Sunday, March 26, 2023

Stevan M. Weine's "Best Minds"

Stevan M. Weine is Professor of Psychiatry at the University of Illinois at Chicago College of Medicine, where he is also Director of Global Medicine and Director of the Center for Global Health. He is the author of When History Is a Nightmare: Lives and Memories of Ethnic Cleansing in Bosnia-Herzegovina and Testimony and Catastrophe: Narrating the Traumas of Political Violence.

Weine applied the "Page 99 Test" to his new book, Best Minds: How Allen Ginsberg Made Revolutionary Poetry from Madness, and reported the following:
Most of Best Minds’ page 99 is a 1953 photograph of Ginsberg’s lifelong friend Carl Solomon smiling and sitting cross legged on a bed, with two short paragraphs above which read:
When in 1986 I told Allen his diagnosis at PI was “pseudoneurotic-type schizophrenia,” I was surprised to hear he thought the diagnosis was accurate and to his liking. Allen said the constructs of pan-neurosis, pan-anxiety, and pan-sexuality were fairly apt descriptions of his situation, although he said he was not having much sex in those days. He really liked the idea that psychosis is near and accessible, which, notably, he saw as a good thing.

At PI, Allen had the amazingly good fortune to meet another patient named Carl Solomon, a young Dadaist from the Bronx who had read Genet, Artaud, Breton, Rimbaud, and Gide. They first met in the clinic, a week before Allen’s admission. Allen wrote in his journal, “This is a real madhouse—what a weird feeling,” and was taken by “a secret conspiracy of the great dichotomy—the lunatic v.s. society.”
In Best Minds, the Page 99 Test partially works. Page 99 contains several key elements of the overall book: new revelatory information about Ginsberg’s experiences of psychiatric treatment from never before seen psychiatric records and direct interviews with Ginsberg; fresh and revealing looks at key people in Ginsberg’s life - such as Carl Solomon; evocative photographs and other images; and a multidisciplinary lens where the literary and the psychiatric perspectives speak to one another.

On the other hand, unmentioned on 99 are: Allen’s mother Naomi, diagnosed with schizophrenia and lobotomized, but nonetheless his muse; new readings of Allen’s poems which deal with madness, including of course “Howl” and “Kaddish,” as well as poems inspired by his 1948 Blake visions; understanding how Ginsberg ended up at PI (the New York State Psychiatric Institute), how he was treated there, and the impact of this experience on his development as a young man and as a poet.

I like that page 99 shares Ginsberg’s belief that psychosis, or more broadly madness, is a key part of life which should be acknowledged, accepted, even embraced. This from a man who didn’t romanticize mental illness or madness, and knew very well the suffering it could entail, but nonetheless, saw its value, for individuals, culture, and society.

I love that page 99 introduces Carl Solomon, who I had the pleasure of meeting on several occasions in New York City in the 1980’s. I knew of Solomon from “Howl,” which turned Carl into a Beat legend (“Carl Solomon! I’m with you in Rockland”), but I came to know him as a sweet, humorous, and brilliant man and accomplished author in his own right. Solomon memorably said that he didn’t fit in so well with the other Beats who had celebrated madness, such as Jack Kerouac, because he was a genuine psychotic, unlike the others who he said were more neurotics.

Ginsberg maintained a friendship with Solomon over many years, as well as several other writers and artists with mental health problems who needed his support to keep them out of trouble. This is one way he stood by his belief that madness wasn’t something to hide from, shut up, or put away. Rather, it is an essential part of life that must be acknowledged and engaged and if handled with care and respected and heard with compassion and support for its miseries, may lead to spiritual, political, and social breakthroughs.
Learn more about Best Minds at the Fordham University Press website.

--Marshal Zeringue