08 April 2009

Ginsberg & Dante, Part I

I realise this is rather unusual for Logismoi, but I have long thought about posting this piece I wrote for a friend when he suggested I finally get around to reading Allen Ginsberg's 'Howl'. It's a bit lengthy for a blog, so I'll post it in at least two parts. Readers should keep in mind that these are the reflections of someone who knows very little about Ginsberg (although I've read a couple of other Beat works) and has read no critical work on 'Howl' at all, apart from William Carlos Williams's introduction to the volume in question. I hope this post will be thought-provoking, however.

In his introduction to Allen Ginsberg’s ‘Howl’ and Other Poems (SF: City Lights, 2001), Ginsberg’s mentor, the poet William Carlos Williams, seems to suggest that we read the poem as a sort of Beat Inferno. For Williams, ‘Howl’ constitutes evidence that Ginsberg has ‘literally…been through hell’ (p. 7). The experiences it describes are ‘horrifying’, the poet himself, though he sees ‘with the eyes of the angels’, is damned, and the reader is warned, ‘we are going through hell’ (p. 8).

In this reading, Ginsberg however is not Dante but Virgil. For Dante, his own salvation constitutes the entire justification for the journey described in the Commedia, including the Inferno. Virgil tells him, ‘Thus for your good I think and judge that you shall follow me, and I shall be your guide’ (Inf. 1:112-3; Robert Durling’s translation). Dante is just passing through as at were, is, in a sense, a mere tourist among the torments of hell. But as Williams tells us, Ginsberg is one of the damned themselves, he has ‘partaken’ of the horrors he describes (p. 8), a word which suggests to me a sort of diabolical reversal of II Peter 1:4 (‘that by these ye might be partakers of the divine nature’) and of the act of Communion. Like Virgil, Ginsberg inhabits Hell, but according to Williams he goes further than the Roman poet, he ‘Claims it as his own’ (p. 8).

Although thus far I agree whole-heartedly with Williams’s reading of the poem as this is expressed in his introduction, I’m afraid it raises some further questions about how one ought to read Ginsberg. In particular, I do not think the poet shares our—by which I mean the ordinary, sensible reader’s, and perhaps even Williams’s—experience of the ‘horrors’ he describes qua horrors. He narrates—or more accurately, makes present for us by means of incantation—an infernal journey in the tradition of the ancient trope, but in Ginsberg’s own mind, that is, through the lens, on the one hand, of his own subjective experience, and on the other, of the Beat philosophy, ‘Howl’ is not an Inferno but a Paradiso.

Continued here.


Kevin P. Edgecomb said...


. . . I do not think the poet shares . . . .

That's so generous of you, calling Ginsberg a poet!

I’m afraid it raises some further questions about how one ought to read Ginsberg.

Or rather, whether one ought! Other than due to an interest in the history and development of Beat literature, a niche literature, it's really not compelling. Even as a trite and callow undergrad I found Howl even more trite and callow than myself, all shock and no light. The image of Kerouac and Burrows (and, to a much lesser degree, their talentless friend Ginsberg -- Burrows called him that, not me, though I agree) bears a kind of initially hypnotic fascination, due to the aura of coolness bestowed upon them by their surviving groupies (a small lot), since aged into experts. And then one learns truly to read,and discovers the hype.

Aside from the question of literary merits or the lack thereof, there is the issue of whether one ought to indulge in such flatly soul-endangering crap. The issue of censorship can always be brought up, free country, blah, blah, blah. But the Church is in the business of healing and saving souls, and reading such dreck bears consequences over a much longer period than the time in which it takes to read it (mercifully short!).

Plainly, what I mean to say is that there's really no reason to read Howl outside of a prurient fascination with the scribblings of a bunch of alcohol- and drug-addled losers. There's no redeeming quality to it either literarily or spiritually. In fact, it does damage to both one's literary sense (if the work is taken as somehow exemplary, and has an effect on one's writing) and spiritual life (for patently obvious reasons). But that's a distinction only clear in hindsight, really. I'd've revolted and read it if anyone said the above to me, back then.

Thanks for the provoking of the thoughts!

aaronandbrighid said...

Thanks for the great comment, Kevin! I was hoping for someone like you to come along. Basically, I agree 100%. I do not recommend that anyone read 'Howl'. Although I didn't make this clear in my introductory note, I myself read it, and wrote these comments, primarily as a missionary endeavour on behalf of my friend. He was quite taken with it, and with the sort of, at best, juvenile, and at worst, actually destructive 'philosophy' that it represents. If I seem to have taken it seriously here as a work of literature and moral 'thought', it was only as a courtesy to my friend, i.e., so as to take him seriously. I am happy to say that this friend, who lent me 'Howl' sometime in early 2008, is to be made a catechumen at our parish this Saturday. Not, of course, that my critique of 'Howl' had anything to do with it!

Kevin P. Edgecomb said...

Ha! So it worked!

Congratulations to your friend! And to you for your example, which helped lead him to this step. At the very least, you didn't frighten him away!

I just found out tonight that on Tuesday after Pascha we're having a service for Saints Raphael, Nicholas, and Irene! I am, as they say, jazzed. [Insert jazz hands!]

aaronandbrighid said...

Jazz hands indeed!