Presentation by Oliver Harris during Naked Lunch @ 50
San Francisco Art Institute, 20 November 2009
Professor Harris did not give this talk in person but sent a PowerPoint and mp3 audio file. You can listen to the talk by downloading the mp3 (13.8 MB).
I’d like to begin by thanking Peter Maravelis and Jonah Raskin for inviting me to join in tonight’s events and to the San Francisco Art Institute for hosting them — I just wish I could be with you in person and not as a disembodied voice and this snapshot taken on my last visit to the city about 18 months ago.
We’re here to mark the half-century of Naked Lunch, one book that has no need to lie about its age. And it’s been a wonderful six months for such celebrations, which started back in July in Paris, the city where Naked Lunch was first published, with four days of events including the book launch of Naked Lunch@50: Anniversary Essays which I co-edited with Ian MacFadyen. Since July, the celebrations have moved westwards with several events in England, and then in Lawrence, Kansas, Chicago, New York, Iowa City and now, finally, the Paris of the Pacific…
As for Naked Lunch itself, as I said, this is one book that simply does not seem to show its age. In these barbarous and apocalyptic times, Burroughs’ book is still as relevant as ever — still as appalling and as inspiring, as beautiful and as ugly, as funny, as prophetic, and as perplexing. But we know all this, and I don’t want to spend the next few minutes only talking in clichés. Instead, I want to tell a particular part of its back-story, a history of its coming into being that is specifically relevant to the event taking place right here right now… To some, much of it will be familiar, but I hope there will be something new in it for everyone.
Philadelphia, Chicago, Peoria, Paris, New Orleans, Mexico City, Istanbul, Sioux Falls, East St Louis, Kansas City, Malmo, Tangier, Houston, Lake Charles, Tamuzanchale, Butte, Cuernevaca, Taxco, Edinburgh, Gibraltar, Yokohama, Teheran, Addis Ababa, Shanghai, Esmeraldas, Helsinki, Seattle, Capetown, Zanzibar, New York, the Hague, Aleppo, Buenos Aires, Johannesburg, Paris, Lexington, Cairo, Mecca, Los Angeles, Timbuctu, Stockholm, Cincinnati, Pasto, Venice, Dallas, Beirut, Texarkana, Tierra del Fuego, Panama City, David, Darien, and Madrid — not to mention Cunt Lick, Texas, and Interzone — in order of their appearance, these are the towns and cities Burroughs names in Naked Lunch — and San Francisco is not among them.
Now of course, Naked Lunch is closely associated with a number of specific places:
Working backwards from Paris, where it was first published and where Burroughs lived in the so-called Beat Hotel while he completed the manuscript and assembled the book — to Tangier, where he lived for four years while writing the great bulk of it — to Mexico and Latin America where he gathered key ingredients of his lunch in the early 1950s — back to New York City, where he had lived in the mid-’40s and where the opening and closing scenes of the narrative are set.
It’s a simple biographical fact of life that Burroughs never set foot in San Francisco until the mid-1970s — although at one crucial point he was California-bound. That was in the fall of 1954 when Burroughs left Tangier intending to move in with Allen Ginsberg, who had just settled in North Beach. But since Burroughs was obsessed with him at that time, this was the very last thing Ginsberg wanted. And, because Ginsberg was the only reason Burroughs was heading west or returning to America in the first place, he never made it further than New York City. Instead, Burroughs returned to Tangier and the writing of Naked Lunch, whose routines — those comic-grotesque tours de force like the Talking Asshole — emerged out of the love-sick letters Burroughs mailed back to Ginsberg, an ocean and a continent away.
In other words, had Ginsberg not put Burroughs off coming to San Francisco, had Burroughs not been forced to write at long distance and in the absence of the reader he desired, then Naked Lunch would never have been written at all — certainly not in the form as we now know it. . .
But the connection between the city and the book isn’t only defined by negatives and absence. Indeed, on one important occasion, it was defined by a kind of fantasy presence:
This is the Spring 1958 issue of the Chicago Review, which printed what would, a year later, appear as the opening pages of the book published as Naked Lunch. The little magazine history of part-publication is as complicated as it is interesting and significant, but this was the first true part of Burroughs’ book to be published, and, as you can see from the cover, as well as the Chicago connection — as the place of publication — and the New York connection — as the setting for this opening part of the text — there is a San Francisco connection, since Burroughs is billed top of a list of Ten San Francisco poets that included Robert Duncan, Lawrence Ferlinghetti, Michael McClure.
To which the only possible response would seem to be — wrong! Burroughs wasn’t a poet and he had nothing to do with either San Francisco or the poetry Renaissance then under way. Allen Ginsberg may not have been a native, but he lived in the city, wrote in the city, and read out the first draft of “Howl” at the 6 Gallery. Likewise, Kerouac was an Easterner but he also wrote about the Bay Area, and did enough to deserve having an alleyway named after him adjacent to City Lights — but Burroughs, as would so often be the case, did not belong in such company, did not fit, and the connection is way off the mark.
However, in Spring 1958 there WAS an important bridge between Burroughs and San Francisco in relation to Naked Lunch.
First of all, Michael McClure read the section that appeared in Chicago Review and that April reported to Ginsberg that he liked it “very, very much. It is so great I have new eyes now.”
McClure was so impressed, a couple of months afterwards he offered a part of Burroughs’ Naked Lunch manuscripts to Wallace Berman, which is how Semina came to publish a passage from the “Have You Seen Pantapon Rose?” section.
Also in Spring 1958, just a few days before McClure was enthusing over the Chicago Review material, Burroughs wrote, from Paris, to offer Lawrence Ferlinghetti first crack at Naked Lunch.
Well, not exactly first crack actually, since Maurice Girodias of the Olympia Press had already turned a manuscript down. In fact, Ferlinghetti had been waiting impatiently for some time, worrying that Grove Press or New Directions would skim the cream off it, but when he saw what Burroughs sent him this Spring of 1958 and suggested he use — a selection of about 60 pages, barely a quarter of the published book — he turned it down. Why?
Because, as he put it in a reply to Ginsberg that May: no bookseller would dare to distribute “the flow of junk and jizzom.” Allen Ginsberg — who had been the middle man in this, as he had been in so much involving Burroughs’ writing during the 1950s — wrote back to say that he and Burroughs had made selections to water the text down and get by the censor, but still Ferlinghetti was un-persuaded. A month later, he said that trying to publish it would be “sure premeditated legal lunacy.”
Six months further on, Ferlinghetti had another chance to publish a different selection of material from Naked Lunch -– again, about 60 pages, this time the contents of the banned Winter 1958 issue of Chicago Review — and again he turned the chance down.
The obscenity just wasn’t worth the court case, and of course, having lately gone through the “Howl” trial, the publisher of City Lights Books was in a good position to know.
So far, so negative: it looked like San Francisco just didn’t dig Burroughs enough and vice versa. And although Maurice Girodias would change his mind in the summer of 1959, and would exploit the succès de scandale caused by the magazine part-publication of Naked Lunch, Ferlinghetti stuck by his guns.
Right or wrong, that decision decisively shaped the book we know by default. And that’s because the final form of Naked Lunch was a matter of timing — and had it been taken on by a different publisher or simply been assembled a little earlier or a little later, the text of Burroughs’ unstable, constantly changing work-in-progress would have ended up quite differently.
However, the relation between Naked Lunch and San Francisco isn’t just the story of near misses and missed opportunities — for Ferlinghetti was drawn to a very particular part of Burroughs’ material:
Writing in June ’58, he singles out what he identifies as the Visionary Yage City or the Composite City — as at the heart of everything.
Far from coincidentally, this would also be the section that Robert Creeley saw as the centre of Naked Lunch — in 1959 regretting there wasn’t more of it that made the final cut, having helped get a key part of this material published in 1957 in Black Mountain Review:
As should be clear from the heading under which it was published — “Naked Lunch, Book III: In Search of Yage” — this material overlapped what would become two separate books: Naked Lunch in 1959 and, four years later, The Yage Letters.
Burroughs defined the Amazonian hallucinogen as “space-time travel.” These two elements would be so central to Burroughs — the visionary dimension, and the movement in all directions through space and time — and they’re particularly fascinating with regard to both Naked Lunch and its San Francisco connection for two reasons.
Firstly, the Composite City vision goes together with a composite text —
quite literally, as we can see from sections of Burroughs’ extraordinary “Yage” manuscript held at Stanford University: Here we can see the actual cutting and pasting of multiple manuscript pages and their recombination and transformation. Burroughs recognised the visual and material dimension to what he was doing, as we can also see from these —
composites of photographs he took in South America, which set the precedent for the photomontages he made at the time of completing Naked Lunch — another composite of manuscript pieces. I’ll come back to the relevance to San Francisco of this key notion of the Composite Text in just a moment.
Secondly, there is Burroughs’ idea of the Composite City which was originally defined as part New York, part Mexico City and — crucially for what I’m talking about — “part Lima which I had not seen at this time”. This Composite city goes together with the composite text — the text created from multiple materials and sources — and with the visionary promise of the hallucinogenic vine itself, since those who take the drug are — as Burroughs noted in the same letter — reputed to see visions of cities to which they have never been: prophetic, future cities.
San Francisco was not a part of Burroughs’ Composite City but it is absolutely fitting that some of the major poets then based in the Bay Area — Ferlinghetti, McClure, and Creeley — should have responded so enthusiastically to this specific material in Naked Lunch, rather than, perhaps, to the junk and the jizzom. This is not to minimize the importance of heroin and homosexuality to Burroughs’ book, but rather to play up the vital poetic centre of it — the lyricism at its visionary core — which — as Allen Ginsberg would repeatedly say when pushing his friend’s work during the 1950s — was on a par with anything in the visionary poetry of Rimbaud or St John Perse.
Here indeed we see Burroughs in fall 1953, while staying with Ginsberg in New York, reading the just published edition of St. Perse’s WINDS or VENTS while they worked together on editing Burroughs’ “Yage” manuscript.
Well, the point I want to make is simply this: that even though Naked Lunch didn’t get published 50 years ago by Lawrence Ferlinghetti’s City Lights, but was printed 5000 miles away in Paris by Maurice Girodias’s Olympia Press, and even though Burroughs didn’t even come to the city until the mid-1970s and didn’t imaginatively include it within his book’s visionary geography, nevertheless San Francisco did recognise and embrace the poetic, visionary heart of Naked Lunch — a dimension too often overlooked.
The connection would be fixed in print in 1963 when City Lights did publish The Yage Letters — which I had the privilege of re-editing just a couple of years ago, a project requiring many wonderful hours of archival work in the collections of Berkeley and Stanford.
And finally, one last, rather more roundabout, but entirely Burroughsian connection, which brings me back to the title of my talk: the Frisco Kid, he never returns –
This is not a reference to the 1930s film starring James Cagney, set on the old Barbary Coast in the days of the Gold Rush, nor anything to do with the 1970s book about life in North Beach by Jerry Kamstra.
No: a year after City Lights published The Yage Letters, a short Burroughs piece appeared entitled “Composite Text.” This was published in the first issue of Bulletin from Nothing —
a magazine printed in San Francisco by Charles Plymell and featuring work from, among others associated with City Lights, Mary Beach and Claude Pélieu. As Jed Birmingham, an expert on Burroughs’ little magazine history, has commented, in this issue, “Burroughs had made himself a home in the experimental literary scene in San Francisco.”
And as if delivering a cryptic message, resonant in a peculiarly Burroughsian poetic way, one of the key recurrent phrases in Burroughs’ Composite Text is none other than — The Frisco Kid, he never returns
And so, while you might say that Burroughs never returns to Frisco because he was never there in the first place, at the same time it seems absolutely right for the curious absence-in-presence that was the key to his writing of Naked Lunch fifty years ago and, I think, to our experience of reading it ever since. Like Burroughs himself, Naked Lunch keeps on never returning, keeps on luring us back to see new visions, with new eyes, and yet somehow always remains a haunting and elusive presence … a ghost in daylight… The Frisco Kid, he never returns . . . And on that note, I take my bow … Happy birthday Naked Lunch and thank you, San Francisco!