When Allen Ginsberg’s Beat vision-quest came through England in the spring of 1965, I was appointed by this famous renegade minstrel to set down his legend for the Paris Review. Ginsberg’s last words in our interview came in response to an inquiry about the role of command in the compositional process. Sometimes when he was at work on his poems, he declared radiantly, he was overcome by ‘a sense of being self-prophetic master of the universe’.
That empowering sense, a feeling that he had a special mission, ‘an immediate Messianic thing’ involving ‘movements of history and breaking down the civilisation’, had originated nearly two decades earlier, Ginsberg confided, in an auditory hallucination of William Blake intoning ‘Ah, Sunflower’ to him ‘like God had a human voice’. James Campbell, who introduces a note of irony into his reworking of twice-told Beat tales, refers to Ginsberg’s historic undergraduate illumination as ‘hand-held’ – perhaps an allusion to a key detail in what he had said to me: the fact that an act of masturbation had triggered Blake’s phantasmal arrival in his East Harlem tenement flat. This account of the revelatory plunge into Godhead (‘the ceremony of his election’), often cited over the years as Beat Scripture, is quoted at length again here, ending with the poet’s optimistic verdict as to its meaning for his future life: ‘The spirit of the universe was what I was born to realise.’
Campbell’s tour of Beat legend begins with his subjects’ youthful exploration of criminal behaviour and moves on through many picaresque adventures, battles with psychic monsters, tiltings against windmills (normality is most often the enemy), pointless side-trips into illusory discoveries and confused rhizomatic intertanglings of relation and motive. He also shows how Ginsberg’s quest led him back to the original Blakean delusion of grandeur. Throughout this underground romance, that first infusion of ‘divine inspiration’ remains for Ginsberg what opiates are for his fellow Beat quester, William Burroughs: a way of attaining to ‘vision’. But Ginsberg’s heroic mission includes something else as well: an implicit claim to the Beat throne. And more: ‘I am high and naked,’ this indomitable Ecdysiac Knight exclaims, splashing into the 1960s on the last page of Campbell’s hard-eyed reconstruction of the legend, ‘and I am King of the Universe.’
When we met in England, Ginsberg had abdicated another impromptu throne, as King of the May (Kral Majales) in Prague. He had been expelled for taking off his clothes during a reading to his student subjects. Further prophetic challenges lay in store. We went on a pilgrimage to Glastonbury. There, after pausing under the great conical chimney of the abbey kitchen to scribble notes on the display of chivalric devices, arms and armour, he stood in the chilly drizzle over what was said to be the grave of King Arthur and chanted an extended, improvised rabbinical-druidic hymn. It evoked the strength and innocence of Blake’s Albion and ended on what seemed to me, at the time, a strange remark, perhaps a challenge hurled from king to king: ‘British poets are cowardly!’
Most legends have variants. The Arthurian story locates the mythic King’s remains not at Glastonbury but in fabulous Avalon. Campbell puzzles out the meanings of legendary Beat episodes by offering alternative readings: providing, for example, ten different descriptions of the object that Burroughs was aiming at when he shot his wife in the head in Mexico (champagne glass, shot glass, highball glass, wine glass, gin glass, water glass, tin can, apple, apricot, grape), and six possibilities for the kind of paper on which Jack Kerouac typed out the original hundred-foot scroll of On the Road (teletype paper, Japanese drawing paper, oilskin art paper, shelf-paper, canister-paper, tracing paper).
He finds strands of Kerouac’s road romance throughout the Beat legend. Tangled up in the story, as usual, is the Beat Lancelot, Neal Cassady. ‘The new American hero ... delinquent and hungry for a purpose’, Cassady shows up here in 1947, a beguiling apparition, naked with an erection in a tenement doorway, waiting to be ‘miraculously crafted’ into a figure of romance. For Kerouac, who had been blocking-out a grand picaresque novel in his notebooks, an American Pilgrim’s Progress, this naked stranger held ‘the keys to America’, a kingdom whose magic had until this moment been withheld from him. Kerouac ‘glimpsed the possibility of romance’. There was ‘something mystical ... which, in a shaft of insight akin to a vision, he recognised in Cassady,’ Campbell writes. Kerouac’s association with Cassady jump-starts what Campbell calls ‘the process of a profound change in his attitude towards his own experience’. The change was a matter of learning how to blow up real events and people to mythic proportions. It was Cassady who taught him this: the tear-away adventurer who stole cars and carried off women at a dizzying pace appeared to be more than human. The poetic tropes with which Kerouac limned his new-generation hero were often derived from classical mythology, with Cassady cast as a Promethean stealer of automotive fire, chained to his own inarticulate drives as one bound to a rock; a winged messenger-god in a Mercury; a naked Eros.
In Campbell’s account of the legend, the last of these figures is rampant. Cassady appears here under the double aspect of danger and desire. The importance of his role, allowing the spectator Kerouac to escape to the position of vicarious participant in his adventures, grows clearer as these adventures become more risky and the romance thickens, muddied by the growing extent of the depravity of the ‘errant boy’. Inevitably, in this as in many other versions, we suspect that Cassady’s place in the legend may be that of the sacrificial hero, the fated victim of his own terrifying quest for kicks. Being a witness to vision is less blinding than experiencing it, and Kerouac realises with relief that he will not have to put himself at the centre of his romance. Riding shotgun on great road trips will reveal his own ritual aspect, the Brooding Sidekick to Cassady’s hyperactive, beguiling Knight Driven and Driver. Even before taking off, Kerouac is excited by a ‘reflected witchery’ he feels sure will signal a new leap in his own vision-quest. ‘And somewhere along the way,’ he writes at the start of On the Road, ‘I knew there’d be girls, visions, everything; somewhere along the line the pearl would be handed to me.’
Yet Cassady’s reflected witchery turns out to be complex: the legendary cocksman is disclosed as an androgynous beguiler in a subplot that entangles him at once with Kerouac and Ginsberg. Campbell plays this as an episode of double desire, in which Lancelot becomes Guinevere. Balancing between ‘the desire to please and the desire to profit’ by ‘making an investment in Ginsberg’s literary talent’, Cassady reveals his mendacious aspect as the Hustler Knight, ‘only bestowing favours because he wants to gain something by the transaction’. The ‘investment’ in physical attentions will return a certain dividend in Howl (‘N.C., secret hero of these poems, cocksman and Adonis of Denver’), but the real score is reserved for Kerouac. Campbell points to a passage in the 1950 scroll draft of the road romance, which left the Beat heroes’ real names undisguised, and shows Kerouac seeking to appropriate the naked hero, now a bone of contention, for his own uses: ‘Allen was queer ... and Neal saw this and a former hustler himself ... and wanting dearly to learn how to write poetry like Allen, the first thing he was attacking Allen with a great amorous soul such as only a conman can have.’
Campbell suggests that Kerouac’s biased account of the three men’s interlocking relations in On the Road is intended to point up the hollowness of the Hustler Knight’s love for Ginsberg, and that this, in turn, ‘creates a space for the true romance of the book’. He is particularly good on the way that ‘true romance’ is clinched in the symbolic wedding scene. In this blushing, embarrassed bonding episode, which joins the narrator and his ‘errant-boy’ hero in a golden, illuminated moment on a sunlit hill, exchanging glances above the Western ocean, we are reminded again that in romance, accidents often turn up clues to the hidden intent of a quest. The scene is precipitated by a ‘realistic’ narrative contingency – the outlaw hero getting bounced (for infidelity) by his ‘reigning wife’ – but it allows a marvellous revelation of the secret goal. ‘There were triumph and insolence in his eyes,’ Kerouac’s narrator says, as the two heroes stand marooned in their Beatness on that sunlit hill, ‘a devilish look, and he never took his eyes off mine for a long time. I looked back and blushed ... we would stick together and be buddies till we died.’
Spelling out the significance of this for the legend, Campbell notes that ‘theirs is a platonic love, though bedecked by romantic accoutrements, many of them subliminal, some even unconscious.’ His analysis of the symbolic ‘wedding’ is central to his account of Beat legend: the scene appears as the ultimate consummation of a sublimated ‘boy-gang’ love which has not yet adjusted to its later exchange value. The love between the two figures who, as Campbell comments, ‘possess nothing but their baggage and each other’, is naive, deceived and self-deceiving, yet as long as the spell of the road romance lasts, it is untainted by the element of commodification which Cassady’s hustler habits introduce into the legend. Had the road book stayed in Kerouac’s backpack for ever, there might have been no cancelled cheques with his autograph for Johnny Depp to buy. But not all sacraments are destined to remain sacred.
Given the current commercial success of everything to do with the Beats, it is ironic and curious to recall the resistance that Kerouac – the first, most committed and poetic of the Beat chroniclers – encountered when he began looking for a publisher for the 1950 typescript of On the Road. Campbell retells the story of this seven-year trial of rejection and suspicion, during which Kerouac’s bitterness intensifies with the pitfalls and pratfalls of the quest, some of them bizarre, even grotesquely comic – Kerouac being ineptly agented by Ginsberg, and nightmarishly ‘edited’ by Carl Solomon, the insulin-comatose, glucose-swollen Bughouse Knight of Howl. Kerouac’s comments in letters of the period paint an unfunny self-portrait of a gullible ‘Li’I Abner’ at the mercy of the rapacious commercial ‘pigjaws’ of Madison Avenue. There is also paranoia about having his creation whisked away, exploited and cashed in on by fellow writers. But paranoia, in his friend Burroughs’s formulation, is only extreme consciousness: an enhanced receptivity to truth. It was around this point that John Clellon Holmes, a stay-at-home quester, purloined testimony from Kerouac and Ginsberg for a pelf-garnering pseudo-Beat romance (Go!), and, in a notorious article in the New York Times (‘This Is the Beat Generation’), took metonymic possession of Kerouac’s ritual term for the underworld heroes’ ‘new stance toward reality’ – ‘a sort of furtiveness ... a kind of beatness’, as Kerouac had explained it to him. ‘I guess you could say we’re a beat generation.’
Kerouac’s belated effort to grab back the term’s ritual magic by retitling his roadbook The Beat Generation proved futile. The unparagraphed format of the 1950 hundred-foot scroll typescript clearly worked against its commercial prospects, and the recalcitrant Kerouac finally gave in and broke up the long heroic prose-lay into more conventional units. A related but more serious difficulty was his disinclination to compromise the manner of his writing. On the Road’s headlong, scattered drafting of a collective but disorganised vision-quest, a romance of errantry with no point but the journey itself and ‘no story beyond the story posted by the signs along the way’, inevitably set Kerouac at loggerheads with Malcolm Cowley, the first editor to recognise the mythic potential of his legend. Cowley, seen through the Brooding Knight’s cocked eye as ‘a semi-pedantic Vermont professor-type with a hearing aid’, made gentle but firm demands for a conventional structure – a ‘unified story’, an ‘A-B-C development’ – which Kerouac stubbornly refused to accommodate. His book’s construction, he insisted, was consistent with his road vision – a claim for the truth of allegorical romance. As Campbell says, this dispute agonisingly lingered; entire centrifugal movements were required to be cut; it was in desperation that Kerouac at last submitted to the sacrilege of revision which allowed On the Road to see the light.
In This Is the Beat Generation, Campbell himself works with a romance-narrative mode of entrelacement; his reconstruction of Beat legend moves forward by jumping from limb to limb of a branch-narrative structure, following his several heroes’ interconnected movements from chapter to chapter. Their quest is anti-normative, anti-conventional from the start. Like Malory’s heroes, they are bound to a peculiar way of living, characterised by a restless search for new adventure. Malory’s knights, after all, are not only courtly but crazy and confused; Caxton’s preface warns readers that they will find not only deeds brave and chivalrous, but ‘cowardyse, murdre, hate’. The young knights in search of a ‘New Vision’ whom Campbell discovers in wartime New York City – Kerouac, Ginsberg, Burroughs, Lucien Carr – all land in mental hospitals by the age of 30. The loyal boy-gang that develops out of their errant-undergraduate ‘libertine circle’ undergoes some of its severest tests in these early chapters, as their New Vision implicates them in a succession of legendary crimes of impulse, rehearsed by Campbell with something like tabloid relish. They include murder (Carr’s ‘honour slaying’ of his ex-scoutmaster, David Kammerer, with Burroughs and Kerouac as accessories); needle-drug addiction (‘quite a sensation’ is Burroughs’s comment on being administered his first shot of morphine by Herbert Huncke); and self-mutilation (Burroughs’s prescient deconstructive act, or ‘Van Gogh kick’, of snipping off his left little finger with poultry shears).
Irrationality is etched as deeply into Beat legend as the skull-and-crossbones Ginsberg inscribes beneath the words ‘Fuck the Jews’ in the dust of his college dormitory windowsill, earning him a brief expulsion from Columbia. The same sepulchral motif would come to figure as his calling-card. At King’s College, Cambridge, in our 1965 spring tour, he scribbled it on a cheerful self-introductory note thrust under E.M. Forster’s door. Forster later inquired: ‘Is the fellow mad?’ When Ginsberg heard this, he thought it was flattering. In Howl, we recall, it is precisely the madness of the Beat generation’s ‘best minds’ – ‘starving hysterical naked’ – that leads them to vision.
By the mid-1950s the Beat quest had carried its principal heroes to the fabulous western edge of the kingdom. In sunny California Allen Ginsberg’s long camouflage trail of half-hearted ‘normalcy programs’ is finally lost in the hang-up-dispelling daylight of psychotherapy, allowing him to leap from a repressed state – ‘the blind side of the trick wall’, Campbell calls it – out into the full illumination of his ceremonial aspect as the Ecdysiac Knight. To ‘express secret life in whatever form it comes out,’ he confided to a group of students, ‘I practically take my clothes off.’ At a famous gathering of minstrels in the Six Gallery, in San Francisco, Howl was covered with glory. For the first time in the Beat legend, private weirdness was publicly embraced.
Kerouac the Brooding Knight succeeds less well in this West Coast phase of the legend. All along impatient with his ‘flighty vagabond romanticism’, his latent racism and misogyny, Campbell now reveals him in his later Simple Simon aspect, as a fauxnaif ‘crazy dumbsaint’ Knight of Oblivion. The Kerouac of the later parts of Campbell’s version is all but finished as a writer, even before his central work has been published: a foolish, besotted, lost hero ‘to whom thoughts brought trouble, who drank to quell them’. Lonesome and bereft after the failed love affair with a black girl chronicled in The Subterraneans – condemned by Campbell as the most reprehensible of Beat texts – he turns to the Life of Buddha to relieve his ‘Beermares’, but after much untutored study rises only to the ‘fatalistic and commonplace’ in his attempts to smuggle an adopted religion into his writing. Heading to California, he backpacks with Zen companions Philip Whalen and Gary Snyder, but only gets drunker and lonelier and unhappier. When last we see him, he is typing up grandiose autodidactic meditation manuals and ‘spiritual bromide’ sutras in a rustic cabin in thought-free California, victim of a fear of ‘discriminating thinking’ that cloaks ‘a banal fear of life’.
The last word on Kerouacian/West Coast Beat Buddhism, here, is reserved for the exiled Invisible Knight, William Burroughs, responding from his ‘end-of-the-world’ outpost in Tangiers to his friend Kerouac’s babblings about renunciation, self-abnegation and chastity:
Buddhism is only for the West to study as history ... It is not, for the West, An Answer, not A Solution. We must learn by acting, experiencing and living; that is, above all, by Love and by Suffering ... You were given the power to love in order to use it, no matter what pain it may cause you. Buddhism frequently amounts to a form of psychic junk ... What I mean is the Californian Buddhists are trying to sit on the sidelines and there are no sidelines. Whether you like it or not, you are committed to the human endeavour.
The deadpan, laconic, no-nonsense noir voice of experience that makes Burroughs Campbell’s true Beat oracle, at once its trustiest commentator and in some sense its stylistic model, also supplies some of the book’s driest lines. Confronted by an ‘Ugly Spirit’ while shooting his wife in Mexico City, for instance, he reports that it was, in retrospect, as if her brain ‘drew the bullet toward it’. Campbell, clearly impressed, places Burroughs among the ‘untouchables’ of legend, those who perform a ‘priestly function in taking on themselves all human vileness’.
Our last glimpse of this frail, greyish creature of the shadows discovers him in Paris at the outset of the 1960s, the truest of Campbell’s Beat survivors, still tuned into that old ‘silent frequency of junk’ and still enacting the oldest and deepest of Beat rituals – transgression and self-mutilation – and turning them now against the legend itself. Taking a cut-up lance to his own writings as ‘the next logical step in his continuing quest for the secret of telepathic communication’ – ‘If you cut into the present, the future leaks out’ – the Invisible Knight finds the Word itself coming apart under his surgical blade. At the end of this demystifying book, Campbell stresses the fundamental difference between Burroughs’s approach to the vision-quest and Ginsberg’s. Burroughs wanted to eradicate his own identity; Ginsberg wanted to incorporate everything in his.