Pleasure as a source of suffering – population control in ‘Brave new world’, ‘Naked Lunch’ and ‘Infinite Jest’.

<some paper I’ve written for classes, why not post?>

„For the first time it was inside, do you see.

The control is put inside. No more need to suffer

passively under ‘outside forces’ – to veer into any wind.”

– Thomas Pynchon ‘Gravity’s Rainbow’



I. Introduction


The main question that we would like to deal with in this paper is whether pleasure plays an instrumental role in controlling the way people act. This is neither a new idea, nor is it groundbreaking, and as we will see, there are at least a few major examples of literature works that explore the said topic. However, as we would like to take a look on novels written in quite different moments in history, that is, more or less, in: the beginning (1931), the middle (1959) and the end (1996) of the 20th country, it might be a move resulting in some interesting conclusions. The specific way that the pleasure is used, the way people react to it, the effects of such enterprise and finally the way in which the great authors chose to write about it are all subject to considerable and meaningful changes. It is understood by us that even though literature may not always hold the key to the ultimate truth, it does vividly show how we, collectively, think about certain issues at certain points in time. In other words, it is to be more of a hermeneutic work, than a rigorous, scientific securitizing of the possible ways our present civilization might develop.

Although the focus will be put on the similarities and contrasts between the works of Aldous Huxley, William Burroughs and David Foster Wallace there is one more book that deserves at least to be given passing attention. We should first take a step back in order to achieve a better perspective.

It the beginning there was the famous tale by Plato about men held in a cave, who were denied the bright sun of truth. There is some control imposed upon them while they stay calm, not knowing there can be a better perspective of the world than seeing only shadows of real objects.

“Imagine human beings living in an underground den which is open towards the light; they have been there from childhood, having their necks and legs chained, and can only see into the den[1]”.

That means that those people had to be physically constrained by chains first, so that they would form a habit of reacting to shadows as if it was the reality. Then, when released they wouldn’t go out to enjoy the world and sun as it was too strong, too hurtful for their week eyes. Only slowly they got accustomed to the reality again but this time also being forced to do so. We need to note that this was an allegory of the man’s journey towards proper knowledge. The situation was meant to be parallel to what fate has done to people on earth, separating them form pure, platonic ideas. There was no one in charge, no conspiracy whatsoever to use those people’s blindness in any way, for anyone’s benefit or whim. Modern writers, however, turned out to be more suspicious of the motives and far less optimistic when it comes to the future prospects. They blamed not the hard chains of Plato but an inner desire developed in humans; the control mechanism, in their opinion, has been put inside.

II. Brave new world


Huxley in his dystopian novel was as concerned with the present as Plato but even more so was he frightened with where things were heading. The world he imagined is a prosperous, capitalistic society, where the ideas of Henry Ford are treated as sacred and so the economic progress seems to be the only god. The sole purpose of citizens looks to be reinforcing the economic grow, producing goods and new workers as well; however, as it is disclosed in the book’s ending all this was only instrumental for securing social stability. Readers come to realize that in fact work is not the most important activity but rather a distraction necessary to the well-being and an antidote for boredom. The science was also held at leash not to violate equilibrium with a progress too rapid to control. We are even told that most people did jobs that were not necessary at all, yet it is the only way to prevent less qualified workers from going astray or being lost to drugs.

There had to be enforced an elaborated control system over people in order to achieve this, as it was stated that liberty was ‘inefficient and miserable’[2]. Reproduction is mostly taking place in specialist laboratories; giving birth is no longer permissible. Everyone since the first day of his life is conditioned to like or dislike certain things and activities according to a meticulous plan. Mantras are read ceaselessly during one’s sleep so to help him or her to make the right decisions through life. All this is conducted in white gloves, courtesy of technological and psychological advancements, especially in the field of bioengineering. Contrary to the Orwellian vision, there are no sticks or stones involved, there is no feeling of pain whatsoever, at any stage of life. The perfect example is the scene of pacification by the police forces. The antagonists, while caught disturbing the peace are treated with mood-enhancing gas. Without even being touched, they are chemically calmed and brought to the quarters of the country’s ruler for a pleasant, philosophical discussion about the fundaments of the society, morality and Shakespeare. This is surely not an everyday image of a totalitarian regime.

While encountered by an unpleasant situation, for any citizen the only reaction is the feeling of disgust or just some vague discomfort but not a state of physical pain. One could say that everyone lives under the slogan later formulated by Roland Barthes:

“I shall look away, that will henceforth be my sole negation[3]”.

This was true literally, as well as metaphorically, where ‘looking away’ would also refer to Soma, some kind of synthetic, tranquilizing drug generously distributed to the population by the government. In all situations when one was experiencing some difficulties it was advised to use it for relaxation purposes and as a way of escaping present problems and difficulties. This worked as the last resort for stability because, as is pointed out in this rhetorical question: “feeling strongly how could they be stable?[4]”.

‘Feeling strongly’ is also correlated with high art, of which there is none in the everyday life of the brave new world residents. All they are allowed to is something similar to our present mass culture, that is: hyper-realistic action and romance movies (that provide sensual effects too, you could even feel the kisses performed by actors on your own lips), pleasant music and nondemanding, luxury sports (predominantly updated versions of golf and tennis, note: only noncontact ones). This imposed general low quality of entertainment, among other things, was important for the feeling of unity and wholeness that is elevated to the level of quasi-religion. Any individualistic tendencies are frown upon and heavily discouraged, with the possibility of the most extreme punishment imaginable that is an exile from the civilization. One has to learn to live together with others and not just by himself but also to live in the present only, giving no though to the past or the future. The side effects of doing otherwise were thus presented by the Resident Controller:

“It was the sort of idea that might easily decondition the more unsettled minds among the higher castes, make them lose their faith in happiness as the Sovereign Good and take to believing, instead, that the goal was somewhere beyond, somewhere outside the present human sphere, that the purpose of life was not the maintenance of well-being, but some intensification and refining of consciousness, some enlargement of knowledge”[5].

The feeling of common unity is to be reinforced by extremely loose sexual politics. Regular, ritual orgies are even required from every respectable citizen, while other applauded practices are: contraception, polygamy and promiscuity. Family ties are long vanished, as everyone is conditioned to be ashamed of even mentioning motherhood or natural childbirth. As humans are artificially bred, no one has a proper family, at the same time all the strong feelings are to be directed towards the community. This might lead to a conclusion that even the deepest emotional responses, i.e. the love for one’s parents, can be overwritten in certain conditions, thus meaning that nature is holding weakly against culture in this instance, or bioengineering manipulation to be precise. It is not the case, however, with the issue of chemically created happiness, which is far from being perfect and ideal, as we will argue later, maybe even it is really badly constructed.

Saying this we might move forward to the discussion about the problems with such a system. Those problems are personified in the story by the three characters, who seem not to fit well into this brilliantly crafted paradise. Let’s see what were their reasons and what was the final outcome of the struggle that they took part in.

Firstly, there was Bernard Marx. Even though he was born and conditioned as a member of social elite, he came to be for some reason physically inferior, which was caused by an accident. In normal circumstances such disadvantages wouldn’t be possible. Rumor has it that someone added alcohol to his food when he was little. As a result, Bernard is visibly different and so he becomes an outsider. He dreams about getting more respect from the lower castes and being more popular with the opposite sex. Marx detests the sexual frivolousness and opts for a serious, romantic relationship that he can’t find. In nietzschean terms, that would be a classified as a case of ressentiment. Quickly he becomes highly skeptical about the civilization, its sexual practices and comfortable way of dealing with life while his convictions are fueled by anger and disappointments. The very thing that was supposed to be eliminated from the society, namely the lack of instant satisfaction, is the main reason that drives Marx away from accepting the status quo. This might be a proof within the story that those in control are quite right in their agenda, the issue they want to liquidate appears to be actually problematic. Bertrand points out many instances of injustice in the system, still we cannot characterize him as neither noble nor humanistic. At one point of the story the time comes when he enjoys a considerable success. This situation instantly turns him into a proud and condescending person, who is only happy to finally be able to brag to his friend about himself:

 “And I had six girls last week,” he confided to Helmholtz Watson. “One on Monday, two on Tuesday, two more on Friday, and one on Saturday.  And if I’d had the time or the inclination, there were at least a dozen more who were only too anxious …”[6].

In the situations of danger, on the other hand, he goes as far as crawling on his knees to avoid punishment. All in all, Bernard is conscious of the shallowness and the ephemerality of the current state of his civilization, he asks the right questions and makes the crucial decision to bring the Savage into the society, yet we are well aware that all his merits are coincidental and his wise actions come from the wrong reasons.

Watson Helmholtz is the opposite of Bernard. He can be described as a successful man, whose occupation is creating advertisement lines. Even more so, he is extremely popular with the opposite sex, up to a point of being bored with it. Watson is perfectly fit for the society he lived in, unlike Bernard, but despite all that he is similarly discontented. Probably, because of his exceptional intelligence and curiosity, that made him more demanding than the others around him, the easy, predictable life leaves him disappointed. He simply wants to reach further, maybe even write poetry or other kinds of art that was long forgotten and presumably too difficult for those times. This mild disappointment is the factor that connects him to Bernard, as they had already been friends in the beginning of the novel. The friendship survived even though his life filled Marx with envy. Therefore Watson is much more likable and respectable a character, however, although being quite unique it’s hard to tell if he would risk everything to stand against the government. Helmholtz looks at reality from above, while Bernard looks at it from below, still they both were its products and had no strong will to resist it or publicly criticize it. It is only after Watson meets the Savage, full of energy and hatred towards moral crisis of the civilization that he is convinced to stand up against the regime and later to go into an exile as a consequence of this choice.

The Savage, named John is the third ‘enemy’ of the state. He, however, comes from outside, being found by Bernard in the Reservation. He was brought up among Indians, getting to know pain, hate, abuse and dirt as everyday occurrences. He has a strong relationship with his mother, herself born in the civilization and brutally forced to learn the customs of an ‘uncivilized’ tribe. John also grew up to form a deep belief in the rightness of monogamous relationships. His mind is devoted to the plays of Shakespeare that help him survive in a hostile Indian village and later guid him to omit the temptations of modern civilization.

With anthropological discoveries of Malinowski and others in the beginning of the 20th century, there appeared a tendency to see ‘savages’ as examples of human beings unspoiled by the civilization. Huxley uses this card to show how one would react to his imagined ‘brave new world’ if not conditioned to follow and like what they suggest. Bernard and Watson are critics from the inside, John, born outside, is supposed to have a more objective view. Yet his evaluation turns out to be devastating and took the most furious form.

‘The Savage’ is in fact not so savage as he seek moral advice in the plays of Shakespeare, while such ‘high art’ is a counterfeit in Huxley’s dystopia. John is perceived as a freak, a must-see for Londoners deprived of any excitement, a fashionable entertainment, him being so different and exotic. This attention is not at all desired by him, and it leads to a violent outburst against workers taking Soma pills. Later, as he failed to ignite any change whatsoever his new idea is to live outside the town, following the ways of hermits, happily enduring all the hardships and inconveniences. This attempt was also soon ruined, the moment he is discovered and once again disturbed by the fanatic crowd of onlookers. Seeing no other way out, he resorts to suicide in the end. His determination and aggression brought from his native land ultimately are directed towards himself, at the point of realizing the hopelessness of the whole situation.  He is a pitiful victim of the civilization that never ceased to expand and doesn’t allow anyone to live peacefully, even out of its borders.

The frightening, indirect, tacit violence of the new world is even more disturbing when one realizes how hard it is to imagine it falling. In the story, the three unsatisfied men are eventually removed from the society as all their actions remain without causing any serious trouble. Unlike Orwell’s 1984, here it seems that no one would be eager to have any other type of life than the one they were given. They don’t fear the ruler, they enjoy the status quo. The only possible counter action is to not let it happen beforehand, as according to Huxley, once it’s done, there is no way out.

The role of pleasure in the mechanism of control is obvious but not easy to pinpoint. On one hand, there are scarcely any unpleasant situations for the people and they learned to enjoy what they do:

“And that,” put in the Director sententiously, “that is the secret of happiness and virtue – liking what you’ve got to do. All conditioning aims at that: making people like their inescapable social destiny[7]”.

On the other hand Huxley’s point is that this civilization lacks the ‘real’, strong emotions; pleasure being one of them. His accusations of favoring stability over bliss and pain might be augmented by the fact that the approach of dystopians is depraving people of strong, overwhelming happiness. The feeling is democratized; everyone gets his tiny share of the pleasant mood. There is no starving, no physical violence, no wars. With the great hardships the experience of ecstasy is gone and if we can hold this view, then Huxley’s arguments become problematic. It looks like he is advocating great pleasure of the elites instead of solving the problem of global suffering, hunger and violence. The lower castes are unprivileged and do the worst jobs but they do not endure any form of suffering, they are conditioned not to have any dignity but this is the price. The pleasure is in fact used to control people’s actions, yet it is only a shadow in platonic cave of the real thing. It’s the inflation that Huxley might really fear, not the pleasure as such. Residents of his world are not really happy, they only think they are because the state doesn’t allow them do see and try anything else. More precisely they are supposed to be not unhappy, nothing more.

A. Carr[8] distinguishes two approaches to explaining happiness. One is eudemonic, traditionally associated with Aristotle that puts focus on self-developments, satisfaction from one’s actions, being virtuous and carefully trying to obtain one’s full potential as an individual. The other approach is hedonistic, meaning a search for pleasure and avoidance of pain. This path is more relevant here. The state of Brave New World is clearly focused on achieving the hedonistic happiness by everyone, while the characters of John or Watson find that to be a disappointing agenda. So they act in such a way as to retrieve the eudemonic aspect of happiness. Bernard on the other hand seems to yearn more of the hedonic pleasure as he is not receiving enough of it for his taste.

Finally, let’s take a look on how Huxley presents his ideas about happiness and pleasure. The system he constructs is a peculiar one. In fact it’s possible to point out many of its weak points judging by their improbability. We deal with a mix of strict caste system, consumerism and far reaching sexual freedom. On one hand everyone works and competes for better and more sexual partners, as well as everybody constantly needs to buy new things. All of above seem like traits of an individualistic culture. At the same times no one is supposed to have any long-term needs and is strongly relaxed by opiate drugs. At least officially, individualism is forbidden and the community is treated as sacred. This sound at least a little paradoxical, however we insist to treat ‘Brave New World’ as a work of rhetoric rather than a perfect picture of possible future.

In this mode of thinking one has to quickly realize how the society is put together from the worst pieces of both, American merciless capitalism and Soviet communism. It aims at frightening every reader regardless of his ideology. There is a strong state-encouraged consumer culture, necessarily all products are disposable, so are partners and other attractions. All this works along the cult status of community, and a strong, centralized leadership and law. The free speech is also heavily restricted, Bernard for example is to lose his job due to being perceived as too critical. This presumably easy, comfortable but shallow life, reminds us of the capitalist system, omnipotent councils and far-reaching surveillance, connected with the indoctrination since the early age, brings to mind the soviet communism. This vicious mixture results in something in the shape of, surprisingly, modern pop culture.

The way Huxley presents it through the point of view of Bernard, with condescending irony and contempt, is evocative of an unpopular and unattractive individual looking at the ‘orgies’ in popular music videos where everyone is trying hard to fake happiness. He is practically being ridiculed by the ‘cool kids’. One might make the point that happiness of Brave New World is clearly the transposition of the luxury life lead by celebrities and such, though it need to be noted that Huxley wrote this piece long before it gained its present shape. It has, however, begun to emerge. Moreover this interpretation seems to be more relevant today, than literal reading of the story.

Like we pointed earlier, with the example of only shadow of happiness, it seems that Huxley is more concerned with faked pleasure than the real one in his novel. And so the danger we are warned about in this scenario is not a powerful ruler in the style of Hitler or Stalin with vast knowledge of modern biotechnology, but rather the numbing presence of popular culture schemas and simplifications that killed the pathos of Shakespeare and proceeds to kill any deeper of subtler experiences along the way.

Huxley presents the story in a clear, ‘realistic’ way. The plot is going straight, reader never can lose tract of the action. For the first part of the book we follow mainly Bernard, later we switch do John. All the mechanisms that govern the life of people are precisely described in the beginning, and later in the final dialogue between John and Mustapha Mound, the Resident World Controller. Therefore the reader is left with no mystery and gets to know there is to know about the action. We learn about the history, the slogans that are taught. Like the residents of his dystopia, and very unlike Burroughs, Huxley omits the issue of homosexuals or sexual perversities, which is understandable in the time he wrote it but less so with the sexual politics and decadence of the civilization he portrays. The Savage whipping himself somehow allured a gigantic crowd of onlookers but that was all in the topic of extremes. What is more Huxley haven’t decided to use any fancy writing techniques, despites working in the heyday of literary modernism, with an exception of a few pages in the beginning with a fast cross-cutting between three conversations, sentence by stance.



III. Naked Lunch



The transition from Huxley’s calm, well-constructed prose to Burroughs mosaic drug visions is nothing less than a bumpy ride, which is in fact easily capable to make one sick. This difference is crucial for understanding the times in which those authors wrote about the present and the future they both feared. ‘Naked Lunch’ still seems too radical, too mindboggling and too disturbing even for today’s permissive standards. Its origin is not without importance. In the 50’s Burroughs had to flee America, first the U.S. after some minor drug offenses, then Mexico after fatally shooting his own wife. He finally found some space in the city of Tangier. At that time it was a vicious place, an international zone, swarming with all kinds of dishonest people or radical experience-seekers, drug dealers or cheap, underage prostitutes. The author presented that atmosphere more lyrically:

“Followers of obsolete unthinkable trades, doodling in Etruscan, addicts of drugs not yet synthesized, black marketeers of World War III, excisors of telepathic sensitivity, osteopaths of the spirit, investigators of infractions denounced by bland paranoid chess players, servers of fragmentary warrants taken down in hebephrenic shorthand charging unspeakable mutilations of the spirit, officials of unconstituted police states…[9]

There was in fact no one in control, hardly any restrictions were imposed. Burroughs himself was barely alive, going through a rough heroin addiction, writing maniacally at times without being even conscious what he was doing (“I have no precise memory of writing the notes which have now been published under the title Naked Lunch[10]”). To complete this picture of his mind state one should notice that he already had witnessed the II World War, the atom bomb blasting Hiroshima, and with his own eyes, as a child, a man being hanged; the death itself.

We are soon to realize that this attempt, unlike Huxley’s, lacks any coherence or structure. Nevertheless Burroughs’ intentions seem to be expressed quite clearly[11]. One may try to begin with the title, thus explained by the author:

“The title means exactly what the words say: NAKED Lunch – a frozen moment when everyone sees what is on the end of every fork[12]”.

It seems that we are supposed to learn the naked truth. Burroughs is on a mission to uncover a very dramatic, if not traumatic, reality behind everyday life in our society. As if with most of the food that we treat ourselves to at lunch or at any other occasion, we are usually better off not knowing how it was made, what were the procedures and what the costs were. Our comfort presumably rests on such ignorance while Burroughs plots the great unveiling. He is after the mechanism behind it all, the ugly, disgusting details covered in the dark, hidden from us for the sake of our comfort. He knows from his own experience the life at the lowest levels of the food chain; he met or experienced the victims of hard drugs, sickness, viruses, prosecution and prostitution. In Naked Lunch he tries to share hardships of that life to open our eyes.

Burroughs created his own infernal cosmology that we can encounter throughout all of his stories since Naked Lunch. This is a grotesque, science-fiction of nightmares, with a few reoccurring themes that enable us to reconstruct some of author’s views or better yet, obsessions. One major difference with the Huxley’s account of the events is that we are not allowed to have a full perspective of the situation. There is no vivid, bird’s eye view on the system, no patient explaining. Burroughs saw and experienced a very defragmented world and so his writing allows us only to see things from one point. And it is the lowest point imaginable. It is the territory of hooligans, junkies, prostitutes, metaphorical aliens and insects. This point of view is further clouded by delusions, paranoia, effects of drugs, so in fact it is hard to precisely reconstruct the shape of the system in his novels. No cohesive and definite plotline can be reconstructed, only some approximations of it. Furthermore we can’t be even sure if the scattered accounts are supposed to be anything more than bad dreams. We are, however, able to reconstruct the experience and the misery of certain individuals within the structure and this is the material which we should try to examine more closely.

There is merit in asking: whose experience exactly? The point of view is mixed. Sometimes it’s the first person perspective, for example notes made by a man suffering from drug withdrawal or the relations of William Lee, a secret agent working in the imaginary Interzone. On other occasions, however, there are third person accounts of various events, such as the riots on the streets and even drama-like dialogues. Moreover one can encounter scattered metatextual explanations of certain slang terms. The rule is not to consent to any singular style. Some parts are autobiographical, as when the narrator says that he was called ‘El Hombre Invisible’, some are attempts on scientific observations (The junky’ shame disappears with his nonsexual sociability which is also dependent on libido[13]), while others contain pseudo-medical knowledge about rare diseases with real footnotes to existing articles yet not in any reliable periodicals, just popular newspapers. The only elements one can hold on to are recurrent themes and characters as well as a specific, apocalyptic atmosphere.

The story however starts in the US, with a protagonist who is on the run, the first sentence reads: ‘I can feel the heat closing in, feel them out there making their movies[14]”. This sets the tone for the whole book. Insecurity, danger and constant threat hang over everyone. The constant changes of locations and events are done so hastily one might think the author’s mind was on the run itself, while writing. But the beginning (and the ending) is still set in ‘our’ world. More in the tone of Burroughs first novels ‘Junky’ and ‘Queer’, it is composed mostly of realistic events. Two junkies feel the police are close to getting to them so they drive south from New York City, desperately looking for more narcotics. With drugs and soulless drug users in mind the narrator proceeds to show us what is on the end of every fork and syringe.

For one, it’s the gutter, the worst degradation of the people who are lost to junk. Burroughs is more than willing to offer us the most gruesome descriptions, up to the point of exaggeration. “He is blind from shooting in the eyeball, his nose and palate eaten away sniffing H, his body a mass of scar tissue hard and dry as wood[15]”. Decaying flesh, insects, body fluids have to be a part of the scenery in most situations. Every object seems dirty, rusted and smells of decay. But there is more than those indescribable acts done by junkies to themselves. The other factor underlined in the novel is the ongoing war between everybody, the picture of hobbesian environment in which any form of trust is a weakness. If one is not alert one will be used by others, the morality is gone as the characters are all slaves to their needs. We might be as disgusted by the lack of self-esteem as by their lack of any positive emotions. The one aspect of control (different from the mythical ‘they’, people with power) probably the more important and meaningful in the context of the novel is the control over one’s owns self[16]. The addiction is a virus or a parasite, as Burroughs repeatedly calls it, which deprives his victim of any discipline or judgment, something that takes money, dignity, dreams and the soul away, leaving him with only an empty body. Junk turns people into monsters who savor others suffering, as in the story told by one of the characters who arrange a murder by overdose: “The look in his eyes when it hit – Kid, it was tasty…[17]”. But the addiction is something form outside, picturing it as a powerful disease it conveniently free individuals from making their own decisions.

Secondly, the language of the novel is not very comfortable for the reader. One has to deal with the slang used by the insiders of the underworld. Once again, we should notice that Huxley’s clarity and openness is long gone. In this case naturalistic descriptions call for a suitable language. This is, again, adding some more confusion for the reader to deal with. “So I put it on him for a sawski and make a meet to sell him some ‘pod’ as he calls it, thinking I’ll catnip the jerk[18]”. Huxley tried to engage in an argumentative discussion, he presented his points and allowed the reader to reflect upon them carefully (though suggesting what the answer should be). Burroughs’ M. O. means that one is thrown into the center of the action, seeing the world a very subjective point of view. He tries to archive a desired effect on the reader more directly through emotions of repulsion and, maybe, pity.

The spectrum of locations that we pass through while dealing with Naked Lunch is vast and variable. There is a futuristic police-state Freeland, there is also a place called Interzone which is out of control and in civil war-like situation. The first setting, mentioned before, is streets filled with junkies and policemen chasing after them. Even in this fragment there are horror-like stories are to be found, like the one about a vampirish narcotics agent, the Buyer, who is said to be the best man in the police force, yet becomes a horrible addict all the same, and is put to trial where the judge says: “Everything indicates that you have, in some unspeakable manner uh … assimilated the District Supervisor[19]”. Finally he is: “… destroyed with a flame thrower – the court of inquiry ruling that such means were justifies in that the Buyer had lost his human citizenship and was, in consequence, a creature without species…[20]”. A very dark, sick humor is deployed here, as well as quite regularly throughout the whole novel. Yet there is merit to it all. We can read Burroughs’ exaggerated examples as statements, in this example, the man is officially deprived of humanity, whereas it might be the point that this in fact happens implicitly and lawfully in many court orders against people connected to drugs. Similarly, the evil doctor talks about many ways of humiliation ending it with mock-poetry: “As you can plainly see, the possibilities are endless like meandering paths in a great big beautiful garden[21]”. In the world of Naked Lunch also viciousness can be seen as a source of pleasure. With no given reasons, the likes of Dr. Benway are delighted to do harm just for the sake of it.

Dr. Benway might be the most prominent villain of the novel. Murphy argues that:

“…his is one of the most heavily analyzed passages in all of Burroughs’s work because it states overtly many of the themes of personal and social control to which he regularly returns in all his writings, including the use of scientific conditioning to force subjects to internalize control and the avoidance of overt brutality in order to minimize organized resistance[22]”.

Benway is the director of the Reconditioning Center in the dystopian world of Freeland. He is envisioned as a caricature of a mad scientist. A monster, who is always on the lookout for a new way to hurt his patients, homosexuals and drug addicts. He operates passionately, like a maniac, usually bringing death in cases he deals with, similar are results of his experiments with behavior-controlling drugs. Such a figure can be partly associated with the authority of the state, enforced in hospitals and mental institutions. Those places, from the point of view of a drug addict, are visualized as more dangerous than anything else. Being locked in there means painful withdrawal from the substance. To them the whole system seems unexplainable and utterly unsympathetic just like Benway, whose vices, in turn, are blown out of proportions by Burroughs. This distrust is easy to spot in this passage for example:

“The citizens are well adjusted, cooperative, honest, tolerant and above all clean. But the invoking of Benway indicates all is not well behind that hygienic façade: Benway is a manipulator and coordinator of symbol systems, an expert on all phases of interrogation, brainwashing and control[23]”.

And later: “’I deplore brutality,’ he said. ‘It’s not efficient. On the other hand, prolonged mistreatment, short of physical violence, gives rise, when skillfully applied, to anxiety and a special feeling of guilt[24]’”.

He became another among countless addicts in the novel, his need, however, was directed towards control, explicitly compared to junk by Burroughs in a few other places[25]. The narrator then does his best to reveal what is hidden behind the veil (again the naked lunch metaphor comes to mind):

“The naked need of the control addicts must be decently covered by an arbitrary and intricate bureaucracy so that the subject cannot contact his enemy direct[26]”.

But Benway, being the epitome of all the wrongdoing is nowhere near close in his role to Brave New World’s Resident Controller. The latter, was an eloquent man, keeping on the deceit for some, imagined or real, greater good. He was able to engage in a proper, logical discussion about the pros and cons of the system, relying on certain reasons. He was also pragmatic and factual, imposing involuntary control in order to stop wars and suffering although at a high cost (too high in Huxley’s opinion it seems). He represented the type of an old-fashioned aristocratic gentleman, calmly believing that ‘father knows best’. Benway, on the other hand, is no such figure. He is an egoistic control-addict, he has no consideration for anyone whatsoever, even the most helpless patients on his operating table, in position to give him all their trust are simply executed in a ritual full of blood. There is no logic and no ideology in his behavior. For Benway was as deadly in other systems too. Not only playing mind games in a police state but also fitting well to the opposite, the unregulated chaos, as he brags in a story about his past:

“Operating with one hand, beating the rats offa my patient with the other and bedbugs and scorpions rain down from the ceiling[27]”. Not exactly a tented young man fresh out of medical school, Benway appeared from a dark, unknown corner of the earth, practicing in lavatories and shady ships; he brought along his inexhaustible hunger for power over others when the new, closely-regulated state came into place. His old customs he was never able to hide, nor did he want to.

The contradictions (or flexibility?) of his character seems vital to the meaning of the novel and can be further extrapolated. Burroughs, who quite obviously operates mostly with the extremes, be it style, language, plot, clarity or anything else, adds another two cases: the extreme freedom and the extreme control. Both seemingly perfect for Benway’s to unleash his rage.

Freedom resulted in occurrences like this: “Rock and Roll adolescent hoodlums storm the streets of all nations. They rush into the Louvre and throw acid in the Mona Lisa’s face. They open zoos, insane asylums, prisons, burst water mains with air hammers, chop the floor out of passenger plane lavatories, shoot at lighthouses, file elevator cables to one thin wire, turn sewers into the water supply, throw sharks and sting rays, electric eels and candiru into swimming pools…[28]

Whiles the total control led to: destroying all the trees, searchlights played over the town all night, closing of all cafes and bars, also no one was permitted to bolt his door, and the police had pass keys to every room in the city.

Mary McCarthy makes similar point about this ‘paradox of evil’: “On the one hand, control is evil; on the other, escape from control is mass slaughter or reduction to a state of proliferating cellular matter. The police are the enemy, but as Burroughs shrewdly observes in one passage: “A functioning police state needs no police.” The policeman is internalized in the citizen[29]”.

Both options, as far as we know, are underlined and created by an ancient, unexplained evil: “America is not a young land: it is old and dirty and evil before the settlers, before the Indians. The evil is there waiting”. While character in the Naked Lunch might be as hopeless and unable to succeed at changing anything, as the protagonists of Brave New World, Burroughs seems more pessimistic than the other author. Huxley warned us not to choose the wrong path into the future, the American writer insist that evil is eternal and external, so that the only possible improvement for now is to be more aware of it. But then again, it is risky to attribute such definite opinions to Burroughs. He tries to communicate his vision, a series of intertwined pictures about addiction and control, maybe in order to incite some positive actions from the readers. In fact, additional materials in book contain a piece on the topic of the improvement of treating the addicts, thus suggesting that the battle against ‘junk’ could be won. His satirical descriptions of politicians, religions, ideologies indicate he is a man who believes the battle is not over yet and evil can be restrained. There are distinguishable targets of his attacks, but who is he rooting for? Possibly he sees the poor and infected unjustly in their position, while junk and their vices are the harmful byproducts of clean and pleasant lunches the rest of the society have. Maybe so, as he proves to be very sympathetic towards the lowest castes, such as this in India: “In fact, untouchables perform a priestly function in taking on themselves all human vileness[30]

The essence of pleasure in Naked Lunch is opposed to this of Brave New World. The Savage was astonished and disappointed how the society got rid of all forms of pain and illness. For citizens of Freeland and Interzone there is just no easy distinction between pain and pleasure. As a matter of fact, they are inseparable through the whole novel. The pleasure in Naked Lunch can be often associated with the hard drugs, especially heroine. The similarity with Huxley’s novel boils down to the fact that it is not a pleasure that anyone would ask for, knowing the costs. It is a virus, an addiction, the first step into the abyss. Soon, he writes, a drug injections in nothing more than a momentary relieve from suffering, it’s the only way to stop the ordeal of withdrawal. In this sense there is no positive value of pleasure whatsoever. “Junk takes everything and gives nothing but insurance against junk sickness[31]”. This insurance comes at the highest price, the vulnerability is exploited mercilessly. Mugwumps, peculiar creatures with a function reminding us of dope pushers, live only on sweets and humiliating sex with their clients, who are desperate to make a deal. What’s more all the instances of sexual intercourses penned by Burroughs are more about dominance, perversion, struggle and taking advantage than any form of connection. Often does it take form of forcing, raping and even devouring the partner. For as stated before, pleasure is either an ephemeral break from the pain, a drop in the ocean, or wicked joy achieved from degrading and hurting others, like in the Benway’s example.

Interestingly we can now draw further comparisons to Brave New World. In both novels people lack a path to more satisfactory, refined pleasures, all that they got access to is physical and short-lived gratification. It’s purely negative, in both cases only a tool to relive tension, in Huxley’s dystopia also a shelter from discomforts, in Burroughs’ world unavoidable prelude to more torture. This makes it quite different an experience for the individuals. Residents of the ‘Brave New World’ are convinced to be happy and enjoy privileges of the civilization; they wouldn’t listen to any talk about a revolution. The junkies in Naked Lunch are conscious about the deadly trap they are caught in, they despise this imprisonment and themselves but there is no one who would offer help, the doctors are more into realizing their own horrible fantasies. The differences on the larger scale are even more meaningful. As we said earlier Huxley dreaded a ‘democratization’ of pleasure, a project of making it ubiquitous (even despite the strict caste system), cheap and shallow. On the other hand, Burroughs accuses the world of uneven and unequal distribution of happiness. For him, it seems, some get too much, without deserving it and at the cost of horrid suffering from the unfortunate.

Burroughs, arguably, is nor aiming his telescope at the future. He looks into ‘now’, into his present times, yet from a very specific, subjective point of view. His stories all cut into pieces, his vision is clouded and distorted. The effect is a paranoid theory about some conspiracy in high places, about some nameless government officials. They are enjoying the effects of drugs, as it makes people easier to control. The disease spreads like a virus; it cannot be so precisely regulated as the system of Brave New World. The line between extreme control and extreme chaos is thin as ice. Narcotics are a deadly weapon, one of devastating consequences, as it is capable of creating overwhelming desire. It hits the lowest social classes who are an easy target, unable to defend themselves. The comfort of others is bought by the suffering of those. The result is quite different than Huxley’s in this aspect too; the Englishman was more about saving the elite, while Burroughs tries to advocate the poor.

IV. Conclusion


The topic of the relation between pleasure and control is worthy of a much longer analysis; still it is not only an interesting discussion on its own right. It is also a vehicle for various signs of the times. Both Huxley and Burroughs, when dealt with the subject, could not avoid, fortunately for the readers, leaving fingerprints of their ideals, the ways of thinking of their day and age, as well as their individual, original approaches to writing. From all this material we are now able to trace how they envisioned the danger of pleasure, what are the implicit or explicit reasons of their fear, the postulated solutions and the critique of current politics and society. Their points of view and methods applied to present the topic couldn’t be farther. Yet, there is a lot of space for new and different voices in the said debate.

For a more recent addition one might turn to David Foster Wallace and his majestic opus ‘Infinite Jest’. His account is the closest to present times (finished in 1996) and presumably the closest to reality of all three novels. Not entirely though. Its plot is set in a near future, when United States absorbed both Canada and Mexico, yet there is still some unrest in Quebec where a separatist organization tries to preserve some freedom. The difference is somewhat similar to this between the civilization and the Indians in the Brave New World. French-speaking Canadians, often on wheelchairs, are well accustomed to hardships.

 On the side of civilization there are countless examples of people having problems and lacking satisfaction with their life. Wallace focuses on professional athletes, recovering drug addicts, marihuana-smokers, TV series fiends and others. His characters are much closer to the mainstream than those of Burroughs, they lead more or less normal life, have day jobs but they indulge in seemingly innocuous activities such as watching television and sporting light drugs. For Wallace even these can pose a threat to weak-willed. Also there is no force or mastermind behind the problems, there is only the risk of losing their comfortable position. The battlefield is inside the head of a solipsistic individual, most of the time it is one’s personal worry to keep his sanity against the shinning temptation of the new media and alike. The victims are not degraded or used, more likely the price they pay is a severe depression or the embarrassment and unpleasantness of an A. A. therapy. No global calamities but individual tragedies, the problems more relevant for the members of the middle-class or intellectuals. Somewhat this setting is closer to Huxley’s, but the Englishman’s vision is post-factum, the clever bioengineering closed any paths for improvement. Wallace’s project is more about pragmatic advising on the subject of present problems.

The lonely struggle for one’s mental independence is one half of the problem. Wallace also takes up the issue of control and pleasure in a more abstract analysis. In the Infinite Jest there is a subplot about a mysterious videotape, a so-called perfect entertainment, that once watched turns the viewer into a vegetable. It is a result of avan-garde (in fact he is classified as après-garde in the book) experiments of a radical, suicidal filmmaker and an overwhelmingly beautiful actress. All in all, the tape becomes a serious, mostly unexamined menace. It, then, is subject to an argument between secret agents of the United States and Quebecois separatists. The question, after Huxley and Burroughs seems just too familiar. But discussion is about the future, not what is and was wrong at the time. This makes sense especially, after receiving the warning of Brave New World. How should the state deal with it, should it impose restrictions and control? The answer is not given. Hardened Canadians wish that the dangerous ‘drug’ is locked and kept away from people, they claim that such s numbing pleasure is not called for. The Americans, champions of the free-market vote for every person to have his own choice, even to let those less responsible to fall into the trap of easy, hedonistic coma. Should everyone have the right to his own destruction or is the society in the position to censor and prohibit inept behavior? Or more precisely to what degree is it possible? It seems that Huxley would opt for the American way, while Burroughs might suggest that both solutions would be harmful in an unequal society.

Those dilemmas are meaningful to many present discussions, locally and worldwide. There is not enough space for a more complete analysis of Infinite Jest. But the book proves that David Foster Wallace had done his homework of reading Huxley and Burroughs, as he pinpointed the core problems of their efforts and updated the context to a far more contemporary and relatable form. We might underline in this last note that control takes many forms, none of which is easy to identify. That’s where the literature comes in handy. Similarly, pleasure is a set of various emotions, at best sharing a family resemblance. So even within this relatively limited area of research, there are distinctions to be made between beneficial and harmful types of pleasure, as well as what the specific costs are in the long run. Here, again, the literature might serve as a source of worthwhile advice.


[1] Plato, The Republic

[2] A.Huxley, Brave New World.

[3] R. Barthes, The Pleasure of the text, New York 1998, p.3.

[4] A. Huxley, op. cit.

[5] Ibid.

[6] A. Huxley, op. cit.

[7] Ibid.

[8] A. Carr, Positive Psychology: The Science of Happiness and Human Strengths, p.60.

[9] W. Burroughs, Naked Lunch, London 2005, p.45.

[10] Ibid. p.199.

[11] „At least four axes of structural regularity, which Burroughs might call “intersection points” points in the middle (…): narrative self-reflexivity, character recurrence, thematic continuity, and the repetition of specific. verbal motifs”. T. S. Murphy, Intersection Points: Teaching William Burroughs’s “Naked Lunch”, in: Collage Literature, vol. 27, 2000, p.86.

[12] W. Burroughs, op.cit.

[13] Ibid. p.57.

[14] Ibid. p.3.

[15] Ibid. p..8.

[16] „Addiction as theme and metaphor plays itself out in two primary registers: the organization of the human body and political organization”. T. S. Murphy, op. cit. p.93.

[17] W. Burroughs, op. cit. p.7

[18] Ibid. p.5.

[19] Ibid. p.16.

[20] Ibid.

[21] Ibid. p.25

[22] T. S. Murphy, op. cit. p.95.

[23] W. Burroughs, op. cit. p.19.

[24] Ibid

[25] „You see, control can never be a means to any practical end… it can never be a means to anything but more control… Like junk…” Ibid.

[26] Ibid p.19.

[27] Ibid. p.28.

[28] Ibid. p.38.

[29] M. McCarthy, Dejeuner sur l’Herbe, in: The New York Review of Books, 1963

[30] W. Burroughs, op. cit. p.99.

[31]W. Burroughs, Junky, London 2010.

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