Kirk Bane: Review of Deborah Baker's Blue Hand: The Beats in India (Penguin, 2008)
Baker explores Ginsberg’s life prior to his Indian odyssey. She examines the poet’s 1948 vision of God, Ginsberg’s eight month institutionalization the following year, and his enthusiastic experimentation with drugs. Baker also discusses “Howl” and considers Ginsberg’s relationship with other Beat writers, “a motley crew of friends,” including William Burroughs, Gregory Corso, and Jack Kerouac. In the spring of 1962, Time assessed Ginsberg and his freewheeling, iconoclastic associates. Beats, the magazine declared, “prefer to wear beards and blue jeans, avoid soap and water, live in dingy tenements or, weather permitting, take to the road as holy hoboes, pilgrims to nowhere. Most of them adore Negroes, junkies, jazzmen and Zen. The more extreme profess to smoke pot, eat peyote, sniff heroin, practice perversion.”
The United States, Ginsberg believed, was a “warmongering, materialist country” lacking compassion. “America dropped the bomb and was applauded,” he asserted. “America executed the Rosenbergs…America used foreign aid programs as weapons in the Cold War. America used obscenity laws to censor Burroughs, Miller, Genet, D. H. Lawrence…America attacked the Cuban revolution and ran South American governments according to American self-interest. In America, moneymaking was the only index of social status.” But, Ginsberg maintained, India was different. India, he averred, “had continued the search for God…India held the answers.”
Traversing the country, Ginsberg sought illumination from gurus and various holy men (including the Dalai Lama), mentored a group of young Bengali poets, visited opium dens, befriended intellectuals, participated in his first political demonstration, and closely observed cremation ceremonies. Baker vividly details his repeated visits to the pyres at Nimtola. “Fully stoned” on ganja, Ginsberg watched “the stream of corpses arrive on charpoys bedecked with flowers, the pyres roaring around” him. He “forced himself to witness the exact process by which flesh was transformed into bone and ash, moving from pyre to pyre with his journal to describe the sight, sound, and smell of a cremation with nearly hallucinatory intensity.”
Ginsberg prophesied that Westerners seeking spiritual insight would follow his example and travel to India. “India will become the holy place of pilgrimage for the young! They will come like birds migrating to a promised land,” he insisted. (Ginsberg’s prediction, of course, came true. In 1968, actress Mia Farrow, folksinger Donovan, Beach Boy Mike Love, and all four Beatles visited Rishikesh as disciples of the Maharishi Mahesh Yogi.)
Baker, whose In Extremis: The Life of Laura Riding was a finalist for a Pulitzer Prize in Biography, excels at description. Consider, for example, her graphic depiction of third-class train trips; Ginsberg traveled in this manner while in India. “Third-class travelers,” Baker writes, “had to force themselves on the train, fighting off all comers in an unseemly contest for a seat. Failure meant standing instead of sitting, sweating in crowded corridors while naked babies in the arms of old ladies peed on one’s feet. To make it to the inevitably appalling toilet, you had practically to be passed, arms crossed on chest, over the heads of your fellow unseated passengers.”
A Blue Hand is impressively researched. Baker consulted every major Ginsberg biography, including Barry Miles’s Ginsberg, Bill Morgan’s I Celebrate Myself, and Michael Schumacher’s Dharma Lion. She also relied on Ginsberg’s Indian Journals and obviously spent many hours in the archives at Columbia, Stanford, UC-Davis, the University of Texas, the University of Virginia, and the Ginsberg Trust.
A Blue Hand requires close and careful reading. Baker jumps back and forth in time and place, working in various characters. Counterculture enthusiasts and Ginsberg students will heartily applaud this book, an exceptional work soundly researched and splendidly written.
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