Naked Lunch | Study Guide

William Burroughs

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Naked Lunch | Chapter 12 : Meeting of International Conference of Technological Psychiatry | Summary

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Summary

Dr. "Fingers" Shafer presents his "Master Work: The Complete All American Deanxietized Man" at a conference. The man is carried in by two black men who drop him on a platform. The man transforms into a giant black centipede. The audience members murmur amongst themselves before advancing on the centipede and killing it.

The scene shifts to a courtroom where the audience members are on trial for killing an "innocent human creature" whose name is revealed as Clarence Cowie. The judge dismisses their claims about the centipede because there is no evidence of its existence—the audience members destroyed it. The judge points out Dr. Shafer has appeared in court before on charges of "brain rape" or forcible lobotomy. A few of the jurors are shocked; one dies on the spot, and three collapse, "writhing in orgasms of prurience." The judge shouts for justice as the centipede appears and rushes around the room, scattering everyone to the exits.

Analysis

The courtroom description of lobotomy reveals the violent nature of the practice as a violation of personal autonomy. Dr. "Fingers" Shafer is revealed as a known practitioner of forcible lobotomy, described as "brain rape" in the court. During the 20th century, lobotomies became an overused treatment for a number of mental maladies, including depression and anxiety. The process could just as well have been called deanxietizing. Misfits and individuals who engaged in acts deemed unacceptable to societal expectations were often lobotomized as well.

Much of the popularity of lobotomy stemmed from the work of the American neurologist Dr. Walter Freeman (1895–1972). He became famous, or infamous, for developing the transorbital lobotomy, which could be performed with an ice pick through a patient's eye socket. Because the procedure could be performed quickly and easily through this method, it was applied to all kinds of cases. It left patients empty shells of themselves, no longer disruptive, but also no longer able to do anything else.

As a homosexual and drug addict who didn't fit into mainstream society, Burroughs himself could have been targeted for lobotomy in the 1950s. His portrayal of the "deanxietized man" transforming into a centipede criticizes the practice of lobotomy for depriving the patient, or victim, of his or her humanity. By extension Burroughs critiques the society that allows this brutal practice. The audience's urge to destroy this creature on sight reflects the dark American cultural urge to destroy anything it doesn't understand. The creature's resurgence at the end of the courtroom scene shows how these practices can rebound on America in a dangerous manner. We unleash monsters we can't control.

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