| Reading "Holy Barbarians" has turned into a curious case of role reversal. I was a youngster when the book was published and the beats and squares who populate Lawrence Lipton's study of the Venice scene would have been my parents' contemporaries — although my folks were a bit older.
Today, however, although the Beats and squares have remained in their 20s and early 30s, I'm old enough to be one of their parents — and this shift in ages provides an odd perspective. I'm apt to be a little tougher on them than if I'd read the book when I was younger, and I'm also a bit more charitable toward these earnest, naive angry young artists telling the truth.
Even so, I bogged down in Lipton's lengthy defense of smoking marijuana, which may have been dangerously revolutionary in the 1950s but is trite and passe these days. For the record, Lipton didn't even smoke marijuana, which the Beats preferred to call "pod" rather than "pot." But he was "given a pass," which tells you something about the minimum requirements to be a beatnik. And I'll have more to say about that later.
In fact, "Holy Barbarians" had just about gotten a one-way ticket to the discard pile when I came across an incident that's absolutely hilarious. I can't guess why Lipton buried it in the middle of the book, but he did.
He's describing a reading in Los Angeles by Allen Ginsberg and Gregory Corso that's interrupted by a heckler. It's some square, of course, who wants to fight. Instead, Ginsberg starts undressing and dares the heckler to take off his clothes.
"Holy Barbarians," Pages 195-198
The reading was to be held in a big old-fashioned house that was occupied by two or three of the Coastline editors, living in a kind of Left Wing bohemian collective household, furnished what there was of furniture, which wasn't much in atrociously bad taste, nothing like the imaginative and original decor of the Beat Generation pad, even the most poverty-stricken.
I consented at their request to conduct the reading, "chair the meeting," as these people are in the habit of saying. To them everything is a meeting. In this case they got more than they bargained for. Allen showed up high mostly on wine, to judge by the olfactory evidence and, after an introduction by me, in which I tried to spell out something of the background of this "renaissance," he launched into a vigorous rendition of "Howl." "Launched" is the word for it. It was stormy, wild and liquid. In his excitement he tipped over an open bottle of wine he had brought with him, spilling it over himself, over me and over his friend Gregory Corso who was with him and was also scheduled to read.
Allen and Gregory had refused to start till Anais Nin arrived, and now that she was seated in the audience Allen addressed himself exclusively to her. He had never met Anais before and knew her only from Henry Miller's books. She had written the preface to Miller's "Tropic of Cancer" in the Paris edition of the book. He was sure that Anais was one person who would be able to dig what he was putting down. For him there was no one else in the audience but "beautiful Anais Nin ." That she had long ago come to the parting of the ways with Henry Miller and was making her own scene now, a very different scene from the one they had once made together on the Left Bank of Paris, made no difference to Allen. She was still, to him, the Anais Nin of the Henry Miller saga, a fabulous figure out of a still brightly shimmering past. Artistically, he felt, she was his nearest of kin, and Anais very graciously acted out the role he had cast her in that night.
The audience, except for Anais and the people we had brought with us from Venice West, was a square audience, the sort of an audience you would find at any liberal or "progressive" how that word lingers on even though the song is over fund-raising affair of the faithful who are still waiting for the Second Coming. Few of them had come knowing what to expect. They never read anything but the party and cryptoparty press. The avant-garde quarterlies are so much Greek to them. Most of them don't even know such magazines exist any more. They associate that sort of thing with the little magazines of the twenties which were swallowed up with the advent of the Movement, the real Movement (capital M), in the thirties and transformed into weapons in the class struggle. The few who had heard rumors of what was going on in San Francisco and Venice West were there as slummers might go to a Negro whorehouse in New Orleans, to be with, briefly, but not of. But even they were not prepared for Howl, or for the drunken, ecstatic, tortured, enraptured reading Allen was giving it that night. A very moving performance, for all his tangle-tongue bobbles and rambling digressions. He was reading from the book, which had just came out, but he changed words, improvised freely, and supplied verbally the obscenities that the printer had in a few cases deleted.
As it happened, Allen and Gregory were not the only ones in the place who had been drinking. There was one other in the audience. He was someone who had drifted in, having somewhere picked up one of the pluggers advertising the reading. At first he applauded Allen's reading at all the wrong places and too loudly. Then he took to cheering, the kind of cheers that are more like the jeers they are in tended to be. I watched him and it struck me that he looked and sounded like a brother Elk on the loose, or an American Legion patriot on a convention binge. When Allen got to the poem America, the drunken square was visibly aroused. He began to heckle. Allen ignored him and, at one point, interrupted the reading to ask the heckler, very gently, to hear him out and he would be glad to talk to him about it later and listen to any comments or criticism he cared to make. That, and disapproving scowls from some members of the audience who, being squares themselves and sober dislike anyone "making a scene," stopped him for a few minutes.
Gregory Corso now got up to read or, rather, sat down to read Gregory, unlike Allen, is the gentle, relaxed persuader rather than the shouter. At least he was that night. When the drunk started heckling him, too, he turned the face of an injured angel to him. When that failed he reversed himself and tried shock therapy.
"Listen, creep, I'm trying to get through to you with words, with magic, see? I'm trying to make you see, and understand "
The square had an answer for that. "Then why don't you write so a person can understand you, instead of all that highfalutin crap?"
"You will understand," Gregory replied patiently, "if you open your self up to the images. Try to get with it, man."
You think you're smart, don't you?"
Gregory ignored the remark and went on with his reading. Nothing could have angered the drunk more. It brought out the righteous citizen in him.
"Think you know it all, don't you? I know your kind. It's punks like you that are to blame for all this -all this " he sputtered, unable to make up his mind which of the crimes punks like
this were to blame for were equal to the enormity of the occasion. He tried again, gave up, turned a beet red and, to cover his chagrin, launched into a tirade of uninspired, stereotyped, barroom profanity, ending with, inevitably, an invitation to "step outside and settle this thing like a man!"
Gregory grinned. "Yeh, I know, you want to fight. Okay, let's fight. Right here. Not with fists, you cornbalL That's baby stuff. Let's fight with a mans weapon with words. Images, metaphors, magic. Open your mouth, man, and spit out a locomotive, a red locomotive, belching obscene smoke and black magic. Then I'll say:Anafogasta. Rattle-boom. Gnu's milk. And you'll say: Fourth of July, Hydrogen bomb! Gasoline! See? Real obscenities. . . ."
The drunk was indignant. He was outraged. When he heard snickering in the audience he started toward the front of the room, menacingly, repeating his challenge to step outside and settle this thing. "You're yella, that's what. Like all you wise guys. You're yella "
Ginsberg got up and went forward to meet the drunk.
"All right," he said, "all right. You want to do something big, don't you? Something brave. Well, go on, do something really brave. Take off your clothes!"
That stopped the drunk dead in his tracks.
Ginsberg moved a step toward him. "Go on, let everybody see how brave you are. Take your clothes off!"
The drunk was stunned speechless. He fell back a step and Allen moved toward him, tearing off his own shirt and undershirt and flinging them at the heckler's feet. "You're scared, aren't you?" he taunted him. "You're afraid." He unbuckled his belt, unzipped his fly and started kicking off his trousers. "Look," he cried. "I'm not afraid. Go on, take your clothes off. Let's see how brave you are," he challenged him. He flung his pants down at the champ's feet and then his shorts, shoes and socks, with a curious little hopping dance as he did so. He was stark naked now. The drunk had retired to the back of the room. Nobody laughed. Nobody said a word. The audience just sat mute, staring, fascinated, petrified, till Allen danced back to his seat, looking I couldn't help thinking at the moment with inward amusement like Marcel Marceau, the great French mime, doing his hopping little David and Goliath dance. Then the room was suddenly filled with an explosion of nervous applause, cheers, jeers, noisy argument. Our hosts, the editors of Coastlines, had been having a huddle on the sidelines. Now one of them, Mel Weisburd, dashed up front and stood over Allen menacingly.
"All right," he shouted, "put your clothes on and get out! You're not up in San Francisco now. This is a private house . . . you're in someone else's living room. . . . You've violated our hospitality. . . .
"If this is what you call . . ."
He looked over at me as if to say, "You re chairman here, do some thing."
I rapped for order like a proper chairman and announced the next order of business. Gregory Corso would read another group of poems and then we would hear from Allen Ginsberg once more with his poems Sunflower Sutra and A Supermarket in California. Corso was all for leaving at once. "We'll go somewhere where we can get good and drunk and take Anais Nin with us." But Allen shook his head and quietly put his clothes on, one piece at a time, in slow motion, smiling to himself with half-closed eyes. A sly, mysterious, inner-directed Buddha smile.
The reading went on amid general approval and with closer, more respectful attention than before. The incident had sobered up the drunk. When the reading was over he approached Allen and said, loud enough for everybody to hear, that he was sorry he had made such an ass of himself and where could he buy a copy of Howl?
Through it all Anais Nin, faithful to the role in which the poets had cast her, sat imperiously still, only slightly disdainful of the hubbub, like a queen on a throne.