Section by Section
Despite all that has been written about Naked Lunch over the past fifty years, there’s never been any attempt to focus on it section by section, to map in detail any one of its many parts. Then again, since this is Naked Lunch we’re talking about, nothing is so simple — not even being able to say how many sections there are. The number 23 is often mentioned (and it has the perfect Burroughsian resonance), but the original Olympia edition had only 14 titled sections, while the recently published “Restored” edition has 25. As for what Burroughs himself intended, that would take us deep into the text’s complex and still largely unmapped manuscript history — but to give just one example of how unstable that history was and how it challenges common assumptions about the text: the first two-thirds of “Hauser and O’Brien” — which rounds out the book’s narrative by going back to the beginning — actually started off in the middle of “Hospital” — where it appeared effectively as a junky’s dream. It would, in short, be a mistake and a misunderstanding to see the sections of the text as stable and discrete entities.
Equally, the sequence of the sections changed again and again over the years, a process we can see most clearly in the endpapers of the “Restored” edition of Naked Lunch, which reproduce a 1957 manuscript showing two snapshots of the running order of what was then called “Interzone.” In fact, the original document — written in pencil, green ink, and two types of blue pen — vividly affirms the multiple histories of revision by revealing this to be the work of three different hands and four different times. Needless to say, even when the scholarship has been done, the text of Naked Lunch will still leave us with more questions than answers.
As several critics have observed, and all readers know, the sections inter-relate, cross-refer, echo, anticipate, and repeat one another in a peculiarly fascinating and disturbing way that is, I would argue, the material result of the unique play between intention and accident over several years that gave rise to the book’s final form. I have a dozen copies of Naked Lunch and each one has pencil notes on the margins tracking the uncanny recurrence or mutation of one phrase or reference from one point in the text to another, back and forth. This is one of the peculiar pleasures of the text, but it also means that is difficult, even contra-indicated, to view any one section in isolation. By design and by hazard, any way you approach it, Burroughs’ book seems impossible to get the measure of, to nail down, to map, or to master. But that can’t stop us altogether from having a go…
In opening up this space to annotate Naked Lunch section by section, the hope is that readers will share insights, knowledge, questions, reactions, that taken together advance our understanding and appreciation of both part and whole. It will also be interesting and revealing to see which parts attract the most attention and what kind of responses this cartographic project of annotation inspires. Hopefully, they will be as various as Naked Lunch itself — anything from a one-line gloss of pyrethrum powder or an illustrated account of the purple-assed baboons of Tripoli to a mini-essay on the unspeakable rites of the Agouti Society…
(A word about referencing: although it’s not ideal for everyone, it would keep things simple if in all responses the page references were to the “Restored” Naked Lunch , unless stated otherwise.)
(Text: Oliver Harris)
Naked Lunch: Section by Section
3. The Rube
More to come…
Also see the transcript of the talk given by Oliver Harris at Columbia University during the New York homage: From Dr Mabuse to Doc Benway: The Myths and Manuscripts of Naked Lunch.