Wednesday, March 20, 2013

Spreading the Pages of Naked Lunch

If there was ever a novel that could benefit from the analysis and display techniques digital technologies have brought to the humanities, it's William S. Burroughs' seminal work Naked Lunch (ha, "seminal," I'm so mature; but who doesn't love a good double entendre?).  And it's not just the radical structure of the novel itself (or should I say the structure in each iteration of the novel?) that could benefit more than most novels from such an analysis and reconstructive manipulations, it's also the novel's changing structure over time.  So I guess in a way both of those are still due to its radical structure.  Hm.  I think it would be best if I allow this excerpt from an essay by Carol Loranger do the talking:

"Naked Lunch has undergone at least five significant changes in the three and a half decades since its first publication. The changes in each case have consisted of the addition or deletion of large, often self-contained portions of text. None of these changes can be considered accidental variants, since changes of this magnitude and these particular kinds were enacted by author or publisher in response to specific pressures. But neither can these changes be satisfactorily marked in each case as deliberate authorial revisions in the sense that, for example, passages in the 1909 "New York" edition of Daisy Miller can be clearly marked as the late James's late-Jamesifying amplifications of the 1878 edition. Some of Burroughs's additions pre-date Naked Lunch, others are mutually contradictory, and yet others were written or transcribed by third parties and were included in some editions but omitted from others, presumably with Burroughs's blessing. Moreover, Burroughs's history of abandoning the text to circumstance and necessity and his authorial claim to have "no precise memory of writing the notes which have now been published under the title Naked Lunch" (NL xxxvii)--coupled with his subsequent experiments with the unauthored cut-up in the Nova books and his call for guerrilla assault on the idea of authorial ownership in The Third Mind--suggest very strongly that authorial intent is antithetical to the very spirit of Naked Lunch."

Honestly, I think it's almost impossible to explain that in any shorter a summary, at least not without losing a good sense of just why it's so impossible to say what exactly constitutes the text of Naked Lunch.  Granted, in 2001, two years after the aforementioned Loranger piece was published, the William S. Burroughs Trust published "The Restored Text," which is what can now be more or less called the most definitive edition, and it does include supplementary introductory material and appendices that give a solid overview of the different iterations of the text throughout its history.  But I very deliberately say most definitive, because the tools available to us now do allow us to create what would be a definitive version of the text.

But how's that possible, you ask, when we don't have a truly definitive edition?  Well, that's just it, there is not a truly definitive edition: to create a "definitive edition," we have to include every edition, and allow a reader to consume the text, or texts, in any order, as published or otherwise, jumping between passages and editions, or not, as desired or required by the reader.  As the editors of the restored edition noted, "Naked Lunch resists the idea of a fixed text;" in fact, in the "Atrophied Preface" within Naked Lunch itself, the narrator (or is it a narrator? the author? an author?) explains its dynamic structure as such: "You can cut into Naked Lunch at any intersection point...I have written many prefaces. They atrophy and amputate spontaneous[...]" (second ellipsis mine). 

With the use of digital transcription methods, such as TEI, we now have the means to produce a hypertextual edition of the novel that could properly resist fixation, that would adequately represent its fluidity and allow the reader dynamic interactions with the text(s).  You would think the 50th anniversary in 2009 of the first publication of the text, in any published form, would have been a great occasion to unveil such an undertaking, or at least some sort of project that would truly take advantage of the unique advantages and dynamic fluidity available in digital objects.  Unfortunately, the most significant undertakings were a traditional retrospective done by Columbia University Librariesa print edition packaged with essays, a web site for reference, and a series of various events.  While all of these were perfectly, this was definitely a missed opportunity, especially considering 2009 was in the midst of the e-book boom.  Hopefully sometime in the near future such an undertaking will take place.  Anyone interested?

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