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

007 My hero / Ernest Shepard by Richard Holmes
008 My hero / JG Ballard by Will Self
009 My hero / Alan Ross by William Boyd
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011 My hero / Vicent van Gogh by Margaret Drabble
012 My hero / Franz Marek by Eric Hobsbawm


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018 My hero / Francisco Goya by Diana Athill
019 My hero / Max Stafford-Clark by Sebastian Barry
020 My hero / Arthur Holmes by Richard Fortey

036 My hero / Robert Lowell by Jonathan Raban
037 My hero / Beryl Bainbridge by Michael Holroyd
038 My hero / Charles Schulz by Jenny Colgan
039 My hero / Oliver Knussen by Adam Foulds
040 My hero / Annie Proulx by Alan Warner

041 My hero / David Lynch by Paul Murray
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048 My hero / Gwen John by Anne Enright
049 My hero / Michael Mayne by Susan Hill
050 My hero / Stanley Spencer by Howard Jacobson

051 My hero / William Beveridge by Will Hutton
052 My hero / Jean McConville by Amanda Foreman
053 My hero / Alexander Pushkin by Elaine Feinstein
058 My hero / Cy Twombly by Edmund de Waal

079 My hero / Gene Wolfe by Neil Gaiman
087 My hero / Alberto Moravia by John Burnside
096 My hero / Isaac Babel by AD Miller
097 Lucian Freud by Esi Edugyan
100 Thomas Tranströmer by Robin Robertson
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190 My hero / Iris Murdoch by Charlotte Mendelson
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