Queering the Canon

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In 1996 A. Robert Lee edited a collection of ten essays by British and American scholars under the title The Beat Generation Writers. The essays are interesting and provocative, yet all shirk the fundamental task of identifying a Beat aesthetic, preferring, in the usual way, to define the group as a circle of acquaintance on a New York-San Francisco axis. Granted this regrettable dependence upon the biographical, it is paradoxical - though, again, typical - that not one of the essays squarely tackles a subject such an author-centred methodology would seem to make unavoidable: homosexuality. Most of the Beats were either gay (Ginsberg, Burroughs, Norse, Huncke, Wieners) or bisexual (Kerouac, Cassady, Orlovsky); and even those who act macho, like Bukowski, are usually so strident about it that their writings seem rather a theatri cal performing of masculinity than a simple affirmation of male power. My own view is that the rise of the feminist movement following the publication of Betty Friedan's The Feminine Mystique (1963) swiftly rendered the sexual politics of the Beats suspect, if not mastodontic, and that the only context in which they can still be read as libera-tional is that of gay rights.

One of the advantages of such an approach is that it can help explain the unusual but shared career trajectory of Beats like Burroughs, Ginsberg and Kerouac. For all began with a decade of false starts and periodic writer's block (roughly 1945—55); then experienced an astonishing uprush of creativity usually entailed to an uninhibited exploration of the homoerotic (1955—60); and thereafter, although prolific, went into a steady qualitative decline with the occasional brief recovery on a generally falling graph. This pattern, I am suggesting, is a product of the mid-century patriarchal order, 'Howl', On the Road and Naked Lunch all being 'coming out' texts whose liberational intensity is directly proportional to the epistemological constraints of the 1950s' closet. The problem for the authors, of course, is not only that they cannot keep voluntarily returning to the closet so as to reachieve the explosive release of their masterpieces; but that their major works have anyway so transformed the ideological climate that the closet no longer exists in the same way. Their very success, though a long time coming, was decisive enough to swiftly make them obsolete.

Edmund White wrote in his 1997 AIDS novel, The Farewell Symphony, 'Never had a group been placed on such a rapid cycle — oppressed in the 1950s, freed in the 1960s, exulted in the 1970s and wiped out in the 1980s'. The Beats are indispensable guides to the first two decades in this abbreviated gay history. Kerouac's On the Road and Visions of Cody may well be the definitive accounts of what it is like for one man to love another and still be in denial that the romance is erotic as well as companionate. Burroughs is much more outspokenly homosexual, but his Swiftian excrementalism may be read as a sign of self-disgust and his oeuvre regarded as transitional. By contrast, Ginsberg's garrulous strophes choreograph most of the vital stages in the progress towards self-acceptance: the stultification of the poems up to 1954 honestly unveils the futility of homosexuals trying to conform to heterosexual norms; by invoking Lorca and Whitman, 'A Supermarket in California' takes crucial, tentative steps towards gay canon-building; 'America' is mock confessional ('America I'm putting my queer shoulder to the wheel'); 'Howl' opts for a 'better blatant than latent' explicit-ness ('who let themselves be fucked in the ass by saintly motorcyclists, and screamed with joy'); while 'Kaddish', a funeral lament for his mad mother, directly confronts the source of his oedipally driven flight from womankind:

One time I thought she was trying to make me come lay her — flirting to herself at sink — lay back on huge bed that filled most of the room, dress up around her hips, big slash of hair, scars of operations, pancreas, belly wounds, abortions, appendix, stitching of incisions pulling down in the fat like hideous thick zippers — ragged long lips between her legs — What, even smell of asshole?

Thereafter Ginsberg's erotic poems get steadily duller and ever more lurid, as though driven by an obsessional need to answer the question said to vex the straights — what do gay men do in bed?: see, for instance, the 1968 'PLEASE MASTER' ('& please master make me wiggle my rear to eat up the prick trunk / till my asshalfs cuddle your thighs') or the 1986 'Sphincter' ('active, eager, receptive to phallus / coke bottle, candle, carrot / banana & fingers').

If the Beats are united by a subject as well as an aesthetic, then this surely is it: the mid-century crisis in masculinity; the attempt to establish a male camaraderie that is resolutely anti-patriarchy; the refusal to become a father as a challenge to the Law of the Father. In the process of opening up this new terrain, Beat writings subvert or profane the sacred social discourses of nation (they are particularly good at excavating the latent militarism that undergirds patriotic feeling), family (their work presents the family not as our refuge from the ills of the world but as the place where we are first exposed to them), gender (no contemporaries did as much to unmoor society's sexual certitudes) and normalcy (for the Beats normality is not an edenic given but an ideological aspiration that visibly warps its adherents). If their writings are uneven, and no comparable literary movement has as high a drivel percentage, their achievements are still prodigious and in ways the critical debate has hardly begun to calibrate. Perhaps the recent deaths of Bukowski, Ginsberg, Burroughs and Corso will elicit the reappraisal that is so long overdue.


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