10 April 2009

Ginsberg & Dante, Part II

Continued from here:

To begin with, I would suggest that we read Part I, the catalogue of sometimes depraved, sometimes theurgic and mystical acts in which the Beats have engaged, as a parallel to the recounting of the acts of the Saints in Hebrews 11:32-8. Compare Ginsberg’s ‘starving hysterical naked’ (p. 9) with St Paul’s ‘destitute, afflicted, tormented’ (Heb. 11:37). For Ginsberg, the ‘best minds of my generation’, although destroyed, are not men tragically lost to society, they are men ‘of whom the world was not worthy’ (Heb. 11:38). Furthermore, the prominent references to God, Heaven, and the angels, particularly in ll. 3 and 5, point us toward this celestial reading of Part I. The Beats are ‘angelheaded hipsters burning for the ancient heavenly connection to the starry dynamo’ (imagery which recalls the sight that greets Dante after he emerges from Hell in Inf. 34:136-9), they have ‘bared their brains to Heaven under the El’ and seen ‘Mohammedan angels staggering on tenement roofs illuminated’ (p. 9). It is as though we are beginning to read of Dante’s path to the ‘Beatific vision’ in Parad. 33 and of the mystical yet still very carnal pleasures of a Muslim heaven (see esp. Qu’ran 56) rolled into one.

Also, the experiences that are presumably considered ‘hellish’ by the average reader—one thinks especially of the ‘waking nightmares’ (p. 10), the ‘junk-withdrawal’ (p. 11), the wrist-cutting (p. 16) and the statement that ‘they threw up groaning into the bloody toilet’ (p. 17)—are right there side-by-side with the ecstatic ones. Often they are one and the same. Many ordinary readers, for instance, will likely be ‘horrified’ by the references to sodomy and fellatio, but where we see low-life bikers and sailors, Ginsberg sees ‘saintly motorcyclists’ and ‘human seraphim…caresses of Atlantic and Caribbean love’ (p. 13), the tender epithets contrasting sharply with the crude language in which the poet describes the sexual acts themselves. The juxtaposition of Plotinus and Poe (p. 12) strikes a similar note, and here we might see the reference to John of the Cross as a (mis)reading of his ‘dark nights of the soul’ in terms of a spiritual life composed equally of degradation and ecstasy. This notion is supported as well by the ‘Footnote to Howl’, according to which:

Everything is holy! everybody’s holy! everywhere is holy! everyday is in eternity! Everyman’s an angel! (p. 27)

If this is true, we cannot consistently describe Ginsberg’s experiences as ‘hell’, for they become just as much, perhaps even more, ‘heaven’.

To be continued . . .

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