Tuesday, September 21, 2010

Some Thoughts on the Religious Significance of Naked Lunch


Jewish date:  13 Tishri 5771.

Today’s holidays:  Feast Day of Matthew and Evangelist (Roman Catholicism), Feast Day of St. Jerry Garcia (Church of the SubGenius), Fall Equinox (Ritual of the Elements)/Feast Day of Virgilius (Thelema).

Topic 1:  Someone has decided to save me a lot of work by sending me a review of Naked Lunch.  I am hesitant to read this book for reasons this review should make clear; I do not even own a copy yet.  Those with weak stomachs may wish to skip directly to the religious humor section.

Some Thoughts on the Religious Significance of Naked Lunch
Burroughs, William (1959).  The Naked Lunch.  Interzone:  Olympia Press.  ISBN:  9783548028439.  See also:  Burroughs, William S. (1959/2004).  Naked Lunch (restored text ed., Grauerholtz, James and Miles, Barry, eds.).  Interzone:  Grove Press.  ISBN:  0802140181.

Naked Lunch is a classic of drug-related literature.  According to the introduction, it was strongly influenced by the author’s experiences with opiate drugs.  Unlike a typical novel, it consists of a series of chapters that have little in the way of plot to connect them.  There are recurring places and characters, but the connections between them are more in terms of themes rather than an overriding story.  While the chapters may have a sort of internal logic, the style is disjointed if not outright schizophrenic, the world of the story disconnected from usual notions of space, biology, and rational behavior.  Much of the material is disturbing or disgusting, especially to more conservative readers.  Sexual references are frequent, mostly anal intercourse between men, and the author is fixated on anuses and penises.  Violence is equally common and nearly as graphic.  Drugs are often mentioned in bizarre metaphors, including monsters and grotesque transformations of the body.  For anyone who has difficulty getting past the superficial level of description, there is plenty to offend and repulse.  This may in fact have been the intention.  The subject matter, especially drug addiction, itself is offensive and repulsive, capable of reducing functional people into shadows with little thought of anything other than the next fix.  If his intention was to portray how disturbing and revolting the experience of drug addiction is, he succeeded brilliantly.

There are several religious references in Naked Lunch, most of them about Islam.  An organization called “Islam, Inc.” is explicitly mentioned, as are a few of its agents, who are involved in nefarious affairs.  References to Arabic people are frequent and typically negative and often as violent people.  This is as deep as the exploration of Islam goes, a negative portrayal without details of what is believed or  what the motivations are.  A few other references pop up, included characters making anti-Semetic claims that Jews only want to have sex with Christian women.  At a surface level, the lack of depth of these references make the book seem religiously insignificant.  In all fairness, men of any demographic get at best a neutral or negative portrayal, so the negativity may have to do more with a general negative portrayal of humanity, or a simple, shallow prejudice rather than any specific religious issue.  (Women are less certain, being infrequently portrayed, and there is only one explicit scene of heterosexual behavior, but that is a side issue.)

The book, however, does touch on some issues of relevance.  The most explicit one is the relationship of drugs to religion.  In the introduction, Burroughs notes that several cultures have religious behavior built up around hallucinogens (think of the ritual use of peyote), whereas opiate drugs are not treated as such.  Throughout the book there is not a trace of the holy, reverence, or serious thought that is the usual material of religion.  This world of an opiate addict is crude, base, and cruel, untouched by any of the finer attributes religion may inspire or the better qualities of humanity, “unclean” in every sense.  Perhaps this may be what Burroughs intended, not an exclusion of religion per se, but only an inclusion of the ugliest parts, those specifically lacking the holy and concern for others.  While people often think of religion in spiritual, otherworldly terms, it is as much something people do in this world as cooking eggs or making the bed.  Although often neglected, the use of drugs as part of religion may be an important aspect and critical to understanding some.  Factors in life which disconnect people from religion, including drugs, are also worth exploring.

The other relevant issue is worldview.  The world (or worlds) of Naked Lunch is (are) bleak, with little in the way of joy, care, or concern for others.  There is nothing positive to be said about establishments and authority, especially government and the medical profession.  It is a place where lay people may be arbitrarily bullied, abused, maimed, and murdered on a whim.  Everything and anything can be unexpectedly lost, including privacy and the integrity of body and mind.  Violence is normal and common.  It is a dystopia by way of the Alice books, with little concern for creating a better place or even securing another generation.  This is the world of a junkie, someone whose usual concerns are so overridden by their need for drugs that interest in others is lost in its entirety.  In a world where all that matters is getting the next hit, there is no room for anything else.

While written specifically about opiate addiction, this world bears a resemblance to those of others whose lives are overly dedicated  to a single purpose.  A video-game addict may resent others who try to pry them away from the console and towards other responsibilities, see the authorities as repressive and cruel, living only for being in front of the screen when they disconnect from space and time itself and immerse in another reality.  A sexual compulsive may see metaphors for sex everywhere, find the restrictions of society oppressive and find potential partners manipulative and mean when they merely work towards their own self-interests.  And with most relevance to this project, the religious fanatic might come to act in a similar way.  Someone who only thinks of what they have to gain in the next world has no interest in this one, no interest in improving it.  With no regard for others, people who fail to measure up are mere irritations of no value.  Such wholesale dedication with no regard for others produces something as undesirably removed from common humanity as a far-gone opiate addict.

As a literary depiction of drug addiction, Naked Lunch is a must-read, and anyone considering opiates should consider it a warning.  But the kind of world and the kind of person in it that the book portrays extends beyond drugs.  For anyone interested in the thoughts of any kind of addict or fanatic, the book remains a worthwhile source.

—“Fingers” Schaffer, M.D.

Topic 2:  For today’s religious humor: “Basement Kitteh”:
funny pictures-Sentimental Mood


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