A Blakean Approach to William S. Burroughs’s "Naked Lunch"

How Did the Work of William Blake Influence the Beat Movement?

Essay, 2017

13 Pages


Table of Contents

1. Introduction

2. The Beat Movement

3. William Blake: A Brief Discourse

4. Observations onNaked Lunch

4.1 Spirituality
4.2 Repression
4.3 Sexuality

5. Conclusion

6. Bibliography

1. Introduction

William S. Burroughs, one of the most influential figures of the Beat movement of the late 1950s, claims: “I get these messages from other planets - I’m apparently some kind of agent from another planet but I haven’t got my orders clearly decoded yet” (Burroughs qtd. in Baker 97). Thereby, he refers to his taboo-breaking novel Naked Lunch, published in 1959. In his major work, Burroughs portrays the excessive use of drugs which results in surreal, almost apocalyptic visions and spiritual transcendence. Thereby, the author offers sharp criticism on suppressive instances and American politics. He claims that “[certain] passages in the book that have been called pornographic were written as a tract against Capital Punishment […]. These sections are intended to reveal capital punishment as the obscene, barbaric and disgusting anachronism that it is” (2015: 205).

Besides explicit descriptions of morbid drug experiences and exaggerated, sexually connoted scenes, there are underlying motives to be observed. Thereby, we can assess Burroughs’s work in terms of its intended indecency and its resulting conflict with the controversial reception. The author does not simply provoke the public by emphasizing social taboo subjects, but also intends to show the recipients possibilities of the expansion of experience and social liberation. Thereby, he makes use of the visionary, prophetic, almost religious pictures and contributes to the literary canon of the Beat movement which calls for “confrontation, shock-tactic obscenity when needed, a non-ideological politics of drop-out or commune, sex or marijuana virtually on demand, endless readings, love-ins, happenings, changes of fashion and talk” (Lee 1996: 2).

The surrealistic, visionary approach mentioned above is to a certain degree linked to William Blake, poet and mystic of the 18th century (Ahearn 1996: 117). Just like Burroughs, Blake claimed to have visionary messages which serve for literary inspiration. This term paper intends to investigate Blakean elements in Burroughs’ Naked Lunch. For that purpose, the characteristics of the Beat movement will be outlined at the beginning. Subsequently, I will present a brief insight into Blake’s concepts of politics, religion and freedom. Finally, I will demonstrate how Blakean ideas contribute to Burroughs’ novel. Thereby, the focus lies on spirituality, repression and sexuality.

2. The Beat movement

The Beat movement origins in the USA of the 1950s, a period which was shaped by the expansion of military capacities, isolationism, mass media, post-war circumstances and the threats of the Cold War. Those factors resulted in an emotional state of anxiety, depression and paranoia. In the course of the decade authors intended to constitute a movement against those contemporary circumstances. Thereby, the desire for social, political, sexual and spiritual freedom found expression through unconventional art forms which were considered shocking or even obscene among the American bourgeoise. The literary canon of the “Beat Generation” is characterized by a call for social liberation (Lee 1996: 2). Jack Kerouac, arguably one of the most influential key figures of that time, claims: “Woe unto those who don’t realize that America must, will, is changing now, for the better I say” (Kerouac qtd. in Lee 2).

The Beat writers constituted a bohemian subculture against the contemporary mainstream culture. The relation between the individual and the collective plays an important role in the self-awareness of the Beat writers.1 Thus, their literary works often focus on the individual who finds freedom by rejecting conventional guidelines (Belletto 2017: 4).

One of the Beat movement’s main themes is the expansion of human experience and perception. Literature intends to show its recipients, which are considered corrupted by established, commercial media, a considerably liberal attitude: “instinct over intellect, fresh experience over canned” (Weinreich 2017: 51). The tendency to spirituality and transcendence plays an important role in the depiction of individual experience and is often combined with surreal elements (ibid.). Allen Ginsberg refers to latter tendency by defining “art as extension or manifestation of exploration of the texture of consciousness, spiritual liberation as a result” (Ginsberg qtd. in Belletto 3).

3. William Blake: A Brief Discourse

William Blake’s oeuvre indicates an opposition to contemporary circumstances. According to Blake the subject holds an infinite nature which is linked to individual development and personal freedom. However, the infinite, human nature is confronted with the established authority who considers the individual finite. Consequently, the subject is restrained by external forces in form of hierarchical institutions in both politics and religion (Lincoln 1998: 187).

Blake’s political agenda is linked to his view on the Bible. He assesses the Bible in a critical way and accuses it for constituting a uniform mass that is controlled, manipulated and repressed by an established authority. However, that boundaries are also artificial and self-imposed. Behrendt describes that contradiction as a “circle whose center and circumference are defined by what it contains - which is precisely a reflection of those who fabricate the container in the first place” (1998: 39).

Furthermore, Blake intends to free the readership from authoritarian and conventional structures. Thereby, he creates his own mythology which counters the Bible. Thus, he created The Marriage of Heaven and Hell in which he claims that he is in possession of “The Bible of Hell” (ibid. 41). Essentially, he argues that “good” and “evil” are both indispensable since neither of them can exist without the other. Moreover, that contrary concepts are the foundation of progression: “Without Contraries is no progression. Attraction and Repulsion, Reason and Energy, Love and Hate, are necessary to Human existence” (Blake 1994: 196).

4. Observations on Naked Lunch

In the following I will argue that Burroughs’s Naked Lunch shows various parallels to Blakean ideas in terms of the conception of consciousness and individual freedom. Thereby, both authors focus on spirituality, repression and sexuality. I will primarily use Blake’s The Marriage of Heaven and Hell in order to demonstrate how latter writing contributes to Naked Lunch.

4.1 Spirituality

The title Naked Lunch already suggests a substantial theme Burroughs’ work intends to portray. The author refers to the tittle as follows:

I apparently took detailed notes on sickness and delirium. I have no precise memory of writing the notes which have now been published under the title Naked Lunch. The title was suggested by Jack Kerouac. I did not understand what the title meant until my recent recovery. The title means exactly what the words say: NAKED Lunch- a frozen moment when everyone sees what is on the end of every fork. (2015: 199)

It becomes clear that the term “naked” refers to the ability to percept reality in its natural form which can be obtained by the elimination of confusion. That confusion is regarded as a result of artificial, social boundaries. Burroughs challenges contemporary repression by addressing the reader directly and, thereby, confronting him with the excessive use of drugs which the author embeds in a surrealistic narrative (Murphy 2000: 89). By emphasizing the sharp contrast between individual concepts of freedom and social conventions, Burroughs shows the reader “what is on the end of every fork” (2015: 199). Ginsberg argues that the title “relates to nakedness of seeing, to being able to see clearly without any confusing disguises, to see through the disguise” (Ginsberg qtd. in Murphy 89).

The use of drugs is linked to the idea of the expansion of experience which can be obtained by hallucinations and visions (Ahearn 1996: 118). In Naked Lunch the narrator William Lee frequently emphasizes his visionary experiences which seem to go beyond the reader’s capacities: “I forget that you cannot understand” (Burroughs 2015: 171). Burroughs claims: “During withdrawal the addict is acutely aware of his surroundings. Sense impressions are sharpened to the point of hallucination” (ibid. 216). He mentions “unknown doors” (ibid. 169) which get approachable after the use of drugs. Furthermore, the author describes someone who goes “back into junk focus” (ibid. 171), a state of visionary perception. The expansion of consciousness frequently occurs in Burroughs’ writings. In Dream of the City he underlines that the “hypersensitivity of junk sickness is reflected in dreams during withdrawal” (1987: 227).

Based on those descriptions, we can draw parallels to Blake’s The Marriage of Heaven and Hell and, also, Huxley’s The Doors of Perception2 (Ahearn 1996: 126).


1 Many Beat writers stood in close relationship to each other and exchanged thoughts on their literary work. In fact, it was Burroughs who acquainted Kerouac and Ginsberg with authors like William Blake (Mortenson 2011: 59). After Ginsberg’s Blake visions Burroughs advised him to “go right ahead, into space, outside of Logos, outside of time” (Burroughs qtd. in Mortenson 59).

2 In the essay The Doors of Perception, published in 1954, Huxley describes the effects of the psychedelic drug Mescaline. Thereby, the title refers to Blake’s The Marriage of Heaven and Hell.

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A Blakean Approach to William S. Burroughs’s "Naked Lunch"
How Did the Work of William Blake Influence the Beat Movement?
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blakean, approach, william, burroughs’s, naked, lunch, work, blake, influence, beat, movement
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Markus Jakob (Author), 2017, A Blakean Approach to William S. Burroughs’s "Naked Lunch", Munich, GRIN Verlag, https://www.grin.com/document/450707


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