Doesn’t Everybody Want To Save The World?

One “streaming video” that curiously escaped our notice (buried, as it was, in the depths of the Internet Archive, is this one, Allen from 1991, interviewed by Lewis MacAdams, and performing with bass player Don Was, as part of the Deep Dish cable tv series – The Lannon Foundation Presents Writers Uncensored – this episode, Allen Ginsberg – Doesn’t Everybody Want To Save The World?

The program opens with a close-up of Allen.
LM: I mean, over all these years, all these images of “Allen Ginsberg” have been put back at you from worlds media, and I’m wondering how you find “Allen” in there?

AG: There is none – naturally – all the constituents of being are transitory, according to Heraclitus, you can’t step in the same Allen twice, can’t step in the same river twice. So the question is what is one’s identity? What is one’s fixed identity? I’m a Jew, I’m Jewish, I’m a Buddhist, I’m a poet, I’m gay, I’m from New Jersey, I’m a student of (William Carlos) Williams, I was a friend of (Jack) Kerouac, my father bore me – named Louis, my mother was crazy – named Naomi, I went to Columbia (so I’m a Columbia alumnus – or I’m an American, or I’m a New York or Lower East Side –er, or a Manhattan-ist, or (a) Planet-arian). So which is real? –well, they all are aspects of whatever “me” is , or whatever “you” is. In other words, everyone has their own old myriad labels, myriad identities, and there is no need to fixate on any single one, except the one that you’re working with most, so I would say “poet”.

(Allen is then seen performing “Airplane Blues” at McCabe’s Guitar Shop in Santa Monica, California (to the laid back accompaniment of Don Was) followed by a recitation of both the original “Fifth Internationale” and his own Buddhist rewrite). Lewis MacAdams takes up the interview again:

LM: You know, when I read about when you started out as a poet, you had a sort of plan, to be the youthful labor leader..

AG: (Yes) A totally different idea.

LM: A grand sense of it, and it doesn’t seem like you have..

AG: that anymore? – Well I am – already – so what you gonna be? another.. another grand what? grand panjandrum of selfhood!?

LM: Do you have ambitions still?

AG: I’m trying to get rid of them.

LM: But have you?

AG: Yeah I want to save the world! I keep thinking there must be some mighty rhythm, with the right words, that would penetrate through all consciousness, and wake earth up to its terrific, non-transcendent, living-possibility of having a continuing destiny – doesn’t everybody have that?

LM: Yeah

AG: I think everybody has that ambition. Everybody.. I did, since I was a kid, you know, “save the world” – bodhisattva – or penetrate through the world with some great song, cry, mantra or poem – like Shelly, “drive my dead thoughts like withered leaves over the universe to quicken a new birth!/ And, by the incantation of this verse/Scatter, as from an unextinguished hearth/ Ashes and sparks (my words) among mankind!” I think that’s sort of like the greatest poem of all becauses it’s the universal ambition, the grand, meglomaniacal, messianic, completely humble, human ambition to do that. Everybody..

LM: Its probably good that everybody has that ambition because it probably leads you to try and do good

AG: Well the question is, doesn’t everybody have that one way or the other?

LM: Yeah

AG: Or is it just me? or is it just ego-trippers ? or is this meglomania(cs) ? or is that a natural generosity of even the humblest human spirit, that really wants to be one with the world and announce the world as sacred, as one in childhood and older age desires the world to be. So it’s a question, finally, of proclaiming one’s desire, – and everybody desires everything, I think – or, if not thwarted, everybody desires universal expansion in the heart somewhere, whether personal love, or end of pain, end of suffering, for oneself, and others, for the nations, for the planet itself, and now as the planet is in great pain and enormous suffering, human and animal and vegetable, it becomes more to the surface of consciousness that that’s a winged (?) possibility of the mind, to want to proclaim the desire to survive, or be the one to assuage the pain, or be part of the dissolution of suffering and pain

LM: And yet desire’s the cause of karma

AG Well, maybe the very desire to save the world is, in itself, a grasping, bum trip. On the other hand, I don’t think so. I think there’s some good in that

The question is – isn’t it, what everybody wants for themselves to do, at one point or other in their lives, didn’t everybody touch on that? – wanting to be the vehicle of infinite magnanimity and generosity, or is that just an ego trip?, or is it both?, or is it the healthiest ego trip possible?, or is it the most vicious? Hitler was going to “save the world” – “My kingdom will last one thousand years!”. Who knows?

LW: (William) Burroughs said there’s no limit to the amount of damage an idealist can do

AG: Yep

(cut to Allen giving a spirited reading of “America” (making contemporary (1991) reference to “perestroika” – a paradoxical endeavor – “A wise prophet who will write a prophecy that will end his prophecy, that will (paradoxically) make it obsolete”)

The interview is then taken up again:

LW: Do you still have the desire to speak for.. or did you ever?

AG: Speak for someone?

LW: Yeah

AG: No. I never got into that trap. You can only speak for your own selves, I mean you can only speak for yourself. If you look in your heart and speak what you really think, then naturally you’ll be vocalizing what a lot of other people think, because we all have the same basic knowledge and the same basic heart direction, so it’s a question of speaking strictly for yourself, as a lonely fucker, lonely eccentric. Since everybody else is a lonely eccentric, then naturally you’re speaking for all the lonely eccentrics (which is) ninety nine percent of the population of the world, but you can’t do it by designing to speak for others, even groups of hippies, or beatniks, or Jews, or Buddhists. You can only do it by singling out what was your real thought that you just thought a minute ago, and putting it down. So I never did really get more than maybe my left leg into that trap, it’s quicksand.

(cut to Allen (with Don Was) performing “Do The Meditation Rock”)

returning to the interview:

LM: You never talk about art, I mean what you do as art

AG : I’m talking about vowels, consonants. Isn’t that talking about art?

LM: I guess so, but it seems like it’’s more..

AG: …techniques? what?

LW: Yeah

AG: ..body rhythm? I don’t know, that’s a basic..

LM: Like the grand.. idea of art as some.. (kind of) divine creation

AG: Well, I don’t believe in God.

LM: Yeah

AG: So therefore I couldn’t call it divine creation, but I would say it’ s sacred vocation, art of any kind, whether photography, or painting, or poetry, or, most of all, song. (It) seems to me to be sacred, in the sense that (Chogyam) Trungpa proclaimed it, and that influenced my formulation of my own natural idea about Trungpa’s notion, as (of) the world as sacred, similar to (Jack) Kerouac’s, because it’s the only one we’ve got, and we’re not going to be here forever, therefore this is the one and only chair we sit on, the one and only throne, the one and only life that we know of, so therefore this it, and therefore you can approach it sacramentally, it’s it – this is it – there is nothing else – this is what we want, this is what we’ve got to live with, so this then becomes full of motion and density, knowing, one, that it’s the only one, and two, that it’s only here temporarily. So there’s no reason not to become completely open-hearted and enthusiastic and give it everything you got.

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