our own,” whether in positive ways or negative ways (Annas). However, it is rare to have authors of dystopian SF revisit the same thought experiments again to consider the progress of the ideas. When Huxley examines the developments in the Western world, he begins with the somewhat terrifying comment that, “Twenty-seven years later, in this third quarter of the twentieth century A.D., and long before the end of the first century A.F., I feel a good deal less optimistic than I did when I was writing Brave New World. The prophecies made in 1931 are coming true much sooner than I thought they would” (Brave New World Revisited 1).

Eugenics in the Hatchery

Brave New World is perhaps most famous for its discussion of reproductive technology. In the first chapter alone, Huxley sets out a complicated scientific process for creating humans, which has ultimately proved fairly scientifically accurate. Huxley’s descriptions of egg fertilization, sterilized freemartins, and replication of genetic material are frequently cited within medical and scientific journals as illustrations of real scientific processes. However, with all that said, the processes themselves are worth particular focus.

Central London Hatchery (Art by Matt Ferguson)

Central London Hatchery
(Art by Matt Ferguson)

To begin with, Huxley is not solely responsible for these medical ideas. Brave New World’s is believed to be responding to an earlier speculative science book by J.B.S. Haldane, called Daedalus (1924), in which a new form of eugenics was proposed that relied upon “technological breakthroughs and avoided selective breeding” (Kirby). Specifically, Haldane proposed “direct intervention into the human genome,” which would manipulate hereditary material of the genome in order to create an ideal human. Huxley resisted the belief that human scientists could manufacture “perfect” humanity and used Brave New World to critique this idea, particularly during his discussion about science-enabled reproduction. In the first chapter of Brave New World he has the Director of the London Hatchery explain scientific processes and their consequences. For example, when discussing the scientific intervention into the development of fertilized ova, the Director explains that ova of Gammas, Deltas and Epsilons—lower caste people in Brave New World—underwent the Bokanovsky’s process where “…a bokanovskified egg will bud, will proliferate, will divide. From eight to ninety-six buds, and every bud will grow into a perfectly normal formed embryo, and every embryo into a full-sized adult. Making ninety-six human beings grow where only one grew before. Progress” (Brave New World 6). Through the process Gammas, Deltas, and Epsilons lose all individuality. In a similar process to twins, ninety-six identical humans are born.

The Director goes on to describe these people as “standard men and women; in uniform batches” (7). This dehumanizing comment is more reminiscent of mass-produced products than human lives. Moreover, it is worth noting the class differences in this process. Individuality is not considered important for Gammas, Deltas, and Epsilons from their beginning as ovum. Alphas and Betas, however, “remained indefinitely bottled” as ovum to develop into unique and physically distinguishable beings. Just as Alphas and Betas are given different treatment as ovum, they receive different treatment in life. Gammas, Deltas, and Epsilons do hard work and labor of various types usually among identical figures of themselves. At one point, in a scene at a hospital, it is described that, “The medical staff of the Park Lane Hospital for the Dying consisted of one hundred and sixty-two Deltas divided into two Bokanovsky Groups of eighty-four red-headed female and seventy-eight dark dolichocephalic male twins, respectively” (208). These two Bokanovsky groups of identical individuals are established as a particular class—Deltas—that are even admitted to do “menial labor.” In these scenes, the life-long separation of classes due to early scientific and medical intervention with genetic material is highlighted and, more importantly, hint at the potential dangers of the same medical technologies that others, such as Haldane, believed would lead to a better humanity. Implicit in Huxley’s response is the question: a better humanity for whom? Is the goal of science to create further class stratification and inequities or to flourish as individuals in society?

Bovanosky Clones

Bovanosky Clones (Art by Matt Ferguson)

Another important point in Huxley’s text is the pointed differentiation within classes themselves based upon character behaviors that are aberrant to the norms expected by society. Bernard Marx, one of the main characters, is one illustration of an aberrant character in Brave New World Society. In Brave New World higher classes not only receive genetic advantages in terms of work, but also in terms of their physical stature. The highest class, Alphas, are the tallest, Betas are the next tallest, and so on. However, Bernard is described as physically shorter than most Alpha men to the point that he is frequently mistaken as a Delta. This shortness becomes a running joke in the text as Marx is frequently suspected to have had alcohol added to his genetic mixture prior to his birth. One of the earliest mentions of his name is greeted with the assertion that his “reputation” as an Alpha human is in doubt because he is smaller than most Alpha. After hearing that a Beta, Lenina, wants to go out with Bernard, her friend Fanny comments that, “They say somebody made a mistake when he was in the bottle—thought he was a Gamma and put alcohol into his blood-surrogate. That’s why he’s so stunted” (Brave New World 46). The assertion that genetics so strongly relate to the character of a person, even to the extent that he is no longer an acceptable partner, continues throughout the entire text to even greater extremes. For example, when Bernard fails to allow fellow Alphas to enjoy meeting “the Savage,” a man who grew up outside of their world system, the immediate insult Alphas and Betas turn to is: “it’s absolutely true about the alcohol” (174).

Women’s Choice: Sterilization and Contraception

While all characters in Brave New World are genetically altered to some extent, female characters seem to face the most significant medical interventions with their bodies, specifically on the front of reproduction. Since babies are created in laboratories rather than born, the whole concept of “pregnancy,” “child birth,” and “motherhood” is incredibly tattoo to the point that “mother” is seen as so profane that it is described that “the blood rushed to [the] cheeks” of a grown man at the use of the word “mother” (23-24). Despite these taboos genetic material and eggs are still required from women in order to continue the human species. As a result, humans in Brave New World established an entirely new structure for reproduction.

Development of Fetus

Development of Fetus

To start with, not all women in the text are fertile. Over seventy percent of female embryos are sterilized when they “get a dose of male sex-hormones” (13). These female embryos are “decanted as freemartins—structurally quite normal (except…that they do have the slightest tendency to grow beards), but sterile. Guaranteed sterile” (13). Despite the negative impact of testosterone on fetuses, such as the growing of beards in adult life, these women are described as fairly fortunate in comparison with the unsterilized women who have to worry about contraception, described in the text as Malthusian drills. Rather than fertility being honored, it is looked upon as a burden. One of the doctors in the text describes that, “in the vast majority of cases, fertility is merely a nuisance [for women]” (13). The necessity of Malthusian Drills for 30% of women is something that neither doctors nor men seem to appreciate. Likewise, sterility is seen as a positive. For example, a female administrator at a university in Brave New World does not hesitate to admit that, “I am a freemartin myself” and goes even further by smiling flirtatiously at a male character after the statement, implying potential sexual accessibility (163). In contrast, fertile female characters reference their Malthusian Drills as a natural, albeit tedious fact that they “need constant drilling” during education to make habitual (163, 50). “Malthusian Drills” refers to the continuous drills the fertile women have to use contraception prior to each sexual act in order to prevent the disgraceful condition of pregnancy, which would be solved through a visit to the Abortion Centre (120). These Malthusian Drills are part of how fertile woman are “psychologically conditioned to use birth control in the form of a fashion accessory, a ‘Malthusian belt’ that contains contraception” (Grech 40).

The discussion around sexuality, abortion, contraception, and sterilization within Brave New World remains one of the most controversial portions of the text and continues to transgress both British and American morality, at least, on the religious right. Although the sterilization and mandatory contraception has not been seen in other texts read this quarter, the obligations of motherhood have been come up in both Flaubert’s Madame Bovary and the Futurist essays we read. In Madame Bovary we were faced with two alternative forms of motherhood. First, Bovary’s mother who was so dutiful and involved in her son’s life that he lacked independence and second, Madame Bovary’s motherhood. Madame Bovary seemed to embody the rich, aristocratic method of dealing with children. Her daughter was sent off to a wet nurse initially and even when she returned home Berthe failed to receive consistent attention from her mother. Instead, her mother would either snap at her in frustration, resulting in a violent assault, or treating her as an object of adoration. Both of these behaviors failed to impart any meaningful information to Berthe and demonstrated that Madame Bovary’s primary interest was in her own sexual fulfillment rather than her daughter’s life. Although the original Madame Bovary (Bovary’s mother) behaved in a manner that seemed more typically “motherly,” the resulting behavior of her son was still disastrous—both Berthe and Bovary remain together living alone with no financial support in the end. In contrast with these two methods of motherhood, Valentine de Saint Point’s essay, “The Manifesto of Futurist Woman,” asserts that women should, “Be the egoistic and ferocious mother, have what are called all the rights over and duties toward them, as long as they physically need your protection” (de Saint Point 3).

Of these four dramatically different models of motherhood that we have seen, which is the ideal form? Is it possible to be an “ideal mother” in the physical world or even in fiction? What are the characteristics of motherhood and what does it mean to transgress motherhood?

Censorship and Banned Books

A number of the texts in class this quarter have been banned, censored, and/or had their content challenged. Wilde’s Salome was originally banned in London, which caused it to be written in French and performed in France before returning to the United Kingdom. Madame Bovary underwent an obscenity trial about its depiction of sexuality and religion, but Flaubert was acquitted. Brave New World has also been banned in some places, but it is perhaps unique among our texts in that it explicitly describes censorship within its pages even as it was banned in the real world.

Orwell versus Huxley

Orwell versus Huxley

By the third chapter of Brave New World it is clear that there is a different standard in the textual world for judging the acceptability of texts. It is described that, “There were those strange rumours of old forbidden books hidden in a safe in the Controller’s study. Bibles, poetry—Ford knew what” (Brave New World 35). While previous texts were banned for their negative depictions of Christianity, Brave New World starts out by asserting the Bibles are “forbidden books” that are so unacceptable that even the leader of state, the Controller, feels the need to hide them within a safe. Although no distinction between acceptable and unacceptable literature is given until more than halfway through the text, the anxiety around the legality and illegality of literature is worth noting.

Later within Brave New World the Controller finally reveals an underlying reason for the censoring and banning of books. After examining a new scientific paper for content and marking it to not be published he thinks, “It was a masterly piece of work. But once you began admitting explanations in terms of purpose—well, you didn’t know what the result might be” (177). Just as the motto states at the beginning of the text, “stability” is a primary goal of society. If a scientific, religious, or literary text expresses ideas that could potentially undermine the community or stability then they are prevented from publication or access by the masses. This hyper-awareness about potential consequences of publication seems harsh and totalitarian, but it satirically points out some underlying causes for censorship in other cases. While Madame Bovary, Salome, and Brave New World were not expressly banned for their unstable nature, but for specific reasons about religion and sexuality, the stability of society remains and underlying and invisible factor in each of these reasons. Dominant religions in a society—the religions typically protected in obscenity trials—tend to be a stabilizing force to society. Texts that undermine these religious beliefs can be seen as undermining more than just a specific instance of religiosity within the text and instead be seen as contradicting or befouling an entire religious tradition that is part of the structural system of society.

If you want to see Brave New World in a filmed form, feel free to view the uploaded version on YouTube (below).

Bibliography

“100 Most Frequently Challenged Books of 1990-2000.” American Library Association. ALA, n.d. Web. 25 Apr. 2014. <http://www.ala.org/Template.cfmSection=bbwlinks&Template=/ContentManagement/ContentDisplay.cfm&ContentID=85714&gt;

“Aldous Huxley on Remorse.” The Eloquent Madness. N.p., n.d. Web. 23 Apr. 2014. <http://pensaleas.wordpress.com/2014/04/17/aldous-huxley-on-remorse/&gt;.

Annas, Pamela J. “New Worlds, New Words: Androgyny in Feminist Science Fiction.” Science Fiction Studies #15, Vol.5.Pt.2 (1978), n. pag. Web. 18 Apr. 2014.

“Banned and/or Challenged Books from the Radcliffe Publishing Course Top 100 Novels of the 20th Century.” Missing: Find a Banned Book. American Library Association, n.d. Web. 25 Apr. 2014. <http://www.ala.org/bbooks/frequentlychallengedbooks/classics/reasons&gt;

Brave New World Barcode. StudySync Digital Library Demo. Web. 26 Apr. 2014 .

Column Five. Orwell v. Huxley. 2011. Visual News. Web. 23 Apr. 2014 <http://www.visualnews.com/2011/06/23/killswitch-infographic-orwell-vs-huxley/&gt;.

de Saint Point, Valentine. “The Manifesto of Futurist Woman.” 1912. Print.

Ferguson, Matt. Brave New World- Bovanosky Clones. N.d. Hire an Illustrator. Web. 26 Apr. 2014. <http://www.hireanillustrator.com/i/portfolio/matt-ferguson/#brave-new-world-bokanovsky-clones&gt;.

Ferguson, Matt. Brave New World- The Hatchery. N.d. Hire an Illustrator. Web. 26 Apr. 2014. <http://www.hireanillustrator.com/i/portfolio/matt-ferguson/#brave-new-world-the-hatchery&gt;.

Grech, Victor, Clare Vassallo, and Ivan Callus. “Many Too Many Are Born: State Manipulation of Sex Drive Resulting in Infertility.” World Future Review (Fall 2012):39-50. Print.

Huxley, Aldous. Brave New World. New York: Harper Perennial, 2006. Print.

Huxley, Aldous. Brave New World Revisited. New York: Rosetta, LLC, 2000. Kindle.

Kawaibawibo, JP. Brave New World. 2013. _Brave New World’ Society of Artificial Happiness.Web. 26 Apr. 2014. <http://kaibawibo.wordpress.com/2013/03/02/society-of-artificial-happiness/&gt;.

Kirby, David A. “The New Eugenics in Cinema: Genetic Determinism and Gene Therapy in GATTACA.” Science Fiction Studies #64, Vol.27.Pt. 2 (2000): n. pag. Science Fiction Studies. Web. 18 Apr. 2014. sfs/essays/gattaca.htm>

Matter, William W. “The Utopian Tradition and Aldous Huxley.” Science Fiction Studies #6, Vol. 2.Pt.2 (1975), n. pag. Web. 18 Apr. 2014.

McMillen, Stuart, and Neil Postman. “Amusing Ourselves to Death.” Recombiant Records. N.p., n.d. Web. 23 Apr. 2014. <http://www.egodialogues.com/2009/aldous-huxley-george-orwell/&gt;.

Sawyer, Dana. Aldous Huxley: A Biography. New York: Crossroad Publishing Company, 2002.

 

Written by Chip Delany

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Literature and Pathology in Madame Bovary

“Before marriage she thought herself in love; but since the happiness that should have followed failed to come, she must, she thought, have been mistaken. And Emma tried to find out what one meant exactly in life by the words bliss, passion, ecstasy, that had seemed to her so beautiful in books.” (30)

Emma begins with words. She moves from art into life, rather than the other way around, and searches for the imagined pleasures of fiction in the everyday. As she languishes in her marriage to Charles, then, literature becomes one of the root causes of her unhappiness. Chivalrous romances and heady adventures have given Emma imagined joys that make her reality banal in comparison.

Much like Milton’s serpent who whispers dreams into the sleeping Eve’s ear, literature stimulates Emma’s desires toward the unattainable. Persuasive, intangible, and intoxicating, the effect literature produces in Madame Bovary, then, is not unlike that of Lucifer in Paradise Lost. While the effects may be the same, however, the way others frame this influence is not. In contrast to Paradise Lost, characters in Flaubert’s Madame Bovary develop a scientific language of pathology around Emma. People like Charles, Emma’s physician-husband, and Madame Bovary, Charles’ mother, understand Emma’s languor and dissatisfaction in medical terms. This impulse is characteristic of two things: first, the mid-nineteenth century’s growing respect for science as a source of meaning, and second, the anxiety around morality and art during the era.

Near the end of Part I, Emma weeps against a wall as she longs for “lives of adventure, for masked balls, for shameless pleasures” that she had “not yet experienced” (57). Immediately after this episode, Charles observes:

“She grew pale and suffered from palpitations of the heart. [ . . . ] She chattered with feverish profusion, and this overexcitement was suddenly followed by a state of torpor, in which she remained without speaking, without moving.” (57)

In a frame of free indirect speech, Charles’ observations of Emma take on a notably pathological air. He understands the excited way she speaks as “feverish” – a physically imbalanced, unhealthy bodily state, rather than a mental state of emotional desperation. Similarly, he describes her inactivity as a “state of torpor” and embellishes this with two identified symptoms: lack of speech and movement. It is telling, perhaps, that in this diagnosis Charles ignores the content of Emma’s speech entirely. By focusing instead on just the patterns and features of her behavior, he treats her as an item of medical study rather than as somebody with a deeper subjectivity. This suppression of content and depth in favor of surface observations resonates with both Charles as a character and his scientific mindset. Earlier in the novel, for instance, Flaubert describes Charles’ method at medical school as one of “understanding nothing at all” despite how much he “worked” and “listened” to the material (12). Accordingly, there is a sense that Charles, far from being attuned to meanings beyond the obvious, focuses only on the empirical surface. In a purely pragmatic way, he uses routine and rote memorization to practice his profession and does not bother to think critically or read more deeply into his craft. Such is the nature of a man who hopes for the easiest fractures in his patients and cannot read through a single medical journal.

This purely empirical mode of thought resists Emma’s symbolic mindset. Emma, by contrast, looks beyond the surface of the everyday and reaches after its sentimental importance, an imagined fantasy, or some literary meaning. In the mismatch of these two attitudes, Charles and Emma represent a larger clash of science with symbolism. Take, for instance, the words of philosopher Ernest Renan in his 1849 work The Future of Science:

“Science alone will make symbols henceforth; science alone can resolve for human beings the eternal problems whose solution their nature imperiously demands.” (The Future of Science, 31)

Science, Renan claims, will level the symbolic power of the world and assert its own authority in its place. With science, rather than symbols, as the source of human meaning, problems that have plagued humanity for centuries can suddenly find their “solution” in empirical study. Statements like these underscore the profound rise of scientific culture in Flaubert’s mid-nineteenth century era. The faith in science – rather than religion or art – to provide human understanding rejects the non-empirical symbols of Emma’s worldview. Accordingly, Charles cannot understand her. With no framework to apply but the idea of scientific cause-to-effect, Charles eclipses Emma’s subjectivity with a medical diagnosis. As such, he misses the symbolic force of literature on her mind entirely.

Still, the language of pathology Charles develops does more than represent an era’s shifting worldview. It responds to a real concern with art and its potential to exercise a moral pathology on the mind it encounters. Madame Bovary, Charles’ mother, alludes to this concern when she deplores Emma’s reading habit:

“Ah! Always busy at what? Reading novels, bad books, works against religion, and in which they mock at priests in speeches taken from Voltaire. But all that leads you far astray, my poor child. A person who has no religion is bound to go astray.” (103)

Here, Madame Bovary outlines a profoundly moral concern with the effects of reading. Of particular note is her anxiety around the idea of influence: she highlights Voltaire, for instance, as being the inspiration for speeches that mock priests. In this moment, it is not Voltaire himself she calls attention to; it is the subsequent speech-writers who have been influenced – or, for Madame Bovary, corrupted – by his literary work. The same anxiety surrounds Emma: by reading novels and “bad books”, she will be led “astray” from the correct mode of life. The decision that soon follows – to keep Emma away from books – treats moral deviance as a potential disease that can be cured, so to speak, by avoiding infection.

Later, Madame Bovary even describes the bookseller’s craft as a “poisonous trade” (103). The notion of poison carries direct implications of infection: a strong link between the effect of literature and the notion of pathology. Instead of an infection of the body, however, literature risks the infection of the mind – the very seat of morality. Yet, while it can be argued that Emma undergoes a degradation of morality at the hands of literature, it might be more accurate to characterize her as having an increase in imagination. For better and for worse, books allow her to desire and dream after things that, without literature, she might never have conceived.

[1086]

-ALA

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So It Goes: Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse-Five and Humorous Transgression

Slaughterhouse-Five: War and Transgression for Novel and Novelist

Slaughterhouse-Five or The Children’s Crusade, A Duty-Dance with Death, published in 1969, marked an important milestone for Kurt Vonnegut’s writing career as he finally tackled the subject matter of his experience as a soldier in World War II. Described as an “exorcism” by Harold Bloom, the novel was published nearly a quarter century after Vonnegut began his writing career in 1952 (Bloom 1).  The publication came at an important time of political transgression in the United States with the war protests of the Vietnam War still resonating strongly with individuals across America. The narrative itself describes the protagonist’s son as “a sergeant in the Green Berets–in Vietnam,” and the Lions Club leader is “in favor of increased bombings, of bombing North Vietnam back into the Stone Age, if it refused to see reason” (77, 76). The novel further parallels the former conflict and needless killing of human life in WWII with the conflict in Vietnam by connecting the firebombing of Dresden with the widespread use of Napalm in Vietnam. He writes about this abstractly when describing a fake science fiction book by Kilgore Trout which “predicted the widespread use of burning jellied gasoline on human beings. It was dropped on them from airplanes” (214). In both Vietnam and WWII, the use of incendiaries caused many atrocities against civilians.

Kurt Vonnegut

Kurt Vonnegut

The novel is also stays very close to Vonnegut’s biographical war experiences, following the protagonist Billy Pilgrim through the major war events of Vonnegut’s own war tour: taken as a POW behind German lines after the Battle of the Bulge, taken in cattle cars first to a Russian and English POW camp and then sent to the ‘untouched’ city of Dresden to work in a syrup factory before final bombing of the city in February 1945. Vonnegut’s first words echo the auto-biographical tone that “All this happened, more or less. The war parts, anyway, are pretty much true” (Vonnegut 1). These hints of the novelist’s own war experience are referenced throughout the novel, as Vonnegut writes, “That was I. That was me. That was the author of this book” (160). This quasi-autobiographical war book nonetheless includes typical elements of Vonnegut’s fiction: dark humor blending with satire and a fascination with science fiction. The novel has remained confusing to many critics who struggle with the multiplicity of genres, the duality of the absurd and the serious, contrasting quietist and activist themes, and the strong voice of the author’s own experience in the novel. Vonnegut uses these contrasting elements in the novel to transgress the confines of former literary tropes and to spread an anti-war message. The science fiction and temporal themes in the story further prompted the religious community to view the work as transgressive, as they lobbied in the 1970s and 1980s to ban the book in high schools and libraries (Klinkowitz 16). Under the umbrella of transgression, Kurt Vonnegut’s work continues to have mass appeal.

The Undescribed Massacre: The Firebombing of Dresden in 1945

As Vonnegut writes of Dresden, “When I got home from the Second World War twenty-three years ago, I thought it would be easy for me to write about the destruction of Dresden, since all I would have to do would be to report what I had seen…But not many words about Dresden came from my mind then” (2-3). He also wrote that “there is nothing intelligent to say about a massacre” (24). In the novel itself, Vonnegut clearly accentuates the historical frame of the firebombing, however he never describes the ultimate event, probably due to the failure of language in the face of such a massacre. From February 13-14 1945, 1084 allied airplanes dropped 3,428 tons of incendiary bombs on the city of Dresden, creating a firestorm that destroyed the city and killed upwards of 25,000 individuals (Preface xi).

Cremations after the Firebombing in February, 1945.

Cremation after the Firebombing in February, 1945.

This devastating event in World War II has often been described as the single worst massacre of human lives during the entire conflict, and is used as an example of the power of “total war”  (Strachan 1). Planned under the project name “Clarion,” the attacks purpose developed out of a desire to weaken the movement of troops to the eastern front and to sew confusion in the city with the large influx of refugees traveling west (Cox 26). Although Dresden had “no key oil refineries or large armament plants,” and was considered far enough from British air bases to ensure its protection, it was still targeted for its size and its position as a communications center (Neitzel 66). With an airspace largely undefended and with bunkers inadequately built around the city due to the lack of previous attacks, Dresden clung onto its image as a “free city,” the “Florence of the Elbe” (Neitzel 68). The beautiful cultural and historic beauty of the city was not enough to bar bombers from dropping seeded explosives on the historic city in two waves of attacks. Incendiaries started individual blazes around the city which coalesced into a single firestorm as blown out windows and doors facilitated the spread of the fire. The superheated air additionally created violent updraughts and “gale-force winds at ground level” (Cox 42). As Sebastian Cox described the destruction of the firestorm: “The heat was so intense that the tar on the streets melted, turning them into molten rivers, further impeding escape and the already hopelessly inadequate firefighting. Material around the periphery of the firestorm would simply combust from the heat without necessarily coming into contact with the flames” (42). The firestorm caused many to die of asphyxiation in bunkers as oxygen was used up by the storm. Other bunkers were simply too shallow and caused thousands of victims to burn underground. Although the number of dead were inflated by German propaganda machines to almost 300,000, the more accurate number of 35,000 dead still indicates the tragic magnitude of civilian loss (Cox 51). In Slaughterhouse-Five, Vonnegut attempts to indicate the horror of the event even while he does not specifically describe what happened. Although he specifies it as the core scene of drama in the novel, the unnamed quality shows Vonnegut’s stylistic decision to leave the event unsignified by language, the looming monster in the heart of the narrative.

Symphony No. 1 by Daniel Buckvich attempts to depict the firebombing of Dresden through music, imitating the sounds of the bombs and the screams of civilians in the end movement.

 

Vulgar Transgression: Body Humor and the Mechanization and Bestialization of the Human Form

Vonnegut, called America’s greatest satirist of the 20th century, lives up to that image in his work Slaughterhouse-five, as he uses humor as his main style in the novel. Vonnegut’s choice to pair dark social destruction and war with an almost lighthearted account of the absurd main protagonist Billy Pilgrim shows his commitment to black humor, or laughing in the face of horror. This seeming juxtaposition of the serious and the absurd captures the ridiculous waste of human life in war, and also seems to be the only way that Vonnegut to react to the actions. Since “All there is to say about a massacre” are “things like ‘Poo-tee-weet?’,” Vonnegut’s turns to humor to show the ridiculousness of his project of signification. Under this stylistic framework, Vonnegut uses body humor in order to reveal how war turns humans into their most physical organismic form. By focusing on the physical body through bodily humor, Vonnegut refuses to impart the war with aesthetic value. Rather, he shows how the war turns humans into objects, machines, and animals. One of the first instances of body humor is shown in one of the opening limericks in the story:

There was a young man from Stamboul,
Who soliloquized thus to his tool:
“You took all my wealth
And you ruined my health,
And now you won’t pee you old fool.” p. 3

In this passage, the young man’s penis is described as a ‘tool’ as body parts merely become part of a larger human machine. The each part of the machine body therefore has a vulgar purpose in the workings of the organism. The limerick references a tool which is faulty, and will not fulfill its purpose of urinating. Vonnegut uses this limerick to point to the mechanization of human bodies in war, as humans become tools of war. The focus on body humor in the novel shows as these machine bodies begin to break down. At the first POW camp, the American soldiers are unable to digest the rich food that the British POWs feed them. The resulting comic bathroom scene shows

Mechanization of the human body in the children's game Operation.

Mechanization of the human body in the children’s game Operation.

the extent to which the American digestive machinery is faulty, as Billy survey’s the latrine: “The wailing was coming from in there. The place was crammed with Americans who had taken their pants down. The welcome feast had made them as sick as volcanoes. The buckets were full or had been kicked over. An American near Billy wailed that he had excreted everything but his brains” (160). This joke pairs the perceived ‘juvenility’ of body humor with the stark reality of the soldiers that they have been ill nourished for weeks. In this episode, the machinery of the body has been compromised by the war. The classification of humans as machines is extended to the Tralfamadorian dogma in the novel as Vonnegut writes, “Tralfamadorians, of course, say that every creature and plant in the Universe is a machine. It amuses them that so many Earthlings are offended by the idea of being machines” (197). If humans are machines, their death and ‘malfunction’ due to injury becomes less condemnable or amoral, as the ‘higher’ faculties of humanity are overlooked. The demystification of the human form through body humor also relates to the prevalence of the bestialization of the soldiers in the novel. The focus on the physical body of the POWs makes them equated to animals who must be fed, sheltered, and worked. The POW’s sleeping place in Dresden is ironically “‘Schlachthof-Fünf.’ Schlachtof meant slaughterhouse” (195). During war, the animals in the slaughterhouse are “had been killed and eaten and exerted by human beings, mostly soldiers” and now the slaughterhouse “was going to serve as a home away from home for one hundred American prisoners of war” (194). War therefore demystifies humans down to the level of animals, to be slaughtered, imprisoned, worked and processed to make soap. The bestialization and mechanization of human beings makes their use as objects of war less morally questionable, and reveals the lack of romanticism or ‘higher-purpose” in war. As Rita Bergenholtz writes, “the focus on eating in Slaughterhouse-Five effectively deflates any lofty or sentimental notions readers might have about the righteousness of military crusades or the heroism of men at war” (86). Therefore, Vonnegut pairs bodily humor with the dark subject matter of war in order to promote a strongly anti-war and humanist message.

So It Goes: Tralfamadorian Time and the Fated Individual 

In addition to Vonnegut’s transgressive use of body humor as an anti-war message, he also transgresses the bounds of genre as he combines the typical war book with sci-fi, psychology, philosophy, and humor. In Slaughterhouse-Five, the Tralfamadorian aliens are at the intersection of these genres, introducing their own philosophical conception of time while also apparently abducting Billy. The Tralfamadorians are fourth dimensional, therefore able to see all the moments in time at once. Billy himself claims that he was “unstuck in time” before he was

Visual representation of a Tralfamadorian

Visual representation of a Tralfamadorian

abducted to Tralfamadore. In both of these conceptions of time, fate naturally takes on a new importance to explain events. Since the Tralfamadorians can see all of time at once, they naturally know what is to be fated. The role of fate in the novel is shown in the style in addition to the narrative, as the author’s omniscience is equated to the role of fate. As Vonnegut writes, “I’ve finished my war book now…It begins like this: Listen: Billy Pilgrim has come unstuck in time. It ends like this: Poo-tee-weet?” (28). The narrative itself is therefore already determined before the reader begins it, creating a feeling of fate throughout the narrative. The opening command of “Listen:” also relates the narrative to an epic work such as Beowulf which starts with the word “hwæt,” often interpreted as “Listen!” Fate is often invoked in Beowulf and other epic poems as the role of the gods overshadows the human pawns in the narrative. Similarly in Slaughterhouse-Five, Billy and the Tralfamadorians believe that their life is has a knowable fated future. This fated quality of the narrative also causes characters to be the instruments of their fate, incapable of free will. For example, Edgar Derby is exclusively described as “doomed Derby” who “eventually would be shot” (173). Since Derby’s fate is clearly stated when we first meet him, he loses his status as a character. Rather, he becomes simply an object whose use in the narrative is his future death. Vonnegut therefore shows the downsides of a fated universe, as the ‘meaning’ of life is therefore limited to the fated event. The totalizing view of time in the Tralfamadorian philosophy also problematizes Vonnegut’s anti-war image for many critics, who argue that “Vonnegut’s humor convey’s fatalistic resignation that entails political quietism” (Wepler 101).The lack of free will in a fated universe necessarily forces individuals to question their ability to change the “glacier” that is war (Vonnegut 4). However, I argue that Vonnegut does not adopt the Tralfamadorian viewpoint as his own, rather he uses it to both show Billy’s attempts at dealing with his war experiences, and reveals it as a failed strategy. This condemnation of the Tralfamadorian conception of time can be seen in Vonnegut’s continued use of “So it goes.” in the novel.

As Billy writes about the Tralfamadorian philosophy about death, “When a Tralfamadorian sees a corpse, all he thinks is that the dead person is in bad condition in that particular moment…Now when I myself hear that somebody is dead, I simply shrug and say that the Tralfamadorians ay about dead people, whiz is ‘So it goes.’ (34). This phrase becomes a constant refrain in the novel after any death however insignificant. This phrase becomes parodied in the novel, as the death of a human is equated to champagne (p. 93) and flat water (129). This over exaggeration of its use questions the low emotional impact that the Tralfamadorians put on death. Rather, it shows how this is ridiculous in the face of something so significant as a human being dying. Vonnegut therefore argues that if we adopt this acceptance of death into the banal phrase of “So it goes,” we are defying the humanist message. The phrase “So it goes” also shows an attempt to mitigate exposure of the audience to the death. The indefinite “it” either refers to death itself, or the life of the individual ‘going’ the way of death. In either case, the use of an indefinite pronoun distances the reader from the actual death. Therefore, the exaggeration of its use forces the reader to question death’s low significance in this phrase. 

PTSD and Anomic Isolation: A Psychological Reading of Billy Pilgrim

Billy Pilgrim, the protagonist in the novel, often describes that he is ‘unstuck in time’ and spreads the message of the Tralfamadorians to the general public after his head is split form a plane crash. Indeed, many critics have reconciled the seeming blurring of genres between science fiction and anti-war drama by placing the world of Tralfamadore in Billy’s imagination (Brown). Billy’s constant refrain that he is “unstuck in time” is also attributed to PTSD from the Dresden bombings and POW experience (Vees-Gulani 176). The psychological analysis of Pilgrim’s character is supported to the narrator’s own questioning of Billy’s reality. For example, Billy “has seen his birth and death many times, he says, and pays random visits to all the events in between. He says” (Vonnegut 29). The ending line of “he says” is at the start of another paragraph, emphasizing this phrase. Therefore it is clear that the narrator wants to accentuate that this is Billy’s own reality, not the narrator’s reality. He also appears to have trouble functioning at his job and in his home life, often experiences flashbacks from the war. When he examines a patients eyes, he gets very quiet and his patient asks him “You see something terrible?” (72). These ‘terrible’ visions of the war are also paired with Billy’s lifelong inability to make real relationships. Described as anomic isolation, or a “breakdown of dependence” by Kevin Brown, this inability to fit in with society has plagued Billy from his youth (Brown 102). One episode which pairs Billy’s lack of meaning relationships with a flashback from the war is at Billy’s anniversary when he hears a barbershop quartet sing a ballad about old friends called “That Old Gang of Mine.”

In this episode, “Billy Pilgrim found himself upset by the song and the occasion. He had never had an old gang, old sweethearts and pals, but he missed one anyway, as the quartet made slow, agonized experiments with chords…Billy had powerful psychosomatic responses to he changing chords. His mouth filled with the taste of lemonade and his face became grotesque, as though he really were being stretched on the torture engine called the rack” (220). After Billy has time to process his reaction, he “found an association with an experience he had had long ago…He remembered it shimmeringly—as follows: “He was down in the meat locker on the night that Dresden was destroyed” (226). This ending image of Dresden in the war is the closest that we get to the horrible event itself, and it is precisely through Billy’s realization that he “had never had an old gang” that makes him remember his war experiences. Tralfamadore appears to be Billy’s way of coping with these war experiences, using tropes that he read in Kilgore Trout’s sci-fi books such as The Big Board in order to construct a narcissistic reality where he does have a meaningful relationship with Montana Wildhack (257). This fantasy planet allows Billy to accept his war experiences and instead “Ignore the awful times, and concentrate on the good ones” as the Tralfamadorians preach (150). A focus on both the alienation of the modern American and the trauma put on soldiers puts the psychological aspects of Vonnegut into a strong anti-war light and explains the author’s mixtures of genres. With a combination of philosophy, sci-fi, American banality, war, psychology, and humor, Vonnegut transgresses former boundaries of the novel, and places Slaughterhouse-Five among the best novels of the 20th century.

Works Cited

Bergenholtz, Rita, and John R. Clark. “Food for Thought in Slaughterhouse-Five.” Thalia 18.1 (1998): 84-93. MLA International. Web. 13 Apr. 2014.

Bloom, Harold, ed. Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse Five. Philadelphia: Chelsea House, 2001. Print.

Brown, Kevin.: “The psychiatrists were right: anomic alienation in Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse-Five.” South Central Review (28:2) 2011, 101-9. (2011)

Cox, Sebastian. “The Dresden Raids: Why and How.” Firestorm: The Bombing of Dresden, 1945. Ed. Paul Addison and Jeremy A. Crang. London: Pimlico, 2006. N. pag. Print.

Klinkowitz, Jerome. Slaughterhouse-Five: Reforming the Novel and the World. Boston: Twayne, 1990. Print.

Neitzel, Sönke. “The City Under Attack.” Firestorm: The Bombing of Dresden, 1945. Ed. Paul Addison and Jeremy A. Crang. London: Pimlico, 2006. N. pag. Print.

Preface. Firestorm: The Bombing of Dresden, 1945. Ed. Paul Addison and Jeremy A. Crang. London: Pimlico, 2006. N. pag. Print.

Strachan, Hew. “Strategic Bombing and the Question of Civilian Casualties up to 1945.” Firestorm: The Bombing of Dresden 1945. Ed. Paul Addison and Jeremy A. Crang. London: Pimlico, 2006. N. pag. Print.

Vees-Gulani, Susanne. “Diagnosing Billy Pilgrim: A Psychological Approach to Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse-Five.” Critique 44.2 (2003): n. pag.MLA International. Web. 11 Apr. 2014.

Vonnegut, Kurt. Slaughterhouse-five Or, The Children’s Crusade, a Duty-dance with Death. New York: Dial, 2005. Print.

Wepler, Ryan. “‘I Can’t Tell If You’re Being Serious or Not’: Vonnegut’s Comic Realism in Slaughterhouse-Five.” HJEAS: Hungarian Journal of English and American Studies 17.1 (2011): 97-126. MLA International. Web. 8 Apr. 2014.

Written by Nora

 

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We Sinful Women (“Hum Guneghaar Aurtain”)- Transgressing Temporality and Poetic Form

Kishwar Naheed

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 کشور نھید

Hum Guneghaar Auratein– We Sinful Women”

It is we sinful women

who are not awed by the grandeur of those who wear gowns

(who are not intimidated by the magnificence of those who wear robes)

who don’t sell our bodies (lives)

who don’t bow our heads

who don’t fold our hands together (in supplication).

It is we sinful women

while those who sell the harvests of our bodies

become exalted

become distinguished

become the just princes (gods) of the material world.

It is we sinful women

who come out raising the banner of truth

up against barricades of lies on the highways

who find stories of persecution piled on each threshold

(find tales of punishment at every doorstep)

who find that tongues which could speak have been severed.

It is we sinful women.

Now, even if the night gives chase

these eyes shall not be put out.

For the wall which has been razed

don’t insist now on raising it again.

It is we sinful women

who are not awed by the grandeur of those who wear gowns

(who are not intimidated by the magnificence of those who wear robes)

who don’t sell our bodies (lives)

who don’t bow our heads

who don’t fold our hands together (in supplication).

*Translated from Urdu by Rukhsana Ahmed. The italicized words are my own translation.  

“We Sinful Women:” Transgressing Temporality and Poetic Form

by Sultan Jahan Begum

 

In 1977, Kishwar Naheed’s translation of Simone de Beauvoir’s The Second Sex was banned by the Pakistani government for three reasons: first, she had translated and published the book without government permission; second, she had violated copyright (although Pakistan does not honor copyright laws); third, the translation was considered pornographic and vulgar. (Haeri, No Shame for the Sun, 287)  The English version of The Second Sex was not banned anywhere in Pakistan. Naheed was then ousted from her government position, arrested, released on a hefty bail and watched by the Criminal Investigation Department from 1977 through 1979 because of her controversial poetry and politics. In a 2009 interview, Naheed responded to the charge that her translation was pornographic and vulgar by noting that one obstacle to writing about women’s bodies and sexualities in Urdu is that “many words in prose don’t even exist… My translation of The Second Sex was banned because of the use of words describing a woman’s private parts in actual language.” (Shoaib, “Vocabulary of Resistance,” 175-176)

In class, we have discussed transgression as the act of expanding or going beyond established social boundaries and limits. Chris Jenks’ Transgression opens with the immediate post-9/11 moment, characterized by global outrage because, “A violation had occurred, some boundary had been crossed.” (Jenks, Transgression, 1) Jenks further defines transgression as not only going beyond a defined social norm or boundary, but also “to announce and laudate the commandment, the law, or the convention,” thus making transgression into a “deeply reflexive act of denial and affirmation.” (Jenks, 2)

This simple definition is handy for reading Naheed’s poem as transgressive of a few different ideas, in this case, temporality, poetic form and contemporary politics. This presentation will address Naheed’s most famous poem, “We Sinful Women,” within the context of late nineteenth century Indian femininity and contemporary Pakistani society, exploring how Naheed’s poem addresses the continuity of these two temporal contexts, considered by historians as distinct periods. This is also a feminist argument, one that questions the extent to which the liberal, Enlightenment-inspired nation-state has actually secured equal rights for all its citizens. This presentation will then further examine how Naheed’s poem transgresses the traditional bounds of the ghazal, a poetic form that has pervaded South Asian literature for centuries. Finally, I will present a reading of “We Sinful Women” within the context in which it was written, 1980s Pakistan.

Kishwar Naheed was born in Uttar Pradesh, India in 1940 and moved to Lahore, Pakistan in 1949, just two years after India was partitioned. Naheed’s writing career, which began approximately in the late 1960s, is based on themes that critique the relationship between women and patriarchal states and societies. Throughout the 1960s and 1970s, Naheed attended various conferences on women’s issues abroad and traveled widely, meeting writers and activists from all over the world. Naheed continued to write during 1977-1988, although she was individually targeted by Zia-ul-Haq’s military regime. Naheed is widely known in Pakistan and the global community for her women-positive poetry.

While many of Naheed’s readers call Naheed to be a feminist, including Rukhsana Ahmad, who has translated many of Naheed’s poems into English, Naheed has never explicitly taken on this label herself. I attribute this to the very complex debate over feminism in Pakistan. (If you are interested, you can read my piece on thefeministwire on this topic.) However, Naheed’s work is transgressive partially because the  themes she addresses, such as female equality in the legal and domestic (or formal and informal) realms, are read as feminist. Since there is a notable population that rejects feminism as (pejoratively) Western, inauthentic and anti-family, this lens makes Naheed’s work transgressive among readers who think her work is feminist.

Reading Naheed’s work as feminist adds a transgressive lens to her poetry. Additionally, much of her work critiques the Pakistani state.  These critiques represent transgression as a “deeply reflexive act of denial and affirmation.” (Jenks, Transgression, 2) Naheed’s work serves to point out the flaws in Pakistan’s nation-state project in order to rectify them. This is arguably a feminist goal as well- to critique patriarchal nationalism in order to rectify its ills.  Since Naheed’s work is not anti-nationalist, her work is therefore more reflexive and wavers, in a complex manner, between affirming and denying the nation-state.

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The Partition of India and the Creation of Pakistan- August 14/15, 1947

 

Transgressing Temporality: Formal Colonialism and Indian Femininity

Naheed transgresses the temporal bounds of history to argue that Pakistani women today still emphasize late nineteenth century models of femininity based on male-defined concepts of morality, motherhood and domesticity. Temporality refers to the state of existing within or having some relationship to time.  Naheed transgresses temporality by arguing that social expectations have transgressed historical ruptures. While historians theorize events as ruptures in time, after which nothing remains the same (think Jenks’ description of 9/11 as a “metaphor for irrevocability”), Naheed’s argument shows that despite the end of formal colonialism and the Partition of India in 1947, women’s social role remains unchanged. This line of argumentation is deeply critical of the liberal nation-state model, which purports to give equal rights to all citizens, regardless of ethnicity, race, gender and religion, and follows contemporary feminist literature on the patriarchal implications of the nation-state. (Scott, Only Paradoxes to Offer).

Naheed’s poem “We Sinful Women” discusses women who transgress social norms. These norms, which exist in Pakistani society today, have a very particular history. On May 10, 1857, the British East India Company’s sepoys mutinied against Company rule. It was the largest rebellion against European empire in the nineteenth century. The British Crown, which was formerly ruling India through the British East India Company and a series of Mughal puppet-emperors, came to rule India formally in an era known as Crown Raj. One aspect of elite court culture that disappeared completely in this time was that of the north Indian royal court. Shahs were also patrons of the arts and maintained courts consisting of nobles and tawaifain, or dancing girls. A tawaif usually catered to the nobility and contributed to the maintenance of Urdu music, dance and literature. The British confiscated tawafain property and assets during the Rebellion and while most resumed their careers in order to support themselves, without the cultural structure that granted tawaifain class and prestige, they became prostitutes in the true Victorian sense. Their profession became “the great social evil.”

 

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Prostitution- The Great Social Evil

The courtesan’s fall from grace became the main premise for reforming Indian womanhood in the late nineteenth century. Male-authored novels and manuals described women in two categories: woman-as-ornament and woman-as-prostitute. The didactic tone in these texts was intended to reformulate the elite woman into a monogamous wife who embodied tawaif characteristics (literary and musical education, among other traits). The woman-as-ornament characteristics were incredibly difficult to replicate. Women were to be well educated in poetry, music and literature- after all,  tawaifain were sources of intellectual stimulation and entertainment- and simultaneously pious Muslim housewives who spent their time producing and raising the next generation of pious Muslim men.

This curious mixing of wifely and tawaif characteristics is one context into which Naheed’s poem “We Sinful Women” takes on a particular valence. The protagonists of her poem, so-called “sinful women,” are neither ornamental wives nor prostitutes, both of whom lament the inevitability of selling their lives to husbands or pimps. This is a direct play on the word sinful and the normalization of  prostitution as an immoral act, rather than the fact that there continue to be customers (presumably male). The ‘normalization’ of prostitution as a sinful profession is a tangible recognition of the hegemony of Victorian ideals and British colonization. Naheed’s language suggests that the real sinful women are those who stand up against the woman-as-ornament and woman-as-prostitute categories that were placed on women from without. Her sinful women refuse to let others become “exalted and distinguished” and princes or gods in the material world by their selling female beings- both literal female bodies and ideas of womanhood that are impossible to attain. Women do not follow male-defined dictates are stifled, their tongues severed and their paths blocked.

Naheed’s poem has an overlapping, contemporary valence as well. She transgresses the temporal bounds of history to argue that Pakistani women today still emphasize late nineteenth century models of femininity, the aforementioned male-defined concepts of morality, motherhood and domesticity. Temporality refers to the state of existing within or having some relationship to time.  Naheed transgresses temporality by arguing that social expectations have transgressed historical ruptures. While historians theorize events as ruptures in time, after which nothing remains the same, Naheed’s argument shows that despite the end of formal colonialism and the Partition of India in 1947, the social role of women remains unchanged. This line of argumentation is deeply critical of the liberal nation-state model, which purports to give equal rights to all citizens, regardless of ethnicity, race, gender and religion, and follows contemporary feminist literature on the patriarchal implications of the nation-state.

Naheed takes this feminist line of argumentation one step further by examining how females oppress other females by enforcing feminine norms among generations of women. Naheed calls the unchallenged reproduction of social mores the perpetuation of a ‘feminine myth.’ Her language mirrors that used by Simone de Beauvoir, one of Naheed’s influences. Beauvoir herself has noted,

“Daughter is… at once her [mother’s] double and another person, the mother is at once overweeningly affectionate and hostile toward her daughter; she saddles her child with her own destiny: a way of proudly laying claim to her own femininity and also a way of revenging herself for it… Even a generous mother, who sincerely seeks her child’s welfare, will as a rule think that it is wiser to make a ‘true woman’ of her, since society will more readily accept her if this is done.” (Beauvoir, The Second Sex, 281.)

Here we have a type of generational violence in which the burdens of femininity are passed on as inheritances. In this system, described by Beauvoir and Naheed alike, there is very little room for transgressing social norms and both writers advocate for challenging the reproduction of ideas and mores along generational lines.

Transgressing Form: The Ghazal in South Asian Literature

The transgressive theme that runs throughout Naheed’s work applies to her poetic form as well. “We Sinful Women” takes the tradition form of a ghazal, a Central and South Asian poetic form that usually celebrates illicit, unattainable  love and/or unbearable pain, often due to separation from one’s beloved. The main themes contained in ghazals  surround metaphysical and eternal questions, such as the non-earthly beloved, or God. Ghazals have been likened to sonnets due to their carefully structured and controlled rhyme scheme and rhythm. (Silva, “Shameless Women,” 3) They are often put to music and performed as songs in a performative genre that is available to all classes. Overall, expressing intense affect is the main idea that distinguishes a ghazal from other forms of South Asian poetry.

Naheed’s poem transgresses the centuries-old norms regarding ghazal thematics. While she is expressing deep emotion and personal feeling, her messages are necessarily political and social in a way that ghazal poetry never was. Her affect is intertwined with a socio-political feeling that forces the reader/listener to face the plight of women, both in historical and contemporary periods. To this end, Naheed joins a contemporary movement of anti-colonial ghazals, in which deep pain is expressed through cruel (colonial) rulers and martyred freedom fighters. In these early twentieth century ghazals, political activism and traditional poetic form became wedded. Yet the main anti-colonial poets of the twentieth century did not write gendered poetry. Until very recently, men controlled the mushaira (a gathering to recite ghazals and other types of poems) scene as well as the editing and publishing markets.

 

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Renowned Urdu and Persian poet Talha Rizvi Barque performing at a mushaira in Bihar, 1969

Female poets, including Naheed and many of her contemporaries, transgress upon the bounds of this male-centric world. While female poets have existed for centuries, many were forced to write under pen names and have been written out of history. Using the deep emotional force that has characterized ghazals for centuries, Naheed’s work again departs from the norm by expressing frustration with a predetermined future, an emotion that is neither eternal nor metaphysical. The thrust of Naheed’s work is political and contemporary, using history to support her claims about today and to warn other women about the dangers of tomorrow. Her diction about women’s bodies does so in “actual language,” not quite to the extent of her Urdu translation of The Second Sex, but is nonetheless directly addressing corporeal women and the labor their bodies produce. This is a distinct departure from traditional ghazals, which only discuss the beloved in veiled terms, using metaphors such as the moon to describe a young, innocent face.

The bodies in Naheed’s poems are riddled with social contradictions. In the poem, we have prostitutes, considered ‘sinful’ by a society that nonetheless demands their sexual servitude. We also see women who speak up for themselves yet are ideologically pushed out of public discourse because they are ‘sinful’ for transgressing these norms. These are just two examples of themes previously untouched by the traditional ghazal. Her invocation of a traditional form to express untraditional themes is a transgressive act, one that does not create a new poetic form but rather expands the ghazal’s boundaries to include political ideas.

 

Transgressing the State: Military Rule(s) in Pakistan

This poem is a direct reflection of Naheed’s own society and simultaneously her response to it. This paper has made historical connections between late nineteenth century Indian social mores and demonstrated that these tropes exist today. According to historian Saadia Toor, “every aspect of the Pakistani state, society, politics and culture worth noting today bears the scars of the eleven years of martial law under General Zia-ul-Haq from 1977-1988, Pakistan’s longest and most brutal dictatorship.” (Toor, The State of Islam, 117) Within one year after obtaining power through a right-wing backed coup, Zia announced his intentions to “Islamize” Pakistan and added members of the conservative political party Jamaat-e-Islami to work in his cabinet to ensure his political stability. Zia’s Islamization program was not based on a pre-given meaning of Islam. Rather, he reproduced an earlier, late nineteenth century arguments on femininity that dictated that women did not have a place in the public sphere. Zia intentionally targeted women as the focal point of his Islamization plans because he knew focusing on the “reinvigoration” of the Pakistani family would be outwardly supported by the religious parties and win him “muted approval” of all classes of society. (Toor, “Moral Regulation in a Post-colonial Nation State,” 255)

 

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Pakistani dictator Zia-ul-Haq with American President Ronald Reagan

Khawar Mumtaz, author of Women of Pakistan and a vibrant part of the women’s movement in Pakistan during Zia’s period, notes that by 1978 Zia’s Islamization campaign resulted in a change of attitude and social atmosphere in Pakistan that affected women adversely. In 1981, a number of Karachi and Lahore-based female activists launched the Khawateen Mahaz-e- Amal, the Women’s Action Forum (WAF), in order to address two alarming trends: first, the growing tendency to segregate women and push them back into their homes and second, to combat the various juridical actions, such as the Hudood Ordinances, that were falsely adopted in the name of Islam. (Mumtaz, Women of Pakistan, 74-75)

One of the Hudood Ordinances, the Zina Ordinance, marked the first time that adultery became a crime against the state as opposed to individuals and both actions became non-compoundable, non-bailable, and punishable by death. Zina is defined as sexual intercourse outside of legal marriage and conflates two practices: adultery among the married and fornication among the unmarried. There was no provision for rape within marriage. In order to prove zina, four ‘pious’ Muslim adult male witnesses must account for the act of penetration, or the accused (male or female) may confess. With the implementation of the Hudood laws, rape was subsumed under zina and if coercion cannot be proved (which was nearly impossible), then the victim of rape becomes an offender of zina who had “enjoyed” illicit sexual activity.

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Women protesting against the Law of Evidence (Zina) in Lahore in 1983. The police suppressed the protest with violence.

Naheed was also a founding member of WAF and “We Sinful Women” was written in the mid-1980s as a response to Zia’s Islamization. The fourth stanza is a direct comment on the WAF’s protests against Zia’s judicially violent measures. The WAF has literally raised the banner of truth, exposing these laws and the government that supports them as biased, and was repressed, sometimes brutally, at most turns. Given Naheed’s house arrest in the early years of Zia’s rule (the late 1970s), the “night giving chase” realistically represents the guards sitting outside Naheed’s front door, enforcing her literal imprisonment. Towards the end of the same stanza, Naheed writes, “the wall which has been razed, don’t insist now on raising it again,” emphasizing the WAF’s persistence can never be beat out of them. With severed tongues, these so-called “sinful” women will persistently find a way to speak and be heard.

 

Concluding Thoughts

This presentation has read Kishwar Naheed’s “We Sinful Women” as a poem that transgresses of temporality, form and the nation-state. It remains undeniable that her poem is capable of many readings, a few of which I have offered here. My analysis of “We Sinful Women” fits in neatly with the themes of the course, including the place of women’s agency as female protagonists, women’s agency as writers, and transgressive literature that is construed as “dangerous” within one’s own society. As a final note, I would like to stress that it is simplistic and reductive to see Naheed and other third world women as fighting against an inherently patriarchal religion (as Mona el-Tahawy has recently argued). Rather, “culture” seems to be the culprit of women’s oppression and, yet also provides the space for writers such as Naheed to produce transgressive literature. Understanding culture as a concept is not easily done, and it is increasingly important to acknowledge the role played by the nation-state, for example, in juridically and culturally organizing and suppressing society and by questioning reform within a generational framework, in which custom and tradition is reproduced endlessly. From this vantage point, Naheed’s social critiques can be read as female, not just Pakistani. In class, I would like to continue to think about culture as an intellectual space, a ubiquitous zeitgeist, that simultaneously enables and disables transgressive literature to be written, read, contested, banned and ultimately influential in an unprecedented way.

Works Cited

Ahmad, Rukhsana, ed. and trans. We Sinful Women: Contemporary Urdu Feminist Poetry. London: The Women’s Press, 1991.

Beauvoir, Simone de. The Second Sex. New York: Vintage Books, 1989.

Haeri, Shahla. No Shame for the Sun: Lives of Professional Pakistani Women. Syracuse: Syracuse University Press, 2002.

Mumtaz, Khawar. Women of Pakistan: Two Steps Forward, One Step Back. Edited by Farida Shaheed. London: Zed Books, 1988.

Naheed, Kishwar. Buri Aurat ki Katha. New Delhi: Har-Ananf Publications, 1995. Urdu.

      A Bad Woman’s Story. Translated by Durdana Soomro. London: Oxford University Press, 2009.

Scott, Joan. Only Paradoxes to Offer: French Feminists and the Rights of Man. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1996.

Silva, Neluka. “Shameless Women: Repression and Resistance in We Sinful Women: Contemporary Urdu Feminist Poetry.” Meridians 3, no. 2 (2003): 28-51.

Shoaib, Mawash. “Vocabulary of Resistance: A Conversation with Kishwar Naheed.” Pakistaniaat: A Journal of Pakistan Studies Vol. 1, No. 2 (2009): 172-179.

Subramanayam, Lakshmi. Cultural Behavior and Personality. New Delhi: Mittal Publications, 2001.

Toor, Saadia. The State of Islam: Culture and Cold War Politics in Pakistan. London: Pluto Books, 2011.

“Moral Regulation in a Postcolonial Nation-State.” Interventions: International Journal of Postcolonial Studies 9, no. 2 (2007): 255-275.

Pictures/Links

“My Years with the WAF.”  http://beenasarwar.com/2013/02/13/my-years-with-waf-zohra-yusuf-on-the-pakistani-womens-movement/Accessed 14 April 2014.

Oldenburg, Veena. “Lifestyle as Resistance.” http://www.columbia.edu/itc/mealac/pritchett/00urdu/umraojan/txt_veena_oldenburg.html Accessed 13 April 2014.

“Partition of India.” http://postcolonialstudies.emory.edu/partition-of-india/ Accessed 14 April 2014. “Prostitution in Victorian England.” http://samanthabvance.wordpress.com/presentation-page/ Accessed 13 April 2014.

Skene, Patrick.  “Reasons to be Paranoid.” http://www.telegraph.co.uk/culture/books/fictionreviews/3554350/Reasons-to-be-paranoid.html Accessed 14 April 2014.

“Talha Rizvi Barque.” http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:A_very_old_pics_of_Talha_Rizvi_Barque_in_Halqa-e-ahbab_Mushaira_at_Ara,_Bhojpur_Bihar.jpg Accessed 13 April 2014.

“The Valiant Queen.” http://oudh.tripod.com/bhm/bhmvalq.htm Accessed 15 April 2014.

Suggested Reading

Anantharam, Anita.Bodies that Remember: Women’s Indigenous Knowledge and Cosmopolitanism in South Asian Poetry. Syracuse: Syracuse University Press, 2011.   “Engendering the Nation: Women, Islam and Poetry in Pakistan.” Journal of International Women’s Studies 11, no. 1 (2009): 208-224.

Ahmad, Sadaf. Transforming Faith: The Story of Al-Huda and Islamic Revivalism Among Urban Pakistani Women. Syracuse: Syracuse University Press, 2009.

Ali, Azra Asghar. The Emergence of Feminism Among Indian Muslim Women 1920- 1947. New York: Oxford University Press, 2000.

Burton, Antoinette. Burdens of History: British Feminists, Indian Women and Imperial Culture, 1865-1915. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1994.

Butalia, Urvashi. The Other Side of Silence: Voices from the Partition of India. New Delhi: Viking Penguin, 1998.

Hanif, Mohammad. A Case of Exploding Mangoes. New York: Vintage, 2009.

Jamal, Amina. “Transnational Feminism as Critical Practice: A Reading of Feminist Discourses in Pakistan.” Meridians 5, no. 2 (2002): 57-82.

“Gender, Citizenship and the Nation-State in Pakistan: Willful Daughters or Free Citizens?” Signs 31, no. 2 (2006): 283-304.

Kandiyoti, Deniz [ed]. Women, Islam and the State. Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1991.

Khan, Nighat Said. “The Women’s Movement Revisited: Areas of Concern for the Future.” In Global Feminist Politics: Identities in a Changing World, edited by Suki Ali, Kelly Coate and Wangui wa Goro, 5-10. London: Routledge, 2000.

Mohanty, Chandra Talpade. Feminism Without Borders: Decolonizing Theory, Practicing Solidarity. Durham: Duke University Press, 2003.

Moallem, Minoo. “Transnationalism, Feminism and Fundamentalism.” In Between Women and Nation: Nationalisms, Transnational Feminisms and the State, edited by Caren Kaplan, N. Alarconand and M. Moallem, 320-348. Durham: Duke University Press, 1999.

Rashid, Tahmina. Contested Representation: Punjabi Women in Feminist Debate in Pakistan. Karachi: Oxford University Press, 2006.

Rouse, Shahnaz. Shifting Body Politics: Gender, Nation, State in Pakistan. Delhi: Women Unlimited, 2004.

Weiss, Anita. “The Slow Yet Steady Path to Women’s Empowerment in Pakistan.” In Islam, Gender and Social Change, edited by Y.Y. Haddad and J.L. Esposito, 124- 143. New York: Oxford University Press, 1998.

“The Historical Debate on Islam and the State in South Asia.” In Islamic Reassertion in Pakistan: The Application of Sharia Laws in a Modern State, ed. Anita Weiss. Syracuse: Syracuse University Press, 1986.

“The Consequences of State Policies for Women in Pakistan” in The Politics of Social Transformation: Afghanistan, Iran and Pakistan, ed. Myron Weiner and Ali Bauazizi, 413-444. Syracuse: Syracuse University Press, 1994.

Yaqin, Amina. “The Intertextuality of Women in Urdu Literature: A Study of FahmidaRiaz and KishwarNaheed.” PhD diss., School of Oriental and African Studies, 2001.   “Breaking the Mirror of Urdu Verse: Speech and Silence in the Poetry of KishwarNaheed.” Moving Worlds: A Journal of Transcultural Writings 4, no. 1 (2004): 34-46.

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Transgression via Translation of the Extraterrestrial: William Burroughs’s Naked Lunch.

William Burroughs on writing Naked Lunch: “I get these messages from other planets—I’m apparently some kind of agent from another planet but I haven’t got my orders clearly decoded yet…I’m shitting out my educated Middlewest background for once and for all. It’s a matter of catharsis, where I say the most horrible thing I can think of.” (Baker 97)

Naked Lunch was written by William Burroughs and first circulated in the United States, initially published in 1959, in 1962. Burroughs was a member of the Beat generation, a group of post-war writers who, in contrast to the traditionally imagined American experience of the 1950s, were frustrated and disillusioned with the state of affairs in the country and their own restricted position in society. Among the group were writers like Jack Kerouac, Allen Ginsberg, Gary Snyder, and Diane DiPrima. Burroughs, Kerouac, and Ginsberg formed an especially close trio, though the latter two were substantially younger than Burroughs, thus regarding him as a role model of sorts. This contributed to Burroughs’s feelings of alienation and estrangement which played a huge role in the construction of his work.

Burroughs and Kerouac

Burroughs and Kerouac in New York in 1953, photographed by Ginsberg.

http://www.theguardian.com/books/booksblog+williamburroughs

Burroughs and Ginsber

Burroughs and Ginsberg

http://ayadoc.blogspot.com/2009/03/writers-and-ayahuasca-1-william.html

Those feelings of alienation certainly originated from earlier than his relationships with Kerouac and Ginsberg; Burroughs never fit into his family well, nor did he identify with his peers as a youth. Further, he felt restricted in his social position, forced into a common law marriage with the former Joan Vollmer, unable to engage in a normal relationship with Ginsberg, for whom he felt strongly, as a result. Burroughs’s frequent travels abroad further functioned to discourage the formation of significant relationships with those in his life. This was especially the case when he spent time in Tangiers after the allegedly accidental death of his wife in 1951, an outcome of a game of William Tell gone awry. Burroughs had shot at a bottle placed on his late wife’s head and missed, shooting her in the head instead.

Burroughs article

Article from the New York Daily following the death of Joan Vollmer

http://amsaw.org/amsaw-ithappenedinhistory-020505-burroughs.html

Burroughs’s addiction to drugs also played an enormous role in fashioning both his life and his work, as was the case with many of the Beat writers. Burroughs’s time in Tangiers, again, was particularly formative on this front and was thus largely influential with regard to the creation of Naked Lunch. The novel itself is an episodic without a conventional overarching narrative structure. It was largely considered subversive as a result of its explicit sexual content, along with its graphic scenes depicting the implications of drug addiction. As a result, the book earned itself an Obscenity Trial, as did several other Beat works, the most notable of which was Ginsberg’s “Howl.” The trial of the case “Attorney General versus A Book Named ‘Naked Lunch’,” took place from October 1965 to July 1966 when the Naked Lunch was judged to be protected under the First Amendment as not “obscene.”

In order to have been considered outside of the First Amendment’s protection, it would have had to fulfill three prescriptions: “(a) the dominant theme of the material taken as a whole appeals to a prurient interest in sex, (b) the material is patently offensive because it affronts contemporary community standards…and (c) the material is utterly without social value.” It was the third of these qualifications that ultimately caused the decision to come down in the book’s favor, a decision which was heavily influenced by a prior decision of the Supreme Court regarding another subversive novel of the period, Herman Miller’s The Tropic of Cancer. Several writers testified in order to defend the book’s literary value, including one of Burroughs’s professional heroes, Norman Mailer. Regarding the necessity of the abrasive content, Mailer said that

“one had to enter this terrible borderland of sex, sadism, obscenity, horror and anything else because somehow the conscience of Western man has become altogether muddy in refusing to enter it, and because the Nazis were so horrible, must we for the rest of our lives refuse to look at these phenomena? We have got to get into it, that is why I salute Mr. Burroughs’ work, because he has gone further into it than any other Western writer today.” (Morgan 337)

Mailer’s sentiment speaks to a popular query about the place of literature in society following such morally reprehensible acts that took place during the Second World War. In a very real way, the graphic nature of Burroughs’s novel provides an answer to Theodor Adorno’s idea that to write poetry after Auschwitz is barbaric. Barbaric events in life beget a new, post-Modern, barbaric sort of poetic description.

The scenes of explicit drug use and sex certainly made the novel transgressive, but the subtler ways in which it moves across traditional bounds of literature make it more substantially so, beyond the mere value of the content’s shock factor. These less apparent modes of transgression present themselves in the more formal and functional aspects of the work and include the transformation of the ugly into the beautiful, the layers of social critique, and the presence of literary allusions and philosophical references in the novel.

Those scenes which include the sorts of graphic descriptions that would elicit responses of disgust from readers hold much more in them than mere shock value, which would have certainly been an argument for the book as having literary merit. Their true power rests within the way in which Burroughs is able to describe unspeakable horrors with an extent of real beauty. The ugly is made into something lovely through Ginsberg’s aestheticization of the events. Take, for example, the following passage:

“The old junky has found a vein…blood blossoms in the dropper like a Chinese flower…he pushes home the heroin and the boy who jacked off fifty years ago shines immaculate through the ravaged flesh, filling the outhouse with the sweet nutty smell of young male lust…” (Burroughs 80-81)

When reduced to the simplest terms, Burroughs here describes to us an old junky shooting up heroin. However, the spirit of each of the images in isolation (and thus as they are compounded) is in direct contrast with the reality of the actual event that Burroughs describes. The image of two differently colored liquids mixing as one “blossoms” into the other, especially paired with the image of a “Chinese flower,” is beautiful and intriguingly exotic, as we have this unfamiliar but enticing qualification of orientalism. This was a common trope of the Beats; often did they refer to elements of non-western culture in their constructions as a technique to distance the reader enough so that she would recognize the otherness of the description, but not so much so that she would feel alienated to the extent that she would not want to understand further and go deeper.

Following this budding flower image, we have the almost Biblical image of a young boy resurrected, coming back into a sort of life with shining light. We can tell that this light is positive because of the religious overtones and positivity accompanying the adjective “immaculate.” Burroughs then goes on to conclude this particular instance with an olfactory image, which increases his descriptive power, as he’s thus appealing to more than one sense. He hits us with an aroma of sweetness and nuttiness, thus keeping the scent from being overly sweet or savory, since it’s a combination of the two. That this is associated then with young male lust is troublesome, because, especially during the conservativism of post-war American society, sexual desires were not supposed to be made explicit or even discernable. Even Burroughs’s description of male desire as “young male lust” could be regarded as problematic; we associate innocence and purity with youth, and the soft sonic finish of the word “lust” might be initially indicative that the description is of something light and lovely, as opposed to that which can become an instrument of serious violence and does so repeatedly throughout the novel. It makes us severely uncomfortable to find such real grittiness beautiful as a result of Burroughs presentation of it.

Burroughs’s social critique throughout the novel are also not readily apparent upon a cursory read of the novel, but in fact give the book more transgressive power than it would have had otherwise. No facet of institutional power is safe from Burroughs’s examination; most significantly, he attacks the issues inherent with a capitalist economy creating a specific way of life and state of mind, religion, problems with corrupt physicians and in the practice of medicine, and racial power structures of the time which are eerily reminiscent of the state of affairs in the nation today. His most pervasive critique is that of capitalism and its discontents; he utilizes the double entendre he prescribes the word “junk” throughout the work, thus applying such passages to both the literal drug use he describes and a greater statement about the defunked nature of the American economy:

“Junk is the mold of monopoly and possession. The addict stands by while his legs carry him straight in on the junk beam to relapse. Junk is quantitative and accurately measurable. The more junk you use the less you have and the more you have the more you use…

            “Junk is the ideal product…the ultimate merchandise. No sales talk necessary. The client will crawl through a sewer and beg to buy…The junk merchant does not sell his product to the consumer, he sells the consumer to his product.” (200-201)

In every sentence, phrase and clause in this excerpt, we can certainly read “junk,” as slang for heroin, which would make rational sense, insofar as contextualizing the term in an autobiographical novel that deals heavily with drug addiction. It is certainly true that heroin is addictive in the way Burroughs describes, that once a person becomes a drug addict, they cease to maintain any human agency. Their thoughts slowly quiet and ultimately silence when under a fix, and their actions become completely geared toward finding the next fix. The junk has more agency and power than the people using it.

All of these sentiments can quickly be turned into an economic assessment if we merely shift our conception of the word “junk” to mean trash, unnecessary commodities, or excessive possessions. In the same way as addicts are perpetually focused on getting their next fix, Americans are obsessed with commodities and luxury goods. They are (we are) addicted to demonstrating our superior position in the social hierarchy via the display of material goods. Under our market economy, the amount of “things” we each have in our possession seems to compound whether we initially need them or not, and thus we begin to develop an addiction, creating a different kind of need (not that our literal survival is dependent upon having more and more, but that without excessive and perpetual consumption we find ourselves in a state of despair). It follows that goods are indeed the ideal product; when people have the perception that such things are crucial to their survival, no hard-sale tactics are necessary. This direct comparison between drug addiction and addiction to consumption is almost unthinkably powerful. Burroughs has literally likened anyone who participates in our capital-driven economy to a drug addict, incapable of doing anything other than feeding the addiction. It’s almost comical that it wasn’t this, but the graphic nature of the book, that drew so many objections.

The final, and arguably the craftiest, method of transgression in Naked Lunch is the way in which Burroughs demonstrates that he has been steeped in traditions of classical literature, philosophy, mythology, music, non-western culture and literature, travelogues, and literary tropes in general. The text references throughout: the Bible, the Koran, various mythologies. There are also pointed references to Coleridge and the Ancient Mariner (29, 72-3), German opera (54), Aztec mythology (67-8), traditions of sailor songs which were present in sea adventure novels, such as Treasure Island (70), the concept of the femme fatale (82-3), travelogues (90), the ideas of Confucius and Lao Tze (97), Greek mythology (100-1), Indian mythology (120), modalities in Shakespeare and Greek tragedy (120), and classical Greek and Roman poets, namely Homer and Vergil (209). All of these references demonstrate that Burroughs had at least come into contact with all of these forms, if not being well practiced in working with them. This adds to the cheekiness of the piece, because he has taken the time, not only to learn, but to know the rules of tradition, especially in literature, so that he can break those rules at the right time and in the right way so that their very spirit and essence can be subverted.

This is one of those texts that changed the way the world looked at literature thereafter. It’s amazing how despite the defeatist, dystopian overtones of the book, Burroughs was able to create something so weirdly beautiful. Burroughs appeals to the marginal in all of us and challenges our ideas of what it means to be poetic in Naked Lunch. Most importantly though, he teaches us how we survive with the ugliness of the world by fashioning it as less repulsive.

 

Sources

Attorney General vs. A Book Named “Naked Lunch.” 351 Mass. 298. The Court of Suffolk County. 1966. Web. http://masscases.com/cases/sjc/351/351mass298.html. 9 April 2014.

Baker, Phil. William S. Burroughs. London: Reaktion Books Ltd, 2010.

Burroughs, William S. Naked Lunch. New York: Grove Press, 1959.

Morgan, Ted. Literary Outlaw: The Life and Times of William S. Burroughs. New York: Henry Holt and Company, 1988.

 

Additional resources to explore:

Burroughs himself reading Naked Lunch: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wVJKA88R1rk

On the book as socially present fifty years after being published (Tom Vitale piece on NPR): http://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=113610846

Original New York Times book review of Naked Lunch from November 1962: http://www.nytimes.com/books/00/02/13/specials/burroughs-lunch.html

 

Posted by Loy’s Baedeker.

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