William S. Burroughs Reads From Naked Lunch, His Controversial 1959 Novel

burroughs reading

Pub­lished in 1959, Williams S. Bur­roughs’ Naked Lunch ranks with oth­er mid-twen­ti­eth cen­tu­ry books like Hen­ry Miller’s Trop­ic of Can­cer and the works of Jean Genet as lit­er­a­ture that sharply divid­ed both crit­i­cal and legal opin­ion in argu­ments over style and in ques­tions of obscen­i­ty. Among its dis­turb­ing and sub­ver­sive char­ac­ters is the socio­path­ic sur­geon Dr. Ben­way, who inspired the med­ical hor­rors of J.G. Bal­lard and was inspired in turn by Aldous Huxley’s Brave New WorldBen­way pro­vides some of the more satir­i­cal moments in the book, as you can hear in the sec­tion below, which Bur­roughs reads straight with his dis­tinc­tive nasal­ly Mid­west­ern twang. A short film of the scene (sad­ly unem­bed­d­a­ble), called “Dr. Ben­way Oper­ates,” has Bur­roughs him­self play­ing the doc­tor, in a drama­ti­za­tion that looks like low rent farce as direct­ed by John Waters.

A series of loose­ly con­nect­ed chap­ters that Bur­roughs said could be read in any order, Naked Lunch seems both fas­ci­nat­ed and repelled by the gris­ly med­ical­ized vio­lence in scenes like those above (one vignette, for exam­ple, presents “a tract against cap­i­tal pun­ish­ment”). This ambiva­lence was not lost on writ­ers like Nor­man Mail­er. The high­est praise of the nov­el prob­a­bly came from Mail­er dur­ing the novel’s 1966 obscen­i­ty tri­al before the Mass­a­chu­setts Supreme Court. In one among a hand­ful of lit­er­ary depo­si­tions, includ­ing one from Allen Gins­berg, Mail­er described Bur­roughs’ “extra­or­di­nary style,” and “exquis­ite poet­ic sense.” Despite the fact that its images were “often dis­gust­ing,” Mail­er called the book “a deep work, a cal­cu­lat­ed work” that “cap­tures that speech [‘gut­ter talk’] like no Amer­i­can writer I know.”

Per­haps one of the work’s most damn­ing pieces of crit­i­cism comes from the Judi­cial Offi­cer for the U.S. Postal Ser­vice, who called for the book’s ban­ning, apprais­ing the writ­ing as “undis­ci­plined prose, far more akin to the ear­ly work of exper­i­men­tal ado­les­cents than to any­thing of lit­er­ary mer­it.” Mail­er, Gins­berg, and the book’s oth­er sup­port­ers won out, a fact beat essay­ist Jed Birm­ing­ham laments, for a sur­pris­ing rea­son: The unban­ning of Naked Lunch led to the book’s tam­ing, its gen­tri­fi­ca­tion, as it were: “The wild, exu­ber­ant offen­sive­ness of the nov­el fades,” he writes, “in the face of all the legal argu­ments and the process of can­on­iza­tion.” In fact, the full nov­el may nev­er have been pub­lished at all had it not been for the Post Office in Chica­go seiz­ing sev­er­al hun­dred copies of The Chica­go Review, which con­tained some few Naked Lunch sec­tions. Hear­ing of the con­tro­ver­sy, French pub­lish­er Mau­rice Giro­dias hasti­ly threw togeth­er a man­u­script of the first 1959 text.

And yet, pri­or to the mid-six­ties, the deci­sion to ban Naked Lunch, “even before it was pub­lished in book form,” meant “that ques­tions of obscen­i­ty and cen­sor­ship dic­tat­ed the aca­d­e­m­ic and pub­lic recep­tion” of the book. Bur­roughs  com­ment­ed on the effects of such censorship—using an anal­o­gy to “the junk virus”—in part of a new pref­ace to the 50th edi­tion called “After­thoughts on a Depo­si­tion.” The heath risks of opi­ates “in con­trolled dos­es,” he writes,“maybe be min­i­mal,” yet the effects of crim­i­nal­iza­tion are out­sized “anti-drug hys­te­ria,” which “pos­es a threat to per­son­al free­doms and due-process pro­tec­tions of the law every­where.”

Since the novel’s vin­di­ca­tion, crit­i­cal con­sen­sus has cen­tered around sober, rev­er­ent judg­ments like Mailer’s—and to some less­er extent Ginsberg’s terse, irri­ta­ble tes­ti­mo­ny. While there are still those who despise the book, it’s sig­nif­i­cant that Bur­roughs’ work—which the Wash­ing­ton Post called the first of his “homo­sex­u­al planet-operas”—has achieved such wide­spread admi­ra­tion amidst the noto­ri­ety. The nov­el deals in themes we’re still adju­di­cat­ing dai­ly in courts legal and pub­lic some 55 years lat­er, point­ing per­haps to the con­tin­ued gulf between the thoughts and aims of the read­ing pub­lic and those of hys­ter­i­cal author­i­tar­i­ans and “the media and nar­cotics offi­cials,” as Bur­roughs has it. After all, at its 50th anniver­sary in 2009, Naked Lunch was pro­nounced “still fresh” by such main­stream out­lets as NPR and The Guardian, evi­dence of its per­sis­tent pow­er, and maybe also of its domes­ti­ca­tion.

Clips of Bur­roughs read­ing Naked Lunch can also be found on this Colum­bia Uni­ver­si­ty site.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

William S. Bur­roughs Reads His First Nov­el, Junky

William S. Bur­roughs on the Art of Cut-up Writ­ing

William S. Bur­roughs Explains What Artists & Cre­ative Thinkers Do for Human­i­ty: From Galileo to Cézanne and James Joyce

550 Free Audio Books: Down­load Great Books for Free

Josh Jones is a writer and musi­cian based in Durham, NC. Fol­low him at @jdmagness

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