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March 12th, 2006
Sun, Mar. 12th, 2006 11:19 am

I've found myself this week in the middle of a certain kind of New York conversation, the kind I used to hunger for, lively conversation about art and projects and ideas and ambition and politics, falling silent. It's not that I don't want to be in the conversation. It's not that the terms of the conversation make no sense to me. It's not even that I'm still a bit jet-lagged and tend to get tired early in the evening. It's just something to do with feeling bored with the way these New York conversations, these American conversations, are framed. I feel like, no matter how much I agree, I won't agree. No American definition of the good life will match mine. I want to opt out of the terms and framings of these conversations even before I get into them. These days I seem to prefer processing things visually; I find that more interesting. I'm sitting in a bar, and there's conversation, but I notice that there's an abacus lattice in front of me, and I want to concentrate on that. Or there's music playing, but the peripheral sounds (rain, ventilation, machinery) are more interesting. The landscape out the window of the plane is more interesting than the film. Silence is more interesting than speech. I just want to look at what people are wearing, watch a crane elevator moving up and down its metal spine, silhouetted against the western horizon.

At moments like this I think of Allen Ginsberg. I think of that gimmick he had -- and it also wasn't a gimmick -- of launching into a mantra at any given moment. Here's one, his Vajra Mantra. It's a lovely recording, a serious and sensuous pronunciation of holy syllables. And I think of Ginsberg's self-awarded license to pronounce these syllables as a strategy, in part, to avoid other syllables. His embrace of Buddhism might have been, amongst other things, a way for Ginsberg to be post-American, a way out of all sorts of conversations with people at universities, rallies, in cars and cafes, wherever; a way out of small talk which would ultimately just confirm certain American fixed ideas, and also confirm him as an American Jew. By becoming some sort of satyr-devotee, by mixing cultures and invoking gods who were non-gods, Ginsberg could escape all that rubbish, all that restricting clutter. I wish I had a gimmick like that! I wish I could break out a small electronic shruti box and just start chanting! Where do I need to apply for the license to do that? Do I need to be a 1960s person? An eccentric? A famous poet? A visiting lecturer?

Ginsberg is a man I admire a lot. He's dead, of course, and now we have Devendra Banhart, a sort of "fashion Hindu", in something approximating the same cultural space. Now, all sorts of objections could be raised to Devendra -- and what's he doing in the men's fashion section of the New York Times, anyway? What kind of transcendence is that? -- but I'm not really interested in any of them. Anything that lifts America away from its dull denims, its dreadful protestant practicality, is fine by me. A use of fashion that lifts America away from itself -- away from its endless small talk about the weather and projects and success -- towards a recognition of the wisdom of India is, well, a correct use of fashion. The ghost of Ginsberg is there, doing good work.

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