Critics typically view William S. Burroughs as either a God or an afterthought. While some consider him to have challenged normative literary conventions by using profanity and drugs to challenge and disarm readers, others have viewed him as disgusting and unworthy of the credit he has been given by his fans. When Naked Lunch was published in 1959, many viewed it as a monstrous and disrespectful work. Similar to Allen Ginsberg’s struggle to prove Howl (1956) to be capital “L” Literature, Burroughs was forced to defend the merits of his writing; although, considering Burroughs’ indifference toward his critics, his fans were the real activists in doing so.
Today, and after the release of David Cronenberg’s film adaptation (1991), many critics have begun to side with the “monstrous” and give Burroughs the credit he deserves. Yet, it is more than just appreciating Burroughs’ style as anti-normative. Burroughs writes directly from the soul. It is very difficult to explain the phenomenon behind this style, yet if a single piece of paper might symbolize reader expectations, Burroughs lights the center ablaze and lets it slowly burn to the margins. He refuses to present a coherent plot, yet maintains scattered moments where the reader is thrust into fear and discomfort. To really appreciate Burroughs, the reader is required to step as far away from American mainstream influence as possible. Since we are inherently corrupted by stereotypes, social constructs, and binaries, trying to avoid those influences heightens the understanding of Burroughs. His texts are not merely criticisms but they constitute an “omega fringe” in that his narrative organization and language convolute meaning to a dramatic degree.
Today, profanity and drugs have been assimilated into our culture, and although they still have their critics, their presence has become unavoidable especially in the media and the Arts. Calling a work like Naked Lunch merely monstrous is problematic in that it limits the human spirit behind the writing. However sexual, drug-addled, or profane the language and storyline in the work may be, there is voice and reason behind every letter. If nothing else, Naked Lunch is pure linguistic science often in its unexpectedly coldest forms, often creating a sense of discomfort in the reader. In Burroughs’ case and as largely seen in the rest of the Beat generation’s works, there exists a burning desire to oppose censorship and to confront on the page what was thought to be taboo. In many ways, Burroughs was the greatest visionary of his generation in the effort to put these desires into words.
Some critics are beginning to come to terms with Burroughs’ necessary place in literary history, although the “monstrous” critique still exists. If we fail to recognize Naked Lunch as important in both understanding fringe literature and in the analysis of the human spirit that it provides, we risk overlooking similar voices in the present and future. Also, Burroughs provided an important and unchallenged narrative view of altered states of mind. Writers since, including Hunter S. Thompson and Denis Johnson, have followed Burroughs’ pioneering study of fringe culture. What exists on the fringe of our minds? What do the majority of Americans submit to unconsciously when under the influence of media and capitalism? These writers are documenting a fringe community while simultaneously defending free speech and free will.
Burroughs’ Naked Lunch serves as a step ladder into the mind, showing us that no matter how hard we try to avoid carnal desires, they still linger within us. His language has been criticized as monstrous, but it is the language that stands as a door to human and spiritual understanding – especially of those living the drug-addled lifestyle. Burroughs himself wrote to Brion Gysin – an abstract painter and fellow Beat – after Gysin’s death in 1986 in a work entitled “Ports of Entry,” and I think it reveals much about Burroughs as a writer. He writes, “Now, I regard you, Brion, as being in my own line of work. Being strictly an experimenter, I say: ‘Science, pure Science!’ All of us are pure scientists, exploring different levels of fact, and if we turn up something nasty, we’re not to blame” (Miles 142). Naked Lunch scientifically disarms normative expectations of form, content, and language, and carves a path for a new generation of writers that may have never existed without his work.
Chapter 1 – Naked Lunch, Girard Deleuze, and “Minor” Language
Burroughs, other Beats, and similar writers of the following generations have either embraced or rejected their being defined as “fringe” or “minor.” I believe the terms are mostly interchangeable but need proper definition. From its many definitions, “fringe” can be used to describe the frayed edge of a material, an outer edge or margin, something regarded as peripheral or secondary, and an alternate light or dark band of interference in the eye. All of these definitions, however, speak to the idea of marginalization and therefore an anti-normative existence. When applying this concept to literature, several problems arise. Fringe can be applied rather broadly to authors, to their content, and to the language they use in their writing process.
For authors, the fringe lifestyle seems to be that tinged with drugs, sex, and the social unease that fuels the ferocity of the prior two. Seclusion and an anti-social attitude also seem to be prominent in these authors; as for Burroughs, he was always alone in a group, whether that group involved other Beats or random people on the street. In William Burroughs: A Man Within (2010), Allen Ginsberg portrayed him as being a very internal person, secretive about his sexual desires and opinions. However, it was quite obvious that he let these characteristics come out blatantly in his writing. I think the fringe that Burroughs embodies most is that left-over from the Romantics in the struggle to both prove and question the self in society. The notion of counterculture contributes to the fringe as a community, generally made up of artists who are fed up with conformity and want their voices heard – if only to propagate that conformist agenda by acting its opposite and pushing themselves further into the fringe. In Burroughs’ case, he operates from an absolutist or omega fringe, in which what he writes stands as pure criticism of the mainstream – and for this reason, he has shaped that mainstream.
Whether or not a work is fringe can also be determined by its content, but as everyone has different sensibilities, deeming a work to be fringe becomes difficult. For some critics, the social critiques presented by the Beats were the closest thing to a real truth, yet others criticized them for disturbing the country’s “nest” and the artificial peace that helps some people sleep at night. Edward J. Ahearn says that fringe is “writing that puts the reader in uncomfortable contact with all that is squalid in life: people, the body, the world around us, and language” (1). In writing largely about the lives they lived and how they moved against that looming pressure to be ‘normal,’ the Beats began to use language as a weapon that took many narrative forms.
In determining a minor literature, and furthermore ruling it as a fringe work, there are many distinctions that critics need to make. For my purposes, the terms “minor” and “fringe” become interchangeable; whereas “minor” may not imply a lifestyle, neither may “fringe” necessarily convey that deviancy. In their essay “What is a Minor Literature?”, Girard Deleuze and Feliz Guattari detail three qualifications that surround this minor form, meaning “fringe,” to serve to explain its importance. The three characteristics of a minor literature that they explain are “the deterritorialization of language, the connection of the individual to a political immediacy, and the collective assemblage of enunciation” (Deleuze 60). With a couple of instances where Deleuze fails in his details, specifically when he defines fringe works as a collective, the characteristics Deleuze points to are for the most part what has defined Burroughs’ work as a Beat artist.
Deleuze states, “a minor literature doesn’t come from a minor language; it is rather that which a minority constructs within a major language” (59). He uses the example of Kafka being Jewish and writing in Prague German. Since this is Kafka’s home language, he writes in it regardless of its somewhat closeted use by only the Jewish community. Deleuze also says this creation of a language is similar to what blacks in America are able to do with Ebonics and the English language (60). It seems to me that in Burroughs’ work, there is deterritorialization in much of the same way – taking the hard-working, honesty of “American” language seen in writing like Steinbeck’s and turning it on its head. I define deterritorialization as presenting a reader with content that they may be familiar with in a general sense, but presenting it in a way that’s unnatural to them. To use a recent movement in French film-making as an example, New French Extremity realizes that the audience knows what sexuality is, yet in a way, the presentation of sexuality dethrones that automatic familiarity by interweaving violence – something that Burroughs also does, which I will discuss later. He creates his own American language by shocking the reader and placing him or her in situations that they do not necessarily want to be in, and showing them sights that they may not want to see. At the onset of Naked Lunch, Burroughs puts the reader in claustrophobic quarters with the pressures of normality and performativity – this sort of omni-presence we later see personified under the term, “Interzone.”
I can feel the heat closing in, feel them out there making their moves, setting up their devil doll stool pigeons, crooning over my spoon and dropper I throw away at Washington Square Station, vault a turnstile and two flights down the iron stairs, catch an uptown A train… Young, good looking, crew cut, Ivy League, advertising exec type fruit holds the door back for me. I am evidently his idea of a character. (3)
Here the reader is forced to confront a typical environment like New York City’s Washington Square Station, which turns from innocent locale to a place of oppression. The protagonist rises immediately as the only character who is not scheming, and the state of him being deemed a “character” by a nameless passerby can result in a sympathetic reading. Even though the narrator himself is assuming that statement from another person, the relaying of that message implies that he is viewed as somehow lower on the social spectrum. He has become marginalized, fringe, and a minority upon sight.
Considering the protagonist projects this judgment from others onto himself, the reader’s sympathy becomes muddled from the protagonist’s presumed low self-esteem. Because the placement of heroin’s “spoon and dropper” came before the self-judgment, the average reader would question the narrator’s reliability foremost over the projected reliability of any other character. But I think Burroughs does much to push away these “average readers” of the time, worried that a conservative or insecure audience would fail to recognize his commentaries. Burroughs also describes the advertising-exec type as a fruit, and with the aggressively sexual nature behind the rest of the book, it is likely to be inferred that he is referring to a latent homosexual preference in the man. This is something that is repeated throughout Naked Lunch, a pattern of reflecting on others’ homosexuality without any way of knowing or any time taken to reveal their actual sexual preference. These decisions on Burroughs’ part creates a universe of flat personalities, where even complete strangers are pushed through heroin’s dropper, filtered through the ever-important “I” subject.
In this first paragraph, Burroughs makes an enemy out of the exec-type stranger. The fact that he is of a higher class than the protagonist is enough for Burroughs to take him down a few pegs. Yet, then again, is it an attack or a desperate plea fueled by jealousy? If you notice Burroughs’ use of “good-looking” in describing the exec-type, combined with the protagonist’s later extensive homosexual fantasies and the fact that Burroughs himself struggled with his homosexuality, it would seem to me that he is suggesting everyone has homosexual desires.
This theme is something that fits in one scene of Naked Lunch rather easily. Burroughs posits many different characters as latent homosexuals. A nationalist party leader speaks to his lieutenant while interrogating a young boy prostitute too close for comfort, and Burroughs writes him as “pacing like an aroused tomcat” (102). That whole scene is treated like an attempt to cover something up, an underlying threat of some sort. Since they have essentially kidnapped the boy for interrogation, the party leader and lieutenant are trying to teach him the error of his promiscuous ways. Actually, the pair is working for the ominous force known as Interzone, which consists of all high class members of society – generally with political ties of some sort – that are trying to put an end to homosexuality and drugs among other deviations from the social norm. In this scene, Burroughs portrays the two men, one of them in a highly masculine role as a lieutenant and the other as the voice for many as a political party leader, as oppressing the overt sexuality of the young boy. When the boy is finally able to exit the scene, the party leader describes him as “hopeless,” which, in considering that he is a political figure, can translate to a political slight against the younger generation as being too sexually promiscuous.
Later, Burroughs writes a vignette – a form popular throughout Naked Lunch – from the voice of a County Clerk. “So there I was sitting in front of Jed’s store over Cunt Lick my peter standing up straight as a jack pine under my Levis just a-pulsin’ in the sun… Well, old Doc Scranton walks by, a good old boy too, there’s not a finer man in this valley than Doc Scranton…” (106). At this point, the Clerk moves on to describe his desire for Doc Scranton’s “asshole.” Yet another scene where Burroughs portrays a political character as being involved in homosexuality, the language here is much more forward. The scene culminates with two randomly introduced characters, Brubeck the Unsteady and a Young Seward, who engage in a sword fight that ends in mutilation and Brubeck’s awkward sexual arousal from his being sliced open. By suddenly turning a scene of homosexual dialogue into a swordfight, yet still emphasizing the homosexual desire throughout, Burroughs presents a distinct marriage of homosexuality and violence. This minor language (i.e. the language of a social minority, in this case of homosexuality) that he uses throughout Naked Lunch contributes to Deleuze’s notion of deterritorializing, except that language is not the only means the reader is forced to confront. There is also the deterritorialization of setting in that Burroughs constructs a raw and primal America as an example of where narrow-mindedness can affect a country’s majoritive mindset. Furthermore, Burroughs’ life experience with all different kinds of drugs gives him the ability to construct this minor form in another minor language, that of drug addiction, with which to critique the majority.
Burroughs’ protagonist, known sporadically as Lee, is often described in opposition to another character, such as with the exec-type in the first paragraph. In other words, Burroughs creates several foils throughout Naked Lunch, juxtaposing narrators against generally narrow-minded members of social institutions whether they be medical or political. In an essay entitled “The Invisible Generation,” we realize this decision probably had a lot to do with Burroughs’ negative view of capitalism as a “greedy assault on human freedom” which was more likely than not influenced by Ginsberg’s background and sympathy with Marxism – in that Ginsberg’s mother was a strong supporter of Marxism (Burroughs 338). Since Ginsberg spent so much time with Burroughs and Kerouac, and in fact many scholars have stood by their inseparability, many of Ginsberg’s beliefs would rub off on Burroughs as most friendships work. Again, shortly after the opening, Burroughs characterizes Chicago through a series of negative connotations and seedy locations. He successfully makes the Windy City arid, devoid of morality and reduced to languorous cigarette smoke:
Chicago: invisible hierarchy of decorticated wops, smell of atrophied gangsters, earthbound ghost hits you at North and Halsted, Cicero, Lincoln Park, panhandler of dreams, past invading the present, rancid magic of slot machines and roadhouses… America is not a young land: it is old and dirty and evil before the settlers, before the Indians. The evil is there waiting. (11)
Burroughs intentionally presents locales that may resonate with the reader in hopes of dethroning their “every day” sort of feel. He uses terms like “decorticated,” “atrophied,” “panhandler,” “rancid,” “dirty,” and “evil” to portray his own “America” as one with a hidden agenda. In mentioning the Indians, he reintroduces the tough subjects of colonization and genocide to suggest that America is inherently oppressive and that realizing this is the only escape from conforming to an “enemy.”
The second characteristic of a minor literature that Deleuze addresses is the connection of the individual to political immediacy. He explains that “in major literatures, the individual concern (familial, marital, and so on) joins with other no less individual concerns, the social milieu serving as a mere environment or background” (59). Deleuze is claiming that those concerns fail to become controversial and multi-dimensional. In direct opposition, he states that “minor literature is completely different; its cramped space forces each individual intrigue to connect immediately to politics” (59). I believe he is using the term “politics” rather loosely in that a minor literature’s job is to make the readers ask questions of themselves and of their surroundings, essentially questioning politics defined as “how things function.” A minor literature questions the motivations of government, class struggles and racial problems, but also brings the term “politics” closer to the self in questioning sexual preference, gender, and even choice of profession/career. In Naked Lunch, upper class political and societal positions such as the County Clerk and Nationalist Party Leader represent an inherent pressure in society to maintain conventional ideals.
Deleuze explains that in the minor form, “the individual concern thus becomes all the more necessary, indispensable, magnified, because a whole other story [of politics] is vibrating within it” (59). This quote stands to reinforce my prior claim that fringe literature challenges the reader and is created with intent to do so. Burroughs characterizes the highest of American political figures as a closeted homosexual pining for the company of a junky to convince himself of his superiority to that junky:
The President is a junky but can’t take it direct because of his position. So he gets fixed through me… From time to time we make contact and I recharge him. These contacts look to the casual observer like homosexual practices, but the actual excitement is not primarily sexual, and the climax is the separation when the recharge is completed… He has sacrificed all control, and is dependent as an unborn child… Tensions build up, pure energy without emotional content finally tears through the body throwing him about like a man in contact with high tension wires… And he dies with the skeleton straining to climb out of his unendurable flesh and run in a straight line to the nearest cemetery. (57)
Through language, Burroughs has dethroned the central political figure in our society by claiming his/her dependence on its opposite: the street junkie, the panhandler, the fringe. For all intents and purposes, Burroughs is suggesting America as a police state where officials decide what must be conformed to through regimented law. By making the President a homosexual and a junky, Burroughs flips normativity around to support the fringe, creating another level to politics in that he is giving junkies implied political positions as they hold the power as “Recharge Connections” (58) Burroughs explains these sexual connections as a recharge of self-esteem for “high society” through that sexual expression of power and superiority. Deleuze relays Kafka’s sentiment that a goal of a minor literature is strongly Oedipal and the presence of that conflict between father and son allows commentary on it throughout a work (60). I would say that Burroughs embodies the opposite, the notion that a male can experience the Electra Complex in that subconscious desire to kill the mother and marry the father. There are many instances of misogyny in his work, including a disturbing orgy scene toward the center of Naked Lunch where a girl named Mary rapes a man in bondage and proceeds to “suck out his eyes with a pop,” “lunch on his prick,” and then “looks up from Johnny’s half-eaten genitals, her face covered with blood” (82). Considering the fact that Burroughs also consistently refers to female characters as “cunts” and “scheming dykes,” it would seem as though these fictional political figures aren’t the only ones anxious about the future of homosexuality. Burroughs himself projects the threat of the female on homosexuality, transforming Deleuze political immediacy into an immediacy of gender politics.
Throughout the novel, Interzone, whose shadowy governmental figures have more of a fragmented presence than actual characteristics, works to oppress homosexuality and drug addiction. Lee, the in-and-out protagonist in the majority of the vignettes, rejects their laws in an absolutist manner. Of the conflict, Burroughs writes, “A functioning police state needs no police. Homosexuality does not occur to anyone as conceivable behavior… Homosexuality is a political crime in a matriarchy. No society tolerates overt rejection of its basic tenets” (31). The recurring character of Dr. Benway may be the most pivotal in representing the frustration behind this state of affairs. Benway tests on rats, specifically the placement of males and females in the same area. If a male rat as much as sniffs a female rat, he is removed, electrocuted, and dropped in cold water. Eventually, he concludes, the male rats become fruit rats, denied their basic sexual instinct (32). Burroughs attempts to prove the government’s disgust toward homosexuality. Under Capitalism, which he portrays as a matriarchy, society’s pressure toward heterosexuality has been infused into the media, religion, and lawmaking, among other facets. At the base of this specific commentary lies the institution of marriage, nailed to a chair for interrogation – why is it so difficult for Americans to picture homosexuality? Why have religious ideals permeated through the domestic and political landscape? And, in fact, Burroughs becomes outright belligerent in defending a “fluid sexuality,” a lifestyle that has long been deemed dishonorable, specifically in Western nations. It is even rooted in the term used to describe heterosexuality as “straight,” as if homosexuals are somehow crooked.
As Benway’s rats are denied intercourse with a female, they become “fruit rats,” which can be taken in a couple of different ways. The literal meaning of “fruit” suggests that they turn from sexual expression to mere survival in finding food, the physical fruit. Yet, considering his other uses of “fruit” as a term to describe homosexuals, this could mean that when male rats are denied a female they resort to other males. This is a rather self-defeating homosexuality in that he simultaneously uses a stereotypical homophobic description of homosexuals as “fruits,” but he does so ironically with the unfortunate result of our not knowing where the novel stands on the matter. In several testimonies throughout the posthumous and aforementioned documentary film, A Man Within, friends and acquaintances stated that Burroughs hated the fact that he was a homosexual. John Waters explained a theory that this was the result of his home-life as a young man, unable to live up to his father’s “working man” pressures. Waters explained that Burroughs never directly rebelled against his father, in fact he respected him for his traditional ways and because of the fact that his father’s legacy as inventor of the adding machine financially provided for Burroughs. Since he saw his father as a good man, yet remained confused about how such a man could be so corrupted by traditional values, Burroughs developed a see-saw relationship with his own sexuality (A Man Within). This interpretation is all too possible, but considering it is a third party observation, there is no way to claim it as truth. Ginsberg stated that Burroughs struggled with homosexual repressions against a “strong, working class, conservative decade” (A Man Within). This situation that Burroughs presumably found himself in fuels the several uppercuts to the government seen throughout Naked Lunch and exposes the human condition under conservative pressure as being much too vulnerable. When a government invades our bedrooms, security and personal respect fly out the window, so to speak.
In explaining the third characteristic of a minor literature, Deleuze loses a little credibility for me. He says, “the third characteristic of minor literature is that in it everything takes on a collective value” (60). I would agree with this, specifically in the work of Burroughs; however, Deleuze suggests that this collective value only occurs because there is a lack of talent in the minor author – which I wouldn’t agree with, especially in the case of Burroughs. Throughout this section, Deleuze argues that “scarcity of talent is in fact beneficial and allows the conception of something other than a literature of masters” (60). I believe that Burroughs is separate from this spectrum that Deleuze uses which hinges upon a literature of masters, because both major and minor literatures work to critique each other and neither of them should necessarily be defined as “the work of masters.” A line needs to be drawn through the terms “master” and “talented,” because the audience attributes these terms by way of judgment. They hold no power over the text or describe what the text is doing with language but merely attempt to place a value on the text. In fact, it would seem that we place a value on entirely too many things that deserve more than being filed into arbitrary categories. Burroughs has rejected these canonical terms in preference of the realm of extremity, the universe of shock that surrounds Naked Lunch.
Yet for the purposes of dealing with Deleuze’s suggestion, there cannot exist a master without a minor. In Naked Lunch, the lack of a definitive narrative path pairs with Burroughs’ controversial content to jab at normality and other conventions of “the major.” This disjunctive framework embodies more talent in my opinion, and the minor author consciously critiques the major with every stroke of the pen. The “collective value” that Deleuze opens with, however, could not be truer for Burroughs. Throughout the book, the gratuitous sexuality, romanticization of drugs, and scatter-brained scene arrangement contributes to a collective literary sewer. In this “sewer,” though, the audience finds the success of the fringe lifestyle, whether that be the spiritual health behind the freedom embodied by these artists or the surrounding attention that has to do with their eye-opening critiques. The collective value that the audience experiences is that success, the underlying yet publicized criticism of the mainstream and of the major. Deleuze states, “if the writer is in the margins or completely outside his or her fragile community, this situation allows the writer all the more the possibility to express another possible community and to forge the means for another consciousness and another sensibility” (60).
Burroughs creates a slew of randomly introduced and feverishly explained government agencies that are working at all times to bring an end to any possible rebellion. During a vignette entitled “Meeting of International Conference of Technological Psychiatry,” he assembles doctors, lawyers, politicians, drug dealers, hermaphrodites, and a couple of young boys as an audience concerned with revealing the faults of The Man. Quite obviously, it would seem the term is the personification of governmental pressure as it has been used in many cases of rebellion – to quote “bring down” or “stick it to” The Man. In this scene, however, The Man becomes spectacle and entertainment:
Blast of trumpets: The Man is carried in naked by two Negro Bearers who drop him on the platform with bestial, sneering brutality… The Man wriggles… His flesh turns to viscid, transparent jelly that drifts away in green mist, unveiling a monster black centipede. Waves of unknown stench fill the room, searing the lungs, grabbing the stomach… (87)
Burroughs centralizes The Man as a political weight on the masses, having its personification being carried in by a racially marginalized pair of men in front of an audience that watches it wriggle upon becoming the focus. The ever-inquisitive eyes of the present audience in that scene, which from their different professions we understand as society as a whole, cause the flesh of The Man to disintegrate, exposing him as an insect. Burroughs doesn’t just pick any insect here, however; and I think in many ways Kafka’s roach could have worked or even an ant, both spiritually squashed by the looming threat of revolution. Instead, he releases the black centipede, an insect with over 8,000 different species that can live in nearly any environment from the rainforests to deserts to urban kitchens. The centipede is one of the most insidious and carnivorous of insects, and for Burroughs’ purposes, the centipede is the most natural insect to personify the government. In this transformation from human to insect, Burroughs’ vocabulary is gut-wrenching: an “unknown stench” that “sears the lungs and grabs the stomach.” This seems to suggest that The Man still has power, mostly over the senses, although the fact that the viewers don’t attempt to aid him in the scene emphasizes abandonment. The couple pages of dialogue that follow completely ignore the “gut-wrenching” transformation, which presents indifference toward government – one reduced to mere insect to entertain spectators and ignored afterward.
Burroughs’ efforts at to dethrone government and establish a collective goal through his language surfaces earlier in the novel:
Naked Mr. America, burning frantic with self-bone love, screams out: ‘My asshole confounds the Louvre! I fart ambrosia and shit pure gold turds! My cock spurts soft diamonds in the morning sunlight!’ He plummets from the eyeless lighthouse, kissing and jacking off in the face of the black mirror, glides obliquely down with cryptic condoms and mosaic of a thousand newspapers through a drowned city of red brick to settle in black mud with tin cans and beer bottles… He waits the slow striptease of erosion with fossil loins. (64)
This rant occurs in a scene where Lee, the protagonist, is sitting in a bar watching the actions of a couple of Mugwumps – alien-like creatures that Burroughs has created to represent pure homosexual desire. Every move they make is languorous and awkwardly full of lust while their bodies are described in phallic terms with tentacles and tongues and exposed penises. The Mugwumps are having their way with a young boy near the bar, which could also represent latent homosexuality in homophobic bar-goers, politicians as an example. Burroughs then writes this into the middle of that scene and it would seem a plea for the audience to recognize the everyday functions of the human body and that materialism has corrupted the majority so much that they are repulsed by the thought of sexual or fecal organs. In an odd way, this paragraph stands out as visually viler than the descriptions of the Mugwumps. He explains a bold and pretentious Mr. America, who mentally drowns by way of routine, age, and population, obsessed with his own disgusting emissions.
In these ways, Burroughs has created a landscape hinged on language in Naked Lunch. Deleuze’s theories force his own readers to make these distinctions, to separate major from minor ideologies and ultimately major from minor literature. Burroughs deterritorializes language, connects nearly every sentence with a political immediacy, and establishes a collective goal against normativity.
Chapter 2 – Naked Lunch as Monstrosity, Public Fears and the “Gothic” Fifties
In 1967, Frank D. McConnell wrote the following in the Massachusetts Review: “Burroughs’ work is intimately related to what is rapidly becoming the social problem in the United States” (668). The problem to which he refers is the problem of perception and assumption, that what we perceive and assume to be issues of morality such as drug addiction and homosexuality are not moral dilemmas at all – they are just states of the human spirit. The content of Naked Lunch is the sheer ferocity of the oppressed American individual, one capable of causing the country’s Supreme Court to stumble over a single novel, and in 1966, that very court held a censorship trial against Burroughs’ work. Ginsberg stood on the stand during the proceeding, largely felt by the Beat writing community as an attack on free speech, and explained, “the naked lunch [is] where everyone really sees what is on the end of the fork, where there is no chance left for the allegorical or metaphoric translation (and avoidance) of the alternatives of will and not-will” (McConnell 670).
The hearing was held in Boston in 1966 with the novel and publisher of Naked Lunch, Grove Press, on trial for obscenity and indecent literature. As I will discuss, the growing viewpoint from some critics today is that this trial was the direct result of a confused and scared culture, and Burroughs had essentially placed a bomb near the already cracked foundation, “set like a depth-charge within the inmost form of a cash-and-carry culture, an eminent prefabrication to subvert prefabricators and all their works” (McConnell 669). The content of the work, as viewed partially in the previous chapter pertaining to language, is a collection of gratuitous scenes from orgies to the unveiling of insidious creatures. However, the boundless space of fiction should allow anything to be written on the page in free expression. In the case of this novel, Burroughs shocked every possible nerve in the public, intentionally trying to get society to point its fingers at itself. He tried to dethrone an unnecessary fear of the monstrous by assembling images that are the height of monstrosity. Just like most social allegory in horror genre material, the so-called jabs at the government or sociological constructs come through the personification of monsters and ghosts. This chapter will examine the several monsters that Burroughs presents throughout Naked Lunch, including the effects they have on the reader and the larger implications and insecurities that fueled this trial.
The novel consists largely of sexually-fueled material. While drugs are consistently referenced throughout, they do not stand as a focal point as they did in Burroughs’ prior novel, Junkie (1956). In fact, drugs are presented sort of mystically, which speaks to the novel’s form: a series of vignettes that through incoherency allow for specific images to rise above the narrative progression. The form is quite possibly another reason for the trial, and the sexual and political commentaries in the book also seem exceptionally larger-than-life along with the drug use. However, both drugs and sex are filtered through Burroughs’ political agenda, as Deleuze described in the previous chapter as “immediacy”: a very institutionally and even internationally based sexual expression. He is very technical in his descriptions, as in a description of a character named Hassan where drugs and sex are interlaced with war and crime:
He opened a sex shop in Yokohama, pushed junk in Beirut, pimped in Panama. During World War II he shifted into high, took over a dairy in Holland and cut the butter with used axle grease, cornered the K.Y. market in North Africa, and finally hit the jackpot with slunks. He proposed and proliferated, flooding the world with cut medicines and cheap counterfeit goods of every variety. Adulterated shark repellent, cut antibiotics, condemned parachutes, stale antivenin, inactive serums and vaccines, leaking lifeboats. (132)
Here we see that both sex and drugs, in this case the manipulation of them in the medical industry, are filtered through Hassan’s international movements. The mention of K.Y., in reference to the lubricant used during sex, is not the first in the book. In fact, it is seen throughout the book but is almost always modified as it is above: “cut the butter with used axle grease, cornered the K.Y. market in North Africa.” The text proposes an undercutting of capitalism. It would seem that as products such as K.Y. are marketed to control even what citizens are doing in their bedrooms, Burroughs calculates careful alternatives such as a man moving to another country to upset the international marketing of K.Y. with his own cheap concoction. Considering the level of greed and capitalist influence on Hassan’s movement to another market, he also ironically proposes Hassan – as he does with many characters throughout Naked Lunch – as ignorantly forwarding the capitalist agenda. Hassan underhandedly creates useless and hazardous compounds and markets them successfully enough to support himself financially, a rather backwards and greedy investment. The opening of his sex shop in Yokohama can be defined as an institutionalized and international movement of sexuality from this country to another.
The crossing of borders was not the only concern during the trial, but a question that remained to fans of Burroughs was that Naked Lunch was published after Junkie, his first work. Since Junkie (1953) was released a full six years before Naked Lunch (1959), why was there not an obscenity trial for that novel instead? Frederick Whiting begins his essay “Monstrosity on Trial” – referenced widely in other works as a primary source on the trial – by pointing out that Junkie should have definitely received the same, if not more, criticism than Naked Lunch did in the 1960s. The difference between the two, Whiting claims, was that there was a coherent structure in Junkie that was more difficult to criticize than the lack of flowing narrative in Naked Lunch – which seems to support the idea that nobody even knew how to understand the organization of words in Naked Lunch, that essentially the book was released before its time. Also, Junkie’s release came through Ace Publishing as a “dual release,” something that often occurred at younger publishers to equally promote two authors as well as cross genres and make more money for the publisher. Junkie was paired with a book by Maurice Helbrandt called Narcotic Agent, and while both are basically memoirs, both also take creative liberties to romanticize their social standings and professions (Whiting 156). He further argues that Naked Lunch was criticized so much due mainly to the fact that it was marketed very differently, as the last in an established line of Beat generation works. The onset of a “different and corrupt” younger generation was already in place by the time Naked Lunch was released (McConnell 672). Even though he categorizes Burroughs’ prior novel Junkie as a careful nonfiction confessional versus the inevitable playground of sexual and chemical addictions in Naked Lunch, Whiting maintains that both are calculated critiques of social norms and even moreso that Naked Lunch could have been a response from Burroughs to the public for not fully getting his points in Junkie.
In terms of the trial, “the controversy surrounding the novel’s publication was the last instance of complete literary censorship in the U.S. – the end of the unspeakable per se” (Whiting 145). Considering that the novel works in a fantastical quality, it frequently uses exaggerated imagery to embed a certain point (often political or sociological) in the mind of the reader. Whiting notes that this was the last trial on the grounds of “literary obscenity” (146), which is understandable in the realization that most books have not taken extra steps to challenge language boundaries. “At issue in the Naked Lunch trial was not the indecently frank depiction of licit sex, the novel’s representations of aberrant sexuality and violence were viewed as not merely indecent but inhuman. Likewise, its author was from the outset inculpated in the allegations of monstrosity” (Whiting 146).
As far as today’s culture is concerned, these instances would be far from inhuman – defining the word as capable to be understood by humans. The imagery is just a metaphorical vehicle. At the heart of the trial was the conflict of misunderstanding the book’s social references and meanings; that when Burroughs presents a scene of brutal sexuality as in the orgy that turns cannibalistic (82) that I discussed in the previous chapter, he is doing so to draw deeper conclusions than those that can be made on the surface. When he presents a “President” that turns into a centipede, he is substituting expectation with shock, and these decisions are more about the reaction than the representative content. This calculation by Burroughs is seen in no better a place than when Hassan visits a sexual circus:
Couples attached to baroque harnesses with artificial wings copulate in the air, screaming like magpies. Aerialists ejaculate on each other in space with one sure touch. Equilibrists suck each other off deftly, balanced on perilous poles and chairs tilted over the void. A warm wind brings the smell of rivers and jungle from misty depths. Boys by the hundred plummet through the roof, quivering and kicking at the end of ropes… Aztec priests strip blue feather robes from the Naked Youth. He ejaculates in a rainbow against the rising sun… The guests run hands over twitching boys, suck their cocks, hang on their backs like vampires… Two sick young junkies on their way to Lexington tear their pants down in convulsions of lust. (66-68)
Burroughs continues in this manner for another couple of pages, quite obviously pandering the reader for shocked reactions. While the courts took scenes like this as a slight against morality, it is more a slight against assumption and perception, as discussed earlier. Sexuality is literally hanging from the rafters in this scene; it is mystified and made primal through the mention of the jungle and the rainbow; it is made youthful through the flailing boys; it is made open through the presence of guests; and it is also made monstrous through the use of the words “vampires,” “sick,” and “perilous.” These adjectives are where the courts lost their respect for the work. Burroughs doesn’t sugarcoat sodomy or sexuality, even as much as to describe all intercourse as “inconvenient” to the orifice of the body (126). By placing these characters in fantastical positions around a room that seems to be at center stage in a circus, Burroughs emphasizes them. The sexuality of the scene is made all the more suggestive by placing the majority of the characters in awkward positions, often hanging from ceilings, demanding the reader’s attention. Furthermore, the novel strips them of their clothes and has everybody engage in some form of sex – the majority of the cases in violation, similar to rape rather than mutual intercourse – and innocence has been completely disbarred. Morality, and even reality, have also gone out the window, all of them to be substituted by a calculated shock to the center of sociological institutions.
The biggest notion behind this conflict was the relationship between literary imagination and conduct in real life that Whiting believes were “labored to keep separate during this time [1950s and 60s]” (147). Quite obviously Naked Lunch jolted the system into questioning the book’s legitimacy as literature. In a way, Burroughs was attempting to unhinge the psychological construct of imagination as an escape from the raw parts of life. Even though the gaunt addict in the streets is not always face-to-face with someone asking for change or a fix, that same person exists outside the public eye. Sometimes the raw parts of life are what we fear the most and subsequently what our imaginations learn to exaggerate over time.
Burroughs faces his own rather nihilistic view of humanity and claims the book as his redemption from the otherwise rampant human condition: “The broken image of Man moves in minute by minute and cell by cell… Poverty, hatred, war, police-criminals, bureaucracy, insanity, all symptoms of The Human Virus. The Human Virus can now be isolated and treated” (141). Breaking these lines from the narrative as a whole, there are many explanations for these feelings from the author. Perhaps he is saying poverty, hatred, war, police-criminals, bureaucracy, and insanity are all viral in that they spread through cultures and countries like wildfire. All of them are major problems and addressing them was taboo in U.S. fiction at the point of Naked Lunch’s release. Yet even more taboo was the possibility that Burroughs was ironically mimicking the public view that homosexuality was an actual disease, which I will discuss later. He writes toward the end of the work that, “Americans have a special horror of giving up control, of letting things happen in their own way without interference. They would like to jump down into their stomachs and digest the food and shovel the shit out” (179).
Homosexuality is used as a weapon throughout Naked Lunch. Although it is depicted rather primitively, based mostly in claustrophobic images of a ravaged anus or the violent embrace of a young boy and an older suitor, these depictions also mock the majority’s ill-informed opinion of homosexuals during the 1960s. Since a common criticism of homosexuality was that it served to show a lack of self-control, Burroughs attacks the domestic plane in proposing closeted affairs as failures of self-control – not the then taboo homosexuality. He places a “family man” named Archie in conversation with his doctor:
[Doctor]: Is you still humping the Old Grey Mare? [Archie]: Why, Doc Parker… I’ll have you know I’m a family man and an Elder in the First Denominational Non-sextarian Church and I ain’t had a piece-a hoss ass since we was kids together. [Doctor]: I was referring to your wife as the Old Grey Mare. [Archie]: Doc, Liz is right sickly. Never was the same after her eleventh miscarriaging… But, Doc, you oughta know I wouldn’t be humping Liz, the old cow, meaning no disrespect to the mother of my dead monsters. Not when I got that sweet little ol’ fifteen year old thing… You know that yaller girl used to work in Marylou’s Hair Straightening and Skin Bleach Parlor over in Nigga town. [Doctor]: Gettin’ that dark chicken meat, Arch? Gettin’ that coon pone? [Archie]: Gettin’ it steady, Doc. Gettin’ it steady. Well, feller say duty is goosing me. Gotta get back to the old crank case. [Doctor]: I’ll bet she needs a grease job worst way. (145-146)
Here Burroughs is again basing his criticisms institutionally. He critiques the institution of marriage as saying it is too easily broken because of sexuality’s fluid nature, seemingly claiming infidelity is all too common in married men. That fluidity of sex seems to permeate throughout the novel, taking a standpoint that sex is supposed to be a free experience, not something streamlined or designed but instead spiritual. And by placing a doctor in a compromising position yet again, Burroughs critiques members of the medical industry as being too easily corrupted as well, going along willfully with whatever they are told in conversation with their patients. Burroughs seems to claim here that doctors are supposed to be respectable people in society, and with this scene, that even they break the laws of marriage and crumble the foundations of tradition – yet they still decide to criticize homosexuals and drug addicts with the height of disdainful language. Lastly, he presents both of them as grammarless as possible, emphasizing the link between stupidity and infidelity. Most importantly, he poses the two of them in a room, affirming their masculinity in a discussion that discredits and masochistically describes the female and ignorantly describes other races. In doing so, Burroughs simultaneously presents his enemy – the person afraid to admit the existence of homosexuality because to them it is felt as a threat to domesticity, the very framework that keeps their wives at bay.
Whiting also points to the idea that drug addiction, homosexuality, and other deviations from a conservative patriarchal lifestyle were deemed psychopathic. He quotes a speech from Richard P. Hobson, a crusader against narcotics in the 1920s and 30s whose ideals carried over into the 50’s and 60’s legal and political realms: “Drug addiction is more communicable and less curable than leprosy…Upon the issue hangs the perpetuation of civilization, the destiny of the world, and the future of the human race” (qtd. in Whiting 150).
Speaking to the largely misunderstood relationship between society and addiction, this quote describes the level of fear that was widely instilled against drugs and open sexuality at the time of these censorship trials. Whiting once describes statements like Hobson’s as “Cold War explanations of the addict,” and I think that carries over to the majority’s view during this era (155). The widespread fear of Communism and other political deviancy quite successfully instilled a fear of difference. This fear was extended to other races and sexualities, as America’s majority – mainly whites – were worried about this notion of a covert attack: that so-called terrorism could occur within the already established structure, a threat to domesticity. These unnecessary and wrongfully informed insecurities found in the American consciousness of the time were exactly what Burroughs wanted to make evident. By shocking the audience with sexual and chemical fantasies, he sought to expel these long-running fears – giving his critics more fuel until these notions died off like a star (a particular patriarchal foundation such as heterosexuality) accumulating so much mass (contradictions) that it explodes (essentially the dispelling of these social bindings). By fueling the critics, Burroughs saw the only route to restore the independent first amendment against the growing pressure of an all too powerful, yet arbitrary, psychological norm. By acting like a literary psychopath, Burroughs quickly achieves the automatic classification of “psychopath” from his critics – all the higher of a pulpit to preach from.
A character introduced as Carl Peterson visits the recurring character Dr. Benway late in the novel to be tested for homosexuality. Throughout the book, Dr. Benway ironically assumes the perspective of the medical industry, claiming homosexuality to be an actual virus that needs cured before society is infected with it – a mockery of so called “medical” books released during the time like Edmund Bergler’s Homosexuality: Disease or Way of Life? (1957) which I will discuss later. Throughout the lengthy scene, Benway describes homosexuality as “a misfortune,” “a sickness,” and an “infection.” (157). Lastly, Benway seems to claim that psychology should be used to comfort the homosexual in a society that simply refuses to accept homosexuality as legitimate:
Frankly, we don’t pretend to understand – at least not completely – why some men and women prefer the uh sexual company of their own sex… Treatment of these disorders is, at the present time, hurumph symptomatic… Don’t look so frightened, young man. Just a professional joke. To say treatment is symptomatic means there is none, except to make the patient feel as comfortable as possible. (158)
The problem here is that Burroughs was criticized from several positions within the medical industry. They criticized his use of experimentation and the idea of a test subject but also because of the mockery involved in a doctor testing for homosexuality. This testing for gayness within the novel works as black humor, a satire that was hardly understood during these times that were politically concerned with communism and domestic threats. However, Burroughs always stood by the fact that these things needed to be said.
In fact, Whiting concludes with the only record of Burroughs’ written communication to the censorship court in a letter, read by the Defense Attorney Edward de Grazia. It read, “How can these phenomena be studied if one is forbidden to write or think about them? In fact, I think the time has come for the line between literature and science, a purely arbitrary line, to be erased” (163). While the trial of Naked Lunch pertains to free speech and censorship on the surface, the heart of the matter remains that one’s use of writing as an experiment – whether that experiment be on the audience or on the literary form itself – has been long ridiculed, challenged, and feared. This assertion is reinforced when Burroughs creates a mad scientist who performs experiment after experiment with no ground-breaking conclusion or reward for results. Benway is quite the bumbling character with a slew of assistants who include a repeated face in the laboratories named Schafer. All of these assistants are wary of Benway’s madness but they express a certain madness of their own:
SCHAFER: I tell you I can’t escape a feeling…well, of evil about this. BENWAY: Balderdash, my boy. We’re scientists. Pure scientists. Disinterested research and damned be him who cries ‘Hold, too much!’ Such people are no better than party poops. SCHAFER: The human body is scandalously inefficient. Instead of a mouth and an anus to get out of order why not have one all-purpose hole to eat and eliminate? We could seal up nose and mouth, fill in the stomach, make an air hole direct into the lungs where it should have been in the first place. BENWAY: Why not one all-purpose blob? (110)
Here we see Benway calling himself a “pure scientist,” although his purity is quite obviously corrupted by science. If a specimen were to reject an experimental decision by Benway, they would be deemed as spoiling science, and this instance contributes to just how much Benway is the personification of medicine and science. Schafer, his assistant, claims that humans would operate so much better as a constructed monstrosity, which has much to say about what Burroughs thought of the human condition, that possibly a lack of “efficiency” is the reason for misunderstandings such as these 1950s conflicts over homosexuality and drug use.
Fiona Paton, a critic of Burroughs concerned predominantly with the horror elements in his work, also tackles the criticism of “monstrosity” by defending Naked Lunch as a work of gothic literature. She further emphasizes the notion of an “Other” that fueled this trial and others of its time as a direct correlation to nationalist struggles against Communism. “J. Edgar Hoover wrote of the U.S. Communist Party, ‘In the beginning it seemed little more than a freak. Yet in the intervening years that freak has grown into a powerful monster endangering us all’” (Paton 49). Paton also discusses how homosexuality and drug addiction were lumped together with this political fear. She quotes Edmund Bergler (1962): “There is no more glamour in homosexuality than there is in, let’s say, a case of typhoid fever”; Senator Kenneth Wherry, “Can you think of a person who could be more dangerous to the United States of America than a pervert”; and one woman who wrote to the New York Daily News, “we must rid our government of these creatures,” meaning homosexuals (Paton 50). She explains that because of these strong notions of hatred, Naked Lunch’s placement in the tradition of Gothic literature makes it that much clearer as a critical commentary on the 1950s. There was a strain in the times between “American” and “Un-American,” and if one was not a God-fearing and gullible white male, one probably risked being deemed “Un-American” (51).
One of the main tenets that Paton describes is that, “American gothic literature criticizes America’s national myth of new-world innocence by voicing the cultural contradictions that undermine the nation’s claim to purity and equality” (270). This quote speaks to our original colonization and slaughter of the Native American people as voyagers from England; ever since, the governments in place have been preoccupied with ridding society of the savage, so to speak. Any deviation from the moral collective has been persecuted. Oddly enough, this understanding denotes another difference between Junkie and Naked Lunch. Junkie at several points showcases an attack on the medical industry in a very overt manner – including a rant about certain doctors throughout the country who filled prescriptions without asking questions. Naked Lunch, on the other hand, is very covert, attacking sociological institutions through scenes that are meant to shock and awe – again similar to Paton’s concept of the 50s era being a breeding ground for Gothic art, which Paton describes as using violence and terror as weapons to directly criticize society.
As one of many critics who claim the communist conflicts of the era strongly influenced the fears expressed in the Burroughs trial, Paton says this public fear was intentional: “Senator Joe McCarthy was one of the primary sources of official Gothic during the 1950s claiming his world to be ‘a dark world where things were not always what they seemed to be’” (54). This fear of the unknown and the Other can be viewed through the lens of Lee’s visit to a bar where Mugwumps regularly visit:
A Near East Mugwump sits naked on a bar stool covered in pink silk. He licks warm honey from a crystal goblet with a long black tongue. His genitals are perfectly formed – circumcised cock, black shiny pubic hairs. His lips are thin and purple-blue like the lips of a penis, his eyes blank with insect calm. The Mugwump has no liver, maintaining himself exclusively on sweets. The Mugwump pushes a slender blond youth to a couch and strips him expertly. (63)
Bill Bryson, life-time friend of Burroughs, wrote that “mugwump” originally meant leader in Algonquin – an early tribe of Native Americans (qtd. in Paton 50). Here the Mugwump exists as a direct contradiction to the American white male. It does not omit heterosexual desires, refuses to wear clothes in a public arena, and eats sugary foods exclusively – which to me seems to be a comment on the induction of commercial diets, yet another institutional structuring that people have clung to for security. Since the freedom of choice scares some people, Burroughs paints the picture of a monster that ignores the conventions of his human-run environment.
Similar to McCarthy’s quote above, Burroughs was possibly predicting a future for America if the country continued to ignore opportunities to withdraw their anxieties and change as a whole. “While treating the State Department scandal with camp exaggeration, Burroughs at the same time warns what will happen to a system that seeks to conceal, repress, and deny difference” (Paton 57). By State Department scandal, I am referring to the slew of terminations that occurred in politics by way of homophobic FBI investigations.
Still today, one of the most popular quotes from Naked Lunch is: “Gentle reader, I fain would spare you this, but my pen hath its will like the Ancient Mariner” (37). This line points to the idea that Burroughs is playing with his audience, that the whole book is intentionally graphic to convey the disconnect between national and individual consciousness. He never actually wanted to show anyone the raw vileness depicted in Naked Lunch, but out of pain from American ignorance the words wrote themselves, because they desperately needed to be said. “For Burroughs, the Ancient Mariner is actually the enemy, the carrier of the Word, the Wise Man who converts ‘live orgones to dead bullshit’” (Paton 64).
These two quotations from Burroughs and from Paton cut to the heart of what I feel Naked Lunch exists to prove: the idea that all too many moods, desires, ideals, and even monstrosities are impossible to place into words. While Burroughs accepts the challenge to do so and tries to place them into a language, the outcome emphasizes the unsaid as well. However, language itself is turned into a marginalized monster far worse than the ‘monstrosities’ it has captured in description. Burroughs was subsequently perceived as a monster throughout this trial – as inhuman even as his text. Easily established by the era’s historical homophobic commentary and by the fact that Burroughs was admittedly a homosexual, society turned him into a monster capable of shattering prior conventions with his words. Paton explains this as a “deeply painful vision given to us of an individual heroically struggling to free himself from the crippling rhetoric of homophobia and in the process showing the reader that we are all scripted” (64).
Chapter 3 – Drugs and Bodily Trauma in the Works of Today: Burroughs’ Influence
As I stated in the introduction, Burroughs had an unmistakable influence on the coming generations of writers. Drugged, disconnected, and eager for their voices to be heard, many writers flocked to his work and looked to him as a “Godfather” figure in literature. Burroughs fathered several movements in the punk music scene, just as his legacy integrated the fringe lifestyle into the American mainstream. Then, the social onset of the Beat generation gave him the ability to voice his criticisms. Many say if he would not have been friends with Ginsberg and Ginsberg’s knowledge of the publishing community, Burroughs may never have been published (Gysin 76). Today, hard drugs and trauma have become immensely more fluid in world cultures, specifically the U.S., and that permeation could be deemed the origin of Hunter S. Thompson and Denis Johnson. The difference is that during his early years, Burroughs fought to gain that spotlight with the rest of the Beats. Until the later Cronenberg adaptation in 1991 (six years after which Burroughs died), there wasn’t a very thorough reception of his work. It is safe to say that Burroughs’ legend outside the literary community of readers and writers developed posthumously as people began to become more liberated in print and in style.
Readers evolved as well, including several who began to focus on a different form of narrative: the short story. Charles E. May, a leading name in short-form analyses, stated “whereas the novel is primarily a social and public form, the short story is mythic and spiritual” (qtd. in McCarron 50). However, Burroughs assaults the public form that May describes by pulling his readers away from easy-to-understand conclusions and constructing a novel out of a series of vignettes. Technically, Naked Lunch could stand as a collection of short stories, especially considering two things: one can read each titled section as a story of its own, and one can also start anywhere in the novel with zero chance of having missed something. Due to this fact, Naked Lunch becomes May’s very definition of the short form: mythic and spiritual. These techniques have been passed down and as the short story grows in popularity, so does the desire to steer the reader in different directions. Hunter S. Thompson and Denis Johnson are two writers who have made addiction their backdrops and have created narratives that challenge expectations and shock in the same yet somewhat less offensive way as Burroughs.
Both of these authors have received heightened levels of fame during their lifetimes. Two famous films were made of Thompson’s work: Where the Buffalo Roam, starring Bill Murray, released in 1980, and Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, starring Johnny Depp, released in 1998. Both films received rave reviews; the first of the two has inarguably developed a cult following among generations since. Johnson’s collection Jesus’ Son (1992) was adapted into a film of the same name in 1999 with an all-star cast headed by Billy Crudup and Samantha Morton, also featuring Dennis Hopper, Denis Leary, Holly Hunter and Jack Black. For the purposes of this chapter, I will be discussing two stories from Johnson’s Jesus’ Son and two stories from Hunter S. Thompson’s Screwjack (2000). Just like Burroughs’ vignette-based work in Naked Lunch, many of the narratives in these stories could be interchanged with the others in their respective collections as the themes are nearly identical. Simply put, these works are tough to separate from their collections, specifically Jesus’ Son.
Comparatively, the content and perspective of the protagonist in Denis Johnson’s short story collection are very similar to that of Burroughs’ Naked Lunch. Both are stricken under the pressure of normative conventions and both have found a home in drugs, specifically opiates like heroin. Johnson’s America sparks from the viewpoint of a near-constant outsider, drifting through settings and conversations with characters in the same child-like quest for meaning as found in Burroughs’ works. In Jesus’ Son, the same narrator and character seems to flow through its entirety – extremely disconnected at the onset of “A Car Crash While Hitchhiking” and redeemed and a little more sober by the end of “Beverly Home.” Two stories circulated before the collection’s release, the aforementioned “Car Crash…” and “Emergency.” The consciousness for each story overlap easily, projecting the idea that the narrators could easily be separate people experiencing a similar lifestyle, or we could be witnessing the progression of one narrator throughout.
In my view, it would be rather difficult if not impossible to find a work where the content mirrors Naked Lunch very closely, as Burroughs went to great lengths to disconnect coherency and fluidity from the novel’s form. However, being that violence and addiction are so prominent in Johnson’s work, the pairing seems right. The reader is immediately aware of Johnson’s America upon the start of “Car Crash While Hitchhiking”: “A salesman who shared his liquor and steered while sleeping… A Cherokee filled with bourbon… A VW no more than a bubble of hashish fumes, captained by a college student… I rose up sopping wet from sleeping under the pouring rain, and something less than conscious, thanks to the first three of the people I’ve already named… all of whom had given me drugs” (3). In this way, Johnson immediately bridges the gap between his fiction and that of Burroughs, placing a rather indifferent narrator in our view, just going through the motions and taking every chance he gets at another high.
The notion of a narrator who is hitchhiking, quite obviously low on money and family or friends to run to, immediately draws strong reactions from the reader – whether that is sympathy or hatred. Those who criticized Burroughs for his explicit scenes of sexuality would probably call Johnson’s frequent narrators bums or good-for-nothings, living on others for transportation and the devil’s entertainment. However, what these people fail to realize is that these narrators are in every American, waiting to surface when one is down on their luck, distraught, or heartbroken over death. That intimacy seems much more alive in the short story form because the reader is faced with decisions to make about the character very quickly. A hundred or so pages do not lie between action and redemption, but merely paragraphs. In his essay “The Crack-House Flicker: The Sacred and the Absurd in the Short Stories of Dennis Cooper, Dennis Johnson, and Thom Jones,” Kevin McCarron explains that “the short story has always been detached from any concept of a normal society, remaining by its very nature remote from the community – romantic, individualistic, and intransigent” (51). In this way, the very form of the short story lends itself to characters on the outer limits and the fringe of society, presenting an America that is filtered through injections, seedy hotels, and the dark limits of the mind and human will.
Similar to Burroughs’ obsession with epiphany-striking images, in “Car Crash,” Johnson embraces depravity and turns it into wonder with one fell swoop. After the crash that occurs in the story due to weather conditions, both the family the narrator was hitching with and the family in the car opposite are transported to the hospital badly injured. Unharmed, the narrator strolls from the waiting room to discover the wife from the opposite car in conversation with a doctor. “The doctor took her into a room with a desk at the end of the hall, and from under the closed door a slab of brilliance radiated as it, by some stupendous process, diamonds were being incinerated there. What a pair of lungs! She shrieked as I imagined an eagle would shriek. It felt wonderful to be alive to hear it! I’ve gone looking for that feeling everywhere” (9).
At this point, the wife is struck with grief because her husband has died and she’s crying out, and at the same time, the protagonist is struck with a magical wonder: essentially a worship of a single sound. At first thought, the narrator cannot escape insensitivity yet is immediately sympathized with because Johnson has made the shriek of sadness cut through the page, implicating the reader in the scene and forcing one to respond in sheer wonder as well. Through the use of exclamation points, Johnson’s text resonates with immediacy, calling the reader and making sure that one answers, if nothing else, in shock. The narrator is so far gone on a chemical cloud that he escapes criticism, instead garnering child-like sympathy as if the journey to that resonating sound was as horrifying as the loss of a partner in marriage.
The end of the story jumps to a scene in a detox clinic showing that the narrator has been reflecting on past experience for the duration of the story. Considering the drugs and alcohol fluid throughout, this ending is also the point at which narrator reliability comes into play – mirroring the very beginning of Naked Lunch where the audience witnesses a recurring narrator with a spoon and dropper used for heroin. To what extent can one believe the drug-addled mind? Is there a greater coherency that those outside of the addiction simply cannot understand? Hidden secrets to the processes of the universe or simply fabrications? Stuck in detox, the narrator reflects on the death that he saw that day and suddenly, “when [he] squeezed shut [his] eyes, hot tears exploded from the sockets” (10). A nurse comes in with what she calls “vitamins,” and Johnson ends the story with the haunting line: “And you, you ridiculous people, you expect me to help you” (10). This is not the only occurrence of a narrator directly addressing the audience in Jesus’ Son, but also occurs at the ends of “Dundun” and “Work.”
Burroughs shocked the audience more indirectly. Even though he does address “the reader” in the earlier-addressed “ancient mariner” quotation, I would not say that Burroughs frequently addresses the reader in a direct manner. Although Naked Lunch’s scenes of gore mixed with sexuality were a direct criticism of the tendency for people to keep sexuality closeted, many of the images throughout the book weren’t directly addressing the audience – in fact, they did the opposite and critiqued themselves. The county clerk’s sudden obsession with the anus of his dentist reveals that even if officials try to hide their sexuality as it was deemed deviant, they fail to do so because the reader is given their secrets. Johnson, on the contrary, wants to provoke and often implicate the reader, interrogating one for looking down upon the junkie or the prostitute. By ending “Car Crash” with that direct address, he is saying that maybe one day a junkie will be all one can rely on and the years spent judging them will only mark one’s demise. Throughout the story, the reader is forced to rely on the junkie narrator for all the information, which assaults the reader’s expectations of a reliable narrator. Burroughs, Johnson, and even Hunter S. Thompson (whom I will discuss later) are all in part involved in redeeming what has been labeled the underbelly of society. The junkie has been proven an enemy of the state, an addict, and an even a victim, but rarely redeemed as a person on the same level as an office worker.
Our several addictions, whether they be caffeine, shopping, or chocolate, are rarely given the same anxious labels. U.S. citizens get divorced at an alarming rate, are in credit card debt to their necks, and cannot stop watching reality television instead of actually living reality, and yet so many still feel as if they need to point fingers across the fence at the junkie.
In “Emergency,” Johnson delivers violence in the same indifferent manner as Burroughs. “Around 3:30 a.m. a guy with a knife in his eye came in, led by Georgie. ‘My wife did it,’ the man said. The blade was buried to the hilt in the outside corner of his left eye. It was a hunting knife kind of thing” (59). The narrator doesn’t look away but is instead supremely interested. He works as a clerk in the emergency room, talks to the orderly every day and pops pills with him. When presented with religion, the narrator changes the subject. “‘I want to go to church,’ Georgie said. ‘Let’s go to the county fair.’ ‘I’d like to worship. I would.’ ‘They have these injured hawks and eagles there. From the Humane Society,’ I said. ‘I need a quiet chapel right now’” (63). Georgie, the older and presumably wiser of the characters, feels pressured to go to religion for rescue and redemption. Frequently expressing his fear of God’s wrath in the other stories, the narrator does not want to face it at this point. Later in the story, Georgie and the narrator are driving:
We bumped softly down a hill that seemed to be a military graveyard, filled with rows and rows of austere, identical markers over soldiers’ graves. I’d never before come across this cemetery. On the farther side of the field, just beyond the curtains of snow, the sky was torn away and the angels were descending out of a brilliant blue summer, their huge faces streaked with light and full of pity. The sight of them cut through my heart and down the knuckles of my spine, and if there’d been anything in my bowls I would’ve messed myself from fear. (66-67)
The narrator is shocked at the presence of angels, descending on their position. The realization that they are “full of pity” is interesting, relating religion to judgment and furthering the idea that junkies and addicts somehow lack value. Pity is not necessarily dismissive, but in the case of angels, may show that the narrator has been wavering over a faith in God. This scene is similar to the first scene of Naked Lunch which I discussed in the first chapter where Lee disposes of his spoon and dropper at Washington Square Station and the exec-type thinks Lee is a “character.” The angels immediately written off as a hallucination, however, the narrator projects a feeling of “pity” from them onto himself – feeding into depressive chemical state of affairs that surrounds these works. For Johnson, McCarron writes that “drugs and alcohol offer a means of transcending this reductivism, but the price exacted for the brief transcendence is a constant yearning for a consistently less material universe” (58). Sitting around again at the end of the story, all of them having witnessed the knife removed from the man’s eye, and yet again on random pills stolen from patients’ cabinets, a character named Hardee asks Georgie what he does for a living, to which Georgie replies: “I save lives” (72). It is safe to say that the hospital has given Georgie the importance his self-esteem needed. The act of an addict taking refuge in the institution of medicine is surprising but captures the narrator’s drifter mentality well. Throughout Naked Lunch, several characters confide in Dr. Benway, the only medical “professional” in the novel – showing that even in the chaos of Burroughs the institution is the only form of refuge, even if that refuge is found in the stealing of drugs.
“Johnson conflates religion with drug abuse” (McCarron 59). In doing so, Johnson opens up the possibility for the reader to accuse him of a religious idolatry of those drugs, simply drugs as God. The fantastical imagery of Burroughs is nearly always avoided by Johnson, as he sticks to Realist tendencies instead of adding too much magic. The above scene where the narrator envisions angels is quite the opposite, rather a scene of hallucination – where drugs have directly created these angels. The narrator is still witnessing grand hallucinations, fabrications, and visual exaggerations, but Johnson does not centralize them on the page as Burroughs did – presumably too worried to offend as Burroughs also did. Paul Lyons writes, “unlike Burroughs’ hyper-real paranoias or the slick cautionary cocaine-fables of the bratpackers, Johnson takes the reader into the recognizable grainy heartland of an America whose infrastructures are rotting” (193). In this way, Johnson has internalized the shock-based writing of Naked Lunch and decided to make his own content more relatable. The fact that these works are “recognizable,” yet still “grainy” and “rotting,” stands to show that maybe the most shocking material is actually that which sounds the most familiar.
While Johnson’s content mirrors the emotional and internal sentiments in Burroughs’ writing, Hunter S. Thompson has exposed Burroughs as an influential style. Even though Thompson works primarily in non-fiction, he added a lot of creativity to the genre – specifically through the drug-addled explanations of actual events and techniques related to what Tom Wolfe called “new (or gonzo) journalism… It is clear that gonzo first came to general notice in the writing of Hunter S. Thompson, but its earlier history is obscure… The idea is he’s a nonconformist” (Tamony 74). Thompson was a writer who experimented and arguably befriended several different kinds of drugs, splitting the author – himself – into two halves: the unreliable and the barely reliable. Considering his cult following today, there is no question that many have looked to his experimentation with and chronicling of drugs as similar to Burroughs’ own calculated chronicling.
Written a couple of years before the original publication of Naked Lunch yet still included in the 2001 Grove Press circulation of the novel, Burroughs penned a “Letter from a Master Addict to Dangerous Drugs” (1956) that was published in the British Journal of Addiction. In the letter, Burroughs carefully describes each drug he has tried and the list is extensive, proposing everything from techniques for use to withdrawal treatments and horror stories. In the introduction, Burroughs kicks normativity from its high horse: “We speak of addiction to candy, coffee, tobacco, warm weather, television, detective stories, crossword puzzles. So misapplied the term loses any useful precision of meaning” (214), and “our national drug is alcohol. We tend to regard the use of any other drug with special horror… People believe what they want to believe without regard for the facts” (224). In a way, Thompson feeds off these tendencies of the majority but is also guilty of them. He was definitively an alcoholic and an abuser of other drugs. Thompson had his own set of facts, apart from those of conventional society, and many of them showed sympathy with the far left.
“Mescalito,” a story by Thompson published accompanying “Screwjack” in the 2000 publication of the same name, details a writer – presumably Thompson – between flights in a hotel room and attempting to write an article while battling a Mescaline trip. He presents a disconnected and desperate America similar to that of Burroughs at the very onset of “Mescalito”:
Again in LA, again at the Continental Hotel… full of pills and club sandwiches and Old Crow and now a fifth of Louis Martini Barbera, looking down from the eleventh floor at a police ambulance screaming down toward the Whisky-a-Go-Go on the strip, where I used to sit in the afternoon with Lionel and talk with off-duty hookers. (1)
Drowned in pills and alcohol with a fascination with prostitutes and the urban underbelly, Thompson sits by while emergency services rush past – presumably to a scene he does not want to face or have to think about. One of the many things that permeate through Johnson, Thompson and Burroughs is a fear to become the norm that they criticize. While these writers maintain personalities on the fringe and write in avoidance of tradition, they do so in refute of the norm, scared of participating. Conventional family values, routines, and positive relationships fail them because they can no longer mentally compute being static when they have been drifting for so long. Due to this fact, their characters become projections of these fears and insecurities. Drugs, sex, violence, and death are presented to shock the reader into realizing there is another world out there, considerably darker, unrecognized, and more often criminalized.
While on the balcony, a bystander yells up at the narrator “What are you doing up there?” to which he replies “I’m writing about all you freaks down there on the street” (3). From the viewpoint of the majority of his addictions, fears, and insecurities, Thompson embodies the role of society’s “freak.” While he realizes the irony in this, he simultaneously creates a brotherhood – i.e. a freak calls another a freak, binding them as citizens and in this case, participants in the media. Much like Naked Lunch, Thompson’s nonfiction sought to accomplish similar things in the minds of the reader – a dissemblance of social institutions and a transition of community from arbitrary physical relationships to the spiritual community that becomes inherent, for them, through the use of drugs. Even though he may have been considered an unsavory character by many who worked and lived with him, Thompson’s drug experimentation radicalized his environment and it is felt that he desperately wanted others to feel those same sensations, presumably without the addictions. These writers simply do not promote or romanticize drugs, but often present moments of terror and sickness as a result of them, ultimately working to show the disconnect and alternative mindset that drugs allow. All of them believed that there was something else to be found in these drugs, that they were not just vices but definite alternative ways of understanding the universe.
“Mescalito” does not consist entirely of this sort of drug idolatry, as neither do the works of Burroughs or Johnson. Thompson confesses problems created by drugs in his profession: “This maddening, time-killing late work syndrome, never getting down to the real machine action until two or three at night, won’t make it… especially half-drunk, full of pills and grass with deadlines past and people howling in New York… the pressure piles up like a hang-fire lighting ball in the brain” (5). For Thompson, drugs both liberate the soul and attack the body, yet he continues to use them. The reader can either see this as regret or a willing experiment for the science of literary study, returning to Dr. Benway’s claim in Naked Lunch and William Burroughs’ own mission statement: “We are scientists” (110). In many ways, I believe that is what Thompson and Burroughs accomplished: an unrelenting study of other perspectives and the documenting of alternative states of mind. Johnson was effectively realist by comparison, but in his longer works like Already Dead (1998) and Tree of Smoke (2007), more of these elements start to rise to the surface.
At a point in “Mescalito” and at several near countless points in his more famous work Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas (1972), Thompson openly tells the reader when he has taken something, how long it will take to start affecting him, and what they should expect or not expect. “I just swallowed the bugger… soon it will take hold; I have not to expect, and in this dead-tired, run-down condition almost anything can happen. My resistance is gone, so any reaction will be extreme. I’ve never had mescaline” (8). The experience is virginal for Thompson as this specific drug has never before entered his system and the reader witnesses a first chronicling. In the letter I mentioned earlier that Burroughs wrote from “a master addict to dangerous drugs,” he explains the uses of mescaline, or peyote. Burroughs writes, “it dilates the pupils, keeps one awake. Peyote is extremely nauseating. Users have difficulty keeping it down long enough to realize the effect… increased sensitivity to colors… causes a peculiar vegetable consciousness” (226).
Since the reader is experiencing the trip for the first time right along with Thompson, their experience is also somewhat virginal. With Naked Lunch, Burroughs played an active role in guiding the reader through scenes of the fantastic or magically real – in most cases, dropping the reader into close contact with the horrific. In “Mescalito,” the nonfiction form allows Thompson to become a witness to his own trip. Sure, he can manipulate his findings any way he chooses, but the reader is still an active participant, filtering the fantastic for meaning and understanding. “I’d like to get a towel and hang it over the TV set, the news is on there, I can smell it. My eyes feel bigger than grapefruits. Where are the sun glasses, I see them over there, creep across, that cloud is off the sun again, for real this time, incredible light in the room, white blaze on the walls, glittering typewriter keys” (11). Where Burroughs’ narrator is almost always a third party to orgies, violence, and monsters, Thompson has made the tripping experience that much more intimate by participating. Crawling around his hotel room trying to actively mediate the process of the drug in his brain and the workload he has hanging over his head (something that Burroughs never addresses), Thompson becomes anti-social and anti-productive. More importantly though, he becomes subject to these hallucinations and visual exaggerations, where Burroughs instead places the reader as the test subject of shock and awe.
All of these writers regard public communication with sheer terror, anxious whether or not others know they are high. Thompson’s narrator realizes he has a plane to catch but clings to the bed post with his mind on a roller coaster; Johnson’s narrator knows he should return to his girlfriend but doesn’t want to leave again in “a car that may show [him] another overdosed love” (31); and Burroughs’ several scene narrators watch indifferently as their world becomes vile around them. Due to this level of personal voice in these narratives, these writers transport the reader to uncomfortable places. More often than not, one becomes an active participant.
All the more effective, Hunter S. Thompson and Denis Johnson have taken the blunt shock of Naked Lunch and rereleased it as a realist familiarity. In terms of Burroughs’ legacy, this realist familiarity is good and bad: good in the sense that his concepts have been carried over to the next generation but bad in that these new writers have seemed to censor themselves in hopes of becoming popular. Considering that film adaptations came early in both Thompson and Johnson’s careers; neither of which rejected their fame or refused to be involved with these films. Burroughs wrote Naked Lunch from his own discomfort in society, assaulting the reader with aggressive and graphic situations, whereas Thompson and Johnson have chosen to retain coherency and censor themselves at points when they feel the content may hurt their success. Burroughs probably would not approve of Thompson or Johnson because of the film adaptations and money surrounding them, although the late Burroughs (1980s) was much different than the Burroughs that wrote Naked Lunch in the ‘50s so there’s really no way to tell. Where progress has definitely been made in drawing attention to these underclass fringe lifestyles in popular narratives, the sensual sting and level of raw social commentary in Naked Lunch is yet to be found in a popular writer of today.
In this project, I have introduced Burroughs as pivotal to fringe literature in America and argued that his legacy has also affected mainstream titles, such as those written by Denis Johnson and Hunter S. Thompson. I began by portraying Burroughs’ Naked Lunch as a work that used shocking language to deterritorialize readers, connect them to a political immediacy, and also to establish a collective value that enunciates the sexual and chemical content of the work. By studying the censorship trial in my second chapter, I have shown that America’s notion of the monstrous in the 1950’s was fueled mostly by political anxieties, which Burroughs sought to expose through traumatic content and indirect political commentary. In the final chapter, I chose two contemporary mainstream authors, Denis Johnson and Hunter S. Thompson, as examples of Burroughs’ influence on later generations of writers. As I have shown, their content mostly mirrors the fringe-central universe that Burroughs created but simultaneously fails to reach the same level of shock with their language that Naked Lunch was able to do. However, Burroughs’ influence on the outer edge of society, specifically those experimenting with drugs and different sexualities, has been immense. In the decades since the release of Naked Lunch, readers have looked to Burroughs not just as a semi-fictional authority on the effects of drugs, but also as a guide to the 1950’s counter-culture that surrounded the Beats and shaped several later movements such as hippie culture, American punk, and magical realism.
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