Reports from the Bibliographic Bunker
Jed Birmingham on William S. Burroughs Collecting
I found this vaccine at the end of the junk line. I lived in one room in the Native Quarter of Tangier. I had not taken a bath in a year nor changed my clothes except to stick a needle every hour in the fibrous grey wooden flesh of terminal addiction. I never cleaned or dusted the room. Empty ampule boxes and garbage piled to the ceiling. Light and water long since turned off for non-payment. I did absolutely nothing. I could look at the end of my shoe for eight hours.
— William S. Burroughs, “Deposition: Testimony Concerning a Sickness”
When the topic of Burroughs and apomorphine arises in drug histories and biographies, it most commonly deals with the fact that in 1956 Burroughs took the apomorphine cure under the supervision of Dr. John Yerbury Dent and emerged a man reborn. The story goes that only after Burroughs overcame his addiction could he begin in earnest the work of transforming his Word Horde into Naked Lunch. The accepted tale about Burroughs and apomorphine ignores the fact that Naked Lunch had a form before the cure (“The real novel is the letters to [Ginsberg]”) and that major sections of Naked Lunch like The Talking Asshole routine were written a full year before the cure. After 1956 the apomorphine experience provided Burroughs with an overarching framework for Naked Lunch, but this would be a road not taken. In addition the road to recovery, if Burroughs truly ever walked that path, was a long and winding road. In fact, as the Deposition makes clear but as critics have ignored, Burroughs took the cure more than once between 1956 and July 1959, the date of Naked Lunch‘s publication. By 1958, he was nearly, if not completely, hooked on paregoric and shortly after the publication of Naked Lunch he would be implicated in a drug ring. The actual cure was a difficult experience (“The cure itself was awful” Letter to Ginsberg May 8, 1956) with side effects that lingered over a year later despite Burroughs’ assurances in retrospect that the apomorphine cure was quick and non-invasive. Yet the myth that the apomorphine cure effectively ended Burroughs’ struggle with drugs and jumpstarted Naked Lunch persists. Burroughs encouraged the development of just such a cover story in interviews and elsewhere, most famously in “Deposition: Testimony Concerning a Sickness,” published as a preface to the Grove Press edition of Naked Lunch.
So what role did apomorphine play in this crucial period of development for Burroughs as a writer and individual? Why did Burroughs distort the facts regarding his experience with apomorphine, and why has that story remained unexamined for decades? Why has the “cure” in 1956 become the pivot on which Burroughs turned his life around? Why, however falsely, does the story of Naked Lunch begin at this point?
On one level, the development of this myth begins with Burroughs’ 1959 arrest on drug trafficking charges. Shortly after his arrest, Burroughs began work on the Deposition essay. In his letters of the period, Burroughs assured Ginsberg that the Deposition was sincere and represented his current beliefs on drugs and drug addiction.
“I am writing a short deposition with regard to Naked Lunch. This is essential for my own safety at this point: Naked Lunch is written to reveal the junk virus, the manner in which it operates, and in the manner in which it can be brought under control. This is no act. I mean it all the way. Get off that junk wagon, boys, it’s going down a three mile grade for the junk heap. I am off junk in sickness or in health so long as we both shall live.” (Letter to Ginsberg, Sept. 11, 1959)
The Deposition contains an account of the cure and describes the role of apomorphine as an antidote to the “Sickness.” Ginsberg felt the Deposition went too far and wrapped up Naked Lunch too neatly. He also doubted the Deposition’s sincerity. Reading the letters of the period, one gets the sense that Burroughs protested too much in defending the Deposition as an accurate, honest account of his true feelings. By 1991, Burroughs retracted his statement that he did not remember writing the notes that became Naked Lunch. The con appears to be on, but as Oliver Harris demonstrates in The Secret of Fascination, generations of critics have been willing marks parroting the Deposition into the critical record verbatim. In some cases, they have even misrepresented the Deposition, in which Burroughs admits to backsliding into addiction after the cure. Apomorphine was far from the miracle drug that Burroughs made it out to be — and, as we will see, he also left out a key component of the history of its use. It all suggests that Burroughs’ championing of apomorphine as an effective cure may have stemmed, at least on one level, from a desire to portray himself as drug-free and thereby stay out of jail.
But there is more to the story of apomorphine and to Burroughs’ insistence of being clean than simple legal expedience. Burroughs felt the need to be drug-free before his trouble with the law in late 1959. As the letters demonstrate, Burroughs realized he was on the road to terminal addiction by late 1955. The depths of Burroughs’ despair and desperation were no con. The trip to London to seek treatment with Dr. Dent was necessary on the level of survival.
Yet the need to be clean was also closely tied to Burroughs’ strong desire to be a successful author published by the Establishment, i.e. corporate publishers. The letters from the mid-1950s are full of references to Burroughs’ desire to gain mainstream acceptance as a writer. At this time, Burroughs associated writing with respectability and social acceptance. By becoming a writer, Burroughs could redeem himself (for the death of Joan, for being a poor father, for not supporting himself financially) and give himself a place in society. Writing was a means to conform, and Burroughs felt the need to fit in strongly. The image of the opium-addicted writer held an allure for Burroughs from an early age. As he struggled with the form and content of Naked Lunch, however, Burroughs’ drug addiction not only hampered his ability to write, it also symbolized his sick creativity and his inability to write straight narrative and commercially viable material. Apomorphine, as a means of curing his drug addiction, was thus a way for Burroughs to free himself to write. In a sense, kicking drugs was a way of going mainstream and being respectable. First, the cure would facilitate the act of writing and then possibly open the door to writing of a less sick and more popular nature.
Apomorphine tied into getting straight in another, less obvious manner. In the early days of the 20th century, apomorphine was used by doctors as part of a treatment to cure patients of their homosexuality. In Queer Burroughs, Jamie Russell mentions this fact in passing and suggests that Burroughs would have been aware of this aspect of apomorphine’s history. Burroughs never discussed it. In the Deposition, Burroughs states that historically the only use for apomorphine was as an emetic for poisoning. Not true, and given the fact that Burroughs was briefly a medical student and that he was intensely interested in medical history, the assumption that Burroughs knew apomorphine’s full history is not far-fetched. Currently, apomorphine is being used to combat erectile dysfunction (Uprima). Clearly, there is a strong sexual aspect to apomorphine’s history and its side effects. Apomorphine’s sexual component coupled with withdrawal symptoms must be an intense shock to the system. Burroughs ignored these elements of apomorphine in his published writing on the subject, but not in his letters.
Immediately following the apomorphine cure in London in 1956, there are several references in Burroughs’ letters to changes in his sex drive. In his first letter after the cure, Burroughs writes, “The thought of sex with anyone gives me the horrors… Last night went to a ghastly queer party where I was pawed and propositioned by a 50-year-old Liberal MP. I told him, ‘I couldn’t sleep with Ganymede now, let alone you.'” (Letter to Ginsberg, May 8, 1956) A week later Burroughs reports to Ginsberg, “Still no interest in sex.” I am unaware if apomorphine was used by doctors as an aversion technique to combat homosexual impulses, but in Burroughs’ case the apomorphine experience did lead to a type of sexual conditioning. In the months after the cure, Burroughs’ sex drive returned as did his sexual activities with “boys.” However, as the letters show, a heterosexual element in his sexual make-up surfaced at this point. Burroughs writes, “Still no interest in sex. I am physically able you dig, just not innarested. When I look at a boy nothing happens. Ratty lot of boys they got here anyhoo. Maybe when I come around to it, I want women.” (Letter to Ginsberg, May 15, 1956)
Over the next year, Burroughs underwent a period of intense sexual questioning. For example:
So suddenly a wave of sex come over me and I have a spontaneous orgasm strap my vitals. Now a spontaneous, walking orgasm is a rare occurrence even in adolescence. Only one I ever experienced before was in the orgone accumulator I made in Texas. And another thing. I find my eyes straying towards the fair sex. (It”s the new frisson, dearie… Women are downright piquant.) You hear about these old character find out they are queer at fifty, maybe I’m about to make the switcheroo. What are these strange feelings that come over me when I look at a young cunt’s little tits sticking out so cute? Could it be that?? No! No! He thrust the thought from him in horror. He stumbled out in the street with the girl’s mocking laughter lingering in his ears, laughter that seemed to say, “who you think you’re kidding with the queer act. I know you, baby.” What it is as Allah wills… (Letter to Ginsberg, Sept. 15, 1956).
One might assume that this quote is another Burroughsian routine full of irony and black humor, but the references to heterosexual impulses in the letters are too numerous to discount as mere joking. Clearly just after his apomorphine experience, Burroughs experienced a crisis of sexual identity. It may not be possible to say whether this can be directly attributed to apomorphine, but apomorphine, sexual identity, and the form of Naked Lunch will all be interrelated by late 1957. Burroughs’ sexual questioning strikes me as very similar to the crisis Ginsberg experienced just before the breakthrough of Howl in 1955. Famously, Ginsberg met with his analyst and openly discussed his desire to live as a poet and more importantly as a gay poet despite his attempts to play it straight. Ginsberg’s analyst stated that nothing was stopping him. This advice encouraged Ginsberg on the path to sexual freedom and the poetic vision of Howl occurred shortly thereafter.
Similarly the feverish development of Naked Lunch occurred during a period of uncertainty regarding sexual identity. As Burroughs questioned his sexuality, Naked Lunch poured forth “like dictation.” In addition the desire to go straight sexually paralleled a desire to once and for all straitjacket Naked Lunch into the form and themes of the conventional novel. In early 1957, Burroughs was seriously examining his homosexuality. Burroughs writes,
All the etiology of my homosex and practically everything spill right out of me. Quotes from last night majoun high: “So what’s holding him up? — homosex orientation — Some old tired synapse pattern won’t go to its home like it’s supposed. There must be an answer, I need the answering device. I think I can arrange but it will be expensive. Modern Oedipus.” This give me an out already, I can put down the old whore and hump some young Crete gash heat my toga like the dry goods of Nexus, you might say Nexus had the rag on.” (Letter to Ginsberg, Jan. 31, 1957)
In late 1957, Burroughs examined Naked Lunch‘s form and determined to make yet another effort to conform and contain Naked Lunch. As a result, Burroughs developed The General Theory of Addiction. He writes, “At present I am working on Benway and Scandinavia angles, also developing a theory of morphine addiction… Incidentally, this theory resulted from necessities of the novel. That is scientific theories and novel are inseparable. What I am evolving is a general theory of addiction which expands into a world picture with concepts of good and evil.” (Letter to Ginsberg Sept. 20, 1957). The answer to Burroughs’ sexual and literary questioning was the General Theory of Addiction. This theory was tied to Burroughs’ sexual crisis and the form of Naked Lunch. Burroughs writes, “Briefly, the novel concerns addiction and an addicting virus that is passed from one person to another in sexual contacts. The virus only passes from man to man or woman to woman, which is why Benway is turning out homosexuals on an assembly-line basis.” (Letter to Ginsberg, Aug. 27, 1957)
The General Theory of Addiction derived directly from Burroughs’ apomorphine experience and related to the pioneering work of Dr. Dent, Anxiety and Its Treatment. “The Theory of Addiction is, incidentally, correct, in essentials. I received a letter from Wolberg, quote… ‘Particularly interesting is your theory about cancer and schizophrenia. I have made no study of this, but telephoned a friend who works for a large mental institution. He said the incidence of cancer among schizophrenics is appreciably lower than among non-schizophrenics.’ The importance of this one fact is immeasurable. My theory contains the key to addiction, cancer, and schizophrenia. I have not yet heard from Doctor Dent.” (Letter to Ginsberg, Oct. 19, 1957) Keep in mind this theory developed from “the necessities of the novel.” Even at this late date, Burroughs strongly felt the need to subject Naked Lunch to the restraints of the novel. The desire for literary form was also related to his desire to conform sexually.
In a key letter written on October 8, 1957, Burroughs sent along a copy of his General Theory of Addiction to Ginsberg. Burroughs writes:
I feel myself closer and closer to resolution of my queerness which would involve a solution of that illness. For such it is, a horrible sickness. At least in my case. I have just experienced emergence of my non-queer persona as a separate personality. This started in London where in a dream I came into room to see myself not a child but adolescent, looking at me with hate. So I said, ‘I don’t seem to be exactly welcome,’ and he say. ‘Not welcome!!! I hate you!’ And with good reason too. Suppose you had kept a non-queer young boy in a strait-jacket of flesh twenty five years subject to continual queer acts and talk? Would he love you? I think not. Anyhoo, I’m getting to know the kid, and we get on better. I tell him he can take over anytime, but there is somebody else in this deal not yet fully accounted for and the kid’s not up to deal with him, so I hafta stay around for the present. Actually, of course the kid and all the rest of us have to arrange a merger. A ver.
The concept and linking together of sickness and queerness related directly to Burroughs’ apomorphine experience. As this letter demonstrates, the emergence of his heterosexual personality started just after the cure in London. Soon after Burroughs felt himself cured of the Sickness, i.e. drug addiction, he sought to cure himself of his queerness. The time was ripe for Burroughs to conform, to get his life together, and to play it straight. Sickness and illness also refer to the sick, obscene nature of Naked Lunch and its failure to conform to the traditional novel form as well as Naked Lunch‘s troubling (for Burroughs) link to homosexual desire and obsession. The phrase “strait-jacket of flesh” creates a wealth of associations between madness, sickness, homosexuality / heterosexuality, and literary form. As Harris demonstrates, Naked Lunch germinated in Queer (Burroughs’ account of his obsession with Lewis Marker) and his letters to Ginsberg. Burroughs strongly felt the need to cover up those personal elements in Naked Lunch. According to Harris, the junk paradigm or the General Theory of Addiction did just that. It not only provided a form to the novel, it shifted the focus from homosexual obsession to drug addiction. In a sense, apomorphine provided a means to cure Naked Lunch of its queerness.
By April 1958, Burroughs instructed Ginsberg to include the Benway section and to exclude the theoretical material. In final publication, Burroughs abandoned the General Theory of Addiction framework for Naked Lunch but traces remain in the Benway section. As Harris demonstrates, the General Theory and the related “The Conspiracy” were Burroughs’ last attempts to straitjacket Naked Lunch into the traditional form of the novel. By late 1958, Burroughs realized that his desire to be a writer did not depend on toning down his radical experimentation in literary style and drug use. In fact, those elements were what made Naked Lunch a profoundly obscene masterpiece. Burroughs’ change of heart cannot be separated from his tentative success in getting selections of Naked Lunch published to wide acclaim in little magazines beginning in 1957 and onwards into early 1959. Yet the decision to tone down the elements of homosexual desire remained. On one level, this was achieved by eliminating references to the epistolatory origins of the novel. That said, the novel as published by Burroughs in 1959 was a radical one, as much anti-novel as novel.
Yet Burroughs’ troubles with obscenity laws in 1959, in addition to his problems with drug laws (discussed above), would lead to a reassessment of Naked Lunch and to Burroughs’ re-insertion of apomorphine into the text. Burroughs strongly desired the publication of the complete Naked Lunch in the United States. Concessions had to be made to render Naked Lunch palatable to American courts and the reading public. The Deposition and to a lesser extent the “Letter from a Master Addict to Dangerous Drugs” serve this purpose. In a sense, Burroughs reintroduced the General Theory of Addiction into the novel. According to Harris, this paradigm completely overshadows the other more transgressive aspects of Naked Lunch, in essence de-radicalizing it, de-sexualizing it, and de-toxifying it. First, the Deposition de-radicalizes the text by providing a means to analyze and to interpret the book. Burroughs provides a blueprint (whether con or not) for critics and readers to approach the novel. In addition, the Deposition de-sexualizes the book by taking the focus off of the homosexual obsession that formed the basis for the novel. A framework based on drug addiction replaces the sexuality of the letter economy. In the various obscenity trials surrounding Naked Lunch, doctors testified that the novel presented an accurate portrayal of the junk / drug problem. With the introduction of apomorphine, Burroughs could not be accused of immorality since he provided a solution to the problem he presented. The book was no longer obscene but instead was a public service message on a major problem facing contemporary society. The account of apomorphine effectively cures the novel of its Sickness (queerness, obscurity, immorality, and drug abuse). In essence the novel itself undergoes Dr. Dent’s cure and emerges reborn.
As the opening pages of APO-33 Bulletin: a Metabolic Regulator make clear, the Deposition and other writings on apomorphine of the Naked Lunch era left a bad taste in Burroughs’ mouth. The accepted reason is that Burroughs did not make the case for apomorphine strongly enough, since he did not implicate law enforcement and the medical community in the blackballing of his miracle drug. That may be true, but I cannot help sensing that Burroughs also felt that these writings came on much too strong and revealed too much. In APO-33, Burroughs explains his failure regarding apomorphine as an overestimation of his popularity potential. In essence, Burroughs tried to be respectable and mainstream. He played to the audience, so he watered down his beliefs about apomorphine. Yet he also pandered to “popularity” in another manner. Burroughs altered and molded the popular perception of himself and his troublesome novel for the benefit of the legal system in drug and obscenity trials. Burroughs may have realized that these pieces discussing apomorphine attached to Naked Lunch diminished the diabolical power of his novel.
By 1965, the time to kow-tow to popular and legal opinion was over. By being the most notorious author in the world, Burroughs had paradoxically achieved an element of respectability. He was a financial and critical success. The legal battles were basically over. Maybe Burroughs felt apomorphine had to be rescued from the squares and injected with the radical spirit. In the work of the 1960s, apomorphine no longer just embodied and played a role in a junk paradigm or the General Theory of Addiction. It represented a new theory, but a theory grounded in process: the cut-up technique. As I demonstrated in my earlier column on apomorphine, the drug became symbolic of this experimental technique. Works like APO-33 returned to the radical nature of Naked Lunch. Radical in form and in process of composition. The apomorphine experience was no longer utilized as a straitjacket. Given its non-commercial and disorienting nature, Burroughs’ work of this period was once again considered unreadable and beyond the forces of readerly control. And for Burroughs, apomorphine once again became a cure, this time for the sickness of Language and the Word.