William S. Burroughs, from Egyptian mummies, heroin addiction and life in transient hotels, we sample “Naked Lunch,” and he sounds off in the 1991 documentary film, “Commissioner of Sewers.”
The World of Naked Lunch
Sex in Burroughs’s universe is one of myriad addictions. Burroughs wanted to free people from the slavery of addiction, whether to heroin or money or sex. “The Garden of Earthly Delights” was his shorthand for the diseased saturnalia of American affluence. From his earliest writings Burroughs foresaw a time when human beings, drenched in orgasmic “freedom,” would be reduced to their bodies, their minds completely manipulated by advertising and mass media. As intoxicated consumers people would become blind to their own exploitation.
Naked Lunch (an excerpt)
By William S. Burroughs copyright © 1959 Grove Press
‘Selling is more of a habit than using,’ Lupita says. Nonusing pushers have a contact habit, and that’s one you can’t kick. Agents get it too. Take Bradley the Buyer. Best narcotics agent in the industry. Anyone would make him for junk. (Note: Make in the sense of dig or size up.) I mean he can walk up to a pusher and score direct. He is so anonymous, grey and spectral the pusher don’t remember him afterwards. So he twists one after the other … Well the Buyer comes to look more and more like a junky. He can’t drink. He can’t get it up. His teeth fall out. (Like pregnant women lose their teeth feeding the stranger, junkies lose their yellow fangs feeding the monkey.) He is all the time sucking on a candy bar. Baby Ruths he digs special. ‘It really disgust you to see the Buyer sucking on them candy bars so nasty,’ a cop says.
William S. Burroughs – Commissioner of Sewers – Film by Klaus Maeck, 1991
The Buyer takes on an ominous grey-green color. Fact is his body is making its own junk or equivalent. The Buyer has a steady connection. A Man Within you might say. Or so he thinks. ‘I’ll just set in my room,’ he says. ‘F**k ’em all. Squares on both sides. I am the only complete man in the industry.’
But a yen comes on him like a great black wind through the bones. So the Buyer hunts up a young junky and gives him a paper to make it.
‘Oh all right,’ the boy says. ‘So what you want to make?’
‘I just want to rub against you and get fixed.’
‘Ugh … Well all right … But why cancha just get physical like a human?’
Burroughs wanted to free people from the slavery of addiction, whether to heroin or money or sex. “The Garden of Earthly Delights” was his shorthand for the diseased saturnalia of American affluence. From his earliest writings Burroughs foresaw a time when human beings, drenched in orgasmic “freedom,” would be reduced to their bodies, their minds completely manipulated by advertising and mass media.
From James Campbell in The Guardian – Naked Lunch was first published by Olympia Press in July 1959. Readers who have encountered it over the past half-century have found it funny, prophetic, revolting – a famous TLS review in 1963 had the headline “Ugh …” – hard to understand and amazingly inventive. Repeated re-readings are likely to heighten each of those responses. Turning to it again recently, I was less put off than I used to be by the sexual hangings, since I knew what was coming (“He leaves her tied on the platform in piles of old used condoms, while he adjusts the rope”) but still inclined to hurry past the talking asshole. The elasticity of Burroughs’s language and the reach of his imagination seemed more impressive than ever. Even in the opening and closing sections, which relate the antics of the criminal junkie William Lee (Burroughs’s alter ego), the figures of speech are virtuosic, from the mechanics of injection – “I hit a vein straight away. A column of blood shot up into the syringe for an instant sharp and solid as a red cord” – to the phantasmagoric escape from the complexes of addiction: “In the cab I realised what had happened … I had been occluded from space-time like an eel’s ass occludes when he stops eating on the way to Sargasso.”
Later the boy is sitting in a Waldorf with two colleagues dunking pound cake. ‘Most distasteful thing I ever stand still for,’ he says. ‘Some way he make himself all soft like a blob of jelly and surround me so nasty. Then he gets well all over like with green slime. So I guess he come to some kinda awful climax … I come near wigging with that green stuff all over me, and he stink like a old rotten cantaloupe.’
‘Well it’s still an easy score.’
The boy signed resignedly; ‘Yes, I guess you can get used to anything. I’ve got a meet with him again tomorrow.’
The Buyer’s habit keeps getting heavier. He needs a recharge every half hour. Sometimes he cruises the precincts and bribes the turnkey to let him in with a cell of junkies. It gets to where no amount of contact will fix him. At this point he receives a summons from the District Supervisor:
‘Bradley, your conduct has given rise to rumors — and I hope for your sake they are no more than that — so unspeakably distasteful that … I mean Caesar’s wife … hrump … that is, the Department must be above suspicion … certainly above such suspicions as you have seemingly aroused. You are lowering the entire tone of the industry. We are prepared to accept your immediate resignation.’
The Buyer throws himself on the ground and crawls over to the D.S. ‘No, Boss Man, no … The Department is my very lifeline.’
He kisses the D.S.’s hand thrusting his fingers into his mouth (the D.S. must feel his toothless gums) complaining he has lost his teeth ‘inna thervith.’ ‘Please Boss Man, I’ll wipe your ass, I’ll wash out your dirty condoms, I’ll polish your shoes with the oil on my nose …’
‘Really, this is most distasteful! Have you no pride? I must tell you I feel a distinct revulsion. I mean there is something, well, rotten about you, and you smell like a compost heap.’ He put a scented handkerchief in front of his face. ‘I must ask you to leave this office at once.’
‘I’ll do anything, Boss, anything.’ His ravaged green face splits in a horrible smile. ‘I’m still young, Boss, and I’m pretty strong when I get my blood up.’
The D.S. retches into his handkerchief and points to the door with a limp hand. The Buyer stands up looking at the D.S. dreamily. His body begins to dip like a dowser’s wand. He flows forward …
‘No! No!’ screams the D.S.
‘Schlup … schlup schlup.’ An hour later they find the Buyer on the nod in the D.S.’s chair. The D.S. has disappeared without a trace.
Pursued by the law for his drug activities, Burroughs took his wife Joan and the children to Mexico, and there he committed the thoughtless act that would change his life. Trying to show off his marksmanship to a couple of friends, he announced he was going to do his William Tell act. Joan put a glass on her head and he killed her with a single shot.
Their son went to live with Burroughs’ parents, and Burroughs wandered the world from South America to Tangier. He was living in Tangier while his New York friends were becoming a popular sensation as the Beat Generation, first in San Francisco and then all over the US and the world. The writers Paul and Jane Bowles lived in Tangier too, and Tangier soon became a popular literary escape for new American celebrity writers, including Ginsberg and Kerouac. Kerouac didn’t like Tangier, but he was knocked out by the messy pile of stories Burroughs had been idly writing, and he and Ginsberg helped to type them up. Kerouac also suggested a name for the whole thing: ‘Naked Lunch.’
The Judge : ‘Everything indicates that you have, in some unspeakable manner uh … assimilated the District Supervisor. Unfortunately there is no proof. I would recommend that you be confined or more accurately contained in some institution, but I know of no place suitable for a man of your caliber. I must reluctantly order your release.’
‘That one should stand in an aquarium,’ says the arresting officer.
The Buyer spreads terror throughout the industry. Junkies and agents disappear. Like a vampire bat he gives off a narcotic effluvium, a dank green mist that anesthizes his victioms and renders them helpless in his enveloping presence. And once he has scored he holes up for several days like a gorged boa constrictor. Finally he is caught in the act of digesting the Narcotics Commissioner and destroyed with a flame thrower — the court of inquiry ruling that such means were justified in that the Buyer had lost his human citizenship and was, in consequence, a creature without species and a menace to the narcotics industry on all levels.
Updated 30 August 2016