“I do not know but it is too much to read one newspaper a week. I have tried it recently, and for so long, it seems to me, that I have not truly dwelt in my native region. The news we hear, for the most part, is not news to our genius. It is the stalest repetition —”Life without Principle“
“The newspapers are the ruling power. What Congress does is an after-clap. — Journal, 17 November 1850—Journal, 17 November 1850
“… And I am sure that I never read any memorable news in a newspaper. If we read of one man robbed, or murdered, or killed by accident, or one house burned, or one vessel wrecked, or one steamboat blown up, or one cow run over on the Western Railroad, or one mad dog killed, or one lot of grasshoppers in the winter—we need never read of another. One is enough. If you are acquainted with the principle, what do you care for a myriad instances and applications?”—- Henry David Thoreau, Walden
“To a philosopher all news, as it is called, is gossip, and they who edit and read it are old women over their tea.—Walden
“We are in great haste to construct a magnetic telegraph from Maine to Texas; but Maine and Texas, it may be, have nothing important to communicate . . . As if the main object were to talk fast and not to talk sensibly. We are eager to tunnel under the Atlantic and bring the Old World some weeks nearer to the New; but perchance the first news that will leak through into the broad, flapping American ear will be that the Princess Adelaide has the whooping cough.—Walden
“Since Pope Leo XIII’s landmark encyclical Rerum Novarum of 1891, a significant part of Catholic social doctrine has focused on man’s economic life and the challenge of building a well-ordered society rooted in correct first principles and animated by the twin virtues of justice and charity. The Church has boldly engaged the ideologies of the modern age—not only anarchism, communism, and fascism, but also the seductive alternatives of liberalism and libertarianism.
Understanding and applying Catholic social doctrine presents special difficulties. The sheer mass of material is a steep mountain to climb for the non-expert. Developments over time and the different styles of papal authors can give an impression of inconsistency or even contradiction. Agenda-driven commentators ignore or distort whatever they dislike, creating an ersatz magisterium. An Economics of Justice and Charity offers readers a compact, objective summary of the economic teaching of the Popes from Leo XIII to Francis that makes manifest its inner unity, its intended authority, and its perennial applicability. It bears witness to the Church’s living history of ethical wisdom, care for workers and the poor, and urgent desire to “penetrate and perfect the temporal order with the spirit of the Gospel.”
“This book should be read by anyone who wants to understand the Catholic concept of social justice, particularly how it applies to the realms of economics and politics. Thomas Storck has delivered a concise explanation showing how the Church’s social teaching has been clear and consistent.”—DAVID W. COONEY, Editor, Practical Distributism
“In 1991, St. John Paul II encouraged a New Evangelization that included ‘a proclamation of the Church’s social doctrine.’ In the modern world, however, rarely have these teachings been presented holistically. Thomas Storck’s commitment to thinking with the mind of the Church and masterful curation of the best of the social tradition make him a notable successor to his intellectual heroes from the golden age of social thought.”—RICHARD ALEMAN, Editor-in-chief, The Distributist Review
“An Economics of Justice and Charity comes at a time when both the reality and the ideology of capitalism are increasingly being questioned. Its critique of capitalism stands outside the usual left/right dichotomy, providing an opportunity for a deeper analysis of our economic and social woes. For those new to the Church’s ‘best kept secret,’ Storck has produced a clear but philosophically sophisticated introduction to the major contributions and ideas within this tradition.”—CHARLES M. A. CLARK, Professor of Economics, St John’s University
“This is a superb exposition of the major social encyclicals, both in their historical development and in their application to our current situation. For those not familiar with the teachings, it provides a brief but brilliant introduction; for those who have studied these texts, Mr. Storck raises many interesting questions. Be sure not to skip the appendices, which shed new light on usury (the besetting sin of finance capitalism) and put forward a refutation of the neo-liberal interpretation of Centesimus Annus.”—JOHN MÉDAILLE, University of Dallas
From the Back Cover
“This book should be read by anyone who wants to understand the Catholic concept of social justice, particularly how it applies to the realms of economics and politics. Thomas Storck has delivered a concise explanation showing how the Church’s social teaching has been clear and consistent.”– DAVID W. COONEY, Editor, Practical Distributism An Economics of Justice and Charity: Catholic Social Teaching, Its Development and Contemporary Relevance
The Only Ways to Avoid Impurity (Especially In Our Time), by Saint Alphonsus de Ligouri
The first means is, to avoid all occasions of sin. It is impossible for anyone who does not endeavour to flee from the occasions of sin, especially in the matter of sensual pleasures, to avoid falling into sin.
FLEEING FROM THE OCCASIONS OF SIN
St. Philip Neri said: “In the war of the senses, the conquerors are the cowards who flee.” The occasion is like a veil put before our eyes, so that we can see nothing else—neither God, nor hell nor the resolutions we had made. The Scripture says, it is impossible to walk on burning coals without being burnt: Or can he walk upon hot coals, and his feet not be burnt?
So it is morally impossible for anyone to put himself voluntarily into the occasion of sin and not to fall, although he may have made a thousand resolutions and a thousand promises to God. This is clearly shown every day by the misery of so many poor souls who are plunged into vice for not avoiding the occasions.
Anyone who has had the evil habit of sins of impurity must know that, in order to restrain himself, it is not enough merely to avoid those occasions which are absolutely proximate; for if he does not also flee from those which are not altogether proximate, he will easily fall again.
The Deceptions Even of Apparent Virtues and Holiness
Nor must we allow ourselves to be deceived by the devil into thinking that the person towards whom we are tempted is a saint; it often happens that the more devout a person is, the stronger is the temptation. St. Thomas Aquinas says, that the holiest persons attract the most. The temptation will begin in a spiritual way, and will terminate carnally.
The great servant of God F. Sertorio Caputo, of the Society of Jesus, said that the devil first induces one to love a person’s virtue, then the person, and then blinds one and brings one to ruin. We must also flee from evil companions: we are too weak; the devil is continually tempting us, and the senses are drawing us to evil; the slightest suggestion of bad companions is only wanting to make us fall.
Evil Occasions, Bad Companions
Therefore the first thing that we have to do to save ourselves is to avoid evil occasions and bad companions. And we must in this matter do violence to ourselves, resolutely overcoming all human respect. Those who do not use violence to themselves will not be saved. It is true, that we must not put confidence in our own strength, but only in the divine assistance; but God Wills that we should do our part in doing violence to ourselves, when it is necessary to do so, in order to gain Paradise: The violent bear it away.”
— from The Saint Alphonsus de Liguori Collection” by Saint Alphonsus de Liguori, Catholic Way Publishing
On a personal note, due to age considerations I am “fully” vaxxed. I am also quite familiar with the arguments, theories and statistical interpretations of those who are suspicious of the current vaccine regime. I don’t regret my decisions considering the numbers of people who have perished worldwide since this all began. But I refuse to participate in the smug authoritarian attitudes of elites who politically exploit this virus into Orwellian directions to leverage unprecedented powers. That is a repugnant intolerable posture I believe which must be resisted politically. — SH
BALTIMORE — Archbishop José Gomez of Los Angeles presides this week over the annual fall assembly of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops in Baltimore — a closely watched gathering that will debate a draft document on Eucharistic coherence, prompting some media outletsto claim an escalating standoff between the U.S. episcopacy and the Biden White House.
It’s a familiar problem for Archbishop Gomez, the president of the U.S. bishops’ conference.
When he marked President Joe Biden’s inauguration with a public statement pledging to work with the White House on areas of common concern while also raising objections to the new administration’s pro-abortion agenda, a Washington Post story contrasted the archbishop’s nuanced comment with Pope Francis’s “warm blessing” to the second commander in chief to identify as Catholic.
And just weeks ago, media analysts pounced on Biden’s assertion that Pope Francis had encouraged him to continue to receive Communion during their Oct. 29 meeting in Rome, with some news outlets portraying the two world leaders as allies facing down a hidebound U.S. episcopacy.
Archbishop Gomez and other leading episcopal voices have struggled to clarify the conference’s goals regarding this issue. The document, “The Mystery of the Eucharist in the Life of the Church,” is designed to offer “a resource and support to the Eucharistic Revival Project of the bishops,” said Archbishop William Lori of Baltimore, a consultant to the USCCB committee drafting the document, during a recent interview with his archdiocesan newspaper.
“It’s a pastoral document that reiterates certain aspects of the Church’s teaching on the Eucharist that are important for the times in which we live.”
It’s unlikely, however, that Archbishop Lori’s messaging will have much impact on the scores of reporters who have descended on the Baltimore Marriott Waterfront hotel, where the bishops are holding their four-day assembly, which will conclude Thursday.
And the campaign to defend the statement on Eucharistic coherence has been further handicapped by the conference’s internal divisions, on display for most of the past year.
On May 13, four U.S. cardinals were among a group of more than 60 Catholic leaders to sign a public letter opposing approval of the document. The signers suggested that the Vatican backed their efforts to scrap the topic from the June meeting, pointing to a May 7 guidance letter from Cardinal Luis Ladaria, prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (CDF), who called for an extended timeline for ecclesial dialogue on a “national policy” for reception of Communion by political leaders.
In the end, 55 bishops voted against the proposal to issue the Eucharistic coherence document when the matter was brought to vote at the USCCB’s June meeting, though by then the focus on the document was modified to address concerns about calling out Biden. One hundred and 68 bishops voted in favor of going ahead with document.
Eucharistic Coherence and More: 8 Things to Know About The US Bishops’ Meeting
“It would be a challenging agenda for anyone, but it is more so because the conference is so sharply divided,” Catholic author and commentator Russell Shaw, who served as the U.S bishops’ spokesman during the 1970s, told the Register.
“That became apparent last June in the debate and vote on the Eucharist document. Archbishop Gomez and others backed away from a really tough statement on Biden and Pelosi and gave the 55 bishops who voted against the document a large concession.”
Likewise, the conference’s strained relations with the Vatican have created an additional hurdle.
“During the John Paul II and Benedict XVI pontificates, the bishops felt the pope and themselves were on the same page,” Capuchin Father Thomas Weinandy, the former chief of staff of the USCCB Committee on Doctrine, told the Register. “Moreover, they felt that whatever they did the pope would back them up. It might not happen publicly, but they knew they had the pope on their side. That has all changed now.”
An indication of the continuing tension was evident immediately ahead of this week’s meeting when Vatican News published an interview with retired Cardinal Roger Mahony, Archbishop Gomez’s predecessor.
During the interview, the former Los Angeles archbishop expressed sympathy for Catholic politicians who backed abortion rights because they are “pressured by some in the Church to make their decisions based on Catholic Church doctrine.” And he applauded a letter signed by 60 Catholic members of Congress upholding support for legal abortion. “This is the Church!” said the retired cardinal, who was relieved of administrative and public duties in the Archdiocese of Los Angeles in 2013 after the release of personnel files of priests accused of sexual abuse decades ago that highlighted his role in the mishandling those priests and sexual abuse allegations.
Elected the USCCB president in 2019, Archbishop Gomez is midway through a three-year term that has straddled a series of cascading crises.
First came the unprecedented 2020 pandemic that shuttered Catholic churches, schools and charities across the nation.
In a virtual address to USCCB members last June, Archbishop Gomez acknowledged that the pandemic had battered the nation and the Church, and he underscored the need for unity.
“In Fratelli Tutti, the Holy Father sets out his program for rebuilding the world after this pandemic. He gives us a beautiful vision of the ‘unity and common destiny’ of the human family in God’s ‘providential plan,’” he said, reflecting on of the Pope’s third encyclical on “Fraternity and Social Friendship,” issued in October.
“[T]he Church has a great duty to more fully reflect the unity that God wants for his creation and his people,” he said.
McCarrick and Sexual Abuse
His role at the helm of the USCCB also coincided with the release of the Vatican’s “McCarrick Report,” two years after “credible and substantiated” allegations of sexual abuse involving a minor forced the former cardinal Theodore McCarrick’s removal from public ministry.
The painful revelations of abuse, cover-up and negligence in the report arrived as Pope Francis approved bishop accountability reforms and U.S. Catholics learned of fresh allegations against bishops.
“This has not been a tranquil presidency for him,” Dominican Father Joseph Fox, vicar of canonical services for the Archdiocese of Los Angeles, told the Register, noting that Archbishop Gomez began his tenure as USCCB president “under the cloud of McCarrick.”
New bishop accountability reforms are now in place, with the local metropolitan archbishop receiving allegations of abuse or negligence involving bishops under his jurisdiction. The allegations are forwarded to Rome; the metropolitan or another senior bishop conduct a preliminary investigation, with independent third-party reporting systems also receiving claims to strengthen accountability.
Last July, however, the USCCB’s campaign to rebuild trust suffered an unexpected setback after The Pillar website reported that its investigation of user data generated by hook-up apps had identified Msgr. Jeffrey Burrill USCCB general secretary, as a serial visitor to Grindr, a dating website that mostly attracts gay men.
The Pillar reached out to USCCB officials to share its information in advance of publishing the report, and Archbishop Gomez informed USCCB members of Msgr. Burrill’s resignation, while noting that the report “did not include allegations of misconduct with minors.”
The Pillar’s use of commercially available user data from Grindr quickly provoked a firestorm, with privacy advocates and media outlets attacking the investigators’ intrusive tactics. The angry reaction, say some experts, appeared to discourage additional follow up by the conference, at least in the form of public statements offering a more comprehensive response to the revelations.
“They dropped it like a hot potato,” said Father Fox. “What kind of response did you get from the USCCB? Zilch.”
A Prudent Shepherd
The absence of additional comment from the conference on this sensitive matter, however, may also reflect what some Church insiders see as Archbishop Gomez’s characteristic virtue of prudence.
He is “dignified and steady, and doesn’t overreact,” Mary FioRito, an adviser to the late Cardinal Francis George of Chicago, who also served a term as USCCB president, told the Register.
“He has been appropriately firm when he needed to be, like the statement on the day of Biden’s inauguration. He has been a good model of diplomacy — fraternal and not paternal with his brother bishops.”
“The overall adjective I would use is ‘diplomatic’ in every sense of the word. He is a measured man by temperament,” she said.
Francis Maier, who became friends with then-Bishop Gomez in Colorado, when he served as an auxiliary bishop in the Archdiocese of Denver, echoed FioRito’s assessment.
“He is a man of outstanding humility and prudence. He is a guy who manages, despite his responsibilities, to maintain a human touch with individuals and families.
“I have always been struck by his sense that personal reformation lies at the heart of all Church renewal. He understands the big picture, but he also understands the importance of renewal, beginning with the person.”
Maier singled out the Mexican-born archbishop’s “witness on immigration,” as especially critical to the future of the Church in the United States. “He is sane and sensible, not loud and conflictive.”
His position appears “reasonable to people who might otherwise be resistant to immigration reform.”
As USCCB president and the Catholic shepherd of Los Angeles, the largest archdiocese in the nation, Archbishop Gomez has continued to give immigration policy high priority.
Wake-Up Call on ‘Woke’ Ideologies
But earlier this month he also addressed another simmering issue that has gained national attention in the wake of the GOP’s rout in Virginia’s gubernatorial election, with voters registering concerns about the promotion of gender ideology and critical race theory in public schools as parents demand more say over curriculum content.
In a Nov. 4 address to the Congress of Catholics and Public Life in Madrid, Spain, Archbishop Gomez offered a Christian response to the challenge posed by “the rise of new secular ideologies and movements for social change in the United States.”
“With the breakdown of the Judeo-Christian worldview and the rise of secularism, political belief systems based on social justice or personal identity have come to fill the space that Christian belief and practice once occupied,” he said, noting that the emotional toll of the pandemic and the killing of George Floyd, an unarmed Black man in police custody had amped up this trend dramatically.
These movements “provide people with an explanation for events and conditions in the world. They offer a sense of meaning, a purpose for living, and the feeling of belonging to a community.”
Archbishop Gomez’s striking assessment of the shortcomings of “woke” narratives, norms and rituals could not have been better timed, revealing that the very busy Los Angeles archbishop had his ear to the ground, as his home state becomes the first in the nation to approve a Model Ethnic Studies Curriculum inspired by elements of critical race theory.
“The archbishop expresses important insights that others have also discovered,” Christopher Kaczor, a professor of philosophy at Loyola Marymount University in Los Angeles, told the Register. “If the human person is by nature religious, to give up Christianity is not to embrace nothing but some new ultimate standard.
“We can worship God, gold, power, prestige, or equality of outcome,” Kaczor said. “But something is always ultimate for human beings.”
The archbishop’s address on pseudo-religious ideologies sets an example for conference members, and could serve as a wake-up call, leading them to set aside their political differences and focus on real threats to the Church’s mission and the common good.
Francis Maier isn’t surprised that his friend has found time to provide a cogent analysis of the secular movement competing with the Church for the hearts and minds of young Americans.
“The archbishop is leading the conference at a time of a transition between two models of the Church’s engagement with American culture,” he said, suggesting that the open confrontation with Biden could mark the closing chapter of an era of broad accommodation with American norms and a new one that offered a more prophetic countercultural voice.
“The mentality of the Church since Kennedy’s election is that [Catholics] are in the mainstream. We are accepted. We want to be part of the game.”
In the process, he said, U.S. Catholics have adopted “the consumer materialist culture that has an instinctive distrust of religion and particularly Catholicism.”
Opening Conference Address
The election of President Joe Biden, a politician who loves celebrating his Irish Catholic working-class roots, reminds his co-religionists how far they have risen in the land of opportunity.
But in his opening address to the USCCB assembly on Tuesday, Archbishop Gomez — the USCCB president who took the painful step of calling out Biden’s record on abortion during his inauguration — again reminded the faithful that the Catholic label has little meaning without a faithfully Eucharistic witness.
Acknowledging that the Church’s “position in society has changed” and that Catholics “cannot count on our numbers or our influence,” the archbishop observed during his Nov.16 address at the Baltimore assembly, “None of that ever really mattered anyway. We are here to save souls. … This is why the initiatives we are undertaking as a conference of bishops are absolutely vital — especially our document on the Eucharistic mystery and our pastoral plan for a Eucharistic revival.”
“Finally, I would like to say: The Eucharist is also the gateway key to the civilization of love that we long to create,” the USCCB president said as he concluded his remarks. “If we ever hope to end human indifference and social injustice, then we need to revive this sacramental awareness. In every human person that we meet — from the infant in the womb to our elderly parents drawing their final breath — we must see the image of the living God.”
“And the day will come when the mystical generation of Jesus by the supreme being as his father in the womb of a virgin will be classed with the fable of the generation of Minerva in the brain of Jupiter. But we may hope that the dawn of reason and freedom of thought in these United States will do away [with] all this artificial scaffolding…” —Thomas Jefferson to John Adams, 11 April, 1823; Adams-Jefferson Letters, ed. Lester J. Cappon II, 594
And so it is coming to pass. Coming to pass in the media-darkened minds of very, very, many, spurred on by ideological women and men who prefer impulse to reason.
It is not any foreign or domestic enemy…It is us. It is French and American ideology, the abuse and transvaluation of “liberty” into the Unnatural, the very opposite of the Liberty given to us by Jesus Christ..
Many Founding “Fathers” were “Enlightenment” Deists bringing a new and utterly false “light,” a “light” at war with Christianity, the gospel, and every traditional moral precept (1). The American Founders supported the French Revolution’s overthrow of Christendom and the substitution of a “New World,” even if some had problems with the methods the French employed in “Year One“.
It happened more slowly—though to the same ends—on this side of the Atlantic. The “Novus Ordo Seclorum” which we see etched on every dollar bill today was underway all over the West.
The Marquis de Sade was one of its prophets. A false rationalism and specious revaluation of “science” was substituted for Christian method and teaching and every moral precept.
A new transhuman view of “progress” was superimposed over all previous certainties and institutions. Those who would not play would be sanctioned, targeted, or worse, often at first in subtle ways.
Phenomenal licentious media today is the Revolution’s handmaid and the main means of indoctrination, the remaking of human thought. Signs and wonders.
Today everyone must choose. Not to choose is to choose.
We did not create ourselves. And nothingness is nothing, therefore impotent to “create” the splendor of Existence, an absurd abstraction.
The Final Revolution
Evil is far deeper than that found even in Nazism, Communism. It is Enlightenment lies. All of these otheri deologies are Evil’s bitter fruits. Evil is the unnatural opposition to the Creator, His Commandments, creation’s natural and moral laws (today the spiritual war extends even to the warring against biological gender and family), wherein Man in the final analysis seeks to be God (Gen.3:5), the New lawgiver.
It is inscribed on every dollar bill. Novus Ordo Seclorum. This is the “New World” of Enlightenment false “science” announced in the blood of the French Revolution.
“Woe to those who call evil good and good evil, who put darkness for light and light for darkness, who put bitter for sweet and sweet for bitter.” — Isaiah 5:20
2 Timothy chapter 3:
“Know also this, that, in the final age, shall come dangerous times. Men shall be lovers of themselves, covetous, haughty, proud, blasphemers, disobedient to parents, ungrateful, wicked, without natural affection, without peace, slanderers, incontinent, unmerciful, without kindness.”
Year One is the opposite of Christic Enlightenment.
“The new totalitarianism presents itself as the liberator of humanity.”
Is it any wonder Benedict was considered out of step and belonging to the ‘yesterday’ of the Church and history?
Benedict XVI: “The true threat for the Church, and thus for the Petrine service… comes … from the universal dictatorship of apparently humanistic ideologies. Anyone who contradicts this dictatorship is excluded from the basic consensus of society. One hundred years ago, anyone would have thought it absurd to speak of homosexual matrimony. Today those who oppose it are socially excommunicated. The same holds true for abortion and the production of human beings in the laboratory.
“The new totalitarianism presents itself as the liberator of humanity.
“Modern society intends to formulate an anti-Christian creed: Whoever contests it is punished with social excommunication. Being afraid of this spiritual power of the Antichrist is all too natural, and what is truly needed is that the prayers of entire dioceses and of the world Church come to the rescue to resist it.” — To Vatican journalist / Peter Seewald, Benedict XVI. Una vita (Garzanti), 2021
China’s Cultural Revolution Destroying The ‘Four Olds’
The Chinese Cultural Revolution was one of the bloodiest eras in Chinese history, in which as many as two million people died. But who started it and what was it for?
Mao Zedong’s ‘Four Olds‘
During the Cultural Revolution, the revolutionists initiated a critical campaign was the war on the Four Olds:
Old Culture, Old Customs, Old Habits, and Old Ideas.
Mao commanded the Red Guards to destroy remnants of pre-communist Chinese culture, an initiative launched in August 1966, also known as Red August. “Sweep Away All Monsters and Demons!” The Old Things were described as anti-proletarian, “fostered by the exploiting classes, [and to] have poisoned the minds of the people for thousands of years”.
China’s Cultural Revolution
Tom Phillips in Beijing, The Guardian Tue 10 May 2016 22.04 EDT
What was it and when did it begin? The Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution was a decade-long period of political and social chaos caused by Mao Zedong’s bid to use the Chinese masses to reassert his control over the Communist party.
Its bewildering complexity and almost unfathomable brutality was such that to this day historians struggle to make sense of everything that occurred during the period.
However, Mao’s decision to launch the “revolution” in May 1966 is now widely interpreted as an attempt to destroy his enemies by unleashing the people on the party and urging them to purify its ranks.
When the mass mobilisation kicked off party newspapers depicted it as an epochal struggle that would inject new life into the socialist cause. “Like the red sun rising in the east, the unprecedented Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution is illuminating the land with its brilliant rays,” one editorial read.
In fact, the Cultural Revolution crippled the economy, ruined millions of lives and thrust China into 10 years of turmoil, bloodshed, hunger and stagnation.
Gangs of students and Red Guards attacked people wearing “bourgeois clothes” on the street, “imperialist” signs were torn down and intellectuals and party officials were murdered or driven to suicide.
After violence had run its bloody course, the country’s rulers conceded it had been a catastrophe that had brought nothing but “grave disorder, damage and retrogression”.
An official party reckoning described it as a catastrophe which had caused “the most severe setback and the heaviest losses suffered by the party, the country, and the people since the founding of the People’s Republic” in 1949.
Whose idea was it and what was the aim? The Cultural Revolution was the brainchild of China’s ‘Great Helmsman’, Chairman Mao Zedong.
Seventeen years after his troops seized power, Mao saw his latest political campaign as a way of reinvigorating the communist revolution by strengthening ideology and weeding out opponents.
“Our objective is to struggle against and crush those persons in authority who are taking the capitalist road… so as to facilitate the consolidation and development of the socialist system,” one early directive stated.
Frank Dikötter, the author of a new book on the period, says Mao hoped his movement would make China the pinnacle of the socialist universe and turn him into “the man who leads planet Earth into communism.”
But it was also an attempt by the elderly dictator, whose authority had been badly hit by the calamitous Great Famine of the 1950s, to reassert control over the party by obliterating enemies, real or imagined.
“It was a power struggle waged… behind the smokescreen of a fictitious mass movement,” Belgian scholar Pierre Ryckmans wrote in his damning account of the Cultural Revolution, The Chairman’s New Clothes.
How exactly did it start?
Most historians agree the Cultural Revolution began in mid-May 1966 when party chiefs in Beijing issued a document known as the “May 16 Notification”. It warned that the party had been infiltrated by counter-revolutionary “revisionists” who were plotting to create a “dictatorship of the bourgeoisie”.
A fortnight later, on 1 June, the party’s official mouthpiece newspaper urged the masses to “clear away the evil habits of the old society” by launching an all-out assault on “monsters and demons”.
Chinese students sprung into action, setting up Red Guard divisions in classrooms and campuses across the country. By August 1966 – so-called Red August – the mayhem was in full swing as Mao’s allies urged Red Guards to destroy the “four olds” – old ideas, old customs, old habits and old culture.
Schools and universities were closed and churches, shrines, libraries, shops and private homes ransacked or destroyed as the assault on “feudal” traditions began.
Gangs of teenagers in red armbands and military fatigues roamed the streets of cities such as Beijing and Shanghai setting upon those with “bourgeois” clothes or reactionary haircuts. “Imperialist” street signs were torn down.
Party officials, teachers and intellectuals also found themselves in the cross-hairs: they were publicly humiliated, beaten and in some cases murdered or driven to suicide after vicious “struggle sessions”. Blood flowed as Mao ordered security forces not to interfere in the Red Guards’ work. Nearly 1,800 people lost their lives in Beijing in August and September 1966 alone.
What happened next?
After the initial explosion of student-led “red terror”, the chaos spread rapidly. Workers joined the fray and China was plunged into what historians describe as a state of virtual civil war, with rival factions battling it out in cities across the country.
By late 1968 Mao realised his revolution had spiralled out of control. In a bid to rein in the violence he issued instructions to send millions of urban youth down to the countryside for “re-education”.
He also ordered the army to restore order, effectively transforming China into a military dictatorship, which lasted until about 1971. As the army fought to bring the situation under control, the death toll soared.
Between 1971 and the Cultural Revolution’s official end, in 1976, a semblance of normality returned to China. US president Richard Nixon even toured the country in February 1972 in a historic visit that re-established ties between Washington and Beijing.
It was, in Nixon’s words, “the week that changed the world”.
How many victims were there? Historians believe somewhere between 500,000 and two million people lost their lives as a result of the Cultural Revolution.
Perhaps the worst affected region was the southern province of Guangxi where there were reports of mass killings and even cannibalism.
Appalling acts of barbarity also occurred in Inner Mongolia where authorities unleashed a vicious campaign of torture against supposed separatists.
Even China’s feline population suffered as Red Guards tried to eliminate what they claimed was a symbol of “bourgeois decadence”. “Walking through the streets of the capital at the end of August , people saw dead cats lying by the roadside with their front paws tied together,” writes Dikötter.
Yet contrary to popular belief, the government was responsible for most of the bloodshed, not the Red Guards.
“We read a lot of horror stories about students beating their teachers to death in the stairwell,” says Andrew Walder, the author of China Under Mao.
“[But] based on the government’s own published histories well over half, if not two-thirds of the people who were killed or imprisoned during the Cultural Revolution suffered that from 1968 to early 1970” as the army moved in to halt the violence.
The lives of some of the Communist party’s most powerful figures were upended by the turbulence, including future leader Deng Xiaoping, who was purged in 1967, and Xi Zhongxun, the father of China’s current president, Xi Jinping, who was publicly humiliated, beaten and sent into exile.
President Xi’s half-sister, Xi Heping, is said to have taken her own life after being persecuted.
How were foreigners affected?
As chaos enveloped Beijing in the summer of 1966, foreign diplomats found themselves at the eye of the storm. “Earplugs became standard embassy issue,” the former British ambassador Percy Cradock writes in his memoirs recalling how a cacophony of songs praising “our beloved Chairman Mao” became the soundtrack of life in the capital.
By the following year things had taken a more sinister turn. Red Guards laid siege to the Soviet, French and Indonesian embassies, torched the Mongolian ambassador’s car and hung a sign outside the British mission that read: “Crush British Imperialism!” One night, in late August, diplomats were forced to flee from the British embassy as it was ransacked and burned. Outside protesters chanted: “Kill! Kill!”.
Anthony Grey, a Reuters journalist in Beijing, spent more than two years in captivity after being detained by Chinese authorities in July 1967.
The Little Red Book?
The Cultural Revolution’s official handbook was the Little Red Book, a pocket-sized collection of quotations from Mao that offered a design for Red Guard life.
“Be resolute, fear no sacrifice, and surmount every difficulty to win victory!” read one famous counsel.
At the height of the Cultural Revolution, Little Red Book reading sessions were held on public buses and even in the skies above China, as air hostesses preached Mao’s words of wisdom to their passengers. During the 1960s, the Little Red Book is said to have been the most printed book on earth, with more than a billion copies printed.
When did it end?
The Cultural Revolution officially came to an end when Mao died on 9 September 1976 at the age of 82.
In a bid to move on – and avoid discrediting Mao too much – party leaders ordered that the Chairman’s widow, Jiang Qing, and a group of accomplices be publicly tried for masterminding the chaos. They were known as the “Gang of Four”.
Jiang contested the charges claiming she had merely been “Chairman Mao’s dog” but was sentenced to death in 1981, later reduced to life in prison. In 1991, on the eve of the 25th anniversary of the Cultural Revolution, she hung herself.
How did the Cultural Revolution affect China?
Mao had hoped his revolutionary movement would turn China into a beacon of communism. But 50 years on many believe it had the opposite effect, paving the way for China’s embrace of capitalism in the 1980s and its subsequent economic boom.
“A common verdict is: no Cultural Revolution, no economic reform,” Roderick MacFarquhar and Michael Schoenhals write in their book on the period, Mao’s Last Revolution. “The Cultural Revolution was so great a disaster that it provoked an even more profound cultural revolution, precisely the one that Mao intended to forestall.”
Another enduring legacy, experts say, is the obsession of today’s rulers with stability and political control.
Leaders such as Xi Jinping, a 13-year-old Beijing schoolboy when the cultural revolution began, had a front row seat to the mayhem, and some even partook in the violence.
“They saw a China that was totally chaotic for about two years and they saw atrocities sometimes,” says Walder, a Stanford University expert on the period. “They view the loss of the party’s control as something that will lead to chaos.”
Dikötter believes the nightmarish upheaval also served to destroy any remaining faith the Chinese people had in their Great Teacher. “Even before Mao died, people buried Maoism.”
After Mao’s death, the Communist party made some attempts to confront the horrors of the previous decade. Some were punished for the violence while those unfairly purged or persecuted were rehabilitated.
But those efforts petered out in the early 1980s as Beijing became wary of implicating itself in the killing at a time of growing opposition from Chinese youth. Academics were discouraged from digging into the party’s inconvenient truth.
Experts say Beijing would seek to mark this year’s 50th anniversary with deafening silence.
“They won’t go there – it is just too damaging to the party,” says MacFarquhar. “The party is guilty of three massive blows to the Chinese people: the [Great] Famine, the Cultural Revolution and the destruction of the environment which is ongoing now and may in fact be more deadly that the other two in the long run. And the last thing it wants to say is that we were the guilty ones.”
However, a bitter public row over a Mao-themed extravaganza held in Beijing earlier this month has unexpectedly thrust the decade-long upheaval back into the headlines.
Understand the Cultural Revolution?
The seminal work on the period is Mao’s Last Revolution by Roderick MacFaquhuar and Michael Schoenhals, a blow-by-blow account of the turmoil.
An earlier book by Schoenhals – China’s Cultural Revolution, 1966-69: Not a Dinner Party – contains a trove of documents, speeches and photographs, that chronicle the country’s descent into anarchy.
Perhaps the most withering critique of the political mobilisation can be found in The Chairman’s New Clothes: Mao and the Cultural Revolution, by Belgian scholar Pierre Ryckmans.
Ji Xianlin’s The Cowshed: Memories of the Chinese Cultural Revolution is a harrowing first-person account of the period. First published in 1998 and recently translated into English, the book recounts the hardship of a Peking University academic who spent nearly nine months as a prisoner of the Red Guards.
Another powerful Cultural Revolution memoir is Life and Death in Shanghai by Nien Cheng, a Chinese graduate of the London School of Economics whose life was turned upside down by the Red Guards in 1967.
The Cultural Revolution: all you need to know about China’s political convulsion
Benedict XVI: “The true threat for the Church, and thus for the Petrine service, does not come from this sort of episode: It comes instead from the universal dictatorship of apparently humanistic ideologies. Anyone who contradicts this dictatorship is excluded from the basic consensus of society. One hundred years ago, anyone would have thought it absurd to speak of homosexual matrimony. Today those who oppose it are socially excommunicated. The same holds true for abortion and the production of human beings in the laboratory.
“Modern society intends to formulate an anti-Christian creed: Whoever contests it is punished with social excommunication. Being afraid of this spiritual power of the Antichrist is all too natural, and what is truly needed is that the prayers of entire dioceses and of the world Church come to the rescue to resist it.”… Remarks to Vatican journalist / Peter Seewald, Benedetto XVI. Una vita (Garzanti) Ibid.
I’m so lucky to be nutty. —Allen Ginsberg, “Bop Lyrics” (1949)
The very first poem in Allen Ginsberg’s Collected Poems 1947-1980  seems, in a way, to prophesy Ginsberg’s entire career. It is titled “In Society,” and it dates from 1947, when the poet was twenty-one years old. The poem records a dream: Ginsberg is at a high-society cocktail party, is more or less ignored, and is told by a woman, “I don’t like you.” He screams at her:
. . . “What!” in outrage. “Why you shit-faced fool!” This got everybody’s attention. “Why you narcissistic bitch! How can you decide when you don’t even know me,” I continued in a violent and messianic voice, inspired at last, dominating the whole room.
Could Ginsberg have known, at that tender age, that he would spend much of his adult life dominating rooms in this manic, “messianic” manner—indeed, that his attention-getting tactics at poetry readings, political conventions, sit-ins, be-ins, protest marches, and Yippie Life Festivals would be a crucial catalyst in his rise to fame? Even Richard Howard, who in his no-nonsense survey of contemporary American poetry, Alone with America, begins forty of forty-one essays with a businesslike disquisition upon the poetic career at hand (“In 1960, Howard Moss selected an appropriate showing of poems from his first three volumes . . .”), makes an exception in the case of Allen Ginsberg. The long opening paragraph of Howard’s essay on Ginsberg is devoted not to explication de texte but to an anecdote. The gist of it is that once, at a poetry conference attended by Howard, an elderly poet just back from Nigeria was “extol[ling] the rare privilege of moving among a race of women proudly nude,” whereupon the bard of the Beat Generation rose from his seat, “stepped up onto the dais and without a word, without a smile, without a single deprecating gesture, Allen Ginsberg took off all his clothes.”
You could fill a book with Ginsberg anecdotes of this sort. (The stories about him removing his clothing at one public gathering or another would by themselves make up a long chapter.) What is remarkable is not that Ginsberg has advertised himself with such arrogance and audacity, but that it has worked like a charm; thanks to such shameless scene-stealing antics, he has attained a measure of fame that he could never have secured by his poetry alone. He is, unarguably, the only poet in America who is not just a member of the august American Academy of Arts and Letters but a bona fide celebrity, the sort who appears on network talk shows. He is idolized by English professors as well as rock stars, and associates comfortably with both groups. He is truly famous.
The Collected Poems 1947-1980 is the ultimate testimony to this fame. Two inches thick, clad in a bright, firetruck-red wrapper, this imposing tome, like its author, stands out big and brash among its fellows, demanding to be recognized. Its message could not be more obvious: that this poet, whose verse has heretofore been packed into numerous shoddy little small-press volumes, henceforth belongs to the ages. What’s more, the Collected Poems is only the first step in what amounts to the mainstream press’s canonization of Allen Ginsberg. In the words of the publicity flyer accompanying the review copy, Harper & Row will, in the fullness of time, “make available [Ginsberg’s] journals, letters, literary essays, and lectures on American literature, as well as a new collection of poems scheduled to coincide with his sixtieth birthday in 1986.” What poet, living or dead, has been treated so reverently by Publishers’ Row? There can be no denying it hereafter: Allen Ginsberg, who rose to renown as the outspoken enemy of the Establishment, and the most prominent feature of whose poetry has always been its hostility to the order of things in the United States of America, is now the Republic’s premier Establishment poet.
Ginsberg’s parents, at least, would have been happy. And if there is anything in America that Allen Ginsberg has not rebelled against in his three decades as the amazingly tireless (and drearily tiresome) Poet of Protest, it is his parents. Ginsberg’s father, Louis, was a poet—a premodernist rhymester, to be sure, but a poet; his mother, Naomi, was a Communist agitator whose paranoid psychosis (as any reader of “Kaddish” knows) eventually necessitated her commitment to a mental institution. Poetry, paranoia, protest: this was the mixed legacy of Ginsberg’s parents, and it is a legacy to which Ginsberg—who has dedicated his Collected Poems to their memory—has been eternally and entirely faithful. When, at age sixteen, he left their Paterson, New Jersey, home to attend Columbia University, Ginsberg took up studies in literature, his father’s field; and, just as loyally, he rejected the opportunity that Columbia offered to breathe sane air for the first time in his life. Rather—in a clear attempt to cultivate a Naomi Ginsberg-like rebelliousness—Ginsberg took up with the Beats.
Or, more precisely, the as-yet-unknown Beats-to-be. At first, in addition to Ginsberg, there were three of them: Jack Kerouac (a middle-class boy who lived with his mother in Ozone Park, Queens), William Burroughs (an heir to the gigantic corporation of the same name), and Lucien Carr (a slim, handsome student at Columbia). Though they looked harmless enough, Kerouac, Burroughs, and Carr had the same problem Ginsberg did: they craved chaos. They looked down upon the society in which they lived, for no other reason than that, like any other nonanarchic society, it had laws, a government, a way of life; they considered the classical, intellectually oriented education offered at Columbia to be pointless and stifling; and they romanticized poverty, criminality, and rootlessness in a way that only naive, sheltered young men could do. They felt themselves to be geniuses—literary geniuses, to be precise—and disdained the “well-made” piece of writing as much as they did the well-ordered mind. Truly great minds, they insisted, were not sane and stable and logical, and did not express themselves in lucid, beautifully balanced sentences; instead, such minds soared above the surface of the earth, touched the stars, whirled and shook and spun erratically in the upper air. The great, in short, were always a little mad. Thus it was with genuine pride that the Beats asserted—at first to one another, and then, later, to an increasingly attentive world—their own madness.
The Beats have been spoken of as populist writers, as celebrators of the democratic spirit. But the truth is that they were confirmed elitists. Their collective self-image was nothing short of messianic; in their judgment, they were, by virtue of their self-proclaimed mental instability, incomparably superior to the civilization into which they had been born, to the professors who had been designated to instruct them, to the great authors that everybody read. The appeal of this anti-logic to the young Ginsberg, in particular, is obvious: what could bring more comfort to a sensitive young man who loved his mother than the idea that her mental illness, far from being a family tragedy, was, on the contrary, something to be proud of? It was this anti-logic, at any rate, that persuaded Ginsberg, when he was not yet twenty years old, to reject Lionel Trilling and the other too-sane “squares” of the Columbia English department as being utterly incapable of giving him a real education, and to allow the loosely bound Burroughs (who was twelve years older than he was) and the wacky Kerouac (four years his senior) to be his literary mentors.
The Beats used the same anti-logic to determine which outsiders would be allowed to join their fraternity. Thus Herbert Huncke, a psychopathic burglar and drug addict who was known to New York police as “the Creep” (and whom Ginsberg once described as “the only sophisticated man in New York”), was heartily welcomed into the fold. (Huncke would make an enduring, if unwitting, contribution to American literature: he introduced his cronies to the word “beat,” meaning worn-out, jaded; it was Kerouac who, in a deliberate echo of Gertrude Stein’s “lost generation” remark, borrowed Huncke’s word and coined the appelation “the Beat Generation”) And Neal Cassady, a dashing railway brakeman from Denver who arrived on the scene in 1946, was such an excellent specimen of the obsessive-compulsive type that the Beats not only let him into their charmed circle but, endlessly fascinated by his hyperkinetic hedonism, made a literary hero out of him. Kerouac would immortalize him as Dean Moriarty in On the Road (1956) and other novels, and Ginsberg (who fell in love with Cassady) would write numerous poems about him over the ensuing decades, one of the first being “Dakar Doldrums” (1947). The initial stanza of this poem not only demonstrates the intensity of Ginsberg’s unrequited passion (Cassady had thrown him over for a woman, and a despondent Ginsberg had signed onto a freighter bound for Senegal) but provides a good illustration of his extremely imitative, pseudo-Elizabethan early style (the first of many extremely imitative Ginsberg styles):
Most dear, and dearest at this moment most, Since this my love for thee is thus more free Than that I cherished more dear and lost; Most near, now nearest where I fly from thee: Thy love most consummated is in absence, Half for the trust I have for thee in mind, Half for the pleasures of thee in remembrance— Thou art most full and fair of all thy kind.
Amid all the non compos mentis carryings-on, then, there was some writing going on among the Beats. But, all in all, the history of Ginsberg’s first years with his subterranean compeers bears less resemblance to a literary chronicle than it does to a textbook of case histories in schizophrenia. Two incidents stand out. The first, which took place in 1944, was the murder by Lucien Carr of a young man named David Kam-merer, who, according to Carr, had made a pass at him. Since the crime was therefore an “honor slaying,” Carr was let off with a relatively brief term in an Elmira, New York, reformatory. His fellow Beats, for their part, appear to have gotten a Norman Mailerish thrill out of the affair; the murder, one gathers from the many narratives that have touched on the crime, confirmed their image of themselves as a dangerous band of underground rebels. Then, in 1948 (the year he was finally graduated from Columbia), Ginsberg had his first brush with fame. He was implicated in one of Huncke’s burglaries, got his picture on the cover of the Daily News as a result, and was sent to the Columbia Psychiatric Institute instead of prison. There he met and befriended Carl Solomon, a well-read maniac who (one gets the impression) made the Beats look like the Sitwells; upon release from the Institute, Solomon immediately assumed the role of the group’s so-called “lunatic saint.” (He would also, in time, become the raving mad junkie-protagonist of Ginsberg’s most famous poem, “Howl.”) Solomon was, in the words of Beat historian John Tytell, something of a Platonic ideal of “the artist as outrage”—and therefore, obviously, a model of sorts for the outrageous public persona that Ginsberg was eventually to assume.
Besides being the year that Ginsberg joined Carr in the pantheon of hipster hoods, 1948 was also the year of two supposedly epiphanic events in the life of the aspiring poet. The first involved William Blake. One day, Ginsberg was alone in his apartment, having just read “Ah! Sun-Flower” (a poem in Songs of Experience), when suddenly he heard a voice—that of Blake himself, he figured—reading the verses aloud. Over the next few weeks, the voice returned and read other Blake poems to him. The Ginsberg groupies have made much of this incident; Paul Portuges devotes a whole book (The Visionary Poetics of Allen Ginsberg) to an interpretation of Ginsberg’s entire corpus in light of it, insisting that the auditory hallucination “revolutionized [Ginsberg’s] ideas about poetry, his concept of self, and his perception of the quotidian world.” Ginsberg himself (as quoted in Jane Kramer’s book Allen Ginsberg in America) puts it this way:
The thing I felt was that there was this big god over all, who was completely aware and completely conscious of everything, and at the same time completely the same as everybody, and that the whole purpose of being born was to wake up to Him. . . . . I felt everything vibrating in one harmony—all past efforts and desires, all present realizations . . . . And I felt that even my previous ponderings had been harmoniously flower-petaled toward this final understanding of what it was all about and that all my poetic musings about supreme reality were prophetic, really, and just the sweet, well-intentioned strivings of a poor mind to reach what was already there.
What it comes down to is that this “visitation” (which occurred, by the way, after Ginsberg had been smoking marijuana and inhaling Benzedrine regularly for several years) gave Ginsberg an abrupt push in the direction of the cosmic. It made him more of a transcendental poet than he had been before—the sort of poet, that is, who does not think of a poem as an object, a “made thing,” but rather as the effusion of a poetic self that sees all, knows all, encompasses all. This was, then, the beginning of the end of whatever interest the twenty-two-year-old Ginsberg might have had in developing his poetic technique.
The second epiphanic event of 1948 was somewhat more down-to-earth. Ginsberg went to hear his fellow Patersonian, William Carlos Williams, read at the Museum of Modern Art, and when the older poet recited his poem “The Clouds,” which at its end trails off in mid-sentence, the device struck Ginsberg with the force of a revelation: you could write the way you talk! Up to this point he had been, in his own words, “hung up on cats like Wyatt, Surrey, and Donne,” and had churned out reams of pseudo-Elizabethan poems (and would continue to do so for a couple more years, finally abandoning the iamb—for a while, anyway—after “Ode: My Twenty-Fourth Year” in 1950-51). Now, hung up on a cat named Williams, he began dividing entries from his prose journals into lines and calling them poems:
I walked into the cocktail party room and found three or four queers talking together in queertalk. I tried to be friendly but heard myself talking to one in hiptalk. “I’m glad to see you,” he said, and looked away. “Hmn,” I mused: The room was small and had a double-decker bed in it, and cooking apparatus: icebox, cabinet, toasters, stove; the hosts seemed to live with room enough only for cooking and sleeping.
Now, that was the way to write a poem—no muss, no fuss! Williams, whom Ginsberg soon came to know quite well (and whom he would refer to in later years as his “guru”), was flattered by these imitative (if utterly unimaginative) verses and provided an introduction for the book in which Ginsberg planned to publish them.
That book, however—Empty Mirror was its title—would not find a publisher till 1961; so Williams obligingly contributed a second introduction to what became Ginsberg’s debut volume, Howl & Other Poems (1956). Between the writing of Empty Mirror and of Howl, though, Williams’s influence waned. There were (aside from the obvious incompatibility of Williams’s “no-ideas-but-in-things” approach and Ginsberg’s Blake-born neo-Platonism) several reasons for this decline in influence. One of them was Kerouac’s new “theory” of spontaneous writing, to which Ginsberg subscribed enthusiastically upon its introduction in 1951. The idea, as set forth in Kerouac’s essay “Essentials of Spontaneous Prose” (and applied in the fast-as-lightning composition of On the Road), was that, when one is writing, the first words to enter one’s head are always the best ones for the purpose; revision is a deceitful process because it involves thinking, that dreaded enemy of honest feeling and consequently of true art. “First thought, best thought”: it was a ridiculous concept, but one perfectly suited to the Beats, who were impatient, impulsive, and incomparably conceited, who hated order, and who didn’t really want to spend all that much time writing anyway. (If they did, there wouldn’t be any time left to be “hip.”) Ginsberg, for one, would never be the same after “Essentials of Spontaneous Prose”; Kerouac, he was later to say (in one of the most dubious compliments in the history of American literature), “taught me everything I knew about writing.”
Kerouac was not the only member of the Beat Generation who was making discoveries.
But Kerouac was not the only member of the Beat Generation who was making discoveries. Sometime between the writing of Empty Mirror and of Howl Ginsberg made a big one: Walt Whitman. Here, he realized, was the perfect model for the spontaneous, transcendental poet he wanted to be. Ginsberg’s Open Road was to be different from Whitman’s, though; his journey down the “long brown path” of Whitmanian fame was not to be a lyrical, lighthearted hike but a bumpy, buffoonish protest march. “Pater-son” (1949), his first poem in imitation of the Bard of Paumanok, not only made it clear that he had shamelessly appropriated the entire arsenal of Whitmanian devices—the vatic tone, the long lines, the comprehensive lists, the names of American places, the programmatic egocentrism, the rampant sensuality, the practice of beginning a series of lines with the same words or phrases, and the obsession with the past, present, and future of America—but established the distinctly un-Whitmanian uses to which he would put them. At the beginning of “Paterson,” Ginsberg bluntly declares his hostility toward the American way of life: “What do I want in these rooms papered with visions of money?” He despises the idea of participating in an economic system governed by “the slobs and dumbbells of the ego with money and power/to hire and fire and make and break and fart and justify their reality of wrath/and rumor of wrath to wrath-weary man.” What sort of life would Ginsberg prefer? A demented, disordered one, of course:
I would rather go mad, gone down the dark road to Mexico, heroine dripping in my veins, eyes and ears full of marijuana, eating the god Peyote on the floor of a mudhut on the border or laying in a hotel room over the body of some suffering man or woman; rather jar my body down the road, crying by a diner in the Western sun; rather crawl on my naked belly over the tincans of Cincinnati; rather drag a rotten railroad tie to a Golgotha in the Rockies; rather, crowned with thorns in Galveston, nailed hand and foot in Los Angeles, raised up to die in Denver, pierced in the side in Chicago, perished and tombed in New Orleans and resurrected in 1958 somewhere on Garrett Mountain, come down roaring in a blaze of hot cars and garbage, streetcorner Evangel in front of City Hall, surrounded by statues of agonized lions, with a mouthful of shit, and the hair rising on my scalp, screaming and dancing in praise of Eternity annihilating the sidewalk, annihilating reality, screaming and dancing against the orchestra in the destructible ballroom of the world, blood streaming from my belly and shoulders flooding the city with its hideous ecstasy, rolling over the pavements and highways by the bayoux and forests and derricks leaving my flesh and my bones hanging on the trees.
With “Paterson,” then, Ginsberg set the course he would follow for the rest of his life: that of the self-proclaimed martyr and madman, the Hyde to Whitman’s Jekyll, the prophet-poet turned enemy of the system.
Ginsberg made other significant “discoveries” besides Whitman, of course. From around 1952, the poet, in his own words, “experimented with poetic effect of psychedelic drugs.” What this means is that he wrote “Howl” on peyote, “Wales Visitation” on lsd, “I Hate America” on heroin, “On Neal’s Ashes” on morphine or marijuana, “Denver Doldrums” on Benzedrine, “Kaddish” on methadrine, “A Ghost May Come” on marijuana, “Death to Van Gogh’s Ear!” on codeine. He composed a series of poems that take their titles from the name of the drug on which they were written: “Mescaline,” “Laughing Gas,” “Lysergic Acid.”
He went all the way to Peru just to bring back a hallucinogenic vine called ayahuasca. Portuguese book contains an interview in which Ginsberg discusses in depth the various effects of these substances on his work. “All mellow poems seem to emerge out of heroin. Endless metaphysical-political ravings in my journal and other stuff you’ve seen were written on morphine and heroin.” He speaks of poems like “Marijuana Notation” and “Psalm I” as having a “grass-like clarity.” He says of laughing gas: “It gives the appearance of enlarging perception to a point where the totality of the universe invades the individual entity and dissolves the individual entity into the blackness of space.” These were not, of course, private “experiments”; Ginsberg, like his friend and fellow chemist Timothy Leary, proselytized long and hard for the use of psychedelic drugs, travelling from campus to campus reciting poems like “Aether,” in which he asserts that “you can see/God by sniffing the/gas in a cotton . . .”
Ginsberg also discovered Eastern religion. His full-dress involvement with it dates back to the early Sixties, when he went to Asia and found himself intrigued by Hinduism and Buddhism. What appealed to him most about these religions was their emphasis on the self-determination of the individual and their understanding of morality as a subjective consideration. Life was not a matter of objective right and wrong, it was a matter of being true to one’s own karmic sense of things. No philosophy of life could have pleased Ginsberg more.
His exploration of Eastern religions has continued ever since; in the autobiographical notes to his Poems All Over the Place, Mostly Seventies (1978), Ginsberg indicated that he was spending a good deal of his time practicing both “mantra-heart meditation” (with one Swami Muktananda) and Tibetan Buddhist meditation. The influence of Hinduism, Hare Krishna, and the various species of Buddhism on his work has been largely semantic; in his poems and journals, for instance, he habitually (and gratuitously) describes relationships in terms of karmas and yogas. This is not to suggest, of course, that the babas, swamis, gurus, and lamas have not had a substantial impact upon the way Ginsberg lives and writes; like his psychedelic drugs, they have helped him fight off the desire for intellectual order that exists in some corner of every conscious mind and to give even freer rein to his id. Ginsberg, in typical fashion, prefers to describe this process as the “holy divine yoga of losing ego.”