This weekend we conclude our transcription of Allen Ginsberg’s interview with Audun Engh, recorded in Oslo in 1993
continuing from here
AE: The situation in Chicago in 1968 seems to me to be a unique meeting between the political activities.
AE: And the counter-cultural search for spiritual understanding
AG: Well, unfortunately, I think the political neo-Marxist anger tended to take over because it was more aggressive and I think that was an enormous mistake that prolonged the Vietnam War. So that I think the extreme left has as much blood on its hands for the continuation of the Vietnam War until 1974 or so, as the… (well maybe not as much blood, but a good deal of blood) just as the right wing. Because the effect of all that was to disgrace the Democratic Party and defeat (Hubert) Humphrey because the left opted out not to vote, the political left, didn’t vote for Humphrey and they voted for Nixon whose intention was to end the war by bombing North Vietnam with an atom bomb. And maybe it was only the demonstrations in the streets that prevented that, but in any case, the left was too spiteful there Their idea was to bring the war home, which was an enormous mistake because it scared the middle-class, to wave Vietcong Vietnam flags, which was also a tactical mistake. They were angry at their parents. And Kerouac out his finger on it and was accused of being a reactionary for criticizing those tactics, when he said, “oh those people are looking for new reasons for spitefulness”. The result was that Humphrey didn’t get in and he was trying to get the forces of the Vietcong to force the President Thieu, our so-called ally, to allow the Vietcong at the conference table for a peace talk and Nixon and his people resisted that and had the idea that they would win the war by force. And so when (Richard) Nixon got in, on only half a million votes, when the entire left refused to vote, several million people, Nixon escalated the war beyond anything that had gone before under Johnson or Kennedy and it became a holocaust. And I think the anger of the left was responsible for the prolongation of the war because the Gallup poll said that by February 1968 52% of the American people thought the war had always been a mistake. So the left failed to lead the middle-class out of the war because of their anger at the middle class, because they were angry and that anger prolonged the war. And that’s my definitive retrospect on it. I don’t think it was a very glorious occasion of the meeting of the spiritual Beat heritage and the Students For Democratic Society and neo-Marxist left. And by now that neo-Marxist left is completely bankrupt with the collapse of their.. formal idols (remember, in those days they were carrying pictures of Castro around (who was a dictator, who’d kicked me out three years ago before that, in 1965, out of Cuba), or pictures of Mao Zedong, (who was the most hated man in China by then for the Cultural Revolution that killed or exiled all the intellectuals and anybody who could read French or English or wore a pair of glasses).
He was called a “bourgeois thinker”. So the heroes that the left were cultivating themselves were fraud..fraudulent. And it was all I think on the basis of this self-righteous anger
AE: It seems that the anarchist tradition is the only utopian model left.
AG: Well I don’t know what anarchist is. It depends how you define “anarchism”, but there is the.. certainly the principle of decentralization is important – decentralization from hierarchical control, power control. I like Buddhism because there’s no God, there’s no central reference point, there’s no hierarchy in that sense (there may be a hierarchy of gurus, and people aware that there is no God but there isn’t a hierarchy deriving from a divine principle, and there certainly is not much of a hierarchy derived from ideology). There are other less dangerous hierarchies involved in Buddhism (the teachers actually). So.. Gary Snyder has always been interested in Buddhist anarchism from that point of view. But, you know, anarchy is more and more difficult in the sense that we’re already living in a highly-centralized, technological, hyper-technological, hyper-scientific society, where there are these information-networks that are not anarchist but are completely controlled by the government, or can be controlled, and, to the extent that it’s a monolith, anarchy becomes more and more difficult. although there’s also these computer pioneers who say, no, the new forms of information make it possible for anybody to have information, but.I don’t know if it’s going to work out that way because it’s still one single network. So when you have giant dinosauric structures like that you have a more and more difficult time to decentralize the power centers, particularly as it takes a lot of centralized-energy power, nuclear or fossil fuel, to keep the computer networks running, So unless they can find some clean energy source that is de-centralizable, (that) you can plug in and out of, without burning down the planet, I don’t know if the computer-information decentralization can be successful. The other thing that some German philosopher pointed out – that the very nature of splitting the atom and creation of the bomb is a threat to the planet, but it also implies a constant and continuous future of surveillance state to prevent any anarchist or non-anarchist fascist nut, or left wing, or middle-class nut, from blowing-up Paris, London, Tokyo, Berlin – or Oslo – because the absolute nature of the bomb enforces absolute surveillance. So that’s a very tricky passage – for democrats, anarchists, fascists, everybody has got to face this – scientists have got to face this, poets have got to face it – how do we resolve that? I don’t think anybody has a blueprint. I like the phrase “appropriate technology” or “sweet science” (as (William) Blake calls it, as distinct from dinosauric or monstrous hierarchical technology , (or “hyper-technology” is the word I use)
AE: The spectacular activities of the anti-war movement and the counterculture in the ‘Sixties – do you think this is today a memory in the United States or has it become an element, a permanent element in society?
AG: Well I just described the enormous failure of the counterculture anti-war movement in America to control its own anger. Yes, a communal movement pro-testing peace, witnessing in favor of peace in which the means justified the ends (i.e. peaceful means for peaceful ends), that would be a great contribution – and I think maybe some aspects of rock n roll do – – or “be-ins”, or some student movements that you have now – (I think it’s a relatively passive student movement here in Norway 1993-4) – have some element of that wisdom – but you need a really clean mind to do that. So to do or to make any great social change on the basis of mass movement you’d need a mass movement that didn’t depend on anger as its fuel.
AE: Are you optimistic that people, despite all the negative tendencies in society will..
AG: It’s not “negative tendencies in society”, it’s negative tendencies in us, in me and you! Whoever.. You can’t blame it on the outside like that! To what extent do you get angry? To what extent do I get angry? To what extent does any utopian socialist anarchist get angry and force, try and force, his will by force? – that’s the problem. And to what extent do businessmen get angry? – or anybody, diplomats, get angry?
My own thought is the same as any old grandmother in Norway you might ask – “Well, it doesn’t look too good for the planet”
We never saw anything like this before and it’s not likely that the planet will survive another couple of hundred years of this human devastation and maybe the question of hope and fear are irrelevant in the sense that hope is a good way of sugar-coating the knowledge that we may be in a very bad way and fear is not just a hysterical reaction to the realization that we’re in a bad way. Maybe some straightforward factual clarity and calm, sympathy for the situation might be better than hope. I like sympathy better than hope.
It may be that we lose the planet. I was having a conversation with a Tibetan lama that I like, Gelek Rimpoche, whom I’ve been with in Europe and America and I asked him what he thought might happen and he said, “Well maybe we have a couple more hundred years and then we lose the planet”. And I said “How?” He said, ”Well, not with a bang, more with a..no big explosion maybe just a gridlock” – overpopulation and what-not – So I said “Well, what’s the purpose of poetry then if there’s no planet, no world to come?” . He said, the same purpose as any human activity, to ease the pain of living, to remove the mass of human sufferings, to alleviate the enormous suffering that everybody is enduring just being born and dying to begin with, much less having to worry about the whole planet. That, maybe, if people have some sense of natural sympathy with themselves and others they can prolong the life of the plant, or even save it maybe. (It’s not too likely, given the devastation we’ve brought already and the fact that we’re still dependent on fossil fuel and nuclear energy, but the purpose of any activity, whether it’s medicine, television, poetry, parenthood, is to relieve as much suffering as possible, and that’s a good compass for young people and older people, it’s a good motive for going on and doing lots of work. No hope, no fear, just sympathy).
AE: Last Sunday at your reading, I wrote down…
AG: Oh, were you there?
AE: …a line from one of your poems – (from “Wichita Vortex Sutra”) – “let the President execute his own desire”
AG: .”..let Congress legislate its own delight let the President execute his own desire…” – so I was putting.. mocking the Congress as delighting in the war (that was their dellght) and the President’s war as his own desire because it is a subjective arbitrary choice as it turned out. The war was not necessary.
AE: So you think there could be a. good President if he could just respect his own desires?
AG: No no, I don’t think.. I’m not sure you got the irony in there. I’m saying.
I think Clinton (1993 – sic) certainly is a lot more cheerful than the previous couple of Presidents – the neo-Conservatives – he was apple-cheeked and wasn’t afraid to have had a marijuana joint in his mouth once. Gore, the Vice-President, did smoke, and I couldn’t imagine Bush having and allowing that (though I could imagine Bush sharing some cocaine with Noriega when he was the head of the CIA paying off Noriega).
But.. I think a lot depends on the tone of things, on the psychological tone, and I think Clinton just has a better feeling of exuberance and sympathy than Bush who seems to me basically a bummer and a sourpuss and was depressing everybody, (but.. Reagan was ultimately kind of a sourpuss).