Sunday, June 27, 2010
Allen Ginsberg and George Grant: Howl and Lament for a Nation - Excerpt from Ron Dart's 'Spiders and Bees'
Introduction: It's 55 years this year (1955-2010) since Ginsberg's Howl was published, and 45 years (1965-2010) since Grant's Lament was published. This article on Ginsberg's Howl and Grant's Lament appears in print in Ron Dart'sSpiders and Bees. In it, Dart brings to the forefront how two different 'jeremiads' are handled.
It is fifty years this autumn since the Beat Movement was launched atSix Gallery in San Francisco (October 13, 1955). Some of the American Beats from the East Coast (Jack Kerouac and Allen Ginsberg) and the West Coast (Kenneth Rexroth, Gary Snyder, Philip Whalen, Lawrence Ferlinghetti) met and read together at this gathering. John Suiter rightly says, ‘The Six Gallery reading has sometimes been called the first synthesis of the East and West Coast factions of the Beat Generation’(p.148).
Kenneth Rexroth had hiked to many of the peaks in the North Cascades in the 1920s. His rambling and tramping tales are well told in An Autobiographical Novel (ch. 30). Gary Snyder worked on lookout peaks (Crater and Sourdough Mountains) in 1952–1953, but he could not get work in the North Cascades in 1954 because of his affiliations with unions and anarchist left groups. These were the McCarthy years, and Snyder was a victim of such a red scare. Philip Whalen worked on lookout peaks (Sauk and Sourdough Mountains) in 1953–1955. Jack Kerouac, a year after the Six Gallery reading (1956), spent a summer on Desolation Peak in the North Cascades. The Dharma Bums (1958), Lonesome Traveler(1960) and Desolation Angels (1965) all reflect much of what he saw and experienced on Desolation Peak.
The Six Gallery reading of 1955 was, therefore, a pivotal event in bringing together the ecological Beats of the West Coast and the Bop and Beat tradition of the East Coast. Allen Ginsberg attended and participated in the Six Gallery reading, and a year later,Howl and Other Poems was published.
The back cover of Howl, in the City Lights Books, says
Allen Ginsberg’s Howl and Other Poems was originally published by City Lights Books in the Fall of 1956. Subsequently seized by the U.S. Customs and the San Francisco police, it was the subject of a long court trial at which a series of poets and professors persuaded the courts that the book was not obscene. Over 30,000 copies have since been sold.
There is no doubt Howl created a commotion and stir in the San Francisco area at the time.
Forty years have passed since George Grant’s Lament for a Nation (1965) was published. Lament for a Nation, like Howl, created strong reactions. Many in the New Left and Counter-culture in Canada were drawn to Lament for a Nation. Many in the political centre and political right in Canada were offended by what Grant was saying inLament. Grant was fully aware of what he was saying and doing at the time, and he knew that his criticisms of the American empire (and the Canadian colonial and comprador class) would not be taken well by the ruling establishment and high mucky-mucks at the time.
Lament has been called ‘a masterpiece of political meditation’, and Darrol Bryant sees it as a tract for the times that stands within the Old Testament prophetic tradition ofLamentations. Kenneth Rexroth has argued, in defending Ginsberg, his poetry stands ‘in the long Jewish Old Testament tradition of testimonial poetry’. It is significant to note that Grant in his 1970 Introduction to Lament for a Nation refers twice to the image and metaphor of Molech. Molech was seen by the Jewish people as a devouring god that consumed and destroyed the life of one and all. Molech is a central metaphor in Part II ofHowl. Grant also refers to the Beats and the Counter-culture in Lament for a Nation. Ginsberg and Grant seem, at first glance, to be lamenting and howling against the same Molech. The American empire seemed to consume one and all. The best and the brightest did their best to oppose and resist such a monster and leviathan, but souls and bodies were required to feed the ravenous appetite of such a beast. Was it possible to live a meaningful life without bowing and genuflecting to Molech?
Howl and Lament for a Nation seem to be on the same page and fighting the same enemy and opponent. But are they? Ginsberg and Grant do agree on what they want to be free from. Do they agree on what they want to be free for? It is by understanding this difference that we will understand the different paths taken between American anarchism (and Canadian devotees of such a tradition) and Canadian High Tory nationalism. The different paths hiked do lead to quite distinctly different places on the political spectrum. Let us, all too briefly, light and linger at Howl and Lament for a Nation to see how and why American anarchism and Canadian nationalism, although seeming to have much in common at one level, have less and less in common at more substantive levels.
It is significant to note, by way of beginning, to mention who Howl and Lament for a Nation are dedicated to. Ginsberg offers up Howl to Jack Kerouac, William Burroughs and Neal Cassady; all three were East Coast Bop and Beat poets and activists. Howl was written for Carl Solomon, and William Carlos Williams wrote the Introduction. Kerouac is very much in the lead in the dedication, and Ginsberg says, ‘Several phrases and the title of Howl are taken from him’. We need to ask ourselves this simple question if we ever hope to get a fix and feel for Ginsberg’s drift and direction: what is the essence and core of the East Coast Bop and Beat ethos, and how did Ginsberg, Kerouac, Burroughs, Cassady, Williams and Solomon embody such an ideology? There tends to be six distinct points to be noted here: i) individual feelings and emotions are paramount (reason and one-dimensional science are the problem) ii) protest and rebellion against the American empire and Puritanism are dominant, iii) uprootedness and unrootedness are welcomed—being on the road becomes a new creed and dogma, iv) eclectic spirituality becomes the new sacrament—a rather raw sexuality and spirituality are fused, v) institutions (whether they are religious, political, cultural, economic) are seen as the problem, and vi) anarchism is seen as the liberating way in opposition to the authoritarian and repressive nature of all ideologies and institutions.
Liberty tends to trump order, individuality repels the common good, equality of desires is held high, raw experience banishes the wisdom of tradition, and spirituality is freed from the bondage of shackles of religious dogmas and institutions. Needless to say, such a position becomes its own ideology, creed and institution that cannot be doubted and must be defended at all costs by its guardians and gatekeepers.
There is no doubt that Kerouac, Burroughs and Cassady embodied such a vision. Carolyn Cassady dared to expose and question such an ideology in Off the Road: My Years with Cassady, Kerouac and Gins- berg (1990). Even Kerouac was beginning to ask substantive questions about the Beats and distance himself from them in the early 1960s. He makes this quite clear in Lonesome Traveler (1960) when he said, ‘I am actually not Beat but a strange solitary crazy Catholic mystic’, and with the publication of Vanity of Duluoz(1968), Kerouac made it clear that much of the Bop and Beat tradition was much more about a rather inflated vanity and egoistic and indulgent individualism than anything else. But Kerouac still remained the liberty-loving and solitary Catholic mystic. The American DNA and genetic code of individualism was still his master and guru.
Grant dedicated Lament for a Nation ‘To Derek Bedson and Judith Robinson: Two Lovers Of Their Country: One Living and One Dead’. Who were Derek Bedson and Judith Robinson, and how, as Canadian lovers of their country, were they different from Kerouac, Burroughs and Cassady? Derek Bedson, unlike many of the Beats, had a strong commitment to the Anglican High Tory tradition both in politics and religion. He was active in the Anglican Church of Canada (ever the gadfly to its emerging liberalism) and he worked in the area of both federal and provincial politics. Bedson, unlike the Beats, realized that both political and religious institutions (although always imperfect), were important means to work within for the common good of the nation and the people. Society and the state (both have their distortions and demons) when understood aright should and can work together, in an organic, just and ordered way, for the commonweal.
The philosophic tradition of liberalism, in either its American imperial form or its Beat reactionary form, was about individuals using their liberty in a unilateral way to undermine and deconstruct those things that, as people, we share in common. Grant turned to Bedson as a true teacher and mentor who loved his country. Judith Robinson was a feisty and fiery Red Tory who, as an animated journalist, challenged both liberalism and the Liberal party in Canada. In fact, her relentless assaults on the Liberal party led to the Royal Canadian Military Police (RCMP) bloodhounds being turned on her in the 1950s. Robinson thought the liberals were selling out Canada to the USA, and she would have none of it. The Liberal party of St. Laurent and King were an anathema to her. The American way (both in principle and fact) were something she had little or no patience for. George Grant, therefore, when he dedicated Lament for a Nation to Derek Bedson and Judith Robinson knew what he was doing and saying.
Many Canadians have, I suspect, heard of Ginsberg, Kerouac, Cassady, Williams and Burroughs. I question whether many have heard of Judith Robinson or Derek Bedson. What does this tell us about our Canadian soul and how it has been colonized by the American matrix?
There is little doubt that Bedson, Robinson and Grant stood in a very different place on the political and personal spectrum than Kerouac, Burroughs, Cassady and Ginsberg. Both clans could agree that American imperialism, corporate capitalism, consumerism, liberal bourgeois thought and Puritanism needed to be exposed and undressed. There was no depth to them. They embodied Nietzsche’s ‘Last Man’ or Miller’s ‘Wrong Dream’. Surely there was more to the good life than defining and defending personal peace and happiness. In short, Canadian High Tories and American Anarchist Beats do agree on the fact the patient is ill and ailing. They have much in common in their diagnosis. But they have quite a different way of healing the failing and faltering patient. The prognosis takes Grant and Ginsberg down different paths and to different places. What then is this different prognosis? Let us turn to Howl and Lament for a Nation to see what is seen. It is in this different seeing we will come to understand some important differences at a root, core and genetic, philosophic and practical level between Americans and Canadians.
It is fifty years since Howl was published. It is forty years since Lament for a Nationwas published. It is at such remembering points we are offered the opportunity to see again what animates and tends to define the True North from the empire to the south.
Howl is divided into three sections and a ‘Footnote to Howl’. Section I opens with the memorable lines that none forget once heard and read: ‘I saw the best minds of my generation destroyed by madness’. The rest of the section is a prose-poem that describes how these best minds were destroyed, and equally so, how the artistic and visionary nature of such minds were bent and broken on the anvil of the modern world. Section I is both tragic and sad, and the ruined and wrecked lives are amply laid out for all to see to the most graphic and poignant of ways. We might ask, as we read Section I, whether these are the best minds (given their end points), but Ginsberg has told us these are the best and the brightest, so we heed and hear.
Section II turns, in a penetrating manner, to the place that has savaged such minds, and the potent image that speaks of such an alluring and tempting place: Molech, Molech and Molech becomes the destructive and dominant metaphor. The metaphor of Molech is unpacked and unraveled in a variety of ways, but there is no doubt that the best minds are defeated victims of Molech, and Molech will devour one and all. Who is Molech? Ginsberg makes this most clear. It is all forms of tyranny and authority that brutalize and are callous to the best minds. The USA is very much in the foreground, though.
Section III presses home the point in a more urgent and not to be forgotten manner. Section III is directed to Carl Solomon in Rockland. The political left is held high and idealized, and the USA is seen as the place of repression and destruction. The language is raw and graphic in Howl, and social reality is neatly and crisply divided into a rather simplistic either-or way of looking at things. ‘Footnote to Howl’ walks the extra mile to shout from the rooftops the Holy, Holy, Holy theme. All is holy and needs to be seen as such. Ginsberg in this section is doing his best to fuse spirituality and sexuality, street life with city life. Nothing should be seen as unholy. All has goodness in and to it, and when this is seen, eternity is in our midst.
There are other poems in the Howl collection, also. ‘A Supermarket in California’ doffs the cap to Walt Whitman, and ‘Transcription of Organ Music’ takes the reader through and beyond the purpose of organ music. The transcription and the organ are meant to walk the attentive and alert to higher and deeper spiritual states. This poem points the way to what such a fusion of spirituality and sensuality might look like. ‘Sunflower Sutra’ tells the tale of Ginsberg and Kerouac as they see, through Blake’s sunflower, a sutra of insight in hard places. ‘America’ is a longer poem, and true to form, turns on the USA. ‘In the Baggage Room at Greyhound’, like other poems in the collection, take the reader into the underground and underbelly of America. ‘An Asphodel’, ‘Song’, ‘Wild Orphan’ and ‘in back of the real’ close off this final section in Howl and Other Poems.
It must be remembered that these poems were published in 1956. The USA was in the thick of the Cold War, and anyone with the mildest sympathies with the left was seen as communist. The raw sexual and sensual language that permeates and pervades most ofHowl and Other Poems is a frontal assault and attack on both middle class bourgeois America and the Puritan ethos the shaped such an ideology. Ginsberg, in short, was pulling no punches. He thought the best minds in American had been driven mad by combination of the military industrial complex, anti-communist thinking and Puritan and bourgeois ethics. He howled against such a repressive way of being, and the state and police turned on him for doing so. Howl (1956) and On the Road (1955) became sacred texts and Bibles for the Beat generation, and Ginsberg became a high priest to such a generation with his fusion of sensuality/spirituality, anarchist/protest politics and a raw and in your face assault on middle class values. Howl became a lightning rod missive for those who felt ill at ease with expectations laid on them they had no interest in. Ginsberg’s Howl spoke what many felt but had not yet put to words.
What are the points of concord and convergence between Grant’s Lament for a Nation and Ginsberg’s Howl, and equally important, what are the points of discord and divergence?
The 1965 edition of Lament for a Nation is divided into seven chapters. It some ways it is a prose/poem that deals with major political themes in Canada, and between Canada and the USA. George Grant added an ‘Introduction’ in 1970, and Sheila Grant (George’s wife) added an ‘Afterword’ in 1997. I will stick with the 1965 edition of Lament for a Nation. I mentioned above that the very language of lament conjures up for the reader the tradition of Jewish political thought. The Jewish prophet Jeremiah wroteLamentations. The fact that Lament for a Nation is divided into seven chapters reminds the reader of the seven days of creation in the Jewish tradition. The fact the seventh chapter is theological means that the political reflections have a deeper source than merely politics.
Chapter I in Lament deals with Diefenbaker’s defeat by Pearson in the 1963 election. Grant saw this as a source of much concern, since Pearson was pro-American and Diefenbaker was a thorn in Kennedy’s side. And, more worrisome for Grant, most Canadians were overjoyed to have Pearson as the new Prime Minister of Canada. What did this say about Canadian nationalism?
Chapter II and III ponder both the follies and foolishness of Diefenbaker and his nobility and heroism. Grant was no uncritical fan of Diefenbaker, but he did think that Diefenbaker stood on principles, and his nationalist political principles brought about his demise. Chapter IV touches on both liberalism and the Liberal party in Canada, and why such a party has tended to dominate much of Canadian political life (and the consequences for Canadian nationalism).
Chapters V and VI, consciously so, walks the reader into the realms of political theory and political philosophy, and why at root and ground level, Canadian conservatism (in its English and French forms) is almost the opposite of American republican conservatism.
The fact that American liberalism (in its democratic and republican forms) seeks to dominate the world raises for Grant a worrisome question. Is there any way to oppose or resist this Molech? Is this, as Canadians, our fate and necessity? What can we do given this stubborn fact? Chapter VII opens up a dialogue about the between fate/necessity and the Good. How, as Canadians, can we live from something higher than what seems to be our dominant fate? Is it possible to get out of the matrix of American liberalism?
Lament for a Nation has been called a masterpiece, and it is for a variety of reasons. The tract for the times moves from the facts of Canadian/American political history, to Canadian/American political philosophy to theology. It is poignant and pungent prose writing in the best tradition of political pamphlets.
How, though, is Lament for a Nation similar and different from Howl, and what can these points of concord and discord tell us about the differences between Canadian and American thought and culture. There are five points of convergence, and five of divergence.
First, both Lament and Howl raise serious and substantive objections about the American military industrial complex, the power elite in the USA and the damage done by such an elite in various parts of the world.
Second, both write in an intense, committed and accessible manner. Ginsberg can be raw, crude and excessively graphic. Grant was much more polished, incisive and delicately evocative. Grant and Ginsberg do communicate through plain and direct speech, though, as participants in the tough issues of the time rather than as detached and cool-headed observers. Both are on the ice. Neither is in the balcony or bleachers.
Third, both men were critical of the liberal bourgeois tradition and a form of American Puritanism that justified such a smug view. Ginsberg rebelled against this by indulging all sorts of desires and interests, whereas Grant rebelled against the liberal bourgeois tradition by deepening and ordering his interests and desires towards the highest and noblest things. Both could agree that Locke’s ‘life, liberty and estates’ and Nietzsche’s ‘last man’ were something they did not want to be. They disagreed on the best path to hike when the Puritan-bourgeois-last man was left behind. Plato is quite different from Whitman, Coleridge from Blake. Grant was for the former, Ginsberg the latter. Allen Ginsberg sent me a couple of letters in the late 1980s (Jan. 1, 1989 both Ginsberg and Grant opposed the unilateralism of American military and corporate power. The aggressive notion of liberty and rugged individualism that underwrote and justified such a stance was abhorrent to both Grant and Ginsberg. But—and this is the catch—Ginsberg used the same American notions of liberty and individualism in his anarchist and protest approach as did the power elites. He applied such principles in more of an anti-establishment and, of course, anti-authoritarian way, but the notions of liberty, choice, individualism, protest, dissent were all there.
Grant saw through this charade. Ginsberg was just the other side of the corporate elite. They just used their liberty and freedom in different ways, but neither disagreed about the priority of the American vision and dream: life, liberty, choice and individualism. Grant dared to question the very philosophic principles of American liberalism, and as such, hiked a different path than Ginsberg and the Beats. Canadian notions such as law, order and good government take the curious and thoughtful to different places than life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. Grant realized that when Canadians uncritically genuflected to the American Beats, they were welcoming the American Trojan horse into Canada is a more subtle way. There are more ways to be colonized than mere military and economic pressures. The literary and cultural traditions of the USA (the Beats) have done much to colonize many Canadians, and there have been many Canadian cultural and literary compradors that have facilitated such a process. Grant would have said No to Ginsberg for the simple reason that Ginsberg was as much a devout and committed American, like a Noam Chomsky, as the very Americans he howled against and opposed.
Fifth, Grant was a much more sophisticated thinker than Ginsberg, and there is no doubt that Lament for a Nation is a more substantive work than Howl. The level of political and philosophical depth in Lament opens up vistas of thought that are just not there is Ginsberg and Howl. Howl never rises much beyond rant and reaction, and sadly so, Ginsberg’s intellectual world tends to polarize between the evil and nasty power elite and the good, pure and lovable anarchist, Beat and protest types. It is a simplistic interpretation of reality that Grant was much too wise to bow his uncritical head to. He saw too much, and saw too far to worship at such a shrine and to such reactionary priests, and he urged Canadians not to turn to such a comic book view of the world.
In sum, Ginsberg and Grant, at first glance, seem to have much in common, but on deeper and further inspection, have little in common. Both protest against many of the same things. Both agree on many of the things that must be opposed. But by day’s end, the American Beat anarchism of Ginsberg is quite different from the Canadian High Tory vision of George Grant. It is by understanding such differences that we can see why and how the American and Canadian traditions create and make for different national outlooks. It is somewhat sad and tragic when Canadians know more about American models and take their leads from such fashions than they do from their own kith and kind.