Ginsberg, Kerouac and Burroughs: celebrating the Beats in Paris
James Campbell, Graun, Jul 9 2016
By the author of Paris Interzone and This Is the Beat Generation: New York, San Francisco, Paris.
Beat Generation is at Centre Pompidou, Paris, until Oct 3.
Untitled (1965) by Brion Gysin and William Burroughs
Photograph: Los Angeles County Museum
If you want to read Jack Kerouac’s novel On the Road in its original scroll form this summer, the place to go to is the Beat Generation exhibition at the Centre Pompidou in Paris. It will require more than one visit. The 36.6 m scroll is exhibited in its entire length across the central room, like the Bayeux Tapestry. But while you are there you can also watch Robert Frank’s 30-minute film Pull My Daisy (1959), with Kerouac’s voice-over, scrutinise the heavily revised typescript of Allen Ginsberg’s poem “Howl”, dance to Harry Smith’s experimental jazz films and relish the sight of numerous rare publications under glass, such as Gary Snyder’s Six Sections from Mountains and Rivers Without End and issues of the magazines Big Table and Kulchur. Paris has acquired the habit of mounting major exhibitions on literary subjects, Jean-Paul Sartre and Boris Vian have been at the Bibliothèque Nationale in recent years, Jean Cocteau and Roland Barthes at the Pompidou. But why the Beats, and why now? Philippe-Alain Michaud curated the show with assistance from the poet Jean-Jacques Lebel, translator of several Beat works into French, and Rani Singh of the Getty Research Institute. He says:
The idea is to show these freedoms which were fought for then, and which are in danger of disappearing.
Michaud isn’t disposed to make the case for a revival of interest, since France never paid much attention to Beat writing in the first place.
We wanted to show the multimedia nature of the movement, not just writing but painting and film as well, and how the idea of travel was central to it.
There is another good reason for bringing the Beats to Paris. More than Tangier, which often gets the credit, the French capital was where Beat production reached its high point, between 1957 and 1960. With the turn of the decade, what had been an underground movement rose to the surface and was exposed to damaging commercial light. The living quarters were a cheap hotel in rue Gît-le-Coeur, near the Seine. Known as the Hotel Rachou, after its owner, it has passed into legend as the Beat Hotel. Just a short walk away, across the Boulevard St Michel, was the office of the Olympia Press in rue St Séverin, the nearest thing to a house publisher for Beat writing in Europe. It was at the Beat Hotel in 1959 that the dishevelled “routines” of William S Burroughs were shuffled into some kind of shape by Ginsberg, Sinclair Beiles and others, a random shape, according to Burroughs himself, before being brought to the proprietor of Olympia, Maurice Girodias. Four or five weeks later, Naked Lunch, with a now rare dust jacket designed by the author and many misprints committed by non-English-reading compositors (fortunately, given the content), was in the few shops willing to stock it. The cut-up technique, which Burroughs used to produce his next two novels, The Soft Machine and The Ticket That Exploded, also published by Olympia, was accidentally revealed to his regular collaborator Brion Gysin at the Beat Hotel. Gysin’s original cut-up weapon, a Stanley knife, is on display, as is Burroughs’s vintage Underwood typewriter and an adding machine of the kind refined by his grandfather, also William S Burroughs, which brought the family status and wealth at the end of the 19th century. It was in Paris that Ginsberg began writing “Kaddish”, his greatest poem (matter of opinion – RB), and it was from here that Gregory Corso sent the poems for his collection Gasoline to City Lights Books in San Francisco. Ginsberg wrote in a preface:
He’s probably the greatest poet in Pindostan, and he’s starving in Europe.
Starving at the Beat Hotel, to be precise, where Corso lived in a room almost too small to stand up in, as we see from one of the many photographs by the English photographer Harold Chapman.
Neal Cassady by Ettore Sottsass (1962)
Beat Generation does not claim the movement for Paris, but it shows the importance of the city in the lives and works of several of its leading writers. Kerouac spent little time there, but for Ginsberg and others there was the excitement of gazing at the same cityscapes and dawdling in the same cafes as Henry Miller, a reluctant forbear, Jean Genet and Samuel Beckett. The work of all three was as yet unavailable in Pindostan, but all were published by the Olympia Press, the literary importance of which has never got through to the French reading public. The Hotel Rachou has long since been converted into a four-star hotel. Singh says she was forbidden to take a group inside recently while leading a Beat walk. But visitors to the Pompidou will have their imaginations primed by an installation structured on contemporary pictures of Burroughs in his dismal room, some by Chapman, others by the Life Magazine photographer Loomis Dean. There is a replica of the sagging brass bed with a bare light bulb above and reproductions of Burroughs’s pictures on the wall. All that is missing is a stuffed dummy of the cadaverous figure himself, staring into the abyss of “total need,” Burroughs’s term for heroin addiction. Mme Rachou, who enjoyed the company of the local gendarmerie as well as of beatniks, is no longer around to explain why she admitted these eccentric types while refusing entry to a more ordinary sort of tourist. Her genial presence is visible in some of Chapman’s photographs, while those of the bar at the Beat Hotel give a vivid impression of Left Bank life in the 1950s. Michaud faces a harder task in presenting the shadowy side of the Beat soul, though he is well aware of it. Freedom isn’t always fun. There was madness and criminality in the Beat family genes. Kerouac, Ginsberg and Burroughs had all seen the insides of psychiatric hospitals by the age of 30. Corso got his higher education in prison. Burroughs shot his common-law wife in the head during a game of William Tell in Mexico. In San Francisco, Neal Cassady’s girlfriend Natalie Jackson threw herself from the top of a building. Elise Cowen, one of Ginsberg’s admirers, killed herself while he was in Bombay in 1962. He wrote to Corso:
Always felt revulsion for the death smell in her hair.
Le Roi Jones and his Family (1964) by Bob Thompson (Photo: Lee Stalsworth)
In recent years, there has been interest in the women of the Beat generation, but Singh, who worked with Ginsberg and is an expert on the films of Harry Smith, admits that it was “mainly the guys.” The show’s richly illustrated catalogue contains her interview with Joanne Kyger, whose Collected Poems was published in 2007 and who studied Zen Buddhism in Japan in the 1960s with her then-husband Gary Snyder. The catalogue also has archive interviews conducted by the Beat historian Barry Miles with Burroughs, Lawrence Ferlinghetti and Michael McClure (all translated from English into French). While the Beats might have done a lot to create greater acceptance of homosexuality, the liberalising ideals of feminism didn’t move them. Pull My Daisy is more than just a guys’ film; it is downright misogynistic (though not in the brutal manner of Burroughs at his worst). Ginsberg, Corso and others play themselves, while the pop artist Larry Rivers takes the Cassady role (Milo) with Delphine Seyrig as his long-suffering wife, based on Carolyn Cassady. “She’ll get over it”, Kerouac’s voice-over assures viewers, as the weeping wife is abandoned to household drudgery while the guys are back where they want to be, in freedom’s playground. As for the influence of black style on the Ivy League-educated Beats, leading to the birth of the “white negro” to use Norman Mailer’s expression, there are references in the show to the San Francisco poet Bob Kaufman and to LeRoi Jones. In the mid-60s, Jones buried his old Beat self in Greenwich Village, leaving behind his Jewish wife Hettie (herself a poet and children’s writer), and resurrected himself in Newark, New Jersey, as Amiri Baraka. There is a striking oil painting of “LeRoi Jones and his family” by Bob Thompson, and the typescript of Jones’s “Poem to be Read at Bob Thompson’s Funeral” (1966). The bridge spanning the divided Pindostani culture is supposed to be jazz, of which there is no shortage in the exhibition’s air. One of the more pleasant surprises in store for visitors is the interest in visual arts on the part of the writers. Ginsberg was a talented photographer. Always conscious of the epoch-making nature of the Beat enterprise, he kept a pictorial record until his death in 1997. Several of his carefully preserved pictures, with hand-written captions, are exhibited. There are also photographs by Burroughs, including some of his room at the Beat Hotel, and many examples of his script-and-image collage work. Paintings by Kerouac are on display, as well as a portrait of him by Larry Rivers and a lively drawing of Burroughs by Corso. One of the scoops for the curators is a 1.8 cm manuscript poem by Corso, probably made at the Beat Hotel:
There is no more SAFETY Protection/
here is only DANGER/
and it leans against the final/
St Tropez SHOES
There are paintings and collages by more recognised artists such as Wallace Berman, Julian Beck and Alfred Leslie. Among the best of the visual exhibits is Gysin’s imposing assemblage of hieroglyphics,
Calligraphie (1960) by Brion Gysin (Photo: Jonathan Greet)
The foundation myth is travel. Kerouac wrote urgently about the need to “go go go” and here is a rare opportunity to see the manuscript of one of the few books in the western canon that imitates the means of going: the On the Road scroll, the book as a road paved in paper. It is therefore suitable that Michaud has arranged his exhibits according to location: not only New York, San Francisco and Paris” the exhibition’s subtitle, but Mexico, Tangier and the Far East. London, a city skulking under a grey cloud in the 1950s, barely features. As Jean-Jacques Lebel says:
Burroughs chose to live in Mayfair in the 1960s and early 70s but that was because he could be anonymous there.
Today, Paris is the city glancing nervously at threatening skies. The continual explorations of freedom its literary culture have given rise to, from Rimbaud and Apollinaire to Camus and Vian, have been a source of inspiration to artists the world over. As I wandered through the Pompidou, I found myself thinking that the artistic-intellectual crisis in Paris was being talked about long before the present political one, and wondering how the two might be linked. Burroughs would have read the answer to the question between the cut-up lines. Meanwhile, it is heartening to know that a mad dash for freedom which set off from Columbia University 75 years ago is being celebrated in the dimmed City of Light this summer.
Interview with Jean-Jacques Lebel, artist, associate curator
Jean-Jacques Lebel, Code Couleur, n°25, May/Aug 2016, p 45
Q: Might one speak of a relationship of “filiation” between Surrealists and Beats?
A: You can’t really speak of filiation, but you do see concrete affinities between the automatic writing of the Surrealists and Kerouac’s “spontaneous prose” or “spontaneous bop prosody.” Carl Solomon, the dedicatee of Ginsberg’s poem-manifesto Howl, came to profoundly identify with Artaud on witnessing the latter’s tragic appearance at the Théâtre du Vieux-Colombier in 1947, where he suffered a public breakdown. Solomon was so deeply impressed that he had himself admitted to a mental hospital on his return to New York, insisting that he be given electroshocks like Artaud. In 1943, when he was only 15, the poet Philip Lamantia, a co-founder of the Beat movement, wrote to André Breton to inform him of his adherence to Surrealism and to send him poems that would be immediately published in the New York Surrealist magazine View. The Afro-American beatniks Bob Kaufman and Ted Joans identified with Surrealism, and some of the work of McClure, Corso, and Ferlinghetti has a very strong Surrealist flavour. It’s a matter of rhizomatic connections, not of demarcations. The sources of Beat poetry are not exclusively American, but very diverse, transcultural, often Asian.
Q: The exhibition highlights the Beat writers’ involvement with Paris. Can you tell us something about this moment in the history of the movement?
A: The essence of what the Beat poets sought in Paris is summed up in the photo of Ginsberg sitting on his bed at the Beat Hotel, in Rue Gît-le-Cœur, under a reproduction of Fantin-Latour’s portrait of Rimbaud and a poster for a Cézanne exhibition. The Rimbaud of Une saison en enfer was for them a “lighthouse” in Baudelaire’s sense, a teacher and inspiration. As for Cézanne, Ginsberg explained that he wanted to translate the painter’s analytic of space into a poetic method. Burroughs put the finishing touches to his scrapbooks and also wrote several books at the Beat Hotel. It was there that Gysin invented the cut-up and the dreamachine. Ferlinghetti did a PhD on Prévert at the Sorbonne. Corso did important writing in Paris and Amsterdam. It is time to lift the ban that certain chauvinist Pindostani academic interpreters of the Beats have imposed on Paris and Europe. The present exhibition complements and elaborates upon the one I organised in 2013-2014 at the Centre Pompidou-Metz and four other European museums. We are setting the record straight, in the fashion of Desnos: “Poem, I don’t ask you the time, I give you mine.”
Q: You were a member of the movement and a link with Pindostan. What was your role?
A: As a translator, first of all. Ginsberg got me to work for him as soon as we met in 1957. Then as an organiser of public readings and as a friend of Corso, Ferlinghetti, McClure, Orlovsky and Ginsberg himself. In 1958, I introduced Ginsberg, Corso, Burroughs and Gysin to my friends, Duchamp, Man Ray, Péret … My anthology of Beat poetry was published in 1965, thanks to Maurice Nadeau, and it was when I saw long quotations from my translation of Howl painted anonymously on the walls in 1968 that I realised what an impact this poetry had had. It had flown off the printed page to become an act in the social (sense). “Poetry should be made by all, not by one,” wrote Lautréamont. That dream had become a reality, at last!