I was watching David Cronenberg’s film Naked Lunch last night. I haven’t seen it since its cinema release back in the 1990s. I must confess I went to see it at the time for the wonderful Howard Shore/Ornette Coleman musical score as much as anything else. I was curious to see if it would still have the same (somewhat disturbing) impact that it had on me all those years ago. Yes and no. The impact was there but of a wholly different kind.
Whereas, I had originally interpreted the wry horrors of William S. Burroughs’s landmark work (upon which the film is partly based, along with Burroughs’s journey leading up to writing the book) as the inspired ramblings of a narcotically numbed schadenfreude; now I saw detachment and cool-headed observation of a more journalistic (though of a hazy surreal) kind. In particular, I was surprised that I hadn’t made the somewhat obvious connection between Burroughs’s novel and Kafka’s Metamorphosis, given all the bugs.
So, this morning, I thought I’d do a quick search to see if Burroughs was in fact alluding to Kafka’s work in The Naked Lunch and found the following wonderful journal article ‘”One of the Great Early Counselors”: The Influence of Franz Kafka on William S. Burroughs’ by Adam Meyer at JSTOR online. If you’d like to read it for free, you can at https://www.jstor.org/stable/40246758 without the need to subscribe (at the moment).
I highly recommend reading Meyer’s article particularly if you have ever thought that books like The Naked Lunch overstep the mark when it comes to shock-tactics. After all, there is nothing in it you won’t see in your daily news bulletin (anthropomorphic transformations coming soon: give or take 50 years 😉 ). As the rockband Skyhooks once sang: “It’s a Horror Movie right there on my TV…shocking me right out of my brain…it’s the 6.30 news”.
Try it. Open up any reputable online news site (for example: https://www.abc.net.au/news/), read what has been served up to for your consumption and delectation: Kafka and Burroughs begin to seem like optimists. As Jack Kerouac said when explaining why he came up with the name ‘Naked Lunch’ as an appropriate title for Burroughs’s tome: you get to see what’s really on the end of your fork.
One might well feel ‘triggered’ after reading some of Burroughs’ more unsavory passages, there is, however, equally the invitation to wake up from numbness and complacency. There is, also, the possibility that one might resolve to choose autonomy in place of being a social and cultural automaton. Does the daily news bulletin invite the same reaction? Indignation and self-righteousness are more likely responses.
Meyer’s most timely observation (keep in mind this article was written some 30 years ago) is perhaps:
Burrough’s is “trying to define what it is that’s really anti-human and evil, and he basically pinpoints it in the self-righteous, censorious, repressive mind,” the same place Kafka located it.
He continues: The reason this mind set is so evil is that … it always requires one person’s being under the domination and control of another person or force. (1990 p. 215-16)
Having been born in what is a former penal colony (Australia) and having spent the formative years of my life living in a ‘police state’ and seemingly perpetual ‘state of emergency’ (i.e. Queensland as ruled by premier Joh Bjelke-Peterson for some 20 years!!) I can attest to the truth in Burroughs words when he says that ‘… a functioning police state needs no police.’ Bureaucracy, paranoia and conformity, on the other hand, are essential components.
Burroughs, W. S. ( 2016). The Naked Lunch. Penguin Classics.
Kafka, F. ( 2013). Metamorphosis. Random House US Group.
Meyers, A. (1990). ‘”One of the Great Early Counselors”: The Influence of Franz Kafka on William S. Burroughs’, Comparative Literature Studies Vol. 27, No. 3 (1990), pp. 211-229 (19 pages).