“Giving Away the Basic American Rottenness”

William Burroughs’ Naked Lunch as an Historical Document

by A. D. Parkinson

This study has been an attempt to establish the importance of Naked Lunch as an historical document, an accurate and intelligent critique of postwar America, through a thorough demonstration of its relationship with both the reality of postwar America and other social-political critiques. As has been illustrated, the surreal scenery of the novel is in many senses but a thinly guised vision of postwar American society. William Burroughs’ ideas on society and politics which he articulates in the novel can be expressed within a web of social critiques, which encompasses works of the Frankfurt School, the writings of Michel Foucault, some of the theories of Gilles Deleuze and elements of Oswald Spengler, and Naked Lunch can be best understood in the context of these texts. This is not to say that Naked Lunch or William Burroughs’ thought is always entirely correct or even thoroughly consistent, but through studying Naked Lunch, we still can increase our knowledge of postwar America.

This study has attempted to demonstrate specifically the relationship between Burroughs’ surreal images and the realities of 1950s society. It has been shown that in Naked Lunch, Burroughs portrays what he considers to be that “basic American rottenness”: he dissects the control mechanisms of the consumer society that emerged in America in the postwar period and reflects a deep discontent with consumer society presenting it as being fundamentally degrading to mankind. Burroughs shares many of the criticisms of the reason underpinning capitalist society which are articulated by the Frankfurt School of Social Research. Like Horkheimer and Adorno, Burroughs perceives a shift in the meaning of a reasonable action, connected to the Enlightenment and the rise of liberalism, which has enormous social and political repercussions. We can also see that before Michel Foucault was a recognised scholar, Burroughs was taking a distinctly Foucauldian approach to sexuality and normality. Naked Lunch shows the way in which innocuous, humane, “progressive” approaches to and opinions of sexuality in 1950s America were in fact judgemental and moralising.

In a wider sense, this study has been an attempt to win back ground lost to sociological studies in considerations of postwar American politics and society. It is an attempt to place the various social-political models and theories which we find within the works of Foucault, the Frankfurt School and William Burroughs within the context of history and historical studies. There is much valuable insight to be learnt from these models, but it is important to ground the theories in concrete facts and historical realities. This study has constantly maintained an effort to establish a tangible relationship between theory and reality.

Modern literary criticism, with its increasing fluency in sociology, is making important new readings of texts. An increased awareness of the social and political circumstances which produce a novel, and the social and political values we can deduce from the novel, means that literary works can serve as increasingly important documents of eras. William Burroughs’ body of work deserves further critical analysis, with an increased awareness and attention to the context of the work. There is a whole myriad of postwar authors whose books display an acute awareness of the changing social and political environment and the subtle shifts in the organisation of capital and global politics, and these authors are often more alert to their socio-political surroundings then many more scholarly commentators. Responding to criticisms that their two part work Capitalism and Schizophrenia was too “literary”, Deleuze and Guattarri asked “Is it our fault that Lawrence, Miller, Kerouac, Burroughs, Artaud, and Beckett know more about schizophrenia than psychiatrists and psychoanalysts?”1 I would suggest that anyone wishing to perform a historical investigation into identity and the “theory of alienation” identified in Marx in the postwar world might want to read the works of Paul Bowles and Albert Camus, and anyone writing a social history of technology would be wise to study the works of Philip K. Dick. The towering importance of the thought of J. G. Ballard should manifest itself in any social history of the twentieth century. Different eras have different writers who in their novels, possessed by the shifting tectonics of historical forces, capture the essence of the period and it is important that historians recognise the importance of the literary work as a historical document.


1. Gilles Deleuze, Negotiations, (New York, 1995), p. 23

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