Best Minds: How Allen Ginsberg Made Revolutionary Poetry from Madness
“madness can be both a teacher and a scourge, can be transformative, can place us in the company of visionaries like William Blake as well as the residents of Bedlam.”
Stevan Weine, a psychiatrist, has written a finely detailed case study of the Beat poet Allen Ginsberg to serve as an argument for the psychiatric community, and society at large, to reform its attitude toward, and treatment of, madness.
In 1949, at the age of 23, Allen Ginsberg was hospitalized at the New York State Psychiatric Institute following his arrest for a car chase and violent accident in Queens, New York. Ginsberg was on the edge of psychosis, suffering from the trauma of his lifelong exposure to his schizophrenic mother, Naomi. His initial diagnosis by the medical staff at PI was “pseudoneurotic type schizophrenia,” marked by symptoms of delusion and grandiosity.
Naomi had been a patient at Pilgrim State Hospital in New York, the largest psychiatric hospital in the world, overcrowded with more than 15,000 patients. There she had been treated with drugs, electroshock, psychotherapy, and, finally, a prefrontal lobotomy to which Ginsberg, age 21, had given his reluctant consent. A year after Ginsberg consented to the lobotomy, he began having visions, including a visitation from the mystic Romantic poet William Blake, who spoke to Ginsberg as he was reading Blake’s poem “Ah, Sunflower.” Ginsberg wondered if the visions were signs of his own incipient madness, or doorways to the divine.
These experiences had made Ginsberg both a victim and a witness of madness. Madness then became both the subject and the engine of Ginsberg’s poetry, giving birth to two of his most famous poems, “Howl” and “Kaddish for Naomi Ginsberg.”
In Best Minds, Weine explores the psychological processes that made Ginsberg a poet and produced his revolutionary poetry. An admirer of Ginsberg’s poetry and a sympathetic observer of his character, Weine befriended the poet in 1986 and spent the next 35 years piecing together the story of Ginsberg’s artistic journey. Ginsberg trusted Weine, encouraged his project, and gave him access to his private journals and medical records, as well as Naomi’s medical records. From this vast trove of information, and using his skills as a trained psychiatrist, Weine has woven together a fascinating portrait of genius and madness.
Ginsberg spent eight months at PI. He regarded it as an adventure. He was grouped with patients considered candidates for lobotomy, but his brother Eugene, who consented to his treatment, did not consent to lobotomy. Instead, Ginsberg was treated with psychotherapy by three different doctors. The main focus of the therapy was Ginsberg’s grandiosity, which he came to perceive as a defense against the guilt he felt for agreeing to his mother’s lobotomy.
His homosexuality, then regarded by the psychiatric community as a mental illness, was a secondary topic. The woman therapist who treated Ginsberg did not view his homosexuality as illness. She urged Ginsberg to accept it and his father to tolerate it. For this heresy she was removed from Ginsberg’s case. Weine believes that the treatment Ginsberg received at PI helped him.
Over a 15-year period following his discharge from PI Ginsberg traveled extensively, all the while processing his experience with madness and seeking through his poetry to understand it and integrate it. He first visited Yucatan and there absorbed the mythology and cosmology of the Mayans. He then settled briefly in San Francisco, enrolled in UC Berkeley, and began work on “Howl.” “Howl” was his first attempt to convey his experience of the personal and social dimensions of madness. The poem presents madness as both a source of suffering and a means of liberation from social conformity and habitual thinking. The poet Richard Eberhart published an essay about Ginsberg in The New York Times Book Review that put Ginsberg on the literary map.
In June 1956 Naomi died of cardiac arrest at Pilgrim State Hospital. Ginsberg did not attend her funeral, and three months later he shipped out as a merchant seaman on a vessel that sailed along the Pacific Coast. During this voyage, he contemplated Naomi’s madness—his part in it, his failure to rescue her, his abandonment of her in her final years at Pilgrim—and resolved to redeem her—and himself—through his poetry.
With money he had saved while at sea he traveled to Europe with his partner Peter Orlofsky. They visited Paul Bowles in Tangiers, and were joined there by William Burroughs and Jack Kerouac. He then went to Spain, where a long session at Madrid’s Prado Museum in front of Fra Angelico’s painting Annunciation provided him with a model of the redemption he sought for Naomi.
After living in Paris for a year, he and Orlofsky returned to New York where, in the fall of 1958, in a 40-hour, drug-fueled marathon, Ginsberg wrote “Kaddish for Naomi Ginsberg,” his elegy for the mother whose mental illness had shaped his life. Weine describes “Kaddish” as both the chronicle of an illness and a diagnosis of a society whose pathologies failed Naomi and thousands like her. In February 1959 Ginsberg read “Kaddish” to a full house at Columbia University. His father Louis was in the audience.
Following a year-long stay with Orlofsky in India in 1963, Ginsberg emerged as a leading voice in the counter-cultural movement of the 1960s. Ginsberg’s brush with madness, his gravitation to outsiders and marginal cultural figures, his rejection of mainstream American life with its striving and consumerism, his struggle to accept his homosexuality, his embrace of drugs such as LSD as aids to spiritual revelation, fitted him to be the prophet of the ’60s. He was the iconic Beat—both beatified and beaten down.
In the book’s Epilogue Weine takes up Ginsberg’s notorious sexual dalliances with teenage boys and his support of the North American Man Boy Love Association, an organization that supported pedophiles. Though Ginsberg later repudiated NAMBLA, his embrace of it left a stain on his reputation as a man pursuing higher consciousness whose hard-won wisdom could be a beacon for others. Weine attributes this lapse to a character flaw traceable to Ginsberg’s lost childhood.
Weine closes his book with a plea that Ginsberg’s story serve as a spur to the psychiatric community to reform its understanding and treatment of mental illness along more humanistic and compassionate lines. He advocates for the use of psychedelics in the treatment of conditions such as depression and PTSD. Weine learned from his study of Ginsberg that madness can be both a teacher and a scourge, can be transformative, can place us in the company of visionaries like William Blake as well as the residents of Bedlam.