Essay: The Beat Generation Revisited

Unknown poet and Coree White posing for the camera. Beats and Other Rebel Angels: A tribute to Allen Ginsberg-festival. (Naropa Institute, 1994).

In the summer of 1994 I attended a festival in Allen Ginsberg’s honour, arranged by the Jack Kerouac School of Disembodied Poetics at Naropa Institute in Boulder, Colorado. The festival was also a tribute to the Beat Generation, and many of its leading figures participated: Gary Snyder, Lawrence Ferlinghetti, Gregory Corso, Ken Kesey, among others. For reasons of health William S. Burroughs could not be present. Instead Jerry Aronson’s film The Life and Times of Allen Ginsberg (1994) was shown. In a scene which was cut out of the original version Allen Ginsberg and Bill Burroughs were sitting at a table, talking. Between them was an ashtray, and smoke from two stubbed out joints slowly rose to the ceiling. Allen was giggling elatedly, whereas Bill was more subdued, looking like a gray Stasi agent from some cold war documentary. Rather than two collaborators, close friends and ex-lovers, the scene depicted an elderly son and his father.

At the festival Allen Ginsberg’s role was not only that of elevated poet. He was also acting as host to performers like Philip Glass, Francesco Clemente and Cecil Taylor.

Cecil Taylor. Beats and Other Rebel Angels: A tribute to Allen Ginsberg. (Naropa Institute, 1994).

One Sunday morning he led body posture exercises in Shambhala Hall, one of Naropa’s large meditation halls. I sat no more than a few feet away from him. Behind me sat folk singer Joan Baez. At the closing-night party he and Gregory Corso could be seen running around in the crowd whooping ecstatically — it could have been a scene from On the Road. But Allen also had a less rewarding role. He was acting as fundraiser for the Buddhist university and its writing course…

Allen Ginsberg. Lawrence Ferlinghetti. Beats and Other Rebel Angels: A tribute to Allen Ginsberg. (Naropa Institute, 1994).

One late afternoon I was talking to a group of youngsters who, like most of the participants, had travelled hundreds of miles to attend the Beat festival. Only a few yards away from our group, a white tent had been erected. There dinner guests with money could pay hundreds of dollars for a poetry dinner with Allen Ginsberg. After having listened to what was going on inside that tent, Dave, a beautiful blond man, broke away from our group. Dave was built like an American football player, clad in worn jeans and a white T-shirt with a packet of cigarettes rolled up in one of the sleeves. He walked up to the entrance of the tent and called out Allen’s name. Dave didn’t give up until a somewhat irritated Allen approached him from within. Behind him the prominent guests were whispering. Allen wore a jacket and tie, and his silver beard made him look like an old college professor. Earlier that day I had heard him plainly, but efficiently, snap ”asshole” at intrusive fans, but this time something different happened. Just as he was gaining strength to deal with the young rebel, he seemed to run out of steam. Dave asked him angrily why he preferred arranging expensive lunches for bank managers, executives and lawyers to drinking cheap Italian wine and eating baguettes with youngsters, who were thirsty for poetry. Allen’s face went pale. It was as if he’d seen a ghost. Not until then did I realise the likeness between Dave and another athlete who also burnt for literature and led a wild life, namely Allen’s big hero, Neal Cassady.

Festival attendances waiting for the evening reading at Boulder High. Beats and Other Rebel Angels: A tribute to Allen Ginsberg. (Naropa Institute, 1994).

The Night of the Wolfeans and the non-Wolfeans

Allen Ginsberg was seventeen when he first met William S. Burroughs, who was thirteen years his senior. Allen was young and inexperienced, and was impressed by Bill’s cosmopolitan ways — the first person he had heard quote Shakespeare to express his own views. In Bill’s apartment on Riverside Drive in New York, Allen found a collection of books which would make a deep impression on him, among others the poetry of William Blake. At this time, Allen had just enrolled at The English Department of Colombia Univer­sity, where he had met Jack Kerouac and Lucien Carr. After living on campus for two years Allen moved into Joan Vollmer’s large apartment on 419 West 115th Street. Joan was Burroughs’ wife to be. Among the tenants were Jack Kerouac, Hal Chase and Bill Burroughs. The apartment was a centre for free love, drug experiments and new, revolutionary, literary ideas. Allen and Bill spent their days methodically studying the bars on Eighth Avenue.

David Amram and his orchestra. Beats and Other Rebel Angels: A tribute to Allen Ginsberg. (Naropa Institute, 1994).

Philip Glass. Beats and Other Rebel Angels: A tribute to Allen Ginsberg. (Naropa Institute, 1994).

They divided them into different categories; there were bars for homosexuals, gamblers, rich art lovers, jazz freaks, and so on. One summer night in 1945 belongs to Beat history as ”the Night of the Wolfeans and the non-Wolfeans”, after writer Thomas Wolfe (1900-1938). (He wrote novels in the spirit of Walt Whitman, depicting the America of the years between 1890 and 1930.) Now, the dividing lines between the members of this future literary group would be drawn. Ginsberg-biographer Barry Miles writes:

…Allen lay in one bed with Bill, and Hal and Jack were in another. On the Wolfean side were the heterosexual all-American boys, Jack Kerouac and Hal Chase. On the other side, the non-Wolfeans, Burroughs and Ginsberg, held forth, ”the sinister European fairies… who didn’t believe in the wide open, dewy-eyed lyrical America” of the Wolfeans but were always trying to go to bed with them, nonetheless, as Ginsberg later summed it up. ”Homosexuality was one of the attributes of non-Wolfeans, and among other things, intellectuality and fear of the body and manipulativeness and Jewishness. International concern rather than appreciation of America and homeyness and family and normal values.”

For many years the epithets Wolfeans and non-Wolfeans were important references for the Beat writers. It might be interesting to note that the division between Wolfeans and non-Wolfeans also mirrors the political climate in the USA during the 20th century; in the political field one talks of isolationists and internationalists. Whereas the former think that the United States should decrease their engagements abroad and concentrate on domestic politics, the latter want to encourage and strengthen bonds with other nations. The political division applies to everything from trading agreements to troop deployment. The parallel between the internationalists and the non-Wolfeans is especially evident in their orientation towards Europe.

Rehearsals for Burroughs’ ”routines”

Allen had had a difficult childhood with his mother Naomi, who was a schizo­phrenic, and whom he was often left alone to care for. In the apartment on 115th Street he found the love and encouragement he needed to dare openly to show his homosexuality. In Bill he found his first non-Wolfean friend. Allen’s new friends made his father, Louis Ginsberg, worried. Louis especially disliked Allen’s association with Burroughs and wrote, in a warning letter: ”He’s dangerous, not because he rationalises but because his end product of thought and attitude results eventually, if carried out in action, in danger and disharmony and chaos…” The letter ended with Louis’ urgent request that Allen seek psychiatric help. Burroughs had several years’ experience of psychoanalysis. He had, among others, consulted Louis Federn, who had once been analysed by Freud, and Dr. Leo Walberg, with whom he underwent several sessions of hypnosis. The help that Allen’s father had requested was, ironically, given to him by Bill. From autumn 1945 to summer 1946 both Ginsberg and Kerouac were analysed by Burroughs! The more time Allen spent on the couch with Bill beside him, listening, the clearer he saw the loveless environment in which he had grown up. ”Nobody loves me!”, he cried during one of their sessions. To Bill psychoanalysis served a different purpose. If Allen was trying to find one identity, Bill’s strategy was the opposite. Under the influence of Dr. Walberg’s hypnosis he had broken through to different personality layers:

The top layer was Burroughs, the distinguished scion of an old St. Louis family. Below that was a nervous, possibly lesbian, English governess with a prissy, self-conscious, simpering personality. Below her was Old Luke, the tobacco farmer, who just sat in his rocking chair on his front porch with his shotgun over his knees, watching the catfish come down the river. Old Luke had the personality of a psychotic Southern sheriff. Beneath them all was an implacable, silent Chinaman, sitting starving, skull­ headed, on the banks of the Yangtze, with no ideals, no beliefs, and no words, the ultimate Burroughs persona.

The apartment on 115th Street became the venue where Burroughs acted out his characters, much to the delight of Gins­berg, Kerouac and the others. These displays were in actual fact rehearsals for what has become known as Burroughs’ ”routines”, and they have become characteristic of most of his literary production. In Naked Lunch the reader is, time after time, presented with the roles by which Burroughs is personified — ”Talking Asshole Routine”, ”Dr. Benway”, ”Blue Movies”. It is partly these role-playing routines that have contributed to the somewhat inaccessible character of his prose. The routines are often reminiscent of the dialogue or monologue of the drama. Reading Naked Lunch is sometimes like listening in on an incoherent conversation in some shady bar, late at night.

”But I don’t want your ugly cock”

The love affair between Burroughs and Ginsberg didn’t take off until seven years later, in the summer of 1953. One year had passed since Bill accidentally shot to death his wife, Joan Vollmer, playing William Tell down in Mexico. When the authorities demanded more and more bail money, he decided to flee the country. On his way to Tangiers Bill planned to visit Allen in New York. They had not met for six years. Allen wrote to Neal Cassady, whom he had met in 1946, telling him how he’d found a more open and talkative Bill, but also that he, himself, had matured. They could meet on more equal terms. They talked and made love all night. Many of the ideas that emerged from their conversations later became the basis of Naked Lunch.

Gregory Corso – poetry lecture. Beats and Other Rebel Angels: A tribute to Allen Ginsberg. (Naropa Institute, 1994).

When Bill fell in love with Allen he got the idea that the two of them should unite by something he called ”schlupping”, a kind of telepathic and erotic union. But Allen felt uncomfortable in his sexual relation with Bill. Their meetings became increasingly intense, but Allen realised that he was really only trying to satisfy his friend and teacher. He preferred younger men. And one day he lost his patience and shouted ”But I don’t want your ugly cock.” Shortly after, a rejected and depressed Bill continued his interrupted trip to Tangiers. In the beginning of 1955 Allen met his true love Peter Orlowsky in San Francisco. They soon staged a ritual where they vowed to love each other eternally — ”we posses­sed each other as property, to do everything we wanted to, sexually or intellectually, and in a sense explore each other until we reached the mystical ’X’ together”. Their union was not unlike Bill’s schlupping suggestions. In the same year Allen wrote the apocalyptic ”Howl”: the poem which starts with the unforgettable line ”I saw the best minds of my genera­tion destroyed by madness, starving hysterical naked…” Here, many of the odd personalities Allen had met during the years were reviewed. Cassady was one of them, but not Kerouac or Burroughs. The latter did not fit in with the friends from his generation — from tricksters and junkies, gays and tramps, to confused intellectuals and other nervous wrecks, communists and rebels with broken dreams — who in one way or another had become victims of the conservative and intolerant American society of the forties and fifties. (Despite the many private references in the poem — or perhaps thanks to them — ”Howl” had a great impact all over the world. Much later, in the eighties, when Allen visited China, he was surprised to discover how well-known he was. ”Howl” was read both as a polemic pamphlet against the regime — ”Moloch!” — and as a homage to the intellectuals of their country: ”…best minds of my generation destroyed by madness…”)

The cut-up experiments transform into paranoia

In the beginning of 1958 Ginsberg and Burroughs met in Paris. Allen was relieved to find that Bill’s infatuation had cooled off. To Peter, his boyfriend, he wrote that Bill had stopped fantasising about him as ”a permanent future intimate sex schlupp lover”. Instead they started discussing ”Love bliss”, that which later would become distinguishing for the Hippie movement of the sixties, with its message of free love and Love-Ins in the city parks. (The Hippie movement sprang from the Beat Generation. During the festival Beats and other Rebel Angels in Boulder in 1994, I heard Gary Snyder comparing the two. The most fundamental distinction was, he thought, that the Beat Generation was the last, large youth movement to be based on literature, instead of music and drugs. It was ”less spaced out, less flowery powery”.)

Robert Creeley. Lawrence Ferlinghetti. Beats and Other Rebel Angels: A tribute to Allen Ginsberg. (Naropa Institute, 1994).

Burroughs stayed in Paris until 1961. He lived at a hotel which was nicknamed Beat Hotel. It was on rue Git le Coeur 9 in the Latin Quarter, and was managed by a Madame Rachous. Poor artists and writers could pay their rent with paintings and manuscripts. In September 1959, Bill got started with his famous cut-up experiments. He would cut up one or several texts and let the slips randomly form new sentences.

Amiria Baraka. Beats and Other Rebel Angels: A tribute to Allen Ginsberg. (Naropa Institute, 1994).

When Allen arrived in Paris two years later to meet him, he was told that Bill had left the Beat Hotel and gone to Tangiers, to avoid his arrival. Brion Gysin, artist, and the first one to recognise the cup-up method, told Allen that Bill was now an assassin, responsible for the liquidation of, among others, a certain Joan Vollmer. The problem turned out to be the cut-up experiments. They had convinced Bill that the only way to understand what others were trying to say with their texts was to cut their texts up and see what was concealed in them. But the experiments were to go further than this:

Finally, Burroughs applied his technique to people, metaphorically dissecting his friends and acquaintances to ”see who was inside”, who they really were. His training as an anthropologist at Harvard enabled him to be quite unsentimental about this, regarding old friendships as simply more encumbrances that had to be cut through in order to reach the reality of the person inside. His cut-up experiments had led him to conclude that everyone had been conditioned by language and that all apparent sensory impressions were in fact illusory.

Together with Peter, Allen travelled to Tangiers to call on Bill, who least of all wanted to be called on. His cut-up experiments had developed into a paranoid mentality, which was directed towards everybody and everything. He carved away like a scalpel on Allen and Peter, dissecting them to uncover their different selfs. Inside Allen, Bill found, among others, Louis Ginsberg and Lionel Trilling, who had been Allen’s teacher of litera­ture… But it was worst of all for Peter. Bill didn’t see women as human beings, but as agents sent by insects from outer space. From a distant planet, a group of insects was manipulating the human kind. As soon as the male form of virgin birth was discovered, women should be exterminated. Peter was, in spite of his affair with Allen, more interested in women. As a result of this inclination, he had to put up with a shower of malicious digs from Bill: ”What if we cut up Peter? Peter likes girls so we’d probably find a Venusian inside…”

After a week in Tangiers, Peter left Allen behind and fled to Greece.

The Flatirons. (Boulder, 1994)

Coree White shooting a Ladybug beneath the Flatirons. (Boulder, 1994)

Boulder from above. (1994)

Bill’s cut-ups and drug experiments had made Allen confused. He no longer wrote any poems, and even doubted that there be a future for poetry. The new awareness he thought he could attain through poetry, could just as easily be attained with the help of drugs or cut-ups, perhaps even easier. The difficult process which Allen went through would nevertheless result in both literary and personal developments. However, several years would pass before he started to write poems again. In a letter to Howard Schulman, Ginsberg writes about Burroughs’ ideas as a threat to his entire conception of the world:

For further awareness lay in dropping every fixed concept of self, identity, role, ideal, habit and pleasure. It meant dropping language itself, words, as medium of consciousness. It meant literally altering consciousness outside of what was already the fixed habit of language-inner-thought-monologue- abstraction-mental-image-symbol-mathematical abstraction. It meant exercising unknown and unused areas of the physical brain. Electronics, science fiction, drugs, stroboscopes, breathing exercises, exercises in thinking in music, colour, no thinks, entering and believing hallucination, altering the neurologically fixed habit pattern Reality. But that’s what I thought Poetry was doing all along! But the Poetry I’d been practising depended on living inside the structure of language, depending on words as the medium of consciousness and therefore the medium of conscious being.

Only through his interest in Hinduism and, above all, Buddhism, did Ginsberg find an opposite to Burroughs’ quicksand universe. It was Kerouac who opened Ginsberg’s eyes to Buddhism. From 1954 Kerouac had been teaching Allen by post. Allen’s old friend Lucien Carr several years later stated that he thought Kerouac, who had a catholic upbringing, was limited in his Buddhist studies: ”The old cannuck peddler; eye think he thinks Buddha is the pope.”

Michael and Coree White at the Shambhala Center (Boulder, 1994).

”Where can I get a guru?”

In February 1962, Allen and Peter travelled to Bombay to visit Gary Snyder, who had been living in India for six years. Together they went for a hike in the Himalayas. At the base of the Himalayas, on the fringe of a mountain range called Siwalik, they obtained an audience with Indian master Swami Shivananda, an imposing man in his eighties. The three friends were taught a number of different yoga techniques, but to Allen the meeting was primarily about something else. Here, his spiritual quest took a new turn — he would now be able to overcome the feeling of emptiness which had been haunting him ever since he visited Bill in Tangiers. In a letter to Kerouac, Ginsberg writes about the wisdom of Shivananda:

…I asked, ”Where can I get a guru?” and he smiles and touches his heart and says, ”The only guru is your own heart, dearie” or words to that effect, and adds, ”You’ll know your guru when you see him because you’ll love him, otherwise don’t bother.” Well, not quite that funny but that was the message. Which made me feel quite good after all the Tangier austerity and loveless gurus.

When Allen returned home from India, it was clear to him that he had not, primarily, been aiming at a greater awareness: ”it wasn’t consciousness, it wasn’t petites sensations defined as expansion of mental consciousness to include more data … the area that I was seeking was heart rather than mind.” His doubts concerning Burroughs’ cut-ups and drug experiments weren’t about him distrusting their value. What worried him were the consequences of seeing the world as merely one large machinery, where all the parts were replaceable, and where a kind of mechanical nihilism had taken over the role of spirituality: ”Burroughs seems to have killed ’Hope’ in any known form.” Allen chose another path and therefore had to distance himself from his friend’s ideas: ”Burroughs’ trouble is he cutting up his feelings as well as mind. Mind needs cut ups to release feeling.”

Michael and Coree White at the Shambhala Center (Boulder, 1994).

Nearly a decade after his visit to India, Allen became acquainted with the Tibetan monk Rinpoche Trungpa. In him Allen found the mentor or guru he’d been searching for. They became very close, and continued to be close, until Trungpa passed away in April 1987.

Michael and Coree White at the Shambhala Center (Boulder, 1994).

At the Shambhala Center (Boulder, 1994).

When Trungpa founded the buddhist university at Naropa Institute in Boulder, Colorado, in 1974, he invited Allen to join him. This is how The Jack Kerouac School of Disembodied Poetics was founded. Since Allen’s death it has been run by poet Anne Waldman. The students can participate in writing seminars, combined with meditation and lectures on the teachings of Buddhism. The purpose of the education is to increase the self-knowledge of the young writers and poets, and strengthen their writing discipline. There are also courses in William Blake’s poetry, Tibetan sword-ceremonies, Buddhist psychology, dancing, and so on.

The Naropa Institute.

The practice of taijiquan – fencing using the Chinese double-edged sword, jian. (Naropa Institute, 1994).

Looking back on the literary production of Ginsberg and Burroughs, the lasting impression is the difference in tempera­ment. The twisted world they both depicted has been expressed differently. Ginsberg’s passionate and naively emotional rhetoric contrasts with Burroughs’ black, cynical humour. After their deaths, a number of memorial articles were published all over the world. One of Ginsberg’s last poems, ”DEATH & FAME”, was printed, as well as excerpts from Burroughs’ diary, from the 3rd of May to the 1st of August this year, i.e. starting just days before Allen’s death and ending the day before his own departure. I could not help yielding to the temptation to perform a cut-up on these two texts, a few of their last words. The results were three rather ironical but also earnest messages: ”Secrets of the universe were straight”, ”Yes I love life, throw ashes in the air”, ”Hemingway used to call young boys, met recently”…

(For sources see, where nothing else is indicated, Barry Miles’ Ginsberg — A Biography, New York. SIMON AND SCHUSTER, 1989)

Article translated by Niclas Nilsson.

 

Originally published in S.CR.A.M. (Swedish Critical Art Magazine), nr. 2. 1998.