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The Apocalypse of William S. Burroughs’ Naked Lunch Essay

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The Apocalypse of William S. Burroughs’ Naked Lunch


The roaring of lions, the howling of wolves, the raging of the stormy sea, and the destructive sword, are portions of eternity too great for the eye of man. (William Blake, The Marriage of Heaven and Hell, p. 7)

In 1980, William S. Burroughs delivered a speech at the Planet Earth Conference at the Institute of Ecotechnics in Aix-en-Provence titled ‘The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse’.1 In this speech, Burroughs, following religious tradition, says that the four horsemen of the apocalypse are Famine, Plague, War, and Death and moves on to prophesise a more contemporaneous apocalypse. In Burroughs’ apocalypse, War and Plague, for example, have become allies; this alliance, Burroughs announces, ‘was cemented with the first germ experiments’ (Burroughs, 1984, p. 12). The danger of these experiments lies in their ability to not only create new viruses but to also turn them into biological weapons. But for Burroughs there is a significant similarity between a twentieth-century-specific apocalypse, with its radiation and contaminants, and the religious apocalypse of the four horsemen. For Burroughs, both types of apocalypse ‘have no meaning outside of human context, they are in fact human inventions’ (p. 17). More specifically, they are the essential flaws in what Burroughs calls the ‘human artifact’ (p. 17) and in our evolution as a species. For Burroughs, the only way out is to first understand that our biological destiny ‘is in Space, and that our failure to achieve this is the basic flaw in the human artifact’ (p. 24). This speech constitutes Burroughs’ first appearance in the scene as an apocalyptist. Previous to this, he was best known as one of the fundamental members of...


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... and McCain, Gillian, Please Kill Me: The Uncensored Oral History of Punk (London: Little Brown and Company, 1996)

Morgan, Ted, Literary Outlaw: The Life and Times of William S. Burroughs (London: Pimlico, 1991)

Mottram, Eric, The Algebra of Need (Canada: Beau Fleuve Series, 1971)

Murphy, Timothy S., Wising Up the Marks: The Amodern William Burroughs (London: University of California Press, 1997)

Pounds, Wayne, ‘The Postmodern Anus: Parody and Utopia in Two Recent Novels by William Burroughs’ in Poetics Today, 8:3-4, 1987, pp.611-629

Seltzer, Alvin, Chaos in the Novel, the Novel in Chaos (New York: Schocken Books, 1974)

Ziegesar, Peter von, ‘After Armageddon: Apocalyptic Art Since the Seventies: Tactics of Survival in a Postnuclear Planet’ in Strozier, Charles B. and Flynn, Michael, eds., The Year 2000: Essays on the End (London: New York UP, 1997)


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