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The Chicago Conspiracy Trial: Allen Ginsberg on the Stand

But the most serious deficiency of Foran’s frivolous cross-examination was his failure to explore with the witness—whom he was later overheard to call a “goddamned fag”—the effect in practice of the revolutionary rhetoric which Ginsberg had attributed to Hoffman and Rubin. What in fact happens in the world—or happened in Chicago—when the virtues of love, peace, and freedom are defined by someone like Hoffman to mean actual love-making in Lincoln Park, as well as the direct acknowledgment that America has failed, morally as well as politically, in Vietnam, and that the idea of property—together with property itself—should at once be abandoned? And what blame befalls the instigators of such fantastic demands for seeming to speak literally and so permitting a sensational and provocative press to alarm the people and alert the police of Chicago that an army of long-haired radicals is on its way to the city to agitate for this extraordinary cause?

Abbie Hoffman had said that “here in Chicago…we are tried for our language…the language and imagery of our generation are on trial.” But this argument is disingenuous or insufficiently subtle. It does not, for example, answer the government’s argument that some language may, in fact, be criminal: for example, language which directly leads an angry mob to attack policemen or, as the defense would reply, language that urges policemen to beat all young men with long hair. Thus there remained after Foran’s pointless cross-examination concerning Ginsberg’s sexual interest, an unsettled question: whether to accept the witness’s essentially literary account of the events in Chicago, as if what had happened there had been no more than a kind of political theater to which the police reacted hysterically, or the government’s more sinister interpretation of the connection between these events and the defendants’ often rude and provocative language.

Later in the trial, when Hoffman himself took the stand, Foran’s aggressive assistant, a damp and literalminded lawyer named Schultz, whose wheedling tone and thrashing arms would make all language seem directly criminal, set out to explore this connection in detail by making Hoffman admit that he had never bothered to explain to the Deputy Mayor, with whom he was negotiating for a permit to stage the Festival of Life in Lincoln Park, that the proposed “love-in” and the free use of drugs, which the newspaper had described as central to Hoffman’s plans, were in fact intended only as a joke which a foolish press took seriously.

But Schultz’s examination was not illuminating. It was as if a student of accounting (Schultz holds a degree in tax law) had stumbled into a class in metaphor and demanded gloomily to know whether the instructor had ever measured the topless towers of Ilium. What emerged is that a court of law—and especially Judge Hoffman’s clumsy and whimsical court—is no place to investigate the vexed relations between language and action. Yet this relationship rests not only at the heart of the present trial—the question being how seriously to take the defendants’ revolutionary rhetoric—but at the heart also of a larger cultural problem of which the trial is an important symptom.

Ten years earlier, in the summer of 1960, in the same courtroom where the conspiracy trial is now being held, the same Judge Hoffman was asked to adjudicate a complaint brought against the Post Office by the publishers of Big Table, then a new literary magazine in Chicago. The Post Office had refused to mail the magazine’s first issue because it included excerpts from William Burroughs’s novel Naked Lunch, a work which the postmaster considered obscene. After deliberating for five months the Judge declared that while “the dominant theme or effect of [Naked Lunch] is that of shocking the contemporary society, in order perhaps to better point out its flaws and weaknesses,” the work itself did not appeal to “lustful thoughts” and was therefore within the law. In support of his decision he referred to testimony on behalf of the book by such authorities as Allen Ginsberg and Lionel Trilling, as well as to the following observation of the Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals, “Judges, no less than legislators should observe, without prejudice, what is going on in our changing society, averting through such alertness treating the law as a petrified body of shibboleths.”

Thus Burroughs’s novel, with its descriptions of opium dreams and insane policemen, its celebration of hashish and its assault upon the values and manners, to say nothing of the language, of humanism, its disgust with the law and the deeper sources of social order, owed its first public exposure partly to Judge Hoffman, who, though he may have been looking over his shoulder at the leanings of the Seventh Circuit, nevertheless added to his opinion the liberal sentiment that Naked Lunch might even have what the courts call a redeeming social value. It might “shock” its readers into noticing “flaws and weaknesses in their society,” and thus, by implication, perhaps lead to their correction.

There is no evidence that Naked Lunch did actually “shock contemporary society,” much less than it “pointed to flaws and weaknesses” that its readers might not have discovered on their own. Judge Hoffman’s view that Naked Lunch might tend, presumably in a wholesome sense, to awaken society to its flaws, suffers the same defect as the postmaster’s idea that Burroughs’s book might hasten social decay by encouraging lustful thoughts and perhaps even lustful actions among its readers. Both assumptions are vulgar. They reflect a naïvely specific idea of how books may affect the behavior of their readers, a fallacy which the recent anti-riot act carries to grotesque extremes when it declares that the intentions of an author, as a jury may infer them from his words, can be the direct and criminal cause of the illegal behavior of others at an indefinite remove in time and place from the occasion on which the words were first written.

What in fact happened when Judge Hoffman allowed Naked Lunch into the world is that Burroughs’s book soon took its place beside works by Norman Brown and Paul Goodman, Wilhelm Reich and Ginsberg himself, and became part of a radical criticism of Western puritanism. It became for its readers part of the literature by which they might attempt to understand certain developments in the culture, including, for example, their own interest in hallucinatory drugs, which, one assumes, the present generation would have cultivated whether Burroughs had written or not.

There was, however, a sense in which books like Naked Lunch perhaps did make a kind of indirect political difference, for together with much else in the culture, including especially the music, they helped to sanction an intensified and coarsened kind of public rhetoric and thus widened the cultural distance between the radicals, such as Hoffman and Rubin, who adopted this new language, and the rest of society. One effect of this has been to agitate or inflame more conventional citizens, and especially the police; to “shock” them as Judge Hoffman might say, but not into new degrees of social awareness so much as into new and perhaps even violent defensive reactions. In the radical jargon, Judge Hoffman, when he allowed the publication of Naked Lunch, may have failed to see the powerful contradiction between the permissiveness of the First Amendment and the way in which such freedom, when expressed in unconventional language, might offend the sensibilities of people who prefer a more orderly view of the world, to say nothing of those who want simply to ignore, in the words of the Seventh Circuit, “what is going on in our changing society.”

No one ever thought,” Professor Lionel Trilling recently said—ten years after he had added his testimony to that of his former student, Allen Ginsberg, on behalf of Naked Lunch—“that when…writers [i.e., Yeats, Lawrence, and Gide] represented violence as interesting or beneficent they were really urging their readers on to bloody actions. But now violence is proposed or justified on moral as well as psychological grounds. In our time it seems quite natural to act out what were once thought of as moral fantasies.”

It is unclear from this whether Professor Trilling means that readers have recently begun to act out violent fantasies now presented to them by writers on moral or psychological grounds, or whether people on their own have simply become more violent and are carrying out in the real world ideas and propositions which had once been found only in books. Whatever he means, he is bothered, apparently, that the rough beast which Yeats had once proposed as an interesting literary idea has now seemed to materialize, so to speak, in the person of Mark Rudd slouching toward Low Library or as Abbie Hoffman alighting from a plane in Chicago; that writers like Burroughs and Ginsberg are no longer content simply to print their “moral fantasies” in books but now find it “natural” to act them out before thousands of protesters in Grant Park, as Ginsberg relates in the following transcript.

Professor Trilling’s idea seems to be that violence which derives from moral ideas—what Roman Catholics call a just war—is a peculiarity of our time and that such violence has a different quality from violence which is merely brutal; that what he calls moral fantasies add an unusual dimension to violent behavior and such behavior should, perhaps, be stuffed back into literature where, in his debatable view, it had been confined in earlier times. A difficulty with this fastidious concern with extreme rhetoric and the behavior which occasionally reflects it, is that it has apparently led Professor Trilling to overlook the violent acts of governments—themselves sometimes inspired by moral fantasies but more often by mere brutality—to which much rhetorical dissidence—a lot of it not violent at all—is, after all, a response.

It is unlikely that Professor Trilling shares the assumption of the anti-riot act that violent images and ideas might literally be traced as the specific criminal cause of a subsequent bloody act, no matter what the distance between the writer and the criminal, or that the intent of a writer who proposes or justifies behavior that may contribute to violence can be the basis of an indictment against him. Such a view would, for example, require, if one accepted it, that the moral fantasies of anti-communist intellectuals, and not the direct orders of political leaders who happened to share these fantasies, be held responsible for the bloody actions in Vietnam.

Yet there is something squeamish in Trilling’s view that the moral ideas—or fantasies as he calls them—of political dissidents in our time have merged with a violent reality. It is as if he too had come to take literally the violent political rhetoric of the moment and regarded it, as the authors of the anti-riot act, in a cruder way, had also done, as the moral equivalent of violent action, as if the moral rhetoric implicit in the occasional violent acts of political dissenters, and not the violence itself—their own and the official violence which often stimulates it—were the true object of moral or judicial scrutiny.

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