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Lions Roar : November 2006
SHAMBHALA SUN NOVEMBER 2006 79 what we once used to refer to as the “Free World” (in the UK and U.S. specifically) makes that same struggle against con- formism and social control all the more urgent. I saw the best minds of my generation destroyed by madness, starving, hysterical naked [...] Ginsberg’s “Howl” is about resistance: resistance to pow- er structures, orthodoxy, and control; a reflection of and on paranoia and its grip in (totalitarian) society; resistance in the teeth of resignation, powerlessness, and a palpable oppression. Just when it seems these forces have moved beyond our individual and collective control, the disparate Beat writers demonstrate to us some methods, techniques, and sites of resistance to powerful social forces that function, whatever the intent, to subdue, terrorize, and control populations and individuals. “Howl” juxtaposes the psychotic, the paranoid, and the hysterical with images of mid-century American reality—“hy- drogen jukebox” is an often-quoted example—relating the fear of invasion and nuclear holocaust with the technology of the time and the media value of entertainment. These associations are not as easy to ignore as isolated, identified (and pacified?) understandings. Ginsberg elsewhere identifies, as pointed out by Eric Mot- tram in his insightful 1972 essay “Allen Ginsberg in the Six- ties,” that, in relation to politics and personal survival in poetry: the existence of the self, as well as all conceptions as to the non- existence of the self, as well as all conceptions as to the existence of a Supreme Self, as well as all conceptions as to the nonexis- tence of a Supreme Self, are equally arbitrary, being only con- ceptions.” That made quite a bit of sense, since Burroughs had already presented me with Western semantics, Korzybski’s book Science and Sanity, which had some similar insight. The first time I heard the refuge vows was from Kerouac also, crooned like Frank Sinatra in a beautiful way. That it imprinted itself on me, and I began going to the New York Public Library and looking at Chinese paintings of the Sung Dynasty, interested in the vastness of the landscape scrolls, as correlating with the sense of vastness that I had already experienced. IN 1962, AFTER A TRIP to Europe, I went to India, primar- ily to look for a teacher, because I realized I would have to get a teacher, or wanted one, or intuited that I needed one, or wasn’t quite sure. By then I was quite well-known as a poet, and I figured that the proper move, being now famous, would be to disappear into India for a couple of years and look for some wisdom, and also experience a different culture than the Western culture, which I thought from the viewpoint of Spengler, the decline of the West, was perhaps exhausted of inspiration and it was time for a second religiousness, and so I went to look for a teacher. I went in com- pany with Gary Snyder, who four years earlier had gone to Kyoto to study at the First Zen Institute at Daitoku-ji Monastery and had begun helping translate Zen Dust, a handbook of koans. We went on a Buddhist pilgrimage to Sarnath, Sanchi, Ajanta, Ellora. In a cave at Ellora, Gary sat himself down and chanted the Prajnaparamita Sutra in Sino-Japanese, with echoes of the cave around, and that blew my mind. It was such an extended, long, and obviously spiritual breath, vocalized, that I got really inter- ested and asked him about what it meant, and why he was doing it in Japanese, and what was the history of it. In the course of our trip we went to visit the Dalai Lama, and Finally it becomes too much to fight. But the stakes are too great to lose—the possession of one’s feelings intact. The Beat writers do not offer us neat solutions or counterac- tions to overwhelming odds, but rather, perhaps, a sense of the urgency in the struggle against conformism and the totalitarian impulses in society, as well as the encouragement to so struggle. Gary Snyder wrote in 1969 in Buddhism and the Coming Revo- lution, “No one today can afford to be innocent, or indulge him- self in ignorance of the nature of contemporary governments, politics and social orders.” Political and eco-awareness as strategies for locating and valu- ing resistance. Likewise, spirituality partially assumes this role for many of the Beat writers. Michael McClure’s relation of the organism to its environ- ment, and his idea of “Revolt” (from his Meat Science Essays) locate the site of resistance in the “bodily” aspect of the indi- vidual that the filmmaker Stan Brakhage also employs in his re- sistance to the normalization of vision that mainstream cinema has become. Burroughs’ deliberate adoption of paranoia, countering the social paranoia of 1950s America; di Prima’s breaking of certain regularities of male language; Kerouac’s mythologizing and mo- bility of expression; Waldman’s notion of alternative commu- nity—these and other demonstrations of sites of opposition re- mind us now to stop fiddling with our mobile phones, to tune out the homogenizing mediocrity of “entertainment,” and to refuse to relinquish our belief in opposition and resistance in the face of the seemingly unstoppable momentum of social oppression. ♦ ©ALLENGINSBERG/CORBIS