Naked Lunch has been described by the author as "brutal, obscene, and disgusting." It was declared "obscene, indecent, and impure... and taken as a whole... predominantly prurient, hardcore pornography and utterly without redeeming social importance," when brought to trial in Boston in 1965. However, declaring William Burroughs' novel to be completely without redeeming social importance seems inaccurate. Naked Lunch paints a vivid portrait of addiction in all its horror, and of the steady degradation of the addicts around whom the novel centers.
Burroughs titles his introduction "Deposition: Testimony Concerning a Sickness." He believes that addiction is a sickness, and feels that addiction should be treated as a physical disorder, not a psychological one. The body of the novel is not pornography; it is not pointlessly graphic and obscene. Rather, it uses its brutality and obscenity to portray the destructiveness of addiction. Though it contains detailed descriptions of drug use and even outlines how to use many drugs, it is not a manual for drug use. Rather could be taken as a warning against the usage of such drugs. The novel gives a detailed description of the horrific consequences of addiction, as well as a warning: "Look down LOOK DOWN along that junk road before you travel there and get in with the Wrong Mob... A word to the wise guy" (xlv). The novel warns against addiction, against using the drugs described within.
As a warning against drug use and a study of addiction, Naked Lunch has both social and scientific value. During the Boston trial, writers Norman Mailer, Allen Ginsberg, and John Ciardi all testified on behalf of the novel, asserting its literary importance. When the book was declared not to be obscene by the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court, the decision was based on the fact that a "substantial and intelligent group" within the literary community believed that the novel had literary significance (394).
In light of its being considered to have not only redeeming social value, but redeeming scientific and literary value as well, Naked Lunch cannot be declared obscene in the legal sense. Though it has been attacked as being a work entirely without redeeming social value, this is plainly not so. The novel's brutal and disgusting imagery are not intended as pornography, but as a means to convey the horror and degradation of addiction, and perhaps to deter the reader from following the protagonist's path.
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