Religious Ecstasy in Allen Ginsberg’s “Howl”
Although it was not until the 1960’s that Beat Generation American poet Allen Ginsberg came into close contact with Buddhism and Krishnaism, he already had inclinations to religion several years before he wrote his renowned masterpiece “Howl.” The following quote is based on a biographical account of Ginsberg:
“Experimenting with drugs like marijuana and nitrous oxide to induce further visions, or what Ginsberg later described as “an exalted state of mind,” he felt that the poet’s duty was to bring a visionary consciousness of reality to his readers.” (“Allen Ginsberg Biography”)
This “visionary consciousness of reality,” which defines Ginsberg’s purpose as a poet, is similar to an altered state of consciousness which is characteristic of religious ecstasy. The term “religious ecstasy” refers to an irregular state of awareness and perception, in which the reaction of the mind to “external stimuli is either inhibited or altered in character,” and that religious ecstasy is the equivalent of “trance” in mystical theology (Roberts & Hruby). It is therefore possible that Ginsberg’s 1956 poem “Howl” is not only a masterpiece whose purpose is to bring to the readers “a visionary consciousness of the reality” experienced by the Beat Generation in 1950’s America. The poem also serves as a testament to the role of the alteration of the mental state in order to commune with the spiritual realm, thereby reflecting the theme of religious ecstasy and its various elements. Ginsberg’s “Howl” is therefore a literary piece that showcases spirituality through religious ecstasy experienced in a real life scenario.
In research, religious ecstasy has come to be associated with “different states of consciousness that are characterized by unusual achievements, peculiar experiences and odd behavior” (Roberts & Hruby). Thus, individuals experiencing religious ecstasy are presumed to act in rather strange ways and display behavior which may appear unconventional and rebellious, regardless of whether these are chemically induced or not. This idea then lends a new perspective to Ginsberg’s poem, which is often merely regarded as a literary work of “personal issues of lifestyle and sexuality, sanity and madness” (Warner). The fact that “Howl” is heavily marked with various elements of oddity and unusualness of experience ascribes to it a sort of tranquil and meditative sense characteristic of spiritual works. Furthermore, underneath the abnormal and deviant behavior that permeates Howl is a profoundly deep search for religious experiences. However, this theme of madness and oddity is certainly not of an aggressive political appeal.
It may be true that odd behavior and the desire to experience the unusual may indicate aggression and rebelliousness in an individual. Nevertheless, mentioning aggression and rebelliousness vis-à-vis the fact that these are the same qualities that characterize one who is religiously ecstatic, one comes to the conclusion that Ginsberg’s poem is actually a poem of spiritual rebelliousness. This spiritual rebelliousness is due to the fact that an individual cannot possibly accept the contradictions that society imposes upon his spiritual nature, as shown in the first line of “Howl”: “I saw the best minds of my generation destroyed by madness, starving hysterical naked” (Ginsberg I). This “madness” is the madness of materialism and sexual repression prevalent in 1950s America. However, Ginsberg shows that this madness is also a kind of salvation. He calls these same “mad” individuals “angelheaded hipsters” and writes that they are “burning” for a connection with the divine cosmos, and that they “bared their brains” to these spiritual ambitions (I). This shows that when the mind is restrained, repressed or not experienced at all in the physical world, it is nevertheless eventually given spiritual expression through madness. These “best minds” are so depraved by societal repression that they are literally “starving” and driven “hysterical” for a spiritual experience (I). In other words, Ginsberg uses hunger and nakedness as symbols of spiritual longing. This spiritual repression seems to be the source of hysteria and rebelliousness that is narrated throughout the poem. This ensuing madness is associated with religious ecstasy and some elements associated with this madness are shown by the lines of the poem that denote intensity and unusualness of experience, such as the line: “who…purgatoried their torsos night after night with dreams, with drugs, with waking nightmares, alcohol and cock and endless balls” (I). This means that, for Ginsberg, hallucinogenic drugs, alcohol and sex are among the various unusual experiences that are associated with spiritual madness or religious ecstasy.
On the other hand, the odd behavior associated with spiritual ecstasy may include hysteria and exhibitionism, as shown by those “who broke down crying in white gymnasiums naked” (I) and those “who howled on their knees in the subway and were dragged off the roof waving genitals and manuscripts” (I). Two other examples of odd behavior include “pederasty and intoxication” (I), which Ginsberg himself explicitly states. He also points out fellatio, but only implicitly, in those who “blew and were blown by those human seraphim, the sailors” but somehow gives this act a more romantic tone when he regards it as “caresses of Atlantic and Caribbean love” (I). Two last examples of odd behavior emphasized in “Howl” include prostitution and theft, which are primarily the business of those “who went out whoring through Colorado in myriad stolen night cars” (I). The point is that although these aforementioned examples of odd behavior and unusual experiences seem to reflect plain rebelliousness and violence, they are in fact a form of spiritual expression.
Aside from unusual experiences and odd behavior, another thing associated with religious ecstasy is sex coupled with pleasure. Nevertheless, pleasure highly depends not on the sexual act itself but on one’s perception of the act. It is believed that “the altering of one’s perception of sexual feelings is tantamount to directly increasing one’s pleasure in the activity” (Butts), and that sex is associated with “loss of contact with reality, and at times a partaking of the preternatural” (Butts). Moreover, this altered perception of sex is carried out by certain religious groups, thus combining sex and spirituality. For example, in the Madras section of India, there is a popular cadence [or “a raga”] which literally means “sexual intercourse [or orgasm] and “union with God” simultaneously (Butts). Moreover, especially in classical Greece, “all forms of love [including sex] were [believed to be] of divine origin and had to be respected” (“Sex and Religion”). Also, “in actual practice, most Islamic societies have always tolerated homosexual and ambisexual conduct” (“Sex and Religion”). The same goes true with Hinduism for its ancient sex manual known as the Kamasutra, which regards sexual intercourse as a means of spiritual fulfillment, at the same time tolerating “sacred prostitution” (“Sex and Religion”). Therefore, based on the premise that sex is a significant element of religion, one can attribute the sexual nature of Ginsberg’s poem “Howl” not to immorality but to an exaltation of religion.
Ginsberg gives in his poem a reference to the trancelike nature of sexual intercourse, akin to religious ecstasy where there seems to be a feeling of eternity or endless pleasure: “who copulated ecstatic and insatiate and fell off the bed, and continued along the floor and down the hall and ended fainting on the wall” (Ginsberg I). There is a sense of continuity in the preceding statement and this sense of continuity is similar to one employed in achieving a trancelike state in several meditation and religious practices. Moreover, Ginsberg mentions “who balled in the morning in the evenings in rosegardens and the grass of public parks and cemeteries scattering their semen freely to whomever come who may” (I). Although this particular line may at first suggest carefree, illicit sex with multiple partners, it may actually imply a sharing of sexual energy, which is the same energy that “brings life to this planet in many ways” and which is known as “the life-force-generating energy of ‘universal love’ which flows through all living beings everywhere” (Rosenberg 2). Moreover, the line “who…purgatoried their torsos night after night with…cock and endless balls” (Ginsberg I) may appear downright sexually explicit especially with the use of sexual slang common only to pornographic material. Nevertheless, this particular line implies that sex is a bridge that connects the physical “torsos” and the spiritual, which is denoted by “purgatoried.” One more thing, the two lines that express homosexuality – “who let themselves be fucked in the ass by saintly motorcyclists, and screamed with joy” (I), and “who blew and were blown by those human seraphim, the sailors” (I) – both imply that sex, as well as the spiritual connections it creates, goes beyond heterosexuality and that it must be shared universally by all humans – both heterosexuals and homosexuals alike. Lastly, “Howl” also alludes to the worship of the vagina and its reproductive powers through the mention of “a vision of ultimate cunt” (I), which is the vagina itself, and “the last gyzym of consciousness” (I), which refers to vaginal fluids that facilitate intercourse. This particular worship of the vagina is a spiritual element in a number of religious belief systems such as Tantra. It is believed in Tantric schools that “a yoni [or vagina] worshipper…gains wealth, poesy, wisdom and omniscience [and] becomes the four-faced Brahma for one hundred million eons” (“Yoni Tantra”). Vaginal worship therefore is next to godliness.
The spiritual madness or religious ecstasy shows itself not only in sexual experiences but also in a kind of “death-rebirth process” (Roberts & Hruby). This process is more like a result of “[someone’s] transition to a dynamic form of autonomous self-experience” from the repression of one’s innermost sentiments. It is believed that “the depressive state [that results from repression] is described in terms of ‘oppression’ and the overcoming [or the death-rebirth process] in terms of ‘consciousness expansion’” (Roberts & Hruby). The result is naturally “increased intensity of consciousness and a positive emotional attitude” (Roberts & Hruby). Presenting this notion with respects to Ginsberg’s poem, one can see that the lamentations described in Part One and Part Two eventually lead to the glory in Part Three. Part One describes several acts considered to be destructive of life, such as “[cutting]…wrists three times successively unsuccessfully” (Ginsberg I) and Part Two talks of poverty and the rise of “demonic industries” (II). Nevertheless, these rather bleak pictures transform positively in Part Three as it speaks of the idea that “the soul is innocent and immortal” (III) and that one will mostly likely witness the resurrection of the “living human Jesus from the superhuman tomb” (III), which may refer to a kind of archaic return to spiritual madness itself. Or perhaps it alludes to the Christian idea that death is necessary for the redemption of humanity.
Moreover, one of the major signs of a longing for rebirth is the act of suicide, to which Ginsberg gives reference a number of times in “Howl.” He mentions “who created great suicidal dramas on the apartment cliff-banks of the Hudson” (I), “who cut their wrists three times” (I), “who jumped off the Brooklyn Bridge” (I), and “who fell out of the subway window” (I). These acts describe suicide, which, despite its seeming immorality, is actually “an honorable way to alleviate shame” (Petrun). Ginsberg therefore points out that the Beat Generation would rather retain their honor by committing suicide than allowing themselves to be tainted by “the whole boatload of sensitive bullshit” (Ginsberg II) brought about by the monster of the rising industrialization, materialism and repression which Ginsberg himself calls Moloch. No one can be born again in all loftiness and enlightenment unless he chooses or is willing to die first. Conscious, deliberate death or suicide is the key to this.
The death-rebirth process of spiritual awakening also leads to “a transcending in consciousness towards so-called ‘transpersonal experience’ [or] experiences of a superpersonal cosmic unity” (Roberts & Hruby). This experience of cosmic unity actually refers to “the experience of an ultimate dimension of wholeness and oneness” (Ginsberg I) in both the self and the whole universe. This particular aspect of religious ecstasy is also infused in “Howl” particularly in the line “…lifting the city to Heaven which exists and is everywhere about us!” (II). The preceding line explicitly states that Heaven, which is a purely subjective and imaginative idea, is in fact one with reality. This oneness is also exemplified by the following lines: “…if I had a vision or you had a vision or he had a vision to find out eternity” (I), and “the universe instinctively vibrated at their feet in Kansas” (I). The first of these two lines implies a divine connection between and oneness of the visions of various individuals, while the second line shows an idea of a human being’s oneness with nature.
This particular oneness with nature is another element of a number of religious groups, especially the Native American Indian religions. Native American Indian tradition is believed to uphold intimate and respectful contact with Nature” (“Legacy of Transcendentalism”). Religious and mystical symbols of the Native American Indians include the “Great Tree of Peace,” which is actually an imaginative “eternal evergreen with roots embracing the four corners of the earth, and a straight, true trunk touching the ‘sky world.’” (“Legacy”)
Ginsberg’s poem shares this vision of communion with Nature through various lines such as “the universe vibrated at their feet in Kansas” (Ginsberg I), which is a line that somehow considers the earth as similar to human being with a heart and veins that vibrate. By virtue of this similarity, it then follows that humans, the earth and the universe are all one and the same. This viewpoint is coincidently akin to Chinese thought; whose ancient philosophy regards the Universe as an organism. The Chinese, who have deep roots in Taoism and Buddhism, have for thousands of years seen themselves not as separate entities or separate egos, but as intimately connected with the basic energy of the entire universe. A main component of Chinese philosophy is to teach that underneath the seemingly separateness of the world, there is but one basic reality that has no opposites, and that man’s idea of himself as a separate ego is merely a result of social convention. This would explain Ginsberg’s later affection for Buddhism and other Eastern philosophies.
Moreover, oneness with nature is also depicted in the following lines: “sun and moon and tree vibrations in the roaring winter dusks of Brooklyn” (I), and “the ancient heavenly connection to the starry dynamo” (I). The first of these two lines speaks of oneness with the elements of nature while the second line speaks of a sort of divine connection with God. Aside from these, “Howl” also mentions a few lines where an individual makes various connections with the lower forms of Nature such as plants in the line “…dreaming of the pure vegetable kingdom” (I), animals in the line “…total animal soup of time” (I), and the sea in the line “…caresses of Atlantic and Caribbean love” (I). Ginsberg also connects spirituality, sex and Nature in the line “who balled in the morning and evenings in rosegardens and the grass” (I), as well as in the line “who blew and were blown by those human seraphim, the sailors, caresses of Atlantic and Caribbean love” (I). All these lines speak of a cosmic unity – a divine connection – that man shares with Nature. Through the mention of these lines, Ginsberg somehow succeeds in conveying this subliminal message through “Howl.”
“Howl” is a testament to Ginsberg’s genius – which is the genius of infusing religious and spiritual implications in an otherwise aggressively political literary work. The poem bears witness to the fact that the sufferings and seemingly immoral acts of the Beat Generation in 1950’s America are simply expressions of religious ecstasy and spiritual awakening. The elements of religious ecstasy, as proven by scientific research and empirical observations of various cultural and religious groups, include unusual experiences, odd behavior, pleasurable sex, death and rebirth process, cosmic unity, and communion with Nature – which are the very elements and themes infused within “Howl.” Ginsberg’s poem is therefore not only a calling for change in the current political and social system of his time, not only a mere denunciation of materialism and oppression, but also a message to all humans that the madness Beat Generation and any other group of people regarded as deviants may actually be more spiritual than anyone would think.
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