Dream & vision
by Sura Wood
Still cool after all these years, the Beat Generation of the 1950s exerts a powerful hold on the romantic cultural imagination a half-century later. One need look no further than Beat Memories: The Photographs of Allen Ginsberg, an engaging, very enjoyable exhibition now at the Contemporary Jewish Museum. "The poignancy of a photograph," wrote Ginsberg in 1990, "comes from looking back to a fleeting moment in a floating world." That desire to commit treasured ephemeral experience to posterity is the essence and emotional tenor of a show that's essentially an essay in literary fellowship, lifelong friendship and nostalgia, Ginsberg's and ours.
Photo: The Allen Ginsberg LLC
Though most of the candid, intimate black & white photographs on display were taken between 1953-63, they were subsequently personally inscribed by Ginsberg in the 1980s, with pithy handwritten captions. Poetic, at times witty, he reflected on his band of brothers including his lifetime love, Peter Orlovsky, whom he met in 1955, and friends poet Gregory Corso; William Burroughs, an influential literary innovator and scion of a wealthy Midwestern family; the charismatic Neal Cassady (pictured with "his love of that year" beneath a Market Street movie marquee promoting The Wild One); and the handsome, pensive Jack Kerouac, for whom a cigarette was never far away. There's even a 1992 image of a wary Bob Dylan, with whom Ginsberg had a quasi father-son relationship. Boy, wouldn't it have been grand to be privy to conversations between those two? The anti-authoritarian, drug-addicted madman Burroughs, whom Ginsberg once called a "great teacher of the night," is shown in multiple snapshots: on the roof of Ginsberg's apartment building; posing next to "a brother Sphinx" at the Metropolitan Museum; and later, in Tangier, where he was editing Naked Lunch and visiting in a villa courtyard with Corso, several young admirers, and the dapper author/composer Paul Bowles, of The Sheltering Sky fame. (Female Beat writers are absent, and aside from relatives, women are incidental footnotes or temporary companions.)
Literary and artistic movements come and go, so why do many continue to care about this one? "They held out the promise that anyone could start with a dream and a vision and find glory without compromising their ideals," explains San Francisco writer/ poet and Beat aficionado Alan Kaufman. "Freedom was inside, [it was] not where you lived and how much money you made." But when it came to freedom, there was a disparity between myth and reality, especially with Kerouac, whose novel On the Road became bible and credo for the young, restless and footloose. (He also came up with the title for Ginsberg's Howl, Burroughs' Naked Lunch, and is given partial credit for giving the Beats their name.) It should be noted with a shade of irony that at 31, the author who epitomized the American hunger for unfettered adventure, sexual and otherwise, was still living with his parents in Queens. "I warned you as far back as 1945, if you keep going home to live with your Memere, you'll find yourself wound tighter and tighter in her apron strings till you're an old man and can't escape," writes Ginsberg on a 1953 photo of Kerouac being regaled by Burroughs.
The product of Colorado reform schools, Neal Cassady lived hard and died young. He inspired the fast-talking, even faster-driving womanizer Dean Moriarty, the hero of On the Road, and later joined Ken Kesey's psychedelic drug-infused Merry Pranksters. "Neal's illuminated American automobile mania, 'unspeakably enthusiastic' friendship & erotic energy had already written his name in bright-lit signs of our literary imaginations before movies were made imitating his charm," notes Ginsberg.
Unapologetically gay and bi, and considered freaks and outsiders, the Beats stood in opposition to the rise of the corporation in the postwar era, and resisted the pressures of a conformist society. We're presently in an age when sexually explicit content and profanity no longer shock or scandalize, but they lived free and wrote about it in the 1950s and 60s when doing either or both could get you arrested and your books banned. At the time, they were disparaged and dismissed by the literary establishment, but they've certainly had the last laugh on that score.
The freedom they embodied and "the openness about who they were came at a cost," observes Kaufman. "Homosexuality, madness, suicide" and skirmishes with the law were all part of the landscape. The troubled writer Carl Solomon, a veteran of several stays at psychiatric hospitals to whom Ginsberg dedicated Howl, is seen "several years after we were locked up together," smiling brightly and sitting cross-legged on a bed, looking like a science-class geek in his black-framed glasses.
Mental illness, substance abuse and time took their toll. In the 1980s, Ginsberg returned to photography, shooting pictures of his aging confederates. If you'd prefer to remember these men, as I do, frozen in rebellious youth, the last gallery may be one to avoid. It's touching and discomfiting to see them as older men, for those who managed to make it to middle-age, especially Kerouac. He's photographed slumped in chair during his last visit to Ginsberg's New York apartment in 1964, five years before his death at 47. "He looked by then like his late father," Ginsberg recalls. "Red-faced corpulent W.C Fields shuddering with mortal horror, grimacing on D.M.T I'd brought back from visiting Timothy Leary." And finally, there's Ginsberg's self-portrait, shot on the author's 70th birthday: a picture of an elderly poet/radical who could be mistaken for the neighborhood rabbi. (Through Sept. 8.)