Sex and drugs and blank verse
— Soumitro Das / August 18, 2008
The Genealogy of the Beats goes right back to the Romantics, with their “falling and dying” and funereal odes to creatures with wings. But in more concrete terms – in terms readily understood by those who were looking for a way out of bourgeois reason (the word ‘bourgeois’ here used in the broader non Marxist sense of the word, as a culture, as a posture of the mind, as an embedment in institutions that serve neither the true nor the beautiful, that seek only to satisfy the majority and enhance gregariousness) – in terms that are both artistic and intellectual at the same time, the Beats would trace their ancestry back to Baudelaire, Rimbaud, Lautreamont and Mallarme, to the beginnings of the European avant-garde.
The word itself comes from Jazz slang for ‘tired’, ‘broken down’, ‘dead beat’ and along with the word came also attitudes and habits, cocking a snook at the world, wearing dark glasses and consuming drugs in significant quantities. The European avant-garde, construed as a movement against bourgeois rationality, took shape and form, first with the Dadaists (“Dada means nothing”, as Tristan Tzara said, avoiding thus the tissue of lies and half-truths that makes up the substance of all merely political revolutions). And then there were the Surrealists, a more ample wave of cultural dissent, buoyed up by practices as esoteric as automatic writing as an instrument to explode the subconscious in public spaces hitherto occupied by socialists and mendicants and soothsayers.
But Andre Breton, the Surrealist supremo – the way Bal Thackeray is the Shiv Sena supremo made the cardinal error of owing surrealist allegiance to the Soviet revolution. Fortunately for the avant garde, there was Artaud with his “dental architecture of being”, immersed deep in peyot1 and heroin, who raised the banner of revolt and people like Joyce and Beckett too stayed away from the Surrealist party All this meant nothing in the United States, except in music. The rock’n’rollers of the 60s and 70s are the true inheritors of the avant-garde legacy in America. Elvis Presley was more of a revolutionary than Norman Mailer or Arthur Miller But this was, of course, not known to William Burroughs, Jack Kerouac, Allen Ginsberg, Gregory Corso, Gary Snyder and Joanne Kyger who were the founding fathers of Beat, with Allen Ginsberg as the “centralbugababoo”.
A girl called Hope swirled around them, gave her beauty to whoever asked for it, and then disappeared from a place called Calcutta, never to be found again.
Renunciation of the world is an idea that the Beats did not find entirely alien. To experiment with life is also to give up on its conventions and customs, its hopes and its despairs, to renounce, indeed, any hope of reward, excepting the blinding hallucinations brought forth by LSD.
So for the Beats, the Orient was not a metaphor’; it was a concrete possibility of escape. And so it was that in the December of 1961, Allen Ginsberg and his lover Peter Orlovsky (whose brother had been stabbed by his mother in full view of the police and the voting public), made their way to India.
Out of all the places they visited, Calcutta was the one that most resonated with their own aspirations.
Here, they met poets, Shakti Chattopadhyay and Sunil Gangopadhyay mainly, who were not unlike themselves, ready to challenge established cadences, ready to construct a platform for those in delirium, but who would not touch drugs or homosexuality Here, too, Ginsberg met Ashoke Fakir, who introduced them to Nimto1a cremation ghat, with its stoned sadhus now nestling in the lap of cosmic poetry exuding out of inner-exiled Bengali and American poets. One of the saints tells Ginsberg that he should begin by accepting Blake as his Guru.
Deborah Baker, tells the story of the Beats as it should be told – with passion and verve.
(Soumitro Das is a Kolkata-based writer)