The following review is from Beatdom #23, which will be released on May 23rd.
Arguably the most well-known line in modern American poetry is the opening to Allen Ginsberg’s “Howl”: “I saw the best minds of my generation destroyed by madness…” It is a line so famous, so instantly recognisable, that it has been imitated and parodied countless times. But what did it mean? What was this “madness” that afflicted Ginsberg’s generation?
Madness is the topic of an excellent new book by Stevan M. Weine. Interestingly, Weine is not another literary scholar, poring over the archives and suggesting alternate readings of this poem or that. Rather, he is a psychiatrist and, in the 1980s, Ginsberg gave him access to his private medical records. These were records that even the poet had never seen.
Three and a half decades later, we have this wonderful text, a refreshingly readable work that flits back and forth between eras to examine Ginsberg’s life and work in a new light. It allows us to read his most famous poems with a slightly different perspective, calls into question or rearranges elements of his biography, and positions Ginsberg as a poet writing through his own trauma whilst at the same time attempting to help those around him—but sometimes hurting them through his efforts.
Naturally, a huge portion of this book revolves around Naomi, Ginsberg’s mother. Her life had been so painful, so tragic, that almost no one attended her funeral. She had been the victim of decades of agony, suffering from a mental illness that left her almost entirely unable to look after herself and pushed everyone she knew away from her. When she finally died—a death that was by all accounts a form of release—her funeral was so poorly attended that the sexton could not recite the Mourners’ Kaddish. Her son Allen had, for reasons that are unclear, not attended. Weine writes:
It would have been hard for anyone present at the funeral to predict that years later Naomi’s life and Allen’s grief would become icons of madness and mourning. Never discount the miracle and mystery of poetry.
That last line is a rare piece of positivity in a book that is—for all its brilliance—really quite depressing. Naomi’s suffering is depicted again and again, often through reports from the Pilgrim State mental institute, where she was locked away for her final years. Words like “madness” and even now “mental illness” are often used to politely overlook the horrors of these conditions, yet Weine does not spare us. These episodes are recounted in horrific detail and they recur throughout the book. The situation was so extreme that she was practically abandoned by her family for periods of months and even years.
Of course, the focus is not Naomi but her youngest son, Allen. It was far from easy growing up with a dangerously ill mother. Numerous times, he saw her in states of complete mental breakdown, hysterical and terrified, overwhelmed by an intense paranoia. She was often nude and it is strongly suggested that she attempted some kind of sexual assault that inevitably left a life-long impact on Ginsberg. He wanted badly to protect her but couldn’t, and this too scarred him for life.
It is impossible for a small child to rescue his profoundly mentally ill mother, particularly when this was a task that her husband, her family, and indeed the medical community could not achieve. Naomi was for whatever reason just beyond salvation. Weine, offering his expert’s position as a psychiatrist, repeatedly informs us of the failings of those professionals and institutions, explaining how and why treatments and diagnoses are so different today. One of the great tragedies—and something certainly not limited to Naomi’s case—is that the best efforts of intelligent people often cause more harm than good, and people like Naomi were in many cases just further damaged by the medical practices of the time.
Naomi’s extreme mental health issues not only affected her and ended her marriage to Louis Ginsberg, but traumatised Allen, and this is a theme that Weine pursues throughout his book. “Allen believed in his heart that he and Naomi were bound by madness,” he writes. Ultimately, Ginsberg would be institutionalised himself. Although he would be treated in a far nicer institution than his mother, he was similarly failed by the medical community, and he would spend his life in pursuit of his own healing. Weine notes that Ginsberg managed this through poetry, journalling, meditation, and drugs.
Part of Ginsberg’s intense pain stemmed from his guilt at giving his permission for her to be lobotomised. As Weine makes clear, this was a dark part of psychiatric history but one aimed at improving the lives of thousands of patients like Naomi. Allen, still just a young man, was pushed to give his consent for this operation and, it seems, was severely traumatised by its effects. Far from helping Naomi, the lobotomy pushed her further into madness and may well have hastened her death. Was this, Weine asks, why he did not attend her funeral?
There are some interesting revelations here. The story of Ginsberg giving his consent for the lobotomy is hardly new, but Weine tells us that it was something he had kept unusually quiet until the 1980s. Weine met Ginsberg in 1986 and was given not only access to the poet’s archives but received his full encouragement. He found that Ginsberg did not remember when the lobotomy took place and that he seldom mentioned it in writing. In fact, despite his famous poem about his mother, “Kaddish,” Allen struggled to write about her as a young man due to the pain and shame he felt.
Ginsberg is famous in part for being radically honest. Of course, we know there are limitations to this, but nonetheless he was a remarkably candid man, willing even to share what seemed his darkest and most painful or shameful feelings in conversation or in poetry. Yet Weine suggests that he made omissions or changed facts when it concerned Naomi. Whether this was deliberate or unconscious is unclear. Even in “Kaddish,” he recounted events incorrectly, Weine says.
Did he ever realize that he’d written in the poem that [a particularly traumatic event] occurred when he was twelve, but he was actually fifteen?
To be fair to the poet, distant memories are hard enough to recall even when they are not traumatic. Weine seems to be suggesting in several places that Ginsberg had rewritten the past but these likely were just misremembered details. Having read many of his journals myself, I know that he struggled to record dates correctly at the time, frequently getting months and even years wrong, never mind looking back several decades upon traumatic memories.
Madness and mental health sometimes appear mysterious but often they are depressingly predictable. Naomi had been sexually abused as a child and then her various life experiences, coupled with the failures of the psychiatric profession, pushed her down the road of increasing detachment from reality. Almost like a virus, this passed along to her son. Putting aside the notions of heredity, Ginsberg’s own mental health struggles and madness were clearly a result of Naomi’s. His visions, for example, began about six months after he gave permission for her lobotomy.
However, for Ginsberg madness was not only depression and dissociation. There were different forms of madness. You had “inspired madness” that produces artistic brilliance but also the sort of madness that had tortured his mother. He would experience both in his life. The combination would push him to become the eminent poet of his era—the last great poet of the twentieth century. “The visions,” Weine says, “enabled Allen to place poetry at the center of his life.” He explains:
The visions were not just an event that happened to Allen on a given day but a process highly dependent upon the stories he told about them as he was trying to figure out what they meant. […] Another notable aspect of Allen’s visions is the sheer density of experience, knowledge, memory, emotion, relationships, ideas, literature, art, and history he linked with them. The longer Allen lived with and responded to the visions, the denser and more laden with meaning they became.
The most famous of his visions occurred in 1948. The story goes that, after masturbating, he heard the voice of William Blake reading “Ah! Sunflower.” Yet Weine repeatedly tells us that this may not have happened. Weine is not exactly suggesting that Allen lied but rather is pushing towards the notion that Ginsberg convinced himself of this version of his vision. At the time and for many years after, he wrote about his vision but never mentioned Blake until 1958, a full decade later, and only in 1960 did it really become part of his personal mythology. Had he given himself a false memory? It is certainly a common phenomenon and so it is quite possible. Weine notes, though, that when he spoke about his Blake visions in 1965, it “helped turn him into a qualified leader of the counterculture, whereby he recommended that others discover their own visions by any available means, including taking LSD.” Later comments infer, without explicitly saying, that Ginsberg might have leveraged this vision in order to position himself as a guru for the hippie movement.
It is an interesting claim, yet much later in the book Weine very briefly acknowledges a “noteworthy anomaly” in that the character David Stofsky in John Clellon Holmes’ 1951 novel Go also heard the voice of William Blake. Indeed, although Holmes has Stofsky experience an auditory hallucination, it is a different poem that Blake’s voice quotes. Weine notes that Holmes claimed to have based this upon a letter from Ginsberg, but says “those letters describe the visions without ever mentioning hearing Blake’s voice.” Weine’s conclusion is that Holmes invented the scene and that Allen “much later appropriate[d] it” from him. It is an interesting theory, but Occam’s Razor says it’s much likelier that Ginsberg simply told Holmes in person about Blake’s voice.
Regardless of the veracity of his visions, Ginsberg soon found himself in the New York State Psychiatric Institute, where he was diagnosed with “dementia praecox,” a disused term for a condition now known as schizophrenia. It was the same diagnosis his mother had been given. The doctors quickly recognised his peculiar genius, noting:
The patient is a brilliant, but autistic schizophrenic, probably of the catatonic type who has religious ecstasies and occasional agitated periods in which he can be destructive. He feels alternatively crushed by the world and in command of the world. His “unconscious” seems to be extremely conscious. He has much bizarre sexual fantasies and may actually be perverse sexually.
Weine does a wonderful job of guiding us through all this, for there is much to say. His knowledge as a psychiatrist helps us to understand what the doctors really thought of Ginsberg, what they did and didn’t do for him, and how it would have been different had he been treated in a later era. Much of this was actually unknown to Allen, for it was in his private medical files. For example, Ginsberg had no idea how close he came to being lobotomised himself or that in spite of apparently positive conversations with his doctors, when he was released they were not remotely confident in his mental health. Weine also notes that the real issues Allen faced—trauma, guilt, and grief—went almost entirely unaddressed during his stay. “In my opinion,” Weine adds, “we cannot adequately understand Allen’s involvement in criminal and drug behaviors and preoccupation with suicidality and death without understanding his difficult life experiences with his severely mentally ill mother.” Meanwhile, his doctors viewed homosexuality as a perversion and a symptom of underlying mental illness. It would be several years before another doctor would tell Ginsberg differently, freeing him to live his own life after much effort trying to become heterosexual and adhere to other societal norms.
Through the sections of the book that depict Ginsberg in a mental hospital, Weine brings his contemporary knowledge of psychiatry to explore how Allen was treated there. He looks at the different doctors who examined Ginsberg, commenting upon what they wrote and what Allen thought of them. Their task was made more difficult by the fact that Ginsberg was attempting to learn from the doctors as they studied him. He tested them, played with them. Then there was the fact that Ginsberg was a poet and believed in himself—something that is easy to mistake for madness. Weine notes that creative people can often appear mentally ill when they are not and that part of Ginsberg’s apparent mental health condition was the delusion of being a great poet. How could his doctors have known he would soon become the greatest poet of his era? In fact, the doctors considered this themselves, noting in his file: “We think he is a paranoid schizophrenic. But some of his grandiosity may be real. That is, he just may be a great poet.”
Ultimately, despite various problems, his time at P.I. was useful. He was able to learn from the experience and approach his traumas and visions in a way that stopped him from his obsessive and destructive behaviour:
Allen’s achievement as an artist was not simply having visions. It involved an ongoing, highly difficult, and risky process of learning to rework the visions and other experiences with madness and mental illness, to adopt and live with mad muses, and to find the language to communicate all this through poetry. This included a helpful assist from psychiatry to keep from being swallowed up by the destructive dimensions of madness while courageously and brilliantly accessing and witnessing it.
Weine is keen to attribute much of Ginsberg’s poetic success to his efforts at resolving his own traumas and specifically the issues stemming from his mother and her mental illness. Much of the rest of the book addresses this—how madness helped him find the voice and subject matter for “Howl” and “Kaddish,” for example. This, of course, raises a difficult question. Had his doctors adequately treated him, which is to say addressed his real pain and allowed him to heal, would that have robbed the world of some of its most important poetry? The answer is likely yes because, “as a poet, [his pain] was actually a gift.”
Ginsberg’s experiences with his mother and his own mental turmoil helped him not only in becoming a great poet and countercultural icon, but in many ways made him a better person. He was hugely empathetic and had tremendous patience with notoriously difficult people such as Peter Orlovsky, Gregory Corso, Herbert Huncke. Even later in life, as a world-famous poet, he allowed his phone number and address to be publicly available and would talk with people on bad trips or suffering breakdowns, offering whatever help he could. “[W]hen Allen went through the fan mail he was sent, he always responded to anyone who appeared unstable or mentally ill.” He was able to look past erratic and violent outbursts, irresponsible and unpleasant actions, and see the good in people. He understood the duality of madness—that it could take the form of creative genius as well as torturing and grinding people down.
And this brings us back to that most famous of lines: “I saw the best minds of my generation destroyed by madness…” Weine notes: “It said madness is destructive of our generation but also that madness may be a product of this generation’s best minds or even conducive to what makes them so remarkable.” He calls the poems “a fully realized portrait of a generation that thought it may be brilliant but was told by authorities and institutions it was insane.” Importantly, “the poem never makes it easy to distinguish between the ‘best minds’ and ‘madness.’”
From “Howl” we move to “Kaddish” by way of the various “preparatory writings” between, looking at the process of how Ginsberg set about writing the poem that eulogised his mother—arguably his finest work. It is of course a disarmingly frank poem, brutally honest and filled with shocking detail. Yet Weine informs us that Ginsberg had omitted some ideas that were perhaps too shameful even for Allen. These were lines about his guilt at having had her institutionalised at Bellevue in 1951 and then left her in the hospital for years without visiting. Comparing his handwritten first draft with the published version, Weine notes that “[t]hese revisions […] shift the emphasis of the poem—less about Naomi’s involuntary confinement, more about her mental illness and madness.”
It was not only poetry that Ginsberg used to explore madness and deal with trauma. He used drugs extensively and in different ways. Often, he was attempting to bring about visions, just like those he’d begun to experience in 1948. This led him into the acid culture of the sixties hippie movement, where he pushed people to expand their own minds through the use of LSD. Weine notes that “Allen was aware the psychedelic movement was going to involve casualties. He was ready to lend a helping hand to those unfortunate persons who reached out while suffering bad trips, social dysfunction, or mental illness. […] However, years later he thought he could have done more to protect the mentally fragile.”
Weine handles Allen’s actions and legacy delicately, intelligently. As I’ve mentioned in the past few paragraphs, Ginsberg possessed incredible patience and compassion, particularly for those suffering from mental health issues. But he was no saint, of course. He made mistakes, some of which he realised and others not so much. Weine points out that Ginsberg forced the fragile Carl Solomon into the public light, a role he absolutely did not want. For the rest of his life, Solomon had to live with his mental health struggles as public knowledge. He was a minor celebrity and that was not something he wanted. Unlike Ginsberg, Solomon was private and shy, and he struggled through the decades when Allen thrived. Weine connects Ginsberg’s NAMBLA advocacy and ephebophilia with his childhood trauma but notes that such experiences do not excuse this “blind spot.”
Overall, this is a fascinating and valuable book. Weine summarises his own achievements in the last pages, which I shall paraphrase below. He says that the book has “revealed several significant new findings”:
- Naomi’s lobotomy took place in 1948.
- His 1948 Blake vision only came to involve Blake 10 years later.
- He experienced multiple traumas related to Naomi.
- His mental health issues were serious and his hospitalisation was helpful.
I would personally question the claim that this was all completely new information, but it was certainly an excellent book and an important addition to Beat Studies.
Stevan M. Weine, Best Minds: How Allen Ginsberg Made Revolutionary Poetry from Madness (Fordham University Press, 2023)