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Of Letters and of Sciences

Welcome! This is a blog about literature and books that are critical to any social discourse: literary, cultural, racial, gender-based. A blog for humanists, scholars, the curious, and thinkers and thinkeresses.

Ginsberg and the AIDS Epidemic of the 1980s

I just watched The Normal Heart on HBO for the third time and cried.

I cried the first time, too. It gets easier to watch. The first time was overwhelming, which was good.


Then I started to wonder: of all the prominent literary gay voices of the later 20th-century, Allen Ginsberg (a poet whose work I've recently explored) is one of the major ones. I asked myself: what was Ginsberg writing about or speaking about during the early 1980s crisis of HIV/AIDS?

Was he out being an activist in his outspoken voice? What was he doing?

I didn't think he had an obligation, because he was gay, to be an activist; I simply wondered what he was doing then.


Then I found this article, and I think it answers the question nicely. And perfectly, really: Ginsberg was too much of an egotist to see the value or meaning in writing about the epidemic. I am not condemning Ginsberg. I found it refreshing that someone else analyzed and pinpointed exactly why Ginsberg might not have written about the epidemic:


On some level I believe that the always-self-centered poet really just wasn’t interested in the personal struggles of other people; AIDS lacks the high-minded idealism of the radical student movements or even the nascence of the Beat Generation...


Again, not to condemn Ginsberg, but he was, it is accurate to say, a self-centered poet. He wrote about intensely personal, autobiographical themes, and, if the impact of AIDS didn't strike his life as an intensely charged ideological movement (which it actually is, I believe), then he wouldn't have written about it.


I'm not saying he never wrote about AIDS; he did. But I was somewhat surprised that he didn't write more about it.


Ultimately, the article I found concluded quite concisely that Ginsberg's position provides a necessary intellectual "perspective": of course not every gay writer is influenced by the exact same things and needs to address the exact same things, just as no African-American poet need be influenced by the same exact things or write about the same exact things. To demand such is to stereotype, to diminish, and to minimize the diversity within all people.


The outbreak of the AIDS epidemic may or may not have been hugely affecting to Ginsberg. If not, maybe that's why he didn't write widely about it. Or, maybe it did affect him, but, as this article pretty brilliantly says, maybe (and it is likely that) he simply "didn't place himself as a figure of gay liberation...the way a great many other 20th-century gay writers did" and that he he "wouldn’t have seen himself as a spokesperson for the gay trauma [of the 80s, surrounding AIDS".


Yet more self-definitions, placings, and perspectives. I'm glad I wondered and I'm glad I found this article. It's found here: