In 1960, Allen Ginsberg accepted an invitation to attend a poetry conference in Chile. The conference was to last only about a week, but the inveterate traveller was keen to venture on through more of the vast continent. Altogether, he spent around six months in South America, visiting Chile, Bolivia, Argentina, and Peru.
His time in South America was important on a personal and poetic level. Now famous for “Howl,” he was feeling old and confused about the meaning of life, the universe, and his place therein. The new collection of Ginsberg’s journals, South American Journals: January-July 1960, edited by Michael Schumacher, offers invaluable insight into the poet’s mind as he wandered up and down the western edge of South America, searching for answers.
Ginsberg’s South American journey began in Santiago, where he wrote several times about an anteater he had seen at the zoo. Although he was several years away from his important Indian journey, he displays in his poems and journals an awareness of Buddhist (and sometimes Hindu) concepts. He argues that the anteater was doomed by karma to eat ants for all its days, and was very much “a joke on the cosmos.” This leads him to proclaim:
I understood not merely
& the theory of Evolution
I understand the history of
All sentient beings
Poor Trapped Souls
These journals document not only a poet on the move through his physical surroundings but, of course, his internal dialogue. During this period, Ginsberg was grappling with the nature of life and death, vast and changing ideas about consciousness, and the notion of God. Throughout the book, the reader is taken through a confusing array of perspectives and dialogues as Ginsberg tries to argue with himself over these issues. Sometimes he puts forth a confident proclamation, but mostly he is uncertain.
Perhaps the most constant thread throughout this collection is Ginsberg’s discussion with himself over what the universe is and whether or not there is only one universe. (He believes there isn’t.) His position on the nature of the universe and of reality changes often, but at one time states:
The instant in which the Universe appears as a mirror of some inward thought of mine is the purpose for which the universe was created.
Elsewhere, remarking on the idea of a god, he says:
God is so beautiful
that it doesn’t make a difference
exists or not
This is not a statement of belief in one single god, however. Although he sometimes talks about a single god and addresses some parts of this book as a one-sided conversation with such a being, Ginsberg thinks that “Monotheism is madness” because, he says, there are 20 million universes.
Death is another constant. During this period, Ginsberg turned 34 and he was convinced that he was halfway through his life. Many of the poems in this book are concerned with death and he thinks often of what will happen after his own passing, which he believed would come from a tumour he felt existed in his ass. “When my time comes it’ll be too fast,” he says, and wonders what will become of his partner, Peter Orlovsky. When Ginsberg sees bones, he struggles to imagine how these could once have belonged to a living, conscious being like himself, and asks, “How many bones in the ground[?]”
There are countless records of dreams throughout the book, some of which are short notes and others long narratives with many characters from his past – Neal Cassady, Jack Kerouac, Joan Vollmer, and William Burroughs included, as well as Marlon Brando, whom he did not know. Many of these involve death, too, and some show a sense of sadness over the loss of closeness with his old Beat friends. Throughout his time in South America, he met many people but remained largely alone and totally celibate.
As with most of Ginsberg’s journals, letters, and interviews, this collection often includes his ideas on the meaning and significance of poetry. It is “a shoe that fits the mind,” he says. However, he is torn on its true importance and questions whether a “transcendent Idea” could ever end suffering. Throughout his time in South America, Ginsberg witnessed poverty and hardship, and he had a moment of doubt about whether an earlier vow to be a labour lawyer would have been a better use of his life:
My poetry is all a half-celestial con, worth nothing to the bloodshot eyes of Physical sufferers in the mines & factories & fields.
Perhaps the most important part of the book is the large section in which Ginsberg is experimenting with ayahuasca, a powerful drug used for religious reasons by various people in that part of the world. There are copious notes on his experiences, which were largely ones of terror and doubt, but honestly one gets a better understanding of this from his letters than his journals. Still, the evolution of his views on consciousness and visions is evident throughout this collection, and therefore important.
In all, this book is a useful addition to Beat scholarship and will be an essential source for people writing papers on Ginsberg in the future. It will also be interesting to those with a strong interest in the poet’s life and work, although at times it seems like a prerequisite for appreciating it is an already substantial knowledge about him. Ginsberg’s journals were complex and confusing and it would have been helpful to have had them dated with a little more explanation about where he was when he wrote them. There are useful footnotes that point out who the people mentioned were, but little to say where Ginsberg himself was except his own words, and these descriptions are often unclear. At one point, he crosses the border into Argentina for a very brief visit and a page title changes to reflect this. However, it continues to claim he is in Argentina for a further 20 pages, when in fact he is back in Chile only a few pages later.
The flaws with this book are largely to do with design, such as the aforementioned error in page headings. There is also the questionable choice of a cutesy heart symbol to divide sections and some rather ugly fonts used throughout that very much detract from the tone of the book. The cover, too, is quite unattractive but we shouldn’t judge a book by that measure. Despite all that, the use of photographs and photocopies to illustrate his journals and journeys is a nice touch.
In any case, where it matters this is a wonderful book. Schumacher has once again done an excellent job of collecting Ginsberg’s work. After his work gathering Allen’s Iron Curtain journals and collected interviews, this is another valuable addition that should have a place in any good Beat collection.