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The Beat Generation and Naked Lunch

by kim hajeong, photo credits.

We can think about the Beat Generation in a number of ways. It’s most widely regarded as a group of five authors — Herbert Huncke, Allen Ginsberg, William S. Burroughs, Lucien Carr, and Jack Kerouac — who banded together on the Columbia University campus in 1944 with the intent of relaying a common post-World War II American consciousness. It is, however, also possible to consider the Beat Generation outside the context of these writers, and have it represent this singular attitude of 1950s America: one concerned with a bourgeoning belief in how “how to live seems… much more crucial than why.” (Larson, 2013). Finally, the Beat Generation can be considered in terms of the literature that was spawned by its authors—literature including a particular novel in which we will take special interest, entitled Naked Lunch.

On a cold day in February, 1944, in the Union Theological Seminary dormitory on West 122nd Street that served as overflow residence for Columbia at the time, Allen Ginsberg knocked on Lucien Carr’s door to ask him to turn down the volume on his recording of a Brahm’s trio. Rapidly after this first meeting with Ginsberg, Carr would befriend Jack Kerouac; he would then go on to introduce the both of them to each other and his older friend, William Burroughs. This established the center of the New York Beat scene, with “Lou as the glue”, as Ginsberg once observed. The four would fall in with Herbert Huncke only later that year, a shadowy figure in part of New York’s darker underbelly. Kerouac would later describe Huncke affectionately in his “Now it’s Jazz” reading from Desolation Angels: “Huck, whom you’ll see on Times Square, somnolent and alert, sad, sweet, dark, holy. Just out of jail. Martyred. Tortured by sidewalks, starved for companionship, open to anything, ready to introduce a new world with a shrug.”

This description of Huncke is perhaps apposite in describing the attitudes of the Beat Generation writers as a whole. Having grown in an era characterized by rigid social structure, the Beat writers were primarily concerned with pursuing discussions pertaining to non-conformity, sexuality, spirituality, rejecting capitalism and rampant materialism and drug use as a method of understanding the human condition. The Beats sought to rebel against the prudish demands of their parents’ generation, which labeled freedom and non-conformity as immoral, damaging and sinister to both the individual and the health of the establishment. In rejecting these classifications, the Beat Generation looked to swap stifling morality for liberation and freedom— and it is this aspect of Beat literature that made it initially questionable to many critics, as many saw the productions of the Beats as constituting little more than provocation, not serious art. Contrary to initial criticism, however, the Beat Generation wrought a drastic change in the oppressive formalism of the earlier twentieth century—ushering in an age of literature that dared to be bolder, more expressive and candid than had any before it.

Naked Lunch, written by William Burroughs, serves as a representative example of Beat literature and its tendency to blur the line between sexuality and art in a way characteristic of the era. The main premise of Naked Lunch is that it has no clear plotline. Instead, it is a non-linear narrative consisting of various unrelated events, with passages written at random and different characters morphing into others or dying and reappearing suddenly, with no provocation. Burroughs also makes it a point to repeatedly subject his many characters to the grossest, most inhuman situations: dehumanizing them to the point that his characters no longer seem human.

 

Critical reception to Burroughs’ novel was passionate and polarized, with author Norman Mailer praising Burroughs’ “extraordinary style,” and “exquisite poetic sense” while calling the book “a deep work, a calculated work” that “captures that speech [‘gutter talk’] like no American writer I know.” A vast majority of critics, however, condemned the novel as nothing more than “undisciplined prose, far more akin to the early work of experimental adolescents than to anything of literary merit”, and its unabridged publication was banned for a subsequent three years. Mary McCarthy sums up the reading experience that Naked Lunch entails in her review for the New York Times, breezily acceding that “It is disgusting and sometimes tiresome, often in the same places.” However, in the same review McCarthy pronounces Burroughs’ talent “remarkable” and the novel “fresh”—ending off her review with perhaps her most accurate and interesting summation of Naked Lunch, as a “deliberate experiment.”

It is in this deliberation that McCarthy so astutely points out that Naked Lunch’s true value lies. Take, for example, Naked Lunch’s non-linear style: Burroughs himself proudly proclaims that one might “cut into The Naked Lunch at any intersection point,” and still enjoy the same reading experience in a manner reminiscent of the television set—a consumerist symbol of the time. Burroughs’ subjecting his characters to the freakish, the perverse is also a deliberate move meant to distance them from his readers, reducing his characters to little more than products sold to a reader for a singularly captivating form of consumption. Burroughs’ handling of Naked Lunch therefore makes it a novel that rails against materialism and a desensitization to the perverse, all whilst appropriating it: therefore representing the true value of the Beats and their passionate, rebellious, controversial work.

References

Hampton, W. (January, 2005). Lucien Carr, a Founder and a Muse of the Beat Generation, Dies at 79. Retrieved from http://www.nytimes.com/2005/01/30/obituaries/lucien-carr-a- founder-and-a-muse-of-the-beat-generation-dies-at-79.html

Larson, J. (October 2013). What Hollywood Gets Wrong About Jack Kerouac and the Beat Generation. Retrieved from http://www.theatlantic.com/entertainment/archive/2013/10/what-hollywood-gets-wrong- about-jack-kerouac-and-the-beat-generation/280612/

McCarthy, M. (February 1963). Dejeuner sur l’Herbe. Retrieved from http://www.nybooks.com/articles/archives/1963/feb/01/dejeuner-sur-lherbe/

Woodard, R. (April 2009). Naked Lunch is still fresh. Retrieved from http://www.theguardian.com/books/booksblog/2009/apr/16/naked-lunch-william-burroughs

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