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Mary McCarthy on William S. Burroughs’s ‘The Naked Lunch’

In 2013, The New York Review of Books celebrates its fiftieth anniversary. During the course of the year we will reprint excerpts from some other notable pieces published in the Review over the last five decades.

The following is an extract from Mary McCarthy’s review of William S. Burroughs’s The Naked Lunch, which appeared in the first issue of The New York Review in February 1963. It can be read in full at www.nybooks.com/50/naked.

Dejeuner sur l’Herbe

Mary McCarthy

“You can cut into The Naked Lunch at any intersection point,” says Burroughs, suiting the action to the word, in “an atrophied preface” he appends as a tail-piece. His book, he means, is like a neighborhood movie with continuous showings that you can drop into whenever you please—you don’t have to wait for the beginning of the feature picture. Or like a worm that you can chop up into sections each of which wriggles off as an independent worm. Or a nine-lived cat. Or a cancer. He is fond of the word “mosaic,” especially in its scientific sense of a plant-mottling caused by a virus, and his Muse (see etymology of “mosaic”) is interested in organic processes of multiplication and duplication.

The literary notion of time as simultaneous, a montage, is not original with Burroughs; what is original is the scientific bent he gives it and a view of the world that combines biochemistry, anthropology, and politics. It is as though Finnegans Wake were cut loose from history and adapted for a cinerama circus titled “One World.” The Naked Lunch has no use for history, which is all “ancient history”—sloughed-off skin; from its planetary perspective, there are only geography and customs. Seen in terms of space, history shrivels into a mere wrinkling or furrowing of the surface as in an aerial relief-map or one of those pieced-together aerial photographs known in the trade as mosaics. The oldest memory in The Naked Lunch is of jacking-off in boyhood latrines, a memory recaptured through pederasty. This must be the first space novel, the first serious piece of science fiction—the others are entertainment….

Many readers complain that they cannot get through The Naked Lunch. And/or that they find it disgusting. It is disgusting and sometimes tiresome, often in the same places. The prominence of the anus, of faeces, and of all sorts of “horrible” discharges, as the characters would say, from the body’s orifices, becomes too much of a bad thing, like the sado-masochistic sex performances—the automatic ejaculation of a hanged man is not everybody’s cantharides. A reader whose erogenous zones are more temperate than the author’s begins to feel either that he is a square (a guilty sentiment he should not yield to) or that he is the captive of an addict….

Yet what saves The Naked Lunch is not a literary ancestor but humor. Burroughs’s humor is peculiarly American, at once broad and sly. It is the humor of a comedian, a vaudeville performer playing in One, in front of the asbestos curtain to some Keith Circuit or Pantages house long since converted to movies. The same jokes reappear, slightly refurbished, to suit the circumstances, the way a vaudeville artist used to change Yonkers to Renton when he was playing Seattle. For example, the Saniflush joke, which is always good for a laugh: somebody is cutting the cocaine/the morphine/the penicillin with Saniflush.

Some of the jokes are verbal (“Stop me if you’ve heard this atomic secret” or Dr. Benway’s “A simopath…is a citizen convinced he is an ape or other simian. It is a disorder peculiar to the army and discharge cures it”). Some are mimic buffoonery (Dr. Benway, in his last appearance, dreamily, his voice fading out: “Cancer, my first love”). Some are whole vaudeville “numbers,” as when the hoofers, Clem and Jody, are hired by the Russians to give Americans a bad name abroad: they appear in Liberia wearing black Stetsons and red galluses and talking loudly about burning niggers back home. A skit like this may rise to a frenzy, as if in a Marx Brothers or a Clayton, Jackson, and Durante act. E.g., the very funny scene in Chez Robert, “where a huge icy gourmet broods over the greatest cuisine in the world”: A.J. appears, the last of the Big Spenders, and orders a bottle of ketchup; immediate pandemonium; A.J. gives his hog-call, and the shocked gourmet diners are all devoured by famished hogs. The effect of pandemonium, all hell breaking loose, is one of Burroughs’ favorites and an equivalent of the old vaudeville finale, with the acrobats, the jugglers, the magician, the hoofers, the lady-who-was-cut-in-half, the piano player, the comedians, all pushing into the act….

The impression left by this is perplexing. On the one hand, control is evil; on the other, escape from control is mass slaughter or reduction to a state of proliferating cellular matter. The police are the enemy, but as Burroughs shrewdly observes in one passage: “A functioning police state needs no police.” The policeman is internalized in the citizen. You might say that it would have been better to have no control, no police, in the first place; then there would be no police states, functioning or otherwise. This would seem to be Burroughs’ position, but it is not consistent with his picture of sex.

The libertarian position usually has as one of its axioms a love of Nature and the natural, that is, of the life-principle itself, commonly identified with sex. But there is little overt love of the life-principle in The Naked Lunch, and sex, while magnified—a common trait of homosexual literature—is a kind of mechanical mantrap baited with fresh meat. The sexual climax, the jet of sperm, accompanied by a whistling scream, is often a death spasm, and the “perfect” orgasm would seem to be the posthumous orgasm of the hanged man, shooting his jissom into pure space.

It is true that Nature and sex are two-faced and that growth is death-oriented. But if Nature is not seen as far more good than evil, then a need for control is posited. And, strangely, this seems to be Burroughs’ position too. The human virus can now be treated, he says with emphasis, meaning the species itself. By scientific methods, he implies.

Yet the laboratory of The Naked Lunch is a musical-comedy inferno, and Dr. Benway’s assistant is a female chimpanzee. It is impossible, as Burroughs knows, to have scientific experiment without control. Then what? Self-control? Do-it-yourself? But self-control, again, is an internalized system of authority, a subjection of the impulse to the will, the least “natural” part of the personality. Such a system might suit Marcus Aurelius, but it hardly seems congenial to the author of The Naked Lunch. And even if it were (for the author is at once puritan and tolerant), it would not form the basis for scientific experiment on the “human virus.” Only for scientific experiment on oneself.

Possibly this is what Burroughs means: in fact his present literary exercises may be stages in such a deliberate experiment. The questions just posed would not arise if The Naked Lunch did not contain messages that unluckily are somewhat arcane. Not just messages; prescriptions. That—to answer a pained question that keeps coming up like a refrain—is why the book is taken seriously. Burroughs’ remarkable talent is only part of the reason; the other part is that, finally, for the first time in recent years, a talented writer means what he says to be taken and used literally, like an Rx prescription. The literalness of Burroughs is the opposite of “literature.” Unsentimental and factual, he writes as though his thoughts had the quality of self-evidence. In short, he has a crankish courage, but all courage nowadays is probably crankish.

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