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Benway

Burroughs as Dr BenwayWilliam Burroughs as Dr Benway

“I reach Freeland, which is clean and dull my God. Benway is directing the R.C., Reconditioning Center” (25). There’s a very exact literary antecedent to Burroughs’ institute of medical and social engineering: Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World, which begins: “A squat grey building of only thirty-four stories. Over the main entrance the words, CENTRAL LONDON HATCHERY AND CONDITIONING CENTRE.” The phrase “Re-Conditioning Centre” itself appears later on in Huxley’s novel. Of course, Burroughs was drawing a parallel based on direct personal experience, too, and his Reconditioning Center echoes the treatment for addiction he received and witnessed others receiving at the Lexington “narcotic farm,” described in detail in Junky and referenced briefly in the “Deposition” and, indirectly, in “Hassan’s Rumpus Room.”

Burroughs’ interest in medical models of control is clear enough throughout Naked Lunch, but there’s an angle here that might pass unnoticed in the phrase “R.C., Reconditioning Center” — if another phrasing four lines down doesn’t make it plain: “A.O.P., Automatic Obedience Processing.” Burroughs’ predilection for coining initialisms and acronyms begins here, in the “Benway” section — where “INDs” soon appear (”Irreversible Neural Damage”) along with “P.R.s” (”Partially Reconditioned”), heralding all manner of abbreviations that run as an important structural motif linking specific sections: from the “O.A. (Oblique Addict) and his R.C. (Recharge Connection)” at the end of the “Hospital” section (58) to a model of Stomach Tuck surgery known as “O.N.S. — One Night Stands” in “The Market” (98) and “un-D.T., Undifferentiated Tissue” in the Talking Asshole routine in “Ordinary Men and Women” (111). A.J. — who is himself identified only via his initials (together with “K.E.” and “D.L.”) — calls for “O.A.O., Operation All Out” in “Islam Incorporated and the Parties of Interzone” (126), while information about the parties is given in a “T.B. — Tentative Bulletin” followed by a “D.B. — Definitive Bulletin” (140). In “The Examination,” Benway refers ominously to the results of Carl’s “R.K.” or “Robinson-Kleiberg flocculation test” (162), while Lee in “Hauser and O’Brien” sorts through names of potential helpers: “F.L. — Fuzz Lover; B.W. — Born Wrong; N.C.B.C. — Nice Cat But Chicken” (180). Not to mention C for cocaine and M for morphine or standard usages such as D.A. or GI, TB, TV, VD, and K.Y. (the origins of the lubricant’s initials are, apparently, a mystery).

Burroughs’ mimicry and mockery of professional insider jargon serves up in Naked Lunch a suitably ridiculous alphabet soup (to borrow a phrase from another 1959 production, Alfred Hitchcock’s espionage parody thriller, North by Northwest — “FBI, CIA, ONI, we’re all in the same alphabet soup,” chirps The Professor), but the acronyms and initialisms didn’t stop there. They run throughout the oeuvre from “K.S.” (Keep Silence) in The Soft Machine via “The Discipline of D.E.” (Do Easy) to “HIS” (Hassan i Sabbah) in The Western Lands. Fittingly enough, Burroughs can himself be grouped with other writers — Coleridge (STC), Stevenson (RLS), etc. — familiarly abbreviated to just their distinctive initials: WSB.

(Text: Oliver Harris)

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