Naked Lunch On Trial

The method must be purest meat
and no symbolic dressing,
actual visions and actual prisons
as seen then and now.

Prisons and visions presented
with rare descriptions
corresponding exactly to those
of Alcatraz and Rose.

A naked lunch is natural to us,
we eat reality sandwiches.
But allegories are so much lettuce.
Don’t hide the madness.

— “On Burroughs’ Work” by Allen Ginsburg

[Edward De Grazia was the attorney appearing on behalf of the book Naked Lunch and its publisher at the Boston trial that preceded the July 7, 1966 Supreme Court of Massachusetts decision declaring Naked Lunch by William S. Burroughs NOT OBSCENE. At the Boston trial (excerpted here), Norman Mailer and Allen Ginsberg were among the witnesses who testified on behalf of Naked Lunch.]

MAILER: . . . . [A]s I was reading the book, I started thinking about a matter that is one of the mysteries of writing. It is very often you can wake up in the morning and start writing and you have this experience: what you are writing about is what you haven’t been thinking about. It will come out in detail. One’s best writing seems to bear no relation to what one is thinking about. There is an unconscious calculation that seems to go on in one’s sleep. The work is done while you sleep; and the discipline of writing is almost to keep from interfering with that creative work that is done by the unconscious. In other words, if a man is working on a novel, that his habits are regular and precise — I am getting long-winded here for a point. The best of his habits are regular because he doesn’t portray the work he is performing while conscious.

. . . . [W]hat is fascinating to me is that there is a structure to the book [i.e., Naked Lunch], you see, which is doubtless imperfect. I think one reason we can’t call it a great book like Remembrance of Things Past or Ulysses, is the imperfection of the structure. There is no doubt as to the man’s talent; while it was, perhaps, excited and flamed by drug addiction, it was also hurt. This man might have been one of the greatest geniuses of the English language if he had never been an addict. Through this there is a feeling of great torture in the composition of the book. What comes through to me is that there also is style, the subconscious going through all the various trials and ordeals of addiction, he still holds on to a scheme in the book; and there is a deep meaning. It is curious the way these themes keep recurring.

. . . . William Burroughs is in my opinion — whatever his conscious intention may be — a religious writer. There is a sense in Naked Lunch of the destruction of soul, which is more intense than any I have encountered in any other modern novel. It is a vision of how mankind would act if man was totally divorced from eternity. What gives this vision a machine-gun-edged clarity is an utter lack of sentimentality. The expression of sentimentality in religious matters comes forth usually as a sort of saccharine piety which revolts any idea of religious sentiment in those who are sensitive, discriminating, or deep of feeling. Burroughs avoids even the possibility of such sentimentality (which would, of course, destroy the value of his work), by attaching a stringent, mordant vocabulary to a series of precise and horrific events, a species of gallows humor which is a defeated man’s last pride, the pride that he has, at least, not lost his bitterness. So it is the sort of humor which flourishes in prisons, in the Army, among junkies, race tracks and pool halls, a graffiti of cool, even livid wit, based on bodily functions and the frailty of the body, the slights, humiliations and tortures a body can undergo. It is a wild and deadly humor, as even and implacable as a sales tax; it is the small coin of communication in every one of those worlds. Bitter as alkali, it pickles every serious subject in the caustic of the harshest experience; what is left untouched is as dry and silver as a bone. It is this sort of fine, dry residue which is the emotional substance of Burroughs’ work for me.

Just as Hieronymus Bosch set down the most diabolical and blood-curdling details with a delicacy of line and a Puckish humor which left one with a sense of the mansions of horror attendant upon Hell, so, too, does Burroughs leave you with an intimate, detailed vision of what Hell might look like, a Hell which may be waiting as a culmination, the final product of the scientific revolution. At the end of medicine is dope; at the end of life is death; at the end of man may be the Hell which arrives from the vanities of the mind. Nowhere, as in Naked Lunch‘s collection of monsters, half-mad geniuses, cripples, mountebanks, criminals, perverts, and putrefying beasts is there such a modern panoply of the vanities of the human will, of the excesses of evil which occur when the idea of personal or intellectual power reigns superior to the compassions of the flesh.

We are richer for that record; and we are more impressive as a nation because a publisher can print that record and sell it in an open book store, sell it legally, It even offers a hint that the “Great Society,” which Lyndon Johnson speaks of, may not be merely a politician’s high wind, but indeed may have the hard seed of a new truth; for no ordinary society could have the bravery and moral honesty to stare down into the abyss of Naked Lunch. But a Great Society can look into the chasm of its own potential Hell and recognize that it is stronger as a nation for possessing an artist who can come back from Hell with a portrait of its dimensions.

* * *

DE GRAZIA: . . . . With Your Honor’s permission, I would like at this point to read from a letter I received not very long ago from William Burroughs. “The question: What is sex? and the concomitant questions as to what is obscene, impure, is not asked, let alone answered, precisely because of barriers of semantic anxiety which precludes our free or, I think, objective scientific examination of sexual phenomena. How can these phenomena be studied if one is forbidden to write or think about them?

“Unless and until a free examination of sexual manifestations is allowed, man will continue to be controlled by sex rather than controlling. A phenomena totally unknown because deliberately ignored and ruled out as a subject for writing and research.

“What we are dealing with here is a barrier of what can only be termed medieval superstition and fear, precisely the same barrier that held up the natural sciences for some hundreds of years with dogma rather than examination and research. In short, the same objective methods that have been applied to natural science should now be applied to sexual phenomena with a view to understand and control these manifestations. A doctor is not criticized for describing the manifestations and symptoms of an illness, even though the symptoms may be disgusting.

“I feel that a writer has the right to the same freedom. In fact, I think that the time has come for the line between literature and science, a purely arbitrary line, to be erased.”

That is the end of the quote.

. . . . Let me quote once more, very briefly this time, from the founder of modern psychiatric science, Sigmund Freud: “Imaginative writers are valuable colleagues and their testimony is to be rated very highly because they draw on sources we have not yet made accessible to science. The portrayal of the psychic life of human beings is, of course, the imaginative writer’s most special demand. He has always been the forerunner of science and thus scientific psychology, too.” A very similar expression was made by one of this country’s leading educators, John Dewey; and I quote: “The freeing of the artist in literary presentation is as much a precondition of the desirable creation of adequate opinion on public matters as is the freeing of social inquiry. Artists have always been the real purveyors of news, for it is not the outward happening in itself which is news, but the kindling by it of emotion, perception and appreciation.”

1,000 Hysterical Pomeranians

Clem trips a spastic cripple and takes his crutches. . . . He does a hideous parody twitching and drooling. . . .

Riot noises in the distance — a thousand hysterical Pomeranians.

Shop shutters slam like guillotines. Drinks and trays hang in the air as the patrons are whisked inside by the suction of panic.

CHORUS OF FAGS: “We’ll all be raped. I know it. I know it.” They rush into a drugstore and buy a case of K. Y.

[William Burroughs, from Naked Lunch]

TELEPATHY: contact on the nonverbal level of intuition and feeling

I know from my own experience that telepathy is a fact. I have no interest in proving telepathy or anything to anybody. I do want usable knowledge of telepathy. What I look for in any relationship is contact on the nonverbal level of intuition and feeling, that is, telepathic contact.

— William Burroughs, Junky

The orgasm of a hanged man when his neck snaps

I lay on the narrow wood bench, twisting from one side to the other. My body was raw, twitching, tumescent, the junk-frozen flesh in agonizing thaw. I turned over on my stomach and one leg slipped off the bench. I pitched forward and the rounded edge of the bench, polished smooth by the friction of cloth, slid along my crotch. There was a sudden rush of blood to my genitals at the slippery contact. Sparks exploded behind my eyes; my legs twitched — the orgasm of a hanged man when the neck snaps.

— William Burroughs, Junky

I never could mix vigilance and sex . . .

In the French Quarter there are several queer bars that are so full every night the fags spill out on to the sidewalk. A room full of fags gives me the horrors. They jerk around like puppets on invisible strings, galvanized into hideous activity that is the negation of everything living and spontaneous. The live human being has moved out of these bodies long ago. But something moved in when the original tenant moved out. Fags are ventriloquists’ dummies who have moved in and taken over the ventriloquist. The dummy sits in a queer bar nursing his beer, and uncontrollably yapping out of a rigid doll face.

Occasionally, you find intact personalities in a queer bar, but fags set the tone of these joints, and it always brings me down to go into a queer bar. The bring-down piles up. After my first week in a town I have had about all I can take of these joints, so my bar business goes somewhere else, generally to a bar in or near Skid Row.

But I backslide now and then. One night, I got lobotomized drunk in Frank’s and went to a queer bar. I must have had more drinks in the queer joint, because there was a lapse of time. It was getting light outside when the bar hit one of those sudden pockets of quiet. Quiet is something that does not often happen in a queer joint. I guess most of the fags had left. I was leaning against the bar with a beer I didn’t want in front of me. The noise cleared like smoke and I saw a red-haired kid was looking straight at me and standing about three feet away.

He didn’t come on faggish, so I said, “How you making it?” or something like that.

He said: “Do you want to go to bed with me?”

I said, “O.K. Let’s go.”

As we walked out, he grabbed my bottle of beer off the bar and stuck it under his coat. Outside, it was daylight with the sun just coming up. We staggered through the French Quarter passing the beer bottle back and forth. He was leading the way in the direction of his hotel, so he said. I could feel my stomach knot up like I was about to take a shot after being off the junk a long time. I should have been more alert, of course, but I never could mix vigilance and sex. All this time he was talking in a sexy Southern voice which was not a New Orleans voice, and in the daylight he still looked good.

[From William Burroughs’ Junky]

The Facts about Weed

Tea heads are not like junkies. A junky hands you the money, takes his junk and cuts. But tea heads don’t do things that way. They expect the peddler to light them up and sit around talking for half an hour to sell two dollars’ worth of weed. If you come right to the point, they say you are a “bring down.” In fact, a peddler should not come right out and say he is a peddler. No, he just scores for a few good “cats” and “chicks” because he is viperish. Everyone knows that he himself is the connection, but it is bad form to say so. God knows why. To me, tea heads are unfathomable.

There are a lot of trade secrets in the tea business, and tea heads guard these supposed secrets with imbecilic slyness. For example, tea must be cured, or it is green and rasps the throat. But ask a tea head how to cure weed and he will give you a sly, stupid look and come-on with some double-talk. Perhaps weed does affect the brain with constant use, or maybe tea heads are naturally silly.

The tea I had was green so I put it in a double boiler and set the boiler in the oven until the tea got the greenish-brown look it should have. This is the secret of curing tea, or at least one way to do it.

Tea heads are gregarious, they are sensitive, and they are paranoiac. If you get to be known as a “drag” or a “bring down,” you can’t do business with them. I soon found out I couldn’t get along with these characters and I was glad to find someone to take the tea off my hands at cost. I decided right then I would never push any more tea.

In 1937, weed was placed under the Harrison Narctotics Act. Narcotics authorities claim it is a habit-forming drug, that its use is injurious to mind and body, and that it causes the people who use it to commit crimes. Here are the facts: Weed is positively not habit forming. You can smoke weed for years and you will experience no discomfort if your supply is suddenly cut off. I have seen tea heads in jail and none of them showed withdrawal symptoms. I have smoked weed myself off and on for fifteen years, and never missed it when I ran out. There is less habit to weed than there is to tobacco. Weed does not harm the general health. In fact, most users claim it gives you an appetite and acts as a tonic to the system. I do not know of any other agent that gives as definite a boot to the appetite. I can smoke a stick of tea and enjoy a glass of California sherry and a hash house meal.

I once kicked a junk habit with weed. The second day off junk I sat down and ate a full meal. Ordinarily, I can’t eat for eight days after kicking a habit.

Weed does not inspire anyone to commit crimes. I have never seen anyone get nasty under the influence of weed. Tea heads are a sociable lot. Too sociable for my liking. I cannot understand why people who claim weed causes crimes do not follow through and demand the outlawing of alchohol. Every day, crimes are commited by drunks who would not have commited the crime sober.

There has been a lot said about the aphrodisiac effect of weed. For some reason, scientists dislike to admit that there is such a thing as an aphrodisiac, so most pharmacologists say there is “no evidence to support the popular idea that weed possesses aphrodisiac properties.” I can say definitely that weed is an aphrodisiac and that sex is more enjoyable under the influence of weed than without it. Anyone who has used good weed will verify this statement.

— From Junky, by William Burroughs

Queer (quotes) :: William S. Burroughs

What Lee is looking for is contact or recognition, like a photon emerging from the haze of insubstantiality to leave an indelible recording in Allerton’s consciousness. Failing to find an adequate observer, he is threatened by painful dispersal, like an unobserved photon. (xvi)

“I glance at the manuscript of Queer and feel I simply can’t read it. My past was a poisoned river from which one was fortunate to escape, and by which one feels immediately threatened, years after the events recorded.  –Painful to an extent I find it difficult to read, let alone write about. Every word and gesture sets the teeth on edge.” (xvii)

The event towards which Lee feels himself inexorably driven is the death of his wife by his own hand, the knowledge of possession, a dead hand waiting to slip over his like a glove. So a smog of evil rises from the pages, an evil that Lee, knowing and yet not knowing, tries to escape with frantic flights of fantasy: his routines, which set one’s teeth on edge because of the ugly menace just behind or to one side of them, a presence palpable as a haze. . . .

My concept of possession is closer to the medieval model than to modern psychological explanations, with their dogmatic insistence that such manifestations must come from within and never, never, never from without. (As if there were some clear-cut difference between inner and outer.) I mean a definite possessing entity. And indeed, the psychological concept might well have been devised by the possessing entities, since nothing is more dangerous to a possessor than being seen as a separate invading creature by the host it has invaded. And for this reason the possessor shows itself only when absolutely necessary. (xix)

. . . This occasion was my first clear indication of something in my being that was not me, and not under my control. I remember a dream from this period: I worked as an exterminator in Chicago, in the late 1930’s, and lived in a rooming house on the near North Side. In the dream I am floating up near the ceiling with a feeling of utter death and despair, and looking down I see my body walking out the door with deadly purpose.

“Raw peeled winds of hate and mischance blew the shot.” (xx)

I am forced to the appalling conclusion that I would never have become a writer but for Joan’s death, and to a realization of the extent to which this event has motivated and formulated my writing. I live with the constant threat of possession, and a constant need to escape from possession, from Control.  So the death of Joan brought me in contact with the invader, the Ugly Spirit, and maneuvered me into a lifelong struggle, in which I have had no choice except to write my way out. (xxii)


Moor smiled into an inner mirror, a smile without a trace of warmth, but it was not a cold smile: it was the meaningless smile of senile decay, the smile that goes with false teeth, the smile of a man grown old and stir-simple in the solitary confinement of exclusive self-love. . . . He had pale blue eyes and very white skin. There were dark patches under his eyes and two deep lines around the mouth. He looked like a child, and at the same time like a prematurely aged man. His face showed the ravages of the death process, the inroads of decay in flesh cut off from the living charge of contact. Moor was motivated, literally kept alive and moving, by hate, but there was no passion or violence in his hate. Moor’s hate has a slow, steady push, weak but infinitely persistent, waiting to take advantage of any weakness in another. The slow drip of Moor’s hate had etched the lines of decay in his face. He had aged without experiencing life, like a piece of meat rotting on a pantry shelf.

. . . Actually Moor’s brush-off was calculated to inflict the maximum hurt possible under the circumstances. It put Lee in the position of a detestably insistent queer, too stupid and too insensitive to realize that his attentions were not wanted, forcing Moor to the distasteful necessity of drawing a diagram.

Lee tipped his chair back against the wall and looked around the room. Someone was writing a letter at the next table. If he had overheard the conversation, he gave no sign. The proprietor was reading the bull-fight section of the paper, spread out on the counter in fron of him. A silence peculiar to Mexico seeped into the room, a vibrating, soundless hum. — Joe finished his beer, wiped his mouth with the back of his hand, and stared at the wall with watery, bloodshot blue eyes. The silence seeped into Lee’s body, and his face went slack and blank. The effect was curiously spectral, as though you could see through his face. The face was ravaged and vicious and old, but the clear, green eyes were dreamy and innocent.

Moor went on and on, following the circular route of the true hypochondriac, back to tuberculosis and the urine test. Lee though he had never heard anything as tiresome and depressing. Moor did not have tuberculosis or kidney trouble or undulant fever. He was sick with the sickness of death. Death was in every cell of his body. He gave off a faint, greenish steam of decay. Lee imagined he would glow in the dark.

He froze in front of a restaurant like a bird dog: “Hungry . . . quicker to eat here than buy something and cook it.” When Lee was hungry, when he wanted a drink or a shot of morphine, delay was unbearable.

He nodded to Lee. Lee tried to achieve a greeting at once friendly and casual, designed to show interest without pushing their short acquaintance. The result was ghastly. — As Lee stood aside to bow in his dignified old-world greeting, there emereged instead a leer of naked lust, wrenched in the pain and hate of his deprived body and, in simultaneous double exposure, a sweet child’s smile of liking and trust, shockingly out of time and out of place, mutilated and hopeless. — Allerton was appalled. “Perhaps he has some sort of tic,” he thought. He decided to remove himself from contact with Lee before the man did something even more distasteful. The effect was like a broken connection. Allerton was not cold or hostile; Lee simply wasn’t there so far as he was concerned. Lee looked at him helplessly for a moment, then turned back to the bar, defeated and shaken.

Had he ever met Lee? He could not be sure. Formal introductions were not expected among the G.I. students. Was Lee a student? There was nothing unusual in talking to someone you didn’t know, but Lee put Allerton on guard. The man was somehow familiar to him. When Lee talked, he seemed to mean more than what he said. A special emphasis to a word or a greeting hinted at a period of familiarity in some other time and place. As though Lee were saying, “You know what I mean. You remember.” — Allerton shrugged irritably and began arranging the chess pieces on the board. He looked like a sullen child unable to locate the source of his ill temper.

Lee watched the thin hands, the beautiful violet eyes, the flush of excitement on the boy’s face. An imaginary hand projected with such force it seemed Allerton must feel the ectoplasmic fingers caressing his ear, phantom thumbs smoothing his eyebrows, pushing the hair back from his face. Now Lee’s hands were running down over the ribs , the stomach. Lee felt the aching pain of desire in his lungs. His mouth was a little open, showing his teeth in th half-snarl of a baffled animal. He licked his lips. — Lee did not enjoy frustration. The limitations of his desires were like the bars of a cage, like a chain and collar, something he had learned as an animal learns, through days and years of experiencing the snub of the chain, the unyielding bars. He had never resigned himself, and his eyes looked out through the invisible bars, watchful, alert, waiting for the keeper to forget the door, for the frayed collar, the loosened bar . . . suffering without despair and without consent.

After that, Lee met Allerton every day at five in the Ship Ahoy. Allerton was accustomed to choose his friends from people older than himself, and he looked forward to meeting Lee. Lee had conversational routines that Allerton had never heard. But he felt at times oppressed by Lee, as though Lee’s presence shut off everything else. He thought he was seeing too much of Lee. — Allerton disliked commitments, and had never been in love or had a close friend. He was now forced to ask himself: “What does he want from me?” It did not occur to him that Lee was queer, as he associated queerness with at least some degree of overt effeminacy. He decided finally that Lee valued him as an audience.