Levels of Rationality: the Convergence of Whitman, Ginsberg and Pirsig

Our quest of what constitutes an American identity has started with the analysis of a set of literary and philosophical writings related to despair and enlightenment. The humble intention of the author is to give an overview of the texts and expose the (dis)convergent points of Walt Whitman in Song of Myself, Allen Ginsberg in Howl and Robert Pirsig in Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance. We will see that two of these pieces, the ones by Whitman and Ginsberg, are the reaction to comparable historical contexts, but represent different stages of the despair/enlightenment process. In the pursuit of enlightenment, Ginsberg falls short by getting carried away by madness while Whitman takes a more rational and therefore more efficacious approach; we will also be able to appreciate how the work of Pirsig presents some relevant perspective in the subject due to his methodical address.

Howl represents the very first stage of the despair/enlightenment process. This first stage is characterized by despair, the quasi-hopelessness state of the self, is the knife of the poem. The discontent generated by racism, homophobia and World War II gives birth to a counter culture reflected in the poetry of the Beat Generation. Howl is the torn voice of demand. Demand to the system for an answer in the middle of existential crisis, need of love and freedom. It is also an attempt to escape, by the means of drugs and liberation of sexuality, from the cruel reality that yields hollow men and sufferance. All this is expressed in a prose of rupture with previous aesthetic trends, where words and ideas that would be considered coarse and irreverent predominate. The pursuit of a condition with no pain, ignorance or desire (enlightenment) is a common factor of all of the texts analyzed here. However, the self-destructiveness of Ginsberg’s approach makes it inefficient, which results in the absolute absence of a real solution and increase of desperation and irrationality.

Chronologically first, about a hundred years before Howl, we find Song of Myself, a revolt against national tensions which is on a higher stage on the road of enlightenment: it incorporates the necessary rationale to distinguish the origin of problems and the potential clarifications. The social crisis derived from slavery issues, such as the emergence of Abolitionism and the division of church, is the root of Transcendentalism, a philosophy that twirls up and down the verses of Whitman. In this case, claiming the system is neither a method nor a solution. He goes through numerous descriptions of moments of life and history, such as battle events, contact with nature and with women and men of different ages, races, origins and experiences. The declaration of the deity nature of the human being and the detachment from any kind of groups are the main axes of his proposal: “Divine am I inside and out, and I make holy whatever I touch or am touch’d from/ The scent of these arm-pits aroma finer than prayer/ This head more than churches, bibles, and all the creeds”. Whitman takes a trip of merging with nature and preparing the soul for happiness. Even though Whitman’s work has traces of Romanticism, it is far off from the initial phase of disorientation present in Howl, bringing promises and breezes of consolation.

Last in both historical time and resolution there is Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, a philosophical narration that digs in romantic vs. classical appreciations and the conflicts between them, the concept of quality and other issues. The main character of this book embarks on a motorcycle trip with his son and friends. On the way to Bozeman, Montana, he develops his ideas and gets closer to identifying his old identity. According to the character, classic understanding is based on reasons and objective laws, while romantic understanding is mainly guided by perceptions and emotions. For the first time along the texts a theory about despair driven by a social/political system is given: “To some extent the romantic condemnation of rationality stems from the very effectiveness of rationality in uplifting men from primitive conditions. It’s such a powerful, all-dominating agent of civilized man it’s all but shut out everything else and now dominates man himself. That’s the source of the complaint”. This is, people do not understand the reason-based development of cultures and hence are in imbroglios of identity and purpose.

If this idea is considered, we could say that Ginsberg’s breakdown and Whitman’s disjoining of institutions are the results of a superficial conception of the world. There is no reasoning behind the abuse of hallucinogens and desperate protest; overthrowing the current system is not possible if no changes are made to the underlying mesh of everything, it would imply the establishment of a completely new reasoning scheme and the subsequent societal structure. Such a revolutionary path is more of a constituent of the Transcendentalist point of view. However, it is not completely rational and further crisis would result from the inability of the people of America to feel that it is one with the universe, when heterogeneity is one of its intrinsic qualities.

It can be argued about this model of conjunction of authors that although there are different reactions to crisis among Whitman and Ginsberg, the more or less rational profile of them is not a sufficient criterion to determine a true solution. The set of ideas, feelings and ways of looking for an answer grows from not only macro factors in society, but also from individual features shaped by personality and experience. The mere fact that emotions are involved in the whole approach does not make it invalid or false and therefore dividing them into “stages” of acquirement of enlightenment stands on quicksand. Defining the steps of a process requires previous knowledge of it and consequently having the solution.

Whether any of the routes analyzed here is the one actually guiding to enlightenment is a matter outside our competency. Nevertheless, subjectivity is unable to provide any type of guidance about what is enlightenment, how to achieve it and what the elements are related to the process. Only by reasoning manners is it possible to do so. The pursuit of enlightenment is a road of revising and revisiting our concepts of reality, society and meaning of being human by objective analysis, while keeping our most primitive impulses aside.


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