Beat Aesthetics

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One place where a closer examination of Beat texts might begin is with the Romantic ideology on which their aesthetic is predicated. Quintessential features of this ideology include the attributing of superior value to the individual rather than the collective; the subjective rather than the objective; the irrational rather than the rational; innocence rather than experience, with children, blacks, bums and drug addicts being especially deferred to; nature rather than the city, though with a degree of idealization that is the mark of the urbanite rather than the hardened country dweller (see Ginsberg's 'Sunflower Sutra'); an expressivist poetics in which it is proposed that art should aim for the heart rather than the head, the best way of affecting the reader's emotions being to speak directly from one's own ('I am the substance of my poetry', Corso claims); and, with regard to the act of composition, a privileging of the spontaneous, the epiphanous, the inspirational, over the considered and premeditated (see Kerouac 's essay 'Essentials of Spontaneous Prose' and Ginsberg's poem 'On Improvised Poetics' whose axiom 'First thought best thought' might be translated to mean 'First draft, best draft'). With regard to this last point, it is worth remarking the pride with which Kerouac claimed to have written The Subterraneans in three nights, Burroughs to have compiled Naked Lunch in a few weeks from a vast array of disparate manuscripts, and Ginsberg to have composed 'A Cottage in Berkeley' and 'A Supermarket in California' on the same day, the long first section of 'Howl' in an afternoon, and 'Sunflower Sutra' in twenty minutes.

Granted the insistence with which Ginsberg has acknowledged his debt to Blake and Whitman, Kerouac his admiration for Melville, or Corso his debt to Shelley, it is alarming the unanimity with which champions and detractors of the Beats have alike sought to suppress this pervasive Romanticism, the former in the interests of enhancing the movement's claims to originality, the latter in a desire to dismiss it as an unparalleled plunge into barbarism. However, nothing could be further from the truth than to present the Beats as a naive revival of an indigenous Transcendentalism, unmediated by post-Romantic developments in art and thought. It is hardly possible to read a classic Beat text without being aware of the way in which its Romanticism is contained, qualified and interrogated by the modernism of Stein, Pound, Eliot, Williams, Faulkner, Hart Crane, Thomas Wolfe and Henry Miller; the surrealism of Apollinaire, Prévert, Eluard, Reverdy and Lorca; and the Existentialism of Hemingway, Céline, Artaud, Sartre and Camus. It is precisely the tensions, the dialectics, the electrically precarious negotiations, set up between Romanticism on the one hand and these later developments on the other, that give the best Beat literature its remarkable energy and authority. When their Romanticism is unqualified, the Beats collapse into sentimentality of content and flaccidity of style. It is when Ginsberg places the Romantic poet Whitman in a supermarket in California, or when Kerouac views nature through the plate glass window of a car racing towards the urban delights of Denver, or when Burroughs presents drug states as at once a revelatory expansion of consciousness and the most sickening form of capitalist dependency, that the authentic note is struck. And in this context the polysemic, contradictory term 'Beat' is not as inexact as has sometimes been thought.

Jack Kerouac coined the expression at the close of the 1940s, a fact documented by John Clellon Holmes in his essay 'This is the Beat Generation' in The New York Times Magazine, 16 November 1952. The Beats, then, were a phenomenon of the 1940s and the first half of the 1950s. The original nucleus was drawn primarily from the states of Massachusetts (Kerouac, Holmes) and New York (Ginsberg, Corso, Fer-linghetti), attended such East Coast universities as Harvard (Burroughs) and Columbia (Ginsberg, Kerouac, Ferlinghetti), and had its headquarters in New York City. Theirs was the America of Truman, Eisenhower and McCarthy; of the Korean war, the Cold War and the communist witch-hunts; of middle-class values, the work ethic and the sublimated eroticism of Doris Day; of a stultified cultural climate that found its noblest expression in the decent, anguished Liberalism of a Lionel Trilling or Arthur Miller; and of a literary-critical establishment whose house journals (Hudson Review, Sewanee Review, Partisan Review) could neither countenance nor accommodate their writings. It is worth reminding ourselves of these matters, for it helps account for that note of psychological extremity, of existential alienation, that is a hallmark of Beat literature.

Kerouac himself insisted that 'the word "beat" originally meant poor, down and out, deadbeat, on the bum, sad, sleeping in subways', and that only secondarily did he have a 'vision of the word Beat as being to mean beatific'. Holmes made the same point when he said that

Beat means not so much weariness, as rawness of the nerves; not so much 'filled up to here', as being emptied out. It describes a state of mind from which all unessentials have been stripped, leaving it receptive to everything around it, but impatient with trivial obstructions. To be beat is to be at the bottom of your personality, looking up; to be existential in the Kierkegaard, rather than the Jean-Paul Sartre sense.

Kerouac's coinage, then, encompasses several levels of meaning: to be Beat is to be defeated, beaten, dead beat, exhausted by the demands of straight society; it is to be hepped up, to have a quickened heart beat, in a high-risk, go for broke, shoot the works, all-or-nothing attitude, such as the writers associated with the best jazz music of the day; and it is to be hungry for beatitude, that epiphanous breakthrough from quotidian norms to an area of ecstatic consciousness in which the self feels itself to have been momentarily eternalized.

Once this complex of ideas has been unravelled, even in some such hasty and reductionist manner as the above, certain correctives to a lax critical orthodoxy immediately present themselves. First, many of the writers included in Beat anthologies (from Denise Levertov to Kenneth Koch) have nothing whatsoever to do with the movement. Second, the fact that this East Coast phenomenon first found a receptive audience when Ginsberg read the unpublished 'Howl' at the Six Gallery, San

Francisco, on 7 October 1955, should not blind us to the fact that the poets of the 'San Francisco Renaissance' differ from the original Beats, lacking their urban angst, their feverishness. To put it another way, the San Franciscans tend towards the beatitude end of the Beat spectrum at the expense of the bottom-dog, deadbeat, existential end which Kerouac said was primary. Third, certain figures who were neither part of the New York—San Francisco axis nor of Ginsberg's and Kerouac's circle of acquaintance partake of the Beat aesthetic much more fully than those who were: one thinks of Charles Bukowski living in Los Angeles (it would do no harm to the Beat canon for the profile of Los Angeles to be promoted at some expense to that of San Francisco); of Harold Norse, whose European and North African patrol resembles that of Burroughs; and of William Wantling, whose Midwestern background and long years in prison kept him out of the fashionable coterie.

Finally, the Romantic ideology of Beat literature, when released from the ball and chain of contemporary urban anxiety, has a tendency to recycle classic American myths, often of a quasi-frontier kind, in a way that is politically reactionary. The frantic desire to drop out, hit the road, head for the hills, and share a car with a trusted buddy (like the Lone Ranger and Tonto riding out into the unknown), is fundamentally a need to escape domesticity, parenthood, heterosexual commitment — in short, woman. From the Beat perspective, nothing locks one more ruinously into a restrictive society than a wedding ring, a mortgage and a pile of unwashed nappies (see Corso's poem 'Marriage'). Hence, the prevailing atmosphere of misogyny (often accompanied by mother love); and the lack of any significant women Beat practitioners, with the possible exception of Diane Di Prima — though such disenchanted but forgiving memoirs as Carolyn Cassady's Off the Road, Joyce Johnson's Minor Characters and Bonnie Bremser's Troia: Mexican Memoirs have their own importance. Similarly, one might note that the Romantic privileging of the primitive, uncultured and innocent has sometimes tempted the Beats into racial stereotypes that are unconsciously patronizing and demeaning. Kerouac's talk of the 'happy, true-hearted, ecstatic Negroes' is symptomatic. As Ned Polsky has tellingly remarked, to see the Negro as more elemental than the white man is 'an inverted form of keeping the nigger in his place'.

The point at issue is not just that the canon of Beat literature has been falsely founded on biographical rather than literary criteria; but that as a result we are for the immediate future obliged to adopt adversarial reading strategies if we are to avoid entrenching an already stale orthodoxy. The remainder of this essay will endeavour to complicate and enrich usage of the term by focusing on four aspects of Beat mythology that are particularly in need of redefinition.

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