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 in New York in 1953, photographed by Ginsberg.
Burroughs and Ginsberg
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.
Article from the New York Daily following the death of Joan Vollmer
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.
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.