Allen Ginsberg: The Politics of Ecstasy

Fifty years ago, Jack Kerouac’s On the Road was published, a feverish romp of unchecked individualism across the beaten, back country roads of America that gave birth both to Kerouac’s literary career and to what came to be known as the Beat Movement. Earlier this year, the book’s golden anniversary was celebrated, with a tour and a new publication. The tour featured the original scroll, upon which Kerouac famously poured out his first draft in just three weeks’ time. The publication, released by Viking Press (which originally published the novel), was a more portable version of that first draft, descriptively titled On the Road: The Original Scroll.

It’s likely, though, that Kerouac — wherever he is — is glad not to have lived to see these days. Even as he relished the recognition On the Road brought him, he came to regret how that act of composition (his image as the possessed, hopped-up artist, hammering away at the typewriter in a feverish stream of consciousness) came to overshadow the book itself. It wasn’t just the literary merits of On the Road, however, that were thrust into the aside as his legend grew. Today, On the Road is frequently regarded as the text of Beat literature, which, for all its accomplishments, is much to the detriment of the fantastic array of other artists who can lay claim to the Beat moniker. Their post-World War II radicalism and aesthetic adventurism have been largely overwhelmed by Kerouac’s ascension, or else marginalized by the caricature of the goateed hipster, doffing a beret and slapping his bongos while the rest of ’50s America went out and got real jobs.

The truth is that Beat lit was something much more than the riffing of pre-hippy drop-outs, and much more than Jack Kerouac and his touring scroll. It was William Burroughs, plumbing the depths of a drug-addled underclass. It was LeRoi Jones (today Amiri Baraka), demanding a voice for African-Americans, and Diane Di Prima, flaunting conventional strictures of femininity. It was Lawrence Ferlinghetti and Kenneth Rexroth, anchoring an aesthetic movement to a physical epicenter at City Lights Books in San Francisco. And it was Allen Ginsberg.

As a Beat, Ginsberg accomplished through poetry what Kerouac accomplished through prose, namely an aesthetic that won him fame and influence — and one that he was able to embody as much through his lived existence as through his literary one. Both Kerouac and Ginsberg were as close to one another as any in the movement’s notoriously fluid, yet persistently coherent society. The recent publication of his early journals, under the title The Book of Martyrdom and Artifice, owes its original title, in fact, to a contraction coined by Kerouac; Ginsberg, borrowing the term, at first called his entries “The Book of Martifice”.

The recent publication of these writings, with its revised title, spans Ginsberg’s life from age 11 to 26, and was put together in consultation with Ginsberg himself, meeting periodically with the editors to clarify names and references (which they’ve helpfully included at key points in the book). The resulting collection is remarkable, though not so much for what it reveals about Ginsberg’s life per se. (He, as much as any Beat, turned to his personal experiences for the subject of his writings; all of his writing is, in some form, embroidered autobiography.) Instead, what’s most compelling in this self-portrait of the artist as a young man is the way in which, at such a young age, he is “Allen Ginsberg” — a fully formed version of the poet who would re-imagine literature with his far-reaching, jazz-indebted portraits of humanity.

Not only was he sure of his direction and intention from the apparent start, but Ginsberg’s writing reflects a tremendous self-awareness. At age 15, he writes “I’ll be a genius of some kind or other, probably in literature”, though in the same passage also reflects, “I am writing to satisfy my own egotism.” Both assertions are true; Ginsberg spent a lifetime, in fact, assuring the depths of their certainty and pursuing the limits of his physical experience, even as he spun those pursuits into poetry.

Certain, too, is his engagement with the political, as a young Allen includes commentary on newspaper headlines chronicling the build-up to World War II (he was born in 1926 and began writing in 1937). At age 12 he notes, “What fools these Nazis be”, already foreshadowing the marriage of the political and the literary that would come to characterize his work as a poet and as an activist. Sadly, the extent of his activism was as much informed as it was circumscribed by the conservative conformity of his Jewish, middle-class upbringing in Paterson, New Jersey — particularly with regard to sexuality. Though the journal avoids direct mention of his homosexuality through his teenage years (focusing instead on movies and current affairs), his enrollment at Columbia University and quick friendship with William Burroughs and Jack Kerouac (a former football player at Columbia) allowed him to question his previous secrecy — just as he came to question everything at the encouragement of the older, anti-conformist group he began running with.

Soon enough, Ginsberg details his experiments with drugs (trying marijuana, or “tea” at first), his attitudes toward literature (recording dialogues on aesthetics and morality), and the vagaries of his romantic pursuits. Chief among these is his relationship with Neal Cassady, the inspiration for Dean Moriarty in On the Road and a married transplant to New York from Denver whose affair with Ginsberg leads to the most tiresome writing in the book. Oddly, the pages of Ginsberg’s incessant pining for the married Cassady remind us just how astounding his abilities were for his age. He had managed to find intellectual and aesthetic equals in men older than he, but was still unable to overcome the damage wrought by that first, difficult love.

Though it wasn’t for lack of trying. At one point, Ginsberg sees his hang up with Cassady as a kind of conduit for spiritual transcendence: “I hope I am not mistaken in discovering at last that I have no individuality, but only everlasting communion with one, and therefore all men in their consciousness and soul.” A few scant sentences later, though, he’s back to cold reality: “Remind Neal to ditch a few women; I don’t want to have to compete for time with more than one.”

Beyond the wavering attentions of the inconstant Cassady, Ginsberg’s writing reflects that he struggled mightily with being gay, a disposition that he calls at one point in the journal, “the usual slob hang-up”. A great many of his entries are dreams, which he simultaneously recorded and auto-psychoanalyzed. In one passage, Ginsberg recalls a dreamed affair with one of his roommates at Columbia, Arthur Lazarus. After they embrace, Ginsberg realizes that “Arthur has a cunt it seems, so that I am delighted that he promises varied, important experience. Loving him (normalcy) I will have sexual contact with a woman’s cunt.” A great deal of the book, in fact, is informed by Ginsberg’s anxiety about his sexual orientation, a condition he sums up at one point by asking, “Is there no way for me to assert myself without coming into mortal contact with the world?”

The real value of The Book of Martyrdom and Artifice, however, is not as a confessional testament. In fact, beyond these moments of angst, Ginsberg’s entries offer very little for those seeking an insider’s glimpse into the Beats and their lives. Instead, Ginsberg uses his journal to construct elaborate prose exercises, plan the development of his early poems (which are collected in the book’s appendix), and explore his developing aesthetics and philosophical thinking. Gossip-mongers may enjoy Ginsberg’s mediation on the murder of David Kammerer by Lucien Carr, both of whom had arrived on the Columbia scene with William Burroughs from St. Louis (Kammerer in pursuit of a relationship with Carr, whose final rebuff came at the end of a pocket knife).

As well, there is a section devoted to Ginsberg’s own arrest — the result of his riding in a stolen car with one “Little” Jack Melody. Ginsberg had naively allowed Melody, an ex-con, and his girlfriend to stay at his apartment, in which they promptly began to house stolen goods. Driving Ginsberg to see his brother one day, Melody turned the wrong way down a one-way street and decided to outrun the policeman who gave chase. He wrecked the car (filled with stolen clothes and Ginsberg’s journals) and ran off. Ginsberg did likewise, but was soon tracked down and brought into custody, scandalizing his family and the Columbia community. The arrest, though, was in many ways the inevitable result of Ginsberg’s fascination with New York City’s social underbelly. In addition to housing Melody and his girlfriend, Ginsberg also sheltered a drug addict named Herbert Huncke, and made prodigious lists in his journal of the drugs that he himself had yet to try.

But this kind of fascination deserves philosophical context. Of Huncke, for example, Ginsberg writes in his journal, “I saw him as a self-damned soul — but a soul nonetheless, aware of itself and others in a strangely perceptive and essentially human way.” Such an observation speaks to Ginsberg’s devotion to a radical engagement with unadulterated experience — a project that he undertook with many of his contemporaries. In other words, Ginsberg sought knowledge of all existence, but particularly that which was pushed furthest to the margins, away from the coddling influences of conformity. What emerges, then, in reading The Book of Martyrdom and Artifice is an eye that took in a world full of lovers and low-lifes — for Ginsberg, each a song waiting to be sung.

Such vision can also be seen in the film, The Life and Times of Allen Ginsberg. The documentary, though, focuses less on the poet’s literary work in favor of exploring his status as a cultural icon. Director Jerry Aronson showcases archival footage of interviews with a veritable who’s who of the American cultural left since the ’50s, all of whom sing the praises of Ginsberg both as an artist and an activist.

The film is divided into chapters of decades, beginning with the ’30s and ending with the ’80s and ’90s. As it progresses, the conceit reveals perhaps the most amazing aspect of Ginsberg’s career: its sheer longevity. In a world busily doling out 15-minute flashes of fame, Ginsberg, we see, endures as a vital, enthusiastic, and, above all, relevant defender of peace in our time.

Beginning with home movie footage of the Ginsberg family cavorting at the shore, the documentary quickly explains these images to be an idyllic façade, behind which Ginsberg’s mother Naomi suffered recurring psychiatric trouble. Her bouts of paranoia and depression sent her in and out of mental hospitals during Allen’s youth, upheaval that he only obliquely hints at in The Book of Martyrdom and Artifice. As he admits in the film while looking back at photos of his childhood, Allen tried to cover for his mother’s suffering with an unflagging commitment to normalcy. In one picture, she stares at the camera in dark confusion; Allen holds her arm around him and flashes a winning smile. Naomi was eventually lobotomized and permanently committed, dying in a psychiatric hospital in 1956. By that time, however, the film explains that Allen had a surrogate family already in place.

Through old photos and interviews, the documentary recalls Ginsberg’s enrollment at Columbia, and the influence of Kerouac, Burroughs, and others on his budding literary and social consciousness. In one tragic-comic scene, a much older, though still energetic, Ginsberg tries to prompt a pale, shaky William Burroughs to describe their first meeting. Their recollections, however, are completely different and Burroughs gives up the attempt to chase off flies from a nearby bowl of watermelon. A comprehensive, factual history of the Beats, it would seem, lies destined to be given over to the ravages of time and drug-use.

Still, the film’s true purpose is not in its history-telling, but in the way it asserts the vitality of Ginsberg as a social actor. Norman Mailer and Amiri Baraka appear to give their impressions of “Howl”, the poem Ginsberg is most known for, as a kind of poetic call to arms to rage against the corporate machinery that grew in size and influence in the years following the second World War. Still, Ginsberg wrote “Howl” in 1955 and went on to live for more than four decades. As a result, the film appreciates his accomplishment not as the apex of his literary achievement, but rather as merely one of several peaks in the course of his long and celebrated career.

The documentary’s next chapter, “The 1960s”, features interviews with Joan Baez, Timothy Leary, Ken Kesey, even Abbie Hoffman — all of whom testify to the influence of Ginsberg as an elder statesman of the counter-culture movement. While Kerouac, Burroughs, and others fell into obscurity or were swallowed by substance abuse, Ginsberg stayed on the scene. And in those years, the film reports, the scene was Prague in 1965, engaging in anti-government protests that saw him elected the “King of May”, as well as London, that same year, where Ginsberg shows up in the background of the opening scene of Bob Dylan’s “Don’t Look Back”, dancing around as Dylan lets his cue cards fall to the ground. It was also in Chicago, at the bloody and chaotic Democratic Convention in 1968. With tear gas canisters and rubber bullets flying all around him, we see Ginsberg, seated, peaceful, singing Buddhist chants through a megaphone. Though the Beats’ time was the ’50s, Ginsberg was somehow more active and engaged in the decade following, earning the grudging (if intentionally back-handed) compliment from William F. Buckley, Jr. that he was “a hippie’s hippie”.

And still, the film continues, Allen Ginsberg was more than that. In 1974 he helped to found the Naropa Institute in Boulder, Colorado, the first accredited Buddhist college in the United States. There he established the Jack Kerouac School of Disembodied Poetics, in honor of his friend who had passed away in 1969. Later he helped to lead a protest against a train carrying plutonium to the Rocky Flats nuclear plant, also in Colorado. Still artistically active, he also went on to collaborate with musicians like Phillip Glass, Paul McCartney, and Patti Smith, as well as with director Gus van Sant, and worked on a variety of projects into the ’90s, nearly right up to his death in 1997.

So immense is Ginsberg’s body of work, so far reaching his influence, that the film requires two DVDs to contain all its footage. In addition to extended conversations with William Burroughs (debating the origins of their friendship), Neal Cassady (discussing Buddhist chant), and Bob Dylan (at Kerouac’s grave, the pair compares other famous graves they’ve visited), the extras also include testimonials from nearly 30 artists, celebrities, and acquaintances (sometimes all three in one). The film’s selection of subjects ranges from the insightful (Patti Smith) to the predictable (Joan Baez, Ken Kesey) to the bizarre (Jack Johnson?!). Still, the sheer volume of footage speaks directly to tremendous resonance of Ginsberg’s life and work.

And, through it all, the film leaves us to conclude, he thrived — a beneficiary of what, in the film, Timothy Leary calls “the politics of ecstasy”. Originally designed by Ginsberg and others to be a system governing the use of drugs like LSD for their maximum benefit, the documentary and the book remind us that the term was far more than a drug policy. It was, for Ginsberg, a way of life, a fundamental condition of openness and enthusiasm for all, synthesizing the dirt and the triumph of living into a single choir of ecstatic praise. In the film, you see it even in Ginsberg’s recitation of “Kaddish”, a prolonged lament for his lost mother that, for all its pain, cannot overshadow the excitement in his voice as he reads it; the fundamental aspect of his art is joy. You see it too as, in the smug face of William F. Buckley who’s accusing him of being politically “naïve”, a wild-eyed Ginsberg sits reciting poems with a savage grin. The scene neatly captures his phenomenon: face to face with those who would close off the world to its possibilities, there was Allen, singing, chanting, running with open arms to take the whole of experience into his loving embrace.

RATING 9 / 10