Jonah Raskin is a long time teacher, scholar and aficionado of the Beat writers. The author of American Scream: Allen Ginsberg’s “Howl” and the Making of the Beat Generation, which the San Francisco Chronicle named one of the best books of the year, he has also written about Jack Kerouac and Jazz, William Burroughs’ Naked Lunch and Junky and the only study of Natalie Jackson. Raskin taught Beat literature at the State University of New York at Stony Book and at Sonoma State University. The author of three noir novels and a performance poet, he has published six poetry chapbooks, including Rock ‘n’ Roll Women. An ex-New Yorker, he now makes his home in San Francisco, a city which he has written about in essays, articles and in the booklet San Francisco: Gold Rush to Google. He writes for CounterPunch, the New York Journal of Books, Tablet, The Rag Blog and the North Bay Bohemian. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
How Woke is Woke?
An article written by Jonah Raskin (2021)
Not long ago at a Buddhist retreat in California, I had lunch with one of the participants who told me that on the previous day he was conscious of all his thoughts except for two minutes. That didn’t seem to be humanly possible, but I suppose super-conscious individuals can be super aware of everything in their heads all the time, and can track them, too. I’m not one of those people. I space out. I forget things and I get lost in my own head. It would be torture for me to be conscious of my thoughts all the time. Forgetting can be a relief.
The Beat poet, Allen Ginsberg, would insist that he had no secrets and that he revealed everything all the time. “Tip my mitt,” is one of the phrases he used to express himself on the subject of candor. But the author of Howl and Kaddish wasn’t as candid as he liked to think he was. Reading his journals, letters and poems I learned that everytime he revealed something he concealed something else. It’s not possible to reveal all your thoughts all the time, much as it’s not possible to be woke 24/7.
The whole “woke thing,” if you can call it that, seems to be a misleading concept at best and one that prompts individuals to say “I’m more woke than you.” Yes, I know that individuals can be aware of racism, sexism, classism, imperialism, capitalism, ageism and more. We all ought to be woke from false consciousness and from illusions big and small, but as far as I can see the notion that one can be totally free of illusions is an illusion. We’re born woke and as we grow up we become wokeless in various degrees.
I explore the world of illusions and disillusionment in my new novel, “Beat Blues” which is set in San Francisco, a city that likes to think it’s super woke. The action takes place in 1955, a year when the U.S. began to wake from the Cold War and from racism. In 1955 a Black teenager from Chicago was lynched in Mississipi. His mother brought his battered and bruised body back to Chicago and laid it to rest in an open coffin so mourners would see what the bigots did to her son. It wasn’t pretty but it was true.
In 1955 Lawrence Ferlinghetti was running City Lights Bookstore, which helped raise consciousness, but for a long time Ferlinghetti published mostly white male authors. How woke was that? In 1955, Ginsberg was writing Howl and Kerouac was writing On The Road. Those two books helped make several generations of readers aware of the rigidities of American life and the possibilities for exploration and freedom. Ginsberg and Kerouac opened a lot of eyes, but they were also products of their time—everyone is, even the most enlightened individuals—and didn’t see the toxic behaviors in Beat circles and in the U.S. in 1955.
In my new novel, Beat Blues I’ve tried to place my characters in the context of their day and age, which means showing their limits and limitations. No artist or writer can entirely escape the times in which he/she/they/them live and express themselves. It’s as important, I believe, to show how people are asleep and unconscious as they are woke. Today’s wokesters are tomorrow’s blindsters. When I asked a friend who is an independent filmmaker to define wokeness he said “It’s the latest version of political correctness.” Another friend told me that the political correctness of the 1980s and 1990s was good because it was based on Marxism, while the wokeness of today isn’t.
I taught in a California university during the height of political correctness. Students were required by the state to take a course called “Critical Thinking.” Some of my colleagues taught it. I noticed that they expected their students to think the way they thought and to agree with them about the Sandinistas, Reagan, HIV/AIDS, the ayatollahs and more. They weren’t teaching critical thinking. They were aiming to brainwash, though they didn’t see it as such. Most of the teachers assigned Bs and Cs, which suggested to me that the students weren’t full fledged critical thinkers and therefore not fully woke.
The main character in my novel, Norman de Haan, is a descendant of Dutch slavers and feels guilty about family history. In San Francisco, he gets woke and begins to choose to be against white chauvinism. But he’s not perfect. Far from it. At the end of the novel he’s woke in some respects and not in others. No complex character in a novel, a poem or a film can be all-woke and perfect. They all have flaws, from Oedipus and Antigone to Don Quixote, Captain Ahab and Ishmael in Moby-Dick to Anna Karenina in Tolstoi’s novel, and more recently to the characters in Toni Morrison’s novels, including Beloved.
Years ago, I wrote a novel in which I aimed to make all the characters good and fully woke. It was boring. Even gods and goddesses make big mistakes. Wokeness can be a form of tyranny. Deciding who are the most oppressed individuals in a society and ranking them is mostly self-defeating. We’re all in this together. No innovative thinker or doer, not the Buddha, Rousseau, Mary Wollstonecraft, Darwin, Marx, Harriet Tubman, Freud or Einstein escaped contradictions. Let’s not adopt the arrogance of those who think they are the most woke. Where is the compassion? Even the oppressors are oppressed. They too lose their humanity in the dialectic of bondage and liberation. Some of the most oppressed become even more oppressive than those who once oppressed them. Can we put wokeness to rest for a while and revisit it, not when things calm down, because they won’t in our overheated world, but when we’ve had time for more reflection, which is almost always a good thing.
Some books written by Jonah Raskin
For the Hell of It: The Life and Times of Abbie Hoffman (1998).
A biography of the Sixties activist, rebel, Chicago 8 Defendant and Eighties environmentalist, set against the backdrop of the era in which he lived.
American Scream: Allen Ginsberg’s “Howl” and the Making of the Beat Generation (2004).
A biography of Ginsberg’s most famous poem, this work of literary and cultural criticism describes the genesis, evolution and publication of the 1956 City Lights book that has shifted the consciousness of several generations.
The Radical Jack London: Writings on War and Revolution (2008), editor.
A collection of works by the famed author on political, cultural and racial matters.
The Mythology of Imperialism: A Revolutionary Critique of British Literature and Society in the Modern Age (2009).
A deep dive into the fiction of Joseph Conrad, Rudyard Kipling and other authors who have depicted the colonial world and the British Empire in Africa, Asia and South America.
Field Days: A Year of Farming, Eating and Drinking in California (2009).
Part memoir, part reportage on the state of agriculture, viticulture and cuisine in the Golden State.
Marijuanaland: Dispatches from An American War. (2010)
A look at the cannabis prohibition and the movements to legalize weed, with portraits of growers, dealers, cops, lawyers and consumers.
A Terrible Beauty: The Wilderness of American Literature (2014).
An exploration of the fiction, non-fiction and poetry that depicts the land, the landscapes and the inhabitants of the New World and the United States.
Dark Past, Dark Future (2020).
A noir novel featuring private investigator Tioga Vignetta, set in northern California wine and weed country.