There are strong currents underneath the great flow of history, currents that follow their own direction even as they are carried along. It is the counter culture, going against the flow.
I suppose I started early with my questions about it all. I was looking for something beyond the comfortable suburbs of my growing up and was attracted to Greenwich Village and “the beats”. Now, I have taken on, at this late stage, a more concerted study of them. Barry Miles’s biographies of William Burroughs and Allen Ginsberg, each containing about six hundred pages of amazing description and detail provide the information. One wonders how his portraits could be that complete except that both Burroughs and Ginsberg were famous for a long time and both had numerous friends, lovers, situations, teaching gigs, and on and on that gave the biographer rich sources of information.
The average Romeo, who might consider himself an athletic, sexy type of guy, might be shocked, pissed off, and disturbed by the wild and crazy sexuality of both these men. Include Neal Cassady, who could “throw a football seventy yards and masturbate six times a day,” and you get the kind of picture that would make the average Romeo look like a boy scout, no a cub scout. About Ginsberg’s sexuality, or Burroughs’s, you can almost smell it. It’s like that.
This group remains mythic for a lot of reasons including their talent and the amazing chances they took with their lives with the idea of liberating the psyche and stretching it toward infinity, (I guess). That would be the generous way of looking at them. Another way would be to consider them delinquent, dirty bastards with deep psychological issues, the types of people who should be sent by boat to a small island with the job of making big rocks into small rocks. And in the fifties and early sixties “the establishment” overwhelmingly considered them in that way.
Allen Ginsberg was twenty years older than I. My older sisters and I were rebels without a cause in the wealthy suburb of Pelham Manor but not more than a half hour fast driving to McDougal and Bleeker Streets in Greenwich Village. Things were going on there we wanted to know about, things that gave us another view of our predictable and comfortable, conformist lives, the ones we were expected to live into the future.
“The Times they are a Changin” said Bob Dylan, and a truer lyric was never written. The history of the epoch known as “The Sixties” has been explored in countless ways. It affected everyone and everything in very personal ways. The bigger question for me now is why rebel? Why do we seem to hate peace? Because it’s boring? I wonder about that.
The Buddha was a rich kid unaware of anything beyond the luxury of his palace environment. Then he took a trip outside the walls and discovered death, suffering, and misery. The shock of it motivated his quest for ultimate truth. So, for me, in the company of my older sisters, to hear folk singers sing about peace and freedom, to see people with beards sling poetry on street corners and cafes, to be aware of free love and jazz, wow, it kicked me off the straight narrow road of my life and into the wilderness of choice without a compass. Oh freedom.
By nineteen sixty-eight I was part of a meditation group that met once a month in lower Manhattan. It was run by a Hindu man named Kumar studying philosophy at Columbia University. Allen Ginsberg joined us for meditation practice there. And I met him again up in New Hampshire and Vermont where he was chanting for peace and playing music with Peter Orlovsky and a guitar player, Steven somebody. Actually, in those days, it seemed like Allen was everywhere, an amazingly public person.
I have a project going to create a map of influence, a genealogy of values beyond the status quo and it goes like this in relatively modern times: William Blake, Walt Whitman, Thoreau, Emmerson, Auden, Dylan Thomas, EE Cummings, WC Williams, all precursors to the core beat group: Ginsberg, Burroughs, Kerouac, Cassady and Corso who, along with many other accomplished poets and artists, created a culture bomb that cracked “the establishment”. When you learn how far they took things, especially in the area of sex and relationships, it is a shock, pure and simple. I can only share my confusion.
William Burroughs shot his wife Joan during a drunken “game” of William Tell, an expert marksman missing the shot glass on her head from close range by about four inches low. Was it an accident or the “ugly spirit” he talked about? People sometimes do bad things out of a perverted curiosity. And in Mexico he could get away with it. Burroughs’s wife was not the only one to die. Other people died. During the Columbia University days, Lucien Carr stabbed an older guy who was stalking him relentlessly. A woman Cassady used badly, killed herself. And those are just the ones we know about, the recorded history.
Why were they able to break out of conformity with such wildness? Ginsberg, who to me is the most important of the group, learned to accept craziness from his mother, Naomi, who was certifiably crazy and died in the nut house. Allen loved her and took care of her for years. She was normal in spurts before going crazy again which she always did. So, for Allen, accepting the behavior of his peers was not so hard. And they were all in it together, a real group.
Neal Cassady spent most of his early life in jail or reform school. It is not clear that he even had parents. With a little more twist to his character Cassidy could have been like Charles Manson. They basically had similar backgrounds. Jails and reform schools are filled with people who either want to fuck you or beat you up. Gregory Corso was another one like that, mostly locked up in jail until he was over twenty.
So why follow people like that? The impulse of humanity is toward freedom. At least that is true in the West where we are brought up on a diet of independence and rugged individualism. When the beats came of age, society post WWII was conformist and materialistic, affluent but boring and facing serious problems such as nuclear destruction, civil rights, and, a bit later, a very destructive and confusing war in Vietnam.
In my own case I felt stifled and constricted, unable to breathe in the middle of a comfortable suburban existence. The movie, “Rebel Without a Cause” has to be seen as an important moment in the culture. Starring James Dean, Nathalie Wood, and Sal Mineo, it expressed what a whole generation was feeling to some extent or another: alienation, ennui, and angst, in what should have been a perfect world. It is hard to explain that impulse to rebellion other than by some need of the human spirit that is not met by the values of Main Street. Are peace and freedom incompatible?
Jack Kerouac, so important to it all, was the closest to normal of the group, if normal can be accepted as a condition. He was Catholic, a fine athlete from the lower middle class, able to go to an Ivy League school, Columbia. And yet he became unglued from that and proclaimed the values of excess, spontaneity, and instability. He was an alcoholic and died an alcoholic. Despite his contribution, he was, for me, the most confused of people, a mystery even to himself.
The wild chances the beats took with their lives in terms of sex, drugs, alcohol, and relationships were what they wanted to do and needed to do in order to create some side streets off Main Street. Paul Verlaine and Arthur Rimbaud were precursors. The idea was that it was ok to be wild; in fact, it was necessary.
Following that path, a lot of my generation got washed up on the shore, addicted, disillusioned. The ones, like myself, who didn’t see the beat model as fruitful long-term, turned to nature, a simple life close to the land. A percentage of a whole generation turned their backs on the bright lights of the city and settled in the country, grew gardens, and tried to live the good life as exemplified by Helen and Scott Nearing. Many succeeded and are still there. One of them was the poet David Budbill, RIP, who lived in the Northeast Kingdom of Vermont, and David Kherdian, still writing, now in his eighties.
Some of the key people who were associated with the beats, but also kept their distance, are Lawrence Ferlinghetti, Michael McClure, and Gary Synder. Snyder’s Buddhist practice over years invested him with a sense of peace and concentration that is both active and at rest. Whether he is describing his experience of nature or thinking about the workings of his own mind, his words are fresh and clear, unpretentious and powerful. These three poets are still alive, still healthy, and still producing. Ferlinghetti is well into his nineties and doing just fine. A point of pride for me is that he and I graduated from the same secondary school, Northfield Mount Hermon, in Massachusetts.
Not long ago, a friend offered the opportunity to get high again. I said, “I am weird enough without adding to it.” And I think that way about the whole world now. You can fuck a robot if you want, have your sexual equipment “reassigned,” take opioids, buy cheap heroin, or watch the political people we once respected act like idiot liars. The freedom of choice is endless and without guidelines.
The point is this: we don’t have to act out any more in self-destructive and irresponsible ways. I quote Gary Snyder from a recent interview. “When Verlaine and Rimbaud were young they were protesting the iron-grip bourgeois rationality had on all aspects of nineteenth-century French culture- the manners, the view of reality, and the exclusion of ‘the wild’ from public life. Rationality in business and society were dominant values. Deranging the senses was one strategy artists like Verlaine and Rimbaud employed to break free of that. Today, the bourgeoisie is sociopathic, overindulged, distracted, spoiled beyond measure, and unable to restrain its gluttony, even with looming planetary destruction. In the face of such a threat, it has, by necessity, become the responsibility of the artist to model health and sanity.”
This makes sense to me and so does this by Howard Zinn: “We don’t have to wait for some grand utopian future. The future is an infinite succession of presents, and to live now as we think human beings should live, in defiance of all that is bad around us, is itself a marvelous victory.”
It does seem heroic to stay steady with enduring values, the kinds that don’t change with the fashions or destroy your body or the people around you. The Dalai Lama said, “My religion is kindness. I don’t need complicated philosophies”. When I think about the beats in contrast to this kind of thinking and I reflect on what I know about their backgrounds, despite their talent, especially in Allen Ginsberg’s case, it is hard not to be confused. Were they truly the spiritual children of Blake, Whitman, and Thoreau?
Ricker Winsor Surabaya, Indonesia 2018