Tag Archives: William S. Burroughs

“Obscene” – Wednesday, February 19, 7:00 PM


A screening of Obscene, a documentary about publisher Barney Rosset

Introduced by the film’s co-director, Daniel O’Connor

Chang Room, Rare Book and Manuscript Library, Columbia University

 Followed by a reception at the Rare Book and Manuscript Library


Le Festin Nu [that’s French for Naked Lunch]

In 1964 the French publisher Gallimard brought out the first French translation of William S. Burroughs’s Naked Lunch under the title Le Festin Nu. Ironically, the book first appeared in Paris in its original English form in 1959, in the Olympia Press Traveller’s Companion series (see RBML‘s copy here). France traditionally had been a friendly place for many controversial English language writers of the twentieth century: James Joyce (Ulysses, 1922), Henry Miller (Tropic of Cancer, 1934), and Vladimir Nabokov (Lolita, 1959) all published books that were either banned or considered unprintable in Great Britain or the United States.

In recognition of the French contribution to English language letters, and in the interest of fully documenting Naked Lunch‘s reception and the history of its publication, RBML recently acquired this copy of Le Festin Nu, copy number 1196 of 3,750 copies printed on vélin bouffant des papeteries de Téka. The text was translated by Eric Kahane, the brother of Olympia Press publisher Maurice Girodias (Kahane also translated Nabokov’s Loilta into French in 1959).

What’s curious is the letter to booksellers that Gallimard issued with the book, an example of which is included in the RBML copy, seen to the right.

For those who do not follow the French, the publisher warns booksellers that unsuspecting readers might be disoriented by the book’s particular characters and risk shocking misunderstandings over the sometimes brutal descriptions made by the author on certain aspects of modern society. Booksellers are further advised not to expose the book to public view and under no circumstances to sell the book to minors. One might ask, is this conservationism necessary in a country with a such a strong track record for literary tolerance? About a year before Le Festin Nu appeared in France, a Boston bookseller was arrested in January 1963, and charged with obscenity for selling the first American edition of Naked Lunch (Grove Press, 1962)–the book would not be cleared of that charge until July 1966, so perhaps Gallimard’s caution over this particular text was warranted. Also, the fact that the controversial text was printed in French made the brutalité of the text more accessible to Gallimard’s French readers. The author of this blog entry was able to find no recorded cases of casualties among French readers after indulging in Le Festin Nu. Gallimard continues to publish the book today .

The Dream Machine part II

Early in this blog, I wrote about the Dream Machine, and now, with the expert assistance of Alan Govenar and Doumentary Arts, I can show you how our Dream Machine works:

You’ll all be able to see our Dream Machine in person this October when we’ll exhibit it along with the original manuscript for Naked Lunch. It’s all part of a 3 day conference:

October 8: New York University, Fales Library
Panel discussion on the influence of Naked Lunch: “The Children of William S. Burroughs”

October 9: Columbia University, Rare Book & Manuscript Library

“Fifty Years of Naked Lunch: from the Interzone to the Archive… and back.”

All sessions at the Columbia University Faculty House
1:00PM: Keynote “From Dr Mabuse to Doc Benway: The Myths and Manuscripts of Naked Lunch”
Oliver Harris, Professor of American Literature, American Studies, Keele University

2:30PM: Short papers
Isaac Gewirtz, Curator of the Henry W. and Albert A. Berg Collection of English and American Literature, New York Public Library
“William S. Burroughs: The Writer as Avant-Garde Archivist”

Brian E. C. Schottlaender, Audrey Geisel University Librarian, University of California, San Diego
“Manifestations, Multiple Versions, and Showstoppers: Collecting the Various Guises of Naked Lunch”

Regina Weinreich, Professor in Humanities & Sciences, School of Visual Arts, New York City
“Honing the Word Hoard: Kerouac, Tangier and Naked Lunch”

Panel Discussion: “From the Bunker and Beyond: firsthand encounters with William S. Burroughs & Naked Lunch”
Moderator: Ann Douglas, Parr Professor of Comparative Literature, Columbia University
Speakers: Barry Miles, Author; Visiting Fellow, Liverpool School of Art and Design, John Moores University
Bradford Morrow, Novelist; Editor, Conjunctions; Professor of Literature, Bard College; and
Barney Rosset, Publisher, Evergreen Review and founding publisher, Grove Press

Reception and viewing of the exhibition: Naked Lunch: the First Fifty Years in the Rare Book & Manuscript Library, 6th floor Butler Library
October 10, the School of Visual Arts
SVA will host an evening of film and performances, including a screening of The Beat Hotel, a new documentary by Alan Govenar. Poet Anne Waldman and others (to be announced) will read from Naked Lunch.

William S. Burroughs’ Dream Machine

RBML collects more than just books and manuscripts; we also have a lot of what librarians call realia—real life objects. Pictured here is our Dream Machine, which comes from William S. Burroughs, via his collaborator & one time assistant Steven Lowe.

The Dream Machine is a simple device: a slotted cardboard cylinder is mounted on an old phonographic turntable, and sits like a lampshade over a lightbulb. Power it up and the spinning cylinder creates a flickering light that oscillates at a rhythm corresponding to alpha waves in the brain, thus creating a psychedelic effect for the observer.1

Brion Gysin & Ian Sommerville, two of WSB’s artistic collaborators, are credited as the Dream Machine’s creators. Ted Morgan, author of Literary Outlaw: Life and Times of William S Burroughs, writes that WSB “thought the Dream Machine was terrific, and had strange visions peering at it.”

As many Burroughs readers and scholars know, RBML is home to several significant Burroughs manuscripts—the Junkie typescript is here and so is the “Interzone” typescript, which WSB scholar Oliver Harris calls the largest and most significant Naked Lunch manuscript extant. In Fall 2009 our Dream Machine will exhibited alongside these manuscripts for the fiftieth anniversary of Naked Lunch. Stay tuned for details…

1 In the name of scholarship, one of our curators tested both the mechanical and visual integrity of this device, and we can report that sitting in front of a spinning Dream Machine, even with eyes closed, produced colorful flashes of dizzying effect.