This essay by novelist, playwright, and culture critic Gary Indiana originally appeared in the 1992 book Everything Is Permitted: The Making of “Naked Lunch.”
Burroughs’s work tends to affect people like a Rorschach test. It separates cultural conservatives from avant-gardists, social reactionaries from libertarians. Or, to use one of Burroughs’s favorite distinctions, members of the Johnson Family from the Shits. Johnsons have a live-and-let-live, mind-their-own-business mentality. Shits have an uncontrollable need to pass judgment on and be right about everything. In today’s censorious climate, police work dominates the pages of the book reviews: this writer has the wrong attitude and must be done away with.
Burroughs has always elicited a testy response from the cultural establishment. While early support for Naked Lunch from such mandarins as Mary McCarthy and John Ciardi has been matched over the years by encomiums from many of our best writers and by a substantial body of excellent academic criticism, the overall literary world’s recognition of Burroughs has been grudging more often than not. Perhaps Burroughs’s achievement represents a threat to the well-mannered, conventionally crafted, middle-class novel. It could be as simple as that. Burroughs expanded the content of fiction, giving artistic form to extremes of contemporary abjection. Naked Lunch opened a path into the world of the addict, the homosexual, the social outlaw. From this despised and largely unmentionable territory, Burroughs extracted a presiding metaphor of control. Naked Lunch deals with the control of consciousness and behavior through addiction—to sex, power, money, drugs, even to control itself. When themes of this nature, which ultimately have to do with politics, lie at the heart of a writer’s work, appreciation is often checked by the timidity of those who prefer not to think about such issues.
Burroughs also revolutionized the structure of fiction. He opened the novel to chance operations, using the “cut-up” and “fold-in” techniques he had developed with Brion Gysin and Ian Sommerville. Earlier writers, like Conrad, sometimes bring the same characters from one novel to the next. Burroughs recycles phrases, “routines,” descriptions, and characters through successive works as if they were musical figures or colors in a paint box. His novels suggest an artful arrangement of blocks of prose rather than linear compositions. Naked Lunch and the successive books mined from the thousand-some pages Burroughs produced while in and out of heroin addiction in the 1950s—Nova Express, The Soft Machine, The Ticket That Exploded (and, recently exhumed, Interzone)—compose, in advance of postmodern theory, the first truly postmodern literary texts. Eliminating classical armature and syntax, these books embrace the fragmentary, the “incomplete,” the deconstructive.
No doubt the unconventional approach taken by this work inspires nightmares of literary anarchy—what if everyone started writing this way or started writing about what Burroughs writes about? This two-pronged assault on traditional fiction came as the third and arguably furthest-sweeping wave of the Beat movement, after Ginsberg’s Howl and Kerouac’s On the Road. These set a generation in motion and helped spawn the sixties counterculture. Burroughs deserves consideration apart from the Beats, but there is no doubt that Naked Lunch seemed, on publication, the literary apotheosis of that movement. One obvious difference between Naked Lunch and Beat literature is what Mary McCarthy called Burroughs’s aerial perspective. Long exiled from the United States—in Mexico, Peru, France, and Morocco—Burroughs takes a long, jaundiced, global view of things. His evocation of America, though suffused with a gelid sort of nostalgia for the sexual dawn of adolescence, lacks entirely the provincial romanticism found in much Beat writing. (Problematically, much of Burroughs’s work does share the Beats’ extreme gynophobia; one can only defend his remarks about women in The Job by noting the misanthropy in his writing overall.)
In any event, Burroughs’s absence from the United States during much of the Beat era and the subsequent hippie movement encourages us to link him with British pop art as well as the Velvet Underground, with Godard’s Alpha 60 as well as Wild in the Streets. At this distance, it’s tricky to separate quintessentially “Burroughsian” ideas from ideas that were generally in the wind in the sixties. Widespread disgust with and revolt against the gray cold-war conformity of the 1950s was certainly fueled by the Beats and a constellation of associated writers and artists. Strategies of transcendence and escape flowed from such disparate sources as Marxist theory and LSD. Linguistics, along with comparative anthropology, became a countercultural preoccupation. Nonverbal communication loomed as a great undiscovered continent; the nature of the prelinguistic brain was much speculated about. These crypto-scientific interests of the radical young, which existed alongside a vogue for Eastern mysticism and magical operations, coincided with Burroughs’s artistic and personal quest for a “breakthrough in the gray room.” A radical interrogation of language permeates his books. As we can see from variously reproduced pages from Burroughs’s scrapbooks, his word-and-image experiments closely parallel certain contemporaneous artifacts, like Eduardo Paolozzi’s silk-screen series Moonstrips Empire News (itself inspired by Wittgenstein’s Philosophical Investigations) and slightly later work by Joseph Kosuth. (Burroughs has collaborated, both visually and verbally, with Robert Rauschenberg, David Hockney, George Condo, Philip Taaffe, and Keith Haring; in recent years, he’s been enjoying a second career as a painter.)
Burroughs has always written for the space age. His work addresses readers who want out of present slave-planet conditions. His theory of language as a virus is closely connected to an (ambivalent) repudiation of Western consciousness in favor of “the savage mind.” (This theme, a favorite of sixties culture, is deftly conveyed in Barbet Schroeder’s film The Valley [Obscured by Clouds].) In the tense-scrambled, oneiric narratives of Nova Express and The Ticket That Exploded, Burroughs invokes the synchronic, telepathic mind of the aboriginal, linking the hieroglyphic “Mayan control calendar” with the image manipulation of contemporary mass media. Other texts, exploring the mind-altering possibilities of Korzybski’s general semantics and the Scientology E-meter, read like manuals for dismantling prerecorded consciousness. Burroughs’s basic project is psychoanalytic: to discard imprints, received ideas, the residue of psychic wounds, all forms of false consciousness. Since he pictures liberation as a state of tranquillity and “mineral silence” rather than one of religious or sexual ecstasy, this goal seems close to Freud’s ambition to replace neurotic unhappiness with ordinary unhappiness.
Being a novelist instead of a theoretician, Burroughs invariably paints the catastrophic possibilities inherent in any scheme of liberation. His pointed refusal to endorse “the garden of delights” of the psychedelic movement, though widely ignored at the time, reflects the stubborn complexity of a born realist. A strain of solid common sense serves as a bracket around writing uncommonly open to the apocalyptic imagination. It’s difficult to pinpoint the precise amount of put-on in the dozens of texts Burroughs contributed in the sixties and seventies to English and American underground newspapers, describing methods for instigating riots and disrupting the urban infrastructure. The chill-blooded revolutionary stance is seldom struck without irony; prescriptions for poisoning water supplies or launching biological warfare often turn up later as “routines” in Burroughs’s fictions, like The Wild Boys and Blade Runner (a movie). Nevertheless, it’s worth remembering that between roughly 1967 and 1973, the mood of much of the West was apocalyptic; authentic populist movements really did threaten the control mechanisms of the media-military-industrial complex, for the first and only time since World War II. Burroughs’s writings were part of a seminal, restive cultural mix that included Herbert Marcuse, N. O. Brown, Frantz Fanon, Claude Lévi-Strauss, and Marshall McLuhan—which in turn influenced such musicians as John Cage and La Monte Young; diverse artists, including R. B. Kitaj, Rauschenberg, Yoko Ono, and Jasper Johns; numerous theater directors, such as Jean-Claude van Itallie, Joseph Chaikin, and Julian Beck; innumerable writers; and filmmakers Nicolas Roeg, Veˇra Chytilová, Alejandro Jodorowsky, the Godard of One Plus One and Weekend, and the Pasolini of Pigpen, to name only a few.
Burroughs has remained an influential figure throughout the last two decades, partly on the strength of later [books] like Exterminator!, Port of Saints, Cities of the Red Night, The Place of Dead Roads, and The Western Lands, in which earlier experimental procedures have been integrated into more traditionally coherent narratives. Another part of Burroughs’s appeal, especially to younger readers, is the prophetic aura of his books. Naked Lunch, for example, refers ahead twenty years to liposuction (“stomach tucks”), autoerotic asphyxia, and a fatal AIDS-like viral epidemic. Some of his writing is uncanny in this respect. Some of it simply identifies problems that recur and magnify themselves historically—for example, drug hysteria, a relatively minor tool of social repression in the 1940s and 1950s, today a major implement of state terror. The “purple-assed baboon” routine, used in “Roosevelt After Inauguration” to satirize Roosevelt’s attempt to pack the Supreme Court, also anticipates the neoconservative takeover of the American judiciary in the 1980s and 1990s.
The culture has absorbed many of Burroughs’s ideas so thoroughly that their source is now obscured. A conspiratorial view of government didn’t originate with Burroughs, but he was the first American novelist to make justified paranoia a major literary theme. The idea of sinister forces controlling the world of appearances is commonplace in post-Watergate, post–Iran Contra America, but it was considered bizarre and unseemly when Burroughs invented the Nova Mob.
The pitch-black humor and rejection of humanism in Burroughs’s works were naturally embraced by the punk movement, notably by Patti Smith. In the distinctly unpsychedelic and junk-ridden milieu of downtown Manhattan in the late seventies, Burroughs was elder statesman, guru, and cautionary presence all in one. It would be foolish to claim that the strong antijunk message of Naked Lunch ever dissuaded a single junkie, or indeed was ever intended to. Both the courtroom transcripts from the 1966 Boston obscenity trial and Burroughs’s “Deposition: Testimony Concerning a Sickness” that preface all later editions of Naked Lunch serve exactly the same satirical purpose as the frontispiece disclaimers and pledges of high moral altitude that accompany any picaresque novel out to shock, from Defoe’s Roxana to Nabokov’s Lolita. In the seventies, Naked Lunch was to junkies what Alice in Wonderland and The Hobbit were to acidheads in the sixties. In other words, a completely accurate guide to what you could expect if you got addicted to heroin. In the days before AIDS, many people wanted, for reasons of their own, to go through hell and (maybe) live to tell about it. Burroughs’s writings were useful in the sense that reading them kept you from being too deluded about what you were doing.
The extravagant homoeroticism of The Wild Boys and Cities of the Red Night echoes in the films of Derek Jarman, which also employ the aleatory cutting techniques of Burroughs’s fiction. The device of anachronism in Cities of the Red Night—a formally tidy variant of the “time travel” produced by scrambled texts in earlier works—crops up in Jarman’s Caravaggio, Rudy Wurlitzer and Alex Cox’s film Walker, and a recent novel by William Gibson and Bruce Sterling, The Difference Engine. Burroughs’s literary influence on Kathy Acker, Dennis Cooper, David Wojnarowicz, and myself is as various as we are and probably something for others to elucidate.
Repetitive variations of the cut-up method using tape recorders and film, investigated by Burroughs in collaboration with Ian Sommerville and Antony Balch, have been adapted in music by Philip Glass, Gavin Bryars (the looping in The Sinking of the Titanic, in particular), and Glenn Branca (Symphony no. 2), among others; groups like the Insect Trust, Steely Dan, Hüsker Dü, and Throbbing Gristle have named themselves out of Naked Lunch and/or applied Burroughs’s techniques of composition. Burroughs has made numerous recordings combining readings of his work with experimental music, including the highly successful Dead City Radio, as well as other recordings made in collaboration with Giorno Poetry Systems. He recently collaborated with Robert Wilson and Tom Waits on The Black Rider, a music drama. Though imperfectly realized, the picture-book projects Ah Pook Is Here and The Book of Breeething were sufficiently well-known to have informed the recent outgrowth of “graphic novels”—grown-up comic books by such serious writers as Clive Barker and Michael Moorcock, intended to catch the short, primarily visual attention span of the TV-and-Nintendo generation.
The question of how Burroughs’s themes, characters, and ideas might be communicated to a wider audience remains complicated in 1991. Because certain important aspects of the work—explicit homoerotica and homoerotic violence, defecatory fantasies, etc.—are not only controversial but banned from mainstream film and from television, Burroughs’s mythology for the space age has “entered the mainstream” at an oblique angle. Religious hysteria surrounding the depiction of sexuality and bodily functions is a depressing, near-universal fact of life today. However, it would be insultingly reductive to suggest that Burroughs’s achievement consists entirely in his exemplary frankness about sucking and fucking. His invention of alternative worlds, of creatures like the Mugwumps, the Green Boys, and the Nova Mob, and of archetypal characters like Bradley the Buyer, A. J., the Afterbirth Tycoon, Hamburger Mary, and Dr. Benway represents a protean effort of imagination. Some of Burroughs’s complex insights into the social dynamics of addiction—and a good deal of Burroughsian humor—were incorporated into Gus Van Sant’s Drugstore Cowboy, a film that features Burroughs as a defrocked junkie priest. Though Ridley Scott adopted the title rather than the story of Burroughs’s Blade Runner, the movie’s cast of renegade androids and its bosky, evocative ambience—Piranesian architectural and human ruins outscaled by the monolithic “Mayan pyramids” of the corporate future—belong to Burroughs’s fictional world, as does the device of Scott’s Alien, i.e., a parasite that eventually consumes and assimilates its host organism. Among major filmmakers, it’s undoubtedly David Cronenberg, now director of the movie Naked Lunch, whose imagination most closely parallels Burroughs’s own. The lethal telepathic practices of Scanners, TV-induced brain tumors and “organic” videocassettes in Videodrome, fatal symbiosis between twins in Dead Ringers, and even—especially—the disembodied gallbladder that swims up between Barbara Steele’s legs in [Shivers] correspond to the queasily visceral marriages of flesh and technology pioneered by Naked Lunch, The Soft Machine, and Nova Express. More pertinent still is the crisply detached “paranoid realism” practiced by both artists: the sense that every human interaction contains the possibility of homicide. Or, as the title of Alan Ansen’s 1959 essay on Burroughs put it, “Anyone Who Can Pick Up a Frying Pan Owns Death.”