Herbert Huncke’s Birthday

Celebrating Herbert Huncke‘s birthday today. “Godfather of the Beats”, he would have been one-hundred-and-two! – See here for our posting on the occasion of his Centennial. Today, courtesy of our friend Laki Vazakas , footage of the great story-teller, raconteur, recorded in New York, at the Chelsea Hotel,  February 7, 1994. Evoking the notion of “the invisible body”, Huncke recounts and recalls his time in India, witnessing the burning ghats.

HH: Well, it’s sort of strange, you know, one is always I think intrigued by the idea of the invisible body at a funeral (I’ve always felt that way, I mean, they make all this fuss about the quality, and the wood used to build the casket, and the casket itself, and whether it’s got silver embellishments or gold, or lord knows, all of this nonsense, and here is a situation in which very simple hand-woven cloth, dyed by, you know, natural juices of berries and whatever (or, at least, that’s presumably what it is, as far as I know) is wrapped around the body (whether they.. –  I guess, they don’t even bother to drain the body in the manner that we do here in the West). Regardless, they do wrap the body, and first they choose the wood they’re going to burn, and it so happened that the time I observed it they had chosen very beautiful pieces of wood (I’m sure they knew more about how it would burn than I even thought of) but the bark, some of the bark, had been stripped from the wood, some of it was almost white, some of it was, you know, just natural color, as we see it, and hadn’t even been weathered too much, and there were, you know, natural branches and trunks, I guess, of the trees, several very nice pieces laid close together. And I’m sure they know how to build a fire so that the intensity of the heat is, you know, is used to its best advantage. And after that, they lay the body on top of that.. pile of wood, and then, in the case I’m speaking of, there were two priests. who were also wrapped in cloth of a similar nature to that of the..the corpse, that chanted, who carried some sort of prayer wheels or whatever they might have been, in their hands. And they didn’t dance a wild madrigal or anything of that sort, but they did dance back and forth over the body for several hours (two or three at least that I know of – they may have been at it longer than that), chanting, never wailing but chanting, and, as the day drew to an end and the evening shadows began to settle in, they set fire to… (this was on a sort of cement platform right on the edge of the water that had taken on a kind of silvery sheen, and, of course, the flow of the water affected the surface.) But it was a time when two little goats were sort of butting each other in the head on the edge of a funny little wall along the edge of the water, and the monkeys that were prevalent everywhere had come down, I guess, to drink from the water, and many of the people that were of that religion (and I’m inclined to think it was Hindu, although I am not sure of that), you know, were sort of gathering around, and there were beggars and people of such nature gathering around. And finally it was time to burn the body. And, as I said before, they set fire to the body (I guess incense had also been, you know, poured into urns, or bowls, or, flat bowls, at either end of the pyre itself). But it was just such a perfect scene and a lovely way to bring it all to a close, you know. The feeling of peace was in the air. There was no strife, or anguish, or feeling of anger, or disgust, or repulsion, that I could discern. It seemed just a perfect way to bring it all to a close. And that’s the way it was done.

LV: Is that the way you’d like it to be done for you?

HH: Oh yes!, but it doesn’t have to be that formal even, you know.

LV: Where would you like it to take place? Anywhere?

HH:  Anywhere. It doesn’t matter really. You mean “consecrated ground” or something…?

LV: No, No, I just thought,you know you might have a favorite place where you might think you might,,

HH: No, not particular. No, some place peaceful and quiet, I guess – even in the center of, you know, a wild scene of some kind…- [ phone rings and interrupts the conversation –  Huncke answers ] – What’s this? – hello,  yes…

An added bonus – “The Burning Ghat”  (1990)

From the director’s notes on the film:

“Starring beat icon Herbert Huncke (1915-1996) in his sole acting role, The Burning Ghat was filmed on location in Huncke’s then apartment on Henry Street in Brooklyn, New York. Co-starring his longtime companion Louis Cartwright (later murdered in the East Village in 1994), the film was written and directed by James Rasin  and Jerome Poynton. It was edited by Francois Bernadi  and shot by (cinematographer) Michael Slovis

Although conceived and scripted as a dramatic short, the film incorporates documentary elements reflecting the real life relationship between Huncke and Louis.

Allen Ginsberg wrote of the film:  “O Rare Herbert Huncke, live on film! The Burning Ghat features late-in-lifetime old partners Huncke & Louis playing characters beyond themselves with restrained solid self-awareness, their brief masquerade of soul climaxing in an inspired moment’s paradox bittersweet as an O’Henry’s tale’s last twist”.

For more on Huncke,  check out Huncke Tea Company – the website of the Herbert Huncke Estate.   Happy transcendent birthday, Herbert!

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