“Giving Away the Basic American Rottenness”

William Burroughs’ Naked Lunch as an Historical Document

by A. D. Parkinson

In Naked Lunch, William Burroughs unmasks deeply held assumptions about sexual normality, and the economic and social function of normality, which can be productively examined in conjunction with the work of Michel Foucault. Within Naked Lunch, we can see a fictionalised account of what Foucault identifies as a “normalising” process, which was at work in America in the 1950s. Punitive measures for those who engaged in sodomy were being replaced by a more “progressive”, liberal approach, but one which was equally judgemental, and Naked Lunch reveals them as such. The very language used to describe sexual practice in the postwar period is disciplinary in that the binary distinctions it carries with it cause the internalisation of ideas of “normality”. It will further be illustrated that Burroughs’ depiction of the manner in which the normalising process functions, pivoted on the routine of the examination, corresponds to many elements of Foucault’s descriptions of the process.

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In 1950s America, there was a co-existence of different attitudes towards homosexuality. In the early fifties, there were trends of relaxation on sodomy laws. The states of Georgia, Arkansas, Nevada, New Jersey and New York lowered the maximum or minimum penalties for sodomy. In New York, for instance, less than 5 percent of those convicted of sodomy in 1949 received prison sentences. With the publication of the Kinsey Reports in 1948 and 1953, and the American Law Institute’s Model Penal Code, there were definitely more liberal attitudes co-existing with the traditional harsh punishments.1 “The Homosexual” became less the focus of attempts to punish through imprisonment, fines and sterilisation, and became instead the focus of attempts to correct, “cure”, normalise. A discourse about homosexuality was adopted which can be traced back to Krafft-Ebbing’s 1894 work Psychopathia Sexualis, which sees the homosexual as the pathologically diseased, his sexuality a symptom of some social maladjustment or mental illness. In Naked Lunch Burroughs shows this “progressive” attitude to be just as steeped in judgemental moralising as the previous methods: it is merely an evolution of methods of control.

Burroughs’ clarity on these issues of “normality” is due in no small part to his “abnormality”: on account of his sexual orientation and his use of drugs, he was constantly brought into conflict with forces that attempted to prevent or correct his behaviour. When the text is read in the light of Burroughs’ experiences with these forces of psychoanalysis and “normality”, the sociological content appears with an increased vividity.

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In Naked Lunch, Burroughs often considers the US comparatively. Through juxtaposing what may be seen as traditional and acceptable (or conversely, new and unacceptable) behaviour in America, with the traditions, customs and social norms of other countries, Burroughs is able to illustrate many of the absurdities in postwar America’s conceptions of normality. Burroughs uses the Freeland Republic, a parody of Scandinavian Welfare States, to articulate his fears of the “welfare state” mentality which he saw developing in America. Writing to Allen Ginsberg, he speaks of the “Welfare Gov.” of America, and the injustices he feels that it perpetuates through its intervention in the immigrant labour economy in Texas, and goes on to assert that “The Welfare State is on the way to be a Communist State, and that means a bureaucratic police state.2 Burroughs’ reactionary tone is in part fuelled by his anger at Ginsberg’s pseudo-socialist and somewhat naïve criticisms of his business, and should not therefore be taken too seriously. It does however articulate that Burroughs feared that America was becoming what was termed a Welfare State, and that this would mean decreased liberties and freedoms and an unprecedented level of state intervention in the lives of individuals. Through the routines involving the Freeland Republic, which will be examined here, Burroughs articulates his fears with regards a process which he sees occurring in 1950s America, whereby Freeland is a Scandinavia of the mind, and an extrapolation of trends in contemporary America.

In the Letters, we can see Burroughs’ experience with the concept of “normality” and his awareness of how it was used for other ends. Burroughs is very cynical of the approach that psychiatrists take to homosexuality and we can see this when he writes to Ginsberg, “The fact is that no one at present understands this condition, though, of course, psychiatrists will claim to understand anything.” Ginsberg was committed to the Columbia Presbyterian Psychiatric Institute for around nine months, after pleading insanity when arrested after an incident involving a stolen car full of stolen clothes, driven by a criminal associate of his. He left the institute believing that the analysts had “cured” him of his homosexuality, and this theme occupies a portion of the discourse between himself and Burroughs. Burroughs recognized the potential of analysis, and the power of psychiatry,

I don’t doubt that a change from queer to hetero-sex is possible. Successful analysis should bring about a complete sexual reorientation. 3

He himself had undergone pscyhoanalysis, and claimed that the process “removed inhibitions and anxiety so that I could live the way I wanted to live.” However, he indicated that there was a tension, that the powerful process of analysis could be directed and used for certain ends, writing, “Much of my progress in analysis was accomplished in spite of my analyst who did not like my “orientation,” as he called it.”4

Ann Douglas writes “Burroughs never considered himself anything but homosexual.”3 Certainly by the 1950s, Burroughs completely accepted his sexual preferences:

I see as clear as I see physical objects my location as regards sex orientation. I am no going anywhere from where I am, couldn’t go anywhere and don’t want to.

He did not concern himself with the normality or abnormality of his sexuality, and nor did he see his homosexuality as in any way wrong or immoral, rather he saw that as being a social judgement. He wrote, “It seems to me, Allen, that the problems and difficulties you complain of in queer relationships are social rather than inherent — resulting from the social environment (to my mind one of the worst in Space-Time) of middle class USA” Burroughs was made increasingly aware of the nature of the constraints upon his person in America by the different social climate of Mexico. Of his relationship with Marker in Mexico (documented in Queer, with Marker appearing as Allerton), he said,

It isn’t that they are “tolerant” of the relation between Marker and myself. It simply would not occur to them that the matter is any concern of theirs… (Needless to say everyone who knows me or of me knows I am an invert and a junkie.) Like I say, there is no pressure… We don’t have “problems” down here.

The very culture of “toleration” still implicitly condemns homosexual relations, implying putting up with something that one disapproves of.6

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In various passages in Naked Lunch, Burroughs reveals the new seemingly progressive, humane attitudes towards homosexuality as being essentially moralising and part of a process of normalisation. Foucault identifies “normalising judgement” arising in post-Enlightenment society, in the areas that the laws leave empty, where there is an attempt to repress certain types of behaviour by bringing people to internalise conceptions of reasonable and unreasonable behaviour:

The workshop, the school, the army were subject to a whole micro-penalty of time (lateness, absences, interruptions of tasks), of activity (inattention, negligence, lack of zeal), of behaviour (impoliteness, disobedience), of speech (idle chatter, insolence), of the body (“incorrect” attitudes, irregular gestures, lack of cleanliness), of sexuality (impurity, indecency). At the same time, by way of punishment, a whole series of subtle procedures was used, from light physical punishment to minor deprivations and petty humiliations. It was a question both of making the slightest departures from correct behaviour subject to punishment, and of giving a punitive function to the apparently indifferent elements of the disciplinary approaches.

Normality is thus a point of coercion, and as perceptions of normality and correct behaviour are absorbed into peoples” world-views, society itself takes upon the disciplinary function.7

The function of psychoanalysis in this process is crucial. Foucault, like Burroughs, presents psychoanalysis as being invested with other interests as “Certain of its activities have effects which fall within the function of control and normalisation.”8 Central to the psychological normalising process is the routine of the examination, and many of the normalising forces of society manifest themselves in “The Examination” chapter of Naked Lunch, which features Doctor Benway, here appearing as a psychoanalyst, interviewing and testing a young man named Carl, whom he clearly suspects of homosexuality.9

In “The Examination”, Benway speaks to Carl, “take the matter of uh sexual deviation… We regard it as a misfortune… a sickness… certainly nothing to be censured or uh sanctioned any more than, say, tuberculosis.” Although the tone is one of understanding and sympathy, the fact of the matter is that Benway is equating a mere sexual preference with a life threatening disease. The moralising here is occurring below the surface, with an offhand implication that wishing to have intercourse with those of the same sex is a malfunction on par with having granular tumours and nodules pertaining to a destruction of the flesh. Benway goes on to say that “any illness imposes certain, should we say, obligations, certain necessities of a prophylactic nature on the authorities concerned with public health, such necessities to be imposed, needless to say, with a minimum of inconvenience and hardship to the unfortunate individual who has, through no fault of his own, become uh infected…” Again, beneath the sympathetic tone which refers to Carl as an “unfortunate individual”, who is “infected”, lurk sinister forces. Carl is being asked to recognise his own abnormality and through supporting the corrective process and recognising an “obligation” for the state to “cure” him, he is condemning it as wrong and immoral.10

“The Examination” is highly ritualised, each stage shrouded in impenetrable terminology,

[Benway:] “Your uh test… the Robinson-Kleiberg flocculation test…”

“I thought it was a Blomberg-Stanislouski test.”

The doctor tittered. “Oh dear no… You are getting ahead of me young man. You might have misunderstood. The Blomberg-Stanislouski, weeell… that’s a different sort of test altogether. I do hope… not necessary…”

This terminology serves to increase the gulf between the patient and the doctor, as a whole language separates Carl from Dr Benway, who is elevated to a status above Carl because of his access to this field of knowledge. From this comes an increased objectification of the patient, Carl. Benway even describes the whole process as “our little obstacle course”, as though he is toying with Carl as part of some private, secret game, the purposes of which are never revealed.11 Foucault describes the examination as a ritual of objectification, which “manifests the subjection of those who are perceived as objects and the objectification of those who are subjected” and Burroughs clearly presents “The Examination” in this context.12

A tremendous amount of information about the individual is acquired through the examination. Foucault explains “The examination that places individuals in a field of surveillance also situates them in a network of writing; it engages them in a whole mass of documents that capture and fix them.”13 At one point, Doctor Benway shows Carl pictures of pinup girls, some of which are boys in drag, asking him which one he would most like to “make”. Of course, the Doctor already has in his file a picture of the girl he knows Carl will pick, illustrating the sheer mass and depth of information that they know about Carl, and the extent of the surveillance that has been conducted. We read, “Carl noticed that the file was six inches thick. In fact it seemed to have thickened since he entered the room.”14 As Foucault sees the documents capturing the patient in an almost spiritual sense, Carl is brought face to face with this eerily expanding mass of information being recorded about him. It thickens in his presence, implying that every second of his existence is being captured in this web of letters.

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America in the fifties saw certain “progressive” strands of thought and approaches like Benway’s which rather than condemning homosexuality out-and-out as immoral and wrong, and punishable through prison, presented an equally judgemental and moralistic view which was shrouded in sympathetic language and scientific terminology. There was a strong current of opinion that homosexuality could and should be “treated”, because it was considered to be “abnormal” — an explicit attempt at normalisation. In Seduction of the Innocent (1953) psychiatrist Fredric Wertham discussed the dangerous effects of the homoeroticism inherent in comics such as Batman and Robin: “the Batman type of story helps to fixate homoerotic tendencies”, through exploiting the sexual confusion common in adolescent boys, which he believed could create homosexuals:

We found that the arousal of homosexual fantasies, the translation of fantasies into fact and the transition from episodic homosexual experiences to a confirmed fixation of the pattern may be due to all sorts of accidental factors. The Batman type of story may stimulate children to homosexual fantasies, of the nature of which they may be unconscious. In adolescents who realize it they may be given added stimulation and reinforcement.

He speaks of “overt homosexuals treated at the [Quaker Emergency Service] Readjustment Center”, and “homosexual cases”, implying through his rhetoric that homosexuality was a medical condition to be cured.15 As Benway has his Reconditioning Centre, Wertham had his Readjustment Centre. Wertham’s language is intimidating like that of Benway; we are told that “Only someone ignorant of the fundamentals of psychiatry and of the psychopathology of sex can fail to realise a subtle atmosphere of homoerotism.”16

Dr. Wertham served as a senior psychologist for the Department of Hospitals in New York City between 1935 and 1952, was responsible for the mental hygiene clinics at Bellevue Hospital and Queens Hospital Center and was responsible for General Sessions Psychiatrist Clinic. He was also responsible for advice in many court cases for over twenty-five years.17 He was a figure of great influence upon debates involving sexuality and morality. There are debates as to Wertham’s homophobia, but certain facts can be established. His survey is based upon an acceptance of homosexual stereotypes and a desire to establish a homosexual/ heterosexual duality. With chapter titles including “Design for Delinquency” and “The Devil’s Allies”, the description of homosexuality in the book is set within the context of sadomasochism, degeneracy and crime he sees at large in society, the connotation being that homosexuality is another ill which he is condemning. Wertham and his book are inseparable from the sensationalism surrounding them, as parts of it were released in the Ladies” Home Journal under the title of “What Parents Don’t Know About Comic Books.” Dr Wertham represents serious psychoanalytical discourse inseparably intertwined with personal perceptions of “normality” and “abnormality”, and of homosexuality as an adverse condition. He sees comic books as being responsible for shaping the minds of young people, and essentially creating homosexuals, and in blaming comic books for homosexuality and crime, and pushing for regulation of comic books, he was employing a “preventative” remedy for the perceived “social ill” of homosexuality. Like Dr Benway, Fredric Wertham is acting as a normalising force, with psychiatry as a tool being used for a particular end.

The very process of “The Examination” in Naked Lunch should appear as absurd — the tremendous pressure heaped upon Carl and the issue of his sexuality by Dr Benway, and Benway’s almost perverse desire to know about Carl is uncanny. It does however, reflect the reality of 1950s America. The state was concerned about the sexuality of the people; committees were set up to investigate whether civil servants or teachers were homosexual, because they were considered to be something of a security risk. Alfred Kinsey, in his groundbreaking study, Sexual Behaviour in the Human Male, published in 1948, considers the way in which ideas of “normality” and “abnormality” were used by scientists, and writes “the ready acceptance of those distinctions among scientific men may provide the basis for one of the severest criticisms which subsequent generations can make of the scientific quality of nineteenth and early twentieth century scientists.” He criticises science which, for all its aloofness, is operating within this morality. In his survey, he revealed that “perhaps the major portion of the male population,” had at least some homosexual experience between adolescence and old age, and that the very idea of characterizing someone as a homosexual or heterosexual was absurd- a social term, not a scientific term, for such terms “may be better used to describe the nature of the overt sexual relations,”18 In our first encounter with Benway in the novel, he tells us “I noticed that all my homosexual patients manifested strong unconscious heterosex trends and all my hetero patients unconscious homosexual trends.”19 The unconscious trends manifesting in the patients reflect the failed attempts of the patients to force their sexual orientation into semantic terms which do not necessarily reflect the reality of the human psyche. Burroughs rejects gender identities considering them to be social categories more than anything.

Published in 1951, Donald Webster Cory’s The Homosexual in America: A Subjective Approach argued for the rights of homosexuals as a group, but in doing so was still enforcing the homosexual/ heterosexual dichotomy, and trying to build up a “gay culture” from this position.20 He did not make any effort to dispute the “sickness” theories, and in fact reacted strongly to rejections of the sickness theory in the 1960s. Burroughs read the book, and commented

Enough to turn a man’s gut. This citizen says a queer learns humility, learns to turn the other cheek… Let him take that sort of thing if he wants to. I never swallowed the other cheek routine, and I hate the stupid bastards who won’t mind their own business.21

Burroughs appears to reject this “gay identity” that one could see developing in the 1950s, because it was essentially couched in the semantics of the opposition. Instead, Burroughs is angry at the very fact that people may concern themselves with his sexual preferences. Essentially, Burroughs rejects “gay culture” as it was represented in the 1950s because he rejects any attempt to define an individual through their sexual orientation.

Burroughs questions the success and desirability of this normalisation. In one scene in Naked Lunch, “Dr Berger’s Mental Health Hour”, there appears to be some attempt to film a toothpaste advert, whereby an individual smiles and endorses the product. The subjects that they have for filming are three “cured” cases — a criminal psychopath, a homosexual and a writer. All three are supposedly “cured”, that is, normalised, and so able to play a productive role providing a service within consumer society. However, it doesn’t work. The artistic advisor complains of the homosexual’s performance, “It lacks something. To be specific, it lacks health.”22 The doctor is taken aside and questioned “how can you expect a body to be healthy with its brains washed out?” Ironically, the results of the attempts to turn these “abnormal” individuals into healthy, productive units turns them into something unhealthy and unappealing. Burroughs again brings us to question these attempts at homogenisation through psychiatric means in “meeting of international conference of technological psychiatry”, when Dr Shafer presents us with the Complete All American Deanxietized Man, which subsequently turns into a giant centipede, the hideous metamorphism inducing terror, and making us question the desirability of Shafer’s creation.

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In Naked Lunch, we see how around the construct of normality, a whole system of morality is established. In the modern age, what is right is what is normal, and serves to preserve and perpetuate the status quo. Burroughs writes, “The black wind sock of death undulates over the land, feeling, smelling for the crime of separate life, movers of the fear-frozen flesh shivering under a vast probability curve…” conjuring up an image of coercive forces seeking out those who do not conform to social norms.23 The homosexual in 1950s America was subjected to these forces, which were presented as the most sympathetic, understanding approach to the “problem”. Burroughs reveals these forces for what they were, and in describing how they work he portrays coercive disciplinary forces which function in a manner strikingly similar to that later described by Michel Foucault. Burroughs’ awareness that these “neutral” institutions were in fact endowed with coercive powers can only be described as “Foucauldian”.


1. George Painter, “The Sensibilities of Our Forefathers: The History of Sodomy Laws in the United States“, January 2005

2. William Burroughs, The Letters of William S. Burroughs, 1945-1959, Oliver Harris (ed.), (London, 1993), p. 67

3. Letters, pp. 69, 86

4. William Burroughs, Junky, (London, 1999), p.xiv

5. Ann Douglas, “‘Punching a hole in the big lie’: the achievement of William S. Burroughs” in Word Virus: the William Burroughs Reader, James Grauerholz and Ira Silverberg (eds.), (London, 1999), p. xvi

6. Letters, pp. 86, 97-8

7. Michel Foucault, Discipline and Punish: the Birth of the Prison, (London, 1991), p. 178

8. Michel Foucault, Power/Knowledge: Selected Interviews and Other Writings 1972-1977, Colin Gordon (ed.), (Brighton, 1980), p. 61

9. For clarity, the examination of Carl by Dr Benway in Naked Lunch will be described as “The Examination”

10. William Burroughs, Naked Lunch: the Restored Text, James Grauerholz and Barry Miles (eds), (New York, 2001), p. 157

11. Naked Lunch, pp. 162-3

12. Foucault, Discipline and Punish, p. 184

13. Ibid., p. 189

14. Naked Lunch, p. 164

15. Fredric Wertham, Seduction of the Innocent, (New York, 1954), pp. 190-191

16. Wertham, Seduction of the Innocent, p. 379

17. Publisher’s note in Seduction of the Innocent

18. Alfred Kinsey, Sexual Behaviour in the Human Male, (Philadelphia, 1948), pp. 7, 610, 617

19. Naked Lunch, p. 32

20. Donald Webster Cory, The Homosexual in America: A subjective approach, (Manchester NH, 1975)

21. Letters, p. 106

22. Naked Lunch, pp. 114-17

23. Naked Lunch, p. 187

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