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


(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

William S(eward) Burroughs 1914–

American novelist.

Burroughs is best known for his controversial Naked Lunch, which was based in large part on the author's years as a drug addict. To achieve a surreal, hallucinatory effect, Burroughs experiments with techniques such as "folding-in" or "cutting-up" in which his own writing or the works of other authors are reorganized so that words and events occur in random sequence.

(See also CLC, Vols. 1, 2, 5, 15, Contemporary Authors, Vols. 9-12, rev. ed., and Dictionary of Literary Biography, Vol. 2: American Novelists since World War II; Vol. 8: Twentieth Century American Science Fiction Writers.)

Alvin J. Seltzer

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Burroughs' novels are so chaotic that life itself seems calm and ordered by comparison. Structure and plot simply do not exist; characters are flat, interchangeable, and strangely unimportant; the narrative thrashes about with no apparent direction or coherence, and words scatter like so many jig-saw-puzzle pieces thrown into the air. Each book is a montage of startling images, fragmented episodes, scraps of dialogue, patches of exposition, and cultural echoes ranging from Renaissance drama to modern poetry, from Christian and Eastern myth to Madison Avenue jargon. The language itself is a pastiche from the media of journalism, film, literature, Holy Scriptures, textbooks. Burroughs seems to have cast the novel out like a net to catch whatever debris it can drag in from the outside world, and the result is a circus of confusion: laughs, thrills, horrors—you name it, it's all there. Images zoom by, explode, writhe, choke, puke themselves up into new combinations. Subtle satire merges with outrageous burlesque; low comedy mixes with the most sordid reality; the worlds of business, science, and entertainment become indistinguishable. Everything gushes together in a dizzying experience that revolts, amuses, shocks, and confuses the disoriented reader. Even familiar images, adjectives, styles, and references cannot be worked with in a conventional manner, since the random juxtaposition which places them in strange contexts somehow distorts their reality into a grotesque reflection of the sort that greets us in fun-house mirrors, nightmares, and drug fantasies. The reader, in short, can never feel comfortable, and his insecurity works for the author, who forces him into a position of openness to new ways of viewing which lead to experiencing new layers of feeling. (p. 339)

[Burroughs] forces his novels to spill out of any frames—even their own—which might confine them to a single system. Material from one novel is likely to appear intact in another novel—and such material ranges from phrases to whole chapters. Interestingly enough, though, the novels do seem to vary in quality and impact, and this suggests that an examination of Burroughs' four most important novels may help to determine where and why his techniques are most successful. While some of his effects seem to enlarge the novel's capacity to communicate multilevel experience, others seem only to bore and desensitize the reader, thus closing off more possibilities than are opened. By allowing himself maximum freedom, Burroughs opens the doors to chaos so widely that he invites at the same time admiration for artistic courage and condemnation for artistic irresponsibility. (pp. 339-40)

[In Naked Lunch] all structure is discarded: one can pick up the novel and start his reading anywhere, then go forward, backward or jump around at will—it makes no difference where you get on or where you get off…. [The book] offers free license to the imagination. It is not a question of stopping when one has made his point, for there is really no point to be made; the novel is set up to break down any rational approach to it, any logical system which attempts to reduce a multilevel experience directed toward our central nervous systems … to a one-dimensional experience aimed at the intellect. There is no logical beginning or end to a book drifting in chaos. (p. 341)

Like any prescription for mysticism, however, what provides the source of revelation for one man may remain sheer nonsense to another. Random techniques such as the cutup can sometimes provide astonishing effects, and occasionally even produce a revelation. That in itself, though, is really no more than what poets have been doing for quite some time…. By leaving the context to chance, however, Burroughs hopes to surprise himself as well as the reader, for he is seeking to break through traditional modes of perception. From his interviews, we can assume that he has included within the novels themselves only those experiments which he felt to be successful…. But all these experiments have in my own experience provided interest and amusement only at isolated moments amid long stretches of boredom. Although I think Naked Lunch does sustain interest through most of its parts, the obvious danger for Burroughs is the tendency of random techniques to sacrifice cumulative effect for the impact of an instant. (pp. 343-44)

[Burroughs does have a vision] to impose on his material, even though he has denied it. And the subtlety of his method here can hardly be a result of accidental juxtaposition…. What seemed at first a series of incoherent, unrelated, and chaotic passages turns out to be a highly unified sequence, projecting different facets and manifestations of the same idea. In this way, the writer throws his thoughts to us on many levels at once, thereby breaking through the usual one-dimensional response of our intellects. The mental idea is embodied emotionally … so that it will jar us not just in our minds, but deep down in our central nervous system as well. One may of course argue that great art has always done this—and that is true—but to do Burroughs justice, he would probably say that modern life has dulled us emotionally to the point where very few traditional artistic experiences can have much impact. Shock treatments are necessary to awaken us from our numbed existences, and the deeper the shock penetrates, the more of ourselves will spring back to responsive life.

In Miracle of the Rose, Genet uses prison life as a powerful metaphor for an existence of pure despair, and Burroughs sees the life of a junky as a suitable metaphor for a political system that dominates and degrades the individual. Again, while sex and sordidness are used to communicate vision, they are not themselves the real subject of either novel. Naked Lunch is no more an exposé of the junkies' world than Miracle of the Rose is an exposé of criminal or prison life. It is, rather, an exposé of all modern life, but patterned on the junk scene as a recurring image of such devastating emotional impact that the reader will be repulsed by what is ultimately his own "normal" life. Abstractions will not work: we need to be shocked into awareness of what our own lives in this society have become, and Burroughs has found the metaphor to break through our apathy.

Like Genet, Burroughs also uses his world (that of the addict) as a metaphor for Hell, the lowest level of human abjection and degradation…. The junky's life is painful, unproductive, uneventful; yet even the horror of it is lost on the victim himself, who is oblivious of his surroundings and conscious of nothing but his physical need to ease the pàin of his body. As his mind decays and his body rots, the junky becomes so much carrion to be devoured by the buzzards streaming out of the sewers of the contaminated city. (pp. 347-48)

Burroughs has said that his fiction is deliberately addressed to the area of dreams, and this is no doubt why surrealistic effects run rampant throughout the book. In almost every case that I can think of, the surrealistic detail adds horror and hideousness to what is already seamy material; as a result, our repugnance is heightened to such an extreme that we either recoil or laugh. In short, we are forced to react, and strongly, to release the emotion created by intense shock…. The alert reader of Naked Lunch is indeed treated to a surrealistic feast, but the effect is rather like that of Thyestes' learning of the contents of his meal. Our gorges rise right along with our intellects and emotions.

At other times, however, the distasteful description evokes laughter rather than revulsion, probably because the exaggeration of reality is so incredible that we simply cannot take it seriously enough to feel threatened by it. The talking asshole is a case in point, but the book abounds with great comic passages based on the same kind of shock effect that typified the repugnant ones. The difference between black horror and black humor is difficult to pin down, but some of the funniest episodes here involve an uncharacteristically bland acceptance of the most outrageous and chaotic situations. (pp. 349-51)

[We] may hate ourselves for laughing, because the events here are completely degrading and inconsistent with any notion we may have of the dignity of human life. But the validity of the satire finally does justify Burroughs' savage treatment of the human species. Like Swift's, his contempt results from idealism, and finds expression in the most debased aspects of life…. Death, disease, blood, shit, urine, and the like lurk on every page of Naked Lunch because they are finally what matter most in the process of living and dying. (p. 352)

[What] does the reader experience through Naked Lunch? Above all, a dizzying trip through time and space in the form of random images and episodes which explode all around him, juxtaposing in new combinations aspects of his life and society that he must see as intolerable. In the guise of a gigantic carnival, modern civilization is out on display, and Burroughs takes us on all the rides: the spiritual dimension of modern life is so much hocus-pocus; political systems are all parasitic, inefficient, and inhumane; social and personal relationships are sadistic, manipulative, and exploitive. In each case, Burroughs uses...

(The entire section is 3870 words.)

R.H.W. Dillard

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

[Junky] has its historical value, for it was one of the very first books to crack the veneer of the Eisenhower era, to reveal its schizoid nature, that empty smile glowing at the top and the nightmare working its way up through the back alleys. And it has its literary value, too. In some ways its detachment, its amoral cool, its clear hard prose give its nightmare vision a force that even Burroughs' later experimental explosions and naked lunches cannot match. Lee's search for "the uncut kick that opens out instead of narrowing down like junk" is still going on, and this bleak book remains a major navigational aid. (p. 16)

R.H.W. Dillard, "Books in Brief: 'Junky'," in The Hollins Critic (copyright 1977 by Hollins College), Vol. XIV, No. 2, April, 1977, pp. 15-16.

John Updike

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

William S. Burroughs, if not unambiguously of the Devil's party, is the author of the most sinister American novel, "Naked Lunch," to attain the status of a classic. Nor have his books, since he published in 1959 those "detailed notes on sickness and delirium" (his description), become less sinister, or more coherent. "Port of Saints" is gamely described by its jacket copy as "the mind-boggling story of a man whose alternate selves take him on a fantastic journey through space, time, and sexuality." We are further told that the volume was written, or assembled, or whatever it is that Burroughs does with scissors and eggbeater to concoct his books, before the author's return to the United States in 1973. So we have...

(The entire section is 792 words.)

Thomas M. Disch

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

"Cities of the Red Night" is a book of limited but, for its own happy few, intense appeal. Opium addicts who are sexually aroused by witnessing and/or enacting garrotings and hangings will find "Cities" a veritable gallows of delight…. Guided by Ix Tab, a jealous goddess, Mr. Burroughs has eliminated from his book everything incidental to the central task of spinning and respinning the same yarn—characterization, wit, stylistic graces, anything that might detract from the erotic fascination of death by hanging. Even the romance of heroin addiction, which offered an alternative Universal Metaphor to interpreters of "Naked Lunch," has dwindled to a few rather pro forma evocations of his new drug of...

(The entire section is 464 words.)

James Campbell

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

One of William Burroughs's many gifts is to employ the methods of caricature by exaggerating essential traits, and yet to avoid a two-dimensional effect. Readers who previously have been scared off only by Burroughs's experiments with language, scissors and paste, have nothing to fear from Cities of the Red Night, which is written entirely in straight-forward English, much of it the spare, Hammett-like prose of Junky and parts of Naked Lunch…. [In] the last few years Burroughs has repeated himself with increasing tedium, altering only the intensity of his apocalyptic fantasies and his sci-fi porn: almost everything now contains references to Mayan codices and page after page of boys with sudden erections which other boys put to instant use.

The plot of Cities of the Red Night takes place in two time dimensions, the 18th century and the present, which occasionally overlap so that characters from one turn up in the other in vaguely disguised form. The 18th-century parts are set mostly aboard ship and later, after the ship is taken over by pirates, on an island…. The modern equivalent is the commune, the only refuge from the forces of Control which are represented by all government agencies and bureaucracies. (pp. 19-20)

The endless parade of boys with parted buttocks, the hangings with concomitant ejaculations, the erotic qualities of guns, the Countess de Gulpa who reanimates headless men and gives them to friends as love slaves (they are fed through the rectum), are only some of Burroughs's inventions, and it is sometimes difficult to tell whether he sees them as partaking of the miracle or the disaster. Throughout, no mention is made of anything recognisable as emanating from the human heart; no doubt Burroughs would claim that Control holds no place for that, but there is a point beyond which the mimetic artist may enter into collusion with the forces he claims to oppose. (p. 20)

James Campbell, "Almost Caricature," in New Statesman (© 1981 The Statesman & Nation Publishing Co. Ltd.), Vol. 101, No. 2610, March 27, 1981, pp. 19-20.∗


(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Port of Saints is a bizarre trip through the murky depths of a man's psyche, a search for identity that seems a distorted cross between James Joyce and Henry Miller. A tour de force of sharply etched scenes, partly autobiographical, it is designed to show the wasteland of modern life perfectly reflected in the wasteland of a developing consciousness.

The major flaw in the novel is the lack of correspondence between that mirrored world and the one that most men see. The developing psyche is not everyman's; it is the nearly psychotic mind of a sadomasochist homosexual. Only an acceptance of this world view as meaningful can save Port of Saints from being dismissed as decidedly minor. But is this a vision that many can share?… This is not great literature; it isn't even very good. Burroughs is one more modern author, in a growing list, who has significant writing skill, but whose vision of the human condition is so distorted, so depraved, that even the occasional correspondences with reality of the second-rate author are mostly missing from his work. The piercing epiphanies of the great writer are lacking completely.

M. J. LaHood, "English: 'Port of Saints'," in World Literature Today (copyright 1981 by the University of Oklahoma Press), Vol. 55, No. 2, Spring, 1981, p. 326.

Paul Ableman

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Twenty years ago, William Burroughs published the most brilliant satire in English since Gulliver's Travels. The Naked Lunch, indeed, has many points of similarity with Swift's masterpiece: a mocking contempt for power and its wielders, a shrinking disgust from the flesh (in both cases resulting in some of the most revolting scatalogical passages ever printed), a vision of mankind as almost irredeemably base, a keen eye for moral soft spots in the prevailing culture, a hatred of jargon and pomposity, a profound comic sense, a fierce indignation about privilege and, far from least, a tough, flexible prose style.

The chief difference was that Burroughs provided no Gulliver, no voyager of...

(The entire section is 553 words.)

Robert Taubman

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

It's hard to imagine what once seemed so liberating about The Naked Lunch, a famous cult novel of the Beat generation. A not unsympathetic critic, Leslie Fiedler, found much of it 'dull protest literature, manifestoes against cops and in favour of junkies and homosexuals'—which is not sympathetic, but not right either. I can't call to mind anything less 'in favour of' drugs or homosexuals. Burroughs was being honest about his own opium addiction, which he saw as dependence and subjection, and thus as one of the representative horrors of civilisation. But neither was it an effective 'protest' novel. The mayhem he depicted, whether caused by cops or other 'control systems' in society or in the mind or body or...

(The entire section is 467 words.)

John Tytell

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

I would like to be able to say that Cities Of The Red Night is William Burroughs' most successful fiction since Naked Lunch, that it pushes beyond the kaleidoscopic kineticism of that telegraphic masterpiece to discover some terrible beauty powerful enough to shock us out of our complacency as the planet is poisoned. Although the book is full if its stunning surprises, they may shock only the uninitiated.

Burroughs has by now been transcribing his renegade vision of apocalypse and plague for over three decades. He sees the end of possibility in America as one karmic consequence of western imperialism, and takes as a symptom of our diseased state the internal cancer of bureaucratic...

(The entire section is 477 words.)