Naked Lunch at 50:
An Interview with William S. Burroughs (excerpt)
An online exclusive
Monday, August 24, 2009
In honor of the 50th anniversary of the publication of The Naked Lunch, we present this 1966 interview with William S. Burroughs, which originally appeared in Jaguar Magazine. It was excerpted here from Burroughs Live: The Collected Interviews of William S. Burroughs (Semiotext(e), 2001).
PROPHET OR PORNOGRAPHER
New York, 1966
Jaguar Magazine: You have been accused of being generally against the establishment, and many of your critics read “messages” into much of what the average reader may think of as simply extremely sexy. I refer specifically to the fairly violent scene which might easily be re-read as a kind of social protest — perhaps against capital punishment.
William Burroughs: It’s a tract against capital punishment in the genre of Swift’s Modest Proposal. I was simply following a formula to its logical conclusion. Some people appear to have understood it. The publication of Naked Lunch in England practically coincided with their abolition of capital punishment. The book obviously had a certain effect.
JM: Stanley Edgar Hyman wrote an attack on Naked Lunch treating that section as straight hardcore pornography. How do you explain such a distinguished literary critic reading that passage as pornography?
WB: I am not familiar with Mr. — what’s his name?
JM: Stanley Edgar Hyman.
WB: [Chuckling] Hyman. I am not familiar with Mr. Hyman, so I really don’t know what his emotions were. So many people in the Western World are just automatically made ill by any sort of frank writing about sexual matters.
JM: Do you advocate, as part of personality development, that people use drugs and experiment with various sexual experiences, many of which would be illegal in America?
WB: I feel that opiates — I include opium and all its derivatives, such as morphine, heroin, pantopon, etc. — are quite useless for any sort of creative work, useful though they may be for routine work. Much of the hard physical work in the Far East is done by opium addicts. On the other hand, the consciousness-expanding drugs — the hallucinogens, such as cannabis, mescaline, LSD, Psylocybin — I think are useful to a writer up to a certain point. That is, they open psychic areas that would not otherwise be available to the writer. But I feel that once these areas have been opened and the writer has reached them, he is able to get back there in the future without the drug. So, I certainly wouldn’t advocate anyone using them on a regular or habitual basis.
JM: In the Introduction, you say that Naked Lunch deals with the “algebra of need” and that junk is “the mold of monopoly and possession,” by which you seem to imply that the junkie is representative of everybody else in an economy where power is centralized and monopolized. Is that correct?
WB: Well, by the “algebra of need” I simply meant that, given certain known factors in an equation and the equation comprising a situation of absolute need — any form of need — you can predict the results. Leave a sick junkie in the back room of a drugstore and only one result is possible. The same is true of anyone in a state of absolute hunger, absolute fear, etc. The more absolute the need, the more predictable the behavior becomes until it is mathematically certain.
JM: In Naked Lunch, by combining autobiography with satire and fantasy, you confused some readers who couldn’t decide what was real and what wasn’t. Now, in your latest writings, instead of going back to something more normal, you’re going on into techniques even more radical, such as the cut-up method, in which you cut the pages into pieces and rearrange them and create what looks like chaos at first glance. Readers say that it is unintelligible and they simply cannot read it.
WB: I think if a writer is not endeavoring to expand and alter consciousness in himself and in his readers, he is not doing much of anything. It is precisely words, word lines, lines of words and images, and associations connected with these word and image lines in the brain, that keep you in present time, right where you are sitting now.
JM: The places that your characters visit in your books are places that don’t exist on the planet Earth, places like Interzone, Slotless City, Cut City, the Nova Ovens, Minraud, Upper Babboonsasshole. I have felt, and many people I have spoken to have a peculiar conviction about them, unlike any other fantasy writing, as if they actually existed. Have you actually visited these places while using consciousness expanding drugs?
WB: Yes. I got a number of them while using yagé, the South American telepathic drug. Many of the more unpleasant ones I got with N-dimethyltriptamine dim-N. Minraud I got with mescaline. But all of these places have real origins. Interzone is very much modeled on Tangier in the old international days: it was an Interzone, it was no country. The jungle scenes come from my South American explorations. Upper Babboon’s asshole is Upper Babanasa actually.