If there is one element that is always present in Naked Lunch it is irony. In place of a linear storyline, Burroughs opted to use irony as the one consistent ingredient, quite at odds with the world of the 1950s (think Eisenhower and a positive, can-do spirit), if not also at odds with the present world.
There are no heroes in Naked Lunch. But, then, there are no real villains, either. There are certainly characters that could be seen as villains, but the question of polar morality in Naked Lunch is a lost cause, since no one is guiltless, and everyone has already been incriminated in some way or another. To be truly accurate, one could only say that Naked Lunch has 'guilty' and 'guiltier' characters. The protagonists are just as mired as the antagonists, and it leaves only a moral vacuum where real life is left as an answer to dealing with the issues raised by an always present, but invisible author.
Burroughs didn't see himself as someone who could afford to take sides in his work. Interviews after the writing of Naked Lunch record him as saying that he thought of himself as a kind of ghost on the sidelines watching his characters, some of whom he hated, some of whom he liked and some of whom he respected. He was only there to record, so the world of good vs. evil is more or less thrown out in favor of a world wrapped in ironic portrayals of authority and conventional thinking, both subjects that he was obsessed with changing (sometimes, literally attacking) throughout his career as a writer. He becomes 'El Hombre Invisible' again (the name given to him by street kids in Mexico), even referring to himself by this name in the text. He is a silent presence, observing on the contextual sidelines of his own work.
Burroughs' satire can be vicious, at times. His grotesque images are designed to create allegories/parables for the real world designed to strip away the lies of what he believes to be a calculated, constructed world of images to reveal the naked person underneath. It is something akin to that old saying that we are all naked underneath our clothes. At times, it appears his duty is to strip away not just clothes, but skin and bone as well, if need be. The ones calculating the images are doing it for their own nefarious benefit, so it is Burroughs' duty to retaliate with the only weapon they respect, fear and know: words. His writing is a glimpse at a private war against corrupt forces at work around us and Burroughs is not anything if he is not relentlessly militant in his approach to writing.
However, the ironic only works because what the novel espouses is not what the author wants to see. As Wayne Booth noted about Naked Lunch in his book, 'A Rhetoric of Irony', "...the irony is limited still by a genuine revulsion, which means a genuine regret that life is so awful. If nothing really mattered, nothing portrayed in words could nauseate me, and what is more, I would not try to nauseate others with a picture of how things are." (RI, 211) Booth points out that the whole purpose of irony in Burroughs' work is to point to problems and issues that 'nauseate', in Booth's words. Burroughs wants to highlight problems through situations that are obviously undesirable. Most of the undesirable situations for him fall under an umbrella of religious conservatism and hypocrisy. It appears that his best weapon was satire and irony as tools to expose lies in the figures he despised, even going so far as to include himself, at times.
One of the better methods he utilizes to accentuate the absurd situations that conventional thinking and conservative religious values lead to is through grotesque satires that border on surrealism. Burroughs will often take a normal, almost scripted situation normal to life (such as a visit to a doctor, or an interview with a prospective employer), and then find a way to turn it on itself. Take one of his most famous images for example, the story of the man who teaches his rectum to talk. The man is delighted, at first, to find that he has a special talent, only to find that the talking fundament takes over. The over-active rectum decides it doesn't need the body's original mouth anymore, since it can eat and defecate on its own, all through one convenient orifice.
"Benway: Why not one all-purpose blob? Did I ever tell you about the man who taught his asshole to talk? His whole abdomen would move up and down you dig farting out the words. It was unlike anything I ever heard.
This ass had sort of a gut frequency. It hit you right down there like you gotta go. You know when the old colon gives you the elbow and feels sort of cold inside, and you know all you have to do is turn loose. Well this talking hit you right down there, a bubbly thick, stagnant sound, a sound you could smell.
This man worked for a carnival you dig, and to start with it was like a novelty ventriloquist act. Real funny, too, at first. He had a number he called 'The Better 'Ole' that was a scream, I tell you...
After a while the ass started talking on its own. He would go in without anything prepared and his ass would ad-lib and toss the gags back at him every time.
Then it developed sort of teeth-like little raspy incurving hooks and started eating. He thought this was cute at first and built an act around it, but the asshole would eat its way through his pants and start talking on the street, shouting out that it wanted equal rights. It would get drunk, too, and have crying jags nobody loved it and it wanted to be kissed same as any other mouth. Finally it talked all the time day and night, you could hear him for blocks screaming at it to shut up, and beating it with his fist, and sticking candles up it, but nothing did any good and the asshole said to him: "It's you who will shut up in the end. Not me. Because we don't need you around here anymore. I can talk and eat and shit."
After that he began waking up in the morning with a transparent jelly like a tadpole's tail all over his mouth. This jelly was what the scientists call un-D.T., Undifferentiated Tissue, which can grow into any kind of flesh on the human body...So finally his mouth sealed over, and the whole head would have amputated spontaneous...except for the eyes, you dig. That's one thing the asshole couldn't do was see. It needed the eyes. But nerve connections were blocked and infiltrated and atrophied so the brain couldn't give orders any more. It was trapped in the skull, sealed off. For a while you could see the silent, suffering of the brain behind the eyes, then finally the brain must have died, because the eyes went out, and there was no more feeling in them than a crab's eye on the end of a stalk. (NL, 110-112)
The image is humorous, as are many of Burroughs' images, but it also speaks to the reality of people's lies. The man is a vaudeville performer (an almost prophetic image of inherent subservience on its own) whose odd talent takes over and becomes the driving force in their strange relationship. This could easily describe the problem of any number of modern entertainers and politicians: the thing they try to mold and force to their own purposes takes over and ends up devouring them. They have no control over their creation, as they are only part of a greater whole, despite what they feel themselves to be. When his rectum becomes both his mouth and voice, leaving the brain to function on its own behind dead, insect eyes, the man's transformation is complete, leaving only a mindless automaton of a creature. The idea of being the victim of a greater power unleashed on the world is applicable in both the world of the early 20th century, when wars raged (Burroughs' generation), and in our world of ever-growing paranoia and control.
It is hard to decide whether or not this image is a figure of Burroughs himself. This is the most subversive element in this image, as the performer could as easily be Burroughs as any other performer. Inherent in his inability to trust authority, Burroughs must include his own advice in the net of lies that the reader should be wary of. As what could be a failed experiment of Benway, the unethical scientist and doctor, or simply one of his observed studies, the satirical image of the talking rectum could also be Burroughs as someone in thrall to those in the medical field, as he was often at the mercy of doctors to help him get cured from his addictions. Or, if we are to replace pharmacists with doctor as people in medical authority, he was often dependent on them to maintain his drug addictions. Either way, Burroughs as the victim of his own talking rectum is a possible location for the image in the author's (Burroughs) mind.
And, yet, beyond all of this, the image is plainly funny. It is the perfect grotesque image because it combines satirical humor and prophetic message, much in the tradition of Swift or Rabelais. Creating and utilizing the scatological image, like this one, is where Burroughs seems to feel most comfortable. He uses it over and over throughout Naked Lunch. Keeping in mind his conservative, Protestant-derived culture, it is definitely the most delicate area possible to joke about. This makes sense as Burroughs was often quoted as saying he deplored his severely bourgeois upbringing in St. Louis, with all of its false modesty and silly decorum.
The irony is central to the image, though. Without a clear message inherent to the construct, there would be nothing of note here, but because it is so easy to pick apart the image and derive the various possible targets for ridicule and judgment, and because the idea of a part of one's own body taking over the body as a whole is both so funny and so horrific that it becomes ridiculous, the image satisfies both elements of Burroughs' central purpose. His constant assault on mindlessly conservative values such as this image attacks is the ultimate goal of this novel. While it is also possible that he is poking fun at himself, the image still works as a tool for catharsis, allowing petty grievances over confusing value-systems to slip away in a wash of humor. Though catharsis seems to take a back-seat to much of Burroughs' intent, it is typical of Western ideology to produce an morally deplorable iconic figure which allows the audience to be both disgusted and nauseated at it, and even take out their anger on it, without doing harm to one another.
The introduction of Dr. Benway as an image of authority, and in his case specifically, medical authority, is an important part of Naked Lunch. Dr. Benway is one of Burroughs' more memorable characters, and one his funniest. A recurring character in later novels of Burroughs', he seems to be behind many elaborate schemes. Benway is absent-minded, careless, a drug addict (like most characters in Naked Lunch) and a master-schemer, endlessly thinking of ways to manipulate and coerce people. Above all, he is confident and arrogant, fitting the archetype of the typical 1950's doctor, a medical God who has power over the bodies and dignity of an entire hospital under his control. Though this is no longer the case in the medical field, this was certainly the message that doctors were told to deliver in the time that Burroughs was writing. Because he trained for a year as a pre-med student in Prague during the 1930's, Burroughs draws on personal experience in this particular creation. As part of his nebulously assigned mission, Lee is requested to get help from Dr. Benway to complete his goal.
So I am assigned to engage the services of Dr. Benway for Islam Inc.
Dr. Benway had been called in as advisor to the Freeland Republic, a place given over to free love and continual bathing. The citizens are well adjusted, cooperative, honest, tolerant and above all clean. But the invoking of Benway indicates all is not well behind the façade: Benway is a manipulator and coordinator of symbol systems, an expert on all phases of interrogation, brainwashing and control...
I reach Freeland, which is clean and dull my God. Benway is directing the R.C., Reconditioning Center...
"C'mon," says Benway, "I'll show you around the R.C."
"God damned matriarchy. All matriarchies anti-homo-sexual, conformist and prosaic. Find yourself in a matriarchy walk don't run to the nearest frontier. If you run, some frustrate latent queer cop will likely shoot you. So somebody wants to establish a beach head of homogeneity in a shambles of potentials like West Europe and U.S.A.? Another fucking matriarchy, Margaret Mead not withstanding...
"Spot of bother there. Scalpel fight with a colleague in the operating room. And my baboon assistant leaped on the patient and tore him to pieces. Baboons always attack the weakest party in an altercation. Quite right too. We must never forget our glorious simian heritage. Doc Brubeck was a party inna second part. A retired abortionist and junk pusher (he was a veterinarian, actually) recalled to service during the manpower shortage. Well Doc had been in the hospital kitchen all morning goosing the nurses and tanking up on coal gas and Klim - and just before the operation he sneaked a double shot of nutmeg to nerve himself up."
"I had a yagé hangover, me, and in no condition to take any of Brubeck's shit. First thing he comes on with I should start the incision from the back instead of the front, muttering some garbled nonsense about being sue to cut out the gall bladder it would fuck up the meat. Thought he was on the farm cleaning a chicken. I told him to go put his head back in the oven, whereupon he had the effrontery to push my hand, severing the patient's femoral artery. Blood spurted up and blinded the anesthetist, who ran through the halls screaming. Brubeck tried to knee me in the groin, and I managed to hamstring him with my scalpel. He crawled about the floor stabbing at my feet and legs. Violet, that's my baboon assistant - only woman I ever cared a damn about - really wigged. I climbed up on the table and poise myself to jump on Brubeck with both feet and stomp him when the cops rush in."
(NL 19, 25-26)
The ridiculous fight in the operating room between the assisting doctor and the baboon nurse and Benway is one of Burroughs' most acute uses of satire, hinting at the reality behind the fake décor of hospital professionalism. It takes a serious and austere situation and turns it on its ear. The irony of taking the baboon assistant seriously pokes fun at the way power is used by those who wield it, given that Benway has the ability to maintain that kind of a staff if he so chooses. Benway is Burroughs' strongest example of control and power gone awry. He crafts the character as someone that believes himself to be an expert, while constantly showing himself to be incompetent. Yet, he holds all the power, and in this case, power over the bodies of those in the Reconditioning Center (an ominous title in and of itself, hinting at the use of power to do with the weak what it will). People still listen to him and respect him as figure to be honored, even though it is clear that he is useless, and they know it. Burroughs' sets up a situation where the help of Dr. Benway is required to carry out his mission (though what the mission is exactly, and whether it was assigned to him by someone else or himself is unclear) though it is immediately obvious that Dr. Benway is of no help. In fact, as the head of the R.C., he may very well be working against Lee, in this pulp-fiction world of spies and intrigue. Nonetheless, Benway is a clear indictment of authority figures, for which Burroughs seems to have no end of animosity.
The mixed jumble of assignments and spying are another part of the ironic fabric of Naked Lunch. The `assignments' come from out of nowhere and they seem to evaporate just as quickly into the background. This is why it is unclear whether they are actually part of the dreams of a sick junkie, or the mission of someone who is too addicted to stay focused on the task at hand. Either way, they set a tone of intrigue against a backdrop of satire that Naked Lunch maintains throughout. The confusion is part of the plot, and it is required to reinforce the sense of paranoia and loneliness that Burroughs infuses into all his novels.
The setting of the pulp novel is also important to Burroughs. We see the pulp novel setting in at various points and it is used in a number of ways. Sometimes it is a Western (a mode of story-telling he adopts for a trilogy later in his career), sometimes a Crime novel or a Horror novel. Always, though, it is ironic and meant to point away from the text to something outside of it: generally a realization of how much in life is constructed rather than lived in reality. Much of the action and description in Naked Lunch takes place only in the consciousness of Lee. A good case could be made for the idea that nothing happens at all in Naked Lunch; that the entire novel is merely a drug-addicts dreams and illusions, with real life people taking the place of characters. But, the pulp novel often sets the stage for the description. While Burroughs uses many types of rhetoric throughout the novel, all them in a somewhat ironic posture, the pulp novel is the most consistent.
Though Burroughs claimed in interviews to never read very many books, most interviewers over the nearly 30 years he was writing usually noted the various books he kept in his immediate vicinity. They were often a mixture of traditional literature such as Joseph Conrad, a major on Burroughs, and the pulp novels of the genre variety he continually used as inspiration for writing his own books. He loved Science Fiction and Crime novels all his life, so Naked Lunch is rich with the language of pulp novels. For example, the characters of O'Brien and Hauser, two cops in the Narcotics Squad of an ambiguous city's Police Department (probably Interzone, but it is not stated) reappear from time to time.
Hauser and O'Brien. They had been on the City Narcotic Squad for 20 years. Old-timers like me. I had been on the junk for 16 years. They weren't bad as laws go. At least O'Brien wasn't. O'Brien was the con man, and Hauser the tough guy. A vaudeville team. Hauser had a way of hitting you before he said anything, just to break the ice. Then O'Brien gives you an Old Gold - just like a cop to smoke Old Golds somehow - and starts putting down a cop con that was really bottled in bond. Not a bad guy, and I didn't want to do it. But it was my only chance.
I was just tying up for my morning shot when they walked in with a passkey. It was a special kind you can use when the door is locked from the inside with a key in the lock. On the table in front of me was a packet of junk, spike, syringe - I got the habit of using a regular syringe in Mexico and never went back to using a dropper - alcohol, cotton and a glass of water.
"Well, well," says O'Brien..."Long time no see eh?"
"Put on your coat, Lee," says Hauser. He had his gun out. He always has it out when he makes a pinch for the psychological effect and to forestall a rush for toilet, sink or window.
"Can I take a bang first, boys?" I asked..."There's plenty here for evidence..." (NL 175-176)
As if it were right out of a Raymond Carver or a Mickey Spillane paperback, Burroughs creates a short episode that echoes the situation he introduces in the opening pages of the novel. It is the junkie running from the law, outwitting them as he seems to always do, despite the fact that he feels some kind of affinity for them, at least in this moment. They are not evil necessarily, just doing their job, as he is. They are as much a victim of a confused system as the junkie is, so the only question that remains is whether or not they will capture him. The rest is up to the wit and desperation of Lee, it seems.
The irony of a situation that neither party is able to escape from is shown here with the language of a Crime novel, whose well-established rhetorical lines form a situation with only two possible outcomes: either the junkie dies or cops die. Perhaps Burroughs is hinting at the futility of such situations in real life, and the way that many things are almost set plots due to the prejudices of Western culture. Burroughs often remarked in interviews that the introduction of an authoritarian presence into a situation would inevitably cause a negative outcome, where there wasn't one before. The scripted reality of the events in the Hauser and O'Brien episode are a good illustration of this idea. The familiarity of cliché rhetorical methods such as the ones usually found in genre fiction are used by Burroughs to reverse the purpose of the archetype that we expect from a crime novel, and the language is used to present a comic scene in which the 'bad guy' wins.
If we are to think back to Booth's comments about 'nausea', this time in a literary sense, Burroughs is using the format of pulp novels as a method to speak in the language of a genre that is both familiar, but not taken seriously, to demonstrate that both the genre and the characters are indicative of a control center that must be avoided. The language of a crime novel finds familiar territory in the addition of two narcotics officers trying to bust a sick, but desperate junkie. The only untypical thing that happens is that the junkie makes his escape after killing the two seemingly able cops.
Burroughs was often strongly criticized for the pornographic sections of Naked Lunch, and especially for the homosexual scenes, which make up the majority of all the sex scenes. They were a shock to audiences when he wrote the book and they are generally shocking now. Some have called them nothing but perverted fantasies written only to amuse Burroughs' himself, but they definitely have a purpose beyond the scope of titillation, though that may be part of it. At the center of the sexual imagery, which is also violent and even distasteful, is Burroughs' constant purpose in Naked Lunch: control mechanisms. Much like the Marquis de Sade's portrayals of eroticism, sexual imagery in Burroughs is both flamboyant and grotesque to the point of offending the reader, but it is decidedly un-erotic.
There is an early scene in the book that involves a Mugwump, a non-human creature (or, at least, it is not human anymore) that is the actualized epitome of the drug and control addict. In it, during a party at the famous Hassan's Rumpus Room, he makes a violent sexual spectacle of having intercourse with and then killing a boy by hanging him. Hanging is Burroughs' favorite sexual/violent image as it demonstrates the physiological fact that males immediately have orgasms when they are hanged. Burroughs uses the situation over and over again, usually in situations where another is forcing the bizarre sexual/violent ritual.
The Mugwump slips the noose over the boy's head and tightens the knot caressingly behind the left ear. The boy's penis is retracted, his balls tight. He looks straight ahead breathing deeply. The Mugwump sidles around the boy goosing him and caressing his genitals in hieroglyphs of mockery. He moves in behind the boy with a series of bumps and shoves his cock up the boy's ass. He stands there moving in circular gyrations.
The guests shush each other, nudge and giggle.
Suddenly the Mugwump pushes the boy forward into space, free of his cock. He steadies the boy with hands on the hip bones, reaches up with his stylized hieroglyph hands and snaps the boy's neck. A shudder passes through the boy's body. His penis rises in three great surges pulling his pelvis up, ejaculates immediately.
The imagery is designed to both shock and unseat the reader, as an alien being takes total control and all dignity from a young boy. There is no disputing that Burroughs may well have found these images attractive and arousing, but the point goes beyond that to demonstrating the grotesque sensibility that can stomach atrocities such as public murders. Remember, Burroughs lived in Tangiers at the time, where public executions were not unheard of by the Islamic government of the time. Burroughs takes the idea even farther by adding the sexual element, which is often present in Western depictions of violence, and then makes it ironic by staging the scene in front of an audience. The Mugwump is an artist, drawing attention to his art-form - in this case sex and murder - as a kind of statement, though within the context of the story, the only statement available seems to be total depravity. It also highlights the total control over the boy that Mugwump has, a perfect example of Burroughs' concept of sex as a control device. The theme of control through sex echoes throughout Burroughs' work, and he sees this kind of act as a nightmare world of rape and, as he calls it, death through the Last Erection. After this scene, the party goes wild and mass orgies begin taking place.
Yet, none of this is explicitly condoned within the context of what Burroughs is setting up. He is an outsider looking in, and even if it a kind of fantasy for him as a writer, it is also a grotesque fantasy. As he does with all his characters, he is merely the observer, El Hombre Invisible, in this case, merely watching from the sidelines as things fall apart. Given that sex was a very complicated and confused subject for Burroughs, I would argue that he is both turned on and repulsed by the descriptions he gives in Hassan's Rumpus Room and later in A.J.'s annual Party. Both contain explicit sexual depictions of grotesque demonstrations of violent sexual activity presented before a depraved audience of characters designed to be seen as perverts. However, they are also free, so the image confounds itself, creating a disconnect between clear morality and the typically ambiguous morality of Naked Lunch.
Nonetheless, the sexual scenes in Naked Lunch are generally what most people remember, and often receive the most vicious criticism from those who dispute the value of the book. One has to wonder whether Burroughs summation of the uneasiness people of the time had with any conversation about sex is much different in our day. Certainly, people are more inclined to talk about sex in a pragmatic way, but reactions to Burroughs' work even in our day seems to be divided at times between the nausea Booth refers to, though not in an ironic context, and discomfort. Perhaps this is not a negative situation, since the images are clearly designed to evoke an uncomfortable feeling among readers, leaving them with a clear image of a depraved way of thinking. Typical of Burroughs, though, is the subversive element of leaving in the reader's mind a question as to what is, in fact, the more depraved image: bizarre sexual behavior, or the mass confusion of people from an authority that does not care.
Burroughs' overall purpose in creating this world of manic images and often violent humor is to make the reader laugh and to preach a straightforward message of confusion. (Given that Burroughs' grandfather was a circuit preacher for the Methodist church, one sometimes detects a religious-like stance in his writing.) His message is that nothing is as simple, pure or easy as it has been presented to you. Anything that seems to be simple and pure is probably a lie. Whether or not this is true is dependent on the reader. Much of Burroughs' conclusions are derived from his own jaded life, it seems, but nonetheless his book foreshadowed many events that took place in the years just after he wrote it. The war in Vietnam, the lies of Watergate, even the rumors that Kennedy had been shot and killed in a conspiracy all seemed to ring true to the prophetic sounding message he delivered in 1959.
A few years after the publishing of Naked Lunch, Burroughs' ironic view of the world also seemed to come to light in the Deconstructionist philosophies of the post-WWII French literary critics and philosophers such as Jacques Derrida and Roland Barthes. Taken from early 20th century ontological philosophers such as Husserl and Heidegger, their main message was that whatever was being said to the reader could probably be dismantled into its separate parts and be shown to be false. Often, they said, the very words used to prove one thing could easily prove that very thing wrong. Words and ideas were considered to be transitory in meaning and not the fixed moorings of knowledge that earlier philosophers had tried to make them. Not everything was/is so easily, magically created from a simple combination of words and phrases owned by an intelligentsia that shuts out the less informed. Though he did not know it, in his later cut-ups and the jangled writing style of Naked Lunch, Burroughs was a perfect demonstration of many of the ideas espoused by the Deconstructionists, though there is basically no way Burroughs would have known about them until much later in his career, when their work became more popular in North America and England. Also, Burroughs seems to have been almost entirely ignorant and uninterested in Literary Criticism, though its growing popularity is almost synchronous with Burroughs' career.
Texts used in this essay:
Booth, Wayne C. A Rhetoric of Irony, University of Chicago Press. Chicago: 1974.
Burroughs, William S. Naked Lunch: the Restored Text, Grove Press. New York:1959, revised 2001.