A Blue Hand: The Beats in India, by Deborah Baker, Penguin Press, $25.95
In the summer of 1948, Allen Ginsberg was a heartbroken, anxious 22-year-old living in Harlem, struggling to find his poetic voice. He was still beholden to Blake and Donne and had not yet discovered the raw, angry, oracular voice that would haunt his classic poem “Howl.” While lying in bed one July and reading Blake’s “Ah! Sun-Flower,” he heard a supreme, otherworldly voice reciting the lines of the poem. Ginsberg was ecstatic. He believed he had witnessed God. He tried desperately to conjure up the presence again, but only some time later, while walking on the Columbia University campus, repeating the lines of another Blake lyric with incantatory piety, did it return to him, although in a different guise. What he saw this time, as Deborah Baker writes in A Blue Hand, was “an alien apparition, a fanged serpentine monster of doom, [that] swooped down from the black skies of upper Broadway, malevolent and vast and intent on eating him alive.”
Whether the encounters were divine or delusional, they were seminal moments in the young Ginsberg’s life, and he was determined from that point onward to devote himself to the search for God. That search would lead him—as it has led so many people on similar quests—to India. It didn’t hurt that Ginsberg had grown increasingly disillusioned with America over the years and that, despite the ascendancy of the Beat movement, he found himself at odds with what he believed to be a materialist, militarist culture. He wanted to escape, to find a guru who might lead him on the path toward truth. He wanted to experience heightened states of perception, to find some relief from the anguish he constantly felt. He also hoped to find a guru he could have sex with, and one who would condone the use of drugs. Getting stoned, Ginsberg insisted, was a crucial part of his spiritual journey.
By the time he arrived in that distant world of holy men and gurus, landing in Bombay in 1962 with his unschooled lover, Peter Orlovsky, Allen Ginsberg was no longer an obscure poet but a celebrated one. Celebrity, however, would not prevent the pair from traveling third-class. Ginsberg and Orlovsky wandered from city to city like impoverished vagabonds, dressing like locals and staying in filthy hotels. And their journey became one endless high, as they indulged every day in morphine, opium, ganja, bhang, or the psychedelic pills that Ginsberg carried around in his backpack “like radiant isotopes.” When they met up with poets Gary Snyder and Joanne Kyger in Delhi, Ginsberg and Orlovsky were “high as kites,” having “managed to score some morphine after less than a week” in the city.
More often than not, the locals Ginsberg met embraced him. In Bombay, he attended cocktail parties, presided over poetry readings, and gave interviews to curious local reporters. In Calcutta, he befriended a group of maverick Bengali poets intent on moving beyond the lyrical, pastoral world of Rabindranath Tagore by “using the demotic language of the street, market, and factory” to “break down meter, rhyme, and . . . conventional morality.” Ginsberg felt a kinship with these young poets, and they with him. The American was “a subject of great curiosity,” Baker writes, “with his beard, nervous tics, and orations on the mind-expanding properties of LSD.” Who was this man who did not flinch when confronted with Calcutta’s teeming poverty and who professed an interest in Hindu philosophy?
The Bengali poets may have thought of Ginsberg as some kind of Western holy man, but it is hard to read Baker’s absorbing account of his Indian sojourn and not be a little put off by the poet’s utter self-absorption. (Though the subtitle of this book is “The Beats in India,” and though Baker does fill her narrative with vignettes of other writers—Snyder, Kyger, Gregory Corso, William Burroughs, Jack Kerouac, and the mysterious and elusive Hope Savage—Ginsberg is the undisputed star of this road show.) Although he claimed to want enlightenment, he desired it on his own terms, as if it were some quick fix. He had neither the patience nor the discipline (nor the desire) to sit motionless for minutes, let alone hours, in a state of meditation. (Even his poetry, with its repetitions of phrase and its enumerative free-verse style, has a kind of restless breathlessness in its oratory.) With his obsessive need for drugs and sex, he was little different from the hordes of Westerners journeying through India, using the country to satisfy their insatiable physical appetites—and their spiritual ones in only the most superficial of ways. As Ginsberg confessed to Corso, “How should I know what I’m doing in India anyway? All I know is that it’s a ball, and I feel great.”
I don’t think Baker, the author of biographies of the poets Laura Riding and Robert Bly, intended to paint an unsympathetic portrait of Ginsberg, but I found it nearly impossible to find anything redeeming in someone so oblivious of his surroundings. But then, was there another 20th-century American writer about whom critical opinion is so strikingly divided? Depending on your point of view, Ginsberg was either a prophet or a buffoon. And whatever the merits of such poems as “Howl” or “Kaddish,” his behavior abroad seemed to justify the latter characterization. Baker writes, for example, that “he photographed beggars shamelessly, often posing [Orlovsky] alongside.” And there is something just a touch absurd about Ginsberg’s encounter with the Dalai Lama, in which the poet earnestly recounted his experiments with drugs and even offered to have some mushrooms sent over for His Eminence to try. The Dalai Lama demurred. Drugs were merely a distraction, he insisted; they did “little to address the central problem of the ego, the source of all spiritual anguish and ignorance.” But Ginsberg was undeterred, as he was undeterred when given this same advice by various gurus less luminous than the Dalai Lama.
Only toward the end of his travels did Ginsberg, unable to find a guru he could love, finally go beyond himself and attempt a real connection with the world around him. In Benares, something in him changed. Surrounded by the dying and the destitute, the poet began to reach out to the most hopeless, to care for the most malnourished. Despite those empathetic gestures, Ginsberg’s perceptions of India strike a false note. “What he saw” in Benares, that holiest of Indian cities, Baker writes, “were moving corpses, dead things covered in clothes, bodies destined only for the pyres. With all the gongs being rung, all the cigarettes being sold, rickshaws flagged, meals cooked, clothes washed, tickets bought, it was hard to see what it all added up to beyond the tired thought that everyone, every living thing, was doomed.”
But what was it all supposed to add up to? Why should this tableau of a crowded city have suggested something deeper? That’s the point, I suppose: India isn’t supposed to “add up” to anything. It is not a solution to some deep mystery, the magical fount of mystical epiphanies. It is a real place, where food is cooked and clothes are washed and people live and die—just like any other place, of course. But this is the realization that eluded Ginsberg, who treated India like some exotic fetish, a playground, a thing to use and then discard. He imposed his own voracious appetites and his oversized personality on that ancient, foreign land, and demanded that the place, in return, merely validate his own lusts. In the end, Ginsberg could escape his home, but he could not escape himself.