Allen Ginsberg, Religious Experience and the Anxiety of ‘Othering’

by Jonas Faust

Throughout his five-decade career, Beat-poet-turned-countercultural-icon Allen Ginsberg [1] presented himself in- and outside of his poetic work as a literary prophet of Cold War America, thereby situating himself at the forefront of the literary avant-garde. His poetry and political activism rebelled against the then-dominant conformist, conservative and efficiency-driven American value system, whose taboos and confinements he sought to break in order to arrive at a more positive, religiously infused way of life. This rebellion, which turned him into a key figure of the 1960s’ counterculture, entailed a rigorous, systematic pursuit of religious experience, following an initial vision he self-reportedly had in 1948 (Schumacher 1992: 95). This vision, during which, as he later claimed, he heard the voice of William Blake [2] and perceived the presence of a divine power (ibid.), became the blueprint for his understanding of religious experience for a considerable period spanning from 1948 to 1963 and possibly beyond. This blueprint, inherently shaped by his extrasensory perception, entailed the realization of a transcendent, metaphysical other, and it was precisely this other and the empty space it had left which he subsequently sought out to reach and refill.

William Blake, painted by Thomas Phillips (1807)

His attempts of doing so in the following years were predominantly designed not to arrive at a completely new, unique experience, but rather to follow and recreate the original blueprint, with William Blake being a constant point of reference. This inevitably led the poet to a dead end – having objectified the vision, thereby abstracting it from its concrete and unique experiential materialization, he was chasing after something which, as he later found, was irretrievably lost. In the following article, however, I want to address a dynamic which decisively hindered Ginsberg’s ability to recreate a positively connoted religious experience: Ginsberg associated the union of the individual both with the divine – which he conceptualized as transcendent Other – and with the ultimate, irreversible death of the self. By following his descriptions of various experiences – partly natural, partly drug-induced – as enacted in the poetry of the late 1950s and early 1960s, one can see how his notions of vision and divine union produced an anxiety that ultimately left the poet devastated, thus forcing him to radically reevaluate these concepts. This re-evaluation of his self-image and religiousness enabled Ginsberg to pursue a more positively connoted religious experience.

Religious Experience and Death in “The Lion for Real”

An early indicator that Ginsberg was associating death, or more precisely the death of the self, with religious experience can be seen in the 1958 poem “The Lion for Real,” [3] a humorous retelling of his 1948 Blake vision in which the allegorical lion represents god (Genter 2004: 23). At the end of the poem, the speaker expresses his despair: “Lion that eats my mind now for a decade knowing only your hunger / […] In this life I have heard your promise I am ready to die I have served / Your starved and ancient Presence O Lord I wait in my room at your Mercy” (Ginsberg, Collected Poems [4] 183, ll. 41-44). In the excerpt, god – or the lion – is depicted as a hungry, threatening creature demanding the ultimate sacrifice from the prophet, a kind of self-renunciation reimagined as physical death. To achieve the ultimate union with god, the speaker concludes, he must be “ready to die,” having served the “starved and ancient Presence” of the “Lord”, i.e., the Judeo-Christian patriarchal deity. Ginsberg commented on this passage a few years later in his Indian Journals asking “When will I ever be ready to die like I boasted in Lion for Real?” (1971: 29, 1962) This indicates that he did not only perceive death and divine union to be synonymous, but that he had not been able to achieve what he was looking for at this point.

Allen Ginsberg, photographed 1979

 “Kaddish”: Having Encountered Death

“Kaddish” (1957-1959), [5] one of Ginsberg’s most widely discussed poems next to “Howl,” features similar conceptions of god as a transcendent other which can only be experienced through death. Although the poem relates mainly to the life and death of Ginsberg’s schizophrenic mother, Naomi Ginsberg, it lays out the poet’s own faith. In the poem, god is imagined, among other things, as “Nameless, One Faced, Forever beyond me, beginningless, endless, Father in death. […] I would still adore / Thee, Heaven, after Death, only One blessed in Nothingness, not light or darkness, Dayless Eternity” (CP 220, ll. 52-53). Hans-Peter Rodenberg has argued that “‘Death’ in ‘Kaddish’ can be read with a similar ambiguity as ‘madness’ in ‘Howl’” (1983: 78; my translation), meaning that while initially feared, death later “becomes the death of a selective, rational consciousness [as opposed to visionary consciousness] and can thus be endured” (1983: 77; my translation). But while the poet could eventually overcome his grief over the death of his mother, his attitude towards his own fate differed substantially from his dramatized narrative of prophetic self-renunciation.

Ginsberg’s “Drug Poems”: Attempting to Recreate His Blake-Vision

The most impressive examples of his anxiety of transcendence are a series of “drug poems” written during a highly experimental phase in the late 1950s and early 1960s. Ginsberg wrote each poem under the influence of a different substance and attempted not only to narrate, but to poetically recreate the mental state he was experiencing as a result of the induced drug. Reflecting back on this phase of writing, Ginsberg recalled that “[t]he psychic problem I found myself in was that […] it had seemed to me […] that the best thing to do was to drop dead. […] Go into the nonhuman, go into the cosmic, […] that God was death, and if I wanted to attain God I had to die.” (qtd. in Plimpton 1999: 68) In “Magic Psalm” (1960), written under the influence of the psychoactive drug ayahuasca, [6] the speaker invokes god in the hope for a direct response: “Drive me crazy, God, I’m ready for disintegration of my mind, […] / devour my brain One flow of endless consciousness, I’m scared of your promise must make scream my prayer in fear” (CP 264, ll. 20-22). These lines adequately capture the mixture of ecstatic hope and anxiety that characterized Ginsberg’s attitude toward religious self-othering, i.e. the temporary loss or abandonment of one’s sense of a bounded, individual identity in favor of a unity with the greater whole of existence. [7] In the follow-up poem “The Reply”, the speaker compares himself to Jesus Christ, whose death is depicted as analogous to his own experience:

I am a man and I know not whither I go into Death– / Christ Christ poor hopeless / lifted on the Cross between Dimension– / to see the Ever-Unknowable! / […] a vast Being enters my / brain from afar […]/ The Presence / in Death, before whom I am helpless (CP 265, ll. 15-22).

The passage does not only anticipate Ginsberg’s later self-depiction as Messianic savior figure (by portraying his drug experiments as altruistic acts of religious martyrdom), but imagines his psychedelic expansion of consciousness as a kind of reverse kenosis. Contrary to the Biblical act whereby the Son Jesus Christ emptied himself, thus becoming wholly human (Theologische Realenzyklopädie 1988: vol. 17, 26), the speaker deprecates himself in the hope of being united with the divine in the moment of death. But as the passage demonstrates, this notion of religious experience as an irreversible act of self-abandonment was dominated by a mind-numbing anxiety rather than the prophetic ecstasy Ginsberg had formerly experienced in 1948 – it seems to have been impossible to recreate the experience of the Blake vision, as much as Ginsberg tried.

Moreover, his notion of god bore largely negative associations at the time. In “Lysergic Acid” (1959), for instance, the transcendent other that the speaker desires to reach and wishes to communicate with is imagined as a “multiple million eyed monster”, and the speaker himself is “Doomed” “in Inferno” because he “want[s] to be God” (CP 239, ll. 1-28). Again, the speaker does not reach the desired unity, partly due to his self-consciousness, and his gratitude –“Thank God I am not God!” (CP 240, l. 35)–betrays the deep ambiguity of his prophetic mission. The constant oscillation between the desire to “attain God” and to remain himself cannot be resolved. During all of his attempts at recreating the original Blake vision, Ginsberg’s self-awareness of his prophetic quest decisively hindered potentially successful results of this process.

This self-consciousness was as decisive as his conflation of divine union and death in shaping his experiences in the late 1950s, as the poem “Mescaline” (1959) shows. Under the influence of the hallucinogenic cactus, Ginsberg’s speaker becomes aware of his own mortality and physical decay, and questions the very nature of his endeavor:

I want to know / I want I want ridiculous to know to know WHAT rotting ginsberg / […] I want to know what happens after I die / […] do I really need to know now? is that any use at all use use use / […] are you prepared […] / to give release to this world to enter a heaven (CP 237, ll. 41-72)

The use of repetition and self-conscious commentary that permeate this section “atomiz[e]” the flow of the long line, resulting in a “tragic voice” whose compulsion for repetition renders it “crippling and incapacitating” (Harma 2019: 9). Due to these circumstances, most critics regard the poems as failures; [8] I would argue, however, that they successfully capture the nightmarish limbo into which the various substances, his self-consciousness and anxiety of transcendence catapulted Ginsberg. At several points, the speaker questions the utility of his prophetic quest –“do I really need to know now? is that any use”? In the end, he concludes that “to enter a heaven” is ultimately a path into death, and that there is “[n]o point writing where the spirit doth not lead” (CP 238, l. 77). This sentiment of the futility of religious experience as the death of the self dominates the “drug poems,” leaving Ginsberg disillusioned about the purpose and practicality of his prophetic quest and longing for a more positive religiousness.

The Inward Turn and “The Return to the Body”

Throughout his prolonged journey to India from 1962-1963, Ginsberg met several gurus who advised “getting in the body rather than getting out of the human form” (Ginsberg qtd. in Schumacher 1992: 377; emphasis in original). The poet later commented that “[t]he subjective result on me in India has been to start dropping all spiritual activity initiated […] and stop straining at heaven’s door”, as a result of which “I feel better and more relaxed” (ibid.). The gradual yet essential effect of this advice was to catalyze in the poet a re-definition of his very notion of religious experience as an intense and comprehensive anchoring of one’s physical being in the present moment rather than an abandonment of one’s earthly, bounded self for a unification with the divine. In his periodization of Ginsberg’s work, Glen Burns, a prominent Beat scholar whose book Great Poets Howl is among the few to extensively discuss the poet’s early work, thus speaks of the period from 1963 to 1972 as the poet’s “return to the body” (1983: 63f.). This shift of emphasis significantly impacted Ginsberg’s religious practice–which now focused on the physical effects of mantra chanting, meditation and meditative breathing–as well as his poetic practice.

In “The Change: Kyoto-Tokyo Express”, written on the eponymous train in 1963, Ginsberg recalls a profound religious experience whose impact resembles that of the original Blake vision and which cements the gradual realizations made during his travels in India, which had suggested to him to “get[] in[to] the body rather than getting out of the human form” (Ginsberg qtd. in Schumacher 1992: 377; emphasis in original). Tony Trigilio, whose work extensively discusses the Buddhist components of the poet’s work, calls the poem “both a continuation and revision of Ginsberg’s self-fashioning as a poet-prophet begun in ‘Howl’” (2012: 63). At the end of the poem’s first part, Ginsberg quotes the end of William Carlos Williams’ “The Clouds”, a poem in which his modernist idol denounces “spiritualism”, or the tendency of certain strands of Judeo-Christian soteriology to constantly defer enlightenment and salvation to a future state beyond death (Williams 1963: 126). [9]

It is this rejection of transcendence that dominates the tone of the poem, and it culminates in a performative speech act that expresses the poet’s discontinuity from his earlier religious quest: “In my train seat I renounce / my power, so that I do / live I will die” (CP 337, ll. 156-158). Although scholars are divided on the precise object of Ginsberg’s renunciation, I would argue that it is the objectification of his first vision, and the notion of vision and religious experience as such as an act of irreversible self-transcendence that the speaker is rejecting here. From this vantage point onwards, the poet was able to redefine not only his notion of himself as prophet-poet, but his religiousness as a whole, with a more positive, constructive outlook. It is only redefining himself in this way that he could be come as seminal a figure for the counterculture of the 1960s as he did, leading political marches, engaging publicly with policymakers and rockstars alike, and writing some of the most influential protest works of the 1960s and beyond. The transition from the dead-end of the “drug poems” to his “return to the body” thus completes the picture of Ginsberg’s artistic, political and religious trajectory as a self-declared heir to the literary tradition of American prophecies.


About the Author

Jonas Faust is a PhD student at the University of Heidelberg with a dissertation project on the paradigm of prophetic writing in the works of Allen Ginsberg. He obtained his M.A. in English Literature and Linguistics at Heidelberg University in 2020. His research interests include the Beat Generation (particularly Ginsberg and Burroughs), American Transcendentalism, British Romanticism, Modernism/Postmodernism and the intersectionality of literature, sociology, philosophy and religion. Jonas holds a PhD scholarship from the Studienstiftung des deutschen Volkes (Study Foundation of the German People) and works as a research assistant at the Heidelberg Center for American Studies. He is also a member of the Executive Committee of the Doctoral Convention.


References

Burns, Glen. Great Poets Howl: A Study of Allen Ginsberg’s Poetry, 1943-1955. Frankfurt a. M.: Peter Lang, 1983.

Genter, Robert. “‘I’m not His Father’: Lionel Trilling, Allen Ginsberg and the Contours of Literary Modernism.” In College Literature 31 (2). West Chester, PA: West Chester University Press, 2004. 22-52.

Ginsberg, Allen. Collected Poems 1947-1997. London: Penguin, 2009.

–. Indian Journals March 1962-May 1963. San Francisco, CA: Dave Haselwood Books, 1971.

Harma, Tanguy. 2019. “Tripping on the Threshold of the Doors: The Difficult Negotiation of the Visionary in Ginsberg’s Drug Poems”. In: 8th Annual Conference of the European Beat Studies Network (EBSN). Nicosia, Cyprus 9-12 October 2019. Goldsmiths Online Research. <https://core.ac.uk/download/pdf/237012528.pdf> Accessed June 12th, 2023.

Plimpton, George (ed.). Beat Writers at Work. London: Harvill, 1999.

Rodenberg, Hans-Peter. Subversive Phantasie: Untersuchungen zur Lyrik der amerikanischen Gegenkultur 1965-1975; Allen Ginsberg, Gary Snyder, Bob Dylan, Leonard Cohen, Jim Morrison. Giessen: Focus, 1983.

Schumacher, Michael. Dharma Lion. A Critical Biography of Allen Ginsberg. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1992.

Theologische Realenzyklopädie. Vol. 17. Ed. Gerhard Müller; Gerhard Krause. Berlin: De Gruyter, 1988.

Trigilio, Tony. Allen Ginsberg’s Buddhist Poetics. Carbondale, IL: Southern Illinois University Press, 2012.

Williams, William Carlos. The Collected Later Poems of William Carlos Williams. New York: New Directions Publishing, 1963.

 

[1] For more information on Allen Ginsberg, cf. poetryfoundation: https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poets/allen-ginsberg.

[2] For more information on William Blake, cf. poetryfoundation: https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poets/william-blake.

[3] The full poem can be found here: http://famouspoetsandpoems.com/poets/allen_ginsberg/poems/8337.

[4] Henceforth abbreviated CP.

[5] For the full poem, cf. https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poems/49313/kaddish.

[6] According to Wikipedia, the subjective effects of ayahuasca include “mystical experiences and spiritual revelations regarding [one’s] purpose on earth [and] the nature of the universe” as well as “near-death experience[s]” (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ayahuasca). The effects of the drug as reported by Ginsberg were by no means atypical.

[7] In a religious framework, this is often interpreted as unity with god.

[8] Cf. e.g. Trigilio 2012:55, 121; Harma 2019: 7; Burns 1983: 408.

[9] The poem’s critique reads as follows: “Now it’s spiritualism–again, / as if the certainty of a future life / were any solution to our dilemma […] / The poor brain unwilling to own the obtrusive body / would crawl from it like a crab and / because it succeeds, at times, in doffing that, / by its wiles of drugs or other ‘ecstasies,’ thinks / at last that it is quite free” (ibid.). The full poem can be found here: https://voetica.com/voetica.php?collection=1&poet=45&poem=4312.

 

Image Links

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William Blake 

Allen Ginsburg, photographed 1979 



Cite this blog post
The Editors (2023, June 28). Allen Ginsberg, Religious Experience and the Anxiety of ‘Othering’. HCA Graduate Blog. Retrieved June 17, 2024, from https://doi.org/10.58079/pg67

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