In this essay, I use a Marxist lens to examine Allen Ginsberg’s controversial and groundbreaking 1956 poem, Howl. Ginsberg, I argue, was surprisingly sensitive to the politics of class in this poem, setting up a dual class system which divided those who were part of Moloch from the “angelheaded hipsters,” who I argue were analogous to Marx’s proletariat. Ginsberg imagined himself as a revolutionary leader for the class of people oppressed by Moloch, who, like Marx’s proletariat, were working together towards the goal of a political revolution. Ginsberg’s angelheaded hipsters were oppressed by Moloch, Ginsberg’s trope for the machinery of Capitalism, which I explore along two political axes: sexual conformity and psychiatry. Continue Reading…
Archives For homosexuality
by Dr Madhu Mehrotra and Geetanjali Joshi Mishra
“Resolved to sing no songs henceforth but those of manly attachment”
“Longing is a better muse than satisfaction” says Regina Marler the author of ‘Queer Beat: How the Beats turned America onto sex’ and this is very true with regard to the nucleus of the generation which broke all rules of hegemonic, heterosexual, square society, a generation that questioned procreation itself, that regarded ‘manly love’ as the source of all enlightenment and divinity. Without Kerouac there would have been no ‘Howl’, without Neal there would have been no On the Road and without Ginsberg there would have been no Naked Lunch. It is rather amusing that all these poets were at some point of their lives unrequited lovers of each other. While Ginsberg longed for sexual unification with Kerouac and Neal, Burroughs on the other hand loved Ginsberg who in turn loved Burroughs but not the way he loved Neal and Jack and his long time flame Peter Orlovsky. Though there were many heart breaks, and Ginsberg felt that both Kerouac and Neal “ didn’t want anymore sex” with him and that they actually “rejected” him, but “had there been direct, requited, unhampered love between any two Beats, they would have paired off and broken the circle”. This is what is so unique about these writers, they were muses to each other and without one the other was incomplete.
The generation has been accused of being sexist, though women were not very popular as a part of the Beat generation, there were few who made some impact and were part of the grand orgy. Diane Di Prima, a bisexual bohemian, the writer of ‘ Memoirs of a beatnik’ and the co-editor of a newsletter ‘The Floating Beer’ was one such magnetic woman who quite often made out and participated in orgies involving almost all the major Beat poets. She describes one such occasion when all the poets got involved in one of the most mystifying orgies of their time. She says “it was a strange, nondescript kind of orgy. Allen set things going by largely and fully embracing all of us, each in turn and all at once, sliding from body to body in a great wallow of flesh.” Ginsberg in particular loved to “lie down between the bridegroom and the bride” and would embrace “those bodies fallen from heaven stretched out waiting naked and restless.”
In the 1950s it often seemed that the only openly gay poet was Allen Ginsberg. The enormous publicity that Ginsberg received made him an important figure, whose avowal of homosexuality was part of his larger attempt to undermine American society and its pretensions to respectability. Although many of the Beat writers were homosexual or bisexual (such as Burroughs or Kerouac), it was Ginsberg who made his sexuality an integral part of his public image and his poetry. ‘Howl’ was the first poem to bring Ginsberg public attention, and its treatment of homosexuality is characteristic of Ginsberg’s position during this time. Ginsberg followed the poetic tradition of Whitman and spoke about the ‘self’ in his poems, though Whitman kept his sexuality mostly underground emphasized behind the themes of procreation in his work, Ginsberg on the other hand celebrated it. Whitman’s sexuality was portrayed as both active and passive in his works; he devoted much attention to the image of two lovers happy together as to actual moments of sexual penetration. In Ginsberg the desire for religious vision is transformed into a desire to be laid, whereas in Whitman the experience of sexual pleasure leads to a greater understanding of the world. Ginsberg takes inspiration from Whitman when he transforms an ultimately peaceful vision of human unity into an affirmation of the homosexual’s alienation from the “straight” world and a desire to become an object of love rather than a participant in it.
The writing of obscene, and provocative phrases like ‘Butler has no balls’ and ‘Fuck the Jews’ and tracing two lewd drawings, one of a phallus and testicles and the other of a skull and cross bones on the dust of his dorm window, led to the expulsion of Allen Ginsberg from Columbia University. What could have caused Ginsberg to create such an outrage? For answers we might have look into his childhood. Naomi gave birth to Irvin Allen in Newark, New Jersey in 1926, his father Louis was for Allen an ‘old fashioned’ lyric poet who was used to making ‘clever puns.’ Ginsberg was in a silent and intense war against his parents, his silent revenge, gave birth to the most remarkable pieces of American poetry, ‘Howl’ and ‘Kaddish’. Ginsberg was always haunted by the ghosts of his parents; he would be haunted all his life by Naomi, which resulted in some very provocative and obscene episodes in ‘Kaddish’. Bill Morgan in his book I Celebrate Myself: the somewhat private life of Allen Ginsberg captures the appalling incidences that took place in the house of young Allen: “she seldom wore a dress around the house and Allen became quite familiar with his mother’s anatomy. He was particularly upset when he saw her wearing only a bloody menstrual pad while doing her chores.”
His motherless childhood starved him of loving touch and affection, physical contact became a very strong need. He would share the bed with his brother, who would push him away as he would desire to be physically close to him. “I must have been a sexpest to the whole family” confessed Ginsberg years later. Louis Ginsberg called him a “Little Kissing bug” as he desired to be physically close to his father and brother. His yearning to be close in childhood manifested itself in a profound sense of alienation in his youth, his sense of alienation was intense and excruciating, even in the company of the like minded crazy men, whose minds were ‘destroyed by madness’, Allen always remained a lone star, he wanted Jack to remember that he was a Jew and an outcast “I am alien to your natural grace,” he wrote. “I am in exile from myself.” He added, “You are an American more completely than I, more fully a child of nature and all that is the grace of the earth…I am not a child of nature, I am ugly and imperfect.”
An Era of Sexual Liberation
To top it all 1950’s was an era of sexual liberation and revolution. The concept of ‘Free Love’ as expressed by hippies, didn’t just appear overnight. It was a philosophy with roots deep in human consciousness and the 50’s which just required a little encouragement to surface. That encouragement appeared in the 1950s in the form of new knowledge about human sexuality, ‘the pill’, psychedelic drugs, and a counter-culture which rejected the conservative ways and embraced individual freedom. A new awareness of human sexuality began to spread among Americans starting with the Kinsey Report in 1948. It was a nine year study of human sexuality which opened everyone’s minds to the diversity of sexual behaviour. The result of the survey indicated the astonishing truth that up to 10% of the entire population was gay. One statistic suddenly put homosexuality into a whole new light for many people. Another statistic from the study that shocked people was the fact that nearly everyone masturbated. The backdrop for a new generation to explore their sexuality in a free and uninhibited way was initiated in the late 50’s. Allen Ginsberg and his circle wrote popular books that embraced sensuality and sexual experimentation as an essential ingredient to living life to its fullest. Yet it took America with its conservative, Puritan roots a while to catch on to this new awareness and freedom as Americans were programmed at an early age to regard sex and marriage as a sacred pair, not to be separated. So the whole generation growing up in the 1960s, developed a radically different attitude towards sex as compared to their parents. Drugs like marijuana, alcohol, LSD and cocaine loosened inhibitions and sex became just another ‘turn-on’. Gay men and women started coming out of the closet in the cities. Communal living situations fostered short-lived relationships, and much sexual experimentation. As a young student when Ginsberg got admitted to Columbia, he neither had any notion of what literary style he would adopt for his poetry, nor did he realize his potent and hidden homosexuality. He, for the first time explored his homosexuality through the company of men Like Lucien Carr and Kerouac. 1950’s was not an era of sexual liberty and liberation, homosexuality on the other hand was considered abomination by the civilized ‘square’ society. Ginsberg kept his homosexuality hidden and used coded language to communicate with likeminded intellectuals. Homosexuality being considered as felony caused homosexuals to go underground and create their own secret society, it was this secret society that Ginsberg communicated with, in bars and coffee shops. He started reading books on the subject of ‘sex’, both fiction and nonfiction, Clifford Howards’s idea of ‘phallus’ being “the embodiment of creative power” interested him the most and he formed his own mythology of phallus being the fountain of all creativity. Jonah Ruskin, the writer of ‘American Scream’ gives us an account of Ginsberg’s sexuality and his fascination for sex and Kerouac. “Sex and sexuality became the subtext of his fiction and poetry; almost all his symbols were sexual symbols, he explained to Kerouac. At eighteen Ginsberg fell in love with Kerouac and wrote love poems and love stories about him.” He confesses in his gay sunshine interview , conducted in 1972 in his Cherry Valley farm in upstate New York that when he realised in the early 50’s that he was in love with Kerouac, he told him one night, “Jack, you know I love you, and I want to sleep with you, and I really like men.” Though Kerouac didn’t seem to be really interested at that time, Ginsberg felt that “he wasn’t going to reject” him “really, he was going to accept my soul with all its throbbing and sweetness and worries and dark woes and sorrows and heartaches and joys and glees and mad understandings of morality…” Eventually both of them caught up together, Ginsberg recollects that “I blew him, I guess. He once blew me, years later. It was sort of sweet, peaceful.”
The principal episode in the life of Ginsberg which changed the course of his writing forever was his affair with Neal Cassady. It was in the year 1946 when Allen Ginsberg and Neal Casady met; Allen instantly fell in love with the wild, young and handsome boy he came across. Cassady was “The Mover, compulsive, dedicated, ready to sacrifice family, friends, even his very car itself to the necessity of moving from one place to another.” Cassady was a sexual outlaw and Ginsberg was aware of his dark ‘caliban’ side. Cassady was a sadist and derived pleasure in abusing Allen both physically and emotionally, but Ginsberg on the other hand ‘turned the agony of their relationship into the ecstasy of art. If he was sexually abused he would be inspired to write poetry.” Neal Cassady was the major influences that inspired ‘Howl’, and it is Cassady who is the sexual hero of the poem, in the poem he appears to be the ‘Adonis of Denver’ Adonis being a Greek mythological figure associated with male youth and beauty. In ‘Howl’ Ginsberg describes Cassady as “flashing buttocks under barns and naked in the lake” who “went out whoring through Colorado in myriad stolen night-cars, N.C., secret hero of these poems, cocksman and Adonis of Denver—joy to the memory of his innumerable lays of girls in empty lots & diner backyards, moviehouses’ rickety rows, on mountaintops in caves or with gaunt waitresses in familiar roadside lonely petticoat upliftings & especially secret gas-station solipsisms of johns, & hometown alleys too…” Indeed, Cassady often took on a larger than life persona in much of the Beat literature. ‘Please Master’ is one of the most graphically written works by Ginsberg about his relationship with Neal Cassady. Ginsberg portrays sadomasochistic sexuality precisely as a symbolic relationship, with language, too, that is ironic in its erotic affirmation of the master’s dominance and slave’s submission. In ‘Please Master’ Cassady seems self-evidently the controlling master having his way with a submissive Ginsberg. However a closer reading of the poem dramatizes sexual activity that, of course, would not occur without the person in the slave subject position initiating intercourse. However, it was Peter Orlovsky with whom Ginsberg had a long lasting affair which continued as long as Ginsberg was alive. The Pygmalion legend came true for Allen when he first saw a painting of Peter made by a young artist by the name of La Vigne, he was at once in love with this young boy in the painting with his yellow hair and a pleasing smile. Peter was primarily heterosexual and cried the first time after making love to Allen. Allen explained this later by stating that “the reason he wept was that he realised how much he was giving me, and how much I was demanding, asking and taking” while Allen on the other hand knew that in Peter he had found a long lasting union, he wrote a poem called ‘Malest Cornifici Tuo Catullo’ addressing it to Kerouac, describing his inner state of mind after having Peter in his life:
I’m happy Kerouac, your madman’s Allen’s
finally made it: discovered a new young cat,
And my imagination of an eternal boy
Walks on the streets of San Francisco,
Handsome, and meets me in cafeterias
And loves me…
Later when Allen and Peter moved in together they shared a beautiful bond of trust, faith, friendship and love. Peter was much younger to Allen and looked up to him, together they travelled a lot to Asia, especially India, where they lived for several years and kept on visiting later. Allen for the first time proposed marriage. It was Peter with whom he wanted to share that special bond of trust and everlasting love. He proposed that he and Peter should take marriage vows and one morning at 3 AM “We made a vow to each other that he could owe me, my mind and everything I knew, and his body; and that we would give each other ourselves, so that 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’”
Freedom and Love
Allen as a lover had always been demanding but at the same time he had given freedom to his partners to explore their own sexuality. The desire to be laid, and to be loved are the strongest in Ginsberg. He always feared separation and pain and begged his lovers not to condone their love. In one of his journals, he wrote an entry addressed to Peter saying, “So I don’t care who else you screw, make it with girls, only to be sure to keep compassion for me, answer call when I break down to need of love moment- initiate my liberation and sexual revelation of self. Far as I know I want to be tied to bed and screwed, whipped, want to wrestle and blow and come in unison, sexual ecstasy…”
On the other hand with Neal Cassady Ginsberg shared a sadomasochistic relationship. Neal abused Allen, which he encouraged, “I want to be your slave, suck your ass, suck your cock, you fuck me, you master me, you humiliate me” wrote Ginsberg in one of his journals. Ginsberg’s father Louis Ginsberg, knew that Neal was a bad influence and he warned his son to “Exorcise Neal”. Ginsberg finally understood that Neal was not the partner who could have shared a bond of eternal love and ecstasy with him.
Ginsberg was a self declared homosexual and thus kept off woman for most of his life. It is said that he embraced misogyny in the 50’s and though he admitted that he hated women, he did have some female partners. He fantasised making love to Neal and his wife Carolyn which he mentions in his ‘Love Poem on Theme by Whitman’ He had both male and female lovers who came together for the celebrated orgies at his apartment. In the beginning of 1955, he wrote to Jack telling him how he had come to enjoy the company of women too, “something great happens to me in Frisco. After girl now for first time in life boy.” Johan Raskin talks about Ginsberg’s liberated and ecstatic life in California, he says “California was dream-like not because he was writing great poetry, but because he was enjoying great sex.”
Eroticism and its elements have long been considered mystic in the poetic traditions of the world. It could be the troubadours of the English courtly love poetry or the erotic Sanskrit verses, mysticism can be said to be inherent in them. Ginsberg refers exclusively towards the glorification of the human body. In fact, it will not be an overstatement to say that Ginsberg is a neo humanist; he aims at establishing a contact with his spirit and the universal human spirit through extensive allusions to the body, in Ginsberg the allusions to the body and the longing to make love and be loved represents a yearning thirst to satisfy the instinct for spiritual growth. Ginsberg may be easily compared with the few poets who could understand the transcendence of sex into the realms of spirituality much on the lines that Osho later picked it on. Osho argued in his book ‘Sex Matters’ that love and sex are inseparable and that orgasm is an inside into timelessness and thoughtlessness. These were the lines on which Ginsberg wrote his erotic love poetry.
It is true that Ginsberg’s sexual self and his ‘Many Loves’ dominated most part of his life and had a remarkable influence on his writings. It seemed that the more sex he got the better he wrote. Sex inspired him and worked as an elixir; though he had many affairs mostly disappointing he continued his search for the ultimate love making that could take him to the ‘mystical X’ he was searching all his life.