Cover image for Screaming with joy : the life of Allen Ginsberg
Title:
Screaming with joy : the life of Allen Ginsberg
Author:
Caveney, Graham.
Personal Author:
Edition:
First U.S. edition.
Publication Information:
New York : Broadway Books, [1999]

©1999
Physical Description:
vii, 216 pages : illustrations ; 22 cm
Language:
English
Personal Subject:
ISBN:
9780767902786
Format :
Book

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PS3513.I74 Z594 1999 Adult Non-Fiction Non-Fiction Area
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Summary

Summary

The first fully illustrated tribute to Allen Ginsberg--the best-known American poet of the post-war generation, mother of the Beats, and walking embodiment of Western counterculture. Ginsberg's poetry, influenced by the writings of Walt Whitman and the spontaneous prose of his friend Jack Kerouac, is open, forthright, didactic, and written fast without revision. Much of his writing has a raw, confessional quality appropriate to his roles as one of the first gay spokespeople and a leading anti-Vietnam War activist. From the publication of his first book, Howl and Other Poems, in 1956, Ginsberg became known as the champion of counterculture concerns: sexual freedom, pacifism, drug experimentation, opposition to censorship and authority, and acceptance of Eastern religions. The youngest of the Beat writers, Ginsberg was a lover to both William Burroughs and Kerouac and acted as the prophet and public face of the group--serving as Kerouac's unofficial agent for On the Road and helping Burroughs bring The Naked Lunch to the attention of publishers. Screaming with Joy, overflowing with more than 150 photographs and illustrations, is a passionate documentary of Ginsberg's zealous life. His untimely death in 1997 silenced a voice that expanded the capacity of our language, and his cultural icon status makes his work and life of even greater interest today.


Excerpts

Excerpts

Introduction There are probably more generalizations about the differences between England and America than the actual differences themselves. They bombard us via TV cliché, anecdote and humor; discourses that blend prejudice with observation, abstract theory and personalized travelogue. The earnest American versus the ironic (pronounced "iranic") European, the Old World and the New. England did not just colonize America, she invented it--another chance at Eden, a dream through which, in the words of Fitzgerald, man could come "face to face for the last time in history with something commensurate to his capacity for wonder." During the course of its great experiment, America re-invented the old world she had left behind, simultaneously glad to be free of its corruption while reluctantly acknowledging its allure. In his letters, Henry James was to write of "the difficulty of writing a romance about a country where there is no shadow, no antiquity, no mystery, no picturesque and gloomy wrong, nor anything but a commonplace prosperity, in broad and simple daylight as is happily the case with my dear native land." Innocent America may have been, but it was Europe who had the experience: the curse of God's Chosen was that they suspected it was the Devil who had the better times. Between these two polarities a whole series of personal investments and cultural fantasies have been exchanged. For George Bernard Shaw the two cultures consisted of one people divided by a common language. D.H. Lawrence cast America as Europe's avenging infant, its literature being driven by the rage of Oedipal trauma. Most recently, the critic Jean Baudrillard has constructed America as a post-modern playpen, not so much a country as a collection of images, all reproducing themselves in promiscuous abandon: "America ducks the question of origins: it cultivates no origin or mythical authenticity: it has no past and no founding truth. Having known no primitive accumulation of time, it lives in a perpetual present." I am not so much interested in the validity of these constructs as I am in their potency. That a culture's identity is imaginary does not necessarily make it any the less real. Indeed, one could argue that it makes it all the more so--a process of establishing "the facts" by examining the fictions that sustain them. It is within this framework--the binary of Europe and America--that I wish to introduce another set of oppositions. During the course of researching the life and work of Allen Ginsberg, it became clear that he raises yet another conversation between Europe and America: the confrontation between the biographer and the autobiographer. In his classic novel of the 1880's, Portrait of a Lady, Henry James dramatizes an exchange that can be seen to encapsulate the divergent ways in which Americans and Europeans characterize their notions of Self. The following takes place between the duplicitous yet stately Mme. Merle and the naïve but spirited heroine Isabel Archer: "'I don't care anything about this house,' said Isabel. 'That's very crude of you. When you've lived as long as I you'll see that every human being has his shell and that you must take the shell into account. By the shell I mean the whole envelope of circumstances. There's no such thing as an isolated man or woman; we're each of us made up of some cluster of appurtenances. What shall we call our "self"? Where does it begin? Where does it end? It overflows into everything that belongs to us--and then it flows back again. I know a large part of myself is in the clothes I choose to wear. I've a great respect for things! One's self--for other people--is one's expression of one's self: and one's house, one's furniture, one's garments, the books one reads, the company one keeps--these things are all expressive.'" Isabel's reply could well be inscribed on Ginsberg's tombstone: "'I don't agree with you. I think just the other way. I don't know whether I succeed in expressing myself, but I know that nothing else expresses me. Nothing that belongs to me is any measure of me; everything's on the contrary a limit, a barrier, and a perfectly arbitrary one. Certainly the clothes which, as you say, I choose to wear, don't express me: and heaven forbid they should!' 'You dress very well,' Madame Merle lightly interposed. 'Possibly; but I don't care to be judged by that. My clothes express the dressmaker, but they don't express me. To begin with it's not my own choice that I wear them: they're imposed upon me by society.' 'Should you prefer to go without them?' Madame Merle inquired in a tone which virtually terminated the discussion.'" The point being, of course, that this does not terminate the discussion. For Ginsberg's answer, like so many American Selves, is a resounding "Yes!" Being naked, whether a metaphor or occasionally in his performances, is a testament to America's sanctity of the self. Clearly, the genre in which the Self is most fittingly celebrated is that of the autobiography; and for Ginsberg's work to be rescued from charges of self-absorption and confessional verse, he must first be located within a tradition that is as old as America itself, a tradition wherein Americans wrote using their experience not as private memoir but as public declaration. Ginsberg is a poet who denounces the world around him by placing his naked ego at the center of it, an accuser who was complicit with his own charges. In placing his queer shoulder to America's wheel, he forces us to consider the queerness of the wheel itself. Before considering why Ginsberg's legacy survives, it is necessary to look briefly at what came before. It is not unreasonable to assert that the founding father of American literature was autobiography itself. Of course, Europe also has its tradition of the genre--John Stuart Mill, Augustine, Rousseau, for example--but all these texts were written after the authors had reached some level of prominence and social standing. What I would suggest is that, for the American, it was precisely through writing autobiography that such things were achieved. Mme. Merle's contention that the self is essentially a connected one seems anathema to a nation who believes not only in the self-made man, but also in the self-written one. Autobiography is American ideology writ large. From the very beginnings with the Puritan settlers, the writing of a conversion narrative was the key to forging a separate identity. The Puritans' covenant with God and country necessitated that they describe both their earlier debauchery and the moment of revelation that brought about their conversion. Figures such as Jonathon Edwards and John Winthrop did not write their autobiographies because of some national interest in their personae, but rather as a means of constructing them. Again, whereas eighteenth-century European narratives tended to be fictionalized biographies and autobiographies (Swift's "Gulliver," Fielding's "Tom Jones," Richardson's "Pamela"), America turned instead to the confessional tales of real-life conmen such as The Memoirs of the Notorious Stephen Burroughs of New Hampshire or to memoirs of captivity amongst the native Americans--John Hunter's journals being, perhaps, the most famous example. The list goes on. America's emphasis on self-reliance and rugged individualism finds its aesthetic voice in the (auto)biographies of Benjamin Franklin, Thoreau, Henry Adams and Norman Mailer. For all these writers, the Song is of Themselves. For Ralph Waldo Emerson, "There is no history: there is only Biography. We are very clumsy writers of history. The great value of Biography consists in the perfect sympathy that exists between like minds." Put another way, the individual is not a product of history, but its agent; the writing of their experience not a reflection on becoming, rather its very fabric--a (w)rite of passage, as it were. To the self-effacing European, such an outline might sound like triumphalist chest-beating. Indeed, one could argue that it does not take much straining to hear Whitman's "Song of Myself" (I celebrate myself, and sing myself/And what I assume you shall assume) echoing through the villages of Vietnam. Yet it is worth remembering that American self-exposure has also opened up spaces in which competing voices can be heard, in which the self-composed subject serves as a damning acronym for its society. The slave narratives of Frederick Douglass and Harriet Jacobs can be read as testaments to the triumph of self-invention, but in so doing they provide accusatory evidence of the obstacles that have been placed in the way of that self same journey. Their explanations of their own experience hold up a mirror to the same society that sought to deny the reality of such reflections. The democratic promise held out by autobiography has received many unsolicited replies from a myriad of women writers--a lineage that stretches from Margaret Fuller and Sojourner Truth through to Maya Angelou and John Didion. If one side of the American Self could be said to lead to Vietnam, the other takes us to the politicized prison memoirs of George Jackson and Alexander Berkman. As Malcolm X succinctly put it: "If I honestly and fully tell my life's account, read objectively it might prove to be a testimony of social value . . . history may even say that my voice helped to save America from a grave, or fatal catastrophe." Against this backdrop of radical selves, of aggressive egos and bruised solipsists, emerged Allen Ginsberg. His life transformed itself into poetry to the point of a Siamese connection--each taking its cue from the other. He flaunted his damage as America's own, measuring the health of the nation by the yardstick of his own psyche. His persona contained the multitudes of the culture, his repertoire of selves a reflection of America's multiple personalities. Ginsberg's candor about his inner world serves as a public critique, allowing him to point the finger at America by pointing it at himself. If Ginsberg's self embraces various (United) States, what then are the contours of its topography? Firstly there is his Jewishness, as indelible a part of his identity as circumcision. Ginsberg offers us the cultural archetypes of the Jew as Intellectual and as "macher," representing in turn those semi-stereotypes of excessive ambition and pensive introspection respectively. Even in its secularity, Ginsberg the intellectual Jew manifests itself in his sense of literary vocation. The sheer volume of material that he produced (journals and essays as well as poetry) reveals a mind that was inexhaustibly enquiring. Relentlessly productive, Ginsberg perversely displayed a version of the exemplary literary life. His infamous scrawling of "FUCK THE JEWS" on his Columbia room window only serves to inscribe him further into his heritage--a kind of Jewish joke whose punchline is confrontationally ambiguous. As Irving Howe pointedly wrote: 'We might scorn our origins; we might crush America with discoveries of ardor; we might change our names. But we knew that but for an accident of geography we might also now be bars of soap . . . Our Jewishness might have no clear religious or national content, it might be helpless before the criticism of believers; but Jews we were, like it or not, and liked or not." Contrasted with the studious urban Jew, there exists Ginsberg the meditative Buddhist--the man who sought a transcendent serenity through the sonority of mantra. If his Jewishness taught him the importance of resistance, his Buddhism offered him a cite of surrender--a religion of calm passivity as opposed to that of suspicious self-preservation. The Columbia student who defiantly exposed the anti-Semitism of his university is the same man who chose acquiescence when mugged on the streets of Manhattan: "I went down shouting Om Ah Hum to gangs of lovers on the stoop watching." For a poet so haunted by the specter of destruction, Ginsberg refused to succumb to his own doomed prophecies. He may have seen "the best minds of my generation destroyed by madness," but, ultimately, he was not to be one of them. In his classic novel Humboldt's Gift, Saul Bellow has written of how America "is proud of its dead poets. It takes terrific satisfaction in the poet's testimony that the USA is too tough, too big, too much, too rugged, that American reality is overpowering. And to be a poet is a school thing, a skirt thing, a church thing. The weakness of the spiritual powers is proved in the childishness, madness, drunkenness, and despair of these martyrs . . . So poets are loved, but loved because they just can't make it here." While Ginsberg's poetry appears to concur with Bellow's rule, his life proved to be its exception. Despite his sectionings and hallucinations, Ginsberg lived to the age of seventy--a peaceful death that sabotaged the image of Romantic self-ruin. Unlike the burned-out euphoria of his predecessors--Hart Crane, Randall Jarrell, John Berryman--Ginsberg was just simply too ironic to join the ranks of the beautiful but the damned. Even, or especially within his most tortured visions, there remains a quality of self-mockery, an ability to satirize his own suffering even as he weeps. It is a gift that he himself described as belonging to "The trickster-hero . . . that question 'twixt earnest and joke." Sincerity for Ginsberg is always accompanied by a touch of the absurd. He ridicules his anguish as though he were Lear and his fool incarnated as one. In her thrilling study of "American Humor: A Study of the National Character," Constance Rourke wrote of how the Puritan heritage had made it necessary for Americans to adopt a mask. Authenticity was not something to be opposed to artifice, but rather a range of emotions to be etched upon it. As Rourke writes, "In a primitive world crowded with pitfalls, the unchanging, unaverted countenance had been a safeguard, preventing revelations of surprise, anger, or dismay. The mask had otherwise become habitual among the older Puritans as their more expressive or risible feelings were sunk beneath the surface . . . No doubt the mask would prove useful in a country where the Puritan was still a power and the risks of pioneering by no means over." The ironic ring to Ginsberg's emotional extremes is the mask through which he shows us his face, demonstrating, as Wilde might say, that natural feelings are a most difficult pose to maintain. Perhaps the most striking example of Ginsberg's fluidity is to be found in his involvement with the Beats. On the one hand, he is such an exemplar of the beaten-yet-beatific poet to almost be its caricature. He stares out at us like a figure from the Old Testament--the wild-haired bearded prophet, lost in the wilderness of his own lyrical musings. His appearance tells us that he is not of this world, but belongs instead to some mystical land which can be discovered only through hallucinations and the secrets of William Blake. On the other, he was the most worldly of the Beats, constantly hustling on their behalf, acting as unofficial agent, editor and publicist. Whilst Burroughs was strung out in Tangier, it was Ginsberg who persuaded Ace Books to publish Junkie and who went on to help persuade Olympia Press to take on The Naked Lunch. He was similarly supportive of Kerouac, and could arguably be said to be responsible for making On the Road the cult-classic that it has become. From New York to San Francisco, Ginsberg seems to have been a facilitator of poetry as well as a practitioner. His work may have recklessly patrolled the negroid streets, but another side of him was the arch entrepreneur. As Jane Kramer said of him: "One of his friends has called Ginsberg the central casting office of the underground. He enters the name, address, and phone number of anyone he meets who plays, or is apt to play, a part in what he thinks of as the new order--or has information that might be useful to it--in the address book that he always carries in his purple bag, and he goes to considerable trouble putting people he likes in touch with each other and with sympathetic and influential Establishment characters who might be helpful to them. In this way, Ginsberg has managed to create a network of the like-minded around the world. Any one of his friends who goes to a city that Ginsberg has ever visited knows in advance where to stay, whom to see, and what local statutes to avoid breaking, not to mention who the local shamen are, what politicians are friendly, who has bail money, who sells pot, the temperament of the chief of police, the sympathies of the editors of all the newspapers, the phone numbers of the local activists, and where the best sex and the best conversation can be found." Again, Ginsberg's role as cultural switchboard has its roots in an American tradition that stretches from W.D. Howells's championing of younger writers through Pound's support of Eliot to the encouragement of new writers such as Jay McInerney by the likes of Raymond Carver. Ginsberg's impact is to be found not just in his verse, but also in the broader context of cultural intervention. This sense of being engaged in every aspect of literary production may be just one of the reasons that Ginsberg also cast himself in the role of political activist. Considering they were "The Only Rebellion Around," the Beats were surprisingly reticent in their politics. Burroughs may have been obsessed with systems of control, but hts position was ultimately one of laissez-faire individualism. Despite his dabblings in Buddhism, Kerouac never really shook off the strictures of his Catholicism and reacted to the radicalism of the sixties with a mixture of contempt and a depressing sense that he had been horribly misread by its children. Cassady was always too much the Wild One to ever ally himself to any ideology, while Hunke's eternal hustling made him a perverse version of the self-made man. Existential hedonism is perhaps the closest one can come to characterizing the Beat politic--a philosophy that rebelled in its inner world and was driven purely by the imperatives of the moment. Norman Mailer would later reflect that, "The common denominator for all of them is their burning consciousness of the present, exactly that incandescent consciousness which the possibilities within death has opened for them. There is a depth of desperation to the condition which enables one to remain in life only by engaging in death, but the reward is their knowledge that what is happening at each instant of the electric present is good or bad for them, good or bad for their causes, their love, their action, their need." Yet Ginsberg never lost sight of the outer world. His parents had been communist and socialist and he had entertained fantasies of becoming a labor lawyer and fighting the good fight. The prosecution of "Howl" reaffirmed him in his belief that the poetic was also the political. Throughout the sixties he became a key player in the anti-war movement, most famously at the Democratic Convention of 1968. In the eighties he travelled to Nicaragua in support of the Sandinista government, and in the nineties would reflect that a pivotal question still remains: "Who owns all the money?  Who owns the media? . . . In America it's only twenty-two people who own 80% of the mass media. It would be very difficult for a poet to overcome that barrage of bullshit. On the other hand, poetry is the only place where you get an individual person telling his subjective truth, what he really thinks as opposed to what he wants people to think he thinks--like a politician or an editorial . . . So you have to follow Shelley in that poets are the unacknowledged legislators of the race. Or what William Carlos Williams said more acutely, "the government is of words." "After all,' he continued, "people making political speeches, they're writing prose if not poetry. They're trying to get a little flowery language in there, but the language is shifty and the language is manipulative and people who are in advertising or the mass media can't say what they really think. But the poet can say what he really thinks authentically, and that's the advantage. And it's longer lasting than the immediate radio or television broadcast 'cos a poem is like a radio that can broadcast for thousands of years. So in the long run, poetry may still have an ameliorating effect on the spirit." For many of the Beat writers, poetry was a way of constructing alternative worlds. For Ginsberg, it was a means of talking back to this one. And then there is the sex. Desperate, euphoric, defiant, aggressive, masochistic, celebratory descriptions of his homosexual encounters. His Hell's Angels, his supermarket boys, his child hoods, his masters and his slaves--Ginsberg brings a whole new meaning to the concept of the oral tradition. What are we to make of his phallus-worship, his notches on the bed-post in cock-sure verse? One context in which this could be placed could be provided by the work of the critic Leslie A. Fiedler. In his classic study "Love and Death in the American Novel," he argues that the canon of American fiction is driven by the homoerotic, of love, in Hemingway's phrase, of "men without women". Jay Gatsby and Nick Carraway, Ishmael and Queequeg, Huck Finn and Jim, Natty Bumbo and Chingachgook, the Lone Ranger and Tonto--American fiction is the attempt to free its men from their women and provide them with a setting in which homosocial romance can flourish. "Where woman is felt to be a feared and forbidden other," writes Fiedler, "the only legitimate beloved is the self. Pure narcissism cannot, however, provide the dream and tension proper to a novel: the mirror-image of the self is translated in the American novel . . . into the comrade of one's own sex, the buddy as anima . . . Marriage to a woman would have seemed to Melville's hero intolerable: only through a pure wedding of male to male could he project an engagement with life which did not betray the self. "This is an alternative deeply appealing to the American mind and essentially congenial to the American experience." This was clearly the case for the Beats, Dean Moriarty and Sal Paradise being the most striking example. What Ginsberg achieves through his litany of experiences is to take America's homoeroticism at its word. His promotion of the "boy-gang" as the most fitting foundation for literature exposes an attitude that is already latent yet central to American culture. Melville, Twain, Hemingway et al were writing homoeroticism within a heterosexual framework. Ginsberg takes their subtexts and puts them on display--a kind of literary "outgoing." as it were. Men without women suggests an absence--Ginsberg replaces it with his presence. Ginsberg carved out a protean Self, an autobiographical mask that had many guises and spoke with many voices: the Buddhist-Jew, the political Beat, the entrepreneurial mystic, the traditional dissident, the ironic confessor--he brought such binaries together, in order that they may fall apart. Echoing the maxim of his hero, Walt Whitman: Do I contradict myself? Very well then . . . I contradict myself I am large . . . I contain multitudes Ginsberg offers us an identity that is as in conflict as his culture. As he so succinctly expressed it himself, It occurs to me that I am America. I am talking to myself again. It is the interaction between the two statements--the poetic logic that leads us from one to the other--that gave Ginsberg's project its urgency and appeal, that places the dialogue between his disparate selves so deeply within the American grain. Allen Ginsberg's family was the product of enforced flight and chosen exile, their story reading like the plot of some nineteenth-century naturalist novel.  His maternal grandparents hailed from a Jewish quarter near St. Petersburg, a small town called Nevel.  His grandfather, Mendel Livergant, ran a sewing-machine business there and embodied the distinctly Eastern European combination of business acumen and deep-seated radicalism.  His wife, Judith, shared his revolutionary sympathies, and it was these that prompted them to flee from the pro-Czarist Russo-Japanese War of 1904, and join the flux of émigrés to America.  At Ellis Island, Mendel Livergant became Morris Levy.  The art of re-invention was to be a family heirloom. Ginsberg's paternal grandparents followed a similar path, although one taken more voluntarily.  Pinkus opted for Newark over his native Warsaw in the 1880s, and it was here that he met his wife, Rebecca, who had made a similar crossing from the Ukraine a decade earlier.  Given such backgrounds, as well as New Jersey's noble labor history, it was inevitable that their children would be raised in the tradition of the Left.  Ginsberg's father, Louis, was reared on the politics of the Wobblies and tales of John Reed.  His mother, Naomi, like her sister, became a card-carrying member of the Communist Party.  Louis and Naomi were married in 1919.  Two distinct yet complementary aspects of Ginsberg's character can be seen in his parents.  Louis was the personification of stability, a man who taught English for forty years at the Central High School in Paterson.  He was also a lyric poet of no small standing, his work appearing throughout the twenties in The New Masses, The New York Times and various anthologies of contemporary verse.  His work was conventional in its attention to meter, rhyme, and conceit - New Jersey's A.E. Houseman - and yet it was respected as competent if not inspired.  Ginsberg has acknowledged his father's influence, recalling that he "learnt the art of lyric - which comes from the stringed instrument lyre - at his knee when he was five years old as his apprentice.  There's a family business here.  He wrote a number of very beautiful poems that I've echoed, especially in 'Father Death Blues.'" Father and son could not have been further apart in terms of technique, aesthetics or poetic purpose.  Yet Ginsberg remained his father's son in his commitment to the idea of writing as a vocation; for literature to be engaged. But it was to his mother and her madness that Ginsberg was born on June 3, 1926.  She had already suffered a nervous breakdown seven years earlier while working as a school teacher, her symptoms manifesting themselves as a paralysing sensitivity to any light or sound.  I was a pattern that was to occur with depressing regularity.  Even at the age of three, Ginsberg was visiting his mother at the Bloomingdale Sanatorium.  Her illness ranged from persecution and paranoia to depression and dementia.  At times she was convinced that her mother-in-law was trying to poison her, at others that President Roosevelt had placed wires in her head in order to access her private thoughts.  She was institutionalized for three years during her son's adolescence, only to return with amnesia due to a cocktail of ECT, Metrasol, and insulin-shock treatment.  She would often be found naked wandering through the streets - an image that would clearly haunt her son's later work. Towards the end of his life, Ginsberg recalled the distress felt by all parties concerned: "In the thirties I remember visiting her in sanatoriums ... and as I grew up I had to take care of her when I was nine, ten, thirteen.  I visited her by myself in mental hospitals that were grimy, huge, drab prisons."  Perhaps the most disturbing factor of all was that it was to Ginsberg that the doctors turned for a signature on the consent from for a lobotomy: "I was told that she was in such a state of paroxysm, high blood pressure, anguish, banging her head literally bloody against the wall, that if I didn't take action, that if I didn't sign, she would have had a stroke.  And rather naively believing what they had to say I signed.  So I've always felt an enormous guilt and uncertainty about it." Excerpted from Screaming with Joy: The Life of Allen Ginsberg by Graham Caveney All rights reserved by the original copyright owners. Excerpts are provided for display purposes only and may not be reproduced, reprinted or distributed without the written permission of the publisher.