A Supermarket in California begins with the invocation of the image of the poet Walt Whitman and later also of the Spanish poet Garcia Lorca. Whitman guides Ginsberg inside the Supermarket which is such an interesting contrast since Ginsberg belongs to this age and time but the directions for moving forward in this age of Capitalism are provided to him by a man from the past. Ginsberg prefers those guidelines than to the ones that he hears from his contemporaries as those are natural values about humanistic aspect of individuality.
Whitman, as a character and through his philosophies is discussed quite often in Ginsberg’s poetry, the most important of which is the Howl, but Whitman also appears in several of his other poems. Whitman is Ginsberg’s artistic role model and he is often seen looking up to him for inspiration. This poem in particular was written as a mark of respect to Whitman in the centennial year of the first edition of Leaves of Grass.
Whitman died in 1892 and the poem A Supermarket in California was published in 1956, the economic and political scenario changed quite a bit in this period of about sixty years especially because of the two great wars in between. Commercialization and consumerism was on its peak when Ginsberg wrote his poem. Whitman in the poem acts as an idyllic figure, and becomes a reminder of the times gone by in America where people were still human and hadn’t been lured into becoming commodities themselves.
As the narrator walks down the streets of consumerist California he experiences a self conscious heaviness that makes him woefully aware of the problems of the country and his own problems with the realization that he does not belong here. The heaviness lingers because he cannot do much to bring about change in this society as commercialization was deeply entrenched in America.
This ‘headache self conscious’ is also because of his homosexual identity and the fact that he cannot openly proclaim his sexual preferences. There is awareness, fear and fatigue knowing that he would have to face the society’s ridicule, and would also be prosecuted as a criminal under the law of the land. The ‘hunger’ is perhaps not so much for food, but for a sexual partner. He enters the supermarket looking for a male partner but is overwhelmed and suffocated by happy heterosexual families of ‘Aisles full of husbands! Wives in the avocados, babies in the tomatoes!’. He conjures up the image of the dead Whitman who was also a homosexual, to be his companion: ‘with a headache self-conscious’/‘In my hungry fatigue, and shopping for images’. The narrator however enters the supermarket ‘dreaming’ of Whitman’s ‘enumerations’, faintly hoping to have a glimpse of all the values that Whitman stood by but sadly all that he sees is only aisles and aisles of loaded commodities.
‘I went into the neon fruit supermarket, dreaming of your enumerations!’
Still in his disillusionment, disappointment and exhaustion the narrator is attempting to find some food but the neon signed markets of California no longer have necessities, everything here has become a commodity. There is a not so tangible but very important difference between products of necessity and a commodity. Marx explores this idea in great detail in the first chapter of his magnum opus Das Kapital (Capital. Critique of Political Economy :1867) where he says that the relation between a commodity and human beings is that of ownership and money becomes the quantifying symbol of this negotiation. The number of commodities that can be owned are directly proportional to the money an individual has and that becomes a matter of pride in this society.
In a set up like this one where people are equated with the number, range and price of commodity they own, human beings end up becoming commodities themselves. Not human, not flesh and blood but just a number. As the narrator decides to enter into the market space he’s met with a sense of artificiality, because of the lighting, the neon-ness of the supermarket makes it unnatural. Shopping for food is a day time activity, preferably in natural light to gauge the freshness of food that is going to go on one’s plate. The night time shopping for food under non-natural neon lights makes it a commercial and artificial activity, the freshness of fruits and vegetables are understood by a label of expiry. The neon lights also create the supermarket almost like a hallucination zone with partial light; not too much, not too little. The presence of artificial lights can be seen as an indication of suppression of reality, the reality people are blinded towards. A false consciousness that takes over people:
‘the neon fruit supermarket,’
Shopping at the supermarket is no longer an individual exercise of procuring necessary commodities, but is a shared experience for entire families falling in the trap of commercialization. Shopping is presented here almost as a fetish, all members of the family are shopping at odd hours and the exercise of procuring food has become a commodity acquisition. This here is a society preoccupied with the acquisition and procurement of consumer goods. American Consumerism does not even spare the young kids; they too are around the super market at night hours deciding on the commodity they want to own.
The choice of fruit used here by Ginsberg is very interesting, the fruits mentioned, tomatoes and avocados are both non-native to the States, and were brought over from different countries with a commercial point of view. Avocados came to United States in the 19th century and have been cultivated as a successful cash crop since. Presently about 95% of all Avocados production in United Sates is carried out in California. California, therefore has clearly been a centre of commodification of food through commercial farming, where crops aren’t used to sustain oneself or one’s immediate community but to earn profit. There is another important aspect of commercial farming; the farming is capital intensive and totally mechanized. From the planting to the harvesting there is hardly any human intervention. Food in a system like this becomes a commodity immersed in the aspects of the market, the buying and the selling. People as a result are not aware of the history of food that goes on their plates and remain disconnected with such an important component of life. This is in direct contrast to Whitman’s probing set of questions about his food
‘Who killed the pork chops?’ ‘
What price bananas?’
‘Are you my Angel?’
All the questions indicate his confusion in the new set up that he is placed into; he does not understand the reason for such an overwhelming variety of choices and gets lost in attempt to find the products that he needs and understands. He asks about the butcher to know as to where his meat comes from, re-asks price of a commodity when supermarkets have clearly marked labels of the price and even adds an personal touch while talking to the sales person (my angel), all enquiries that have no requirement and rationality in this new world. This is no longer the time where people could know where their food came from and how was it priced. In capitalist America food was also commercial and so were the negotiations with it. The people now run after food that is ‘fancy’ and sought after. This can also be later observed in a sarcastic reference in Stanza II, where Ginsberg and Whitman are picking up ‘fancy tasting artichokes, possessing every frozen delicacy’, food that they don’t understand but still want to taste as almost like a revenge against this increasing, untamed consumerism
To contrast with the image of the happy family another reference is made to a litterateur here, Garcia Lorca
‘and you, Garcia Lorca, what were you doing down by the watermelons?’
The poet seems to question Lorca’s presence in this supermarket that is a symbolic of heterosexual way of life and creates no space for people like him. Lorca was a Spanish poet and playwright, who apart from being a poet was also a political activist and was killed at the start of the Spanish civil war by right wing nationalists primarily for being a homosexual. Presence of Lorca in conformist space highlights this dichotomy that exists in the poet’s mind between having the right to choose his sexual orientation and also trying to conform to the ways of the society. It also indicates the lurking danger the stands behind Ginsberg because of his non conformist sexual orientation.
Ginsberg’s other political affiliations were also similar to Lorca’s and he too supported the left cause and the political movement in other countries including Spain that he had written about in a couple of his poems from the same volume. Apart from the political inspiration, Ginsberg also admired Lorca for his writing, in terms of his choice of subjects, unabashed sense of making political statements and the non conformity to the rigid structural order of poetry writing.
Whitman becomes narrator’s guide in this visit to the supermarket. Whitman’s poetry represents a romantic fervor where individual ideas and aspirations were acknowledged and not denied and reprimanded as non-conformist. This acknowledgement of the humanistic aspect of each individual became synonymous with the image of America in his times. Whitman is a figure of nostalgia reminding the narrator of everything that is lost and perhaps can never be restored.
Whitman is referred to as childless, since he didn’t fit in the idealized propagandist image of the American family fulfilling the American dream. Whitman was homosexual, so was Garcia Lorca who was invoked in the first stanza which was also became the reason of Lorca’s assassination. The narrator who seems to echo all personal sentiments of Ginsberg himself is a homosexual man too. For these men and many others like them there is no space of existence in America because the grander narrative refuses them a space and only allows heteronormative sexual relations. Their existence is in the ‘penumbras’, “what peaches ,what penumbras”, it is only in the shadows that they can be their true self and it is only the shadows that knows about their real existence. The society tells them that theirs is an act of shame, the darkness of the shadow is to keep it away from public eye.
‘Walt Whitman, childless, lonely old grubber’
The connection then between these three poets is not just literary and they are also be connected by the idea of being outcast in the very same country they were born into. He would get ‘old’, ‘lonely’ and ‘childless’ just like Whitman.
The reference to homosexuality are also inferred through the sexual innuendoes in the poem, Whitman is said to “pok[e] among the meats in the refrigerator”, an informal slang for sexual interactions between men and is said to be eying the grocery boys to specify his homosexual attraction towards men. The subsequent mention of meat could be to refer to a bodily carnal desire.
‘Are you my Angel?’
The question that Whitman asks could also be seen as a homosexual advance that he’s trying to win over the other homosexual’s attention and love.
This question, Are you my Angel? Might also be possibly alluding to The Angel of History by Walter Benjamin who predicted the end of individuality with the progression of the modern era, he called it the end of civilization since human would stop existing only prototypes would remain.
The presence of Whitman in this commercialized, consumerist set up serves a great contrast between the two Americas, the one of the past where individuality had a space and this one of the present where the ideas about humanism find no space. The placing of Whitman is also interesting because he does not seem to adjust here because he does not belong to these times, he existed in the past but the narrator even though is very much a part of his times does not embody the spirit of the times at all.
The narrator imagines following Whitman and strolling from one aisle to another, procuring the ‘fancy tasting artichokes’ and ‘possessing every frozen delicacy’ without going to the cashier to pay for those. This act of not paying is a small act of rebellion, making a statement about neither being trapped in the commercialization of self, nor paying heed to the growing role of money in this society.
While the non- paying seems a small lighthearted act, there is still the lurking fear of being caught by the “store detective” that the narrator imagines has been following him. This fear could also be a larger fear of being persecuted for not fitting in the idea of capitalist America, both into its values about commercialization and also in terms of their sexuality. This thought could be a reassertion of the fear first visible in the reference of Garcia Lorca in the previous stanza.
The idea of getting late comes in the first line of the third stanza, ‘The doors close in an hour…’, but it is not just the Supermarkets that will close down but it is also that the possibility of recovering back old America that would close. The progress towards capitalism is at such an enormous pace that hope of change seems very bleak. All people with very few exceptions like himself are entering into the capitalist mindset, very few remember the America of the past, the America that Whitman belonged to, that did not have ‘blue automobiles in the driveways’.
The sense of urgency and the uncertainty of the future is Ginsberg’s extremely real predicament, when people move even further in the process of Commercialization, would they even remember the America of the past that lives and thrives in him?
He also realizes the absurdity and the futility of his vision, it can never become a reality, and it is only an illusion. And the Whitman figure accompanying him will also have to leave; when that happens the only connection that Ginsberg has with the old America will also end. He realizes that as time moves forward in the capitalist fervor the conjuring of the nostalgic dream would start becoming impossible and he does not want his journey with Whitman to end.
Ginsberg understands that there is absolutely no place for him and Whitman to wander around and discuss the vision of their American, there is no solitary space left where humanistic aspect of individuality can be allowed to flourish, where people weren’t so obsessed with possessions.
‘Will we walk all night through solitary streets?’
Is this hope for lost America pointless then, Ginsberg wonders and starts to think that he would die a lonely man, just like Whitman. Here, there are subtle elements of homosexuality that can be observed because being lonely is also indicative of not having a family, the ideal family painted by the American capitalist manifesto, all members trying to fulfill the American dream, together and separately.
‘we’ll both be lonely’
‘lonely old courage-teacher’
Whitman was a hero that attempted to transform, tried to change the redundant ideology of people and focused their attention to individual aspirations instead of collective homogenized and stifling capitalist growth. But America has forgotten its past, and Whitman remains stranded forever besides the river of forgetfulness, he is a forgotten hero. And with him all his teachings are also lost from memory. The intrinsic value of people and things without the question of the market value is lost, it is no a longer part of this world order. A capitalist society presents a hegemonic set of choices, and any alternate point of view is out casted and even stigmatized. Everything that doesn’t follow order has to be forgotten or the status quo kills the voice and gets rid of it completely, standing besides the river of forgetfulness are also these alternative voices, echoes and sounds.
The poem that begins with a sign of hope as Ginsberg starts dreaming of Whitman leading him, is lost in utter despair in the final imagery of the poem. Being led towards underground, standing besides the river of forgetfulness are all signifiers of America. The country in its rush to expand and achieve more political and economic growth would forget its noble heroes like Whitman, lose all its natural values and proceed towards a doom that will have no light at the end of the tunnel.