For nearly fifty years Allen Ginsberg told readers and listeners that his efforts to change writing and society we’re ignited by the mystical visions he had in 1948, at the age of 22, in which he heard the voice of William Blake reciting “Ah Sunflower.” At the time he journaled: “I was staring out of the window when I saw a vast gleam of light cover the sky. The bowl of heaven was suffused with an eerie glow.”
In a 1965 interview published in the Paris Review Ginsberg gave the most explicit description of the visions. This time he said: “…suddenly, simultaneously with understanding it, heard a very deep earthen grave voice in the room, which I immediately assumed, I didn’t think twice, was Blake’s voice.” Several other small published pieces briefly mentioned visions with a voice, but none before 1960. The Paris Review interview became the definitive version of the Blake visions.
1948 to 1965 leaves a mysterious and unexplained gap of 17 years from the days of experiencing visions in Harlem to his elaborated confession that he heard Blake’s voice. A gap that surprisingly has not been acknowledged or explained despite the massive amount of writings by and on Allen Ginsberg. What are we to make of this 17-year gap from a writer who famously documented everything?
While trying to learn more about the visions, I found something shocking and secret in Ginsberg’s archives. I found a letter from Dr. Worthing of Pilgrim State Hospital concerning the 1948 lobotomy of his mother, Naomi. Naomi had a severe chronic psychotic illness since before Ginsberg was born. She suffered from hallucinations and paranoia and was in and out of state mental hospitals for most of her adult life, receiving electroconvulsive and insulin therapies. Dr. Worthing wrote to Ginsberg, because after his parents’ divorce, Allen was responsible for Naomi’s care. Though he was only 22 at the time, the letter asked him to give the doctors consent for his mother’s lobotomy. Ginsberg signed the consent document and the lobotomy was performed soon thereafter.
When I found this letter in his archives, it was summer 1986 and Allen Ginsberg’s consent for the lobotomy had not yet been publicly disclosed. When I showed this letter to Ginsberg he paused in silence, looked down, and said, “Hmmm. That’s a very extreme thing.”
“What are you thinking?”
“I wonder to what extent there is a relation to my whole change of mind during that time, psychotic breakthrough so to speak. Because I had to do the signing for that.”
It was only six months after the lobotomy that Allen Ginsberg began to have visions. He was living by himself in an East Harlem apartment subleased from a friend in the divinity school. Ginsberg was single, gay but closeted, and apart from his friends. He hadn’t managed to fulfill his dream of himself as a writer. And he was trying to live with himself after authorizing a psychiatrist to cut into his mother’s brain presumably to save her life – a life that neither she nor he thought there was much chance of salvaging, given the horrible price that her chronic severe psychotic illness had already exacted.
His readings were a veritable syllabus in the literature of visions—William Butler Yeats, William Blake, St. John of the Cross, and other visionary literature that he found on the bookshelves in his Harlem sublet. But he wanted to be an artist, not a professor, and to descend from what he perceived as neurosis and too many abstractions. The visions offered that and more by turning him into a religious man.
Having visions allied him with Naomi and her misunderstood visions, but gave him a clear purpose. He was now a visionary poet whose calling was to write vision-inspired poems, salvaging her madness, and his own. He turned to literary classics on visions and tried to write his own allegories. Seventeen vision-poems from this time were later included in Gates of Wrath (1948-1949), published 25 years later.
But in addition to seeing the visions as an igniter of changes, I discovered how Ginsberg’s memory and representation of them from 1965 on came to differ from his original accounts. Thus the Blake visions were actually a consequence of changes made by Ginsberg well after 1948; changes in his approaches to madness, to writing, and to his role in society. Making those changes involved deep studying of visionary literature, composing scores of vision-poems, and unceasing correspondence with his supportive and challenging literary brethren.
It also involved his lock-up in the madhouse (the prestigious New York State Psychiatric Institute) and getting treatment, both inpatient and outpatient – another secret story that needs telling. Ginsberg knew from reading William James that psychiatry was likely to dismiss visions as hallucinations, and visionaries as being mentally ill. He felt that psychiatry did not help his mother, or for that matter, to try to understand her. Nonetheless, Ginsberg acknowledged that in those early years psychiatry helped him.
None of this fully explains the appearance of Blake’s voice after a 17-year gap. Nor how the changes in the visions came upon the heels of “Howl”(1957) and “Kaddish” (1962), side by side with his emergence as a poet-prophet. In his archives I found another letter bearing important evidence that could explain these changes. In June 1957, Ginsberg wrote a letter from Madrid to his brother Eugene. He spoke of his encounter that month with an extraordinary painting by Fra Angelica at the Muse del Prado: “the annunciation seemed the greatest painting I ever saw first hand – I’d vaguely remember it from life, or art books – but was not aware of its perfection – delicacy and solid bright centuries.” Ginsberg even crudely sketched the image for his brother to see.
The surprising meeting with Fra Angelico’s Annunciationi offered a model for revising the visions as an annunciation experience. From then on Blake’s voice was in the first place, like the doves and angels whispering into Mary’s ear, making it immediately obvious that Allen Ginsberg made a holy connection and was indeed Blake’s heir. This reimagined holy connection through visions, centered on Blake’s voice, was the central image that Ginsberg used to justify his role as a modern day poet-prophet. The dreadful links to Naomi’s lobotomy and Allen’s signature remained hidden behind myth.
This means that the Blake visions were not the singular transformative event that they have been made out to be for the public. Ginsberg’s tendency, and those of his chroniclers, to present the 1965 revised Blake visions as the original event, do not give full justice to the changes he made and the hard work necessary to achieve them. Nor to how his immersion in his mother’s madness and lobotomy somehow led to creating something powerful and sublime. Apparently the need for visualizing a dramatic event that encapsulated a completed foundation myth to justify Ginsberg’s role as a poet-prophet was greater than the messiness of a fifty-year evolving attachment.
Though Ginsberg may have sacrificed these truths of the visions, it was done for higher purposes. Beginning in 1948 and continuing throughout his life, Ginsberg used his experiences with visions to devise a radical new way of depicting madness not as a single unitary construct but in multiples: as a religious experience of ecstatic visions; as a psychiatric illness such as schizophrenia; as the experience of deviance of a mental patient, junky, or homosexual; as something that characterized the governmental and political forces that destroyed human souls, as manifested in the Cold War and later in the U.S. involvement in the Vietnam War. According to Ginsberg, madness not only has more than one meaning, but is precisely the point where reality and ecstasy meet, and thus is part of our humanity and should be embraced. By letting all the multiplicities of madness flourish in his art, Ginsberg could not only live with himself, but could give birth to poems that would powerfully challenge existing orders and remake the world.
Stevan Weine is professor of psychiatry at the University of Illinois at Chicago. He is the author of When History Is a Nightmare (1999) and Testimony after Catastrophe (2006).