2-1 | Table of Con­tents | http://​dx​.doi​.org/10.17742/IMAGE.crypt.2-1.4 | God­ley | Hen­nig PDF

Entry into the crypt William Bur­roughs shared with his moth­er opened and shut around a failed re-enact­ment of William Tell’s shot through the prop placed upon a loved one’s head. The acci­den­tal killing of his wife Joan com­plet­ed the instal­la­tion of the addic­ta­tion machine that spun melan­cho­lia as man­ic dis­sem­i­na­tion. An ear­ly encrypt­ment to which was added the audio por­tion of abuse deposit­ed an unde­liv­er­able mes­sage in WB. William could nev­er tell, although his cor­pus bears the inscrip­tion of this impos­si­bil­i­ty as anoth­er form of possibility.
L’entrée dans la crypte à laque­lle par­ticipent William Bur­roughs et sa mère s’ouvre et se ferme autour d’une représen­ta­tion échouée de la légende de Guil­laume Tell essayant d’atteindre une pomme placée sur la tête d’un être aimé. Le meurtre acci­den­tel de sa femme achève l’installation de la machine d’addictation qui file la mélan­col­ie comme une dif­fu­sion fréné­tique. Un encodage pré­coce auquel s'ajoute une part audio de l’abus induit un mes­sage impos­si­ble à livr­er en WB. William ne peut jamais le dire (tell), bien que son corps porte l’inscription de cette impos­si­bil­ité comme une autre sorte de possibilité.

J. God­ley | Images: Valentin Hennig

Addiction Machines

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The for­mat of Naked Lunch and of its pre­de­ces­sor, Queer, con­sists of what the author called “rou­tines:” short, satir­i­cal nar­ra­tives which, some­what like vaude­ville rou­tines, depict larg­er-than-life char­ac­ters in sit­u­a­tions of exag­ger­at­ed vio­lence and eroti­cism. How­ev­er, this empha­sis on dra­ma derives from trau­ma, specif­i­cal­ly Bur­roughs’ shoot­ing and killing of his com­mon-law wife Joan Vollmer dur­ing a “William Tell act.” This event, which he lat­er claimed insti­gat­ed his com­mit­ment to a career in writ­ing, is trans­ferred to Naked Lunch in the form of rou­tines that car­ry out, under their veil of dark humor, attempts to mas­ter the trau­mat­ic effects of the killing and to answer for them.

In Sep­tem­ber 1951, Bur­roughs was infat­u­at­ed with Lewis Mark­er, a 19-year-old expa­tri­ate attend­ing Mex­i­co City Col­lege (Bur­roughs, Word Virus 40-41). At first respon­sive to Bur­roughs’ sex­u­al advances, Mark­er agreed to accom­pa­ny him on an expe­di­tion to South Amer­i­ca in search of the hal­lu­cino­genic vine yagé. At the end of their trip, now put off by Bur­roughs’ long­ing, Mark­er returned home sep­a­rate­ly. A few days lat­er, Bur­roughs, back in Mex­i­co, had some drinks with Joan at an acquaintance’s loft, where, to Bur­roughs’ sur­prise, Mark­er was also present. Joan, who knew of the affair, and who had grown increas­ing­ly weary of Bur­roughs’ pro­longed absences and neglect of his parental respon­si­bil­i­ties to their two chil­dren, made with­er­ing remarks and jokes about Bur­roughs’ love of guns, among oth­er sub­jects. At some time dur­ing the course of the par­ty, Bur­roughs sug­gest­ed to Joan that the two of them “show the guys what kind of shot old Bill is,” and they staged what Bur­roughs called a “William Tell act.” Joan put her gin glass on top of her head and stood at the far end of the room, where­upon Bur­roughs took out his revolver and shot her in the head, killing her instant­ly (Bur­roughs, Word Virus 41).

The “act,” simul­ta­ne­ous­ly per­for­mance and trau­mat­ic real­i­ty, revealed itself to Bur­roughs as a spon­ta­neous­ly com­posed rou­tine which had, as its express pur­pose, the mur­der of an inti­mate ene­my. James Grauer­holz, Bur­roughs’ adopt­ed son and per­son­al sec­re­tary, makes the case for the con­flu­ence of Bur­roughs’ killing with an ear­li­er trau­ma: “[A]ll his life Bur­roughs had a dark fas­ci­na­tion with ‘pos­ses­sion’ by malign spir­its; his dread of pos­ses­sion may have had its roots in a child­hood molesta­tion by his nan­ny” (Grauer­holz 70). The nan­ny, Mary Evans, brought a four-year-old Bur­roughs with her on an excur­sion to the local park, where they met up with Mary's boyfriend who, at Mary’s urg­ing, forced the boy to fel­late him (Mor­gan 31). Bur­roughs’ moth­er prob­a­bly dis­cov­ered some­thing was off, because Mary was soon asked to leave. Yet the act was nev­er con­veyed to his father.

The ques­tion of what the father knew proved to be a point of impasse in Bur­roughs’ psy­cho­an­a­lyt­ic treat­ments, typ­i­fied by his con­tin­u­al­ly return­ing to, then blank­ing out on the molesta­tion. At the time of one of his last treat­ments, Bur­roughs became des­per­ate for the affec­tions of his room­mate, Jack Ander­son (Mor­gan 74-75). In a des­per­ate plea for atten­tion, he per­formed a “Van Gogh act,” cut­ting off his pinky fin­ger with a pair of poul­try shears. He then imme­di­ate­ly pre­sent­ed the fin­ger to his ana­lyst, Her­bert Wig­gers. Bur­roughs’ biog­ra­ph­er Ted Mor­gan assessed the event as the expres­sion of the need, after the molesta­tion, to tell his father, where­by the giv­ing of the fin­ger amount­ed to the (neg­a­tive-trans­fer­en­tial­ly inflect­ed) ‘telling’ (Mor­gan 75).

Lau­ra Lee Bur­roughs believed she could com­mu­ni­cate with the dead, and occa­sion­al­ly had prophet­ic visions and dreams (Miles 21). All his life, William not only believed whole­heart­ed­ly in his mother’s tele­path­ic and prophet­ic pow­ers, but believed that he some­times pos­sessed these abil­i­ties him­self. The choice of the name William Lee as nom de plume for his first two nov­els car­ries for­ward Bur­roughs’ mater­nal iden­ti­fi­ca­tion into the career choice that coin­cid­ed with the William Tell act, in which the untold act was also stow­away. While writ­ing Naked Lunch, Bur­roughs recalls a cer­tain “feel­ing” he had the day Joan died, and traced it back to a sense of fear and despair that came over him “for no out­ward rea­son” when he was a child. As Bur­roughs writes to Allen Ginsberg:

I was look­ing into the future then. I rec­og­nize the feel­ing, and what I saw has not yet been real­ized. I can only wait for it to hap­pen. Is it some ghast­ly occur­rence, like Joan’s death, or sim­ply dete­ri­o­ra­tion and fail­ure and final lone­li­ness, a dead-end set up where there is no one I can con­tact? I am just a crazy old bore in a bar some­where with my rou­tines? I don’t know but I feel trapped and doomed. (Miles 76-77)

William paints him­self in the exact col­ors he used to describe his moth­er: some­one deeply sad, who can only help­less­ly await his doom, which he fore­sees approach­ing: “She suf­fered from headaches and back­ach­es, and there was some­thing deeply sad about her, as though she expect­ed doom to arrive at any moment” (Mor­gan 26). To Gins­berg, Bur­roughs explic­it­ly admits he “had the same feel­ing the day Joan died,” and that this feel­ing is linked to a spe­cif­ic point in his child­hood (pos­si­bly the molesta­tion, though the event is nev­er men­tioned). Hav­ing with­drawn from drugs and tem­porar­i­ly unable to write the rou­tines that kept mourn­ing at bay, Bur­roughs reach­es out to Gins­berg in a state of excit­ed, even des­per­ate urgency. Ginsberg’s char­ac­ter­is­tic mater­nal reas­sur­ance, how­ev­er, inevitably fails to meet the demand of such a charged trans­fer­en­tial request. Thus, Bur­roughs’ implaca­ble demand cre­ates the set­ting for a third cor­re­spon­dent to inter­vene, whose appari­tion­al form ris­es to the sur­face as “ghast­ly” or ghost­ly recur­rence threat­en­ing to leave Bur­roughs in a state of “final lone­li­ness”— aban­doned even, or espe­cial­ly, by his dead.

Bur­roughs’ ref­er­ences to his moth­er seem to fol­low from the image of a pow­er­ful­ly far-sight­ed, but ulti­mate­ly help­less, mar­tyr. In The West­ern Lands, Bur­roughs depicts his moth­er once again as an estranged and expec­tant spec­ta­tor: “Out­side a Palm Beach bun­ga­low wait­ing for a taxi to the air­port. My mother’s kind unhap­py face, last time I ever saw her” (42). The next two sen­tences drop the sen­ti­ment: “Real­ly a bless­ing. She had been ill for a long time” (42). The ill­ness that Bur­roughs refers to is not a phys­i­cal con­di­tion, but a peri­od of senil­i­ty fol­low­ing the death of her hus­band (Miles). Thus, in his beatif­ic impres­sion of Lau­ra Lee the real bless­ing, in the end, is that she ends. Sym­bols of departure—the taxi, the airport—promise to expe­dite her towards the land of the dead, whose uncan­ny per­sis­tence, in this world, was symp­to­matic of an ill­ness that afflict­ed her son as much as herself.

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The style of Laura’s unmourn­ing can be detect­ed in the series of flower-arrang­ing books she pro­duced for Coca Cola in the 1930s. In one, she describes her home: “It boasts no price­less fur­ni­ture nor art trea­sures. Every­thing about the room is a back­ground for flow­ers” (Rae). Flow­ers, long asso­ci­at­ed with the dead (in the pas­toral tra­di­tion for instance), also rep­re­sent, when arranged, one of the arts of the mor­ti­cian. That she places flow­ers so res­olute­ly into the fore­ground, in a set­ting oth­er­wise devoid of empha­sis, indi­cates a cer­tain excess of com­mem­o­ra­tion. The fam­i­ly appears threat­ened by the flo­ral inva­sion: “For years, my flower dec­o­ra­tions in the mak­ing were a source of annoy­ance to my fam­i­ly. My efforts in the kitchen always seemed to time with the advent of a pie” (Rae). With a pie in the ascen­dant, a more appe­tiz­ing mater­nal intro­ject, Lau­ra can stow away the corpse meat, which, oth­er­wise, the fam­i­ly feels she is try­ing to get under their skin. In his jour­nal entry five days before the fatal heart attack, Bur­roughs writes:

So when I get to Lex—my moth­er scream­ing behind me she had some idea I should go to a pri­vate nut house—and I said: “All I need is [a] with­draw­al cure. Peri­od.” And she was very annoyed by me and Joan tak­ing the bull by the horns and opt­ing for Lex­ing­ton. Moth­er said about Joan: “She was just like a tigress.” She said no to any enforced con­fine­ment. She was right there, and oth­er where’s and there’s. What can I say—Why who where can I say—Tears are worth­less unless gen­uine, tears from the soul and guts, tears that ache and wrench and hurt and tear. Tears for what was— (Grauer­holz 70)

The with­draw­al cure with which Bur­roughs answered his moth­er, the sep­a­ra­tion he need­ed from her, was nev­er suc­cess­ful. Mourn­ing and with­draw­al on one side thus com­pete with the moth­er and addic­tion on the oth­er. In between, Joan stands as the sub­sti­tute that, “tak­ing the bull by the horns,” falls under the sign of the father, enabling with­draw­al and mourn­ing. The “tears” of mourn­ing mir­ror the ache and wrench­ing hurt of with­draw­al, but they are not gen­uine. The cure nev­er goes through; mourn­ing is refused.

Per­haps the most strik­ing fea­ture of the act named after William Tell is that it com­mit­ted Bur­roughs to fire by proxy at the head of his own father­hood, the sign or son of the inter­nal father. Part of Bur­roughs’ own sadism, besides the obvi­ous and spec­tac­u­lar instance of his wife’s mur­der, would be car­ried out on Bil­ly Jr. who, at four years, was the same age as his father and name­sake when he was abused by the nan­ny. Bill Jr., writer of Speed and Ken­tucky Ham, was con­se­quent­ly (as he put it) “the shat­tered son of Naked Lunch” (Cursed vii). As he grew up, Bil­ly would come to soak up his father’s crimes with booze and painkillers, essen­tial­ly liv­ing out the life sen­tence his father skipped out on. Bur­roughs Jr. under­went a liv­er trans­plant oper­a­tion when he was thir­ty, which, between the lines, dis­lodged the crypt. A case report, from the Amer­i­can Jour­nal of Psy­chi­a­try, notes with fas­ci­na­tion that Bill Jr. begins to see the new liv­er as “a sep­a­rate enti­ty” (Cursed v). At first, the liv­er is felt to be “an alien piece of meat,” but soon he “began to feel he was ‘mar­ried’ to it; and in response to his surgeon’s men­tion of ‘for­eign tis­sue,’ he replied, ‘that’s a hell of a way to talk about my new wife’” (Cursed v). The report con­tin­ues: “He thought he had been giv­en life a sec­ond time by the donor, who now exist­ed inside him ‘by proxy’ as a sep­a­rate enti­ty” (Cursed v). Inside Bill Jr., the anony­mous donor lives on in the organ of liv­ing on, the “liv­er,” and soon sub­sumes a cer­tain occu­pan­cy already estab­lished: “At this point, he began to wear an ear­ring that con­tained the engrav­ing of the Vir­gin Mary. This con­crete rep­re­sen­ta­tion of the amal­ga­ma­tion of his moth­er and the donor (who was named Vir­ginia) served as a tal­is­man against dam­age to the trans­plant­ed liv­er” (Cursed v).


The agency of Bur­roughs’ haunt­ing is what I am call­ing, under an emblem­at­ic head­ing, the addic­ta­tion machine, whose three terms—addiction, dic­ta­tion, and the adding machine—circumvent, through a com­bined oper­a­tion, sub­li­ma­tion and repres­sion, in favor of a fic­tive auton­o­my that ‘lives’ in place of the sub­ject. This con­struct, in turn, serves as a cipher for the sys­tem Bur­roughs rep­re­sents and projects in the image of the viral tech­no­log­i­cal enter­prise of cap­i­tal­ism, an image at once dread­ed as intense­ly per­se­cut­ing and ide­al­ized as the sta­tus quo that pro­tects and comforts.

Bur­roughs’ addic­ta­tion machine would not achieve its ter­mi­nal, delu­sion­al form until after the writ­ing of Naked Lunch, where­upon he began a series of inten­sive writ­ing exper­i­ments in order to thwart a pow­er­ful virus he believed oper­at­ed through a select group (includ­ing the CIA and the Nar­cotics Bureau), allow­ing them to manip­u­late the thoughts, actions, and emo­tions of the gen­er­al pop­u­la­tion through the trans­mis­sion of writ­ten lan­guage and telepa­thy. Even­tu­al­ly, Bur­roughs attrib­ut­es the name “the Ugly Spir­it” to this alien, infect­ing agent, the­o­riz­ing that it orig­i­nat­ed with females, and was trans­mit­ted ini­tial­ly through a kind of vam­pir­ic sex­u­al seduc­tion. In The West­ern Lands, pro­tag­o­nist Kim Car­sons is sent to inves­ti­gate “what caused the Egyp­tians to go wrong and get bogged down with mum­mies and the need to pre­serve the phys­i­cal body” (74-75). The secret, Kim dis­cov­ers, is that the Egyp­tians “had not solved the equa­tion imposed by a par­a­sitic female Oth­er Half who needs a phys­i­cal body to exist, being par­a­sitic to oth­er bod­ies” (75). The viral female diverts human evo­lu­tion from the “nat­ur­al state” of homo­sex­u­al phys­i­cal and spir­i­tu­al union, the only means by which the immor­tal after­world of the West­ern Lands can be reached. “We have been seduced from our bio­log­ic and spir­i­tu­al des­tiny by the Sex Ene­my” (75). Thus, on one side, het­ero­sex­u­al­i­ty, lan­guage, and telepa­thy take turns con­trol­ling the male sub­ject as an invad­ing fem­i­nine enti­ty, moth­er or ‘mum­my,’ caus­ing him to expe­ri­ence unwant­ed bod­i­ly sen­sa­tions and to con­form to a dis­as­trous­ly destruc­tive appa­ra­tus that enslaves the world’s pop­u­la­tion. On the oth­er side, homo­sex­u­al “con­tact” is ide­al­ized as a total union promis­ing immor­tal­i­ty, with­out the infir­mi­ties of the phys­i­cal body or the rav­ages of age.

When Bur­roughs began his obses­sive work on the cut-ups, which attempt­ed to exor­cise the “Ugly Spir­it” he believed was inhab­it­ing him, his writ­ing hooked into tech­no-medi­at­ic exten­sions, at first as analo­gies to his writ­ing process, then as a lit­er­al mode of dic­ta­tion (via tape recorders, film, and auto­mat­ic writ­ing). As Gins­berg describes, “the cut-ups were orig­i­nal­ly designed to rehearse and repeat his obses­sion with sex­u­al images over and over again, like a movie repeat­ing over and over … and then recom­bined and cut up and mixed in; so that final­ly the obses­sive attach­ment, com­pul­sion and pre­oc­cu­pa­tion emp­ty out and drain from the image” (Miles 138). Yet what Gins­berg, recall­ing Bur­roughs’ own descrip­tions, was analo­giz­ing, was, as biog­ra­ph­er Bar­ry Miles observes, far more elab­o­rate in practice:

Like a rou­tine tak­en to its ulti­mate end, Bur­roughs now sus­pect­ed that the entire fab­ric of real­i­ty was arti­fi­cial­ly con­di­tioned and that who­ev­er was doing the con­di­tion­ing was run­ning the uni­verse, like an engi­neer run­ning a cin­e­ma sound­stage with tape machines and films. He assumed that all real­i­ty, sight, taste, smell, sound and touch was some form of hal­lu­ci­na­tion and that these appar­ent sen­so­ry impres­sions were pro­grammed into our bod­ies. It was anoth­er vari­ant on the search for the con­trollers, the search for the Ugly Spir­it that had made him kill Joan. (139)

How­ev­er val­oriz­ing, Ginsberg’s response to Bur­roughs’ grow­ing delu­sion­al sys­tem, nonethe­less, pin­point­ed its device of ori­gin: “Gins­berg attrib­uted much of it to the same Bur­roughs inven­tive­ness which enabled his grand­fa­ther to invent the adding machine” (Miles 139).

William Bur­roughs, the grand­fa­ther, invent­ed the first reli­able pro­to­type of the adding machine, which used hydraulics to reg­u­late the pres­sure exert­ed on the han­dle pulled by its users to cal­cu­late basic arith­metic oper­a­tions (Word Virus 3). The Bur­roughs Adding Machine Com­pa­ny pros­pered well into the 1920s, and the mon­ey from Mor­timer Bur­roughs’ (the author’s father) share in his father’s com­pa­ny kept the fam­i­ly upper-mid­dle class dur­ing the Great Depres­sion. The image of the adding machine, there­fore, evokes sta­bil­i­ty, even con­stan­cy; its oper­a­tions are repet­i­tive, yet eas­i­ly manip­u­lat­ed. It serves as a quin­tes­sen­tial pro­to­type for an influ­enc­ing machine, the com­mon delu­sion­al ima­go of para­noid psy­chotics that Vic­tor Tausk stud­ied in his famous essay, and which Rick­els relies on for his exca­va­tion of Artaud’s the­ater of cruelty.

The influ­enc­ing machine appears when an attempt is made to resolve “an out-of-phase alter­na­tion between pro­jec­tion and iden­ti­fi­ca­tion” (Rick­els, Aber­ra­tions 150). Like drugs in Avi­tal Ronell’s read­ing of Madame Bovary, which pro­vide “a dis­creet if spec­tac­u­lar way out” of dead­locked iden­ti­fi­ca­tions (60), the influ­enc­ing machine pur­veys the pos­si­bil­i­ty of a new auton­o­my. Essen­tial­ly, the influ­enc­ing machine takes the whole psy­chic appa­ra­tus, as it is orga­nized around the pro­jec­tion of sense organs and skews it, while retain­ing the com­plex­i­ty of the psyche’s func­tions. For his case illus­tra­tion, Tausk presents his patient, Natal­i­ja A. Like Bur­roughs, Natalia A. writes in the mode of live trans­mis­sion, as if by dic­ta­tion: for many years she has been “writ­ing every­thing down in lieu of her absent hear­ing” (Rick­els, Aber­ra­tions 149). In analy­sis, Natal­i­ja grad­u­al­ly reveals the shape and scope of a delu­sion­al struc­ture that admin­is­ters iden­ti­fi­ca­tion with a per­se­cu­tor “such that every­thing the ene­my wants and does hap­pens to the vic­tim” (Rick­els, Aber­ra­tions 149). From this posi­tion, a peri­od of intense sen­sa­tions of alter­ation fol­lows, which even­tu­al­ly becomes pro­ject­ed or exter­nal­ized as an all-pow­er­ful machine. In time, “ene­my agents, often physi­cians and pro­fes­sors, crowd the pro­jec­tion booth” and are grant­ed con­trol over the sub­ject “to the extent that they always demand, and usu­al­ly obtain, trans­fer of libido onto them­selves” (Rick­els, Aber­ra­tions 149).

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Bur­roughs’ his­to­ry on the couch (with Freudi­an, Jun­gian, and Reichi­an ana­lysts) trans­fers, in his nov­els, into the manip­u­la­tion of thought by those who employ, among oth­er meth­ods, psy­cho­analy­sis as part of an elab­o­rate process of ren­der­ing sub­jects sus­cep­ti­ble to sug­ges­tion. In Naked Lunch, Dr. Ben­way, a for­mer psy­cho­an­a­lyst, is intro­duced, in dif­fer­ent places, as a prac­tic­ing sur­geon and “a manip­u­la­tor and coor­di­na­tor of sym­bol sys­tems, an expert on all phas­es of inter­ro­ga­tion, brain­wash­ing and con­trol” (19, 51). As with the doc­tors and pro­fes­sors at the con­trols of Natalija’s influ­enc­ing machine, Ben­way uses a delu­sion­al sys­tem to invade and indoc­tri­nate his sub­jects’ thoughts, which he also, often sadis­ti­cal­ly, intends to ‘pro­tect.’

The super­vi­sion the addic­ta­tion machine admin­is­ters as regres­sion or sug­ges­tion caus­es Bur­roughs to lapse into a state of rad­i­cal alter­i­ty in which, as is the case with Natal­i­ja, “nar­cis­sis­tic libido and object libido are opposed” to such a degree that even the main­te­nance of “sex­u­al pref­er­ence and iden­ti­ty” become unhinged (Rick­els, Aber­ra­tions 149). Dr. Ben­way recalls the case of a female agent “who for­got her real iden­ti­ty and merged with her cov­er sto­ry” (24). This turns him onto the idea that agents can be made to repress their actu­al iden­ti­ty behind the fic­tion they are com­pelled, by neces­si­ty, to repeat. Thus, “his agent iden­ti­ty becomes uncon­scious, that is, out of his con­trol; and you can dig it with drugs and hyp­no­sis” (24). Intox­i­cants and mind con­trol thus take turns reveal­ing and manip­u­lat­ing a secret agency that becomes total­ly depen­dent on the nar­cot­ic pow­er of the inter­roga­tor, to the extent that sex­u­al object choice, too, is assigned by an omnipo­tent oth­er: “You can make a square het­ero­sex cit­i­zen queer with this angle” (24). The threat implied in this rever­sal, that it trans­fers auton­o­my to anoth­er scene, is urgent enough for Bur­roughs to won­der whether the “life­long addic­tion to a cel­lu­lar cov­er” could ever be removed (275). Bur­roughs describes his self-state under the influ­ence of addic­tion as a ‘cov­er,’ such that “when the cov­er is removed, every­thing that was held in check by junk spills out” (Word Virus 90). The cov­er is an elab­o­rate con­struc­tion and includes, to some extent, gen­der iden­ti­fi­ca­tions and sex­u­al object choice: “[H]omosexuality is the best all-around cov­er an agent can have” (Naked Lunch 180).

How­ev­er, pri­or to pro­jec­tion and iden­ti­fi­ca­tion, Tausk the­o­rizes an “inborn nar­cis­sism,” accord­ing to which the infant, entire­ly a sex­u­al being, is, in effect, a body-gen­i­tal (Rick­els, Aber­ra­tions 150). Organs and their func­tions retain this vul­ner­a­ble posi­tion when bat­tling the pro­gres­sion of the ego as and in rela­tion to the out­side world. This “inborn nar­cis­sism,” a poly­mor­phous Inter-zone of self-rela­tions, lacks the facil­i­ty to dis­tin­guish the bound­aries between inner and out­er real­i­ties. In a tight spot, the influ­enc­ing machine con­sti­tutes the sort of cov­er sto­ry that the pro­tec­tive sheath of addic­tion also pro­vides: “[B]y suc­cumb­ing to an influ­enc­ing machine, the schiz­o­phrenic casts out an emer­gency pro­jec­tion of his own body to cir­cum­vent regres­sion” to inborn nar­cis­sism (Rick­els, Aber­ra­tions 150). In Naked Lunch, addic­tion allows its sub­jects to stag­ger for­ward as junk-sick reflec­tions of the body, pur­su­ing a pur­pose alien to the ego’s sense of its own agency or identity.

Bur­roughs describes the process of find­ing a “use­able vein” in a way anal­o­gous to the oper­a­tion of a record­ing medi­um: “The body knows what veins you can hit and con­veys this knowl­edge in the spon­ta­neous move­ments you make prepar­ing to take a shot … Some­times the nee­dle points like a dowser’s wand. Some­times I must wait for the mes­sage. But when it comes I always hit blood” (Naked Lunch 56). The “mes­sage” he “must wait for” recalls the pic­ture he has of his moth­er in the receiv­ing posi­tion “as though she expect­ed doom to arrive at any moment” (Mor­gan 26). Thus, the mes­sage from the medi­um of junk is also his moth­er, the medium’s mes­sage of doom that she trans­mits to her son via the “Man Inside,” the push­er at the con­trols guid­ing the addict’s move­ments. If Lee is off his mark by a few days or a few grams, he either risks being total­ly devoured by the melan­cholic intro­ject (sui­cide by over­dose) or sub­mit­ting to the with­draw­al pains of mourn­ing. Sus­pend­ed between the threats of sui­cide and mur­der on one track, and libido and destru­do, on the oth­er, addic­tion keeps him safe from him­self in the mean­time, the time of waiting.


In an audio record­ing, “The Last Words of Has­san Sab­bah,” Bur­roughs inter­ro­gates his pater­nal name, as if it had been with­hold­ing some secret that had to be thrown into the vis­i­ble world like a tech­no-medi­at­ic pro­jec­tion: “All right, Mis­ter Bur­roughs, who bears my name and my words, bear it all the way, for all to see, in Times Square, in Pic­cadil­ly. Play it all, play it all, play it all back! Pay it all, pay it all, pay it all back!” (“Last Words of Has­san Sab­bah”). Both the adding machine and the name ‘Bur­roughs,’ which pays while it plays, keeps a record of gains and loss­es that, upon demand, must release its invis­i­ble cal­cu­la­tions before the pub­lic it has manipulated.

In Rick­els’ read­ing of Freud’s case study of Rat­man (“Notes upon a Case of Obses­sion­al Neu­ro­sis”), the rejec­tion of the patronymic (rather than his iden­ti­fi­ca­tion with it) result­ed in Ratman’s adop­tion of the “rat” totem as the head­ing for guilty pay­ments to the dead father which nev­er suf­fice to bal­ance the account of death wish­es which end­less­ly cir­cu­late and rebound with­out des­ti­na­tion (Aber­ra­tions 163). For Bur­roughs, the unpayable debt is sym­bol­ized in the sig­ni­fy­ing con­stel­la­tion of the adding machine. In an econ­o­my of scores and hits, push­ers and marks, adding machine and addic­tion per­form a com­bined oper­a­tion, tab­u­lat­ing the effec­tu­al­i­ty of the dose, appro­pri­at­ing loss into every cal­cu­la­tion or addi­tion. Bur­roughs calls this the Alge­bra of Need:

If you wish to alter or anni­hi­late a pyra­mid of num­bers in a ser­i­al rela­tion, you alter or remove the bot­tom num­ber. If we wish to anni­hi­late the junk pyra­mid, we must start with the bot­tom of the pyra­mid: the Addict in the Street, and stop tilt­ing quixot­i­cal­ly for the “high­er ups” so called, all of whom are imme­di­ate­ly replace­able. The addict in the street who must have junk to live is the one irre­place­able fac­tor in the junk equa­tion. When there are no more addicts to buy junk there will be no junk traf­fic. As long as junk need exists, some­one will ser­vice it. (Naked Lunch 201-02)

The only way to can­cel the debt is by remov­ing the “bot­tom num­ber” of the equa­tion. Bur­roughs’ solu­tion threat­ens the com­mer­cial enter­prise that prof­it­ed his grand­fa­ther, who, by care­ful cal­cu­la­tion (before he start­ed his adding machine com­pa­ny he was a bank clerk), made him­self a ‘high­er up’ on the money/junk pyra­mid by pro­duc­ing a machine that com­put­ed “ser­i­al rela­tions.” But William Bur­roughs II, the addict in the street, not in addi­tion or ser­i­al rela­tion to his pater­nal line, removed him­self from the patronymic, call­ing him­self by his mother’s maid­en name for his first two novels.

The pyra­mid scheme, indeed a pharaoh’s or father’s tomb, con­sists of an inter­ment, at the bot­tom lev­el, guard­ed by many lev­els of elab­o­rate traps, snares and false exits that mim­ic the effects of the devour­ing mouth. In Naked Lunch, addicts are prone to a thou­sand hor­ri­ble fates: they over­dose, they become absorbed in some­one else’s body, or they get shot, lynched, burned alive, tor­tured, mind-controlled—and always to some­one else’s prof­it (until the addicts, them­selves, also suc­cumb to some gris­ly fate). Each suc­ces­sive lay­er of pow­er (or the auton­o­my and exer­cise of pow­er, because ‘hooked,’ is always only an illu­sion) depends on its sub­sis­tence by devour­ing and assim­i­lat­ing the low­er lev­els, such that the only way to break out of the junk pyra­mid is to remove the bot­tom lay­er. Tak­ing out the bot­tom, expelling it, fol­lows an anal recep­tion of with­draw­al and reha­bil­i­ta­tion. Under the aegis of renewed sphinc­ter­al train­ing, the addict can learn to let go of his oral depen­den­cy. The “talk­ing ass­hole,” as intro­duced by Dr. Ben­way, thus appears as a pre­scrip­tion (by a for­mer psy­cho­an­a­lyst forcibly expelled from the Vien­na Cir­cle). But it also dou­bles as a pro­posed anti­dote to mater­nal encrypt­ment, an “all-pur­pose hole” that evac­u­ates what it incor­po­rates (110).

Like car­toons and comics, Bur­roughs’ Hierony­mus Bosch-like anthro­po­mor­phic and phys­i­cal­ly invert­ed figurines—Mugwumps, mon­ster cen­tipedes, the talk­ing asshole—all fol­low the fecal re-rout­ing and lubri­ca­tion of iden­ti­fi­ca­tions with the pre-Oedi­pal or pri­mal father. Car­i­ca­ture, as Rick­els argues by way of Ernst Kris’ Psy­cho­an­a­lyt­i­cal Explo­rations in Art, is aimed at the libidi­nous sat­is­fac­tion of aggres­sive impuls­es, which “allows for more bear­able accep­tance of father down the laugh track” (Vam­pire Lec­tures 276). Adding to the store of the ego’s tech­niques for get­ting around and get­ting along with the stric­tures of the pater­nal super­ego, these com­ic inscrip­tions were orig­i­nal­ly con­ceived via caricature’s “auto­plas­tic ances­tor,” the gri­mace (Rick­els, Cal­i­for­nia 40). The psy­chot­ic defends against a for­eign body’s imma­nent takeover through repeat­ed gri­mac­ing before his own mir­ror image, a rou­tine of try­ing on dif­fer­ent per­son­ae: he attempts to save “face by mak­ing faces which, like apotropa­ic masks, also ward off the demons” (Rick­els, Cal­i­for­nia 44).

The don­ning of faces, masks, or alter-egos is thus an attempt at sta­bi­liz­ing the psychotic’s frag­ile con­tact with an out­side world, pro­tect­ing him from impend­ing threats of pos­ses­sion. In Naked Lunch’s “Post-Script” Bur­roughs writes:

Soon­er or lat­er the Vig­i­lante, the Rube, Lee the Agent […] Doc Ben­way, “Fin­gers” Schae­fer are sub­ject to say the same thing in the same words, to occu­py, at that inter­sec­tion point, the same posi­tion in space-time. Using a com­mon vocal appa­ra­tus com­plete with all meta­bol­ic appliances—that is, to be the same person—a most inac­cu­rate way of express­ing Recog­ni­tion: the junky naked in sun­light. (186)

Note that the point of cathex­is, or occu­pa­tion in “space-time,” of these pros­thet­ic per­son­ae requires an arti­fi­cial medi­um for speak­ing rigged to a tech­nol­o­gized metab­o­lism of “appli­ances” or ser­vice­able organs. The effect of this tech­no­log­i­cal reorder­ing of the body then express­es “recog­ni­tion” as inac­cu­rate, as a for­eign body illeg­i­ble to the other's read­out. This for­eign anti­body left “naked in sunlight”—the un-key—links up the son with the father watch­ing him through the mirror:

The writer see­ing him­self read­ing to the mir­ror as always … He must check now and again to reas­sure him­self that the Crime of Sep­a­rate Action has not, is not, can­not occur … Any­one who has looked in the mir­ror knows what this crime is and what it means in terms of lost con­trol when the reflec­tion no longer obeys … Too late to dial p o l i c e .… (186)

The demons threat­en to take pos­ses­sion, if read­ing the medi­u­mistic mes­sage to the mir­ror suc­ceeds in find­ing recognition—in mak­ing the spec­u­lar image a spook or dead junky.

Bur­roughs’ “talk­ing ass­hole” rou­tine rep­re­sents an attempt to short-cir­cuit the pos­sess­ing entity’s manip­u­la­tions by remov­ing the self from the field of the father’s influ­ence. This is what Artaud attempts in his the­ater of cru­el­ty when he breaks from “the dic­ta­tion-dic­ta­tor­ship of phon­ic lin­ear­i­ty” by pro­duc­ing an alter­nate trans­mis­sion of lin­guis­tic mean­ing (Naked Lunch 135). Instead of mak­ing ‘sense’ in a lin­ear way, Artaud would “recy­cle the refuse of lan­guage … includ­ing the lap­sus, the stut­ter, and … even the rum­bling of the stom­ach and oth­er sounds” (135). Sim­i­lar­ly, the talk­ing ass­hole deliv­ers its mes­sages on a “gut fre­quen­cy;” its speech emerges synaes­thet­i­cal­ly, as “a bub­bly thick stag­nant sound, a sound you could smell” (Naked Lunch 111). The smell-sound pro­vokes an inter­nal reac­tion in the lis­ten­er, to the extent that hear­ing the ass­hole speak is also an auto-aus­cul­ta­tion: it “hit you right down there like you got­ta go” (111). Even before the anec­dote begins, Benway’s asso­ciate, Dr. Schae­fer com­plains that he can­not get a cer­tain “stench” out of his lungs. This mys­te­ri­ous, stinky inter­nal­iza­tion, like a rot­ting corpse, leads Schae­fer to bemoan the “scan­dalous inef­fi­cien­cy” of the human body, with a mouth and anus that can get “out of order” (111). Instead, why not “seal up nose and mouth, fill in the stom­ach, make an air hole direct to the lungs where it should have been in the first place?” (111). If this were the case, after all, no poi­sons or corpses would ever be incor­po­rat­ed, and noth­ing that was already being retained would ever have to be let go. Thus, what has been incor­po­rat­ed is not being prop­er­ly metab­o­lized, lead­ing Schae­fer to fan­ta­size “one all-pur­pose hole to eat and elim­i­nate,” in effect, a process of inter­nal­iza­tion less sub­ject to aber­rant, secret trans­for­ma­tions and mys­te­ri­ous block­ages (111).


Inso­far as the work­ing-through of loss nec­es­sar­i­ly involves active psy­cho-somat­ic metab­o­liza­tion, the “all-pur­pose hole” excludes mourn­ing alto­geth­er. In the sto­ry, the man’s ass­hole not only takes over his speech, speak­ing for him, but also dis­pos­sess­es him of eat­ing and diges­tion. The anus devel­ops “sort of teeth-like lit­tle raspy incurv­ing hooks,” then tells the man “we don’t need you around here any­more. I can talk and eat and shit” (110). But, watch the slip: the “we” that the ass­hole drops blows the cov­er of a secret encrypt­ment. The ass­hole turns on the man, takes over his bod­i­ly func­tions, and devel­ops a par­a­sitic growth, a “virus” that grows until it effec­tive­ly destroys the man, par­al­lelling the way Bur­roughs once described his rou­tines: turn­ing on him, grow­ing more insane, a “lit­er­al growth like can­cer” (Miles 75).

Rick­els fol­lows Karl Abraham’s the­o­ry of archa­ic mourn­ing down to the close-range dis­tinc­tion between the diver­gent ways in which melan­cho­lia and para­noia pre­serve lost objects:

The Urmund, espe­cial­ly the anus with teeth, opens onto the anal/oral recy­cling sys­tem of archa­ic mourn­ing which, veiled by resis­tance to chew­ing or bit­ing, is lodged, accord­ing to a log­ic of dou­ble pro­jec­tion, inside para­noia. The aper­ture of para­noid pro­jec­tion is thus the anus: where­as the melancholic’s intro­jec­tion of the lost object is oral and, hence, total, address­ing the entire corpse which must be swal­lowed whole, intact and undis­closed, the para­noid incor­po­rates anal­ly only body parts. (Cal­i­for­nia 141)

The talk­ing asshole’s “raspy, lit­tle incurv­ing hooks” devel­op (as com­bined bit­ing-mouth and anus) in order to break apart the dis­trust­ed objects it incor­po­rates. At first, the man dic­tates to the ass­hole what lines to use and when; then, after a while, when this ven­tril­o­quism becomes habit or rou­tine, the ass­hole stokes the cur­rent of addic­tion and takes over.

The stag­ing of the rou­tine was inspired by a bark­er at the flesh fair: “He had a num­ber he called “The Bet­ter ‘Ole” that was a scream” (Naked Lunch 111). The B movie ref­er­ence Bur­roughs makes in this allu­sion is a pri­mal scream of cin­e­ma. As only the sec­ond full-length sound pic­ture, “The Bet­ter ‘Ole,” star­ring Syd Chap­lin (the shad­owy old­er broth­er of the silent Chap­lin), used the short-lived Vita­phone method of record­ing sound on a disc that was sep­a­rate from the film reel (as opposed to ‘live’ syn­chro­nous record­ing, Fris­toe). The film pre­miered a year before the Jazz Singer, the first for­mal “talkie.” The “‘Ole” in the title refers to the fox­holes of World War I (a line in the film goes: “If you know of a bet­ter ‘ole—go to it!”); but of course, Bur­roughs rec­og­nizes its oth­er scene. Talk­ing cin­e­ma, like speech itself accord­ing to Jones, pre­mieres from the oth­er ori­fice that the oral, res­pi­ra­to­ry func­tion super­sedes only sec­on­dar­i­ly. Bur­roughs’ blue­print for sur­viv­ing in the midst of the addic­ta­tion machine’s per­se­cu­tions also par­al­lels the advance of sound into cin­e­ma. In the case of both cin­e­ma and the talk­ing ass­hole, a mere acces­so­ry to the spec­u­lar realm ‘takes over,’ becom­ing “the sex that pass­es the cen­sors, squeezes through between bureaus, because there’s always a space between, in pop­u­lar songs and Grade B movies, giv­ing away the basic Amer­i­can rot­ten­ness, spurt­ing out like break­ing boils, throw­ing out globs of that un-D.T. to fall any­where and grow into some degen­er­ate can­cer­ous life-form, repro­duc­ing a hideous ran­dom image” (Naked Lunch 112). From sound to sight, Amer­i­ca exhibits, in the anal under­world of B cin­e­ma and pop­u­lar songs, some­thing that rots away at the foundation.

Thus, what starts as a pri­vate afflic­tion, a secret bur­ial lodged in the anus of a sub­ject unwill­ing or unable to mourn, becomes an unstop­pable force, a viral pan­dem­ic, that infects through tech­ni­cal-medi­at­ic out­lets, turn­ing mil­lions into corpse-car­ry­ing machines. This, in sum, is Bur­roughs’ great fear for the plan­et: that it will be over­run by what are, essen­tial­ly, zom­bies. The cold, inhu­man part of us that exerts its influ­ence most pal­pa­bly when we are depen­dent on ‘sub­stances’ (like zom­bies hooked on brains) is also the part of us that would wish or strike dead the parts of our­selves that exert auton­o­my of any sort (espe­cial­ly libid­i­nal). The addic­ta­tion machine, final­ly, is not entire­ly with­in Bur­roughs, but is an enti­ty that exists in the Inter­zone between psy­chi­cal and social reality—in cul­ture at large—whose imma­nent takeover promis­es to be irrev­o­ca­ble and final.

Works Cit­ed

Bur­roughs, William S. “Last Words of Has­san Sab­bah.” Noth­ing Here Now But the Record­ings: From the Bur­roughs Archives. Indus­tri­al Records IR0016, 1981. LP.

---. Naked Lunch: The Restored Text. Ed. James Grauer­holz and Bar­ry Miles. New York: Grove Press, 2001. Print.

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Bur­roughs Jr., William S. Cursed From Birth: The Short, Unhap­py Life of William S. Bur­roughs Jr. Ed. David Ohle. Brook­lyn: Soft Skull Press, 2006. Print.

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Grauer­holz, James. “The Death of Joan Vollmer Bur­roughs: What Real­ly Hap­pened?” Old Lawrence. lawrence​.com, 9 Decem­ber 2003. Web. 2 August 2008. http://​old​.lawrence​.com/​b​u​r​r​o​u​g​h​s​/​d​e​a​t​h​o​f​j​o​a​n​-​f​u​l​l​.​pdf

Miles, Bar­ry. William Bur­roughs: El Hom­bre Invis­i­ble. 2nd ed. Lon­don: Vir­gin Books Ltd, 2002. Print.

Mor­gan, Ted. Lit­er­ary Out­law: The Life and Times of William S. Bur­roughs. New York: Hen­ry Holt and Com­pa­ny, 1988. Print.

Rae, Gra­ham. “Like Moth­er, Like Son.” Real­i­tyS­tu­dio. Real​i​tys​tu​dio​.org, 10 Novem­ber 2001. Web. 7 June 2009. http://​real​i​tys​tu​dio​.org/​b​i​o​g​r​a​p​h​y​/​l​i​k​e​-​m​o​t​h​e​r​-​l​i​k​e​-​son

Rick­els, Lau­rence A. Aber­ra­tions of Mourn­ing: Writ­ing on Ger­man Crypts. Detroit: Wayne State UP, 1988. Print.

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---. The Vam­pire Lec­tures. Min­neapo­lis: U of Min­neso­ta P, 1999. Print.

Ronell, Avi­tal. Crack Wars: Lit­er­a­ture, Addic­tion, Mania. Lin­coln: U of Nebras­ka P, 1992. Print.

This arti­cle is licensed under a  Cre­ative Com­mons 3.0 License although cer­tain works ref­er­enced here­in may be sep­a­rate­ly licensed, or the author has exer­cised their right to fair deal­ing under the Cana­di­an Copy­right Act.