"Howl": But Is It Art?


Didn’t see the movie, having met the man in the flesh, in the 1960s at Duke, wolfing down Oreo cookies at a classmate’s off-campus kitchen table. (Allen Ginsberg, not me, eating the Oreos.) Made a nice change from all the narcotics and hallucinogens, I suppose.

I always thought it was a pity Ginsberg was expelled from Columbia [for writing an ironic rude message in the grime of his unwashed dorm window, addressed to his “slatternly” maid, yet], before he read James Joyce. Well, I assume he hadn’t read Joyce, or else he wouldn’t have taken credit for “inventing” stream-of-consciousness prosody. Nar’mean?

Consider the social contract, concerning listening to the non-linear musings of another. If you forked over whatever the admission price was, to see Howl in an art film house, it’d get right up your nose if the projector broke down in the middle of reel 2, and the rest was silence. But if, on the subway ride to the art cinema, a raving loony inflicted his own brand of stream-of-consciousness “performance art” on you and your fellow straphangers, you’d be likely to regard it as a bloody intrusion, and to wish he would shut up, already.

How come? Possibly, because [unless you mistakenly thought the James Franco vehicle was yet another werewolf flick] you were expecting to hear poetry, and therefore perceived it as such. [Poetic speech: the “just kidding; don’t take this literally” speech function.] Whereas, the unknown [if not uncommon] loony on the subway might be spouting Referential [fact-giving] speech (“The aliens are coming!”), or even Conative [orders-giving] speech (“Get on your tinfoil hat!”), either of which could trigger the “Fear!” message in our amygdala, since this guy might not be “just kidding”; and he just might get up in our grille for emphasis.

Same sounds; different attribution, as to what they betoken. Sometime over the holidays, I just bet you were in a public place where you heard the howl of a young child. How did your amygdala process that? Merely intrusion? [Not my kid, not my job, man.] Vicarious pain & suffering? [Ah, the poor wee mite! Or, perhaps, those poor parents!] If you sense that the howl is strategic [a Poetic simulation of distress to manipulate the public], and you initially “fell for it,” you might even feel humiliated at having been schmized.

We pay for, and expect, to be “deceived” by the artistry of professional performers. Not by the artifice of amateurs, whether they be cunning children, subway soliloquists, or even that “difficult” family member, who always seems to tune up for a long, loud howl, just as the entree is taken out of the oven. Nar’mean?

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Filed under attribution theory, limbic system, non-linear thinking, vicarious trauma

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