Adventures from Back of Beyond

Monday, November 05, 2007

The Beat Generation

It may seem somewhat surprising that I'm just now discovering the significance of the Beat generation, and especially of some of the key figures -- Allen Ginsberg, Jack Kerouac, and Neal Cassady. These men -- women were conspicuously marginalized -- were brilliant intellectuals and exerted profound influence on our society, yet were enormously flawed as individuals.

I grew up with their influence of course, though I mostly had this stereotyped image of a beatnik from the Maynard G. Krebs character on the TV show Dobie Gillis: a bearded college kid with sandals, bongo drum, and book of poetry.

Now though, while reading Jack Kerouac's classic On the Road, I'm beginning to see how the Beat movement, starting in the late 1940s, fits into a larger cultural context, as well recognize some of their serious problems as individuals.

The bisexual, neurotic Ginsberg, in particular, can apparently be credited with inventing the literary concept of "eyeball kicks" as he termed it. He was inspired by certain painters that strikingly juxtaposed different colors to create what Ginsberg called eyeball spasms, or kicks. Ginsberg incorporated this as a literary device using such terms as hydrogen jukebox, whatever that is.

Later, such masters of lyrical composition as Bob Dylan (Subterranean Homesick Blues) and especially John Lennon would develop and incorporate this technique into their music. Lennon's I am the Walrus in particular uses this technique to just shred common literary sense and syntax with incredible artistry:

Semolina Pilchard,
Climbing up the Eiffel Tower.
Elementary penguin,
singing Hare Krishna.
Man you should have seem them
kicking Edgar Allen Poe.


Kerouac, who would suffer an early death from alcoholism, describes in classic passages how the Beats were so very good at fully immersing themselves in the joyful here and now of life and doing so while not being bound by the rigid conformity of dominant cultural standards set by post WWII militarism. Their celebration of a nonconformist lifestyle paved the way for a huge explosion of creativity and freedom of expression for my generation.

Yet this robust cultural blossoming wouldn't have happened had the country not be ready for it when On the Road was first published. Even back then, a significant portion of our society was already searching, challenging, not satisfied with the conformist status quo.

The Beats formed impressive lifelong friendships (women being relegated to relatively minor positions), especially considering their numerous dysfunctions.

Neal Cassady seemed to have been something of the leader, and as Kerouac frames him, the living embodiment of Beat. Cassady was a brilliant intellectual, a superb athlete, exceptionally inquisitive, and full of the joy of life, wanting to experience all the here and now of youth without much regard to responsibility or long term consequences.

Yet Cassady as described by Kerouac was a product of the slum streets of Denver where he was raised, a con-man, a hustler, a user, a libidinous philanderer who viewed women merely as sex objects. Time and time again Kerouac describes the repugnant actions and omissions of a man who wears out his welcome quickly, who utterly lacks any sense of moral or ethical standards.

Overall, a key failure of the Beat philosophy was in their self-absorbed and irresponsible hedonism. Cassady boasted of stealing 500 cars in one year, never for profit, but only for short joy rides. That averages out to more than one a day, every day of the year.

In one particularly entertaining passage, Kerouac writes how Cassady gets stupid drunk and steals 6 different cars in a row, all in the same crazy night. He and Kerouac would regularly shoplift cigarettes and food, steal gas, do whatever they needed at the time without a second thought.

As individuals, the leaders of the Beat movement were personal failures in many important ways, particularly in establishing loving caring families geared for the long term. Cassady was a bigamist who abandoned his wife with a small baby, in his neverending search of elusive "kicks", and in the accompaniment of an approving Kerouac.

Nor were these guys especially good at pacing themselves personally. As they aged, evolving to middle life, many of them died unhappy lonely tragic deaths.

Kerouac and Cassady died around the age of 40 due to drug and alcohol abuse. But Ginsberg and another seminal Beat figure, William S. Borroughs, lived to ripe old ages, and remained productive well into their 70s.

Beatniks were a huge influence on American culture, and I figure the Beats have a message worth considering today. And that is -- don't waste any time or energy regretful of what could be and isn't. Instead, live and share life to its fullest and most meaningful with friends and family, communicate from the heart about what we know and experience, and forget criticism, forget detractors, forget anything and anybody that gets in the way of achieving your goals, making your dreams come true, and of direct honest experience of the richness and fullness and joy of love and life in all its forms.

As appealing as this message was to their generation and resonates still today, to me their philosophy is disturbingly lacking and even sad in a way. Their view is very circular for one, in that it doesn't allow for much influence from outside their system of conforming to their own nonconformist values. More importantly it lacks clear understanding of long term meaning and consequence, and consistent moral structure. Dig, living in the moment for kicks is where it's at man.

An optimistic and celebratory view of life is worthy and admirable of course, but adding just a little more long term wisdom and a little less self-absorption would go a long way to make their belief in freedom of expression and in positive human potential more effective and well rounded.

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