Saturday, November 7, 2015

My hero / Allen Ginsberg by Steve Silberman

Allen Ginsberg in 1981.
Photograph by Christopher Felver

My hero: Allen Ginsberg by Steve Silberman

He was the happiest, most awake middle-aged man I’ve ever met

Steve Silberman
Saturday 7 November 2015

n 1977, I saw Allen Ginsberg read poetry for the first time in New York City. I was 18 and already familiar with poems such as “A Supermarket in California”, but nothing could prepare me for the sheer human power of his presence and delivery. Allen’s voice had an expressive range and gravity that attested to his belief that “the only poetic tradition is the voice out of the burning bush”. Allen seemed like the happiest, most awake middle-aged man I had ever seen. I immediately made an internal vow to be wherever he would be the following summer, helping him however I could, and I made good on that vow, becoming his apprentice at Naropa Institute in Colorado while taking classes with other Beat heroes of mine such as William Burroughs and Gregory Corso.

Ten years later, Allen invited me to become his teaching assistant. Though he was often portrayed in the media as a kind of Jewish Bodhisattva, Allen was not a saint. He could be cranky, caught up in his own fame, and had the unfortunate habit of overlooking his female students in favour of wooing the handsome young men who eagerly leapt into his bed. But throughout his career, he used the precision of language to oppose social inequality, defy despots worldwide (“Stand up against governments, against God,” he once wrote), and assist people to accept their own eccentricities, helping to heal human suffering in whatever form he found it.

One thing that few people know is that Allen worked very much like a journalist, collecting voluminous file cabinets of information on the issues that obsessed him, such as his suspicion that the CIA was involved in opium trafficking in south-east Asia (he was correct).
My own book, NeuroTribes, was very influenced by Allen’s mission and practice. My version of the filing cabinets that lined his Lower East Side apartment is an electronic folder that contains 13 gigabytes of data on how people on the autism spectrum have been systematically mistreated by the same psychiatric establishment that subjected Allen’s schizophrenic mother, Naomi, to brutal shock treatments and devastating drugs, as chronicled in his epic poem “Kaddish”.
Allen died in 1997. Days after his terminal cancer diagnosis, he called me to say goodbye. I asked him how he felt and he replied: “Exhilarated.” I can only hope to meet my own end with such equanimity.
 NeuroTribes by Steve Silberman is the winner of the 2015 Samuel Johnson prize.

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002 My hero / Harley Granville-Barker by Richard Eyre
003 My hero / Edward Goldsmith by Zac Goldsmith
004 My hero / Fridtjof Nansen by Sara Wheeler 
005 My hero / Mother Mercedes Lawler IBVM by Antonia Fraser
006 My hero / Ted Hughes by Michael Morpurgo (KISS)

007 My hero / Ernest Shepard by Richard Holmes
008 My hero / JG Ballard by Will Self
009 My hero / Alan Ross by William Boyd
010 My hero / Ben the labrador by John Banville

011 My hero / Vicent van Gogh by Margaret Drabble
012 My hero / Franz Marek by Eric Hobsbawm


036 My hero / Rober Lowell by Jonathan Raban (Kiss)
038 My hero / Charles Schulz by Jenny Colgan
041 My hero / David Linch by Paul Murray
042 My hero / Edwin Morgan by Robert Crawford (KISS)
058 My hero / Cy Twombly by Edmund de Waal


087 My hero / Alberto Moravia by John Burnside
095 My hero / Les Murray by Daljit Nagra (KISS)
096 My hero / Isaac Babel by AD Miller
097 Lucian Fred by Esi Edugyan
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167 My hero / Oliver Sacks by Hilary Mantel
169 My hero / Jean Rhys by Linda Grant
176 My hero / Mae West by Kathy Lette
181 My hero / Lydia Davis by Ali Smith
184 My hero / Louise Bourgeois by Tracey Emin
185 My hero / Albert Camus by David Constantine
190 My hero / Iris Murdoch by Charlotte Mendelson
194 My hero / René Descartes by James Kelman
199 My hero / Albert Camus by Geoff Dyer

211 My hero / Mavis Gallant by Jhumpa Lahiri and Michael Ondaatje
219 My hero / William Shakespeare by Susan Cooper
222 My hero / Emily Brontë by Lucasta Miller
227 My hero / Salman Rushdie by Antonia Fraser
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