SG: Were the philosophies of the Beat Generation picked up or left behind by the baby boom generation?
AG: We didn't have what you could call a philosophy. I would say that there was an ethos, that there were ideas, and there were themes, and there were preoccupations. I would say the primary thing was a move towards spiritual liberation, not merely from Bourgeois, '50s quietism, or Silent Generation, but from the last centuries of mechanization and homogenization of cultures, the mechanical assault on human nature and all nature culminating in the bomb. So it was then either a revival of an old consciousness or the search for a new consciousness.... I don't think we [Ginsberg and Kerouac] had it clearly defined, but we were looking for something, as was Burroughs, as a kind of breakthrough from the sort-of hyper-rationalistic, hyper-scientific, hyper-rationalizing of the post-war era.
Now it was not an assault on reason. That's been much misinterpreted. It was an assault on hyper-rationalizations, you know, this fake science, fake cover-up, quasi-logical reasoning. The best example might be the inadequate science of the nuclear era. Although, like the sorcerer's apprentice, [scientists] were able to conjure up the power of the bomb, they weren't able to take care of the detritus and the waste products of the bomb. They still have not been able to. It's a half-assed science. It's not a real science....
The sciences that we were interested in, or arts, particularly from the mid-'40s, were some breakthroughs of consciousness or new consciousness--let's say a spiritual revolution that took form in changes in the literary method, bringing up the old literary forms and the release of a new energy: the long verse line or the spontaneous prose of Kerouac, or Burroughs's investigation into dreams, hypnosis and drugs, and the prose that arose from that--and then the verging on the illegal, the expressions of sexuality which were forbidden and censored in those days.
All of our work was really done with the idea that it would never be published, that is "Howl," Naked Lunch, On the Road. When I wrote it ["Howl"], I had no intention of publishing it. First of all I didn't think I would want my family to see my personal sex life. So I was writing it for my own fun.... I'm giving you the roots in the '40s and the '50s. I'm giving the conditions of spiritual liberation leading to literary liberation--not revolution, but liberation--leading to liberation of the word. That was from '58 to '62 in a series of legal trials which opened up these books to be published because otherwise they wouldn't have been legal.... At that point, the private liberation of the artists was spread out into the public properly with the actual artifacts that were written words or books. At that point, it begins to have a strong social effect on the next generation, that would be your baby boomers. Just about the time they got into adolescence, if they were born in '45, by 1960 they'd be 15 and 16, and they'd now be ready to be handed copies of "Howl," On the Road, and finally Naked Lunch, particularly Naked Lunch, which had an enormous influence up til now, actually, on rock and roll and everything.
[Bob] Dylan himself said that Kerouac's Mexico City Blues was the book given him in 1959 that opened him up to poetry and inspired and made him want to be a poet.... We were standing over Kerouac's grave in Lowell, [Massachusetts], filming his Renaldo and Clara. He pulled Mexico City Blues from my hand and started reading it and I said, "What do you know about that?" He said, "Somebody handed it to me in '59 in St. Paul and it blew my mind." So I said "Why?" He said, "It was the first poetry that spoke to me in my own language." So those chains of flashing images you get in Dylan, like "the motorcycle black Madonna two-wheeled gypsy queen and her silver studded phantom lover," they're influenced by Kerouac's chains of flashing images and spontaneous writing, and that spreads out into the people. From '64 on people are beginning to look carefully at the texts of the Beatles and Dylan and beginning to develop another literacy. People began turning the text inside out looking for hints.
SG: Did you think then or have you thought since, what type of effect this liberation might have on a culture of adolescents?
AG: In 1959, when LIFE [November 30] magazine came around I said, "If they think that we got something going, they must be scraping the bottom of their own barrel and they must be in a pretty deprived place [laughter]." Actually, after I talked to [LIFE writer, Paul O'Neil], I lay in bed trembling, realizing that we had an enormous responsibility. If the mainstream culture was so vulnerable--'cause he was, he didn't know what he was doing--and so ignorant and so curious about what we were doing, then they must be pretty empty like a paper tiger, and we would have to supply some kind of real culture in America, or real inspiration. That was back in '59. So from then on there was what Pat Buchanan now calls a spiritual war for the soul of America. And in '59 I did write an essay saying exactly that. By 1962 or '63, Cardinal Francis Spellman and J. Edgar Hoover were denouncing the Beatniks along with the eggheads, communists, and others as the greatest threats to America.
SG: Did you take any pride in being considered such a threat to America?
AG: No. It was a dismay that they were so mean-spirited and lacking in humor and enthusiasm in old American values. What would they do with Walt Whitman? What would they do with Thoreau if they were going to do that with us? They were out of sync with basic American values--Emerson, Thoreau and all that. I thought they were sort of un-American.
Kerouac was all-American if anything. Neal Cassady was an all American kid, foot warts and all. But it really was Americana and Americanist, something in an older literary tradition that runs through Whitman and William Carlos Williams and Sherwood Anderson. There was that old Americanist tradition of recognition of the land and the people and the gawky awkward beauty of the individual eccentric citizen. Or as Kerouac said, "the old-time honesty of gamblers and straw hats." His 1959 [Playboy, June] article on "The Origins of the Beat Generation," that's his statement on what he intended, a kind of yea-saying Americana which was interpreted as some kind of negative complaining by the middle class who were themselves complaining. So yes, we were, or I was quite aware of the [cultural] impact. But so was Kerouac in "Origins of the Beat Generation" and in The Dharma Bums. He predicts a generation of long-haired kids with rucksacks. He predicts and asks for it.
SG: So as you watched this younger, boomer generation in the 1960s, what was your response? AG: I thought that the spiritual liberation aspect and the artistic purity was being somewhat degraded by the Marxist, SDS, Weatherman strain of politicalization on the basis of rising up angry. Anger was not the answer....
SG: There were a lot of young people calling themselves Beatniks in San Francisco but who did not follow a literary tradition.
AG: I think they were Frankenstein replicas created by the press. Remember, the very word Beatnik is a press invention.
SG: San Francisco Chronicle columnist Herb Caen.
AG: He invented it as a denigration. The origin was the time of Sputnik, so it was like, ah, these guys, these Beats are disloyal. Beatnik, that was his intention. He's proud of it, I'm sure, but it really actually added a slightly demeaning element. Also there was a problem that the police were quite malevolent, not only towards the false Beatniks, but also some real poets....
SG: Is America adjusting well to the themes that the Beat Generation brought forth?
AG: The sexual revolution seems to have been accomplished in some way despite AIDS, and despite the reaction of Buchanan and his spiritual war trying to stem the flow of history, and despite the Moral Majority. Literature has been liberated considerably. The poetic form has been changed to inaugurate a new poetic form, an American form working in the tradition of Whitman, Pound, William Carlos Williams, as a continuity, as a lineage, as an Americanist lineage. I think that's established.... Poetry is more popular and more read than anywhere, not only spoken poetry but sung poetry of a high order from the inspiration of Dylan and the Beatles on to Beck today. You know Beck? He's quite good, actually, good words man. The ecological preoccupation that both Kerouac and Snyder introduced is now like mainstream thinking, though the government has not yet reacted to it appropriately. It's still now ingrained in poetry. Before, my father used to kid me saying, "Chicken Little, you think the sky is falling," until a hole opened up in the ozone layer.
SG: You have told New York magazine that you were trying to "save and heal the spirit of America." Is it sicker than it was in the '50s?
AG: Oh, well, in some ways. In the '50s, there was some sense of generosity and hope, generosity in America and generosity among the poets. There was hope that once the problems were clearly announced--like say clean energy, the diminished fossil fuel, less dependence on Middle Eastern oil, more dependence on clean energy sources--that we might be able to solve some of these problems. But once Nixon and others got in the White House, especially Reagan, they bankrupted the country, put it in hock so that there's no money for these major efforts. Let's say mass transit, or clean energy, or large scale medical treatment for addicts or even alcoholics, or to solve the problems that were created by the wars, by the disdaining, the neglect of the infrastructure of the cities, and the neglect of the clean-up of the poison wastes everywhere left by industrial sites and even the neglect of the final disposal of nuclear waste. Science needs toilet-training and it never got that. It would be expensive. Nuclear science needs toilet-training certainly.
Among other problems, when they emptied out the mental hospitals the rationale was to build inner city places for housing the mentally ill so they wouldn't be rotting vegetables in the back wards, but would have some interaction in the society. That money was never appropriated; those places were never built. So you have this gigantic homeless problem because of the interference and neglect of the government, because of the wars and the military expenditures, and the deliberate bankruptcy of the country, and Reagan putting it deliberately in hock to do that! So that by now, many of the problems we saw in the fifties have become almost impossible to deal with.
That's why you have all this apathy among the younger generation or so-called apathy or slacker. I don't think that it's real apathy. I think that the press and the government and the corporations have blockaded the amelioration of the situation that might still take place. I think that this right-wing temporary wave that seems to be already deflated was sort of the last-ditch denial that there was a problem.
I think Clinton means well. He started out on an even keel trying to integrate gays into the military. Then you had old jerks like Sam Nunn in his own Democratic Party betraying him. You've got to give him credit for trying. I don't think he's been given credit for trying. It's sort of like a bad mark that he tried to do something good. I don't think he got much support from the press on that. The press has had that same cynical attitude, especially in the eighties, especially on the drug issue. I keep coming back to the drug issue because politically everybody keeps saying that it's the second largest issue aside from jobs.... The drug issue is resolvable if anybody has the courage to finally do it....
SG: So a lot of the problems you saw in the '50s have...
AG: Persisted. They just never were moved on. The clouds opened up a bit in the sixties--some people got a glimpse of the possibility of the future-- and then closed down with the war and Nixon.
SG: If you could have grabbed the proverbial shirt collars of the those in the sixties who glimpsed this opening, knowing now that it would fade away, what advice would you have offered?
AG: I would have said that it would've been really important for the left to vote for Humphrey, as I did, rather than sit out the vote and let Nixon slip in. Nixon's secret plan to end the war actually was to nuke North Vietnam, according to [Daniel] Ellsberg, who was working for Kissinger. That would have torn the country apart, so he didn't do it, but he did prolong the war and escalated it to unimaginable proportions of cost and pain and ecological destruction.... So I would have said that the left should have followed more the old Beat mode of spiritual wrath and generosity, but not anger, and not to bring the war home.....
SG: What about today, if you could grab the same shirt collars of the boomer generation?
AG: Don't get intimidated, read great literature, learn to meditate in order to become conscious of their own minds, and purify their own aggression realizing that any gesture you take in anger creates more anger. Any gesture you take in equanimity creates equanimity. Make peace with yourself and see what you can do to relieve the sufferings of others. That's the main compass.
SG: Did they have that in the sixties?
AG: Yeah. Well, actually they had that in 400 B.C., that's the basis of Buddhism and Christianity. That's the really wild thing about the Moral Majority--they are claiming to be Christians and they want to persecute the poor. The Bible says you're supposed to take care of the poor. It's incredible.
SG: Do you feel hopeful?
AG: I don't think hope or fear are important. I think the main thing is a continuous generous activity, exuberant activity, no matter what's happening. Even if the ship is sinking, you can relieve suffering in any situation. Death is not--well okay, my meditation teacher, Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche, visited William Burroughs's son when he was waiting for a liver transplant. He was not sure he'd survive and he said to the young man, "You will live or you will die, both are good." That's my attitude. Both are good. That attitude of a little non-attachment and at the same time compassion and affection are sufficient.