This book offers a radical new reading of the 1950s and 60s American literary counterculture. Associated nostalgically w
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In his 1969 book The Making of a Counterculture, Theodore Roszak described the youth of the late 1960s as fleeing scienc
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Table of contents :
Chapter 1: Introduction: Romanticism, Humanism and the Counterculture
No Bob Dylan Without Ezra Pound
‘The Making of a Counterculture’
From Schopenhauer, Through Hulme to Heidegger
Chapter 2: Henry Miller and the Beats: An Anti-humanist Precedent
The European Beat Heritage
Intermediary Henry Miller
Mad, Marvellous Failures
The Beat Céline
Miller and English Modernism
Miller and Ezra Pound
The Anti-humanist Reversal
Chapter 3: Jack Kerouac, Allen Ginsberg and Their Transcendentalist Gloom
The Lost Generation Mark II
A Fascination with Evil
Idealism Versus Fatalism
The New Vision
Fin de Siécle to Modernism
Passively Accepting Horror
From Idealism to Spengler
The Moral Aspect
‘Accelerating Toward Apocalypse’
‘The Future’s in Fellaheen’
Us Versus the ‘Finks’
Primitivism, Virtue and Sin
Chapter 4: William Burroughs’ Immodest Proposal
The Human Specimen
Meta-history Over Politics
‘Washing Away the Human Lines’
‘It’s Difficult to Know What Side You are Working On’
Chapter 5: The Philosophy of Hip: Norman Mailer’s ‘Spiritual Existentialism’
‘The White Negro’
The Psychic Outlaw
Fear and Trembling
America Beyond Sublimation
Death and Determinism
The Prisoner of Sex
The Politics of Identity
Chapter 6: Conclusion: Counterculture Then and Now
The World That Miller Made
Fatalism and Elitism
Two Types of Anti-humanist
The Counterculture and the Masses
The Beats in History
Postscript: Countercultures Today
Anti-Humanism in the Counterculture Guy Stevenson
Anti-Humanism in the Counterculture
Anti-Humanism in the Counterculture
Guy Stevenson Goldsmiths University of London London, UK
ISBN 978-3-030-47759-2 ISBN 978-3-030-47760-8 (eBook) https://doi.org/10.1007/978-3-030-47760-8 © The Editor(s) (if applicable) and The Author(s), under exclusive licence to Springer Nature Switzerland AG 2020 This work is subject to copyright. All rights are solely and exclusively licensed by the Publisher, whether the whole or part of the material is concerned, specifically the rights of translation, reprinting, reuse of illustrations, recitation, broadcasting, reproduction on microfilms or in any other physical way, and transmission or information storage and retrieval, electronic adaptation, computer software, or by similar or dissimilar methodology now known or hereafter developed. The use of general descriptive names, registered names, trademarks, service marks, etc. in this publication does not imply, even in the absence of a specific statement, that such names are exempt from the relevant protective laws and regulations and therefore free for general use. The publisher, the authors and the editors are safe to assume that the advice and information in this book are believed to be true and accurate at the date of publication. Neither the publisher nor the authors or the editors give a warranty, expressed or implied, with respect to the material contained herein or for any errors or omissions that may have been made. The publisher remains neutral with regard to jurisdictional claims in published maps and institutional affiliations. Cover illustration: © Bradley Sauter / Alamy Stock Photo This Palgrave Macmillan imprint is published by the registered company Springer Nature Switzerland AG. The registered company address is: Gewerbestrasse 11, 6330 Cham, Switzerland
I am grateful to the Institute for Advanced Studies in the Humanities at the University of Edinburgh for giving me the time, space and financial support to make a start on this book. My deepest thanks too to Caroline Blinder, Florian J. Seubert, Henry Mead, Sarah Garland, John Bolin, Randall Stevenson and Aaron Jaffe, for all your helpful encouragement and advice along the way.
1 Introduction: Romanticism, Humanism and the Counterculture 1 2 Henry Miller and the Beats: An Anti-humanist Precedent 19 3 Jack Kerouac, Allen Ginsberg and Their Transcendentalist Gloom 59 4 William Burroughs’ Immodest Proposal107 5 The Philosophy of Hip: Norman Mailer’s ‘Spiritual Existentialism’147 6 Conclusion: Counterculture Then and Now187 Index215
Introduction: Romanticism, Humanism and the Counterculture
No Bob Dylan Without Ezra Pound In 1975, Allen Ginsberg, Beat poet and elder statesman of what had recently been christened the counterculture, gave a lecture on modern poetry to students at the Jack Kerouac School of Disembodied Poetics at the Naropa Institute, Colorado. ‘I would venture to say’, Ginsberg told his audience, ‘that there would have been no Bob Dylan without Ezra Pound’ (Staff 2017). On the face of it, it was an unlikely and provocative connection for Ginsberg to have made. In style and politics, Pound represented much of what the Beat Generation and its literary descendants purported to stand against. His were the aesthetics of ‘concrete’ precision not freeform expression, of modernising through engagement with tradition rather than the radical renunciation promoted by the Beats. Moreover, Pound’s early twentieth-century movement—born in London in the runup to First World War and including T.S. Eliot, Wyndham Lewis and the philosopher-poet T.E. Hulme—was by 1975 synonymous with a right- wing politics entirely contrary to the social and political ideologies Ginsberg—and certainly Bob Dylan—adhered to. From Eliot’s conservative Anglo-Catholicism to Hulme’s, Lewis’ and Pound’s flirtations with fascism, these so-called Men of 1914 practised a public politics that in the post-Second World War West marked them out as relics of the dark and not-so-distant past.1 Add to this that Ginsberg and Dylan were both Jewish, that Pound, Eliot and Lewis had tolerated and at points promoted anti-Semitism, and that Pound had been exposed very © The Author(s) 2020 G. Stevenson, Anti-Humanism in the Counterculture, https://doi.org/10.1007/978-3-030-47760-8_1
publically for siding with Mussolini during the war, and the genealogy sounds even less tenable. Crowds like the one Ginsberg addressed at Naropa were used to hearing Walt Whitman, Ralph Waldo Emerson and William Blake cited as Romantic, democratic influences on the Beat movement, and were no doubt puzzled by his claim of kinship with a poet whose public image screamed elitist obscurantism and fascist anti-Semitism. And yet that statement of affinity is critical to a proper understanding not only of Ginsberg as poet but about the post-Second World War movement he came to signify. Apart from Pound’s anomalous but very real poetic influence on late twentieth-century American letters, it speaks to a connection where most see a rupture between early century European modernism and the youth rebellion that emerged across the United States after 1945. This book is an attempt to understand that connection, to understand the Beat Generation and the literary counterculture it spawned as products rather than straightforward reactions against the philosophy and politics of writers like Pound, Eliot and Lewis—writers whose own rebellions were centred on the tiredness of standard humanist and Romantic traditions. In the popular and academic imagination, those traditions are exactly what Ginsberg, Jack Kerouac and William Burroughs aimed to restore. There was, the story goes, a struggle towards a better understanding of self through literature with the purpose of liberating the individual from societal and psychological oppression; in short, the kind of transcendence through interior contemplation that Romantic poets Ralph Waldo Emerson and Walt Whitman had exulted in the nineteenth century. It would of course be absurd to deny the Beat Generation’s debt to that American Transcendentalist tradition and to present them as opposed to humanism per se. Their work is permeated by a longing for progress, both for the individual and for the collective. Ginsberg in particular spent most of his career railing publically against social injustice and trying to guide young people towards the construction of a harmonious social and political world. By 1966, as Theodore Roszak points out, he had ‘committed himself totally to the life of prophecy … allowed his entire existence to be transformed by the visionary powers with which he conjures and has offered it as an example to his generation’ (Roszak, p. 128). Although not engaged publically in politics, Kerouac and Burroughs both envisioned the human race as brimming with potential but limited by misconceived mechanisms of control. However, much of what these writers produced in the 1950s and 1960s also carried with it a paradoxical uncertainty about
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whether mankind truly was perfectible, an uncertainty that can be traced back to a period in Anglo-American—and European—literary history when philosophical and political humanism had continually been called into question.
Anti-humanism/Anti-Romanticism Before going further, it is important to define exactly what I mean by ‘humanism’, ‘anti-humanism’ and indeed ‘the counterculture’. The Oxford English Dictionary categorises humanism in two connected but distinct ways: first as ‘a rationalist outlook or system of thought attaching prime importance to human rather than divine or supernatural matters’ and secondly, ‘a Renaissance cultural movement which turned away from medieval scholasticism and revived interest in ancient Greek and Roman thought’ (Oxford Dictionaries, n.d.). The first, more familiar definition refers to the Enlightenment of the eighteenth century, a sea change in philosophical thought represented most enduringly by Immanuel Kant and involving the attempt to understand human existence as determined by humans themselves rather than deific forces. The second historical- cultural definition refers to a shift in religious study, beginning in the late fourteenth century and involving the attempt to improve society by broadening the scope of Christian thought to include forgotten Latin and Ancient Greek texts, both Christian and Pagan. As Renaissance historian John Hale points out, though the roots of Enlightenment humanism lie firmly in the Renaissance, this earlier form is best kept ‘free from any hint of either “humanitarianism” or “humanism” in its modern sense of rational, non-religious approach to life’ since ‘its students in the main wished to supplement, not contradict [Christian doctrine], through their patient excavation of the sources of ancient God- inspired wisdom’ (Hale 1981, p. 171). I’ll come to pose questions related to Renaissance humanism—particularly around the quasi-religious positions taken up by many of the Beat writers—but the focus of this book is the ebb and flow in twentieth-century letters of a faith in the human potential for progress—and for arriving eventually at a point of perfection—that arose out of the Enlightenment’s usurpation of religion. This is what the philosopher John Gray, in his 2002 book Straw Dogs, calls the ‘upshot of [Arthur] Schopenhauer’s criticism of Kant’, that in his aim ‘to replace traditional religion by faith in humanity’, Kant arrived ‘only [at] a secular version of Christianity’s central mistake’—namely, the
belief that man could transcend his animal limits and be redeemed (Gray 2002, p. 41). While to different degrees sympathetic to religion, Pound, Lewis, T.E. Hulme and T.S. Eliot are each representative of a turn among early twentieth-century experimental writers against that ‘faith in humanity’, and in particular against its manifestation in what they saw as corruptive eighteenth-century literary Romanticism. This is an aspect of the ‘anti-humanism’ my title refers to, a belief that ‘attaching prime importance to human … matters’ had served to produce an ersatz and inadequate replacement for fundamental moral and aesthetic values, a form—as Hulme put it—of ‘spilt’ classicism and religion (Hulme 1994, p. 62). The equation of literary Romanticism with humanism is complicated by the fact that Wordsworth, Keats and Coleridge in England and Emerson and Whitman in America were reacting against the ‘rationalist outlook’ that underpinned the Enlightenment. They were motivated, as Hulme suggests, by a religious desire to reinstate faith in intuition and beauty in an age dominated by reason. If that means the Romantics can themselves be defined as ‘anti-humanist’, my parameters are dictated by a twentieth- century definition of humanism that emphasises not rationalism per se but the negation of humanity’s imperfect nature. Attacking the Romantic and ‘humanist attitude’ together in 1911, Hulme wrote: When a sense of the reality of … absolute values is lacking, you get a refusal to believe any longer in the radical imperfection of either Man or Nature. This develops logically into the belief that life is the source and measure of all values, and that man is fundamentally good. Instead, then, of/ Man (radically imperfect) … apprehending … Perfection, −/ you get the second term (now entirely misunderstood) illegitimately introduced inside the first [ellipses and brackets Hulme’s own]. This leads to a complete change in all values. The problem of evil disappears, the conception of sin loses all meaning. (1994, p. 444)
This is the crux of the anti-humanist position I am exploring, a position of violent reaction against the perceived vanity in believing that people are fundamentally good. It was a reaction that had its roots in Schopenhauer’s and Frederick Nietzsche’s nineteenth-century attacks on the Enlightenment but reached an apex in Anglo-American literary thought as First World War approached. Within such a paradigm, the Beats’ quest for individual Enlightenment apparently repeats—in the mid-twentieth century—the mistakes of the Romantics in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. As
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we’ll see, Hulme and the other ‘Men of 1914’ differed in their political beliefs and affiliations. They also disagreed philosophically about the power of political and social ideology to effect change—Ezra Pound’s faith in the possibility of a new economic and political order rendering him in many ways humanistic as opposed to Hulme and T.S. Eliot, who sought solace from the political and social in the absolute authority of religion. But they agreed wholeheartedly that a Romantic bastardisation of absolute ethical and aesthetic truths had obfuscated the Western value scale. What I suggest is that the Beat inheritors of the Romantic tradition had a much clearer understanding of man’s radical imperfection, of evil, and ‘the conception of sin’ than is generally acknowledged. They were, on the one hand, exemplary of the humanism Hulme describes—setting their stall by ‘life [as] the source and measure of all values’—but, on the other, not as credulous about the possibilities therein as they first appear. As importantly and more complicatedly, their inheritance of a modernist scepticism about progress meant they also unwittingly inherited some of the same reactionary political baggage—a distrust of liberal democratic government, a patrician faith in their own clairvoyance as artists and a fatalistic, superior attitude towards the unconverted herd.
‘The Making of a Counterculture’ Although those philosophical and political legacies were felt across the wider social, political and cultural scene, this book’s main concern is their manifestation in literature. Following Theodore Roszak, whose 1969 book The Making of a Counterculture is widely credited with having coined the term, my countercultural timeline begins with the first Beat publications in the mid-1950s; continues through Ginsberg’s, Burroughs’ and Kerouac’s uptake by bohemian poets in San Francisco and New York during that decade; then follows their ideas over-ground in the 1960s. Clichéd though it has become, the critical consensus of a literary and philosophical tone set by these three and picked up by Ken Kesey, Hunter S. Thompson, Norman Mailer and others is borne out by both the texts themselves and first-hand accounts of the period. Kerouac and Ginsberg’s attempts at self-exploration through exploration of the continent and the continent through exploration of their selves are the acknowledged bases of Kesey’s emblematic bus trip across America, not to mention the ‘electric kool-aid acid tests’ made famous by Tom Wolfe in his book about that journey (Wolfe 1968). Kesey, like most
writers of the 1960s’ psychedelic movement, credited Kerouac with opening his mind to the possibility of experimentation on ‘the wild road’, and it was a succession story that was inscribed into national folklore by the mainstream American media (1994). As Wolfe points out, the two movements even shared a muse in Neal Cassady—the model for Kerouac’s hero Dean Moriarty in On the Road and the speed-addled ‘monologuist’ driver of Kesey’s ‘magic bus’ (Wolfe 1968, p. 15). For his part Kerouac was begrudging but emphatic about his influence on the 1960s. Roped in aged forty-six to talk about ‘the Hippies’ on William F. Buckley Jr’s ‘The Firing Line’, he drunkenly and half-regretfully declared them his ‘children’ (Hoover Institution Library and Archives 1968). In a similar spirit as that ‘Firing Line’ TV special, Roszak invented the word ‘counterculture’ to account for the rift between pre- and post- Second World War generations. His aim, he wrote, was to better understand an epoch in which ‘a militant minority of dissenting youth’ pitted themselves ‘against the sluggish consensus- and coalition politics of their middle-class elders’ (1969, p. 159). At its point of conception then, ‘the counterculture’ had connotations of a broad attitudinal change—a shift in political spirit—rather than anything specifically aesthetic or philosophical. Since the 1960s, those connotations have become broader still, as ‘counter- cultural’ has come to signify any youth movement that declares itself hostile to conventional culture. From 1970s’ punk rock to guerrilla gardening in the twenty-first century, the countercultural tag abides. Others have written convincingly about the commercialisation of the counterculture since the 1960s, and some compelling work has been done on the potential collusion between countercultural thinkers and the technocratic system they purported to oppose.2 Those senses of co-option and collusion are at the heart of much of my discussion, but I have tried to move away from general definitions to emphasise literary, spiritual and existential visions rather than the politics of lifestyle. Unlike Rozsak—who touches on Ginsberg and the Beats but uses a broad sociological brush to outline generational changes—I have examined the literary heritage of writers in a specific period to make better sense first of their politics then the wider inconsistencies that characterised the times. By the same token, I have aimed to move beyond pertinent but well- worn criticisms of the discrepancy between how the Beats and the Hippies lived and what they preached. Just as Ann Charters and Brenda Knight have pointed out the marginalisation of female Beat poets by their patriarchal scene, a quick glance at Kesey’s magic bus footage, or at Tom Wolfe’s
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description of the Merry Pranksters partying with the Hells Angels, reveals a cast of vulnerable young women whose sexual exploitation was either condoned or turned a blind eye to in the name of free love (1998). In terms of race, James Campbell has it right when he reprimands Kerouac, Ginsberg and Burroughs for lifting black language and music while ignoring contemporary black writers like Ralph Ellison and James Baldwin, whose own takes on African American culture were naturally less romanticised (1999, p. 209). While I’ll make reference to these issues throughout the book, it has not been my purpose to accumulate more evidence in support of what looks increasingly like an open-and-shut case. What I have tried to do is examine the relationship between those identity politics and the counterculture’s deeper philosophical discrepancies. How did an apparently contradictory pessimism about human progress inform the inability to engage meaningfully with the oppressed groups they sanctified? How did the individual author’s bid for freedom through a marginalised, ‘primitive’ existence translate in terms of an attitude to these involuntarily marginalised groups? Where did the fantasy of returning to tribal life—and the reality of ‘dropping out’ from society—leave writers in relation to the tribes they romanticised? Furthermore, how did they relate first to the young, disaffected and predominantly middle-class tribe their works addressed and second to the majority group whose culture they were countering?
From Schopenhauer, Through Hulme to Heidegger These questions—and the larger issue of anti-humanism in the counterculture—had their contemporary context in the new theories of ethics, language and history that emerged across the Atlantic after the Second World War. As Elizabeth Kuhn points out, most discussions of anti- humanist philosophy in literature revolve around the legacy of nineteenth- century challenges to Enlightenment conventions not in high modernism but in the 1960s philosophical enquiries of European Post-Structuralism or the post-Marxist ideas of the Frankfurt School. From Foucault’s attack on moral certitude and Jacques Derrida’s deconstructions of the relationship between reality and the written word to Theodore Adorno and Max Horkheimer’s treatise on ‘the enlightenment as mass deception’, there was a growing sense after 1945 that the Western humanist tradition had produced a limiting, malfunctioning model of humanity (2002, p. 94). This scepticism—a reaction in part but not entirety to the horrors of
Auschwitz—has a clear bearing on the writers under discussion in this book. In the first place, it contradicts but also succeeds Hulme, Lewis and Pound’s own philosophical anti-humanism, providing a larger, richer overview of the genealogy from Nietzsche and Schopenhauer’s original anti-Enlightenment arguments through the ‘Men of 1914’ and into the 1960s. This is what Kuhn talks about when she calls anti-humanism ‘a Nietzschean interest that develops through both literary modernism and, later, poststructuralist philosophy, and … knits the twentieth century together in a suspicion of the Enlightenment’ (2011, p. 3). It is also part of Edward P. Comentale and Andrzej Gasiorek’s thinking on T.E. Hulme, whose anti-humanist philosophy pre-empted ‘some of the most thought- provoking and disruptive modernisms of the twentieth century, such as the post-Marxism of Adorno and [Hannah] Arendt, the phenomenology of [Martin] Heidegger and Merleau-Ponty, the deconstruction of [Paul] de Man and Derrida’ (2006, p. 4). With Lewis, T.S. Eliot and various of his contemporaries, Hulme doesn’t only continue Nietzsche and Schopenhauer’s mission to test the apparent advances of Enlightenment thought; he has an intermediary position between these figures and a philosophically anti-humanist line of enquiry after the Second World War. Indeed, most recent scholarship around Hulme and Lewis in particular points to their pre-emption of postmodernism, their updating of continental-born avant-garde philosophies to service a new mode of thinking that was unwittingly ‘already postmodern’ (Tearle 2013, p. 9). In the second place, that more familiar post-1945 line of enquiry throws light on the relationship between the Beat Generation and Existentialism, a philosophy to which Kerouac, Ginsberg and Burroughs are consistently linked and which is often understood as having consolidated rather than opposed humanist ideas. Jean-Paul Sartre, who the Beats admired for his rejection of hierarchy and exploration of modern alienation, went to great lengths to assert the humanistic basis of his thought. In a 1945 lecture entitled ‘Existentialism is a humanism’, Sartre refuted the charge that he was against the optimistic aims of the Enlightenment. Neither an ‘invitation to people to dwell in the quietism of despair’ (the Communist reproach) nor a denial of ‘the reality and seriousness of human affairs’ (the Christian view), Existentialism was—Sartre claimed—a progressive atheistic assertion of individual human self-determination (1948, p. 3). To his ‘first principle’ that ‘Man is nothing else but that which he makes of himself’, he added a second, that such self-responsibility also
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makes the individual ‘responsible for all men’ since it entails ‘creating a certain image of man as [he] would have him to be’ (pp. 3–4). As well as drawing attention to the pejorative connotations anti- humanism carried in the post-war period, Sartre’s passionate self-defence provides a useful backdrop to the Beats’ philosophical self-contradictions. Their debt to him, his Existentialist contemporary Albert Camus and— most importantly—Sartre’s religious predecessor Søren Kierkegaard, situates them in an Enlightenment tradition of progress for both individual and species through self-willed action. And yet it also aligns them with a philosophy that rejected Kantian notions of reason-based morality. Like the Existentialists, like Kierkegaard and indeed Nietzsche, they measured life—and progress—according to the individual’s fullness of experience in each moment, a method that privileged instinct over reason and presupposed conventional notions of good and evil as both artificially imposed and difficult in reality to distinguish from one another. In some respects, the Beats can be read alongside these Existentialist attempts to realign rather than supplant the ethics of humanism. They too had to defend themselves against critics who labelled them quietist or nihilistic, and often answered—like Sartre—by insisting that they, not the establishment rationalists, were truly humane. Ann Charters, who knew Ginsberg and Kerouac and wrote Kerouac’s first biography, makes the case that the Beat Generation was at heart an American Existentialist movement, a response to Kierkegaard that differed in its spiritual component to Sartre and Camus’ but was sympathetic to these French thinkers (2012, p. 134). If the popular press went too far by caricaturing ‘Beatniks’ as beret-wearing, chain-smoking Left-Bankists, there was an affinity in terms of lifestyle and thought that deserves attention. The Existentialists’ quest for self-definition in a Europe that had been gutted by war was mirrored in America through the Beats’ fixation with the individual’s duty to be his or her ‘authentic’ self, but it carried with it a paradoxically religious zeal. That zeal was both kind and unkind— the impulse behind Allen Ginsberg and his San Francisco ally Michael McClure’s insistence that unflinchingly personal poetry could encourage more merciful behaviour on a social scale as well as the impulse behind Norman Mailer’s sanctification of the brutal ‘hipster’, whose physical violence was justified as evidence of his ‘spiritual’ existential freedom. As we’ll see, it represented a more wholesale inheritance of Kierkegaard’s philosophy than Sartre, Camus or their contemporaries were prepared or able to stomach, and it had a lot to do with Europe’s abundance and
America’s lack of physical and emotional scars after the Second World War. Though they were disgusted, like their European counterparts, with the modes of rationale that had facilitated Auschwitz and Hiroshima, subversive young Americans had a readier faith in the possibility of spiritual redemption because it was not their continent that had descended to those lows. Their parents had not voted for or collaborated with Nazi or fascist ideologues; their cities had not been bombed, ravaged by occupation or emptied of minorities bound for extermination (traumas that were fresher and more tangibly felt than the very real but more complicated trauma of inhabiting a country built on black slave labour). In other words, it was not only possible for the Beats to write poetry after Auschwitz; they could continue to believe, where so many European writers and artists categorically could not, in a God of some form or other, fashionable out of the new materials of the post-war age. Of course, they and their descendants in the counterculture also built their version of Existentialism (their new humanism) out of the myths of America’s past. Intoxicated by nineteenth-century Transcendentalist visions (Walt Whitman, Henry David Thoreau and, to a lesser extent, Ralph Waldo Emerson) and nostalgia for the frontiersman spirit of the Wild West, and energised—paradoxically—by something like the nonconformist religious impulse that first made America possible, Kerouac, Ginsberg and, in his own way, Burroughs were instinctively opposed to the atheism behind so much European thought in the late 1940s and 1950s. Indeed Ginsberg, who was always more politically engaged than his friends, turned to Sartre for validation in the belief that Soviet and Chinese Communism could be rescued from their worst excesses by attention to the sanctity of the individual, but he did so with the caveat that such notions required spiritual ballast. The lineage between Existentialism and the Beat Generation is complicated further still by Martin Heidegger, who influenced Sartre but raised phenomenologist objections to him in the late 1940s and early 1950s. Heidegger, cited by Sartre as a fellow ‘existentialist atheist’ in his lecture, responded with incredulity both to the categorisation of Existentialism as a humanism and his own philosophy being implicated in this (1948, p. 2). His 1949 public retort to Sartre echoes Hulme’s criticism of modern humanism for reducing absolute, sacred truths to falsely comprehensible categories. To Heidegger, ‘the highest determinations of the essence of the human being in humanism still do not realise the proper dignity of the human being’ (1998, p. 251). Humanist efforts to understand humanity
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through ‘physiological chemistry’ or ‘outfitting the human being with an immortal soul, the power of reason, or the character of a person’ would always fall short because they were products of a limited ‘metaphysical projection’ that denied the spiritual (p. 251). What he was getting at was an overemphasis on the material over the essential, manifested in Sartre’s thinking—Heidegger believed—by the idea that existence began with ‘human beings’ rather than ‘being’ itself. Heidegger’s non-religious attack on the limits of humanist thinking brings another dimension to Hulme’s high modernist comments about ‘spilt religion’ (1994, p. 62). As Leon Surette points out, an atheist but also a ‘mystic’, Heidegger was in his anti-humanism an intriguing and unlikely ally to religious modernism (2015, p. 31). His split with Sartre—and with the belief that human progress depended on each individual taking control of his or her own actions—also provides a useful way of thinking about the spiritual component in Beat and countercultural thinking. Steeped in a self-determination akin to the Existentialists, at the same time the Beats were—like Heidegger—writing in a mystical tradition that opposed rationalistic humanist thinking as a negation of ‘the spiritual realm’. Such gnostic objections ally the Beats and the counterculture with Romanticism and point to a line of thinking in the 1960s that viewed them as progressive anti-humanists. Indeed, Theodore Roszak’s original definition of the counterculture posits it as a revolutionary response to the humanist logic behind emotionally deadening and politically neutralising ‘technocracy’ (1969, p. 7). By technocracy, he means a ‘society in which those who govern justify themselves by appeal to technical experts who, in turn, justify themselves by appeal to scientific forms of knowledge’ (pp. 7–8). The post-Enlightenment drift from religion to science, Roszak believed, had led to a mode of governing in which every decision was made according to an empirical standard that discounted emotion, spirituality, even political ideology. Following the Beats’ lead, Roszak writes, the youth of 1969 are engaged in ‘a remarkable defection from the long- standing tradition of sceptical, secular intellectuality which has served as the prime vehicle for three hundred years of scientific and technical work in the West’, and towards paradigms suggested by alternative religious texts and the use of psychedelic drugs (pp. 141–42). This narrative makes it possible to view not only nineteenth-century Romanticism but the turn towards mysticism in the 1960s as itself anti-humanist. Weary and mistrustful of Enlightenment rationalism, the Beats and then the Hippies
become the vanguard of a ‘youthful renaissance of mythical-religious interest’, avant-garde protesters against a type of humanism that is no longer fit for purpose (p. 147). While keeping these ideas in mind, and testing them against the writings of the Beats and their successors, I have tried to avoid complicating my own study by relying too much on Roszak’s sociologically inflected and reason-centred definition of humanism. Since my purpose is to assess the extent of a belief in human perfectibility, the reconfiguration of spirituality and its use in opposition to a faith in reason is of course significant. As countless Beat scholars have pointed out, Jack Kerouac and Allen Ginsberg’s experiments with Buddhism, Ginsberg’s with Hinduism and Ken Kesey’s with LSD were attempts to move beyond what they saw as limiting and overly cerebral ideas of human progress and towards a version that emphasised the evolution of consciousness. As we’ll see, on the evidence of what they said and wrote, this was indisputably their aim. However, what I have set out to explore is not principally the rejection of old forms of humanism to make way for new ones but an implicit rejection of the potential for human progress within that project. The Beats, aligned with English and American Romantics in their mystical distrust of reason, were also intermittently aware that collective, and even individual progress, were illusory and in this respect find their twentieth-century predecessors in European modernism.
The Argument Chapter 2 prepares for this larger discussion of anti-humanism, the counterculture and current-related arguments through a case study of Henry Miller, a figure who had an important influence on Beat writing and came out of an inter-war European milieu steeped in anti-humanist ideas. An American expatriate in 1930s’ Paris, and a writer whose graphic approach to sex, whose Gnosticism and whose anarchistic politics made him a hero of 1960s’ cultural revolution, Miller’s work and biography also reveal a surprising affinity with fascist-sympathising, anti-Romantic early modernists. On the cusp between modernism and the counterculture, his case establishes first the different political uses that anti-humanist ideas were put to by writers of the early twentieth century, and second the paradoxical combination of these ideas with an American Transcendentalist optimism which paved the way for the Beat project twenty years later. Miller’s promotion by George Orwell as a ‘Whitman among the corpses’ of
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Europe—and his extraordinary literary relationship with the Mussolini- supporting, Imagist poet Ezra Pound—enables an exploration of this complicated marriage at the root of American countercultural literature. Chapter 3 identifies the same dissonance between American Transcendentalist and reactionary European modernist impulses in work by key writers of the Beat Generation. It demonstrates that Jack Kerouac and Allen Ginsberg’s self-conscious conception of an avant-garde Renaissance to rival Emerson and Whitman’s depended on a contradictory political pessimism. That pessimism was gleaned from the apocalyptic, anti-humanist atmosphere that pervades early twentieth-century modernist texts. Through analysis of Kerouac’s novel Visions of Cody (written in 1958 but not published until 1972) and Allen Ginsberg’s 1957 poem ‘Howl’, it establishes the paradoxical influence of Oswald Spengler, a German apocalyptic historian popular in the 1910s, on theories otherwise predicated on humanity’s perfectibility. This chapter explores John Tytell’s statement that the Beats’ faith in self—even societal—liberation through art was always tempered by ‘a Spenglerian expectation of the total breakdown of Western culture’ (2002, p. 9). It points out that Kerouac and Ginsberg’s identification with the word ‘fellaheen’—Spengler’s suspect term for non-Western peasants—is indicative of a fatalistic social attitude at odds with their professed politics. It also points out that this syncretisation of conflicting attitudes and registers (optimistic and fatalistic, reverent and irreverent, progressive and regressive, humanist and anti-humanist) was symptomatic of America’s delayed crisis of modernity, experienced twenty years after Europe’s. Chapter 4 looks to William Burroughs, the third principal figure of the Beat Generation, for evidence of the group’s more direct engagement with modernist anti-humanism. Burroughs’ deadpan reportage on his life as a heroin addict, and his hallucinatory allegories of state violence, is read as the satirical extension of the brutal trend Wyndham Lewis identified in the 1930s. Where Henry Miller used the anti-humanist rhetoric of his early modernist predecessors not only to critique humanist hypocrisy but to push for utopian improvements, Burroughs promoted an even more radical upheaval. In his 1959 novel Naked Lunch, he intensified Miller’s irreverently brutal rhetoric for a post-war age, developing a form of satire that was mercilessly intolerant of benevolent reform yet precariously hitched to the utopian ideals of Transcendentalism. The result was a saddling of progressivism and disgusted but elated fatalism that had significant effects on the literary culture that followed. This chapter compares
Naked Lunch to Henry Miller’s Tropic of Cancer, demonstrating Burroughs’ use of the same early modernist tropes to arrive at this more extreme—and more complex—version of the anti-humanist reversal. Chapter 5 brings in the novelist and essayist Norman Mailer—who styled himself as a ‘philosopher of hip’ and championed both Burroughs and Miller—to discuss the philosophical grounding of the counterculture’s reaction against humanism (1993, p. 340). This chapter explores Mailer’s conception of a new ‘spiritual existentialism’ that could enable America’s post-war generation to engage with the unprecedented social changes they faced. Paying particular attention to Mailer’s interpretation of nineteenth-century Danish philosopher Søren Kierkegaard, the chapter analyses Mailer’s deliberately provocative statements on the possibility of getting beyond good and evil through an affirmation rather than denial of God’s existence. It reads this as an expression of the humanist/anti- humanist paradox outlined elsewhere in the book. The controversial 1959 essay ‘The White Negro: Superficial Reflections on the Hipster’, in which Mailer more than half seriously celebrates violence as a purgatorial means of human psychological evolution, is presented as yet another mutation of the anti-humanist reversal we see in Miller and Burroughs’ work. The comment from Allen Ginsberg that I quoted at the start—his insistence to his students that Bob Dylan owed his existence to Ezra Pound— expressed a telling disappointment with the generation he believed the Beats had sired. It came in response to a young man who has put his hand up to complain about having to read Pound’s Cantos, a convoluted modernist epic full of classical and obscure literary, historical and economic allusions. ‘I was reading Pound’, the student told Ginsberg ‘and all of a sudden four or five lines from Dylan came into my head—from “Desolation Row”: “T.S. Eliot and Ezra Pound fighting in the captain’s tower while calypso singers laugh at them and fishermen wave flowers” (Staff 2017). I just got real frustrated with Pound. I couldn’t understand it. I just wanted to go wave flowers because it was easier’ (Staff 2017).3 Rather than indulge the sentiment—a parroting not only of Dylan but Kerouac in fact, who grumbled about Pound and Eliot ‘always trying to show how fancy they are’—Ginsberg chides the student for intellectual sloppiness and historical myopia (Maffina 2012, p. 336).4 The literary counterculture might well be about bringing art back in touch with real life, he says, but it also follows in a vernacular tradition that draws on difficult classical allusion. Contrary to lazy public opinion, that tradition needs to be respected and negotiated through serious thought rather than
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dismissed as academic posturing. This dressing down of a youngster by a member of the movement’s old guard is a useful way in to the contradictions explored in the pages ahead. Raised to wave flowers in the face of stuffy tradition, the student reacts like a resentful child to his father’s admonishment. The father responds in turn by asserting his authority. In this we catch a brief, premonitory glimpse not only of the counterculture’s covert conservatism but also the balance between affection and disdain in its leaders’ relation to their tribe. Starting where Ginsberg leaves off, Anti- humanism in the Counterculture reads the Beat Generation and the mass movement it produced as aesthetically and politically complex, an artistic result rather than repudiation of the difficult, often suspect modernist projects earlier in the century, and an important stage in literary history rather than the pop cultural phenomenon it is so often taken to be.
Notes 1. ‘Men of 1914’ was a term used first by Lewis in his autobiography, Blasting and Bombardiering (1967, p. 9). 2. See Fred Turner’s From Counterculture to Cyberculture: Stewart Brand, the Whole Earth Network and the Rise of Digital Utopianism (2006), for a good example of this. 3. In fact the student misquotes Dylan. Rather than waving flowers, ‘Desolation Row’ has the fishermen ‘holding’ them. 4. Incidentally, ‘Desolation Row’—the song in which Bob Dylan mocks Eliot and Pound ‘fighting in their captain’s tower’—is said to have taken its name from Kerouac’s novel Desolation Angels (published the same year Dylan recorded the track).
Works Cited Adorno, Theodore and Max Horkheimer. 2002. Dialectic of Enlightenment: Philosophical Fragments, ed. by Gunzelin Schmidt Noerr, trans. by Edmund Jephcott. Stanford: Stanford University Press. Orig. ed.: 1944. Campbell, James. 1999. This is the Beat Generation: New York-San Francisco-Paris. Berkeley: University of California Press. Charters, Ann. 2012. ‘John Clellon Holmes and Existentialism.’ In The Philosophy of the Beats, ed. by Sharin N. Elkholy, pp. 133–46. Lexington: University of Kentucky Press.
Comentale, Edward P. and Andrzej Gasoriek (eds.). 2006. ‘Introduction: On the Significance of a Hulmean Modernism,’ pp. 1–22. In T.E. Hulme and the Question of Modernism. Burlington: Ashgate. Gray, John. 2002. Straw Dogs: Thoughts on Humans and Other Animals. London: Granta. Hale, John Rigby. 1981. A Concise Encyclopedia of the Italian Renaissance. Oxford: Oxford University Press. Heidegger, Martin. 1998. ‘Letter on Humanism.’ In Pathmarks (Texts in German Philosophy), ed. by William McNeil, transl. by Frank A. Capuzzi, pp. 239–76. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. Hoover Institution Library & Archives. ‘The Firing Line with William F. Buckley Jr,’ 1968. In Firing Line Broadcast Records: The Hippies. https://digitalcollections.hoover.org/objects/6047 [accessed 30th August 2017]. Hulme, T.E. 1994. ‘Romanticism and Classicism.’ In The Collected Writings of T.E. Hulme, ed. by Karen Csengeri. pp. 59–83. Oxford: Clarendon Press. Written in 1911–12 but first published, posthumously, in Speculations: Essays on Humanism and the Philosophy of Art, 1924. ——— ‘A Notebook.’ In Collected Writings, pp. 419–56. Originally published in The New Age in seven installments (December 1915–February 1916). Kesey, Ken. 1994. ‘Ken Kesey: The Art of Fiction.’ In Paris Review: The Art of Fiction No. 136. https://www.theparisreview.org/interviews/1830/kenkesey-the-art-of-fiction-no-136-ken-kesey. [accessed 13th September 2017]. Knight, Brenda. 1998. Women of the Beat Generation: The Writers, Artists and Muses at the Heart of a Revolution, afterword by Ann Charters. Berkeley: Conari Press. Kuhn, Elizabeth. 2011. ‘Toward an Anti-Humanism of Life: The Modernism of Nietzsche, Hulme and Yeats.’ Journal of Modern Literature, 34, no. 11: 1–20. Lewis, Wyndham. 1967. Blasting and Bombardiering. Berkeley: University of California Press. Orig. ed.: 1937. Maffina, Stefano. 2012. The Role of Jack Kerouac’s Identity in the Development of His Poetics. New York: Lulu. Mailer, Norman. 1993. ‘The White Negro: Superficial Reflections on the Hipster.’ In Advertisements for Myself, pp. 337–58. Cambridge: Harvard University Press. Orig. ed.: 1959. Oxford Dictionaries. n.d. https://en.oxforddictionaries.com/definition/humanism [accessed 2nd September 2017]. Roszak, Theodore. 1969. The Making of a Counterculture: Reflections on the Technocratic Society and Its Youthful Opposition. New York: Anchor Books. Sartre, Jean-Paul. 1948. Existentialism and Humanism, transl. by Philip Mairet. London: Methuen. Reproduced at http://www.public.asu.edu/~jmlynch/ 273/documents/sartre-existentialism-squashed.pdf. p. 3 [accessed 30th August 2017].
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Staff, Harriet. 2017. ‘Transcript: Allen Ginsberg on Bob Dylan, Ezra Pound and the American Voices,’ 1975. http://www.poetryfoundation.org/harriet/2012/06/transcript-allen-ginsberg-on-bob-dylan-ezra-pound-and-theamerican-voice/ [accessed 2nd September 2017]. Surette, Leon. 2015. ‘Responding to Modern Dilemmas: Interview with Leon Surette by Roxana Preda.’ Make It New 4, no. 1: 29–36. Tearle, Oliver. 2013. T.E. Hulme and Modernism. London: Bloomsbury. Turner, Fred. 2006. From Counterculture to Cyberculture: Stewart Brand, the Whole Earth Network and the Rise of Digital Utopianism. Chicago: University of Chicago Press. Tytell, John. 2006. Naked Angels: Kerouac, Ginsberg, Burroughs. Chicago: Ivan R. Dee. Orig. ed.: 1976. Wolfe, Tom. 1968. The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux.
Henry Miller and the Beats: An Anti-humanist Precedent
The European Beat Heritage Attempts to trace the European heritage of the Beat Generation have tended to focus on the French bohemian poetry of Arthur Rimbaud, the English Romantics William Blake and Percy Bysshe Shelley or the anarchism of Russian novelist Fyodor Dostoyevsky. Along with Walt Whitman, Henry David Thoreau and Ralph Waldo Emerson and other Romantics at home, and with the spiritual dictums of Buddhist, Taoist and Hindi mystics in the East, these influences informed the goal of personal transcendence through writing that underpinned the Beat project. From Ginsberg’s claim to have taken spiritual instruction from Blake’s ghost, to his and Kerouac’s invocation of Rimbaud’s mission ‘to make himself a seer by a long, gigantic and rational derangement of all the senses’, the movement followed self-consciously in the wake of writers who had used literature to alter consciousness and arrive at ‘new visions’ of the world.1 That quest for perceptual and aesthetic elevation was always tempered, though, by an interest in a different kind of European writer. Alongside their core Romantic influences, the Beats were reading and replicating a variety of authors who scorned as idealistic the notion of a spiritual reality beyond our animal limits and who emphasised instead the independent truth represented by physical appetites and desires. This alternative source of European inspiration—coarse, cynical and often misanthropic—was most pronounced in Burroughs, in his reworking of
© The Author(s) 2020 G. Stevenson, Anti-Humanism in the Counterculture, https://doi.org/10.1007/978-3-030-47760-8_2
the provocative obscenity and sexual violence of the Marquis de Sade, in the ribald humour of his novels Naked Lunch and the Nova Trilogy that brings to mind Jonathan Swift and the sixteenth-century French satirist François Rabelais, and the unflinching Sadean worldviews of sensationalist, outlaw authors like Louis-Ferdinand Céline and Jean Genet. These writers were also key, however, to the formative conversations Burroughs had with Ginsberg and Kerouac when the three lived, travelled and experimented together in the 1940s and 1950s. As such, their stamp is evident—often subtly and counter-intuitively—in texts like Kerouac’s emancipatory On the Road (1957) or Ginsberg’s homage to dormant poetic America, ‘Howl’ (1956). The Beats’ anti-humanist antecedence was further enriched both by the unlikely Anglo-American modernist authors discussed in my introduction and by the early twentieth-century German historian of ideas, Oswald Spengler. Spengler, whose 1918 magnum opus The Decline of the West (Der Untergang des Abendlandes) presented a seasonal theory of history in which Western civilisation had run its course, gained widespread fame and notoriety in the inter-war years but had fallen out of fashion by the time the Beats discovered him in the 1940s. As John Tytell notes, Kerouac, Ginsberg and Burroughs were captivated by Spengler’s apocalyptic, primitivist announcements—particularly the prediction that pampered, spiritually malnourished denizens of Western civilisation would be usurped by a new kind of non-Western barbarian peasant culture (2006, p. 9). This contributed to a current of fatalism in the Beats’ work, identified with reference to Tytell’s work by John Lardas in 2001, and at odds with their dominant bid for individual freedom (p. 25). A youthful, fanatical interest in The Decline of the West is one of many clear links to a fellow American who is commonly talked about as ‘beat’ before his time. Henry Miller, a Brooklyn expatriate in 1930s Paris who made extensive use of Spengler’s language and visions, became a hero of the counterculture in the 1960s because of his graphic approach to sex, his Gnosticism and his anarchistic politics. Banned for most of his early career, and the subject of a successful, high-profile censorship trial just four years after Ginsberg’s, Miller was read and admired by the same generation and sensationalised by the popular press as a kind of godfather, a ‘Dutch uncle’ to the Beats (Cosmodemonic Telegraph Company 2007). Though neither party was publically forthcoming about their similarities, Miller’s literary work and his commentary on politics and aesthetics demonstrate a clear affinity, one that runs much deeper than the popular narrative suggests.
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First writing two decades before Kerouac, Burroughs or Ginsberg, and steeped in the same curious blend of American Transcendentalism, European modernism, Spengler’s fatalistic proselytising, and Chinese Taoist and Buddhist scripture, the intermediary Miller is a useful first port of call in a discussion of the Beats’ place in twentieth-century literary and cultural history. A writer who married the romantic desire for perceptual and social awakening with a taste for irreverent, anti-humanist language and ideas, and an American who translated the latter into a crude, native vernacular, he—more than any other recent contemporary—predicted the style, philosophy and temperament of the counterculture that followed.
Intermediary Henry Miller By the time Miller’s debut novel, Tropic of Cancer (1934), was legally available to read in his own country, he was known chiefly either as a writer of dirty books or a soldier in the burgeoning campaign for sexual liberation. A sexually graphic account of his bohemian life in Paris, the book’s initial publication by a small rogue French press caused a minor scandal and resulted in its banning by both the English and American authorities, and in Miller’s notoriety amongst a coterie of avant-garde-interested reviewers and readers, which included the Beats. Almost thirty years after Tropic of Cancer’s first appearance, when Barney Rosset of Grove Press defied those authorities to put it out in America, Miller was adopted by the same audience who had a few years earlier made Kerouac’s On the Road a surprise cult hit and who looked to Ginsberg as an avuncular spokesman for their youth revolution. Like D.H. Lawrence—whose Lady Chatterley’s Lover famously beat a similar case in 1959—the by now sexagenarian Miller became synonymous with the struggle for freedom of expression and specifically for the freedom to refer to and represent sex, coarsely and unromantically in print. Again in common with Lawrence, Miller had his membership of that revolution revoked with the rise of Second Wave Feminism in the late 1960s and early 1970s. In the space of three years he went from being known as a voice of liberation to a hapless or sinister ‘counter-revolutionary’, emblematic of American misogyny and male ‘neurosis’ in an age of progressive gender political change (Millet 1969, p. 295). As we’ll see, that reputational shift has an interesting bearing for the Beats too. If Miller became, in James Campbell’s astute words, ‘the first casualty of the personal-is-political movement’, the Beats too helped inspire that movement but eventually fell foul
of its rules (2016). These larger cultural issues are crucial—and will be returned to throughout the book—but it is worth concentrating first on Miller’s literary significance to the Beat project. In particular, I want to consider the contribution of this older American whose career was launched in Europe to a native experimental scene enamoured with remarkably similar European influences. At a local level, he pre-empted his younger compatriots by resurrecting the reverentially self-exploratory style of Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry David Thoreau and Walt Whitman’s Transcendentalist movement in the nineteenth century. Arriving in Paris in 1930, aged almost forty, penniless and with twenty years of failed literary career behind him, Miller gave up trying to craft plots in the image of his early all-American realist hero Theodore Dreiser, setting out instead to write as he spoke, and in disordered detail about the events in his life as he experienced them. It was a mission statement lifted explicitly from Emerson, whose 1841 prediction of a new autobiographical age Miller used for the epigraph to Tropic of Cancer: ‘These novels’, Emerson declared and Miller concurred ‘will give way, by and by, to diaries or autobiographies—captivating books, if only a man knew how to choose among what he calls experiences and how record truth truly’ (Miller 2005, p. 8).2 Through this and repeated references to the inspiration he had taken from Walt Whitman’s ‘Song of Myself’ (1855), Miller appointed himself an updater of that early American Renaissance for the twentieth century—a position the Beats would consciously attempt to occupy in the 1940s and 1950s. The debt to Whitman was noted by most of Miller’s early reviewers. It rested on the proudly narcissistic act of making his self the principle literary subject but also, more importantly, on an attitude of total acceptance towards experience, in an aesthetic sense and—apparently at least—a moral one also. George Orwell, the first person to produce a full-length essay about Miller, identified Tropic of Cancer as an important work of its age because it managed to apply Whitman’s joyful and non-judgemental approach to all things—from the beautiful to the sordid, from the virtuous to the seemingly sinful—to a time in history when writers felt duty bound to protest or proselytise. Unlike W.H. Auden, Stephen Spender and the majority of writers then fashionable in the English-speaking world, Miller in 1934 had produced, Orwell said, an incongruous, invigorating and distinctly American response to Europe’s inter-war atmosphere of depression and political uncertainty. ‘To say “I accept” in an age like our own’, Orwell wrote, ‘is to say you accept concentration camps, rubber truncheons,
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Hitler, Stalin, bombs, aeroplanes, tinned food, machine guns, slogans, Bedaux belts, gas masks, submarines, spies, provocateurs, press censorship, secret prisons, aspirins, Hollywood films, and political murders’ to accept truncheons, putsches’ (2009, pp. 103–04). And yet Miller had done so with the gusto of a Whitman surveying the ‘democratic vistas’ of America in her infancy (p. 104). As well as that American Romantic heritage (a heritage with necessarily different connotations in the 1930s to the 1950s and 1960s), Miller also shared with the Beats an artistic and spiritual attraction to Arthur Rimbaud. A late-nineteenth-century poet known, like Miller, as much for his legend as his work, Rimbaud had been revered internationally since arriving on the French scene aged just fifteen. Before Miller, however, no American took such a serious interest in his aesthetic manifesto. Despite being over twice Rimbaud’s age when he discovered his poem A Season in Hell (Un Saison En Enfer), Miller felt an uncommon affinity with the style and attitude. His announcement in the opening pages of Tropic of Cancer that ‘everything that was literature has fallen from me’, that the following would not be ‘a book, in the ordinary sense of the word’ but ‘a prolonged insult, a gob of spit in the face of Art’ was heavily influenced by Rimbaud’s own rejection of ‘literature’ in its disciplined, professional and carefully crafted form (2005, p. 10). Rimbaud’s nurturing of a literary persona as especial artistic genius also informed Miller’s belief that a new dream-like yet perversely more real state of consciousness was attainable and recordable through uninhibited exploration of the imaginative inner life. He wrote extensively about the teenage poet, culminating in a full-length book in 1946 in which he called his ‘appearance on earth … miraculous’ (1962, p. xi). In the mid-1940s, the erstwhile college students Ginsberg and Kerouac would source Rimbaud for their first ideas about a new kind of writing, repeating Miller’s sentiment almost verbatim. After Dostoyevsky, Ginsberg said, Rimbaud was ‘the next great poetic magic [he had] encountered’ (2000, p. 208). In A Season in Hell the nineteen-year-old Ginsberg found ‘the most individually expressive poetry [he had] run across’ and at the same time a form that ‘contain[ed] whole visions in a single line’ (2008, p. 14). Kerouac’s own poetic homage, titled simply ‘Rimbaud’, praised the day ‘the Voyant (the seer) [was] born’, and he exchanged letters with Ginsberg and Carr extolling the virtues of ‘the new illuminated world’ Rimbaud’s poetry had opened up for him (Kerouac 1960).
These Romantic and post-Romantic influences are Miller and the Beats’ clearest points of literary connection. The Transcendentalist trinity of Whitman, Emerson and Henry David Thoreau informed first Miller’s quest, then Kerouac, Ginsberg and Burroughs’ to rediscover a truer kind of living and writing—and a truer, fairer vision of America—through repudiation of the work-a-day demands of conventional society and of the formal expectations of realist literature. Rimbaud helped them furnish that quest with a Dionysian interest in altering perception and cultivating ‘illuminations’ (Miller 1985, p. 94). We’ll see shortly that the humanistic basis to this (the faith in a point of perfection attainable first individually, then collectively under the correct, especial conditions) was always compromised by a countervailing solipsism, a sanctification of personal vanity for the purpose of spiritual Enlightenment. Less noted and as interesting, however, in the lineage from Miller to the Beat Generation was Miller’s pioneering discovery that such Romantic visions could be effectively expressed—even arrived at—in prose that sourced the misanthropic language and ideas of European modernism. Indeed, as many of Miller’s early reviewers noted, the provocative crudity in Tropic of Cancer was powerfully at odds with his ecstatic, Whitmanesque tone—with, also, his Rimbaudian stress on the artist as gnostic visionary—and it owed a debt to a crop of European writers who were deeply sceptical about human progress in the build-up and aftermath to the First World War.
Mad, Marvellous Failures Departing from conventional Romantic readings, Sarah Garland has demonstrated that Miller’s Paris works are full of allusions, pastiches and even direct citations of figures for whom the war gave the final lie to the comforting myth of collective human endeavour, and who delivered newly bleak, often violent representations of humanity, in high prophesying tones. Starting with Nietzsche, whose hectoring fire-and-brimstone rhetoric informed so much avant-gardism in the early twentieth century and whom Miller read avidly as a young man, Garland lists the Europeanised American poet Ezra Pound, the Norwegian novelist Knut Hamsun, the Italian Giovanni Papini and the Swiss Blaise Cendrars among those who informed his literary reaction to the European society he encountered for the first time in the 1930s (2010, p. 198). Apart from Pound, all were included in 1958’s The Books in My Life, Miller’s retrospective
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compendium of the hundred works that had the greatest impact on his style, and all were admired here and in his literary prose for their uncompromising, ostentatiously egotistical and millenarian tendencies. As Garland explains—and as Gay Louise Balliet, Caroline Blinder and others have also pointed out—his method of drifting in and out of dream sequences in Cancer was testament as well to an enthusiasm for André Breton’s Surrealist project (Garland 2010, p. 203).3 Indeed, Miller talked at length about his love and eventual repudiation of Breton’s ‘automatic writing’ method and claimed to have been ‘writing Surrealistically in America before [he] had ever heard the word’ (Miller 1961, p. 181). Those passages of free association were important to him, and bear some relation to later Beat experiments, but they were unremarkable in the scheme of 1930s’ literature and generally—rightly—regarded as a distraction from his more serious contributions to the age. When Miller flits from image to disconnected image on the cusp between dream and reality, he is not only difficult to follow but laborious. He commits a rookie failing he claimed to have overcome when he arrived in Paris, the tendency ‘to believe that I could discover what makes the clock tick by taking it apart’ (1952, p. 34). By the same token, he played around with the rhetorical devices he found in manifestos by Breton, by the Dadaists and by Filippo Tommaso Marinetti’s Italian avant-garde group, the Futurists— producing spoof equivalents with his friends Lawrence Durrell and Alfred Perlès—but he did so clunkily and for fun. When he approached the works of Hamsun, Papini and Cendrars, however—three writers who were only loosely affiliated with artistic movements and who made themselves the sensationalised, morally provocative subjects of their work—he struck upon the foundations of a serious, impactful narrative voice and worldview. First from Hamsun’s loosely autobiographical novel Hunger (Sult, 1890) and then Papini’s 1912 memoir The Failure (Un Uomo Finiti,), he learnt the important lesson that it was possible to convert his struggle to succeed as an artist into the raw materials of art itself. Hamsun was, he wrote, ‘one of the authors who vitally affected me as a writer’, one of a small selection he pored over in New York ‘in order to discover their secret power of enchantment’ (1952, p. 40). As the title of Hamsun’s roman-à-clef suggests, his main theme was the daily struggle to find food. Using his unnamed alter-ego to describe the poverty he experienced as a young aspiring writer in Oslo, he developed a moral scheme in Hunger that moved beyond abstract positions of reasonable right and wrong, and considered human behaviour in basic, brutal relation to
physical need. We’ll see that the poet Ezra Pound was among a host of reviewers to note the same preoccupation as the driving force behind Miller’s narrative in Cancer, his obsession with Hamsun having led, as Pound noted, to an equal obsession with ‘food … in the majuscule’ (1992, p. 89). For Papini, the equivalent obsession and moral starting point was failure, and failure not as cause for despair but as a productive existential and artistic force. Un Uomo Finiti (which means ‘a finished man’ or ‘a man finished’ but became literally ‘The Failure’ in Miller’s English edition) details an exaggerated litany of abuses and rejections endured and turned— heroically—to artistic ends. In The Books in My Life, Miller credits Un Uomo Finiti with helping him ‘to erase from [his] mind all thought of failure’ by making him realise that ‘failure and success are the same’ (1952, p. 99). It gave him permission to enlarge his own failures, to present his anonymity, his poverty and his suffering as proof of his legitimacy as an artist and to present the reader with deeper, more troubling moral questions than the majority of writers were equipped to. Miller was affected very seriously by the model of the artist that he discovered in Papini—just what he ‘needed’, he writes, ‘to put me right with myself’—since it allowed him to recalibrate his trials not only as bearable but as proof of his integrity (2005, p. 70). It taught him, he writes in Cancer, that ‘an artist is always alone—if he is an artist’ (p. 72). As Hamsun and Papini’s later careers show, this learnt self- aggrandisement carried radical political implications, and implications that Miller was at least partly aware of. Both key influences on his style made their names by mythologising the misunderstood put-upon artist and ended by harnessing the same spirit to endorse far right totalitarian politics. For Hamsun in northern Europe and Papini in the south, the emergence of respective German Nazi and Italian fascist regimes represented something like the awakening through suffering they had experienced as young writers in societies they characterised as bourgeois, mediocre and venial. Indeed, Hamsun rhapsodised about Hitler and Papini about Mussolini in words that recall their rhapsodies to themselves. For Hamsun, Hitler was a ‘warrior’ (Gibbs 2009, np.). Papini, who dramatically recalled having ‘forced [his] soul through the mill of pain, polishing it, sharpening it, rendering it a worthier steel’, was deeply impressed by Mussolini’s claim to have ‘made and remade’ his own soul through suffering and through reading Un Uomo Finiti (Papini 1924, p. 46; Pini 1939, p. 16). That Hitler’s politics were shaped by his own failure as an artist in Vienna, and that Mussolini had partaken in anti-establishment avant-garde projects
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before entering politics, only added to their appeal to Hamsun and Papini. A consistent opponent of race hatred and militant nationalism, Miller was nonetheless in thrall to the mythic heroism and the audacity that powered these kinds of narratives, and the delirious rhetoric his literary influences used to explore them. He forgave Papini in particular, going as far in Tropic of Cancer as to suggest that resilience through unerring belief in and honesty about the self absolves the individual of perceived sins: ‘It doesn’t matter to me whether he’s a chauvinist, a little Christer, a near-sighted pedant’, he writes ‘as a failure he’s marvellous’ (pp. 70–71). In the case of Hamsun— who collaborated with the Nazis when they occupied his native Norway but hadn’t declared his political allegiances when Miller was writing Cancer—praise didn’t carry quite the same need for qualification. Hamsun’s narrative voice in Hunger was consistent, though, with the model of the marvellous failure Miller worked from when constructing his literary persona in Paris. He sourced Hamsun along with Papini to project himself as an artistic genius in terms of the moral failings others would see in him, and in terms of his writing style—unrefined, unedited and an honest reflection of ‘the man that I am, the confused man, the negligent man, the reckless man, the lusty, obscene, boisterous, thoughtful, scrupulous, lying, diabolically truthful man that I am’ (Brown 1986, p. 38; Miller 2010, p. 14). Writing their seminal texts before the outbreak of the First World War—two years in Papini’s case and over two decades before in Hamsun’s— neither writer makes explicit reference to military action, but they obsess over fin de siècle themes of imminent social and cultural collapse, and they bring to that a perverse enthusiasm that pre-empted much avant-garde writing in the inter-war period. The pride each takes in his early humiliations—based on poverty, perceived ugliness and an inability to relate to his peers—was connected to a deeper sense of individual ‘will’ and purpose, of superiority over the ‘unthinking, happy herd’, which they gleaned from Schopenhauer and Nietzsche and which would contribute to their later attraction to fascist and Nazi causes (Papini 1924, p. 46). Where the majority find pleasure in their everyday interactions, Hamsun and Papini both say, they the ordained artists are desolate; where the majority would perceive ‘emptiness and desolation’ in the lonely struggle for meaning in a complex, unfathomable world and horror at the prospect of that world’s collapse, they the artists taste ‘milk and honey’ (Papini 1924, p. 46). In Cancer, Miller draws on Hamsun (as well as Hamsun’s great influence
August Strindberg) to take Papini’s lonely struggle out of the study (his den of sanctuary and self-loathing) and into the street, and he records it with a knowing rather than reproachful nod to its seeming absurdity. His use of humour as leaven for the tortured artist narrative was also a legacy of his interest in the Swiss avant-gardist Blaise Cendrars. Through this poet-turned-novelist, referred to as ‘brother Cendrars’ in The Books in My Life, Miller was exposed to a lighter-hearted, more compassionate and self-aware version of the autobiographical style he had found in Hamsun and Papini, and to storytelling from the point of view of a picaresque adventurer mixed up in real rather than self-imposed brutalities (1952, p. 36). Cendrars was an elder statesman on the experimental scene when Miller arrived, and he gave the younger writer’s career a vital boost by publishing his first review, in any language. Before Orwell, before the distinguished American critics Edmund Wilson and Philip Rahv, and before Ezra Pound, Cendrars announced Miller to Paris’ literary world in biblical terms: ‘Un Ecrivain americain nouse est né’ (‘Unto us an American writer is born’) (Bochner 2003, p. 112). Like Miller, his writing reputation was inseparable from the legend of his wild life—a legend based on the at least partly exaggerated claim to have stowed away on ships as a boy and travelled the world working as a jewel salesman, smuggler, soldier and thief. Cendrars’ best-known novel Moravagine was the first that Miller read in French and it left, he said ‘whole passages … engraved in [his] memory’ (Miller 1952, p. 59). In it, Cendrars draws on his colourful past and the hell he endured in the First World War, to tell the story of a madman who embarks on an international killing spree, and returns to France to find Europe in the grip of its equivalent insanity. Miller admired Cendrars, as he had Hamsun and Papini, for the obscenity, the audacity and ‘sensationalism’ of his first-person prose but was most taken with a corresponding ‘tenderness’ and humility he read in him (1952, pp. 67, 72). Through the eyes of his eponymous hero, Miller said, Cendrars ‘condemns without passing judgment’ (p. 78). His perspective on the world—brutally honest and alive to the absurdity of his and humanity’s ambitions—‘wounds by its naked glance and heals at the same time’ (p. 78). As we’ll see, that dichotomy of brazenness and humility, and the metaphor of healing through brutality were the basis of much of Miller’s thinking in Cancer.
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Miller’s ‘Master’ More than any of these writers, the twentieth-century European Miller was most often compared to in the early reviews was the Parisian Louis- Ferdinand Céline. Céline’s bestselling Un Voyage Au Bout De La Nuit (A Journey to the End of the Night) was published just two years before Miller’s Cancer (in 1932) and, like Cendrars’ Moravagine, made sensational use of its author’s wartime experience to scorn the inadequacies of humanist optimism—politically, philosophically and in regard to social convention.4 As Orwell points out in ‘Inside the Whale’, alongside Whitman’s Leaves of Grass and James Joyce’s Ulysses (1922), Voyage was one of three texts that had made its way into almost every previous review of Cancer (2009, p. 101). Miller himself initially downplayed the link, claiming not to have read Céline before starting work on Cancer, but that turned out to be part of his larger disingenuous bid to appear ingénue. Indeed, Voyage was later included in The Books in My Life, with Céline listed next to Cendrars as another ‘brother’, and he was at least as important a precursor to the voice Miller found in Paris (1952, p. 36). Significantly, for the purpose of tracing a lineage from European modernism to the Beat Generation, he was also his one contemporary European influence that Kerouac, Ginsberg and Burroughs identified as formative to their own writing. All three spoke extensively of their admiration for Céline—Ginsberg and Burroughs going as far as to visit him in Paris to pay their respects—and they agreed with the earlier consensus that Miller was an American updater of the Frenchman’s style. Asked in an interview what he thought of Miller, Kerouac summed up the Beat attitude when he replied ‘he is a great man but Céline, his master, is a giant’ (Hayes 2005, p. 24). Like Hamsun, Céline’s morally cavalier, anti-establishment position developed into anti-Semitic enthusiasm for Nazism during the Second World War. That the Beats were willing to forgive this in the late 1940s and the 1950s—at a point when the Frenchman was blacklisted across the Western intellectual world—is worth revisiting when we come to think again about Ezra Pound, another influence on Miller and the American counterculture who Ginsberg went to great lengths to absolve of his anti- Semitism. What Céline showed Miller in the 1930s though—and what led Wilson, Rahv and others to note their similarities—was a way of differentiating his narrator from the suffering, bohemian narrators of works like Papini’s or Hamsun’s by grounding it in the basic cadences and
experiences of his working-class life. Céline’s Voyage caused a sensation in Paris in 1932 because it appeared to tell the tale of an intelligent but unpretentious man—not a writer at that point but a poor, suffering average Joe—forced into a war he had no real understanding of, and left thereafter to take what opportunities he could in order to survive a system he had no control over. Speaking through his alter-ego-narrator Ferdinand Bardamu, Céline the young soldier-turned-colonial adventurer makes none of Hamsun or Papini’s grand claims for himself as thinker or creator, but instead tries in what little way he can to assert his independence from the society that licenses his suffering. That independence entailed spitting vitriol at commanding officers, at peers who were blinkered enough to view their work as heroic, at the general public sold on sentimental lies about it and at the forces that produced those lies in the first place. Miller the middle-aged itinerant author—adrift in a foreign land among fellow bohemians, tramps and eccentric patrons— was championed by critics like Wilson, like Ezra Pound in fact, and—later in the 1960s—like the Beat-admiring Kenneth Rexroth and Leslie Fiedler, for exposing ‘the social lie’ from an equivalent everyman position, uncontaminated by artistic airs and graces and therefore able to speak the unadulterated truth (Lipton 1959, pp. 293–94). He finds order amid the chaos by scoffing and raving at the absurd hypocrisies he notes around him, and by declaring himself uniquely sane, clear-sighted and able to outline those hypocrisies. Both Voyage and Cancer are picaresque in this respect—echoing common tropes in Defoe, Cervantes, even Voltaire of the downtrodden, working-class hero whose survival against the odds illuminates problems in the social worlds they inhabit. Like many picaresque heroes also, Berdamu and Miller’s adventures are presented in rich, profane and bawdy street slang (Parisian for Céline, Brooklyn for Miller). But they differ from the majority of picaresque tales before or since by their apparent fatalism, their refusal, evident throughout Voyage and Cancer, to acknowledge the possibility or even the efficacy of social, political or individual existential improvement. As the debt to Papini and Hamsun suggests, Miller was never quite the Céline-like everyman that critics imagined. Far from being carolled into a war, he made a conscious decision to travel penniless to Paris and to suffer on its streets. As he admits repeatedly in Cancer, like the narrators in Hunger and The Failure, he cultivated his suffering in the attempt to produce authentic art. That he was taken up by reviewers as ‘a voice from the third class carriage’ points to his balancing the self-imposed suffering spirit
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of these earlier pre-modernists with something like Céline’s grit (Orwell 2009, p. 137). It led, crucially, to a starker and more illuminating anti- humanist vision than Papini, Hamsun or even Cendrars were capable of. In Miller and Céline’s estimation, human beings en masse have always behaved and will always behave horrendously towards one another. No amount of political organisation, social education or religious instruction can alter this. In Cancer, Miller disdains the ‘pale attenuated ideas’ clung to by the great minds of his age—including, particularly, politically progressive established authors who were selling well while he struggled to find a publisher—and it was this scepticism that convinced Orwell to promote him as ‘the only imaginative prose-writer of the slightest value who has appeared among the English-speaking races for some years past’ (p. 139). In ‘Inside the Whale’, Orwell recounts a visit to Miller’s home in Paris en route to enlisting with the International Peoples’ Brigade in the Spanish Civil War. Flush with socialist conviction—certain that the military aggression and social injustices of Franco’s Royalists could be quelled by collective internationalist intervention—Orwell was deeply affected by Miller’s dismissal of his mission as ‘baloney’ (p. 131). At first affronted by the American’s quietism, his experience of depravity on all sides in Spain led Orwell to commend it as the only viable position for a writer in a totalitarian, post-liberal age. Starting from the same scepticism about collective ideology, Miller and Céline both believed that the only sane and productive response was an individual one—to observe life as honestly as one could (in Céline’s case to ‘record the worst of human oculus we’ve seen without changing one word’) and to remain detached from creeds that channel and worsen the horror (2011, p. 23). By the 1940s, when Céline published a series of pamphlets promoting Hitler on racist grounds, his healthy suspicion had morphed into an acceptance of the most vicious collective creed going. To his young, often politically leftist readers, it constituted a betrayal not only on moral but also on intellectual grounds, and it is one that still resonates in France today. In the pre-war Voyage though—like Miller in Tropic of Cancer—Céline practised an independence that carried serious and in many ways productive moral and political purposes. Individual detachment leads to the expansion of the picaresque anti- hero beyond the conventional point of cowardice in the face of meaningless human heroism and into a realm where the coward reserves the right to think of himself as genuinely, uniquely virtuous. Surrounded by ‘two million stark-raving heroic madmen’, all willing to murder and maim in
the name of patriotism, Céline’s Ferdinand Bardamu ordains himself ‘the last coward on earth’, saintly because ‘allergic’ to such skewed a concept as wartime heroism (2011, p. 14). Likewise Miller marvels, without the usual irony accompanying such statements by a Candide or a Moll Flanders, at the paradoxical ‘courage’ and ‘resoluteness’ he feels on admitting ‘complete cowardice’ in the face of material and psychological embattlement (2005, pp. 308–09). If Hamsun and Papini gave him licence to consecrate his failure and his daily struggle for bread and shelter, Céline suggested a new disgusted vision of humanity that exposed that very consecration as empty gesture. Physical courage, heroism and a state of grace to be reached through a true artistic existence are all symptoms of a larger collective lie, and the only grace that is remotely achievable is an ersatz version that comes from absolute surrender to this fact. In both Céline and Miller’s schemes, the same principle applies to questions of appropriate language and style. Just as ‘the one thing that’s really indecent is bravery’, the one truly indecent act in the process of producing literature is the attempt to represent the inherent imperfections and obscenities of human existence through refinement of style, structure and diction (Céline 2011, p. 42).
The Beat Céline As I’ve suggested and will explore in detail shortly, Miller’s narrator was not only less of an everyman than Céline’s; he was less seriously and pessimistically invested in fatalism. In Miller’s semi-autobiographical fiction, the refusal to struggle against misfortune is essentially a means of expressing a clearer and paradoxically humanistic set of beliefs. As Orwell points out, although both writers avoid proselytising, Céline’s exposition of his suffering is a ‘protest against the horror and meaninglessness of modern life’, whereas Miller revels in his, managing to affirm something meaningful about himself by ‘accepting’ it (2009, p. 102). Both writers produced narrators who were resigned to their suffering, but Miller translated Céline’s scorn in defeat into a perverse and consciously irrational optimism. However, when the Beats came to read Céline—in the early 1940s, while Kerouac and Ginsberg were studying at Columbia University, and Burroughs was milling around the university scene—they integrated him into an earnest and genuinely decadent metaphysical scheme. Burroughs, more than a decade older than his new friends, better read and just back
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from travelling in Europe, introduced them to Voyage along with other recent modernist fiction by James Joyce, Jean Cocteau and Franz Kafka, and the ambitious, controversial cultural and historical theories of the psychoanalyst Wilhelm Reich, the unorthodox semanticist Count Alfred Korzybski, and the apocalyptic and by then widely discredited Oswald Spengler. With Lucien Carr, another Columbia freshman and aspiring writer, Kerouac and Ginsberg were in the process of sketching what they called a ‘new vision’ for literature, sourced from Rimbaud, Blake and the Anglo-Irish mystical poet W.B. Yeats, and entailing the reinstatement of the artist as visionary in a post-Second World War age (Plimpton 1999, p. 51). Burroughs’ entrance into their orbit in 1943–44, with this new contemporary reading list, caused that vision to take on a darker hue and greater social, psychological and historical urgency. Along with newer work by fellow Frenchman Jean Genet—homosexual, criminal confessionals that were extremely daring for the mid-1940s— Céline’s Voyage provided fresh ways of thinking and writing about the individual in relation to society, of illustrating social mechanisms of control, and of discussing and representing the flesh in literature—philosophically and politically. Voyage was valuable to Ginsberg—as it had been to Miller—as a new kind underdog adventure tale, what he called ‘the first genius international beat twentieth-century picaresque novel’ (Schumacher 2014). Indeed, to Ginsberg Céline’s Bardamu was ‘beat’ in exactly the sense that Kerouac would use the term in the early 1950s—exhausted by modern living and yet awakened to larger truths by that exhaustion.5 He understood instinctively—as they did—that no institution was to be trusted, that the nonconforming individual, dismissed as mad, perverted and/or anti-social by the collective, had a special insight into a deeper insanity underlying society. And he expressed this in sardonic tones the Beats read as fundamentally, paradoxically compassionate and which they incorporated in different ways into their own work. Céline’s refusal to conform to conventional expectations of sympathy and his provocatively obscene treatment of the body as meat (fodder in sex as in war) also demonstrated what could be done in the twentieth century with a much older satirical form. This was, Ginsberg wrote, ‘classical personal comedy prose’ in the vein of Jonathan Swift and the fifteenth-century French satirist François Rabelais—a form that would find its purest mid- twentieth- century expression in works like Burroughs’ Naked Lunch (Schumacher 2014). As Barry Miles notes in his biography of Kerouac, Céline also represented Ginsberg and Kerouac’s first encounter with
literature in the ‘demotic’, everyday language of speech, and that appeared—by the use of ellipses—to transfer thought directly onto the page, without hesitation or intermediary craftwork (1999, p. 84). This would have a significant impact on the style Kerouac brought to completion in his breakthrough autobiographical novel, On the Road, a style he christened ‘spontaneous prose’ and which famously involved typing onto a scroll rather than separate sheets of paper in order not to break creative flow. Céline and Genet, Ginsberg said, had set the standard for him and Kerouac by having ‘the freedom and intelligence to trust their own minds’. ‘Remember’, he went on ‘they made that jump, not censor it but write it down and discover its beauty’ (Ginsberg 2000, p. 347). All three major Beat figures recognised the same in Miller, but were careful to draw attention to Céline as the originator. In a letter to his sceptical father, Ginsberg referred to Cancer as a ‘great classic’ of the age; and he preceded the comment above about Céline and Genet’s ‘jump’ with a comparison of Kerouac’s ‘great spirit of adventure into poetic composition … [his] great tender delicacy of language’ to ‘the opening pages of Miller’s Cancer’ (2008, p. 342). For his part, Burroughs was consistently vocal about the inspiration he had taken from Céline, was apparently complimentary when he met Miller at the Edinburgh Writers’ Conference in 1962, but was reticent in public about their similarities, answering a flat ‘no’ when asked in an interview if he’d taken any inspiration from his work (Tytell 2002, p. 252). Most tellingly, at the height of Miller’s notoriety, Kerouac responded with irritation when asked about the link, saying, ‘don’t say I read Henry Miller all my life. It just isn’t true. I did read Louis Ferdinand Céline, from whom Miller obtained his style. I could never find a copy of the Tropics anyway’ (Hayes 2005, p. 24). Rather than a forefather then, the Beats presented Miller as a fellow traveller—someone who shared their attitudes and influences, was valuable to modern letters, but hadn’t been as formative in their movement’s style and philosophy as people liked to think. Kerouac may well have been telling the truth that he couldn’t get hold of Cancer when he was starting out—after all, it remained banned in America until 1961—but that statement also suited the purposes of a new literary movement wanting to appear sophisticated and innovative.6 It was an effective marketing strategy to claim paternity among the Europeans who had influenced Miller rather than with the man himself.
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Spengler’s Cowboys Perhaps in aid of the same strategy, none of the Beats made any mention of their and Miller’s rare, shared enthusiasm for Oswald Spengler. Writing at the start of the twentieth century, and in the wake of Nietzsche’s chilling diagnosis of post-religious nihilism, Spengler offered a sensational, meta-historical reading of a Western world in irreversible decline. He confirmed in scholarly detail what many already felt—that modern urban- centred life was one of spiritual impoverishment, of cultural purposelessness and of subservience to an economic system that was impervious to human feeling. Like apocalyptic narratives before and since, Spengler’s bleak picture provided perverse reassurance to hundreds of thousands of readers, converting fear of intuited catastrophe into exhilarated knowledge of why it had to happen and how it would look when it arrived. Already bestselling before the First World War, Spengler gained cult status afterwards, particularly in his native Germany where people sought a larger historical explanation for humiliating military defeat and the economic hardship it brought. Miller discovered Spengler’s The Decline of the West in the 1920s, well before he moved to Paris. Like many young, literary minded men—as well as established modernists including James Joyce and Thomas Mann—he was intoxicated by the long, undulating view of history he found there. Spengler saw the rise and fall of individual cultures as akin to the passing of seasons in a year. In the West, he said, the Classical worlds of Ancient Greece and Rome had been through their Spring, Autumn and Winter periods before dying away, as had the Magian culture of the Byzantines and early Christian empires. According to this scheme, early twentieth- century civilisation was in Autumn, past the best of its Spring and Summer days (1000–1500 and 1500–1800, respectively) and about to enter a barren Winter that would result finally in its natural death. Echoing his admiration for Papini and Hamsun, Miller claimed later to have been enticed by Spengler’s dead certainty on the ‘world process’ despite his lack of scientific evidence and by the preacherly pyrotechnics of his rhetoric. ‘If critics and scholars were interested in the Spenglerian view of things [as] … another bone to gnaw on’, he and his friends ‘got drunk on it’, meeting in weekly sessions to discuss the ‘elixir of life’ they made pretend they had found there (Miller 1981, p. 452). More than Spengler’s theories themselves—which Miller admitted could very well be ‘horseshit’—it was this
brazenness and rhetorical power that informed much of the narrative in Cancer (Miller & Fraenkel 1962, p. 56). The possible horseshit, though, also provided genuine impetus for many of the ideas Miller tested there. Encouraged by his friend Boris—a pseudonym for the real-life amateur author and philosopher Michael Fraenkel—Miller the author-narrator contends that his may be ‘the last book’ on earth, the final literary testament to a dying culture, and one that understands the futility of trying to resuscitate that culture through beautiful or instructive prose (Miller 2005, p. 33).7 Following Spengler’s cue on Western art in particular—that it had exhausted its original creative spirit and was now running on vapid, cerebral fumes—Miller uses the first page of Cancer to declare ‘this is not piece of art. It is a Gob in the face of Art, a kick in the pants to God’ (p. 10). Instead, he says, it is the work of a suffering man who has heeded the obvious eschatological signs and is marching towards destruction consciously, happily in ‘lock step’ with the unconscious, sleepwalking multitudes (p. 9). In one sense Spengler—who combined, he said, the ‘questioning faculty’ from Nietzsche with a ‘method’ gleaned from the German Romantic Goethe—was yet another mad, marvellous and dilettantish example for Miller to follow (1926, xiv). As the philosophers Max Weber and Karl Popper later separately proved, his claim to have found a hard and fast formula for the ‘world process’ was fundamentally flawed.8 It drew on an impressive range of historical figures, documents and art works to present a captivating portrait of human history, but that portrait made imaginative rather than empirical use of the evidence. To Popper in 1945, Spengler was guilty of the kind of mystical, totalising thinking that had enabled the rise of fascist and communist ideological systems in the 1930s and 1940s. Like Fascism and Marxism—like Freudianism also—Spengler’s theories were dangerous because unscientific, presented as fact without allowance for falsification through counter-evidence. Miller was both aware and approving of this, amused—rather cruelly in fact—by his friend Fraenkel’s obsession with Spengler’s ‘festival of death’, but indebted to it for Cancer’s abiding theme of acceptance in the face of civilisational atrophy and decay (p. 172). Though they came to Spengler in 1945, as Popper and others were implicating him in the murderous chaos of the preceding decade, the Beats adopted The Decline of the West as a salient prophecy for their own times. Like Miller, they found in it a gratifyingly poetic way of explaining the social, political and cultural decline they envisaged around them, but
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they were more credulous and less satirical in their responses. Reading Spengler in Burroughs’ Greenwich Village apartment and in late-night drugstores on Times Square, the eighteen-year-old Ginsberg and twenty- two-year-old Kerouac discovered what they believed to be an accurately nightmarish description of the surrounding metropolitan scene. Booming New York—with its gridded streets, its skyscrapers and its centrality in the American empire of mass production, marketing and media—was a visible manifestation of the imploding Western culture that Spengler spoke of. Brooklyn-born Miller noted something like the same when he described his first discovery of Spengler, but he had shed that literalism by the time he came to write Cancer in Paris. In those Paris years at least, he also chose to ignore an aspect of The Decline of the West that the Beats built much of their philosophical scheme around—the expectation, the hope in fact, that spiritually stultified and reason-obsessed modern humanity would be survived by what Spengler called the Fellaheen, a materially poor, spiritually and bodily rooted people who had thrown off the shackles of Western civilisation. Fascinated by the ghoulish junkies, thieves and prostitutes on Times Square, and with Burroughs on his way to becoming one of those ghouls himself, the Beats began to live and write about living in a fashion that referenced the Fellaheen model. Their early attempts at novels and poems, and their letters to each other between 1944 and the mid-1950s are full of homages to people who have distinguished themselves by alcoholic, drug addicted or violently criminal severance from mainstream society. Instead of Spengler’s romanticised vision of non-Christian, non-Western Arab and African intuition—a Primitivist line Kerouac and Ginsberg would later adopt in relation to black jazz musicians and the poor Mexicans and Moroccans they met on their travels—the Beats based their first model of anti-rational heroism on down-and-out big city vagrants who survived the dangers of the street by relying on their primal wits. Starting with Burroughs’ friend and fellow junkie Herbert Huncke, the young Kerouac and Ginsberg sketched savage and saintly portraits of the men and women they encountered in this new post-university world. As John Tytell and John Lardas have pointed out, characters like Huncke (who appears under different pseudonyms in Kerouac’s Vanity of Duluoz, written between 1935 and 1946 but published much later in 1968, and On the Road is unnamed but mythologised in Ginsberg’s poem ‘Howl’ [1955–1956] and is a recurrent subject of their essays and interviews) helped the Beats to update Spengler’s notion of a ‘historyless … people
before the dawn of the Culture’ capable of ‘surviving when the form of the nation passed away again’ (1926, p. 164). Where Spengler emphasised the ‘rural intuitive’ of the Fellaheen—from ‘fellah’, an ancient Arabic word for farmer—and made ambiguous predictions about the survival of that intuition after urban society had collapsed, the Beats identified the same in marginalised urban types whose spirit both critiqued and would outlive the modern world they inhabited (p. 109). Burroughs’ early experiments with heroin, which led to a tortuous but scientifically documented addiction, were partly his attempt to explore that spirit. Less romantic than Kerouac and Ginsberg in his reading of Spengler, he was also more faithfully and persistently wedded to the German’s theories of cultural and civilisational decline. Inspired by The Decline of the West and by a non-Aristotelian conception of logic he encountered in work by the Spengler-supporting amateur etymologist Korzybski, Burroughs used his experience on and in bondage to the drug to lay bare problems he perceived in Western rationalism. For Burroughs, who knew Huncke better than Kerouac and Ginsberg, and who immersed himself more deeply in his ‘carny world’, the addles of poverty and addiction were not sources of millenarian redemption but exaggerated proof of the intractable horror at the heart of human existence (Plimpton 1999, p. 18). The social scene he would eventually describe in Junkie, his debut autobiographical novel, is one in which the ‘either/or thinking’ that underscores this horror—a rational equation that puts individuals at the mercy of psychological, social and political systems of control—is exposed with grotesque clarity by the reduction of existential purpose to the basic need for a narcotic (Plimpton 1999, p. 18). If the early discussions of Spengler would manifest themselves in Ginsberg and Kerouac’s writing throughout the 1950s and 1960s (in Kerouac’s On the Road and Visions of Cody, for example, he wrote reverently about the ‘fellaheens’ he encountered in Mexico; and in an early version of his poem ‘America’, Ginsberg imagined a new kind of Fellaheen on the Wild Western frontier, asking ‘America, when will your cowboys read Spengler?’), their philosophical decadence gave way to an increasing religiosity (Buddhism in both cases, spliced with Hinduism and the Kabbalah for Ginsberg and Catholicism for Kerouac).9 Burroughs, on the other hand, remained caustically suspicious of redemption narratives and ‘universal forces’—like Spengler, he was convinced by matter-of-fact that the awful Faustian dead end Western culture found
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itself in could be understood better but never realistically escaped (Burroughs 2009, p. 45). This crucial difference between Burroughs and his Beat allies is evident throughout their early correspondence and points also to his deeper- rooted interest in Spengler’s early twentieth-century European milieu. In response to Ginsberg’s reports of visions under the influence—either of muses like William Blake or of psychedelic drugs—Burroughs promoted ‘facts’ over ‘mysticism’, advising his younger friend to explore alteration of consciousness less vaguely and through means of ‘concrete examples and operations’ (Burroughs 2009, p. 45). Though partial himself to mystical poets like Blake, Shelley, Rimbaud and Yeats, Burroughs resisted treating them as prophets. The departure from Ginsberg (and Kerouac to some extent) is also well illustrated by their respective origin stories. While Ginsberg spoke throughout his career of having seen the world anew after a visitation from Blake, Burroughs’ own public legend hinged on a gruesome tale that involved cutting off the tip of his finger to spite an unresponsive lover and which he referred to dryly as his ‘Van Gogh kick’ (Burroughs 2003, xiv). The rejection he felt, coupled with the drugs he was taking, had induced a hysterical impulse to self-harm. In the inflated moment, he felt the urge to imitate Van Gogh—nothing more, nothing less. Burroughs’ effacement of such a dramatically self-sacrificial act calls to mind Miller’s own attitude both to his suffering and to its romantic precedent. In the opening paragraph of Cancer, immediately after quoting Emerson in his epigraph and announcing—Spengler-like—that he and his roommate Boris are ‘all alone here and are all dead’, he produces a bastardised version of Walt Whitman in ‘Song of Myself’: ‘I am going to sing for you, a little off key perhaps’, he tells the reader, ‘but I will sing. I will sing while you croak, I will dance over your dirty corpse’ (p. 10). The passage is charged with the kind of ‘incurable … optimism’, Miller later calls both his birthright and curse as an American, and which was a hallmark of Whitman’s nineteenth-century spiritual homage to the new world (p. 88). But it understands very clearly the impossibility—the absurdity—of that position in a new time and on an older, more wizened continent. While not quite the physical severing of an appendage, Cancer can be read as Miller’s own ‘Whitman kick’. It documents a painful struggle—and a struggle only made necessary by its writer’s romantic, narcissistic need to communicate and be noticed for his genius—but is instinctively dismissive of its own futility and narcissism. Miller, before Burroughs and the school
he taught, made wry fun of his naive American impulses while simultaneously, unabashedly indulging them.
Miller and English Modernism As we’ve seen, part of that self-awareness (the gravelly, no-nonsense part that permits sending himself up) can be traced back to his reading of Cendrars. But it speaks as well to an affinity with a set of anti-Romantic modernists who had dominated English language writing in the 1920s, when Miller was starting out in New York, and who received his work enthusiastically in the 1930s. Before he was adopted as a guru of the sexual revolution, before even the Beats’ cautious appreciation, he was read and admired by T.S. Eliot, Ezra Pound and various other now canonical poets and novelists, all of whom saw echoes of the sceptical, unsentimental aesthetics they had practised and promoted a decade earlier. In ‘Inside the Whale’, Orwell went as far as to suggest that Cancer was closer in temperament and style to work by these writers—and by James Joyce, Aldous Huxley, Wyndham Lewis and Lytton Strachey, who completed ‘the movement’ of the 1910s and 1920s—than he was to Céline, and even—in certain ways—than to Whitman (2009, p. 112). If Whitman would always be Miller’s ‘real affinity’—because of his joyful, reverent acceptance of all human experience, pleasurable, painful, refined and squalid—and his picaresque disgust with social pieties rightly put critics in mind of Céline’s Voyage, for Orwell there was a complete, constructive disavowal of political purpose in Cancer that separated him from both these writers and brought him in line with Anglo-American modernism (p. 102). Unlike Voyage, whose narrator professes not to believe in progress but rages for something better than the ‘cess-pool’ he finds himself in, and unlike the prophesying Leaves of Grass, Cancer follows in the footsteps of the Pound-Joyce-Eliot school by presenting the inner mind of someone who is ‘passive to experience’, who understands the impossibility of affecting the ‘world process’ by force of rhetoric or social realism (pp. 105, 131). Hinting at but never mentioning Spengler, Orwell goes on to write of Miller that ‘short of being dead’, the American had entered ‘the final, unsurpassable stage of irresponsibility’ (p. 132). To bolster his point, Orwell equates the appearance of Cancer in 1934 with that of T.S. Eliot’s Prufrock during the First World War. It is as much of a relief to enter the head of the thirty-nine-year-old failing Miller in the mid-1930s as it was for English soldiers faced with the horrors of
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trench warfare to read about the domestic ‘hesitations’ of Eliot’s Prufrock, a ‘middle-aged high brow with a bald-spot’: ‘after the bombs, and the food queues and the recruiting posters, a human voice. What a relief!’ (pp. 136–37). While other authors were misusing literature to push unrealistic social and political agendas, Miller—like Eliot before him—was getting on with the honest task of representing reality as it presented itself to the majority of human beings: difficult, chaotic, dominated by trivial thoughts and worries and basic primal desires, and utterly removed from the larger political machinations that determined it. Though he did not address their similarities directly, Eliot praised Miller for something like the same. He wrote to him saying that in its unromantic depiction of private sexual experience, Cancer was akin but superior to D.H. Lawrence’s enormously successful Lady Chatterley’s Lover (first published in 1928, but banned in America and England until 1959 and 1960, respectively). ‘A rather magnificent piece of work’, it was ‘a great deal better in depth of insight and … in the actual writing’ (Martin 1978, p. 317). To Eliot’s friend and literary ally Ezra Pound, it represented a leap forward for experimental prose, ‘a full-sized 300-page volume that can be set beside Joyce and Lewis’, two writers he praised as the best of their generation because they refrained from moralising and revealed the harsh and messy truths of subjective modern existence (Pound 1992, p. 88). To Aldous Huxley, commenting retrospectively about discovering Cancer in 1934, Miller was up there with Leo Tolstoy for his ability to get beyond the romantic ‘half-truths’ of literary ‘tragedy’ and towards a representation of the ‘whole truth’ about ‘the private self’ beneath ‘the respectable public figure we imagine ourselves to be’ (1971, p. 58). Miller’s high modernist admirers were drawn to him for the tenuous ‘everyman’ credentials discussed earlier. With different motivations they promoted the man behind Cancer as a new kind of idiot savant, uncontrived in and powerless against his suffering, and uncorrupted by the usual obfuscations of the trade. In fact Orwell’s entire critique rests on the idea that Miller stands out precisely because he isn’t a writer in the ordinary sense of the word. Unlike Joyce, whose novel Ulysses is a work of ‘great art’ and ‘great poetry’, Miller’s ‘had it in him to do one thing perfectly. And he did it’ (Orwell 2009, pp. 101, 139). In this capacity, however, it is also the best—in fact the only—possible literary response to a political period in which ‘progress and reaction have both turned out to be swindles’ (p. 138). This is Orwell with an axe to grind against socialism, the ideology that had led him to Spain to fight, and many of whose proponents there he found
to be as petty and inhumane as the fascists they opposed. In ‘Inside the Whale’, the politically disengaged Miller emerges as a perverse, improbable beacon of defiance in Orwell’s new fatalistic scheme. Eliot’s critique— delivered from a position of Anglo-Catholic conservative rather than lapsed socialist scepticism—rests on something like the same relief at finding a natural voice uninhibited by spurious literary or political idealism.
Miller and Ezra Pound The poet Pound, Eliot’s collaborator on his magnum opus The Waste Land and the main organising influence on English modernism, used Miller to purer, and more worryingly partisan ends. As a result, he raises even more interesting questions about the latter’s place in early to mid- twentieth-century history. Writing a review of Cancer just when he himself was declaring allegiance to Mussolini, Pound registered his firm approval of the moral outlook he thought he discerned. Rather than amoral honesty, Pound identified a strong ‘hierarchy of values’ behind the narrator’s daily search for food and shelter, in his treatment of fellow bohemians and patrons and in his attitude to the arts (Pound 1992, p. 88). Here, Pound said, was evidence of an ordered system of ethics at odds with its reputation either as a dirty book designed to shock or one that abstained from value judgement altogether. The reading is remarkable first because it flies in the face of the rejection of conventional social and moral limits Orwell had identified; second, because Miller’s free-flowing, unedited style seems to epitomise what Pound abhorred in fiction of the early twentieth century; and third, because Pound’s fascism was anathema to the emancipatory leftist politics Miller hints at in Cancer and would espouse loudly during the 1950s and 1960s. Like his Anglo-American modernist allies, Pound rounded frequently on the ‘sloppy’ confessional approach of Whitman and Emerson, on the lazy metaphysics he thought it expressed and on the stylistic imprecision it had encouraged among the writers who came after. With his friends the novelist-painter Wyndham Lewis and the philosopher-poet T.E. Hulme, Pound had spent the 1910s attacking the influence of Romantic literature and humanist philosophy in the arts. He wrote poetry, published pamphlets and reviews, and gave lectures in his adopted home of London on the importance of ‘concrete’, ‘finite’ expression and of ordered precise thinking in an age of abstract progressivism (Pound 1954, p. 5). Pound founded the Imagist school of poetry, was integral to Lewis’ politically
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avant-garde art movement Vorticism and was a close collaborator with Hulme in various guises, all with the purpose of bringing English literature up-to-date with the radical challenges to Romantic art and humanist philosophy that were dominating experimental artistic thought across Europe at the start of the twentieth century. He and his friends promoted a literary aesthetic based on delineation of the world as seen by the individual rather than abstract Romantic representations of the ‘infinite’ (Hulme 1994, p. 58). Literature should be sourced not directly from the poet’s imagination or the novelist’s longings for a world that ‘ought to be’, but from the careful matching of exact word (‘le mot juste’, a term he took from the French stylist Gustave Flaubert) to exact perception and feeling (Pound 1954, p. 62). Visions of the non-material were possible—and desirable—but they could only arise out of engagement with clear images and impressions, perceived and received first-hand. Through salon discussions with Hulme, Lewis and others, he developed this aesthetic as a solution to an English literary scene all three believed was suffering the after-effects of corruptive Romantic tastes in the previous century. Those tastes, Hulme claimed and Pound concurred, were themselves the result of a disordered reconceptualisation of beauty and morality after the decline of religion and social order . Though opposed to many of the moral tenets in the New Testament, Pound was with Hulme in dismissing British Romanticism and American Transcendentalism as ‘spilt religion’, dangerously ersatz versions of older more serious moral thinking (Hulme 1994, p. 62).10 By the time he reviewed Cancer that nostalgia for traditional systems of thought, perception and expression had combined with a new conviction about economic usury as the original cause for the First World War to convince Pound that fascism was the only ‘sane’ way forward (Pound 1933, p. 61). Like Céline—like Hamsun, Papini and the Italian Futurist movement who Pound and Lewis had imitated with their Vorticist manifestos—he took eagerly both to the heroic rhetoric of fascist leaders and to the promise of a new sense of direction through unification with a forgotten noble past. To Pound, Miller wasn’t simply tolerable—more interesting, as other reviewers had remarked, than his sexual explicitness suggested—but part of that valuable reconnection with a timeless order. He represented the next step in the revolution Pound, Hulme and Lewis had begun in London. ‘For twenty years’, Pound writes at the start of his review, ‘it has been necessary to praise Joyce and Wyndham Lewis … in a desperate fight
to impose their superiority, as against the ruck of third rate stuff tolerated through the era dominated by … the demands of laziness, popular hang- over and the grossness of standards’ (1992, p. 88). Cancer, he says, offers ‘deliverance from [this] difficult situation’, by reasserting a fundamental ethical and aesthetic ‘value-scale’ against ‘the present chaos’ (p. 88). If Pound and his contemporaries had battled against the ‘cheap’, moralising and sentimental descendants of Romanticism in their time, Miller was continuing the good fight in his own (p. 88). Pound is typically elliptical about what he means by ‘the present chaos’ or Miller’s response to it, but his gist is that Cancer represents bohemian Paris without romantic embellishment and with an honest eye for difference. Echoing his approval elsewhere of the full ‘tonal sensitivity’, the ‘bass and treble of Joyce’s method’ in Ulysses, he admires Miller’s attention to a wide ‘circle of reference’, his artistic flair for recording the beautiful and the sordid as they are, without moral mediation, and in balance with one another: ‘the book takes shape with an excursion to Havre, sailor’s bordello, and by perfect contrast to the Lycee in Dijon, the grim greyness whereof balances both the jincrawl and the lights of Paris’ (1954, p. 415). Ethically, and more troublingly, it means a faithfulness to fundamental national characteristics that Pound finds reassuring: ‘Miller’s Americans are very American, his orientals, very oriental and his Russians, oh quite so. The sense of the sphericality of the planet presides’ (1992, p. 88). Such unqualified praise from the architect of an explicitly anti-Romantic movement—and an explicit exponent of fascism—sheds new light on Miller as confessional writer in the vein of Whitman and Emerson. Besides the national essentialism, Pound’s review is compromised by his improbable determination that Cancer was first and foremost a book about economics. Pound’s hatred of usury and faith in fascism were connected to an increasing obsession with new systems of redistributive economics, and he wrote to Miller congratulating him on having tackled the ‘money question’ and encouraging him to dig deeper, to ‘ask what IS money? Who makes it/how does it get that way?’ (Miller 1988, p. 162). Surprised and amused, Miller spoofed Pound to produce a joke pamphlet entitled Money and How It Gets That Way (1937).11 There is more, however, to Pound’s unlikely affinity with Miller—or at least more to be gleaned from it—than the delusions of an older, radicalised writer trying to recruit new talent to his cause. Where Orwell marvelled at Miller’s ability to channel Whitman’s optimism—his ungrudging tolerance of all experience—in an age of social
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and political despair, Pound’s identification of a moral scheme in Cancer points indirectly to something more complex in that optimism.
The Anti-humanist Reversal At first glance, it seems absurd to claim Miller as a writer with a strong ‘hierarchy of values’, much less one of ‘eminent fairness’, as Pound goes on to describe him (1992, p. 88). His narrator behaves callously towards everyone he encounters, from the comfortable expatriates and lovers who feed and shelter him, to the fellow down-and-outs who seek his advice or financial aid. He is withering about traditional definitions of fair or virtuous behaviour and launches diatribe after diatribe against these undeserving targets. Tania—fictional stand-in for Miller’s real-life lover and literary confidant Anaïs Nin—and her playwright husband Sylvester—based loosely on Nin’s husband Hugo Guiler, who bankrolled Miller and even covered Cancer’s first print-run—are treated with contempt: she as his meal ticket and conquest; he as a ‘poor withered bastard’ who is unable to please or control her (Miller 2005, p. 65). Miller’s friends and fellow aspiring writers Michael Fraenkel and Alfred Perlès—who housed him, read and critiqued his work, and provided much-needed company when he was at his lowest—fare even worse, the one caricatured as a neurotic pseudo- philosopher, the other a depraved and deluded hanger on. Understood against his broader statements about human relations, however, these cruel cartoons reveal a paradoxically compassionate aim. Like Céline, Miller expressed brutality in order to demonstrate its intractable place in human thinking and to ridicule the naivety—the insidiousness in fact—of masking it. Questioned about obscenity in his work—sexual and violent—he replied, ‘I believe in saying the truth, coming out with it cold, shocking if necessary, not disguising it’ (Miller 1963, p. 153). In the view of his friend and fellow writer Lawrence Durrell, that approach extended to his apparent indifference to good turns and to suffering. Rather than sensational provocation or genuine harm, Miller’s purpose, Durrell said, was to ‘do down … the dreadful sentimentality which disguises brutality’ (Woolf 1992, p. 176). He vocalised thoughts and urges ordinarily repressed in the interest of public decency in order to expose that repression as dishonest. By admitting irrational, selfish, brutal impulses rather than concealing them beneath kind and rational words, Miller bid for a more truthful representation of life and called attention to the problem with writing and theorising that ignores this.
In contrast to Céline, though, he also saw this as a prerequisite for behaving in a more genuinely empathetic manner. By resisting the learnt impulse towards respectable altruism, the individual could achieve an objective distance that would lead eventually to a purer communion with others. In ‘Un Être Étoilique’, his essay on the work of Anaïs Nin, Miller claimed that he and Nin had developed a literary approach that pushed for ‘a new kind of sympathy, a free, non compulsive sort’ born of ‘the totality of vision’ and an all-encompassing and all-embracing ‘tolerance’ (1960, p. 288). Rather than reacting compulsively to the pain of others, the enlightened observer perceived that pain clearly in the context of the wider multiplicity of experience and so was able to respond with humour and genuine compassion. Unsurprisingly, this treatise carried ugly overtones when taken out of literature into real life. Replying to a personal letter from Nin, in which she expressed hurt and disappointment at his insensitive treatment, Miller invoked their shared philosophy. It was ‘health not indifference or callousness … a very human condition which lifts you, temporarily at least, above so many useless problems and vexations’ (Miller 1988, p. 159). Such willingness to sacrifice others in the pursuit of a larger moral vision again pre-empted the Beats. To Miller’s mind—and to Ginsberg, Kerouac and Burroughs’ in the mid-century—conventional kindnesses were often taken as markers of a limited, fearful morality, justifiably foregone as the result and in the service of a clearer, more courageous understanding of the world. The constructive use of inhumane language to critique and move beyond emotional hypocrisy therefore doubles as justification for straightforward selfishness. From his new enlightened plane, Miller opines condescendingly to Nin, ‘you just can’t be made wretched, sorrowful, miserable. You live there for a while, at the apex of clarity, and you see things with the naked eye and everything looks good, is good’ (1988, p. 159). Miller used callousness and obscenity to make himself less wretched—a means, he said later of ‘getting the poison out of [his] system’ (1964, p. 155). If it had a similar effect on his readers—a cleansing ‘tonic effect’, he called it—it also contributed to a mode of thinking that was abstract, dangerously absolutist and unaware of (or unconcerned about) the damage it could cause in practice (p. 155). That damage will be examined when we come to look at the Beats in closer detail. For now though, it is enough to note that Miller was attempting something more than the laissez-faire withdrawal Orwell attributed to him. By accepting—indeed revelling in—the stubborn facts of day-to-day
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suffering, he was, as Orwell understood, reflecting the helplessness people feel when faced with problems larger than themselves. Rather than struggle against injustice, he chose to retreat, as Orwell said, into a form of ‘quietism—robbing reality of its terrors by simply submitting to it’ (Orwell 2009, p. 106). But the persona he created in Cancer was more carefully crafted than the ‘quietist … voice from the third class carriage’ that Orwell admired (p. 106). He applied Whitman’s 1850s dictum—his awed determination to ‘celebrate everything I see or am/And sing or laugh and deny nothing’—to an improbable 1930s context, and he did so not naively or nihilistically but with a premeditated moral purpose (Whitman 2009, p. 307). As Orwell said, Cancer was a curiosity in post-crash, pre-Second World War Europe because written from the point of view of ‘a man who is happy’ (2009, p. 102). Despite grim uncertain circumstances (his own and society’s), Miller giddily proclaimed that he was ‘incurably healthy’ and ‘optimistic’ (2005, p. 56). However, he fused Whitman with the coarse, misanthropic fatalism of Céline—of Wyndham Lewis’ The Apes of God and even Joyce’s Ulysses, the two books Pound stood Cancer next to—to demonstrate a sense of peace achievable once socially unacceptable urges were admitted and vocalised. Like Céline, he used violent outbursts to assert the contradiction between forbearance in public life and the rage and irrational hatreds that occupy the private mind. His final position, however, was one of Whitman-like sated acceptance rather than Céline’s disgust, a step beyond despair at false modes of compassion and towards a conception of more honestly compassionate ways of thinking and behaving. If Pound was over-stretching by attempting to fit Miller into his suspect ideological scheme, the order he found in Cancer begins to make sense in light of this. He admires Miller for dispensing with distractive, superficial squeamishness—about sex, dirty words, what is and is not polite to do and say in public and indeed in the privacy of your own autobiographical novel—and focusing instead on real choices between good and evil, made under the material pressures of day-to-day living. For Pound, Miller might appear uncouth, as ethically grounded as ‘a pup nosing succulent “poubelles”’, but there is an ‘undercurrent of comfort’ to his resilience under these pressures and his ability to retain moral ‘health’ (Pound 1992, p. 88). To this end, Pound contrasts him with various socially minded, commercially successful writers of the age—including the reforming playwright George Bernard Shaw and the novelist Arnold Bennett, who
produced careful, cautiously progressive social realism—and prefers him for his genuine rather than abstract engagement with morality. Genuinely down-and-out and forced to live on his wits, Miller has been given special insight into human life not as it should be but as it is in its essential form—a calculus of physical need and practical response. Reduced to the daily search for food, shelter and sexual satisfaction, he arrives at a new moral clarity: Miller, Pound writes ‘paints in honest colours life of the café international strata as seen by a man with no money, whose chief preoccupation is FOOD, with a capital F and all the other letters in majuscule’ (1992, p. 88). The same goes for sex. Quoting a line from the Symbolist poet Stéphane Mallarmé, Pound muses ‘la chair est triste? [or ‘the flesh is sad?’]’, answering ‘perhaps, but not till it begins to give way to wear and tear’ (p. 88). Substituting food—or subsistence—for the four- letter word that predominates in Cancer and had shocked, thrilled or bored other critics, and detaching the appetites of the flesh from sentimental concerns, Pound identifies something of the shift in moral thinking that Miller was attempting—from abstract criteria conjured in the mind to criteria based on the admission and healthy fulfilment of bodily need and desire.
Conclusion So what can the example of Henry Miller, expatriate modernist before the Second World War and countercultural hero after it, teach us about that later movement? Primarily, his negotiation of contradictory philosophical and aesthetic positions in the 1930s provides the context for an equivalent negotiation by the Beats two decades later. His debut novel Tropic of Cancer—admired by politically sceptical modernist critics when it was first published and revered for its emancipatory example in the 1950s and 1960s—is an ideologically ambivalent record of where the ideas he would be remembered for first took shape. As such, it is a testament both to the transition in experimental literary thinking from modernist to countercultural writing post-1945, and to the incongruous role anti-humanist thinking had in the emergence of the counterculture. It captures Miller before the explicitly humanistic attitude that would define his later works; before he had settled on a creed based on faith in the individual’s potential for emotional, spiritual and sensual evolution; and before he had been canonised for promoting a spiritually enlightened lifestyle as more important than artistic virtuosity. And it offers a pre-natal glimpse of the literary
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mode Kerouac, Ginsberg and Burroughs would produce—a rough vernacular form, disengaged from mainstream morality, politics and the cultural consensus, and fed pell-mell by the controversially anti-humanist avant-garde ideas, tastes and attitudes vying for dominance in Europe between the wars. Remembered today as a symbol of sexual liberation and anarchic expression, Miller began his career steeped in the Anglo-American modernist conviction that cruelty, ugliness, muck and disease were the defining elements of human existence. As one of the later subjects in this study, Norman Mailer, hyperbolically observed, Miller’s first published offering came from ‘down in the sewers of existence where the cancer was being cooked’, and he used those ingredients to produce a perversely life affirmative aesthetic and existential scheme (1976, p. 16). We have heard from Orwell that he celebrated these ingredients with a reverence that deliberately recalled the original Renaissance in American literature—a halcyon time of ‘unexampled prosperity’ and then unprecedented democratisation (Orwell 1992, p. 103). Cribbing Nietzsche also, Miller discovered—as Mailer goes on to write—‘something inestimable in us if we can stand the smell’ (1976, p. 16). By hybridising Walt Whitman with Louis-Ferdinand Céline, Knut Hamsun, Giovanni Papini and other sceptical and fascist- leaning modernist writers, and by playing around with the philosophical sources that had galvanised Anglo-American modernists twenty years before, he pre-empted the attitude and style that would predominate in the next influential American literary movement. In the chapters ahead, Miller’s homespun, Romantic interpretation of modernist sources—or his modernist take on the American Romantic spirit—emerges as the basis for what remains significant and contentious in Beat writing. If the visionary incantations of Rimbaud, Blake and W.B. Yeats were the first catalysts for the Beats’ ‘New Vision’, if Ralph Waldo Emerson, Whitman and Henry David Thoreau showed them that a romantic American movement was possible, and misanthropic European writers like Céline led them to temper their optimism with the realities of the flesh, Miller’s earlier experiment with these same sources opens up more sophisticated ways of understanding the Beat Generation. We’ll see that his vision of a humane existence through the denigration of humanist convention—his inhumane treatment of characters, his distrust of thinking that posited the perfectibility of man and his rejection of reason as a prerequisite for progress—informed all three of the principle Beat writers. It was the next step on from Céline’s disgusted protest at collective human
endeavour, and its ecstatic, very American presentation brings it more closely in line with Kerouac, Ginsberg and Burroughs than even their near contemporary Jean Genet. Céline and Genet—the two writers Ginsberg credited with having permitted the Beats to move beyond ‘literature’— reappear frequently over the coming pages, but it was Miller who showed first what could be done with this kind of attitude in an American vernacular directed towards specifically American experiences. As to Miller’s unlikely attention from the high modernists Pound and Eliot, these point to a modernist sense of order beneath his anarchical rebellion and a similar paradox in the counterculture. Anathema to the Beat spirit—and disparaged repeatedly by Ginsberg and Kerouac for their cold academicism—these anti-Romantic writers were also understood here and there as aesthetic precursors. If Kerouac complained that Eliot and Joyce were ‘always trying to show how fancy they are’, he made imaginative use of the former’s fragmentary approach to melody and of Joyce’s scatological wordplay; if Ginsberg in ‘Howl’ preferred ‘Blake light tragedy’ to ‘scholars of war’ like Eliot, he revered Pound for his vernacular form and his precise, lapidary images (Ginsberg 2009, p. 134; Maffina 2012, p. 336). Seeing Pound as a pioneer in the mission to restore the spoken word to poetry, Ginsberg joined other countercultural luminaries like Charles Olson and Norman O. Brown in placing him in a lineage that ran from Whitman to the Beats, a lineage Pound himself had begrudgingly recognised in 1913 when he called Whitman ‘a nauseating pill’, but a forefather nonetheless (Pound 1973, p. 73). These stylistic affinities will be seen to have had surprising ideological implications also. Miller set a precedent to the post-Second World War American avant- garde by translating modernism into a genuinely American language and context. We’ve established that Kerouac, Ginsberg and Burroughs approached Oswald Spengler’s The Decline of the West more credulously and that they used his eschatological system to voice their horror at technologically, economically advanced but spiritually defunct post-war New York. Yet like Miller, their take on him was feverish and intoxicated rather than cerebral. As we’ll see from Burroughs particularly, Spengler played an important part in the Beat imaginary. He provided them with catchwords, images, rhythms and cadences that consolidated their vision of a movement to end all movements. Through Spengler’s terms like ‘fellaheen’ and ‘the winter of civilization’, they identified themselves and their peers on the pioneering margins of a society in interminable decline (Holton 2004, p. 77). Like Miller though, they were drawn to him more
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for the ‘strange talk’ he inspired than his theoretical logic (Kerouac, quoted in Maher 2004, p. 351). Crucially, as with Miller, the Beats’ interest in Spengler exemplified a wavering between faith in the individual’s ability to escape an oppressive historical process and the thrilled conviction that humanity was ultimately doomed. That wavering—in Miller’s case—also had to do with his place in what various scholars have called the late modernist period—a moment between the seriousness and scepticism of the Pound–Eliot era and the play and irreverence of postmodernism, the counterculture or the counterculture as a symptom of the postmodern. In its attitude to early modernist sources, his Paris work embodies elements of these two phases, defined by Frank Kermode as the ‘clerkly scepticism’ and ‘refined traditionalism’ of writers pre-1945, and the giddy credulity of experimental fiction writers afterwards (2000, p. 104). For Kermode, scepticism about progress and reverence for timeless tradition ensured that the ‘mythical thinking’ and ‘literary primitivism’ of the experimental early century was ‘held in check’ (p. 104). After the Second World War, Kermode said, scepticism and order fell out of fashion and experimental writers indulged that mythical and primitivist instinct more freely. As we’ve seen, Miller was au fait with and philosophically indebted to the earlier movement, but he approached it at an irreverent remove ahead of its time. More recently, his namesake the modernist critic Tyrus Miller has claimed that this approach puts him among a small group of 1930s and 1940s’ writers whose work casts ‘the deforming spell of laughter’ over subjects their established predecessors treated sonorously (1999, p. 19). Like the novelist Djuna Barnes, the playwright and novelist Samuel Beckett and Pound and Eliot’s iconoclastic contemporary Wyndham Lewis, his writing is an exaggerated memorial and mockery of the recent modernist past. In many ways Miller was, as his friend the photographer Brassai said, ‘l’origine des hippies—beatniks’, but for deeper reasons than those usually given (Snyder 1974, p. 62). His anarchical challenge to the establishment, his legal battles with the American censor and his eventual Thoreau-like retreat to the fringes of society combined to make him a countercultural legend. But he also developed an attitude to life and art that sheds light on the shift from early twentieth-century modernist to post-1945 countercultural periods in literary and cultural history. Miller’s complicated past contradicts assumptions both about his limited literary worth and his humanistic agenda. Most importantly in this context, it allows for a reassessment of the Beat writers who followed his example, providing
foundations from which to question their aesthetics and politics—and to explore tension in their writings between total reverence and irreverence, between chaos and order, and between the simultaneous convictions that human progress was both entirely possible and an absurd, unmitigated lie.
Notes 1. Ginsberg claimed Blake had spoken to him while he lay half awake in bed one evening—reciting a line from his poem ‘Ah Sunflower!’: ‘I heard a very deep earthen grave voice in the room, which I immediately assumed, I didn’t think twice, was Blake’s voice … [and which] was something unforgettable because it was like God had a human voice, with all the infinite tenderness and anciency and mortal gravity of a living Creator speaking to his son’ (Plimpton 1999, p. 53). Ginsberg recounted the story on many occasions, calling it the moment he realised he was ‘born to be’ a poet (p. 53). The Beats’ use of Rimbaud and of the Anglo-Irish poet W.B. Yeats to formulate their ‘New Vision’ is helpfully summarised by John Lardas in his The Bop Apocalypse: The Religious Visions of Kerouac, Ginsberg, and Burroughs (2001, p. 85). 2. The epigraph is from Journals of Ralph Waldo Emerson (Emerson 1909–1914). Kerouac, in a 1968 interview with The Paris Review, also cited a prediction by the earlier German Romantic poet Goethe ‘that the future of literature in the West would be confessional in nature’. In the same interview, he referenced Dostoyevsky as having ‘prophesied’ the same (Plimpton 1999, p. 100). 3. G.L. Balliet, Henry Miller and Surrealist Metaphor: ‘Riding the Ovarian Trolley’ (1996); Caroline Blinder, A Self-Made Surrealist: Ideology and Aesthetics in the Work of Henry Miller (2000); Paul Jahshan, Henry Miller and the Surrealist Discourse of Excess: A Post-Structuralist Reading (2001). 4. Céline’s novel is abbreviated from here onwards to Voyage. 5. The group’s first recorded use of the term ‘Beat’ came from Kerouac, in conversation with his friend the author and poet John Clellon Holmes. Their circle, he said, were affected by ‘a kind of beatness—I mean, being right down to it, to ourselves because we all really know where we are— and a weariness with all the forms, all the conventions of the world’ (Holmes, This is the Beat Generation, quoted in Ann Charters, Kerouac: a Biography ). Kerouac and Ginsberg would go on to expand at various points on what the term meant but perhaps the clearest additional definition came retrospectively from Ginsberg in 1996. Beat, he said, meant ‘emptied out, exhausted, and at the same time wide-open and receptive to vision’ (Waldman 1999, xiv).
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6. In an open letter to The Paris Review dated 1964, Kerouac reasserted this opinion, calling Céline ‘the main influence on the writing of Henry Miller … that modem [sic] flamboyant tone of knocking the chip off the shoulder of horror, that sincere agony, that redeeming shrug and laugh’ (Kerouac 2001, p. 91). By various accounts, though, Kerouac was more enamoured with Miller’s writing than he let on in public. Robert Creeley, a friend and literary contemporary, describes the two of them listening enraptured to a recorded reading by the elder writer: ‘the gravelly, utterly city voice was a great reassurance to us both in that time of discreet literary accents. It was grass roots, basic American in all sense’. When another San Francisco friend Lawrence Ferlinghetti arranged for the two meet, Kerouac was so nervous that he drank to the point of passing out and baling. 7. Cancer, p. 33. 8. In his essay ‘Weber, Spengler and the Origins, Spirit and Development of Capitalism’, John Farrenkopf details Weber’s objections to Spengler, expressed during a public debate between the two men in 1920, and hinging on Weber’s sense of Spengler as ‘a very brilliant and scholarly dilettante’ (1992, p. 1). Karl Popper made his attack on Spengler in his seminal 1945 study The Open Society and its Enemies (2011, p. 545). 9. Kerouac, On the Road (2011, p. 280); Kerouac, Visions of Cody (2012, p. 387); Ginsberg, quoted in Lardas (2001, p. 37). 10. See my p. 4. In a 1912 letter to his mother, Pound extends something like Hulme’s ‘spilt religion’ concept to the American Romantic poets. To her praise for Ralph Waldo Emerson and his Transcendentalist contemporaries, he asks, ‘what have they done? Why, all that is in their writings that’s good is from the bible & the rest is rot. They have diluted holy writ. They have twisted it awry. They have it is true weakened it sufficiently for the slack minded & given vogue to the dilution. The chief benefit of reading them is this. You can’t trust a word they say & the exhilaration produced by this watchfulness for sophistries is the only benefit’ (quoted in Wolfe 1993, p. 28). 11. Miller also expressed bemusement to his friend and literary collaborator Lawrence Durrell at Pound’s promise to promote Cancer if he agreed to ‘swing the bat for his crazy Social Credit theories’ (Miller and Durrell 1988, p. 69. April 5, 1937).
Works Cited Balliet, Gay Louise. 1996. Henry Miller and Surrealist Metaphor: “Riding the Ovarian Trolley”. New York: Peter Lang. Blinder, Caroline. 2000. A Self-Made Surrealist: Ideology and Aesthetics in the Work of Henry Miller. New York: Camden House.
Bochner, Jay. 2003. ‘An American Writer Born in Paris: Blaise Cendrars Reads Henry Miller Reading Blaise Cendrars.’ Twentieth Century Literature, 29, no. 1: 103–22. Brown, J.D. 1986. Henry Miller. New York: Ungar. Burroughs, William S. 2003. Junky: The Definitive Text of “Junk”. New York: Penguin. Originally published as Junk, then Junkie: Confessions of an Unredeemed Drug Addict. Burroughs, William S. 2009. Letters 1945–59, ed. with an intro. by Oliver Harris. Penguin: London. Campbell, James. 2016. ‘Miller’s Fail.’ The TLS, 1st June 2016. https://www. thetls.co.uk/articles/public/millers-fail/ [accessed 20th April 2018]. Céline, Louis-Ferdinand. 2011. Journey to the End of the Night, trans. by Ralph Manheim. London: Alma Books. Orig. ed.: 1932. Charters, Ann. 1994. Kerouac: A Biography. New York: St. Martin’s Press. Orig. ed.: 1973. Cosmodemonic Telegraph Company: A Henry Miller Blog. 2007. ‘Miller in Playboy, November 1971.’ 6th May 2007. http://cosmotc.blogspot.co. uk/2007/05/miller-in-playboy-november-1971.html [accessed 7th November, 2018]. Emerson, Ralph Waldo. 1909–1914. Journals of Ralph Waldo Emerson, V, 516, ed. by Edward Waldo Emerson and Waldo Emerson Forbes. Boston: Houghton Mifflin. Farrenkopf, John. 1992. ‘Weber, Spengler and the Origins, Spirit and Development of Capitalism.’ Comparative Civilizations Review: 27, no. 3. Garland, Sarah. 2010. ‘The Dearest of Cemeteries.’ European Journal of American Culture, 29: no. 3: 197–215. Gibbs, Walter. 2009. ‘Norwegian Laureate, Once Shunned, Is Now Celebrated.’ The New York Times, 27th February 2009. https://www.nytimes. com/2009/02/28/books/28hams.html [accessed 7th September 2020] Ginsberg, Allen. 2009. ‘Howl.’ In Collected Poems 1947–1997, pp. 134–41. New York: Penguin. Originally published in 1956. Ginsberg, Allen. 2000. Deliberate Prose: Selected Essays, 1952–1995, ed. by Bill Morgan. London: Penguin. Originally published in Attacks of Taste, 1971. ——— ‘The Dharma Bums Review.’ 1958, pp. 342–48. ——— ‘Early Influences.’ 1971, p. 208. Ginsberg, Allen. 2008. The Letters of Allen Ginsberg, ed. by Bill Morgan. Da Capo Press: Philadelphia. ——— ‘Allen Ginsberg to Lionel Trilling’. 4th September 1945, pp. 10–14. ——— ‘Allen Ginsberg to Louis Ginsberg.’ ca. April 1956, pp. 128–30. Hayes, Kevin J. 2005. Conversations With Jack Kerouac. Mississippi: University Press. Holton, Robert. 2004. ‘Kerouac among the Fellaheen: On the Road to the Postmodern.’ In Jack Kerouac’s On the Road, ed. by Harold Bloom. Philadelphia: Chelsea House Publishers.
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Hulme, T.E. 1994. ‘Romanticism and Classicism.’ In The Collected Writings of T.E. Hulme, ed. by Karen Csengeri. pp. 59–83. Oxford: Clarendon Press. Written in 1911–12 but first published, posthumously, in Speculations: Essays on Humanism and the Philosophy of Art, 1924. Huxley, Aldous. 1971. ‘Death and the Baroque.’ In Henry Miller: Three Decades of Criticism, ed. with an intro. by Edward B. Mitchell, pp. 53–63. New York: New York University Press. Jahshan, Paul. 2001. Henry Miller and the Surrealist Discourse of Excess: A Post- Structuralist Reading. New York: Peter Lang. Kermode, Frank. 2000. ‘The Modern Apocalypse.’ In The Sense of an Ending: Studies in the Theory of Fiction, pp. 91–124. Oxford: Oxford University Press. Orig. ed.: 1967. Kerouac, Jack. 2001. Good Blonde & Others, ed. by Donald Allen. San Francisco: Grey Fox Press. Kerouac, Jack. 2011. On The Road. London: Penguin. Orig. ed.: 1957. Kerouac, Jack. 1960. Rimbaud. New York: City Lights Books. Kerouac, Jack. 2012. Visions of Cody. London: Penguin. Orig. ed.: 1972. Lardas, John. 2001. The Bop Apocalypse: Religious Visions of Kerouac, Ginsberg and Burroughs. Chicago: University of Illinois Press. Lipton, Lawrence. 1959. The Holy Barbarians. New York: Julian Messner. Maffina, Stefano. 2012. The Role of Jack Kerouac’s Identity in the Development of His Poetics. New York: Lulu. Maher, Paul Jr. 2004. Jack Kerouac: His Life and Work. Lanham: Taylor Trade Publishing. Mailer, Norman. 1976. Genius and Lust: A Journey Through the Major Writings of Henry Miller. New York: Grove Press. Martin, Jay. 1978. Always Merry and Bright. Santa Barbara: Capra Press. Miles, Barry. 1999. Jack Kerouac: King of the Beats. London: Virgin Books. Miller, Henry. 1985. The World of Lawrence: A Passionate Appreciation. London: John Calder. Orig. ed.: 1980. Miller, Henry. 2010. Black Spring. One World Classics. Orig. ed.: 1936. Miller, Henry. 1952. The Books in My Life. London: Peter Owen. Miller, Henry. 1960. ‘Être Étoilique.’ In The Best of Henry Miller, ed. by Durrell. New York. Heinemann. Originally published in The Cosmological Eye (New York: New Directions, 1939). Miller, Henry. 1961. ‘An Open Letter to Surrealists Everywhere.’ In The Cosmological Eye, pp. 151–196. New York: New Directions. Orig. ed.: 1939. Originally published in Max and the White Phagocytes, 1938. Miller, Henry. 1962. The Time of the Assassins: A Study of Rimbaud by Henry Miller. New York: New Directions. Orig. ed.: 1946. Miller, Henry. 1963. ‘An Interview with Henry Miller.’ In Writers at Work: The Paris Review Interviews, ed. by Van Wyck Brooks, p. 150–59. London: Secker and Warburg.
Miller, Henry. 1964. ‘My Aims and Intentions.’ In Henry Miller on Writing: Selected by Thomas H. Moore from the Published and Unpublished Works of Henry Miller. New York: New Directions. Originally published in Art and Outrage. A Correspondence about Henry Miller between A. Perlès and Lawrence Durrell, 1959. Miller, Henry. 1981. Plexus. London: Granada. Orig. ed.: 1953. Miller, Henry. 1988. ‘To Anais Nin.’ 4th December 1933, p. 162. A Literate Passion: Letters of Anaïs Nin and Henry Miller 1932–1953, ed. with an intro. by Gunther Stuhlmann. London: Allison & Busby. Miller, Henry. 2005. Tropic of Cancer. London: Harper Perennial, 2005. Orig. ed.: 1934. Miller, Henry and Michael Fraenkel. 1962. The Michael Fraenkel—Henry Miller Correspondence Called Hamlet. London: Carrefour. Miller, Henry and Lawrence Durrell. 1988. Durrell-Miller Letters, 1935–1980, ed. by Ian S. MacNiven, p. 69, 5th April 1937. New York: New Directions. Miller, Tyrus. 1999. Late Modernism: Politics, Fiction and the Arts Between the World Wars. Berkeley: University of California Press. Millet, Kate. 1969. Sexual Politics. London: Rupert Hart-Davis. Orwell, George. 2009. ‘Inside the Whale.’ In Critical Essays, ed. by George Packer, pp. 95–137. London: Harvill Secker. Originally published in Inside the Whale and Other Essays, 1940. Papini, Giovanni. 1924. The Failure (Un Uomo Finito). New York: Harcourt, Brace & Co. Pini, Giorgio. 1939. ‘Il ritratto, l’opera, la fortuna di Mussolini.’ In Corso di dottrina del fascism, ed. by Carolo Balestri. Milan: Scuola di Mistica Fascista. Plimpton, George (ed.). 1999. Beat Writers at Work: The Paris Review. New York: Random House. ——— n.d.-a ‘William Burroughs’, pp. 1–30. ——— n.d.-b ‘Allen Ginsberg.’ 31–68. ——— ‘Jack Kerouac.’ 1968, pp. 97–133. Popper, Karl. 2011. The Open Society and its Enemies. New York: Routledge. Orig. ed.: 1945. Pound, Ezra. 1933. The ABC of Economics. London: Faber & Faber. Pound, Ezra. 1954. Literary Essays, ed. by Eliot, London: Faber & Faber. ——— ‘A Retrospect.’ 1918a, pp. 3–14. ——— ‘Joyce.’ May 1918b, pp. 410–17. Pound, Ezra. 1992. ‘Review of Tropic of Cancer.’ In Critical Essays on Henry Miller, ed. by Ronald Gottesman, pp. 87–89. New York: G.K. Hall & Co. Written but unpublished, 1935. Pound, Ezra. 1973. ‘What I feel about Walt Whitman.’ In Selected Prose, 1909–1965, ed. by William Cookson, pp. 73–98. London: Faber. Originally published 1909.
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Schumacher, Michael. 2014 ‘Louis Ferdinand Celine (1894–1961).’ The Allen Ginsberg Project, 27th May 2014. http://ginsbergblog.blogspot. com/2014/05/louis-ferdinand-celine-1894-1961.html [accessed 3rd December 2018]. Snyder, Robert (ed.). c.1974. This is Henry Miller, Henry Miller from Brooklyn: Conversations with the Author. Los Angeles: Nash Publishers. Spengler, Oswald. 1926. The Decline of the West, transl. by Charles Francis Atkinson, 2 vols. London: George Allen & Uwin Ltd. Orig. ed.: 1918. Tytell, John. 2000. ‘Interrogation.’ In Burroughs Live: The Collected Interviews of William S. Burroughs, 1960–1997, ed. by Sylvère Lotringer. New York: Semiotext(e). Tytell, John. 2006. Naked Angels: Kerouac, Ginsberg, Burroughs. Chicago: Ivan R. Dee. Orig. ed.: 1976. Waldman, Ann (ed.). 1999. The Beat Book: Writings from the Beat Generation. Boston: Shambhala. Whitman, Walt. 2009. ‘All is Truth.’ In Leaves of Grass. Nashville: American Renaissance, Orig. ed.: 1855. Wolfe, Cary. 1993. The Limits of American Literary Ideology in Pound and Emerson. Cambridge University Press: Cambridge. Woolf, Michael. 1992. ‘Beyond Ideology: Kate Millet and the Case for Henry Miller.’ In Critical Essays, ed. by R. Gottesman, pp. 165–77. New York: G.K. Hall & Co.
Jack Kerouac, Allen Ginsberg and Their Transcendentalist Gloom
The Lost Generation Mark II Like Henry Miller, the Beat Generation is inseparable from the zeitgeist that made it famous. The names Jack Kerouac and Allen Ginsberg—and to a lesser extent William Burroughs—bring to mind youth rebellion in the late 1950s and 1960s, bohemian road tripping across the American continent, risqué and liberating poetry readings in San Francisco and the heroic artistic origins of a rebirth in social and cultural ideas. Jack Kerouac’s slogan-friendly homage in On the Road to people who are ‘mad to talk, mad to be saved, desirous of everything at the same time’ sums up a group image that has endured not only in popular but in artistic and scholarly circles ever since (2011, p. 7). From the moment the Beats came to widespread public recognition—1957, when Ginsberg’s cult fame for reading ‘Howl’ at the Six Gallery was eclipsed by On the Road’s storming of the New York Times bestseller list—they were associated with ecstasy, romance and redemption. Unsurprisingly, elements of the popular press and of the literary establishment worried about the decadent example they were setting to young people. But for those on board, this movement went down in cultural history as a progressive break with the old and explosion of the new. Ginsberg, who lived the longest and was always more interested in securing the Beat brand, spent the last thirty years of his life retelling a legend about how he and his friends began by fighting to determine their own destinies and ended up determining a whole generation’s. Unlike © The Author(s) 2020 G. Stevenson, Anti-Humanism in the Counterculture, https://doi.org/10.1007/978-3-030-47760-8_3
Kerouac—who bristled under the spotlight—Ginsberg was eager to oblige journalists, academics and stars of successive countercultures by confirming the social and artistic legacy the Beats had left. In print and TV interviews, in his own essays, in prefaces for reissues and anthologies of Beat work, at marches against the Vietnam War, and through collaborations with Bob Dylan, Patti Smith and The Clash, Ginsberg made sure the world would not forget that his, Kerouac and Burroughs’ rebellion had been the catalyst. These, as he put it tearfully in a documentary on Dylan, were proof that the ‘torch had been passed’ to generations who had ‘listened well’ (Scorsese 2005). In political terms, Ginsberg wrote in his preface to Kerouac’s posthumously published Visions of Cody, the hippy spirit was directly and nobly descended from the Beats: ‘peace protester adolescents from Cherry High with neck kiss bruises sit & weep on Denver Capitol Hill lawn, hundreds of Neal & Jack souls mortal lamblike sighing over the nation now, 1972’ (Kerouac 2012a, p. 1). For his part, Kerouac had no time for what Ginsberg had made of the movement, appearing dishevelled on French TV in the year of his death to decry the ‘bohemians’ who ‘came along with their sandals and long hair and just sat watching us’ (Kerouac 1959). If Ginsberg provided the face, the sound bites and even the lectures (administered from a faculty he helped set up in Kerouac’s name), it was and still is Kerouac who defined the Beat tone.1 On the Road didn’t only launch the movement; its peon to the idealism of youth, to transient over sedentary living and to romantic hope for a world defined by the spirit rather than reasoned responsibility became as emblematic of that cultural moment as Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby had been to the Lost Generation and the Jazz Age. When—like Fitzgerald—Kerouac ended up prematurely old then dead from alcoholism in his forties, he entered folklore as a tragic symbol of talent wasted, a movement betrayed by base, corporate interests, or a Van Gogh figure too sensitive and visionary for the material world. And yet, despite Ginsberg’s efforts to deny it—and despite the joie de vivre associated with On the Road from the 1950s to the present day— the fatalism that led Kerouac to destroy himself had been integral to the school from the outset. It was there in their thinking, reading and writing as they came of age at Columbia in the 1940s, and is an important but frequently neglected part of their story.
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A Fascination with Evil The Beat behind what became the swinging 1960s had its origins in the gloom of mid-Winter New York and the thick of the Second World War. Though its major players read Emerson, Whitman, Thoreau and Blake, it emerged in the first place out of an intellectual atmosphere permeated by talk of fin de siècle a-moralism rather than Romantic optimism. As we’ll see, Ginsberg felt a spiritual affinity with Blake from a young age, and he came to imagine and present himself as a twentieth-century answer to Walt Whitman. Likewise, Kerouac’s decision to write first-person epic prose was part of his romantic ambition to succeed talismanic Americans like Herman Melville, Jack London and—emphatically—Thomas Wolfe. But their romantic impulse in the early years was directed more towards the annihilation of consciousness than an active engagement with self, nature or nation. College students restless for real-life action, Ginsberg and Kerouac met the more worldly Burroughs for the first time in and around campus—at Greenwich Village dive bars and bedsits and at late-night drugstores on Times Square. It was the coming together of their idealisms with his dry, wilfully perverse attention to ‘the facts’ that made the movement so ripe for their disenchanted post-war age.2 For both of them, Burroughs and his Louisiana friends Lucien Carr and David Kammerer were a breath of intoxicating bohemian air on a university literary scene in which philosophies of art and life were read about but rarely practised. The precocious Ginsberg turned up at Columbia aged only seventeen and was immediately in thrall to his classmate Carr, a boy from old southern money who showed him Rimbaud, André Gide and a way not only to read these poets but to live provocatively according to their creeds. Four years older, already dropped out from college and back in town after a year away in the merchant navy, Kerouac was nonetheless just as taken with what he later called ‘this here new New Orleans School’ (Kerouac 2012b, p. 193). Before any mention of ‘beat’ or the road, and before either had met their car-jacking, cowboy muse Neal Cassady and set out for the American heartland, it was this strange new social set that first convinced Kerouac or Ginsberg that a literary Renaissance in the mid-twentieth century was possible. Remembered wistfully by Kerouac as ‘the most evil and intelligent buncha bastards and shits in America’, they were a rag-tag set held together by their youngest member, Carr (Kerouac 2012b, p. 193). Carr knew Kammerer from his childhood in Louisiana—when the older man had
been his scout leader and had developed a sinister-tragic obsession with him. Kammerer and Burroughs were friends from the same town, and when Kammerer moved to New York to be closer to Carr at Columbia, Burroughs—then bumming around a few years out of Harvard—decided to join. Kammerer’s desperate, clumsy pursuit of and eventual murder by a young man he had groomed from fourteen is closer to Humbert Humbert and Lolita than Rimbaud and Verlaine, but it appears in Kerouac’s, Ginsberg’s and many subsequent Beat historical accounts as the ultimate real-life expression of the aesthetic theories the group were experimenting with.3 The most extreme of their many sordid and dramatic foundational stories, it remains symptomatic of a fascination with and fatalism about human evil that underscored the Beat mission. We’ll see that that fascination was deeper seated in Kerouac than Ginsberg, mainly as a result of his Catholic upbringing and ambition to fuse Christian theology and Symbolism with artistic vision. But it defined both of their formative educations in New York in the 1940s. If the aesthete Carr provided a first inspiration—the first words in an evolving manifesto for a ‘New Vision’—the then thirty-three-year-old Burroughs helped them to refine their pre-Beat artistic-moral worldview. Under Burroughs’ idiosyncratic professorial influence (he was nine years older than Kerouac and twelve than Ginsberg, but his manner suggested an even bigger difference), they grappled with the theories of philosophy, psychoanalysis and history that informed the Symbolist poetry Carr had put them on to. Burroughs also schooled them on the modernist works popular among young literary types but not yet taught on the Columbia curriculum—Proust’s In Search of Lost Time (1913), Joyce’s Ulysses (1922), Louis-Ferdinand Céline’s Journey to the End of the Night (1932) and, of course, a censored autobiographical novel called Tropic of Cancer by the then little-known Henry Miller (1934).
Idealism Versus Fatalism Late-night sessions at Burroughs’ apartment involved a lot of drink, ‘tea’ and uppers but also schoolmasterly drawled disquisitions on Nietzsche, Goethe, Freud and Freud’s fashionable new acolyte Wilhelm Reich. In a voice Kerouac described as ‘dry, new to me’—and decked out improbably in the stiff suit, tie and trilby hat that remained his uniform throughout his career—Burroughs made a show of disabusing his young friends of their ‘picked up Idealism’ (Kerouac 2012b, p. 193). As we heard in the
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previous chapter, of the writers Burroughs recommended it was Céline (and later, Jean Genet) whose use of language represented the most extreme form of that anti-idealism. Their spat, brazen obscenities— repeated in American by Henry Miller in the 1930s—had a strong bearing on Ginsberg’s loosening of his form and his tongue, his discovery like them that profanity could induce spiritual purgation. In the coming pages, that strategy—and the pose of fatalism it involves—will be discussed, particularly as a development of Miller’s own and of what this reveals about the transition from modernism to the counterculture. More important though, the emancipatory project Kerouac and Ginsberg ended up spearheading was grounded first of all, and, in earnest, in the prophecy of civilisational decline put forward by German historian Oswald Spengler. By Kerouac’s account, Spengler’s The Decline of the West was one of the first names on Burroughs’ impromptu salon-reading list. Looking back fondly in Vanity of Duluoz he remembers his friend thrusting a copy into his hands and telling him, grandfather-like, to ‘EEE di fy your mind, my boy, with the grand actuality of FACT’ (p. 196). By Ginsberg’s, that handing down of Spengler was ceremonial—a kick-start to the backpack revolution that began with them and reverberated across the generations.4 Intended as a hybrid of Nietzsche’s method and Goethe’s philosophy, and as an explanation of modern civilisational decay, this fashionable eschatological work had a profound impact on Kerouac’s writing, and a serious— though aesthetic and political more than philosophical—effect on Ginsberg’s. For young men exploring feelings of disaffection with modern life, with the codes they had been brought up to obey and the futile inner city frenzy they envisioned around them, Spengler provided historical coordinates for the present and runes through which to read the future. Where Nietzsche explained the new post-Enlightenment world their poetic heroes lived through, Spengler addressed the contemporary scene, in which questions around the Death of God were mutating into doubts about the efficacy of humanity itself. This chapter is predominantly an assessment of that influence—strongest in Kerouac’s later works Visions of Cody and Tristessa and in Ginsberg’s poems ‘Howl’ and ‘Kaddish’—and of its unlikely accommodation with the American Romanticism that was essential to their writing and to the legend they told and had told about themselves of a new Renaissance to rival Emerson and Whitman’s a century before. The aim of this chapter is to explore that paradox, one that was touched on in passing by early Beat scholar John Tytell in the 1970s—of a group
of young men who pictured themselves protecting the flame lit by Whitman and Emerson but were enchanted by prophesies predicting the end of Western civilisation, and a new corrective barbarism that would rise from its ashes (Tytell 2006). Faith in the human spirit, and in the endless vistas of opportunity available if we could nurture it properly, was compromised, from the start, by the anti-rationalist impulse that drew Kerouac and Ginsberg to Spengler. Spengler’s dramatic, crepuscular visions—fuel for inspired nationalist alarmism and conspiracy theorising from the 1930s to the present day, and currently undergoing a revival in post-Trump Alt Right America—were also among the building blocks of a movement that was supposed to revolutionise human consciousness on a global scale. John Lardas, in The Bop Apocalypse (2001), and Robert Inchausti, in Hard to be a Saint in the City (2017), have enlisted this interest in Spengler as evidence of the Beats’ serious intellectual and spiritual credentials—a rebuttal to critics who have dismissed the group as hedonistic and lacking in rigour. In keeping with so much Beat scholarship, however, these useful studies are protective of the movement’s progressivism and pay little attention to Spengler’s counter-intuitive impact on Kerouac and Ginsberg’s arguments for spiritual perfectibility. What I’m arguing is that such protectiveness is limiting—both to the writers it’s directed towards and to the critics who employ it. Indeed, as with any intellectual movement, a full understanding of the Beats’ ethos and impact in cultural history requires careful analysis of such contradictions. Significantly—beyond the bluster of condescending or outraged opponents in Kerouac and Ginsberg’s day—John Tytell hinted sensitively at these issues almost half a century ago, suggesting that the Beats’ profound faith in self—even societal—liberation had been complicated by ‘a Spenglerian expectation of the total breakdown of Western culture’ (p. 9). This chapter aims to explore that statement, teasing out its implications—negative and positive.
The New Vision Before the literature itself, it is worth concentrating a little more on the scene that generated the Beat vision, their ‘new vision’ as it was then—in New York between 1943 and 1947—and on how Spengler fit into this. Referred to by Kerouac as his ‘symbolist period’, and also half-seriously as a time when he was experimenting with ‘all kinds of silly junk, the repertory of modern ideas’, it involved the concerted and feverish combination of French, German and English aesthetic theories and the application of
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these to a post-war urban America (2012b, p. 245). Both at first closer to Lucien Carr than one another, they worked separately with him on manifestos for an art that was—like Rimbaud’s poetry, like Nietzsche’s philosophy and like Charles Baudelaire and André Gide’s Symbolist manifestos—radically liberated from conventional moral responsibility.5 If its title came from William Butler Yeats—and if Ginsberg in particular was drawn to Yeats’ spiritualism and his restoration of ‘love’s mansion’ to the bodily functions—the ‘New Vision’ that emerged in these early Beat years was an unadulterated homage to the late nineteenth-century French poets both saw incarnated in Carr.6 For Ginsberg, newly arrived in New York City from sleepy Patterson, New Jersey, learning the language of poetry was the same as learning ‘Carr language: fruit, phallus, clitoris, cacoethes, feces, foetus, womb, Rimbaud’ (2006, p. 50). And for Kerouac, whose recollections of this time are steeped in Rimbaudian allusions, Carr’s European mystique inspired hope of escape out of the confines of American bourgeois conformity. The group were, Kerouac writes, embroiled in their own ‘very nostalgic Seasons of Hell’—and the dream was to flee an America Lucian dismissed as ‘a pond that’s drying out’ for ‘Paris on the verge of being liberated’ (2012b, p. 206). On the left bank, they fantasised, their gang could emerge transformed as ‘Symbolist Isidore Ducesses and Apollinaires and Baudelaires and “Lautréamonts”’ (2012b, p. 209). Rimbaud’s derangement of the senses is the keynote in accounts by all three, and his attempt to achieve a higher perspectival plane—one on which the beautiful co-existed with the horrific, and conventional social taboos were coded squeamish and cowardly. Reclining by the Hudson the night before they tried and failed to enlist as seamen and sail for this Symbolist paradise, it was that liberation through amorality that inspired them. Remembering Claude with fondness but also the gruff film noir-ish affectation he adopts throughout Vanity of Duluoz, Kerouac describes the two of them drunk and hollering into the darkness: ‘Plonger au fond du grouffre, ciel ou enfer, qu’importe? [‘to plunge to the bottom of the abyss, Heaven or Hell, what matter?’] and all those other Rimbaud sayings, and Nietzschean’ (p. 209). Eventually, and significantly, Kerouac and Ginsberg came to interpret Rimbaud in less decadent terms than Carr’s. The ‘new vision’ Ginsberg recorded in his diary was based on Rimbaud as a purposive poet—someone who had used Nietzsche’s template of the ‘anarchic poetic Dionysiac archetype individual’ to move beyond earlier Symbolist gestures of ‘evil
for its own sake’, and ‘art for art’s sake’ (2006, p. 121). Where Carr revelled, as we heard from Kerouac, in André Gide’s conception of the act gratuite, responding to moral embargos on the individual by behaving without regard for moral consequence, Ginsberg explained his ‘new vision’ in more positive terms. It involved not only freedom from old ‘false’ moral structures, and lessons learnt from the ‘poetic Dionysiac’ approaches of the fin de siècle, but a new ‘highly conscious’ way of seeing. Not yet nineteen, Ginsberg tried to give pattern and purpose to the thrill and beauty he found in Carr’s gratuitous rebellion. ‘The New Vision’, is about both the ‘acceptance of an unromantic universe of flat meaninglessness’ and the feeling out of ‘universal motives’ (p. 121). A posturing, self-consciously ambiguous claim—from a young poet in development—this is also a flashpoint in Beat thinking. It reveals an early accommodation between nihilistic, realist and romantic approaches that would underpin their different aesthetics and endure covertly once the movement was fully formed. If Carr’s positions of art for art’s, and evil for evil’s sake had been mesmerising when they met in 1943, by 1945—with Kammerer dead and Carr in prison for his manslaughter—Ginsberg began to form a humanist response to the horror that resulted from their amoral games. The ‘new vision’ was now more than just provocation, more than aiming to épater le bourgeoisie or cure ennui by shocking gesture. It had evolved into an attempt to use the higher consciousness of intoxication and of creative inspiration to understand ‘universal motives’ and react accordingly (p. 121). For Ginsberg, the prototype shifted from Rimbaud– Carr to something between ‘Kerouac … a romantic deluded poet’, ‘Burroughs … a realist, interesting himself in sociology as an entertainment’ and Burroughs’ wife ‘Joan Adams’, whose ‘high consciousness’ led her to ‘choose to live forsaking ambition and pride’ (p. 121). Originally suspicious of Ginsberg, Kerouac started seeing him as a better-suited ally than Carr at around the same time. Though he took pot shots at ‘vain and stupid’ Allen, and found him less fun to be around, he recognised a philosophical and artistic affinity between them that ran deeper than with the other two (Kerouac 1999, p. 91). In Jack’s thinking, he and Ginsberg differed from Carr—whose reading of Nietzsche and Rimbaud led him to desire a superior, nonchalant state of being, ‘a post- human post-intelligence’ which was also ‘post-soul’—because they used the same writers to advance rather than deny spiritual conceptions of humanity (p. 81). Rather than beyond human (or beyond good and evil), the ‘self-ultimacy’ they sought was explicitly, nobly moral—based on the
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longing for a true or authentic ‘identity in the midst of indistinguishable chaos, in sprawling nameless reality’ (p. 81). They were, as Ginsberg said, still engaged in the ‘intense investigation of evil’ that their time with Carr and Burroughs had set in motion.7 But they combined that with their different literary and political idealisms, and developed it into an approach that was socially and morally concerned.
Fin de Siécle to Modernism Spengler was introduced to that moral but fatalistically grounded scheme as one of a series of expansive German thinkers from Burroughs’ library. If Carr provided the fin de siècle example in the ‘New Orleans School’ Kerouac mythologised, Burroughs—their ‘great teacher in the night’— put that in the context of Western civilisational history (Kerouac 2012b, pp. 193, 196). As well as ‘the poetry, the soft city evenings, the cries of Rimbaud!’, Kerouac writes, the early New York Beat scene was defined by music, literature and meta-historical theory dealing in grand pronouncements on ‘will’, ‘destiny’, and the rise and fall of cultures. From Wagner’s ‘great Gotterdämmerung’ to Nietzsche’s Thus Spoke Zarathustra and Goethe’s Faust, Kerouac and Ginsberg were swept up in works passed down to them by Burroughs and steeped in ‘the mysterious dark endless Faustian horizon of [the elder man’s] vision’ (2012b, pp. 206, 194). A stickler for ‘facts’ over mysticism and persistently critical of his friends’ romantic inclinations, Burroughs would no doubt have scoffed at this dramatic homage.8 Just as they had built Carr up to be a Rimbaud-like figure or a fatally beautiful stand-in for Wilde’s Dorian Gray, Kerouac and Ginsberg read Burroughs’ combination of great intellect with drug addiction and criminality as part of his own pact with Mephisto.9 As we’ll see, this in itself has some bearing on their wider thinking on good and evil, sordidness and beauty, and the peaks and troughs of civilisations. But what he provided at the early stages of the Beat project was the next step along from fin de siècle thinking—a set of very modernist coordinates by which to understand the long anthropological history of contemporary art, society, politics and economics. The Faustian picture Kerouac tried to place Burroughs into—and which Ginsberg also used to describe Kammerer and Carr—was a central metaphor in Spengler’s The Decline of the West. Spengler’s two volume tome, container of ‘the grand actuality of Fact’ as Burroughs saw it, diagnosed Western civilisation with a terminal illness brought on by
complacency, sloth, greed and gluttony (Kerouac 2012b, p. 196). Once a thriving centre for the accumulation of wisdom and beauty, like Faust in Goethe’s masterpiece the West had surrendered its soul in exchange for superficial false rewards—giving up virtuous motivation and in to the forces of materialism, mass rule and decadence (2012b, p. 196). As we’ll see in the next chapter, Spengler was an aptly ironic starting point for Burroughs’ reports on his own sordid adventures, and a counter-intuitive but effective one for his hallucinatory satires on collective human behaviour, systems of control and conventional conceptions of sympathy. For now though, the German’s sweeping theory of everything supported Burroughs’ increasingly pessimistic view of human nature—developed during his travels through Europe in the late 1930s and his experience in an assortment of strange post-university jobs, and summed up by a story he had just written with his friend Kells Elvins ‘Twilight’s Last Gleamings’, a black satire about base human cowardliness on a sinking passenger ferry (1938). That pessimism was part of the role of wizened elder Burroughs played up to within the group—and of his eccentric connection to a smarter, emotionally reserved modernist past. Born at the start of the First World War, Burroughs came of age in the 1930s rather than Kerouac and Ginsberg’s early to mid-1940s. His attitude to literature and his style of thinking and writing were shaped first as an undergraduate at Harvard between 1932 and 1936—where he read Joyce and Kafka and attended T.S. Eliot’s famous Norton lectures—then as a visitor to Europe, towards the end of the decade, supported by the trust fund his wealthy family provided for him. His extra twelve years of experience intrigued and impressed a then only twenty-one-year old Kerouac, when Kammerer introduced them in 1943. Used to Carr’s youthful outbursts and set on replicating the heartfelt prose of his first literary love Thomas Wolfe, here Kerouac found an unflappable ‘observer weighted with more irony than the lot of em’—a ‘tall and bespectacled’ gentleman ‘thin in a seersucker suit’, ‘ordinary- looking’ like Eliot yet a kindred bohemian drop-out and seeker (2012b, 192). The glitch caused by that clash of impressions would serve Burroughs well when he finally focused on writing full time. In New York in the early 1940s though, it enhanced his reputation as a teacher among his new friends, a man whose real-life encounter with an earlier literary age corroborated the expertise that his reading recommendations implied.
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Imbibing Spengler In Europe at roughly the same time as Henry Miller—and as avid and idiosyncratic a collector of experimental ideas—Burroughs also has an intermediary place between old world modernism and the American counterculture. Kerouac—and Ginsberg to a lesser degree—would end up portraying themselves as anti-literary, as anti-Eliot and the obscurantism he represented, but that first taste that Burroughs gave them lingered in their work for the rest of their careers. Like Miller two decades before— and like many young men of Miller’s generation—the Beats also ‘imbibed’ the ‘strange talk’ in Spengler, even as they asserted themselves against the highbrow world he represented (Miller 1981, p. 452; Maher 2004, p. 251). Distinguishing themselves from dry scholars—dullards like the ‘local contemporary intellectuals’ Kerouac observed on merchant marine shore leave in London during the Second World War, who ‘carry on as they’ve done before, during and after any war on your bloody history map’—they claimed a special, visceral connection to the grand, highbrow modernist ideas in Spengler (2012b, p. 179). Fundamentally opposed to the return to high art and patrician politics Spengler’s writing supported, they treated him as Miller had in the 1920s—like a kind of mind-expanding intoxicant, a writer whose ideas and images facilitated esoteric artistic, philosophical and political thinking.10 Of course, reading The Decline of the West in America in the 1940s was a wholly different experience to reading him when he was first published—in 1918 with the First World War still underway and a widespread hunger for a larger historical explanation to its apparently senseless carnage. Prepared by Burroughs’ lessons on Goethe’s Faust and Nietzsche’s challenges to Enlightenment certitudes, these new initiates were first drawn to Spengler as a raw counterculturalist. Before any consideration of its implications, they got a kick out of his complete rejection of accepted cultural, political and moral institutions, a thrill akin to the provocative a-moralism of Baudelaire and Gide or of Rimbaud at passionate loggerheads with his lover Verlaine. For Kerouac, Spengler’s overarching theory of history would become a kind of hold all for a range of eclectic literary and philosophical interests— interests he lists like potential PhD theses in his Vanity of Duluoz memoir: Henri Bergson’s Vitalist theory of creative evolution; a nightmarish vision of materialism; Joyce, Yeats and Thomas Mann’s ‘conflict between modern bourgeois culture and artistic culture’; Nietzsche’s ‘neo-mystic[al] …
ethical revolution’; and Sigmund Freud’s ‘mechanistics’ (2012b, p. 246). Like Miller, Kerouac discovered Spengler’s combination of Nietzsche and Goethe’s approaches in his teens but only began exploring it in depth after Burroughs’ recommendation. Attracted to the German’s picture of city- dwelling Western humanity as deracinated and de-spiritualised, Kerouac came to envision New York in distinctly Spenglerian terms. ‘The great Rome city’, he wrote in his journal in 1947, ‘has deviated from the original purpose of a town, a place for people to live in, and become … a place for people to hide from life, the earth, the meanings of family and soul and labour’ (2004, p. 13). The Decline of the West’s opposition of truthful and substantive pre-modern culture with the ‘cold’ falsity of modern capitalist civilisation chimed also with the language of truth, sin and temptation Kerouac had absorbed from his Catholic upbringing (Spengler 1926, p. 40). In the ‘glittering metropolis’, he wrote, modern humanity had ‘run astray (“Lead us not into temptation”)’, losing ‘itself in cant, artificiality, self-deceit and irrelevant horror, above all, in glittering triviality’ (Kerouac 2004, p. 13). Spengler’s value to Ginsberg was less pronounced but more political. When explaining the Beat movement retrospectively in the 1980s, he counted the ‘second religiousness’ that Kerouac had gleaned from Spengler as a defining characteristic—an idea of a new kind of spirituality born from the ashes of our dying ‘late’ civilisation (Ginsberg 2000, p. 239). As we’ll see, the quest for new religious approaches was important to Ginsberg’s own poetic and existential vision. But the principal thing he took from Spengler in those early years was confirmation of the impending doom of the capitalist society he distrusted and the futility of struggling against it on its own terms. Socialist in his thinking before he arrived at Columbia and keen to make a difference as a labour lawyer, Ginsberg’s discovery of The Decline of the West along with Freud and the ‘outcast’ poetics of Rimbaud helped him to see the capitalist system in spiritual and psychological terms (Ginsberg 2008, p. 12). If the Western world was in crisis, it was because of its stultifying, bourgeois code of values—values Ginsberg associated with his literary but socially conventional father—and the best protest for the individual was to defy those values in his or her own life. Kerouac, on the other hand, contradicted his larger rebellious lifestyle by a deep respect for aspects of the conservative working-class ethical code he had been brought up to observe. He idolised his parents and wrote nostalgically about his upbringing in Catholic small-town
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Massachusetts and guiltily about his adulthood betrayal of the innocence he was born with—a betrayal to match America’s of its halcyon roots. These differences aside, both young men experienced Spengler as a catalyst for their conviction that criminal, racially marginal America had a special grace, and was a worthy world to inhabit and write about. Writing in his early journals, and in language he had absorbed from the scientific- minded Burroughs, Ginsberg lists criminals underneath ‘sex’ and ‘dope’ as a category of ‘factual information to be obtained’ (2006, p. 123). What Spengler offered he and Kerouac—as part of but in fact more urgently than the theory of a society at tipping point—was the philosophical motivation to carry out their research among the disengaged and disenfranchised. Spengler did so through a trope that he took to mark the final deterioration of hope for humanity but which the Beats transformed into a beacon: the concept of ‘the Fellaheen’. An appropriation of the Arabic word for ‘farmer’ or ‘peasant’, the Fellaheen in The Decline of the West signifies a rural, uncivilised people whose ‘peasant wisdom’ had stubbornly persisted in spite of 200 years of Enlightenment advancement and which stood to dominate after Western civilisation had run its course. Spengler was vehemently opposed to the development he was predicting—lamenting the decline of values accumulated over centuries of Western civilisation—but also resigned to its inevitability. For the Beats—and crucially, in contrast to Spengler’s far right acolytes of the inter-war period—the impending rise of the Fellaheen was a way both of venerating people on the margins of their late capitalist society and justifying their own attempts to join them. Spengler gave both Ginsberg and Kerouac—but particularly Kerouac—licence and motivation to drop off the path their material and academic advantages had mapped out for them. He enabled them to announce proudly that they were and would remain ‘beat’ since working towards happiness and success in a dying modern America was futile. In a sense this constituted a new kind of religious asceticism—bodily deprivation in pursuit of spiritual nourishment. Indeed, from a certain angle—and particularly in Kerouac’s case—in Beat language becoming Fellaheen meant becoming Franciscan. If they used Spengler’s fatalism for these Romantic, spiritual and revolutionary purposes—imagining a heaven on earth, in which the saintly, suffering poor survived the corrupt and exploitative rich—that use depended on their expectation of a predetermined end to the world and to all human lives. It was, as we’ll see, millenarian in its impulse—a fatalistic mission unconvinced of the collective
progress it proselytised. The Beats famously and firmly doubted progress through reason—as Theodore Roszak has shown, that was at the core of their pre-countercultural protest against the technocratic state. But what we’ll see in the pages ahead is that they were also innately sceptical about the potential for emotional, psychological or spiritual liberation in post- war America.
Passively Accepting Horror Spengler’s fatalism provided a counterpoint to a very different form in Walt Whitman. As we heard George Orwell claiming in the previous chapter, what stood out about Miller’s debut Tropic of Cancer when it was published in 1934 was its unlikely attempt to resurrect Whitman in an age bereft of optimism. By responding to the chaos of the 1930s with prose that carried Whitman’s sprit of ‘total acceptance’, Miller was improbably, passively accepting a world defined by horror: concentration camps, rubber truncheons, Hitler, Stalin, bombs, aeroplanes, tinned food, machine guns, slogans, Bedaux belts, gas masks, submarines, spies, provocateurs, press censorship, secret prisons, aspirins, Hollywood films, and political murders’ to accept truncheons, putsches. (Orwell 2009, p. 103–104)
Orwell’s assessment is apposite. For whatever reason though—perhaps because he hadn’t yet read enough of Miller to see it—he missed the influence Spengler had on this passive attitude. Indeed, a large part of the resilience Miller writes about in Tropic of Cancer—his proud ability to stay ‘incurably optimistic’, ‘always merry and bright’ despite shabby and sometimes desperate material circumstances—was gleaned perversely from his reading of Spengler’s prophecies of ‘doom’ (Miller 2005a, b, p. 56; 1965, p. 107). Satirising his friend Michael Fraenkel, who was an earnest and avid student of The Decline of the West, and believed wholeheartedly in its predictions, Miller takes a delirious thrill from the idea of retaining optimism and retaining a healthy, robust spirit despite the inevitable collapse of all and everything. Living with Boris (Fraenkel’s pseudonym in the novel), a gloomy ‘weather prophet’, his author persona opens his Whitman-like ‘song’ about himself declaring a state of unending, unstoppable ‘calamity’: ‘we are all alone here and we are dead’ (Miller 2005a, b, p. 3, p. 2). In a world due yet ‘more death, more despair’, and in which he
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the starving writer has ‘no money, no resources’, he boasts, ‘I am the happiest man alive’ (p. 2). Spengler’s prediction of historical civilisational catastrophe—along with the ‘cancer’ of modern life the book’s title refers to—provided Miller with a foundational, profound and paradoxical source of immunity against the political disarray and violence that was brewing in Europe as he made it his home. By their own turn to Spengler, the Beats were doing something similar for their different age—wilfully submerging themselves at the nadir of a post-war American rather than inter-war European hell (a hell that Spengler helped them conceptualise), they were accepting the muck and mire as Whitman had done in the nineteenth century and as Miller had in Paris only ten years before them. Where Whitman wrote that ‘not an inch nor a particle of an inch is vile’ and found ‘the secret of [his] regeneration’ in ‘the blemish … the grain of ugliness’, Ginsberg advised his students at Naropa that revelatory beauty in poetry could be arrived at by concentration on ‘the muck of your mind’ (Whitman 1982, p. 29; Miller 2005b, p. 50; Ginsberg 1975). Sometimes, like Whitman, like William Blake, Kerouac and Ginsberg saw muck as necessary ballast for an otherwise glorious project—the grain of sand through which to view infinite vistas of opportunity. At others, they were vitriolic and used it to show that the human body is holy, but the continent rotting. Like Henry Miller in his Tropics trilogy of the 1930s, Ginsberg in particular posited obscenity as a way for the individual to cleanse himself in a corrupt and dirty world. To endure material depravation, and—in Miller’s words—‘come out singing’ was to the Beats a major Whitman-like victory against a system that prized cleanliness and efficiency over spiritual health (Miller 1960, p. 157). Ultimately, as we’ll see—and to different extents—the Beats viewed that victory as limited, since dependent not on the defiant health of the individual but the recovery of an America they knew was irrecoverable. Like Whitman, Ginsberg and Kerouac were merchants of a tantalising American myth; their projects based on the aggrandised effort to channel the energies of a continent, a nation, its present and its past, and to map a course for its future. They used their travels across the continent then their own personalities and the personalities of a select group of friends as a way of exploring the American spirit and psyche. Kerouac’s works are full of homages to American land and spirit, to what in On the Road he calls ‘that raw land that rolls in one unbelievable huge bulge over to the West Coast’, and to what he reads as glimpses of a pure vision corrupted by a money- driven and socially conservative model of modernity (2011, p. 288). His
most explicit dedication to his country, however, comes in Visions of Cody. This, Kerouac’s experimental retelling of the journeys he had described in On the Road—and a more intimate and fragmented documentation of his friendship with Neal Cassady—is a sort of alienated, hitchhiker’s take on the noble frontiersman spirit of his boyhood literary heroes Thomas Wolfe and Jack London. It presents a regretful and nostalgic portrait of America, saved momentarily from its sins by good honest have-nots like himself and Cassady sating their honest and healthy appetites in old-fashioned diners and cheap roadside kiosks, but also by ‘inconceivably’ attired hobos and cowboys, who—in Kerouac’s eyes—retain the eternal innocence of childhood (2012a, p. 17). This was the Beats’ equivalent of Whitman’s homage to a universal American experience—their attempt to draw connections between people from all walks of American life, a common honesty and health based on material poverty, and a distance from the dehumanised and dehumanising frenzy of capitalist business and commerce. Put simply by Ginsberg—and via a quote from Kerouac—in that retrospective list of defining Beat characteristics, ‘the essence of the phrase “beat generation” can be found in On the Road in another celebrated phrase, “Everything belongs to me because I am poor”’ (Ginsberg 2000, p. 239).11 Their travels without purpose, with few possessions and in the company of and in contact with people who had little, were genuine attempts to recover the unifying vision of the country that Whitman had sung about in Leaves of Grass: an America of free individuals bound together by a general human purpose: ‘action untied from strings necessarily blind to particulars and details magnificently moving in vast masses’ (Whitman 1982, p. 5). In contrast to Whitman though, Ginsberg and Kerouac were presenting a picture of America that was broken. In their work they celebrate their own abundant appetites, and the heroic abundant spirits of down-low American people, but see the civilisation Whitman loved as corrupted and in decline. Writing a hundred years after the birth of American democracy, Whitman had of course been critical of social injustice and of areas of the nation’s economic life that strayed from its original vision. He was fundamentally convinced, however, of a truth and virtue to that vision and of its sound relation to the land and the people. To America’s first self- proclaimed bard, ‘the largeness of nature or the nation’ matched a ‘corresponding largeness and generosity of the spirit of the citizen’ (1982, p. 6). Much of the Beats’ work is devoted to recovering that sense of optimism in the mid-twentieth century. They sourced Whitman, along
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with contemporaries like Henry Thoreau and Herman Melville to correct a decline in values, but they did so decadently. Their new, electrifying vision of an America re-galvanised by the Transcendentalist spirit gave every thought to abundance but none to production. It carried not only an implicit distrust of systems of organisation—political, social and economic—but a larger Spengler-inspired conviction that the glittering civilisation Whitman had sung about a century before would and should meet its end. As we’ll see in the close readings ahead, the peculiarly positive fatalism that Orwell recognised in Whitman took on a different but equally surprising slant in work by the Beats. Where Henry Miller had combined it with a wry modernist sense of defeat—and nodded half-seriously towards Spengler’s enthusiastic pronouncement of the end of Western civilisation—Kerouac and Ginsberg were evangelical in their marriage of Whitman’s extreme optimism with Spengler’s pessimism. Beat America was both evangelically utopian and wearily aware of what could not be achieved. In Kerouacand Ginsberg’s writings, and in the way they tried to live their lives, the vision of America was religiously inspired—a world beyond the material, conjured in the minds of free individuals—but also eschatological, achievable after rather than in human lifetimes (individual or collective). As importantly, it was less genuinely democratic than Whitman’s vision. Where the ‘good grey bard’ sang with awe about all Americans, and all America as ‘one fullsized man unconquerable and simple’, the Beats refocused that awe on specific groups they deemed worthy of Whitman’s ideal.12
From Idealism to Spengler Ginsberg illustrates the context against which he accommodated these two fatalisms in a 1945 letter to his professor, the eminent New York Intellectual Lionel Trilling. Responding to Trilling’s feedback on poems he had sent him a week before, and to criticism of his deference to the ‘diabolical’ Rimbaud, Ginsberg defends the French poet both as constructive and historically important. There is a genealogical line, he writes, beginning with Rimbaud in the nineteenth century and running through to Sigmund Freud and Oswald Spengler in the twentieth century. Before Freud and Spengler’s great exegeses of human psychology and history, the enfant terrible ‘felt out his culture’ through poetry (2008, p. 12). Far from irresponsible, or a sensationalist defence of evil, A Season in Hell is a
socially perceptive and productive work, evidence that Rimbaud ‘knows a complex anthropological unit in what appears to him to be in a state of cachexy—a whole syndrome of ills adumbrating a cultural decline’ (p. 12). Ginsberg’s unusually ostentatious language here is probably a young man’s attempt to impress his mentor. He had that year been suspended from Columbia for errant behaviour and wrote to Trilling from his new post as a trainee merchant marine, so the chances are he was aiming to show off both his literary chops and development into a man of the world. But the genealogy he traces is important. More evidence of the moral use he and Kerouac found in Rimbaud—and of their departure from Carr’s decadent approach—it also suggests the next stage in their investigation, a transition from the moral to the socially anthropological. In his earlier notes on ‘the new vision’, we remember, Ginsberg had described Burroughs’ treatment of ‘sociology as entertainment’ as a key element, a counterpart to Kerouac ‘the deluded romantic poet’ and to Burroughs’ wife Joan Adams’ attainment of ‘higher consciousness’ through renouncement of pride and ambition (2006, p. 121). Here, in his grand announcement to Trilling, he puts that negotiation of personal romance and social analysis into an intellectual historical context, aligning his new vision with a larger evolution in American thinking. The optimism of the New England Renaissance—which was the starting point for novelists like Kerouac’s favourites Thomas Wolfe and Jack London, or America’s first literary Nobel Prize-winner Sinclair Lewis— was giving way to a new mood inspired by thinkers convinced that Western civilisation was now experiencing a downturn. He and his peers, Ginsberg told Trilling, were part of a ‘shift in vision of society from the simple idealism of Sinclair Lewis to the complicated, half hidden Spenglerian Weltenshauung of O’Hara’ (2008, p. 13). That reference to John O’Hara is important. The hard-boiled detective story that he helped pioneer gave impetus to Kerouac and Burroughs particularly, and to all three of the major Beats in their quest to turn American society onto its belly and mythologise lives widely condemned as dangerous or sordid. After Rimbaud’s discovery that ‘the Civilization … offers no hope of personal salvation, no vital activity, no way of life within its accepted structure’ (p. 13), and after Spengler’s translation of this into a unified philosophy of history, writers like O’Hara, Raymond Chandler and Dashiell Hammett were bringing an equivalent sensibility to American letters. Just starting out in literature, Ginsberg puts himself and Kerouac in with ‘the whole crop of post World War II writers’, who are sourcing that sensibility, who
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are aware that ‘the important person is the outcast (not the literary egoist)’, and that the most relevant subjects for literary prose are ‘keen, levelheaded men of basic understanding’ (pp. 13, 12).
The Moral Aspect Much of the next decade—before Ginsberg achieved recognition in the late 1950s—was spent trying to square this progress-weary, ‘beat’ feeling with the idealism inspired first by his teenage interest in social justice then by his reverence for Blake and Whitman. The problem he set himself in his diary by 1957 was ‘how [to] write [a] big universal psalm taken off from [the] ideal promise of America when America [was] now no longer the great hope of Mankind’ (Ginsberg 1995, p. 390). After the imagined visitation from Blake in 1948, and after he had left New York for graduate school in Berkeley, California, he immersed himself in Whitman’s life works and came to see that vision as the ‘prophecy defining American possibility’ (1995, p. 390). If mid-twentieth-century Western civilisation offered ‘no hope of personal salvation’ or ‘vital activity’, it was because its societies had failed to heed that prophecy and had failed to follow Whitman’s example of love for all people, equal acceptance of the body and the spirit, and of continued evolution beyond the corrupt and rigid moral codes America’s first settlers had left Europe to escape (2008, p. 13). That prophecy and that American possibility were recoverable for this generation—Ginsberg believed—through a new spiritually and honest form of art—one that could reinvigorate the senses and the spirit against the deadening effects of modern living. Critical responses to this mission still tend to take Ginsberg at his retrospective word—echoing his narrative that the Beat Generation, symbolised by his own rebirth through communion with Blake, breathed the same life back into American letters by investing it with the Romantic sensual and spiritual purpose that had galvanised the new world’s first native movement. Regina Weinreich—who offers precise and illuminating analysis of all three major Beats’ literary styles—is also reverent about the ‘mystical prophetic power’ of Ginsberg’s Whitman inherited long line form, and about the ‘roadmap for transcendence’, for the raising of ‘consciousness’ his work produced (Weinreich 2017, pp. 51, 60). Likewise, Erik Mortenson, who praises Ginsberg’s sourcing of Whitman to ‘return to the body as a site for a poetic practice that focuses on the moment of composition’, credits this with ‘opening up new ways of living, thinking,
and being’ (Mortenson 2017, pp. 85, 90). But in ‘Howl’ (1957) and ‘Kaddish’ (1959), the flagship poems of Ginsberg’s two best-remembered collections—and in the poetic experiments that led to these—the very deliberate uses that Whitman’s tone and verse form are put to suggest exalted defeat rather than renewal, the application of visionary ideas and language to a new, in fact, older religious model of material suffering as the route to redemption beyond this ‘mortal’ world. This major difference between Ginsberg and Whitman is elucidated by a reading Henry Miller offered on the same subject, at the peak of Beat popularity in 1962. ‘Here and there’, Miller writes, ‘men have arisen who have given us glimpses of this world to come’ (1973, p. 4). Uniquely though, ‘Whitman not only voiced the keynote of this new life … but behaved as if it already existed’ (p. 4). There is a determination in Leaves of Grass—connected to Whitman’s larger self-reverent confidence trick— to apply, record and encourage the acceptance of all life as it is, as part of a perfect whole, not in an imagined or longed for future to come, but in the world as it is. Whitman used Leaves of Grass to show human beings in contradictory states of grace and folly, strength and weakness, compassion and brutality—from young men bathing innocently by a river to the ‘fury of roused mobs’; from prostitutes, ‘lunatics’ and opium eaters to presidents, all at their business; and from murderers to priests—but his abiding theme is that these oppositions are in everybody, natural, nature-given and therefore blessed (1982, pp. 36, 33, 34). For Whitman, or the persona Whitman makes of himself in his poetry, all humanity is blessed because— like him—it is ‘stuffed with the stuff that is coarse, and stuffed with the stuff that is fine’ (p. 42). For Ginsberg, on the other hand, such benediction is rare—it is reserved for especial suffering individuals who are brave enough to seek the light— to ‘burn for the ancient heavenly connection to the starry dynamo’, and to ‘bare their brains to Heaven’ by swearing off convention for the mind expansive secrets of excess (2009, p. 134). It is a blessing given by the poet who recognises and shares in that courage to suffer—‘with dreams, with drugs, with waking nightmares, alcohol, cock and endless balls’, and available only to the kind of reader who will let go and let the same light in (p. 134). Homages to individuality and self-discovery under regimenting social pressures, ‘Howl’ and ‘Kaddish’ express a Whitman-like reverence for mad, desperate and socially unproductive people. But they also lament the fates of those people, making martyrs of them in a way Whitman steadfastly refused to.
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‘Howl’ is a memorial to a handful of young men Ginsberg had the opportunity to meet. Beginning with his provocative, new era-defining statement ‘I saw the best minds of my generation destroyed by madness, starving/hysterical, naked’, he lists the serious crimes, nervous breakdowns and suicide attempts of the Beats and their affiliates like a holy litany of the sufferings saints endure for God (p. 134). The poem and the generation are set up against a society that has persecuted them for their difference, for their own variety of religion in fact, and will not achieve their holiness and their perfected humanity until it accepts them and adopts their worldview. If Ginsberg had praised Rimbaud for having ‘felt out’ the rot in nineteenth-century European culture and was buoyed by discovering Whitman’s optimistic American response, his own version in the 1950s presented his small coterie as transcendent of a world that was fallen (2008, p. 12). These are more than rather than equal to humanity: ‘angel-headed hipsters’, visionary and superior to the jilted rational world that misunderstands and condemns them, rather than Whitman’s equally human and thus equally imperfect. From he and his friends who bless the halls of Columbia with their ‘Blake-light tragedy’ (2009, p. 134) to the heroic Neal Cassady who ‘sweetened the snatches of a million girls trembling in the sunset’ (p. 136), Ginsberg’s cast in ‘Howl’ are the reborn prophets that an atrophying America badly needs, not that same America recorded and celebrated from top to bottom. His updated hymn for the nation is built around a repudiation of the outside world rather than the Transcendentalists’ loving acceptance of it from within. Throughout ‘Howl’ and the poems it was printed next to, in terms which are sometimes ‘beat’, sometimes sorrowful, sometimes angry, he rejects American society as a body that is sick and contaminative—fatal to these free, pure and saintly individuals. Where Whitman had observed, celebrated, lamented and sometimes raged at but ultimately forgiven America’s contradictions—seeing them as constitutive of its diverse imperfect whole—Ginsberg presents a marginalised creative and downtrodden vanguard who have had the ‘heart of the poem of life butchered out of their own bodies’ by a world that cannot understand them (p. 139). Whitman and Emerson’s original faith in individual self-reliance, which had been combined with benevolent tolerance of diversity, becomes here a plaintive weariness and rancour at the mainstream. Though he echoes Whitman’s notion of heaven visible on earth—exclaiming it ‘exists and is everywhere about us’—he posits his particular perspective and lifestyle as the true means of its recovery. Invoking ‘Moloch’—the false Canaanite
fire idol of the Old Testament—to describe the capitalist spirit behind mid-twentieth-century urbanised, mechanised America, and pitying the masses of unaware citizens who ‘broke their backs lifting Moloch to Heaven’, he suggests the new Beat vision as the route to redemption (p. 140). As we’ll see, the shift that took place when mid-nineteenth-century Romantic ideas were updated for the mid-twentieth had a major impact on the 1960s’ cultural revolution that the Beats helped catalyse. It was the beginning of a separation of a liberated, knowing minority from the enslaved, unknowing herd—the logical conclusion to Ginsberg’s defence of Rimbaud in his letter to Trilling; his belief that Rimbaud had shown the way for writers to engage constructively with their ‘neurotic culture’, by laying open the ‘conflict between the anarchic impulses of the individual psyche and its needs, and the mores of a categorized protestant civilization which is crippled because it conceives of pleasure as evil’ (2008, p. 12). If Ginsberg took up Whitman’s mandate to prophesy, he did so with the kind of fixity the earlier poet strove to avoid. ‘The greatest poet does not moralize’, Whitman says plainly in the preface to Leaves of Grass, ‘[n]or make applications of morals’ (1982, p. 13). Ginsberg shared Whitman’s aim to embody and speak for his suffering country and the larger suffering species. He claimed to distrust moralists as Whitman had, condemning them along with ‘the poet, the politician’ as ‘poor fools’, and attempting to write in the natural, non-literary voice that Whitman prescribed (2006, p. 121). Indeed, Ginsberg’s breakthrough from his earlier experiments with Imagist and Blakean lyrical forms to a new combination of these with Whitman’s unrhymed, long line method was his homage to the unaffectedness his hero had aimed for; the bid in Leaves of Grass for a natural representation in poetry of the ‘perfect rectitude and insouciance of the movements of animals and the unimpeachableness of the sentiment of trees in the woods’ (Whitman 1982, p. 13). Ginsberg’s laying bare of his homosexual desires on the page and of his actual body at poetry readings had the twin intention of doing violence to the taboos that had repressed both through history and asserting Whitman’s equation of poetic voice with the sanctity of flesh: ‘dismiss whatever insults your own soul, and your very flesh shall be a great poem and have the richest fluency not only in its words but in the silent lines of its lips and face and between the lashes of your eyes and in every motion and joint of your body’ (Whitman 1982, p. 11). But underlying this was a contradictory compulsion to preach, an impulse that originated with his teenaged attraction to labour activism and
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remained with him during his coming of age as a poet in New York. Throughout his career, he was beholden to a ‘vow’, which—as he recalls in ‘Kaddish’—he made as a young man: ‘to illuminate mankind’, to release it from its false ‘dream’ and into the wild of reality as he discovered it (Ginsberg 2009, p. 220). Alluding directly to Whitman’s ‘Crossing Brooklyn Ferry’ in Leaves of Grass, Ginsberg describes his own ferry ride to Manhattan aged seventeen, before he’d met Carr, Kerouac or Burroughs and was on his way to take the entrance exam for Columbia. ‘I prayed’, he remembers, ‘to help mankind if admitted’, and to help through politics— first by training to be an ‘honest revolutionary labor lawyer [sic]’, then aiming higher. ‘I wanted to be President, or Senator’ (p. 222). That ambition might have dissipated under Kerouac, Carr and the New Orleans crew’s anarchical influence, but he never lost the ‘moral’ imperative—the ‘desire’, as he put it in his freshman diaries ‘to shape meaning out of confusion’ and ‘to extract from the welter of contradictions, a set of values’ (Ginsberg 2006, p. 69). Crucially, he also viewed that vow as his ‘burden’—the vocation that he could not ignore and would mark him out as outcast and mad (‘mad as you’, he writes in ‘Kaddish’, talking to his just dead mother Naomi, who had been plagued for most of her life by chronic neurosis and paranoia) (Ginsberg 2006, p. 222; Ginsberg 2009, p. 220). In line with so much about the Beat project—and particularly with Kerouac’s concerted effort to suffer in his quest for tender visions—Ginsberg mission to enlighten others was based in a masochistic longing for the relief of shouldering their pain. ‘I wanted to lose the sense of my own character’, he wrote, ‘and emerge with a voice of rock, a grave, severe sense of love of the world, an asperity and directness of passion. I wanted to make people shudder when they look into my eye, suddenly wakened from a vast dream of the will’ (2006, p. 264). Critics as sympathetic as Lawrence Buell and merciless as D.H. Lawrence have pointed out that Whitman is also easily convicted of sanctimony.13 Knowing his soul as a poet, Whitman said, meant cultivating a ‘measureless pride which consists in never acknowledging any lessons but its own’ (1982, p. 13). Indeed part of the reason Ginsberg turned to Leaves of Grass for guidance was the reassurance it offered by its author’s unfaltering self-confidence as bearer of ‘eternal truths’. But even at his apparently most conceited—in statements about himself as poet, like ‘the others are as good as he, only he sees it and they do not’—Whitman’s claim to clearer perspective suggests a Christ-like desire for equality rather than authority (p. 10). He observes what he believes to be fact not to cajole others but to make them self-lovingly aware of their specific potential. In channelling
Whitman’s outsized self-pride, Ginsberg failed or chose not to carry over a crucial qualification—that a true poet swells also with a ‘sympathy as measureless’, which ‘balances the other’ (p. 13). In desiring a love bolstered by severity and wanting to inspire awe at his discoveries, he fell short of the model of radical tolerance Whitman had promoted.
‘Accelerating Toward Apocalypse’ That problematic determination was come to in the throes of a New York street vision—a sequel to the one he described often about Blake speaking to him post-masturbation. A year after leaving Columbia for good and having taken a job as a copy boy for the Associated Press Agency, he looked around on his way to work one day and was struck by the realisation that ‘everybody I saw had something wrong with them’ (2006, p. 264). Each human face was concealed, he said, by what Blake had talked about in his 1789 poem, ‘London’: their ‘masks of weakness, masks of woe’ (Blake 2017, p. 50). His restoration of Blake’s early industrial epiphany to the mid-twentieth century—an epiphany connected in Blake’s imagination to the coming of a New Jerusalem—had a Spenglerian aspect too: The apparition of an evil, sick, unconscious wild city rose before me in visible semblance, and about the dead buildings in the barren air, the bodies of the soul that built the wonderland shuffled and stalked and lurched in attitudes of immemorial nightmare all around. (2006, p. 264)
Here is Ginsberg animated by a dreadful dawning, awed—as Spengler is throughout The Decline of the West—to reveal a truth he believes is there for all to see but missed by ordinary minds occupied by pettier, quotidian concerns. In 1949, just over forty years on from Spengler, he too was overwhelmed by a sense that the Western project of progress through accumulation of knowledge, and through scientific and artistic advancement, had resulted in a civilisation in blind irreversible decline. Ginsberg’s hades bears all the hallmarks of what Spengler defines as the ‘world city’, a vast settlement of people at the technological apex of the culture-civilisation it represents, which ‘sacrifices the blood and soul of its creators to the needs of its majestic evolution’ (1926, p. 107). To Ginsberg, as to Spengler, buildings and bodies become the manifestations of a deeper cultural soul gone awry. Here, as in Spengler’s vision, monumental buildings are parodies of the progress they are supposed to represent—‘dead’ symbols of an
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intended ‘wonderland’. The people whose frenzied activity built and maintains the city symptomise its futility also (1926, p. 257). They are ghastly dead souls in an underworld—unaware of the strong, healthy human potential they have thrown away. Crucially, the trope of a ghoulish mass rendered insentient by hell leaves Ginsberg bereft of genuine hope for collective improvement. Believing he might be ‘one of a few people that has had contact with a real world’, he takes that as his cue to encourage emancipation through disengagement: a breaking down through poetry, through religious practice and later through psychedelic drugs of ‘the incomprehensible difference, between the neurotic world of time and the free world of eternity’ (2008, p. 42). This is Ginsberg’s fundamental—and only—means of escape from the inevitable doom Spengler helped him conceptualise. It is there everywhere in his poetry—a yearning and recommendation to step out of false consciousness by stepping out either of the social or of consciousness altogether. In ‘Howl’, his cast of saintly dead, insane, drug-addicted or dying delinquents will have their ‘heads … crowned with laurels in oblivion’. Beaten down by a world for which they are too pure, they have ‘vanished into nowhere Zen New Jersey’, into ‘poverty and tatters’, ‘drugs’ and ‘madness’ (2009, p. 134). In every case, their fates are heroic compared to that of the compliant masses: the Beings in the Dream,/trapped in its disappearance,/sighing, screaming with it, buying and selling pieces of phantom, worship-/ping each other/ worshipping the God included in it all –– longing or inevitability? –– while it lasts, a Vision –– anything more? (‘Kaddish’, Ginsberg 2009, p. 217)
Ginsberg’s project of self-discovery and of a freedom possible for awoken individuals is born then out of a vision that casts the larger culture as duped, sleepwalking through a false reality whose projection of a civilisation is pre-destined for destruction. As he suggests in ‘Kaddish’, this projection applied not only to the modern American reality experienced under late capitalism but also to the mortal reality of all human existence from the beginning of history. ‘What came is gone forever’, he says in ‘Kaddish’, ‘every time––/That’s good!’ (2009, p. 218). In another poem ‘My Sad Self’, he writes of ‘the mind to come/where all Manhattan that I’ve seen must disappear’, suggesting both an impermanent, unaccommodating present and (with an influence from the Buddhist reading he had been put onto in 1950) impermanent, illusory life per se (2009, p. 210). And again in ‘Kaddish’, he connects the same epiphany to a longer apocalyptic
religious-poetic history: ‘Death is that remedy all singers dream of, sing, remember,/prophesy as in the Hebrew Anthem, or the Buddhist Book of An-/swers––and my own imagination of a withered leaf–-at dawn–- / Dreaming back thru life, Your time––and mine accelerating toward Apocalypse’ (p. 217). Of course, all of this is Ginsberg’s quest for an understanding of individual soul and psyche, not Spengler’s ‘metaphysical structure of historic humanity’, and he makes nothing like Burroughs’ attempt to join Spengler in a socially anthropological survey of cultures and civilisations (Spengler 1926, p. 3). Where Spengler wanted to ‘decipher the one world-historical phase of several centuries upon which we ourselves are now entering’, Ginsberg was after imagery that could describe the withered world which he and his small group of allies longed to transcend (1926, p. xv). But their literary revolution, a template for the more expansive cultural one of the next decade, was shaped by a hellish conception of modern-day America and an expectation of—if not the hope for—apocalyptic salvation.
The Fellaheen These many references to the peace of death—to death as remedy for earthly suffering and, in his poem ‘Psalm 1’, the time ‘when the dove descends’ (2009, p. 26)—are connected to another crucial conceit in Ginsberg’s poetry, of ennoblement through a special kind of survival on earth, in and against the odds of Spengler’s late city scene. In ‘Howl’, the saintliness he bestows on his friends the heroin addict and panhandler Herbert Huncke, the writer and mental patient Carl Solomon, the itinerant Neal Cassady, comes from his reading of them as primitive souls unsuited because superior to the standards of reasoned responsibility that regulate life in modern urban America. Unlike Kerouac, Ginsberg stopped short of quoting Spengler in his poetry, but his portraits of these marginal, criminal and transient characters nod consistently to the ‘fellaheen’ figure that dominates The Decline of the West. ‘Fellah’ is Spengler’s signifier for a rural spirit that existed before the emergence of a coherent cultural purpose and the formation from that of nations and states, and which lingers residually once those nations and states have developed into civilisations. By Spengler’s dramatic, Jeremiaic reckoning, Western cultural history—beginning with the Gothic Period of 900 to 1500 AD—mirrored the history of every ‘great culture’ before it in having bloomed through the spiritual, aesthetic and political expression
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of an ‘inner feeling’ and began to wither away when the balance was lost between the spiritual (‘the metaphysical’) and the coldly intellectual, and between the land that had produced the culture and the vast cities that now housed it (1926, p. 145). For Spengler, the high point of Western culture came during the Renaissance when towns had developed from ‘primitive barter-centres’ to thriving ‘culture cities’, and when the quintessence of that culture was represented nobly by a few ‘men of great destiny’ (p. 145). In the contemporary ‘late’, ‘winter’ period, stretching from the turn of the nineteenth century to his contemporary 1910s, and diseased socially and politically by the dominance of capitalist economics, the ‘fellah’ spirit and the ‘fellaheen’ figure are Spengler’s reminder of the base levels Western culture had evolved from and his warning of where it must inevitably return (p. 107). The development of cultures into city-dwelling civilisations left behind a small number of Fellaheen who had existed before it: ‘a small population of fellaheen who shelter in them as the men of the Stone Age sheltered in caves and pile-dwellings’ (p. 107). For Ginsberg, however—and emphatically for Kerouac—that primitivist trope was a source of hope, a means of translating the down-and-outs around them into figures of protest against a detested but all-powerful social system. Introduced by Burroughs to Herbert Huncke—a professional hustler, heroin dealer and sometime addict—Ginsberg developed another side to the vision of the walking dead he had experienced in that epiphany on a New York street. Huncke and his friends—busy robbing houses and stashing the goods they acquired at Ginsberg’s apartment— became ‘apocalyptic hipsters’ in his imagination: decrepit but freed by their decrepitude from the hypocritical hustle and bustle of working New York life, and engaged in their own more honest version in and around the run-down backstreets of Times Square (2006, p. 267). Where Spengler’s Fellaheen are ‘historyless’––there before great cultures emerge, left behind in dregs as those cultures fulfil their destinies, and persistent as the mainstream falls into decline––Ginsberg elevates that same separation from history to anti-heroic stature (p. 518). 1940s Times Square, a twenty-four-hour hive of drug-dealing, ‘kicks’ and prostitution, is the ‘timeless room’ in which his new world citizens assert their essential selves (2006, p. 267). Indeed, writing about Huncke in his journals— sketching him before he would enter him into Beat legend in ‘Howl’—he celebrates his place among ‘people who by temperament, education, or whatever conditional contingency … are manifestly and irrevocably unsuited to peaceful, mundane civilization’ (2006, p. 271).
Tristessa Kerouac was less romantic about Times Square and did much of his own conceptualising of the Fellaheen further afield, out in the America Whitman called a ‘nation teeming with nations’ (1982, p. 6). Like Ginsberg, he used Herbert Huncke and then Neal Cassady for literary ends, and they both worshipped Cassady for his instinctive living, his freedom from the heavy loaded hang-ups of their middle-class and respectable working-class upbringings. Ginsberg talked about the holiness of the poor throughout his poetry. But—after a hairy few years mixing with Burroughs’ criminal friends and narrowly avoiding prison when the stolen goods he was storing for them were discovered by police—he eventually ended up where he was probably always going to, amongst eager young, and educated poets on the West Coast. If Kerouac came to visit Ginsberg in Berkeley then San Francisco in the 1950s, and dipped in and out of the poetry scene his friend was building there, he rejected it finally as too respectable and spent most of his career worshipfully observing the unrespectable poor. From Neal Cassady and the black jazz musicians whose slang and rhythms they both imitated, to young Mexican streetwalkers, he built the ‘legend of [his] life’ around a romantic vision—a fantasy—of a downtrodden, spiritually and emotionally honest underclass fit to realise a pre-modern American dream (2019, p. 70). Kerouac was besotted—sometimes beautifully, sometimes quixotically, always questionably—with the symbolic virtue he read into lives on the margins. With men, this meant Neal’s version of masculinity—fast living, physical, free in talk and sexuality, and open to the alteration of perception through drugs and alcohol. In women, he was attracted to the same openness about sex and drugs, but combined with a taciturn sadness he translated as beatitude—the state of being which ‘Beat’ was meant to denote, a drunk Kerouac later told Steve Allen on his television show. From Terri, the young Mexican mother who he lives with briefly in On the Road, to the prostitute Tristessa in his 1958 novella of the same name, he used the hard lives of the people he met to explore the spiritual hunches and religious theories that dominated his work as a writer. This project carried something of Whitman’s own willful, radically compassionate re-humanisation of outcasts—from slaves at the auction block to the ‘quadroon’ girl whose marriage he witnesses—and was in keeping with Whitman’s equation of faith with poverty—‘the antiseptic of
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the soul’ that ‘pervades the common people and preserves them’ (1982, p. 9). However, Kerouac’s celebration was tangled up with the ache for an absolution he knew was impossible, an ache at odds with the self-assurance of Whitman and Emerson’s Transcendentalism or Thoreau’s sanctified hermitage. Unlike Whitman, whose forgiveness of sin in others led him to reflect kindly on himself, Kerouac invested his writing with sorrow and guilt about his imperfections as a man, son, lover and human being. The ‘golden thoughts’ he aimed for and rhapsodised about in his published writings are offset in his journals by uneasiness about his ‘crude imperfect purpose’ in arriving at and recording them (Kerouac 2004, p. 12). Though exulted for the quest for freedom from the dream of history—a conceit whose expression by James Joyce fascinated Kerouac—the writer-hero is doomed to failure by guilt about his imperfect, sinful human condition. Unlike Ginsberg, whose wrestle with his homosexuality led him to assert the holiness of his own body, Kerouac found little relief to the conflict between his bohemian impulses on the road and the Catholic standards of piety and conservatism his parents had instilled in him. With that conflict central to his worldview, he was bound to be more seriously affected than his younger, more temperamentally idealistic friend by Spengler’s portentous jeremiad. The imagery and ideas in The Decline of the West might have helped Ginsberg process his nightmarish vision of New York, and to write about it in ‘Howl’, but for Kerouac they meant something altogether more meaningful—another intellectual and aesthetic influence on a metaphysical scheme shaped by guilt and pessimism.
‘The Future’s in Fellaheen’ Spengler’s influence is everywhere in Kerouac’s work, but never more than in the novel Visions of Cody and the novella Tristessa, two late 1950s experimental works in which he lets his unconscious mind wander and in which Spengler’s worldview becomes hybridised with a very particular reading of the New Testament. For Kerouac, Spengler confirmed and fuelled an already earnest and eschatological impulse. Throughout the journals he kept while working on his first novel The Town and the City, Kerouac struggles with the same kind of questions that occupied Ginsberg—questions about the falseness of human reality on earth versus an eternal truth before and after it, about a transcendence from bodily suffering by the escape from earthly consciousness.
In Kerouac’s writing though, they are freighted with a gravitas more in line with Spengler than Blake or Whitman’s ecstatic prophecies. For Kerouac, as for the Puritans who first settled his Massachusetts birthplace and for Spengler who saw Western decline as a necessary prelude to another dawn, immediate reality was an accursed one. Quoting the Book of Revelations in his journals—a New Testament section he took as a guide in his efforts to finish his first full-length piece of prose—he asks himself ‘who has died not thinking of the first and last things, the Alpha and Omega of life on the earth?’ (2004, p. 14). For Kerouac, the life of an individual, like the life of a culture in Spengler’s scheme, could only be fully understood by an appreciation of the will towards its end. Investigating such mysteries meant installing himself with a bottle of alcohol and his notepad at the ‘foot’ or ‘the bottom of the world’ (2012a, pp. 43, 14). From the passenger seat next to Neal Cassady, as they bombed down American highways, slumped on the sofa at parties while jazz music whipped Neal and the others into a frenzy, or sitting watching hobos eat welfare soup on 3rd Avenue, he conjured a feeling of being outside of history and outside of the structures that anaesthetised modern people to others’ pain. It was among the hard up, and specifically those who had had it harder than him growing up, that he felt closest to authentic emotion. In Visions of Cody—his second book-length homage to Neal Cassady, who changes name from the Dean Moriarty of On the Road to Cody Pommeroy—accompanying Neal ‘at the bottom of the world’ allows him to feel out the difference between an imagined primitive, personal vision in poverty and the superficial fantasies realised by the moneyed and powerful (2012a, p. 14). On skid row, he says, ‘little ragged Codys dream, as rich men plan gleaming plastic auditoriums and soaring glass fronts on Park Avenue and the rich districts of Denver and the world’ (p. 14). The Fellaheen for Kerouac are the barbarian dregs Spengler eviscerates, but it is exactly their left-over-ness, their incongruousness in gleaming, fast-moving America that convinces him of their worth. For Kerouac, as for Whitman earlier and the folk movement led by Bob Dylan later in the 1960s, America’s hobos express her soul. He finds great solace and meaning in his sympathy for the homeless men he shares a meal with, a group of ‘heart-breaking poor guys in their inconceivable clothes, World-War-I Army greatcoats, black baseball caps too small’, leaning ‘over their humble meals of grime’ (2012a, p. 17). In their transience, their poverty and distillation of life to the basic human appetites they are symbols of an essential wisdom and virtue that existed before the rush to accumulate power,
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wealth and status—an angelic simplicity to counter the cold utilitarianism and respectability of the outside world: ‘the flash of their mouths’, Kerouac marvels, made them ‘like the mouths of minstrels, as they ate’ (p. 17). Revisiting the Elysian metaphor later in the novel and adding to it via Spengler, he reads the past, present and future of humanity in equivalent figures over the border in Mexico. Driving through a Mexican market town, he wonders at ‘Jeremiacal hoboes’ who lounge against buildings, imagining them as primitive ‘shepherds’ of a bygone age (p. 443), harbingers of a future in which the world is returned to its mythical, pre-modern glory: ‘The future’s in Fellaheen’, he writes, ‘at Actopan this biblical plateau begins—it’s reached by the mountain of faith only. I know that I will someday live in a land like this I did long ago’ (pp. 443–444). By Ginsberg’s estimation in his introduction to Visions of Cody, the book is Kerouac’s ‘dirge for America’ (2012b, p. 9). It uses stream of consciousness paeans to or transcriptions of taped conversation with the hero figure Neal Cassady—whose own homeless father appears frequently as an angelic prototype—to fuse Spengler’s image of the Fellaheen with what Ginsberg— again—describes as a Whitman-like ‘heroism of the mind, the American Person that Whitman sought to adore’ (p. 9). Kerouac’s identification of such heroism in the ‘inconceivably’ attired homeless is presented throughout his work as a vital component of the original ‘beat’ mission—a mark of the writer’s necessary humility—and one he felt his contemporaries fell short of. Explaining his refusal—in later life—to contribute to a book about the Beat Generation, he turned with bitterness on Ginsberg particularly but also—and for the first time—on Burroughs: What these bozos and their friends are up to now is simply the last act in their original adoption and betrayal of any truly ‘beat’ credo. Now that we’re all getting to be middleaged I can see that they’re just frustrated hysterical provocateurs and attention-seekers with nothing on their mind but rancor towards ‘America’ and the life of ordinary people. They have never written about ordinary people with any love, you may have noticed. (Kerouac 1996, p. 377 [letter sent 1964])
Ground down by years of his own itinerant living, by alcoholism and by a crippling sense of his failure not as a writer but as a man, he had by this point rewritten Beat history to present himself as authentic and the rest as charlatans. In Vanity of Duluoz, published a few years after this letter, he
came out unkindly against Ginsberg—claiming he had never liked him at Columbia, and comparing him to a ‘lecher who wanted everybody in the world to take a bath together’ so he could ‘feel their legs under dirty water’ (2012a, pp. 203–204). He also dismissed his old ‘teacher’ Burroughs as a class tourist: ‘a middleclass kid with rich parents’ who had used Kerouac and others to peep in at the hoi polloi (p. 196). Revisionist caricatures, these also contain the kernel of a genuine difference between the Beats’ approaches to nation and class. Burroughs spent his adult life supported by but deliberately distanced from his moneyed family, and Ginsberg built his career in direct contradiction to the values of his respectable literary father Louis. Kerouac, on the other hand, combined his romanticising of nonconformist criminal America with a deep- felt respect for the conservative and patriotic community he had grown up in. He returned consistently to his mother’s home throughout his life— finally dying in her and his third wife Stella’s care in Florida—and was proud to represent a side of American life that abhorred the kind of radicalisms his and his friends’ project ended up catalysing.
Us Versus the ‘Finks’ For all his protectiveness over the working classes—for all his doubts about Ginsberg’s self-ordination—Kerouac was susceptible to his own social snobberies. The love he felt for ‘ordinary’ people was far from unconditional—reserved in fact for those whose extreme states of poverty left them adrift from the system he opposed. In stark contrast to the saintly portrayal of the lunching hobos—or his nostalgic presentation of salt-of- the-earth sailors, prisoners and longshoremen in Vanity of Duluoz— another New York café scene in Visions of Cody finds him turning unpleasantly on the ordinary passers-by he sees through the window. One by one they are subjected to reductive presumptions: from ‘[the] plump pimply guy of thirty, from Brooklyn, who spends Sunday afternoons reading funnies … and listening to ball-games on the radio’ and ‘the Irish gentleman … lost in thought of his job or wife or by God anything including feelings of homosexual deterioration or that Communists are secretly controlling his life’, to ‘the great high civilization peasant woman of swank apartments with a hairy husband … who deals in high finance with the gravity and hirsute slowness of an ape’ (2012b, pp. 34–35). That condescension—informed in the final example again by Spengler’s culture-civilisation rhetoric—is proudly causeless and
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intellectually haughty, based on a patronising, misguided belief that he has a rare vantage point and understanding of Little America. Written from the perspective of an ordinary observer rather than Ginsberg’s of prophet, these caricatures nevertheless reveal the petty extension of Kerouac’s bid to love the country and humanity tenderly. It is the same reality on display when he writes, in Vanity of Dulouz, of two types of people in the world: ‘us’, meaning people like him, his girlfriend Joyce (Jean in the book) and their bohemian friends, and the ‘finks’, those whose lives are dictated by social convention, who express themselves as society has taught them to rather than through contemplation of their authentic inner will (2012a, p. 196). Guided by this binary, Kerouac falls dramatically short of the kind of observational eye he aims for—the kind Whitman applied in the nineteenth century and was intended to mirror ‘the sun falling around a helpless thing’ (1982, p. 9). Throughout Leaves of Grass, Whitman’s vanity in making himself god-like is always offset by an absence of malice or smugness. ‘Complaint and jealousy and envy’, he wrote, are ‘corpses buried and rotten in the earth’, and his snapshots of people and places are entirely, sometimes obtusely non- judgemental (1982, p. 12). This is the blind confidence Henry Miller pointed out in him—the courage or wilful naivety behind his representation of a longed for perfect world as already existent. It is also what led Miller to describe Whitman as a radically new version of Christ returned, intent on reminding the world through love not reprimand of the perfect diversity of its many parts (1973, p. 4). In his own work, Kerouac too pictured his literary persona as Christ- like, a ‘resurrected man’ or ‘returning angel’—both images that appear frequently in Tristessa, in the story he tells of his literary coming of age in Vanity of Duluoz and in his private journals and letters—but he positioned himself as someone who had apprehended perfection and was disappointed at the imperfect material mess he found back on earth. There is a constant and admirable quest in Kerouac, as in Whitman’s Leaves of Grass—and also Henry Miller’s Tropic of Cancer—for a more evolved form of judgement, free from squeamish and supercilious morality and productive of a truly accepting attitude towards his fellow human beings. Indeed, contemplating in his diary how his ‘resurrected man’ would receive the world, he sounds superficially very like Whitman. ‘Would [he] waste any time contemplating the good and evil in the world?’ he asks ‘or would he just feast the eyes of his in a hungry viewing of life on earth, of the reality of life on earth, the thing itself: little children, men, women,
towns, cities, seasons and seas!’ (Kerouac 2006, p. 14). Viewed through the correctly tender, compassionate lens, sinners and saints should be accepted together, observed in kind rather than superior judgement, and human and natural life celebrated in all their varieties. But his benevolent, non-judgemental intentions were compromised by his strength of feeling—his deep affection for a certain version of humanity and distaste for the others. His model for a way of recording the world, which was guided by a protectiveness of the weak and socially vulnerable (and by the best self he believed he was at his own most open and vulnerable), carried with it an urgent desire to stratify peoples’ virtue according to suffering and noncompliance. That desire necessarily contradicted the patient love he was advocating.
Primitivism, Virtue and Sin It also led Kerouac to the kind of primitivist thinking that was criticised by Norman Podhoretz as early as 1960 (1990), has been outlined over the years—by Jon Panish (1994), Rob Holton (1999) and Nancy McCampbell Grace (2000)—but is regularly side-lined as secondary to his larger mission.14 Despite his extensive, strategic reading, Kerouac was received first by his friends and then by the wider literary world as an unliterary, unreconstructed writer. Before Norman Mailer praised Kerouac as a ‘giant of style because he has got beyond it’, before New York Intellectuals like Podhoretz complained snidely about his anti-intellectuality, Ginsberg wrote to Lionel Trilling promoting him as a primitive treasure, ‘a type of simpleton’ who produced ‘very great work’ but needed handling with kid gloves (Podhoretz 1994, p. 236; Ginsberg 2008, p. 12). Later, in that introduction to Visions of Cody, Ginsberg would go on to call Kerouac a ‘primitive genius’ in the mould of French painter Douanier Rousseau (2012b, p. 8). In Vanity of Duluoz Kerouac suggests he enjoyed the role he was given of roughneck ‘native canuck’ within the sophisticated ‘New Orleans School’ of Burroughs and Carr—and viewed it as a mark of superiority over these rich seekers of working-class glamour (2012b, p. 193). He would no doubt have taken less pleasure from this description by the young Ginsberg, who he dismisses in the same book as a fame hungry, political hypocrite: someone who had vowed to ‘devote [his] life to the liberation of the working class’ but hadn’t done ‘a lick of work … in his life’ (p. 222). But Kerouac’s own preference for road living, and for
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prostitutes and junkies in Mexico over poets at Berkeley came from a similar primitivising instinct. His persona in life and literature, and the cast of characters he produced out of his real-life acquaintances were an extension of a particular intellectual romance with non-intellectualism first articulated by Whitman, a drunken, ‘beat’ and post-Second World War updating of Whitman’s original testament to the ‘indescribable freshness and unconsciousness about an illiterate person that humbles and mocks the power of the noblest expressive genius’ (1982 , p. 9). In Tristessa Kerouac demonstrates the accidentally dehumanising results when that quest for unrefined ‘freshness’ is combined with Spengler-like tropes of will, destiny, civilisation and culture. His fictional account of a month spent roughing it in Mexico with a morphine-addicted young prostitute, her friend and their dealer, it is intended as a poetic tribute to a woman whose poverty, beauty and chemical craving simplify her existence and immunise her against the corrupt world. Changing her name from hope (Esperanza) to sadness, Kerouac also elevates his heroine to the status of saintly virgin (‘like a woman in the back pew of a church … dab[bing] at her eyes’), from a hustling junkie to an ‘angel’ and even a Buddhist ‘Bohdisat’, wisely and compassionately working her way up the path to spiritual Enlightenment (2019, pp. 40, 41). Under alcohol and the new effect of morphine (new because Burroughs’ addiction to it had frightened him off in America), the eye he trains on Tristessa does indeed mirror Whitman’s ‘sun falling around a helpless thing’ (1982, p. 9). He speaks with soft reverence about her fragile beauty and grace. But it is a fragility he fantasises rather than investigates, an idea he comes up with while flitting in and out of consciousness in the chair opposite her, ‘play[ing] games with her fabulous eyes’ and convincing himself that ‘she longs to be in a monastery’ (Kerouac 2019, p. 41). And it is a softness that is felt and explored for his own purposes, not hers—his poor Spanish and her poor English leaving them unable to communicate properly and him free to imagine how she feels. As so often in Kerouac’s work, real-life suffering becomes both hallucinated cypher and conduit for his emotional experience of his most fundamental theme: ‘the pain and loveliness that went no doubt into the making of this fatal world’ (2019, p. 36). This is Kerouac’s version of the ‘fellah’ spirit—a native peasant proximity to a larger eternal truth affording perspective on the ephemeral nature of life. By his closeness to Tristessa and her friend, he confirms a hunch expressed throughout his journals, letters and fiction—that death is the only truly knowable fact of life. We are, Kerouac says mantra-like in
Tristessa, ‘born to die’, ‘living but to die’, ‘quick to be dead’ (2019, pp. 29, 22). Not only poor and very real victims both of their immediate social and economic circumstances and the historical colonialism that shaped those, they become the telepathic bearers of ‘some dark Aztecan instinctual belief’ in the same (p. 14). Kerouac applies Spengler’s grand imaginary about the fate of groups of human beings to translate these women’s sickness and daily desperate grind into a romantic, fatalistic story: schematised within the rise and fall of meta-history, two real and suffering drug addicts become romantic ‘Fellaheena’ (p. 15)—tragic, holy symbols of the declining West’s exported pain: ‘that German civilization morphine she (and Indian) is forced to subdue and die to, in her native earth’ (p. 19). As John Lardas and Robert Inchausti have both commented, this use of Spengler was honestly, religiously meant. Kerouac’s exploration of the Mexico City underworld had an ascetic spiritual purpose, and it is clear throughout the book that his degradation among junkies is part of a larger quest to move beyond material value and into a more profound, compassionate emotional realm. In a line that Ginsberg quotes in his preface to Visions of Cody—and that earlier we heard him using to summarise the Beat movement overall—Kerouac paraphrases Jesus’ revolutionary stand for the dispossessed, divesting himself of possessions in order to emphasise human feeling over material wealth and to speak for those with nothing. ‘Everything belongs to me because I am poor’, Kerouac writes, aiming not necessarily to aggrandise himself but wistfully to demonstrate the wealth of spiritual and existential understanding afforded those with nothing (Kerouac 2012a, pp. 2, 48, 122). Desiring recognition and enough money from his writing to live on, he was genuinely indifferent to the trappings of wealth and fame (after they finally arrived), and felt that indifference as the key to attaining a ‘panoramic consciousness’ of humanity (2012a, p. 2). But in rejecting gain and attempting parity with the dispossessed—in announcing ‘I dig you as we together dig the lostness and the fact that of course nothing’s ever to be gained but death’—he imposed rather than requested a union, assuming that his personal revelations about truth and falsehood, mortal impermanence and immortal mystery corresponded with people about whose complex sufferings he had little actual first-hand knowledge (2012a, pp. 2, 57). As we’ll see when we come to look at Norman Mailer, and Mailer’s essay ‘The White Negro’, the racial aspect of Kerouac’s romantic approach to marginalised people was part of a larger countercultural solipsism—a symptom of the failure of white bohemian artists in the 1950s and 1960s
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to think past their individual longings for authenticity and into the more complex existential struggles of their black counterparts. For Kerouac, the equivalent of Ginsberg’s discovery of Whitman’s long line form was his earlier realisation that he could replicate the breathing, accents and improvisational structure of the black jazz music he and Neal Cassady–Dean Moriarty worship in On the Road. A genuine and successful homage, and one that legitimised his melding of high literary aspiration with popular musical culture, it was also—and unsurprisingly—connected to reductive stereotypes about African American creativity and suffering. Observing the black man on the subway in Visions of Cody, Kerouac is put in mind of ‘that strange Negro gurgle or burble in the voice that goes with the strangely humble clownish position of the American Negro’ (pp. 31–32). Like Tristessa, the unsuspecting stranger is subjected to pseudo-Spenglerian analysis, this time tangled up with an entirely un-ironic old-fashioned racist dialectic: the black man ‘needs and wants’ that clownish position, Kerouac writes, ‘because of a primarily meek Myshkin-like saintliness mixed with the primitive anger in [his] blood’ (p. 32). Kerouac’s racial scheme—in which he also claimed a version of ‘Fellaheen’ status for himself by virtue of his ‘Breton’ French-Canadian ancestry—was clumsy, and—in instances like this one—embarrassingly offensive (2012b, p. 196). Even treated kindly, as he is by Nancy McCampbell Grace, the best that can be said about his writing of non- white people is that it left him ‘caught between his desire to distinguish himself as a white male … and his need to eschew belief in the supremacy of the white male’ (Grace 2000, pp. 45–46). This should and will be read in relation to those wider primitivist mores within the Beat movement and the attempt in the decades following the 1960s to take these to task. For now though, a more pressing issue is the vicarious motivation behind his portraits of Tristessa and black Americans like the man he describes on the metro. In the unorthodox quasi-biblical parable that Tristessa presents—a microcosm of a larger one expanding across his entire body of work—he also casts himself as a comedian, a figure like his boyhood hero W.C. Fields, who ‘shambles’ after Tristessa as he did after the Neal Cassady–Dean Moriarty hero in On the Road, falling in and out of bars paralytic, and having his pockets turned out by local street kids and hoodlums (Kerouac 2011, pp. 12, 30). Along with the tragedy of suffering, he posits the comedy of his own foolishness—aligned with the ‘clownish position of the American Negro’—as qualification for the canon. Indeed, in the ‘enormous comedy’ he took his work to represent—an exposition of sadness,
tenderness and ‘absurdity’ (2012b, p. 234)—that resurrected angelic persona was also the persona of a ‘funny imbecilic saint’ (p. 196). Both positions, it seems, were part of Kerouac’s armour against vulnerability, and vulnerability that fed and was fed by the vanity he so often confessed to. If he had, as he wrote towards the end of his life, ‘worked harder at this legend business’ than his friends, it was because the inscription of his real life into legend gave him courage against psychological insecurities he felt and hid more deeply than them (Kerouac 2012a, p. 157). In correspondence with Marlon Brando—whose macho charisma he revered and who had bought the rights to produce and star in a film of On the Road—he repeated the line about himself as returning angel: ‘Everything I write’, Kerouac told Brando, ‘I do in the spirit where I imagine myself an Angel returned to the earth seeing it with sad eyes as it is’ (The Allen Ginsberg Project 2018, np.). And in his journals he visits a similar image, envisaging a better world if the living could think through the mind and see through the eyes of a dead man returned to earth (Kerouac 2006, p. 14). Famously, the first definition of the Beat Generation—given by Kerouac but written down by his friend John Clellon Holmes—describes the group as ‘furtive’, intuiting a profound tragic secret about human life that must be guarded closely from outsiders (Holmes 1967, p. 107). Such guardedness overwhelms Kerouac at points in Tristessa. Casting himself as tragic- heroic bearer of the mystery—about himself and, through himself, about the world—he relates to other human beings by their ability to recognise that in him: the old bar-sweep, for example, whom he encounters at the end of a long night of drinking and who ‘pleads with me with his eyes’ not to cause trouble. ‘Great God, he knew!’ the author-narrator Jack Duluoz exclaims—meaning simultaneously that he could read the sin in the soul before him and shared its understanding of the world at large (2019, p. 57). He could see, as Kerouac puts it in Vanity of Duluoz, that ‘Duluoz’ might be ‘a shit posing as an angel’, a fraud whose hand-wringing about the meaning of life, about the protection of his spiritual purity, might all be a cover for sin, triviality and base deviousness (2012b, p. 193). Against his horror at this possibility—and yet paradoxically in confirmation of its vain origins—he comforts himself with the idea of genuinely angelic human beings—‘people [like Tristessa’s friend Cruz who] have vibrations that come straight from the vibrating heart of the sun, unjaded …’ (2019, p. 57).
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Conclusion With Kerouac’s as with Ginsberg’s romance, and with both of their quests to express a feeling of great sympathy for all humankind, there came a countervailing irresponsibility towards the self and others. In Kerouac that irresponsibility combined with his sense of not belonging, and with his affinity with outsider protagonists to produce a self-image of heroic victimhood and abnormal sensitivity to the plight of collective and individual humanity. Both main progenitors of the Beat project sought to see all human life as one, but wound up separating it along proscriptive religious lines: Ginsberg according to the vocational, evangelical idea of those who were saved by their spiritual sightedness and those whose vision remained impaired; Kerouac according to the more Existentialist notion of an authentic impulse held to by those who by choice or circumstance found themselves removed from respectable, work-a-day society. All his adult life, Kerouac strove for the same authenticity by retaining the view of himself he developed while a fresh-faced nineteen-year-old at Columbia, the ‘innocent son victimised by decadent friendship in the evil city’ or the budding athlete persecuted by a football coach who wouldn’t play him (2012b, p. 238). As interviews and sections of Vanity of Duluoz reveal, this outlook on the self and world span eventually out of control and into bitter misanthropy in his later years. Never as interested in the collective as Ginsberg, he was unable to accommodate his self-image as martyr with a larger martyrdom for his circle, let alone his generation. Present at the Six Gallery Poetry reading that announced the ‘Beat’ movement to the public—but contributing only from the audience, with shouts of encouragement— Kerouac resisted the group feeling his friend nurtured in San Francisco. He used his literature to pre-empt what one of the performers that evening, Michael McClure, called a new insistence that personal poetry would encourage more merciful behaviour on a social scale. But he was temperamentally incredulous of its possibility. Kerouac saw, perhaps—where Ginsberg could not—how difficult it was to translate a profound, tender feeling achieved through retreat from the world into something more outward facing and permanent. Able to feel and articulate a ‘weary kind of gladness … tinged with wild strength’ and ‘gentilized … concerns’ while drunk and opiated, he marked that state as the quintessence of authenticity (2019, pp. 24–25). In Kerouac’s tragic failure to extend this feeling to sober, social life, we get a microcosm of a
deeper paradox in the countercultural thinking he influenced—that the expansion of consciousness towards profound love for all very often results in as profound a separation from the ordinary concerns of ordinary human beings. In Kerouac’s case, this was also the depressing but logical conclusion to what John Tytell calls the Beats’ post-war ‘merger of bitterness and idealism’, disaffected contempt for the corrupt expediencies of functioning daily life combined with utopian zeal for a reality glimpsed in isolation. As we’ll see in Chap. 5, ‘The Philosophy of Hip: Norman Mailer’s “Spiritual Existentialism”’, a version of that combination also motivated Jean-Paul Sartre’s movement of Existentialism across the Atlantic. As Kerouac recognised and Ann Charters has argued convincingly, the New York scene that produced the Beat Generation—a scene coordinated around watchwords like ‘“skepticism” and “decadence”’, and ‘the nothingness of values’—was in many ways an American expression of what was ‘going on in Paris and Berlin’ at the same time (Charters 1998; Kerouac 2012b, p. 251). However, their paradoxical interest in Transcendentalism and eschatology distinguished them in important ways from Sartre and his peers. Their symbiosis of Whitman and Spengler, of optimistic faith and inveterate scepticism, of longing for self-determination and of a fatalistic belief that all human life worked according to a pre-determined plan, produced a religious-apocalyptic drive at odds with but essential to their spiritual twist on post-war Existentialist ideas. As we’ve seen, that drive had a very specific geographical context. In line with and following on from the patchwork Henry Miller made of modernist sources in Paris, the games the Beats played with contradictory attitudes and registers—optimism and fatalism, reverence and irreverence, progressiveness and reaction, humanist and anti-humanist—were their response to a new crisis of modernity after 1945, a crisis which, as Richard Shepherd has shown, young American writers were caught up in twenty years after their European modernist counterparts (Garland 2010, p. 210). Ultimately, bitterness about the present and idealism about the past combined to produce a vision of the future based on magical retreat to the past rather than real-life engagement with the present. Like all nostalgic missions, the Beat Generation was fueled by desire for a past it knew it could not recover. The realisation of this bind was another aspect that did for Kerouac in the end—and left him exasperated with his old friend Ginsberg and with the hippies who ‘came along with their sandals and
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long hair and just sat watching us’ (Kerouac 1959). As Ginsberg pointed out in his preface to Visions of Cody, Kerouac sought something like ‘Whitman’s Adhesiveness’ (Kerouac 2012a, p. 6) for the mid-twentieth century, but his invocation of it was steeped in exquisite regret at its passing: a yearning for ‘an old consciousness already forgotten since the good grey bard’s nineteenth century yore’ (p. 6). The same seductive vision captivated the next generation, who discovered On the Road, ‘Howl’ and the myriad other odes to youth, nature and unassimilated living and ducked with their authors out of the mainstream. And it has lingered in the cultural memory of Beat culture ever since— summed up recently and accidentally by Burroughs scholar Bill Morgan in his book Beat Atlas: A State by State Guide to the Beat Generation. ‘In reading the works of Kerouac, Ginsberg, Ferlinghetti and other Beat writers’, Morgan writes, ‘we can share in the experience of what it was like to wander across America in a gentler time’ (Morgan 2011, p. 11). Then as now, this longing for a better age—and this vicarious living through literary heroes from it—can only ever provide momentary and delusory relief. It was apparently Kerouac’s curse to have recognised that in later life at least and perhaps Ginsberg’s blessing to have been able to carry on ignoring it. By the same token, Ginsberg was able where Kerouac wasn’t to square the discrepancy between impermanent happiness in material reality with a longing for its permanence in an eternal world before and after. There are major problems with the wonder Kerouac expresses in Visions of Cody for ‘love and sympathy’ experienced ‘in a flash’—and with his outsized sadness at the realisation that wishing greater permanence is futile (p. 27). He understood through his Zen Buddhist reading that ‘the moment is ungraspable, is already gone’, but spent an entire career stumbling around trying to recapture and prolong it—through alcohol, drugs, romance and writing. That very human, tragi-comic stumbling led finally and inevitably to his just tragic closing scene—washed up in front of the television set in Lowell, an alcoholic invalid sympathising more with the bitter rage of Captain Ahab than Ishmael.15 Echoing Proust, he understood the artistic value in recording the individual’s ‘memoried’ existence (2019, p. 30). ‘If we sleep’, he wrote again in Visions of Cody, ‘we can call it up again mixing it with unlimited other beautiful combinations’ (p. 27). However beautiful his dreams—the ones he had while intoxicated in the world and at the typewriter—the end goal of collective beatitude was always doomed to failure. In Kerouac’s painful final awareness of this, of how far he fell short
of that coveted beatitude, we catch a glimpse of equivalent, but unacknowledged, shortcomings in the counterculture that followed. The mission to enlighten others originated in a masochistic longing, and a binary of authenticity versus inauthenticity that compromised the message of love and unity on which the ‘Beat’ project, and then the counterculture, was sold. If Kerouac claimed to be revealing secrets in the ‘mad hearts of all of us’, in reality he could only accomplish the impressive—but more prosaic—feat of revealing his own. In his best moments, that also reflected the kind of thinking and feeling that went on in a particular subsection of society—an emotionally honest demonstration of what it was like to be young, white, educated and poor by choice in the aftermath of Second World War in America. Though his wider social observations were well meant, and brimming with sadness at the suffering of others, they were also very often tin-eared, giving a lie to his determination—as a young writer starting out—to ‘know man and his travails thru communion with him’ (Kerouac 1996, p. 17). In the next chapter our attention turns to William Burroughs—a figure whose fatalism was more candid and matter-of-fact, and who had much less trouble admitting it at the heart of his own countercultural mission. Through his letters, journals, essays and prose fiction we’ll get a clearer picture of the contradictions in the Beat clamour for free thought and expression and for a more open and equal society. And we’ll see in bolder relief the connections between that youth revolutionary movement and the modernist thinking that was there at its conception. A proud realist among romantics, Burroughs’ estrangement from conventional moral life in fact concealed a core sense of decency that prevented him from canonising ‘Fellaheen’ figures. He was unimpressed by Kerouac and Ginsberg’s crush on Neal Cassady, and even less so by the junkies and criminals he introduced his two young friends to. For Burroughs, as Ginsberg recorded in that early sketch of the new vision, writing literature in 1950s America meant treating her with sociological honesty and humor—not romantic fancies about the spiritual redemption of a civilisation going down the pan. Crucially also, Burroughs’ more literal reading of Spengler’s meta- historical charts, and his education in a more sceptical—what Frank Kermode called ‘clerkly’—modernist age, left him with much less faith in the practicality of collective human improvement, and indeed a united, just or equal world (1967, p. 104).
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Notes 1. The Jack Kerouac School of Disembodied Poetics, which Ginsberg founded with Ann Waldman in 1974 and which operates out of Naropa University, Boulder, Colorado, continues to teach creative writing according loosely to Kerouac’s theory of ‘spontaneous bop prosody’. See my Chap. 1. 2. As his Selected Letters 1945–1959 demonstrate (Burroughs 2009), he was fond of alerting his friends to ‘the facts’ about the world as he saw them—a fondness he developed into a philosophy of ‘factualism’, and which was based—in typically counter-intuitive fashion—on the need to get beyond both subjective moral opinion and objective standards for measuring material reality (2009, p. 24). 3. For a detailed impression of the way the Beats dramatised Carr and Kammerer’s relationship, see And the Hippos Were Boiled in Their Tanks (2008), a semi-fictional book about the pair that Kerouac and Burroughs wrote together. See also Ginsberg’s published early journals, The Book of Martyrdom and Artifice: First Journals and Poems, 1937–1952 (2006) and Kerouac’s Vanity of Duluoz. (2012b). 4. See Ginsberg’s preface to Visions of Cody, in which he writes reverently about the spirit Kerouac received ‘out of Burroughs’ copy of Spengler’ (2012a, p. 8). 5. In Ginsberg and Kerouac’s accounts, Carr had an infectious interest in living life according to Gide’s principle of l’acte gratuite (gratuitous act). Ginsberg’s father Louis, a poet himself and by no means the stern or conservative patriarch, worried that his son was falling under the spell of Gide’s ‘immoralist way of life’ (Ginsberg 2006, p. 120). 6. In letters as a young man, and lectures as an old one, Ginsberg expressed his admiration for the liberating sexual ‘literal[ness]’ of Yeats’ poem (The Letters of Allen Ginsberg 2008, p. 39). For more on this, and Ginsberg’s discussion of Yeats’ form and subject matter, see audio materials at Naropa University Audio Archive (1980). Ginsberg’s 1950s extension of Yeats’ vision to a frank exultation of his homosexual desires was attacked cheaply and unkindly by his former classmate at Columbia, Norman Podhoretz— in the 1960s and after Ginsberg’s death (Podhoretz 1999, p. 54). Podhoretz, we’ll see, was too willfully crude in his objections to the Beats, but raised apposite early concerns about their use of non-white America. 7. This comment comes in a letter from Ginsberg to Kerouac, sent in the summer of 1949 (2008, pp. 36–42). In it he discusses a ‘lecture’ just received from his former professor at Columbia, Mark Van Doren—who has testified in court to help him escape a criminal charge and taken him to task for his irresponsibility. Exaggerating Van Doren’s reproach—but pre-
empting one that would be made throughout the 1960s—he asserts his own philosophical seriousness against the idea that he might be a ‘hipster hassling against society while cream and honey pour down unnoticed’ (p. 37). 8. See my note on ‘facts’ and Burroughs’ ‘factualism’, p. 2. 9. Ginsberg, in his journal while a student at Columbia, calls Kammerer ‘mephisto’ to Carr’s Faust (2006, p. 112). 10. See my Chap. 2. 11. The quote in fact first appears in print in Visions of Cody (2012a, p. 122), but was included in the original manuscript of On the Road. 12. The first quote is Ginsberg, writing in the introduction to Visions of Cody (2012a, p. 6); the second is Whitman, from the preface to Leaves of Grass (1982, p. 6). 13. For more on this, see Lawrence Buell’s chapter on Whitman in Literary Transcendentalism: Style and Vision in the American Renaissance (1973) and D.H. Lawrence’s chapter on him in Studies in Classic American Literature (1923). Buell—who praises Whitman’s radically democratic and humanitarian extension of Emerson’s Transcendentalist vision—allows that Whitman’s attempt at universal empathy can be ‘fatuous or mechanical’ (p. 328). Lawrence—whom Buell in fact references for support— famously took the American bard to task for speaking abstractly and with misplaced authority for all humankind. 14. As Grace points out in her account of Kerouac’s relationship with race, Podhoretz’ piece is full of cheap, snobbish shots at Kerouac and the Beats, but is good on their reductive racial politics. 15. As he puts it in Vanity of Duluoz, his final biographical installment, ‘now that I’m forty-five and in a continual rage myself, I can understand and sympathise with that chief-mage, at last, and I know what way the salmon jump up that river of bitter time and pain’ (p. 171).
Works Cited Blake, William. 2017. ‘London.’ In Songs of Innocence and Experience, p. 50. London: Penguin. Orig. ed.: 1789. Buell, Lawrence. 1973. Literary Transcendentalism: Style and Vision in the American Renaissance. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press. Burroughs, William S. 2009. Letters 1945–1959, ed. with an intro. by Oliver Harris. Penguin: London. Garland, Sarah. 2010. ‘The Dearest of Cemeteries.’ European Journal of American Culture, 29 no. 3: 197–215.
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Ginsberg, Allen. 1980. ‘Basic Poetics I &II’. Naropa University Audio Archive. https://cdm16621.contentdm.oclc.org/digital/collection/p16621coll1/ id/369. [Accessed 18th March 2020]. Ginsberg, Allen. 2006. The Book of Martyrdom and Artifice: First Journals and Poems, 1937–1952, ed. by Juanita Lieberman-Plimpton and Bill Morgan. Cambridge: Da Capo Press. ––– ‘Essay in Character Analysis: Lucien Carr.’ 3rd August 1944, pp. 47–50. ––– ‘Suicide Note: Revised.’ 18th September 1944, p. 69. ––– ‘Excerpt from a letter by Ginsberg’s father Louis to Lionel Trilling,’ copied into journals. 3rd February 1945, pp. 119–20. ––– ‘“The New Vision.”’ 3rd February 1945, pp. 120–24. ––– ‘Portrait of Huncke.’ 1 April 1949, pp. 262–75. Ginsberg, Allen. 2009. Collected Poems. London: Penguin. ––– ‘Psalm 1.’ 1949, p. 26. ––– ‘Howl.’ 1955–1956, pp. 134–41. ––– ‘My Sad Self.’ 1958, pp. 209–10. ––– ‘Kaddish: Poem, Narrative, Hymmnn, Lament, Litany.’ 1959–1960, pp. 217–32. Ginsberg, Allen. 2000. ‘A Definition of the Beat Generation.’ In Deliberate Prose: Selected Essays 1952–1995, ed. by Bill Morgan, pp. 236–39. London: Penguin. Ginsberg, Allen. 1995. Journals Mid-Fifties: 1954–1958, ed. by Gordon Bell. New York: Harper Collins. Ginsberg, Allen. ‘Junk.’ 3 November 1957, pp. 388–83. Ginsberg, Allen. 2008. The Letters of Allen Ginsberg, ed. by Bill Morgan. Da Capo Press: Philadelphia. ––– ‘Allen Ginsberg to Jack Kerouac.’ 15 June 1949, pp. 36–42. ––– ‘Allen Ginsberg to Lionel Trilling.’ 4 September 1945, pp. 10–14. ––– ‘Allen Ginsberg to John Clellon Holmes.’ 16 June 1949, pp. 42–56. Ginsberg, Allen. 1975. ‘Spiritual Poetics 4.’ Transcribed lecture posted by The Allen Ginsberg Project. https://allenginsberg.org/2011/08/spiritual-poetics-4/. [Accessed Wednesday 11 March 2020]. Grace, Nancy McCampbell. 2000. ‘A White Man in Love: A Study of Race, Gender and Ethnicity in Jack Kerouac’s Maggie Cassidy, “The Subterraneans, and Tristessa”.’ College Literature, 27, no. 1: 39–62. Holmes, John Clellon. 1967. ‘The Name of the Game.’ In Nothing More to Declare. New York: E.P. Dutton. Holton, Rob. 1999. ‘“Real Country and Real People”: The Countercultural Pastoral 1948–1971.’ In Beat Culture: The 1950s and Beyond, ed. by Cornelis A. Van Minnen, Jaap Van Der Bent, Mel Van Elteren, and David Amram, pp. 93–106. Amsterdam: VU University Press. Inchausti, Robert (ed. and intro.). 2017. Hard To Be a Saint in the City: The Spiritual Vision of the Beats. Boulder: Shambhala Publications.
Kermode, Frank. 1967. ‘The Modern Apocalypse.’ In The Sense of an Ending: Studies in the Theory of Fiction, pp. 91–124. New York: OUP. Kerouac, Jack and William Burroughs. 2008. And the Hippos Were Boiled in Their Tanks. London: Penguin. Kerouac, Jack. 1996. Selected Letters: 1957–1969, ed. by Ann Charters. New York. Viking. ––– ‘To Allen Ginsberg.’ 23 August 1945, pp. 90–93. ––– ‘To Allen Ginsberg.’ October 1944 [specific date not given], pp. 80–82. ––– ‘To Sebastian Sampas.’ October 1941, p. 17. Kerouac, Jack. ‘Jack Kerouac to Nando Pivano.’ 1964, p. 377. Kerouac, Jack. 2011. On The Road. London: Penguin. Orig. ed.: 1957. Kerouac, Jack. 2019. Tristessa. London: Penguin. Orig. ed.: 1960. Kerouac, Jack. 2012a. Visions of Cody. London: Penguin. Orig. ed.: 1972. Kerouac, Jack. 2012b. Vanity of Duluoz. London: Penguin. Orig. ed.: 1968. Kerouac, Jack. 2004. Windblown World: The Journals of Jack Kerouac 1947–1954, ed. with an intro. by Douglas Brinkley. London: Penguin. Kerouac, Jack. 1959. ‘Jack Kerouac on the Steve Allen Show.’ The Steve Allen Show. NBC. Viewed on Youtube: https://www.youtube.com/ watch?v=3LLpNKo09Xk. [Accessed 11 March 2020]. Lardas, John. 2001. The Bop Apocalypse: The Religious Visions of Kerouac, Ginsberg, and Burroughs. Urbana and Chicago: University of Illinois Press. Lawrence, D.H. 1923. Studies in Classic American Literature. New York: Seltzer. Maher, Paul Jr. 2004. Jack Kerouac: His Life and Work. Lanham: Taylor Trade Publishing. Miller, Henry. 1965. Black Spring. London: John Calder. Orig. ed.: 1936. Miller, Henry. 1960. ‘Max and the White Phagocytes.’ In The Best of Henry Miller, ed. by Lawrence Durrell. London: Heinemann, pp. 134–67. Originally published as Max and the White Phagocytes. 1938. Paris: Obelisk Press. Miller, Henry. 1981. Plexus. London: Granada. Orig. ed.: 1953. Miller, Henry. 2005a. Tropic of Cancer. London: Harper Perennial. Orig. ed.: 1934. Miller, Henry. 2005b. Tropic of Capricorn. London: Harper Perennial. Orig. ed.: 1939. Miller, Henry. 1973. Walt Whitman. Orig. published in Stands Still Like The Hummingbird, 1962. Morgan, Bill. 2011. Beat Atlas: State by State Guide to the Beat Generation in America. San Francisco: City Lights Books. Mortenson, Erik. 2017. ‘Allen Ginsberg and Beat Poetry.’ In The Cambridge Companion to The Beats, ed. by Steve Belletto, pp. 77–91. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. Orwell, George. 2009. ‘Inside the Whale.’ In Critical Essays, ed. by George Packer, pp. 95–137. London: Harvill Secker. Orig. ed.: 1940.
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Panish, Jon. 1994. ‘Kerouac’s The Subterraneans: A Study of “Romantic Primitivism”.’ Melus, 19, no. 3: 107–123. Podhoretz, Norman. 1999. Ex-Friends: Falling Out With Allen Ginsberg, Lionel and Diana Trilling. New York: The Free Press. Podhoretz, Norman. 1990. ‘The Know-Nothing Bohemians.’ In On Bohemis: The Code of the Self-Exiled, ed. by César Graña and Marigay Graña, pp. 234–44. New Bruswick: Transaction Publishers. Originally published in The Partisan Review, 1960. Schumacher, Michael. 2018. ‘Jack Kerouac Writes A Letter To Marlon Brando.’ The Allen Ginsberg Project, 3 April 2018. https://allenginsberg.org/2018/04/ tuesday-april-3/. [Accessed 18 March 2020]. Scorsese, Martin (dir.). 2005. No Direction Home: Bob Dylan. New York: PBS, American Masters. Interview originally recorded in 1990. Spengler, Oswald. 1926. The Decline of the West, transl. by Charles Francis Atkinson, 2 vols. New York: A. Knopff. Orig. ed: 1918. Tytell, John. 2006. Naked Angels: The Lives and Literature of the Beat Generation. New York: McGraw-Hill. Orig. ed.: 1976 Weinreich, Regina. 2017. ‘Locating a Beat Aesthetic.’ In The Cambridge Companion to The Beats, ed. by Steve Belletto, pp. 51–61. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. Whitman, Walt. 1982. ‘Leaves of Grass.’ In Walt Whitman: Complete Poetry and Collected Prose, ed. by Justin Kaplin, pp. 1–147. The Library of America. Orig. ed.: 1855.
William Burroughs’ Immodest Proposal
Beat Rectitude The Beat paradox of revolutionary feeling and deep-down fatalism corresponds to another to do with recklessness and rectitude. Throughout their journal writing and correspondence, there is a precise intellectual and indeed moral attention to detail that gives a lie to their reputation for shunning form and discipline, and goes some way to explaining Kerouac bitterness at the way the movement was received. Aged just twenty, and only that month registered at Columbia, he can be seen in his letters instructing his childhood friend and fellow aspiring writer Sebastian Sampas on how a proper litterateur should behave: he must be ‘diligent, searching and scholarly’ in his approach to poetry; he must ‘forget the romantic “outcast” notions and continue observing phenomena of living, with the patience and scrutiny of a scientist in his laboratory’ (Kerouac 1999, p. 17). Never mind Thomas Wolfe or Arthur Rimbaud—the writer who would make his name promoting ‘spontaneous bop prosody’ sounds here like a high modernist of the early century, interested in the precise, lapidary rendering of human reality in words (Ginsberg 1956, n.p.). In fact, his precocious advice would not have been out of place in the literary critical writing of William Carlos Williams—who wanted poets to work ‘as a physician works, upon a patient’—or Ezra Pound—who told aspiring writers in 1913 ‘the serious artist is scientific’—a gatherer of the ‘lasting and unassailable data regarding the nature of man’ (Schumacher 1992, p. 124; Pound 1954, pp. 46, 42). © The Author(s) 2020 G. Stevenson, Anti-Humanism in the Counterculture, https://doi.org/10.1007/978-3-030-47760-8_4
As we have heard, in later life Kerouac took issue with Pound and Eliot for ‘always trying to show how fancy they are’, and for Ginsberg, Eliot and the kind of Anglo-American modernism he represented had let the nation down by retreating to old-fashioned English cadences rather than building on Whitman’s experiments with the American vernacular (Maffina 2012, p. 336; Schumacher 2014).1 In his letters to Kerouac though, he quoted Eliot’s disapproval of Romanticism—and of abstract Symbolism in his own great hero Blake—to warn against succumbing to the same (Ginsberg 2008, p. 38). We’ll come back to Ginsberg’s celebration of Pound later, but for now it is worth remembering his dressing down of the young student at Naropa, the hippie who asked why he had to trawl through the Cantos and would rather listen to Bob Dylan and ‘wave flowers’ instead. In the case of William Burroughs—whose work and life shocked polite society more than either of theirs—such old-fashioned propriety was never in doubt. It was a major aspect of the personality he performed in private and public, and the source in many ways of what fascinated and still fascinates people about this third player in the Beat triumvirate. From those early days in 1940s’ New York to his unexpected survival into the 1990s, Burroughs drew people into his orbit by the clash between his respectable outward appearance and outlaw attitude. It was an integral part of his act—on the small, hip social scene around Columbia, in the hard-boiled confessional prose he produced when he eventually started writing in the early 1950s, then in each new decade that his status as countercultural relic was rebooted. Young artists from Kerouac and Ginsberg to Kurt Cobain have admired the tension between Burroughs’ nonconformist instincts—his impatience with authority and tradition in the world as much as literature—and his resolute conformity to a proper way of speaking, dressing and conducting oneself in society. When Kerouac met him, he was a dropout in Greenwich Village, working in a bar to earn a wage and flirting with the criminal underworld, but he projected an image somewhere between ‘a shy bank clerk’ and an English colonial ‘just returned from a compound in Equatorial Africa’ (Kerouac 2012, p. 191). And when Burroughs was persuaded by a journalist in the 1980s to be filmed lunching with Andy Warhol—a meeting of radical minds in the legendary Chelsea Hotel—he sat in a three-piece suit, making mildly irritated small talk about food (Finch 1981). As we’ll see, this non-bohemian exterior had something perversely to do with the detective fiction narratives Burroughs enjoyed and imitated—an attempt to offset the
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unpredictable and dangerous situations a life of reckless abandon would inevitably entail against an appearance of unruffled calm. That refusal to lose his rag wasn’t just for show though. It was connected to a deeper refusal—evident in most of what Burroughs wrote and in his paternal correspondence with the younger Beats—to be swept up in their visionary designs for a better and more humane approach to the collective. Burroughs’ scepticism, inseparable from his unabashed misanthropy, is the focus of this chapter. As a literary and cultural phenomenon—one I have argued was an accommodation of new romantic instincts with inter-war modernist pessimisms—the Beat Generation is most obviously characterised by Kerouac and Ginsberg. It was they who first suggested their little group as a countrywide movement; it was they who worked to resurrect the ‘New England idealism’ of the previous century and to marry it with recent European avant-gardisms (Kerouac 2012, p. 193). But Burroughs had a contribution to the school—and the wider youth counterculture it catalysed—that extends far beyond having introduced Kerouac and Ginsberg to or consolidated their knowledge of those innovations. Never convinced that ‘beat’ was anything more than a useful PR handle, he nonetheless provided a bridge like Henry Miller’s between reactionary modernist thinking and this post-1945 social movement. Despite his commitment to what his friend the novelist Alexander Trocchi called the exploration of ‘inner space’ (an exploration that was typical of their American countercultural milieu), Burroughs maintained fidelity to the dry ‘facts’ as observed through individual lived experience (Campbell 2008, p. 211; Burroughs 2009, p. 24).2 In the pages ahead we’ll see that this involved an intensification of the kind of brutal rhetoric Miller had hit upon in the 1930s. There was a clear cultural genealogy between Miller’s Tropic of Cancer and Burroughs’ quasi-Surrealist fragmented satire Naked Lunch—signposted in the late 1950s and 1960s by the publishers and festival stages they shared and an excited popular press reaction when Burroughs’ book was banned as Miller’s had been in the 1930s. At the deeper levels of style and social commentary, however, Burroughs was also the logical step on from Miller: an author whose croaked, amused take on humanity at base street-level made an even blacker joke of intellectual schemes to perfect the species. Curiously, although Burroughs kept his straight face—and his deadpan voice—for longer, he also carried something of Miller’s and Kerouac and Ginsberg’s allegiance to the utopian spirit of American Transcendentalism.
The Human Specimen As Burroughs scholar Oliver Harris has shown—tirelessly—his work is in many ways more interestingly understood outside of the Beat narrative (2003, 2009, 2016). A singular figure in twentieth-century literary history, he left a legacy of avant-garde artistic innovation that was more radical than Kerouac’s or Ginsberg’s. Like the Beats’ better-respected postmodernist contemporaries, Burroughs’ antipathy to Romanticism led him to use literature to interrogate its purposes—and to produce more formally sophisticated writing than his younger friends. This chapter considers the roots of those formal innovations in the modernist milieu Burroughs shared with Miller and reconnects that to the Beat project he begrudgingly, perhaps unwittingly helped shape. Consulting commentary on Burroughs as postmodernist (Giles Deleuze and Félix Guattari 1987), as a-modernist or late modernist (Timothy Murphy 1998) and as an early literary experimenter with post-humanist re-imaginings (N. Katherine Hayles 1999), it gives a theoretical grounding to the political contradictions we have seen so far in that Beat quest for a fairer world. Of course, by extension it asks what this dry satirist of Cold War America can tell us about the wider counterculture they, and he, came to represent. Burroughs explains in the preface to his breakthrough and still most famous work Naked Lunch that his satirical approach had its precursor in the eighteenth-century style of Jonathan Swift (1993, p. 12). A series of stitched-together vignettes he either experienced or hallucinated high on heroin, Naked Lunch meant to shock by its obscenity just as Swift’s ‘A Modest Proposal’ had in 1729 and with an equivalent express social purpose. Where Swift’s mock-pamphlet used an obscene suggestion—that the starving Irish poor should feed themselves on their own children—to expose the obscenity of British policy during the Famine, Burroughs claimed that certain ‘pornographic’ sections of his own work were designed to illuminate the ‘the obscene, barbaric and disgusting anachronism’ of Capital Punishment (p. 12). The connection has been made frequently— by Mary McCarthy and Jack Kerouac in Burroughs’ day, and since by Beat critics including Murphy, Oliver Harris and Barry Miles—and it would no doubt have been discovered without Burroughs’ pre-signalling.3 There are obvious similarities between the tone, the language and form of Naked Lunch and Swift’s work that we’ll come onto shortly. But what is most interesting here—and worth establishing first, not least because it has only really received passing scholarly notice—is an anthropological and
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sociological affinity between the two writers that informs but runs deeper than their common methods or conceptions of social justice. The Swiftian aspect to Burroughs’ literary worldview—based on distrust of what both writers called the human ‘animal’—put him at odds with the general thrust of the zeitgeist that claimed him. The scepticism it entailed provides both a useful reminder of the problems with Ginsberg’s Romantic faith in a new movement to sweep the Western world, and— most importantly—of an equivalent scepticism Ginsberg intuited but concealed. Swift had used essays like ‘A Modest Proposal’ and the fictional, mock travelogue Gulliver’s Travels to affirm his Anglican belief in human beings as base and inherently imperfect creatures, and to ridicule what he saw as a pretentious and wrong-headed faith in the intellect or the spirit to correct this (Swift 2009, 2003). By the same token, despite exploring a great many spiritual and paranormal theories and methodologies, Burroughs consistently opposed his peers’ reverence for new spiritually attuned ways of living or writing. ‘Human’, Burroughs wrote to Ginsberg, at the end of his patience with his friend’s drug-inspired reveries about a common spiritual purpose, ‘is an adjective, and its use as a noun is regrettable’ (Burroughs 2009, p. 68). Interviewed as an old man in the 1980s, but no more crotchety than he had ever been, he told Kathy Acker: ‘I don’t subscribe to the idea of any such thing as human nature, human kind and I feel very little empathy with most people’ (Schumacher 2012). Much of the thinking behind this came from Burroughs’ holistic postgraduate education. If Kerouac followed his aborted undergraduate studies with stints in the merchant marines and Ginsberg did an MA in literature at Berkeley, Burroughs immersed himself in disciplines that were concerned with the harder and more objective study of human existence after Harvard. He took classes in medicine while travelling in Vienna, in anthropology when back in Boston and then in Mexico City, and in Jungian and Rankian psychology when he lived with David Kammerer in New York. While his friends saw their salons in the 1940s as an apprenticeship in professional writing and collected Burroughs’ nonliterary ideas as a way of furnishing their literary styles, Burroughs’ first aim was to get a reading not of how he could express himself but of how human beings really behaved. He held off from writing for publication until the early 1950s—when at the age of thirty-seven he was encouraged by Kerouac to record his experiences of heroin in Junkie—and it was perhaps inevitable that he would use literature as a vehicle for these larger
ideas rather than the others’ romantic expression of a deeper personal mission. Leaving aside for now the more journalistic Junkie, Burroughs’ raison d’etre from Naked Lunch onwards was to exploit the extremity and abjectness of his life in the grip of addiction and heroin-induced hallucinations for insights into felt rather than desired human experience. Like the other two major Beats, his literary project was built out of a deliberate descent to social depths that his upbringing and education rendered off limits. In the space of ten years he went from well-heeled Harvard graduate with excellent employment prospects to itinerant junkie living off the grid in Mexico, then Tangier, then Paris. But that project had a different kind of quest for truth at its heart—one that took evil, and man’s inhumanity to man to be inevitable under all conditions, and was resolved rather than melancholic or religiously resistant to this state of affairs. Perhaps the best evidence is Burroughs’ attitude towards the junkies and criminals who inspired Kerouac and Ginsberg. Rather than primitive heroes, what Burroughs saw in people like Herbert Huncke and Neal Cassady—and what he put into the carnivalesque cast of his fiction—was a ‘hideous galvanized need’ that is galvanised (or at least potentially so) in all people of all stripes (Burroughs 1993, p. 23). Herbert Huncke—who initiated Burroughs’ on the New York dope scene and whose depths Ginsberg was determined to uncover when he had him to stay at his apartment—becomes in Burroughs’ cold, rational and more worldly view, another human being subject to his emotional baggage and the metabolic exigencies of his body. Parasitic by habit, and periodically habituated to heroin, his bad behaviour—including betrayal of friends like Burroughs and Ginsberg—is to be rationalised and deplored, not romanticised and made holy. More importantly—and as a result of his closer inhabitation of the lower Dantescan circle he was exploring—Burroughs presented himself in as helpless subjugation to these same forces, refusing Kerouac and Ginsberg’s faith in the author’s godly, redemptive status. We’ll see much more of this later—when we come to look at the differences between author–reader relations in Naked Lunch and Kerouac and Ginsberg’s writing. Burroughs’ resistance to even his own authority is connected, again paradoxically, to a less complicated and more unashamedly elitist reading of the common herd. Unlike Kerouac, who we heard professing his love for ‘ordinary’ American people but treating them with contempt in his writing, and unlike Ginsberg, whose dichotomy of the systemically
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enslaved and free compromised his egalitarian ambitions, Burroughs was honest from the outset about his impatience with the bulk of humanity. ‘I don’t want to hear about the fucking masses and I never did’, he told his first biographer Ted Morgan, giving this as the reason he ‘was never tempted by any political program’ (Miles 2014, p. 52). His own version of Ginsberg’s saved and unsaved, of Kerouac’s ‘finks and us’, and of both of their categories of ‘hip’ and ‘square’ is the rougher, more prosaic opposition of con-men and their victims (Kerouac 2012, p. 196). His tongue-in- cheek concern in Naked Lunch—used as a title by Timothy Murphy for his astute ‘amodern’ reading of Burroughs—lay in ‘wising up the marks’, in informing the average, unenlightened person of how exactly they are being conned (Burroughs 1980, p. 155; Murphy 1998). It’s a statement that relates to social, psychological and indeed political Enlightenment, and to a particular kind of social conscience in Burroughs’ work, one that his claim to reject political programmes seems to deny.
Meta-history Over Politics As the film noir-ish metaphor suggests, there is an indiscriminate aggressiveness to Burroughs’ division of the world on these lines, a healthy uncertainty about who is and isn’t privy to the secrets he is imparting. As Murphy, Oliver Harris and Anthony Hilfer have all noted, it is never easy for the reader to know where he or she stands in relation to Burroughs’ scheme (Murphy 1998, Harris 2003a, b, Hilfer 1980). One moment we are addressed as if we are wise to his world; the next, we become exactly the kind of ‘mark’ Burroughs condescends to. This code-switching—which we’ll look at in detail when we come onto the texts themselves—prohibits the comfort in superiority that Ginsberg and Kerouac afford their readers, and has important implications for the social visions each encouraged in the 1950s and 1960s. Rather than political in the immediate sense, Burroughs’ worldview can be best understood as meta-historical and anthropological. It was more expressly and honestly pessimistic than his peers’, because more questioning and complicated. It took into account ‘many different groups of people with different interests’ and for this reason could not be brought together under banners of political, religious or radically spiritualist doctrine (Copetas 1974). Indeed, as we’ll see when we come to think about his attitude towards the politics of the next generation, their programmes for peace, their protests against the Vietnam War, and the messaging of ‘flower power’ and ‘give peace a chance’ that Ginsberg endorsed,
Burroughs’ deep-seated misanthropy contained the seeds of something paradoxically more inclusive than his romantically inclined allies. It was a cynicism gleaned from his more sustained and direct appreciation of the meta-historical, philosophical and spiritual writers he had shown Kerouac and Ginsberg in the 1940s. While they subverted Spengler’s pessimistic message to express faith in a new, marginal spirit, Burroughs took the The Decline of the West at something closer to face value. Like the masses of Germans who used Spengler’s ethnographical scheme to rationalise their humiliation in 1918, Burroughs was convinced by this and other Jeremiads of the long historical inevitability of Western, ‘Faustian’ collapse, and of collapse without the solace of a subsequent heroic rebirth (Spengler 1926, pp. 16, 29, 84, 91 etc.). Burroughs sourced Spengler, the radical semanticist Alfred Korzybski and such esoteric materials as sixth-century Mayan calendars, to identify the symptoms of terminal decline in a civilisation he had always felt at odds with. In Spengler’s philosophy of the ‘will’, his repudiation of progress in its Western civilisational form, he found both confirmation for his pessimisms and tantalising meta-historical logic for standing apart from the status quo. Here was impassioned, controversial and detailed evidence that America’s rational, ‘utilitarian’ mindset would be her downfall (Spengler 1928, pp. 171, 359, 369), proof, as Burroughs liked to put it, that the country was heading for as degenerate an end as the drug addicts it persecuted: ‘an overdose of time’ (Burroughs 1993b, p. 5). If Kerouac and Ginsberg had paid loose attention to the charts in The Decline of the West and used them to fantasise apocalypse, Burroughs was more thorough but less able to see it in value terms. Where they had subverted Spengler’s scheme to imagine the rejected ‘fellaheen’ as persistent heroes, Burroughs viewed his rise and fall of peoples not as nobility descending into or outlasting corruption, but the timeless propensity for evil.4 Like any nation, ‘America’, he wrote ‘is not a young land: it is old and dirty and evil before the settlers, before the Indians. The evil is there waiting’ (1993b, p. 24) From Korzybski—another unorthodox independent scholar, whose workshops Burroughs attended in Chicago—he took the notion that the rot of utilitarian social, cultural and political life went as far down as to the very systems of logic that dictated Western thought. Burroughs based many of his philosophical ideas, and the cut-up method he and the artist Brion Gysin would develop in the 1960s on Korzybski’s contention that
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the ‘either/or’ of Aristotelian philosophy had kitted modern man out inadequately for authentic engagement with the world. A better formulation, Korzybski taught and Burroughs agreed, was to think about the phenomenal in terms of ‘both and’—of an object, idea, emotion, person or people being many more than one thing or other at once. This was in some ways the linguistic-scientific equivalent of the Zen philosophy Kerouac and Ginsberg became attached to in the mid-1950s—the idea that it was only the ego that demanded one dominant truth and that if a person could move beyond that inhibitive construct, he or she could appreciate the equal value and truth in contradictory positions. By the same token, and adding to his Spengler-inspired belief in the impending fall of the West and rise of the East, Burroughs also followed Korzybski (and a great many early century modernists) in celebrating the superiority of Oriental over Western semantics because of their basis in a simultaneous rather than linear logic. As with much of Burroughs’ esotericism, such thinking was well meant but speculative. It corresponded with an essentialist approach to culture and ethnicity that underlay his writing about Mexico, South America and North Africa—three regions he inhabited between the 1950s and the 1980s and which he could not help imagining as repositories of a special kind of knowledge. Describing these places in his fiction, he again offset wild intentions and ideas against a straight man act—this time that of the intrepid anthropologist, a scientific observer of human, animal and botanical behaviour in far flung corners of the earth. If this was Burroughs matching up to one of Kerouac’s first, amused impressions of him—as a ‘colonial’ recuperating in New York City—its coldness, and occasional cruelty, in fact dates it rather better than the primitivism about black and Mexican America that the other two engaged in (Kerouac 2012, p. 191). Taking a long historical view of humanity, Burroughs echoed modernists like Aldous Huxley in depreciating the entire species from its beginnings to the present day and from the peak of so-called civilisation to countries that had had that system foisted on them. In letters to Ginsberg— both private and as part their planned epistolary book The Yage Letters in 1952—he praised and attacked Mexican, Colombian and Moroccan cultures, often from the libertarian perspective of the individual concerned with safeguarding his licence to behave as he wanted, but also in the knowing, ethnographic language he had learnt from Spengler. In letters to Kerouac and Ginsberg, written from Mexico where he was considering buying a property, he expresses relief at the ‘freedom from interference’ he
finds there—the freedom to carry guns, shoot up, sleep rough and walk down the street arm in arm with another man (Burroughs 2009, pp. 62, 69).5 And in The Yage Letters, which document Burroughs’ search for Ayahuasca on the Amazon, he gives a distinctly Spenglerian reading of the larger meta-historical destiny of an entire continent. Holed up in rural Colombia and with tensions building towards civil war, he speaks with arrogant authority about the likely racial causes. South America, he says, is ‘a mixture of strains all necessary to realise the potential form’ (Burroughs and Ginsberg 2008, p. 38). As we’ll see from Naked Lunch and the Nova Trilogy that followed it, Burroughs was viscerally opposed to the authoritarian impulse behind colonialism, but this statement demonstrates an equal commitment to Spengler’s conviction that its cultural power dynamics were inevitable. He goes on to comment sardonically on the ‘fucking Spaniards’ who colonised the continent, whose ‘weakness’ at least meant they eventually left the indigenous populations of South America to their own devices (‘never would have gotten the English out of here’), but only after an off-handed and troubling imitation of Spengler on Colombian submission to Spanish rule: ‘They [the Colombians] need white blood as they know—Myth of White God’ (Burroughs and Ginsberg 2008, p. 38). The same paradox appears again and again in Burroughs’ work—a deep hatred of the dominance of one culture over another combined with a matter-of-fact refusal to believe things could be any other way—and it spilled over, when he finally settled as an expatriate misfit in Tangier in the mid-1950s, into an objectionable conservative attitude towards Moroccan resistance to the French. Unlike Kerouac and Ginsberg though, he remained as dispassionate in his attitude to foreigners as he was in his attitude to all people and resistant to the impulse to romanticise the Other. Like Huxley, he set out to understand the universal reality behind human tribalism per se, not the qualitative behaviour of particular tribes, sending up the cliché of ‘The Westerner [who] thinks there is some great secret he can discover in the East’ (Burroughs 2010, p. 82). In common with these modernist writers—and as he put it in a 1970s meeting with David Bowie, another countercultural figure with reservations about the hippie vision Ginsberg helped facilitate—he believed that factional conflict had worsened with global ‘overpopulation’ and would continue in the same direction whatever measures were taken against it (Copetas 1974). The flipside to this conservatism, and to his Spenglerian pessimism, and a good summation of the perversely constructive purposes that drove his
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dealings with other cultures comes just before that suspect pronouncement on Columbia’s racial destiny. Calling to mind his ticking off of Ginsberg for his use of the word ‘human’ as a noun, he announces that ‘nothing human is foreign or shocking in South America’ (Burroughs and Ginsberg 2008, p. 38). To Burroughs, the flaws of the human animal needed exposure, limitation where necessary and possible, but acceptance where and/or unchangeable. Like Jonathan Swift, the model for his satirical purposes, he distrusted ideals and plans for collective improvement, and particularly those designed for a mass scale. Ideals purporting to champion the freedom of the individual and the many must be scrutinised for the insidious, veiled means of totalitarian control they carried within them. And when it came to the improvement of the individual, the same watchfulness was necessary to ward against exclusionary subjective judgements on what was and wasn’t right or natural.
Junkie The satire Burroughs used to express these instincts was first honed with his university friend Kells Elvins in the late 1930s when he had begun his postdoctoral course in anthropology and the two were sharing a house outside of Harvard. Writing for fun, they developed the template for Burroughs’ style in Naked Lunch, transcribing comedy routines they acted out on their front porch and combining the earnest macho tone of popular detective fiction with dark, absurdist scenarios. The result—which they named ‘Twilight’s Last Gleaming’ and which made a gallows joke of a recently sunk passenger ferry near New Jersey—would be lifted by Burroughs for his collection of short stories, Interzone, and it gave him an early sense of how to apply drama and genre out of context for comedy effect. When it came to writing Junkie though—a book he actually planned to pitch to a publisher, and which would announce him to the world—he took a much straighter approach to the detective style he and Elvins had sent up, claiming to confess all about his life on heroin in that same Dashiell Hammett-James Cain deadpan tone, but aiming through this to shock, to unsettle—and to sell—without the laughs. In this early incarnation, Burroughs’ narrative approach reveals an even starker contribution to the Beat movement than the ‘sociology as entertainment’ Ginsberg had attributed to him in his diaries (2006, p. 121). Describing many of the characters who inspired Ginsberg and Kerouac, and who appear in their work as ‘beat’ or angelic, as lost in the modern
world but somehow better for this, along with his own daily hustle with and against these people, Burroughs gave a concerted lie to his friends’ romantic vision. While engaging in the same Times Square street slang— words like ‘beat’, ‘hip’ and ‘square’, which he also picked up from Huncke in particular—he chose to record his experience of that life not from Ginsberg and Kerouac’s wistful, dejected or angelic bohemian perspectives, but from that of a straight-talking, unemotional outsider. Sixteen years after his graduation from Harvard and a decade since his first hit of heroin, he drew mainly not from Whitman or Rimbaud nor even from the modernist reading list he had set Kerouac and Ginsberg, but from sensationalist crime fiction that aimed to shock with unvarnished underworld truths. This was yet another example of Burroughs’ strategised incongruity. Junkie played on the reader’s surprise on three levels. In the first place it defied expectations of how a well-educated and well-bred man should live; in the second, it refrained from demanding sympathy or moral reaction in response to an abject position; and in the third, it presented that criminal, socially outcast experience through the voice of a cool and detached observer, in total command both of his actions and the immediate world he describes. As Oliver Harris has suggested, the narrative tone in Junkie (later published with the updated spelling of Junky) carries Burroughs’ real-life imitation of people for whom the buying and selling of drugs, the robbing of houses and the casually violent disposal of ‘marks’ and opponents was neither symbolic nor remarkable (Harris 2003a, b). It is a splicing of the detective fiction style that he and Kells Elvins had imitated in their postgrad college house with the true crime confessions he read (and acknowledges in his prologue) in a book called You Can’t Win by the criminal-turnedauthor Jack Black (1926). And he was applying these not to the romantic archetypes of vagrancy and bohemianism that inspired Kerouac and Ginsberg but to characters whose hand-to-mouth or hand-to-vein existence has no deeper meaning than their immediate subsistence. His approach entailed a deliberate and heavily stylised emotional distance from events, which was not unlike Henry Miller’s in Tropic of Cancer and left a similar impression of the obscene told as cold matter-of-fact. As we saw in chapter two, Miller gave new life to the clichéd bohemian story of a would-be writer in Paris in two clear ways: first by delivering it in a voice that was unliterary, gravelly and distinctly American; and second by taking care to relay his hardship without a hint of genuine horror, sentimentality or didacticism. Fifteen years later, and in circumstances that were
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equally if not even more self-imposed, Burroughs’ outlined a greater degradation with the same laissez-faire nonchalance. In place of Miller’s daily search for food (‘FOOD in majuscule’ as Ezra Pound had put it in his review of Cancer), for shelter and sex, here we have life distilled to the necessity of heroin for relief of addiction (Pound 1992, p. 88). In place of Miller’s approving descriptions of pimps and prostitutes, of the hard but fair world of the Parisian criminal underclass, we are shown the petty hustle—and the violence it entails—as basic unfair facts of a certain life. Alluding, as he always did, to the hypocrisy of anti-drug policing, but resisting the urge to pitch his underworld characters heroically, Burroughs gives us decrepit conditions and brutal relations as they are experienced— starkly and without the respite of victimhood or deeper understanding. Listening to his drug-selling partner Jack laugh about a house burglary gone wrong—‘I hit him with the [pipe] … and he goes on running right out into the other room, the blood spurting out his head ten feet every his heart beat’—Burroughs’ narrative response is blank; the horror of the act and of its perpetration without remorse passed off as causeless, everyday matter (Burroughs 2003, p. 5). Like Miller, he straddles two positions— that of the straightforward, unsentimental reporter presenting unpleasant facts, and that of the serious intellect. Using intertextual citation to pay homage to the literary tradition he is sourcing, he also asks the reader to trust him as a distinctly non-literary storyteller. Burroughs cites Wilde, Baudelaire and Gide in this prologue just as Miller had quoted Emerson, Dante, Joyce and Shakespeare, but both are at pains to assure their readers that they are stating ‘the facts’ of their down-and-out lives rather than engaging in the deception of art. As in Cancer and as in Journey to the End of the Night by the writer Kerouac called Miller’s ‘great master’, Louis-Ferdinand Céline, Burroughs’ reassurance of authenticity depends on a paradoxical withholding of moral comfort. To appreciate Céline’s exposition of the true, unmediated terrors of war, and of Miller’s of hunger and failure in a foreign city, the reader had also to engage in a world evacuated of the values that might make observation of those experiences easier to bear. As we’ve seen, Miller followed Céline in confronting readers with the cruelty not only of his conditions but also of the thoughts a person is bound to experience under them. Like Céline’s soldier narrator Ferdinand Bardamu, Miller’s autobiographical hero finds strength and courage in the honest expression of his most unspeakable feelings—feelings which often involve consciously brutal attacks on undeserving victims (from the miserable poor he meets in the
street and acquaintances whose kindness helps sustain him, to faceless women whose only crime is to defy his expectations of how a woman should behave). If Céline’s outbursts were intended to antagonise the reader and expose the hypocrisy of squeamishness in a society that sanctioned real suffering, Miller had attempted to take that approach further— suggesting brutality as a means of purgation: a way of feeling, thinking and behaving more compassionately in the long run. In the same lineage, Burroughs’ Junkie represents yet another evolution. His own autobiographical narrator—William Lee—reproduces Bardamu and Miller’s refusal to express compassion towards down-and- out characters whose desperate situations the reader might—in the abstract—expect to pity. Like the itinerant but never completely homeless Miller, who taunts the reader with the image of rough-sleepers outside a Paris metro station only worth looking at to ‘make us bleed for five minutes’ (2005, p. 243), trust-funded William Burroughs has his alter-ego describe a set of poor and desperate characters in pointedly inhuman terms: faces ‘inanimate’ and ‘wooden’ (pp. 10, 12), and eyes transmitting ‘hostility and suspicion’ like the waves from a television set (p. 4). Such figures are rendered more not less shocking by the affectless language in which they are presented, since the reader is deprived not only of the coordinates that might allow him or her to feel towards these individuals but of the ability to condemn the narrator for his moral callousness. What is more—and as so often in Burroughs’ work—our own false or self-serving needs are allegorised through addiction, this time by the closeness of the narrator’s ‘biological necessity’ for heroin to our own for relief from horror through the catharsis of compassion (p. 124). Like Miller—like Wyndham Lewis in his novel Tarr (1918) or Celine in Journey to End of the Night—he makes a performance of showing people in their cold fleshly reality, removed from sentimental notions of soul, feeling or morality. Describing one of the people he sells heroin to, for example, Burroughs writes: A week or so later he would turn up so thin, sallow and old-looking, you would have to look twice to recognize him. His face was lined with suffering in which his eyes did not participate. (2003, pp. 2–3)
In such passages, Burroughs furthers Miller’s experiment into the aesthetics of destitution, describing the physiological details of his subjects’
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suffering—the sorts of detail that are coded to produce pity in the reader— but reacting with mild fascination or disgust, feelings he suggests are more honest. Indeed, describing the harrowing sight of the life returning to a fellow addict on receipt of his daily dose, Burroughs is unmoved: ‘a little color [sic] crept in to his face and he would become almost coy. It was a gruesome sight’ (p. 45).
Naked Lunch If these sub-texts to Junkie announced something more complex about Burroughs than its sensational packaging suggested, the book also contained clues in its prologue about the next step on in his style—from bleak, deadpan reportage to the hallucinatory and experimental approach that would make him famous in Naked Lunch.6 Still in his role of objective, anthropological observer—and teetering between temporary, manageable addiction and complete subservience to it—he writes of an existential truth arrived at by more seasoned users: I have seen a cell full of sick junkies silent and immobile in separate misery. They knew the pointlessness of complaining or moving. They knew that basically no one can help anyone else. There is no key, no secret someone else has that he can give you. (2003, p. xvi)
Published eight years on from Junkie, in 1962, and written about his life ten years after the events in his debut, Naked Lunch was produced out of similar conditions to those described here—not quite a police cell, but the voluntary equivalent of a backstreet garret in Tangier, Morocco, where he had settled in exile from America in 1954. The book’s rag-tag mix of extraordinary visions—of worlds grotesquely ordered, Gulliver’s Travels style, to mirror the absurdities of our own—is the product of Burroughs having reached both that state of immobility and the life-changing ‘stoicism’ he attributed to it in others. It was an entirely different, more radical and frightening proposition not only to the wising up tell-all of Junkie, but those first experiments with satire undertaken with Kells Elvins. The two had fallen about in stitches while acting the mischievous satirical routines of ‘A Twilight’s Last Gleaming’—imagining passengers and crew alike trampling over one another for safety from a sinking ship, and the honourable first mate dragging up to be admitted with the women and children on the first lifeboats.
Young and rebelliously cynical about the difference between noble pretentions and real-life instinct, they had amused themselves by pushing vaudevillian send-up past its boundaries of acceptability. But by the time Burroughs came to write Naked Lunch alone in Morocco, such cynicism was no longer an observed, abstract position or source of conspiratorial banter—it had evolved through experience into a personal truth as deeply felt as he imagined it was in those sick junkies in the slammer. The underworld life he had sought out for sociological kicks—for an alternative to the ennui of his respectable position in the world—had got out of control by the early 1950s. It resulted not only in his full-scale drug addiction but his accidental shooting of his wife Joan—a drunken William- Tell style party-trick that went horribly wrong while the Burroughs were living in Mexico, and a crime for which he managed to escape punishment by bribing the local police. His emigration to Morocco in the mid-1950s was prompted both by the logical fear that the law would catch up with him in America and by a terror that that act had sent him over the edge into full possession by an ‘ugly spirit’ (Burroughs 2010, p. 131). He later became convinced that his wrestle with the ‘ugly spirit’—with him since childhood—was also in many ways responsible for his development into a serious writer. If Naked Lunch reproduces the comedic style of ‘A Twilight’s Last Gleaming’ and if it’s in keeping with Ginsberg and Kerouac’s memories of Burroughs as a consummate entertainer, it is also the work of a man newly committed both to his role of social and moral pariah and the expression of darker depths without filter or collaborative design. If its grotesque scenarios carry allegorical messages—messages like the one about the evil of Capital Punishment that he signposts in his introduction—they are delivered direct from the unconscious, from someone who had shut himself off from society with only heroin for company and was transcribing the hallucinations the drug brought on. This hunkering down into himself, into his own ‘separate misery’, was a similar starting point to Miller’s in Tropic of Cancer, and it suggests a deeper philosophical affinity between Cancer and Naked Lunch than Cancer and Junkie (2003, p. xvi). Neither Burroughs nor Miller was as unreconstructed in their experimental writing as they appeared, and the disordered presentation of a book like Naked Lunch belied its years of crafting and re-crafting. For Burroughs, this involved imagining an audience, as he had done with Kells Elvins for ‘Twilight’s Last Gleaming’, and making sure that his images would have a particular effect on the ‘receiver for [the] routine’ (Burroughs 2009, p. 27). And for Miller, it meant the
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re-moulding of his journals and letters in Paris into a more brazen and violent version of his experience, and honing its language and form for maximum shock impact on the literary world. Despite these differences, both writers worked initially and determinedly from the raw feelings, images and ideas that arose in a mind in isolation and allowed these rather than carefully developed characters or plot to express their long germinating suspicions about the crude truth behind human pretenses to civilisation. Similarities between their versions of this truth were implied but also obfuscated by the popular lumping together of Miller and Burroughs in the 1960s. Both subject to high-profile obscenity trials and both hailed with D.H. Lawrence as icons of the new sexual revolution, their scandalous reputations have tended to obscure or at least oversimplify the extent to which Burroughs was picking up where Miller left off—in terms of ideas and, less obviously, of form. If Junkie followed Miller in applying American vernacular grit to European bohemian subject matter and in probing the reader for reactions to his narrative cruelty, Naked Lunch produced an intensified version of that test under new conditions and with a formal freedom that also resembled Miller’s own. Miller’s pennilessness and failure in 1930s Paris have their amped-up equivalents in Burroughs’ junk sickness and complete anonymity in the Native Quarter of Tangier. The bitter and elated frenzy that Miller worked himself into in order to stave off that failure—the elated, cruel boasts and attacks he launched to help him cope—become in Burroughs’ work illusionary routines conjured and recalled in ‘sickness and delirium’ (1993, p. 7). And the wanderings of the mind from the writer’s reality at his deskor on a crowded Champs Élysées, into lusty or murderous fantasies, are matched by a full 200 pages of tangentially connected nightmares about obscene other worlds; the real appearing here and there amongst the allegorical unreal, rather than the normal other way round.
‘Washing Away the Human Lines’ If Naked Lunch suggested Burroughs’ graduation past the kind of picaresque autobiography he had attempted in Junkie, and which had its precursor in Cancer, it also represents a more committed interest in the ‘inhuman’. Like Miller—who claimed to be following Rimbaud’s humane example by becoming ‘monstrous’ in his books (Miller 1962, p. 31) — Burroughs used his life and visions as an addict to build premonitory versions of himself and the wider world. Sometimes in the caricatured voices of the sadistic Dr Benway or the shape-shifting undercover narcotics agent
Bradley the Buyer but mostly in his reprised role of William Lee—now become the private dick his tone had suggested in Junkie—he extends the provocative inhumanity of earlier observations to a literal stripping away of human features. Indeed, the junk ‘Sickness’ he describes in his introduction—which had usurped his body and left him with ‘the look of borrowed flesh’—had a similarly dehumanising impact on his imagination and observational eye. An extension of the affectless down-and-outs in Junkie, the characters in Naked Lunch are subject to an even more brutal ‘washing away [of] the human lines’ (p. 22). He goes from showing us desire and hunger overruling the human reality of the flesh in Junkie—unfeeling hungry eyes staring out of suffering bodies to their full-going animalisation. Need and appetite—compared always with his own need for the drug— are at the centre of everything, an animal prime mover behind all human feeling and behaviour. In the words of Dr Benway—Burroughs’ fiendish comedy turn—it is metabolism not thought that matters in a person: ‘who cares what they think?’ he says, ‘Same nonsense everybody thinks, I daresay’ (p. 40). The cast of Burroughs’ junk-absorbed imagination experiences the ‘hunger’ and ‘pain’ ‘of insects in dry places’, their metabolic needs and bodily stimuli expressed by convulsive ‘twitching’ and their hallucinated sufferings—which Burroughs sees and paints in the fine and lurid detail of a Hieronymus Bosch painting—are witnessed by the reader with the sound turned down (pp. 23, 34). This is a frozen, nightmarish step up from the callously remembered violence of the housebreaker in Junkie (p. 5). It is also the equivalent of Miller’s picaresque theme in Cancer. Quoting a line of Emerson’s, that ‘Life consists in what a man is thinking all day’, Miller quips that his must be ‘nothing but a big intestine’ since his thoughts are occupied most keenly not by philosophy, politics or the larger state of humanity but by food (2005, p. 76). If the sex was what the reviewers focused on when Cancer first appeared—and is certainly one of its narrator’s major preoccupations—the book actually contains as many references to and longing descriptions of meals as women. It is significant that when Miller was asked to comment on this younger writer who was published by his former press Olympia and whose work had garnered similar scandal, he qualified his admiration for Burroughs’ ‘ferocity equalled only by Céline’ with the worry at his ability to ‘turn my stomach’ (Dury 1994, p. 87). The step from works like Cancer and Junkie to this new style in Naked Lunch was a
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shift of focus from man as animal prowling the streets to fill his belly or empty his loins to man as altered automaton—still captive to the body but newly configured by drugs towards an unnatural metabolism—one that was based on the replenishment of foreign and imposed rather than naturally developed cells. From Dr Benway’s descriptions of the junkies in his monstrous care to that Bosch-like Freeland Republic—an awful, grotesque parody of Scandinavian utilitarian social order—Burroughs ratchets up Miller’s cynicism about attempts to transcend these limits. In the astute view of Aldous Huxley, one of the first few critics to write at length about Cancer (in 1949), there was something of the Baroque about Miller’s approach to appetite. Like the fifteenth-century Italian artists who sculpted skeletons on the tombs of the dead, Huxley said, Miller was ‘committed to a systematic exploitation of the inordinate’—of facts of experience that are excessive and beyond the realms of rational, material understanding (1971, p. 58). The honest, unsettling engagement with mortality that their work signalled was matched by his close-up exposition of the brute forces of stomachic and sexual hunger. ‘Confronted by the pornographies of suffering, of sensual dissolution’, Huxley writes, ‘we shrink and are appalled’ (p. 58). This may be an exaggeration about Miller’s work, but it serves usefully as a way of understanding the lineage from Cancer to Burroughs’ Naked Lunch. Huxley’s scheme places Cancer next to Tolstoy’s The Death of Ivan Ilyich (1886) and Norman Mailer’s The Naked and the Dead (1948) as a rare work that ‘maddeningly, unbearably … rubs our noses in [the] rendering of these facts’ (the facts of sex, death and war respectively) and might very well include Burroughs too. As Sarah Garland has shown, Burroughs’ ‘rhetoric of excess’ was more knowing and less hopeful of improvement than Miller’s (Garland 2005; 2010). Both writers described the workings of the human animal body to scorn the concealment of its natural functions and secretions beneath the perfume of abstract language and ideas. ‘The monstrous thing’, Miller writes in one of his many dreamlike deviations in Cancer, ‘is not that men have created roses out of this dung heap, but that for some reason they should want roses. For some reason or other man looks for the miracle, and to accomplish it he will … debauch himself with ideas, he will reduce himself to a shadow if for only one second he can close his eyes to the hideousness of reality’ (2005, p. 102). In Miller that apparent hideousness is a source of rude health to the person who can face it honestly—the ‘flaming bush’ between the legs of a toothless prostitute that ‘makes one feel the
earth under his legs again [sic]’ (2005, p. 53), the sparrow pecking away at a turd outside his window and whom Miller describes without irony as ‘easily provided for’ (2005, p. 37). As Norman Mailer had observed, Miller discovered ‘something inestimable in the muck ... if you could stand the smell’ (1976, p. 16), but in Burroughs’ work, there is no such obvious payoff. He shows you scene after scene of ‘unparalleled horror’—pretending to pretend to want to ‘spare you’, ‘gentle reader’, from the ‘ugliness of [the] spectacle’ (1993, p. 42). But, in line with Huxley’s scheme, his pleasure and yours lie in the lack of let up—his sadistic heaping and your masochistic bearing of graphic image on unbearably graphic image, without clear explanation of his purposes or the permission to join him in his attack on outside targets. Miller mocks us lightly compared to Burroughs, who points out just how weak our stomachs are before pointedly, farcically turning them, and indulging in a mode of obscenity that, he grins, ‘buggers description’ (p. 44).7 His mock chivalrous jump to shield the reader comes just moment before one of the creatures of his imagination starts fucking another where his gouged out eye used to be (p. 44). Channelling those set-to’s with Kells Elvins, he acts out the horror porn—complaining that when he hits the brain with his penis, the brain has atrophied and is now ‘as dry as a grandmother’s cunt’ (p. 44). This is Burroughs working overtime on the mandate that Lawrence Durrell so astutely identified in Tropic of Cancer: to ‘do down … the dreadful sentimentality which disguises brutality’ (Woolf 1992, p. 176). And it’s a new kind of bad taste, one which—fifteen years before the Left’s embargo on the once sexual revolutionary Miller— ‘managed to offend the moral sensibilities of the Right, the Center, and the Left in equal measure’ (Murphy 1998, p. 8). These differences in method suggest larger differences between their aims. Burroughs used graphic descriptions of the inordinate, and obscenity in general, as Miller had claimed to—as a means of ‘getting the poison out [his] system’ (Miller 1964, p. 155). Like Miller too, he was defended by those who fought against the ban on his book for the concomitant ‘tonic effect’ this had on the reader. ‘Curiously enough’, Miller had explained, his purge of his own ‘poison’ had a tonic effect for others’ too (p. 155). However, to positive and negative ends, where Miller saw an opportunity for genuine personal development once the poison had been drawn—and proved it, he thought, by his own mellowing in older age towards an increasingly spiritual style—Burroughs was less sanguine. Human brutality, in individuals as much as groups, was ongoing and eradicable. Its purgation
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through obscene comedy in literature was healthy as long as you understood it had nothing to do with redemption. Like his junkie narrator, Burroughs would remain ‘unredeemed’ and defiantly so.8 If Miller had understood this in Tropic of Cancer, it was partly because of his debt in that period to modernist influences like Céline—whose legacy lived on in Burroughs’ more steadfast pessimism. Interestingly, the faith in redemption that grew in Miller with age carried with it much of what was good and bad in work by Burroughs’ Beat allies. It was an exemplary model for their battle to free flesh and word from puritanical restrictions in life and literature, but it was a precursor also for the divisive language of authenticity and inauthenticity, of enlightened and unenlightened, that compromised Ginsberg, Kerouac and many of their contemporaries’ works. If Burroughs was inoculated against a Manichean mentality by his incorrigible pessimism and by the indiscriminate misanthropy that led him to view all people of all backgrounds and experience—and to view himself in fact—with suspicion, Ginsberg and Kerouac’s susceptibility to it can be summed up by their (mis)readings of Naked Lunch. Asked to defend the book, and his friend, in its obscenity trial of 1961, Ginsberg declared: it relates to nakedness of seeing, to being able to see clearly without any confusing disguises, to see through the disguise … a complete banquet of all this naked awareness. (Murphy 1998, p. 78)
Kerouac, for his part, submitted a blurb for an early edition that claimed ‘the net result of Naked Lunch will be to make people shudder at their own lies, will be to make them open up and be straight with one another’ (Wilson, p. 110).9 In both cases, the general idea is right, but the sentiment entirely antithetical to that with which the book had been written. Burroughs intended his farce to produce ‘a frozen moment when everyone sees what is on the end of every fork’, to stop people in their tracks and make them realise the ruses they fall victim to in the world and in their very selves, but he stopped short of believing he could effect anything as grand as a mass revolution in psychological or cultural awareness (1993, p. 7). Even in his cut-up phases, which we’ll come to shortly and which saw him dabble in the messianic rhetoric of escape from false realities, he was sceptical about effecting widespread perceptual or existential change. The faith Ginsberg shows in Burroughs here is a version of the faith he invested in himself, in his group and in the larger narrative of a vanguard collective of especially awoken people who could lead by example. And the faith Kerouac shows is an extension of his hopeless adolescent longing for
a world where no one was a ‘fink’ anymore, and everyone could communicate on the very specific spiritual wavelength he himself had developed. Both are an extension, also of that pious excuse we heard Henry Miller give to his lover Anaïs Nin, in chap. 2 of this book, for treating her with ‘indifference’: ‘What looks to you like indifference is a new way of seeing… you just can’t be made wretched, sorrowful, miserable. You live there for a while, at the apex of clarity, and you see things with the naked eye and everything looks good, is good’ (Miller 1988, p. 159).
Amodern/Post-human If Burroughs’ writing was deliberately more crass, the ruses he aimed to reveal were subtler than those identified by his friends and by Miller twenty years before. As Timothy Murphy has shown, and as interest from poststructuralists like Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari suggests, Burroughs’ work displays an understanding of the self and society in line with progressive anti-humanist philosophies that emerged after 1945 (Murphy 1998; Deleuze & Guattari 1987). Like many left-leaning, cultural critics of the 1950s, Burroughs posits mechanisms of control as grounded in the very systems of rationality that underpin civilised society. The nightmare parallel world he introduced with Naked Lunch—one that pitted police and criminals, doctors and junkies as equally, extra-terrestrially corrupt and disgusting—was a deconstruction of the real world that revealed a ‘reversible symmetry’ between otherwise ‘antagonistic social positions’ (Murphy 1998, p. 77). At a political level, and as Murphy points out, he was doing something fairly similar to the Frankfurt School, who saw pseudo- benevolence in all forms of political, cultural and moral authority. Crucially though—and as we’ll see later in this study—he differed to cultural theorists like Theodore Adorno, Max Horkheimer and Herbert Marcuse by the same instinctive resistance to nostalgia and utopianism that separated him from his Beat allies. Following in the tradition of Arthur Schopenhauer, of Friedrich Nietzsche and of the Marquis de Sade before them—and drawing heavily from that Korzybski workshop he attended in the 1940s—he used Naked Lunch to lay out the self-defeating logic of Enlightenment dualisms. At a socio-ethical level, this meant the comforting but over-simplistic connection of reason with virtue and of unreason with sin and criminality. Burroughs had been convinced of the arbitrary distinction between criminal and non-criminal behaviour since his pre-writing days down in Texas and Mexico, when he tried and failed to make a living as a farmer.
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Corresponding with Ginsberg in 1948 and drawing on his experience with governmental regulations and the sanctioned mistreatment of immigrant Mexican labourers, he declared, ‘there is no connection between “crime” and ethics … my ethical position, now that I am a respectable farmer, is probably shakier than when I was pushing junk’. ‘Now, as then’, he went on, ‘I violate the law, but present violations are condoned by a corrupt government’ (2009, p. 25). As J.G. Ballard put it in his introduction to the novel, by the time he came to write Naked Lunch Burroughs had become convinced of a baser corruption that led the same government to condone ‘the narcotics industry’ itself—an industry that was ‘maintained not only for criminal but state profit’ and which was one component in a conspiracy ‘between media conglomerates, the vast political and commercial bureaucracies, and a profit-driven medical science’ (1993, n.p.) Significantly, this libertarian (and personal) distrust of shady top-down interference—linked to his love of guns and the frontiersman fantasy that led him to try his luck with farming in the first place—had also evolved into a total distrust of social and political organisation per se. In the most allegorically coherent section of Naked Lunch, ‘Islam Incorporated and the Parties of the Interzone’, Burroughs presents a set of outlandishly exploitative rackets in his fantasy Interzone world as stand-ins for real political ideologies in our own (1993, pp. 119–136). As Ron Loewinsohn has pointed—via analyses from Ginsberg and Jennie Skerl—we are shown a fascist approach to social control by the Liquefactionists, a communist equivalent by the Divisionists, and an insidious, falsely benevolent liberal democratic version in the Senders, who purport to safeguard citizens through benevolent, democratic and rational means but do so by the transmission of homogenising psychic messages (Loewinsohn 1998, p. 572; Skerl 1985). Belief in the essential, concealed totalitarianism behind democratic Western government was of course in line with writing by Ginsberg and others on the Beat scene. As we’ll see when we come to look at Norman Mailer, and the mainstreaming of ‘countercultural’ thinking documented by Theodore Roszak, it became the position for all kinds of writers in the 1960s. What distinguishes Burroughs from his peers here though is the unqualified complicity he attributes to ostensibly free individuals in their own subjugation. Impatient—as we heard earlier in this chapter—with talk of ‘the fucking masses’ and political programmes designed to emancipate them, his more complex concern in Naked Lunch is the danger the individual poses to him or herself (Miles 2014, p. 52), a danger Burroughs
illustrates by a cheap but clever shot at Marx: ‘Hustlers [rather than workers] of the world’, he exclaims, ‘there is one Mark you cannot beat: The Mark Inside …’ (1993, p. 24). And the plan in Naked Lunch, as he outlined it excitedly to Ginsberg during its writing, was to show the untrustworthiness of the inner human being as much as ‘control from without’:to satirise the ‘Kafkian conspiracies, [and] malevolent telepathic broadcast stations,’ but also make clear that ‘it is difficult to know what side you are working on, especially yourself’ (2009, p. 269). Indeed, Burroughs used his and his fellow junkies’ willing abjection before heroin to probe and to demonstrate that ‘mark inside’—an equivalent addiction to the systems and patterns of control he was delineating. Discussing his habit—in his 1950s written but 1980s published collection Interzone—he says it was part of a deeper quest for and attainment of ‘some sweet secret, some key by which I could gain access to basic knowledge and answer some fundamental questions’ (Burroughs 2012, p. 110). By his ‘experiments’ with the pleasure of drug experience and with the dependence on that pleasure once an addiction is formed, he had arrived at the base, bodily formula that underpins most of writing after Naked Lunch: ‘pleasure means relief from need’ (p. 110). The romantic search for ‘sweet’ relief through truth led him first to the realist’s paradoxically reassuring conclusion that ‘the secret is there is no secret’ but then to a darker finding: that heroin addiction explains a deeper universal addiction both to control and to being controlled. Pre-empting poststructuralists like Michel Foucault—whom he got to know in the 1970s—Burroughs found reasons for the average citizen’s obedience to a corruptive social contract at a deeper psychological level, and specifically in the faulty Aristotelian foundations to Western thinking outlined by Korzybski. Such foundations, Burroughs believed, made the problem of reality-evasive Enlightenment binaries unavoidable—and insurmountable, at a wider societal level in any case. Minds conditioned from birth to see objects and each other, and to apprehend subjective impressions and emotions, according to the binary of and/ or would naturally cling to the same reductive dynamic in terms of moral, social and political values. And if the Enlightenment had cemented that dualism in terms of reasoned right and unreasoned wrong, it was only an extension of an innate and harmful schism that lay at the bottom of human relations from their beginnings: ‘dualism’, he said in conversation with Daniel Odier, ‘is the whole basis of this planet, good and evil, communism, fascism,
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man, woman etc. As soon as you have a formula like that, of course you’re going to have trouble’ (Murphy 1998, p. 9). When it came to the private and more manageable realm of the imagination, however, Burroughs the consummate cynic was more optimistic. The social and political ideas he played around with in Naked Lunch, heightened by the anarchical ordering of scenes he, Kerouac and Ginsberg arrived at when they shuffled his notes to produce the final manuscript, were developed in the 1960s towards ‘cut-up’ and ‘fold-in’ approaches, aimed at disrupting the ingrained (and ingrowing) dualistic logic. Picking up a line of avant-garde enquiry that went back to Dadaism, Futurism, and of course Pound and Eliot’s modernist project of the 1910s, Burroughs and his new artist friend Brion Gysin sought to bring literature up-to-date with the multi-sensory and temporal simultaneity of other art-forms by taking random snatches from novels, from newspapers, and from advertisements, and by placing them together unplanned and unstructured. Built from Gysin’s premise that ‘writing is fifty years behind painting’, these projects—carried out first from his new base in Paris in the early 1960s, then from London and back in New York—were Burroughs’ philosophically informed contribution to the larger Beat bid for linguistic and psychological freedom (Gysin 1978, p. 34). As Ann Douglas puts it, by the processes of ‘cut-up’ and ‘fold-in’ (‘fold-in’ being the folding in half and combination of two different stories), Burroughs was looking to ‘re- route’ the channels through which thought is produced and through which it is transformed into words—and in doing so to ‘reroute power’ (Douglas 2014, n.p.). For the writer—the powerful ‘sender’ of information in Naked Lunch’s sceptical parlance—the jumbling of meaning represented freedom both from the burden of complying with a restrictive system of logic and from the authority of his tyranny over the receiving reader. In line with AndréBreton’s Surrealist method, it also meant a more automatic relation to the unconscious place from which those words originated. For the reader—the tyrannised receiver of the sender’s messages whom Burroughs torments but affects concern for in Naked Lunch—it offered release from rational-intellectual schematic subservience. And for everyone involved, ‘cut-up’ and ‘fold-in’ were Burroughs’ chance to assert his long-held psychic conviction of the ‘Past and Future [as] purely arbitrary concepts’ (2009, p. 45). Another aspect of these literary experiments that differentiates Burroughs from his Beat peers was the proximity it brought him to post-1945 cultural theories about the rise of mass media. Unlike Kerouac
and Ginsberg—but like Norman Mailer, who we’ll come on to in chap. 5— he took a scientific interest in the fate of the individual mind under the influence of advertising and of televisual and cinematic popular culture. While he joined Kerouac and Ginsberg in romanticising types that had grown to prominence through the movies since the 1910s—the gangster, the cowboy and vaudevillian W.C. Fields clown—Burroughs was more explorative in his depiction of them and of equivalent tropes he stole from cheap drugstore literature. As with his representation of non-white cultures, his forays in the ‘lower’ artistic worlds were mitigated by an irony, absent from Ginsberg and Kerouac, about his status as appropriator and/ or class tourist. He approached these—as he approached the ‘East’—with awareness that it was ignorant to assume they held ‘some great secret to discover’ (2010, p. 82). As importantly, Burroughs’ distaste for America’s ever-more-dominant corporate media and advertising worlds led him to probe them in his literature and to seek productive ways of understanding them rather than denouncing them in despair, as Ginsberg and Kerouac did. Timothy Murphy’s reading of Burroughs as an ‘amodern’ artist rests on a related idea—that the obscene scenarios in Naked Lunch splice B-Movie methods with parodies of the sentimental triggers employed by Hollywood in order to critique popular culture and to say through literature what Theodore Adorno and Max Horkheimer had said through theory fifteen years before. If Burroughs was sceptical about the kind of Marxist politics that lay behind Adorno and Horkheimer’s theory of ‘the culture industry’—and expressed no particular interest in the ideology critiques of their Frankfurt School—he joined them in abhorring monopoly capitalism and its reach into the psychological and cultural lives of ordinary citizens (Adorno and Horkheimer 2016). His application of the heroin industry’s ‘basic principles of monopoly’ to all aspects of wider society—of its aim to keep the consumer controlled by need at all times—is extended from politics and the media to include recreational art through Naked Lunch’s knowingly movie-like style (1993, p. 8). The ‘pornographic sections’ that Burroughs addresses in his introduction—and that he justifies as Swiftian satire—are confrontational not only by their graphicness but by their delivery in a dramatic mode ordinarily reserved for innocuous, sentimental pop culture (p. 12). Garishly participating in that culture—but using it to present cannibalism, necrophilia, the ‘insect agony’ of anal rape—he was, as Murphy points out, critiquing it for something like Adorno and Horkheimer’s reasons: for the use of romantic, sentimental stories about
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love, honour, virtue, and so on, to tease an unrealisable fantasy, ‘to offer and deprive [the audience] of something is one and the same’ (Murphy 1998, p. 91). Giving obscenity the pop cultural treatment, he again extends Henry Miller’s mission to ‘do down … the dreadful sentimentality which disguises brutality’ (Woolf 1992, p. 176)—and does so with a level of critical sophistication superior to either Miller or his other Beat successors. As Burroughs’ biographers have pointed out, there is an obvious further irony to this preoccupation with mass culture in his family connection to Ivy Lee, America’s first and most notorious public relations guru. Lee was Burroughs’ great uncle, and in the 1930s had both helped establish that industry as a staple of American life and counted Joseph Goebbels and a burgeoning Nazi Party among his top clients. With this real-world and more serious form of instrumental conditioning in mind, the horrendous parody that Burroughs has Dr Benway describe—of ‘this one kid, I condition to shit at sight of me. Then I wash his ass and screw him’—doesn’t seem half as grotesque (1993, p. 36). As Timothy Murphy says, Burroughs was on board with the general notion in Adorno and Horkheimer that a consumer populous had been duped into believing it was able to choose what to watch, read and plug into, and that the culture industry’s monopoly on cultural product led inevitably to a wider monopoly on the way that people think and behave. He would have agreed more or less that the ‘attitude of the consumer … is a part of the system and not an excuse for it’ (Adorno and Horkheimer 2016, p. 122). But he was a literary satirist, not a cultural theorist, and his distrust of political creeds of all kinds made him less interested in debunking excuses than sending up the rigmarole, from top to bottom. Burroughs’ mockery of his own instrumentally conditioned readers— and his conditioning of them by his own mischievous methods—doesn’t seek to detoxify culture or to rewind the clock—as Adorno and Horkheimer desired—to a time when it was more authentic and less trivial. A particular kind of early postmodernist, he revels in those new trivial forms, using the ‘b-type’ art to show the b-type nature not of a mass of people out there who aren’t able to understand what he the writer and we the reader can, but of himself and us explicitly. As Oliver Harris has intimated, in Burroughs’ work it is the voyeuristic, self-important observer who comes off worst—the reader who falls for his line that we understand him in a way that ‘the square who wants to come on hip’ just can’t (1993, p. 2). By being ‘made to face the ugliness of our own voyeurism’, which is in fact ‘just as ugly as economic exploitation’ (2003, p. 51), and our own
ordinariness, we’re privy to a rare kind of postmodern self-reflexivity—one whose cruelty disguises a deeper and deeply productive humility.
‘It’s Difficult to Know What Side You are Working On’ Such humility—which Murphy astutely aligns with Ralph Ellison’s in The Invisible Man—has important implications for Burroughs’ attitude towards individual identity and the politics that emerged around that issue in his period. A homosexual who wrote candidly about his desires and experiences, and who produced his second novel Queer as an equivalent autobiographical exposition to his debut about heroin, he was surprisingly resistant to the political expression of gay rights. As he put it when asked by a reporter in the 1980s whether he was on board with Stonewall, ‘I have never been gay a day in my life and I’m sure as hell not part of any movement’ (Lesser 2005). This wasn’t just part of Burroughs’ performance—of that provocative combination of risqué ideas and old-fashioned outward appearance. His refusal to be categorised by a new term that didn’t suit his temperament had to do also with his wider philosophical scepticism about the individual’s capacity to know who or what he or she is doing, let alone why they are doing it, let alone who they are beneath it all. He had been talking about good and evil when he told Ginsberg in 1955 that ‘it is difficult to know what side you are working on’, but there are plenty of examples throughout Burroughs’ private and public writings to suggest that he felt the same in terms of his own and others’ knowledge of their identity (Burroughs 2009, p. 269). It’s an indeterminacy that’s often remembered by those who knew and worked with him, and in the popular narrative, as evidence of a repressed upbringing (a decade before the other Beats) and of psychological damage sustained during various traumatic episodes. The repeated line on Burroughs is that he struggled too much with his own identity to get fully on board with the wider, exciting cultural changes that were happening around him. In a recent documentary about his life, ‘A Man Within’, interviewees including the painter Laurie Anderson, the singer Patti Smith and the radical transgender performance artist Genesis P-Orridge paint a picture of his anachronistic identity politics—along with a late-life obsessional taste for collecting and firing guns—as the mark of a brilliant, radically open-minded man held back by his lack of ease with himself. His
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cynicism about social progress for the collective was undoubtedly linked to a deeper cynicism about love, and this can and has usefully been traced back to his probable sexual abuse as a child and to the obvious pain suffered growing up homosexual in an age that condemned it. The antipathy to progress—like the attraction to violence in life and writing—has undoubtedly to do with ‘the ugly spirit’ that Burroughs returned to again and again as the root of his excessive behaviour (2010, p. 131). But, and as he would surely dryly remind us, such psychoanalysis distracts from something philosophically complex and instructive in Burroughs’ refusal of the progressive political positions his friends promoted and his lifestyle seemed to endorse. His experiments with drugs, with life outside the comfortable conditions of conventional society, were motivated by a fascination with the worst in himself and by extension the worst in humanity. It was because of his discoveries in this area—not some aberrant compulsion—that he doubted the efficacy of a reasoned moral categorical imperative and of coming together according to natural ideas about the fair treatment of other people. ‘The mark inside’ that he talks about in Naked Lunch is explained in later writings as ‘a parasitic being’ in every man ‘who is acting not at all to his advantage’ (1993, p. 24). No doubt that parasite was more pronounced in Burroughs himself. He nurtured and encouraged it to the surface by his submersion under heroin addiction. But he also used it to think about the amoral needs of the viscera that drive all human beings regardless of the social, political or moral identities they choose to present. By sorting honestly through his own experiences and testing his physiological and psychological impulses against larger, acceptable moral standards, he was attempting to warn others of the same in themselves. If his literary experiments and opposition to normative culture continue to inspire an equivalent freedom of thought and expression in his readers, it is a freedom that must always be checked against that same unpleasant, often felt rather than verbalised need. Typically, and provocatively, his cynicism about the existence of ‘true’ identity also carried radically progressive implications. As the collaboration with Genesis suggests, and Deleuze and post-humanist theorists like N. Katherine Hayles have noted, his thinking on sexuality and gender were steeped in the same rejection of simplistic dualisms that led him to oppose moralism and the totalising condemnation of marginal ideas and ways of being. In Burroughs’ shape-shifting characters, in his cutting up of words then of tape to disembody the voice, Hayles has found evidence of a new way of imagining human subjectivity and of a radical response to
the strictures of socially constructed identity. Quoting a classically deadpan and morbid line from his 1962 ‘fold-in’ novel The Ticket That Exploded—about the natural human desire for distraction from our reality as ‘dying animals on a doomed planet’—Hayles reads his experiments as a way past the distraction. By recording written and vocal language without premeditation, without thought or craft, he was pushing to find ways beyond the limits of the stories we tell ourselves about ourselves—stories which, in Burroughs and Hayles’ view, are shaped by external cultural, social and potentially political forces (Hayles 1999, p. 218). Likewise, in his interview mentioned earlier, with the radical feminist writer Kathy Acker, he followed up his dismissal of her question as to whether there was ‘any way out of this situation’ by positing a futuristic science fictional vision that is there throughout his late work—that human beings might come to experience an ‘expansion of awareness, eventually leading to mutations’ (Schumacher 2012).10 Burroughs’ misgivings about ‘the word “love”’—expressed in answer to a 1960s interview question about the hippies and ‘flower power’—were at least partly based on an abhorrence of hypocritical patriarchal attitudes towards women. Repeating his antipathy towards dualistic Western thinking, he regretted the ‘separation of a thing called sex and a thing called love’, connecting it to ‘the primitive expressions in the old South when the woman is on a pedestal, and the man worshipped his wife and then went out and fucked a whore’ (Copetas 1974). There are instances where Burroughs revealed a visceral misogyny—the most famous and often quoted one being his deadpan but not entirely ironic comment that ‘women may be a biological mistake’—and it would be churlish to pretend that that was part of a larger, more humane philosophy of gender (Burroughs 1993a, pp. 125–27). His reference to ‘the wife’ or ‘the whore’ snared by the patriarchal mesh has less to do with concern for their feelings than with pointing out the animal reality masked by human pretensions to civilised spiritual refinement. Readings like Timothy Murphy’s of a ‘potential post-patriarchal autonomy’ in Burroughs’ work are therefore too defensive (1998, p. 14). But they point correctly to a utopian science- fictional expectation that contradicted his reality-checking worldview. Indeed, his intimation in that interview with Kathy Acker—of a far off ‘expansion of awareness, leading to mutations’—suggests a progressive collapse of boundaries to do with gender, sexuality and across the board, a vision he developed in his book The Adding Machine of ‘sexes fusing into an organism’ (Schumacher 2012; Burroughs 1985, p. 124).
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When it came to racial boundaries, Burroughs was both less speculative and more immediately engaged. His work from ‘Twilight’s Last Gleaming’ onwards is full of satirical antipathy towards bigoted racist thinking. Everywhere in his stories, there are caricatures of the White Supremacist attitudes he had grown up observing in Louisiana and of the anti-Semitism whose extreme manifestations he read about in the local newspapers while travelling through Vienna in the mid-1930s. Dr Benway stars in Naked Lunch, but began life in ‘Twilight’s Last Gleaming’. It is a sardonic anti- racism that reaches its apotheosis in Burroughs’ ironic 1986 poem of ‘thanksgiving’: ‘thanks for the American Dream to vulgarise and falsify until the bare lines shines through/thanks for the KKK, for nigger-killing lawmen feeling their notches, for/decent church-going women with their mean, pinched, bitter, evil faces/thanks for Kill a Queer for Christ stickers’ (Burroughs 1989, p. 7). And it is grounded, ultimately, in the same hopelessness of change that underpins his writing on Mexico, South America and Morocco. The stupidities of genuinely hating someone based on the colour of their skin or choice of sexual partner are typically human ones— thinly and as stupidly concealed under pretences of a common ‘dream’ of unity. Dumbly and atavistically felt, they are hatreds that are programmed to impede any notion as abstract and high flown as ‘love is all’ or ‘flower power’: ‘The idea of everybody getting together’, he said to David Bowie in 1966, amounted to an at best useless and at likely worst dangerously empty fantasy (Copetas 1974). In place of that fantasy—again in the ‘thanksgiving poem’—Burroughs would have a country in which it is once more ‘possible to mind his own business’, to live—as he enjoyed living in Mexico in the early 1950s—with full ‘freedom from interference’ to ‘carry guns, shoot up, sleep rough, walk down the street arm in arm with another man’ (Burroughs 2009, p. 62). This is his countering what he sees as the groupthink of racism, of homophobia (if not of the misogyny he himself indulged in) with old- fashioned and curiously nostalgic libertarianism, rather than the wider countercultural project of cross-boundary egalitarianism. Again engaged in shadow play, he echoed the Hicksville racists he called out in his ‘Thanksgiving’ poem by standing proudly by his right as an American to bear arms. In the early 1990s, living out his last years in Kansas, a 78-year- old Burroughs took a distinctly NRA approach to the recent epidemic of mass killings by automatic weapon: ‘after a shooting spree’, he drawled, ‘they always want to take the guns away from the people who didn’t do it. I sure as hell wouldn’t want to live in a society where the only people
allowed guns are the police and the military’ (Burroughs 1992). Using hard-boiled language to discount hard-boiled categories, he occasionally veered into suspect hardline political territory. All of these paradoxes suggests ‘el hombre invisible’ as his own kind of insurgent within the counterculture: first as a radical postmodernist in a movement that still cleaved to the myths of a modernist past—the myths of a truth recoverable through the correct alignment of word to thing, of human being with the logos, and second as political individualist and libertarian concerned fundamentally with protecting himself from an inveterately corrupt collective. His disbelief in the fixity of form, both in people and literature, separated him from friends who retained or at least purported to retain faith in both. He might have caveated his talk of ‘evolutionary steps’ by saying that these were ‘literally inconceivable from our present point of view’, but he at least attempted to consider a post-human future—and one based on biological and technological development, rather than spiritual hope (Schumacher 2012). From one angle, this renders him more radical on sexuality and gender than either of his Beat allies. Burroughs’ distrust of group identity politics and of ‘love’ itself needs to be understood with this contradictory radicalism in mind, and not for its inconvenience to a narrative that views the movement in homogenously progressive political terms. It is part of what Ann Douglas calls Burroughs’ ‘magic’ designed to ‘counter magic’—his rewiring of normative thought patterns and the reversal of spells cast over the mind by normative religious, moral and political systems—and it encourages continual examination rather than complacency about new apparently progressive ways of seeing (Douglas 2014, n.p.).
Conclusion The spectacle of William Burroughs—a conservatively dressed and in many ways conservative-minded figure—at the birth of as radical a cultural movement as the Beat Generation illuminates something as complicated and incongruous in the rebellion that movement inspired. Burroughs’ open disdain for ‘the fucking masses’—so often misunderstood as a forgivable, potentially ironic eccentricity—was only his expression of an impulse present but concealed in work by Ginsberg, Kerouac and their contemporaries (Miles 2014, p. 54). By ‘washing away the human lines’ in literature (Burroughs 1993, p. 22)—by revealing brutality as Henry Miller and Louis-Ferdinand Céline had done in the 1930s—he was also exposing a
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brutality inherent to his and his friends’ larger worldview: that of us versus them, of the people whose authentic engagement with the world merits acknowledgement, interest and those ‘finks’ and ‘squares’ who are unable to see the tricks being played on them (Kerouac 2012, p. 196). As we’ve seen, Burroughs admitted this brutal binary where his friends were unable to—and understood it as a natural expression of the dualism that lay at the heart of all human behaviour. This misanthropic position meant he could look honestly, and without utopian or nostalgic longing at himself, America and humanity. Like Jonathan Swift, this unlikely intermediary between the reactionary modernism of the inter-war period and post-war Beat progressivism was as willing to satirise himself and his reader as he was the wider culture. That protected him from the hypocrisies Kerouac and Ginsberg were prone to, and it is the main reason that a book like Naked Lunch retains its dissenting and shock power while Kerouac’s On the Road or Ginsberg’s Howl have not. He remains now what he was in the 1960s—obscene without obvious, conspiratorial political purpose; able,—as Timothy Murphy has put it—‘to offend the moral sensibilities of the Right, the Center [sic], and the Left in equal measure’ (Murphy 1998, p. 8). In contrast to Kerouac and Ginsberg also—whose quotes have been lifted to sell everything from gap years to self-help—his abrasive comedic rebellion resists co-option for the kind of insidious messaging purposes he and the Frankfurt School were critiquing.11 Burroughs predicted this co-option. He knew from the moment ‘beat’ became the talk of the newspapers that their corporatisation was inevitable. Rather than lamenting the contamination of their literary revolution by market forces—taking the questions about Beatnik philosophy as an insult, as Kerouac did, or trying to explain it earnestly like Ginsberg—he treated this as an unsurprising, amusing farce. To Burroughs it was absurd par for the course that Kerouac ended up being used to shift ‘a trillion Levi’s [and] a million espresso coffee machines’ (Charters 2011, p. xviii). By the same token, he looked back on the movement they had begun with the cool eye he applied to human behaviour of all kinds—humouring Ginsberg’s belief in it as a ‘spiritual liberation movement’ but insisting its main effects were ‘cultural’ and ‘sociological’, even before ‘literary’ (Lesser 2005). If there was pride in his follow-up statement that it had had ‘unprecedented worldwide importance’, there was also a typical awareness that the conversion of those sociological and cultural energies into political ones
was bound to end in commercial enterprise and a parody of the original protest spirit (Lesser 2005). Thus when he did eventually follow his friends in putting face and voice to an advert (for Nike in 1994), and when he cashed in on his countercultural kudos in the 1990s by gigging routines up and down the country, it was with a wry sense of honesty about the financial motivation behind it (Open Culture 2013). This was—as the punk and post-punk musicians who flocked to him recognised—closer to the individualist, politically incorrect irreverence of the Sex Pistols than Bob Dylan, The Grateful Dead and ‘flower power’. There is of course a species of Romanticism in Burroughs’ work, but it is drawn from the practical rather than spiritual basis of the American Transcendentalist tradition. As Oliver Harris has written, Burroughs deliberately resisted locating his outlaw roman à clef in the lineage of legendary drug-taking authors like Coleridge, De Quincey and Edgar Allen Poe— and he looked down on Ginsberg for obsessing over Whitman and on Kerouac for his ‘New England Idealism’ (Harris 2003a, b, p. 71). But he was nostalgic himself for something like the ‘self-reliance’ that Emerson preached and Henry Thoreau tried to live by. It was a nostalgia that motivated his moves to rural Texas, Mexico, then Tangier but led Burroughs to retreat into gloom and a serious investigation of his and others’ evil rather than the perfection that could be achieved if a man were left alone to commune honestly with God and the best in himself. Like Kerouac, he descended socially and psychologically as a means of widening literary perspective, but his own new perspective had to do with peering into the dark rather than waiting there for divine inspiration. In contrast to Kerouac’s ‘bottom of the world’—that subterranean, apocalyptic site for the resurrection of the Fellaheen—he explored a submarine blackness. High and un-bathed in his Tangier box-room, Burroughs became like the tattooed junkie sailor he describes in Naked Lunch—cut adrift in his ‘diving bell’ at the bottom of the sea, ‘the cable broken, settling into the black depths’ (p. 53). If Burroughs is remembered, as Regina Weinreich puts it, for having ‘inaugurated the whole era of hip’, his was a louche and sharply intellectual version of that attitude (Lesser 2005). He used terms like ‘hip’, ‘square’ and ‘dig’ dryly and queried the possibility of an authentic way of life even as he attempted it. Like Henry Miller, his literary postures of inhumanity had the humanist purpose of exposing hypocritical sentimentalism and were—as he put in that preface to Naked Lunch—designed to shed light on the barbaric truth behind the behaviour of ostensibly civilised
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people and institutions. However, his bid for a clearer, more courageous understanding of the world was much less self-aggrandising either than Miller’s became or than his Beat allies’ always were. A more shocking writer than any of them, Burroughs was opposed to their idea of a true self that could be arrived at by honest behaviour superseding man-made moral limits. Temperamentally, he was more concerned with standards of human decency. From beginning to end, Burroughs’ line on the great Beat muse Neal Cassady—so mesmeric to Kerouac and Ginsberg—was that he was morally reprehensible: no cowboy saint, but a man who privileged personal spontaneity over the feelings of others: ‘Wife and child may starve, friends exist only to exploit for gas money … Neal must move’ (Burroughs 2009, p. 37). Swiftian distrust of the human animal he knew he was raises Burroughs above the counterculture that made him an icon—and makes a very Burroughsian joke of the nostalgia with which he is remembered today. Aware of flaws in himself as much as others, but unconvinced of the possibility or benefit in trying to correct either, he aimed instead for marginally, temporarily improved understanding. ‘The function of art’, Burroughs wrote, ‘is to make people aware of what they know and don’t know’, not, as it became in the wider Beat project, the engendering of a profound new way of seeing (Burroughs and Skerl 1999, p. 124). That new way of seeing was probably what Kingsley Widmer had in mind when he wrote that ‘at their best the Beats … follow Miller in the grotesque comedy of defiance’ (Widmer 1971, p. 117). Widmer, who calls Miller ‘a minor writer’ with a ‘major relevance’, speculates that ‘his distinctive quality may be the Americanisation of the literature of the absolute rebellion in which defiance is modified by bumptiousness, bombast by candor, extremity by geniality, nastiness by earnestness, and so on’ (p. 117). Far from bumptious, genial or earnest, Burroughs’ satirical anti-humanism was an apposite answer to the self-satisfied excesses of the scene in which he was an honorary member.
Notes 1. Comparing Eliot unfavourably to Pound, Ginsberg said of him, ‘he never solved the verse problem for us because he went to England and wrote ultimately … in basically an old style of Shakespearean blank verse, written slightly adapted to (intelligent) modern speech. But he never solved the problem of how do you register American speech?’ (Schumacher 2014).
2. Burroughs met fellow risqué author and heroin addict Alexander Trocchi when the two were on the same bill at the Edinburgh International Writers’ Conference, 1962. Dubbed the ‘Scottish Beat’ —for his experimental lifestyle and literary candidness—Trocchi made the headlines at the event by describing himself as a ‘cosmonaut of inner space’, a comment Burroughs approved of and echoed in his personal correspondence (Campbell 2008, p. 211). 3. McCarthy (1963); Kerouac, quoted as promotional material for Burroughs’ Naked Lunch (1993); Murphy (1998), Harris (2003a, b), Miles (2014). 4. See my Chap. 3. 5. (Letters 1945–1959, p. 62, Jan 1, 1950). 6. Junkie was published by Ace, a company who dealt in pulp fiction titles to be sold over the counter in drug stores. As a consequence it was marketed towards a pulp fiction readership—priced at 35 cents, and with a picture of a swarthy-looking heavy manhandling a pretty blonde woman on the front. 7. ‘I fain would spare you this, but my pen hath its will like the Ancient Mariner’ (Compare to Ginsberg’s own sincere allusion to Coleridge). 8. A reference to the original title of Junkie: Confessions of an Unredeemed Drug Addict. 9. (William Burroughs, Naked Lunch) back cover of the Grove Press 1962 publication, q. by Meagan Wilson, Journal of Modern Literature, Vol. 35, No. 2 (Winter 2012), pp. 98–125. 10. See my p. 111. 11. Following the appearance of Kerouac and Ginsberg photos and quotes in commercials for clothing companies Nike and Gap, Kerouac recently had his novel The Dharma Bums misquoted by youth travel organisation www. gapyear.com: ‘go climb that goddam mountain!’ (the real line is ‘what you’re gonna do is go climb a mountain’ [Kerouac 2011, p. 21]).
Works Cited Adorno, Theodore and Max Horkheimer. 2016. Dialectic of Enlightenment, transl. by John Cumming. London. Verso. Black, Jack. 1926. You Can’t Win. New York: Macmillan. Burroughs, William S. 2012. Interzone, ed. by James Grauerholz. New York: Viking. Orig. ed.: 1989. Burroughs, William S. 2003. Junky: The Definitive Text of “Junk”. New York: Penguin. Originally published as Junk, then Junkie: Confessions of an Unredeemed Drug Addict. Burroughs, William S. 2009. Letters 1945–1959, ed. with an intro. by Oliver Harris. Penguin: London. –––‘To Allen Ginsberg.’ 30th November 1948, pp. 25–26.
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––– ‘To Allen Ginsberg.’ 30th January 1949, pp. 37–39. ––– ‘To Jack Kerouac.’ 1st January 1950, pp. 61–62. ––– ‘To Allen Ginsberg.’ 1st May 1950, pp. 66–70. ––– ‘To Allen Ginsberg.’ 19th February 1955, pp. 268–70. Burroughs, William S. 1993a. The Adding Machine: Selected Essays. New York: Arcade Publishing. Orig. ed.: 1985 Burroughs, William S. 1993b. Naked Lunch. London: Flamingo. Orig. ed.: 1959. Burroughs, William S. 1980. Soft Machine. New York: Grove Press. Orig. ed.: 1961. Burroughs, William S. 1989. ‘Thanksgiving Day, Nov. 28, 1986.’ In Tornado Alley, pp. 5–7. Cherry Valley, NY: Cherry Valley Editions. Burroughs, William S. 2010. Queer. London: Penguin. Orig. ed.: 1985. Burroughs, William S., 1992. ‘The War Universe.’ Grand Street, no. 37. Reprinted in Painting and Guns. Taped conversation. Burroughs, William and Allen Ginsberg. 2008. Yage Letters: Redux. London. Penguin. Orig. ed.: 1963. Burroughs, William S. and Jennie Skerl. 1999. ‘Interview with Jennie Skerl.’ In Conversations with William S. Burroughs, ed. by Allen Hibbard. Jackson: University Press of Mississippi. Campbell, James. 2008. Beats, New Yorkers and Writers in the Dark. Berkeley: University of California Press. Charters, Ann. 2011. ‘Introduction.’ In On the Road, ed. by Jack Kerouac, pp. i– xxi. London. Penguin. Orig. ed.: 1957. Copetas, Craig. 1974. ‘Beat Godfather Meets Glitter Mainman: William Burroughs Interviews David Bowie.’ Rolling Stone, 28 February 1974. https://www.rollingstone.com/music/music-news/beat-godfather-meets-glitter-mainman-william-burroughs-interviews-david-bowie-92508/. [Accessed 18th March 2020]. Deleuze, Gilles and Félix Guattari. 1987. Capitalism and Schizophrenia. Vol. 2, A Thousand Plateaus, transl. by Brian Massumi. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press. Douglas, Ann. 2014. ‘The New York Times’, 21st February 2014. Dury, David. 1994. ‘Sex Goes Public: A Talk with Henry Miller.’ In Conversations with Henry Miller, ed. by Frank L. Kersnowski and Alice Hughes. Mississippi: University Press. Finch, Nigel. (dir.). 1981. ‘Chelsea Hotel’, Arena, BBC2, 3 January, 1981, https://www.bbc.co.uk/iplayer/episode/b0074lzv/arena-chelsea-hotel. [Accessed 10th March 2020] Garland, Sarah. 2010. ‘The Dearest of Cemeteries.’ European Journal of American Culture, 29, no. 3: 197–215. Garland, Sarah. 2005. Rhetoric and Excess: Style, Authority, and the Reader in Henry Miller’s ‘Tropic of Cancer’, Samuel Beckett’s ‘Murphy’, William Burroughs’
‘Naked Lunch’, and Vladimir Nabokov’s ‘Ada or Ardor’. PhD diss., University of East Anglia. Ginsberg, Allen. 2006. The Book of Martyrdom and Artifice: First Journals and Poems, 1937–1952, ed. by Juanita Lieberman-Plimpton and Bill Morgan. Cambridge: Da Capo Press. ––– ‘“The New Vision.”’ 3rd February 1945, pp. 120–24. Ginsberg, Allen. 1956. Howl and Other Poems. San Francisco: City Lights. Ginsberg, Allen. 2008. The Letters of Allen Ginsberg, ed. by Bill Morgan. Philadelphia: Da Capo Press. –––‘To Jack Kerouac.’ 15th June 1949, pp. 36–41. Gysin, Bryon. 1978. The Third Man. New York: Viking. Harris, Oliver (ed.) with Ian MacFadyen. 2009. Naked [email protected]: Anniversary Essays. Southern Illinois University Press, p. 283. Harris, Oliver. 2016. “William Burroughs: Beating Postmodernism.” In The Cambridge Companion to the Beats, ed. Steven Belleto, pp. 123–136. Cambridge University Press. Harris, Oliver. 2003a. William Burroughs and the Secret of Fascination. Carbondale, IL: Southern Illinois University Press. Harris, Oliver. 2003b. ‘Introduction.’ In Burroughs, Junky: The Definitive Text of “Junk”, pp. ix–xxxiii. New York: Penguin. Hayles, N. Katherine. 1999. How We Became Posthuman: Virtual Bodies in Cybernetics, Literature, and Informatics. Chicago, IL: The University of Chicago Press, 1999. Hilfer, Anthony Channell. 1980. ‘Mariner and Wedding Guest in William Burroughs’ “Naked Lunch”.’ Criticism 22, no. 3: 252–265. Huxley, Aldous. 1971. ‘Death and the Baroque.’ In Henry Miller: Three Decades of Criticism, ed. with an intro. by Edward B. Mitchell, pp. 53–63. New York: New York University Press. Kerouac, Jack. 2011. Dharma Bums. New York: Penguin. Orig. ed.: 1958. Kerouac, Jack. 2012. Vanity of Duluoz. London: Penguin. Orig. ed.: 1968. Kerouac, Jack. 1999. Selected Letters: 1957–1969, ed. by Ann Charters. New York: Viking. ––– ‘To Sebastian Sampas.’ 25th March 1943, p. 17. Lesser, Yony (dir.). 2005. A Man Within. New York: PBS. Loewinsohn, Ron. 1998. ‘“Gentle Reader, I Fain Would Spare You This, but My Pen Hath Its Will like the Ancient Mariner”: Narrator(s) and Audience in William S. Burroughs’s “Naked Lunch”.’ Contemporary Literature, 39, no. 4: 560–85. Maffina, Stefano. 2012. The Role of Jack Kerouac’s Identity in the Development of his Poetics. New York: Lulu. Mailer, Norman. 1976. Genius and Lust: A Journey Through the Major Writings of Henry Miller. New York: Grove Press.
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McCarthy, Mary. 1963. ‘Dejeuner sur l’Herbe: A review of The Naked Lunch by William S. Burroughs.’ The New York Review of Books, February 1963. Miles, Barry. 2014. William Burroughs: A Life. London: Widenfeld & Nicolson. Miller, Henry. 1962. The Time of the Assassins: A Study of Rimbaud. New York: New Directions. Orig. ed.: 1946. Miller, Henry. 1964. ‘My Aims and Intentions.’ In Henry Miller on Writing: Selected by Thomas H. Moore from the Published and Unpublished Works of Henry Miller. New York: New Directions. Originally published in Art and Outrage. A Correspondence about Henry Miller between A. Perlès and Lawrence Durrell. 1959. Miller, Henry. 1988. ‘To Anais Nin.’ 24th May 1933, p. 159. A Literate Passion: Letters of Anaïs Nin and Henry Miller 1932–1953, ed. with an intro. by Gunther Stuhlmann. London: Allison & Busby. Miller, Henry. 2005. Tropic of Cancer. London: Harper Perennial. Orig. ed.: 1934. Murphy, Timothy. 1998. Wising Up the Marks: The Amodern William Burroughs. Berkeley: University of California Press. Open Culture. 2013. ‘Beat Writer Spreads Countercultural Cool on Nike Sneakers.’ http://www.openculture.com/2013/02/beat_writer_william_s_ burroughs_spreads_counterculture_cool_on_nike_sneakers_1994.html. Advert originally broadcast, 1994. [Accessed 16th March 2020]. Pound, Ezra. 1954. ‘The Serious Artist.’ In Literary Essays, ed. with an intro. by T. S. Eliot, pp. 41–57. London: Faber & Faber. Originally published in The Egoist, 1913. Pound, Ezra. 1992. ‘Review of Tropic of Cancer.’ In Critical Essays on Henry Miller, ed. by Ronald Gottesman, pp. 87–89. New York: G.K. Hall & Co. Written but unpublished, 1935. Schumacher, Michael. 1992. Dharma Lion: A Biography of Allen Ginsberg. New York: St. Martin’s Press. Schumacher, Michael. 2012. ‘Kathy Acker Interviews William Burroughs.’ 27 October 2012. https://allenginsberg.org/2012/10/kathy-acker-interviewswilliam-burroughs/. [Accessed 18th March 2020]. Schumacher, Michael. 2014. ‘T.S. Eliot.’ The Allen Ginsberg Project. 26 September 2014. Quoting Ginsberg in an interview with Fedinanda Pivano, 1968. https://allenginsberg.org/2014/09/t-s-eliot/. [Accessed 15th September 2020]. Spengler, Oswald. 1926. The Decline of the West, transl. by Charles Francis Atkinson, 2 vols. New York: A. Knopff. Orig. ed: 1918. Skerl, Jennie. William S. Burroughs. 1985. Twayne’s United States Authors. Boston: Twayne. Swift, Jonathan. 2003. Gulliver’s Travels. London: Penguin. Originally published 1726.
Swift, Jonathan. 2009. ‘A Modest Proposal.’ In A Modest Proposal and Other Writings, pp. 230–39. London: Penguin. Originally published 1729. Widmer, Kingsley. 1971. ‘Henry Miller.’ In Henry Miller: Three Decades of Criticism, ed. by Edward B. Mitchell, pp. 113–20. New York: New York University Press. Wilson, Meagan. 2012. ‘Your Reputation Precedes You: A Reception Study of Naked Lunch.’ Journal of Modern Literature, 35, no. 2: 98–125. Woolf, Michael. 1992. ‘Beyond Ideology: Kate Millet and the Case for Henry Miller.’ In Critical Essays, ed. by Gottesman, pp. 165–77. New York: G.K. Hall & Co.
The Philosophy of Hip: Norman Mailer’s ‘Spiritual Existentialism’
Spiritual Existentialist The authenticity of self that Kerouac and Ginsberg coveted, and which Burroughs doubted but spent his life pursuing, was given philosophical coordinates in the 1960s counterculture by a writer only loosely associated with their movement. Norman Mailer, a prolific novelist, essayist, sometime movie director and very public intellectual, is commonly remembered as one of a handful of late twentieth-century authors who cast themselves in a race to produce the so-called Great American Novel. Famous by twenty-six, when his debut The Naked and the Dead topped the New York Times Bestseller list (1948), Mailer built a career out of the macho Hemingway-like notion that he could brave the depths of the male American psyche to expose profound truths on the ‘temper of our time’ (Mailer 1969, p. 158). And it is for this chutzpah—sometimes justified but often provocative and embarrassing—as well as a connected sexism called out by the Second Wave Feminists in the 1970s that Mailer has gone down in literary history. He was more conventional than the Beats in the style of his writing and living and as a consequence is rarely appreciated as their contemporary. But Mailer championed and defended the Beats’ work, and much of his own of the late 1950s and the 1960s in fact reflected a kindred ethos on politics, self-identity, sex and the changes facing young Americans in a post-war age. This chapter examines Mailer as a countercultural and quasi-Beat figure, reading his experiments with fiction, his pronouncements on the state © The Author(s) 2020 G. Stevenson, Anti-Humanism in the Counterculture, https://doi.org/10.1007/978-3-030-47760-8_5
of humanity and the nation in essays and interviews and his active engagement in politics in the 1960s to contextualise the project of literary and existential realisation outlined so far. In my earlier chapter on Kerouac and Ginsberg—and in places in the previous one on Burroughs—the Beats’ quest for authenticity emerged as a more spiritual iteration of the atheistic one engaged in by Existentialists in France during the same period. For Kerouac and Ginsberg, the popular press’ description of their movement as ‘beatnik’ stung not just because it suggested their pretentious imitation of Sartre and the salon scene of the left bank, but because it ignored the genuinely religious impulse in their work.1 A self-defined ‘spiritual existentialist’, and both a documenter and participant in what he called ‘the philosophy of hip’, Norman Mailer opens up new ways of understanding Beat as a philosophical phenomenon and of comparing it seriously to the equivalent post-war intellectual revival across the Atlantic (1957, p. 5). By going in close on Mailer’s writing about ‘hip’ and its relation in particular to Søren Kierkegaard—revered by many in the American counterculture and often described as a father to Existentialism—we’ll get a clearer reading of the criteria for meaningful engagement with the self and wider society in American letters after the Second World War, and of the grey area between humanist and anti-humanist, between progressive and reactionary thought in Beat culture at this time. This chapter’s main focus is Mailer’s 1957 essay ‘The White Negro’, which makes use of Kierkegaard to posit the ‘hipster’ as a morally, existentially liberated figure. This provides an exaggerated but instructive philosophical companion piece to the aggressive and exclusionary aspects in Beat thinking pointed out in previous chapters. Its extreme moral provocations—bolstered both by the same primitivism about black America that Kerouac and Ginsberg engaged in and by a shared interest in Oswald Spengler—give explicit voice to the violent and exclusionary flipside to peace, inclusion and love present implicitly in Howl (published 1956), Tristessa (published 1960) and Visions of Cody (published 1972). Though Mailer caveats his essay with the half-serious subtitle ‘superficial reflections on the hipster’, it is also his more earnest and genuinely enthralled treatise on the kind of violence that Burroughs described only to lampoon in Naked Lunch (Mailer 1957, np.). A great admirer of Burroughs and an even greater admirer of Burroughs’ antecedent Henry Miller, Mailer developed a model for individual authenticity that was more radical in its exploration of evil than either.
5 THE PHILOSOPHY OF HIP: NORMAN MAILER’S ‘SPIRITUAL…
Like Burroughs, he took an evolutionary step on from Miller, but in a direction that retained rather than repudiated belief in the individual human’s capacity for spiritual emancipation. In his literary experiments with brutality and obscenity for larger emancipatory purposes, Mailer provides yet another expression of the humanist/anti-humanist paradox that has been the subject of this study so far. But he reveals another side to that paradox—one that understands the bid to get beyond good and evil as part of an unorthodox and deeply personal struggle to affirm rather than contribute to the longstanding denial of God’s existence. Perhaps the most public young intellectual of the 1960s, Mailer is also a useful barometer for the effect Beat ideas had in the wider literary world. In editorials for the Greenwich Village magazine he founded, The Village Voice, and his many appearances on popular television programmes like William F. Buckley’s ‘Firing Line’, he gave intellectually respectable voice to the rebellion that Kerouac and Ginsberg were mounting in their prose and poetry. Along with the praise Mailer heaped on Burroughs—‘the only American novelist living today who may conceivably be possessed of genius’—Kerouac—‘a powerhouse of a style’—and Ginsberg—‘a great poet’—his attempts to give underground countercultural ideas a serious airing and to understand those ideas as the basis for a ‘muted cool religious revival’ are significant for their demonstration of the traction the Beats gained in the 1960s (Mailer 2015, p. 277, p. 470, p. 332, 1957, p. 5). Mailer’s commentary on Kierkegaard—on his reinjection of religion into the high-stakes game of Existentialist individual responsibility— reveals his own contribution to that revival to have been more heated. Revisiting Kierkegaard’s tortured portrait of Abraham—aiming to imitate that Old Testament hero by suspending rational moral judgement for faith in a larger truth—Mailer engaged feverishly with questions that were otherwise treated at a beatific or melancholic remove. As we’ll see from his two full-length studies of Henry Miller, The Prisoner of Sex (published 1971) and Genius and Lust (1976), the conservatism suggested by his fidelity to fundamentals of being—of the universe and the self—was connected too to the position Mailer had on the cusp between 1960s’ sexual liberation and the 1970s’ women’s lib movement. Associated with Miller and D.H. Lawrence by Kate Millett in her famous attack on patriarchal American prose—but also, and actively with the progressive anti-war, anti-rightist politics the Beats only flirted with—Mailer differed by his loud and proudly counter-revolutionary response. If Miller’s marginalisation in the newly gender and racially sensitive 1970s
shed light on the emergence of identity politics, Mailer’s aggressive defence of Miller—and of himself by extension—offers a way of thinking about two apparently contradictory but actually compatible issues: first, the chauvinism that was at the heart of countercultural thinking from the start, and second the evolution of youthful post-war ideals about the freedom of the nonconformist individual into collectively endorsed standards on the treatment of subjugated groups.
‘The White Negro’ Mailer’s gender politics were founded on a conservative belief in the atavistic struggle between men and women, a fact that has been widely commented on and was at the heart of much of his behaviour and writing. This will be addressed in detail later. The philosophy that connected him to the Beats, however—and which qualifies him as a significant voice in the counterculture—was superficially more dependent on the essentialism of race. Written a decade after his first success with The Naked and the Dead and in the same year as Kerouac’s breakthrough with On the Road, ‘The White Negro’ was Mailer’s attempt to celebrate what he saw as a new kind of outlaw freedom in young, white America, a freedom he connected excitedly to ordinary black American experience. Drawing a little on the scenes he observed on his home patch of Greenwich Village, a little on the appropriations of black language and hipster heroes in Beat works like Kerouac’s and a lot on his marijuana- fuelled imagination, he produced a deliberately provocative but un-ironic portrait of hip white ‘bohemian[s]’ and ‘juvenile delinquent[s]’ in a ‘menage a trois’ with ‘the Negro’ (1957, pp. 3–4). All of this is expressed in the fairly standard eroticised, primitivist, language characteristic of white bohemian relations with black America since the Harlem Renaissance: these new white heroes, to Mailer’s mind, had discovered what ‘the Negro’ had always known because he ‘could rarely afford the sophisticated inhibitions of civilisation, and so he kept for his survival the art of the primitive, he lived in the enormous present, he satisfied his Saturday night kicks, relinquishing the pleasures of the mind for the more obligatory pleasures of the body’ (p. 4). A major part of the problem with Mailer’s writing about black people and black culture—also the major problem and anachronism in Kerouac and Ginsberg’s work that we observed in chapter three—is paradoxically the reason why race fails to inform a serious discussion of his philosophy.
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Namely, that he used a crass, romanticised picture of a certain kind of African American man first to describe the experience of an entire race and second as lazy trope for a larger point about his real subject—the Hip or Beat youth movement that he admired and desired to participate in. There is much more to be said about Mailer’s attitude to race relations in America, and about the contradiction between his active support for desegregation, for the importance of healing racial divisions, and his failure to appreciate the complexities on these issues put forward by black authors like Ralph Ellison (and even James Baldwin, who Mailer knew well). Indeed, his cheap use of blackness to support a binary of ‘hip’ and ‘square’ types of people, of ‘authentic’ and ‘inauthentic’ modes of being, was shocking to many even in its day and looks increasingly embarrassing and offensive the more one considers that rich and serious intellectual context. But—at bottom—‘The White Negro’ is an essay about existential rather than racial opposites. Even more explicitly than Kerouac’s Tristessa or Ginsberg romanticising the ‘negro streets at dawn’ in ‘Howl’, it trades in that tired old simplistic fantasy about the spiritual freedom of African Americans—a people subjugated but in possession of an enviable natural cool (Ginsberg 2009, p. 134). But its abiding goal is to outline a new philosophy of existence for the willing and able reader—and it is through this, rather than Mailer’s racial cartooning, that we can learn most about exclusionary, elitist impulses within the wider countercultural bid for freedom. Setting aside for now the essay’s reduction of blacks (and exclusion of women)—as well as the wider social myths that made its headline grabbing title and problematic counterpoint possible—the argument in ‘The White Negro’ is for spontaneous over planned and responsible living, for full and total engagement with the present rather than the past or future and for a confrontation in every moment of every day with the fact of one’s eventual death. ‘The fate of 20th century man’, Mailer writes, ‘is to live with death from adolescence to premature senescence’ (1957, p. 2). Like all three major Beats—and in line with so much Cold War avant-garde writing—he presented the ‘collective condition’ in the post-war West in dramatic terms, either of apocalyptic atomic destruction, concealed systemic totalitarianism, or the slow grinding down of the human spirit in a world of automation and mass media conformity (p. 2). This generation, Mailer said, who had come of age at the end of the Second World War, now faced the afterlife of its brutality. Living in fear of ‘instant death’ by atomic bomb, a
‘relatively quick death by the State as l’univers concentrationnaire [a reference to David Rousset’s 1945 book by the same name, and roughly translated as ‘the concentration camp universe’]’ or ‘slow death by conformity’, Mailer writes, the heroic ‘hipster’ plumps for fast pace and high risk over cautious and steady bourgeois decay (p. 2). Redolent of ‘the existentialist … the psychopath … the saint and the bullfighter and the lover’—one perverse and three conventional romantic icons—his claim to nobility, to spiritual perspicacity, is a willed appreciation of the finitude of the material world (p. 5). Through virility, violence and a commitment to perpetual motion, he keeps pace with the increasing speed of life in atomic and multi-media age America. And he has found a precious practical means for remaining strong and sane while others crumble under the pressures of postmodern society. For Mailer then, as for Kerouac and Ginsberg with their ‘hips’ and ‘squares’, their ‘us’ and ‘the finks’, the world breaks down into those who live such safe, conformist lives and are doomed to never know the true meaning of authentic living and those who see the con in that conformity and have learnt to live properly. He could very well be describing Kerouac’s Neal Cassady inspired Dean Moriarty or the ‘apocalyptic hipster’ that Ginsberg makes of Herbert Huncke in his journals, when he writes of his hipster subjects that they have attained a sacred ‘knowledge that what is happening in each instant of the electric present is good or bad for them, good or bad for their cause, their love, their action, their need’ (Ginsberg 2006, p. 267; Mailer 1957, p. 5). What Mailer called his ‘philosophy of hip’ was a journalistic rather than novelistic experiment—and it in fact reads at various points like the kind of hack caricature of Beat culture that Ginsberg and Kerouac despised. But it was sincere in its attempt to pay homage to their movement, or at least the wider zeitgeist that had given life to it (p. 5). Its crude, amped-up terms—its open celebration of psychopathy and violence over reasoned moral living—also pay homage to the fundamental intolerance of which conservative critics had accused the Beats, and which they themselves were generally unwilling to acknowledge.
The Psychic Outlaw That homage—that shift in gear from a celebration of mad, impulsive drug-taking and car thieving to one of actual physical violence—arose out of his own version of the conditions the Beats used for the starting point of their literature. He developed the freewheeling, existentially explorative
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approach of ‘The White Negro’ at a point in his career when he had become disillusioned with the literary establishment that had pedestalled him as a young man, and sought new impetus in drugs, Beat-like autobiographical self-reflection and unorthodox conceptions of the divine. In the mid-1950s, with his stock plummeting after the failure of his follow-up to The Naked and the Dead, Barbary Shore (1951), Mailer took a step out of the literati scene he had moved in since the war—enjoying his recent discoveries of marijuana and Harlem jazz clubs—and a step inwards into a kind of writing that aimed to explore his and his generation’s ‘psychic’ constitution (1957, p. 1). Close to the Beats in age and college background (he was a year younger than Kerouac and two older than Ginsberg, and had studied at Harvard while they were at Columbia) Mailer had chosen a straight and narrow path by comparison. Worshiping consummate stylists like Hemingway, Dos Passos and Faulkner, he had both stayed the course until graduation and fallen into line in the army with the grand ambition of producing his generation’s first great book about the Second World War. But what he began to explore in works like ‘The White Negro’—now that his credit for that war book was running dry—were impulses that coincided with the new kind of thinking and writing his less conventional or successful contemporaries had inculcated. In his biographer Michael Lennon’s words, Mailer reinvented himself in the aftermath of his fall from literary grace as a ‘psychic outlaw’—a new rebellious public figure keyed into the mood of his times (Lennon 2013, p. 193). This late and over-eager arrival on the countercultural scene led to an exaggerated exposition of its flaws. In many of his essays from the late-1950s and 1960s, but particularly in ‘The White Negro’, he goes in off the deep end, celebrating individual violence as a tonic for the ‘psychic violence’ perpetrated by the state in post-war technocratic America. Where Kerouac, Ginsberg and Miller drew parallels between the crimes of gangsters and the pieties of saints, Mailer took this a step further by justifying specific acts of murder: In an age that has seen ‘the divorce of man from his values’, from his authentic self, ‘Hip’, he says ‘would return us to ourselves at no matter what price in in individual violence’ (p. 13). In this scheme, which presents spontaneity and truthfulness to the self as cures for collective state control, and prizes these above and over moral responsibility to others, ‘individual acts of violence are always to be preferred to the collective violence of the state’ (p. 13). Riffing creatively—and not entirely seriously—he stumbles on a problem inherent in the lifestyle
Kerouac and Ginsberg coveted and emulated, and which William Burroughs had in fact disapproved of. In Neal Cassady’s race to cover the continent, to ‘go go go’—we remember—the elder Beat identified an essential pointlessness and selfishness. ‘It doesn’t matter who gets hurt’, he wrote to Ginsberg, ‘as long as Neal gets to keep moving’ (Burroughs 2009, p. 37). What Mailer was describing was Neal Cassady taken to his perverse logical conclusion—a man whose disregard for the conventional moral consequences of his actions rendered him both psychopathic and the especial master of his every action and experience. ‘The strength of the psychopath’, Mailer writes, ‘is that he knows (where most of us can only guess) what is good for him and what is bad for him’ (p. 8). Like Kerouac’s Cassady–Dean Moriarty character—who opposes neurosis and intellectualism by healthy ‘criminality’, a ‘wild yea-saying overburst of American joy’—Mailer’s psychopathic Existentialist hipster knows how to ‘replace a negative and empty fear with an outward action’ (Kerouac 2011, p. 13; Mailer 1957, p. 8). Processed in Mailer’s more competitive, macho and neurotic mind, the quest for individual freedom that galvanised the Beats becomes more specifically male, more specifically physical and extreme— ‘even if … the fear is of himself, and the action is to murder’ (Mailer 1957, p. 8). The psychopath, Mailer said, was a man of ‘courage at the moment of violence’ and ‘in the act of love’—a counterpoint to the insecurities that had afflicted him since childhood and grown exponentially with his entrance onto the literary scene (p. 10). Indeed, he was constantly trying to prove himself against a model of masculinity inscribed in American legend by Ernest Hemingway. Hemingway—who Mailer called his ‘spiritual father’—is the origin for his conception of life as a daily test of nerve and of writing as a kind of holy extension of that (Rose and Mailer 2003). In ‘The White Negro’s hipster figure, morphing into a psychopath, to a ‘saint’ then—and again here in clear allusion to Hemingway—a ‘bullfighter’, he sanctifies the man who is able to overcome nervousness and fear in each moment, and he connects that capacity for overcoming to a capacity for violence (p. 4). As we’ve seen, Kerouac was himself in thrall to an unattainable macho standard. His obsession with the roving, gambling Thomas Wolfe was akin to Mailer’s with Hemingway’s. And, when it came to writing his final memoirs, Vanity of Dulouz—about his youth with Carr, Ginsberg and Burroughs in New York—he adopted a salt-of-the-earth vernacular and emphasised his time in the merchant marines and few days in prison
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custody to mark him out from his friends. That said, he joined Ginsberg in disliking the brutal extents Mailer went to in his portrayal of Beat-like life. The two shared misgivings about ‘The White Negro’ as ‘macho folly’, and Kerouac dismissed Mailer as an ‘intellectual fool’ (Manso 2008, pp. 259, 258). The essay is certainly a dramatisation, and it teems with personal hang-ups and unfounded hunches. But it also succeeds in drawing to the surface an undercurrent of violence that the Beat binary of authentic and inauthentic always suggested—a violence that Mailer knew, but the Beats denied, was connected to a shared unorthodox conception of the individual human standing before God. In Mailer’s, as in Kerouac and Ginsberg’s schemes, the struggle for ‘hipness’ in literature and life was part of an equivalent struggle to define and come to terms with the spiritual self. Mirroring Ginsberg’s transition from non-religious, politically idealistic Jew to seeker of Hare Krishna and Buddhist truths, Mailer turned—in the early to mid-1950s—from a self- proclaimed ‘atheistic humanist’ to a writer whose main concern was ‘how God exists’ (Mailer 1969, p. 250). In method and philosophical solution, ‘The White Negro’ posits faith in the existence of a fundamental spiritual truth, and a fundamental self, achievable through communion with that truth as preferable to the reasoned measuring of one’s behaviour against the good or bad it may do to other human beings. ‘To be with it’, he writes, ‘is to have grace, is to be closer to the secrets of that inner unconscious life … nearer to that GOD which every hipster believes is located in the senses’ (p. 9). If Mailer had made friends with Ginsberg, and some contact with Kerouac by the time he wrote ‘The White Negro’, the sociological and proscriptive bent of this kind of remark marks him clearly as an observer rather than participant in their scene. Moreover, and as Beat scholar Jed Birmingham has pointed out, in 1957, ‘The White Negro’’s explanation of Beat culture afforded Mailer much-needed attention in a career that was in danger of hitting the doldrums (Birmingham 2009). But it also helped and continues to help place the movement in its wider international philosophy context. Inspired in many ways by Jean-Paul Sartre’s early 1950s’ work on Charles Baudelaire and Jean Genet, its oversimplified and proudly subjective outline of a new young American temperament was also the first attempt to set that temperament’s spiritual component against the atheism of French Existentialist thought (Sartre 1950, 1963).
Fear and Trembling The moral position Mailer takes up in his essay owes its major debt to questions about God and the devil, of good, evil and individual self- autonomy he found in Kierkegaard’s texts Either/Or: A Fragment of Life and Fear and Trembling (both published first in 1843). As George Cotkin has shown, Kierkegaard’s pre-Existentialist ideas had begun to have an influence on avant-garde literary thought in America in the late 1940s— the milieu defined by W.H. Auden’s New York penned poem The Age of Anxiety (1947). From the recently naturalised Auden, who turned from Marx to Kierkegaard to explain the disarray of the 1930s, to J.D. Salinger’s 1951 calling out of ‘phonies’ in Catcher in the Rye, nonconformist post- war American writers were energised by the Danish philosopher’s fierce and inward-facing test of spiritual authenticity (Salinger 2010 p, 12 etc.). By the late-1950s though, when Mailer came to him, that test had been re-couched in atheistic terms set out by French disciples of Kierkegaard like Sartre, Albert Camus and Simone de Beauvoir. The little magazines that made or broke experimental new writing—leftist magazines like New York’s Partisan Review—remained interested in Kierkegaard’s ideas but were more favourable towards Sartre and his circle’s non-religious modernisation of them. Mailer’s use of Kierkegaard to discuss this new ‘hipster’ movement had to do with his antagonism towards a French Existentialist movement he saw as overly rational and the disproportionate attention he thought it received from a polite, neutered American literary press. The hipster hero he exalts in ‘The White Negro’ is his idea of a true Kierkegaardian ‘American existentialist’—a full-blooded, and spirited answer to the model of individual freedom Sartre had made famous in France in the preceding decade (p. 2). Mailer first read Kierkegaard at the same time that he discovered marijuana and Benzedrine, the ‘complex pleasures’ of listening to jazz music while high, and a Beat-like impulse to write continuously and without interruption, recording the free associations of his mind (Lennon 2013, p. 181). His writing in ‘The White Negro’ and the essays, poems and skits he would put together in his seminal 1959 collection Advertisements for Myself, reveal a new method and system of thought that fuses Kierkegaard with ideas that he had gleaned from works by Martin Heidegger in post-war Paris, as well as the same apocalyptic historical vision the Beats had lifted from Oswald Spengler’s 1918 text The Decline of the West.2
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The first principle in ‘The White Negro’—of a new moral superiority accessible to the person who can live keenly in the moment, without squeamish moral constraints—is developed directly out of the radical religious revisions Kierkegaard promoted in the mid-nineteenth century. Often misremembered as anti-religious, Kierkegaard in fact counselled a return from ‘Christendom’—the Church’s reduction of God for easier consumption—to true ‘Christianity’—the painful and paradoxical commitment to faith in a larger force that exists beyond socially acceptable codes of good and evil (Kierkegaard, p. 406). For Kierkegaard, individual self-realisation required a brave, absurd grappling with faith and a willingness to privilege such faith over reason—a message he found writ large in the Old Testament story of Abraham and Isaac. By submitting to the grotesque divine instruction to sacrifice his only son—by agreeing to suffer his greatest imaginable emotional and moral loss—Abraham had managed to both obey God and save his son’s life. For Kierkegaard, this proved an essential but often glossed paradox to the ‘leap of faith’ all humans must risk in order to live meaningful lives (p. 97): ‘a monstrous paradox’, he called it, ‘capable of making a murder into a holy act well pleasing to God, a paradox which gives Isaac back to Abraham, which no thought can grasp because faith begins precisely where thinking leaves off’ (p. 98). Quizzed about his own ‘Existentialism’ in 1964, Mailer credits this aspect of Kierkegaard with consolidating a long held hunch; that ‘at the moment we’re feeling most saintly, we may in fact be evil. And that moment when we think we’re most evil and finally corrupt, we may, in fact, in the eyes of God, be saintly’ (Lennon 1988, pp. 214–15). It was a theme he became increasingly obsessed with as he developed from young and lauded novelist of the war experience into curator and explorer of his own myth. Writing in 1967’s The Armies of the Night, a second compendium of his life in the third person, Mailer pits the expectation of moral and aesthetic sensitivity against a deeper standard of success. In novels and his public speaking, he says, ‘sometimes one was better, and worse, at the same moment’ (Mailer 1968, p. 41). To communicate meaningfully, Mailer believed, the intellectual must muster a psychic courage akin to the gambler’s—to ‘know the blood of the gambler in oneself’—and at least aspire to the physical equivalent of that other lifelong obsession, the heavyweight prizefighter (p. 41). In both cases, the willingness to risk the self results in the defeat of another, and in what Mailer terms—in ‘The White Negro’—an existential ‘move forward into growth’ (1957, p. 5). Taken as a metaphor for the communicator both of the self and ideas, it
means victory in terms of a truth expressed and ‘felt’ as it is received in the world (1968, p. 41). In an everyday existential sense, it translates to something biological on a moment-by-moment basis—to cellular increase rather than decay or ‘senescence’, a term whose association with cancer in Mailer’s work is entirely meant and which renders the existential battle one that risks genuine harm to physical health (1957, p. 2). The extension of that same metaphor and logic to psychopathy upped the ante both for Mailer and for the counterculture he was championing. Having spent his youth fascinated with the physical prowess, and capacity for violence in boxers and soldiers, during the drug-induced psychic explorations of his thirties that fascination shifted focus towards the same capacity in socially embargoed forms. Mailer’s enquiries into the mental and moral health of commanding officers in The Naked and the Dead, and the grandeur he sourced vicariously from boxers like Jim Braddock in his youth (and Mohammad Ali later) changed in ‘The White Negro’ period into genuine evaluations of the personal existential good in murder. The monstrous culmination of psychopathic urges, he speculates, might not only be motivated by but successful in the same quest for love that motivates us all. The psychopath ‘murders’, Mailer writes, ‘out of the necessity to purge his violence, for if he cannot empty his hatred then he cannot love’ (1957, p. 4). A consciously ludicrous claim, intended as a provocative metaphor for individual freedom, Mailer’s example of the murderer is also part genuine. As well as Kierkegaard’s philosophy, it was drawn from the ‘invaluable’ recent experience he had had of sitting in on interviews with actual convicted murderers at Baltimore prison (Lennon 2013, p. 167). Invited by his prison psychoanalyst friend Robert Lindner, he spoke with men and women who had resorted to homicide, and left convinced about the ‘deep’ and ‘natural’ ‘roots’ of crime in the human condition (p. 167). For the person born into a certain world, violent crime—up to and including murder—was just ‘one of your answers to your environment’, a ‘way of continuing to live’, in the sense of material subsistence, psychological self-assertion or both (p. 167). This conclusion—connected to another about the barbarism of America’s prison system—led in later years to Mailer’s endorsement of two men serving life sentences, Jack Abbott and Gary Gilmour. Lobbying for the aspiring author Abbott’s release in 1981, encouraging him to write his story and telling Gilmour’s himself in the book The Executioner’s Song, Mailer explored real-life examples of the psychopaths he had fantasised about in ‘The White Negro’.
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And he used those examples, just as he used the soldiers he had met in the Second World War and the boxers he wrote about when he turned his hand to sports journalism, as fuel for his own obsession with ‘taking stock of psychic credit and debt’ (1969, p. 139). As a writer and a man, Mailer aspired to a condition of authenticity he garnered from Abbott and Gilmour and which he cited in ‘The Killer: A Story’, one of his many fictional representations of the same criminal mindset: to expend an impulse as and when it arises, and to avoid at all costs the resentment that brews when ‘a flush of adrenalin’ comes to ‘nothing’ (1969, p. 262).
America Beyond Sublimation Mailer contextualised that condition—and the new spiritual Existentialism it represented—by emphasising psychopathy as an evolution from neurosis, resistant to the sublimation that had preoccupied pre-war intellectual circles. This new generation, he writes—including the Beats, and just about including himself—‘knows instinctively that to express a forbidden impulse actively is far more beneficial … than merely to confess the desire in the safety of a doctor’s room’ (1957, p. 7). Echoing Sartre’s essay on that great Beat hero and contemporary Jean Genet, Mailer champions the breaking of taboo in literature as the genuine reflection of the same breaking of taboo in life and suggests this as a necessarily radical response to the increasing speed of the age. The counterculture, from Mailer’s point of view, has taken a step off the psychoanalyst’s couch and out of the linguistically experimental page of the pre-Second World War modernist era and into the breakneck pace of postmodern life. By this reckoning, Jack Kerouac—paradoxically ‘a powerhouse of a style’ because he had ‘removed’ himself from it—and William Burroughs—a writer of ‘graffiti’ whose words are ‘written in bone, etched by acid … the prose of harsh truth’— are moving literature, and culture forward, while more accomplished stylists like Saul Bellow and Philip Roth fall short (1969, p. 144). About Roth, Mailer says, ‘he is too careful not to get hurt on his trip and so he does not reveal himself: he does not dig’ (1969, p. 152). If Mailer’s praise for Kerouac and Burroughs sounds like Sartre’s for Genet—Sartre’s admiration for Genet’s ‘saintly function’ in ‘the society of crime’—he attempts to present this new American movement as braver by its continued strained engagement with God (Sartre 1963, p. 195). Although he exempts Sartre himself from criticism (in an unexplained and uncharacteristic display of deference), he makes the point in ‘The White
Negro’ that true existential self-responsibility demands engagement with the spiritual: To be a real existentialist (Sartre admittedly to the contrary), one must be religious, one must have one’s sense of the “purpose” but a life which is directed by one’s faith in the necessity of action is a life committed to the notion that the substratum of existence is the search, the end meaningful but mysterious; it is impossible to live such a life unless one’s emotions provide profound conviction. (1957, p. 4)
For Mailer, the American Existentialist—be he a Beat, street hoodlum or hip psychopath—trumps his French counterpart because he feels intimately not only a sense of himself that he needs to satisfy, but a spiritual essence that he needs to obey. He feels more powerfully the choice between risks—the risk of disobeying that spiritual essence, of obeying it against the dictates of a wider social moral code or of obeying it and realising finally that it was false. On both sides of the Atlantic, individuals aimed to throw off determinism and seize full responsibility for their actions in each moment. In Mailer’s characterisation though, the French had cheated by throwing off the question of God’s existence altogether. If you didn’t believe that God existed, then the imperative for and the consequences of your existential actions were trivialised. Rather than deep unconscious struggle, the atheist engaged himself with the surface, convinced of the final meaninglessness of everything and choosing ‘existential absurdity’ only as the ‘most coherent’ philosophy within ‘a world of absurdities’ (1957, p. 4). For Mailer, as for Kerouac and Ginsberg, the quest for true engagement in word and deed involved the same appreciation of absurdity but combined with religious awe at the ultimate truth it might conceal. Like Sartre, he followed Kierkegaard in conceiving of individual freedom as the taking of decisions for oneself within an absurdly configured world. Unlike Sartre though—but like the Beats—he imbued the paradoxes arising from that arbitrariness with a larger and awe-inspiring meaning. Kierkegaard’s directive for fulfilment by ‘living every moment … by virtue of the absurd’ suited neither the French Existentialists nor Mailer, but chimed certainly with what Kerouac was aiming for through his Zen Buddhist studies and what Ginsberg came close to achieving through Buddhism and Hare Krishna (2000, p. 97). Mailer, however, approached that game with urgency and was captivated by the sterner side to Kierkegaard’s analysis of existential absurdity. Equating
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physical and psychical charge with good and searching himself for impulses towards a more fundamental sense of good and evil in each moment, he thought he had found a corresponding paradox to Abraham’s in Fear and Trembling. As such, he took very seriously Kierkegaard’s instruction to ‘learn to be terrified’ by that—a ‘tremendous’ truth which was ‘the significance of his [Abraham’s] life’ (Kierkegaard 2000, p. 91). Mailer’s typically cocksure entrance into a complicated philosophical debate—his representation on behalf of the Beats in ‘the dialogue between the atheist and the mystic, the atheist on the side of life, rational life, undialectical life’ (1957, p. 4)—reveals something subtler about the counterculture he was defending. In the literary establishment’s imagination and in Sartre’s own writings, the new Beat movement had been constructed as a sort of Existentialism-lite—a fatuous or dangerous school that was drawn to the thrill of rebellion but hadn’t bothered to weigh its moral philosophical implications. To Sartre this was the extension of a deeper notorious American naivety—summed up in his thinking by the statement ‘evil is not an American conception’—and, as such, the American intellectual was bound to lack the depth of his European counterpart (Sartre 1974, p. 227). By his strutting in ‘The White Negro’—his reductively combative attack on French Existentialism and his equation of psychopathic irresponsibility with existential virtue—Mailer to some extent confirmed that naivety (born of intellectual insecurity). But he also hinted at the more complex moral and spiritual purposes behind the new Beat rebellion, putting this ‘mystical’ movement into conversation with the questions of good and evil posed by their secular contemporaries in Europe.
Death and Determinism The area of Beat thinking most severely altered by Mailer’s Existentialist contextualising is the Romantic, melancholic longing for dissolution that we heard about in Chap. 3. As Mailer rightly points out, Sartre and his peers took ‘pride’ in resisting that longing—determined as they were not to ‘transpose [their] weakness and spiritual fatigue’ into anything as apparently utopian and ultimately defeatist (1957, p. 4). Such determined anti- determinism is clear from Sartre’s statement, in his lecture/essay ‘Existentialism is a Humanism’, that ‘we [human beings] are alone, without excuses … there is no power of “beautiful passions” which propel men to their actions’, and, by extension, that ‘man can not be helped by any sign on earth, for he will interpret the sign as he chooses’ (1948, p. 2).
Mid-twentieth-century French Existentialism explicitly reached back to Kierkegaard and to the more recent phenomenological theories of Heidegger to prioritise the individual’s confrontation with his eventual demise in the quest for authentic existence. Yet, as Mailer suggests and Sartre affirms throughout his writing, the magnitude of that task in French Existentialist thought came not from Kierkegaard’s idea of a return to an inscrutably omniscient God, nor Heidegger’s awed agnostic sense of ‘Non-being’, but from the atheist conviction of ‘death as emptiness’ (Mailer 1957, p. 4). Mailer’s own writing on mortality puts him somewhere between Kerouac and Ginsberg’s sense of wonder at the return to God that it might yield and the test of nerve it represented for European Existentialists. Writing his Lipton Journals in the mid-1950s, and generating the material that would go into ‘The White Negro’ as well as the collection of essays and skits in Advertisements for Myself (1959), his previously atheistic position evolved into one of enquiry about a new conception of God—of a deific force that might exist as the individual human being exists, not as ‘all-powerful’ but as ‘an embattled existential creature who may succeed or fail in His vision’ (Mailer 1969, p. 250). It was a knowingly counter- intuitive take on a key Existentialist position and it carried knowingly paradoxical implications. If Sartre and Camus had put crisis-ridden man at the centre of a world in which God had never existed, Mailer was suggesting that very crisis as a test of human godliness. In Mailer’s formulation, the existential struggle to behave in a way that was genuinely true to oneself became a struggle whose negotiation brought you closer to an imperfect and equally conflicted deity. Sourcing Heidegger, he saw that conflict as one between ‘being’ and ‘nothingness’, and he posited authentic ‘being’ as a state to be sought in life and finally, possibly in death also (Heidegger 2010, pp. 6, 293, 327 etc.). The hipster’s instinct for authenticity in each moment gave him an advantage in ‘the war between being and nothingness’, a war couched by Mailer in typically sonorous terms, as ‘the underlying illness of the twentieth century’ (Mailer 1969, p. 251). Immoral by limited societal standards, it was a fundamentally heroic answer to a situation in which ‘the nothingness in each of us seeks to attack the being of others’ and ‘our being in turn is attacked by the nothingness in others’, and it provided a tantalising and terrifying foretaste not only of the finitude of life but a larger mysterious mode of Being beyond it (p. 251). By remaining ‘with it’, by monitoring his behaviour so that he only spoke and acted according to something
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profoundly true within himself, the hipster upheld a sense of ‘grace’ correspondent with the metaphysical. ‘To have grace’, Mailer writes, ‘is to be closer to the secrets of that inner unconscious life’, and somehow connected therefore to a world beyond the shallow remits of our own (1957, p. 11). The American spiritual Existentialist not only fights to take up the position of prime mover in his own reality; in doing so, he risks himself against a more profound and enigmatic moral standard than average humanity can hope to comprehend, let alone cope with. This dualistic schema might have been more dramatic than Kerouac and Ginsberg’s, but again was only the logical extension of their bid for authenticity in an age bereft of it. Mailer, who compared the Beat rebellion to ‘the early Christians’ against Rome, took their Romantic yearnings for a world beyond our own and relocated it squarely in the Existential present (1969, p. 45). Highly strung, competitive and more disposed to irony than Kerouac’s melancholic contemplation of beatitude or Ginsberg’s reverence for Blakean infinities, he turned that new Romantic mode to ‘muscular’ ends (Lennon 2013, p. 257). In Joseph Tabbi’s words, Mailer’s writing after 1957 was in thrall not to Blake or Wordsworth, but to a ‘postromantic myth of the embattled ego’ (1995, p. 32). If Burroughs had presented the unvarnished, inhumane reality of the Fellaheen life Kerouac and Ginsberg had canonised—if he had used this to shine a light on the ‘galvanised need’ behind all human behaviour—Mailer went a step further by exposing the same inhumanity but romanticising it anyway (Burroughs 1993, p. 23). His portrait of the psychopath as hipster celebrated both the real violence a ‘hip’ attitude entailed and the intolerance of civilised conformist ‘square’ society that it depended on. In thrall to the new rebellion, he both marvelled and shuddered at the spiritual Existentialism he thought it represented—one in which ‘incompatibles have come to bed, the inner life and the violent life, the orgy and the dream of love, the desire to murder and the desire to create’ (Mailer 1957, p. 5). In so doing, like Burroughs he produced a critique of the disingenuousness in Beat thinking—one that was less deadpan, less satirical and which strained to emphasise a metaphysical pattern to human barbarity and absurdity. Like Burroughs too, Mailer’s harder, Teutonic version of the Beat search for God owed much to Oswald Spengler. He read The Decline of the West as a young soldier in the Philippines in 1945, the same year that Burroughs introduced it to Kerouac and Ginsberg, and later called it the catalyst for his literary and existential interest in historic destiny, and the
dualisms of good and evil, God and the Devil, authentic and inauthentic. Writing excitedly in a letter to his first wife Beatrice, Mailer said that Spengler had inspired him to re-imagine The Naked and the Dead with new impetus, to tune up his debut so that it dealt with ‘the higher aspirations of man, the craving for the secret, the core of life, (or as Spengler might say—the Faustian need) for power and particularly for Godhead and the vanquishing of death’ (Lennon 2013, p. 64. Parentheses are Mailer’s own). Spengler’s talk of will and destiny, of a will to life that is strong in healthy cultures but destined to peter out once those cultures become civilisations, provided the first coordinates for what would become Mailer’s Existentialist scheme. Though he was even less susceptible to the deterministic political implications of Spengler’s work—developing a Marxist faith in progressive systemic change as against their apocalyptic defeatism—Mailer transposed these tropes of will and destiny onto the individual and made them the basis of his defining vision of the heroic individual in battle with inside and outside forces. As we’ve seen, his ‘white negro’ is a version of the Fellaheen that Kerouac and Ginsberg mythologised—a figure whose secret knowledge of the futility of civilised living leads him to disengage from its machinery. But it is a version built on active rather than passive virtues. For Kerouac, Tristessa and even Dean Moriarty or Cody Pomeroy are sacred because rejected by the world—able to think, feel, see and live freely by having nothing of themselves invested in the useless battles that everyone else is condemned to fight. For Mailer, on the other hand, the hipster’s holiness comes exactly from his participation and victory in a battle—albeit a battle that is beneath or beyond the surface and therefore unknown to (or at least unacknowledged by) the people he is fighting it with. He understands his true spiritual ‘will’—a force that is larger than anything as petty as the motivations foisted on him by society—and is therefore destined to succeed as they are destined to fail. Like the Beats, Mailer talks in terms that suggest a world determined by an overarching pattern—and in which human worth is measured against meta-forces—but retains faith, where the Beats do not, in the heroic individual’s capacity to engage with and affect those forces. By a similar token, Mailer follows Burroughs in conceiving of a reality beyond the visible while also rejecting the Romantic desire for mystical freedom from the limits of human perception. Like Burroughs—who we remember scolding Ginsberg for neglecting ‘facts’ in his recollection of a visitation from Blake—Mailer was sceptical about vague homages to
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mystical experience. On LSD, he writes in his late 1960s book The Armies of the Night, ‘an entire generation’ had been ‘given … the illusion’ of their ‘genius’ (1968, p. 15). In the 1950s, he himself had mistaken the rush of writing on Benzedrine for divine inspiration; and in the 1960s, the hippies had gone a step further by fooling themselves that the enormous opening of perception that all acid takers experience was the same as the rare capacity to process that opening, to process it through bold existential engagement with the experience or its especial artistic delineation (p. 15). Nevertheless, he based his thinking about existential authenticity on what he believed to be a practical faith in a truth outside of ordinary human experience, one that could only be intuited unconsciously. Mailer never underwent the kinds of experiments that Burroughs did with ayahuasca or spiritual mediums, but was equally and seriously convinced of unconscious and telepathic means of communication. ‘Who knows’, he speculated, ‘what glimpses of reality we pick up unconsciously, telepathically?’ (1969, p. 247). This was part of what Richard Poirier has claimed about Mailer—that his mythologising of himself as one of Kierkegaard’s ‘knights of faith’ involved his insistence on ‘living at the divide, between the world of recorded reality and a world of omens, spirits, and powers’ (Kierkegaard 2000, p. 93; Poirier 1972, p. 120). Mailer, Poirier says, aimed to ‘obliterate’ that gap in his life and his literature—engaging with the spiritual to explain the moral and the physical in himself and his characters (p. 120). By contrast, Kerouac and Ginsberg used drugs, and the miracle they attributed to the written or vocalised word, to cross that divide—to relinquish control over the moral and the physical and to move with divine grace into the spiritual. Once again, Mailer’s difference to Kerouac and Ginsberg reveals an affinity with Burroughs—a writer whose ‘conceivable genius’ Mailer attributed to his exploration of horrific interior but no less metaphysical depths (1969, p. 144). Indeed, Burroughs’ descriptions of his battle with an ‘ugly spirit’—the force that had compelled him to perform the disastrous party trick that ended in his wife’s death and to sink further and further into heroin addiction—was a perfect, perverse example of what Mailer meant when he talked about supernatural drivers in the world (Burroughs 2010, p. 131). Both writers were convinced, as Mailer’s narrator hero Rojak puts it in his novel An American Dream, that ‘magic, dread and the perception of death were the roots of motivation’ (Tabbi 1995, p. 35).
In a sense then Mailer and Burroughs represent one side of the counterculture, and Kerouac and Ginsberg another—the one wedded to magic, which aims to engage with the supernatural to impact events, and the other to mysticism, which is passive and aims to receive it only. This was the difference, for example, between the occultist interests of W.B. Yeats and the high modernist exploration of symbols for a clearer picture of reality in T.S. Eliot and Ezra Pound. But within that magical branch also exists a discrepancy. To Mailer, the wrestle with the spirit held the promise of an enormous, super-human sort of victory—the prospect of becoming more than just an ordinary man. For Burroughs, it was an entity to be watched carefully—observed perhaps for artistic and scientific purposes—but repelled and contained as far as possible. There was no heroic mission to battle the ‘ugly spirit’ and come out the other side victorious. Significantly, to Burroughs its real and symbolic embodiment of evil was proof of his ordinary humanity—the thing to be recognised and kept at bay, rather than used to test the strength and size of his personality.
The Prisoner of Sex As we saw in the previous chapter, Burroughs’ self-watchfulness made him less susceptible to ideas of individual or collective Enlightenment—and better aware than his contemporaries of the narcissism and intolerance these ideas could lead to. Mailer’s own, Kierkegaardian doubt about the possibility of knowing in each moment which actions are good or bad, brings him in line with Burroughs as a critic of the Beat mission. Like Burroughs, he was attentive to ‘the mark inside’—the illusions a mind performs to convince itself of the moral high ground—and wary of specific systems of spiritual or political thinking that claimed to guide human beings towards such a higher state (Burroughs 1993, p. 24). Indeed, Mailer’s spiritual Existentialism echoes Burroughs’ comment to Ginsberg while writing Naked Lunch: that ‘it is difficult to know what side you are working on, especially yourself’ (Burroughs 2009, p. 269). However, while Burroughs sought the temporary breach of reason-directed dualisms by his word cut-ups, he was never sold on the idea of a lasting psychological breakthrough. Mailer, on the other hand, made this his life’s mission. The anti-heroic figure Mailer erects in ‘The White Negro’, and who appears in various guises throughout the rest of his writing, is his attempt to navigate the uncertainty and come out on something like the right side. As such, Mailer is implicated—where the indeterminate Burroughs is
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not—in the simplistic binary he criticises, a constructor of a new comforting myth to replace the old. A major part of that myth—and one that draws him even closer into Ginsberg and Kerouac’s orbit—is the idea that existential ‘growth’ depends on primitive and noble engagement with the senses. Mailer and Burroughs were both interested in the popular sexual psychoanalytical theories of Wilhelm Reich—Burroughs through his study of psychology at Harvard and Mailer through the Greenwich Village social scene he inhabited in the 1950s. Like a lot of bohemian-minded Americans at this time, both followed Reich’s instruction to build ‘Orgone Energy Accumulators’ in their gardens—sauna-sized boxes made of organic wood, steel wool and cotton, and put together in such a way, Reich claimed, as to allow the person who sits inside to charge the body up with ‘orgones’ (Reich 2013). Inspired by eighteenth-century theories of ‘animal magnetism’, by Henri Bergson’s concept of élan vital and Reich’s own training under Freud in the 1930s, ‘Orgone’ was the psychoanalyst’s term for what he believed to be the sexual force that drove and propagated life in the universe—a force that vitalised the body and spirit and had reached dangerously low levels in human beings within civilised, industrial societies.3 While Burroughs built his machine and experimented with Reich’s ideas as one of many esoteric influences, Mailer integrated them earnestly into his wider spiritual Existentialism. He took the idea of oppositional vitalising and de-vitalising forces as evidence of what was at stake if one failed to live authentically. For Mailer—following Reich—decisive action on a sexual impulse was not only his duty as a man, but insurance against physical decline. With equal provocation and conviction, he told an interviewer in 1961 that ‘not living in certain courageous moments gives you cancer’, going on elsewhere to connect that courage to the risk of defeat through sexual rejection and physical harm in combat (Lennon 1988, pp. 42–43). Like another of his literary heroes—D.H. Lawrence—he equated a healthy sex life with the reassertion of primal spiritual truths that had been distorted by centuries of industrial and urban living, and by false standards of civilisation that privileged mental activity at the expense of the body. Lawrence, as his friend Aldous Huxley astutely put it, spent his life ‘crusading for admission by the spirit of the right of the body and the instincts … to an equal honour with itself’ (Huxley 1931, p. 159). When Mailer writes in ‘The White Negro’, of the hipster’s ‘grace’ as located in ‘the unconscious’ and ‘the senses’ rather than the thinking rational mind, he is presenting a version of Lawrence’s impassioned defence of the ‘other’
‘involuntary’, ‘spontaneous and sympathetic consciousness, which flows up like a flame from the corpuscles of the body’—an authentic self to be obeyed in contradiction of measures imposed in thought (Mailer 1957, p. 11; Lawrence, pp. 170–71). Claiming Lawrence as a second ‘spiritual father’—next to ‘Papa’ Hemingway—Mailer figured writing as an extension and reflection of this larger mission to return to the senses: to effect both a personal and cultural shift from rational, cerebral engagement towards something rooted more firmly first in the body and then—through that—the spirit. It was a shift he saw exemplified—as he writes in ‘The White Negro’—by a small coterie whose work was an extension of their heroic sexual philosophy and activity, by ‘the isolated courage of isolated people’ in a literary world defined otherwise by detached prissiness and cowardice (p. 2). If Hemingway had shown him the way by his ‘grace under pressure’ and by writing about the same in war and blood sports, and William Faulkner had shown him the ‘furnace of possibilities’ in exploring unconsciously felt impression to ‘excess’, he took his specific example for the conflation of sexual and literary prowess first from Lawrence and then from Lawrence’s disciple Henry Miller (Mailer 2015, p. 268; Lennon 2013, p. 45). Over the course of his career, Mailer devoted not one but two books to asserting Miller’s genius—The Prisoner of Sex (1971), in which he came out fighting against Miller’s recent feminist accusers, and Genius and Lust (1976), a personal account of the elder writer’s impact on his own world, and right to be mentioned in the same breath as Melville, Hemingway and the great American writers of the past 200 years. These passionate homages—which Miller was alive to see but took surprisingly little interest in—centre on his admiration for the same realistic approach to bodily appetite that we heard about in Chap. 2 of this study, as well, crucially, as the same use of crudity to arrive at a higher state of mind and spirit. Like ‘Hemingway’s “good”’, and ‘Lawrence’s “blood”’, Miller’s insistent, graphic exploration of his sexual encounters—and his insistence on the physical and moral health those encounters engendered—appealed to Mailer as yet another grand masculine theory of life (Mailer 1957, p. 11). In line with academic doyens of the counterculture like Leslie Fiedler, with Beat affiliates like and Kenneth Rexroth, and with magazine journalists up and down the country, Mailer presents Henry Miller as America’s first ‘true sexual revolutionary’ (Fiedler 2002; Rexroth 1992; Mailer 1985, p. 102). His breakthrough, Mailer writes, was to appreciate that ‘all sexual experience was valid if one looked at it clearly’, to follow ‘the line
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of one’s sexual impulse’ in life as in literature ‘without a backward look at what was moral, responsible, or remotely desirable for society’, and to use this as a way of exploring the spirit and psyche for all to see (1985, p. 103). A decade before Miller, D.H. Lawrence had designed, attempted to live and then recorded—in graphic works like Lady Chatterley’s Lover—a philosophy of heroic return from the neutered condition of modern industrial society to true sexual human nature. But what we get in Tropic of Cancer, Mailer argues, is something less idealistic and—contrary to then new and now standard feminist objections to him—a great deal more self- effacing. The vocalising of sexually taboo behaviour might appear callous, boastful and/or adolescent, but it ‘depended on a rigorous even a delighted honesty in portraying the detail of one’s faults’ (1985, p. 103). Akin to his unflinching exposition of his social and professional failures in Paris, Miller’s amoral admissions of sexual lust were proof to himself and his readers that there is ‘something inestimable in the muck and the if you could stand the smell’. Part of the appeal of this to Mailer was that it suggested unrefined masculinity as the individual’s assertion of autonomy—again physical, moral but also spiritual—against collective puritanical American ethics. As man and writer, Mailer rhapsodised, Miller had achieved the existential freedom so many of his more conventionally successful peers lacked; and he had done so by responding to poverty and artistic failure with a manly ‘inestimable’ sexual courage (1976, p. 17). Despite Mailer’s admiration for Miller as an everyman then, honestly compiling data on the first American sexual revolution, what we get again is the concept of a moral realm above and beyond that which ordinary citizens can comprehend; one, like the psychopathic hipster’s, that takes its legitimacy from its very illegitimacy in the eyes of the common herd. Good, healthy, promiscuity is part of the real man, and the real writer’s arsenal in the ‘slow war’ Mailer imagines between himself and the world—a positive answer to the question of ‘whether you’re growing or deteriorating’ (1969, p. 255). And it is the preserve of the authentic self-realising hero as against his denaturalised ordinary counterpart. To some extent, this use of Miller represents a misreading of the anti- humanist reversal we heard about in Chap. 2. In an interview that Mailer actually quotes, Miller had explained his emphasis on ‘the immoral, the wicked, the ugly, the cruel’ as a means of personal and collective purgation (Mailer 1976, p. 17). To confess brutality, he believed, was to open the mind, heart and spirit to a more honest and ultimately more
compassionate and virtuous way of living. If Mailer admired and aimed to replicate Miller’s honesty about his urges, and with an equivalent endgame of becoming more himself, he was also much more interested in his own status as conqueror. It was not just the accident of early fame but a career narcissism that led Mailer to incessantly engage the publicity machines of literature, journalism, politics and film. Nor was it Miller’s relatively late success solely that drove him to live out his older age in hermitage at Big Sur. If both saw bravado and obscenity as ways for the male writer to explore his true nature—to express deep, unacceptable urges— Mailer presented those urges as true in themselves, whereas Miller claimed to seek emancipation from them by their expression. When Miller wrote Tropic of Cancer in the mid-1930s, he had obviously known that its graphicness would court publicity, and he stoked that publicity by disingenuously pretending that every word of it was true. But, unlike Mailer—who relished the press interest in his turbulent love life, along with speculations about autobiographical origins of the violence in his fiction—Miller aimed to release himself from the struggle that had produced the violence in Cancer. Rather than Mailer’s epic, unending battle with his sense of himself as a man, and the ‘great’ male American writers of history, Miller envisioned and to a great extent achieved resolution by working through his anger and bitterness at the world. Having spent his twenties and thirties in New York trying and failing to make it as a writer, and his forties in Paris purging himself literarily of that anger and finally achieving recognition, he came out the other side in his fifties at peace. This is a major difference between them—one that led to the paradox of a decline in the quality of Miller’s writing just as he was wholeheartedly accepted by young, peace-loving readers in the 1960s, while the combative Mailer was eyed with a degree of suspicion.
The Politics of Identity That same difference was the reason that Mailer relished, where Miller recoiled from public battle with the feminists who had labelled their writing counter-revolutionary. The Prisoner of Sex was Mailer’s immediate response to Kate Millett’s 1969 book, Sexual Politics—a study that had called him out along with Miller and Lawrence as a major part of the patriarchal problem. Proudly, defiantly and in the obtuse sarcastic tone he had begun to develop while writing political and sports journalism in the 1960s, he mocked and lamented a series of wrongs he found in Second
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Wave Feminism: first, its tolerance of amateur theorising; second, its negation of the ‘virility’ that he saw at the root of life and of any chance humanity had for effecting ‘good’; and third, its potential for Soviet-like tyranny (1985, pp. 67, 128, 190). Millett’s reading of Miller—which took his many triumphant descriptions of sexual conquests to reveal a ‘compendium of American sexual neuroses’—was for Mailer evidence of her larger willingness to forego honest literary critical analysis in the service of ideological argument (Millett 2000, p. 295). What was more, Mailer claimed, that argument rested on the ceding of important ground won first by D.H. Lawrence against the kind of conservative, puritanical system feminists claimed to be fighting. Quoting the more radical Ti-Grace Atkinson on the need to eradicate ‘sexual difference’, he suggested this revolutionary kind of thinking as technocratic and itself oppressive (1985, p. 66). In this new utopian vision, Mailer said, the sexual-spiritual essence only recently liberated after centuries of being curtailed—by the institutional limits based on a Christian moral code—was at risk of being neutered again under false auspices of revolution. Like the Marxism he fell in and out of love with over the course of his career, Millett’s feminism represented to Mailer a system of thought powered by ‘a logic which did not cease’—a logic leading to a style of argument designed ‘to ignore whatever did not fit’. It was, he complained, a bulldozing over of the paradoxes that constituted truth in life and literature—the ‘difficulties that were often the heart of the matter’ (1985, pp. 68, 94, 95). This stand on behalf of male and female difference came to a head in a memorable debate Mailer took part in with a group of prominent feminists in New York Town Hall, 1970. Later labelled ‘Town Bloody Hall’— after a comment from a young exasperated Germaine Greer, one of the panelists and a rising star—the event saw Mailer doubling down on his proud counter-revolutionary position in The Prisoner of Sex. The question of female equality, he said, ‘is the deepest question that faces us’, but the Women’s Liberation movement that was posing it were compromised by a worrying ‘spirit of nihilism’ and a paradoxical potential for a kind of ‘leftist totalitarianism’ (Hegedus and Pennebaker 1979). ‘Biology or physiology … is not destiny’, he said as chair, after the speeches had been made—‘but it is half of it’ (1979). An agenda based on the denial of this, he suggested, would result in forced illogical groupthink and contribute to ‘the destruction of civil liberties … not from the right but the left’ (1979). Mailer’s argument was an extension of the public political position he had taken since the mid-1950s. In televised conversation with
conservatives like William F. Buckley, and his one-time friend and eventual nemesis on the left, Gore Vidal, he had pitted himself as a new kind of ‘left conservative’—Marxist in his belief that humans were alienated within modern industrial society but sceptical of the Marxist faith in transcending essential biological divisions. The problem with thinkers like Millett, Greer and her fellow panelists Jill Johnston and Jacqueline Ceballos, he said, was that they reduced the vital issue of how to create greater fairness towards women to the abolition of these differences (1979). As such—and as he presented it again and again in the Prisoner of Sex as well as during the debate—feminism was a symptom of not a cure for enslavement, an extension of the alienation from self that befall all people under Western-mechanised capitalist systems. If ‘the spirit of the twentieth century was to convert man to a machine’, he wrote, ‘then the liberation of women might be a trap’ (1985, p. 29). To Mailer’s mind, rather than emancipating women, the feminist contention that gender difference was arbitrarily constructed threatened to alienate women and men from their true selves by equalising everybody. When he writes that there is a ‘small echo of the Bolsheviks’ in Millett’s writing, he means that feminism—like Soviet Marxism before it—is built on an impossible hope for a new form of humanity: one that is programmed biologically and psychologically to divest itself of its essential differences (p. 36). As Jean Radford has noted, and as the short thrift given to Mailer by most feminist scholars implies, this was not only a provocative baiting. His performance at New York Town Hall was guilty of exactly the kind of reductive thinking he was pinning on his opponents—a paring down of ‘the complexity of the new ideas about women into fodder for his old dichotomies’ (Radford 1975, pp. 158–59). Faced with a genuinely radical new stage in the revolution of ideas he had for so long championed, Mailer took pleasure in characterising it as a false and self-defeating dawn. To do so, he produced a sort of negative mirror image of his reductive racial imaging in the late-1950s. Where before he had taken a stereotype of the young black male to glorify existential freedom, now he used a caricature of the utopian, domineering and blindly ideological woman’s liber as code for groupthink and oppression. In both cases the pretext is individual freedom from collective control, and yet in both cases too the complex suffering of individuals because of their race or gender is glossed over to support an Existentialist vision he deemed grander.
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The accusation that feminists were echoing the ‘totalitarian’ thinking they opposed had some validity and has also serious implications for the politics of identity that grew out of the late-1960s. As less partisan critics than Mailer have noted, there were indeed worrying similarities between Millett’s rush to embargo male countercultural icons like D.H. Lawrence and Henry Miller and systemic attacks on socially inconvenient modes of literature through time.4 And it was productive—in its own way in fact brave—for a self-identifying member of that countercultural movement to request a more nuanced critique of their misogynistic passages. At its best, The Prisoner of Sex suggests Miller in the anti-sentimental lineage Burroughs had contributed to with Junkie and Naked Lunch. Miller’s ugly statements and attitudes reflected not an endorsement of them, but the contortions of the mind and personality in the grip of lust. For Miller, Mailer writes, ‘lust exhibits all the attributes of junk. It dominates the mind and other habits … appropriates loyalties, generalizes character’ (1985, p. 110). Though Burroughs isn’t cited explicitly, the description of Miller down in the ‘swamp[s]’ of lust, ‘getting to know the mosquitos by name’ echoes Mailer’s approval of Naked Lunch’s scientific ‘journey through hell’ (p. 110). As we saw in our first chapter, and as Erica Jong has pointed out, a subtle reading of the most unpalatable sections of Tropic of Cancer and Tropic of Capricorn does indeed reveal Miller to have been exploring rather than necessarily celebrating the human impulse to cruelty (Jong 2001). However, Mailer’s treatment of gender—in line with his treatment of race in the late-1950s—answered Millett’s absence of nuance with the same. His portraits of the free Existentialist Negro and white hipster had been cartoonish responses to white conservative anxieties about black culture. And now, here he was in the late-1960s, battling the reduction of literature to evidence of male ‘neurosis’ with his own reduction of multi-faceted feminism to a group of little ‘bolsheviks’ (Millett 2000, p. 295; Mailer 1985, p. 37). In his zeal to defend individuality and the psychological and emotional exploration that writers like Miller and he were attempting, he was unable or unwilling to think beyond rhetoric and mockery and to consider the psychological or emotional damage the ugliness of lust might cause—either in life or in literature. This is something like the ‘blind alley’ that Radford claims Mailer took himself down in his argument with feminism (1975, p. 159). Working against proponents of a new kind of all-encompassing belief system, he ‘assumes the role of the embattled writer’, the self-appointed (again Kierkegaardian) mantle of ‘defender of the [old] faith: faith in a God-given order of instinct and
vision’ (Radford 1975, p. 156). It is his own version of a ‘logic which did not cease’—one that purports to ‘dance on the dialectic’ between contradictory impulses and positions but is obstinately rooted in fixed dichotomies (Mailer 1985, pp. 68, 120). Mailer saw his public battle with Women’s Liberation as a second opportunity to defend the countercultural revolution the Beats had set in motion. If the ‘philosophy of hip’ he laid out in ‘The White Negro’ was his Existentialist legitimation of an apparently amoral youth rebellion, by his attacks on Millett in The Prisoner of Sex, and on Germaine Greer and Jill Johnston at New York Town Hall he was aiming to safeguard what he saw as a genuine bid for freedom from a puritanical counter-movement. That counter-movement, he believed, was putting the collective good ahead of the individual’s right to free expression. As with the first defence though—but this time unintentionally—he exposed the very intolerance that had underpinned the bid in the first place. While his celebration of ‘hip’ self-autonomy forgave violence and forewarned that ‘the hipster is equally a candidate for the most reactionary and most radical of movements’, by the time he faced a room full of feminists at New York Town Hall, he was naively convinced of a purity of rebellious vision corrupted by interlopers (1957, p. 14). What Mailer forgot or overlooked here, and in The Prisoner of Sex, was that the inverse elitism he worried about in feminist attacks on art had its precedent—in fact its very origins—in the countercultural movement it was challenging. Millett’s logic—that in the new age of heightened gender consciousness, writers like Miller, Mailer and Lawrence must be understood to have no place—was both anathema to and deeply consistent with the logic of the sexual revolution that came before it. If the Beats had followed Miller, Lawrence and Jean Genet in using obscenity for personal political ends— breaking moral taboo in literature to break the same patterns in thought, feeling and behaviour—Millett’s own personal political project was based on a new emancipation through the policing of that obscenity. Products of experimental literary scenes that were the successors to Ginsberg’s in San Francisco, Mailer’s in 1950s Greenwich Village and the Black Mountain Poets down in North Carolina, Millett and her contemporaries turned that early rebellion in on itself. From one angle (Millett’s in the late-1960s and often our own today) it was only to be expected that—only a matter of time before—the Beat attack on conservative social prudery, and insidious state hegemony would develop into an attack on the oppressive social mores these first
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revolutionaries displayed in their own writings. Addressing Miller’s anti- Semitism rather than his misogyny—but with a sentiment that is equally applicable to both—James Campbell sums up the common feeling from readers returning to works like Cancer and Capricorn: ‘how did we miss this first time round?’ (Campbell 2016, n.p.). That instinct stems from a larger comforting but self-delusional intuition about the inevitability of progress felt by each new generation in each new age. The world is better now, the feeling goes, and I—the reader of rebellious, socially nonconformist literature—was on the side of making it better. How could I, on the side of justice, have overlooked what we now know to have been unjust? One of the reasons those passages have become retrograde over time is the bold and concerted shift that critics like Millett engendered—well illustrated by her contrasting attitudes in Sexual Politics towards Miller and his French counterpart in obscenity, Jean Genet. Drawing on Genet’s work, Millett writes that ‘by dividing humanity into two groups and appointing one to rule over the other by virtue of birthright [sic], the social order has already established and ratified a system of oppression which will underlie and corrupt all other human relationships as well as every area of thought and experience’ (2000, pp. 18–19). Because Genet is homosexual and marginalised, Millett is able to understand his work as critique rather than endorsement of the power structures he demonstrates—‘a painstaking exegesis of the barbarian vassalage of the sexual orders, the power structure of “masculine” and “feminine” as revealed by a homosexual, criminal world that mimics with brutal frankness the bourgeois heterosexual society’ (2000, pp. 18–19). Unlike Miller—whose privilege as a white straight man Millett assumed meant unreconstructed prejudice—Genet’s brutality is read for subtle political coding. This is not to say Miller should be cleared of the charge of misogyny, any more than Genet should be condemned for his violent rages against rent boys more vulnerable than him or the innocents who are hurt by his crimes. Indeed, Millett quotes passages from Miller’s 1960s, weaker novel Sexus in which the pleasure he takes in his mental and physical humiliation of women is deeply unsettling. And she is apposite in her appreciation of Genet’s reflection of violent heterosexual dynamics through the ‘mirror society’ of homosexual pimps and prostitutes (p. 17). But, she exaggerates on both sides—understanding Miller only as a vehicle for sadistic patriarchal urges, and Genet only as a humane exposer of problems with those urges. The less convenient truth is that both writers explore their experience of the cruelty in sex and represent it as something that is desired and
problematic. Millett’s exaggeration of feeling—for Genet and against Miller—represents a significant development in the politics of the counterculture: one by which personal experience of oppression immunises a writer against new suspicions of political motive, and the function of literary obscenity becomes not only to challenge old hang-ups about profane behaviour and language but to enforce protective standards of decency. Less obviously—paradoxically—Millett’s cauterising of the countercultural literary scene arose from exactly the existential opposition writers like the Beats and Mailer had established in the 1950s. When Millett dismisses the iconoclast Henry Miller as a pathetic expresser of toxic masculinity— someone whose only ‘value is lies not in freeing us from such afflictions, but in having had the honesty to express and dramatize them’ so we know what to condemn—she echoes Mailer’s disdain for the ‘square’ conformist, ‘trapped in the totalitarian tissues of American society’—and unable to fathom the evil of which he is both victim and perpetrator (Millett 2000, p. 295; Mailer 1957, p. 2). There are those who are part of the system— marks within it, bound to express and consolidate its injustices—and those whose consciousness of their positions within the system have enabled their emancipation. For Millett as for Mailer—as indeed for Ginsberg, Kerouac and so many other Beat and countercultural writers—existence is romanticised and polarised: ‘one is Hip or one is Square … one is a rebel or one conforms’ (Mailer 1957, p. 2). Of course, one of Millett and feminism’s main achievements was to complicate such a binary and to refocus attention from the Existentialist hero artist at loggerheads with an oppressive establishment to the victimised groups too often cast as surplus to the larger project. But, in her very readiness to label Miller, Mailer and Lawrence ‘old retainers’, she retained their elitism—repeating a thought process by which the courage to know your true self, free from social conditioning, trumps complicated sensitivity to ordinary human fallibility, and some grander notion of over-riding authenticity is prized above the difficult and messy compromises an individual human being has to make in the everyday of his or her life (Millett 2000, p. 19). The feminist identification of misogyny in countercultural writing was accepted much sooner than an equivalent condemnation of its racial primitivism. Because of the difference between Beat desires dominate women and imitate black men—perhaps also because of a greater willingness in society to listen to white women than non-whites of any gender—it was only in the 1980s that mainstream scholarship began to pull Kerouac, Ginsberg and others up for their appropriation of African American
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culture. Understandably, Mailer’s filching on the serious matter of black oppression for his peon to hipster rebellion had been dismissed as absurd and insidious by black intellectuals as early as 1957. James Baldwin—who knew and liked Mailer—expressed disappointment that he was perpetuating ‘the myth of the sexuality of the Negros’ (1961, p. 220–21). Likewise, Ralph Ellison—hard at work on his complex Existentialist representation of black American experience, The Invisible Man—was depressed to find ‘the same old primitivist crap in a new package’ (Ellison 2001, p. 251). The playwright Loraine Hansbury saw it as just another avatar for white male supremacy. And Millett herself, in Sexual Politics, echoed Hansbury’s association between the problem of patriarchal oppressiveness in Mailer and Miller’s work and their refusals to treat black Americans as human beings. But it took the gradual consolidation of race and post-colonial studies from the 1980s to the twenty-first century for the problems with white literary countercultural relations to black American society to register in white mainstream consciousness. The Beat romanticisation of African American jazz—which led Baldwin, brilliantly, to label them ‘suzuki rhythm boys’—Kerouac’s lust for primitivised black and Mexican tragic heroines, and Ginsberg’s starry-eyed descriptions of destitute black ghettos have in the last thirty years become symbolic of their race political naivety (1961, pp. 228–29). That their interest in Lester Young and Duke Ellington wasn’t matched by an equivalent enthusiasm for Baldwin or Ellison says a lot about the temper of the times, but also about the limits of a romantic imagination that yearned more than anything to be inclusive. As Nancy Grace Campbell, Gareth Griffiths and Tiffin have shown, the sad, beat black American life that Young and Ellington’s music helped them fantasise was well meant but built again on an adolescent hankering for a lifestyle shorn of its social and political context. To Kerouac, wandering the black neighbourhoods of Neal Cassady’s Denver, ‘wishing [he] were a negro’, the different men, women and children are counterpoints to his ‘white sorrow’ only—not equivalent, contradictory human beings with equivalent complex backstories, but portals to ‘life, kicks, darkness, music’ in the ‘unbearably sweet night’ (2011, p. 185). More insidiously, and like the ‘white negro’ prototype in Mailer that both objected to, Kerouac and Ginsberg’s interpretation of ‘beat’ made uninvited use of others’ marginality to draw new and unhelpfully abstract battle lines. As Baldwin and Ellison—and their more politically active contemporary Richard Wright—were struggling to negotiate and dispel
simplistic expectations of how a ‘negro’ should look or act, the Beats and Mailer reinforced those expectations by using them to excoriate the “square” majority. If Mailer and Ginsberg marched separately for black civil rights, and if Mailer put time and effort into promoting Baldwin and speaking out against segregation, both also worked the black experience into portraits of themselves as good and courageous, and ordinary America as bad and cowardly.5 Ironically, and again suggestive of continuity between the countercultural revolution and the Second Wave Feminist movement that usurped it, this was an early example of identity politics being channelled to expel shame. Shame about the body, about the harbouring of unprintable feelings is combined in Ginsberg and Mailer with shame about identity within a nation built on oppression. Both are relieved through public expression of those feelings. A major difference between the sexual and feminist revolutions was the new desire not only to cleanse themselves of such shame but to transfer its negative burden back on to the unenlightened—those who could or would not understand, and those stubborn enough to retain an old order of thought. Once again though, what was self-serving and divisive in an otherwise politically positive project had its seeds in the 1950s and 1960s revolution it was attempting to replace.
Conclusion So, what is to be learnt from Norman Mailer—a symbol to many of embarrassing gender and racial cliché, of misplaced masculine arrogance and its dead end in the second half of the twentieth century? As the self-appointed ‘philosopher of hip’, he represents a self-contradictory philosophical and political spirit that was integral to the counterculture. Undoubtedly his reading of the Beat milieu as spiritually emancipatory but morally uncompromising was an oversimplification. In places it even repeated, from a position of assumed intimacy, the heavy handedness of popular press reports on the movement. But it pointed, significantly, to tensions within Kerouac and Ginsberg’s quest for beatitude and individual freedom that are essential to an understanding of their relevance today. The spiritual Existentialism that Mailer fixes on played a major part in the movement being taken to task in the following decade. For a lot of good but some bad, that philosophy has been eroded ever since. His Kierkeaardian celebration of faith and attack on calculated reason was his contribution to the spiritual revolution the Beats had kick-started in the
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early 1950s, and it was instrumental in consolidating the binary of authentic and inauthentic ways of being in the age of free love and protest against war and racial inequality. If the Beats themselves had little time for Mailer’s ‘white negro’ template, that might in fact have been because they recognised its similitude to their own homages to Neal Cassady, Herbert Huncke and other street saints. Mailer’s syncretising of Kierkegaard’s God, Spengler’s Will and Wilhelm Reich’s Orgone was closely related to the combination of Existentialist, Transcendentalist and fatalist impulses in the Beat project. Like them, he melded modernist philosophies to articulate a distinctly American sense of individual existential freedom—providing the language and coordinates for the progressive stand against technocratic government and cultural groupthink. Unlike Kerouac and Ginsberg—but quite like William Burroughs—he and his philosophy both manifested and warned against the dark underside to the new criteria for meaningful existence that this thinking had produced. Like Burroughs, Mailer was an early predictor of the chaos that freedom from bourgeois constraints could unleash, and of the strength of constitution it took to experiment with expansion of consciousness of all kinds. Before the counterculture had gone over-ground—long before Charles Manson flipped the script on LSD by using it to control a death cult, and the Hell’s Angels brought alpha male destruction into the house of peace and love at Altamont—Mailer was teasing the dialectic between compassion and cruelty at its core (Maysles 1970). Like Burroughs, too, he engaged fully in that dialectic—endorsing the movement while flagging up its risky utopianism. However, and in negative contrast to the elder Beat, this fast-tracked man of letters expressed an earnest rather than ironic attraction to individual brutality in response to the collective violence of the state. When Mailer writes in ‘The White Negro’ of a dead store owner as a necessary sacrifice to the cause of his hoodlum murderers’ existential liberation, he is echoing rather than burlesquing fascist rhetoric—turning to the same German sources as Hitler, Mussolini, and so on, for an effect that is piquant for sure, and provocative in an earlier avant-garde sense, but also deeply worrying. A more systematic kind of anti-humanist thinker than Burroughs—and a more coherent one than Kerouac or Ginsberg— he exposes something equally worrying in countercultural thought at large. It was these suspect impulses that Second Wave Feminism did well to pull Mailer up on. His admiration for psychopathy came from the same place as the violence in his Lawrencian idea about an eternal and
intractable struggle between men and women, one he presented not as symbolic but essential to the individual’s fulfilment of his or her destiny. If Kate Millett objected to misogyny in Mailer, this was one of many paradoxical ends to which the movement’s celebration of individual spiritual freedom had always been inclined. Quite apart from Mailer, Kerouac and even Ginsberg’s faith in a new inclusive love for all, and in the use of obscenity to induce mercy, had at their heart a dangerous indifference to the “bourgeois” concerns of squares. The psychopathic hipster of Mailer’s imagination might have been an exaggeration—and an absurd one at that—but he was founded on a willingness to accept the suffering of others in the service of personal Enlightenment that was everywhere in Beat biography and thought. In Kerouac as much as Mailer—though in less explicitly philosophical terms—and in Ginsberg—to the extent that his image of the heroic male poet excluded domestic female influence—the struggle to live a meaningful life meant reaffirming atavistic gender power relations. That Millett’s attack on old-fashioned gender oppositions had its own ‘hip’ and ‘square’ elitism at its centre points both to what was lasting and negative and what was lost and potentially positive in the counterculture. Her scorn for the stubborn ‘retainers’ of an old order of thought echoes to a tee Mailer’s own (Millett 2000, p. 19). But her call for an embargo on art that had recently stood for freedom suggests a new emphasis on defining and enforcing orthodoxy in American “countercultural” thought after 1969. Convinced of his role as embattled great male American writer, Mailer went too far in dismissing Second Wave Feminism as a puritanical totalitarianism, but his kickback opens up useful questions about the shift from a 1960s’ spiritual and sexual revolution-based freedom of expression to one that monitored that expression for the offence it caused to the vulnerable. It is an argument that has been repeated in recent years by critics of political correctness who read its strictures as a catalyst for new Western nationalism—for Donald Trump’s election to president, for Britain’s vote to leave Europe, and the success of populist far right movements in Greece, Italy, Spain and across the former Eastern Bloc. These developments have put feminism and racial rights discourse under stronger scrutiny than at any time since the 1990s and have led to the re-ignition of “culture wars” that otherwise appeared settled. In this new situation, Mailer’s entrenchment at Town Bloody Hall takes on new resonance. From psychology professor Jordan Peterson to unorthodox Sex Positive feminists like Camille Paglia, current anti-PC public personalities sound very like Mailer
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when they represent identity politics as the ugly result of an overemphasis on group rights over individual responsibility (Peterson 2018; Paglia 2015). The clichés these popularising, internet savvy figures trade in— about ‘the liberal left’ and its ‘postmodernist cultural neo-Marxism’ conspiracy to control social behaviour—threaten to distort the grain of truth they’ve inherited from Mailer and others like him (Peterson 2018, p. 302). Indeed, Paglia particularly has noted what Mailer worried about in the late-1960s—that a movement based on spiritual radicalism has been superseded by a radicalism more rarefied in its language and regulatory in its politics of identity. For all its faults, the 1960s’ counterculture had, as Paglia points out, been interested in the opening of the Western mind to ideas about the body and soul beyond narrow monotheistic intellectual constraints. By checking expression for its fidelity to ever evolving standards of progress, the politics of identity from the 1970s onwards have reaffirmed old dualisms rather than building on a noble bid for greater intellectual and existential pluralism. With this in mind, we might imagine Ginsberg, Kerouac and their contemporaries despairing at the world for which their project laid the foundations—and not only for the simple surface reason that they have ended up “cancelled”. From a progressive “countercultural” perspective in 2020, development as a human means continual inspection of the self for the diseases of prejudice one carries and disseminates. The inner quest for authenticity has evolved into an inner quest for pure moral intention. If that shift was necessary to the development of an ethics that took seriously the dignity of oppressed groups in the 1960s and 1970s, a re-reading of Kierkegaard via Mailer—and of Buddhism via the Beats—might allow for the less pious and self-righteous practice of such ethics today.
Notes 1. Journalist Herb Caen coined the term ‘beatnik’ to describe Ginsberg and his affiliates in his column for the San Francisco Chronicle in 1961. Attracted to but also amused by their ‘earnest’ bohemian poetry and lifestyles—and spotting an opportunity to draw parallels with other goings on in the zeitgeist— he fused ‘beat’ with the word for Russia’s Space program, ‘Sputnik’, to imply their rebellion as a kind of ‘enemy within’ (Charters 1994, 295; Nicosia 1986, p. 574; Schumacher 1992, p. 285). As their letters from the time show, Ginsberg and Kerouac were incredulous when this ‘journalistic
smear’ took off in the mainstream press (Ginsberg 2008, p. 222)—seeing it as an insulting reduction of their artistic-spiritual mission. 2. See my Chaps. 3 and 4. 3. As Andrew M. Gordon has shown in his article ‘Mailer’s Use of Wilhelm Reich’, the German’s theories were taken up by many of the serious literary intellectuals of the day—beyond Burroughs, and even Mailer, Alfred Kazin, Saul Bellow and Isaac Rosenfeld all took an interest in Orgonics (Gordon 2016). Like Burroughs and Mailer, these figures were taken with Reich’s tantalising suggestion that healthier sexual activity would stave off diseases of mind and the body. 4. In its time, Millett’s Sexual Politics was celebrated for its diagnosis but chided gently for ‘overstating’ its case by feminist-supporting critics like Phyllis Jacobson (2010). More recently, and beyond provocative take- downs by pro-sex feminists Camille Paglia and Christina Hoff Sommers, Linda Williams has argued persuasively against a puritanical bent to Millett’s condemnation of the ‘masculine “other”’. It ‘feeds’, she writes ‘all too easily into condemnation of the deviant sexualities of “perverse others”’ (Williams quoted in Jeffreys 2011, p. 82). In other words, her radicalism is compromised by the conservative impulse to resist deviance—to resist impurity. 5. Ginsberg demonstrated repeatedly against the Vietnam War, and both he and Mailer attended the famous 1967 march on the Pentagon, as well as the anti-war and Civil Rights Protest outside the Democratic Convention 1968. Mailer writes about these in his Armies of the Night (1968).
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Charters, Ann. 1994. Kerouac: A Biography, with a foreword by Allen Ginsberg. New York: St. Martin’s Press. Orig. ed.: 1973. Ellison, Ralph. 2001. Living with Music: Ralph Ellison’s Jazz Writings, ed. by Robert G. O’Meally. New York: Modern Library. Fiedler, Leslie. 2002. ‘Cross the Border—Close that Gap.’ In Postmodernism and the Contemporary Novel: A Reader, ed. by Bran Nicol, pp. 162–168. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press. Originally published in Playboy, December 1969. Ginsberg, Allen. 2006. The Book of Martyrdom and Artifice: First Journals and Poems, 1937–1952, ed. by Juanita Lieberman-Plimpton and Bill Morgan. Cambridge: Da Capo Press. Ginsberg, Allen. 2008. The Letters of Allen Ginsberg, ed. by Bill Morgan. Da Capo Press: Philadelphia. Ginsberg, Allen. 2009. Collected Poems, pp. 134–41. London: Penguin. Gordon, Andrew M. 2016. ‘Mailer’s Use of Wilhelm Reich.’ The Mailer Review, 10, no. 1. https://projectmailer.net/pm/Mailer’s_Use_of_Wilhelm_Reich [accessed 18th March 2020]. Hegedus, Chris and D. A. Pennebaker (dir.). 1979. Town Bloody Hall: A Dialogue on Women’s Liberation. New York: Pennebaker Hegedus Films. Heidegger, Martin. 2010. Being and Time, transl. by Joan Stambaugh with a foreword by Dennis J. Schmidt. Albany: State University of New York Press. Orig. ed.: 1953. Huxley, Aldous. 1931. ‘To the Puritan All Things Are Impure.’ In Music at Night and Other Essays, pp. 153–62. New York: Doubleday Doran & Co. Jacobson, Phyllis. 2010. ‘Kate Millett and Her Critics.’ In New Politics. Originally published in 1970. https://newpol.org/kate-millett-and-her-critics/ [accessed 1st April 2020]. Jeffreys, Sheila. 2011. ‘Kate Millett’s Sexual Politics: 40 years on.’ Women’s Studies International Forum, 29, no. 1: 76–86. Jong, Erica. 2001. The Devil At Large: Erica Jong on Henry Miller. New York: Vintage. Orig. ed.: 1993. Kerouac, Jack. 2011. On the Road. London: Penguin. Orig. ed.: 1957. Kerouac, Jack. 2019. Tristessa. London: Penguin. Orig. ed.: 1960. Kerouac, Jack. 2012. Visions of Cody. London: Penguin. Orig. ed.: 1972. Kierkegaard, Søren. 2000. The Essential Kierkegaard, ed. by Howard V. Hong and Edna Hong, transl. by Walter Lowrie. Princeton: Princeton University Press. ———. Fear and Trembling. 1843, pp. 93–101. ———. Judge for Yourself! For Self-Examination. 1876, pp. 404–10. Lawrence, D.H. 2004. ‘Introduction to Pictures.’ In D.H. Lawrence: Late Essays and Articles Vol. 2, pp. 166–74. Cambridge. Cambridge University Press. Lennon, J. Michael. 1988. Conversations with Norman Mailer, ed. by. Jackson and London: University Press of Mississippi.
Lennon, J. Michael 2013 Norman Mailer: A Double Life. London: Simon & Schuster Maysles, Albert and David Maysles (dir.). 1970. Gimme Shelter. New York. Maysles Films. Millett, Kate. 2000. Sexual Politics. Urbana and Chicago: University of Illinois Press. Orig. ed.: 1969. Mailer, Norman. 1968. Armies of the Night. New York: New American Library. Mailer, Norman. 1951. Barbary Shore. New York: Rinehart. Mailer, Norman. 1969. Cannibals and Christians, pp. London: Sphere Books. Orig. ed.: 1967 ———. ‘In the Red Light: A History of the Republican Convention in 1964’, pp. 15–65. ———. ‘The Art of Fiction: A Paris Review Interview’, pp. 245–58. ———. ‘Some Children of the Goddess’, pp. 131–61. ———. ‘Killer: A Story.’ pp. 260–65. Mailer, Norman. 1976. Genius and Lust: A Journey Through the Major Writings of Henry Miller. New York: Grove Press. Mailer, Norman. 1948. The Naked and the Dead. New York: Rinehart & Co. Mailer, Norman. 1985. The Prisoner of Sex. New York: Primus. Orig. ed.: 1971. Mailer, Norman. 1957 ‘The White Negro.’ San Francisco: City Lights Books. https://www.dissentmagazine.org/online_articles/the-white-negro-fall-1957 Mailer, Norman. 2015. Selected Letters of Norman Mailer, ed. by J. Michael Lennon. New York: Random House. ———. ‘To Gordon N. Ray, Guggenheim Fo Maysles, undation.’ 4th December 1975, pp. 470–71. ———. ‘To Diana Trilling.’ 10th August 1960, pp. 267–72. ———. ‘To Allen Ginsberg.’ 28th October 1960, p. 277. ———. ‘To Mickey Knox.’ early December 1964, pp. 332–33. Manso, Peter. 2008. Mailer: His Life and Times. New York: Washington Square Press. Nicosia, Gerald. 1986. Memory Babe: A Critical Biography of Jack Kerouac. London: Penguin. Orig. ed.: 1983. Paglia, Camille. 2015. ‘Ninnies, Pedants, Tyrants and Other Academics.’ The New York Times. https://www.nytimes.com/1991/05/05/books/ninniespedants-tyrants-and-other-academics.html [accessed 18th March 2020]. Peterson, Jordan. 2018. 12 Rules For Life: An Antidote for Chaos. New York: Penguin. Poirier, Richard. 1972. Norman Mailer. New York: Viking. Radford, Jean. 1975. Norman Mailer: A Critical Study. New York: Macmillan. Reich, Wilhelm. 2013. Selected Writings: An Introduction to Orgonomy. New York: Farrar, Strauss & Giroux.
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Rexroth, Kenneth. 1992. ‘The Reality of Henry Miller’, in Critical Essays on Henry Miller, ed. by Gottesman, pp. 95–102. Originally published in Rexroth, Bird in a Bush, 1959. Rose, Charlie and Norman Mailer. 2003. ‘Interview with Norman Mailer.’ The Charlie Rose Show, 29th January 2003. PBS. https://charlierose.com/videos/16783 [accessed 14th March 2020] Salinger, J.D. 2010. A Catcher in the Rye. New York: Little, Brown and Co. Orig. ed.: 1951. Sartre, Jean-Paul. 1950. Baudelaire. Transl. by Martin Turnell. New York: New Directions. Orig. ed.: 1947. Sartre, Jean-Paul. 1974. ‘Defending French Culture by Defending European Culture.’ In The Writings of Jean-Paul Sartre: Volume 1 A Bibliographical Life, pp. 225–28. Evanston: Northwestern University Press. Originally published in Politique étrangère, 1949. Sartre, Jean-Paul. 1948. ‘Existentialism Is A Humanism,’ transl. by Philip Mairet. London: Methuen. https://www.marxists.org/reference/archive/sartre/ works/exist/sartre.htmp [accessed 30th August 2017]. Sartre, Jean-Paul. 1963. Saint Genet: Actor and Martyr, transl. by George Braziller. Minneapolis. University of Minnesota Press. Orig. ed.: Saint Genet, comédien et martyr 1952. Schumacher, Michael. 1992. Dharma Lion: A Biography of Allen Ginsberg. New York: St. Martin’s Press. Tabbi, Joseph. 1995. Postmodern Sublime: Technology and American Writing from Mailer to Cyberpunk: Technology and American Writing from Mailer to Cyberpunk. New York: Cornell University Press.
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Beyond Protectionism Every literary movement successful enough to have been written about must also suffer scholars trying to defend its honour. From the Metaphysical Poets to the Lost Generation, writers whose ideas have impacted the history of literary style and cultural thought are short-changed by academics who would rather safeguard them as icons than consider them critically and from a wide perspective. For many reasons—including its rare place in popular culture, the romantic legend that Ginsberg and others traded in, and the now clichéd primitivism I have spent the last two chapters discussing—the Beat Generation has been subjected to a narrower critical lens than most. Sniffed at by mainstream academia, but still read and celebrated by people of the age they were when they wrote their period-defining works, the Beats attract a particular kind of protectionist scholarly interest—one that responds to the charge of faddishness by doubling down on Ginsberg’s own insistence that their lives and works were profoundly exemplary. Rather than a complicated symptom of their time or as complicated a source of countercultural ways of seeing, thinking and behaving today, the Beats in modern scholarship take their tired place as the Romantic visionaries they believed themselves to be. Fifty years after Ann Charters produced the first biography of Kerouac, and thirty after Bill Morgan’s authoritative work on Ginsberg—and with a deep body of analysis of Beat aesthetics in the world already—Beat criticism still tends to reaffirm and © The Author(s) 2020 G. Stevenson, Anti-Humanism in the Counterculture, https://doi.org/10.1007/978-3-030-47760-8_6
defend those aesthetics, reminding the wider academic community of the positive contribution they made to literature and society. What I have attempted with this book is to mount a different kind of response: one that emphasises historical relevance, not in terms of what they instructed about how to live a better life, nor—in Bill Morgan’s words in The Beat Atlas—about what it was like to live through ‘a gentler time’, but the difference between reputation and philosophy, vision and actualisation, and mission statement and deeper contradictory feeling (Morgan 2011, p. 11).1 If these writers—and in fact that period—are to have serious value to us today, I believe they need to be understood without nostalgia or protectiveness and with an honest appreciation of the contradictions in their writing and thinking, of what they symptomised in their time and of what genuine rather than wished for impact they have in ours. With every well-meaning recovery of Kerouac or Ginsberg’s spiritual vision, the gap between Beat writing and academic respectability grows—a situation they themselves would have welcomed, but which only serves to keep them frozen in time and disconnected from conversations that matter about history. It is for this reason I have aimed for a new picture of the literary school that gave impetus to the fabled American counterculture of the 1960s. By moving beyond partisanship—beyond celebration of their writing and/or spiritual ideas—and towards a ‘negative’ critique (to use the terms of 1960s’ favourite, the Frankfurt School philosopher Herbert Marcuse), I have tried to show that the Beats were neither an especial, isolated force nor a forgettable footnote in twentieth-century cultural history, but had a central and complicated place within it (Marcuse 1991, p. 171). The line I have traced—from Henry Miller to Jack Kerouac, Allen Ginsberg, William Burroughs and Norman Mailer—is of course one of many that were possible. As my repeated references to Louis-Ferdinand Céline and Jean Genet suggest—and as Véronique Lane has demonstrated recently—a reading of the movement as anti-humanist could also have been produced through closer concentration on its French genealogy (Lane 2017). The counter-intuitive thinking I take Kerouac and Ginsberg’s ideas to reveal—and which points to a wider counter-intuitive impulse in the 1960s’ cultural shift they helped instigate—could too have been shown through analysis of less-renowned ‘Beat’ affiliated poets. Gregory Corso, Michael McClure or Philip Lamantia, for example, who were stalwarts on Ginsberg’s San Francisco scene in the late-1950s and 1960s, and whose
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work carries a similar tension between emancipatory and exclusionary, optimistic and fatalistic impulses.2 The same contradictions are evident too in much of the poetry of the Black Mountain School, based down in North Carolina, and experimenting more programmatically with ruptures to the poetic rules to rupture rules on how to live life. John Ashbery, Frank O’Hara and their New York school of poets also had a bearing on the emergence of the 1960s’ counterculture, and on the connection between that moment and the pre-war modernist period that preceded it. As for Norman Mailer—whose prescription for ‘a philosophy of hip’ reflected psychoanalytical, New Leftist and Existentialist ideas everywhere in America in the late-1950s—similar points could have been made through analysis of Anatole Broyard, Tom Wolfe and a host of others who summarised while participating in the thinking and attitude of the new rebellion (Broyard 1997; Wolfe 1967). In focusing on Miller, I hope I have neither promoted him as the key to understanding Beat thinking nor fallen into my own trap of defending an author’s honour. Likewise, the purpose of taking Kerouac, Ginsberg or Burroughs as main subjects was not to ring-fence them as the founding fathers of the 1960s’ counterculture. That moment of youth rebellion was of course inspired by a range of social, political and artistic forces (and irrigated by as many different sources), and it would be reductive to overstate the role of three writers in its emergence. What’s more, and as ever, the ideas that galvanised these three were at the same time galvanising bohemian art and literary circles from Greenwich Village to Venice Beach. As scholars from A. Robert Lee to Jimmy Fazzino have argued, even the ‘Beat Generation’ that Kerouac named had a life far beyond their small enclave, stretching across America and then as far and wide as Brazil and Japan (Fazzino 2016; Lee 2018). The point of singling these writers out though was in fact exactly the folkloric and symbolic status that often attracts academic suspicion. Famous as much for their public personae as their works, they offer culturally telling examples of what happened when European modernist sensibilities were translated into an American post-war context and the under-examined reactionary bent this reveals. That the brands of ‘Henry Miller’ and ‘The Beat Generation’ became integral to the 1960s revolution as it was presented then and is remembered now means that they help demonstrate the interplay between intellectual and literary ideas and that wider history.
The World That Miller Made In this context, and with these qualifications notwithstanding, Henry Miller’s 1930s mark on American literature is important. His engagement with modernist techniques and ideas in Paris, and his use and expression of those in a voice that was distinctly American set a precedent for younger Beat appropriators of modernism after the Second World War. Moving beyond the standard reading of Miller and the Beats as connected through their interest in Romantic Transcendentalist ideals and in the individual’s emancipation from social constraint and conformity, it has been possible to read a more wizened prototype for Beat living in the elder writer’s work. His pilfering of first-person European accounts of self-autonomy through failure—of Knut Hamsun’s Hunger and Giovanni Papini’s The Failure—and of defiantly anti-humanist picaresques like Céline’s Journey to the End of the Night and Blaise Cendrars’ Moravagine produced a template for the straight-talking American Beat hero in Kerouac’s On the Road and Ginsberg’s ‘Howl’. Before Kerouac and Ginsberg—before Burroughs too—he formulated a ‘new vision’ of Romantic transcendence based not on perfect alignment of the soul to something larger but a hunkering down into the bodily, imperfect self—a hunkering down into need, appetite and impulse usually associated with sin. The anti-humanist reversal I have identified in Miller—his weaponising of coarse language and narrative positions to feel more humane (more human also)—had its different paradoxical extensions in Kerouac and Ginsberg’s work. He had followed Céline in decrying the brutal, cowardly reality behind purportedly civilised behaviour, translating Céline’s defiance in defeat into a new irrational optimism—a half-ironic, half-zealous reformulation of Walt Whitman’s romantic surrender. This was also the productive irony that George Orwell noted in Miller—the life-affirming sight of someone shouting ‘I accept!’ against all odds, in an age of war, totalitarianism and economic destitution (Orwell 2009, p. 103). That counter-intuitive surrender pre-empted Kerouac and Ginsberg’s own response to Céline—their identification of Journey to the End of the Night’s Bardamu as a first ‘beat’ hero—and their epiphany that the writer’s exhaustion with the world could yield his very Enlightenment. In the uncertainty of their own post-Second World War Atomic Age, they used their new sense of alienation and defeat to affirm themselves and an anti-social defiance.
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Yet—crucially, and against their reputation as utopians—Kerouac and Ginsberg’s attitude to society was closer to the bitter protest in Céline than Miller’s had been. Although Ginsberg worshipped Whitman—as Miller had—and aimed too for a Whitman-like ‘total acceptance’ of all life, he and Kerouac were more seriously invested in the defeatism of their French influences. Beaten down by experience like Céline, Miller’s raison d’être had been to show that it was possible to ‘come out [the other side] singing’ (Miller 1960, p. 157). The Beats, on the other hand—as indebted to Jean Genet and the Existentialist angst of Sartre and Camus as Céline—were more sincerely pessimistic. They aimed, like Céline, for a lightness to counter ‘the dreadful heaviness’ of human existence, but it was always a temporary lightness, achieved through momentary vision— under the influence of drugs, religion or poetic incantation (Internet Archive 2018). For their battle-hardened predecessor Henry Miller, such lightness was armour accumulated and retained through head-on confrontation and reconciliation with the self and with the muck and mire in the self and the outside world. As we saw in Chap. 2, the ‘muted cool religious revival’ that Norman Mailer recognised the Beat Generation to be was built out of twinned American and European fatalisms (Mailer 1957, p. 5). Part of Miller’s irrational optimism had been his inheritance of Whitman’s notion that the perfect world was here on earth—his contention that the individual could achieve peace in the present by accepting self and world in all their contradictions. In Kerouac and Ginsberg’s philosophies, however, that peace was ‘not of this world’ (Kerouac 2004, p. 16), but of one that would be inherited after its destruction (whether in the sense of the individual’s passing into death or Oswald Spengler’s scheme of Western civilisation collapsing and leaving behind an ahistorical Fellaheen). Their deeper enchantment with Spengler’s fatalism meant they were less faithful to Whitman’s more optimistic—and in fact, perversely, more realistic—vision of an America achievable by the individual without struggle, and without the dangerous chimera of a new kingdom to replace the current one. If Céline and Genet had taught the Beats ‘the freedom and intelligence to trust [our] own minds …’—‘not censor it but write it down, and discover its beauty’ (Ginsberg 2000, p. 347), those minds themselves were frontiersman-like in mould, spiritual in the Transcendentalist sense that Miller’s was, but fixed on apocalyptic future renewal rather than contemplation and resolution in their own time. Rather than celebrate all and everything, they took comfort in a
Spengler-inspired conviction that the glittering civilisation Whitman had sung about would and should meet its end.
Fatalism and Elitism This was anathema to the spirit the Beats are remembered for. It suggests detachment and foreclosure rather than the push for reinvigoration of American society promised by talismanic quotes from Kerouac and Ginsberg’s post-1950s’ politically active mission. In using Spengler to dismiss modern urban-centred America as ‘a place for people to hide from life, the earth, the meanings of family and soul and labour’, Kerouac distanced himself from the very people he longed to commune with— ‘ordinary’ Americans living up and down the country (Kerouac 2004, p. 13). By marking himself out on romantically envisioned social margins, and aiming to test his soul against a kind of purity in suffering, he ensured his separation from the ‘soul’ of the country that he sought (p. 13). It is telling that Whitman’s mid-nineteenth-century representation of class, race but also the un-stratified lives of individuals was less elitist and fundamentally less primitivist than Kerouac or Ginsberg’s a hundred years later. Whitman’s democratic message was to accept all Americans enlightened or otherwise, and he was firmly opposed to the kind of social division based on redemption by suffering or virtue that the Beats promoted. In their quest to follow Whitman in discovering and recording the ‘diverse’ spirit of the nation, Kerouac and Ginsberg succeeded instead in discovering and then propagating their own tribe—a tribe that began with a combination of bohemians like themselves and ‘Fellaheen’ down-and-outs and outlaws, and grew in the late 1950s and 1960s into a countrywide middle- class homage to that lifestyle. A post-war meeting of Romantic and modernist influences—as well as a product of William Burroughs’ efforts to cure their ‘picked up Idealism’ with more worldly European reading—the Beats’ ‘New Vision’ abhorred social elitism while promoting its own elitism of spirit and lifestyle (Kerouac 2012b, p. 193). Rather than cured, Kerouac and Ginsberg ended up in thrall to a less practical and more exclusionary version of the idealism they had admired in Whitman, Emerson, Thoreau or (in Kerouac’s case) Thomas Wolfe. They combined a Romantic faith in themselves as visionary, socially transformative artists with a sense of superiority towards the unconverted herd—a superiority more pronounced than in anything by their nineteenth-century forebears. Even compared to William Blake—the
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main inspiration for Ginsberg’s division of the world into those who can and cannot see—the Beat worldview was exclusionary. Dependent on visions for his art and convinced that he saw a truth most others could not, Blake pitied rather than belittled the ordinary concerns of the many. Like Whitman, he believed himself to be free of the systemic and ‘mind-forg’d manacles’ that enslaved other people, but his keynote was compassionate lamentation rather than self-affirming revolution (Blake 1998, p. 50). Crucially, the Beats elevated themselves on the basis of the provocative rejection of conventional morality they had discovered through Lucien Carr and—through Carr—in their reading of Arthur Rimbaud and André Gide. While the aesthete Carr and his New Orleans compatriot Burroughs experimented with that position for fun, however, Ginsberg and Kerouac assimilated it into their sincere Romantic worldviews and to hypocritical effect. This was Romanticism powered by anti-Romantic impulses. Indeed the hard rejection of sentimentality that Ezra Pound and T.S. Eliot spotted and admired in Miller’s project of the 1930s was also there, covertly, in the Beat post-war confessional mode. As we’ve seen, they produced their own versions of the anti-humanist reversal Miller had effected in the 1930s—and it carried equivalent contradictions. To be truly free meant to live and write in a manner that others would code as obscene—to act on and record desires of the flesh that were ordinarily unspeakable in life and literature, and to express as deeply felt and deeply prohibited ‘unspeakable visions’ of the soul (Kerouac 1996, p. 483). For all of the Beats—as for Miller—that meant a celebration of promiscuity in life and on the page, the exploration of degraded states of being, and the paradoxical sense that virtue resided in the release of repressed urges, sufferings and fantasies, unfiltered. For Ginsberg and Burroughs, one seriously socially progressive aspect of this mission came from their writing honestly about their homosexuality—a taboo that the modernist and more old-fashioned Miller could not ‘stomach’ (Dury 1994, p. 87). But the mission also entailed an ostentatious disregard for the collateral emotional damage their behaviour caused—a sense that, personally and symbolically, other peoples’ well-being might be a price worth paying for the individual’s emancipation from social constraints. Miller might have been less susceptible than the Beats to utopian grand schemes like Spengler’s, but he pre-empted their indulgence of a thinking that was abstract, absolutist and unaware of (or unconcerned about) the damage it could cause in practice. This was—in the words of countercultural
historian James Farrell—the cruel, cool flipside to the Beat quest for what Ginsberg’s called a new ‘American tenderheartedness [sic]’: the negative mirror image to the philosophy that ‘private, individual acts of mercy’ were the answer to a ‘“Society” that is merciless’ (Farrell 1997, p. 53). The predictably harmful consequences of trying to live in the present only were outlined and promulgated by Norman Mailer in his glorification of ‘hip’ physical violence (Mailer 1957). And they were only the next step on from Miller’s sublimation of callous urges in Cancer, and from Kerouac and Ginsberg’s vicarious thrill at the existentially free and irresponsible behaviour of their street-smart friends Neal Cassady and Herbert Huncke.
Two Types of Anti-humanist Despite his short-sightedness in transferring his artistic philosophy to his life—a short-sightedness that worsened in older age, after he’d returned to America and bought the legend other people ascribed to him—Miller was less self-important than his Beat successors. With Burroughs, and with Norman Mailer to some extent, he represents the more productive type of anti-humanism of the two I have outlined. Miller, Burroughs and Mailer were all invested in creating themselves as writer-heroes—they saw their individual efforts as a means of self and social discovery—but they also all confronted and admitted their deeper scepticisms about human perfectibility. Kerouac and Ginsberg, on the other hand—who remained precariously wedded to ‘Idealism’—felt but were unable or unwilling to admit the same (Kerouac 2012b, p. 193). The originator of the Beats’ ‘intense investigation of evil’ at Columbia— the ‘teacher’ who had shown them Spengler and Nietzsche, and initiated their doubts about a better possible world—William Burroughs was naturally more comfortable with and honest about the significance of all this to his literary mission (Ginsberg 2008, p. 37). Rather than squaring it with an urge to ‘help mankind if admitted’—as Ginsberg did—or turning it into melancholy about the imperfect mortal world—like Kerouac— Burroughs followed Miller in finding solace in the exposition of humanist delusion (Ginsberg 2009, p. 220). This knowing and willing inheritance of an earlier modernist position marks them out as important critical participants in the cultural moment with which they are synonymous. Separated by almost two decades but bound by their shared cult status in the 1960s, Miller’s Tropic of Cancer and Burroughs’ Naked Lunch represent a productive refusal not only of hypocritical collective moral
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standards—‘the dreadful sentimentality’, in Lawrence Durrell’s words about Miller, ‘which disguises brutality’—but the same hypocrisy in the individual self, regardless of status or intention (Woolf 1992, p. 176). Burroughs, like early Miller but unlike his Beat contemporaries, refused to congratulate himself or his readers on having escaped their delusions— reminding the hips as much as the squares of their vulnerability to ‘The Mark Inside’ (Burroughs 1993, p. 24). It was a version of the modernist anti-humanism exemplified by Wyndham Lewis a decade before Miller and three before Burroughs—a harsh violence towards the world (harsher for certain in Lewis) matched only by an equivalent violence towards the delusions of the self. Above all, it was a reaction against the perceived vanity in assuming that people—and the subjective self—can be rationally, decisively virtuous. In Burroughs’ scheme, this was his convincing plea of indiscriminate misanthropy when asked about his disparaging comments on women. In Miller’s, it was the ‘poison’ he felt in himself, intuited as a possibility in every human being, and expressed with the belief that that could lead to a more honest, compassionate mode of feeling (1964, p. 155). Iconic figures in an age that was dedicated to the expansion of consciousness, and the freeing of mind, body and spirit from social limits, these two carried over a proud suspicion of perfection from the recent Anglo-American modernist past. Like Lewis in The Apes of God, like Lewis’ rival T.E. Hulme in his essays on Romanticism, they mocked the Romantic fetish for the ‘infinite’ and the progressive political reduction of human suffering to the interplay of oppressed and oppressive, virtuous and evil collectives. They situated themselves at the centres of their own anti-heroic romantic myths—writing their way through and out of failure—while at the same time positing the very idea of meaning within the human condition as a source of concertedly black comedy. For the countercultural Miller and Burroughs—as for the ‘men of 1914’ Lewis and Hulme—life was a straight comedy, not tragi-comic or earnestly pathetic as Romantic philosophy would have you believe, but one big joke based on human pretences to grandeur, and to be able to transcend the essential existential equation between physical need and practical response. Lewis’ ally turned enemy Ezra Pound—who we heard Ginsberg absolving of obscurantism and anti-Semitism—suggested fascistic overtones in Miller’s work by his appreciation of it. Pound’s championing of Miller as a genuine rather than abstract moralist at the same time as he himself was pledging allegiance to Mussolini pointed to a paradoxical cleaving to order
in the former’s obscene, disordered picaresque. The mysterious ‘strong hierarchy of values’ that Pound found in Tropic of Cancer, and T.S. Eliot’s praise for that book as a ‘magnificent’ report on sexuality, pointed to a new rude health physicality that updated his American Romantic materials (Pound 1992, p. 88; Martin 1978, p. 317). This was Nietzschean Miller, putting ‘the healthy body’ before the soul or mind—a loud uninhibited voice, obsessed by his ‘incurable health’ and fixed on this rather than literary or political idealism as the means of affecting the world around him (Miller 2005, p. 56). By the same token—and in a manner that makes some sense of his pilgrimage to Italy to forgive Pound—an eighteen-year-old Ginsberg envisioned he and his new friends’ movement as a crossing of nihilistic, realist and romantic impulses: a forceful, Rimbaud and Spengler like remaking of a ‘protestant civilization which is crippled because it conceives of pleasure as evil’ (2008, p. 12). It was a remaking based on apocalypse and destruction, a cataclysmic ‘shift in vision of society from the simple idealism of Sinclair Lewis to the complicated, half hidden Spenglerian Weltenshauung of O’Hara’ (2008, p. 13). Here were the early signs of a movement that professed to be improving an old out-dated model of humanism but in fact—and with different degrees of awareness or honesty—was unconvinced that the human race was capable or worthy of being saved.
The Counterculture and the Masses Miller and Burroughs’ express cynicism, and Kerouac and Ginsberg’s concealed pessimism have more specific implications for their wider political context. I set out at the start to reconsider the Beats’ relationship with the oppressed groups they sanctified—and to get past both the standard criticism of the romanticised view they took to non-white Americans and standard apologies for this as simply a product of its time. In dropping out—first of university then the middle-class mainstream their educational, economic and racial privilege afforded them—Ginsberg and Kerouac’s intentions were noble. Ginsberg’s transition from aspiring labour activist to religiously seeking poet and Kerouac’s travels among hobos, jazz musicians and junkies were genuine attempts not only to produce meaningful art but to find spiritual and existential parity with people they saw as untainted by the cold rationalist processes of late-twentieth-century American life.
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As we’ve seen, however, that quest for parity led them to swerve the complex politics of race in favour of a utopian politics of the personal. Their fantasies about black American life—of a particular authenticity, virility and paradoxical freedom in the figure of the outlaw ‘negro’—and about the ahistorical virtue of Mexicans and Native Americans were part of a deeper naive belief that collective material improvement mattered less than its individual spiritual equivalent. Beyond the question of whether it was an homage or insult to use black culture as they did (to which the answer is probably both), it was a lazier and less effective protest for white bohemians like the Beats to repeat street slang and jazz rhythms in their literature than to engage intellectually with a diverse and diversely suffering community. Or at least to consider writers like James Baldwin, Ralph Ellison and Richard Wright, who were discussing the real issue of what it was like to live as black individuals in a country segregated along racial lines. The go-to Beat position on race was one of sympathy through romantic admiration and disbelieving melancholy rather than practical challenge towards the unseeing bigotry of conservative white America. Norman Mailer, who was better versed in realpolitik and wrote seriously on Civil Rights, demonstrated another level to the counterculture’s wider social insensitivity by his caricaturing of ‘the negro’ as a template for white hipster rebellion. If Beat insensitivity to minority groups had more to it than is usually acknowledged, so too did their attitude towards the majority whose culture they were countering. In Kerouac and Ginsberg’s minds, their literature was an answer to America’s spiritual stagnation in the twentieth century. Their travels across the continent, and the “songs” they sang about them, were meant to rally Americans of all states and classes to replenish their spiritual and psychical lives—to reject the staid bourgeois conditions imposed by society and family, and to live according to their own spiritual needs and desire. In the 1960s, this mission led Kerouac and Ginsberg to be written favourably into American cultural history—as spear-headers of a newly humanising post-war left. In his seminal The Making of a Counterculture, the cultural historian Theodore Roszak placed the Beat Generation in the political lineage of the Romantic poets they revered. Like Blake, Shelley and Keats—he said—they had used literature to promote a new humanism based on the individual’s unchaining of mind, body and soul. In ‘Howl’, the ‘founding document of the counter culture’, Ginsberg had blazed a trail by yearning for individual and collective freedom not through dreaded rational and studied sociological
improvement, but through the miracle of free taboo-smashing expression (Roszak 1969, p. 67). In Roszak’s view, the Beats’ rise to popularity in the 1960s was connected to a larger spiritual and psychoanalytical irrigation of Marxist approaches to social inequality. Like radical academics including the Frankfurt School émigré Herbert Marcuse and the Emerson revivalist Norman O. Brown, they were moving progressive American thought towards a more introspective diagnosis and response to modern alienation. Echoing the Marxist protest against the dehumanising effects of capitalist social conditions, they saw a first solution not in the alteration of those conditions but in the individual’s close attention to his or her mind, body and soul. Free your thoughts and feelings of their bourgeois hang- ups and a change to your existential and social conditions will follow. Though less beholden to Freud than either Marcuse or Brown, they approached alienation as a psychoanalytical and spiritual rather than material problem: in Roszak’s words, ‘a disease rooted inside all men’ (1969, p. 95). There is something valid in this praise. The ambitious, utopian revolution in consciousness that all but Burroughs were after was at one level more subtle and less programmatic than the Marxist doctrine for conversion of ‘the masses’ (that word that Burroughs so despised). In Ginsberg’s case, it meant the writer’s effect of a change in his own psyche to encourage the same in others; in Kerouac’s, a strained quest for truer expression of himself and for the same from and with the outside world; and in Mailer’s, it meant a battle with the ‘essence’ of himself which he felt America would do well to imitate. Constructively, none were sold on the Marxist idea of readjusting the system to remake the minds of the masses, since they believed the reverse of Marx’s maxim that is ‘not the consciousness of men that determines their social being, but … their social being that determines consciousness’ (Roszak 1969, p. 97). To the Beats—again constructively—the transformation of individual consciousness was the primary end in itself. To different extents for each author, that transformation was the only possible means of improving the way that human beings behave towards one another. Their privileging of the individual and personal over the programmatic and social helped the Beats to avoid a particular form of condescension that many more politically engaged, and leftist thinkers meted on the “unenlightened” working classes. Their remove from this kind of politics can be read as a sign of their deeper compassion and sensitivity. By
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abandoning actual political ambitions to follow his calling as a poet, Ginsberg had shed the presumption that he could be part of a vanguard for the oppressed and, from a certain angle, did better work for everyone by speaking authentically about himself. Indeed, by Roszak’s estimation, figureheads of the 1960s counterculture like Ginsberg, Marcuse and Brown showed greater faith than Marx in ordinary men and women since they avoided the hypocritical belief that a small group of intellectuals could shape social conditions by changing their individual consciousness, whereas everyone else was doomed to be shaped by their conditions (Roszak 1969, p. 97). The thesis that ‘social being determines consciousness’, Roszak writes, ‘never quite managed to account for Karl Marx himself and the bourgeois intellectual defectors he expected to take leadership of the proletariat’ (p. 97). These are important defences against the enduring leftist critique of Beat literature—that it refused to stand up practically for the marginalised people it took as subjects and encouraged a politics complacent in its retreat from the practical problem of social change. There is certainly a connection between Kerouac and Ginsberg’s encouragement of a ‘backpack revolution’ that ducked out of the mainstream, and the later more dangerous call to disengage from ‘old men’s politicking’ that was put out by Timothy Leary and others (Kerouac 2011, p. 83).3 Ultimately though— and as I have argued—the question of Beat responsibility to the politics of their time is better approached by attention to their philosophy than their activity. Despite Ginsberg’s political activity in the 60s—which included visits to Russia and Cuba, and involvement with Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament (CND)—, and despite his and Burroughs’ marches against the Vietnam War, the literary movement itself was not set up to be explicitly political. It has therefore been fairer and more useful to judge them by their ideas than according to retrospectively imposed expectations of activism. Both democratic and elitist, those ideas reveal an important paradox in the universal vision that Roszak praises—that its hopes of revolution for all, beginning with the personal, had their basis in something like the deterministic and dualistic logic it was challenging. What we need now is an appreciation of this negative along with the much that was positive in the Beat approach—a sober understanding of their work not as quietist or ‘nihilist’ but as the unwitting result of ideas that fuelled those characteristics in earlier reactionary modernist movements (Hinckle 1991).
‘One-Dimensional Man’ An even soberer, subtler eye is needed to parse the charge of fascism levelled by some in the 1960s. From sensationalist journalists like Warren Hinckle to sensitive supportive critics like Roszak, there was a common worry that Kerouac and Ginsberg’s antipathy to reason had paved the way for a more wholesale and dangerous version in the hippie generation that succeeded them (Hinckle 1991). Here, thirty years on from the after all countercultural excesses of National Socialism, was a movement that reified the will over the rational mind, excess over restraint and was engaged in ‘a remarkable defection from the long-standing tradition of sceptical, secular intellectuality which has served as the prime vehicle for three hundred years of scientific and technical work in the West’ (pp. 141–42). Roszak presented the Beats as they presented themselves—a progressive stand for the spirit against the atrophying effects of Enlightenment rationale—but he criticised their formative role in the emergence of a new youth movement that had allowed its healthy opposition to technocratic rule to devolve into unthinking mysticism. Such concerns imply but oversimplify the heritage Ginsberg, Kerouac and Burroughs had in full-blooded fascist-sympathising writers. Anti- humanist in its promotion of gnostic faith over Enlightenment reason, but humanist in its utopian belief in a perfect form of humanity achievable under correctly imposed conditions, the European fascist projects of the early twentieth century attracted writers like Ezra Pound and Louis- Ferdinand Céline because of their radical challenges to established liberal democratic moral and political logic. Beyond but as a corollary of their guttural anti-Semitism—their acceptance of the fascist conspiracy theory connecting Judaism with international capitalist corruption—Pound’s celebration of Mussolini and Céline’s of the Nazi movement were based on the hope that these could rescue the human spirit from the deadening effects of an over-rationalised civilisation. Perversely, and in line with so many who supported fascism, these two sensitive artists saw a new gnostic politics based on the Dionysian acceptance of the violent ‘will’ as a humanising antidote to the systemic violence of dehumanising capitalist liberal democracies. Though they were obviously much less chauvinistic, the Beats were indeed also swept up in their own rhapsodic political fantasy—and one that was as teetered between humanist and anti-humanist extremes. For these Americans coming of age after the Second World War, there was a
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new kind of whisper in the soul or in the blood to that which had captivated young Germans and Italians (and modernist writers) in the early twentieth century—a romantic bohemian longing for an existence that well-fed, contemporary, consumerist life had made impossible. And at the bottom of that new romantic vision was an intuition common to far rightist movements of the earlier age—‘the faint and passing recognition’ of ‘life in its fullness, life as it cries out from the depths of us to be lived’ (Roszak 1969, p. 99). In the Beats’ work, this depended on something like the attitude to society that would be popularised by Herbert Marcuse in the early 1960s—a belief that human beings in the post-war West had been conditioned towards acceptance of a ‘one-dimensional’ life. Observing those regular New Yorkers from a coffee shop window, imagining their sad little lives, Kerouac had pre-empted Marcuse’s condemnation of the average Western human as an inauthentic expression of him or herself (Kerouac 2012a, pp. 34–45). And by his own observation—from another New York street at about the same time—that ‘everyone had something wrong with them’ Ginsberg had repeated the same (Ginsberg 2006, p. 264). As such, and despite their rejection of utopian social programming, they performed their own version of a post-Marxist reduction of humanity—from a complex conglomerate of diverse individuals shaped by diverse experience and possessed of infinite ways of seeing the world to a cast of bad characters in a bad film. To the Beats, like Marcuse, unenlightened people take their bit parts as patsies beholden to their function within a corruptive system (their function within an aesthetically and morally unacceptable story). Rather than appreciated on individual terms—individual people living what Henry David Thoreau called ‘lives of quiet desperation’—they are viewed from a distance as part of a consensus body in need of new flesh, blood and spirit (Thoreau 1985, p. 50). That attitude was both tempered and exacerbated in the Beats by their interest in religion. As we’ve seen—and as Norman Mailer made explicit by his ‘spiritual existentialism’—the American counterculture’s rejection of old humanist forms differed from European equivalents by its continued experimentation with theology (Mailer 1957, p. 4). Although Marcuse and his fellow Frankfurt School theorists Theodore Adorno and Max Horkheimer were writing from exile in America after 1945, their background in Germany and in conventional Marxist theory inured them against the kind of spiritual questing that energised their young American readers. As such, the Beats’ and then hippies’ elitism took a different form.
It was aimed not only at the untangling of conscious and unconscious thought from political and cultural means of control but at a proudly religious reconnection between the individual and the divine that could lift humanity out of its meanly conceived social reality. Akin to ‘the early Christians’ in Norman Mailer’s view—zealots who had been motivated by radical love and were persecuted for the same—the Beats were reviving a religious enthusiasm that had been part of America’s cultural identity since her birth (Mailer 1969, p. 45). Like Norman O. Brown—a great admirer of Ginsberg’s and an extender of his ideas into the 1960s—they followed Emerson and Whitman in asserting American independence through a continued faith in revelation, and rejection of the English Enlightenment realism, proclaiming through their literature that ‘the age of miracle and revelation is not over’, and calling on ‘the power of enthusiasm; as condemned by John Locke; as possessed by George Fox, the Quaker’ (Brown 1991, p. 196). This nostalgia for nineteenth-century idealism was also a symptom of their wider historical and philosophical naivety. In many ways, the Beats’ revival of American religious enthusiasm was even more anachronistic than Henry Miller’s of Walt Whitman in the 1930s. If Miller had sourced Whitman to ‘accept everything’ while Europe was tail spinning into war, the Beats reaffirmed the possibility of a divine order just as the inexplicable horrors at Auschwitz and Hiroshima seemed to rule this out (Orwell 2009, p. 103). That they looked to God for answers long after their European counterparts had repudiated Him is testament to the difference between the existential suffering each were responding to. Indeed, Mailer’s promotion of the American counterculture as truer and braver than French Existentialism because of its wrestle with divinity failed to appreciate the cataclysmic conditions Europeans had been exposed to and that he and his generation of Americans had mainly been spared. A response to perceived totalitarianism within a democratic state, the Beat model for authenticity on spiritual terms was a far cry from an Existentialist school formed out of the French Resistance. The Beat bohemian ideal about those who got it and those who didn’t—made more mainstream than any equivalent avant-garde conception by their coincidence with the rise of mass media—was bound to have less serious political valance than Sartre’s, since it was informed by much lower stakes. Presented as a question of life and death by Kerouac, Ginsberg and Mailer, the individual’s spiritual independence from a collectively imposed cultural will
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was necessarily less pressing than his or her political emancipation from genuine, daily enforced totalitarian rule. Though occupied by the same question of individual authenticity, Sartre developed his model of ‘good’ and ‘bad faith’ existential behaviour from a position in which Romantic notions of a metaphysical truth appeared unserviceable. With that in mind, it makes sense that Sartre, Camus and the French Existentialist tradition found it hard to take Kerouac or Ginsberg seriously as moral thinkers. Their rebellion—though significant in cultural history and valid by its response to Western post- industrial alienation—was nonetheless a privileged one, fought by people whose real existential, political and material freedom had never been in question. Thus when Mailer announced American Existentialism as ‘mystical’ and ‘dialectical’, the more complex position in ‘the dialogue between the atheist and the mystic, the atheist on the side of life, rational life, undialectical life’, he was overlooking the hard material conditions that had produced that atheism in the first place (1957, p. 4). He was displaying a version of the crass optimism Miller had brought to European modernist concerns in the 1930s—a wilfully speculative approach that explored individual spiritual emancipation without proper recourse to recent historical brutalities, and an approach that predicted the anti-historicism of the 1960s’ American counterculture. It was in line with Mailer’s earnest and again dangerous proposal of individual physical violence as an act of protest against a democratic government deemed insidiously, psychically fascistic. By the same token—and in a context that is all the more puzzling given that the Frankfurt School had been exiled by real fascists in the 1930s—young American counterculturalists were encouraged by Marcuse to conflate their psychological alienation within capitalist America with the violent totalitarian systems of rule in Nazi Germany and Stalinist Russia. There was clear parity, Marcuse wrote, between the ‘totalitarianism’ of a one-party state (in which people are kept in line by fear of the concentration camp or gulag) and the ‘totalitarianism’ of ‘non- terroristic economic-technical coordination which operates through the manipulation of needs by vested interests’ (Marcuse 1991, p. 3). Sartre was himself too forgiving of violence in the name of ideology— remaining a member of the Communist party after Stalinist atrocities became public knowledge—and his philosophical prescription for authentic existence excluded ‘bad faith’ actors just as the hip/square model excluded the squares (Sartre 1984, pp. 86–118). But that prescription was arrived at through intensely difficult questions about moral action in the
face of genuine physical danger. As such—and in line with Burroughs in fact—it carried a non-religious appreciation that authenticity was not a spiritual condition to be meditated towards, but one that required hard, consistent confrontation with the self.
The Beats in History So what does all this mean to a reading of the Beat Generation in history—as a literary movement, as a symptom of and contributor to twentieth- and twenty-first-century culture and politics? In the first place, their debt to modernism—and to novelists, poets and philosophers of a sceptical and anti-Romantic bent—demonstrates their complicated, important position in the longer international lineage of twentieth-century literature. Rather than a popular cultural Romantic revival with sporadic links to European sources, the Beat Generation have emerged as the American articulation of experimental sensibilities begun in France and England in the first three decades of the twentieth century. Continuing a syncretising project inaugurated by Henry Miller as American in Paris in the 1930s, it carried over ideas about the human condition and about literature’s engagement with social, political and spiritual issues. And it did so with an intellectual nuance and seriousness that is very often underestimated. Ginsberg’s call back to Louis-Ferdinand Céline and Ezra Pound along with Walt Whitman and William Blake, Kerouac’s squaring of Symbolist and American Idealist influences and Burroughs’ updating of Rabelais and Swift suggest their conscious and heterogeneous engagement with a recent literary past. More specifically, that heritage in modernism—and in a kind of modernism that opposed their Romantic interest in the infinite—places the Beat Generation between two periods. It refutes their reputations either as standalone genii or naïfs in the post-Second World War period or an early strand of the wider postmodernist movement running from the 1950s to the 1980s (Fiedler 2002). Inheritors of elitist and fatalistic ideas that their movement is often taken to have repudiated—and interpreters of those ideas into a new, radically relativist and democratising context—they shed light on continuities between modernism and postmodernism that tend to be overlooked. By the tension in their works between humanist and anti- humanist impulses, and by their commitment to language that yearns for social improvement but ideas that doubt its plausibility, Kerouac and Ginsberg show the endurance of an inconvenient past in an American
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milieu that trumpeted renewal and the future. As such, they also affirm their worth to scholars interested in the longer history of English language and transnational literature—from modernism through to late modernism and postmodernism. But most importantly, the Beats’ wider literary historical context informs a better understanding of the intellectual and cultural currents that have led us to where we are today. By understanding this self-styled second American Renaissance as an Existentialist-like quest for individual authenticity, it is possible to place the American countercultural youth rebellion of the 1950s and 1960s against an international backdrop. A conscious attempt to kick-start American letters as Ralph Waldo Emerson and the Transcendentalists had in the mid-nineteenth century, the Beat Generation combined that New World democratising model with the more world-weary impulses of European philosophies. Set next to French Existentialism, the Beats’ battle for self-determination can be understood as a distinctly American response to new concepts of the individual that had emerged in Europe after the Second World War. From a positive angle, they can be read like Henry Miller as translators of important intellectual developments across the Atlantic into an American vernacular and context. More negatively, and interestingly, that act of translation produced the movement’s major paradox. Seeking authenticity of self—and according to strong conceptions of artistic, spiritual and existential purity—they jettisoned the ordinary America that Emerson, Whitman and Thoreau had rhapsodised about. Here was a project premised on radical love that practised radical exclusion. More spiritual than Sartre’s—as Norman Mailer recognised clumsily—Beat conceptions of a free and honest existence were just as unforgiving. To be ‘beat’ was to be aware and protective of a secret—that the rules everyone else conformed to were absurd. It was to be tired out by a system that ordinary people pandered and conformed to, and courageous enough to express your true, unconditioned self—a self the conception of which depended on its difference to the masses. Concerned with and shaped by its marginality—and by its vicarious existence through the material and racial marginality of others—the Beat Generation was always going to be compromised in its Transcendentalist aim for a democratising form of life and art. That it was driven too by a religious longing for dissolution and by a foundation in the apocalyptic meta-historical soothsaying of Oswald Spengler naturally exacerbated that paradox.
As William Burroughs pointed out in retrospect, the Beat Generation was more than just a literary movement (Lesser 2005). Its emergence alongside new mass culture and media industries after the Second World War meant it sold better and reached further than any literary avant-garde movement before it. It was also a major inspiration for the pop cultural musical and youth protest movement of the 1960s. With that cultural role in mind, their spiritual elitism and counter-intuitive scepticism about progress indicate even more surprising and instructive paradoxes in the history of progressive American thought. The Beats’ binary of authenticity and inauthenticity, and the contrast between their celebration of new spiritual ways of thinking and living and their ingrained fatalism, point to similar complications with the message of peace and love that underscored the 1960s’ cultural revolution. Kerouac and Ginsberg’s disengagement from the unenlightened masses, their goal for transcendence rather than improvement of a doomed world, pre-empted something similar in the many movements who aimed to transcend limits of society and consciousness in the next decade. From mass experiments with lysergic acid—carried out hedonistically by the novelist-impresario Ken Kesey’s and with pseudo-religiosity by the controversial, struck-off scientist Timothy Leary—to spiritualist community trials like the Koinona group in Maryland, the quest for sight and emotion more radiant than modern society would allow carried predictable risks both to the minds and bodies of those involved and their patience with a wider, unschooled nation.4
Postscript: Countercultures Today At one level, all of this suggests the Beats’ irresponsibility towards the tribe their work and ideas were nurturing—an awareness of complicated imperfections in the human condition, but willingness to conceal these in the pursuit and representation of a romantic story. More profoundly, a better understanding of their unexpected anti-humanism can help illuminate the transition from the countercultural movement of the 1960s to the more proscriptive and socially engaged version of the following decades. As we saw in the previous chapter, the logic of hip and square, of saved and unsaved, carried over into the gender and racial equality movements that ended up rejecting Beat work as un-progressive. The Beat Generation was both important to the birth of these movements and the inaugurator of a spirit that feminist and black and queer theory scholars embargoed. Its championing of uncensored individual
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expression, of the individual’s right to affirm his or her identity outside of societal norms, and of the body and spirit in opposition to the restrictive patriarchal intellectual rules of the establishment helped lay the ground for radical thinking by feminists like Kate Millett. So too did their veneration of the oppressed and marginalised as authentic and the oppressive and centralised as its opposite. However, Millett’s blackballing of former countercultural heroes like D.H. Lawrence and Henry Miller indicated a first move towards the hardening of those positions from heresies into orthodoxies—a development of the 1950s’ and 1960s’ quest for authenticity of the self into a new test for moral purity. As such, a more nuanced understanding of Kerouac, Ginsberg and Burroughs in history can shed light on current battles being fought around the rights and wrongs of our contemporary politics of identity—themselves the logical conclusion of Millett’s mode of criticism. The currency of authenticity and inauthenticity in the counterculture, of hip versus square, have their expressions today in the dualistic discourse around social justice: the leftist division of the world into those who are ‘woke’ to systemic sexism, racism, homophobia and transphobia and those who remain unconscious, and, increasingly, the new rightist subversion of this dichotomy to mark itself out as awake to systemic prejudice as illusion. If Second Wave Feminists were the first to talk explicitly about ‘consciousness raising’—the need for individuals to share their stories of oppression and trace them to specific patriarchal ills—it was the eventually counter- revolutionary Beats who helped make that kind of language expressible. As divisive precursors and casualties of the ‘personal is political’ movement, they offer clues as to how to negotiate the battlefield that movement has helped create. As well as that intolerance for the unenlightened, the Beats might also be said to have set a precedent in American progressive thought by their privileging of spiritual and psychological poverty over its material equivalent. One of the main criticisms of identity politics today—and one that comes from both sides of the political divide—is that its emphasis on group differences distracts attention from practical issues of social and economic improvement. The new, more politically engaged rebellion of the late-1960s was in many ways a break with the Beats’ bid for individual spiritual Enlightenment and a refocusing on the emancipation of subjugated group identity. However, and as we heard from Roszak on thinkers like Herbert Marcuse and Norman O. Brown, it retained a Freudian definition of alienation in its psychological rather than hard economic form.
As such, this earlier New World rebellion, led by relatively comfortable, relatively privileged young writers—what Karl Shapiro called the ‘well fed orphans of Western Culture’—had a part to play in tipping the balance of progressive political activism away from issues of economic hardship and towards those to do with the social and psychological impact of oppressive thinking (Shapiro 1971, p. 75). With Henry Miller—whose disgusted protest against false sentimental ideas of human decency he shared—William Burroughs was of course also a product of the same spoiled culture he was critiquing. If Miller had been poor when he left New York for Paris, he suffered not from direct political or material oppression but his own choice to keep on with a writing career he had shown no professional aptitude for. Burroughs lived his life as an artist on skid row not out of necessity but because he had independent financial support and could afford to. But, contrary to Kerouac, Ginsberg and other famous 1960s countercultural figures, these other two well-fed orphans were using their decrepitude to say something larger and more profound about the human condition. They were repeating in American a vital lesson that had been expressed by Europeans very often in the leaner pre-war period—that humanist hopes of refining and remodelling the human being ignored the essential contingency and expediency of existence on earth. The major value of books like Miller’s Tropic of Cancer and Burroughs’ Naked Lunch to an appreciation of 1960s countercultural thinking lies in their anti-humanist retort to its tendency towards naivety and disingenuousness. Willing captives to their difficult social conditions, Miller and Burroughs nonetheless delivered a version of the warning made first by sceptical modernists before the dominance of National Socialism and Communism and then by writers who suffered at the hands of both. By satirising life at the bottom of the pile and showing themselves and the world around them stripped of pretensions to moral decency, they added to a productive story sketched by T.E. Hulme, Ezra Pound and Wyndham Lewis in the 1910s and made explicit and human in fact by concentration camp and gulag survivors later on. Strange as it seems, the report on humanity in banned graphic work by Miller and Burroughs has much in common with Arthur Koestler’s in Scum of the Earth—an account of wartime political imprisonment in Vichy France—or Primo Levi’s in If This is A Man—perhaps the most famous testament to the collapse of humanist scaffolding under dehumanising conditions at Auschwitz (Koestler 2012; Levi 1991).
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The new young audience who Ginsberg was readying for a revolution in social consciousness had in Miller and Burroughs a different kind of teacher who showed that liberation meant something more complicated and self-effacing. It was liberation on terms like those outlined more recently by the philosopher John Gray—the contemplation of the self and surrounding world, rather than moral judgement and/or action, and an honest appraisal of one’s own capacity for evil, which might result in less complacency on the subject of one’s moral virtue (Gray 2002). In Norman Mailer that same readership might have found a problematic example of violence celebrated as proof of masculinity and authentic existential fulfilment, but they have also been encouraged towards circumspection about the ability to discern good from bad in the self. Three different stylists, with very different backgrounds, Miller, Burroughs and Mailer represent useful checks on the spiritual idealism of their age. There is a lesson to be learnt here about perfectionism of the self as against perfectionism of society. From Miller, we get a sense that it is possible to live better lives (to feel more at ease with ourselves and others, and to stop hurting ourselves and others) by admitting to and accepting our contradictions and imperfections. More than any other writer associated with the counterculture, this apparent totem of amorality offers a genuine, non-idealistic exposition of the messy, unvarnished truth behind human self-projections of rational moral virtue. A romantic seeker with realist moral sensibilities, he—even more than Burroughs—encapsulates a less utopian, less proscriptive aspect of the 1960s counterculture that can be usefully sourced today. Perversely (and contrary to his reputation), Miller’s writing can be most productively condemned not for its obvious cruelty or misogyny but the narcissistic elevation in consciousness he believed that purgatory mission had afforded him. Kerouac and Ginsberg, on the other hand—questers of their own transcendent states, and guided from first to last by their longing for authentic engagement with the noumenal, the ineffable—reveal a perfectionism in the emerging youth rebellion of the 1950s that was self-defeating. Their thinking, which helped launch a thousand bands and political sensibilities along with the clothing brands that Burroughs joked about, also helped polarise America on cultural, spiritual and then identity political grounds in the succeeding years. That division—more pronounced today than at any point since the 1960s and manifested in terms of two ‘countercultures’ fighting for influence—stands a chance of being breached by closer scrutiny of the moment that produced it. Reflecting on the covert elitism
of these first counterculturalists, equivalents on the left today might be encouraged to check the same in themselves. On the anti-PC right, such reflection might engender awareness that their attacks on the rights discourse of the 1960s repeat exactly its divisive rhetoric. By thinking about the historical transition from a movement that sought the release of shame only to one that required its transferal onto others, both teams of rebranded counterculturalism could learn a less proscriptive, less dogmatic mode of discourse. None of this is to deny or undermine the poetic and life affirmative value of Ginsberg and Kerouac’s writing—nor indeed, of Miller’s, which I’ve expressed reservations about along with admiration. The experiments each undertook with form, and their willingness to express themselves on subjects that had previously been shunned for fear or censor and censure, have irrefutably helped shape freer approaches to art, and more humane and open attitudes to sex, sexuality and individual identity from the 1960s to the present day. The artistic gains they contributed are evident in everything from punk rock to recent Booker prize-winning satire by London- based African American novelist Paul Beatty. To my mind, this legacy is to be celebrated but requires little further explanation or defence. When it comes to the Beats’ desire for an evolution in consciousness, however, we are presently on fragile ground. To appreciate, serve and potentially preserve the positive developments of the 1960s that these innovating artists contributed to, it is vital we look at them objectively at their source. Only by doing this can we develop new responses to our connected but very different cultural, social and political climates today.
Notes 1. See my p. 99. 2. For more on Corso’s pivotal role in the Beat Generation, see Skau (2000); for McClure’s see Hemmer (2004); and for Lamantia’s, the chapter ‘A Multilayered Inspiration: Philip Lamantia, Beat Poet’, in Fazzino (2016). 3. For more on this argument and the problem with ‘hip merchants’ like Ken Kesey and Timothy Leary, who had made money by selling a utopian, politically unserviceable dream, see Warren Hinckle’s ‘A Social History of the Hippies’, p. 232. 4. For more on 1960s commune culture, see Timothy Miller (1999).
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Works Cited Blake, William. 1998. ‘London.’ In Songs of Innocence and Experience, p. 50. London: Penguin. Orig. ed.: 1789. Brown, Norman O. 1991. In The Sixties: Art, Politics and Media of our Most Explosive Decade, ed. by Gerald Howard, pp. 191–96. Orig. ed.: 1982. Brown essay, based on a 1960 lecture given at Columbia University, was first published in Harper’s Magazine, May 1961. Broyard, Anatole. 1997. Kafka Was the Rage: A Greenwich Village Memoir. New York: Vintage. Burroughs, William S. 1993. Naked Lunch. London: Flamingo. Orig. ed.: 1959 Dury, David. 1994. ‘Sex Goes Public: A Talk with Henry Miller.’ In Conversations with Henry Miller, ed. by Frank L. Kersnowski and Alice Hughes. Mississippi: University Press. Farrell, James J. 1997. The Spirit of the Sixties: The Making of Postwar Radicalism. New York: Routledge. Fazzino, Jimmy. 2016. World Beats: Beat Generation Writing and the Worlding of US. Literature. Hanover, NH: Dartmouth College Press. Fiedler, Leslie. 2002. ‘Cross the Border—Close that Gap.’ In Postmodernism and the Contemporary Novel: A Reader, ed. by Bran Nicol, pp. 162–68. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press. Originally published in Playboy, December 1969. Ginsberg, Allen. 2006. The Book of Martyrdom and Artifice: First Journals and Poems, 1937–1952, ed. by Juanita Lieberman-Plimpton and Bill Morgan. Cambridge: Da Capo Press. Ginsberg, Allen. ‘Portrait of Huncke.’ 1st April 1949, pp. 262–75. Ginsberg, Allen. 2009. Collected Poems, pp. 134–41. London: Penguin. Ginsberg, Allen. ‘Psalm 1.’ 1949, p. 26 Ginsberg, Allen. ‘Howl.’ 1955–56, pp. 134–41 Ginsberg, Allen. ‘My Sad Self.’ 1958, pp. 209–10 Ginsberg, Allen. ‘Kaddish: Proem, Narrative, Hymmnn, Lament, Litany.’ 1959–60, pp. 217–32 Ginsberg, Allen. 2000. Deliberate Prose: Selected Essays, 1952–1995, ed. by Bill Morgan. London: Penguin. Originally published in Attacks of Taste, 1971. Ginsberg, Allen. ‘The Dharma Bums Review.’ 1958, pp. 342–48 Ginsberg, Allen. 2008. The Letters of Allen Ginsberg, ed. by Bill Morgan. Da Capo Press: Philadelphia. Ginsberg, Allen. ‘Allen Ginsberg to Jack Kerouac’. 15th June 1949, pp. 36–42. Gray, John. 2002. Straw Dogs: Thoughts on Humans and Other Animals. London: Granta. Hemmer, Kurt (dir.). 2004. Rebel Roar: The Sound of Michael McClure. Harper Palatine, Ill.: Harper College.
Hinckle, Warren. 1991. ‘A Social History of the Hippies.’ In The Sixties: Art, Politics and Media of our Most Explosive Decade, ed. by Gerald Howard, pp. 207–232. Orig. ed.: 1982. Hinckle essay originally published in Ramparts, March 1967. Internet Archive. 2018. ‘Louis Ferdinand Céline Interview Lectures Pour Tous (eng/fr).’ Originally recorded, 1961. https://archive.org/details/Louis_ ClineInterview_Lectures_Pour_Tous [accessed 16th March 2020]. Kerouac, Jack. 1996. ‘Belief and Technique for Modern Prose.’ In The Portable Jack Kerouac. London: Viking. Originally written in a letter to Donald Allen, 1958. Kerouac, Jack. 2011. Dharma Bums. New York: Penguin. Orig. ed.: 1958. Kerouac, Jack. 2004. Windblown World: The Journals of Jack Kerouac 1947–1954, ed. with an intro. by Douglas Brinkley. London: Penguin. Kerouac, Jack. 2012b. Vanity of Duluoz. London: Penguin. Orig. ed.: 1968. Kerouac, Jack. 2012a. Visions of Cody. London: Penguin. Orig. ed.: 1972. Koestler, Arthur. 2012. Scum of the Earth. London: Eland. Orig. ed.: 1941. Lane, Veronique. 2017. The French Genealogy of the Beat Generation: Burroughs, Ginsberg and Kerouac’s Appropriations of Modern Literature, from Rimbaud to Michaux. New York: Bloomsbury. Lee, Robert A. 2018. The Routledge Handbook of International Beat Literature. London: Routledge. Lesser, Yony (dir.). 2005. A Man Within. New York: PBS. Levi, Primo. 1991. If This Is A Man. London: Abacus. Orig. ed.: 1947. Mailer, Norman. 1957. ‘The White Negro.’ San Francisco: City Lights Books. Mailer, Norman. ‘In the Red Light: A History of the Republican Convention in 1964’, pp. 15–65. Mailer, Norman. 1969. In Cannibals and Christians, pp. London: Sphere Books. Orig. ed.: 1967 Marcuse, Herbert. 1991. One-Dimensional Man: Studies in the Ideology of Advanced Industrial Society. Boston: Beacon Press. Orig. ed.: 1964. Martin, Jay. 1978. Always Merry and Bright. Santa Barbara: Capra Press Miller, Henry. 2005. Tropic of Cancer. London: Harper Perennial, 2005. Orig. ed.: 1934 Miller, Henry. 1960. ‘Max and the White Phagocytes.’ In The Best of Henry Miller, ed. by Lawrence Durrell. London: Heinemann, pp. 134–67. Originally published as Max and the White Phagocytes. 1938. Paris: Obelisk Press. Miller, Henry. 1964. ‘My Aims and Intentions.’ In Henry Miller on Writing: Selected by Thomas H. Moore from the Published and Unpublished Works of Henry Miller. New York: New Directions. Originally published in Art and Outrage. A Correspondence about Henry Miller between A. Perlès and Lawrence Durrell. 1959.
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Miller, Timothy. 1999. The 60s Communes: Hippies and Beyond. Syracuse: Syracuse University Press. Morgan, Bill. 2011. Beat Atlas: State by State Guide to the Beat Generation in America. San Francisco: City Lights Books. Orwell, George. 2009. ‘Inside the Whale.’ In Critical Essays, ed. by George Packer, pp. 95–137. London: Harvill Secker. Originally published in Inside the Whale and Other Essays, 1940. Pound, Ezra. 1992. ‘Review of Tropic of Cancer.’ In Critical Essays on Henry Miller, ed. by Ronald Gottesman, pp. 87–89. New York: G.K. Hall & Co. Written but unpublished, 1935. Roszak, Theodore. 1969. The Making of a Counterculture: Reflections on the Technocratic Society and its Youthful Opposition. New York: Anchor Books. Sartre, Jean-Paul. 1984. Being and Nothingness: Phenomenological Essays on Ontology. Transl. with an intro by Hazel E. Barnes. Washington: Washington Square Press. Orig. ed.: 1943. Shapiro, Karl. 1971. ‘The Greatest Living Author: In Defense of Ignorance.’ In Henry Miller: Three Decades of Criticism, ed. with an intro. by Edward B. Mitchell, pp. 77–84. New York: New York University Press. Skau, Michael. 2000. “A Clown in the Grave”: Complexities and Tensions in the Works of Gregory Corso. Illinois: Southern Illinois University Press. Thoreau, Henry David. 1985. Walden and Civil Disobedience. New York: Penguin. Orig. ed.: 1854. Wolfe, Tom. 1967. The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux. Woolf, Michael. 1992. ‘Beyond Ideology: Kate Millet and the Case for Henry Miller.’ In Critical Essays, ed. by R. Gottesman, pp. 165–77. New York: G.K. Hall & Co.
A Abbott, Jack, 158, 159 Acker, Kathy, 111, 136 Act gratuite, 66 Adams, Joan, 66 Adorno, Theodore, 7, 8, 128, 132, 133, 201 Ali, Mohammad, 158 Allen, Steve, 86 Altamont, 179 American Existentialism, 203 Anderson, Laurie, 134 Anti-humanism, 3–5, 8, 9, 11, 12, 141, 194, 195 Anti-Semitism, 1, 2, 29, 137, 175, 195, 200 Apollinaire, 65 Asceticism, 71 Ashbery, John, 189 Atkinson, Ti-Grace, 171 Auden, W.H., 22, 156 Auschwitz (the holocaust), 8, 10, 202, 208 Ayahuasca, 116
B Baldwin, James, 7, 151, 177, 178, 197 Ballard, J.G., 129 Balliet, Gay Louise, 25, 52n3 Bardamu, Ferdinand, see Céline Barnes, Djuna, 51 Baudelaire, Charles, 65, 69, 119, 155 Beat Generation at Columbia University, 62–70, 107, 108, 194 definitions, 96 and Henry Miller, 19, 24, 29, 49, 59, 189–192 and the hippies, 6, 11, 98, 201 and Louis-Ferdinand Céline, 32–34, 62, 63 in the media, 131, 206 and Oswald Spengler, 35–40, 50, 51, 64, 69–73, 75–77, 82–85, 98, 148, 156 politics, 1, 2, 196–200, 202, 204 popular music, 95 and religion, 201 “Beatniks”, 9, 51, 139, 148
Note: Page numbers followed by ‘n’ refer to notes.
© The Author(s) 2020 G. Stevenson, Anti-Humanism in the Counterculture, https://doi.org/10.1007/978-3-030-47760-8
Beckett, Samuel, 51 Bellow, Saul, 159, 182n3 Bennet, Arnold, 47 Benzedrine, 156, 165 Bergson, Henri, 69, 167 Big Sur, 170 Birmingham, Jed, 155 Black, Jack, 118 Blake, William, 2, 19, 33, 39, 49, 50, 52n1, 61, 73, 77, 82, 88, 108, 163, 164, 192, 193, 197, 204 Blinder, Caroline, 25, 52n3 Bowie, David, 116, 137 Braddock, Jim, 158 Brando, Marlon, 96 Brassaï, 51 Brown, Norman O., 50, 198, 199, 202, 207 Broyard, Anatole, 189 Buckley, William F. Jnr., 6, 149, 172 Buddhism, 12, 38, 160, 181 Buell, Lawrence, 81, 102n13 Burroughs, William S., 2, 5, 7, 8, 10, 13, 14, 19, 20, 24, 29, 32–34, 37–39, 46, 49, 50, 59–63, 66–71, 76, 81, 84–86, 89, 90, 92, 93, 99, 100, 101n2, 101n3, 101n4, 107–141, 147–149, 154, 159, 163–167, 173, 179, 182n3, 188–190, 192–195, 198–200, 204, 206–209 The Adding Machine, 136 and collectivist politics, 113, 134, 138 and colonialism, 116 cut-ups, fold-ins, 114, 131, 136, 166 and Henry Miller, 14, 109, 110, 118–120, 122–128, 133, 138, 140, 141, 148, 149, 195, 196, 208, 209
and heroin, 110–112, 117, 118, 120, 122, 130, 132, 134, 135, 142n2 homosexuality, 134, 135, 193 Interzone, 117, 130 Junkie/Junky, 38, 111, 112, 117–124, 142n6, 173 and modernism, 21, 69, 109, 115, 208 Naked Lunch, 13, 14, 20, 33, 109, 110, 112, 113, 116, 117, 121–125, 127–132, 135, 137, 139, 140, 148, 166, 173, 194, 208 The Nova Trilogy, 20, 116 politics, 113–117, 128–132, 134 and post-humanism, 110, 128–135, 138 and postmodernism, 110, 128–136 Queer, 134 ‘Thanksgiving,’ 137 The Ticket That Exploded, 136 and Spengler, 114–116 ‘Twilight’s Last Gleamings,’ 68, 117, 121, 122, 124, 137 ‘the ugly spirit,’ 122, 135, 165, 166 The Yage Letters, 115, 116 C Cain, James, 117 Campbell, James, 7, 21, 109, 142n2, 175 Camus, Albert, 9, 156, 162, 191, 203 Captain Ahab, 99 Carr, Lucien, 23, 33, 61, 62, 65–68, 76, 81, 92, 101n3, 101n5, 102n9, 154, 193 Cassady, Neal, 6, 61, 74, 79, 84, 86, 88, 89, 95, 100, 112, 141, 152, 154, 177, 179, 194
Catholicism, 1, 38 Ceballos, Jacqueline, 172 Céline, Louis-Ferdinand, 20, 29–34, 40, 43, 45–47, 49, 50, 52n4, 53n6, 119, 120, 124, 127, 138, 188, 190, 191, 200, 204 Cendrars, Blaise, 24, 25, 28, 29, 31, 40, 190 Cervantes, Miguel de, 30 Chandler, Raymond, 76 Charters, Ann, 6, 9, 52n5, 98, 139, 181n1, 187 Clash, The, 60 Cobain, Kurt, 108 Coleridge, Samuel, 4, 140, 142n7 Colombia, 115, 116 Columbia University, 32 Communism, 10, 130, 208 Corso, Gregory, 188, 210n2 Cotkin, George, 156 Counterculture, 1–15, 20, 21, 48, 50, 51, 60, 63, 69, 100, 109, 110, 138, 141, 147, 148, 150, 158, 159, 161, 166, 168, 176, 178–181, 187–210 D Dadaism, 131 de Beauvoir, Simone, 156 de Sade, Marquis, 20, 128 Decline of the West, The, 20, 35–38, 50, 63, 67, 69–72, 82, 84, 87, 114, 156, 163 Defoe, Daniel, 30 Deleuze, Gilles, 110, 128, 135 Dos Passos, John, 153 Dostoyevsky, Fyodor, 19, 23, 52n2 Douglas, Ann, 131, 138 Dr Benway, 123–125, 133, 137 Dreiser, Theodore, 22
Ducasse, Isidore Lucien (Comte de Lautréamont), 65 Durrell, Lawrence, 25, 45, 53n11, 126, 195 Dylan, Bob, 1–3, 14, 60, 88, 108, 140 E Eliot, T.S., 1, 2, 4, 5, 8, 14, 40–42, 50, 51, 68, 69, 108, 131, 141n1, 166, 193, 196 Ellison, Ralph, 7, 134, 151, 177, 197 Elvins, Kells, 68, 117, 118, 121, 122, 126 Emerson, Ralph Waldo, 2, 4, 10, 13, 19, 22, 24, 39, 42, 44, 49, 52n2, 53n10, 61, 63, 64, 79, 87, 102n13, 119, 124, 140, 192, 198, 202, 205 Existentialism, 8, 10, 14, 98, 147–181, 201 ‘Existentialism is a Humanism,’ 8, 161 F Farrell, James, 194 Fascism, fascist, 1, 2, 10, 12, 26, 27, 36, 42–44, 129, 130, 179, 195, 200, 203 Fatalism, fatalist, 13, 20, 30, 32, 47, 60, 62–64, 71, 72, 75, 98, 100, 107, 191–194, 206 Faulkner, William, 153, 168 Faust, Faustian, 38, 67, 68, 102n9, 114, 164 Fazzino, Jimmy, 189, 210n2 Fear and Trembling, see Kierkegaard, Søren Fellaheen, 13, 37, 38, 50, 71, 84–90, 95, 100, 114, 140, 163, 164, 191, 192
Feminism, feminists, 21, 171–173, 176, 179, 180 Fiedler, Leslie, 30, 168, 204 Fields, W.C., 95, 132 Firing Line, 6, 149 Fitzgerald, F. Scott, 60 Flaubert, Gustave, 43 “Flower power”, 113, 136, 137, 140 Foucault, Michel, 7, 130 Fraenkel, Michael, 36, 45, 72 Frankfurt School, 7, 128, 132, 139, 188, 198, 201, 203 French Existentialism, 161, 162, 202, 205 Freud, Sigmund, 62, 70, 75, 167, 198 Futurism, futurists, 25, 131 G Gap, 139, 165, 188 Garland, Sarah, 24, 25, 98, 125 Genesis P-Orridge, 134 Genet, Jean, 20, 33, 34, 50, 63, 155, 159, 174–176, 188, 191 Gide, André, 61, 65, 66, 69, 101n5, 119, 193 Gilmour, Gary, 158, 159 Ginsberg, Allen, 1, 2, 5–10, 12–15, 19–21, 23, 24, 29, 32–34, 37–39, 46, 49, 50, 52n1, 52n5, 53n9, 59–100, 101n1, 101n4, 101n5, 101n6, 101n7, 102n9, 102n12, 107–118, 122, 127, 129–132, 134, 138–141, 141n1, 142n7, 142n11, 147–155, 160, 162–167, 174, 176–181, 181–182n1, 182n5, 187–204, 206–210 ‘America,’ 20, 38 ‘Howl,’ 13, 20, 37, 50, 59, 78, 79, 83–85, 87, 99, 139, 148, 151, 190, 197 ‘Kaddish,’ 63, 78, 81, 83
‘My Sad Self,’ 83 and ‘The New Vision,’ 33, 65, 66, 76, 100, 190 and Oswald Spengler, 13, 20, 38, 50, 63, 64, 67, 70, 71, 75, 82–84, 89, 148 and politics, 1, 60, 63, 70, 155, 192, 196 visitations from Blake, 39, 77, 164 and Walt Whitman, 2, 50, 75, 77, 78, 80, 140, 191 Ginsberg, Louis, 90, 101n5 Ginsberg, Naomi, 81 Goethe, Johann Wolfgang von, 36, 52n2, 62, 63, 67–69 Grace, Nancy McCampbell, 92, 95, 102n14, 177 Grateful Dead, The, 140 Gray, John, 3, 4, 209 The Great Gatsby, 60 Greenwich Village, 37, 61, 108, 149, 150, 167, 174, 189 Greer, Germaine, 171, 172, 174 Grove Press, 21 Guattari, Félix, 110 Gulliver’s Travels, 111, 121 Gysin, Brion, 114, 131 H Hale, John, 3 Hammett, Dashiell, 76 Hamsun, Knutt, 24–32, 35, 43, 49, 190 Hare Krishna, 155, 160 Harlem, 153 See also Harlem Renaissance Harlem Renaissance, 150 Harris, Oliver, 110, 113, 118, 133, 140 Harvard University, 62, 68, 111, 112, 117, 118, 153, 167 Hayles, N. Katherine, 110, 135, 136
Heidegger, Martin, 7–12, 156, 162 Hell’s Angels, 7, 179 Hemingway, Ernest, 153, 154, 168 Hilfer, Anthony, 113 Hinduism, 12, 38 Hitler, Adolf, 23, 26, 31, 72, 179 Holmes, John Cllelon, 52n5, 96 Holton, Rob, 92 Horkheimer, Max, 7, 128, 132, 133, 201 Hulme, T.E., 1, 4, 5, 7–12, 42, 43, 53n10, 195, 208 Humanism Enlightenment, 3 Renaissance, 3 Huncke, Herbet, 37, 38, 84–86, 112, 118, 152, 179, 194 Huxley, Aldous, 40, 41, 115, 116, 125, 126, 167 I Idealism, 42, 60–64, 67, 75–77, 98, 109, 140, 192, 194, 196, 202, 209 Identity politics, politics of identity, 7, 134, 138, 150, 170–178, 181, 207 Imagism, Imagist, 13, 42–43, 80 Inchausti, Robert, 64, 94 Inside the Whale, see Orwell, George J Jack Kerouac School of Disembodied Poetics, 101n1 Jazz, 37, 86, 88, 95, 153, 156, 177, 196, 197 Johnston, Jill, 172, 174 Journey to the End of the Night (Voyage Au Bout De La Nuit), 29, 62, 119, 190
Joyce, James, 29, 33, 35, 40, 41, 43, 44, 47, 50, 68, 69, 87, 91, 119 Jung, Carl, 111 K Kabbalah, 38 Kafka, Franz, 33, 68 Kammerer, David, 61–62, 66–68, 111 Kant, Immanuel, 3 Keats, John, 4, 197 Kermode, Frank, 51, 100 Kerouac, Jack, 2, 19, 59–100, 107, 147, 187 and Christianity, 62 family, 192, 197 in Mexico, 38, 94, 115 On the Road, 20, 21, 34, 37, 38, 59, 60, 73, 74, 86, 88, 95, 96, 99, 102n11, 139, 150, 190 and the poor, 37, 94 and Spengler, 13, 20, 21, 37, 38, 50, 63, 64, 69–71, 75, 84, 87, 88, 94, 148 Tristessa, 63, 86–87, 91, 93–96, 148, 151, 164 Vanity of Duluoz, 37, 63, 65, 69, 89–92, 96, 97, 101n3, 102n15 Visions of Cody, 13, 38, 60, 63, 74, 87–90, 92, 94, 95, 99, 102n11, 102n12, 148 and Whitman, 13, 24, 73, 88, 91, 95, 192 Kesey, Ken, 5, 6, 12, 206, 210n3 Kierkegaard, Søren, 9, 148, 149, 156–162, 165, 179, 181 Knight, Brenda, 6 Koestler, Arthur, 208 Koinona, 206 Korzybski, Alfred, 33, 38, 114, 115, 128, 130 Kuhn, Elizabeth, 7, 8
L Lady Chatterley’s Lover, 169 Lamantia, Philip, 188, 210n2 Lane, Véronique, 188 Lardas, John, 20, 37, 52n1, 64, 94 Lawrence, D.H., 21, 41, 81, 102n13, 123, 149, 167–171, 173, 174, 176, 207 Leary, Timothy, 199, 206, 210n3 Lee, Robert A., 189 Lennon, J. Michael, 153, 156–158, 163, 164, 168 Levi, Primo, 208 Levi’s, 139 Lewis, Wyndham, 1, 2, 4, 8, 13, 40–43, 47, 51, 120, 195, 208 Lindner, Robert, 158 Loewinsohn, Ron, 129 LSD, 12, 165, 179 M Mailer, Beatrice, 164 Mailer, Norman, 5, 9, 14, 49, 92, 94, 98, 125, 126, 129, 132, 147–181, 182n3, 182n5, 188, 189, 191, 194, 197, 198, 201–203, 205, 209 Advertisements for Myself, 156, 162 An American Dream, 165 Barbary Shore, 153 The Executioner’s Song, 158 and feminism (Kate Millet), 173 Genius and Lust, 149, 168 God, 14 and Henry Miller, 14, 149, 153, 169, 170, 173, 176, 177 ‘Hip’, philosophy of, 147–181 and identity politics, 181 The Naked and the Dead, 125, 147, 150, 153, 158, 164 The Prisoner of Sex, 149, 166–174
and race, 147, 150, 151, 173 and sex, 125, 147 and Søren Kierkegaard, 14, 148, 149, 156–158, 160, 165, 179 ‘The White Negro: Superficial Reflections on the Hipster,’ 14 and William S. Burroughs, 14, 149, 159, 163, 164, 166, 167 Mallarmé, Stephane, 48 Mann, Thomas, 35, 69 Manson, Charles, 179 Marcuse, Herbert, 128, 188, 198, 199, 201, 203, 207 Marijuana, 150, 153, 156 Marinetti, Fillipo Tommaso, 25 Marx, Karl, 130, 156, 198, 199 Marxism, 36, 171 McClure, Michael, 9, 97, 188, 210n2 Melville, Herman, 61, 75, 168 Men of 1914, 1, 5, 8, 195 Mexico, 38, 89, 93, 94, 111, 112, 115, 122, 128, 137, 140 Miles, Barry, 33, 110, 113, 129, 138 Miller, Henry, 12–14, 19–52, 53n6, 53n11, 59, 62, 63, 69, 72, 73, 75, 78, 91, 98, 109, 110, 118–120, 122–128, 133, 138, 140, 141, 148–150, 153, 168–171, 173–177, 188–191, 193–196, 202–205, 207–210 and the Beat Generation, 24, 49, 59, 189 and English modernism, 40–42 and feminism, 21, 170, 173 and Louis-Ferdinand Céline, 29, 31, 32, 34, 45, 53n6, 119, 138, 191 and Romanticism, 44 and sex, 21, 47 Sexus, 175 and Spengler, 20, 35, 51, 70
Tropic of Cancer, 14, 21–24, 27, 31, 48, 62, 72, 91, 109, 118, 122, 126, 127, 169, 170, 173, 194, 196, 208 Tropic of Capricorn, 173 and William S. Burroughs, 14, 24, 39, 109, 110, 119, 120, 122, 123, 125–127, 138, 148, 149, 173, 194–196, 208, 209 Miller, Tyrus, 51 Millett, Kate, 149, 170–177, 180, 182n4, 207 Modernism, 2, 7, 8, 12, 21, 24, 29, 40–42, 50, 63, 108, 139, 190, 204, 205 A Modest Proposal, 107–141 Moloch, 80 Morgan, Bill, 99, 187, 188 Moriarty, Dean, 6, 95, 152, 154, 164 Morocco, 121, 122, 137 Mortenson, Erik, 77, 78 Murphy, Timothy, 110, 113, 126–128, 131–134, 136, 139 Mussolini, Benito, 2, 26, 42, 179, 195, 200 N Naropa Institute, 1 New England Renaissance, 76 See also Transcendentalism and Idealism New Left, the, 126, 128, 156, 172, 189 New Orleans School, 61, 67, 92 New Testament, 43, 87, 88 New Vision, 19, 33, 49, 52n1, 62, 190, 192 Nietzsche, Freidrich, 4, 8, 9, 24, 27, 35, 36, 62, 63, 65–67, 69, 70, 128, 194
Nihilism/nihilist, 35, 171, 199 Nike, 140 Nin, Anaïs, 45, 46, 128 NRA, 137 O O’Hara, John, 76 O’Hara, Frank, 189, 196 Old Testament, 80, 149, 157 Olson, Charles, 50 Orgone Energy Accumulator, 167 Orwell, George, 12, 22, 28, 29, 31, 32, 40–42, 44, 46, 47, 49, 72, 75, 190, 202 P Paglia, Camille, 180, 181, 182n4 Panish, Jon, 92 Papini, Giovanni, 24–32, 35, 43, 49, 190 Partisan Review, 156 Peterson, Jordan, 180, 181 Picaresque, 28, 30, 31, 33, 40, 123, 124, 190, 196 Podhoretz, Norman, 92, 101n6, 102n14 Poe, Edgar Allen, 140 Poirier, Richard, 165 Pomeroy, Cody, 164 Popper, Karl, 36 Post-modernism, post-modern, postmodernism, postmodern, 8, 134, 152, 159, 204, 205 Post-structuralism, 7 Pound, Ezra, 1–5, 8, 13, 14, 24, 26, 28–30, 40–45, 47, 48, 50, 51, 53n10, 53n11, 107, 108, 119, 131, 141n1, 166, 193, 195, 196, 200, 204, 208 The Cantos, 14
Primitivism, primitivist, primitive, 7, 20, 37, 51, 84, 85, 88, 89, 92–96, 112, 115, 136, 148, 150, 167, 176, 177, 187, 192 Proust, Marcel, 62, 99 Punk rock, 6, 210 R Rabelais, François, 20, 33, 204 Radford, Jean, 172, 173 Rahv, Philip, 28, 29 Rank, Otto, 111 Reich, Wilhelm, 33, 62, 167, 179, 182n3 Rexroth, Kenneth, 30, 168 Rimbaud, Arthur, 19, 23, 24, 33, 39, 49, 61, 62, 65–67, 69, 70, 75, 76, 79, 80, 107, 118, 123, 193, 196 Romanticism, 1–15, 43, 44, 63, 108, 110, 140, 193, 195 Rosset, Barney, 21 Roszak, Theodore, 2, 5, 6, 11, 12, 72, 129, 197–201 Roth, Philip, 159 S Salinger, J.D., 156 Sartre, Jean-Paul, 8–11, 98, 148, 155, 156, 159–162, 191, 202, 203, 205 Schopenhauer, Arthur, 3, 4, 7–12, 27, 128 Schumacher, Michael, 33, 107, 108, 111, 136, 138, 141n1, 181n1 Scorsese, Martin, 60 A Season in Hell (Un Saison en Enfer), 23, 75 Sex Pistols, The, 140
Shapiro, Karl, 208 Shaw, George Bernard, 47 Shelley, Percy Bisshe, 19, 39, 197 Shepherd, Richard, 98 Six Gallery Poetry reading, 97 Skerl, Jennie, 129, 141 Smith, Patti, 60, 134 Solomon, Carl, 84 Spanish Civil War, 31 Spender, Stephen, 22 Spengler, Oswald, 13, 20, 21, 33, 35–40, 50, 51, 53n8, 63, 64, 67, 68, 72, 73, 75–77, 82–85, 87–90, 94, 98, 100, 114–116, 148, 156, 163, 164, 179, 191–194, 196, 205 Strachey, Lytton, 40 Surette, Leon, 11 Swift, Jonathan, 20, 33, 110, 111, 117, 139, 204 Symbolist poetry, 62 T Tabbi, Joseph, 163, 165 Taoism/taoist, 19, 21 Technocracy, 11 Thompson, Hunter S., 5 Thoreau, Henry David, 10, 19, 22, 24, 49, 61, 75, 87, 140, 192, 201, 205 Times Square, 37, 61, 85, 86, 118 Tolstoy, Leo, 41, 125 Town Bloody Hall, 171, 180 Transcendentalism, 13, 21, 43, 87, 98, 109 Trilling, Lionel, 75, 76, 80, 92 Trocchi, Alexander, 109, 142n2 Trump, Donald, 180 Tytell, John, 13, 20, 34, 37, 63, 64, 98
U Ulysses, 29, 41, 44, 47, 62 V Van Gogh, Vincent, 39, 60 Verlaine, Paul, 62, 69 Vidal, Gore, 172 Vietnam War, 60, 113, 182n5, 199 Village Voice, The, 149 Voltaire, 30 Vorticism, 43 W Wagner, Richard, 67 Warhol, Andy, 108 Weber, Max, 36, 53n8 Weinreich, Regina, 77, 140 Whitman, Walt, 2, 4, 10, 12, 13, 19, 22–24, 29, 39, 40, 42, 44, 47, 49, 50, 61, 63, 64, 72–75, 77–82, 86–89, 91, 93, 95, 98, 99, 102n12, 102n13, 108, 118, 140, 190–193, 202, 204, 205
Widmer, Kingsley, 141 Wilde, Oscar, 67, 119 Williams, William Carlos, 107 Wilson, Edmund, 28–30 Wolfe, Thomas, 61, 68, 74, 76, 107, 154, 192 Wolfe, Tom, 5, 6, 189 Women’s Liberation, 171, 172, 174 Wordsworth, William, 4, 163 World War One (The First World War), 1, 4, 24, 27, 28, 35, 40, 43, 68, 69, 88 World War Two (The Second World War), 7, 8, 10, 29, 48, 51, 61, 69, 100, 148, 151, 153, 159, 190, 200, 205, 206 Y Yeats, William Butler, 33, 39, 49, 52n1, 65, 69, 101n6, 166 Z Zen Buddhism, 99, 160