The paper burns, but the words fly away – Akiba ben Joseph
I love these three scenes:
Currently, I am doing some (very) preliminary research for my thesis and I found a scene in the 2011 film Howl to be profound: the trial scene. The above clips weaves the trial scene with that of Ginsberg‘s first reading of “Howl” at a New York nightclub. Like the stage, the trial is a confessional space, one where Ginsberg found himself revealing intimate details about his youth in scattered, abstract, poetry.
For the most part, the initial readings of “Howl” were a disaster. Audiences and readers at the time had difficulty accepting the use of obscene words implying obscene, yet metaphorical, gestures. The poem was anti-American, yet nationalistic, in its attempt to revive Whitman’s America. Scholars reviled the poem because it seemed to lack form and substance. White, middle-class, all-American professionals couldn’t seem to wrap their heads around the poems for what it was to become: an anthem for the next decade.
Admittedly, the Howl Trial made “Howl.” It gave it substance, form, and a readership. Similar to On the Road, “Howl” gleaned fame from controversy. There is nothing like a book-burning event to get people reading the very book that is being burned (Harry Potter anyone?)
In the book, Howl on Trial, Beat poet and owner of the famous City Lights Books, Lawrence Ferlinghetti, explains “[t]he “Howl” that was heard around the world wasn’t seized in San Francisco in 1956 just because it was judged obscene by cops, but because it attacked the bare roots of our dominant culture; the very Moloch heart of our consumer society.” The public heart is not the consumer heart, yet the heart of capitalism is values, moral or otherwise. How we moralize compliments our own interests. Capital can also be cultural. In 1956, Ginsberg and the Beats lacked all types of capital, which makes it easy to see why they were not trusted by the general public initially.
After the “Howl” trial, On the Road came out. Despite being a success with young readers, On the Road was damned by critics (and parents). The book contained references to casual sex and revelled the vandal antics of its protagonist, Dean Moriarty. Moriarty represent that dark American dream: the desire to seek out frontier, regardless of limitations and laws. The narrator, Sal Paradise, is fixated on Dean throughout the book, perhaps imitating our own fixation on such a character. Paradise states:
Suddenly I had a vision of Dean, a burning shuddering frightful Angel, palpitating toward me across the road, approaching like a cloud, with enormous speed, pursuing me like the Shrouded Traveler on the plain, bearing down on me. I saw his huge face over the plains with the mad, bony purpose and the gleaming eyes; I saw his wings; I saw his old jalopy chariot with thousands of sparkling flames shooting out from it; I saw the path it burned over the road; it even made its own road and went over the corn, through cities, destroying bridges, drying rivers. It came like wrath to the West. I knew Dean had gone mad again
Dean becomes canonized for his wild behaviour. Sal is fretful, confused, and yet fascinated by him, as are his readers.
Both On the Road and “Howl” exhibit the ragged edge of reality. They are dreams and ideas yet to be realized; worlds that seek to defy limitations set by nations, races, classes, and sexes. The politics surrounding both works are mirrors to a society’s conscience.
Perhaps this is why the recent films, On the Road, and, Kill Your Darlings (with Daniel Radcliffe as Ginsberg, left), have become so timely. The 50s was an age of conformity. Post-war trauma resulted in the counterculture that was to be birthed from a culture that policed, standardized, and capitalized on anyone and everything. The Beat works promoted a new way of thinking, living, and being in a culture of contradiction. Who knows? Perhaps a new On the Road is on the horizon.