An Educated Barbarism

On the first page of his most famous novel, William Burroughs explains: 'the title means exactly what the words say: NAKED Lunch — a frozen moment when everyone sees what is on the end of every fork'. The notion that the writer's duty is to convey experience raw, unmediated by literary convention or good taste, is repeated many times, Burroughs purporting to reject any attempt at novelization and presenting himself as the scientific documentor of his own (and, by extension, the larger culture's) morbid symptoms:

There is only one thing a writer can write about: what is in front of his senses at the moment of writing. ... I am a recording instrument. ... I do not presume to impose 'story' 'plot' 'continuity'. . . . Insofar as I succeed in Direct recording of certain areas of psychic process I may have limited function. ... I am not an entertainer.

Paradoxically, in rejecting literature Burroughs simultaneously calls upon it, the title Naked Lunch deriving from Kerouac and the clause 'I am a recording instrument' invoking the Berlin stories of Christopher Isherwood together with their theatrical adaptation by John Van Druten, I Am A Camera (itself subsequently the inspiration for the stage and screen musical, Cabaret). As for the text itself, this scabrous phantasmagoria is densely interwoven with allusions, some admiring, some satirical, to the Bible, Confucius, Lao-Tse, Shakespeare, Webster, Swift, Wordsworth, Coleridge, Keats, Dickens, Rimbaud, Housman, Conrad, Stein, Joyce, Eliot, Kafka and Ginsberg, together with a plethora of popular songs — including, rather incongruously granted the surrounding squalor and mayhem, 'Believe me if all these endearing young charms . . .'!

The truth is that far from stepping outside the mediating frames of culture to get at experience direct, the Beat conceptions of unmediated reality were themselves culturally produced. How typical that when Burroughs murdered his wife it was not in some ghastly explosion of domestic rage and passion, but drunkenly acting out the fictitious William Tell story made famous by Schiller's play and by Rossini's opera Guillaume Tell (1829). Similarly, when Ginsberg voluntarily entered Columbia Presbyterian Psychiatric Institute in order to escape imprisonment for possession of stolen goods, he was met by a bespectacled overweight Jewish boy with a towel wrapped around his head. 'Who are you?' the stranger asked. 'I'm Myshkin', Ginsberg said.

'I'm Kirilov', Carl Solomon rejoined. Not even the extreme experience of psychiatric detention was drastic or terrifying enough to be apprehended raw and inchoate, but presented itself pre-processed by the novels of Dostoievsky. (Myshkin is the saintly hero of The Idiot, Kirilov the demonic nihilist in The Possessed.)

Of course, there is nothing wrong with artists being steeped in their cultural inheritance; nor with the literary stratagem of using intertextual references as a way of foregrounding the fact that all our perceptions of reality are culturally mediated. The trouble is that the Beats themselves keep wobbling between shame and pride in their own scholarliness, lurching from the crudest anti-intellectualism to dandified flaunt-ings of artistic knowingness. In the sixth of the 'Pictures of the Gone World' section of A Coney Island of the Mind (1958), Lawrence Ferlinghetti opts for the anti-high art posture:

walking around in museums always makes me want to

'sit down'

I always feel so constipated in those high altitudes

Yet poem after poem of this same volume (whose very title is an allusion to Henry Miller) begins with some such line as 'In Goya's greatest scenes we seem to see . . .', or 'Kafka's Castle stands above the world . . .', or 'Sarolla's women in their picture hats . . .'. There is no passion so animal, and no animal so bestial, as to elude this web of citations, as when an apparently feral dog waits with his head cocked sideways at street corners as if he is just about to have his picture taken for Victor Records listening for

His Master's Voice

Despite Ferlinghetti's penchant for lumberjack shirts and mountain boots, his poetry has more in common with Oscar Wilde ('What has nature ever done except copy art?') than The Call of the Wild (nature red in tooth and claw, etc).

The same holds true for the other Beats. James Campbell has remarked the extraordinary literary pedigree of Kerouac's title On the Road, citing as evidence works of the same name by Douglas Goldring (1910), Gwen John (1920), Langston Hughes (1935) and Cyril Campion (1954). As for Ginsberg, many of his best poems are written over the top of previous works by earlier authors: 'Malest Cornifici Tuo Catullo' translates and adapts a poem by Catullus; 'A Supermarket in California' reworks Lorca's 'Ode to Walt Whitman'; 'Sunflower Sutra' is clearly modelled on Blake's 'Ah, Sun flower!'; 'Kaddish' leans heavily on Edward Marshall's 'Leave the Word Alone'; while in 'Howl' the echoes mutiply, many of them carrying the marks of more than one prior usage (for instance, Ginsberg took Christ's agonized cry 'eli eli lamma sabachthani' — 'My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?' — not from its New Testament source in Matthew 27.46, but via Tristan Corbiere's 'Cris d'Aveugle', so that both anterior texts are in play in the pertinent passage towards the end of Part I).

There has always been a criticism hostile to the Beats, usually entailing a last-man-on-the-ramparts, end-of-civilization-as-we-know-it tone of hysterical oppositiona-lism. Thus the poet John Ciardi wrote contemptuously of their 'unwashed eccentricity', while Norman Podhoretz, in 'The Know-Nothing Bohemians', claimed that they stood in opposition to 'intelligence itself'. Yet the Beats are characteristically erudite, bookish, sedentary. As the jam-jar bottom lenses of Ginsberg and Burroughs's spectacles attest, these were men more at home in a library than roughing it 'on the road'.

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