Perhaps the least understood area in the Burroughs story is the issue of drugs. In one sense, Naked Lunch is entirely a story about drugs and drug use, the life of the addict and the struggles of overcoming addiction, but this only on the surface. In another sense it is not about drugs at all. Drugs only become the medium to portray a repetitious essay about the dangers of unchecked organizational power. At the same time, though, the fact cannot be ignored that many of the events in the book are only embellished tales from Burroughs own personal experience. So, Naked Lunch treats the issue of drugs as a cautionary tale of pleasure and pain, and attempts to cut away the layers of dogmatic thinking that surrounded the world of drugs in the 1950's (as well as the present world) by presenting it as it was, at least for him. He neither glorifies nor completely demonizes the junkie, but presents him as a sick individual in need of a cure if he is to find relief.
What makes the issue of drugs in Naked Lunch confusing, or misunderstood, though, is not the detailed descriptions of the drug use, but the issue of Burroughs' constantly shifting morals about the problem. Burroughs never really makes a statement that the reader can take as a stance about the issue. In Naked Lunch the reader sees the junkie in action, and the picture shows both the comforts and the disadvantages of drug use, and in particular heroin use. But, in interviews and novels later on, drugs are deemed dangerous or useless, though they continue to play a part in the novels.
So, why the constantly shifting viewpoint?
It's not as if he suddenly became an advocate for anti-drug laws. He certainly didn't speak out against them in an overly aggressive way. His 'Deposition: Testimony Concerning a Sickness', which was included as an Introduction in the first American edition of Naked Lunch (by Grove Press in 1962), spends quite a bit of time on the drug issue, but (as this essay notes) equates the issue of addiction to government control and not as an inherent quality of the drugs themselves. In interviews he seems almost subdued, or trying to avoid the subject, knowing that legions of drug-using counter-culture thinkers would be reading the underground press-type magazines he usually gave interviews to. As with nearly all things in Burroughs life, there is strong evidence of a serious inner conflict over the issue of drug use and expanded consciousness. He seems to have seriously doubted the merits of using drugs for any purpose but to feel different, often commenting that any experience a person had while under the influence of drugs could be replicated without them, if the person knew how. While this has the feeling of an attempt to deter people from drugs through a slightly falsified statement, it certainly shows an aversion to the idea that a chemical has the power to make the mind more open to new ideas. His views on Timothy Leary's experiments with LSD are a case in point.
Burroughs tended to skirt the issues of saying what he really thought about Leary's experiments, though the question was often put to him during interviews in the 1960's. Usually he hinted at finding them silly, but more often than not just assumed them to be pointless. His own experiments, though never detailed in any elaborate way (certainly not in the way that Leary's experiments were written about by Tom Wolfe in "The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test"), were included as evidence in the essay Letter From a Master Addict to Dangerous Drugs, written in 1956, before Naked Lunch, and published in the British Journal of Addiction. In it, Burroughs details all of his experiences thus far, which is fairly extensive if ones remembers he wrote the essay when he was 42. However, he was still using drugs on and off in the years immediately after writing the essay. Perhaps it is best to say that his view on drugs was that they were fun, but only offering limited means to ends for the user.
The issue of drugs could easily have been dealt with under the subject of societal control, since Burroughs often commented that drugs were just another control mechanism used by governments and underground governments to maintain a money-making system over uneducated, easy prey. In some senses, he seems to have certainly been right. He would not be the first to suggest that government agencies in America used illegal as well as legal drugs as a tool to maintain a status quo among both the rich and the poor. Civil rights leaders in the 1960's hinted that the abundance of liquor stores and easy access to illegal drugs in black neighborhoods in the United States was not going unnoticed by legislators and lawmakers. Perhaps the abundance of access to addictive substances was a ploy to keep people focused on drinking or shooting up rather than gaining positions of power and prominence. This idea would definitely have appealed to Burroughs' acute sense of distrust with the American government and its power-elite.
So, in Naked Lunch we see an endless parade of junkies, pushers and police officers devoted to maintaining and profiting from drug abuse. Burroughs' equation for this idea was called the Algebra of Need, a symbiotic relationship whereby the junkie, pusher/dealer and cop all work in unison to make sure that the other exists. Each part relies on the other for its own existence. If the junkie stops using, then the cop has nothing to do, so laws are created that will put people in situations to find themselves disposed to using drugs. For instance, arresting someone of suspicion of drug possession and then putting them in jail where they are likely to encounter drugs. Once they are out on the street again, they have experienced drug use and crave it, giving the police added incentive to maintain a situation where their work is required.
The equation is both simple and paranoid. It runs throughout Naked Lunch (and much of Burroughs' work of the 1960's) as a common theme that is returned to again and again. As has been mentioned, most of the characters in the book are junkies, addicted to one type of drug or another. Some, like Lee, use heroin or heroin/morphine derivatives, while others use imaginary drugs, such as the Black Meat or Mugwump Fluid, which Burroughs invents as an illustration of issues concerning control. Sometimes, the opiates and imaginary drugs are required by the agent to complete his mission. Marijuana is present, but Burroughs' opinion of marijuana was that it was not much of a drug, and much closer to alcohol in its effectiveness. Because of this, it does not take a prominent place among the drug anecdotes in the book.
The opening chapter of the book is a narrative from Lee's point of view as a junkie in New York, running from the law and relating 'trade' stories from the lifestyle of a heroin addict. The early section of the novel has a few different anecdotes from an anthropological perspective about how drug addicts live. It reads like a disjointed monograph on a foreign race, interspersed with bracketed mini anecdotes to clarify certain points. The tone is ironic, the narrator relating how a junkie caught in jail will often prepare for such a mishap by always squeezing one drop of heroin into his shirt pocket every time he administers the drug, over and over, just in case he finds himself in such a situation. In the event that he does find himself in jail, the junkie is able to add water to the pocket and get a fix that can tide him over until he is released. The narrator also describes the way a junkie will use a pin hidden in his shoe to make a small hole in his calf, just large enough to drip the reinvigorated heroin into.
Provident junkies, known as squirrels, keep stashes against a bust. Every time I take a shot I let a few drops fall into my vest pocket, the lining is stiff with stuff. I had a plastic dropper in my shoe and a safety pin stuck in my belt. You know how this pin and dropper routine is put down: "She seized a safety pin caked with blood and rust, gouged a great hole in her leg which seemed to hang open like an obscene, festering mouth waiting for unspeakable congress with the dropper which she now plunged out of sight into the gaping wound. But her hideous galvanized need (hunger of insects in dry places) has broken the dropper off deep in the flesh of her ravaged thigh (looking rather like a poster on soil erosion). But what does she care? She does not even bother to remove the splintered glass, looking down at her bloody haunch with the cold blank eyes of a meat trader. What does she care for the atom bomb, the bedbugs, the cancer rent, Friendly Finance waiting to repossess her delinquent flesh...Sweet Dreams, Pantopon Rose."
The real scene you pinch up some leg flesh and make a quick stab hole with a pin. Then fit the dropper over, not in the hole and feed the solution slow and careful so it doesn't squirt out the sides...(NL, 10)
In this instance, the description of the way to administer the shot without a needle while stuck in jail (or any other equally indisposed situation) is repeated so that the reader sees both sides of the story. First Burroughs delivers a typical ironic speech of the type usually heard in lurid stories from crime magazines or government 'testimonials' in propaganda films designed to frighten the potential user. The second description is of the actual method, which seems less exciting following the lie. This kind of dual description method follows Burroughs' idea that the problem of drug addiction does not begin and end with the junkie, but encompasses the authorities in a situation that forces a junkie to hide a dropper in his shoe and stab his leg with a pin just to take his drug. His correction of false information, the type that is more likely to be heard by the public at large, paints a less gruesome, less interesting picture.
The purpose of this 'shop talk' is to build the illusion of the junkie lifestyle, to force the reader into the place of the `square' from the opening page of the novel, pulling the reader into the lifestyle, but always keeping them at a safe distance on purpose. As well, the narrator is always mocking the reader just a little bit, hinting at how much the reader doesn't know and does not really want to know about Lee's lifestyle. Lee/Burroughs is just a like an animal in the zoo for the reader, at least in the opening sections of the novel.
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 Washington Square Station, vault a turnstile and two flights down the iron stairs, catch uptown A train...Young, good looking, crew cut, Ivy League, advertising executive type fruit holds the door back for me. I am evidently his idea of a character. You know the type: comes on with bartenders and cab drivers, talking about right hooks and the Dodgers, calls the counterman in Nedick's by his first name. A real asshole. (NL, 3)
This is one of the better tricks in Naked Lunch, taking the reader and setting him/her at odds with the book itself. The author purposely creates a situation that mimics the opening passage, knowing that most readers would not know any more than the 'square' in the subway that holds the door open for Lee. As the book progresses, they are more likely to become part of the world that is evolving on the page, now that they have come into contact with the drugs and the lives of the seedy characters of Interzone. This shows the complexity at which Burroughs was operating in writing the novel, and hints at his ability to create a far more layered work than the average narrative. He was not simply detailing pornographic elements and glorifying drug use, but purposely inventing a very self-reflective world of drugs and secrecy: the world of agents and addicts that is Naked Lunch.
The imaginary drugs in the book are the most colorful, as they introduce a unique science fiction-like element to the story. They are almost asides in the novel, not exactly serving a specific purpose, but they add to the tone of the world surrounding Interzone. They add texture and allow for different views of drugs as tools to control, though they don't actually exist. (It should be mentioned here that these element are the kind Burroughs most likely took from the pulp Science-Fiction he loved and always read, as well as being the elements most influential to later Science-Fiction writers and film-makers.) The Black Meat is one of these drugs, though its effect is not explicitly stated, other than to say that it causes sickness in the users.
All streets of the city slope down between deepening canyons to a vast kidney-shaped plaza full of darkness. Walls of streets and plaza are perforated by dwelling cubicles and cafés, some a few feet deep, others extending out of sight in a network of rooms and corridors.
At all levels, criss-cross of bridges, cat walks, cable cars. Catatonic youths dressed as women in gowns of burlap and rotten rags, faces heavily and crudely painted in bright colors over stratum of beatings, arabesques of broken, suppurating scars to the pearly bone, push against the passer-by in silent clinging insistence.
Traffickers in the Black Meat, flesh of the giant aquatic black centipede - sometimes attaining a length of six feet - found in a lane of black rocks and iridescent, brown lagoons, exhibit paralyzed crustaceans in camouflaged pockets of the Plaza visible only to the Meat Eaters...
Several Meat Eaters lay in vomit, too weak to move. (The Black Meat is like a tainted cheese, overpoweringly delicious and nauseating so that the eaters eat and vomit and eat again until they fall exhausted.) (NL, 45, 47)
Though the actual effect and attraction of the Black Meat seems to be more taste than biological changes or euphoric feelings, it is never actually stated. Only the fact that this substance produces cravings to ingest it over and over again makes it a drug, despite making the user violently ill and causing vomiting. The drug seems to be an image of desire and craving more than anything else. It foregrounds the idea that drug use is more about desire and the fear of not having something than it is about the effects the drug has on the body. The Meat Eaters only want to eat over and over again, even though they know that they will feel worse after eating the Black Meat. But, desire holds them in check and they have little ability to refuse because of the effects of the drug. This is an example of Burroughs' concept of Total Need, the desire that takes over a body entirely when constant drug use is introduced. No adverse effect caused by the drug can turn the user off of finding more. Obviously the associations to be made between the Black Meat and actual opiates are obvious, but Burroughs uses many devices such as this to illustrate the idea.
The picture he paints of a world totally in service to the substance that the Meat Eaters (and the other types of addicts in the scene, as well) crave is meant to mimic our world. In some ways, it is meant to be a model of Tangiers at the time he lived there, where, in the wake of WWII, the rule of law seems almost to have been eliminated in the bustle and confusion of country coming back into its own sense of self after decades of French rule. On the other hand, this is also an alternate universe, the world of the junkie, so not everything is strictly a metaphor for real life. However, as is the case for everything in Naked Lunch, it can be used as an example of what not to do. Interzone is the end result of a world held in check by the Algebra of Need. People are utterly controlled by substance abuse and the economic conditions. The residents can do little except sit back and be taken in by its equation.
Of course, the Algebra of Need goes beyond the issue of drugs and runs over into all areas of control and dominance. The need for laws to control people, though there were no issues to control previously, is a continuous storyline in Naked Lunch. The desire to be sure of total dominance, or the illusion of total dominance by a ruling power is also present. Ultimately, the Algebra of Need describes the futility of laws and control that have gone beyond the most basic human functional society. As Burroughs saw it, people need only a modicum of rule-making and supervisory control to operate perfectly well as a society. The novels he would write in the latter half of his career would always revolve around fantasies of near-anarchic societies that don't require a massive organizational complex for their success. Naked Lunch is a demonstration of the world when it has gone the other way, when the rules and laws have multiplied to such an extreme that no one is guiltless of breaking a law, as all laws have been created solely to put people in a position of guilt. Yet, there is no one to maintain these laws, so everything is a legal stasis. There are only random arrests and secret meetings to determine punishment.
Again, Benway is the best character in the book to use in examining the issue of control, specifically through the use of consciousness-altering narcotics. His work in the Reconditioning Centre uses drugs as a main ingredient in the control regimen he has designed to 'recondition' those interred there.
I digress as usual. Pending more precise knowledge of brain electronics, drugs remain an essential tool of the interrogator in his assault on the subject's personal identity. The barbiturates are, of course, virtually useless. That is, anyone who can be broken down by such means would succumb to the puerile methods used in an American precinct. Scopolamine is often effective in dissolving resistance, but it impairs the memory: an agent might be prepared to reveal his secrets but quite unable to remember them, or cover story and secret life info might be inextricably garbled...
There are other procedures. The subject can be reduced to deep depression by administering large doses of Benzedrine for several days. Psychosis can be induced by continual large doses of cocaine or Demerol or by the abrupt withdrawal of barbiturates after prolonged administration. He can be addicted by dihydro-oxy-heroin and subjected to withdrawal (this compound should be five times as addicting as heroin, and the proportionately severe.) (NL, 23)
This passage highlights the more institutionalized use of drugs as a tool for control, though the theme is the same throughout the book. Benway hints at the fact that many of the people in the Reconditioning Center are agents that have been caught and must now be interrogated for useful information. The use of drugs to extract that information is a key element in the procedures of the R.C. Benway is complacent about the torture and talks about the patients in terms of lifeless objects. They are merely tools to practice on. Burroughs pointedly uses a control figure as the initiator of drug use with the specific purpose of confusing and emotionally tearing down the patient. He has very little concern for the feelings of those he works on and the use of drugs fascinates him, so he tries as many different methods as he can. This is all done, purportedly, in the name of science. The presentation of a doctor figure as completely callous and disinterested in the patients is interesting, as Burroughs seems to have had great respect for doctors, in general, especially since he trained to be a doctor at one time. Yet, in Naked Lunch, doctors are often presented as cold, and more interested in the scientific results of experiments than in the condition of the patient.
The Algebra of Need is Benway's weapon of choice. He provides the drugs and punishes the addict for becoming addicted. In the case of Benway, the equation is much smaller than the scale of junkie, cop and pusher, but it is still evident. For Burroughs, this was a logical situation that any control-minded government would be sure to maintain as a device to keep resistance to a minimum through scare tactics and skewed media stories. To ensure the public at large that the government has a plan to eliminate the junkie on the street, though, unbeknownst to the public, they themselves are the main cause of the problem, keeps the faith of the people firmly placed in the hands of the government.
In "Deposition: A Testimony Concerning a Sickness" Burroughs writes extensively about the Algebra of Need. When he wrote the "Deposition" article he was currently elaborating on the subject of the Algebra of Need at the time, as he was in middle of forming his next book, The Soft Machine. So, though he was including the essay as an appendix to Naked Lunch, the ideas found in The Soft Machine were present in his mind.
Junk yields a basic formula of 'evil' virus: The Algebra of Need. The face of 'evil' is always the face of total need. A dope fiend is a man in total need of dope. Beyond a certain frequency need knows absolutely no limit or control...
If you wish to alter or annihilate a pyramid of numbers in a serial relation, you alter or remove the bottom number. If we wish to annihilate the junk pyramid, we must start with the bottom of the pyramid: the Addict in the Street, and stop tilting quixotically for the 'higher-ups' so called, all of whom are immediately replaceable. The addict in the street who must have junk to live is the one irreplaceable factor in the junk equation. When there are no more addicts to but junk there will be no junk traffic. As long as junk need exists, someone will service it. (NL, 201 - 202)
He outlines the simplicity of the equation here, but also hints at the nearly impossible mission of eliminating the need, Total Need. Burroughs suggestion that the junkie's need be eliminated, thus breaking the chain or crumbling the pyramid from below, is an overwhelming proposition. As he mentions, as long as there is a product to be had and a profit to be made, there will be those who will use them. Essentially, in the quote above, Burroughs more or less proves that there is no way to eliminate the Algebra of Need, showing the concept to be essentially defeatist at its core. By the 1970's, Burroughs would realize that there is very little anyone can do to resist such overwhelming opposition, and he turned his attention to other issues. Yet, at the time, he felt what that what he was writing in Naked Lunch was an active stance against the futile systems being established to punish addicts by those who clearly didn't even understand the problem.
Drug addiction in the late 1950's and early 1960's was always treated as a moral problem, rather than recognizing the legitimate chemical imbalances in the individuals that often used the drugs most heavily. Typical of the time, Burroughs did not necessarily ascribe to the idea of drug addiction as a chemical imbalance, but saw it as a disease to be treated. Yet, the causes of drug addiction to him seemed mostly to be an issue of supply and demand rather than medical. If there was a supply, more people would be likely to use it. Cut off the bottom rung of users and the supply runs out. Nonetheless, he was ahead of his time in indicating that addiction was a disease and should be treated as such, instead of being punished as a moral issue to be despised.
Burroughs' Algebra of Need is an interesting concept and provides insight into the message of his early novels, but in the wake of the 20th century it seems somewhat trite. In essence, it is true, and there are many possible demonstrations of the reality of it, but even he knew that the ability to turn the control mechanisms of the world around had been lost long ago. He also knew that there was no stopping the use of drugs or the control they had/have over people. As Naked Lunch grew in popularity throughout the 1960's, more and more people began to use drugs recreationally. It is as if the dispersion of the idea also signaled the increase of the problem, or at least coincided with it. So, it seems both consistent with Burroughs' character and inconsistent with reality for him to maintain the idea that governments used drug-addicts to simply further their purposes. Yet, this is not an uncommon conclusion for Burroughs, whose paranoia was legendary, and his self-insulated views colored these kinds of accusations.
What is probably closer to the truth is that governments looked the other way for quite a long time and employed a small amount of police officers to do enough to say that they are attempting to tackle an issue that the public was becoming more and more conscious of as the century went by. In the intervening years between the publishing of Naked Lunch and the present day, drug control and issues surrounding the enforcing of drug laws have become huge in North America, and especially in the United States. It is no wonder that Burroughs tended to target the U.S. in his novels, as the reality of the life of a drug user has actually gotten worse in the U.S. than when Burroughs was writing. Since authorities no longer look the other way, the problem has been increasingly confronted with jail sentences, which Burroughs noticed in later years, and commented on repeatedly.
The problem of drugs, then, is always made into an essentially legal one by Burroughs, and is pushed back into the hands of those who make the laws. The actual users of the substances are victims, in a sense, and they can only follow the option they are given and which has been constructed for them by the law-makers with the power to control drug use in the Western world. This is somewhat afar-fetched, almost an allegory for abuse, rather than a logical indictment of an obviously more complex problem. However, Burroughs generally points to the ultimate decision makers when he seeks a guilty party, and that person has the ability to create and enforce the law when it comes to the issue of drugs. For early readers of Naked Lunch the concept of a power-structure that was nearly untouchable and unbending was not foreign. It was becoming clear enough to the youth of the early 1960's in the Western world that their governments were not necessarily representative of their views for the future. To make the connection between a government policy to allow the problem of addiction to increase while publicly countering it in official literature was simple enough. The disconnect seems to come in that many readers of Burroughs' book also identified with the misunderstood notion that he was advocating drugs as a way to see the world differently. Though he may have acknowledged the use of drugs as way to see the world in a different way, the idea more describes his desire to dismantle old notions of 'proper' living than it does his prescription for lifestyle. To experience something and to live it as a lifestyle are two very different paths.
So, in the end, Naked Lunch is basically a warning against drugs and using any truly addictive substance on a continual basis, though its depiction are not meant as propaganda, but as satire. This is usually missed, it seems, and for that reason Naked Lunch has been praised or criticized for its rampant drug use ever since it was first published, focusing all attention on the fact that Burroughs himself was an addict, rather than the message of the book. This is unfortunate, since Burroughs was clearly not in favor of people beginning an addictive drug habit. Nor was he an addict for most of life as a writer. He constantly stressed that a writer cannot write well on heroin. The reason many have missed this fact seems to come from the nature of Burroughs protest against drugs. He is not evangelical or dogmatic in his approach to warding people off. While he is content to rail against the dangers and abuses of controlling elements in society, he does not take the same approach to drugs. Instead, he demonstrates the danger and futility of the lifestyle in an anthropological way (if allowances can be made for artistic merit), and perhaps even a somewhat nostalgic way. Yet, he is not advocating the use of heroin as a habit, and certainly paints a picture of the dangers inherent in any addiction, whether it be narcotics or something else. How could he when the entire novel describes the drug addict as a figure of slave-like mentality, without the ability to function by his own will?
Nonetheless, the aspect of control through drug use and addiction is the most tangible of all the messages Burroughs tries to convey in the book, though the issue of drugs in the book is not. There is no denying the control a substance can have over an individual. For Burroughs, as this experience was first-hand knowledge (and fresh in his mind, as he published the book only months after kicking his recurring heroin habit), it was very real and powerful. That any substance can render a person so incoherent as to desire to stare at the end of their shoe for eight hours in a daze, only to come out of it and then run out to find more of the substance is to be put in a prison. The only real question, then, despite Burroughs claims, is whether or not this situation was a result of too much or too little government intervention.