The Mouth Inside: The Voices of Naked Lunch

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By Ian MacFadyen

Paintings by Phil Wood


The live reading of Naked Lunch at St Mark’s Poetry Project in New York this October (2009) focused attention on the book as profoundly oral both in its origins and effects. Readers have long been inspired to spontaneously read the text aloud, and Naked Lunch contains a number of ideally, insistently performative monologues, each with its own rhetorical style — the routines of Lee, Benway, the County Clerk — but it is simply not the case that these voices are distinct and discreet. Rather, they move from the individual to the generic and merge and blur as they continually imitate and quote and parody and reference one another, mixing argots and breaking rhetorical modes, undermining and disrupting both narrative coherence and the ostensible stability of character and any notion of the fixity of identity. Though the voices of many of the characters are described specifically in terms of tone and register and inflection, the hybridisation of discourse is paramount — it embodies Burroughs’ concept of language as invasive, osmotic and parasitic, possessing and autonomously speaking through the dehumanised subject.


Phil Wood, Paleface Speak with Forked HeadThe Queen Bee’s fruit “talks out of one side of his face,” the lips of the Eskimos and the Shoe Store Kid turn purple, the commandante drools while Lee wipes his own mouth with distaste, the Mugwump is “catching termites with his long black tongue,” the toothless Egyptian eunuch shows his gums in a bestial snarl, Mugwumps have “purple-blue lips over a razor-sharp beak of black bone,” the junkies grunt and squeal and slobber and gibber, “Fats” Terminal has a “lamprey disk mouth of cold, grey gristle lined with hollow, black, erectile teeth,” froth gathers at the corners of the Expeditor’s mouth, the Cobra lamp woman vampirically licks a drop of blood off her finger, the Arab boys are “Toothless and strictly from the long hunger,” sperm hits the Javanese dancer on the mouth and the boy pushes it in with his finger, electric drills are clamped on the victim’s teeth and hooked up to a switchboard, the safety pin leg hole is like “an obscene festering mouth waiting for unspeakable congress,” and don’t forget to buy biting-fresh amident toothpaste — the latter derived from ‘amide’, ammonia, a household cleaner. These are just a few examples of the fearful orality and predatory debasement of the mouth which are everywhere evident — whether speaking or snarling, dabbed with a napkin or bursting into gristle and bone, the mouth is both shockingly vulnerable and rapine, and the fear and disgust it invokes in Naked Lunch are inseparable from its speech — it is the cool remote mouthpiece of headquarters and the jabbering orifice that never shuts up, it is always opening and closing pneumatically with a will and intent all its own, discharging, dribbling, eating / speaking in undifferentiated profusion, uncontrollable, helplessly suctional, the biomechanical instrument of logomania, ravishment and possession — For in the day that thou eatest thereof thou shalt surely die. The mouth of subjugation speaks only to condemn itself to the trauma of being finally unable to speak. Fear and pity the poor mouth.


Phil Wood, CivilizationBenway’s voice and persona are now indissolubly bound up with Burroughs’ own filmed and recorded performances, but the bloody, abominable surgical episode gives only one facet, if the most brilliant and darkly memorable, of that character. Several times Benway’s voice is precisely described in all its ambiguity and ethereality, it “drifts into my consciousness from no particular place . . . a disembodied voice that is sometimes loud and clear, sometimes barely audible like music down a windy street.” The voice is like the opening bars of East St Louis Toodle-oo which is also described as “at times loud and clear then faint and intermittent like music down a windy street.” And it isn’t just Lee who experiences this effect — during his demoralising psychological examination, Carl hears Benway’s “voice languid and intermittent like music down a windy street,” a record on continual replay in the jukebox of memory, Benway’s voice grooved into the shellac, crooning abjection and loss. But the doctor’s voice changes dramatically from scene to scene — in one of its manifestations it is described as “strangely flat and lifeless, a whispering junky voice,” like the “dead, junky whisper” in which the Sailor sometimes speaks, before it explodes into a scream of rage. The doctor’s voice turns on a dime — he abruptly shifts from “a tone of slightly condescending amusement” to speaking “in a crisp voice,” now “chuckling,” then whispering, then suddenly shooting up “to a pathic scream,” shattering his suspect professional cover, the “bona fide croaker” routine. The extreme unpredictability and instability of Benway’s speech reveal his derangement while at the same time he systematically employs the schizoid voice as an audio-surgical instrument, he plays with the subject’s psyche through a technique of rapidly alternating threat and empathy, the internalisation in a single character of the Hauser / O’Brien, soft cop / hard cop routine. Benway is the genius version of the low-life Sailor, and the doctor and the junky both require psychic access, to see what they can make use of, turning a kid on and turning his psyche inside out, oscillating between threatening insinuation and glacial disdain, implicit malevolence and friendly persuasion — it’s the voice as cold-calling salesman coming on like your only true friend, your conscience and confessor, putting down that old Pavlovian punish-and-reward routine.


Lee turns away in disgust from the County Clerk’s evil shit, but he stands still for Benway’s fascist science, as that indefatigable voice of authority insinuates itself, becomes the voice inside. Benway claims he is “restrained by my medical ethics” and that he is “a reputable scientist” whilst referring repeatedly to his “learned colleagues” as “nameless assholes” and though he protests against the “vile slanders” perpetrated against his own good person, he blithely confesses to ethical malpractice, including “performing cutrate abortions in subway toilets. I even descended to hustling pregnant women in the public streets.” His is the voice of unshakeable self-belief and unquestionable authority, but he is equally anarchic, splenetic, deranged, he’s possessed by ideas for transcending the speaking subject, but he himself will never be part of that program — “I digress as usual,” he admits, while one of his disquisitions is introduced with “Benway has this to say,” and he surely does. It is crucial that the Talking Asshole is described in a Benway routine — the Asshole does not speak for itself, it is quoted, that is, it is supposedly remembered by Benway, it’s part of his talking auto-hagiography, and in this fantastic reminiscence he effectively ventriloquizes the Asshole’s words, apparently letting it speak for itself, whilst those words are nevertheless transmitted through his own mouth. In this way Benway becomes both the guy who taught his asshole to talk and the Talking Asshole itself, the entire package in one — the ventriloquist galvanised and possessed by his own performance, by his own “thrown” demonic voice, the asshole routine is his routine, and he is helpless to speak otherwise. Benway’s deranged will-to-power is projected through the Asshole’s megalomania, and vice versa — the Doctor doesn’t just recount its story, he literally gives it voice, he speaks through it, just as the Asshole speaks through him. Benway isn’t one of those “nameless assholes” because his asshole has its own name — it’s his name. A variant of the Talking Asshole routine is delivered by the County Clerk when he recalls Doc Scranton’s prolapsed asshole with its travelling intestine — “it go feelin’ around lookin’ for a peter, just afeelin’ around like a blind worm.” That anal mouth is more than a routine device, a subject of the routine, it is the anterior locus of the routine’s creation, the vocal apparatus which brings everything low, the true scatological source, as in, You’re talking shit, You’re talking out of your ass, Just listen to that total asshole, You’re shitting me, I don’t need to listen to this shit, Will someone please tell that asshole to shut the fuck up. Benway cannot converse, he can only speechify and justify every cruelty and abomination through a logorrhoea of logic that bypasses deductive and inductive argument as well as all human empathy and feeling. Like the Talking Asshole, Benway won’t shut up, he can’t shut up, he whispers and titters and he croons an old song mocking disappeared synapses and brain-dead patients, he hectors and harangues, lectures and reprimands, demands and excoriates, screams and rages — and even when his voice becomes “barely audible,” it persists, like the hum and drone of a phone off the hook, the voice ineluctable, quite regardless of the pickup.


Philip Stuard Wood, The Fall of ManWhatever is consumed or injected in Naked Lunch brings on derangement and death, possession is both narcotic and demonic and turns the body into a host for linguistic contagion — to be spoken through. The Pythagoreans placed a taboo on the eating of beans because they believed that flatulence caused nightmares, giving access to the souls of the dead who would then invade the sleeping body. Porphyrios — “As we eat, they enter into us and settle in us and thus they pollute, not by divine interference. They generally delight in blood and filthiness and invade the possessed. In a word, compulsion of greed and desire, and general excitation cloud rational thinking and unintelligible sounds connected with them and also flatulence cause man’s breakdown which satisfies the demon.” Wilhelm Roscher commented on this passage — “The unintelligible sounds most probably refer not only to belches and flatulence but to the inarticulate shrieks of the victim tormented by the nightmare.” Benway attempts to describe the Asshole’s voice and he says it’s “a bubbly, thick stagnant sound, a sound you could smell,” the spirit of possession farting out the words while the possessed human victim screams at it in torment to shut up, before his mouth and his fate are literally sealed. It’s those old nightmare demons, their voices bubbling and babbling away at “gut frequency.” In demonology they’re known as larvae, diakka, embryonats, necromantic assimilators, and like Ryam’s “furious sprites that dwell in the waste,” they enter through the passage of the digestive tract and take up night residence, sending out their filthy spells from the unspeakable place.


Phil Wood, LegacyBenway’s voice has entered popular culture. He was the first recognised persona posted in 1973 on the Community Memory Board BBS, the first electronically accessible bulletin board system. The message took the form of an imitation of the most recognizable aspect of the Benway voice, the crazed doctor of control demanding drugs and typically taking over the technology for his own swell purpose — “DOC BENWAY HERE . . . NURSE SLIP ME ANOTHER AMPULE OF LAUDANUM . . . USE AUTHORIZED DATA BASE ACCESS PROTOCOLS ONLY . . . SENSUOUS KEYSTROKES FORBIDDEN . . . DO NOT STRUM THAT 33 LIKE A HAWAIIAN STEEL GUITAR . . . SEND NO REPLICA. BENWAY OUT. TLALCLATLAN.” The voice of Benway the monomaniac and autodidact has surpassed the performances of Doctors Frankenstein, Jekyll, Mabuse, Moreau, Strangelove, and Faustus in the popularity stakes and, however corrupted, the voice has truly “risen up off the page” and now speaks through his legion of admirers, and in particular through his filmed reenactments — because Benway went into the movies. He haunts Stuart Gordon’s 1985 film Re-Animator, a retake on HP Lovecraft — “Prepare to meet Dr. Herbert West, the sickest man in science!” And we can catch him in Timothy Leary’s stab at a mad scientist in the 1981 Cheech and Chong movie, Nice Dreams. Or there’s Donald Sutherland playing an inmate who takes over an asylum in Rebecca Horn’s 1991 film, Buster’s Bedroom. Paul Morrissey reconnects Benway and his Gothic progenitor in the bloody camp of his 1973 Flesh For Frankenstein, while Doctor Benway is paged in the hospital ward in Alex Cox’s 1984 Repo Man, and in Larry Charles’ 2003 Masked And Anonymous, his allegory of American decline and fall, inspired by and starring Bob Dylan, you’ll find Doctor Benway’s office located in the Midas And Judas Building. However tacky or arty, that’s where you’ll find the good doctor — hamming it up on DVD. Benway’s character is also osmotic within the text of Naked Lunch — both he and the German doctor have performed appendectomies with a rusty sardine can, and the German Doctor is a variation of the Benway character, a version of the role played by Benway in a phoney “von” accent. Doctor Benway — his voices really do the rounds.


The characters dramatically quick-change accents and parlance, while speech is wildly inconsistent and volatile in delivery and manner. Lee puts down a con routine, next thing he’s some kind of beat poet on the road, then the detached agent filing his reports, the cruelly gloating junkie, the noir criminal-as-victim, the metaphysical time traveller, and his discourse shape-shifts accordingly — it depends entirely upon where he is, who he’s with, and what role and genre he’s been cast in this time around. The fake radio prophet and the Professor and the Sheriff all switch to convincing impersonations of the County Clerk’s Texas drawl, and the mouth in Naked Lunch is a mosaic — the voice grafted on, speech pieced together out of disparate, cannibalised parts. Accents and speech styles of period and place are brilliantly achieved and conveyed by Burroughs, the vernacular and demotic transcribed with elocutionary exactitude, but consistency is repeatedly undone by the mutability and disruption and “schlupping over” of voices — one speaks as many, many do as one. Salvador impersonates a Texas accent but when he gets excited he speaks in a broken English of possible “Italian origin” before breaking into “a hideous falsetto.” A.J. likewise “is actually of obscure Near East extraction” but had an English accent “which waned with the British Empire,” though he is now ostensibly an American . . . Voices are as hybridised and osmotic as the racial and cultural origins of the characters, fake or otherwise, and their improvised accents and dialects vocally shape-shift with the action which is always the con and the put-down, the dissimulation inherent in selling something / anything is always necessarily an act of verbal imposture, the multiple voices of the confidence man flipping through counterfeit cover stories. The Inspector speaks cod Nordic, the Moroccan street boy jive-talks just like the NY Rock ‘n Roll Hoodlum — vocal imposture is the rule of the game. Whether delivering the verbal goods at maximum volume, “louder and funnier!,” or in insinuating sibilants, these our actors are always pitchmen, salesmen, conmen, their business is showbiz, their politics hoopla, their voices mixing in the melee, a great closing-down sale — language’s Last Few Days.


Phil Wood, PerjuryThe German doctor begins by addressing Carl in film-Nazi-SS English then “goes on smoothly in his eerily unaccented, disembodied English” before finishing “in Cockney English with a triumphant smirk.” A German practitioner of Technological Medicine, his clipped English is a villainous Teutonic von Stroheim act — “You can get by vit one kidney . . . They need lebensraum like the Vaterland.” This vocal switcheroo, mimicry and deceit is omnipresent in the book — there is no authenticity of utterance, the one who speaks is always dissimulating, or passing on some second-hand story, or knows not of what he speaks. It’s a husking bee for queer corn, a convocation of jabbering bird brains, and what is said is patently as fake as how it is said — like the Islanders who claim in unison, “We are Breetish . . . We don’t got no bloody dealect.” Identity here is always a cover story, but the discourse stops in its tracks, is unaccountably severed, the personality pitch unravels through dry, flat statements of meaningless or questionable facts, lascivious taunts and sly but insistent demoralization, or deranged monologues full of filth and fury. Words are instruments of betrayal and terror, and then again, they’re just so much jiving around — words, they really couldn’t care less. This is the place where “all agents sell out” — and to speak is either to lie or inform, and it isn’t just the stool pigeons who are hexed, every speaker is a helpless performer in a cursed echolalia.


Phil Wood, Faith HealersThe propositions of Naked Lunch, whether philosophical, sexual or mercantile, are always losing propositions, the characters forever shooting under an Indian sign — every plan is a corrupt selling opportunity, every deal rigged, each statement of fact conceals an immoral invitation, and every theorem is patently untrue, because to speak is to lie and talk is cheap, it’s cut, unfailingly dismissive, mercenary and hostile. It’s attack language — “Find the weakest” . . . “Fuck off you!” . . . “make with the smile” . . . “I hate everybody” . . . “disgust me already” . . . “what an angle” . . . “Take a walk” . . . The mouth is aggressive in Naked Lunch, while the ear is passive, and the damage is perpetual, it reverberates, feeding on the acoustic violence. Salvador’s criminal aliases and his police informer monikers suggest his transformative vocal inflections — he “picks up a Texas accent” along with 23 passports, and his spurious identities take in Mexican and North African, Bronx and Irish, adopting Jewish, Queer and cowboy talk as the occasion demands. We’re told that he “reads and speaks Etruscan” — it may be an obsolete language, but what else is being said and sold around here but terminally used-up words and goods, and actually, the words are the goods — the true merchandise of the addictive selling routine. The words of the characters, and the text of Naked Lunch itself, are traded, bartered, bantered, exchanged, and both expeditiously and blatantly moved around in the book’s debased word economy — the wheedling or straight-talking or authoritarian voices are all in ironic counterpoint to the true nature of the deals going down, whether psychic, sexual, narcotic, monetary or combination of same. But what the sharp or confidence trickster really wants to see in the mark’s face is not stupidity, it’s vulnerability, absolute loneliness, and then that insistent, wheedling voice inside will be the rube’s final and only friend — like “that unspeakable blood-joined twin” described by Donald Newlove, the smiling psychic fetch, the resident djinn who whispers, “I’ll come too, buster.”


The voices are mediated, incorporating advertisements, popular songs, psychoanalytic and medical jargon, business spiel, hipster jive talk, junkie lingo, candy butcher and carny pitches, film and TV voice-over narration, radio announcer and newspaper columnist shtick, legal jargon and officialese, literary and anthropological references, viral and cybernetic terminologies, switching and combining quite different parlances while the source material shifts from old radio serials to dime-store comics and pulps, noir to sci-fi to horror and western film scenarios and teen gang flicks, characters flipping between quite different discourses and scenarios in a cultural hullabaloo which is all echoes — dubbed, spliced, ventriloquized, post-synchronized. The book’s showbiz scenarios mock theatrical and film prototypes and stereotypes — the revolving cast and their scrimshank plaster-of-Paris mise-en-scene go round and round on the book’s gigantic turntable, a shambolic revue, a whirlwind farce . . . Despite the dissolves and the cuts, and the exploding, collapsing sets, the skits are unstoppable and the performers are always on, even though they may sulk and pout and complain about the indignity and grossness of what they have to put up with in showbiz, before they do it all over again — because for Burroughs, the ringmaster, this “show” biz is life itself, or what passes for it, and something other than a satire on popular culture. As Raymond Chandler said, “Maybe you had to be absolutely shameless to be a good comedian. That was a thought.” John Fuegi has written of those “theatrical facades [that] have hidden the most deadly realities” in the 20th century — the concentration camp disguised to look like “a model of open-minded penal reform,” the fake Treblinka railway station, the shower rooms waiting for the Zyklon-B. What lies behind Burroughs’ blatantly theatrical sets, his foregrounding of genres and their stereotypical discourses? He would accept the role of satirist and yet maintain he was “making a little skit is all,” while readers and critics continue to seek moral justification and profound satiric purpose in his relished pastiches. It may be that Burroughs did not wish the creative, improvised performativity of his text, and his own delight in his prowess as skit-maker and master puppeteer, to be buried beneath weighty analysis, to be taken so seriously by those with no sense of humour or spirit of anarchy. All those characters, writes Burroughs at the end of the book, the doctors and junkies and authority figures and shills and majordomos, they are multiples of themselves and shape-shifting versions of one other, and “subject to say the same thing in the same words to occupy, at that intersection point, the same position in space-time. Using a common vocal apparatus complete with all metabolic appliances that is to be the same person . . .” And that “common vocal apparatus” must, we feel, be the author “himself,” the writer who “sees himself reading to the mirror as always . . .” — it’s the Great Ventriloquist, his study a backstage dressing room, and he reads and acts out his scenarios to a mirror while he writes, like Charles Dickens whose writing room was furnished with a mirror for just this purpose, the author literally reflecting and dramatically acting out his characters because “every writer of fiction, though he may not adopt the dramatic form, writes in effect for the stage” — as Burroughs wrote in “Word,” “The author has gathered his multiple personalities . . .” Burroughs’ actors read and perform from a script — and several sections, like Dr. Berger’s Mental Hour, the Luncheon of the Nationalist Party, and Chez Robert are presented in dialogic screenplay format. These are the actors’ lines, and you read that script along with them, and reprise lines which recur in variant form throughout the text and which are passed back and forth . . . This is script writing, written for the voice, so can we just run through it one more time? Like Billy Wilder’s directorial technique when he rehearsed actors on set, whenever Burroughs does a pickup, another read-through or replay of the dialogue, he doesn’t bother to get the characters to read back entire lines, he just wants them to deliver those words and phrases which he needs for the next cut. The effect is that the characters, though that appellation defies even a minimally realist representation of identity and motivation, may seem to be continually dissimulating as they edit and elide their own spoken words — but those words are not “their own” words, and they were definitively cut, in every sense, from the very start.


Phil Wood, This Puppet Show BitesPolice and analysts force or seduce the subject to speak, treating him as irredeemably criminal and perverse, the investigation or the therapy having the same objective — not to discover what is being hidden by the subject from himself and from the Law, but to inculcate that shameful knowledge, instilling a fearful awareness of subterfuge and the consequences of exposure. The examination is always an interrogation seeking a confession and takes the form of a dialogue, a Q&A stimulus-response set-up, in which the answers are strategically procured, testing the reactive mind of the subject, and implanting the desired responses of shame, fear, self-loathing, paranoia. Reply, remember, repeat, recant, reinstate — every response is part of a conditioned act of self-betrayal and loss, every belief and every protestation of innocence or incomprehension is compromised at source, and for this the subject will become eternally grateful, like the grovelling Young Reporter who clasps the foul-smelling hand of the Inspector, protesting the “unspeakable pleasure” of the interview. Benway tests the reflexes of an irreversibly brain-damaged man with a chocolate bar, and he employs drugs, electronics, hypnosis, and physical torture, but his principal weapon of humiliation is language, the voice of the interrogator launching the “assault on the subject’s personal identity.” Benway’s voice seems to emerge from the psyche of the listener who can only helplessly submit to its galvanic incantations and insistent refrains, like the version of his voice which repeatedly, insinuatingly addresses Carl by name — “Well, Carl . . . And now, Carl . . . Yes, Carl . . . You are frank, Carl . . . And now, Carl . . . And so Carl . . . Yes, of course, Carl . . . Where can you go, Carl? . . . The Green Door, Carl?” Benway’s voice comes on like false memory syndrome masquerading as the return of the repressed, fading in and out of consciousness along with the buried memories of distress and shame which Benway purports to reveal even as he implants them in the psyche.


Phil Wood, The Devil Made Me Do ItThe radio prophet broadcasts his delirious hokum over the airwaves, his religious shtick delivered rock’n’roll hoodlum style, alternating between parodic faggotry, the 1950s Mad Ave sell, cracker auctioneer spiel and hipster jive with a significant pinch of the County Clerk’s porch vernacular — “And he was a lovely fellah, too” — thrown in along with other varieties of the “Impersonation Act,” including advertising breaks — “Today I’d like to talk about the importance of being dainty and kissin’ fresh at all times . . . Friends, use Jody’s chlorophyll tablets and be sure.” Janet Malcolm has written of “the soap and deodorant advertisements of the 1940s and ’50s in which the words ‘dainty’ and ‘fresh’ never failed to appear” and Burroughs gets Ahmed’s spiel right on the money, it’s a summa of Mad Ave sales speak. As with so many of the staple lines and song lyrics replayed in the book, the advertising pitch is skewed and subverted, deliciously détourned — like the Technician’s “hideous parody of a toothpaste ad,” and Lovable Lu’s dildo tips — “Confidentially, girls . . . it’s more hygenic that way.” Ahmed croons a colon cleanser like a toothpaste, blithely conflating anus and mouth, the established advertising pitch for oral hygiene flipping into advice on analingus, just as Burroughs détournes an advert for a grippe remedy into a sinister, literary junkie pitch, “Sore throat persistent and disquieting as the hot afternoon wind?” — and the smooth, soothing mellifluous sell has a mouthful of sand in it. Burroughs is jubilant in his overthrow of the sanitized and decorously civilised, but it would be wrong to take his scatological scenarios as merely satiric of man’s bestial nature. On the contrary, it may be that it is the super-clean transparent Horn and Hardart food dispenser and the mix-master housewife’s kitchen antisepsis, and the 1950s de rigeur “kissing dainty” deodorant slogan which most truly appall him, fueling his violations of the sanitary code and his contempt for the sanitization of the wildness and unpredictability of life, the shutting-out of biology in the raw. The Cincinnati Anti-Fluoride Society wants to “sweep this fair land sweet and clean” and the rider, “as a young boy’s flank,” is, of course, spectacularly détourned. The congregants drink a toast in pure spring water and naturally all their teeth fall out on the spot. It’s a pet Burroughs bugbear — nothing so terrible as the word “purity” in the mouth of a puritan, nothing so sterile as that hygienic existence in which, as Raymond Chandler noted, the all-tile bathroom becomes the basis of civilisation. It’s the terrible desire for the cleanliness of the mouth, synonymous with the cleaning-up of speech, the religio-consumerist purity trip, upon which Burroughs pours his spleen, driven to despoil the pristine gleaming surface with so-called unmentionable dirty words like blood and Kotex and sperm and shit — Benway literally splatters that tiled wall with blood, the lavatory turned into a filthy operating theatre and dripping corrida. Bataille believed that the abattoir “is cursed and quarantined like a plague-ridden ship. Now the victims of this curse are neither butchers nor beasts, but those same good folk who countenance, by now, only their own unseemliness, an unseemliness commensurate with an unhealthy need of cleanliness, with irascible meanness, and boredom. The curse (terrifying only to those who utter it) leads them to vegetate as far as possible from the slaughterhouse, to exile themselves, out of propriety, to a flabby world in which nothing fearful remains and in which, subject to the ineradicable obsession of shame, they are reduced to eating cheese.” Burroughs celebrates unseemliness, insists upon leeches in an old tin can, shit wrapped in comic books, and Gains and Iris and other characters keep up the flow of unmentionable bodily excretions and embarrassing medical conditions, reinstating the baseness, the cloacal lowliness of the speaking base body against the civilized, sterilized literary grain.


Ahmed’s a jacked-up shape-shifting voice artiste, a specialist in diverse locutions, switching and ditching personas at speed — he’s all mouth, nothing but a mouth, a motor mouth imitating and scrambling and inter-cutting the cultural trash and sales talk of other voices, morphing and mixing other stations, the dial whooshing between channels. Like the section Have You Seen Pantopon Rose, his broadcast anticipates the Atrophied Preface and Burroughs’ unleashing of his “own word horde” which is itself a scrapbook of quotations full of cross-echoes and ready-made phrases, a pile-up of fragmented speech taken from many sources including variant replays of voices taken from elsewhere in the text, re-spliced and rebroadcast. Throughout the book, the human voice is plugged into the media machine, it’s broadcast by radio, TV and film, transmitted via switchboard and loudspeakers, short-wave and walkie-talkie, singing telegram and telephone, it’s taped and played back, shouted through a megaphone and through a dustbin, telepathized and surgically implanted, prosthetically and biologically mutated, it’s recorded, amplified, distorted, splintered, copied, mixed, and degraded into gibberish and noise, “a rising crescendo of grunts and squeals and moans and whimpers and gasps,” and even as the voice dies to a whimper rather than a scream, it’s described as “rising to a deafening whine,” as if amplified in the book’s echo chamber.


Phil Wood, ConsumptionThe fragmented speech patterns of the radio prophet and Sailor and Bill Gains resemble the scattered elliptical phrases of Burroughs’ final “word horde” — and that misspelling is entirely apposite, the “hoard” of amassed words becomes a “horde” of insects seething in a mass and spilling “off the page in all directions,” un-containable and ungraspable. Burroughs’ “own” written discourse is a maelstrom, a cacophony of discordant competing voices, and it comes on as a transcription of spoken fragments from memory — muttering, humming, pleading, complaining voices, banal and aphoristic and apocalyptic, insistently oral, with toothless gums and a taste of metal in the mouth, mangling the asp speech from Anthony and Cleopatra and other scraps in a show of “second-hand . . . titillation.” There are many direct speech quotations in the final five pages, a convocation which includes the voices of Sailor, Eduardo, the American Tourist, the blonde usherette, Lee, the Chinese druggist, old junkies, Lola La Chata — ghost voices called back through the ether to reprise an elegiac line, to leave their parting ironic and apocalyptic funereal words, to fall from the air, not as brightness but as “soft mendicant words falling like dead birds in the dark street . . .” — words as stark as a street begging routine, and their axiomatic, gloating refusal: “Wouldn’t feel right fucking up your cure.” The Atrophied Preface resembles a method of cryptomnesia — the mediumistic channelling of voices which Theodore Flournoy, at the beginning of the 20th century, called “teleological automatisms.” Flournoy understood such spirit voices to be beneficent, and though Burroughs’ discarnate voices are far from that, it as if their cryptic utterances promise the uncovering of the repressed, the writer cast as the medium at a séance, the channeler of discorporate voices and decoder of mysterious messages emerging from the ether. Burroughs’ final pages repeat and re-order and re-layer memories, and his method of re-transcription here suggests the metaphor of geological strata used by Freud when explaining how memories are transformed in the unconscious and preconscious systems of the psyche — “our psychical mechanism has come into being by a process of stratification: the material present in the form of memory-traces being subjected from time to time to a rearrangement in accordance with fresh circumstances — to a re-transcription . . . memory is present not once but several times over . . .”


Phil Wood, PathosScott Bukatman, writing about the later cut-ups, notes that “relations among signifiers are lost, each now exists in glittering isolation,” and this analysis of the individual, fragmented sentence or phrase applies equally to the concatenated passages of the “Atrophied Preface,” a collage which preserves its material splices and cuts, the jumps and disconnections of its constituent parts. The old queen “gets the knee from his phantom” and there are “phantom twinges of amputation” in this ghostly burlesque. The “Dilapidated Diseuse in 1920 clothes . . . dead weight of the Dear Dead days hanging in the air like an earthbound ghost,” from the Campus of Interzone University section, reappears as a guy in a 1920 straw hat, while the earthbound ghost and atrophied gangster from the And Start West section return in disembodied form to repeat their ghost mantras . . . The book’s ending is a fitting mass epitaph for a Book of the Dead, the voices speaking their Last Words as the flame goes out, the shot is blown, and the “smell of death” and the “skeleton grin” are left to preside over the discorporate world . . . The cut-and-paste editor of these “raw materials of death” threatens to “terminate my services” as items on serial killers, immolation, overdoses, and infection find their random but fated places in the crumbling marble index, a terminal bricolage of entropy and planetary doom. It’s a death chant, a ticker-tape funeral oration, a scrapbook of autopsy reports, cuttings from a newspaper morgue. As Oliver Harris has noted, this litany echoes a moving and resonant passage in Interzone, a meditation on the deaths of people Burroughs had known, and on his own fated survival.


Terry Wilson has pointed out that the book ends with a vocal impersonation by Burroughs — of writer Sax Rohmer‘s inscrutable Chinese shopkeeper. Burroughs always claimed to detest Rohmer, but “No glot . . . C’lom Fliday” replays and homages the voice of Rohmer’s inscrutable racial other, the Yellow Peril stereotype — “We stood in a bare and very dirty room, which could only claim kinship with a civilized shaving salon by virtue of the grimy towel thrown across the back of the solitary chair. A Yiddish theatrical bill of some kind, illustrated, adorned one of the walls, and another bill, in what may have been Chinese, completed the decorations. From behind a curtain heavily brocaded with filth a little Chinaman appeared, dressed in a loose smock, black trousers and thick-soled slippers, and, advancing, shook his head vigorously. ‘No shavee, no shavee,’ he chattered, simian fashion, squinting from one to the other of us with his twinkling eyes. ‘Too late! Shuttee-shop!'” The druggist at the end of Naked Lunch is addressing Bill Gains and every other junkie con artist, and this transcription of broken pigeon English concludes the book with a kind of definitive inarticulacy, a terminal abridgement, the refusal to deal is also a refusal of language to engage beyond its essential minimal requirements, because there is literally nothing else to be said ever again in this alien tongue. As the Sailor says, with a nod to Thomas Wolfe, “You can’t go back no more” — and that longed-for score and that far-off “Fliday” will never come.


Phil Wood, LaughterFragments of speech, strung out on ellipsis, are used throughout the book, signalling, for example, the stuttering disconnection of the Sailor’s furtive old junky discourse which is “slowed down with twenty goof balls,” Benway’s strategic pauses creating maximum unease and fear, Bill Gains fading in and out of his con stories as each one surfaces only to fail to hit the mark, the practised fake amnesiac digressions in the County Clerk’s memorialising monologue in which old-timers like him, gone ancient before their days, are forgetful-like. But these spaces between words, these gaps and elisions and breaks in discourse also signify the unsaid — some things must remain hidden, should not be disclosed, or they cannot be said, they are unknown, unknowable. Still, when the words run out or break down, we may wonder what runs through and beneath the caesura? It seems something other, something more than the transcription of the rhythms of natural speech, the marking of pauses or inarticulateness . . . It might be ennui, it might be dissimulation, but when spoken pauses are transcribed on the page, they textually signify that it is here, in these fissures, not in the characters’ filthy, blasphemous utterances, that the literally unspeakable resides, as if the Beat aesthetic of saying it all, letting it all out, has its limits, and so the unspeakable remains, a signalled absence — “Whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must be silent.” Stefan Hertmans has noted that “anyone complaining about unspeakability is bound to enter an insoluble paradox. For the subject is spoken about and referred to.” Naked Lunch is filled with gaps and cuts and caesura, empty places where the words run out or are severed, left hanging — the text elides, fractures, fails to articulate and grasp something which is half-recognized but cannot be named or described and must be passed over in silence . . . “I’ll give it to you in the ass,” “Now, baby, I got it here to give,” “So I put it on him,” “the school motto: ‘With it and for it’” — here and in song lyrics détourned by Burroughs, the “It” word sustains cynical double entendres conflating sex and narcotics, while elsewhere it signifies a taboo which cannot be broken and cannot be spoken — even though Burroughs writes that “You can write or yell or croon about it,” the taboo is crucially unnamed, unnameable. That poor, unspecific, dehumanized, stand-in pronoun must suffice, suggesting some ultimate point of despair or transcendence, the death of someone who really existed, or an unbearable, unimaginable, overwhelming regret, which must remain forever beyond identification or expression.


Phil Wood, Of Prayers, Parasites, and the Ugly SpiritBill Gains nods out while trying in vain to con the Panamanian Chinese druggist, like he’s put himself to sleep with his endless recitation by rote of ludicrous sob stories, each one fixated upon crude bodily needs. His flat-liner delivery erases all unnecessary participles and connectives — well, who needs syntax anyway? He’s laying it down on a Chinaman in any case so only the key words, the really happening parts of the con need be uttered in his disembodied stupor, he can hardly make the effort is all — fill in the blanks yourself. He’s laid down those inane tales of woe countless times, and the druggist has heard it all before too — the dying racing dogs routine, the mother’s piles, the wife’s menstrual cramps . . . Bring it on, and let it go. We can read this ellipsis as an authorial edit, removing the longeurs and narrative bridges from Gains’ interminable pitches to score, or perhaps he actually does talk this way, fading in and out of consciousness and speech before snapping his head up and cutting to the chase. In either case, it lets the key elements, the real base elements do all the signification, literally strung out on a skeletal narrative line — “Kotex . . . Aged mother . . . Piles . . . raw . . . bleeding.” We see the con like a telegram — the whole interminable rigmarole condensed into a few words, to cut the cost, in every sense, of the sent communication, which the listener may reconstitute, if so inclined. Burroughs later laments the waste paper of written narrative spent “getting The People from one place to another,” and so the Atrophied Preface adopts and adapts the Gains Method at the end of the book, while the voices of Naked Lunch either fill available airtime with verbiage or what they say is cut down to a few phrases, uttered with a minimum of effort — “You sabe shit?” Gains and the druggist will wait forever, and much of the talk in Naked Lunch comes from that special kind of waiting around, for the script in both senses — the RX to be filled, and the words to be spoken, until they are terminally done with.


Burroughs would claim that an author is his characters, but at the same time he would maintain that the author is not responsible — he creates and speaks through them, and then they escape his control. Critical discourse often helplessly repeats Burroughs’ own concepts and metaphors, figures and tropes, but in this case there is no choice — the alien mouth which betrays and rebels against and usurps its creator appears in Benway’s famous routine, but it is the key mechanism of spoken discourse running in variations throughout the book. The characters are always treated as ventriloquist dummies and then they are real talking assholes — they are spoken through, mouthpieces of corrupt authority and criminal, immoral subterfuge, and they rant and rave with a doomed will to autonomy and power. The inflexible mouthpiece of authority and the raw mouthing orifice return the reader endlessly to Burroughs’ obsession with possession and its manifestation in the form of the mouth. He insists upon the literality of his metaphors — language is not “like” a disease, it is the disease. In the Deposition Burroughs writes of that “frozen moment when everyone sees what is on the end of every fork,” and he maintains that this interpretation is exactly what the title Naked Lunch means — it means, he says, “what the words say,” that is, they accord with his own explication, as well as suggesting, on the contrary, that those words speak autonomously, “for themselves.” But there is no literal, transparent, self-evident meaning for those words — the author’s definition is only one of many possible interpretations, and this authorial insistence is a consequence of the adoption of a polemical voice which is profoundly suspect and at odds with the refutations of intentionality within the text itself. But it is this very voice of insistent explication and knowing certainty which, through oral performance, would become synonymous with the essentially autodidactic “Burroughs voice.”


Phil Wood, War Head Mind FuckThe routine is a form of compulsive reminiscence with the memorialist as possessed fantasist — putting on other people, putting other people on. It’s always another suspect story, another’s story that is being re-told and re-sold, the impersonation of an impersonation, the replaying of the words of some absent party, and so doubly unreliable. If conversation in Naked Lunch requires recourse to quotation, like the English colonial: “So the doctor said to me . . .,” then the routine comes on entirely like dictation from another source, it takes the form of a series of spiralling and tangentially connected narratives and stories-within-stories in which one thing immediately recalls or suggests something else which supposedly, incredibly, actually happened, even though the routine continually morphs from the past tense into the present tense, betraying the intertwined processes of recitation and reinvention — this is reminiscense as the reliving of fantasia. For the listener/reader, the underlying connections may be bafflingly unapparent and infuriatingly ungraspable, whilst simultaneously deliriously captivating. The routine may be a two-minute skit, picked up and soon abandoned, like the Throckmorton Diamond scenario, but it’s exponential in its improvisatory combinations, its Proustian derivations. As soon as that “I recollect when . . . ” goes down, we fear the running out of time, and the running on of the monomaniacal mouth. Neither Benway nor the County Clerk are willing to be distracted or interrupted in the flow of their indefatigable soliloquies, their endless extemporization — if it’s better to die in silence than to start to say something and get cut off, then there’s still the alternative of never shutting up in this life and continuing to transmit from the afterlife, like the voices of the dead in the atrophied preface. “Now if you’ll take care, young feller, till I finish what I’m saying . . .” The Old Man says, “I am subject to tell a tale” and he is utterly subjected to that tall tale telling, his being entirely caught up and consumed by the “endless saga” he launched upon so many years ago.


Phil Wood, Count Your Blessings and Thank Your Lucky StarsReminiscence in Naked Lunch literalizes time travel, and that trip down Memory Lane takes the form of a guided tour of the hinterland — it’s the travelogue as monologue, with many detours and linguistic dérives, and necessary stopovers to score. “Now I happen to remember,” “I recall, me and the Fag,” “Recollect when I am travelling with K.E.,” “I was travelling with Irene Kelly,” “Recollect when I am travelling with the Vigilante,” etc. And then you’re in that car, you’re the passenger along for the language ride, the verbal dérive, and the voice in the driving seat takes you there, to all the places and times lost forever — like a voiceover to a moving route line on a B-movie road map. To travel in Naked Lunch is always to flee the heat of an unnamed crime, an unbearable situation, to quit a scene gone bad, and these escape trips ineluctably merge with the quest for drugs, and take the form of tour-guide directions for scoring, dowsing for the words of procurement, a litany of drug locations from the log book of memory — “North and Halstead, Cicero, Lincoln Park,” “Dolores Street . . . Exchange Place.” It’s a verbal drift off the beaten track, seeking possession, feeling out the hot milieus and those trails gone cold, reciting the magical topography of connections, picking up on a ghost itinerary of remembered scores. The scenes we pass through are given in slide-show format, like a junky projectionist in a cold-water flat talking us through his shots of streets and tenements and vacant lots. The jumps and cuts and intersections create a fractured map, disorienting and re-routing the reader, revealing the book’s structure as a series of fatal arrivals and desperate departures. To speak is to name and remember, to recover and re-conjure the past, bring it back into existence, keep saying it and it shall be so — the past is the longed-for connection, and memory will furnish the final fix.


The Sailor’s voice is described as “feeling” because it is searching its way through the listener’s psyche, where it “reassembles” the spoken words “in your head, spelling out the words with cold fingers,” imprinting words on the brain, leaving its neural traces, the old junkie voice palpating the cortex through remote control like fingers moving over a soft typewriter keyboard, spelling it out, tapping out the junk patter letter by indelible letter on the psychic writing pad. Sailor speaks and the word becomes script, transcribed in the brain of the listener, like a screenwriter’s dialogue or a noir detective’s report taken down by a stenographer. Sailor’s own seemingly improvised and fragmented discourses are essentially scripted, the phrases worn smooth through time, and they include popular song lines and hackneyed sayings — “Every day I die a little” . . . “Right down the middle” . . . “When the roll is called up yonder” . . . “You can’t go back no more.” These clichés and pot-boilers apparently require minimal effort to utter, a lugubrious junky homespun, they’re stand-ins, fill-ins to keep the talk show on the road, Jack, just plugging the gaps, just something to say to keep the voice in play while waiting for the next thought to materialise, so to speak — but at the same time their very banality elides their implicit threat, hiding the Sailor’s deadly agenda in plain site, because every one of those well-worn phrases, crooned and whispered and hummed like a lullaby, contains its own phased warning, like a colour cancer picture on a pack of cigarettes you just bought and already smoked. “Order in The Court!” “Sauve qui peut.” “Zut alors.” “Son cosas de la vida.” “Do yourself a favor.” “Let’s get out of here.” “Well, it’s all in the day’s work.” “I’ve heard everything now.” “Isn’t life peculiar?” The most conventional expressions occur repeatedly in Naked Lunch — they’ve been around a lot those lazy locutions, lolled on the tongue or uttered peremptorily, called upon and duly passed around almost thoughtlessly through so many mouths over so many years — saves a lot of time, of course, and they even appear to have the quality of maxims, pithy and self-evident truths casually remarked, but repartee they decidedly are not. The voices are ostensibly cutting down on the “waste paper” of getting from A to Zee, but look again at this aphoristic shorthand, this proverbial telegraphese — it says nothing, and then it just gets a whole lot worse, saying the nothing that is being said.


Phil Wood, Full Speed Ahead Your Death Is Always With YouSailor doesn’t like the word “agent,” he says he prefers “vector,” and he means the word in the sense of a mosquito or a tick which transmits disease from one person to another, or from an animal to a human. Everything he says or signals, whispers or touches is part of his desire to spread the infection, to disseminate the disease — to get inside a host and consummate truly biological, micro-organic, blood-sucking communion. The richness of language and the verbal pyrotechnics of Naked Lunch are at the service of repulsion and fear, opening up the word wound, the language lesion — like the punctum described by Barthes, the element which “breaks away from the scene,” the word which is a stab wound, a cut, a hole, the thing which seizes you and injures you. Words linked to invasion, possession, poison, lust, and disgust are deployed and scattered throughout — shame, filthy, massacre, fuck, cunt, cock, jism, asshole, castrate, murder, spurting, ooze, sucking, tumor, purulent discharge, sick, slime, squirt, festering . . . These words are the base material which reveals the pestilence of language as it is spread mouth to mouth — pass it on. It’s what Lawrence Lipton described in 1959 as the “oral revolution against the Geneva Code . . . ritual words for . . . the Jazz Canto art form,” even if this necessitated “a lot of filty words without literary merit.” Authorial advice on terrible and fantastic diseases is itself suspect, ersatz, and those word vaccinations and handy hints on psychic self-protection just won’t take — if there are words of healing in this book, they are hard to find. Whatever the nature of the infection, there is no cure for the condition of being verbally poisoned and Burroughs means it literal, he’s a signed-up Korzybzkian who knows that inoculation by word is doomed — to stick with his tropes, the vaccine is so powerful it boosts the full-blown language disease. In perfect, deadly circularity, the words turn upon those who utter them, and Burroughs’ writing seems locked into its own self-referential oral fixation and verbal contamination, relentlessly voicing disgust at the speech act whilst repeatedly auto-infecting.


Phil Wood, Custer's Last Stance (Paleface Gets His Wig Whammed)Breaking open his pen, the Sailor cuts open a lead tube inside the pen — it releases a “black mist,” a “black fuzz” upon which he feeds, his mouth undulating on a long tube. The stuff hidden inside the writing implement — the pen/is — ejaculates ectoplasmic ink and inhaling that orgasmic emission, “a silent pink explosion,” sucking it in through his mouth, will fix the Sailor for a month, fueling his dead junky whisper as it recycles broken reminiscences and elliptical, endless junk talk, hitting on a boy. Sailor operates and communicates on a number of levels and he has laughter “like a bat’s squeak” which vibrates through the human body — the Talking Asshole and the Sailor both have the ability to operate on a literal “gut frequency,” getting deep inside the body of the listener. Elsewhere Sailor makes flat dead statements of meaningless fact of the kind employed by Iris and Bill Gains and by the conference speaker who adopts “a flat shop-girl voice” — the voice literally falls flat, but it’s one of the Sailor’s stock devices when he’s feeling around for the right vocal pitch and in any case it exemplifies his world-weary, seen-it-all-kid, cynical operator mode. Sailor will use whatever it takes to break and enter the next host party, shilling his fugazi to some patsy, and these husks of thought, these dry distillations and laconic observations, are strategic — take it or leave it, see I got nothing to hide, or so he seems to say, or says to seem. He’s the procurer as under-executioner, a Tantalus in a dirty overcoat, and he has the liar’s bait down pat, too pat — even when he tells it like it is, he’s suspect. In Naked Lunch the mouth is always the locus of distaste and disgust, the cavity from which language stems — and the mouth itself shoots out on a long quivering tube, an undulating feeder with a life of its own, the rapine mouth on a laryngeal, intestinal stalk, as in the case of the Sailor, or Willy’s “blind seeking mouth” which “sways out on a long tube of ectoplasm.” Counterparts are the long slug which “undulates” out of the orifice of Lee’s right eye and writes on the wall in slime, and Doc Scranton’s anus which moves around the street on several feet of intestine “like a blind worm.” Mouths break their physiological limits, driven by appetite and lust, sprouting sex organs grown through undifferentiated tissue, mutating and prosthetically extending, verbal concupiscence become body-sucking consumption.


The Sailor’s voice may also be understood as signed — spelled out in gestures as if for the deaf, his raps and reminiscences visually telegraphed through touch and finger and hand gestures like those of the 19th century Neapolitan poor who used the gestural communication of ancient pantomime to sign words like “fuck off,” “cunt,” “cash,” “idiot,” “beg,” and “cunning.” Sailor is a member of the basso populo, the low life who would employ a signing code for criminal purposes, a language which Joe and Sailor understand perfectly — “Joe looked at the Sailor and spread his hands in the junky shrug.” Burroughs would later posit the idea that writing came before speech and he may have known the Egyptologist Joseph Barois’ belief that the origins of language were dactylogical, that hand and finger shapes and gestures and their drawn equivalent signs were the proto-phonetic letters of the spoken alphabet. Burroughs’ interest in hieroglyphic writing, in the use of picture language to communicate mystical and transcendent thinking was already established before the writing of Naked Lunch, but he was familiar also with the “hieroglyphic” communications of the junky and criminal “brotherhoods” and understood that hand gestures form a silent coded language, as loaded and threatening and as dirty as spoken words, a potent vocabulary communicated by initiates in secret. Gesture and touch are silent and dream-slow in Naked Lunch, and like Freud’s analogy of dream interpretation and the decipherment of hieroglyphs, latent meaning is traced out by a finger — the tactility of the speaker who touches as he speaks is replaced by touch alone, while gestures are both ritualised and technologically functional, so that “Benway traces a pattern in the air with his hand and a door swings open.”


Phil Wood, Egg Rot, Ergot, Ergo, EgoThe Sailor’s spoken voice moves like Benway’s from “remote and blurred” to “loud and clear,” but Sailor really likes to communicate by touch, placing a finger “on the dividing line below the boy’s nose” or putting a finger “on the boy’s inner arm at the elbow,” or “feeling along the boy’s vein, erasing goose-pimples with a gentle old woman finger” — the junky’s touch is slow, proprietorial, creepy. Sailor’s spoken words are as tactile as they are oral, physically traced, indelibly printed on the brain — “His hands moved on the table, reading the boy’s Braille.” It’s dictation by touch — a finger-tapping tattoo, morse code vibrating into the psyche. Sailor’s not alone. We see Lee “dreamily caressing a needle scar on the back of Miguel’s hand, following the whorls and patterns of smooth purple flesh.” Fats, too, “feels for the scar patterns of junk.” The junky “feels around” when taking a shot, and this exploratory tactility seems to drive the characters’ dreamy, invasive touching. The Shoe Store Kid palpates the mark with slow fingers, “feeling for him” like Blind Pew, while the President is fixed through touch — “we make contact, and I recharge him.” The touch is both erotic and predatory, physical intimacy is feared but may be necessary, for a while — “All personal contact is eclipsed by the recharge process.” The commandante takes the letter that Carl hands him and whispers “through it, reading his lips with his left hand,” and he taps the table with one finger while he hums — orality and tactility are interwined, words are felt, and touch is read. The German doctor touches “Joselito’s ribs with long, delicate fingers” but those “long, delicate fingers” are suddenly transformed into “dirty fingers, shiny over the dirt,” real junky fingers. Doctors and junkies put their hands on the body — “Read the metastasis with blind fingers” — checking out the spreading tumour with their special knowledge and shared expertise. “Fingers” is Doc Shaffer’s affectionate moniker and the German doctor is “seedy and furtive as an old junky” — both have the psychic touch, and Sailor even picks up the feel of a score from the door of the trap where the stuff is stored, he touches “the door gently, following patterns of painted oak . . . iridescent whorls of slime.” This touch is as sinister and fatal as The Word (the divine rational principle of truth) — which in Naked Lunch has the power to cut off fingers.


Phil Wood, Citizens of the Red NightsIt is as if a personal signatory voice has left its traces in the interstices of this palimpsest, inscribed with a haunting particularity, an intense feeling of wonder and profound sadness which transcend the book’s rhetorical devices, a fragile humanity which the reader can easily pass over in the riot repertoire and vaudeville fireworks of the author’s otherwise splenetic, messy show. Burroughs’ own readings of the text and especially his Benway incarnation, mean that we hear the text to a degree through his own relished performances of it, but at certain moments we can pick up on something quite different coming through the noise overload and asinine chatter, a voice which is not at all performative, a voice we know from earlier Burroughs texts — wistful, nostalgic, tender and melancholy, which registers a moment of quietude or regret, a moment of serenity which seems to occur off-set, the unattended moment out of time. The moon floats in a blue sky, a warm spring wind turns cold, it’s a cold spring morning with plaintive leaves turning in the wind, everything is slow and serene as the snow begins to fall, and these scenes are haunted and voiced by “a ghost in the morning sunlight,” his memory diorama disappearing like his physical being in light. Like the “plaintive boy cries” of Joselito, Paco, Pepe and Enrique whose voices, redolent of innocence and loss, “drift in on the warm night,” this distant voice is carried through the maelstrom, the voice of someone from way back when, he was so young then, and it was so many years ago — and then it all came down.

Written by Ian MacFadyen and published by RealityStudio on 7 December 2009.

All paintings from the “Postcards from Purgatory” series by Phil Wood.

To Philippe Baumont for his gracious hospitality to so many Burroughsians during the Paris Homage in July 2009. With thanks to Phil Wood for permission to reproduce his great paintings.

6 thoughts on “The Mouth Inside: The Voices of Naked Lunch

  1. Ian, please allow me to congratulate you on a stunning, bravura piece of writing, both intellectually and stylistically. This is definitely one of the best pieces I have ever read on Naked Lunch, helping me to understand the book on a whole different level. And for this I thank you.


  2. Delicious writing, a real pleasure to read! Together with the images this would make a great book i believe.

  3. Hi Phil, dark pictures man, scary, nightmare-like figures, very powerful and beautiful in their own horrible way! Enjoyed chatting to you in the Hundred Monkies, Roz

  4. Just when you think you’ve seen it all by the end of reading, the last painting at Haunting graps you… Fantasic work, beautiful strangely enough. Thank you both. Book? Soon?!

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