Lawrence Lipton’s Holy Barbarians

Lawrence Lipton, The Holy Barbarians (@ 1959, WH Allen 1960)

1llhbA young friend pressed this on us, saying it had changed her life. It’s an account of the community of ‘beats’ in West Venice in Southern California in the 1950s. Lawrence Lipton introduces himself as a veteran of earlier bohemian communities who aims to give us a portrait of this one as it develops. Wikipedia says he was a journalist, whose name is linked to the beatnik movement mainly because of this book, but all the same this is an insider’s account, or at least an account by someone with full access.

I can see why it made such an impression on a teenage girl in a country town with artistic yearnings. It’s about young people and young adults from an earlier era who challenged the society of their parents to follow in the footsteps of Jack Kerouac, Allen Ginsberg, Henry Miller and so on, in what Lawrence Lipton calls Disaffiliation. It was interesting to me to see how much of what was novel, even heroic to the beats in the 50s (or at least to Lawrence Lipton reporting on them) was pretty commonplace for people in their 20s in Sydney in the 70s: relaxed sexual mores, jazz, marijuana …

The differences, though, are huge. The unquestioning acceptance of sexism is very in-your-face: women’s stories are told almost entirely in terms of their sexual behaviour and their relationships with men; at one point, being grandly inclusive, Lipton refers to citizenesses. African Americans are there, as Negro jazz musicians, the heroes of the beats but never really characters with their own stories. There is discussion of Marxism, but class is the elephant in the room, leaving the impression that this was a community of middle class white youth getting stoned and full of a sense of their own importance, choosing poverty but always with the possibility of asking their parents to bail them out, disengaging from politics but telling themselves that this was a mark of moral superiority.

Then there’s the language: even while professing a Zen rejection of dichotomies, the book assumes an apparently impermeable division between on one side the squares and on the other the hip, the cool, the beat. The squares might know about Taoism, for example, by reading and study, but the hip dig it. It’s awfully redolent of rigid high-school divisions between skaters, surfers, nerds, jocks, cool girls, etc.

Still, with some serious skipping, it’s an interesting journalistic account of an interesting moment in Western culture. It sent me off to YouTube to listen to Ginsberg perform ‘Howl‘, partly to check that the poem does refer to ‘angelheaded hipsters’ rather than the much more enigmatic ‘angleheaded hipsters’ mentioned by Lipton a number of times, but mainly because this book made me realise what a gap in my education it has been never to have heard him read it.

The book’s absolute highlight is not to do with the West Venice hipsters at all, but a marvellous account of a poetry reading by Allen Ginsberg and Gregory Corso, where a confrontation between a drunken Ginsberg and a drunken heckler escalates to the point where, provoking outrage among the square audience, Ginsberg strips naked, while Anais Nin – meeting Ginsberg for the first time – sits through it all unperturbed and regal. If you come across a copy I recommend you read pages 194–198. (It turns out I’m not alone in seeing this as the most interesting part of the book. At least two people have uploaded the passage, so you can read it here and here.)

3 responses to “Lawrence Lipton’s Holy Barbarians

  1. It is, in some weird way – a counterpoint to the scene in “Carry on up the Khyber” – where the display of nudity quells the attack! But in this case the drunk heckler has time to reconsider his macho desire to settle it outside – and to consider this genius and his unorthodox response – and so to redeem himself with an apology and expressed wish to purchase AG’s work! Thanks, Jonathan! Could this have been the Netanyahu/Regev – Hamas way in Palestine – there may well have been the sparing of hundreds of lives and thousands of injuries over the past week. If only George W/John W/Tony Blair had been able to disrobe with Saddam HUSSAIN – or indeed Hitler, Mussolini, the Japanese militarists (though they were culturally used to disrobing in front of others) – with Roosevelt, Churchill (more than used to it himself, apparently) and Stalin. Would it have reduced the uniform-cloaking testosterone-driven machismo one-man-ship? It might have helped. Imagine Maggie Thatcher with Ronnie Reagan and Gen. Belgrano?!!! Julie Bishop with any of the ambassadors she’s been carpeting over the months she’s been wielding the Foreign Affairs portfolio?!!

  2. Jim: You have now added a number of pretty unpleasant images to the walls of my mental art gallery. But if they contribute to the cause of world peace, I won’t complain. (Ginsberg explicitly presented his nakedness as an alternative to violence as a test of courage and manliness.)

  3. And it was indeed as you say re AG’s intent – and/but so unexpected that it shut down the clothed belligerent! Turned him friendly, indeed! I apologise if the images I suggested were so unsettling to you – just imagine people smiling at each other’s revealed innocences!