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The Written Off Beat

The Rewritten Text of William Burroughs’ Naked Lunch

Stephen Sheehan

Since the first appearance of an extract from The Naked Lunch (1959) in an American journal in 1957, through almost fifty years of publication up to the present, Naked Lunch (in 1962 the article was dropped) is a text that has gone through a number of births and rebirths. The subject of numerous reappropriations by Burroughs, his artistic collaborators, editors and adaptors, the text has also been reborn into a number of different contexts such as the legal and the counter-cultural. Comprised of a polyphony of narratological voices and adapting itself in response to the voices that have been projected against it, Naked Lunch has for much of its scholarly history confounded and frustrated its critics, who have often written it off as “a very indecent book.” [1] In this essay I wish to explore how the various compositional processes and early critical presences that shaped Naked Lunch problematise the critical approach to a text that so avidly writes itself off the page.

The question of what precisely is the text of Naked Lunch furnishes the first hurdle to a scholastic treatment of the novel, should ‘novel’ be the best way to describe it. The text of Naked Lunch was selected out of a vast compilation of notes Burroughs made during his seclusion in Tangier after the death of his wife in 1951, a period that lasted until a year before the novel’s publication in 1959. In 1957 his drug addiction to heroin became so great that he was virtually incapable of engaging in even the most elementary of activities:

I had not taken a bath in a year nor changed my clothes or removed them except to stick a needle every hour in the fibrous grey wooden flesh of terminal addiction. I never cleaned or dusted the room. Empty ampule boxes and garbage piled up to the ceiling. Light and water had been long since turned off for non-payment. I did absolutely nothing. I could look at the end of my shoe for eight hours. I was only roused to action when the hourglass of junk ran out. [2]

No longer able to write and with the realisation that he “was just apt to be finished,” [3] Burroughs flew to London and submitted himself to the apomorphine treatment that would end his drug addiction for “two full years—a twelve year record.” [4] During those two years he completed the notes out of which the text of Naked Lunch would subsequently be selected, and had some of the individual chapters published in America in the Black Mountain Review in the Autumn of 1957 and in the Chicago Review in Spring and Autumn, 1958. [5] A winter issue of the Chicago Review featuring writing by Burroughs and Kerouac was planned but, due to the controversy that the previous publication of excerpts from Naked Lunch had precipitated in American academic and legal circles, it was ultimately suppressed.

The editors of the Chicago Review consequently resigned from their position in the magazine and set up a new journal that they called Big Table, in the first edition of which they printed that material previously suppressed in the Chicago Review. Unfortunately, the Chicago Post Office got wind of the escalating imbroglio and detained the copies of Big Table that had been deposited with them for mailing, an action that resulted in the first court case involving the publication of Naked Lunch.

The positive effect of this exposure, however, was that the publisher of Olympia Press, Maurice Girodias, reneged on his previous rejection of Burroughs’ manuscript and informed Burroughs that he had two weeks to present him with a final draft for publication. Burroughs selected the 23 chapters that make up Naked Lunch from his notes with the help of two assistants: Sinclair Beiles, who was one of Girodias’ editors, and Brion Gysin, Burroughs’ long time friend and artistic collaborator. This authorial capitulation was further underscored by Burroughs’ decision not to reread the chapters that he had selected in order to determine an appropriate sequence in which they might appear on publication but to submit the chapters in the entirely arbitrary sequence in which they had been put to the side when the selection process had taken place.

In 1959 the first edition of Naked Lunch was published by Olympia Press in Paris in circumstances very similar to that of another avant-garde text thirty seven years earlier, James Joyce’s Ulysses. Both texts had been banned in England and America as a result of obscenity charges after having had episodes published in minor, avant-garde literary journals. The Olympia Press edition was subsequently altered and expanded in its first American edition published by Grove Press in 1962 to include an introduction by Burroughs to the text, with the subheading ‘deposition: testimony concerning a sickness,’ and an appendix in the form of an article written in 1956 and published in the British Journal of Addiction, entitled ‘LETTER FROM A MASTER ADDICT TO DANGEROUS DRUGS.’ Both these additions served to frame Naked Lunch as a scientifically detached and journalistically oriented examination of the evils of drug addiction, in order that Naked Lunch might be published in America notwithstanding the accusation of obscenity.

The text of Naked Lunch remained in the form in which it appeared in the 1962 Grove Press edition up until 1992, when a short section was added by Burroughs after the introduction, entitled ‘Afterthoughs on a Deposition.’ This section revises the precautionary frame he had furnished the text with by virtue of the introduction and appendix, arguing that the “public health problem number one of the world today [6] referred to in the introduction was not merely drug addiction but included “the hysteria that drug use often occasions in populaces who are prepared by the media and narcotics officials for a hysterical reaction.” [7] In ‘Afterthoughts’ Burroughs also revises his claim in the introduction that he had “no precise memory of writing the notes which have now been published under the title Naked Lunch,” [8] saying that “this is of course an exaggeration” and applies only to his emotional recollection, whereas “the factual memory of an addict may be quite accurate and extensive.” [9] These contradictions make clear the role of the introduction, appendix and later the afterthoughts to frame the text and direct the reader to interpret the text in a certain culturally accommodating way. Their factual accuracy is subservient to the undercover role they have to ensure that Naked Lunch was accepted in two very different cultural climates. The letters Burroughs wrote while he was writing Naked Lunch further testify to the inaccuracy of the compositional account he gave in these appendices. [10]

These interjections, additions and excisions confuse the definition of the text of Naked Lunch on a variety of grounds. It has been argued to Burroughs’ credit that nine years before Barthes’ famous essay ‘The Death of the Author’ was published, Burroughs had undermined the status and authority of the author by deferring so much of the authorial process to intersubjective influences. [11] This was a technique that Burroughs had derived from the Dadaist and Surrealist movements in Europe whose collaborative artworks and cut-up poems served as an inspiration for much of his experimental writing. By allowing Beiles and Gysin to play a part in the sifting process that resulted in the twenty three chapters of Naked Lunch, Burroughs calls into question the legitimacy of the demarcation between what material was selected from the notes he had made in his Tangier period and what was left out.

Secondly, the resistance in America to Naked Lunch on the grounds that it was obscene resulted in the direct alteration of the text itself. Though the two sections added to the 1962 Groves Press edition were written by Burroughs, the authorial hand that dictated their addition to the text could be seen as an extension of the long arm of the law. While the influence of Beiles and Gysin in the selection of the material for Naked Lunch might be allowable because initiated by Burroughs, this could hardly be said for the interference of the law, however much this interest and interference may have been courted by the text.

Thirdly, the addition in 1992 of the ‘Afterthoughts on a Deposition’ might be seen as the most flagrant alteration to the text of Naked Lunch and one that calls into question the stability of any text subject to revision by the author after its initial publication and the legitimacy of subsequently altered editions. While not as extensive as the introduction and appendix, added three years after the first edition, ‘Afterthoughts,’ written in 1991, was added to the text thirty three years after Naked Lunch was originally published. It would seem that after three decades of repeat publication the text of Naked Lunch remained a work in progress.

What makes ‘Afterthoughts’ an even more troubling addition is that it calls into question the legitimacy of the addition of the introduction and appendix. By directing itself towards the task of altering the sense of the introduction, ‘Afterthoughts’ draws attention to the role the introduction originally played as an affected frame that would reduce the legitimacy of the charge of unequivocal obscenity applied to Naked Lunch. The addition of a dilation towards a text that is not seen as part of Naked Lunch but that compounds itself with Naked Lunch seems to be a multiplication of the sin that it censures. On the other hand, after so many years, to simply remove the introduction and appendix would seem an even greater violation of the text.

Further to these queries, it may be argued that the definition of the text is questionable at a much more comprehensive level when we take into account Burroughs’ abdication of conscious authorial presence, as he argued in the ‘deposition: concerning a sickness.’ This is the assertion that Burroughs objected to in ‘Afterthoughts’ and is stated in the introduction as follows:

I awoke from The Sickness at the age of forty-five, calm and sane, and in reasonably good health except for a weakened liver and the look of borrowed flesh common to all who survive The Sickness … Most survivors do not remember the delirium in detail. I apparently took detailed notes on sickness and delirium. I have no precise memory of writing the notes which have now been published under the title Naked Lunch. The title was suggested by Jack Kerouac. [12]

If we accept that Burroughs was a severe heroin addict over the entire period that the notes to Naked Lunch were written, then it would follow that to a large extent the notes are the product of a drug induced perception of reality. The text of Naked Lunch is called into question by the implied fluctuating states of conscious control over the passage of its construction. That Burroughs eventually underwent a cure for his drug addiction would further suggest that some stages of the construction of Naked Lunch were entirely conscious and controlled, under conditions very different from those of the early gestation of the text. This characterisation of Naked Lunch as the drug induced meanderings of a deranged mind, perpetuated by Burroughs himself, contributed to the marginalisation of its other literary qualities in much of its early scholarly reception.

Of all texts, it might be said that in Naked Lunch the difference between drug induced narrative and the rest of the text is indistinguishable, that the whole of Naked Lunch is the product of a drug altered authorial consciousness. However, Naked Lunch is not simply a diary, a direct recording of drug induced experience. It is as a result of the perception that Naked Lunch is made up wholly of a drug narrative that it has been regarded as a simplistic text and beneath serious intellectual scrutiny. Naked Lunch is a text made up of numerous different narrative voices that play off each other, including detective, medicinal, pharmacological, carnival and legal narratives, and in such play formulate the satirical, polyphonic structure of this text.

Furthermore, the reduction of the text to a monologic drug narrative raises the problem of exactly what is a drug narrative. There is little recognition of the drug narrative as a genre in mainstream academia and problems such as whether a drug narrative implies all texts written under the influence of drugs or only texts that purport to portray the effects of drug induced perception remain largely unresolved. However, it is not my intention to establish an argument for the recognition of a drug narrative genre in this essay. In this respect I draw the reader’s attention to Sadie Plant’s Writing on Drugs (New York : Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2000) and David Lenson’s On Drugs (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1999). The genre of drug narratives has been perpetuated after Burroughs most notably through such texts as Hunter S. Thompson’s Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas (1971), Tom Wolfe’s The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test (1971) and, more recently, Irvin Welsh’s Trainspotting (1993). The list expands exponentially if we include alcohol as a drug (not to mention tobacco and caffeine).

The objection that Burroughs relied upon the mind-altering effects of heroin injection to write much, if not all, of Naked Lunch does not necessarily call into question the precise definition of what constitutes the intended text of Naked Lunch. In the first place, one may argue that a text is very rarely, if ever, entirely the product of conscious authorial intention. One of the artistic dimensions explored by Burroughs in the infamous cut-up trilogy that followed Naked Lunch, consisting of The Soft Machine (1961), The Ticket That Exploded (1962) and Nova Express (1964), was precisely the degree to which a text was constituted by accident and chance. Secondly, Naked Lunch could be read as presenting the reader with a depiction of drug induced experience from the perspective of the addict, with regard to both the struggle of the addict with their addiction as well as the peculiar experiences induced by drug altered consciousness. The very absence of demarcation between controlled and uncontrolled narrative serves as a dramatization of the addicts’ own lack of control.

Above all, the most serious misreading of Naked Lunch is the one that reduces the text to a single, monologic, monoglot drug narrative: this is precisely what Naked Lunch, of all texts, is not. Drug narrative is an integral aspect of Naked Lunch but its importance is in large part derived from the fact that it is but one narrative kind amongst many in this text. A monologic reading of Naked Lunch seems to me to be a reading perpetuated today even at an academic level of sophistication, a misfortune which has prompted at least one critic to remark that “when one teaches the literature of the Beat Generation, one must justify the material not to students […] but to colleagues, academicians, and professionals.” [13]

The critical reception of Burroughs’ work has, of course, not been a one-sided affair. Some of the first defenders of Naked Lunch were highly respected members of the American intellectual elite. Aside from the intellectuals behind the ill-fated Big Table journal, Norman Mailer and the novelist Mary McCarthy spoke out in defense of Burroughs at the 1962 International Writers’ Conference in Edinburgh, Scotland. McCarthy compared Burroughs to Nabakov, considering him to be one of the most important novelists writing in America at this time:

in thinking over the novels of the last few years, I was struck by the fact that the only ones that had not simply given me pleasure but interested me had been those of Burroughs and Nabokov. The others, even when well done (Compton-Burnett), seemed almost regional. [14]

Mailer also praised Burroughs at the writer’s conference, but his most appreciative remarks were made at the obscenity trial for Naked Lunch in Boston in 1965:

There is no doubt as to the man’s talent; and while it was, perhaps, excited and inflamed by drug addiction, it was also hurt. This man might have been one of the greatest geniuses of the English language if he had never been an addict. Through this there is a feeling of great torture in the composition of the book. What comes through to me is that there also is style, the subconscious going through all the various trials and ordeals of addiction, he still holds on to a scheme in the book; and there is a deep meaning. [15]

Mary McCarthy was one of Burroughs’ early supporters in the literary establishment and one of the first critics to appreciate the carnivalesque dimensions to Naked Lunch. In The Writing on the Wall and Other Literary Essays. [16] McCarthy’s description of the various characters that populate Naked Lunch depicts them as so many circus carnies:

The principal characters, besides Lee, are his friend Bill Gains (who seems momentarily to turn into a woman called Jane); […] two vaudevillians, Clem and Jody; A.J., a carnival con man, the last of the Big Spenders; a sailor; […] John and Mary, the sex acrobats; and a puzzled American housewife who is heard complaining because the Mixmaster keeps trying to climb up under her dress. [17]

The final character in this sequence, the American housewife, is described by Burroughs as saying “And the Garbage Disposal Unit snapping at me, and the nasty old Mixmaster keep trying to get up under my dress.” [18] This image bears some resemblance to the famous image created by the Comte de Lautréamont in Chants de Maldoror, celebrated by André Breton and the surrealists as a perfect example of their technique: “Beautiful as the chance meeting of a sewing-machine and an umbrella on a dissecting-table” [19] ; and indeed the similarity becomes more obvious when explained by Breton in his pamphlet What is Surrealism?:

it should not take one long to realize that this hold owes its strength to the fact that the umbrella represents the man, the sewing-machine the woman (just as all other machines do, with the sole aggravation that this one, as is well known, is frequently used by women for onanistic purposes) and the dissecting-table the bed. The contrast between the immediate sexual act and the extremely broken-up picture that Lautreamont makes of it, is alone the cause here of the reader’s thrill. [20]

Perhaps Burroughs’ image is a little less “broken-up” than Lautréamont’s but the principle is the same. While there may be no figural representation of the role of the female (in Burroughs the representation is literal), the role of the sewing machine in Lautréamont and the role of the mixmaster in Burroughs appear to be similar enough so as to be largely interchangeable. This is a good example of Burroughs’ use of intertextuality that demonstrates his interest not only in rewriting his text into the present and future but also in integrating Naked Lunch with literature of the past.

To a certain extent, however, even the flattering reviews Naked Lunch received in the sixties and seventies were qualified with some kind of reproach. In the excerpt from Norman Mailer’s testimony, Mailer both applies and withdraws the appellation of genius to Burroughs in his defence of the artistic merit of Naked Lunch: “This man might have been one of the greatest geniuses of the English language if he had never been an addict.” Mary McCarthy was also very quick to make sure her comments at the International Writer’s Festival were not inflated beyond their original intention:

I did not want to write to the editors of British newspapers and magazines, denying that I had said whatever incontinent thing they had quoted me as saying [….] In the end, it became clear to me that the only way I could put an end to this embarrassment was by writing at length what I thought about The Naked Lunch[.] [21]

When even the early supporters of Naked Lunch felt the need to qualify their remarks, little wonder Burroughs felt the need to ‘frame’ his text in order to cover the same controversial territory that almost prevented his text from ever being distributed in the first place. Similarly, little wonder that after 35 years of repeat publication and the celebration and vindication that had followed he felt the need to frame again the frame he had earlier given to the text and send his work out once more on a new trajectory.

Naked Lunch is a text that “spills off the page in all directions,” [22] that runs into those texts written beforehand and those written after, whose coherence as a text diffuses into a multitude of narratological voices and authorial presences. Long celebrated as central to the counter-cultural revolution, Naked Lunch continues to be appropriated by newly created contexts. Jamie Russell’s Queer Burroughs (New York: Palgrave, 2001), for example, unclosets the extensive queer dimensions to Burroughs’ text, largely ignored by much previous critical work, and in doing so furnishes a new context in which Naked Lunch continues to write itself off the page. It is this kind of ongoing rebirth of the text into new critical contexts and generations that is, ultimately, the indelible rebuke to those who would write it off.


[1] David Lodge, “Objections to William Burroughs,” The Novelist at the Crossroads and other essays on fiction and criticism (London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1971), 162.

[2] William Burroughs, Naked Lunch (Great Britain: Flamingo, 1993), 10.

[3] Conrad Knickerbocker, “William Burroughs: An Interview” in Paris Review, n35 (Fall 1965): 18.

[4] Burroughs, Naked Lunch, 11.

[5] To find out more about the variety of different texts otherwise known as Naked Lunch, the reader is referred to Carol Loranger’s article “‘This Book Spill Off the Page in All Directions’: What Is the Text of Naked Lunch?” Postmodern Culture: an electronic journal of interdisciplinary criticism, v10, n1 (Sep 1999), at <http://jefferson.village.Virginia.EDU/pmc/text-only/issue.999/10.1loranger.txt>. In this article, Loranger refers to the publication of excerpts of Naked Lunch in “”from Naked Lunch,” Chicago Review 12 (Spring 1958): 23-30; “from Naked Lunch,” Black Mountain Review 7 (Autumn 1957): 144-48; and “from Naked Lunch,” Chicago Review 12 (Autumn 1958): 3-12.”

[6] Burroughs, Naked Lunch, 11.

[7] Ibid., 15.

[8] Ibid., 7.

[9] Ibid., 15.

[10] See Oliver Harris, The Letters of William S Burroughs 1945-1959 (New York: Viking Press, 1993) and William Burroughs and the Secret of Fascination (Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 2003).

[11] See for example Robin Lydenberg, Word Cultures: radical theory and practice in William S Burroughs’ fiction (Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 1987).

[12] Burroughs, Naked Lunch,  7. Throughout this essay, all my elisions appear in square brackets; elisions in the actual text appear as they are. The frequent appearance of elisions in Naked Lunch makes this the most practical form of presentation.

[13] William T. Lawlor, The Beat Generation: A Bibliographical Teaching Guide (Lanham, MD: Scarecrow Press, 1998), 2.

[14] Mary McCarthy, “Burroughs Naked Lunch,” in The Writing on the Wall and Other Literary Essays (London: Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 1970), 42–43. Reprinted in Jennie Skerl and Robin Lydenberg, (ed.), William S. Burroughs At the Front: Critical Reception, 1959-1989 (USA: Southern Illinois University Press, 1991).

[15] I have not been able to obtain a copy of the transcription of Mailer’s testimony from any of the libraries in Australia. This quotation comes from a website that purports to reproduce this and other testimonies from the trial. The website is at <http://www.lib.siu.edu/cni/b411.html#1>.

[16] McCarthy’s essay was originally published in the New York Review of Books 1.1 (1963): 40-5. The form in which it appears in The Writing on the Wall and Other Literary Essays has a modified introduction. Reprinted in Skerl and Lydenberg 1991.

[17] McCarthy, “Burroughs Naked Lunch,” 45–46.

[18] Burroughs, Naked Lunch, 104.

[19] From the fourth canto of Comte de Lautréamont’s Chants de Maldoror. Quoted in Alan Young, Dada and After: Extremist Modernism and English Literature (USA: Manchester University Press, 1981), 115.

[20] André Breton, trans. David Gascoyne, What is Surrealism? (London: Faber, 1936), 34.

[21] McCarthy, 1970, 44. One of the reasons her essay ‘Dejeuner sur l’Herbe’ (published in New York Review of Books 1.1 (1963): 4-5) was reprinted in The Writing on the Wall and Other Literary Essays was so that she could add an introduction to it, setting the record straight on just what she did say at Edinburgh.

[22] Burroughs, Naked Lunch, 180.

Stephen Sheehan is a PhD student in the English Department at Sydney University. He is writing a thesis on the philosophy of technology as it manifests itself through the early twentieth century American literature of pragmatism and Dashiell Hammett’s detective fiction. Stephen wrote his Honours thesis on William Burroughs’ Naked Lunch using the theories of Mikhail Bakhtin to interpret the text. The essay that appears here is part of an ongoing project to develop the ideas conceived in his Honours thesis.