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The Great Burroughs Affair

A review of William S. Burroughs's 1962 cult novel "Naked Lunch"

Evening Standard/Stringer/Getty Images

Naked Lunch belongs to that very large category of books, from Macpherson’s Ossian to Peyton Place, whose interest lies not in their own qualities but in the reception given to them in their own time. In itself, Naked Lunch, is of very small significance. It consists of a prolonged scream of hatred and disgust, an effort to keep the reader’s nose down in the mud for 20 pages. Before reading it I had heard it described as pornography, but this is not the case. The object of pornographic writing is to flood the reader’s mind with lust, and lust is at any rate a positive thing to the extent that none of us would exist without it. A pornographic novel is, in however backhanded a way, on the side of something describable as life.

Naked Lunch, by contrast, is unreservedly on the side of death. It seeks to flood the reader’s mind not with images of sexual desire but with images of pain, illness, cruelty and corruption.

This is not in fact a very difficult thing to do, since all that is necessary is to brood on everything capable of arousing disgust and revulsion, let the images well up, and dash them down onto the paper. A book like Naked Lunch requires far less talent in the writer, and for that matter less intelligence in the reader, than the humblest magazine story or circulating-library novel. From the literary point of view, it is the merest trash, not worth a second glance.

What is worth a glance, however, is the respectful attitude that some well-known writers and critics have shown towards it. Some of the tributes on the wrapper are entirely routine and unsurprising: to find Norman Mailer, for instance, solemnly declaring that this is “a book of beauty, great difficulty, and maniacally exquisite insight,” will startle no one, since Mailer has in recent years worked himself round to a position which makes it impossible for him to apply normal values to literature.

Kerouac’s confident invoking of Swift, Rabelais and Sterne will also pass without comment, since he has given no indication that he knows these writers except as names to be bandied about. E.S. Seldon, on the other hand, a name not previously known to me but evidently well-known enough to be quoted in a blurb, seems to write like a literate man, and his verdict that “Burroughs is a superb writer, and Naked Lunch a novel of revolt in the best late-modern sense,” pulls one up. It sounds, on the surface at any rate, as if it ought to mean something.

What in fact do we understand by a “novel of revolt” in “the best late-modern sense”? To begin with, such a book would have to belong to the anti-art movement. Secondly, it would have to deal with characters whose lives are largely devoted to escaping from normal day-to-day living, with its pleasures and responsibilities, and achieving, with the aid of drugs and other stimuli, a more or less permanent state of abnormality, where the monstrous becomes the habitual. Thirdly, it would have to be written out of a mood of disgust and hostility. Fourthly, it would have to be urban in atmosphere, saturated with the details of megalopolis.

All these tendencies can be found in writers who were well under way by 1910—in Alfred Jarry, for example. After 1918 the method was very quickly brought to full development, and the only way of carrying it any further was to increase the element of nausea. The impulse behind anti-art, from Dada manifestos to Action Painting, has always been two-fold. Part of the thrust was towards truthfulness and a closer grip on reality. Conventional art, which always admitted a degree of stylization, tended to put reality at a distance, whereas (it was claimed) anti-art had the immediacy of something actually happening; it was not “culture.” Naturally this was closely allied with the second objective, which was to shock and startle, to insult, to open people’s eyes by affronting them. What Mr. Selden would call “late-modern” is characterized by nothing new except that it digs deeper for its mud, and crushes out more ruthlessly any spark of lyricism or positiveness. Where genuine imaginative writing increases the sensitiveness of the minds exposed to it, leading them on to a wider and deeper range of feelings, writing of this kind makes the mind blunt and callow. Anyone who really accepted its values, as opposed to pretending to accept them as part of some modish parade, would be the enemy not only of art but of the human race.

The idea seems to have got about that Burroughs is the same kind of writer as Henry Miller; indeed, I have seen it stated several times that Naked Lunch is, so to speak, Miller’s Tropics carried a stage further. In fact, they are writers of entirely opposite tendency. Miller is an affirmative writer. He preaches incessantly, and his “message,” boiled down to its essentials, is that happiness is attainable by anyone who sheds his responsibilities and lives by impulse, never doing anything that he doesn’t feel exactly like doing at that moment. The “I” of Henry Miller’s writings, who may or may not bear any close relationship to the author, is a figure who has achieved complete liberation from the hampering ties of daily life, and as a result has broken through into a dimension where existence seems to comprise nothing but epiphanies.

“This is the first day of my life...I bless the world, every inch of it, every living atom, and it is all alive,” And so forth. Just how sound this is, as a guide to the seeker after happiness, is open to question. There are so many things you can’t do without accepting responsibility; an acceptance like that made by the “I” of Miller’s fantasies is based on an enormous refusal—a refusal of family relationships, a refusal of anything stable and fixed, and even—since it prevents one from holding down a job—a refusal of skill. What Miller offers is attractive and interesting on a superficial level; as soon as one begins to think seriously about it, the emptiness and weariness come into focus. At a certain stage of adolescence, no doubt, it is pleasant for a boy to picture himself as having endlessly to do with women yet always successfully refusing to take emotional responsibility for any particular one. But to remain in that state is to remain in adolescence, a prey to the melancholy and instability of adolescence as well as a beneficiary of its energy and heightened emotions.

Still, if we take him on the half-serious level on which he deserves to be taken, Miller has something to offer, and that something is an affirmation. He is a great celebrator. The Air-Conditioned Nightmare, for instance, is full of abuse of American life, but its final effect, when you have shut the book and allowed it to sink in a day or two, is one of praise. Miller is an enjoyer; wherever he goes he finds something to enjoy, even if it is only the pleasure of hurling insults at things he finds hateful. He isn’t depressed; he hurls the insults with the abandon of a schoolboy shying at coconuts. America threatened him, to begin with, because it was home, and home meant (however distantly) responsibility and authority:

“When I came up on deck to catch my first glimpse of the shore line I was disappointed. Not only disappointed, I might say, but actually saddened. The American coast looked bleak and uninviting to me. I didn’t like the look of the American house; there is something cold, austere, something barren and chill, about the architecture of the American home. It was home, with all the ugly, evil, sinister connotations which the word contains for a restless soul. There was a frigid, moral aspect to it which chilled me to the bone.”

After this unpromising start, however, America swallows him up in her vast landscape, and he begins to enjoy himself. With time off every now and then for howls of execration, the rest of the book is a celebration. It isn’t as good as The Colossus of Maroussi, but it’s good, because Miller is always good when he can praise anything. In however addlepated a way, he loves life. Though his recipe for happiness is one that for any thoughtful person just wouldn’t work, nevertheless happiness is what he wants.

What is more, Miller has developed a style that is very well fitted for this continual act of celebration. He writes a hurrying, turbulent prose that gives the impression of complete spontaneity, but only the most naive reader will imagine that such prose can be produced without a great deal of hard work. The rhythms never get out of hand, the pauses are varied with considerable skill, and the words are chosen with great effectiveness. If this is anti-art, it is at least not anti-craft. George Orwell, in his classic essay on Miller (“Inside the Whale,” 1940) declared that Miller’s books “give you an idea of what can still be done, even at this late date, with English prose. In them, English is treated as a spoken language, but spoken without fear, i.e. without fear of rhetoric or of the unusual or poetical word. The adjective has come back, after its ten years’ exile. It is a flowing, swelling prose, a prose with rhythms in it, something quite different from the flat cautious statements and snack bar dialects that are now in fashion.” 

Like most English people of my generation, I first heard of Miller through Orwell’s essay, and when, some years later, I at last got hold of his books, I found that whereas Orwell had completely misled me about the scope and nature of Miller’s work, he had prepared me very well for the style. Miller is a very contagious writer: after reading him for an hour or so, you find that if you sit down to write it is difficult not to produce something that sounds like an imitation of him. Orwell, in that same essay, has some amusing examples, passages where he has quite unconsciously deserted his own steel-grey, incisive prose for something rather like pastiche of Miller. For instance: “What is he accepting? In the first place, not America, but the ancient bone-heap of Europe, where every grain of soil has passed through innumerable human bodies.” That sentence is not in Orwell’s idiom but in Miller’s—though, it is fair to add, Miller would have put it rather better. Orwell has been drawn into rhetoric against his better judgment, because Miller makes rhetoric seem easy and attractive. Likewise when he writes, a few pages later, “He is fiddling while Rome is burning, and, unlike the enormous majority of people who do this, fiddling with his face towards the flames,” we recognize once again the pull towards rhetoric—a much stronger tribute to Miller’s gifts than the rather guarded, give-and-take-away praise which he accords him.

Miller, then, is contagious because he is an enjoyer. The “freedom” he proclaims would in practice turn out to be self-defeating, but at least it is a freedom to enjoy life. Burroughs, by contrast, belongs more to the tradition of Celine. He doesn’t want to enjoy himself and he doesn’t want us to, either. Imagine him looking at a landscape and getting anything out of it! The nearest he gets to a description of pleasure, of anybody doing anything because they liked it, is (at the worst) in his obsessive descriptions of fearful sadistic violence and (at the best) in a passage like: 

“Iris—half Chinese and half Negro—addicted to dihy-dro-oxy-heroin—takes a shot every fifteen minutes to which end she leaves droppers and needles sticking out all over her. The needles rust in her flesh, which, here and there, has grown completely over a joint to form a smooth green brown wen. On the table in front of her is a samovar of tea and a twenty-pound hamper of brown sugar. No one has ever seen her eat anything else. It is only just before a shot that she hears what anyone says or talks herself.”

The only writer of any talent of whom Burroughs occasionally manages to remind one is the Marquis de Sade; but if one turns to the pages of Sade after Naked Lunch the resemblance soon fades, since Sade, however degenerate he can be at times, has always some saving wit and irony. Burroughs takes himself with a complete, owlish seriousness; indeed, in his opening section he seems, as far as one can make out through the pea-soup fog of his prose, to be offering the book as some kind of tract against drug addiction. “The junk virus is public health problem number one of the world to-day. Since Naked Lunch treats this health problem, it is necessarily brutal, obscene, and disgusting. Sickness is often repulsive details not for weak stomachs.” The claim is, of course, balderdash, since the only effect of the flood of writing which takes the junkie or hipster as its central theme is to romanticize those unfortunates, as Byron and the “Byronists” romanticized a certain kind of romantic self-pity and caused it to spread throughout the world.

Altogether, Naked Lunch offers a very interesting field for speculation, both pathological and sociological. No lover of medical text-books on deformity should miss it. The rest of us, however, can afford to spend our six dollars on something else.