Sunday, October 17, 2010

"Howl" and the Ferlinghetti Case

This weekend, I saw the film "Howl."  Focusing on Allen Ginsberg's poem "Howl," the film explores the poem itself, Ginsberg's own experiences with the Beat Generation and its major figures (specifically Jack Kerouac and Neal Cassady), and the subsequent trial of Lawrence Ferlinghetti, on charges of obscenity, for his publication of Ginsberg's poem.

For me, the film was a bit disappointing because my interest, besides Ginsberg's ideas about writing and his poem itself, is in the trial, not in the escapades of the Beat Writers (admittedly, they have never been my favorites: I appreciate what they're doing and why, but I just can't get past the blatant misogyny and stereotyping of women).

In his ruling on The People of the State of California v. Lawrence Ferlinghetti, Judge Clayton W. Horn offers a fascinating and nuanced interpretation of the issue of obscenity and its relationship to the protection of free speech under the First and Fourteenth Amendments to the Constitution.

It's particularly interesting to me that, at the outset of the trial, Judge Clayton W. Horn was regarded as relatively conservative, and that this was initially viewed as a severe handicap for the defense.  It was generally assumed that his interest in upholding the prevailing moral standards (which condemned the practice of homosexuality and any expression of homosexual desire) would outweigh his ability to look at the case objectively.

Under the Statute referenced by Judge Horn, material can only be deemed "obscene" if it exists solely for the purpose of eliciting "erotic allurement" in the average reader and if it possesses no redeeming social importance.

The fact that Ginsberg's poem represents specifically homosexual desires and experiences is obviously an underlying factor in the prosecution's charges of obscenity.  The concern that the poem "Howl" will deprave and corrupt the average reader seems to boil down to a rather thinly-veiled concern that its publication will ultimately encourage or endorse homosexual practices in American society at large.

Basing his ruling on the precedent set by Roth v. United States, Judge Horn notes that "Obscene material is material which deals with sex in a manner appealing to prurient interest. The portrayal of sex, e.g., in art, literature and scientific works is not itself sufficient reason to deny material the constitutional protection of freedom of speech and press."

In short, sexual content alone does not mean a work can be considered "obscene and indecent."

Specifically, Judge Horn argues that the poem "Howl" possesses redeeming social importance.  In a concise summary of the poem's themes and literary strategies, he notes that "The first part of "Howl" presents a picture of a nightmare world; the second part is an indictment of those elements in modern society destructive of the best qualities of human nature; such elements are predominantly identified as materialism, conformity, and mechanization leading toward war. The third part presents a picture of an individual who is a specific representation of what the author conceives as a general condition."

Most interesting--and most relevant for our current political climate, I think--is Horn's conclusion regarding the choice of language that Ginsberg used to convey his subject.  In response to the State's claim that Ginsberg could (and therefore should) have used other words than the ones he chose to depict his subject, Horn argues, "life is not encased in one formula whereby everyone acts the same or conforms to a particular pattern. No two persons think alike; we were all made from the same mold but in different patterns."

In 1957, a conservative judge upheld the idea that conformity is not a formula for the conduct of our lives as Americans and that we are fundamentally guaranteed the right to think in ways that are inherently different from one another.  As Horn notes, "The authors of the First Amendment knew that novel and unconventional ideas might disturb the complacent, but they chose to encourage a freedom which they believed essential if vigorous enlightenment was ever to triumph over slothful ignorance."

I wonder how and why, a little over fifty-three years later, we seem to be headed in a direction in which we systematically resent having our collective complacency disturbed by novel and unconventional ideas.  If the writers who framed the Constitution respected the value of innovative ideas and endorsed a framework in which those ideas would be awarded fundamental and overarching protections, why then have we increasingly resorted to referring to the document itself as a kind of inflexible standard against which to measure the rightness (or wrongheadedness) of our direction as a nation? 

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Ralph Waldo Emerson once wrote, "Life is short, but there is always time for courtesy."