Travel isn’t quite the remedy I’d hoped it would be, though it rarely is. It rained — and I was still working throughout the day grading papers. Plus the laws, the policies of the state, make it hard to conduct Dadaist and surrealist walks. Urban excursions. Those are the practices that thrill me as a traveler: resolutely following a lack of itinerary. The surrealists called these practices déambulations, their results appearing in works like Louis Aragon’s Le Paysan de Paris (1926) and André Breton’s Nadja (1928). Strange encounters: a kind of “weird fiction,” though infused more with romance than with horror. An experimental approach to cartography and cosmology, becoming revolutionary (at least in the everyday of a collective reality — tiny, temporary, but at least not boring) with subsequent groups like the Lettrists and the Situationist International. These groups amp up the emphasis on “scientific study” and “rigorous analysis.” There was not among Debord’s circle enough dancing and loving, not enough romance in the group’s theory of the dérive. I prefer the surrealist emphasis on the authorial agency of the unconscious. Prior to all of these figures stands the original urban saunterer, the Parisian flâneur. Charles Baudelaire described the flâneur as “a kaleidoscope gifted with consciousness.” In the 1940s and 1950s, the Beats reinvented this practice for the postwar era, the art of flânerie set on the road, flâneurs now palling around with one another, driving, hitchhiking, freight-hopping: the artist-poet as ecstatic world-tourist and pilgrim.
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).