Though it would be hard to argue that Naked Lunch was written with any sort of premeditated goal in mind when Burroughs began to work on the novel, the end result was a clear indictment of the typical, middle-class American lifestyle that he grew up with. Though his family would be considered well-off by present standards, Burroughs actually thought himself to be middle-class, and was very conscious of the fact. He came from a time when the desirable place in society looked down on the middle-class as not knowing their place enough to stay put among the poor. His disdain for the conservative, stuffy atmosphere of early 20th century America bleeds through Naked Lunch on nearly every page, revealing one definite purpose in the book: social criticism.
As has been mentioned, Burroughs' usual targets are social conservatives and those in positions that allow them to exert undue amounts of control over a given society; i.e. religious and political leaders, business people, industry leaders, etc. Every Burroughs novel is essentially a story about control and power, and their abuses. However, his later novels are far more crafted. Naked Lunch was not nearly as planned out, so it is a much clearer snapshot of what Burroughs thought on a day-to-day basis. As much of the novel was taken from letters he wrote to friends back in the U.S. (especially Allen Ginsberg), the book has an immediacy that his later novels lack. In the letters and narratives that were eventually pieced together to form Naked Lunch (as well as parts of his three following novels, The Soft Machine, The Ticket That Exploded and Nova Express), we see a constant barrage of vitriolic attacks against religion in all forms, conservative social values, governments and the culture of institutions. If Burroughs' use of satire and irony was the Method, the Purpose was clearly to chip away at control systems and comment on the illusory social constructions at work in the West.
It is important to point out that Burroughs was not a Marxist, though he obviously knew some of the rudimentary elements of Marx's work. When Marx's work became fashionable again in the 1960's, Burroughs was often asked whether or not he followed that school of thought, but he always denied it. It would be hard to attach Burroughs to any formalized political/spiritual system, for the basic reason that he found all institutionalized thinking to be both dangerous and inherently controlling.
However, he did have his favorites among thinkers. In interviews he would often refer to and quote Alfred Korzybski, a writer and philosopher that had been popular in the 1930's, but then had quickly fallen out of fashion. (As an aside, he was also a Count, and part of the diminished Polish aristocracy.) His ideas were varied and his books were gigantic in size, but the main idea Burroughs latched on to was Korzybski's semantic concept of the `third'. This idea is simple enough, and can be found in the work of both Roland Barthes and Kenneth Burke (who probably attended the same lecture series given by Korzybski at the University of Chicago in the 1930's that Burroughs did). It takes opposition with the either/or dichotomy of Aristotle and says that there is always a third option available in all choices. For instance, there is not always black or white: there is often gray; there is not always good or bad: there is often good and bad; etc.
While sounding simple, the idea is quite complex when applied, and Burroughs invested a lot of time in developing it in his work. He felt that by investing an object with a verbal value, such as calling a `chair' a chair, you deceive people because it is just a construct designed to fool you. The word itself is nothing but an agreed upon phonetic sound. Instead, in reality the chair is an object in and of itself, and by attaching illusory names to real, physical objects you undermine logic. This established a world of arbitrary meanings attached to definite objects, in the minds of some theorists, such as Ferdinand de Saussure. This doesn't mean that Burroughs did not believe that there was such a thing as reality. (It is highly unlikely that he really had an opinion on the matter, since his answers in interviews would change like the tides. He was notoriously inconsistent, revising his ideas after reading one thing or another, and often given to huge swings in feeling on a subject. His only truly consistent idea was that he distrusted women and all control systems.) What he did see as illusory were the meanings behind words, since they changed rapidly, as fashion warranted. In this, he saw that governments and controlling institutions could change words to mean whatever they decided the words would mean, since they had the tools to disseminate the ideas to the larger public, and the money to be sure the ideas stayed in the minds of people.
For Burroughs, the option Korzybski's third choice cuts through the calcified thinking of religious and government bureaucracies, blowing open the doors of possibility and ideas. Without a simple, Aristotelian approach to life, institutions would be forced to deal with issues less efficiently, but more realistically. Yet, he also knew that any power's goal is to maintain its power, and so he postulated that all power structures had to be dismantled before they could be properly set up again. (In fact, in later interviews, Burroughs saw that there was no stopping the world powers, and more or less adopted a fantasy approach to his writing, since he could do nothing to change the world, in his view). Because words are the tools used by most power structures to maintain control, he saw his novels as tools to dismantle the power-structure. All people needed were the introduction of new words with new meanings. This could be done through shocking them with images that they all thought about, but refused to acknowledge as acceptable. Why hide behind formality and false pretences, he asked. While these ideas are developed at length in his later work, the basic elements are present in Naked Lunch, also. Near the end of the book, when he describes the opening of his `word hoard' it describes a virus-like idea that has the power to physically assault someone.
Now I, William Seward, will unlock my word hoard...My Viking heart fares over the great brown river where motors put put in jungle twilight and whole trees float with huge snakes in the branches and sad-eyed lemurs watch from the shores...Gentle Reader, The Word will jump on you with leopard man iron claws, it will cut off fingers and tows like an opportunist land crab...(NL, 192)
This was the ammunition Burroughs brought with him to battle against institutions and governments.
Burroughs saw all institutions as basic agreements between small groups of people in power to control the masses. He often pointed out that the masses are always controlled by small groups of wealthy people with controlling interests in a country. The only reason for them to do this, in his mind, was to benefit from the work of many hands, confused into thinking that their lives were `real' and `meaningful'. Despite the fact that the public were being duped through the main sources of message dissemination - media, schools, television, movies, words - they were still likely to be happy about their situations, because the control was so total that it became reality for the controlled masses. It must have been hard to ignore the effects of this on a country like Morocco, drenched in post-war colonialism and confusion, as it was when he lived there. As the power of the French began to recede, the power of the emerging Muslim governments quickly replaced it. For the average citizen, though, this was just another ruling power whose goal was only to continue maintaining its power. As Burroughs wrote, "...You see control can never be a means to any practical end...It can never be a means to anything but more control..." (NL, 137)
In Naked Lunch imaginary feuding powers are everywhere. They form the basis of the intangible storyline throughout the novel. All of the characters belong in some way or another to a special institution/corporation with its set of rules and ideals. Many of the characters are secret agents for these groups, sometimes with missions and goals, sometimes not. There is a constant confusion as to purpose, hinting at the futility of these Institutions, but they carry on, nonetheless. The Liqufactionists, Islam Inc., The Narcotics Squad, Dr. Benway and the Reconditioning Center; these are all named as groups working within Interzone (`The Parties of Interzone' is the name of a chapter in the book) to promote their own interests. As well, there are independents like A.J. and Hassan. In some ways, Benway is even an independent. Their goals are not stated, exactly, but the various groups are working against each other to maintain dominance and defame the others.
The world of Interzone, a place in constant confusion, with ever-changing rules and regulations was modeled on Tangiers after World War II. According to Burroughs, there was a continual influx of different stake-holders trying to dominate the country in the wake of the war's destructive results. This is where the images of warring internal factions comes from in Naked Lunch. The unstated goals and intrigue was real, with the spy agencies of many countries present in the International Zone of Tangiers. In Naked Lunch, this is mimicked in the character of A.J.
A.J. - he is actually of obscure Near East extraction - had at one time come on like an English gentleman. His English accent waned with the British Empire, and after World War II he became an American by act of Congress. A.J. is an agent like me, but for whom or for what no one has ever been able to discover. It is rumored that he represents a trust of giant insects from another galaxy...I believe he is on the Factualist side (which I also represent); of course he could be a Liquefaction Agent (the Liquefaction program involves the eventual merging of everyone into One Man by a process of protoplasmic absorption). You can never be sure of anyone in the industry.
A.J.'s cover story? An international playboy and harmless practical joker. It was A.J. who put the piranha fish in Lady Sutton-Smith's swimming pool, and dosed the punch with a mixture of yagé, hashish and yohimbine during a Fourth of July reception at the U.S. Embassy, precipitating an orgy. Ten prominent citizens - American, of course - subsequently died of shame. (NL, 122-123)
Here the leader is portrayed as easily moving from one allegiance to another very freely, trusting no one and taking whatever measure is required for survival. He is a chameleon with no emotional attachments or loyalties to a particular country. It is not clear what country he even originally came from, just the ones he adopted at different times. He is also a prankster, using humiliation and mind-games to demoralize the enemy. He shows that the war has to be fought on all fronts; even those that look more like having fun at other's expense. In reality, this is Burroughs taking easy shots at the uptight tradition of the ruling parties of the U.S., more than anything. A.J. is both part of the world, and able to turn on it because he is an agent.
Burroughs dislike of aristocratic, 19th century ideals is interesting. He writes elsewhere that the reason he wanted to become a writer was so that he could live the life of an aristocrat. His view of the rich is inconsistent, though, because he seems to have wanted to be rich, more or less, and was always disappointed that he was not. He claims he could have made four or five times the amount he did as a writer if he were to be employed in any other industry. So, while taking small jabs at the rich and powerful, there is always the feeling that Burroughs would be perfectly comfortable in the same role, that he finds the lifestyle both wrong and desirable.
The above passage also introduces one of the most striking images in the book: insects with human intelligence. David Cronenburg made quite a bit out of the insect imagery in the film of Naked Lunch, using it fairly extensively throughout. Burroughs doesn't use it quite so much, but does include one episode in which a giant insect is introduced. It demonstrates the idea that medical research can take away the soul of people in the pursuit of eliminating the human body's inefficiencies.
Doctor "Fingers" Schafer, the Lobotomy Kid, rises and turns on the Conferents the cold blue blast of this gaze:
"Gentlemen, the human nervous system can be reduced to a compact and abbreviated spinal column. The brain, front, middle and rear must follow the adenoid, the wisdom tooth, the appendix...I give you my Master Work: The Complete All-American Deanxietized Man..."
Blast of trumpets: The Man is carried in naked by two Negro Bearers who drop him on the platform with bestial, sneering brutality...The Man wriggles...His flesh turns to viscid, transparent jelly that drifts away in green mist, unveiling a monster black centipede. Waves of unknown stench fill the room, searing the lungs, grabbing the stomach...(NL, 87)
Here we see medical science as an authority not unlike religion, taking the initiative to eliminate all parts of the human body in an attempt to speed evolutionary processes. By choosing a large insect with presumably human traits, we see the influence of Kafka's "Metamorphosis", a story Burroughs cited from time to time as an influence on his work. The Deanxietized Man is void of anxiety because he is void of all human traits. The stripping away of inefficient humanity lends itself to the mindset of many early 20th century scientists and government-funded projects carried out through industry. Though one might be hard-pressed to find Burroughs concerned with saving the environment in his work, the message is clear enough: more efficient is not necessarily better.
The giant centipede is imagery that will surface again in later novels, especially as Burroughs would later begin drawing on some of his bigger career influences, such as ancient Mayan codices and control systems. But, in Naked Lunch, the centipede is an image of total control through science. Knowledge takes on the appearance of truth, and has the power to manipulate people to follow mindlessly the voice of those that seem more knowledgeable. The Deanxietized Man is the victim of this crime, but he is no more enslaved that the two black attendants that carry his insect body into the room. Burroughs uses the attendants to comment on race and control in America, as well. Race was never a big issue in Burroughs work, but he had a distinct distaste for people who illogically despised other s only for their skin color.
This passage comes from a chapter entitled, "Meeting of International Conference of Technological Psychiatry", yet another group devoted to maintaining itself for the purpose of existence alone. It, as do all the power hungry organizations of Naked Lunch, does not have a stated agenda. By not announcing the goals each group has, the various groups blur together into a picture of control mechanisms as the common theme for each power. The only real goal for any group, then, becomes the removing of other group from power. Power for power's sake becomes the ultimate end. Yet, no one group really dominates the scene. They are all as depraved as the next. The Muslim-like groups are no more or less immoral than the Americans, or the British. They all seem as enslaved to drug use and violent sexual practices as the next.
The purpose is both to demonstrate that drugs and addiction are forms of control in and of themselves. In Naked Lunch, drugs are often the bait and the reward, dangled like a carrot before the dull, mule-like eyes of the addict to force him into actions against his will. Burroughs suspected that many governments were allowing drugs to find their way to the street on purpose so that they could have an opportunity for frightening the public. He speculated (with somewhat dubious statistics in mind, it seems) that the world before serious drug control was a better place. Only middle-aged men were addicted to heroin in the 1930's, he often remarked, in an attempt to establish that the introduction of government drug controls exacerbated the problem, instead of solving it. When you create laws that make being an addict a crime, rather than possessing an illegal substance, you create a police state where beliefs are controlled instead of actions. This is the epitome of a controlling power: when they have the power to regulate your personal beliefs, they have the power to use your body for everything. This is the constant practice of the bumbling parties of Interzone.
Sex is also used in this way. It becomes a tool for manipulation and blackmail. Sometimes it is even taken further, when a person literally takes over the body and mind of another. In Naked Lunch sex is always mainly concerned with power. To have sex is to exert control over the body of another, whether it is willingly or unwillingly. If the control can be maintained, sometimes it even goes further, becoming all-pervasive. His introduction of the Latah is an example of this kind of control. A Latah is a person with a compulsion to imitate every action of the person it is enslaved to, like an emotional doppleganger. They have no personal will, due to their affliction, and must do everything the person they are in thrall to would do. The other person literally becomes the addiction, maintaining total control over the mind and body of the Latah. In Naked Lunch the Latah is always referred to as a figure of complete demoralization. It is someone who no longer has the ability to feel shame or its own will, so it does whatever it is instructed, and continues to imitate even if it is not instructed.
The Latah could also be a figure for a mindless kind of enslavement through contentment, as well. The apparent complacency to the seriousness of their situation makes them willing volunteers for mental and physical manipulation. In the same way that we are often slaves to cultural influence through movies and media, the Latah craves the introduction of ideas that will force him to look the other way and live outside of reality. It craves distraction. Burroughs was very conscious of the way that media can manipulate and influence people in negative ways. His uncle literally invented the modern concept of Public Relations when he worked for both John D. Rockefeller and Adolf Hitler, before World War II. The ability of words and mass media to manipulate a large audience was engrained in him through the work of his uncle. He symbolized the ability of creative thinking to cause social change for the negative by manipulating even the worst historical figures to make them more appetizing to a public that, by and large, does not want to see the ugly truth. The Latah is a thoughtless animal, though it once was a thinking, reasoning human.
A figure in the novel that seems to mimic Burroughs' uncle in many ways is Dr. Benway, who takes a prominent role throughout the novel because he is both political and medical in his abilities. Benway's role is not clearly stated, but he is often used by higher powers to eliminate all resistance in certain areas. He appears to be for hire, as opposed to being the initiator of control for a specific organization, like A.J. He is a master propagandist and an efficient demoralizer, adept at using `science' and `reason' to crush the will of entire countries. His methods are always medical (more or less), but the purposes are never for rehabilitation of a patient. His `patients' are always individuals that he has deemed too powerful and so must be brought down.
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 have not seen Benway since his precipitate departure from Annexia, where his assignment had been T.D. - Total Demoralization. Benway's first act was to abolish concentration camps, mass arrest and, except under certain limited and special circumstances, the use of torture.
"I deplore brutality," he said. "It's not efficient. On the other hand, prolonged mistreatment, short of physical violence, gives rise, when skillfully applied, to anxiety and a feeling of special guilt. A few rules or rather guiding principles are to be borne in mind. The subject must not realize that the mistreatment is a deliberate attack of an anti-human enemy on his personal identity. He must be made to feel that deserves any treatment he receives because there is something (never specified) horribly wrong with him. The naked need of the control addicts must be decently covered by and arbitrary and intricate bureaucracy so that the subject cannot contact his enemy direct." (NL, 19)
The control addict is almost identical in Burroughs mythology with the drug addict. Both types of addicts must feed off of something to fulfill their place in the world. However, the drug addict injures only himself, while the control addict creates elaborate structures to confuse the victim and, as Benway says, make it "so that the subject cannot contact his enemy direct." The purpose of the institution, then, is not to organize for benefit to humanity, but to hide the injustice done to the victim it comes in contact with. All organizations, in Burroughs' mind, are set upon this purpose, and all organizations devolve into a simple set of goals for personal gain.
Benway is the master planner in all of this. As head of the Reconditioning Center, where people are sent for realignment of purpose and needs, stripping away all `undesirable' character traits, he is given the task of making sure that total control is maintained over people. They are unable to see clearly and cannot decide who is really at fault for their pain, so they eventually give up, and go about their business, slightly more depressed and defeated than they were before. For Benway, this is victory.
Benway's method is to confuse. By systematically creating institutions and miniature governments within governments, he is able to wear away the will of the individual citizen through paperwork and laws. The purpose of laws to serve the citizen is turned around so that the citizen serves the laws, becoming a necessary piece of maintaining an overblown collection of rules. Through inefficient, but voluminous legalities, the citizen of Interzone or Annexia is kept from having time to think - Total Demoralization.
Every citizen of Annexia was required to apply for and carry on his person at all times a whole portfolio of documents. Citizens were subject to be stopped in the street at any time; and the Examiner, who might be in plain clothes, in various uniforms, often in a bathing suit or pajamas, sometimes stark naked except for a badge pinned to his left nipple, after checking each paper, would stamp it. On subsequent inspection the citizen was required to show the properly entered stamps the last inspection. The Examiner, when he stopped a large group, would only examine and stamp the cards of a few. The others were then subject to arrest because their cards were not properly stamped. Arrest meant "provisional detention"; that is, the prisoner would be released if and when his Affidavit of Explanation had to be presented in person, the explainers spent weeks and months waiting around in unheated offices with no chairs and no toilet facilities.
Documents issued in vanishing ink faded into old pawn tickets. New documents were constantly required. The citizens rushed from one bureau to another in a frenzied attempt to meet impossible deadlines. (NL, 19-20)
The situation of Annexia describes what Burroughs would often talk about as the real issue behind making laws and the citizen's duty to follow those laws. In Annexia the administration that takes care of ensuring people are following the laws that have been created is so confused and disorganized, that it is incapable of working correctly. This is its purpose, however. If it worked properly, then it would cease to be profitable for the controlling purposes. When people are constantly in a situation of illegality, then you have the ability as a government to direct their actions. Burroughs saw this as the problem for many laws. The contrary nature of laws and humans need each other to survive: the laws and the punishments would not exist if there were not people in a situation that allowed them to be punished. There is no need to punish someone who is not guilty. However, if you create laws and a system that puts a person in jeopardy of punishment on a constant basis, the government has the right to do with them what they will.
He often used this analogy in regards to drug laws and the sometimes arbitrary nature of them. At times one drug would be more popular with authorities than others. He reasoned that the governments would only allow drugs to find their way in such volume onto the streets so that addicts and users could be used by authorities. As has been mentioned, the only result of control is the pursuit of more control. There is no real logical end to it. Take away an arbitrary law and suddenly many criminals are now free citizens. This, Burroughs maintained, is beyond the conscience of most governments, who only seem to see a purpose in exerting power over a large group of mostly ignorant people. So, instead, the symbiotic relationship of the junkie and the cop would live on through a set of rules designed to allow both parties to flourish only for the purpose of existing, and nothing more. If the cop went away, so would the junkie, and vice versa. In this, the control mechanism has its life maintained.
In essence, though, Burroughs most serious purpose in Naked Lunch is to dismantle and eliminate all control through words, by releasing his `word hoard'. His belief in the power of words is a constant theme throughout his career, coming up again and again in interviews and articles well into the 1990's. As a result of Korzybski's influence, the idea that a war can be waged with the most basic instruments of any battle, words, was always at the forefront of his mind. And, he appears to truly believe this idea. By offering different words to the public he was introducing a `word virus' into the consciousness of a public being steadily duped by the ultra-conservative governments of the Western world in the wake of World War II. By shocking people with images of sexual degradation (literally, in the scenes in Hassan's Rumpus Room and A.J.'s Annual Party), unabashed drug use and comical interpretations of the very concept of moral public leadership, Burroughs provided options for an alternative reality to people who knew something different than their own experiences existed. Naked Lunch, in many respects, was an all-out attack on the values of the time, and those who controlled the information that maintained and established those values.
Ultimately, though, Burroughs' verbal attack on the control systems of the world are nothing more than fiction. It is interesting to speculate on whether or not he felt that his mission to dismantle the `establishment' through the use of words was anything he could call successful. In one sense, yes, it seems to have been. As has been mentioned earlier, Naked Lunch undermined the ability of the American Government to censor material that the general public felt was distasteful through the 1965 censorship trials of the book. Or, at least, it was the last case with a lot of attention given to it, resulting in a victory over previous conservative feelings on what the public could buy and keep in their own homes. This was a clear victory using words to battle institutions. Yet, it is more than likely that another book would have come along to do the same thing, sooner or later. It is ironic, and fitting, though, that the book that finally did push the issue in the face of the Western world's most influential government was one with the purpose of actively working against the system it ultimately defeated.
If nothing else, Burroughs idea that words be used as the battleground is interesting. His commitment to what he wrote is unquestionable, and the fact that he seemed to not care what publishing such inflammatory work would do to his reputation or place in society shows that he meant business when it came to staging his lone protest against combined systems of control. One must only ask, in the wake of a lifetime of writing that began with a book of such power, how much progress did he really make? He carved out a career and waged a war of words against essentially invisible powers-that-be, but does not seem to have really won the war. If nothing else, the establishment that he envisioned himself fighting against eventually bought up all his work and released it in very readable, scholarly Penguin editions. In the end, one has to wonder if all the posturing against control and the social criticism was nothing more than a way of telling stories and creating literary worlds.