Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 712
One of the most unsettling and controversial aspects of Naked Lunch is Burroughs's insistence that the condition of existence he evokes is not just an easily dismissable, thoroughly exaggerated version of an uncommon life pattern exhibited by beatniks, drug fiends, and other counterculture freaks, but a continuous revelation of some...
(The entire section contains 712 words.)
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One of the most unsettling and controversial aspects of Naked Lunch is Burroughs's insistence that the condition of existence he evokes is not just an easily dismissable, thoroughly exaggerated version of an uncommon life pattern exhibited by beatniks, drug fiends, and other counterculture freaks, but a continuous revelation of some fundamental facts of basic human psychology. The narrator, who disarmingly introduces himself in the introduction as "Old Uncle Bill Burroughs," is now fully recovered (he claims) from an addiction to heroin (among other things), and is prepared to offer the reader a sort of retrospective tour of an addict's life. While the invitation to explore territory normally forbidden to respectable citizens has some of the appeal of the trip through dangerous but exciting outlaw precincts, as Burroughs develops the situation, he gradually makes progressively clear that what he is actually offering is an excursion into a dark part of the human psyche that the reader ignores at his own peril. Beyond this, the territory he proposes to investigate is his own subconscious mind — the place where the extraordinary images and language displays of his writing have their origins.
The interlinkage of Burroughs's mental cosmos and the world in which tyrannical forces of control exercise power for purely destructive purposes is a part of the postmodern thrust of his work, offering an intriguing vision of the process of shaping the material from which narrative forms while the narration is unfolding. Since the author is so closely intertwined with the text, his ex-addict's preoccupation with his own physical responses is a paramount feature of the narrative flow, and Burroughs draws on it heavily as an important subsidiary theme — the refusal to recognize the body and its demands as crucial to all human activity is an important element in the matrix of denial and suppression that is part of the larger picture of distortion Burroughs presents in Naked Lunch. The wild, surreal, absurdist realm of the novel is built on a hyperbolic presentation of various, often very coarsely described, scenes of physical extravagance and over indulgence in accordance with the principle — as Jennie Skerl, one of Burroughs's most illuminating critics has observed — that addiction is an operative metaphor for the human condition. Thus, the manner in which the "characters" in the novel are compelled to satisfy their addictive cravings functions as a demonstration of how people are manipulated or controlled by outside forces that can produce manifestations of revolting, disgusting, and perhaps perversely fascinating behavior. In another, more subtle expression of this theme, the curiosity about this kind of behavior that the narrative touches on is an example of how language itself becomes an addictive agent, since the same attraction/repulsion principle may apply to descriptions of actions that a reader might prefer not to see but which carry a powerful temptation to continue reading. The eminent critic George Steiner complained about Burroughs's explicit writing, "In the name of privacy, enough!" but Burroughs rejoined "In whose name . . .?" implying that secrecy is fundamental to the powers of control, and that to examine what has been decreed taboo is essential to preserving freedom.
Although Burroughs does not endorse, nor necessarily condemn the outrageous behavior he is documenting, the world of the underground drop-out or rebel is set against his often lacerating depictions of conventional society as an alternative derived from what Burroughs calls "The Algebra of Need." This phrase refers to the failure of contemporary social systems to satisfy basic human requirements, but is also a play on the root of the Arabic Al Jebr, which refers to a reunion, or re-integration of broken parts — that is, the fragments of the human psyche. The phrase "Wouldn't You" which occurs both at the beginning and in the "Atrophied Preface" which forms the conclusion of the novel is a refrain of collusion, undercutting the pious protestations (like Steiner's) that the subjects Burroughs approaches are not significant or universal. The instinctive search for a mind-transporting substance, while acknowledged as dangerous, is offered as definitively human to some degree, while the characters that populate the "carny world" of many of the episodes in Naked Lunch are expressions of tendencies in American social and cultural life that are more realistic than the sanitized figures of many so-called mainstream novels of the time.