The Soundless Hum: Psychonautic Underpinnings of William Burroughs’ Naked Lunch By Roger Keen
This article, by Roger Keen, was originally published in the Psychedelic Press UK print journal (2013 Vol.2)
Mostly everyone has heard of William Burroughs’ drug-inspired masterpiece Naked Lunch, but far fewer have actually read it from cover to cover and fewer still have properly understood what Burroughs is doing in its pages.
Often dismissed as incomprehensible, pornographic and, due to its lack of formal narrative structure, unfilmable, Naked Lunch was nevertheless tackled on celluloid by David Cronenberg in 1991, resulting in a movie that is only minimally representative of the book and tends to deepen its mystery rather than clarify it. Reinventing from scratch and substituting his own authorship, Cronenberg ‘sampled’ Burroughs’ life and work in order to produce a body-horror pastiche that owes as much to the Ted Morgan biography and the novels Exterminator and Junkie as Naked Lunch itself. But for many people that film stands for what Naked Lunch is about.
Another common misconception is that Naked Lunch is about ‘the horrors of addiction,’ a description more suited to Burroughs’ autobiographical first novel Junkie. By the time of Naked Lunch, he’d moved on considerably from depicting anything so mundane or literal as that. What Naked Lunch represents is the fruit of a pharmo-picaresque creative journey that was partly inspired by opiate addiction but that rapidly expanded to encompass the visions of majoun, peyote and most particularly ayahuasca or yagé, whose psychonautic propensity underscores much of the grotesque, lurid phantasmagoria for which the novel is famous.
At the conclusion of Junkie, Bill Lee, Burroughs’ narrator, declares his intention to head to South America in search of ‘yage’ (Burroughs omitted the accent on the e), a new ‘kick’ that he hoped would open up his frontiers, and in Burroughs’ next novel, Queer, the first of several journeys there is described. As a novel Queer is notable for being a transitional work between the straight narrative method of Junkie and the freeform, semi-abstract composition of Naked Lunch. Though Queer tells another largely autobiographical story, it shows Bill Lee, often intoxicated, performing his legendary ‘routines’—fast-spoken improvisational fantasies where the content becomes ever more farfetched, ridiculous and surreal. The extemporary nature of these routines – one wild idea giving birth to another and yet another – became the blueprint for the writing method of Naked Lunch, and subsequent drug experiences provided the inspirational fuel.
The ayahuasca expedition of Queer proved unsuccessful, but that thread is taken up in The Yage Letters, a fictionalised collection of correspondence between Burroughs and the poet Allen Ginsberg that details, firstly, Burroughs’ subsequent expedition in 1953 and then Ginsberg’s in 1960, plus an epilogue. Now off junk and in retreat from the chaos of his former life – including the accidental shooting of his wife in Mexico City – Burroughs needed a new direction and his quest for ayahuasca, ‘the vine of the soul’, had become all consuming. Moreover in the early ’50s he was way ahead of his time as a Western explorer of shamanic entheogenic practices, prefiguring R. Gordon Wasson’s work by several years. The Yage Letters would later inspire the McKenna brothers in their own search for the vine’s secrets.
After several ayahuasca experiments and misadventures, such as a vomit-inducing overdose at the hands of one brujo, Burroughs finally discovered the ideal formula for the brew, which includes other plants that synergise together in order to realise the full psychoactive energy of the brew. The resulting trips made Burroughs completely re-evaluate his opinion of ayahuasca, concluding that it is a hallucinogen like no other and causing him to experience a new state of being, where he left behind “the entire structure of pragmatic, result seeking, use seeking, question asking Western thought.” He compared the powerful hallucinatory effects to space-time travel, which transported him on a phylogenetic tour of human migration.
For Burroughs the creative writer, these visions not only provided new material but also suggested a whole new way of composing, synthesising and editing, which harmonised with the non-linear pan-dimensional quality of the ayahuasca experience. Burroughs encapsulated those discoveries in his final ‘Yage Letter’ in which the various polymorphous visions have solidified into a full blown alternate reality; a surreal and phantasmagoric space incorporating South American, Near Eastern, Polynesian and other ethnic elements: “The Composite City where all human potentials are spread out in a vast silent market.” Here Burroughs’ famous hallucinated grotesquery comes to life: “black marketers of World War III, pitchmen selling remedies for radiation sickness, investigators of infractions denounced by bland paranoid chess players, servers of fragmentary warrants charging unspeakable mutilations of the spirit taken down in hebephrenic shorthand… A place where the unknown past and the emergent future meet in a vibrating soundless hum. Larval entities waiting for a live one.”
This final ‘letter’ is an extraordinary piece of psychonautic ‘reportage’, but for Burroughs it was also a key watershed moment when the experiments he’d been conducting with freeform writing, extemporised routines and the epistolary form crystallised into something more definitive. He had, in fact, begun to write Naked Lunch, and the text of the letter appears with only minimal alteration in ‘The Market’ chapter of the book. Its distinctive, viscerally hallucinated feel is reflected throughout the nightmarish, blackly comic journey of the work, and the abandonment of a conventional cause-and-effect narrative structure goes with the territory, with the whole ayahuasca visionary rationale. In Naked Lunch Burroughs continued to perform routines and compose ‘letters’, so to speak, but now he directly addressed his readership without mediation.
Shortly after his South American episode, Burroughs moved to Tangier, where he would spend the next four years and put together his masterpiece. Naturally he no longer had access to ayahuasca, but the direction it had given him was sustained, and after another spell on junk, finally kicking the habit, strong Moroccan hashish became his main drug of choice. As well as smoking, Burroughs also consumed it in huge quantities as majoun, a form of candy. So he connected to the older tradition of the poets Baudelaire and Gautier in the Club des Hashischins, and also the American Fitz Hugh Ludlow, author of The Hasheesh Eater, all of whom spoke of the psychonautic and creative dimensions of hashish when the high-quality product is taken in ‘heroic doses.’
What he had done in South America, Burroughs was to repeat in Tangier, which under the influence of hashish metamorphosed into another hallucinated, composite city that he named ‘Interzone’. That final Yage Letter is recycled several times, blended with Moroccan elements to give rise to the Meet Café sequence, and Interzone’s architectural structure – a vast single building with walls of protean plastic cement – also derives from that same original source. Burroughs extends the weirdness into all areas of the city’s life. The political parties of Interzone include the Divisionists, who grow replicas of themselves in embryo jelly in order to swamp the planet; the Liquefactionists, who ‘assimilate’ other people into themselves with the eventual aim of merging everyone into a single person; and the Senders, who seek total control through transmitting telepathic signals. Set against these three parties are the Factualists, the good guys, the freedom fighters, who oppose such control in all its forms. Bill Lee himself is a Factualist, naturally enough.
Burroughs also created ‘Freeland’ and ‘Annexia’, and in these various imaginary realms, the other well-known grotesques and monsters of Naked Lunch conduct their affairs. They include the crazed Doctor Benway, “an expert on all phases of interrogation, brainwashing and control,” and the unspeakable, beaked, purple-lipped Mugwumps, who practise sex hangings and secrete an addictive fluid from their penises. The hardboiled junkie streets of New York feature too, and Burroughs takes a more literal didactic approach when comparing addiction to various social and political power monopolies—the ‘algebra of need’. But this ‘home territory’ no longer has the naturalism of the novel Junkie and instead is permeated with the same hallucinated weirdness as the South American and Moroccan mindscapes and their bizarre Hieronymus Bosch-like transmogrifications: “plants grow out of genitals, vast crustaceans hatch inside and break the shell of body.” Mixing underworld lingo with overtones of the magical, the paranoid Bill Lee talks of ‘devil doll stool pigeons’ and ‘Willy the Disk’, a subhuman junkie employed by the cops to track down others, who has a mouth that “sways out on a long tube of ectoplasm, feeling for the silent frequency of junk.”
This tendency for hallucinatory mutation and metamorphosis finds its apotheosis in Naked Lunch’s famous ‘Talking Asshole’ routine, which first appeared in a letter to Ginsberg in 1955, and is delivered by Benway in the book’s text and by Lee himself (Peter Weller) in the film—one of its best scenes. A man makes his asshole talk for a carnival ventriloquist act, but after a time the asshole starts talking autonomously, ad-libbing and tossing back gags on stage. Next it develops teeth, eats its way through his pants and demands equal rights. It talks day and night, and the man can do nothing to shut it up. Eventually jelly forms over his mouth, which sticks to his hands when he tries to remove it, and despite his best efforts his mouth seals up. Then nerve connections are blocked, so his brain can’t give orders anymore. Finally he becomes trapped in his skull as the asshole takes over completely, and inevitably his eyes go dead as his brain atrophies.
So, in Naked Lunch Burroughs’ entire creative world has been effectively remastered by his ayahuasca and subsequent visions. They are by turns both beautiful and nightmarish, reflecting the spectrum of his narcotic experiences through a uniquely forged prism. If ‘the horrors of addiction’ were the starting point, then ayahuasca was the catalyst that elevated it into something totally new and unprecedented in both trip-lit and literature generally. As well as being a master connoisseur of drugs, Burroughs was also a Harvard literature graduate, a master man of letters who admired Joyce and Beckett and knew the latter during their time in Paris together. So he fits right into the great innovative tradition of the twentieth century, which he was consciously following, and his contribution was recognised by important contemporaries such as Norman Mailer and J. G. Ballard. But the impenetrability of his most famous novel still works against his reputation, and that is a barrier to be overcome. Naked Lunch should be read and reread, and it gets better and more illuminating each time around.
Burroughs, William. Junkie. New York: Ace Books, 1953.
—. Naked Lunch. Paris: Olympia Press, 1959.
—. Queer. New York: Viking Penguin, 1985.
Burroughs, William, Allen Ginsberg and Oliver Harris. The Yage Letters Redux. San Francisco: City Lights Books, 1963, 1975, 2006.
Burroughs, William and Oliver Harris. The Letters of William S. Burroughs 1945 – 1959. New York: Viking Penguin, 1993.
Keen, Roger. ‘Whose Lunch Is It Anyway?’ Critical Wave: The European Science Fiction & Fantasy Review, 27, 10-14. 1992.
Miles, Barry. William Burroughs: El Hombre Invisible. London: Virgin Books, 1992, 2002.
Morgan, Ted. Literary Outlaw: The Life and Times of William S. Burroughs. London: The Bodley Head, 1991.