Addicted: William Burroughs and a world in heat
A controversial work of the beat generation’s leading junkie casts surprising light on the world’s climate-change predicament at the start of the 21st century.
In 1966 the justices of the Massachusetts supreme court were asked to deliver a judgment in the United States's last great censorship trial. A year earlier, a Boston court had ruled that an experimental novel which described episodes of paedophilic murder, necrophilic lust, and rape, peopled with monstrous characters wantonly indulging in every conceivable sexual proclivity, should be banned as "obscene". Its author, William S Burroughs, was a drug-addled bisexual who had drunkenly executed his wife playing a game of William Tell in a Mexican bar.
The Boston judgment, against Burroughs' publisher Grove Press, had ruled that Naked Lunch fulfilled the three criteria of obscenity: taken as a whole, it was prurient; it was patently offensive by community standards; and it was utterly without redeeming social value.
After hearing impassioned testimony from Norman Mailer, Allen Ginsberg and other stars of counter-culture American literature, the judges lifted the ban on 7 July 1966. They ruled that Naked Lunch "was not without social value, and therefore not obscene."
According to his own account, Burroughs himself was so trashed on a cocktail of heroin and psychedelic chemicals that he did not remember writing a word of the manuscript. But Naked Lunch, especially read today, is much more than merely "not without social value" - it is about social value. It is an intelligent satire of the rampant consumerism and looming climatic catastrophe that marks the start of the 21st century.
The dependency pyramid
Naked Lunch satirises society organised through addiction. Addiction and the desperation it engenders in junkies become an allegory of consumption and of the savagery that ensues when people fall prey to what Burroughs calls "the algebra of need."
The basic point, as Burroughs explained once he was straight enough to write an introduction, is that opiate addicts exist in a pyramid: "The pyramid of junk, one level eating the level below (it is no accident that junk higher-ups are always fat and the addict in the street is always thin) right up to the top or tops as there are many junk pyramids feeding on peoples of the world and all built on the basic principles of monopoly."
In the novel's dystopian locale, Interzone, these principles of monopoly underpin the dominance of The Pushers, who keep "a million screaming junkies" in thrall by "inventing needs." In Interzone, power is the only cherished thing. As an inhabitant explains, "control can never be a means to any practical end ... It can never be a means to anything but more control ... Like junk ..."
We might conclude, as the US postal service did in 1961, that this is little more than salacious filth, fart jokes dressed up as social critique. We might, though, reread Naked Lunch and be left with the troubling thought that, in Burroughs' world, we're all junkies now. For a start, much of Burroughs' analysis of modern capitalism is shared by some pretty canny thinkers.
A year after he won the 1998 Nobel prize for economics, Amartya Sen would argue in Development as Freedom that the alleviation of poverty should focus not simply on increasing basic material income but on alleviating "unfreedom" i.e. the denial to the poor of capabilities both to fulfil their economic needs and to define those needs through political rights. And here is Burroughs: "A dope fiend is a man in total need of dope ... You would lie, cheat, inform on your friends, do anything to satisfy total need."
This in turn chimes with Clive Hamilton in his 2003 book Growth Fetish. Observing that fifty years of rising gross domestic product in most of the world has swallowed vast amounts of natural and human resources without improving the collective sense of well-being, Hamilton argues that we have submitted ourselves to "a cycle without end - hope followed by disappointment followed by hope - unless some event or sudden realisation breaks it."
To Burroughs, who died in 1997, that would have sounded like the very picture of a junkie's helpless predicament. Here we have another parallel between Naked Lunch's cautionary tale and the state we're in today. How to kick the habit? An addict who stops taking his drug does so for one of three reasons.
The first is sheer will; the second is through force, when someone other than the addict compulsorily prevents him taking the drug - or weans him off it - until the dependency is broken. The third is catastrophe: ruination, disease, death. The fear of catastrophe may be what precipitates either of the first two escapes from addiction. Or the catastrophe may happen: dead people do not take drugs.
At the core of all this is the internal struggle between the fear of impending disaster and the all-consuming need for a fix, what Burroughs calls the "hideous dry hunger" of the junkie.
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