The most famous living poet in America, if not the world, Allen Ginsberg is a walking, talking, and sometimes singing political showboat, with causes--everything from free speech to gay liberation, from the legalization of marijuana to world peace--jingling, jangling, and dropping from his coat like Harpo Marx's purloined silverware. But one of the things "Dharma Lion" makes clear is that Ginsberg cannot be pigeonholed as just a spokesman for outcasts and radicals, for the down-and-out and oppressed. Though he certainly is that, Schumacher shows him to be, above all, a poet and teacher of the highest seriousness, whose thoughts, theories, and practice have never ceased to evolve in response to the needs of his society and his time.
That such a literary giant--a man who performs his works to standing-room-only crowds on every continent, and whose work has influenced other writers in almost every language--should have grown from the boy Allen Ginsberg in Paterson, New Jersey, is surely one of the more astounding feats of our century. A more troubled, traumatized, and emotionally disturbed young man would be hard to imagine. Born in 1926, Ginsberg was only four when his mother Naomi had her first major schizophrenic breakdown, and throughout his youth she was in and out of sanitariums and mental hospitals. When she was absent from the family, he experienced all the terrors of loneliness and abandonment--imagining a "shrouded stranger" bogeyman hiding in the neighbor's hedges, a sense of ghostly presence that would haunt him all his life--but when she was home, his anguish and shame over his mother's insanity made him suffer even more.
One of the worst experiences of his life took place when he was 14. He had already witnessed his mother's attempted suicide a few years before, as well as numerous hysterical fits when she would scream that the doctors had implanted wires in her head and sticks in her back with which to control her. One afternoon during his second year of high school, his father asked him to stay home and watch over her. Allen was severely frightened to see her beginning to succumb to paranoia again--rambling on about how her husband Louis and her mother-in-law had conspired with Hitler, Mussolini, and Roosevelt to murder her. He felt that he must do anything he could to calm her, and so he ended up riding the bus with her to a rest home in the country, where she assured him she would be welcomed. All along the way she raved about secret agents who planned to kidnap them or spray them with "poison germs"; and once at the rest home, she began to have a full-blown psychotic episode, demanding someone give her a blood transfusion. Panicked, Allen paid a week's rent and hurried to get a bus home. On the way back, he could not help wishing his mother was dead; and when he got home, his father lashed out at him for the irresponsibility of leaving his mother unattended in a strange place.
What happened was just what Louis feared--Naomi had terrified everyone in the place with her mad acting out. He had to go and get her the next day, dragging her out as she screamed that he had come to kill her. Within a week she was back in Greystone, the mental hospital she hated worst of all. Recalling the episode years later in his poem "Kaddish," Ginsberg wrote that he had experienced "no greater depression since then," but he would never be entirely free of the guilt he felt at having contributed (at least in his own eyes) to his mother's loss of freedom. He would feel even greater guilt when, at the age of 21, he signed the papers authorizing another mental hospital, Pilgrim State, to perform a lobotomy on his mother. Once again his motives had been good--he had wished to prevent her from harming herself any further, since the director of Pilgrim State had reported her banging her head against the wall and working herself into hysterical states that might lead to a stroke. But once the deed was done, Allen could not help wondering if it would not have been kinder to let his mother die a whole human being, rather than live as only part of one.
In many ways, "Dharma Lion" chronicles the development of Ginsberg the moral philosopher as much as Ginsberg the poet. As a Jew growing up during the time of the Holocaust, and as a homosexual in an era when anything but the traditional sexual orientation was both a family disgrace and a personal tragedy, Ginsberg got a series of painful lessons about the price of not fitting in. Even more formative were the lessons he learned when he tried to deny his individuality and follow the so-called "normal path" in life: instead of bringing him happiness, it drove him to the very brink of madness and self-destruction.