Location: Utica, NY

I AM the stein that's half empty, half full; I AM the white veins in the sky of a storm; I AM the ivory tusk on the wall; I AM the ants in your pants; I AM burning France; I AM a brooding coffee cup island; I AM fitter, happier, more productive; I AM the sun burning holes; I AM the wraith of long gone; I AM the artist in the television; I AM throwing down; I AM picking up; I AM iambic pentameter; I AM 100 IM; I AM the pox on your socks; I have chicken pox.

Sunday, December 31, 2006


John Gay, the author of one of the most famous plays of the 18th Century, is also one of the most overlooked figures in the canon of English literature as well. In this essay, which I wrote for a class in the summer of 2006, I attempt to do justice to The Beggar's Opera and the man John Gay.



ENG 345
AUGUST 7, 2006

Morality is nowhere to be found in John Gay’s The Beggar’s Opera. A passage that appropriately sums up the prevailing theme of the play is spoken by Lockit when he says, “lions, wolves, and vultures don’t live together in herds, droves or flocks. Of all animals of prey, man is the only sociable one. Every one of us preys upon his neighbor, and yet we herd together” (98-99). Each character is out for his or her own self in this play. Dishonesty and ignobility have no place in the lexicon of the characters of Gay’s mock-opera. Any means that can be employed to earn of quick shilling or save a character’s own neck from the noose or worse is fair game. This attitude is a reflection of the corrupt times John Gay was living in.

In their introduction to the Penguin Classics edition of The Beggar’s Opera, Bryan Loughrey and T.O. Treadwell describe eighteenth-century London as corrupt on all levels. Political offices had to be bought and the slums in the St. Giles quarter were “dangerous as well as squalid“ (15). Thief-catcher rings operated much like the mafia with the famous Jonathan Wild controlling most of them much like an eighteenth-century Al Capone. Graft, prostitution, larceny and alcoholism were accepted norms of eighteenth-century London society and no play paints a better picture of this than John Gay’s The Beggar’s Opera. Loughrey and Treadwell say in their introduction that, “the criminal world [in The Beggar’s Opera] is no worse than the world of respectable society, but it is no better either. . .” (29). The Underworld characters often compare themselves to the aristocracy to vindicate themselves, or at least to justify their actions, but they prove to be just as untrustworthy and vice-ridden as the upper-class citizens they condemn. In this essay I will argue that John Gay’s The Beggar’s Opera offers a world that is rampant with dishonesty and immorality, where back-stabbing is the norm and greed and self-preservation drives the characters and pits them against each other, and that ultimately these characteristics condemn the characters of the play and the society which they are a reflection of. No one character is truly virtuous and honorable with exception to Polly and possibly some of the members of Macheath‘s gang such as Matt of the Mint. While some of the other characters in the play display virtuous qualities from time to time, they later contradict these qualities by committing greedy or immoral acts.

One of the best and first instances of the play’s immorality comes when Polly tells her mother and father in Act I that she is in love with Macheath and that she is going to marry him. Peachum and his wife’s response to this news is to offer a solution to the timeless perception that marriage is a “trap” for both partners. Peachum says to Polly, “Secure what he hath got, have him peached the next Sessions, and then at once you are made a rich widow” (61). Polly, who is incredulous at this suggestion, says, “the blood runs cold at the very thought of it” (61). While intended to be comedic, this scene also speaks of a darker theme that dominates The Beggar’s Opera. By Peachum instructing Polly to have Macheath hanged so she can be rich and single again, Gay is showing peoples’ motives at their most base and greedy, which he does frequently throughout the play. Furthermore, he is belittling the highly valued institution of marriage by showing it as merely a means to gaining an easy fortune. This faithless view in the institution of marriage is further enhanced by the plethora of prostitutes that populate The Beggar’s Opera and by the pejorative vocabulary used throughout the play to describe women in general, such as “hussies,” “sluts” and “baggage.”

When Pechum and Mrs. Peachum realize that Macheath possess enough evidence to have them hanged instead, their motives for having him peached quickly change from wanting to make Polly a rich widow to a necessity to save their own lives. This betrays their immoral nature because they would not think twice about hanging someone who they believe not only loves and is going to marry their daughter, but also because they would have Macheath executed who Mrs. Peachum said a few scenes earlier that, “. . . there is not a finer gentleman upon the road. . . “ (48). They are purely motivated by greed and a necessity to save and protect themselves and care nothing about Macheath as a person or for what he contributes to the gang. Also, because they automatically assume that Macheath has the same motives as they do--that he will have them hanged once he marries Polly so he can inherit their fortune--this further proves that their own greedy and immoral views extend to how they perceive all of humankind. Already one gets a sense of the kind of world Gay is portraying--a world without morals or any concept of right and wrong.

If it can obviously be assumed that Peachum and his wife are not the most savory of characters, the reader quickly learns that Macheath is not much better. While at the end of Act I he professes what appears to be his endless and true love for Polly, one can see that his lines are littered with allusions comparing women to money, especially coins. When he is parting from Polly, he sings in air 18, “The miser thus a shilling sees/ Which he’s obliged to pay/ With sighs resigns it by degrees/ And fears ‘tis gone for aye” (67). All the while Polly is singing a tune in which she imagines Macheath is thinking of their parting the way, “The boy, thus, when his sparrow’s flown/ . . . . Whines, wimpers, sobs and cries” (67). Macheath is giving up Polly like a miser gives up a shilling, while she thinks he is imagining giving her up the way a boy would give up a pet bird.

This is not the only passage in the play which likens women to material and monetary possessions. In air 2 Filch sings that, “. . . suits of love, like law, are won by pay/ And beauty must be fee’d into our arms” (44). This alludes to prostitution, but it can also be viewed as expressing the timeless complaint that women are greedy in marriage and spend all of their husbands’ hard earned pay. This can also be taken to mean that marriage, in a way, is a form of prostitution were the man is essentially buying the woman. Consistent with this theme, Mrs. Peachum sings in air 5 that, “A maid is like the golden ore/ Which hath guineas intrinsic in’t,“ but, “A wife’s like a guinea in gold/ Stamped with the name of her spouse” (51). In his article “Similitude as Satire in The Beggar’s Opera” William Bowman Piper interprets these lines to mean that a young unmarried girl, “is like a lump of ore that will make an uncertain number of guineas. . . . when it is minted,“ but, “any wife in general, is like a single golden guinea; every wife, according to the figure, being. . . . precisely interchangeable on the market with every other” (347). This is a very bleak view of the institution of marriage if one takes it seriously, and Gay is making a statement that women are all coins stamped with the image of their husbands and thus are property and serve a monetary and economic function. The institution of marriage must have been marred in the eighteenth-century by the very popular trade of prostitution. Loughrey and Treadwell state that in the St. Giles quarter, “more than one house in every four was a gin shop,” but, “most of the gin shops were also brothels of the cheapest kind and places where stolen goods were received” (14). Since The Beggar’s Opera is described by the authors of the introduction as a “great success” (7) and as “smashing all previous [theater] records,” (7) it is not hard to imagine how popular vices like prostitution, theft and alcoholism--all subjects which The Beggar’s Opera deals with--captured and ran away with the mainstream consciousness of eighteenth-century Londoners.

Just as Macheath is driven by greed in his occupation as a highwayman, he is also driven by lust in his affairs with women. In a soliloquy before he entertains a group of prostitutes, he says, “a man who loves money, might as well be contented with one guinea, as I with one woman,” (72) and he says, “there is nothing unbends the mind like [women]” (72). If in Act I Macheath is a sort of Romeo to Polly who is his Juliet, this view of him is quickly dispatched when he is depicted entertaining the prostitutes in Act II. When he gets to Newgate prison and Lucy is introduced into the plot, five months pregnant by Macheath, his fatal flaw is now manifest to the reader. Macheath cannot keep his hands off females. This works well with the satiric element of the mock-operatic play, but it also carries a more sinister tone to it as well. Both Polly and Lucy are desperately and truly in love with Macheath and they have been seduced by his sweet words and his many promises so that they both consider him their husband. While some women may not mind having light relations with Macheath, Polly and Lucy are deeply wounded by his betrayal and display many of the characteristics of virtuous maidens. Thus Macheath is as much of a back-stabber out for his own gain and pleasure as much as any other character in The Beggar‘s Opera.

While Polly and Lucy may be the most virtuous of all the characters in the play, they have their shortcomings as well. They are both the daughters of shady fathers for one thing. While Lockit’s profession as a jailor may be more legit than Peachum’s as a thief catcher, there is more than one scene when they secretly discuss “going halves” on Macheath. Lucy’s most virtuous act is to help Macheath escape from prison, however, her character ultimately suffers when she attempts to poison Polly with rats-bane. Her wickedness manifests itself when she says, “I never could be hanged for anything that would give me greater comfort, than the poisoning that slut” (108). Polly and Lucy are both culpable for loving so steadfastly a roguish man like Macheath, who neither deserves their loyalty or offers any promise of ever remaining faithful in the future. Something can be said of them by this fact alone, much like what can be said of the women today who fall for the bad-boy or tough-guy type of men. However, if one was to weigh the two characters on a scale, Polly would prove the more virtuous of the two women, which is most likely why Gay has Macheath make her his wife in the end, albeit not without singing the chauvinistic 69th air that concludes with the line, “The wretch of today, may be happy tomorrow” (122).

The characters in The Beggar’s Opera frequently try to justify their evil actions by comparing themselves to respectable society. Peachum, like many of the characters, constantly has it in for lawyers and in the opening scene says, “a lawyer is an honest employment, so is mine. Like me too he acts in a double capacity, both against rogues and for ‘em. . .” (43). This does not amount to much of a vindication of his deeds but rather makes him look more foolish than anything else. By using the excuse that “if the rich guys can do it, well, so can I” he is only absolved so much because he is not in a position where morality is expected of him. Third graders do the same thing. If a basketball star they admire acts immoral than they think they have license to emulate that person, only they are not culpable for their actions because they are young and inexperienced. The basketball star ultimately takes the blame, because he is the one who is supposed to be setting a good example and he is setting a bad one. Peachum is indirectly asserting in these lines, whether he knows it or not, that modes of conduct are set by respectable society and thus trickle down to everybody else. If the citizens with the money and the government offices can act immoral, than immorality becomes the status quo. Peachum’s lines than, in which he tries to pump himself up and look like he is better than lawyers, ultimately make him look like a poor, uneducated peasant of the meanest sort.

Robinhood-like virtues can be found in the gang of thieves and alongside Polly this gang is the next closest thing to true virtue in The Beggar’s Opera. Matt of the Mint tries to justify stealing from the rich in the following passage when he says:

“A covetous fellow, like a jackdaw, steals what he was never made to enjoy, for the sake of hiding it. These are the robbers of mankind, for money was made for the freehearted and generous, and where is the injury of taking from another, what he hath not the heart to make use of? (69)

These lines seem to speak of a noble purpose behind the highwaymen’s actions, but one can hardly see the justice in stealing from the rich because they hide what they own. Did it never occur to Matt of the Mint that the rich hide their possessions because robbery was so rampant in eighteenth-century London? In their introduction, Loughrey and Treadwell claim that, “the slums of London were a jungle which the well-dressed and respectable explored at their peril,” (15) and that, “fear of the rope appears to have had little effect on the crime rate” (17). Certainly all of the thieving rings like the one Macheath and Matt of the Mint belong to were responsible for much, if not all of, the crime. Furthermore, for all of the gang’s professed loyalty to one another--for instance, Nimming Ned says, “who is there here that would not die for his friend?” (69)--the solidarity of Macheath’s gang ultimately proves less than perfect in the end. While caught after escaping from prison and facing execution, Macheath alludes to the fact that Jemmy Twitcher, a member of his gang, turned him in. “That Jemmy Twitcher should peach me, “he says to Matt of the Mint, “I own surprised me!” (118). The ultimate message from this is that all friendship and loyalty is false, and that only rogues and dissemblers exist.

This may sound harsh but it was the world John Gay was living in. Scholars have tried to argue that in The Beggar’s Opera Gay is exalting the Underworld and exposing the corruption of wealthy society. They base their arguments on the fact that the rogues, villains and harlots in the play don’t pretend to be anything else than what they are, and that the true villains, rogues and harlots are the upper-class individuals, who affect righteousness and decency and yet are as vile and obscene at the core as the members of the Underworld-classes. But this view ignores the fact that there is not a single character of the respectable-class of Londoners in Gay’s play. There is simply a class of villains being villains, and where is the vindication in that? While they may boast how they are better than the rich, they do it all behind the backs of respectable Londoners in their private dens and brothels. Just as Macheath is being led to the gallows, the Beggar, who is the fictional author of the play, says, “Through the whole piece you may observe such a similitude in high and low life, that it is difficult to determine whether (in the fashionable vices) the fine gentleman imitate the gentleman of the road, or the gentlemen of the road the fine gentlemen” (121). But how is one supposed to deduce this if the play only tells a one-sided story? Where are the fine-gentlemen with fashionable vices to compare to the gentlemen of the road in the play like Macheath and Matt of the Mint?

In conclusion, one thing can be said in favor of The Beggar’s Opera that echoes what scholars who argue that the play is a vindication of the Underworld say. In the end when the Beggar talks of “poetical justice” (120) and having all of the characters either “hanged or transported,” (121) his companion, the Player, interrupts and says they must change the ending to “comply with the taste of the town” (121). Hence Macheath is reprieved and reluctantly marries Polly. “The taste of the town” has as much to do with the audience expecting an opera to end happily as it does with them wanting to see true “poetical justice” done by having Macheath freed. Scholars argue that one of the chief injustices this play addresses is that the citizens of the Underworld are punished for their vices whereas the upper-class citizens are not. By reprieving Macheath at the end, scholars say that this is a bit of poetical justice that is sticking it to the man.

But if Macheath is not the villain who the town wants to see hanged, must we automatically assume that the aristocracy should be hanged? Perhaps the true villains the town wants to see hanged are Peachum and Lockit who are fictional representations of people like Jonathan Wild--those individuals who would rat out their own friends for 40 pounds and who would look like they were doing the world good by ridding it of one more purse snatcher. Loughrey and Treadwell say in their introduction that the public was dubious of Jonathan Wild, “and when, in 1724, he finally overreached himself and was hanged for the offense of receiving a reward for the return of goods which he knew to have been stolen, few tears were shed” (20). Are not the thief-catchers the ones who should hang if poetical justice is to reign victorious in the end?

But poetical justice lives in the epitaph of John Gay, which he composed for himself before he died. For a man who lived during England’s immoral and corrupt eighteenth-century, he is remembered for eternity with lighthearted words of mirth that read: “Life is a jest; and all things show it/ I thought so once; but now I know it.” Being able to laugh in the face of so much corruption is the biggest victory of all, and if the Underworld characters in The Beggar’s Opera were not vindicated, at least John Gay was.

Tuesday, December 26, 2006

Bright Lights, Big City, Very Sleepy

Greetings to all my readers--or reader--from the Big Apple! It is the day after Christmas and I am in an apartment on West 27th St. sipping green tea as my fingers go clickety-clack on the keyboard.

I had been looking forward to this trip for a long time but the whole experience has been anticlimactic in every way. I have been extremely exhausted and not feeling well since arriving in the Big Apple Saturday night, and now that it is Tuesday morning and time to leave I am just starting to feel better. I finally managed to get a full eight hours of uninterupted sleep last night and I am a little more lucid of mind and can now talk without slurring my words. This may be overstating things a bit, but the truth is that I came to New York with a little bit of a cold to begin with and the excitement of being here--not to mention that it's Christmas--has made me feel like a prisoner at Guantanamo Bay who is being tortured with sleep deprivation. What follows is an account of my mostly sleepless visit to New York:

The long train ride from upstate New York (delayed for two hours thanks to Amtrak's expedient service) tired me out Saturday evening, and after hanging out at SoHo house with my brothers upon arriving at midnight I didn't end up falling asleep until 5am Sunday morning. After this long night you might think I would want to sleep in the next day--and believe me, I did--but I was up before 10 and my bro and I were out the door before noon. What followed was a tiring day of shopping in Union Square and a night at the cinemas to see The Good Shepherd which starred Matt Damon. I did manage to get a little bit of relaxation time in-between the shopping and the movie, but I was still tired out of my mind the whole day and by 10pm all I could do was bitch about wanting to go home and go to bed (I wonder if the prisoners at Guantanamo Bay get to do that?).

Another night of not sleeping well (slept for 4 hours before being woken up by Jamaican music in the street at 4am. Got another 2 hours after that) and it was Christmas day. The city was a ghost town except for tourists who were mostly Asian. My brother gave me a three hour tour of lower Manhattan which included a stroll through SoHo (we saw Patti Smith's house! Yeah!) and the financial district. Walking down Wall Street felt like being in one of those episodes of the Twilight Zone when some guy wakes up and discovers that he is the last person left on the planet. I wanted to shout, "Hello!" really loud to add to the effect but my tiredness prevented me.

Christmas night was spent with my brothers, a sister in-law and my parents here at 27th St. in the apartment of my brother's girlfriend who is in England. Some of my sister-in-law's friends who live uptown visited in the evening with their adorable twin, infant daughters. I got to feel what it was like to be a father for about an hour as I talked baby-talk to them and held and played with them. Until yesterday I was always the type of person who was terrified of holding tiny children in my arms. This fear had to do with my inability to believe that I could successfully hold onto a baby without it inexplicably slipping though my hands, landing on its head and ending up with permanant brain damage. Yesterday, however, as I sat on the couch watching basketball with a baby asleep on my stomach I felt like I would make a good father someday, and now I can't wait for the next opportunity to play with somebody else's small children as if they were my own.

The tiredness seemed to come and go Christmas evening and when it came it was unforgiving to my need to have a relaxing and memorable night (it's not every year that I get to spend Christmas in New York City y'know). The worst part of the evening was when I told my brother in very sober words that I was literally "scared" as I had been tired going on days and there seemed to be no way to turn it off. He told me to lie down and he made me some warm milk--which I didn't drink because I didn't want to feel even more tired--and I asked him to sit by my bed while I tried to fall asleep. Aaaaawwwww! I know, but I was scared as shit. I had this frightening feeling that I was going to succumb to the exhaustion and not be able to breathe or something. Fuck!

Luckily this wave of feeling drained beyond capacity passed over me and I was able to enjoy another hour of social time before I fell asleep for good. I slept like a baby from 11:30pm until 7ish and it felt so fucking sweet. I could go for another three or four hours right now but all the medical wisdom says not to do that. Just go to bed at a regular time tonight and get up at a regular time tomorrow.

So here I am, a bit more lucid of mind and wishing I had had a better trip. But what can I do? I saw a good portion of Manhattan even though sometimes I was so tired it felt like I was in a dream. I even experienced a veritable New York moment when my brother hailed a cab only to have another cabbie pull up and steal us away from the cab my brother hailed. When the incident was over, the cab driver who was robbed of his fair yelled, "Fuck you, black!" to the cabbie who got away with me and my brother. My brother and I will no doubt share many laughs for years to come when we recall this scene. "Fuck you, black!"

And fret though I may, I can't forget all of the Christmas gifts I received. I got an iPod to replace my old iPod which I accidentally washed along with my jacket about a month ago. I have enough books now to keep me reading for the next few months. Some of the books I got for Christmas include books of poems by Pablo Neruda, Matthew Zapruder and Ben Lerner. I also got Dylan's Chronicles (Yeah!) which I had been wanting to read for a while. My dad also got me a Barnes & Noble gift card which I will most likely use to purchase Jonathan Safren Foer's Everything is Illuminated. My brother's girlfriend is his agent and there are copies of his two books all over her apartment--neither of which I have read--and a check he wrote to her for $1,000,000,000 as a joke. I have read Man Walks Into A Room by his wife, Nicole Kraus, and parts of The History of Love, but I have yet to read anything by Foer. He is younger than me by one year and it will be weird to read a published author who I could have actually beaten up at one time.

As you can see, this trip wasn't all slow-brained, slurred speech, feeling-like-my-boots-were-made-of-cement exhaustion. It had its highs along with the lows. I am most taken aback by the enormity of New York and the surrounding buroughs. All of my previous visits here have been limited to brief tours of the various neighborhoods my brother has lived in which did not give me an accurate sense of just how truly large this city is. They say that every 20 blocks is a mile and the blocks just seem to go on and on. Whew! I will need rollerblades the next time I come down here, and it might not be a bad idea to bring some cold medicine too.

Thursday, December 21, 2006

ERASER HEAD (part 1)

Here is an excerpt from a story I'm working on entitled "Eraser Head." I am writing the story with no real aim in mind, it is more of an excercise in writing (with style, plot, dialogue, that sort of thing). For that reason I've decided to include it in my blog. The stuff I'm working on with the intent to hopefully publish some day is a lot more serious and--I would say--of better quality. So enjoy this passage from "Eraser Head" and don't get any ideas of copying it and trying to pass it off as your own (because if you do that you're a no-talent f**k!)

[from "Eraser Head" by Tim Freeman]

Ever since Patrick was old enough to suck his thumb he can remember dreaming of the day when he would walk through foreign lands in army-supplied camo brandishing a machine gun for defensive and offensive purposes. He envisioned eating K-ration meals in fox holes and patrolling streets littered with spent shell casings, twisted bits of shrapnel glinting in the sun like metal orange peels and maybe even the occasional body part or two. He liked to imagine the smells of war at family barbeques or on the 4th of July. Having never been in an actual combat zone he wondered how closely these smells approximated the actual aroma of a battlefield.

GI Joe figures littered his house growing up which he sometimes played with in bed wearing his camouflage pajamas with the words SLEEP TROOPER sprawled across the chest. When he entered high school he joined the Junior ROTC and ran Cross-Country. He was also a varsity member of the swim team by his sophomore year. He took karate classes and in the eleventh grade he became a part-time karate instructor. Patrick did everything he could to fortify his body and mind for the trials that lay ahead. He was building the iron constitution that he would need as a man of the military.

By the end of his junior year he was well into the application process for The Naval Academy in Annapolis, Maryland. Everything was falling into place just like he had imagined.

Then he had his accident.

IT was an unseasonably chilly night in June with a crisp breeze blowing from the northwest through the valley where New Hatfield straddled the border between Hacksack and Totum Counties. It wasn’t just any night in New Hatfield. Tonight was the night of the Senior Ball at Free Mason Academy High School and everybody who was anybody was headed to the house of a popular girl who lived in the hills that overlooked the city. Patrick and his friends Aleisha and Justin climbed into Patrick’s ‘83 Honda Civic and drove to the party from the dance. They were following a long line of cars all headed in the same direction that moved like a noisy funeral procession of partying teenagers in rented tuxedos and sheer, lacy dresses.

“There’s gonna be beer at the party,” Aliesha said as she lit a cigarette. “Beer, beer, beer!” She had a tendency to repeat things over and over like a little kid when she was exited.

“No beer. No drinking,” Patrick said with a fatherly inflection of sternness in his voice.

“What?” Aleisha snorted out a laugh and the question at the same time, almost dropping her cigarette down her cleavage.

“I just don’t want to be responsible for what happens if anybody drinks.”

An incredulous silence hovered in the car for a moment. It seemed that all the air had gone out the windows and Patrick suddenly felt helpless. His cheeks became hot and rosy. He was momentarily embarrassed by being viewed as a prude by his closest friends, but he knew in his heart of hearts he was doing the right thing. Foreseeing the potential for this scenario, he had worn his RIGHT IS WRONG AND I AM STILL CAPTAIN shirt under his tuxedo.

“No one‘s going to force you to drink,” said Justin from the shadows of the back seat.

“You really should though. You don’t want to remember tonight. All your dickweed high school friends being dickweeds for the last time.” Aleisha could muster a persuasive tone when she wanted to and she was using it right now on Patrick.

“No. No alcohol. Can’t drink alcohol.” Patrick reiterated his position and stayed firm to it despite more complaints from his comrades.

The conversation continued this way as they followed the snaking line of cars up into the hilly, suburban streets of New Hatfield where the doctors and lawyers all had sprawling houses with neatly manicured lawns. The house of the girl who was hosting the party was at the top of the hill in a cul de sac of newly developed houses. Half of the houses on the street were still wooden frames erected over concrete foundations. Shadows of people were standing inside of these frames passing around small burning cherries of joints and talking trash and laughing. Aleisha, in a fit of exitement, almost jumped out of the car before it had come to a complete stop.

“Gonna get drunk, drunk-drunk-drunk-drunk!” she sang as she hopped across the front lawn where people were flocking into the party.

“That’s a negative,” Patrick said.

“There’s going to be a big bong,” Justin said.

“Negativity,” Patrick responded. This somewhat jovial response to Justin’s prodding belied an incipient relaxing to his hitherto position of firmness, and Patrick was aware of it.

“Bong. Spell it. Bong,” said Justin.

“Bong. B-O-N-G.”

This was always the way Patrick gave in. Peer pressure. He could maintain his iron constitution as long as he wasn’t with his friends, who he always felt he had to impress. Somewhere up there, he thought, every Remsey is looking down at him with disapproval in their sad little eyes and shaking their heads. “Patrick! You should know better,” they were probably saying right now.

Deep in his heart of hearts there was a voice whispering. It was telling him he should back out, think up an excuse to leave the party. Get away. Go far away. Sit on the levy all alone, maybe, or go home and lie in bed with the lights out and listen to White Snake until he fell asleep. The voice was barely audible, but it was there. If he listened through the din of the party he could just hear it. The voice of his ancestors, a small fountain of voices in his heart springing up. He tried to listen but the faces of his peers standing around told him he was a freak if he did, so he stopped.

“C’mon,” Justin said.


Sunday, December 10, 2006


I tried to get this published with no luck around the time of the 50th aniversary of Ginsberg's Howl. I'm posting it here for your edification and reading pleasure. Enjoy!

Tim Freeman

In his poem “Howl” Allen Ginsberg says he is “con- fessing out the soul to conform to the rhythm of/ thought” in an effort to delineate “America’s naked mind.” This poem that was published in 1956, and which was the subject of an obscenity trial upon its release, approximately marks a watershed moment in American History. Ten years after “Howl“ appeared on bookshelves, revolutionary changes began to swell across the American landscape. These changes would do much to dissipate the long cherished, old-fashioned conservatism that marked the first half of the 20th Century. Prior to Ginsberg, writers like Hemingway and Mailer were already abandoning the jingo in their fiction about World Wars I and II and were beginning to question some of America‘s attitudes. But “Howl” reads like a pornographic jeremiad, and the language is so graphic and shocking that even today’s readers will flinch at some of the lines.
Its frenetic syntax describing “endless cock and balls” and rooms “full of steam heat and opium” reveals a marginalized segment of America fed up with listening to the “scholars of war” and hearing the “crack of doom on the hydrogen jukebox” every night. The answer to conformity is nonconformity, the answer to sober-minded mechanical thinking is drug addled craziness, the answer to capitalism’s “sexless cloud of hydrogen” is reckless bisexual promiscuity. And more than anything, “Howl” asserts that the madness of the world can only be combated by equal madness.

When I went through a crazy teenage phase in the early and mid ‘90s, I did not have the fortune of reading “Howl“ to assure me that other people--even very brilliant and artistic people like Allen Ginsberg--experience insanity in ways similar to how I was experiencing it then. I did not read “Howl” until I was in my twenties when, by then, I had grown an appreciation for what books can do and had developed a love of--and dependence upon--them. In many ways, my thoughts were as scattered and psychotic when I was a teenager as the voice in Ginsberg’s ranting poem. I was fighting a war back then. I was fighting a war against the world and a war in my mind. I smoked pot and took acid so I wouldn’t be like everybody else. I wanted to free my mind from what I saw as the myopia of suburban California, and more than anything, I thought I was being cool by taking drugs.

My rebellious drug use, however, would ultimately have consequences. Like Allen Ginsberg, at my high school I “broke down crying in white gymnasiums naked and trembling before the/ machinery of other skeletons.” When I read this line in “Howl” for the first time I thought Allen Ginsberg and I must share the same spirit. It took me back to a time in my Sophomore year when I smoked pot before a pep rally and felt exactly the same way--like I was naked and everybody was laughing at me. In reality, I was thronged with the stoners in a corner of the gym and nobody probably even noticed me amidst the sea of scraggly hair and beanies. “Howl” glorifies drug use but it does not eschew the damage drugs can cause. Drugs may offer instant gratification, but the user always comes down, “shuddering, mouth-wracked and battered/ bleak of brain all drained of/ brilliance.” Having learned this lesson the hard way too many times, I eventually gave up drugs before I finished high school.

“Howl” also spoke to me in another way the first time I read it. My childhood evenings were spent watching the world kill itself on the nightly news as my mom cooked casseroles and meat loaf and asked me about my day at school. Later, the bombardment of war stock footage I witnessed during these formative years would haunt me as a teenager on afternoons I spent lying in bed listening to heavy metal CDs. Images of executions, tanks exploding and common graves would play through my brain to a discordant soundtrack of lacerating guitar chords and rumbling drums. My mind became one continuous heavy metal video after another on those sunny afternoons. Being more fascinated by the images and pictures of the news broadcasts as a boy, these scenes replayed in my mind with no context to accompany them. To me they were a meaningless montage of chaos that spoke of humankind’s penchant for senseless brutality.
This left me believing that mankind must be intrinsically evil. As a result, I distrusted large institutions and became skeptical of everything that they stood for. I was like a lot of seventeen and eighteen year-olds. Marylyn Manson made more sense to me than Bill Clinton. This nihilism lingered into my early twenties and affected my first reading of “Howl.”

Because of this quashed optimism that I carried around as a vestige of my adolescence, I could identify with part II of the poem. My inner voice chanted along with Ginsberg’s as he cried “Moloch!” I could easily grasp his belief that there is an evil so prevalent in the world yet so mysterious that it can only be expressed by a strange, chanted invocation. “Moloch whose love is endless oil,” the verse shouts. “Moloch who entered my soul early!” “Moloch!” with its “Robot apartments” and “invisible suburbs.” While I was already beginning to become part of Moloch in my early twenties, I still had enough iconoclastic spirit left over in me to feel like Ginsberg was speaking directly to me in these lines. Furthermore, lines in the verse from part I denouncing “the iron regiments of fashion & the nitroglycerine shrieks of the fairies of/ advertising & the mustard gas of/ sinister intelligent editors” really hit home with me as well.

Allen Ginsberg is at war with the world in “Howl“, but like the truest of all rebels, he is also at war with himself. He is no stranger to the “pingpong & amnesia” of mental hospitals which he recalls “returning years later [to] truly bald except for a wig of blood, and tears and fingers, to the visible madman doom of the wards of the madtowns of the East.” I laughed along with him when I read how he “in humorless protest overturned only one symbolic pingpong table.” It made me recall a time when I flipped over a desk at an alternative school I attended for a semester after failing out of regular high school in my Sophomore year.
Having spent time in inpatient psychiatric hospitals myself, I can empathize with Ginsberg’s frustration at the futility of fighting a reality that may not always be the reality we want it to be. He dedicates his poem to Carl Solomon “losing the game of the actual pingpong of the abyss” in Rockland where he keeps saying “I’m with you.”

My troubled teenage years were not easy for me or for my family. I hated going to school and my brothers suffered from guilt as my broken mind stagnated from 1992 to 1995. My parents were forced to pick and choose their battles with me, allowing me to smoke and watch the Playboy channel in exchange for more stringent restrictions on some of my other freedoms. All I could think while all this was going on was “What’s the big deal? There’s nothing wrong with me.” Ten years since graduating from high school those years seem like a distant reverie. Sometimes I wonder if they even happened, if maybe I wasn’t possessed all that time by a foreign spirit. When I read “Howl” it takes me back to those times and everything becomes fresh in my mind again.

After having my college career truncated in 1998 by another psychotic breakdown, I finally resumed my studies three years ago at a four year college in my community. I am a senior now and expecting to graduated in less than a year. I have read “Howl” twice in the last year for two different college courses and I even did a presentation on Allen Ginsberg for a poetry class. Each time I read “Howl,” I pick up on nuances that I did not know existed before. It is as if my reading of the poem evolves as I evolve.

For a person to lose their mind and their sanity is a tragic thing, but for the whole world to lose its mind and its sanity, that is an even sadder thing. This is the truest message “Howl” leaves in its wake, and its ripples can still be felt today, howling America’s naked mind.