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Naked Lunch turns 50
June 19, 2009 9:23 PM   Subscribe

Naked Lunch, the infamous novel by American writer William S. Burroughs and the subject of the final literary obscenity trial in the United States, turns 50 this year. To celebrate the anniversary, the first collection of critical essays devoted to the novel will be published this month and a three-day "homage and symposium" will be held in July at the University of London Institute in Paris, with complementary celebrations taking place in New York and other cities throughout the rest of 2009.
posted by Houyhnhnm (69 comments total) 16 users marked this as a favorite

 
I can think of at least two things wrong with that title.
posted by Askiba at 9:29 PM on June 19, 2009 [5 favorites]


I had a real hard time getting through Naked Lunch, but it was well worth the effort. It unlocked so many doors in terms of what I could do with words and narrations. Even though Burroughs is one of my favorites because of the Red Night Trilogy, Naked Lunch made the walls around me fall away. It was like seeing the world for the first time after years of solitary confinement.
posted by Marisa Stole the Precious Thing at 9:30 PM on June 19, 2009 [1 favorite]


Mere words can not convey the vertiginous retching horror I felt...


RIP Uncle Bill
posted by edgeways at 9:32 PM on June 19, 2009


For the few who may not know, one of the novel's claims to fame was a certain sexual device mentioned within its pages, which became the name of one of pop music's most creative bands, Steely Dan.
posted by Seekerofsplendor at 9:40 PM on June 19, 2009


I've got to track down some bug dust with which to celebrate.
posted by orme at 9:59 PM on June 19, 2009


Naked Lunch was my most favorite failed attempt to read a novel. I'm actually genuinely excited to fail to finish reading it again soon. I really mean this.
posted by xmutex at 10:28 PM on June 19, 2009 [4 favorites]


"Quién es?" Last words of Billy the Kid. Garrett was very close, five feet, maybe. Couldn't miss. *

We miss you plenty, Bill.
posted by juv3nal at 10:47 PM on June 19, 2009


xmutex, if you read Interzone first, Naked Lunch actually sort of makes sense. Interzone is a collection of a bunch of the short stuff that he was working on just prior to Naked Lunch, and a lot of it got cut up and reused in the novel itself.
posted by infinitywaltz at 10:48 PM on June 19, 2009 [1 favorite]


I read Naked Lunch when I was 20. I loved the book so much that I wanted to try heroin just once to see what it was really like.

Eighteen years later, I'm so glad that I didn't follow through with that particular urge. I don't think that I could have handled being a junkie.
posted by double block and bleed at 10:48 PM on June 19, 2009 [2 favorites]


I think it's time to discuss your... philosophy of drug use as it relates to artistic endeavour
posted by Artw at 11:11 PM on June 19, 2009 [2 favorites]


Is there any reason to read Burroughs, now that LSD has gone away?
posted by unmake at 12:33 AM on June 20, 2009


"Significantly, it was the appearance of the first ten chapters of Naked Lunch in the first [March, 1959] issue of [Chicago's] Big Table [and seeing 400 copies impounded by the US Post Office] that convinced Maurice Girodias of the Olympic Press in Paris [who had earlier turned it down] to publish the book immediately [in July]..."

THANKS, US POST OFFICE!
posted by Twang at 12:52 AM on June 20, 2009 [2 favorites]


Oops, that last link shoulda been in July.

(( How come's a low-life hangout like Reddit can let a guy de-typo a previous post but not MF? Who ya gotta blow to get an EDIT link around here?))
posted by Twang at 12:55 AM on June 20, 2009


Never liked Burroughs' writing or nihilistic, junkie pedestalizing prose. Met him in London in the 70's, went out to a not naked lunch with him and two of his old friends, Mary Beach and Claude Pelieu, who were friends and neighbors of mine. As we were leaving his austere room he went to his desk to get a pocket knife, looking weirdly at me and saying you can never be sure. His posturing seemed really fake at the time.

At that lunch I told him I was reading Carlos Castaneda and he recommended Robert Monroe's Journeys Out of the Body, which I enjoyed. I much preferred Burroughs' lover, Brion Gysin as a person and artist. He came to live with my family for almost a year in 1964, at the time he was trying to sell his Dream Machine. His asemic writing is wonderful. Burroughs followed Brion to NYC in 1965 and lived later at John Giorno's place, The Bunker, 222 Bowery.

Decades after being disillusioned by Burroughs' writing, I read on the web about MKultra, Sidney Gottlieb, the CIA's involvement with heroin business and Burroughs' paranoid, evil doctor caricatures like Dr. Benway seemed less delusional and more reality based.

Interesting though the dynamic energy that zinged its way around the group of friends with whom Burroughs hung out. He seemed to be an inspirational force for many. I'm not sure what his creative allure was to Ginsberg, Kerouc and others who seem so much more loving and embracing of life. Maybe his unadulterated cynicism and post apocalyptic fantasies cut through the post war 1950's propaganda and bs?
posted by nickyskye at 2:02 AM on June 20, 2009 [27 favorites]


I'm pleased to see this posted on MetaFilter. Beyond being a fan of Burroughs, my friend will be talking at one of the sessions in Paris.
posted by codefinger at 2:10 AM on June 20, 2009


One of my birds is named Dr. Benway

I'll need to re-read naked lunch to celebrate this.
posted by 5_13_23_42_69_666 at 2:20 AM on June 20, 2009


a certain sexual device

Ahem. I believe there were three of them, since they kept on getting crushed in a vice-like supervagina.

posted by cowbellemoo at 2:22 AM on June 20, 2009


I'll have to work the phrase "rectal mucous" into conversation somehow today.
posted by crataegus at 2:29 AM on June 20, 2009


nickyske, can I just say you have some of the coolest memories? You add so much to the discussion!
posted by librarylis at 2:34 AM on June 20, 2009


Fun with find and replace: rectal mucous.

For those special times when the Pornolizer just doesn't cut it.
posted by metagnathous at 2:43 AM on June 20, 2009


Those who think Burroughs was putting junkies on a pedestal in his work appear to not understand that work, or are projecting their own beliefs into it. It's a simplistic interpretation.

If the anecdote about the knife is even true, perhaps it's more an indicator of keen insight on Burroughs' part.

He used to like to shake people up, particularly people he felt were hangers-on.

Very funny guy.
posted by Henry C. Mabuse at 3:45 AM on June 20, 2009 [2 favorites]


I should get that for my train trip. Saw the movie a year or so ago, and didn't quite know what to make of it.
posted by flippant at 5:06 AM on June 20, 2009


Clothed Lunch.
posted by Tube at 6:06 AM on June 20, 2009


Naked Lunch twisted my mind when I read it for the first time at 15-16 years old, at the height of my youthful drug experimentation. Along with the short story collections "Interzone" and "Exterminator!", that book has probably been the most influential thing I've ever read in my life. It's like... it's hard to describe how I feel about it. "It changed the way I think" is a cliche, but it did, like in a literal way, like it rewired the synapses of my brain. Everyone should at least try to read this book. I understand if you don't get all the way through it. Try getting high, that helps.

Saw the movie a year or so ago, and didn't quite know what to make of it.

The movie has little to do with the book. Cronenberg just took some snippets and images here and there from the book and other Burroughs writings, and combined them into the movie. It's a good movie, but it's really not representative of the book. It would be impossible to make a direct movie adaptation of the book, at least not one anyone would want to watch. It would be like 12 hours long, for one thing.
posted by DecemberBoy at 6:15 AM on June 20, 2009


Wonderful book—thanks for the post!

> Is there any reason to read Burroughs, now that LSD has gone away?

Not unless you care about prose.
posted by languagehat at 7:06 AM on June 20, 2009 [4 favorites]


Good job, Henry C. Mabuse!
posted by roll truck roll at 7:46 AM on June 20, 2009


LSD has gone away?
posted by Tenuki at 8:00 AM on June 20, 2009


Those who think Burroughs was putting junkies on a pedestal in his work appear to not understand that work

I think nickyskye's turn of phrase was a little unfortunate but Burroughs did romanticize the culture of junk, if you use the word romance in its broadest sense... of course, he condemned it vehemently at the same time, and used it as a metaphor for all kinds of other parasitic relationships and cultural phenomena. Anyways, there are certainly lots of passages about junk that throb and glow with a terrible beauty in his work, and at times he rhapsodizes about opium and its medical benefits. It was a central element of his life that became a lens through which he viewed everything else.

I'm a big fan, even though I recognize his flaws as a writer, as an intellectual and as a human. Naked Lunch is a fantastic book and I have many of the set pieces almost memorized, like the County Clerk section. Infinitywaltz makes a great point about reading Interzone first. Actually, a lot of the Cronenberg movie is based more on Interzone than Naked Lunch itself. It helps if you don't expect a novel as such, a coherent narrative. It's more of a yard sale.
posted by fleetmouse at 8:03 AM on June 20, 2009 [3 favorites]


Is there any reason to read Burroughs, now that LSD has gone away?

ask again when addiction, not just to drugs, but to power, self-righteousness and control of others goes away

if you think he just wrote about drugs then you really don't understand him
posted by pyramid termite at 8:07 AM on June 20, 2009 [3 favorites]


If anyone is thinking about leaving flowers on his grave, well, here.
posted by Kid Charlemagne at 8:12 AM on June 20, 2009


I read Junky and Cities of the Red Night years before I even thought of reading Naked Lunch. Could not get through it. It is such a tour de force of the CRAZY, that I was overwhelmed. Personally, I was rather pleased that Burroughs could out-crazy me; and doing so in an instant that turned the public and Establishment on their ears.
posted by captainsohler at 8:27 AM on June 20, 2009


Dammit, Askiba, I was gonna say that.

I loved Naked Lunch. Not so much for the drug stuff and misanthropy, although that helped, but because the book was so deliciously dirty and queer. It's really quite astonishing to think of that being published in the 50s. Which, famously, it almost wasn't. One of the few books I care about owning is an Olympia Press printing of Naked Lunch, a Traveller's Companion issue. Merci, Mssr. Girodias.
posted by Nelson at 8:29 AM on June 20, 2009


I, too read Naked Lunch when I was young -- probably 15 or 16. I would say that it opened my mind; not just because it was a good book, but because it was written in such an odd, nonlinear style. Up until that point, I hadn't read anything even remotely like that. I was a big Stephen King fan at the time. Probably the "deepest" books I had read were standard highschool fare -- 1984, Brave New World, Lord of the Flies, etc. I don't even think I'd discovered Vonnegut yet.

It took me 1 1/2 readings before I was satisfied that I had gotten something out of it. By that point, I was convinced that you did not have to stick to a standard narrative structure to say something meaningful or create worthwhile imagery.

Burroughs gave me my first taste of what I would later enjoy in Robert Anton Wilson, Kurt Vonnegut, Thomas Pynchon, Haruki Murakami, Don Barthelme, Umberto Eco, Italo Calvino, Mark Danielewski, and Paul Auster. To this day, I think Burroughs is a great litmus test for whether or not somebody will enjoy a certain kind of novel.
posted by Afroblanco at 8:40 AM on June 20, 2009 [1 favorite]


Like Marisa Stole the Precious Thing, I found much permission in Naked Lunch. Permission to write in completely novel ways. However, at the same time that Naked Lunch topples the boundaries of what's allowed, it also prevents anyone else from ever doing the same again. I mean, really, the world simply will not register a second such book, nor do I think it needs one. Its value, for me, was simply in "breaking my ear open" as a writer - providing the literary acid trip I needed, at that time, to get a vantage point far enough outside the norm that I could actually see the norm for once. I always thought that Burroughs was the least talented writer of his set (though they clearly loved him, personally) and a very compromised human being to be regarded only with some healthy skepticism. But to the extent that he held down the outermost corner of the picnic blanket, to the extent he gave permission and support to those around him, gad bless him.
posted by scarabic at 8:54 AM on June 20, 2009 [1 favorite]


In John Updike's review of Burroughs' Port of Saints - collected in Hugging the Shore - he ended with a phrase that applies as well to The Lunch:

The net effect Burroughs achieves is to convince us he has seen and done things sad beyond description.
posted by Joe Beese at 8:57 AM on June 20, 2009


When I told my mother I had discovered this great writer named William Burroughs (through Nova Express), I'll never forget her reaction: "Oh, that horrible man!"

Turns out her parents were friends with William Burroughs' parents, and as liberal as my mom was, a homosexual junkie who shot his wife was, well, not exactly a good role model.

I grew up in the same St. Louis suburb as Burroughs (Ladue), and it is odd to see the names of the streets I grew up walking appear in his books.

Great list of authors, Afroblanco. You must be right!
posted by kozad at 8:59 AM on June 20, 2009 [1 favorite]


Burroughs' writing or nihilistic, junkie pedestalizing prose.

Your own impressions of him as a person aside, I have to second the confusion at this assessment of his writing. Burroughs absolutely did not put junkies on a pedastal of some kind. Like fleetmouse pointed out, he used addiction as a metaphor for many other evil and abusive systems. The fact that he believed the Drug War was inane, and that a slew of wannabes misunderstood his writing and built a glamourization of drug use around it does not change the fact that Burroughs regarded junk, in his writing and interviews, to operate a mechanics extrapolated to numerous different systems of totalitarianism and control. That does very little to put junk or junkies on a pedestal.

Furthermore, Burroughs is about as far from nihilism as you can get. The man saw magic in everything, believed very strongly in the powers of the human mind and had broad visions for what humans would be capable of doing with technology in the future. This you can see in his essays especially, but it also shines through in his fiction. His last words were purported to have been "love is the answer". Hardly the attitude of a nihilist. A sceptic and an anti-authoritarian, sure. But the sum of Burroughs' work is essentially a cry for hope.
posted by Marisa Stole the Precious Thing at 9:17 AM on June 20, 2009 [4 favorites]


For those who have failed a cover-to-cover reading of Naked Lunch, it's worth noting that it was never intended to be a linear experience. Rather, Burroughs and a few friends (Allen Ginsberg in particular) pieced the manuscript together from a chaos of notes, vignettes, sidetracks etc that Burroughs had written over a particularly traumatic and disconnected (ie: drug-addled) period of his life.

It's always struck me that if there was ever a work of literature that wanted to be presented online as a random access experience, Naked Lunch was the one.

I'm still waiting.
posted by philip-random at 9:35 AM on June 20, 2009 [1 favorite]


I picked up Naked Lunch because I thought it was all about cool drug shit. By the time I finished, I realized it wasn't about that at all.
posted by vibrotronica at 10:40 AM on June 20, 2009


I think the problem I have with Burroughs, Ginsberg and Kerouac is that (real) women are largely in the subculture and literary genre or movement they helped create.
posted by KokuRyu at 10:42 AM on June 20, 2009


I think that the first sentence of nickyskye's comment is being taken out of context, but that may just be me. Read the whole comment.
posted by blucevalo at 11:44 AM on June 20, 2009


The movie is not the book, but the movie is still pretty darn awesome in its own way.
posted by blucevalo at 11:45 AM on June 20, 2009 [1 favorite]


I did read the whole comment. I'm just trying to point out that a) he didn't glorify narcotics use; quite the contrary and b) Burroughs was not a nihilist. The other stuff said about his prescience and inspirational powers is fine, of course, and it's a neat little story. I'm not dumping on nickyskye here. Just trying to clarify that initial, kind of dismissive assessment there.
posted by Marisa Stole the Precious Thing at 11:50 AM on June 20, 2009


50, and it still reads like it was written five years from now. I read it at university, and afterwards felt extremely grateful firstly that such a book existed and secondly that Burroughs had been there so that others didn't have to. His report was enough.
posted by WPW at 12:06 PM on June 20, 2009


Found Naked Lunch hard to read, still haven't, to hear Burroughs read it though (thanks, internet!) makes it worthwhile. His prosody makes it.

Lest it go unnoticed by others, Burroughs was quite likely the least nihilistic of the beats particularly compared to Kerouac and Cassidy who he quite thoroughly outlived.

To see Kerouac live and continue writing to develop an older voice (to my mind well demonstrated by the equanimity and gentility in Burroughs perspectives on life and death in The Western Lands and the rest of The Cities of The Red Night trilogy) would've been wonderful.

But Kerouac drank himself to death, so it never happened. If Burroughs was a nihilist, if he didn't truly enjoy life he had the means and knew what to do to die comfortably.
posted by Matt Oneiros at 2:13 PM on June 20, 2009


My favorite early Burroughs is this, which I believe is intended to be a take-off on Scientology, but still seemed interesting to me.

I will admit I have never read Naked Lunch even though I read the later trilogy (Cities of the Red Night, et. al.) after it was recommended to me by a correspondent in the 90s.

I think several images from the movie really stayed with me: particularly the "fighting" typewriters.
posted by wittgenstein at 3:55 PM on June 20, 2009


William S. Burroughs -- Uncommon Quotes

Other Burroughs recordings at the Internet Archive
posted by hippybear at 4:14 PM on June 20, 2009


ack, my fingers are undermining me again. this time, by having me click post instead of link.

Other Burroughs recordings at the Internet Archive
posted by hippybear at 4:15 PM on June 20, 2009 [1 favorite]


"The net effect Burroughs achieves is to convince us he has seen and done things sad beyond description."

That's true of Bukowski, too. Still, great writer.
posted by krinklyfig at 4:33 PM on June 20, 2009


Never liked Burroughs' writing or nihilistic, junkie pedestalizing prose.

I think nickyskye's turn of phrase was a little unfortunate but... Burroughs did romanticize the culture of junk

Sorry to be pedantic, but putting content aside for a moment, the sentence contains a glaring redundancy: his writing was prose, obviously, so no distinction is necessary.

Also, I'm not sure about about the awkward pedestalizing: I can't find a dictionary-approved usage, and think the proper term is instead, pedestaling. Furthermore, a hyphen might make sense between junkie and pedastaling. But even then the use seems awkward, and it might make more sense to just say "heroin-glamorizing" (as I take it that was what was meant).

As to the content: saying Burroughs romanticized junk is just silly. It's like saying Rimbaud, Baudelaire, and Lautréamont romanticized death, disease, insanity. Like those writers, Burroughs hallucinatory paranoia and transgressive preoccupations were distinctly anti-romantic: the desire was not to glorify junk, but to excavate what human beings and consciousness become when pushed to their utmost limits.

Besides DeQuincey's Confessions of Opium-Eater and the work of Gertrude Stein, the literary forerunners here are two: Edgar Allan Poe, who should never be mistaken for a romantic, and the hardboiled pulp-noir fiction of writers like Jim Thompson. That, and the great jazz-opium autobiography Really the Blues.
posted by ornate insect at 5:00 PM on June 20, 2009


huh. You're right in criticizing what I said about Burroughs pedestalizing the junkie. That is too simplistic. But his writing, or those around and after Burroughs, who were not heroin addicts, ended up glamorizing heroin addiction, perhaps as Scorsese's Mean Streets and Goodfellas did not overtly intend to glamorize violence but ended up creating a sort of lusty, rollicking image of sociopaths committing serial, remorseless murder. And perhaps as Bukowski's flop house debauchery glamorized alcoholism. It's as if the Dark Side were so much more sexy, authentic and fascinating than anything loving kindness or emotionally healthy relationships with oneself or others has to offer.

That said, perhaps Burroughs' darkness was a necessary cultural ingredient to counteract the well-fed, materialistic, saccharine of mid-century Western culture. Burroughs' writing included prose and also cut up texts, which I always considered more poetry than prose.

His son, Billy Burroughs, had an abjectly tragic life, died of drug and alcohol addiction, at 33. Burroughs was a lousy parent, incapable of caring for the child he brought into the world. I see that as an expression of not only his addiction, which he was able to deal with, but his incapacity for love.

Burroughs' depictions of heroin, the junkie gutter life, the misery of it, then became a seductively dark part of Lou Reed's Heroin, heroin chic, death by OD or passing out high as a fashion trend and billboard topic, rock n' roll cool.

The man, Pierre, I was living with in 1974, when I met Burroughs, had been a junkie. He adored Burroughs, went to Bard and was friends with the musicians who started Steely Dan (named after the strap on dildo in Naked Lunch). A huge part of Pierre's cultural focus then seemed to be idolizing a fantasized version of the junkie gutter that he never knew growing up in suburban Luxemburg. My revulsion for heroin addiction was based in part for seeing heroin, and then methamphetamine, corrupt what I perceived as the joyful and basically wholesome vitality of the hippie direction of the late 60's NYC. One of Pierre's Bard friends OD'ed on heroin in our apartment.

On that day I went to lunch with Burroughs I was taken by Pierre, Mary and Claude as a token 18 year old teenager and told explicitly that Burroughs did not like girls, at all. I was not remotely a hanger on. If anything, the opposite and went to see Burroughs to please Pierre, Mary and Claude because he was their friend. I was to shut up and not behave in any girly way, which felt like they were pandering to Burroughs' gross misogyny and narrowmindedness. Was this old curmudgeon - who made his living off his pose of wretchedness- so delicate he couldn't tolerate me being pleasant and cheerful? Was that so distressing and incapacitating to his cynicism?

In being deferential to my elders, as we headed out of Burroughs' apartment, I stood behind as Pierre, Mary, Claude and Burroughs headed towards the door. It was then that Burroughs went to the desk by the door and got the knife. Because I knew he had murdered his wife, I was frankly scared in that moment and then relieved when he just pocketed it with his grim statement about possibly needing it. We headed out to lunch in a quiet tavern in the quintessentially British, basically crime-free, old-fashioned, civilized and genteel part of London, where he was living.
posted by nickyskye at 8:02 PM on June 20, 2009 [4 favorites]


"Burroughs grew up in St. Louis, where his upper-class midwestern background did not suit his tastes."

Burroughs "became a heroin addict quite intentionally, in the process meeting the prototypical junkie drifter and future Beat hero Herbert Huncke."

He was a Harvard educated kid from an upper-middle class family who junkiedom was a fashionable affectation.
posted by nickyskye at 8:12 PM on June 20, 2009


*for whom junkiedom was a fashionable affectation.
posted by nickyskye at 8:21 PM on June 20, 2009


I think people need to separate artists from their art. Burroughs, Ginsberg, and Kerouac all led extremely messy lives: Burroughs was a junkie, he and Ginsberg may have been pedophiles, Burroughs killed his wife under very suspect circumstances, Ginsberg suffered from hereditary bouts of mental ilness, Kerouac became a bitter, racist alcoholic.

These people may well not have been role models as people, or even always nice. Maybe one would want to have lunch with them, but also maybe not. And yet regardless of their character as people, they also left behind works of literature that must be judged on their own terms: to some extent, without too much mythologizing or biographical psychoanalysis.

This is not always easy, of course, especially with the beats, since they often quite explicitly made the seedy details of their own outré escapades the objects of their narratives: they quite self-consciously strove to break down any barrier between the life and the art, much as poète-maudits like Rimbaud, Daumel, Artaud and Gilbert-Lecomte did.

And yet, clearly the literature stands or fails on its own merits. I say all this only b/c I'm weary some on this thread might be conflating the personality of Burroughs with the work he left behind.
posted by ornate insect at 8:29 PM on June 20, 2009 [1 favorite]


He was a Harvard educated kid from an upper-middle class family who junkiedom was a fashionable affectation.

no - in the 1940's? - i really don't think so - there was nothing fashionable about it then

i think you're letting your personal distaste for junkies and burroughs himself* interfere with your consideration of his literary work

also, when it gets to the point of being hooked, it's hardly an affectation anymore, is it?

i also think you're looking at the 30s, 40s and 50s through the lens of the 70s, 80s, and 90s and that just doesn't work

*i'm certainly not saying your distaste is wrong - i'm not sure i'd have liked him either - but there's much more to his work then, OMG, needles are so COOL
posted by pyramid termite at 8:56 PM on June 20, 2009 [1 favorite]


ornate insect, on the one hand you emphasize the separation between the author and his work, then you talk about Burroughs trying to "excavate what human beings and consciousness become when pushed to their utmost limits" - highlighting the importance of the author's personal experiences to his work. It's hard to separate the man from the work when it's so autobiographical.

Anyhow this excavation sounds like a perfectly romantic project to me - it's affective and subjective, adventurous, experiential and anti-rational. And honestly, Burroughs is at his best when he's writing affectively and romantically, and weakest when he's trying to be rational - in his "reasonable" mode, he often comes across as a crank steeped in pseudoscience and nutjobbery. (although sometimes that also explodes into comic hallucination, like his essay on using human waste as fertilizer that turns into a vision of a world overflowing with giant reeking plants and farm animals)

BTW, I have a hard time not seeing Poe as (darkly, gothically) romantic. How are we supposed to read Masque of the Red Death or The Black Cat?
posted by fleetmouse at 9:03 PM on June 20, 2009 [1 favorite]


No, I think I've considered Burroughs' cultural and literary significance. And expressed my distaste for him as a person.
posted by nickyskye at 9:06 PM on June 20, 2009


fleetmouse--his work is no more or less autobiographical than any number of writers, so I'm not sure where the problem is. Some critics still favor the psychobiographical approach, and others tend to think it limits one's ability to appreciate a work of literature. The line "excavate what human beings and consciousness become when pushed to their utmost limits," refers to a literary excavations. Was his imagination fueled by his heroin addiction? Undoubtedly, but they are not one and the same.

**

Concerning the complex question of literary romanticism and the romantic imaginary, romantic is a loaded word that is notoriously difficult to pin down with any precision, and there are many interpretations of it (see "Axel's Castle" by Wilson, "Children of the Mire" by Paz, "The Romantic Agony" by Praz, and "The Persistence of Romanticism" by Eldridge, etc.): for instance, whether French Symbolism or Gothic literature are permutations and continuations of Romanticism, or are reactions against it, remain unresolved questions. I tend to to think of the literature of transgression (de Sade, Lautréamont) and the lineage of French symbolism (Nerval, Verlaine, Baudelaire, Rimbaud, Mallarme) as being expressly anti-Romantic, but some would say these strands are merely inverted Romanticism (traces of libertinism). To say that Romanticism is merely anti-rational is not very useful, even for Aristotle, since it's not clear how poetry since Homer, Sophocles, Ovid, or Li-Po can fulfill what you are calling rational. One need not read Vico, Freud, Neitzsche or Bataille to see how calling romanticism anti-rational simply begs the question of the old logos/mythos distinction. Was Shakespeare a Romantic? Are the Surrealists Romantic? Was Valery a Romantic? Dylan Thomas? Henry James? Gertrude Stein? Samuell Beckett? Joyce? High Romanticism is surely most closely associated in Germany with Goethe (see "the Specular Moment" by Wellbery) , Novalis, and Holderlin, and in England with Wordsworth, Keats, Shelley, and Byron. Coleridge and Blake also, although here's where I think the term tends to fall apart. In Italy we have the question of d'Annunzio, in England the question of Arthur William Symons. Burroughs is clearly not a High Romantic or textbook representative of Romanticism, either chronologically or stylistically, but I think temperamentally and stylistically he is instead--like Poe or the French Symbolists, and also like the dimestore hardboiled pulp-noir crime writers whom he almost certainly read--at the very least an anti-Romantic in his aversion to anything like the discreet epiphantic mode of the sublime. If anything, his style is more medieval in that the sublimated theology or attempt at transcendent psychological revelation is not about art: he is more like Dante than he is like Wordsworth.

posted by ornate insect at 9:40 PM on June 20, 2009 [1 favorite]


Well, he wrote me a very thoughtful postcard. And I'm sure what a lot of people don't like about him is what people don't like about junkies. Their lack of compunction about ripping off their grandmother, for example, to which Burroughs replied (and I haven't read him in thirty years), in italics: "Wouldn't you?"

As others have mentioned above, junk was real as shit to Burroughs, and it was a metaphor a powerful as shit relating to a lot of things in our lives. Remember, her said "Language is a virus," and that was a clue to his power as a literary shaman.

Yes, Ginsberg, who I met a few times, was a hell of a nicer guy, but conflating personalities and artistic achievement is a chump's game. I would hate to guess how many great artists have been assholes. I would hate the exercise because I hold art in such regard and I hold virtuous, kindly people in high regard. How strange that those two meet only now and then.
posted by kozad at 9:54 PM on June 20, 2009 [2 favorites]


But his writing, or those around and after Burroughs, who were not heroin addicts, ended up glamorizing heroin addiction, perhaps as Scorsese's Mean Streets and Goodfellas did not overtly intend to glamorize violence but ended up creating a sort of lusty, rollicking image of sociopaths committing serial, remorseless murder.

Burroughs repeatedly and quite clearly illustrated that addiction is evil, and that the mechanism of addiction is present in totalitarianism. Yet because other people took a shallow reading of his material, he's to blame for glamorizing drug addiction? That doesn't make a lot of sense, really, and sounds like Tipper Gore blaming Ozzy Osborne for kids committing suicide because of his creeping influence. The comparison to Scorsese sort of misses the mark, too, as Scorsese's aim has been pretty much to make entertaining films, whereas Burroughs wrote about addiction to try and convey a message about addiction and its meaning with regards to systems of human control.
posted by Marisa Stole the Precious Thing at 10:04 PM on June 20, 2009 [1 favorite]


ornate insect, I almost second your opinion. I don't think it was Burroughs' work so much but the impact it had on the writers and artists around him, Ginsburg, Kerouac and others who did make major cultural changes with their writing. Basically it was Brion Gysin who invented the cut up method and Ginsburg who put Naked Lunch together. Herbert Hunke was the actual junkie Burroughs attempted to emulate.

If Burroughs genuinely thought addiction were evil he wouldn't have, after graduating Harvard and having every option an upper class young man could have in that time, deliberately requested Hunke the junkie to shoot him up, nor would he have spent 50 years of his life on and off drugs nor surrounded with addicts of a variety of substances.

Since Burroughs was a junkie -addicted to opiates on and off for half a century-and he wrote about being a junkie I don't think it's merely a conflation to talk about his being an addict with a junkie's personality in relation to his writing.

But I have repeatedly acknowledged his place and value in the culture of the time.
posted by nickyskye at 10:30 PM on June 20, 2009 [1 favorite]


"If Burroughs genuinely thought addiction were evil he wouldn't have, after graduating Harvard and having every option an upper class young man could have in that time, deliberately requested Hunke the junkie to shoot him up"[. . .]"

This assumes his opinion on addiction was static, I think it is estimable it might have changed once getting "hooked".

"nor would he have spent 50 years of his life on and off drugs nor surrounded with addicts of a variety of substances."

Do you suppose he would've rather been always on or always off? I believe it was likely a dynamic struggle based on factors deeper than mere drug-availability.
posted by Matt Oneiros at 2:24 AM on June 21, 2009 [1 favorite]


If Burroughs genuinely thought addiction were evil he wouldn't have, after graduating Harvard and having every option an upper class young man could have in that time, deliberately requested Hunke the junkie to shoot him up, nor would he have spent 50 years of his life on and off drugs nor surrounded with addicts of a variety of substances.

I'm not sure what you know about addiction, but yeah, sometimes a moment of youthful wrongheadedness can lead to a lifetime of struggle. Millions of people around the world go through that struggle all the time. "Why don't they just quit?" is just the kind of stock dismissal that does nothing to help.

Since Burroughs was a junkie -addicted to opiates on and off for half a century-and he wrote about being a junkie I don't think it's merely a conflation to talk about his being an addict with a junkie's personality in relation to his writing.

No, but it is wholly inaccurate to say he glorified addiction, or that because others around him read his work shallowly - if at all - and in turn glorified addiction, that he is to blame. It's the sort of "let's blame the artist for other peoples' twisted interprettations" game that's been played since Charles Manson.
posted by Marisa Stole the Precious Thing at 9:50 AM on June 21, 2009


Not to mention the fact that his writing repeatedly illustrates and outlines how evil addiction is. But no - since the man messed up in his youth and struggled with opiates on and off for the next fifty years of his life, he was "glorifying addiction". Disregard everything he ever wrote.
posted by Marisa Stole the Precious Thing at 9:52 AM on June 21, 2009


nickyskye, I feel weird arguing with you because I genuinely enjoy reading your commentary and I appreciate your stories about an era that I will never have the pleasure to know. However, I think that you write about Burroughs with 20/20 hindsight, and that your opinion of him is unfairly shaded by personal experience.

Yes, Burroughs could have been a better person. He could have used his family connections to get a good job. He could have lived his whole life and never tried heroin. But had he done that, he never would have written his books, and we would never have heard the name William S. Burroughs. Would that universe have been a better one? Perhaps for the people who knew him, but certainly not for myself and others who enjoy his work.

Sure, he could have spent his life surrounded by Respectable People. Instead, he chose -- for reasons all his own -- to spend it around junkies, poets, and prostitutes. And part of the reason we read his books is because people who spend their time around junkies, poets, and prostitutes are interesting and have interesting things to say. I think this is a truism about humanity and human nature. There will always be a darker side, and that darker side is interesting.

Don't get me wrong, there are plenty of books written about loving kindness and emotionally healthy relationships with oneself and others. But those books are not Naked Lunch, and the motivation behind reading those books is completely different. If I wanted to read Naked Lunch, but instead I picked up a book about loving kindness and healthy relationships, I'd be pissed.
posted by Afroblanco at 10:15 AM on June 21, 2009 [2 favorites]


> I think people need to separate artists from their art.

I know people need to separate artists from their art. Equating artists with their art, or saying X's art shouldn't be enjoyed because X is a bad person, is tiresome and stupid. Not saying anyone in this thread is doing that here, but people do it a lot, and they should cut it out.
posted by languagehat at 10:40 AM on June 21, 2009 [1 favorite]


Sharing in this thread has made me curious about the attraction Burroughs had for Ginsburg, Kerouc and others in the Beat Generation circle.
posted by nickyskye at 4:51 PM on June 21, 2009


I know I have a certain attraction for the younger Ginsberg... does that count?
posted by hippybear at 8:03 PM on June 21, 2009


Burroughs likes weapons.
posted by nickyskye at 9:23 PM on July 5, 2009


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