Ginsberg, India, and the Holiness of Dirt

By Frontain, Raymond-Jean | East-West Connections, Annual 2010 | Go to article overview

Ginsberg, India, and the Holiness of Dirt


Frontain, Raymond-Jean, East-West Connections


Shortly after his arrival for a long-anticipated fourteen-month stay in India, Allen Ginsberg records in his journal a dream in which he imagines himself atop a hill of garbage.

I am climbing about on a pile of refuse when a young married couple spies me & says "Ah, this garbage-haunting is what you represent." I sit cross-legged Buddha style over the wires & refuse & bless it and say "I am here to make the Refuse sanctified" and smile cheerfully at the refuse as if it were a big happy religious redemption. (Journals 8) (1)

The dream brings into focus certain of the tensions in the thirty-six year old poet's life, most importantly what he saw as the tendency of heterosexual normalcy (represented by "a young married couple") to dismiss as "garbage-haunting" the spiritual search that he himself found deeply meaningful. And it captures the urge he felt to sanctify or redeem what society has discarded as ugly, useless and, in some cases, profane.

The aesthetic and the ethic that Ginsberg would develop as a result of his experiences in India were in many ways but an extension, or a deepening, of the system of religious and artistic values that he had already been working eighteen years to articulate. "The world is holy! The soul is holy! The skin is holy! The nose is holy! The tongue and cock and hand and asshole holy!" Ginsberg had asserted in 1956 in "Footnote to Howl" (Poems 142), the groundbreaking poem in which he celebrated the "angelheaded hipsters burning for the ancient heavenly connection to the starry dynamo in the machinery of night" (Poems 134) who had been driven mad when forced to live in a world governed by Moloch. Likewise, in Kaddish (1959), his haunting requiem for his mother Naomi, Ginsberg invited his reader to contemplate the "ragged long lips between her legs--What, even smell of asshole?" (Poems 227). In attempting to recover the sacrality of the body and its functions, Ginsberg went further, even, than Walt Whitman, who had proclaimed that "Divine am I inside and out, and I make holy whatever I touch or am touch'd from, / The scent of these arm-pits aroma finer than prayer" (Song of Myself 524-25).

Ginsberg's Indian Journals (1970) record, thus, not a sudden conversion experience, but a significant stage in his gradual movement from the Judaism of his upbringing to the Buddhism that would guide and preoccupy him until his death in 1997. First exposed to Asian religious texts in his undergraduate courses at Columbia College and further guided in his reading and thinking by his earliest mentor, Jack Kerouac, Ginsberg had drawn upon Hindu-Buddhist poetic form as early as 1955 when writing "Sunflower Sutra." But, as Tony Trigilio notes, until his travels to India in 1962-63, Ginsberg's "Buddhist practice was autodidactic and, as such, was eccentric and erratic" (Trigilio xii; claim repeated on 102). Nonetheless, Trigilio concludes, "Ginsberg's struggle with Buddhism is central to understanding his post-'Kaddish' visionary work; and only through an understanding of his maturation as a Buddhist can we consider the scope of his career in detail" (xi). Trigilio thus reads Ginsberg's later career ultimately as an attempt "to reconceive ... [the] Beat improvisatory aesthetic as a Buddhist one" (2).

The significance of Ginsberg's traveling to India following an eight-week stay in Israel is suggested by the opening passage in the Journals, in which he records his "first dream of India" (which he titles a "Premonition Dream"). "[A]fter weeks of unhappiness" at sea, Ginsberg sees himself arriving in an unidentified Indian city. "I wonder what city I'm in," the Ginsberg-of-the-dream records. But his disorientation is inconsequential: "I'm deliriously happy," he explains; "it's my promised land" (Journals 5). Following this dream of India as his very own "promised land," Ginsberg-the-diarist notes parenthetically, as though to underscore the religio-cultural irony of his situation, that "I'm writing this in the promised land" (emphasis added)--that is, while in Haifa, in modern-day Israel, which remains historically the Promised Land of the Jewish scriptures. …

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