TERRY SOUTHERN ON
WILLIAM S. BURROUGHS' NAKED LUNCH
In life there is that which is funny, and there is that which is politely supposed to be funny. Literature, out of a misguided appeal to an imaginary popular taste and the caution of self-distrust, generally follows the latter course, so that the humor found in books is almost always vicariousmeeting certain traditional requirements, and producing only the kind of laughter one might expect: rather strained. Burroughs work is an all-stops-out departure from this practice, and he invariably writes at the very top of his ability.
The element of humor in Naked Lunch is one of the books great moral strengths, whereby the existentialist sense of the absurd is taken towards an informal conclusion. It is an absolutely devastating ridicule of all that is false, primitive, and vicious in current American life: the abuses of power, hero worship, aimless violence, materialistic obsession, intolerance, and every form of hypocrisy. No one, for example, has written with such eloquent disgust about capital punishment; throughout Naked Lunch recur sequences to portray the unfathomable barbarity of a civilization which can countenance this ritual. There is only one way, of course, to ridicule capital punishmentand that is by exaggerating its circumstances, increasing its horror, accentuating the animal irresponsibility of those involved, insisting that the monstrous deed be witnessed (and in Technicolor, so to speak) by all concerned. Burroughs is perhaps the first modern writer to seriously attempt this; he is certainly the first to have done so with such startling effectiveness. Social analogy and parallels of this sort abound in Naked Lunch, but one must never mistake this authors work for political comment, which, as in all genuine art, is more instinctive than deliberatefor Burroughs is first and foremost a poet. His attunement to contemporary language is probably unequaled in American writing. Anyone with a feeling for English phrase at its most balanced, concise, and arresting cannot fail to see this excellence. For example, in describing the difficulty of obtaining narcotics-prescriptions from wary doctors in the southwestern United States, he writes:
Itinerant short con and carny hyp men have burned down the croakers of Texas...
None of these words are new, but the sudden freshness of using burned down (to mean having exploited beyond further possibility) in this prosaic context indicates his remarkable power of giving life to a dead vernacular.
Or again, where the metaphysical finds expression in slang:
One day Little Boy Blue starts to slip, and what crawls out would make an ambulance attendant puke...
The Mark Inside was coming up on him and thats a rumble nobody can cool...
Imagery of this calibre puts the use of argot on a level considerably beyond merely having a good ear for the spoken word. Compared to Burroughs grasp of modern idiom in almost every form of Englishand his ability at distillation and ellipsisthe similar efforts of Ring Lardner, and of Hemingway, appear amateurish and groping.
The role of drugs is of singular importance in Burroughs work, as it is, indeed, in American life. In no other culture in the history of the world has the use of narcotics, both legal and illicit, become so strange and integral a part of the overall scene. And reviviscent addiction has reached such prevalence and intensity that, in the larger view, it can no longer matter whether it be considered a crime or a sicknessit is a cultural phenomenon with far more profound implications than either diagnosis suggests.
Burroughs treatment of narcotics, like his treatment of homosexuality, ranges from that of personal psychology, through the sociological, and finally into pure metaphor. And he is perhaps the first writer to treat either with both humor and humility.
Although Naked Lunch, and his second novel, The Soft Machine, have not been available (except clandestinely) in either America or Englandostensibly because of the preponderance of obscene wordsthey have had, in their Paris editions, and extremely wide reading among the creatively inclined of both countries. No one writing in English, with the exception of Henry Miller, has done so much towards freeing the reader of the superstitions surrounding the use of certain words and certain attitudes. And it is safe to add that for the new generation of American writers the work of William Burroughs is by far the most seriously influential being done today.