Wednesday, July 13, 2011

Fine and Happy and Crazy As a Wildflower

This is something I've been meaning to put here for some time; it was another one of those life-forming things that didn't change my life, but gave me the courage to start doing it myself.

I must have read Jane Kramer's Allen Ginsberg in America (Random House, 1969) a year or two after it was published, in 1970 or 1971. Yeah, I know, it began its existence as a New Yorker profile of Ginsberg, but this passage made an indelible impression on me. I've returned to it often over the past forty years when I needed a peptalk.
It was the San Francisco doctor, a psychiatrist named Philip Hicks, who “gave me the authority, so to speak, to be myself,” Ginsberg says. “I had like a beautiful conversation with him one day, and the key thing I said was that I was dissatisfied with what I was doing, I was very unsure of myself. So he said, ‘What would you like to do? What is your desire, really?’ I said, ‘Doctor, I don’t think you’re going to find this very healthy and clear, but I really would like to stop working – never work again, never do anything like the kind of work I’m going now – and do nothing but write poetry and have leisure to spend the day outdoors and see friends. And I’d like to keep living with someone – maybe even a man – and explore relationships that way. And cultivate my perceptions, cultivate the visionary thing in me. Just a literary and quiet city-hermit existence.’ Then he said, ‘Well, why don’t you?’ It was the last thing I expect him to say. I asked him what the American Psychoanalytic Association would say about that, and he said, ‘There’s no party line, no red book on how people are supposed to live. If that is what you really feel would please you, what in the world is stopping you from doing it?’ So I said that the only thing stopping me was my being in psychoanalysis and feeling that that kind of screwy thinking wasn’t exactly contributing to my general development, and he said that it was obviously contributing to something, if it was what I wanted to do with my life. So that was really delightful, getting that kind of talk from an analyst. The thing I suddenly was beginning to realize about Hicks was that he actually liked me and wanted to see me pleased and happy and free to develop in my own way, and I was curious about this and I said, ‘But this is so far distinct from your way of life. Don’t you feel any conflict?’ He kind of shrugged and said, ‘No, I’m happy with what I’m doing, and I don’t see any reason for you not to be happy with what you do.’ Like he was just a very good person, a good human being, and I guess that’s what I had needed all along.”

Ginsberg went home that night and drafted a report on the economic advantages of installing a small I.B.M. machine at Towne-Oller, to replace himself and his two secretaries. He says that Mr. Towne and Mr. Oller were moved by his consideration and ingenuity, which, it turned out, would save them seven hundred dollars a month. They obligingly fired him, to specifications, with a signed statement to the effect that Ginsberg was the unfortunate victim of technological progress. Ginsberg began collecting forty dollars a week in unemployment checks. Soon after that, he met Peter Orlovsky [42-3].
Rereading Kramer the other night before I typed this in, I noticed that Hicks "got married, moved to Park Avenue, raised his rates from seven-fifty an hour to twenty-five, and told Ginsberg to get a better job" (41) -- it turns out he wasn't all that cool after all. I also can’t help asking, What about the secretaries? They hadn’t decided to become urban literary hermits, but they were presumably unemployed anyway.

This story affected me so positively because it encouraged me to figure out what I wanted to do, without necessarily following slavishly in Ginsberg's footsteps. I didn't need to become an urban literary hermit, I just needed to find out who I was and become that person. Which, on the whole, I've done. That's what a role model (a word I don't much like) should be, though it's the opposite of what a role model is supposed to be: someone who frees you to be yourself, not a poor copy of him or herself. The core is these two sentences:
‘There’s no party line, no red book on how people are supposed to live. If that is what you really feel would please you, what in the world is stopping you from doing it?’
Many people would protest, "But what if it would really please someone to be a serial killer?" and cite Charles Manson. It shouldn't be necessary to explain this, but please insert "as long as it doesn't hurt anybody else" in there somewhere if it makes you feel better. The point is that 1) what Ginsberg really wanted to do didn't hurt anyone else, yet 2) many people, including many psychoanalysts didn't (and still don't) think he should have done it anyway. Indeed, if you want to become a serial killer, there are abundant respectable employment opportunities for you in various areas, from the military to "private contractors" to organized crime. A literary and quiet city-hermit existence is much less respectable, even though it hurts no one.

True, Ginsberg was not a typical person. It's legitimate to ask what would have become of him if he hadn't turned out to be a very successful and famous poet. He probably could have found a satisfying life even so, since his wish list didn't include fame or large sums of money. Which is why it's so important to figure out what you yourself want, not what Allen Ginsberg wanted. I didn't mind having a job, as long as it wasn't too demanding, and in my way I was as lucky as Ginsberg: I found a job that paid the bills without wearing me out, leaving me energy and time to do what interested me, and enabled me to retire at a reasonable age. Maybe I'll become an urban literary hermit after all. Or have I done it already?