Monday, October 31, 2011

Throwing up my Naked Lunch

I read Naked Lunch based on it's reputation, on a long, drunken plane ride to San Francisco about ten years ago. At first it was slow going, as my mind groped for some feature of the story upon which to construct my understanding… like searching for a handhold in the dark, on a cliff. But any hold you find lasts only a paragraph or two. Even within the span of sentence your handhold crumbles, and you slide down… desperately flailing your arms about in the hopes that the next moment or sentence will provide something to grab hold of. But all grips are fleeting, and you are left pinwheeling through a series of false features that promise security, but never deliver.
After about the eighth beer, the inhibitive presumption of a rational universe melted away, and I could meet Naked Lunch where it truly existed… as a feverish, non-rational, evacuation of mental content from a mind gone haywire.  Naked Lunch is the topographical description, in literary terms, of a mind lost in drug addiction. It is a series of flash-backs, fragmented memories, and random associations dancing on the surface of the totality of one man's drug addled experiences. It is like an electroencephalogram… those electrical patterns that indicate brain function, but that don't describe what one is actually thinking about. We see the neurons firing… we see the lightning bolts of electricity shooting around the brain.. but what does it mean... what is the lab rat actually thinking about?
But even that neurological simile is inaccurate, since we presume that the electrical patterns could (if we learned how to interpret them) provide us with insight to some underlying idea of what the brain is thinking about. But when the underlying brain activity are insane flights of fantasy… an extreme products of volition… the trail of causality goes cold. The insane is always constructed from the ruble of the sane, collaging appropriated fragments into some representation. Presented with this representation, we do the only thing a human mind can do... we look for meaning. And that is the first mistake.

We cannot turn off our minds when we read Naked Lunch. All we can do is suspend that part of the brain that searches for answers. It's not really possible, but getting drunk is a useful approximation. Perhaps dropping acid would be better. But ultimately, it is an impossible task. At the very least, we must be conscious to read Naked Lunch… we must be lucid enough to comprehend the words. We could reduce our minds to such a low level that we view the letters of the words as simply graphical symbols... where they become opaque ends in themselves, not the transparent mechanism of ration thought. But we cannot go all the way there. We must still consider the words as having intended conceptual meaning. In the end, it is impossible both to write a work of total nonsense, and to read a book of total nonsense.
But you can get really close. Naked Lunch gets really close. In face, as a matter of epistemological clarity… you might assert that Naked Lunch is the standard by which nonsense texts could be judged. It is as nonsensical as humans can get in language. Since words are a product of reason, their use (like the appropriation of fragments from the real world) imbues writing with some content that can be interpreted… from which some conclusion can be drawn. 
But I never drew any conclusion from Naked Lunch, other than what I say here about it.  Perhaps that is the truest test of nonsense… that after it is all said and done, there is nothing to say other than that nothing was said. 

A question always arises in reviews such as this, where we wonder if something isn't being given unearned legitimacy through the act of saying it has no legitimacy. This may be so, in which case the review ends up not being about the inherent relevance of the work, but of the social relevance that has grown up around it. This book has become celebrated for various reasons, and is therefore taken seriously, despite it's apparent lack of meaning. This is  completely maddening to the objectively minded, who presume a book (or any work) should derive it's meaning by how well it channels some aspect of reality, and not by having become cool or popular through some unspecified social mechanism.

Such social relevance (like celebrity status), once achieved, is long endured. Oddly enough, the less objective the social status, the brighter it glows, and the more maddening to consider by the objective minded... who in their protestations keep the spotlight on the very thing they wish to ignore.

I undertook to read Naked Lunch because I had heard so much about it. After a few pages I had the distinct impression that it was going nowhere. After a few more pages I knew it was going nowhere. But being trapped in a plane with a beer in my hand left me few options but to read on. I was determined to finish the book, despite the pain induced by plowing through page after page of incomprehensible writing. I just wanted to be able to say I read it. I wanted to know absolutely that I it made no sense. I didn't want to run into a future conversation where some jack-off tells me... "Oh, but it is the last 50 pages that are really great".

So I have the dubious status of being able to assert with conviction that an apparently incomprehensible book is in fact incomprehensible, or nearly so... and perhaps I could dissect it to reveal something about it... which leaves me wide open to the charge of taking it too seriously. Which is true from an objective point of view, but not from a social point of view. The need to understand nonsense doesn't stem from reality... it stems from society.

For example... might know that the emperor is naked, and choose to not participate a the public display of fawning over his new clothes... but if we live in such a society we are not immune from the effects of those social attitudes. To understand society, we have to at least focus our attention on the products of social attitudes, such as the high regard given Naked Lunch. The awareness that they are meaningless is the first thing that comes to mind, and on the basis of this you could turn away from it and announce that it is meaningless, and just continue on with one's personal agenda in life.

But if you can stomach to analyze it further... if you can choke back the bile in your throat... if you can handle thinking about something beyond the moment it is immediately relevant to your life or to objective reality... then you can enter the realm of the social. It's a creepy place for someone who is inherently individualistic and ego driven. And oddly enough, when you take "the social" seriously for what it is... you can hear in it the echo of yourself... or maybe more accurately... you can hear in yourself the echos of what society has wrought... because society has wrought each of us. No matter how closely guarded and and nurtured one is about themselves as a unique individual, we are all in large measure the product of society. To be ignorant of the social forces active in ourselves is to mistake those social influences for our own... to assume that the entire content of our soul has been constructed by us through a closely guarded screening of reality, when in fact the very screen we filter through is itself constructed for us by the society we grow up in.

Investigating the apparent nonsense of social product is not about celebrating nonsense, but of gaining some familiarity the socially sanctioned canon of nonsensical works. Kind of like the inverse of the "Great Books" of western civilization. Presumably we read the "Great Books" in order to familiarize ourselves with the history of great thoughts, and absorb them into our lives. Just so, perhaps we need to read the "Un-Great Books", not so much to absorb them, but to purge them from ourselves... because if they have been socially sanctioned, they have NO DOUBT helped shape social attitudes, and have thus found their way into our souls.

I'm sure this essay seems like yet another unwarranted rationalization of nonsense. It even reminds me of that. It reminds me of how art critics can write thousands of pages trying to understand a Jackson Pollock drip painting, yet have few words to describe the apparently sane and rational works of Michaelangelo. It seems like yet another affirmation of the idea that language, thought, analysis, art, and expression are continually poured into the broken and obscure parts of life. How many poems are written about being happy, or about a day where everything was reasonable? How many songs capture the spirit of a solid 8 hour work day where you were really productive?

If everything has to reduce to reason and logic and personal goals... then just become a scientist I suppose, or some equivalent. I pseudo-support Naked Lunch not in itself, but for what it stands for to me... and maybe this is part of it's social sanction... that it represents a rejection of the conformist insistence on things making sense. It is a form of passive resistance to the aggressive and pervasive power of reason to always demand that we draw conclusions 24 hours a day. It is very post modern... it is very Dada-esque in it's subversion of the sane.

In this respect I can see it representing certain popular attitudes that at least some people have. These being... the desire to subvert... the need to reject the cackling of conventional social attitudes despite their apparent rationality... the need to assert yourself against authority even at the cost of forgoing reasonable gains you might otherwise achieve. One trades off reason for something else in those situations. In so doing I think I see, from my external point of view... the presence of social attitudes toward reason and authority that have their genesis in such apparently inane movements such as Dada or Beat poetry, and which have been delivered into your consciousness by social processes that you had no control over.

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