By referencing movements like Dadaism in his poem “Howl,” Ginsberg situates his actions and the actions of his circle of Beat contemporaries as an Americanized continuation of the radical political-aesthetic projects of the European avant-garde. Each of these figures — the “great minds” referenced in the poem’s first line — appears by the end of the poem’s first section as a Jesus, a savior or Messiah “destroyed” for living free, brains and imagination sacrificed to the bloodthirsty demiurge Moloch. The key to Moloch’s true identity appears midway through Section II when Ginsberg reveals its more common alias, “the Mind,” i.e. dead labor, A.I., the practico-inert: “consciousness without a body” (22).
Thomas Merton teaches us, in the face of the nuclear desert as potential future, to wage war unceasingly and courageously against despair. Kikagaku Moyo fill the air with pregnant, dripping, liquid sound with the song “Silver Owl” from their third album, 2016’s House in the Tall Grass.
Listening is like flying regally over a crisp October landscape, air in one’s lungs. Think of that Walt Whitman epigram from Allen Ginsberg’s Howl and Other Poems as a joyous, hearty psychedelic “yea” in reply to William Blake’s line about the “doors of perception.” “Don’t just unlock the doors,” says the psychedelic evangelist. “Tear them from their frames!” Ginsberg begins his poem in much the same spirit as Blake, evoking the power of vision. By this he means “the ancient heavenly connection to the starry dynamo in the machinery of night”: the god-like imaginative power behind dream-work and kosmos-creation. Just as Blake aligned himself with the angry prophet figure Rintrah, so too with Ginsberg, who aligns himself with figures like Muhammad. It’s such a psychedelic place, this world, this book written at the tip of the mind. It was from the Angel Gabriel, remember, that Muhammad claimed to have received the revelations that became the Koran. Ginsberg speaks of Blake appearing before him in a vision hallucinated while lying in bed after an orgasm. Ginsberg’s mother Naomi was hospitalized for mental illness. As biographer Barry Miles notes, this gave Ginsberg “an enormous empathy and tolerance for madness, neurosis, and psychosis.” One of my favorite moments in “Howl” is when Ginsberg refers to “kind king light of mind.” I’ve experienced that kind of high. Also the low he describes on the next line as “the drear light of Zoo.” Ginsberg mapped the emotional antipodes represented in the heroic deeds and misdeeds of the radicals and anarchistic free spirits of his generation. “Howl” is epic poetry set to the purpose of narrating the collective subject of universal liberation collision-coursing its way through the ultimate bender.
I panic, respond with a sense of claustrophobia to circumstance. How does one catalyze, how does one activate, live intentionally via will and wish? My Theravada Buddhist mentors suggest I think in terms of “dark night” and “spiritual abyss.” Is it foolishly egocentric of me to long instead for bliss and joy? Must we always obey the dictates of work and suffering? I wish to be outdoors sometimes, listening to the language of birds, dogs barking occasionally in the distance. Yet I also long for the company of Sarah. Train horns, police sirens, cellphone-chatting neighbors: no matter. Let us learn to live happily and helpfully toward others. Trust it, I tell myself. Trust the process. Trust whatever is happening — this haunting, this spell of fear. Let moments fall around us like rain.
A restless night: a symptom, perhaps, of deteriorating living conditions, with basement rendered unusable due to flooding, arm rashed over, breathing erratic. Should I refrain from meat, alcohol, and soda? I’ve tried to limit my intake with each of these alleged “vices,” but amid days and weeks of grading mid-semester, I tend to backslide. I buckle, I fold. I get in arguments with Trump supporters in places like Burger King and Goodwill, onlookers crying, “Beware! Beware! / His flashing eyes, his floating hair!” Have my “Electric Ant”-style investigations led me astray? Or is this simply a time in the desert, a patch of romantic turbulence along an otherwise still admirable path of self-reform?
No shells, no armor, no defense mechanisms. Drop these weights, let fall the resentments, the attachments, the systems of representation, the drawings and re-drawings of lines. Daily life needn’t be an occasion for unnecessary suffering. The time is coming when death will be abolished. So sayeth the near at hand. Gather what is strange. Meet and talk with those who are earnestly seeking.
I sit in a chair in my office attending to words and phrases as they well up inside me. There are moments each day when exposure to social media translates into spells of sadness, hopelessness, and despair. A friend and I text about the election of Brazil’s far-right “Trump of the Tropics,” Jair Bolsonaro. Historical agency is consolidating into the hands of the “Tough Guys,” the well-armed, militarily-unstoppable few. How do we turn this around? By what behavior might we resurrect in this world a world dedicated to love and play? We just do it: we listen, we dance, we read signs. We communicate to others our vision of a joyous cosmology. We project this cosmology outward. We enliven. We embolden. We embrace the anomalies of the particular and our subjective feelings as observers. Following philosopher Paul F. Schmidt, we imagine “feelings” to include “thinking, acting, observing, believing, willing, remembering and hoping, in all their modes and moods.” We channel our hopes into radical concreteness, the “true-for-me,” Sartre’s “being-for-itself.” Let us confess to our thinking. When we allow the voice of the loving individual to be heard, we heal. Schmidt’s book Rebelling, Loving and Liberation is astoundingly good, by the way, as is the view of time expressed in T.S. Eliot’s poem “Burnt Norton.” Both are instructive of how to preserve concrete being in an administered society, if by “concrete being” we mean living in a present that contains many presents, many single concrete inclusive complete wholes, each one lived in the here and now of its own happening.
Walter Benjamin’s desire for “profane illumination” rhymes through my mind, resonates through inner canyons, fills me with desperation. If the world we demand is one with no more fears, no more superstitions, then why are we so nervous, so skittish? Is it the ever-present policing, the techno-capitalist speed-up of society, the political horizon blocked by a metal-faced THX 1138 Big Brother Trump Leviathan? Is that why we disappoint ourselves, never quite able to live free, spontaneous, liberated, loving lives? What do we want? How do we get it? Is it the divine in us, this rebellious impulse? Or is the divine, rather, that which wants us to live grateful for each day despite hardship and circumstance? What about 2-year-old migrant children enduring the Kafkaesque procedural absurdity of immigration court? Is there no way to reverse this slide into utter abjection? Wherefore the new force, the new sway in intellectual life, of concepts like destiny and judgment? Why do we dare not venture far into liberated terrain? How do we teach ourselves to live in the faith that each event is a doorway through which walks the Messiah? How do we think the world into what we want it to be?