Paging Doctor Benway


Roy Scheider as Dr A. Benway in Naked Lunch (1991).

1: Naked Lunch (1959) by William Burroughs

So I am assigned to engage the services of Doctor Benway for Islam Inc.

Dr. Benway had been called in as advisor to the Freeland Republic, a place given over to free love and continual bathing. The citizens are well adjusted, cooperative, honest, tolerant and above all clean. But the invoking of Benway indicates all is not well behind that hygienic facade: Benway is a manipulator and coordinator of symbol systems, an expert on all phases of interrogation, brainwashing and control. I have not seen Benway since his precipitate departure from Annexia, where his assignment had been T.D.—Total Demoralization. Benway’s first act was to abolish concentration camps, mass arrest and, except under certain limited and special circumstances, the use of torture.

“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.”

2: Doctor Benway Operates (1983)


A short sequence from Howard Brookner’s Burroughs: The Movie. Burroughs himself takes the role of the notorious doctor in a staging of the operation scene from Naked Lunch.

3: Repo Man (1984)


Alex Cox’s feature film includes a hospital scene in which a Doctor Benway and a Mr Lee are paged over the PA. As I recall, Mr Lee is requested to “return the drugs”. There’s apparently a similar scene in Dark City (1998) but if so this must be in the director’s cut which I’ve yet to see.

4: Nomads (1986)


I’ve not seen John McTiernan’s thriller but it contains another instance of a Doctor Benway being paged at a hospital. (Thanks, Márcio!)

5: Naked Lunch (1991)


David Cronenberg’s film shows the address of Benway’s surgery to be in Mott Street, New York. This happens to be in the Chinatown area of the city, and is also the location of the Genco Olive Oil Company in The Godfather: Part II.

6: Standards (2001) by Tortoise


Track 4: Benway.

7: Autopsy (2008)


Adam Gierasch’s horror film has Robert Patrick playing a Doctor Benway. With a title like that it seems almost inevitable.

8: Beyond the Black Rainbow (2010)


Near the beginning of Panos Cosmatos’s feature film Barry Nyle (Michael Rogers) is seen consuming a quantity of unspecified pills. A brief shot shows the origin of the drugs. Some of the experiments taking place in the Arboria Institute where Nyle works aren’t far removed from either Cronenberg’s or Burroughs’ fictions.

Elsewhere on { feuilleton }
The William Burroughs archive

9 thoughts on “Paging Doctor Benway”

  1. Oh wow. An overview of Dr. Benway in pop culture. This was cool!

    I find it impossible to say the words “Doctor Benway” in anything other than William Burroughs voice. I’ve listened to his recordings too often for anything else…

  2. Thanks, I could have added a few other examples—there’s more scattered around the music world—but these were the most familiar.

    I’m the same with Burroughs’ reading of the famous operating scene, always hear it in his voice. When he and Kells Elvins wrote that routine in 1938 they wouldn’t have believed its influence would extend this far.

  3. Spot of bother there. Scalpel fight with a colleague in the operating room. And my baboon assistant leaped on the patient and tore him to pieces.

  4. Of course Coulthart just trashed most of the medical profession with that last proviso ;)

    Damn I love thet old cat fancying/gun totin’ Exterminator–pretty sure the following song is NOT about WSB but It always reminds me of him anyway & it’s a sunny April 1st
    [Apologies for annoying ads before this link]

  5. The filme “Nomads” (1985) also has a brief reference to a Dr. Benway, in a Los Angeles Hospital.

  6. Joe: I’m fairly sure that is a song for WSB. Lou Reed was friends with Burroughs when he moved back to NYC. The title also nods to Andy Warhol’s Lonesome Cowboys.

    Márcio: Thanks, that’s one I didn’t know about. I’ve also added Autopsy, something I forgot to include earlier.

  7. I’ll have to watch it again and listen for it at some point. Either way, for whatever reason, I find the director’s cut of Dark City 10x better than the theatrical release.

Comments are closed.

Discover more from { feuilleton }

Subscribe now to keep reading and get access to the full archive.

Continue reading