COLUMN FIFTY-SEVEN, MARCH 1, 2001
(Copyright © 2001 Al Aronowitz)
PART 16: THE BEAT PAPERS OF AL ARONOWITZ
(Photo Courtesy of Christopher Felver, From His Book, ANGELS, ANARCHISTS AND GODS)
CHAPTER EIGHTEEN: THE SEERS
[MEMORIES OF EDITH: Edith Ginsberg always made me feel part of the family.
Edith, of course, was Allen Ginsberg’ much beloved stepmother. In the old days, when Allen and I were close, I occasionally would drive him to Paterson to see Edith and her husband, Allen’s father, Louis. They were married in 1950 after Louis made the agonizing decision to divorce Allen’s mother, Naomi, then confined to a mental institution. From then on, Louis, as his ELDER son Eugene has said, “at last found peace,” with Edith giving Louis “a very settled home life.” I saw for myself that Allen and Edith took to each other immediately.
Those times I drove Allen to his father’s apartment in Paterson, Edith would greet me with all the gracious affection of an adoring Yiddisheh Bubbeh, Yiddish for “Jewish Grandmother.” Visits to Louis and Edith were always happy events, filled with vital conversation, soul-warming hot tea and delicious cakes, gobbled up promptly by a gluttonous sugar junkie like me. But Edith was an alert and vivacious Bubbeh Always a charming woman, Edith was easy to get to know. As I said, the very first tine I was there, she welcomed me as a member of the family Even when she and Louis and Allen would get down to talk about intimate family matters, she’d sometimes ask my opinions. What did I know?
Yes, Allen and I were good friends in those days. As one of the most influential gurus of my life, he steered me toward the road on which I’ve trod ever since. True, there were a lot of twists and turns and the road sometimes led me into a trap, a maze with lots of dead ends. No, it wasn’t that golden brick road to Oz I was on. It was the golden road to Truth.
The fact that Allen and I had sharp differences toward the end of his life---differences that I’ll attempt to describe in later chapters---did not stop me from continuing to honor him. It’s true that, as Allen approached his end, I began to feel that he had turned into everything he he’d rebelled against when he was the Allen Ginsberg I first met---the Allen Ginsberg you’ll meet in this chapter, written some 40 years ago. When he became sicker and sicker, I resigned myself to humoring him. And those sharp differences died with Allen. How could I not continue to honor the giant who had left such a lasting influence on me? Spiritually, Allen was my brother. We were family.
Yes, I was at Louis’ funeral in 1977. Hadn’t Allen been to my own wife’s funeral five years earlier? She’d loved Allen, too. And then, finally, I was at the burial of a third of Allen’s ashes in a grave next to that off his father. At Allen’s funeral, I felt honored that Edith , even at the age of 91, made it a point to single me out for a greeting. At that time, Edith was dismayed to see Allen’s remains go into a grave she had planned for herself, next to that of Louis. But Bob Rosenthal, Allen’s longtime secretary and forever the diplomat, assuaged her by pointing out how much Allen had loved Edith, who, when her time came, could be buried alongside her stepson. To Bob, the symmetry was perfect; Allen would lie between the two persons he adored the most, his father on one side of him and his stepmother on the other.
And Allen did love Edith. He doted on her, even after his father’s death. Once, long after Louis had died and long after I had became too poor to own a car, I bumped into Allen in---of all places!---Manhattan’s Port Authority Bus Terminal. I was on my way to catch a bus to my home in Elizabeth and Allen was on his way to catch a bus to Paterson to see Edith. When Allen at long last moved into his new loft in Manhattan, he kept a room in it for her---“Edith’s No Smoking Room,” he labeled it.
It was an email from Eugene Brooks’ daughter, Ann, that told me Edith Ginsberg had died. Still alert and vivacious at the age of 94, Edith finally had succumbed to heart problems. Ann lives in California and couldn’t attend Edith’s funeral, but her father, Eugene, Allen’s elder brother, was there with his wife, Connie. Also there were the rest of the family, faces whose names I had long forgotten but I knew many of them bore the same names I saw on the grouping of gravestones nearby---Ginsberg, Litzsky, Gaidemak. Dr. Joel Gaidemak, son of Allen’s Aunt Rose, whom Allen immortalized in his poetry came up to say hello. So did a number of the rest of the family. Yes. Edith had made me feel one of them.
Now she is there with them in Gomel Chesed Cemetery, only several blocks away from where I now live. Gomel Chesed , the cemetery where I also visit the graves of my parents, my sister, her husband, their poor birth-defected 9-year-old son and my young bride, dead of breast cancer not long past the age of 40.. Gomel Chesed! The cemetery where I, too, hope to be buried---but believe me! I’m in no hurry to gain residence there! But once I am in Gomel Chesed, we will all be together in eternity, one big family, Allen Ginsberg and I linked by dirt with maybe our bones communicating via worms. But then Allen didn’t leave bones. He was cremated. He left ashes. ##
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MORE SAD NEWS: More sad news is that Gregory Corso, whom I consider one of America’s greatest living poets, is dead of prostate cancer. A future chapter will pair Gregory with the late Ray Bremser as the Beat Generation’s “Jailhouse Poets.” We invite contributions to THE BLACKLISTED JOURNALIST’S forthcoming memorial issues for Gregory and Ray, both poetry AND prose.
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In THE SEERS, the Beat Generation is examined as a religious movement and includes transcribed taped interviews with Allen, with Michael McClure, with Gary Snyder and with others quoted at length below:]
the new-world incongruity of the Pacific Northwest, some 5,000 miles as it is
from the last recorded miracle and certainly far beyond the traditional
telepathic dialing range, poet Philip Lamantia one day met a priest in search of
visions. It was entirely a chance
encounter, or perhaps not entirely at all.
The priest, suitably disguised, was traveling incognito and Lamantia,
equally unrecognized, happened to engage him in conversation.
They were in Seattle, or some such place, and Lamantia began describing
his own discourses with the supernatural. It
was only then, or so the story goes, that the priest revealed his identity and
told of his mission, which, he said, was to travel about the world collecting
reports of visions from outside it---visions hitherto unrecorded and mostly from
the poor. His task was, in effect,
to find out what God was saying to the common people, an assignment which, he
added, was given to him some years before by Pope Pius XII and which was so
secret that presumably Pope John XXIII, Pius' successor, didn't even know about
it. Before they parted, the priest
swore Lamantia to secrecy as well, but then Lamantia is a poet whose devotion to
Roman Catholicism knows no bounds.
HOLY GHOST for we can rise out of this jazz!" he writes, for example, in
his book, Ekstasis, or, to put it another may:
gift to bring
of my heart in
chaos as I remember O
Love the voice that came
down from the tree and fell
on my heart like a veil. Pax!
0 lord the peace you spell out
silent between the rafters of your
Heart built up in your House I come
to wanting wanting to love
Y O U
devotion of so outspoken a Beat Generation poet as Philip Lamantia to so
disciplined a faith as the Roman Catholic Church is quite counter to the popular
notion that the Beats are people who wear beards, play bongo drums and justify
their excesses by adapting the somewhat more libertarian religion of Zen
Buddhism. Lamantia, for one, seems
to find no need to justify his excesses.
going to church to get absolution, tea and wafers," he tells friends.
And as for the other Beat poets, although there is an attraction, if not
devotion to Zen, there is also the intense Congregationalist fervor of Edward
Marshall, the undefined and mystical pantheism of Allen Ginsberg and the
passionate, almost contradictory atheism of Michael McClure.
And then, too, there are those like Ray Bremser, usually concise, who
don't dig this Zen bullshit."
the churchmen who pay more than tongue-clucking attention to the Beat Generation
don't seem to view Zen as the new Yellow Peril.
don't think Zen is any permanent abiding place for these people---this is too
ridiculous!" says one, the Rev. Dr. Robert W. Spike of the Board of Home
Missions of the Congregational Church, who adds, "I think these people are
on a religious quest, but I do not think at this stage that they have found any
fact that public nudism, marijuana smoking, advanced bisexuality, unmailable
poetry, wino drunkenness, unconsecrated marriage and various adult forms of
spin-the-bottle can be termed a religious quest might come as a surprise to a
public that swears it doesn't partake of these joys.
And yet, the Rev. Dr. Spike, pointing out that what may seem patent vices
to some persons are actually a celebration of life to others, isn't the only
clergyman to find spiritual meaning in them. The Judson Memorial Church, albeit a Greenwich Village
institution, is publishing a magazine, Exodus, which is replete with Beat
literature. Father Dominic Rover, a
Dominican priest, compares the Beat Generation with the ancient Scholastics in
their search for beatitude. More
and more, other churchmen can be seen attending the public readings of Beat
poets and sometimes even talking to them. And
one, Brother Antonius, O.P., a Roman Catholic lay brother at the College of St.
Albert The Great in Oakland, is a poet himself.
I don't consider myself a member of the Beat Generation," he says,
"but so far as my poetry is a religious quest, we're similar.
In an age of agnosticism, when there is very little knowledge of God at
all, a religious man can sympathize with any attempt to achieve a state of
mysticism or a state of God. He deplores the methods by which it is achieved but
nevertheless he is more sympathetic with the attempt to achieve relation with
God than he is with the prevalent agnosticism which he sees everywhere about
Brother Antonius interprets as an age of agnosticism is, of course, also an age
when millions flock to hear evangelists instruct them against sin, when millions
more buy church raffles as if they were tickets to heaven and when still even
more millions fill houses of worship of all faiths. And with a regularity and an attendance never before recorded
in this country.
churchgoers believe church going will insure them a place in an afterlife
paradise. The Beats believe that
smoking a joint is as much a search for salvation, if not more so, than
insisting that the Ten Commandments be posted in a public school.
And yet both have been characterized as part of a religious fervor that
has engulfed a good portion of America.
the Beat Generation a spiritual awakening?
Allen Ginsberg says his Howl, often described as the Manifesto of
the Beat Generation, represents the prophets howling in the wilderness. And Philip Lamantia is seeking a religious ecstasy that dates
back in Catholicism to the Middle Ages when, communicating in surrealist
ciphers, he tells of self-induced visions and calls narcotics "The Heroic
Father Dominic Rover explains, the viewpoint of the church according to St.
Thomas is that ecstasies and similar religious thrills should be subordinated to
and serve the purposes of the quieter grace of right reason and an orderly,
peaceful life. Although father
Rover likens the Beats to the Scholastics, he has concluded that they are
brother to ancient heresies of an agnostic type than to the mother church.
Still, the church has not taken a position on the Beat Generation, Father
Rover adds, but "we're trying."
like back in the days of St. Augustine, some of the religious sects tried to
achieve a state of beatitude through one device or another," explains
Brother Antonius. "The church
has always had to clarify position on this and to separate herself radically.
One aspect of the Beat Generation is that it emphasizes the mystical.
It is, primarily a mystical, attempt to achieve a state of otherness
through the transrational, whatever that means---through drugs or sexual
license. The main thing is to
achieve this transrational state of consciousness, this transrational mystical
attitude. Of course, the means used
are very destructive but I understand the mystical attempts of the men who make
them. Before I became a Catholic, I
tried that approach myself."
Antonius is another strangely hybrid flower of the complex libertarian
traditions which, like so many other transplanted ideas, took root on the West
Coast. As William Everson, he once
led, as he indicates, a rather secular life.
He was married, he worked as a farmer in the San Joaquin Valley and,
during World War II, he was a conscientious objector, assigned to a camp in
Oregon. A poet since his youth, he
has been aligned in the intensely cultural life of San Francisco with such
established and yet anti-establishment poets as Robert Duncan and Kenneth
Rexroth, who, for one, calls Brother Antonius "probably the most profoundly
moving and durable poets of the San Francisco Renaissance."
Antonius' identification with the San Francisco Renaissance doesn't necessarily
identify him with the Beat Generation, however. Forty-eight years old, he says, "I'm from another
generation. I think their
repudiation of me would be much more emphatic than my repudiation of them."
because he is, after all, a contemporary and similar poet, his works often
appear in the same contemporary publications that print Beat poetry.
There have been occasions when the juxtaposition of these poems might not
be expected to ingratiate the publications to Brother Antonius or Brother
Antonius to the Bishop of San Francisco. Even
so, he explains:
is their attempt to achieve relation with God that can make me more friendly to
a Beat poet than, let us say, to an atheist."
of those to whom he is more friendly, of course, is Philip Lamantia, who in
addition to his aptly entitled Ekstasis, also has titles such as Destroyed
Works, Glorification Festivals, To the Impossible Theogony, Letter to the World
Crossed by Poems for Pope John XXIII and A Demand for Extinction of Laws
Prohibiting Narcotic Drugs, published by Auerhahn Press.
handsome and appropriately immaculate, despite an ever-present complaint about
lack of funds, Lamantia, at 31, says he once kicked the heroin habit by smoking
opium for nine months. Nevertheless,
his search for ecstasis continues.
can get a contact high just from being with a person who's smoking pot" he
says, lighting up a hand-rolled cigarette. "I've seen it happen to a
poet-prodigy in his boyhood and a prodigious talent ever since, Lamantia tells
of having been the protégé of the surrealist French poet, André Breton and of
having contributed to the surrealist magazine, View, at the age of 15.
Since then (and a now-extinct book called Erotic Poems in 1946),
Lamantia has published very little of what he has written.
Consigning much of it to God and the wastebasket, he has caused Kenneth
Rexroth to comment:
it is so often the case with the mystic temperament, art seems to have become a
means rather than even a temporary end."
there is a mystic temperament is manifestly apparent in Lamantia.
With a constant self-bemusement, an uneasy giggle and the gladdened cools!
and crazys! with which he embellishes his conversation, he seems to fit
the description of "angel-headed hipster," the divine phrase which
Ginsberg created in Howl. Journeying
frenetically from city to city according to some secret, psychic time table,
scheduling his arrivals and departures with unannounced mystery, Lamantia
materializes in New York, Mexico City or San Francisco at just the right, moment
for his friends, his girl friends and, of course, himself.
Francis Pavia read, from delicate onionskin yellow pages, or pink. . ."
Jack Kerouac wrote in The Dharma Bums, describing Lamantia or a
fictionalized Lamantia, ". . .and read them in a delicate Englishy voice
that had me crying with inside laughter though I later got to know Francis and
A member of the group of posts who inaugurated the San Francisco Renaissance with a massive public reading in 1955---though the date, scope and cast of it has become subject of some dispute---Lamantia also claims, with poet Howard Hart, to have been the first to
Kenneth Rexroth wrote that Roman Catholicism is one of the 'few organized systems of social attitudes and values which stand outside the all-corrupting influence of our predatory civilization'
poetry to a jazz background in New York. In
any event, whatever questions may arise as to Lamantia's place within the
framework of Roman Catholicism are abetted by questions as to the place of Roman
Catholicism within the framework of the Beat Generation.
Rexroth, one of the fathers of the San Francisco Renaissance and formerly
one of the defenders---but now a defamer---of the Beats, has one answer.
are few organized systems of social attitudes and values which stand outside, really
outside the all-corrupting influence of our predatory civilization," he
once wrote in the Evergreen Review.' "In America at least there is
only one which functions on any large scale and with any effectiveness.
This of course is Roman Catholicism.
Not the stultifying monkey see monkey do Americanism of the slothful
urban backwoods middle-class parish so beautifully satirized by the Catholic
writer James Powers, but the Church of saints and philosophers---of the worker
priest movement and the French Personalists.
So it is only to be expected that, of those who reject the Social Lie,
many today would turn towards Catholicism.
If you have to 'belong to something bigger than yourself' it is one of
the few possibilities and, with a little mental gymnastics, can be made quite
bearable. Even I sometimes feel
that the only constant, consistent, and uncompromising critics of the World Ill
were the French Dominicans."
of course, has yet to convert himself. And
the reasoning he puts forth obviously has more to do with political and
sociological factors than with the transrational, spiritual yearnings of
Lamantia. As for Lamantia's own
public pronouncements on the subject, they are in his poetry.
Journalists, he says, do nothing but quote him out of context, and some
of those out-of-context quotes include the following:
. .Throughout the years, mankind has been searching for some kind of ecstasy,
some marvelous vision of God, you know. That's
why we smoke marijuana, or listen to jive.
It's just a way to ecstasy. . . Oh, I believe in Christ more than I
believe in anything else. I
pray to the Virgin Mary, too. . . I
mean sexes have been given to us, and rhythms have been given to us.
You can't deny those things, you see.
I mean that's the real business. There's
no contradiction between the saints, or any of the holy men and Elvis [Presley].
The whole world is involved in this great act of bringing us back again
to our source. Being hip is a way.
. . a way to Christ, too. . . It's
like the Buddha would say. . . you have to be pure.
You gotta get through this life without getting hung up.
That's the whole question---not to get hung up.
Both Buddha and Christ really taught the same thing in that sense. . .
Christ says go out and find the bums and the cripples. . .the outcasts.
perhaps society looks at people like us as outcasts.
But Christ invites everyone, including the outcasts.
So there's no contradiction at all between Christ and a bebopper and a
hipster. They can come through. . .
I have to find it all out for myself.
These are my ways. A while ago, I was knocked off my chair by an angel.
He gave me a message that gave me a certain hope---I mean I really
hope. . . Hope that everything is
all right. That there is a God.
That there is a purpose to all this. That
we are really loved. . . that the spirit of love is really moving the universe.
of context Lamantia, however, seems sometimes more enlightening than
conversational Lamantia, who has also said in conversation and in no uncertain
came out of the head of a mermaid at 14. That's
the first thing that happened. Then
there was a grove of trees, and there I was 'high on the Fillmore Street hill.
I am telling about myself, it's coming like lava from my mouth.
Tell Allen to drop leaflets from the top of the Empire State
Lamantia have been guilty of a put-on?
in this case is Allen Ginsberg, whose own spiritual explosions have been
translated into four languages.
you believe in God?" he asks. "I
believe there is a God."
too, speaks with some certainty. Ask
him about his visions 11 years before in his sixth-floor walkup in Harlem.
was lying there, half naked," He says, "and I was leafing idly through
a volume of Blake and came upon The Sunflower and the first thing I heard
were the words, 'Ah, Sunflower, weary of' time. . .' I heard it as well as well as read it.
Three poems. The Sunflower, The Sick Rose, and Little Girl Lost.
No, they weren't hallucinatory. The
idea that they were hallucinatory is the first ridiculous step of trying to get
them all into an order that you can put down to keep them away from you.
You don't want to accept them---afraid of the break in time---so you go
immediately and say 'my hallucinations!' No,
actually, it was a hallucination or it wasn't a hallucination.
All I know is that I heard a voice---you can call that hallucinations or
not---clinically, that might be called hallucinations or clinically it might
I wouldn't say it was hallucinatory.
It was quite real. Visions,
omens, hallucinations, miracles, ecstasies---whatever they are, they're a
breakthrough of important, primary metaphysical experience and there's no way of
handling it here in our civilization now. Because
it's antithetical to all the values of our civilization.
Because the values of the civilization are antithetical to everything
human which is obvious---I mean a great civilization full of war. . .
This is already impossible chaos and if somebody has a peaceful,
blissful, lamb-like vision going back to the heart of things, it's obviously
going to contradict everything that has been built up and all the machinery of
Allen guilty of a put-on, too?
"Actually, I had several different separate series of visions. One was 11 years ago and something happened last year. The one 11 years ago, if you want to call it that, was an auditory hallucination. The other wasn't exactly a vision. It was something that absolutely contradicted the whole Harlem Blake experience. The Blake experience was an experience of Pater Omnipotens Aeterna Deus, Father omnipotent, eternal God, with the sensation of a holy ghost imminent in universe, showing under everything---paint, tears, sex, rose, the same thing running through it all---so I could even think that the telephones were alive, the books were alive, every cornice on every building was alive, was put there by some
Ginsberg's experience with Laughing Gas was an experience of the dissolution of all senses, of what happens when all the senses are blanked out. . .
from the very beginning. Or that the universe was the formation of an
intelligence and also of a beneficent, loving intelligence which was working
itself out in matter without getting very complicated.
Anyway, at base, it was the experience of a lamb at the soul of the
universe. But the experience I had
more recently, just about exactly a decade later, was with laughing gas, was
under laughing gas, was an experience of the dissolution of all senses, of what
happens when all the senses are blanked out, which is not really a state of
death, because I wasn't dead really. No,
I don't know if you can really say it's like death or not, but it's using it as
an image. But the laughing gas experience was the opposite of the
Harlem experience in that it undercut it, it left room for nothing, it didn't
even leave room for God---it left room for nothing except total oblivion.
do I reconcile the two? I don't.
Follow the blinking lights of contrariety.
That way, I'm beat. I
just leave myself open. There's no
need to resolve them, really. They're
different experiences, but I don't feel so insecure in the universe that I need
make the universe bend to my will and resolve it into a single unified idea. Before I've been given sufficient data, experience and
evidence, then I don't think I will know the answer till I die. And the trouble with most people is that they want, by reason
or by an arbitrary verbal contract, to resolve all the contrarieties and
contradictions. Even the absolutely
contradictory experiences that they have experienced. They want to resolve them and make them into one simplified
little song and dance that they can go around peddling to other people for their
own security's sake. But life is
basically like the condition of insecurity in that sense, and we're going to die and we're
going to receive many different experiences and, actually, we should be an
eater of experience, the more the merrier, not for its own sake but to be
true to life, true to the actual conditions.
The whole problem with America, in a sense, is that the huge
bureaucratic, capitalist, mechanical structure has been built in such a way as
to exclude the greater part of spiritual experience which is natural to man at
this point. And for that reason
it's going to crumble and topple. And
the Beat Generation, if it has any significance, is significant in that it's
sort of the froth over this wave that's taking place now. There's a crack in the consciousness of America going on now.
. . There's a crack in the psyche.
We are now seeing, like the strict superficial American mythologies
crumbling---the myth of an American Century, the myth of American Omnipotence,
the decadence of the American Mystical Democratic, individualistic
Dream---well, all these are now going down, so at this point the Beat business
is just a little prophetic note sounded to warn in advance that great changes
are taking place in thee consciousness."
Ginsberg is of Jewish ancestry, his God is non-sectarian.
In his youth, he received little or of the religious training Jewish boys
usually receive before their confirmation.
Today, however, his thinking covers many religions, ranging, say, from
Roman Catholicism to Zen Buddhism.
not a Zen Buddhist," he says. "I'm
interested. I read, but I don't
identify myself as one. I think
like someone interested in Zen---often, many people do, many poets and non-poets
always have. I presume so anyway.
I'm not an Oriental, either, nor a Catholic, but all Westerners have
Oriental type and Catholic type thoughts. Particularly
on the level where there's a mutual interest in the Nameless, that is, the
nonverbal, 'mystical' level of experience."
says that it is this "religious and weird philosophical preoccupation which
has lent me the intensity and impulse and insight to have become an active
cat" in so purely an American literary and cultural movement and to have
become, perhaps, its leader as well. Even
so, Judaic traditions, however synthesized, run through some of his lines with
the strength of his own imagery. His
Howl, for example, was part consciously intended to be like the voice of
Old Testament prophets, a chant with the rhythms of ancient Hebrew liturgies.
And a later poem, still unpublished in its entirety, is a Kaddish
for his mother, with its title and prosody taken from the traditional Hebrew
prayer for a dead parent.
for Zen Buddhism, Ginsberg tends to associate some real insight into it with his
laughing gas experience, when, seven times, he had to be anesthetized to permit
dental work. Ginsberg chronicled
his thoughts of the time into some 40 pages which he persists in classifying as notes for future poems but which, obviously, are present poems, full of
his beauty and his bold, driving imagery.
the moment that the mind goes out." he says, quoting from his notes,
"at the moment you go under, the impression you get, a very definite
impression, is that 'the whole goofy-spooky, of the universe what? Joke being nothing like the tail of a lizard disappearing
into a crack in the wall, with the final receding eyehole ending loony cartoon
accompanied by Woody Woodpecker’s . . . maniac laughter in the skull.
Nobody gets hurt, they all disappear, they were never there.
Zen thing in my mind at this point, in my mind at this point now,
is very much associated with the laughing gas experience. Well, Buddha says all the constituents of being are
transitory, constituents meaning all the things that make up life---well all
the things, the atoms, our bodies and consciousness itself--- which means that
basically, like Shakespeare says, life is a dream.
Well, if you were conscious at the moment you were dying, if you were
conscious enough to glimpse your consciousness departing and see it sort of
eliminated, sort of mathematically eliminated, if you were that conscious, you
might get an idea of what consciousness was.
And the last the last idea you are likely to get, if death is like going
under laughing gas, if the elimination of consciousness at the moment of death
is anything like the elimination of consciousness in laughing gas, the
impression you get is that all your life you have been dreaming and that the
dream is now ending all the suffering and all the worries and all the
risks---that you have suddenly turned into a thing that never existed, so you
immediately get the sensation of being a cosmic comic strip cartoonist's
Ginsberg's philosophy is the Beat philosophy, it is one that, as he said
and as is obvious, does not preclude contrarieties. And so San Francisco poet Michael McClure, atheist that he
declares himself to be, is a welcome member of the Beat Generation, even though
he also declares that he is not.
not a mystic," he says. "I'm interested in Freedom."
like all the other Beat poets, is an individualist to what a conformist would call extremes, and although he shares their attitudes, their opinions, their
poetics, their wine, their platforms and their otherwise fast company, he shuns
their label. He also shuns their
God. But even if Ginsberg believes
there is One and McClure believes there is not, there is still a sameness to the
spiritual gropings of McClure and of the Beats. What Ginsberg seeks through the transrational, McClure seeks
through the transrational made rational by science.
whole race of junkies is a race of illuminated types," Ginsberg says, and
McClure takes peyote, undergoing, as its aftermath, an eight-month dark night of
the soul. He sees science doing to
the human being what other Beat poets want the mystical to do to the human mind.
He sees, just as the surrealists presaged, a vast science-fiction-like
alchemy finding success in what the ancient alchemists found failure, not in the
turning of base metals into gold, but in what they really sought to
accomplish---the turning of base humans into nameless objects of beauty and
freedom. Listen, for example, to
this dialogue between atheist McClure and Zen Buddhist Gary Snyder.
This is a whole symptom of the decline of the Surrealist Revolution.
What is going on now in a sense is late Surrealism and late Dada.
And Dada and Surrealism have failed and another revolution is going to
have to take their place. But this is the end of the previous revolution; this
is the petering out of it because the next revolution will be in science. Because what science will do now, and I find the French posts
saying this, science will come along and take what we know about mescalin and
what we know about LSD, or lysurgic acid, and what we know about genetics and
what know about microbiology and gene structure and the structure of proteins
and we can all be anything we want to be, just like the surrealists.
Microcosmology. Deep tissue
microscopy. We're all going to be a
16-foot gold Buddhas! Just by
manipulating the genes!
You can be what you want to be. I'm
going to be a seraph and you can be a 16-foot gold Buddha.
Do you know how big a seraph is? Forty
I want this revolution to happen---this scientific revolution.
And I think drugs will be a part of it.
Aw, you just want to manipulate things, McClure.
You want to be all-powerful. I
told you, man, if you want enlightenment, you don't have to manipulate genes to
But narcotics have a function, too. Narcotics
open up your senses. Narcotics open
up your senses and give you an awareness.
Well, it's one thing to take these things as an experience of seeing into your
unconscious, of exploring how much sharper your awareness and your sensibilities
can be. It's another thing to
be hung up on them. Now peyote is a
fantastically enlightening drug, actually, it really opens your mind up.
You see things in yourself that you would never have imagined were there.
Other people would see these things in themselves all the time.
In any case, peyote is a very significant psychic experience and it's not
habit-forming. Marijuana is simply
a sharpener of sensitivities. Ideally,
you would never need marijuana if you're keeping your mind operating right.
But if you can't concentrate, and you want to, if you smoke pot, you can
listen to music, you can look at a painting or you can just dig a scene.
You can get the same thing just with using your own mind properly.
But most people use these things as crutches, that's all.
They should be used as an experience.
What you see with them is no more illusory than the mind you have every day.
The way you or I operate now or at any other time is just as full of
illusions, and we're missing so much, and so marijuana or peyote take you
someplace else, and it's equally illusory, but it's a different place.
Peyote in not illusory. Peyote
It doesn't clear illusions.
No, no, because when we're sitting here in everyday life and not high on peyote
and you look at an object and you have all those emotional relationships to the
object which are actually like clouds or nets surrounding that object, you do
not see that object the way it is really in material reality.
Peyote completely clears those relationships.
When you take peyote, you suffer for four goddamn months, like I did, and
look at these things and you wonder what's wrong with you.
Because peyote gives you the sense of well being that you can live
in this world.
I don't think myself peyote is an approach to reality. I think it's an approach to self-knowledge.
I learned to see with the peyote, but without the peyote I didn't have the
feeling of well being that goes with it, and you can't face it without the
feeling of well being.
That's the thing about these things---they become crutches! You've got to realize you can do it entirely within
your own mind. You see, what
happens is that when you come off of it, you think, "Well, I've got to make
that," but then you think, "I can't make it without the peyote,' and
Oh, I think I can, too. Yes, I
think that we can do these things without the drugs.
But I think it'll happen through science. I don't think it'll happen through mysticism or through
anything else, besides, it's getting to a point where religion or a certain kind
of mysticism and science, where the terms are just becoming meaningless.
It can't happen through science, Mike, because it's not a mechanical
procedure---it has to be done with love and volition, and without those two
things, you don't get enlightenment.
I'm not talking about enlightenment!
I don't want to be enlightened!
Piss on enlightenment!
But that's what seeing any object in its true circumstances is, enlightenment.
Enlightenment is bullshit! When I
was high on peyote, I discovered that I'm immortal.
Do you want to be immortal?
Why not? I am. It's a fact. I'm
immortal because there is no such thing as time.
Who is immortal? What
Everybody. Everybody is immortal.
I've lived once and I've lived forever.
I'm not talking about you. I mean
just what is immortal?
What you? Do you mean the you
In six years all your cells will be different.
Have you read The Sensitive Plant, by Shelley? He goes on with this long fairy tale about this garden and
how the garden gets blighted and, destroyed and the lady who takes care of the
garden gets sick, and then she dies and the little sensitive plant dies, and
Shelley says it didn't make any difference because they still exist.
Man, we're all immortal because we never existed.
We're all immortal because we HAVE existed and ARE existing.
the Roman Catholic Church has not yet taken a position on the Beat Generation,
the Congregational Christian Church certainly has, and mostly under the
leadership of the previously listed Rev. Dr. Spike.
As general secretary for program of the Congregational Board of Home
Missions, The Rev. Dr. Spike is concerned primarily with the cultural liaisons
of his church, and as far as culture is concerned, his background is extensive,
beginning right in Greenwich Village, where he was minister of the Judson
Memorial Church for eight years.
"I knew a lot of these Beat people before being Beat was the thing to do," he says. "The San Remo Café, eight to ten years ago, was a kind of headquarters for me. Beat, of course, is shorthand for a point of view, really, of a very small number of this generation. The Beat Generation is not inclusive of the whole chronological generation, of my age and younger, most of whom disavow having anything to do with this. But they are a group in rebellion against the final assumptions of middle class American life today. The Beats
'Kerouac's writing is filled with much joy, for example, even though it's also filled with nihilistic edges. . .'
from the bohemians of the '20 and '30s; they're not just being mad at mama or
papa. Many of them have a positive
affirmation of life itself. Kerouac's
writing is filled with much joy, for example, even though it's also filled with
nihilistic edges. These things,
like dope or sex or drinking, are not a disparagement of life, they're a
celebration. The Beats celebrate
their dope, they celebrate their sex, they celebrate their drinking. The essential difference between the Beats and the bohemians
in general is that they do celebrate.
Not that I'm approving of all these things, not that I'm saying they're
good things. I'm just saying that
the Beat Philosophy pushes to its 1ogical conclusions the assumptions of a good
deal of American life today. American
life tends to be much more conventionalized rather than morality derived from
any religious feeling, and morality for its own sake is not really moral.
The Beats say, 'Let's recognize this.'
Life is an experimental way, it's a final way.
What makes me furious is the way people pounce on the sensationalist
critique of the situation and say, 'These are bad people because they don't live
the way we do.' There is a good
deal that is sordid and sick in Beat life.
It's not the business of the church to go around snooping for other
people's sins, however---we have plenty of our own.
As for religion, these people are looking for something which I don't
think they'll find permanently in Zen. Zen
is completely escapist and to become involved in it they've already had to adapt
to it like crazy. You see, this
religious preoccupation the Beats have curves in to touch Christianity at the
point of intense involvement in life. Zen
wishes to use this sensual involvement as a disinvolvement, as escape.
The point of Zen is to abstract oneself from the world.
Christianity, on the other hand, is a very material religion---nothing
can be more material than a religion which says God really lived as a man.
So you have at this point of intense involvement a nexus, where Zen and
Christianity curve in toward each other before they curve out again in opposite
directions. Now, most of American
life bypasses this today, bypasses this intensity completely.
of American life doesn't want to diq that deep, doesn't want to get hurt, wants
to avoid the issue. But not the
Beats. Zen uses this nexus as a way
out, an escape, in terms of sensations themselves. But the Judaic-Christian religions say no meaning of life is
so real at this nexus, at this point of intense caring in life.
The Judaic-Christian religions use it as a point of responsibility to
people you touch. I believe it is
at this point that the Beats, or at least those involved with Zen, will come
back to Christianity. I don't give
unqualified approval to every fanatic, who lives, but I'm looking for people who
are looking beneath the surface of life for its meaning.
I don't mean a religion that is happy about any religious feeling,
that says, 'Isn't it nice that these people tip their hat to religion.'
We have all of that type of people we can take.
But the Christian faith needs community with the Beats because were
concerned with the same problem---how to care deeply and inescapably about life
in an age which has become superficial and cold.
was in San Francisco, about four years ago that I began to see some of the
stirrings of this thing. There was
just about one coffee shop there then and Lawrence Ferlinghetti's City Lights
Book Store was the only bookstore. But
I decided that North Beach was going to be the real hot spot. I began working with the Board of Home Missions and the
California church to try to subsidize something there.
But then, with the publication of Jack Kerouac's On the Road, the
whole thing exploded. Originally we
wanted to start a book store or a coffee shop in North Beach but by the time we
got around to it, there were so many coffee shops, we just decided we didn't
need that sort of format. So we
decided on a sort of lounge. Originally,
it was supposed to be Christian dialogue place, where the church could make some
sort of contact---and it's sure happening!
Way beyond our expectations! When
it opened in June of '58, we thought a regular clientele of 20 or so would be
doing very well, but on Sunday evenings now we have in excess of 100 people
there. We originally wanted to call
it The Bread and Wine, but the people who came just started, rather ironically,
calling it The Mission and never anything else.
So we just accept it. At The
Mission we have psychiatric counseling, all, kinds if discussion groups and many
other kinds of ministry to people, some of whom are very disturbed.
You see, what makes a lot of this Beat Generation stuff so awful is that
there is quite a vacuum there when they try to say, 'This is what I believe.'
A lot of these people walk on a knife-edge.
It's terrible to live that far out, and no matter how much they may
celebrate it or rejoice in it, it's still very threatening to them.
But mostly The Mission is a place where the church can make contact with
writers in their early years. Because
some of the people there are talented, very talented.
And some of the people there are just sick.
But they all are people who are important.
That's why we support the project, because we believe that North Beach is
an important area of culture right now that has significance way beyond the
sensationalism that the press gives it. The
Beat Generation as an approach to literature is a kind of American
existentialism, that is a revolt against the academic grip on contemporary
American writing. To the degree
that it's confessional, the Beat Generation is a breakthrough against the
academic stranglehold on literature. The
Academic poets deal with religious subjects in a detached way.
They deal with esthetics first. The
Beat Generation pours out its feeling and then worries about esthetics later.
These are people who are dead serious in their unhappiness with the
conformity of American society and it is of prime importance that the church
know what these people are thinking and has the chance to present its ease.
It would not make us unhappy if some of those people decided to become
Christians, but we don't go at it with a sledgehammer and Bible verses.
We have a young minister at The Mission, Pierre Delattre, who is a poet
himself and who has become, really, the chaplain to the whole Beach. He sees
things much the same as I do, although there is difference between us.
I'm more of a Barthian and he's a Tillichian.
One obvious difference is that he's less concerned with the use of
traditional church language." ##
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