The Philosophy of the Beats
Publication Year: 2012
The phrase "beat generation" -- introduced by Jack Kerouac in 1948 -- characterized the underground, nonconformist youths who gathered in New York City at that time. Together, these writers, artists, and activists created an inimitably American cultural phenomenon that would have a global influence. In their constant search for meaning, the Beats struggled with anxiety, alienation, and their role as the pioneers of the cultural revolution of the 1960s.
The Philosophy of the Beats explores the enduring literary, cultural, and philosophical contributions of the Beats in a variety of contexts. Editor Sharin N. Elkholy has gathered leading scholars in Beat studies and philosophy to analyze the cultural, literary, and biographical aspects of the movement, including the drug experience in the works of Kerouac and Allen Ginsberg, feminism and the Beat heroine in Diane Di Prima's writings, Gary Snyder's environmental ethics, and the issue of self in Bob Kaufman's poetry. The Philosophy of the Beats provides a thorough and compelling analysis of the philosophical underpinnings that defined the beat generation and their unique place in modern American culture.
Published by: The University Press of Kentucky
Title Page, Copyright
The great historian of ideas Arthur O. Lovejoy once wrote: “The word ‘romantic’ has come to mean so many things that, by itself, it means nothing. It has ceased to perform the function of a verbal sign.”1 One could say the same about the word “Beat.” “Beat” encompasses such an array of meanings and contexts—cultural, social, literary, political, and philosophical...
I The Beats: Creating a Subculture
The Philosophy and Non-Philosophy of Potato Salad
Howl. Howl for Carl Solomon, “who threw potato salad at CCNY lecturers on Dadaism.”1 Ginsberg said it well. Well, yes. The philosopher and his shadow. As Nietzsche knew, philosophy requires a double. The Beats, too. If Ginsberg, Kerouac, and Burroughs achieved literary renown for their raw expression of lived experience, it was by means of a kind of literary stuntdouble, a vicarious codependence that would make their...
Laugh of the Revolutionary
The Beat literary movement can safely be described as masculinist. To wit, Jack Kerouac infamously describes female writers of his day as “girls” who “say nothing and wear black.”1 It is no wonder then that, similar to the ways in which they were often dismissed by the men in the movement, the female Beats have gone decades without getting their scholarly due. In particular...
Beat U-topos or Taking Utopia on the Road
As Russell Jacoby details in Picture Imperfect, utopian thought has come under suspicion in the twentieth century. The political actualization of Marxism in the form of Soviet communism gave many twentieth-century thinkers pause, horrified and puzzled that a state apparently or allegedly inspired by Marx’s vision of a society without economic class or political coercion could so quickly show itself to be ruthlessly...
What does it mean to be at home in a place? Is the home a psychic space we project upon the places we inhabit, or does it possess a specific geographical location that defines our identity as human beings? Moreover, can we ever really be at home? These are all questions that might be uniquely attributed to the poetry and prose of Gary Snyder as a participant in the Beat Generation. While...
II Beat Identities: Selfhood and Experimentation
From Self-Alienation to Posthumanism
The connections between William S. Burroughs’s narrative and stylistic innovations and postmodern theory have been well established in Burroughs criticism. Many critics recognize that his disintegrations of conventional prose effectively reflect postmodernism’s concern with societal as well as artistic fragmentation. Less frequently considered, though, are the implications of Burroughs’s reconception of the subject for understanding the...
"I am not an I"
When Simone de Beauvoir (1908–1986) came to the United States in the late 1940s and published her essay “An Existentialist Looks at Americans” in the New York Times Magazine (Beauvoir 1947), she came to many of the same conclusions that Beat writers and their consociates did about American existence. Beauvoir tasted “a flavor of death” in America. While there is an “American dynamism” that asserts “itself against the inertia of the given...
Beat, and Beat authorship, under the auspices of multiethnicity, multicultural philosophy? The notion might at first seem a template too far, special pleading. For as a postwar American literary heritage, the terms of reference have been largely of other kinds—a circuit of poetry, fiction, life-writing, performance, and visual creativity at once countercultural, given over to the...
Joanne Kyger "Descartes and the Splendor Of"
In the late 1990s, two seminal anthologies, Brenda Knight’s Women of the Beat Generation and Richard Peabody’s A Different Beat, focused on women writers of the Beat Generation who had not previously been considered part of the male-dominated Beat canon. The West Coast poet Joanne Kyger was one of these. Coming to San Francisco from Santa Barbara in the spring of...
III Beat Avant-Garde: Spontaneity and Immediacy
John Clellon Holmes and Existentialism
When Holmes wrote this statement he was remembering back to the Christmas of 1947, when he was a twenty-one-year-old unpublished, aspiring novelist living in Manhattan at Fifty-Sixth Street and Lexington Avenue, soon to meet another young aspiring novelist, Jack Kerouac. In the autumn of 1948, shortly after they had met and become friends, they were deep into a long...
One rarely turns to the movies for insights into Beat poetics. Apart from avant-garde shorts by Bruce Conner, Ron Rice, Robert Frank, and Alfred Leslie, and a few others, not many films offer more than dim reflections of the Beat sensibility.1 Given this scarcity, it’s unfortunate that Peter Whitehead’s unique Wholly Communion has been almost entirely overlooked since its completion in 1965. Filmed at a massively attended poetry event...
High Off the Page
Just what is the body’s knowledge? A scar traces the history of a laceration; a pain in the back indicates bad posture; a runny nose predicts a cold. The body is ours to read like a text, provided something occurs. Otherwise, it becomes all too often a mere given, an instrument used to grasp, to move, to live. Only through the prism of a rent do we witness the body itself in all its fullness and possibility. For those of us...
Genius All the TIme
The Beat literary movement cannot be understood in the fullest sense without some examination of Buddhism, particularly in the forms that were available to these mystinauts: explorers of mind and beyond mind to the nature of awareness itself. The poet Anne Waldman, commenting on what constitutes “Beat,” perceives “an as-yet unacknowledged body of uniquely articulated and salutary ‘dharma poetics’—that derives from Buddhist psychology and philosophy” (Waldman 2009, 164–65)...
Spontaneity, Immediacy, and Difference
At the outset of The Four Quartets (1936) quoted above, T. S. Eliot takes up the possibility that the problem of historical conditioning (the limits placed on human freedom/being by history) might be resolved by drawing a contrast between a processual, which is a historical mode of being limned as “time present and time past,” and a unitive present. This is thought of as “the still point of the turning world” without which “there would be no dance”...
IV Beat Politics: Ethics and Affinities
Two Ways of Enduring the Flames
To attempt to place Kierkegaard’s and Bukowski’s work into the same context may on the face of it seem like an odd, maybe even forced maneuver, something along the lines of a deconstructive tactic. The dialectical complexities of a nineteenth-century dandy-martyr and Romantic, and the crystalline, modern prose of a run-down Los Angeles drunk. That seems like a tough fit. But if one takes time to reflect and look at it...
Anarchism and the Beats
The first problem that we seem to be confronted with when we try to compare
the philosophy of the beats to the philosophy of anarchists is that the beats
were poets, not philosophers, and do not seem to have had a “philosophy.”
But things are not as they seem. Following Oswald Spengler’s idea of a second religiosity that arises out of the primitive elements (the “fellaheen”) of a declining civilization, the...
Between Social Ecology and Deep Ecology
Gary Snyder is not a philosopher, nor does he “consider himself particularly a ‘Beat.’”1 Snyder is a poet, an essayist, an outdoorsman, and a practitioner of Buddhism. But despite his reluctance to identify with the Beat title, he has been an undeniable influence on the Beat generation and its writers. He was fictionalized as the character Japhy Ryder in Jack Kerouac’s The Dharma Bums,2 and helped initiate the San Francisco Renaissance by organizing...
William Burroughs as Philosopher
The literary oeuvre of William Burroughs occupies an enigmatic position both in relation to the aesthetic movements of his time and the wider philosophical thematics of this period. In this essay, I want to focus especially on the latter problematic—the question of “Burroughs as philosopher.” Even on a superficial inspection, it is clear that Burroughs’s work is significantly concerned with philosophical issues such as...