Friday, February 23, 2007

Doctor Benway In "Naked Lunch": William S. Burroughs' Satan, Self, And Confidence-Man

Naked Angels, a pioneering literary study of the Beats. The name of the class was “Some American Antinomians,” and I wrote this essay in November 1994. John Tytell did me the honor of telling me he thought it was worthy of academic publication. This is the first time it’s ever seen print.

If you think I’m alone in my fascination with Dr. Benway, you’re wrong. Google “Benway,” “Dr. Benway,” and “Doctor Benway,” and it will blow your mind. Bizarre phantasmagoria might be a good term for it.

Multitudes of people on the Internet have taken up "Dr. Benway" as their username or as part of their Website's name. A Wikipedia entry, “Benway,” mentions that his “character and surname was appropriated for what was perhaps the first online persona ever recognized [in 1973]. His posts were posted on the Community Memory BBS, the first electronically accessible Bulletin board system.” In the 1984 L.A. punk film Repo Man, during a hospital scene, a female voice on the intercom repeats, “Paging Dr. Benway, paging Dr. Benway…” In David Cronenberg’s 1991 film version of Naked Lunch, Dr. Benway was played memorably by Roy Schieder. I only wonder how Jack Nicholson or Robert DeNiro could have played the role, with the right script.

And if you think that Burroughs was exaggerating about the dangers of medical incompetence, ask Andy Warhol the next time you see him.

Be warned: the passage below is not for the faint-hearted. Nurses are standing by. Below is the infamous excerpt from Naked Lunch that Mailer quoted from in Cannibals and Christians (mentioned in the essay below). You can also read it, and other memorable Burroughs riffs, at William Burroughs Routines.

On YouTube, you can see a video of “Dr. Benway Operates,” taken from the 1983 documentary Burroughs. Be warned: it’s pretty graphic.

Dr. Benway Operates

(Excerpt from Naked Lunch)

William S. Burroughs

The lavatory has been locked for three hours solid…. I think they are using it for an operating room….

NURSE: “I can’t find her pulse, doctor.”

DR. BENWAY: “Maybe she got it up her snatch in a finger stall.”

NURSE: “Adrenalin, doctor?”

DR. BENWAY: “The night porter shot it all up for kicks.” He looks around and picks up one of those rubber vacuum cups at the end of a stick they use to unstop toilets…. He advances on the patient…. “Make an incision, Doctor Limpf,” he says to his appalled assistant…. “I’m going to massage the heart.”

Dr. Limpf shrugs and begins the incision. Dr. Benway washes the suction cup by swishing it around in the toilet-bowl….

NURSE: “Shouldn’t it be sterilized, doctor?”

DR. BENWAY: “Very likely but there’s no time.” He sits on the suction cup like a cane seat watching his assistant make the incision…. “You young squirts couldn’t lance a pimple without an electric vibrating scalpel with automatic drain and suture…. Soon we’ll be operating by remote control on patients we never see…. We’ll be nothing but button pushers. All the skill is going out of surgery…. All the know-how and make-do… Did I ever tell you about the time I performed an appendectomy with a rusty sardine can? And once I was caught short without instrument one and removed a uterine tumor with my teeth. That was in the Upper Effendi, and besides…”

DR. LIMPF: “The incision is ready, doctor.”

Dr. Benway forces the cup into the incision and works it up and down. Blood spurts all over the doctors, the nurse and the wall…. The cup makes a horrible sucking sound.

NURSE: “I think she’s gone, doctor.”

DR. BENWAY: “Well, it’s all in the day’s work.” He walks across the room to a medicine cabinet…. “Some fucking drug addict has cut my cocaine with Saniflush! Nurse! Send the boy out to fill this RX on the double!”

Dr. Benway is operating in an auditorium filled with students: “Now, boys, you won’t see this operation performed very often and there’s a reason for that…. You see it has absolutely no medical value. No one knows what the purpose of it originally was or if it had a purpose at all. Personally I think it was a pure artistic creation from the beginning.

“Just as a bull fighter with his skill and knowledge extricates himself from danger he has himself invoked, so in this operation the surgeon deliberately endangers his patient, and then, with incredible speed and celerity, rescues him from death at the last possible split second…. Did any of you ever see Dr. Tetrazzini perform? I say perform advisedly because his operations were performances. He would start by throwing a scalpel across the room into the patient and then make his entrance like a ballet dancer. His speed was incredible: ‘I don’t give them time to die,’ he would say. Tumors put him in a frenzy of rage. ‘Fucking undisciplined cells!’ he would snarl, advancing on the tumor like a knife-fighter.”

A young man leaps down into the operating theatre and, whipping out a scalpel, advances on the patient.

DR. BENWAY: “An espontaneo! Stop him before he guts my patient!”

(Espontaneo is a bull-fighting term for a member of the audience who leaps down into the ring, pulls out a concealed cape and attempts a few passes with the bull before he is dragged out of the ring.)

The orderlies scuffle with the espontaneo, who is finally ejected from the hall. The anesthetist takes advantage of the confusion to pry a large gold filling from the patient’s mouth….

Doctor Benway In Naked Lunch: William S. Burroughs' Satan, Self, And Confidence-Man

Without question, Doctor Benway, the mad medico of Naked Lunch, is William S. Burroughs' best-known and most popular character. He gained international literary fame (and notoriety) in 1966 with the publication of Norman Mailer's Cannibals and Christians; there, in an essay entitled "Some Children of the Goddess," Mailer quoted verbatim the unforgettable passage where Dr. Benway performs open-heart surgery with a dirty toilet-bowl plunger, murdering the patient with an offhanded, "Well, it's all in the day's work."(1) This was a passage of a ferocity and a malignancy up to then never seen in American writing, written in "the language of hatred unencumbered by guilt, hesitation, scruple, or complexity,"(2) which also happened to be very funny; it had an immediate and jolting effect on the literate American reading public.

As American public life became increasing psychopathic in the Sixties and Seventies, Dr. Benway's perversity became something of a touchstone in Hip intellectual circles; Burroughs went on to re-enact the infamous open-heart surgery scene, with great relish, in the 1983 movie documentary made about him, Burroughs.

In 1976, William Burroughs was a featured speaker at a Youth International Party (Yippie) benefit concert held in Madison Square Garden to raise legal defense funds for Abbie Hoffman; he was introduced pointedly as "Dr. Benway of the Nova Police!" to wild applause, and as he assumed the podium and began rambling on in his twisted Benway persona, to this writer it was evident that Dr. Benway was a role that he was comfortable with. In his writings Burroughs has used the character of Dr. Benway to illustrate his radical distrust of authority figures, to create a perverse persona for himself, and to establish a compelling and frightening portrait of evil in the twentieth century.

Dr. Benway first breathed fictive life in 1938, when Burroughs and Kells Elvin, a Harvard friend, wrote a farcical satire called "Twilight's Last Gleamings." Burroughs later recalled the birth of his sinister alter ego:

When I was doing graduate work in Harvard in 1938, we wrote a story in collaboration, entitled Twilight's Last Gleamings, which I used many years later almost verbatim in Nova Express. We acted out the parts, sitting on a side porch of the white frame house we rented together, and this was the birthplace of Doctor Benway. (3)

A black-humored, cynical account of the sinking of the symbolic S.S. America, the sketch was based on some dark truths gleaned from eyewitness accounts of the sinkings of the Titanic and the Morro Castle off the New Jersey coast in 1935; while the Morro Castle burned and 200 died, "The first mate was in the first lifeboat. On the Titanic, someone did actually get into women's clothes."(4)

In Burroughs' fantasy of the sinking of America, Benway, the ship's doctor, is drunkenly botching an appendectomy as the story opens.
As soon as the ship begins to sink, he grabs a supply of cocaine and morphine (for medicinal purposes, of course) and jumps into the first lifeboat. "'Are you all right?' he shouted, seating himself among the women. "I'm the doctor.'"(5) Meanwhile the captain is busy killing the purser and robbing the ship's safe of all jewelry; after shooting a woman and stealing her wig and kimono, he smears his face with cold cream and escapes in the first lifeboat with Dr. Benway.

As John Tytell notes: "The parable is a premonition of the fall of America—everyone desperate for escape, but stealing, pillaging, abusing their authority at the end as they have been doing all along."(6) The criminal behavior of Dr. Benway and the ship's doctor clearly represents Burroughs' idea of the illegitimacy of constituted authority. In Burroughs' view, authority is not to be trusted; it either masks gross incompetence and wretched excess, as in Dr. Benway's case, or naked greed and brutal selfishness, as demonstrated by the captain's misdeeds. Our leaders are weak and fallen, Burroughs is telling us, and they are going to take the ship (our society) down with them but will leave us holding the bag.

In 1938, this satire might have seemed sophomoric overkill, as Esquire is reported to have stated in its rejection letter, sending Burroughs into a writing block for the next six years.(7) But today, we look on this fable with a different perspective. The popular paperback publication of Naked Lunch in 1966 coincided with the beginning of the radical disillusionment American intellectuals felt after John F. Kennedy's assassination, and subsequent historical events have only borne Burroughs' moral analysis of leadership out: in Vietnam, Lyndon Johnson embodying Rudyard Kipling's bitter World War I observation that, "The sons died because the fathers lied"; Richard Nixon stealing and lying at every available opportunity while desperately trying to institute a home-grown police state; and Ronald Reagan bankrupting America while receiving the thanks of a grateful nation.

When "Twilight's Last Gleamings" was first published in condensed form in Nova Express in 1964, its account of a capsizing America seemed like irresponsible hysteria; today its apocalyptic pessimism has become more than a nagging doubt for many thinking people in the United States.

It should be added, however, that this radical mistrust of authority has a long and honorable tradition in American literature, beginning with Herman Melville.
Captain Ahab in Moby Dick (1851) is a classic portrait of how leaders are not to be trusted, and Claggart in Billy Budd (1886-1891) is a prime example of how easily vicious people in power can abuse their authority. In his dark masterpiece The Confidence-Man (1857), all political, religious, and cultural authority figures (in hundreds of different avatars) are seen as cruelly exploiting the innocent trust invested in them by the human race; human existence is seen as one big con game.(8)

In Huckleberry Finn (1884), Mark Twain certainly intended the figures of the Duke and Dauphin to be parodies of nineteenth-century authority figures, implying that Presidents and royalty alike were no better than bums putting on airs. Twain's later tales The Mysterious Stranger (1890-1910, unfinished) and The Man That Corrupted Hadleyburg (1889) show how disturbed he was by America's (and humankind's) susceptibility to untrustworthy authority figures.

By the time Burroughs began composing Naked Lunch in Tangiers in the mid-Fifties, (9) he had promoted Dr. Benway from a minor character to his version of the Grand Inquisitor.
Naked Lunch has often been compared to George Orwell's 1984,(10) with Dr. Benway fulfilling the role of O'Brien, the omniscient, God-like torturer who crushes the individual in order to consolidate the State's totalitarian control. (O'Brien himself is often compared to Dostoyevsky's Grand Inquisitor, the judge in The Brothers Karamazov who preaches that tyrannies exist because men secretly are terrified of taking responsibility for their own freedom; some critics have charged that Dostoyvesky intended the Grand Inquisitor to represent the Catholic Church.)

While writing Naked Lunch, Burroughs kept a journal where he clearly stated his intention of capturing his nightmarish vision of a world being suffocated by unfreedom:

What am I trying to do in writing? This novel is about transitions, larval forms, emergent telepathic faculty, attempts to control and stifle new forms.

I feel there is some hideous new force loose in the world like a creeping sickness, spreading, blighting. Remoter parts of the world seem better now, because they are less touched by it. Control, bureaucracy, regimentation, these are merely symptoms of a deeper sickness that no political or economic program can touch. What is the sickness itself ? (11)

According to Burroughs' Puritan forebears, this sickness was called innate depravity. This Calvinist belief states that man is basically evil and subject to sin. After the Enlightenment, Western civilization came to adopt the view that man was inherently good and subject to reason; therefore social and political progress was inevitable, as the totalitarian shackles of the Church and feudalism were cast off. But after the First World War and its terrifying irrational mass slaughter, Western man's faith in progress and the perfectibility of humankind was badly shaken.

The Depression, worldwide fascism, the Second World War only served to emphasize the power of "civilized" man's irrationality and violence; the culmination of the Second World War with the atom-bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki did little to assure burnt-fingered moderns that history was drifting in a positive direction, in fact it seemed like events were rapidly moving out of our control.

Naked Lunch is very much a part of this Zeitgeist, and Dr. Benway is the chief turnkey of this l'univers concentrationnaire, as Mailer termed it in his classic essay "The White Negro," like Naked Lunch a bible of hipsterism.(12) We are introduced to Dr. Benway early on in the novel, in a chapter entitled "Benway": "Dr. Benway had been called in as advisor to the Freeland Republic, a place given over to free love and continual bathing,"(13) which Ted Morgan identifies as Scandinavia.(14) Burroughs continues: "Benway is a manipulator and coordinator of symbol systems, an expert on all phases of interrogation, brainwashing, and control."(15)

In an essay entitled "Cutting Up Characters," Burroughs later acknowledged how he consciously modelled Benway on Councillor Mikulin, the secret police interrogator in Joseph Conrad's Under Western Eyes: "Re-reading Under Western Eyes.... I see the precise parallels between Razumov's interview with Councillor Mikulin in Under Western Eyes and Carl's interview with Doctor Benway in Naked Lunch, the chapter entitled 'The Examination.'"(16)

In this chapter, Dr. Benway subjects Carl to a barrage of dehumanizing, humiliating physical and psychological abuse, which, though couched in a mild-mannered style, is designed to break down his ego and strip him of his selfhood.
With his lust to enslave men's souls, Dr. Benway exhibits manifestly Satanic qualities, and by relishing his capacity for evil and his ability to mete out pain and death, he is very much acting out the role, as proscribed by traditional Christianity, of the Serpent Satan, the Prince of This World.

But what makes Dr. Benway such a disturbing character is that he is such a funny monster.

As John Tytell writes in his study of the Beats, Naked Angels:

The best illustration of Burroughs' grotesque humor is the figure of Dr. Benway in Naked Lunch, a man who deplores brutality only because of its inefficiency. Benway, who directs a reconditioning Center in the Freeland Republic, is an expert on interrogation, brainwashing, and control. His macabre medicinal machinations are an ironic reflection of Burroughs' belief that there is no technological cure for spiritual disease. (17)

Like all great satirists, Burroughs uses humor to mask his anger and outrage. He is the greatest of all black humorists because his sense of irony is the keenest; no one else feels such a searing disparity between the way things are and the way they should be. In the bitterness of his humor he is very much in the footsteps of Mark Twain, who when outraged was also known to write with "a pen warmed-up in hell."

In Naked Lunch, the character of Dr. Benway serves William S. Burroughs in several ways. First, it provides him with a means to attack morally bankrupt authority figures, confidence men who deprive the people of their liberties under the guise of maintaining "law and order." Second, Dr. Benway embodies all of the principles of social control and the restriction of personal freedom that he hates above all else, and so functions as a Satanic figure for him, a counterpoint of negative virtues. Third, Benway is a mask for him, a crazed persona that allows him revel in his perversity while making something socially useful and morally positive out of it.

It is no accident that Burroughs was only able to write Naked Lunch after he began to struggle successfully against heroin. Before kicking junk, Burroughs' consciousness obviously was swamped with the hate and self-loathing that permeates Naked Lunch; Naked Lunch is what his subconscious coughed up during heroin withdrawal. But after beating the monkey, Burroughs was able to come to terms, at least on some level, with the demons raging inside him, and he found the strength to make order of the warring emotions contending within himself, enough to write a work of art about it.

The character of Dr. Benway is his organizing principle for these violently conflicting feelings he harbors; Benway himself is a curious combination of superego and id, the master of social control who himself frequently breaks down into a frothing frenzy. No doubt, on some deep, primal level, he represents Burroughs himself in this regard, and maybe us too.


1. Norman Mailer, Cannibals and Christians (New York, 1966), page 116.

2. Ibid.

3. William Burroughs, "Remembering Jack Kerouac," The Adding Machine (New York, 1986), p.180.

4. Ted Morgan, Literary Outlaw: The Life and Times of William S. Burroughs (New York, 1988), p. 67.

5. William Burroughs, "Twilight's Last Gleamings," Interzone (New York, 1989). A shorter version of this sketch appears under the title "Gave Proof Through the Night" in his novel Nova Express (New York, 1964), pp. 121-124 in the 1992 Grove Press paperback edition.

6. John Tytell, Naked Angels (New York: 1976), p.112.

7. Ted Morgan, Literary Outlaw (New York, 1988), p. 68.

8. Herman Melville, The Confidence-Man: His Masquerade (New York, 1972). The Bobbs-Merrill edition annotated by H. Bruce Franklin is especially useful in pointing out Melville's intention of unmasking authority figures.

9. Tytell, pp.48-9.

10. Tytell, p. 12.

11. Burroughs, Interzone , p.69.

12. Norman Mailer, "The White Negro," in Advertisements for Myself (New York, 1959), p. 339.

13. William Burroughs, Naked Lunch (New York, 1959), p. 21.

14. Ted Morgan, Literary Outlaw (New York, 1988), p. 268: "Suicide was almost unknown in Morocco, but in Scandinavia it was endemic."

15. William Burroughs, Naked Lunch (New York, 1959), p. 21 of the original Grove Press paperback edition.

16. William Burroughs, "Cutting Up Characters," The Adding Machine (New York, 1986), p.189.

17. Tytell, p.133.


Burroughs, William S. The Adding Machine. New York: Seaver Books, 1986.

Burroughs, William S. The Burroughs File. San Francisco: City Lights Books, 1984.

Burroughs, William S. Interzone. New York: The Viking Press, 1989.

Burroughs, William S. Naked Lunch. New York: Grove Press, 1959.

Burroughs, William S. Nova Express. New York: Grove Press, 1964.

Lydenberg, Robin. Word Cultures: Radical Theory and Practice in William S. Burroughs' Fiction. Urbana and Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 1987.

Mailer, Norman. Advertisements for Myself. New York: G.P. Putnam's Sons, 1959.

Mailer, Norman. Cannibals and Christians. New York: Dell Books, 1966.

Melville, Herman. The Confidence-Man: His Masquerade. New York: Bobbs-Merrill, 1972.

Morgan, Ted. Literary Outlaw: The Life and Times of William S. Burroughs. New York: Avon Books, 1988.

Odier, Daniel. The Job: Interviews With William S. Burroughs. New York: The Grove Press, 1970.

Tytell, John. Naked Angels. New York: Grove Weidenfeld, 1976.


Anonymous said...

Not exactly worthy of pure referencing to, but a great wealth of knowledge and thoughts on Naked Lunch.
- Thanks a bunch,
A humble college student.

Anonymous said...

Naked Lunch & Burroughs, my point of reference & hero since 1973.