I first read Naked Lunch by William S. Burroughs when I was in my early twenties. I remember liking it at the time, perhaps because it had a lot of queer stuff in it and was sorta funny in parts. Therefore I'm a little surprised to say, upon reading it recently for the first time in a quarter century, that I liked it less than I expected.
William Burroughs was perhaps the oddest of the major figures of the Beat writers. Considerably older than his friends Jack Kerouac and Allen Ginsberg, he had a profound influence on both of them, and not necessarily always a positive one. A junkie on and off for most of his life, Burroughs completely lacked the idealism and love of life that the rest of the Beat writers expressed in their writing. Burrough's work primarily represented the dark side of the Beat Generation.
Ken Kesey used to like to say that Burroughs was "the first person to do something totally original with the English language since Shakespeare." Perhaps, but original doesn't always mean good, and some of the most unique things Burroughs did, such as cutting up magazines and pasting the words together at random, was certainly different but as literature it sucked.
Yet Burrough's had unique insights. He was obsessed with the concept of words and their ability to multiply and spread like a virus. It was a concept we are familiar with in this age of the internet, where everything online is endlessly copied, re-arranged and spread through cyberspace in a way very much resembling Burrough's concept of word viruses. In that sense, Burrough's both predated and predicted a key component of modern language in the computer age - it's endless, virus like ability to reproduce and spread, all the while mutating as it passes through multiple users. Ironically, Burroughs himself became a kind of cultural virus in his last years, when he appeared everywhere in mass media, with frequent appearances in advertisements and in popular music, such as this piece with the Doors.
The other main pre-occupation of Burrough's is addiction, drug addiction in particular but all forms of addiction as well. Indeed Burroughs suggests that drug addiction is just a metaphor for the all the other addictions that he claims are everywhere in society but which people pretend are respectable - such as addictions to money, to people, to stale and destructive ideas and routines.
Naked Lunch is supposed to be about these kinds of addiction, and in parts it is. The book is at its most readable when Burroughs discusses the details of drug abuse and the colorful if sometimes sordid details of life as a needle junkie. Although I've been a drug addict, I was not a needle user. I have a fear of needles; a fear which I believe saved my life. Every drug I ever tried I liked too much, and I'm sure if I'd ever overcome my fear of needles long enough to have actually tried it, I'm certain I would have taken to it immediately and that I would not be alive today. Needle users are unique among addicts for their blood rituals and almost erotic fascination with the penetration of the body, all of which are foreign to other forms of drug use.
So I wish Naked Lunch had more of Burrough's insights into that world, but alas the book as a whole is mostly a lot of gibberish. Some of the nonsensical word-play is humorous or clever, but the overwhelming emotion when reading Naked Lunch is boredom. The sexual and violent imagery, so shocking in the 1960's, seems tame today and even a little bit juvenile. Now largely deprived of its shock value by the changing of social mores, Naked Lunch appears too often to want to shock for the sake of shocking, or to be pretentiously rude. The view of drug use is also relentlessly negative, nothing in the book suggests any good reason why one would want to get high in the first place.
If the State of Massachusetts had not been stupid enough to try to ban Naked Lunch as obscene, I doubt it would ever have achieved much fame. The first section of the version of the book I read consists of exerpts from that trial, especially testimony from Norman Mailer and Allen Ginsberg. Mailer comes across as a pompous ass as he lectures the courtroom on literature, and Ginsberg is too obviously anxious to help his friend.
Frankly, without a show trial Naked Lunch would have sank into the obscurity it deserves and will probably one day attain. Fortunately there are other things by Burroughs that are much better, especially short routines such as the following great piece about a subject close to my heart - municipal corruption.
by WILLIAM S. BURROUGHS
This piece was written to Harper's Magazine in response to the question, "When did you stop wanting to be President?"
When did I stop wanting to be President? At birth, certainly, and perhaps before. In this life or any previous incarnations I have been able to check out, I NEVER wanted to be President. This innate decision was confirmed when I became literate and saw the President pawing babies and spouting bullshit.
I attended Los Alamos Ranch School, where they later made the atom bomb. And bombs bursting in air over Hiroshima gave proof through the night that our flag was already there. There was the Teapot Dome Scandal under President Harding, and I remember the unspeakable Gaston Means. Scion of an aristocratic Southern family, infamous private eye and go-between in this miasma of graft, I remember him walking into a hotel room full of bourbon-drinking, cigar-smoking lobbyists and fixers with a suitcase he puts in the middle of the table. "Fill it up, boys, then we can talk business."
I do not mean to imply that my youthful idealism was repelled by this spectacle. I had by then learned to take a broad, general view of things. My political ambitions were simply of a humbler and less conspicuous caliber: I hoped at one time to become Commissioner of Sewers for St. Louis County. Three hundred dollars a month with every possibility of getting one's slimey little paws deep into a slush fund. And to this end I attended a softball game, where such sinecures were assigned to the deserving and the fortunate. And everybody I met said "Now, I'm old so-and-so runnin' for such-and-such, and anything you do for me I'll appreciate."
My boyish dreams fanned by this heady atmosphere and three mint juleps, I saw myself already in possession of the coveted post which called for a token appearance twice a week to sign a few letters at the old courthouse. While I'm there, might as well put it on the Sheriff for some of the marijuana he has confiscated, and he'd better play ball or I will route a sewer through his front yard. And then across the street to the courthouse cafe for a coffee with other lazy worthless bastards in the same line of business as we wallow in corruption like contented crocodiles.
I never wanted to be a frontman like Harding or Nixon, taking the rap, shaking hands, and making speeches all day. Who in his right mind would want a job like that? As Commissioner of Sewers, I would not be called upon to pet babies, make speeches, shake hands, or have lunch with the Queen. In fact, the fewer voters who knew of my existence, the better. Let Kings and Presidents keep the limelight; I prefer a whiff of coal gas as the sewers rupture for miles around. I have made a deal on the piping which has bought me a 300 thousand dollar home. Although there is talk in the press of sex cults and drug orgies, carried out in the stink of what made them possible, fluttering from the roof of my ranch-style house, over my mint and marijuana, Old Glory floats lazily in the tainted breeze.
But there were sullen mutters of revolt from the peasantry: "My teenage daughters are threatened by this immorality! Is this the American way of life?"
I thought so, and I didn't want it changed.
Sitting in my garden, smoking the sheriff's reefer, coal gas on the wind sweet in my nostrils as the smell of oil to an oilman, or the smell of bullshit to a cattle baron. I sure did a sweet thing on those pipes, and I'm covered too. What I got on the governor wouldn't look good on the front page, would it now? And I have my special police to deal with vandalism and sabotage. All handsome youths, languid and vicious as reptiles. Described in the press as no more than minions, lackeys, and bodyguards to his majesty the Sultan of Sewers.
The thoughts of youth are long, long thoughts. Then I met the guvernatorial candidate, and he looked at me as if trying to focus my image through a telescope, and said in effect, "Anything I do for you I'll depreciate."
And I felt the dream slipping away from me, receding into the past. Dim, jerky, far away, the discreet gold letters on a glass door:
Somehow, I had not intersected. I was not one of them. Perhaps I was simply the wrong shape. Some of my classmates, plump, cynical, unathletic boys with narrow shoulders and broad hips made the grade and went on to banner headlines concerning two million dollars of the taxpayers' money, and a nonexistent bridge or highway, I forget which. It was a long time ago, and I have never aspired to political office since. The Sultan of Sewers lies buried in a distant, 1930s softball game.
Here I am this morning on my front porch waiting for my friends to come over.
We went to the Evolution Cafe in downtown Florence.
It is a real hardcore vegan place that doesn't even have dairy products on the premises, except for one dietarily corrupt container of Half n' Half for people like me, sitting there like a blasphemy among all the pure organic items.
There is a nice set of psychedelic paintings on the wall.
After my friends left I went to UMass where the Queerfest was underway.
They finally changed the date so that it came in May, thereby sidestepping the previous name of the occasion - "The Gaypril Queerfest" which some thought was more corny than cute.
Here some newly made tie-dye Queerfest t-shirts lie drying in the sun.