Book Note: Kaddish and Other Poems

Here’s one more counter-culture revolutionary for us to ponder. Allen Ginsberg, like Timothy Leary and Ram Dass, seems on paper to have many of the qualities we associate with liberal religion. To some, the main problem with these fellows is their use of psychedelic drugs to stimulate or enhance religious experiences. For their part, they saw themselves standing in a venerable American liberal religious tradition that stretched back at least to the Transcendentalists. It is the Transcendentalists who make it difficult for us to say that reason in religion truly is a core aspect of liberalism, and thereby make it hard for us to (reasonably) exclude Leary et. al. from the family of liberal religion. The Transcendentalists valued intuition over reason, and were often quite scathing in their assessment of their more sober and sedate Unitarian kin. They provoked intense controversy in their time, yet they’ve been fully folded back into Unitarianism and liberal religion in general, and today serve as some of the most important touchstones of the tradition. So the questions that arise are: if the Transcendentalists didn’t take reason as an important value, were they liberal? If they weren’t liberal, why have we so completely affirmed them and made them figureheads of our movement? And if they were liberal, what is it that prevents Leary, Dass, and Ginsberg from being religious liberals? If Leary et. al. explicitly see themselves as descendants of the Transcendentalists, how are they to be excluded from the family—aren’t they at least cousins of a sort?

Kaddish and Other Poems collects works from early in Ginsberg’s career, when he was already a rapidly-ascendant star of the poetry world. “Poet is Priest” Ginsberg announces as he opens “Death to Van Gogh’s Ear (p.61),” his literary assault on the creeping totalitarianisms—Capitalist and Communist—of his day. What he really means is poets are prophets, marginal cultural figures plugged directly into the greater consciousness of the world, able to communicate ineffable truths and show the way beyond quagmires of false speech and wrong thinking. That this is indeed a sacred act, an act of true and personal religion, is explicitly affirmed throughout Ginsberg’s poems, whether written under the influence of LSD:

“because my Word
It is a Ghost Trap, woven by priest in Sikkim or Tibet”
(pp. 87-88 “Lysergic Acid”)

or a mad mother continually unfolding her own holy beatific paranoia:

“Nameless, One Faced, Forever beyond me, beginningless
endless, Father is death. Tho I am not there for this Prophecy
I am unmarried, I’m hymnless, I’m Heavenless, headless in
blisshood I would still adore
Thee, Heaven, after Death, only One blessed in Nothing-
ness, not light or darkness, Dayless Eternity—
Take this, this Psalm, from me, burst from my hand in
a day, some of my Time, now given to Nothing—to praise Thee
(pp. 11-12 “Kaddish”)

In Kaddish and Other Poems Ginsberg’s spiritual landscape is shaped by two traditional religions: Judaism as religion of the family, history, society, morality, stability, and above all of the past, and Buddhism as the promise of a religion of the self, eternity, spaciousness, freedom, and the present. Ginsberg’s relation to Judaism is one of looking backwards into history, his own personal/familiar history (mad mother, broken father, lost brother, impotent aunts) as well as that of society, seeking clues to explain the causes of the world he has inherited. He has internalized the Jewish predilection for interpreting social/political events as struggles of religious significance and the act of memory and testament as holy action (indeed, this is the seed stimulus for his poetic work). His usage of Buddhism is different: here he mines the emphasis on the present moment, spontaneity, and complete freedom in order to turn toward events (both in his environment and in his consciousness) as they unfold in their uniqueness and impermanence, appreciating them for just what they are; he offers this directness untainted by prejudice or allegiance as a solution to modernity’s ills.

There may be a sort of paradox lurking in the spiritual approaches of Ginsberg, Leary, and Dass. Above all they are reacting against the ideologies of their age: nationalism, capitalism, communism, conventional religiosity, ethnocentrism, neo-colonialism, all of which they see as leading to the unbearable, hypocritical, and potentially apocalyptic situation of the Twentieth Century. Yet while they seek to reject ideologies, they still operate within the arena of ideology—the mind. Ideology is the capture of the mind harnessed to a particular conception of world, nation, and self, and to counter this Leary, Dass, and Ginsberg offer psychedelics, Eastern spirituality, and unfettered poetry/music/art. But even here they prove to be products of their time, as the central focus of their approach is the mind, the contents of the mind, and the ways of interpreting and relating to one’s thoughts and perceptions. As with full-fledged ideologies, their concern is above and beyond all with teaching people how to think, assuming that such things as codes of law, behavior, manners, social and familiar organization, and politics flowing necessarily but secondarily from the properly developed mind.

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Filed under Book Notes, Buddhism, Defining Liberal Religion, Liberal Religious History

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