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Wednesday, July 9, 2008

Howling for India

Ginsberg’s search for enlightenment

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   In 1961 Allen Ginsberg, who proclaimed just about everything to be holy in his seminal poem “Howl,” left America for India. What he brought back would become essential to American counterculture. Deborah Baker’s A Blue Hand: The Beats in India (Penguin) is exceptionally detailed regarding what happened and what did not. In the tradition of the Beats, if something did not happen, it still did.

  In Blue Hand, Baker found a rare path to biography, paying close attention to Ginsberg’s 15-month quest for enlightenment in India, using what might have been his own way of writing the book, had he done so. Blue Hand is a well-researched, elegant biography written in Ginsberg’s tradition of an open field of composition, where everything counts as long as it can be accounted for in one sitting and with no revision.

  On June 3, 1962, Ginsberg visited one of countless gurus he sought throughout his sojourn. On this day, his 36th birthday, he ran into a lama of the Gelukpa sect who offered him a young boy for sex (as it really was just a small sin). Ginsberg declined. He was in a hurry to visit the Tantric sect. From one holy tribe to another, he sought the enlightened state of detachment. His spiritual quest in this land of countless groups of mystics led him from one teacher to another, one doctrine of purity after another, each with its own eccentricities and each, except for one, finding Ginsberg charging through like a charming little boy lost.

  The Dalai Lama, only 27 years old at the time, asked Ginsberg: “If you take LSD, can you see what’s in that briefcase?” In response, Allen proposed to recite “Howl.” Traveling with Ginsberg at this moment was Gary Snyder, perhaps the most contemplative of all the Beats, and he interrupted with questions about meditation posture. He asked the Dalai Lama, “How many hours of meditation do you do a day?” The response? “Me? I never meditate. I don’t have to.” Ginsberg was elated by the reply. He could never put up with meditation, no matter how many photographs were taken of him sitting as though doing so. Snyder was very disappointed.

  Ginsberg went to India to find a sure, true spiritual guide. Many of his crazy pals joined him from time to time. He wanted to be split away from his neurosis, detached from it. He wound up discovering many elements of the American counterculture. Much too restless to seek enlightenment, he ended up feeling more attached to what he already knew—that he was a renegade Jewish “queer poet.” His works became a pantheon of mystical gods and goddesses as he cascaded further into neurotic bemusement. In spite of himself, Ginsberg became a public sage to hip culture in the ’60s and beyond. Snyder retreated to a monastery.

  Ginsberg’s Disney version of Eastern mysticism was perfect for an American cultural revolution. He did ultimately find one doctrinal touchstone on his journey in the Baul (which means “possessed”) tradition of song. Known as “holy fools” in India, the Bauls were regarded as vagrants who wandered the Bengal countryside, making up songs. You can see two of them on the cover of Bob Dylan’s album John Wesley Harding. Ginsberg dragged Albert Grossman, Dylan’s manager, into all this and got him to promote some Baul troubadours who toured America; they were staying with Grossman when the album cover photograph was taken. Ginsberg wanted to accompany them as he chanted at love-ins, be-ins and psychedelic rock festivals. “I loved you very much,” one Indian companion said to Ginsberg. Then he added, “Second rate, your chanting.”

  And second rate, too, his enlightenment. But perfect for America! Ideal for the new beginning of Beatitude! Ginsberg never took himself so seriously that he would suffer defeat as a result of extreme contemplation. He always found something hilarious in himself and his ability to bless anything that crossed his path was remarkable. He made the failure to find the reason for his soul in India a success in America and beyond by ’60s end when he became the image of enlightenment itself to rock artists. It was Ginsberg who gave divine meaning to a 40-minute guitar solo as if it was the inner search itself. But it was especially Ginsberg who provided an entirely new lexicon for songwriting through Dylan’s sudden charge toward multileveled meaning in rock songs.

  Blue Hand has no beginning, middle or end. This reviewer is way past deadline and not any closer to enlightenment. But perhaps there never will be as definitive a book as Blue Hand regarding the basic elements of hip culture, since it replicates the very process of discovery. Sitars on rock records; Beat lingo in song lyrics; the poet as meddler and crazy jumper: It is all so neurotic, attached and American. It is all so Allen Ginsberg, who went to India and came home. Columbus discovered America and thought it was India. Ginsberg discovered India and thought it was America. Or he convinced himself and tens of thousands that some of it was. What a mantra.