Terry Southern on Naked Lunch

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“…A Devastating Ridicule of All That Is False…”

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 vicarious — meeting certain “traditional” requirements and producing oNaked Lunchy 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 book’s 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 recurse sequences to portray the unfathomable barbarity of a “civilization” which can countenance this ritual. There is oNaked Lunchy one way, of course, to ridicule capital punishment — and that is by exaggerating its circumstances, increasing its horror, accentuating the animal irresponsibility of those involved, insisting that the monstrous deed be witness (and in technicolor, so to speak) by all concerned. Burroughs is perhaps the first modern writer to seriously attempt this; he is certaiNaked Lunchy the first to have done so with such startling effectiveness. Social analogy and parallels of this sort about in Naked Lunch, but one must never mistake this author’s work for political comment, which, as in all genuine art, is more instinctive than deliberate — for Burroughs is first and foremost a poet. His attunement to contemporary language is probablly unequalled 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 narcotis 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…”

And, psychological:

“The Mark Inside was coming up on him and that’s a rumble nobody can cool…”

Imagery of this calibre puts the use of argot on a level considerably beyond merelly “having a good ear for the spoken word.” Compared to Burroughs’ grasp of modern idiom in almost every form of English — and his ability at distillation and ellipsis — the 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 teh larger view, it can no longer matter whether it be considered a “crime” or a “sickness” — it 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 England — ostensibly because of the preponderance of “obscene words” — they have had, in their Paris editions, an 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.

This essay was included in the 1962 promotional “prospectus” that Grove Press prepared for the publication of Naked Lunch. For more on this document, see Jed Birmingham’s article Naked Lunch Prospectus.

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