William S. Burroughs

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Burroughs, William S(eward) (Vol. 2)

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Burroughs, William S(eward) 1914–

An American experimental novelist, Burroughs is the author of Naked Lunch and The Ticket That Exploded. (See also Contemporary Authors, Vols. 9-12, rev. ed.)

When he digresses and is being funny—i. e., an entertainer—[William] Burroughs recalls not Swift or Joyce but another entertainer, Lenny Bruce, also a specialist in the comedy of free-associational vernacular outrage, also a pariah by choice of drugs and subject-matter. One difference between them is that Bruce didn't live long enough to settle into literary sainthood. Burroughs did, and, trusting his idolators, he has become progressively stuffier and more vatic since Naked Lunch …; till now, in The Ticket that Exploded, he scatters among his short-winded and repetitive fantasies a metaphysics, an eschatology, a theory of possession by demonic tape recorders, a theory of sexuality, an assault on advertising as a form of brainwashing, the usual quota of flashbulb-and-firecracker sodomies, and some suggestions for mind-changing party games. Everything but jokes. Burroughs is a footnote in the history of censorship.

Marvin Mudrick, in Hudson Review, Autumn, 1967, pp. 479-82.

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 (again) mosaics…. This must be the first space novel, the first serious piece of science fiction—the others are entertainment….

The best comparison for the book, with its aerial sex acts performed on a high trapeze, its con men and barkers, its arena-like form, is in fact with a circus. A circus travels but it is always the same, and this is Burroughs' sardonic image of modern life. The Barnum of the show is the mass-manipulator, who appears in a series of disguises. Control, as Burroughs says, underlining it, can never be a means to anything but more control—like drugs, and the vicious circle of addiction is re-enacted, worldwide, with sideshows in the political and "social" sphere—the "social" here has vanished, except in quotation marks, like the historical, for everything has become automatized. Everyone is an addict of one kind or another, as people indeed are wont to say of themselves, complacently: "I'm a crossword puzzle addict, a hi-fi addict," etc….

The phenomenon of repetition, of course, gives rise to boredom; 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 auto-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 a joyless addict….

[What] saves The Naked Lunch is not a literary ancestor [Swift] but humor. Burroughs' 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 of 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...

(This entire section contains 4317 words.)

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playing Seattle…. 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-sawed-in-two, the piano-player, the comedians, all pushing into the act….

The Naked Lunch contains messages that unluckily for the ordinary reader are somewhat arcane. Despite his irony, Burroughs is a prescriptive writer. He means what he says to be taken and used literally, like an Rx prescription. Unsentimental and factual, he writes as though his thoughts had the quality of self-evidence. In a special sense, The Naked Lunch is coterie literature. It was not intended, surely, for the general public, but for addicts and former addicts, with the object of imparting information. Like a classical satirist, Burroughs is dead serious—a reformer. Yet as often happened with the classical satirists, a wild hilarity and savage pessimism carry him beyond his therapeutic purpose and defeat it. The book is alive, like a basketful of crabs, and common sense cannot get hold of it to extract a moral….

Independence from the vile body and its "algebra of need," freedom of movement across national and psychic frontiers, efficiency of work and production, by means of short cuts, suppression of connectives, and other labor-saving devices, would be Uncle Bill Burroughs' patent for successful living. But if such a universal passkey can really be devised, what is its purpose? It cannot be enjoyment of the world, for this would only begin the addictive process all over again by creating dependency. Action, the reverse of enjoyment, has no appeal for the author of The Naked Lunch. What Burroughs wants is out, which explains the dry, crankish amusement given him by space, interplanetary distances, where, however, he finds the old mob still at work. In fact, his reasoning, like the form of his novel, is circular. Liberation leads to new forms of subjugation.

Mary McCarthy "Burroughs' Naked Lunch," in her The Writing on the Wall and Other Literary Essays (© 1963 by Mary McCarthy; excerpted from "Burroughs' Naked Lunch" in The Writing on the Wall and Other Literary Essays by Mary McCarthy by permission of Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, Inc.), Harcourt, 1970, pp. 42-53.

Burroughs' books come close to being "pornographic imprecations," hurled against … America …, and his attack is deep and complex. He writes of strange worlds, of people whose actions and feelings are disturbingly unfamiliar, sometimes frightening, sometimes disgusting….

[The "truth" that Burroughs presents in Naked Lunch] is an allegorical truth about the trapped junky, the prisoner of a system which obscenely feeds off of him. The junky is a victim, says Burroughs, and his life exemplifies the life of every individual caught in such a system, for "there are many forms of addiction and I think they all obey basic laws." The world of the addict, which Burroughs depicts, stands for the larger world. Both infect their citizens with a "Human Virus," a psychological sickness that destroys the human being, his spontaneous love, and his authentic impulses. The symptoms of this virus are "poverty, hatred, war, police-criminals, bureaucracy, insanity." The world in which these symptoms appear is one of hideous deformity and terrible perversions, where crabmen devour the translucent flesh of moldy old men, and giant black centipedes, metamorphosed from men, scuttle about in a landscape of Kafkaesque horror. If these are literally the content of a junky's hallucinations under drugs, they are also a way of representing the character of the nonhallucinatory world, for in that world men are, Burroughs suggests, no less helpless prisoners. They are like the constituents of a stone society compelled to follow rigidly laid down courses.

The allegorical connection between the drug world and that of a repressive society is subtle and sophisticated. The junky—analogous to a social conformist—is the prisoner of his habit. In Nova Express, the habit is represented as a "criminal" that takes up residence in a "host"—that is, a junky. The junky regulates this criminal through drugs—specifically morphine. Allegorically, morphine acts as a policeman that operates constantly to regulate the criminal. Burroughs calls this agency the "morphine police." They do not, of course, work to rid the host of his "criminal" habit. They are parasitic, purporting to deal with the criminal, but needing his presence for their own existence. They tend to perpetuate the habit. The junky collaborates in order to "protect the disease." But, as Burroughs says, he is "not in a position to act in any other way." This situation is largely the doing of the "Nova Mob," the symbol of a tyrannical society that flourishes on the destruction of its citizens' independence and integrity….

Burroughs does not claim that contemporary American society—as represented by the Nova Mob and its control of the junky-victim—has a monopoly on thought control and repression of individual spontaneity…. Drug addiction is both a literal example of human imprisonment and thought control and a figurative representation of similar forces at work in human society at large. It is both a means of control and the result of control. It operates to debase and deceive. Drug addiction, like the Nova Mob, makes promises that only corrupt and destroy….

Burroughs would break free to liberate human spontaneity, which stimulates growth and constitutes identity…. The literal antidote to literal morphine addiction is, writes Burroughs, apomorphine. This is a regulator, but unlike parasitic morphine, it is not habit-forming. Burroughs thus does not think of freedom as unregulated life, nor spontaneity as license. Apomorphine gets rid of the drug habit by establishing a new regulation of the metabolism, which is organic and independent. But once it establishes the new order, it leaves. It does not have to be continued. Allegorically, apomorphine is the Nova Police, who search out the criminals of habit in order to relieve the host of habit's "criminal" control. Having done so, the Nova Police disappear, having put the host back in possession of his authentic self, free to grow and develop. If the Nova Mob controls the "scanning pattern we accept as 'reality,'" the Nova Police seek to "occupy the Reality Studio and retake their universe of Fear Death and Monopoly." In turn, bureaus must be replaced by "co-operatives." Bureaus are "cancers," and like the "virus" of dope kill the host. The bureau cannot live without the state just as the morphine police cannot live without the criminal of habit. The co-operative cannot live with the state. It is a "building up of independent units to meet the needs of the people who participate in the functioning of the unit." Only those free of the destructive force of the totalitarian state—be it fascist or welfare—can operate as individuals and directly contribute to the functioning of their own society….

Northrop Frye defines satire as a genre which depicts reality as a demonic underworld, pervaded by executions and emasculations, in which man is a helpless victim of diabolical forces. Burroughs' work fits this description. The figure of Cain, of course, is not a helpless victim, but an infuriated rebel taking action—however futilely—against what he considers to be injustice. The Cain in Burroughs' novels is Burroughs himself. There is a rage in the way he presents his world that cannot easily be pacified, and that rage expressed in satire is a violent blow directed at the conditions he depicts. He taunts the perpetrators of those conditions with an exaggerated "truth" that has a close enough correspondence to the actual world for it to strike home with effect.

Jerry Bryant, in his The Open Decision (reprinted with permission of Macmillan Publishing Co., Inc. from The Open Decision by Jerry Bryant, © 1970 by The Free Press, a Division of Macmillan Publishing Co., Inc.), The Free Press, 1970, pp. 203-08.

William Burroughs [is a] devilish mimic [who] transposes a world ruled by entropy, waste, and disease into a film of metallic laughter. His cosmic drama, a science fiction, the nightmare of some infernal machine, requires apocalypse for a denouement. Burroughs is haunted by metaphors of "total control": police, junk, language. His resistance to language especially—"to speak is to lie"—leads him to the "cut up method" of Brion Gysin and the "fold out method" of his own devising: neo-Dada compositions of random verbal collages….

Obscene idealist, satiric and visionary, lacing scientific jargon with poetic hallucinations, William Burroughs finally denies not only the Word but also the Flesh. His true aim is to free man by making him bodiless and silencing his language.

Ihab Hassan, in his The Dismemberment of Orpheus (© 1971 by Ihab Hassan; reprinted by permission of Oxford University Press, Inc.), Oxford University Press, 1971, pp. 249-50.

Burroughs has, principally, two claims on the attention of serious readers: as a moralist, and as an innovator. On both counts, it seems to me, he cannot be considered as more than a minor, eccentric figure. Undoubtedly he has a certain literary talent, particularly for comedy and the grotesque, but in both precept and practice he is deeply confused and ultimately unsatisfying….

To begin with, there is a deep confusion, not only in Burroughs but in his admirers too, on the subject of narcotics. Much of Burroughs's notoriety derives from the fact that he is a morphine addict, who has been cured, but who still writes very much out of the experience of addiction. He tells us in the Introduction to The Naked Lunch that it is based on notes taken during the sickness and delirium of addiction. He is our modern De Quincey; and undoubtedly this accounts for his adoption by the hipster wing of the American literary scene….

Nova Express itself is a much more 'responsible' book, much more consistent with the avowed moral intentions of its author—and also much more boring. I find Burroughs more impressive (if no more congenial) as a nihilist than as a moralist, and the sick fantasies of the junkie more interesting than the portentous salvationism of the reclaimed addict. While it is good to know that Mr. Burroughs has been cured of addiction, his attempt to load this private experience with universal significance, equating morphine with evil and apomorphine with redemption, becomes tiresome. But what most makes for boredom in this novel is its technical experiment.

David Lodge, "Objections to William Burroughs," in his The Novelist at the Crossroads and Other Essays on Fiction and Criticism (reprinted from David Lodge: The Novelist at the Crossroads and Other Essays on Fiction and Criticism; © David Lodge 1971; used by permission of Cornell University Press), Cornell University Press, 1971, pp. 161-71.

William Burroughs, too often seen as a peripheral figure mongering his own obscene nightmares and eccentric experiments, in a profound way is an important writer, concerning himself precisely with many of those themes and problems which are central to recent American fiction. As he himself recognized in an interview, he has been creating a mythology appropriate to the new age and environment which has been brought about by modern inventions….

Starting from his own experiences with drug addiction—in which one is 'fixed' by an alien power which enters and takes over one's autonomous consciousness—Burroughs has developed a whole mythology dramatizing all those malign pressures which seem bent on absorbing or exploiting the unique identity of the distinctively human individual. And instead of drawing on classical references, he has availed himself … of modern American materials and forms: films, cartoon-strips, science-fiction, fragmented and permeated by a 'carny world … a kind of midwestern, small-town, cracker-barrel, pratfall type of folklore, very much my own background'. Out of such home-products he has produced a unique version of that cycle of conditioned action which is the American hero's hell, and although his later books do suggest ways in which those enemy hands might be evaded or resisted, we may note from the beginning his insight that any freedom which may be achieved will be 'inner'.

Burroughs is an addict turned diagnostician, a victim of sickness now devoted to the analysis of diseases. That is why so many of his scenes revolve around doctors, surgeons, hospitals, sanitoriums, etc.; an image near the heart of his work is an operating-table from which the patient may perhaps one day escape. There is no question that he is concerned to issue warnings and explore the possibilities of healing, and so far from being a sensationalist writer, despite the nauseating nature of many of his scenes, he is one of the coolest, most cerebral and analytic of American writers. Eventually his scenes are not visual, and one finds oneself in a realm of abstraction close to that thin air to which he directs his readers, far removed from the terminal sewer where he is commonly supposed to have taken up permanent residence….

Naked Lunch (1959) is a book with no narrative continuity, and no sustained point of view; the separate episodes are not interrelated, they co-exist in a particular field of force brought together by the mind of Burroughs which then abandons them. Slapstick scenes from some dark carnival and what could be frames from a strip-cartoon alternate with passages of cool scientific analysis; horrific images of material vileness are distanced by their proximity to discursive and abstract explanations. Burroughs describes his book as a blueprint which ranges from insects to planetary landscapes, from abstractions to turds, and this suggests the sort of expansions and contractions of episode which in this book replace linear narrative. And the episodes themselves are experienced as a distribution of fragments rather than as internally organized structures: the most common form of punctuation is simply a row of dots separating image from image, voice from voice, and the book gives us a world beneath or beyond syntax and all that that implies. Burroughs says that his book shows 'How-To-extend levels of experience by opening the door at the end of a long hall … Doors that only open in Silence' and that door, among other things, is the barrier of conventional language.

The title, says Burroughs, means just what the words say—'a frozen moment when everyone sees what is on the end of every fork'. To produce such frozen moments is the intention, and indeed the achievement, of the book….

Early in the book Burroughs describes how junk is surrounded by magic and taboos, and he refers elsewhere to the feeling of the yage-taking Indians that their own self-destructive tendencies are due to 'the manipulation of alien and hostile wills'. One can well imagine that to live in the world of junk is to feel oneself surrounded by powers to whom one is in a state of thraldom and powerless subservience (e.g. the pushers), or of whose punitive powers one is afraid (e.g. the police). And as we have said, to take a drug is to cede your consciousness to something which comes in from the outside and mysteriously takes you over. It seems that the experienced addict may well come to be very superstitious, and share that primitive feeling that he is being manipulated by 'alien and hostile wills'. This may be called demonology, and however much he shares it Burroughs certainly makes use of this demonology in writing his books. For although he uses the phrase 'self-destructive trends', in his visionary world the virus comes from without, not within. People do not destroy themselves; they are taken over. There is no psychology; the evil is external—waiting in the land….

If Burroughs started his writing out of a sense of the danger of man's vulnerability to literal drug-addiction, the emphasis soon shifted to a stress on the danger of man's vulnerability to word-addiction. Agents, alien microphones, the pervasive presence of codes, not connected with a specific plot-line but sensed as being an ever-present part of the surrounding atmosphere: such phenomena recur increasingly in Burroughs's work, with the added confusion that it is seldom possible to identify the Senders and what they are sending. There is more of a general feeling of the possibility of consciousness being clogged with conspiracies which enter while the victim is unaware…. As a response to this situation there are three possibilities: a writer may try to jam or foil the codes; he may try to crack them; and he may try to put himself in a position where no codes can reach him—beyond language and into the silence on the far side of the world's mirror. I think we can see Burroughs trying something of all three in his ensuing work which shows a resistance to all forms of entrapment within word-systems. It may be said to share the aim that Wittgenstein outlined for philosophy (Wittgenstein is mentioned by Burroughs in the Introduction)—'To show the fly the way out of the fly-bottle'….

Around the time of completing Naked Lunch for publication, Burroughs was introduced to the idea of collages and cut-ups by his friend Brion Gysin, and together they prepared a small book called The Exterminator (1960). Some of the bits that Burroughs put together in this book afford clear hints of his subsequent stylistic experiments. He makes direct statements, and then he cuts them and rearranges them; this has two effects—one is to turn language into nonsense, the other is to make stable units of language yield new meanings, not as propositions exactly, but as suggestive word groups. The main point is to cut the Word Lines which predetermine your response to reality…. Anything can be cut up—newspapers or great literature. This stress on cutting up existing word-patterns has an added meaning from the biological metaphor of the genetic language of life. For Burroughs, the body, like the City, is built of four-letter words; the codes at work around us are related to the genetic code which determines our life….

It is true that T. S. Eliot and Pound also used to juxtapose fragments from past literatures with their own words, but the effect was calculated and planned: it was a way of bringing past imaginations into dynamic proximity with present realities. But in Burroughs these fragments are not really clearly juxtaposed, they are scrambled. As he honestly admits, his predecessors are really Tristan Tzara and the Surrealists, whose play with arbitrary sequences of words was more clearly anarchic….

Burroughs's ideas are serious and interesting, and on the basis of the long interview in Paris Review (Fall 1965) one can see that he is one of the most intelligent and articulate writers in America today. And his experiments do produce some distinctive effects. Many passages in his books can catch something of the atmosphere of dreams in which vivid fragments of hallucinatory vividness rise and fade in utter silence, leaving one with the curiously abstract experience of witnessing concretions which do not impinge. Echoes, portents, disturbing details, flicker out at us, not as parts of legible propositions but as parts of a drifting turbulence with intensities and intermittences beyond the grasp of syntax. In real dreams, however, one is completely at the mercy of the images which stream out of the unconscious and, since dreaming tends to perpetual dissolution, if one could achieve the state of living among realities as one lives among dream images one might well find oneself in the thrall of a formless terror. If one had, to take a wild hypothesis, a world in which writing was given over entirely to cut-ups, the 'cure' might prove to be worse than the disease. As a limited strategy for disturbing our complacent patternings of reality it can be effective and, given a bit of contrivance, it can produce wonderful incongruities which vividly reveal the endless ability of language to proliferate new formulations and orderings. This in turn can have the entirely salutary effect of reminding the reader how arbitrary any verbal model is. But to what extent it can secure genuinely new ways of 'reading' reality I am not sure….

Where Burroughs achieves some of his most striking effects is in the merging of biology and contemporary communication media, just as he merges science and science-fiction, nightmare and comic-strip, carnival, satire and sexual aberration. Word and image can penetrate us like a virus because, to take another of the cryptic lines from The Exterminator, 'Only Live Animals have Write Door,' and just as the virus literally empties the body and fills it with its own replicas, so word and image eat out consciousness, replacing mind with junk. In this book Burroughs has developed his use of metaphors drawn from film to amplify his vision.

Tony Tanner, "Rub Out the Word," in his City of Words: American Fiction 1950–1970 (copyright © 1971 by Tony Tanner; reprinted by permission of Harper & Row, Publishers, Inc.), Harper, 1971, pp. 109-40.

Upon publication of Naked Lunch some years ago, Burroughs was hailed as a genius and compared to Dante, Rabelais, Sterne, Swift, DeQuincey, Celine, Knut Hamsun and God knows who else. But where were his admirers when Grove Press issued his less "accessible" novels, Nova Express, The Soft Machine, The Ticket That Exploded? In these witless, tedious novels about the "Nova Mob" (supposedly), Burroughs utilized cut-ups (cutting up a page of prose and rearranging the pieces) and tape-splicing techniques (cutting up a recorded tape and randomly splicing the pieces together) to help him produce unusual, striking effects…. Did Burroughs's admirers perhaps feel that these methods had more to do with arts and crafts and Popular Electronics than with art? Had they been a bit hasty in their praise? Certainly at this point in time even the "masterpiece," Naked Lunch, looks like a pretty mild and shabby affair. With our more liberal obscenity and pornography laws and with the wave of "anything goes" films, the book no longer possesses much shock value….

I suspect that few of the long-submerged admirers will surface to support Burroughs's latest effort, The Wild Boys…. Again Burroughs is allegedly recording his vision of the future, but again that vision is so abstract, so fractured that the reader has no idea where he is or why. Since almost everything in the book is fuzzy, Burroughs can toss in almost any obscure image and reference. He acts as a literary junk collector….

The Wild Boys is dim-witted, undisciplined, incoherent, self-indulgent, dull and totally pointless. In short, trash. If any Burroughs must be remembered in our literature, I'd rather it be Edgar Rice.

Ronald De Feo, in Modern Occasions, Winter, 1972, pp. 150-53.


Burroughs, William S(eward) (Vol. 15)


Burroughs, William S(eward) (Vol. 22)