The 12+12 Books of Christmas #20


Naked Lunch by William Burroughs is an important and fascinating book. You can read it as a prophecy from the fifties that predicted the texture of modern life. It predicted new drugs, liposuction and the AIDS epidemic, among other things. It really depends on how much tin foil you are ready wrap around your head when you read Burroughs: he will tell you everything you need to know about electronic mass surveillance, absolute corporate power, mass migration, turning the planet into a Manichean hobbyhorse for the elites, global prison camps, the Internet, whatever you want. He is the quintessential author of the post-postmodern world. If you have not read his mad work, you have probably missed something essential about the world in which you live.

During his adventures our hero, William Lee, travels across the world and imagination to a bizarre facility run by Dr. Benway:

Dr. Benway had been called in as advisor to the Freeland Republic, a place given over to free love and continual bathing. The citizens are well adjusted, cooperative, honest, tolerant and above all clean. But the invoking of Benway indicates all is not well behind that hygienic facade: Benway is a manipulator and coordinator of symbol systems, an expert on all phases of interrogation, brainwashing and control. I have not seen Benway since his precipitate departure from Annexia, where his assignment had been T.D. — Total Demoralization. Benway’s first act was to abolish concentration camps, mass arrest and, except under certain limited and special circumstances, the use of torture.

Total demoralization accomplished, Benway turns his attention to other projects in Annexia and elsewhere. What Burroughs goes on to describe is a Foucauldian society of internalized bureaucratic discipline in satire so delicious it has not been written since Swift:

Every citizen of Annexia was required to apply for and carry on his person at all times a whole portfolio of documents. Citizens were subject to be stopped in the street at any time; and the Examiner, who might be in plain clothes, in various uniforms, often in a bathing suit or pyjamas, sometimes stark naked except for a badge pinned to his left nipple, after checking each paper, would stamp it. On subsequent inspection the citizen was required to show the properly entered stamps of the last inspection. The Examiner, when he stopped a large group, would only examine and stamp the cards of a few. The others were then subject to arrest because their cards were not properly stamped. Arrest meant “provisional detention”; that is, the prisoner would be released if and when his Affidavit of Explanation, properly signed and stamped, was approved by the Assistant Arbiter of Explanations. Since this official hardly ever came to his office, and the Affidavit of Explanation had to be presented in person, the explainers spent weeks and months waiting around in unheated offices with no chairs and no toilet facilities. Documents issued in vanishing ink faded into old pawn tickets. New documents were constantly required. The citizens rushed from one bureau to another in a frenzied attempt to meet impossible deadlines.

This is a hellhole few survive and the survivors are absolutely paranoid: “No one ever looked at anyone else because of the strict law against importuning, with or without verbal approach, anyone for any purpose, sexual or otherwise. […] After a few months of this the citizens cowered in corners like neurotic cats.” I believe Naked Lunch should be mandatory reading for everyone because of passages like the above. It lays out the paranoid, fearful and miserable society we have become. But it also tells you how you are being swindled out loving your neighbor by monsters like Dr. Benway, manipulators of symbol systems who shove their propaganda down our throats like it’s candy. Burroughs’s world is our world. You should pick up his book and study it until you know it by heart.

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