Wednesday, December 17, 2014

Eating Naked Lunch

By: Michael Scott Monje, Jr.

(Editorial Note: This was originally going to be the script for the first episode of a podcast called "Cognitive Access". Due to other professional demands, Michael will not be able to pursue that project in the short-term, so NeuroQueer is publishing the script as an essay.)

Before we start, I want to just say that the reason I chose this book is because it was so influential to me during the years immediately preceding the publication of my first novel. There are a lot of things that this book could be said to be about, but one thing that Burroughs makes sure we never lose sight of is that this book is about observation. It's also about degradation, control, compulsion, addiction, abuse, colonialism, sadism, sexual diversity, and a lot of other topics, but Burroughs makes sure that we know what he wants us to do with the book in the Atrophied Preface, when he says: “Naked Lunch demands silence from the reader. Otherwise he is taking his own pulse.”

This quote comes at the end of a couple of paragraphs that also tell us that Burroughs viewed this book as “a blueprint, a How-To Book...” and that also say “How-To extend levels of experience by opening the door at the end of a long hall... Doors that open only in Silence.”

Coming as the Atrophied Preface does at the end of the book, this is highly instructive, because it serves as a way to tie together the various plot lines in the book that might otherwise seem to be unrelated to each other. We are told here that they are steps in a process, that's what it means to say one is writing a “how-to” book after all. The command to silence is also important—it tells us that this book was not designed to be a back-and-forth conversation with the reader in the same ways that other books often are. Instead, it is something to be observed, something that the reader might be able to construct meaning from in recollection, but that demands attention and silence during its exhibition.

This is not necessarily an unfamiliar critical demand, it's just uncommon for writers to take it. Silent observation, meditation with the piece, and a mind-clearing attempt at observation that takes in its parts and then assembles them into a whole is actually fairly common when we are appreciating visual art. That is why art museums and galleries have headphones for their talking tours. It's why they have benches in front of the pieces, too.

Naked Lunch is not a novel. It's an art gallery inside a book cover. In many of the various introductions and outtakes at the end of the 50th anniversary edition of the book Burroughs hints at this, and in some of the editorial material here we learn that the book's title itself came from an intensely visual concept that Jack Kerouac first described when reading early pages of the manuscript—according to the received wisdom in the back of the text, Kerouac chose that title because it invoked the idea of a moment of frozen time, an absolute clear moment when point of view drops away and the contents of everyone's meal is suddenly visible, glistening, at the end of their forks.

This imagery is important not only because it helps to support the idea that the text is about creating imagery and composing with the elements of visual art, but also because it helps to clarify the philosophical ideas behind many of the more blatant, vulgar, and downright ugly sections of the text. If the goal is to drop away the pretense of “the meal” and to instead show the dripping gore that is about to be shoveled from the end of a weapon into a mammal's gaping maw, then we should not expect that Naked Lunch follows the same social niceties as a... shall we say narratively clothed lunch. Or a breakfast. Say, at Tiffany's.

Still, the comparison is worth making, if only to point out that the book itself, in its rejection of those euphemisms and common narratives that are usually deployed around madness, addiction, sexual diversity, and authoritarianism, is the opposite of what literature usually purports to be. It is not attempting to tell us the story of anything, nor is it attempting to make us capable of empathizing with a point-of-view that is unfamiliar. It's not about creating an understanding of a time and a place and the people who live there.

What it is, is a series of studies in the same emotional landscape, and that landscape is compulsion. Whether it is the compulsion of addiction, where the mind and body both become dependent for their basic metabolism on a substance or the compulsion of authoritarianism, where the policies and programs of those in power are threatened by those with needs that their programs can not meet, we are shown how these compulsions work.

I'm not using compulsion in a purely psychological sense, either, but as in its most basic form as an irresistible impulse.

In the end, this is the only way Naked Lunch has power. If we assumed that the kind of compulsion being described here was purely pathological, then the Benway mindset, the idea that we could tame it and use it through some program of depersonalization and reprogramming, would be the “protagonist” mindset for the book. Instead, Benway is shown to be every bit as corrupt, cruel, and unconcerned with the pain he causes as the sexually sadistic couple whose entire relationship is based on killing the third person in their bisexual trysts.

Instead, Naked Lunch is a study in the ways that power dynamics create irresistible impulses that people follow, regardless of their assumed level of sanity or authority, and how those power dynamics create human suffering. From the junkie whose body is slowly decaying into a mass of dying and/or dead fluids, slowly losing cohesion through neglect and secondary infection, to the intentional provocation of madness as a stage in studying the drugs used to control it, the book introduces us to case study after case study in suffering. They are unrelated as elements of story, but they are as related to each other as any two paintings in a themed gallery exhibition, and if that attitude is brought to bear on them, then they immediately become clear in their juxtaposition against the more plainspoken essays used to introduce and close the book and in their juxtaposition against each other.

I'm not saying that the book isn't difficult. It is an intensely difficult book. What I am saying is that the points of intersection work as alternative starting points to the book in the same way that one might experience a wing of an art museum according to any pattern of observation that one wishes. There might be a suggested path, but in the end the exhibits are in a hall, and the observer is invited to choose their own path through that hall. Deviating from the suggested pattern might create new meanings in the relationship between exhibitions in the observer's mind, but this does not mean that those new meanings are unanticipated by the artist. It was, after all, the artist who designed the layout of the exhibitions in the hall in the first place, and that artist made clear the intent to accommodate various approaches to the text.

This flexibility in the text creates an interesting side-effect too: By making it possible to adapt the book to one's own cognitive process or style, Burroughs winds up designing a book that balks against the linear expectations of most other books. In its documentation of the ways that rules and normative expectations can be used as weapons, it does not settle for confinement to the expectations of the medium it is working in.

In between this queering of the expectations of the novel and the queering of the general expectations of the physical artifacts of books themselves, the reader is repeatedly invited to maintain their silence, in order to contemplate what these things mean. And in that tradition, I will do no more than point these things out, to ensure that future readers take the time to observe them. My goal as an essayist is, after all, about making texts accessible, not dictating their meaning.

Returning to the idea of the “How-To Book”, though, we do have to ask ourselves: What is this a “blueprint” for? If the goal is to force us outside of the confinement of a point-of-view and to render, naked, the pure sensory detail of the moment, then from whence does our interpretation come? The very concept of the frozen moment wherein the full detail of the world can be perceived in all of its abject intensity seems to demand the lack of a point-of-view. It is intellectually dishonest, though, for us to pretend that this is truly possible.

Its one instruction, the core element that makes the relationship between vignettes tangible to the reader, is the appreciation not of the text, but of the nonverbal, subtextual relationships between the texts. The only way that this becomes visible is through a nonverbal mental process, the process of simply observing, without comment, and allowing the text to permeate your sense of yourself.

Naked Lunch is an exercise in the loosening of control, and it must be so, because (as it makes clear in various sections throughout the book) the fixation on maintaining control, on having an objective other than to perceive things as they are, creates an agenda for the reading that necessarily leads the reader to accept some aspects of the text while ignoring others. It is impossible to read any book from a particular critical point-of-view and not to do these things, but Naked Lunch demands that we not do them.


I can only speak for myself, but to me, the point of this book was to call our attention to the fact that the true meanings of books are not in their texts, but in their relationship to the culture they emerged from. Like paintings. Like sculptures.

If Naked Lunch taught me anything, it taught me that to write literature, that is, to write work which not only tells stories but which is also a case study in the cultural forces of its time, requires a loosening of agendas and points of view. In order to properly render the full context of the societies we react to, writers must necessarily lay aside their own roles in that society and advocate for each character on their own, with the idea that all the other characters are allies or enemies, but that they are not necessarily pulling toward the same goal.

Only by loosening the bounds of the individual point-of-view and seeing each moment as it actually is, without the context of an objective, can the writer achieve the objective of rendering something in a multi-dimensional way. To me, that is the point of the book and that is also the point where it is easy to get lost in the book.

It would be easy to view this lesson as being a statement against point-of-view, but Burroughs himself does not seem to take that view, as he advocates for the text as a rhetorical device when he talks about using it to document the shortcomings of addiction treatment programs. This is important, because this is the point at which the observer disentangles from the art:

The point is not to create a new genre or to exalt this book's invitation to nonlinear, non-verbal thought. The point is that in order to compose in this medium with a fully realized artistic control, one must understand what exerting artistic control does to the work. In order to understand that, we must have at least one example of how control works alongside our examples of “great books” that we wish to one day aspire to equaling in quality, power, and emotional potential.

At least, that's what the book taught me.

I had studied the writing process, the pedagogy of writing instruction, story structure, and hundreds of examples of literary works in each of the major genres across the entire period of history that the English language existed in. It wasn't until I read this one, though, that I understood how to use that knowledge.

Maybe that's not the book. Maybe it's just me. Maybe I spent my time with it taking my own pulse.

But maybe that's ultimately what it's for.

Michael Scott Monje Jr. writes the web serial Shaping Clay. They have also published two novels and a novelette.

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