Despite his posturing that the sexual imagery of Naked Lunch was written solely for the purpose of protesting the practice of Capital Punishment in `civilized' countries, Burroughs clearly had a purpose in using the graphic examples of sex and violence beyond that of preaching morality. (Whenever Burroughs attempts a specific moral stance there are always mixed-messages involved.) Images for pleasure are certainly present in the text, as are images of cold, sexual relationships of commerce, devoid of feeling but having a purpose. There is no question that two of the most elaborate sexual scenes in the book - found in the chapters `A.J.'s Annual Party' and `Hassan's Rumpus Room'- are designed specifically in opposition to the idea of pointless killing, but it is questionable as to whether or not these are solely depictions of capital punishment. The situations described in the book could be taken any number of ways. I would suggest that they are mostly about the issue of moral control, without the specifics of government intervention. Regardless, it is doubtful that Burroughs had this in mind as he wrote the scenes in bits and pieces through letters and notes as Naked Lunch came together. However, the degradation of people, and the control over them by another, is certainly an issue, and it is made an example of in the most grotesque way possible for the conservative, educated audience of the time that would eventually read and respond to the book.
Because sex was so regularly silenced in the 1950's of the western world, a book like Naked Lunch could only be seen as both pornographic and purposely morally invasive. Many reviewers would only see the sex as a blatant portrayal of something everyone agreed they wanted left in the bedroom. This appears to have been too tempting for Burroughs, though he does not seem to have specifically written the sexual portions just to provoke people. He could not write Naked Lunch feeling constrained, leaving out sections the way he was forced to in publishing Junky, earlier in his career. It is clear that he was not concerned about being looked down upon by anyone, either. For him to be silent about something so central to his existence was too much. So, though the larger picture in Naked Lunch has to do with relationships and their nature, sexual relationships as the most basic expression of that notion are used to make more than one point in the novel.
Because it is one of the more pervasive elements of Naked Lunch, there is sexual imagery appearing in one form or another on most of the pages of the book. There is as much sexual imagery and grotesque joking as there is drug/addiction imagery, though the sexual imagery does not necessarily have the same purpose. Often, it is used for humor, as well as more `serious' tasks. It is never used as an expression of love, however. For Burroughs there is no (or, at least, very little) connection between love and sex. This is perhaps odd, since so much of Burroughs' work revolves around the problems of relationships and trust and, by extension, love. His concept of love as a subversive emotional element, though, prevents it from being an option in Naked Lunch. He constantly accused women of inventing love as an ideological ploy to entrap men in relationships that forced them to stay stationary (Read: Controlled) and in subservience to the traditional values of the Western family. The idea sounds more than a little presumptuous, even neurotic, and hints at a certain constant tendency Burroughs' work and life to view all foreign ideas as dangerous.
His misgivings about love can be seen in the purposeful exclusion of painful real-life relationships from his work. Though he was quick to document other, embarrassing aspects of his life throughout Naked Lunch, such as drug addiction that left him in a state of utter filth and close to death, he shied away from writing about anything that might remind him of great loss. It can be seen in the almost total absence of mention of his wife, Joan Volmer, who he shot in Mexico. Though Burroughs sometimes mentioned her in letters and unpublished material (such as the `Interzone' collection form the Allen Ginberg Archives at Columbia University, published in 1987), she is only briefly mentioned in Naked Lunch. As well, Kiki, a lover he had in Tangiers, is hardly mentioned, though his death in Spain was a cause of great stress and pain to Burroughs during his days of serious addiction in the mid-1950's.
Both of these relationships shaped much of the way he lived in the late 1940's and early 1950's. Yet, love is only raised as a sign of weakness, and it is only mentioned in letters and interviews as the afore-mentioned female master plan for male dominance. Though Burroughs' mistrust in human-kind was legendary, the concept of a united female plan of this sort seems more like a sick joke that Burroughs only half believed. Though given to exaggeration, he was not delusional. Again, as with his claim that the sexual scenes in Naked Lunch were purposely written as indictments of Capital Punishment, it has the distinct feel of posturing, rather than a deeply held belief. However, he was not afraid to talk about it publicly, in interviews and articles, so one can only guess as to its legitimacy in his mind. Obviously, relationships were very important to Burroughs, and he valued them deeply, so there is no reason to believe that what he called love was something other than what we call it, except that he refused to use the same words. This kind of stubborn blindness over a semantic point would not be out of character in the case of Burroughs. He was notoriously cantankerous on certain issues. Either way, its absence has a presence in the fabric of Naked Lunch.
Whether he called it love or not, Naked Lunch contains some of the best characterizations in all of literature. Burroughs had an eye for detail when it came to depicting others that rivaled most of the best in 20th century literature, which is probably the real reason he is still read. His biting depictions of power figures, junkies, low-life's, and all the other characters in Naked Lunch are crystal clear carvings of believable characters you can almost expect to see on the street. As well, every relationship in Naked Lunch has the noticeable absence of love, though many relationships, both sexual and non-sexual, are peaceful or friendly. The ultimate end of the relationships is always about gaining or losing something by entering into the emotional transaction. This is where the constant suspicion between characters comes from.
So the question, then, is to determine the real reasons for the sexual imagery in Naked Lunch. Much has been made of the battle against Capital Punishment through Swiftian depictions of over-the-top lust, but later evidence (interviews with magazines) suggests that Burroughs thought about the subject relatively little. It would be easier to say that he wrote the scenes for his own personal pleasure, which seems both reliable, valid and likely. However, this is obviously not the complete picture, as there are elements of the situations that he constructs which point to different directions and various ideas about sex, as a tool for pleasure; a way to see beyond the conservative values of the 1950's; a dull, controlling routine that the body forces on the mind; and, a way to shock audiences into seeing what people in power can make individuals do through propaganda and systems designed to control.
One sure sign of the illusion of love versus ulterior motives that Burroughs asserts comes in the form of relationships as simplified (or possibly more complex) forms of business arrangements. In the introduction to the `Interzone' chapter of Naked Lunch, he describes the world of Interzone and the main goals of commerce and gain through the pretence of sex and business relationships that involve sex.
The Zone is a single, vast building. The rooms are of a plastic cement that bulges to accommodate people, but when too many crowd into one room there is a soft plop and someone squeezes through the wall right into the next house - the next bed, that is, since the rooms are mostly bed where the business of the zone is transacted. A hum of sex and commerce shakes the Zone like a vast hive:
"Two thirds of one percent. I won't budge from that figure; not even for my snookums."
"But where are the bills of lading, lover?"
"Not where you're looking pet. That's too obvious." (NL, 149)
The business deals all seem to happen in bed, in the nude, presumably, and before or after sex, as if the sex act closes the deal. Or, perhaps the deals excite possibility of sex, and the prospect of making money only furthers the excitement as well as the relationships. In this environment, however, the world of Western political sexual politics, and the specifically heterosexual agenda at the time of the book's writing, become inadequate paradigms. Why have only one way of having sex in a world that only sees sex as a way to conduct business and seal deals? Here, homosexuality becomes far more normal, and the world of Western heterosexuality becomes very foreign. This is why it is easy to see this as a more pleasurable alternative for Burroughs. It is an attempt at creating a fantasy world, free of emotional hooks and ladders.
This is a perfect situation for Burroughs. He already discounts love as an invention of females to dominate and control males, so the world of emotionless sex with only a business deal to look forward to at the end is obviously appealing. There is nothing to entrap the other, and only bodies performing functions with mutually beneficial ends. However, the deals do not always go well, and Burroughs allows the routine to continue, describing fallings out and tiffs between business partners/lovers that go sour. So, while denying the need for love, he does acknowledge the reality that love will sometimes play a part in even the business deals of a society that puts no value in it. Despite all attempts otherwise, love enters into the equation and sours things, unless all goes well. Only an absence of love, then, can create utopia in Naked Lunch. In Burroughs' view, it is likely to assume that he does not assume all will go well.
This is a hint at the idea that always seems to lie behind sex, in Naked Lunch: sex is not in any way a part of love. Sex is always essentially selfish, an act of gratification for which another is not necessarily needed, at least emotionally. Masturbation, however, is noticeably absent in Naked Lunch. So, the presence of another body has significance, though the hope seems to be that the mutual affection is not expected, or at least not anticipated. It is easier to have a lover for a while and move on, rather than get tied up in a long-term situation. Not surprisingly, this mimics Burroughs' sexual relationships, as he describes them, throughout his life. All of his longest relationships were not sexual, and often with men whom he had never had a love interest at all. Often, his long-term relationships are those in which Burroughs has a great deal of respect and admiration for the power or ingenuity of the other. Brion Gysin is a good example. The Sailor, a friend he knew in his early days in New York (and with whom he used to beat up drunks in the subway late at night to get drug money for a short time) is another.
The case of the Sailor, a constant, low-level character in the Burroughs mythos, is another example of business and intimacy. He appears in a few of the early novels. Though this relationship is not a sexual one, the Sailor is still willing to administer a shot to a needy junkie, mimicking the sexual act, but not participating in it. He is the provider to a needy taker. Yet, in this instance, there is a commercial exchange, just as in the relationships of Interzone: the Sailor wants the boy's time. Literally. He takes days and hours from the boy in exchange for heroin, causing him to age and highlighting the cost of his addiction as a habit that reduces the age of the user.
The Sailor reached under the washstand and extracted a package in wrapping paper that shredded and fell from his fingers in yellow dust. He laid out a dropper, needle and spoon on a table covered with dirty dishes. But no roach antennae felt for the crumbs of darkness...
"I have something you want." His hand touched the package. He drifted away into the front room, his voice remote and blurred. "You have something I want...five minutes here...an hour someplace else...two...four...eight...Maybe I'm getting ahead of myself...Every day I die a little...It takes up The Time..."
"Mister, I don't know what you're talking about."
"You will, baby...in time."
"O.K., so what do I do?"
"Yeah, like..." He glanced at the package. "Whatever...I accept."
The boy felt a silent black clunk fall through his flesh. The Sailor put a hand to the boy's eyes and pulled out a pink scrotal egg with one closed pulsing eye. Black fur boiled inside translucent flesh of the egg...
Death fear and Death weakness hit the boy, shutting off his breath, stopping his blood. He leaned against a wall that seemed to give slightly. He clicked back into junk focus.
The Sailor was cooking a shot. "When the role is called up yonder we'll be there, right?" he said, feeling along the boy's vein, erasing goose pimples with a gentle old-woman finger. He slid the needle in. A red orchid bloomed at the bottom of the dropper. The sailor pressed the bulb, watching the solution rush into the boy-vein, sucked by silent thirst of blood. (NL, 170-171)
There is an intimacy in this passage, but it seems strained by the need for a fix and the surreal aspect of stealing time from the user. The Sailor seems to care that junkie has his fix, but he also needs his own fix, that of Time, and is not too emotionally involved with the junkie to take it from him. His compassion only goes so far. The junkie, in the midst of his need, is more than willing to part with whatever he needs to at the time, even if it means a shortened life. The need for a fix over-powers any logic associated with living a longer life. In this image, it is hard not to read into the scene a metaphor for the carelessness of Total Need and the desires of junkie, who only wants immediate gratification. In the end, he loses his life, very slowly, by giving it to the pusher.
Burroughs' approach to relationships and sex, the most intimate aspect of a relationship in many people's minds, is often contrary to what the majority of people feel. This is not unfamiliar ground for Burroughs. It is hard to determine how someone who was so notoriously monogamous in his relationships, having only one lover at a time almost exclusively, could find the idea of love so suspicious. What does one call an attraction and devotion to a single person other than love? Perhaps the real issue lies in the idea of Western concepts of love and Romantic concepts of love, an idealistic paradigm Burroughs was inescapably entrenched in, despite his aversion to it. For him, all Western ideas of love were determined by women's ideas, which he found repulsive, not being a woman, and being notoriously misogynistic in his general view of them. For him, love was a facade, only used as a way to achieve something else.
Burroughs' loveless relationships in Naked Lunch are never intimate. However, when the junkie meets someone compassionate enough to give him a fix despite the giver needing it himself even more, there is a kind raw compassion for the weak that Burroughs displays in almost all his work. Though this kind of story is not a part of Naked Lunch, other stories arose that detailed this kind of event, such as "The Junky's Christmas" from the Interzone collection, written at the time he was compiling the scrambled sections of letters and short stories that would become Naked Lunch in the end. In the case of the Sailor, we see another type of business relationship, though more intimate and less formal that the ones of Interzone. The Sailor adds a sense of compassion to the deal, though no sex is actually involved.
In both stories, though, the main message is a passionate sense of feeling for the weak, one which Burroughs often referred to at the time of writing Naked Lunch. He knew that he could never be a doctor, he said, because some patients would get special treatment, while others would only cause him to feel nothing or, worse, loathing. They could die, for all he cared. Both of these emotions are evident throughout his work, and Naked Lunch, though erring on the side of the emotionless relationships, contains passages such as the one with the Sailor and the weak junkie. For Burroughs, the most intimate relationship is the one in which a weaker party is taken care of by a more powerful, confident one that does not need to display kindness, though he does.
To confront the claim that Burroughs makes about the elaborate sexual acrobatics in the A.J.'s Annual Party and Hassan's Rumpus Room sections of Naked Lunch - that the sections are designed to display the barbarity of capital punishment before the face of the audience - seems somewhat futile. On the one hand, there is very little evidence that the scenes were concocted with solely those ideas in mind. They seem to be more all-encompassing of the idea of control-systems as a whole, rather than specifically dealing with issues of capital punishment, which are essentially legal concerns. Also, the answer seems too convenient given the controversy that Burroughs had to deal with in the wake of Naked Lunch's publishing. The struggle he had to maintain his image as a serious writer, a desire which apparently eventually faded in the late 1960's, was constant, if not difficult. It is easy to imagine that, threatened with having his book banned in the two largest English speaking countries if the time - Great Britain and the United States - he may have felt the need to qualify the sexuality of the book as something other than just sexuality. It had to also be a metaphor, since the desire for sex in the early 1960's was obviously seen as something that should not be talked about or admitted publicly, and certainly not something to be treated as enjoyable. This would be irresponsible, or at least many of the reviews of the book in the early 1960's seemed to think so.
The sections dealing with a protest to capital punishment through blatant mockery of sexual acrobatics were both indictments of brutality in the moral universe of the Western world and images of desire. Rather, they were naked lust, as the book might have been called. First, there is the scene in the chapter entitled `Hassan's Rumpus Room':
The boy looks into Mugwump eyes blank as obsidian mirrors, pools of black blood, glory holes in a toilet wall closing on the Last Erection...
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 Mugwump pulls the boy back onto his cock. The boy squirms, impaled like a speared fish. The Mugwump swings on the boy's back, his body contracting in fluid waves. Blood flows down the boy's chin from his mouth, half-open, sweet and sulky in death. The Mugwump falls with a fluid sated plop. (NL, 63-65)
Then, the scene in the `A.J.'s Annual Party' chapter:
Room like gymnasium...The floor is foam rubber, covered I white silk...One wall is glass...The rising sun fills the room with pink light. Johnny is led in, hands tied, between Mary and Mark. Johnny sees the gallows and sags with a great "Ohhhhhhhhhhh!" his chin pulling down towards his cock, his legs bending at the knees. Sperm spurts, arching almost vertical in front of his face. Markand Mary are suddenly impatient and hot...They push Johnny forward onto the gallows platform covered with moldy jockstraps and sweat shirts. Mark is adjusting the noose.
"Well, here you go." Mark starts to push Johnny off the platform...(NL, 81)
These two scenes are the main ones Burroughs is referring to when he comments on the issue of pornography in Naked Lunch. On the surface they are simply two different takes on the idea of sex and violence, always with the use of a gallows for hanging, which Burroughs returns to over and over again in all his novels. There is also the element of the sexual encounter being staged, with an observing audience. It is more obvious in the Hassan section, where the event is live, while the A.J. section is a film presentation. By staging the sexual hanging, the event takes on the nature of being for the pleasure of those not involved, allowing them a satisfaction from seeing the degradation of another. But, in neither passage is the character specifically being put to death for a crime or for any reason that is stated.
This is why it is difficult to take Burroughs completely at his word in these passages. Both the A.J. passage and the Hassan passage have many other shorter descriptions of varied sexual activity with more hangings and some of which include women (a rare oddity in Burroughs that is only found in Naked Lunch and his other writing that went unpublished until recently), hinting that these sections are probably a kind of sexual repository for the novel, rather than constructed indictments of legal ritualized murders, as Burroughs claims they are. This is due to the fact that large sections of the novel were pieced together by Ginsberg and others to give it a thematic feel. This is not to say that they could not be taken as comments on capital punishment. They definitely could. However, the lack of any legal reasons behind the staged hangings, and the multiple descriptions of sexual encounters in each chapter that are not staged, but just present as sex for sex sake, suggest otherwise.
What they add to the book, though, is a clarification of the depravity of Interzone. Burroughs does not explicitly state this, and it is unclear whether he even held that opinion in regards to the possibility of an event such these ones. It is very likely that he would have taken a world such as this one over the one he lived in, given the choice. It is in some respects a fantasy world, remember. However, if his claim is true, then the coldness and brutality of these sections is consistent with the idea of making an example of the simple brutality of justice systems that allow for government sponsored murders. It's just hard to believe that Burroughs had such a thing in mind, rather than tacking the metaphor onto the image after the fact.
Burroughs also uses sex as a way to break down taboos through humor. It sounds almost trite to equate `bathroom' humor with making a kind of moral statement, but his disdain for the conservative, bourgeois values of his upbringing make jokes like the following an aggressive gesture.
In Timbuktu I once saw an Arab boy who could play a flute with his ass, and the fairies told me he was really an individual in bed. He could play a tune up and down the organ hitting the most erogenously sensitive spots, which are different on everyone, of course. Every lover had his special theme song which was perfect for him and rose to his climax. The boy was a great artist when I came to improvising new combines and special climaxes, some of them notes in the unknown, tie-ups of seeming discords that would suddenly break through each other and crash together with a stunning, hot sweet impact. (NL, 113)
The purpose of telling a passing tale about a young male prostitute who learned to play a flute with his anus serves no purpose other than humor and possible titillation, but it is an obvious stab at the kind of complacent, contented middle-class lifestyle he grew up with.
As with all the relationships in Naked Lunch, though, the boy is a prostitute, and though he specializes his act for certain customers (hinting at a kind of loving devotion), he is only conducting business. So, again we see the ultimate end of these relationships is only personal gain, a far remove from love, and consistent with the statement Burroughs makes about his uncomfortability with the concept of love as a tangible emotion. He almost approaches sex and relationships with the same careless, pleasure-seeking notion the stereo-typical adolescent does, hoping for personal pleasure at as little cost as possible. Yet, the fact that Burroughs depended on the few friends he had so desperately throughout his life, hints at another reality.
As was mentioned, his relationship with Allen Ginsberg, despite Ginsberg's rejection of Burroughs as a lover, is legendary in the history of American literature. His relationship with James Grauerholz lasted from the mid-Seventies, when Burroughs had just come to New York, until his death in Kansas in 1997. The same can be said for his relationship with long-time collaborator Brion Gysin, or Paul Bowles, or many other figures that revolved around his universe. So, the issue of relationships in Naked Lunch is inevitably crucial, as the book was initially conceived and written mostly through letters sent to Ginsberg and others. This confirms Burroughs' need both of an audience to perform before and a relationship to commune with. He was always a collaborator. For Naked Lunch to come about, he quite clearly needed loving relationships, despite what he might have called them.
Sex, on the other hand, is in an entirely different category for Burroughs. Sex, in Naked Lunch, is always a matter of gain and achieving, and sometimes mutual satisfaction. More often than not, it is a way of degrading and defeating an enemy; sometimes even killing an enemy. Often it is a metaphor for other things, such as capital punishment, or abject self-serving idol worship of another, but usually it is recoded for mood and titillation. The response that these are not `valid' uses of such a powerful tool is curious, but typical of Western thought. It is not surprising that Burroughs chooses to use any taboo possible to either shock or confuse the presumed conservative audience. Generally, his method works, and people are repulsed, as they are supposed to be. However, this reaction does not make the method a pointless one. Obviously, there is method to Naked Lunch's constant madness.
While there is no denying that Burroughs found the concept of love distasteful, it is not clear whether or not he felt that it was a real entity. Often he called it an illusion, something invented to entrap a willing, gullible partner (usually a male by a female), but his personal relationships betray a world of close friends that were integral in the creation of Naked Lunch. There is always the spectre of the typical post-war male, full of machismo and simple, yet elusive answers, in Burroughs. In the same way that he could not stand a homosexual that played effeminate and coy, he could not stand a situation where love rendered anyone weak or passive.
This is certainly true for the portrayal of sexual relationships in Naked Lunch. Sex is quite obviously a tool, and has no place in the world of love that Burroughs did not even believe in. In Naked Lunch, sex is always a means to an end, usually involving some kind of financial or emotional gain. Prostitution is not ignoble here, but logical. Sex with an intimate is no different, really, than sex with a prostitute (Read: No emotional attachments), and only the truly weak seem to be given mercy and compassion. In these instances we see Burroughs deepest feelings for others. His love of cats late in life must have sprung from this same ideal.
Relationships and emotionless sex, then, are both central to Naked Lunch, being the ultimate cause of its writing, and the Achilles heel of Lee, in the novel. He forced to maintain relationships that are always bound to fall through. He is unable to trust anyone, and no one maintains a pretence of expecting to be trusted. He must hire other agents to fulfill the confusing ends of the plans being made for him, ordered through him, though he knows these relationships only exist in the context of business. Naked Lunch portrays all relationships as revolving around manipulation and power. Lee must be careful to choose one of these weapons if he is to survive in the world of stark reality Burroughs constructs.