The Naked Apocalypse of William S. Burroughs’ Naked Lunch - by Polina Mackay

The Naked Apocalypse of William S. Burroughs’ Naked Lunch


Polina Mackay



* This text first appeared in the Vol. 3 (number 3) issue of Ashé! - Journal of Experimental Spirituality 

 © Ecloga



The roaring of lions, the howling of wolves, the raging of the stormy sea, and the destructive sword, are portions of eternity too great for the eye of man. (William Blake, The Marriage of Heaven and Hell, p. 7)


In 1980, William S. Burroughs delivered a speech at the Planet Earth Conference at the Institute of Ecotechnics in Aix-en-Provence titled ‘The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse’.1 In this speech, Burroughs, following religious tradition, says that the four horsemen of the apocalypse are Famine, Plague, War, and Death and moves on to prophesise a more contemporaneous apocalypse. In Burroughs’ apocalypse, War and Plague, for example, have become allies; this alliance, Burroughs announces, ‘was cemented with the first germ experiments’ (Burroughs, 1984, p. 12). The danger of these experiments lies in their ability to not only create new viruses but to also turn them into biological weapons. But for Burroughs there is a significant similarity between a twentieth-century-specific apocalypse, with its radiation and contaminants, and the religious apocalypse of the four horsemen. For Burroughs, both types of apocalypse ‘have no meaning outside of human context, they are in fact human inventions’ (p. 17). More specifically, they are the essential flaws in what Burroughs calls the ‘human artifact’ (p. 17) and in our evolution as a species. For Burroughs, the only way out is to first understand that our biological destiny ‘is in Space, and that our failure to achieve this is the basic flaw in the human artifact’ (p. 24). This speech constitutes Burroughs’ first appearance in the scene as an apocalyptist. Previous to this, he was best known as one of the fundamental members of the Beat Generation movement, as the exponent of disorder and drug abuse, or, along with Brion Gysin, as one of the first practitioners of ‘cut-ups’ in literature. But he was never considered to be an apocalyptist before this speech. As I shall argue in this paper, in Naked Lunch (1959), Burroughs serves us a naked apocalypse that is not simply cataclysmic and frightening but eternal, parodic, and comic.


In 1988, Burroughs was asked to write the introduction to a Keith Haring exhibition catalogue, Apocalypse.2 In it, Burroughs is more specific about his conception of the apocalypse:


Consider an apocalyptic statement: ‘Nothing is true, everything is permitted’ ­ Hassan i Sabbath. Not to be interpreted as an invitation to all manner of unrestrained and destructive behavior; that would be a minor episode, which would run its course. Everything is permitted because nothing is true. It is all make-believe, illusion, dream…. ART. When art leaves the frame and the written world leaves the page ­ not merely the physical frame and page, but the frames and pages of assigned categories ­ a basic disruption of reality occurs: the literal realization of art… Success will write APOCALYPSE across the sky. (Burroughs and Haring, p. 1)


If nothing is true then there can be no prohibition and no law and everything is permitted, and permitted in the form of creative art because only that can disrupt reality. The effect of Burroughs’ experiments with writing is to demystify literature as an institution and to make it available for creative work. ‘Anybody can make cut-ups’, he says in The Third Mind, his collaborative work with Brion Gysin, ‘it is experimental in the sense of being something to do’ (Burroughs and Gysin, 1979, p. 31). But the disruption of reality that Burroughs demands is, as Timothy S. Murphy points out, ‘neither the modern disruption of traditional structures of value, nor the postmodern disruption of modernist mythologizing; rather, it is the “literal realization of art”, a realization which simultaneously requires the destruction of art as a separate category, as a mirror to nature and life’ (Murphy, p. 6). When art frees itself from the model of truth the myth of apocalypse will be re-written to fit the new ‘dis-order’.

It might seem from Burroughs’ introduction to the Keith Haring catalogue that he does not envision a conventional apocalypse, with its Satans, Antichrists, or disasters. But the kind of apocalypse that Burroughs describes in Naked Lunch is preceded by catastrophe; like any other apocalyptist Burroughs sees the future breaking into the present, and this world being replaced by a new order. In addition to this, Burroughs envisions a post-apocalyptic world in which socio-political systems are totalitarian and infect people with viruses, abandoning them to deteriorate. This post-apocalyptic world is very similar to Burroughs’ representation of the present in Naked Lunch. It is not clear whether Burroughs describes an exaggerated 1950’s and 1960s present or whether he prophesies such an apocalypse in order to somehow prevent it. This is the degree to which the vision of the future blends in with the present in the book.


Keith Haring, graffiti artist of the 1980s, provides an image that helps us illustrate Burroughs’ conception of the apocalypse in Naked Lunch. Haring’s ‘Untitled, June 3, 1984’, depicts a human figure crucified upside down. For me this image signifies the final condemnation of the body: the body is, like Christ, in the end crucified ­ that is, betrayed, humiliated, and punished. The possibility of resurrection is crushed for what Haring and Burroughs are most interested in is showing the conditions of crucifixion ­ that is, the systems of discipline and punishment that make crucifixion possible. In Haring’s image and in Naked Lunch, these conditions are laid bare in simple, naked mouthfuls.


Examining Burroughs’ and Haring’s personal relations and looking at the group of artists and writers they circulated with, helps us to contextualise their work. Haring was a member of the East Village art scene of the late 1970s and early 1980s. This scene was an anarchic movement of New York writers, artists and musicians. At the height of the cold war, the East Village artists such as the ‘wall-posters’ Jenny Holzer and Barbara Kruger, the graffiti artists Kenny Scharf and Jean-Michel Basquiat, or the performance artist Ann Magnuson, produced the kind of work that seemed to summarise, as Peter von Ziegesar puts it, ‘the apocalyptic visions and vivid anarchic political beliefs of a desperate, dead-end culture’ (Ziegesar, p. 285). Haring’s figure, to use the same example, signifies the direct attack on the sense of selfhood, and the inevitable exhaustion of past mythologies (e.g. crucifixion) brought about by a culture that is conceived as cul-de-sac.


Burroughs was the true patron saint of the East Village. This scene was a continuation of the junk-punk scene in the 1970s, a scene that saw Burroughs as a totemic figure, an example to follow. As Ted Morgan notes, for the punks ‘here was this recognized author of venerable years and conservative mien, and he was a junky, too, man. Burroughs seemed to validate the taking of hard drugs. It was like Daddy giving you permission’ (Morgan, p. 539). Burroughs’ relation to the East Village and Punk scene has already been well documented in Legs McNeil and Gillian McCain’s Please Kill Me: The Uncensored Oral History of Punk (1996). Putting aside the biographical connections between Burroughs and artists such as Haring and the Punks (e.g. Patti Smith, Tom Verlaine, or Richard Hell), one can argue that the East Village scene seems to have come straight out of Naked Lunch. The two ‘discourses’ share the following: obsessions with all kinds of viruses, extraterrestrials, government conspiracies, and addiction to everything and anything; the artistic experimentation; the paranoid search for ways out; the dismantlement of the so-called American dream; the homosexuality; the trancelike parties. The dead-end culture of the punk scene can be summarised in a sentence from Naked Lunch: ‘[P]recise, prosaic impact of objects… washstand… door…toilet… bars… there they are… this is it… all lines cut… nothing beyond… Dead End… And the Dead End in every face…’ (Burroughs, 1993, p. 22). Many of these artists and writers admitted that their major influence was the work of Burroughs. Haring for example wrote in his journals:


The major influence, although it is not the sole influence, has been the work of William S. Burroughs. His profound realizations, which I encountered in radio broadcasts of the Nova Convention, and in the book The Third Mind by Burroughs and Brion Gysin, which I have just begun to read, are beginning to tie up a lot of loose ends in my own work and thinking. (Haring, p. 31)


Naked Lunch, then, became the manifesto of the East Village scene of the late 1970s and early 1980s; its antiestablishment message, spilled over its pages over twenty years earlier, became the words behind the posters or the graffiti images of the scene. However, the scene is different from the protest, antiwar art of the 1960s. As Peter von Ziegesar notes, ‘the most notable difference is that the contemporary artist often takes an ironic stance of acceptance toward nuclear and other potential holocausts, feigning to embrace them because they will spell the end of a boring and pointless bourgeois world’ (Ziegesar, p. 284). Naked Lunch takes a similar ironic stance toward prospective catastrophes, structuring not a cataclysmic end but an end that brings about an alternative universe in which a few basic things, such as the human body, are unalterably mutated. To this end, Burroughs’ book is not about antiwar revolution. For these artists, he is not the exponent of a meaningless random order as Frank Kermode took him to be in the 1960s (Kermode, p. 117). Rather, Naked Lunch constitutes a genuine response to the climate of progress, American capitalism, and social conformity of the 1950s and 1960s.


Burroughs, as a source of inspiration, is like an angel of history, taking the censors by storm, constructing an apocalyptic vision by dissecting the past. Walter Benjamin brought the term ‘angel of history’ to the centre of twentieth century culture and criticism. Benjamin’s angel of history, like Burroughs, is hurled in horror by the storm of progress:


A Klee painting named ‘Angelus Novus’ shows an angel looking as though he is about to move away from something he is fixedly contemplating. His eyes are staring, his mouth is open, his wings are spread. This is how one pictures the angel of history. His face is turned toward the past. Where we perceive a chain of events, he sees one single catastrophe which keeps piling wreckage upon wreckage and hurls it in front of his feet. The angel would like to stay, awaken the dead, and make whole what has been smashed. But a storm is blowing from Paradise; it has got caught in his wings with such violence that the angel can no longer close them. This storm irresistibly propels him into the future to which his back is turned, while the pile of debris before him grows skyward. This storm is what we call progress. (Benjamin, p. 249)


Burroughs, the writer of the doomed future, the prophesier of alien attacks, and the Messiah of the apocalyptic end, creates a storm, with his fiction, and constructs its apocalyptic vision by scrutinising the past. His face is turned toward the past and, in realising his paradise lost, he can only keep his wings open to spill the naked truth - the bare realisation that there is no way out of history and the ideology of progress. Benjamin bequeaths to postmodern culture its most apocalyptic representation. Benjamin’s storm is both cataclysmic and also implies that something precious is eternally being lost. But Burroughs shares something more with Benjamin’s vision of the end: his work is not marked by apocalyptic illusions that are linked to literary form, though it indulges in a glorification of substance abuse, as Kermode points out about Burroughs and the rest of what he calls ‘avant-garde’ (Kermode, pp 117-8). His work therefore performs an apocalyptic quest that, like Benjamin and the angel’s sense of an ending, is visible in the apocalyptic tones of the spectacle not in the end product itself.


Burroughs links the myth of apocalypse with institutions. His aim is to expose the apocalyptic claims of institutions in order to unveil their illusionary nature. For Burroughs, institutions make these claims to seduce people into thinking in certain ways, into believing that, in the light of the apocalypse to come, they have to obey. Burroughs’ sense of apocalypse is a direct consequence of institutionalised power and progress, and this is why, in Naked Lunch, the passages that describe this apocalypse refer to it as being defined in relation to these institutions. The following is one example of many:


Scientists will say: ‘Sending is like atomic power…. If properly harnessed’. At his point an anal technician mixes a bicarbonate of soda and pulls the switch that reduces the earth to cosmic dust. (‘Belch… They’ll hear this fart on Jupiter’.)… Artists will confuse sending with creation. They will camp around screeching ‘A new medium’ until their rating drops off…. Philosophers will bat around the ends and means hassle not knowing that sending can never be a means to anything but more sending, like Junk. Try using junk as a means to something else…. Some citizens with ‘Coca Cola and aspirin’ control habits will be talking about the evil glamor of sending. But no one will talk about anything very long. The Sender, he don’t like talking. (Burroughs, 1993, p. 136)


In Naked Lunch, the Senders are one of what Burroughs calls the ‘Interzone parties’. The Senders control others by monitoring the others’ transmission of messages. Moreover the Senders are agents of what Burroughs calls the ‘human virus’, a virus that was originally brought to earth by the Venusians and attacks and mutates the human race. Gradually the virus has been incorporated by humans and has gone to become the ‘other half’ of the human body and the ‘word virus’ - that is, language. The Senders behave like the virus in that, in controlling the transmission of messages, they penetrate and mutate those on the receiving end. In this sense, similar to Derrida’s account of the apocalyptic tone, the Senders affect not only the meaning of the message but also their senders and receivers. In Burroughs’ hands, the receiver is mutated to the highest degree to become, like the sender, a viral organism conditioned to pass on the infectious virus.

In the extract above, Burroughs envisions an apocalypse caused and orchestrated by the institutions of science, art, philosophy, and production. Burroughs’ version of the apocalypse at this point is triggered off by the scientists’ use of atomic power. The use of what might be best called language of progress, ‘sending is like atomic power… If properly harnessed’, functions to unveil an apocalyptic world that is horrific, critical, and comic. Burroughs’ post-apocalyptic world would consist of artists endlessly talking about the new medium of art, philosophers mumbling forever about ends and means of the world, and citizens addicted to Coca Cola or aspirin. But, most importantly, these social groups operate according to the codes of sending; sending for the scientists is like atomic power; artists confuse sending with creation; philosophers are convinced that sending can lead to more than just sending; and consumers only talk about the glamour of sending. In other words, in this post-apocalyptic world the message is not only changed to fit the needs of the various participants but also mutates the sender as well as the receiver to create a new form of subjectivity. This new form is parodic and satirical; as I take it, it demonstrates Burroughs’ mocking of the supposedly tolerant United States of the 1950s and the sense of American social conformity, and reveals his long-standing hostility towards institutionalized power. This new form of subjectivity dramatizes his sense that any subjectivity is somehow split and alien in that subjectivity, and like institutions, is a fragile illusion conditioned to endlessly change.


Burroughs’ sense of apocalypse functions to create not only a new form of subjectivity but also a fiction of historical order, in that he creates a comprehensive literature to narrate history as a narrative of apocalypse. He envisions a complex history that, as in much of apocalyptic literature, is fundamentally concerned with our human relation to the changing forms of temporal reality, not with static simplifications. The myth of apocalypse is the principal narrative force within this history and lends its structural patterns to create a model of an apocalyptic vision that, as Klee’s ‘Angelus Novus’, turns away from progress, which is imaged as a catastrophic storm.


This horrific apocalypse is not the only kind of apocalypse that one finds in Naked Lunch. The book also envisions a comic apocalypse. In his introduction, J. G. Ballard rightly describes this paradoxical effect: ‘From its opening words we are aware that a unique world ­ comic, paranoid, visionary, delirious ­ is being revealed to us. Bizarre and nightmarish scenes flash by, like glimpses of some exotic and decadent city’ (Burroughs, 1993, p. 1). One of these comic apocalyptic moments is found in the episode of the carnival man’s tale. A man teaches his anus to talk and eventually the anus takes over from the mouth, reducing the man to a blob of flesh. The apocalyptic tone is located in this moment.


Then [the anus] developed sort of teeth-like little raspy incurving hooks and started eating. He thought this was cute at first and built an act around it, but the asshole would eat its way through his pants and start talking on the street, shouting out it wanted equal rights. It would get drunk, too, and have crying jags nobody loved it and it wanted to be kissed same as any other mouth. Finally it talked all the time day and night, you could hear him for blocks screaming at it to shut up, and beating it with his fist, and sticking candles up it, but nothing did any good and the asshole said to him: ‘It’s you who will shut up in the end. Not me. Because we don’t need you around here any more. I can talk and eat and shit’.

After that he began waking up in the morning with a transparent jelly like a tadpole’s tail all over his mouth… He would tear it off his mouth and the pieces would stick to his hands like burning gasoline jelly and grow there, grow anywhere on him a glob of it fell. So finally his mouth sealed over, and the whole head would have amputated spontaneous… except for the eyes you dig. That’s one thing the asshole couldn’t do was see. It needed the eyes. But nerve connections were blocked and infiltrated and atrophied so the brain couldn’t give orders any more. It was trapped in the skull, sealed off. For a while you could see the silent, helpless suffering of the brain behind the eyes, then finally the brain must have died, because the eyes went out, and there was no more feeling in them than a crab’s eye on the end of a stalk. (pp. 110-111)


Dr Benway, the controversial physician, is one of the most frequently used characters in the book. His tale of the carnival man, in turn, is one of the most quoted episodes in critical analysis of Burroughs’ work. For example, Robin Lydenberg begins her critique of the book by quoting the tale in arguing that the story is part of a history of a battle for domination, the digestive (anus) versus the linguistic (mouth) function (Lydenberg, pp. 22-23). Wayne Pounds adopts the same technique in arguing that the tale parodies such battles for domination (Pounds, pp. 611-629). Alvin Seltzer provides a more conventional interpretation of the tale, interpreting it as ‘an allegorical equivalent of bureaucracies that feed off their host, creating their own needs which finally render the host helpless and unhappy’ (Seltzer, p. 346).


Benway’s tale of the carnival man is simultaneously humorous and sad. Apart from the obvious humorous resonances in the idea of ‘ass-talk’, one has to come to terms with the tragicomic implications of underestimating the anus. Talking and defecating are brought to the same level, reducing talking to mere blabbing and giving defecating the ability to produce meaning. The sound of the ‘ass-talk’ is a sound you can smell, which is emphasised by Burroughs in italics, to make the association between ‘ass-talk’ and farting noticeable. The anus’s demands for ‘equal rights’ and its desire to be kissed like any other mouth are extremely funny parodies of the contemporary revolutionary demands for equal rights by oppressed groups, such as ethnic minorities and women, in America. The tale is about control, about the struggle between the oral and the anal: ‘It’s you who will shut up in the end. Not me. Because we don’t need you around here any more. I can talk and eat and shit’. This is a struggle that ends up in apparent victory for the anus: it can talk, eat, and shit; the mouth is no longer needed. But the anus’s victory is momentary because it cannot see.

At this point, the narrator elevates seeing to the status of the most important sense. This is typical of Burroughs’ fiction; the act of seeing is often associated with vision and delirium, two of the most significant concepts in his early work, such as Junky (1959), Nova Express (1964), The Ticket That Exploded (1962) and, of course Naked Lunch. Burroughs wrote these works under the influence of drugs and claims that he has no precise memory of writing Naked Lunch (Burroughs, 1993, p. 7). These works thus record the visions and deliriums under the influence of hard drugs. In Naked Lunch, the apocalyptic moments are often located in or produced by visionary deliriums caused by drug abuse. Equally, most revelations happen in the same fashion. As Derrida suggests, ‘we know that every apocalyptic eschatology is promised in the name of light, of seeing and vision, and of a light of light, of a light brighter than all the lights it makes possible’ (Derrida, p. 22). Seeing and vision play a crucial role in the carnival man’s story. As the story develops and, as the carnival man’s body deteriorates into a jelly-like substance, ‘Undifferentiated Tissue’, his eyes ‘go out’ and there is no more feeling in them. It is at this instant that the apocalyptic moment is subverted: instead of a revelation the carnival man experiences a covering; the world is covered for the man not to see. In this sense, the apocalypse creates a dark world in which the subjects literally cannot see the past, the present, or what is to come. Yet, the image of the carnival man does not lose its comic edge as he is, in the end, reduced to a blind blob of flesh because of too much ‘ass-talk’, because of paying too much attention to his arse.


The carnival man’s tale is an example of Naked Lunch’s many comic apocalyptic moments. Burroughs suggests that these moments, and the whole of the book for that matter, are not supposed to be taken seriously. In the last few pages of the novel, the narrator claims that the narrative records nothing but ‘prophetic mutterings’:


This book spill off the page in all directions, kaleidoscope of vistas, medley of tunes and street noises, farts and riot yipes and the slamming steel shutters of commerce, screams of pain and pathos and screams plain pathic, copulating cats and outraged squawk of the displaced bull head, prophetic mutterings of brujo in nutmeg trances, snapping necks and screaming mandrakes, sigh of orgasm, heroin silent as dawn in the thirsty cells, Radio Cairo screaming like a berserk tobacco auction, and flutes of Ramadan fanning the sick junky like a gentle lush worker in the grey subway dawn feeling with delicate fingers for the green folding crackle. (Burroughs. 1993, p. 180)


Indeed, Naked Lunch cataclysmically spills off the page in all directions to talk about promiscuous sex, drug abuse, trances, and death. This cataclysm of at the time censored narratives helps to define the book as, in the words of Burroughs, ‘signal flares of orgasm burst over the world’ (p. 165), a near orgasmic experience of the subject on the edge, that is, the moment when the subject is in pain, on drugs, screaming. The second half of the extract clearly states how the book actually consists of prophetic mutterings of nutmeg and heroin trances, confessions of a sick junky that happily exists outside the supposed norm. The paragraph that follows this extract finally reveals what the above extract actually describes and ultimately, as I take it, what Naked Lunch is about: ‘This is Revelation and Prophecy of what I can pick up without FM on my 1920 crystal set with antennae of jissom’ (p. 180). So, the book both prophesies as well as reveals an apocalyptic world. This world and prophecy are not universal but very specific; they are what the narrator can pick up on his own 1920 radio ­ that is, his own experience ­ using as antennae his own jissom ­ that is, his sexual experiences and sexuality. In Burroughs’ Naked Lunch, revelation and prophecy are related to sexual activity but only to a degree ­ they have more to do with our knowledge of the conditions under which they are constructed as narratives. However, this knowledge seems to be an impossibility because the subject ­ that is, the writer or reader ­ is absent from the narratives of the apocalypse: ‘[Y]ou were not there for The Beginning. You will not be there for The End… Your knowledge of what is going on can only be superficial and relative’ (pp. 173-4). The absence of the subject for the beginning and for the apocalyptic moment is vital because suddenly the apocalypse loses its cataclysmic edge. The subject is not there to either be saved or condemned by God. If the subject is absent from this moment, what is there to suddenly destroy? The word virus ­ that is, language ­ and Burroughs’ fiction imprison the subject in body, time, and excrement. This is why it is the body that has to offer resistance: ‘Gentle Reader, we see God through our assholes in the flash bulb of orgasm….

Through these orifices transmute your body…. The way OUT is the IN…’ (p. 180). In the end, the body, like the subject, falls. The gradual fall of the body becomes a central narrative in Burroughs’ fiction, especially in his later fiction in which the corpse replaces the living body. At the same time, the absence of the subject at the crucial moments of beginning and end is part of the stripping off of the conventional elements of the apocalypse. Burroughs’ apocalypse does not make room for the screaming subjects, the catatonic faces, in general, the people running amok. This apocalypse is different. This apocalypse is naked. The spectacle of the apocalypse, Burroughs claims, is so unique that it ‘buggers description’:


Gentle reader, the ugliness of that spectacle buggers description. Who can be a cringing pissing coward, yet vicious as a purple-assed mandril, alternating these deplorable conditions like vaudeville skits? Who can shit on a fallen adversary who, dying, eats the shit and screams joy? Who can hang a weak passive and catch his sperm in mouth like a vicious dog? Gentle reader, I fain would spare you this, but my pen hath its will like the Ancient Mariner. Oh Christ what a scene is this! Can tongue or pen accommodate these scandals? (p. 44)


Burroughs’ pen dares to accommodate these scandals because, unlike Blake’s proverb, the roaring lions, the howling of wolves, the raging of the stormy sea, and the destructive sword (quoted in epigram) are already here, not just out in the world, but served in Naked Lunch. But it is something that had to be done. Burroughs’ pen, unlike Blake’s in the proverb, and similar to the Ancient Mariner’s will not spare the reader from this. Not just because Burroughs is trying to impress with his shock tactics, but also because he seems to believe in the resurrection of the viral, fallen, decaying subject.


The naked apocalypse is a narrative strand in the novel that is part of Burroughs’ strategy that aims to show that ‘as always the lunch is naked’ (p. 12). The relationship between the apocalypse and the world is not allegorical but logical, literal, and mathematical. The literalness is a step towards a naked awareness of the imprisonment of the subject by systems of control, of the fake visions presented to them by socio-political institutions, and of the literal madness that it is to be part of such systems. This is what the title, Naked Lunch, signifies. Ginsberg was the first to suggest at the trial of the book that the title relates to the ‘nakedness of seeing, to be able to see clearly without any confusing disguises, to see through the disguise’. As Burroughs himself announces in the introduction to the book, naked lunch is ‘a frozen moment when everyone sees what is on the end of every fork’ (p. 7). To quote Eric Mottram, it is ‘the moment a man realizes his cannibalism, his predatory condition, and his necessary parasitism and addictive nature’ (Mottram, p. 15). A naked apocalypse, then, reveals that this is precisely Burroughs’ intention ­ ‘to offer us a naked lunch, a revelation of what is really going on and not an allegorical evasion’ (Lydenberg, p. 9). The message, then, is literal, simple, and clear. This is why Naked Lunch is a ‘How-To’ book. It is a book that exposes a naked mouthful that tells the reader how to call for socio-political change, how to see behind capitalist and government conspiracies, and how to challenge capital punishment, to name a few of Burroughs’ aims.


Cavorting in the brink of apocalypse, the novel invades every inch of the reader. In every page, we see Burroughs orchestrating an orgy of cannibals, viruses, and cadavers, repeatedly asking the reader to become a knight, to swallow the naked truth. But the four horsemen of this apocalypse lead the way to eternal loss and disintegration. And this is Burroughs’ ultimate aim: to describe the ugliness of the spectacle as forcefully as he can. The repeated requests for resistance, especially from the reader, are, as the rest of the novel, nothing but ‘mutterings’ of a junkie shivering in the sick morning.

We can conclude, then, that Burroughs’ prose aspires to a direct naked seeing ­ and what it sees is no comforting vision of transcendence, resurrections, or calmness after the horrific apocalypse but a comical yet ugly mixture of violence and boredom, viruses feeding off bodies, humans feeding off humans, life falling to final death. There will remain in Burroughs’ vision of the future the prospect of reviving what has been lost, the body, the subject, and language in a new form ­ that is, as they might exist outside time, institutional power, and monolithic subjectivity. This hope for a possibility of the future is, however, left for his later ‘cut-up’ novels: at the end of Naked Lunch all we have is the grim humour of a naked author who describes even the Last Judgement as ‘the last erection’ (Burroughs, 1993, p. 83).


Works Cited


Benjamin, Walter, Illuminations (London: Fontana Press, 1992)

Blake, William, The Marriage of Heaven and Hell (London: Bernard Quaritch, 1885)

Burroughs, William, The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse (Germany: E.M.E., 1984)

Burroughs, William, and Gysin, Brion, The Third Mind (London: John Calder, 1979)

Burroughs, William, and Haring, Keith, Apocalypse (New York: George Mulder Fine Arts, 1988)

Burroughs, William, Naked Lunch (London: Flamingo, 1993)

Derrida, Jacques, Margins of Philosophy, trans. Bass, Alan (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1982)

Kermode, Frank, The Sense of an Ending: Studies in the Theory of Fiction (New York: Oxford UP, 1967)

Haring, Keith, Journals (London: Fourth Estate, 1996)

Lydenberg, Robin, Word Cultures: Radical Theory and Practice in William S. Burroughs’ Fiction (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1987)

McNeil, Legs, and McCain, Gillian, Please Kill Me: The Uncensored Oral History of Punk (London: Little Brown and Company, 1996)

Morgan, Ted, Literary Outlaw: The Life and Times of William S. Burroughs (London: Pimlico, 1991)

Mottram, Eric, The Algebra of Need (Canada: Beau Fleuve Series, 1971)

Murphy, Timothy S., Wising Up the Marks: The Amodern William Burroughs (London: University of California Press, 1997)

Pounds, Wayne, ‘The Postmodern Anus: Parody and Utopia in Two Recent Novels by William Burroughs’ in Poetics Today, 8:3-4, 1987, pp.611-629

Seltzer, Alvin, Chaos in the Novel, the Novel in Chaos (New York: Schocken Books, 1974)

Ziegesar, Peter von, ‘After Armageddon: Apocalyptic Art Since the Seventies: Tactics of Survival in a Postnuclear Planet’ in Strozier, Charles B. and Flynn, Michael, eds., The Year 2000: Essays on the End (London: New York UP, 1997)

Polina Mackay is a Ph.D. student and Graduate Teaching Assistant at the Department of English, Birkbeck College (University of London). Her research interests include the writings of the Beat Generation, contemporary women's fictions and the modern Gothic.

This work originally appeared in Ecloga, Spring 2002, published by the Department of English Studies, University of Strathclyde, Glasgow, Scotland.

1 The speech was published in a book with the same title in 1984.


   2 A similar text, with not much variation, is read in Burroughs' first compact disc, Dead City Radio (Island Records, 1990)



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