Columbia panel explores the continuing significance of beat legend
Burroughs' linguistically creative drug-addled masterpiece fifty
years from its Paris publication date.
By Allison Malecha
Published Sunday 11 October 2009
When Jack Kerouac and Allen Ginsberg were studying at Columbia in the
early 1940s, they didn't learn much from its world-class faculty.
Instead, they sought their education from an older, wiser, narcotics
junkie: William S. Burroughs.
On Friday afternoon, in a nice twist of irony, Burroughs and his two
ex-Columbia mentees were celebrated at Columbia's Faculty House.
The conference, "50 Years of Naked Lunch: From the Interzone to the
Archive… and Back," was a five-hour prelude to the exhibition opening
of the same name.
"Naked Lunch" is Burroughs' most popular and contentious book, and
the 50 years is in reference to its 1959 Paris publication. The first
U.S. edition came out in 1962 after Barney Rosset, a conference
panelist and former Columbia student, won a censorship case that
allowed him to publish "Naked Lunch" at Grove Press.
Although its attendees were professors and librarians, the conference
had the atmosphere of a 50th birthday partyintimate anecdotes on the
making of "Naked Lunch" were told with infectious revelry, and inside
jokes about Burroughs were made, which only half the crowd understood
but everyone laughed at. Yet the celebrated book hardly seemed to
have aged at all. During his keynote address, "From Dr. Mabuse to Doc
Benway: The Myths and Manuscripts of Naked Lunch," Oliver Harris, a
Keele University professor and the leading Burroughs scholar, said
that "'Naked Lunch' is as beautiful, ferocious, ugly as it ever was."
How does one describe the content of the book? As conference
coordinator Gerald Cloud, curator for literature at the Rare Book and
Manuscript Library, said, "It's not, as many people think, just drug
thrills. Its layers of irony and understanding are deeply
intelligent." In essence, it is the autobiography of an addict on the
run from the "junkie police" (he travels from New York to Mexico to
Tangier) but with undercurrents of political repression and gender
issues. Its form, which mimics a non-linear junkie state of mind, is
largely indefinable, too. If this article was written similarly, the
paragraphs would be in no certain order, the page would be pocked
with ellipses, and, in Harris' words, the content would "spill off
the page in all directions."
This mystique only added to the "Naked Lunch" sensation, though.
Everyone had a first encounter with the book to share. During the
closing panel discussion moderated by Columbia professor Ann Douglas,
Barry Miles, a friend, editor, and biographer of Burroughs, recalled,
"I was living in this hippie commune apartment in London and one guy
said, 'This is such a hip pad, man, there's always a fresh copy of
"Naked Lunch" on the table.' It had to be smuggled in at the time.
The book completely knocked me out, the epitome of stoned humor and
Another panelist and personal friend of Burroughs, Bradford Morrow,
remembered reading it in stints at IHOP: "It hits you at a gut
levelthe energy, the emotion in this orchestral narrative."
Cloud chimed in with similar words: "It was mind-blowing." Few books
can garner such visceral reactions as those that were expressed
across the board.
A large part of the afternoon was also dedicated to tracing the path
of Burroughs' original manuscripts. Drawing a parallel between the
book and where it has been, Cloud said, " 'Naked Lunch' is a
fragmented work. Its archival history is no less so."
The folios featured in the exhibition, which will be on display at
Butler's Rare Book and Manuscript Library until Jan. 31, are from
Burroughs' original "Interzone" manuscript. The manuscript had been
sent to publisher Laurence Ferengetti for consideration and, upon
being rejected, went on to Allen Ginsberg. Thought to be long lost,
Miles rediscovered the manuscript in 1994 in, of all places, Butler
Library. It is thought to have sat there, untouched, for 25 years.
Which makes one wonder: What else is hidden in Columbia's libraries,
just waiting to be dusted off?