Home > Psychedelic Literature > The Soundless Hum: Psychonautic Underpinnings of William Burroughs’ Naked Lunch

The Soundless Hum: Psychonautic Underpinnings of William Burroughs’ Naked Lunch

Fragments By Doug Brown

Picture by Doug Brown

This article was originally published in the Psychedelic Press UK print journal 2013 Vol.2 and is now up on the Psypress site.

Mostly everyone has heard of William Burroughs’ drug-inspired masterpiece Naked Lunch, but far fewer have actually read it from cover to cover and fewer still have properly understood what Burroughs is doing in its pages.

Often dismissed as incomprehensible, pornographic and, due to its lack of formal narrative structure, unfilmable, Naked Lunch was nevertheless tackled on celluloid by David Cronenberg in 1991, resulting in a movie that is only minimally representative of the book and tends to deepen its mystery rather than clarify it. Reinventing from scratch and substituting his own authorship, Cronenberg ‘sampled’ Burroughs’ life and work in order to produce a body-horror pastiche that owes as much to the Ted Morgan biography and the novels Exterminator and Junkie as Naked Lunch itself. But for many people that film stands for what Naked Lunch is about.

Another common misconception is that Naked Lunch is about ‘the horrors of addiction,’ a description more suited to Burroughs’ autobiographical first novel Junkie. By the time of Naked Lunch, he’d moved on considerably from depicting anything so mundane or literal as that. What Naked Lunch represents is the fruit of a pharmo-picaresque creative journey that was partly inspired by opiate addiction but that rapidly expanded to encompass the visions of majoun, peyote and most particularly ayahuasca or yagé, whose psychonautic propensity underscores much of the grotesque, lurid phantasmagoria for which the novel is famous… Read more on Psypress UK

My in-depth review of Barry Miles’ biography of William Burroughs is included in the new issue of the Psypress magazine. More information at the Psypress Shop.

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  1. October 28, 2014 at 5:45 pm

    Been a WB fan since I was youngster, read the Yage letters pretty early, a big influence on my music as well via artists such as Throbbing Gristle etc. Cheers, look forward to the next issue!

  2. October 28, 2014 at 6:06 pm

    Cheers Jeffery. I can’t stop writing about him lately – four pieces this year and another in the pipeline!

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