I am a huge fan of Beat Generation literature—the work of Jack Kerouac, William Burroughs, Gregory Corso, et cetera. I was first introduced to this literature when I was an 18-year-old freshman at the University of Kansas. Little did I know at the time that Burroughs lived just a few blocks from the campus. However, I didn’t know Burroughs’s work at the time. My introduction to the Beats was with the writing and spoken-word recordings of Kerouac. I was an English major because I wanted to become a science fiction writer, and James Gunn was on the faculty at the university. No, not James Gunn the film maker who directed the recent Guardians of the Galaxy movie; James Gunn the award-winning science fiction author. He was my academic advisor, and I was supposed to be his protégé. However, I only met him once for about 60 seconds. He was supposed to sign my class schedule, which he did—without really looking at it or talking to me. I left the university in the middle of my second semester and never saw him again. However, during my semester and a half at Kansas I had a graduate student as my instructor for English 101 and English 102. I no longer recall that graduate student’s name, but he was writing his doctoral dissertation on the works of Jack Kerouac—so he would bring to class excerpts from Kerouac’s novels and recordings of Kerouac reading his work. Of course, holding up Kerouac as a model for an 18-year-old kid straight out of high school to emulate as a writer is asking for trouble. That instructor was constantly down-grading my essays because I had run-on sentences—a problem I never had in my high school English classes. I wanted to get the wild rhythms and energy of Kerouac’s style into my own work, but I didn’t understand the technique Kerouac was using. Thus, my sentences came out as run-on sentences or comma splices. Some of you who are familiar with Kerouac’s work might be thinking, “Well, Kerouac’s writing is just a string of run-on sentences and comma splices.” I won’t argue with you about it here, but I can assure you that there is much more to his style than formless, rambling prose. Anyway, from my name-forgotten English instructor at the University of Kansas I learned to love the work of Jack Kerouac, which led me to my own academic studies of Kerouac’s work when I was an undergraduate at Boise State University—which, in turn, led me to Burroughs, Corso, John Clellon Holmes, Michael McClure, Gary Snyder, et cetera . . . and, of course, to Allen Ginsberg, the poet whose 1956 publication of Howl and Other Poems (particularly “Howl”) led to a famous obscenity trial in San Francisco in which Lawrence Ferlinghetti (owner and publisher of City Lights Books) was the defendant. The writing of “Howl” and the obscenity trial for Howl and Other Poems was the subject of the 2010 film Howl that starred James Franco as Ginsberg. I was given the DVD of that film as a birthday present in 2011, and I watched it for the first time two months later when I showed it to an English 102 class I taught during the summer of 2011. See how it all sort of ties together with my experience at the University of Kansas? Anyway, I noticed an interesting reaction in myself while watching Howl for the first time during that summer English Composition and Literature course. Because I had not seen the movie before, I had no idea what to expect other than I knew it would address the 1957 obscenity trial. Additionally, I assumed the movie would cover the composition of the poem and the influences that informed its composition. However, I did not know how much of Ginsberg’s personal life that is peripheral to the poem would be covered. Let me also point out that I teach at two separate colleges—one in the Washington, DC suburb of Rockville, Maryland and one located about 35 miles away in a somewhat more rural area of Maryland–and I was showing the film at the college that had the somewhat more rural student body. The students at that college tend to have more conservative political and social views than do the more cosmopolitan students at the college in the DC metro area. Thus, I felt uncomfortable when the movie began to show Ginsberg on his knees while undoing Neal Cassady’s pants in the kitchen of the Denver apartment that Cassady and his wife, Carolyn, lived in at the time. My students were not used to seeing such overt sexual displays between two men—and one of my students was a Fort Detrick police officer who was fairly frank with his conservative values. Had I been watching this film in my own home, I would not have been as uncomfortable during that scene in which James Franco was on his knees while undoing the belt of Jon Prescott playing Neal Cassady. However, I became very conscious of the fact that the scene was making some of my students uncomfortable, which then made me uncomfortable as well. On the other hand, I also think it’s good to expose people (particularly students, but really all people) to new ideas and perspectives that they might not otherwise encounter in their lives. After all, exposure to new ideas and perspectives is what “higher education” is actually supposed to be about. Rather than simply train students for their respective careers, a university education is supposed to expand the students’ knowledge of the world and life in various ways while training them to think critically in various academic disciplines. Nevertheless, despite my firm beliefs in the purpose of a university education, I felt uncomfortable during that scene and I immediately thought, “They didn’t need to show that. We all understand that Ginsberg was gay, but this movie should be about the poem and the trial rather than whether Ginsberg and Cassady actually had sex.” Thus, I was glad the film then went no further than it did in depicting that scene; I was relieved when Cassady’s wife, Carolyn, walked in on them and they had to stop. However, to an extent, my own uncomfortable reaction is precisely the point of the film—and, in some ways—part of the point of the poem itself. After I found myself thinking, “They didn’t need to show that scene. Other scenes already got that point across,” I suddenly realized that what I was thinking about the movie was similar to what the district attorney (the prosecuting attorney) said during the trial about the poem—that the vulgar language and images in the poem could have been replaced by “more acceptable” language and images that didn’t make people uncomfortable. I consider Ginsberg’s poem a great work of art—not because of its vulgar language and crude imagery, but because of its structure, motifs, and themes. However, those motifs and themes actually require the vulgar language and crude imagery because Ginsberg’s poem is about people being destroyed by madness, drug addictions, sex addictions, and all sorts of other social ills. As the defense attorney said during the trial, if a writer is going to write about the underbelly of society, then the language and images of that type of life need to be handled realistically. People “making love” at the Astoria Hotel is not the same as people fucking in the alley behind a rat-infested restaurant. In his poem “London,” William Blake didn’t choose to write about the wealthy sons of aristocrats who might not have gotten the Christmas presents they wanted. He wrote about the chimneysweepers who were either orphans or whose parents sold them into servitude because they couldn’t afford to feed their own children. Blake was as frank and honest as he could be in 1785 in depicting England’s social ills that needed to be corrected and that weren’t being addressed by the institutions of the Anglican Church and the British monarchy—institutions that Blake actually blamed for causing those social ills. Similarly, Ginsberg was as frank and as honest as he could be 170 years later in 1955 (when he wrote the poem) in depicting his society’s social ills that needed to be “fixed,” and that he also blamed on the institutions of organized religion and the government. Still, I found my reaction to that almost-sex scene in the film to be a contradiction to my view about handling such things realistically—but as Whitman wrote in “Song of Myself”: Do I contradict myself? Very well, then, I contradict myself; (I am large—I contain multitudes.) In fact, the notion of Whitman’s own work is quite relevant here—obviously. As Whitman said after Ralph Waldo Emerson asked him to tone down the sexuality in Leaves of Grass, “The dirtiest book of all is the expurgated book.” To paraphrase what the defense attorney in the movie said in his closing remarks during the obscenity trial, all of us have a tendency to want the world to conform to our view of how things should be. That statement about wanting the world to conform to me was particularly true when I was younger, as I often used to have arguments with people whose views about politics and philosophy did not match my own. However, I’m now much more tolerant of views that are different from my own; I have become more interested in why people have the beliefs they have rather than worrying about what those beliefs are. After all, tolerating opposing views or beliefs is what Thomas Jefferson had in mind when he crafted his concept of a democratic republic. The notion of a democracy requires a variety of views and behaviors in order for society to work in the way Jefferson (and the other Founding Fathers) conceived. When a culture admits only a few views and behaviors, those restrictions then limit the effectiveness of a democratic system. The notion of limiting views and behaviors is often couched within the concept of morality. However, unless those views and behaviors are harming others (or impeding the rights of others), then an argument for “morality” is usually just a cover that really means those views and behaviors are in conflict with a particular person’s own sensibilities (such as my own discomfort with the almost-sex scene in the movie) rather than being legitimate concerns for the safety and rights of individuals or the general public. Forcing others to conform to a singular view has a sense of totalitarianism about it rather than democracy. Forcing others to conform to a singular view is the approach favored by Hitler and his Nazis, Mussolini and his Fascists, and Stalin and his . . . uh . . . Stalinists. In other words, while it wasn’t my intention to make anyone in the class uncomfortable that day (or subsequent days in subsequent classes) with the content of either “Howl” (the poem) or Howl (the movie), it’s important to keep in mind that living within a democratic system means sometimes being uncomfortable with the freedoms we have. If you have not seen Howl, I urge you to seek it out. See larger image Howl [Blu-ray] New From: $11.66 USD In Stock Share this:TweetShare on TumblrLike this:Like Loading... Related 3 Responses George February 15, 2015 What a great article – really enjoyed it. all of us have a tendency to want the world to conform to our view of how things should be This is true. But worse, as your example illustrates, sometimes it’s not even that – sometimes it’s that we want the world to not make us uncomfortable. You (or I) might have been happy enough with that scene being there during a private viewing or amongst easy-going arty friends, but in other company we start thinking it shouldn’t be there because it makes us uncomfortable in a particular viewing situation. This general tendency to avoid discomfort more generally is even sneakier than the desire for an opinion-conforming world. Log in to Reply Thom Young February 17, 2015 Thanks for reading it, George. I appreciate the kind comments. Yeah, I agree with your statement about comfort levels, but the two are also connected–we’re comfortable when we are around like-minded people and when the world conforms to our conception of how things should be. They’re both parts of the same larger issue. Log in to Reply George February 18, 2015 Yes, they are both part of the same thing. We all want the world to be our way – but it just keeps being so stubbornly contrary! 🙂 Leave a Reply Cancel ReplyYou must be logged in to post a comment.