Had it not been for Donald Fagen and Walter Becker's borrowing of the name 'Steely Dan', Dr. Benway would unquestionably have been the most famous of William S. Burroughs' ghastly characters.

Benway made his first appearance in Naked Lunch, but he cropped up in many of Burroughs' works. He is a man of science - a surgeon by trade, but not a good one, by hippocratic standards. His real talent seems to lie in the area of behavioral psychology. He applies his medical knowledge as an instrument of the state, which seems to be interchangeable in Burroughs' vision with society.

Benway is a complex character - at once a pitiful quack, an evil genius, a tool, and a cruel mastermind. He is the perpetrator of unspeakable horrors, but his personna is somehow humorous, too.

As a scientist, Dr. Benway is keenly interested in technology, and Burroughs often uses him to expound on technology's implications for the individual, as mediated by society and the state.


"I deplore brutality," he said. "It's not efficient. On the other hand, prolonged mistreatment, short of physical violence, gives rise, when skillfully applied, to anxiety and a feeling of special guilt. A few rules or rather guiding principles are to be borne in mind. The subject must not realize that the mistreatment is a deliberate attack of an anti-human enemy on his personal identity. He must be made to feel that he deserves any treatment he receives because there is something (never specified) horribly wrong with him. The naked need of the control addicts must be decently covered by an arbitrary and intricate bureaucracy so that the subject cannot contact his enemy direct."


"While in general I avoid the use of torture-- torture locates the opponent and mobilizes resistance --the threat of torture is useful to induce in the subject the appropriate feeling of helplessness and gratitude to the interrogator for withholding it. And torture can be employed to advantage as a penalty when the subject is far enough along with the treatment to accept punishment as deserved. To this end I devised several forms of disciplinary procedure. One was known as The Switchboard. Electric drills that can be turned on at any time are clamped against the subject's teeth; and he is instructed to operate an arbitrary switchboard, to put certain connections in certain sockets in response to bells and lights. Every time he makes a mistake the drills are turned on for twenty seconds. The signals are gradually speeded up beyond his reaction time. Half an hour on the switchboard and the subject breaks down like an overloaded thinking machine."

"The study of thinking machines teaches us more about the brain than we can learn by introspective methods. Western man is externalizing himself in the form of gadgets. Ever pop coke in the mainline?" (...)

From Naked Lunch
© 1959, William S. Burroughs

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