[This was published for Fare Forward two weeks ago. I have another post there coming up this Thursday.]
I saw the best minds of my generation destroyed by madness, starving hysterical naked, / dragging themselves through the negro streets at dawn looking for an angry fix, / angelheaded hipsters burning for the ancient heavenly connection to the starry dynamo in the machinery of night…
Howl is one of the necessary stops in the education of any earnest literate, and much could be said about it on that score. At some stage we all like to imagine ourselves on the road with Ginsberg or Kerouac, reading Blake, St. John of the Cross and Plotinus on LSD and feeling eternity quiver in the words, struggling with the tangle of our roots, with the problems of ourselves and other people and God. What is great in all this is the wanting after greatness, what is heroic is the ability to strike out in pursuit of the One, to reject these dark satanic mills, to share in the optimism of the Internationale while suffering exile, poverty and disease, without eliding the meaningfulness of pain by ordering it to some higher good. Etc.
None of these things crossed my mind this morning. I paused over the obvious: I saw the best minds of my generation destroyed by madness. Instead of dreaming of a new Beat, equating our hipsters with those hipsters, I thought of how the minds of my generation have been destroyed by madness, how we find ourselves burning for the ancient heavenly connection to the starry dynamo in the machinery of night. I thought of our schizophrenia and dissipation, and the consequences of displacing the singleness of personal identity into an aggregate of text and images. How we tend to numb ourselves to that burning desire by gorging the mind on possibilities, people, places, by re-injecting every pin drop of our heartless solipsism into the echo chamber of the internet and simulating the clamor of voices with the patter of text.
If we call “mad” any frame of mind that effectively dissociates thought and action from reality, then the virtual world is a machine for madness. It is the place where everyone can adopt a new persona at any given moment, where the self does not subsist except as aggregated bits of text in a series of hard drives, where the principle of noncontradiction loses its force. In this place I am never who I am, because the “who” no longer refers to a subject. Instead, I am the perpetual act of saying, I am reference without referent. I am many. I create myself. I subsist across space and time, and by my words I dissolve space and time. For me all things are possible, all things are true, and because of this, communication is no longer a system of gestures at some external reality, but the generation and life of reality itself.
This universal place is the home of our satanic mills, this is the city whose alleyways we wander at dawn looking for an angry fix. The problem, of course, is that awash in the sea of our multiplicity we suffer from a lack: there is not enough of us. We talk continuously “from park to pad to bar” at all hours of day and night, and we pour out endless streams of text to nail down the complex of the self and establish its presence as a fixed thing in the virtual world. But of course persons are incommunicable, and we will never find ourselves in what we’ve said. We will never discover that desire, the pain of which drove us to so much pettiness and distraction. We will never draw close to the motions of eternity by which that longing is filled. Finally, as the night reaches toward the dawn and the internet falls silent, the facts lie open to every beholder. At the end of our virtual parade of vanities there is really nothing left but the abyss of unfulfilled possibilities, passed over while we were enjoying the show.