William S. Burroughs at the Front: Critical Reception, 1959-1989

By Jennie Skerl; Robin Lydenberg | Go to book overview

11
William Burroughs and the Literature of Addiction

Frank D. McConnell

Then glozening decanters that reflect the street
Wear me in crescents on their bellies. Slow
Applause flows into liquid cynosures:
--I am conscripted to their shadows' glow.

-- Hart Crane, "The Wine Menagerie"

A lthough William Burroughs' Naked Lunch has existed as a book for nearly eight years, the best commentary on it is still slight enough to be contained as a preface to the Grove Press paperback edition: I mean the testimony of Norman Mailer and Allen Ginsberg given at the Boston obscenity trial in 1966. That testimony, at least, has the merit of restraint imposed by having to translate a living understanding of the book into the ludicrous terms of the Supreme Court's shibboleths for distinguishing "literary merit" from "obscenity"--the final test being whether "the material is utterly without redeeming social value." One has the strong feeling that both witnesses--especially Ginsberg -- are "camping" to some extent, putting the court on by answering questions in precisely the sort of schoolmarmish, bad Arnoldian jargon the court obviously requires; and certainly one of the funniest moments in the trial is Ginsberg's reading of a poem on Burroughs' work from his own volume, Reality Sandwiches, followed by defense attorney Edward de Grazia's bathetic one-liner, "No more questions."

But camp or not, this testimony remains more useful than almost anything else that has been written about Naked Lunch. Even bad Arnoldian criticism is better than what has otherwise normally been done with the book, which is to convert it into either the sacred text or the abomination of desolation for the hippie generation, depending on one's age, education, social status, and opinions about drugs versus

____________________
Frank D. McConnell, "William Burroughs and the Literature of Addiction," The Massachusetts Review 8 ( 1967): 665-80. Copyright © 1967 by The Massachusetts Review, Inc. Reprinted by permission.

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