Naked Lunch is the book that catapulted William S. Burroughs from a minor author and figure of interest in the wake of beatnik hysteria into a notorious and, eventually, respected postmodernist writer. His book shocked the literary world and continues to do so, despite having more or less become canon. It has had an immense impact upon literature, art, and music in the West, and famously won a court case to signal a shift away from repressive censorship in American law. It is also known, however, for its eerily accurate prophesies.
The best known of Burroughs’ prophesies is that of his African-originated, sexually-transmitted disease which is chillingly similar to AIDS. Written a quarter of a century before the first recorded case of AIDS, Burroughs introduces a “virus venereal disease indigenous to Ethiopia,” which “shows a distinct predilection for Negroes… Not that Caucasians are immune.” It was spread from Africa via sailors and quickly spread through anal sex, though it was not limited solely to that method of transmission. His disease has spread all over the world, including New Orleans and Capetown – two cities with historically high occurrences of AIDS – and there is no treatment.
More than fifty years before the 9/11 terrorist attacks and sixty years prior to the rise of ISIS, Burroughs imagined Islam Inc., a shady organization, “the exact objectives [of which] are obscure.” This is a group of radical Islamists who engage in suicide bombing:
Nationalist martyrs with grenades up the ass mingle with the assembled conferents and suddenly explode, occasioning heavy casualties…
Their “gatherings invariably culminate in riots,” he says, which is likely an allusion to actual Arab riots Burroughs witnessed in Tangiers in 1955-56, which he described in his letters—though not in Naked Lunch—as “jihad jitters.”
Though of course this existed prior to the writing of Naked Lunch, and appeared in literature before Burroughs’ time, perhaps few works have ever or will ever be as famous as Burroughs’ masterpiece for portraying orgasm by hanging…
Green sparks explode behind his eyes and sweet toothache pain shoots through his neck down the spine to the groin, contracting the body in spasms of delight. His whole body squeezes out through his cock. A final spasm throws a great spit of semen across the red screen like a shooting star.
It may well have been popular in the past, but figures are hard to come by (no pun intended). These days, however, up to 1,000 people die each year in the United States while asphyxiating themselves during masturbation, and deaths have included some high-profile names. One wonders if Burroughs was not so much seeing the future as writing it… A quick look on Google shows that some people have been influenced to try choking themselves while masturbating after reading Naked Lunch.
There is a fleeting reference to “the stomach tuck,” which appears to describe a form of cosmetic surgery known as liposuction. It “is a surgical intervention to remove stomach fat,” Burroughs explains. Actual liposuction as we now know it was first introduced a little over two decades after Naked Lunch, in 1982. “I think I’ll have my stomach tucked… I may be old but I’m still desirable,” one character announces, prefiguring the casual attitude to cosmetic surgery that would become common towards the end of the century.
Addiction was an obsession of Burroughs’, and it is explored thoroughly through numerous sections of Naked Lunch (and his other books). Indeed, variants of the word “addict” appear 138 times throughout the book, and there are references to substances both real and imagined. Various commenters have suggested that the apparent epidemic of drug addiction in the book mirrors the crack epidemic that blighted the United States in the 1980s.
Although LSD was synthesized in 1938 by Albert Hoffman, and used in experiments throughout the fifties, it was essentially unknown to the wider population until the sixties. However, in 1959, Burroughs mentioned it repeatedly in Naked Lunch, once in connection with “a cool hip young doctor.” Could this have been a vision of Timothy Leary, the Harvard professor who would become a proponent of LSD use during the hippie era?
Ted Morgan, Burroughs’ biographer, put it rather fancifully:
In fact, all of Naked Lunch, which seemed to the reviewers a sick and outlandish dream, can today be read as a literal account of what has come to pass at the end of the twentieth century. There is in Naked Lunch an oracular element, as Burroughs describes certain things about to happen.
It is fascinating to look back at books like this, as well as others like Brave New World, and reflect with some measure of inventiveness upon the author’s visions of the future. Burroughs’ prediction of AIDS is certainly uncanny, yet nothing listed above was impossible to see coming for an intelligent and worldly person. Though Morgan overstates the fact, Burroughs was indeed “enormously well-read” and also well-travelled. He was living in turbulent times, and it is hardly surprising that he could write a book as wildly inventive as Naked Lunch and have some of it come true. A truly objective appraisal – which is so often missing throughout Beat studies – would point out that the vast majority of his inventions have not (yet) come to pass. We’re still waiting on World War III, for one thing, and though Naked Lunch may present images as foul as any in literature, he never concocted any scenario as grotesque as a Donald Trump presidency.
But perhaps the unlikeliest component of this book was its own publication. Even Burroughs thought it “unpublishable,” yet here we are more than a half century later and it is a literary classic, still baffling students and scholars, getting translated into foreign languages, and being found on bookshelves the world over. If Burroughs had predicted that, I would consider him the greatest of prophets.
A few good Beat websites.
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