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.”