Strong Language, Vol. 4: "Naked Lunch"

"Tomorrow, and tomorrow, and tomorrow." "You don't need a weatherman to know which way the wind blows." "Gentlemen, you can't fight in here! This is the War Room!"

Great writing is everywhere: in the plays that lay bare the conflict in every human heart, in the songs that reveal the truth from a slightly skewed angle, in the films that give us the strength to confront madness with a smile -- in the language that makes us alive; in the language that makes us human.

In this edition of Strong Language, we look at William Burroughs' novel Naked Lunch: a book described by its own author as "brutal, obscene and disgusting" -- and he's not wrong. A virtually plotless, hazily hallucinatory and (occasionally) openly pornographic descent into the hell of addiction, Naked Lunch exploded all preconceived notions and definitions of fiction and narrative structure upon its publication in Paris in 1959 (and led no less a personage than Norman Mailer to hail Burroughs as "the only American novelist living today who may conceivably be possessed by genius"), while simultaneously, and perhaps not surprisingly, calling down upon itself the wrath of what, to borrow the phrasing of the time, might be thought of as The Establishment.

Naked Lunch was banned in Boston on charges of obscenity in 1962, went on trial in 1965 (with Mailer and Allen Ginsburg, among others, testifying in its defense), and was cleared of obscenity charges in 1966 -- granting every reader the freedom to plunge into Burroughs' phantasmagoria of depravity, and to soar through the skies of his language:

"I can feel the heat closing in, feel them out there making their moves, setting up their devil doll stool pigeons, crooning over my spoon and dropper I throw away at Washington Square Station, vault a turnstile and two flights down the iron stairs, catch an uptown A train..."

"A friend of mine found himself naked in a Marrakesh hotel room second floor...the other occupants are Arabs, three Arabs...knives in hand...watching him...glint of metal and points of light in dark eyes...pieces of murder falling slow as opal chips through glycerine..."

"Motel...Motel...Motel...broken neon arabesque...loneliness moans across the continent like fog horns over still oily waters of tidal rivers..."

"The subway sweeps by with a black blast of iron."

There is more -- so much more -- but there's a communications insight to be gleaned from just these few excerpts:

  • Let your words have wings: it's easy to forget that every communication product you create -- every single one -- is an opportunity for you to grasp the imaginations and emotions of your targets in ways they may have never seen coming. To put it another way: there is no such thing as "just another email." There is no such thing as just another memo, or tweet, or blog post, or webpage, or video clip, or press release, or podcast, or any communication product, whether inward- or outward-facing.

Your audience is placing at your disposal a gift that exists beyond value: the gift of their time and their attention -- and that gift can be lost to you in the instant it takes to blink. You audience could be doing, quite literally, anything else other than listening to you at this moment; what your communications must do is make them feel that there is nothing else they could be doing at this moment that is more important than listening to you, and you can do this by making your language memorable and your imagery unforgettable.

We're not saying that you must be a poet -- but we are saying that you must find the poetry in the prosaic. You must never lose sight of the message you want to convey, but you must also convey it in an intellectually-appealing and emotionally-resonant way. You want your audience to be pleased that they've consumed your communication product -- not only because of what was said there, but also for how it was said -- and to be eager to consume more...and this is what will happen when your words, and the way you wield them, are anything but ordinary.

That's all for this edition of Strong Language. In our next installment, we follow a bitter trail to its inevitable end, and stand beneath the sun with the warrior who, heartsick at the sorrow stalking his people, chose to save them by fighting no more -- forever.