The Philosophy of the Beats

The Philosophy of the Beats

Edited by Sharin N. Elkholy
Copyright Date: 2012
Pages: 300
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    The Philosophy of the Beats
    Book Description:

    The phrase "beat generation" -- introduced by Jack Kerouac in 1948 -- characterized the underground, nonconformist youths who gathered in New York City at that time. Together, these writers, artists, and activists created an inimitably American cultural phenomenon that would have a global influence. In their constant search for meaning, the Beats struggled with anxiety, alienation, and their role as the pioneers of the cultural revolution of the 1960s.

    The Philosophy of the Beats explores the enduring literary, cultural, and philosophical contributions of the Beats in a variety of contexts. Editor Sharin N. Elkholy has gathered leading scholars in Beat studies and philosophy to analyze the cultural, literary, and biographical aspects of the movement, including the drug experience in the works of Kerouac and Allen Ginsberg, feminism and the Beat heroine in Diane Di Prima's writings, Gary Snyder's environmental ethics, and the issue of self in Bob Kaufman's poetry. The Philosophy of the Beats provides a thorough and compelling analysis of the philosophical underpinnings that defined the beat generation and their unique place in modern American culture.

    eISBN: 978-0-8131-3582-3
    Subjects: Philosophy

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-iv)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. v-vi)
  3. Introduction
    (pp. 1-6)
    Sharin N. Elkholy

    The great historian of ideas Arthur O. Lovejoy once wrote: “The word ‘romantic’ has come to mean so many things that, by itself, it means nothing. It has ceased to perform the function of a verbal sign.”¹ One could say the same about the word “Beat.” “Beat” encompasses such an array of meanings and contexts—cultural, social, literary, political, and philosophical—that an exact definition of the term is hard to establish. Still, we might follow Lovejoy’s trajectory. He notes that the term “Romantic” is best defined by the set of German thinkers, poets, and authors who first used it...

    • The Philosophy and Non-Philosophy of Potato Salad
      (pp. 9-18)
      F. Scott Scribner

      Howl. Howl for Carl Solomon, “who threw potato salad at CCNY lecturers on Dadaism.”¹ Ginsberg said it well. Well, yes. The philosopher and his shadow. As Nietzsche knew, philosophy requires a double. The Beats, too. If Ginsberg, Kerouac, and Burroughs achieved literary renown for their raw expression of lived experience, it was by means of a kind of literary stuntdouble, a vicarious codependence that would make their art possible at all. You see, Burroughs found his authentic junkie in Herbert Huncke, Kerouac had his vagabonding Neal Cassady, and Ginsberg reached out to his muse of insanity in the figure of...

    • Laugh of the Revolutionary: Diane di Prima, French Feminist Philosophy, and the Contemporary Cult of the Beat Heroine
      (pp. 19-32)
      Roseanne Giannini Quinn

      The Beat literary movement can safely be described as masculinist. To wit, Jack Kerouac infamously describes female writers of his day as “girls” who “say nothing and wear black.”¹ It is no wonder then that, similar to the ways in which they were often dismissed by the men in the movement, the female Beats have gone decades without getting their scholarly due. In particular, Diane di Prima, writer of more than thirty books, whose work has been translated into at least thirteen languages, has not yet had a book of literary criticism devoted to her substantial contribution to American letters...

    • Beat U-topos or Taking Utopia on the Road: The Case of Jack Kerouac
      (pp. 33-46)
      Christopher Adamo

      As Russell Jacoby details inPicture Imperfect,utopian thought has come under suspicion in the twentieth century. The political actualization of Marxism in the form of Soviet communism gave many twentieth-century thinkers pause, horrified and puzzled that a state apparently or allegedly inspired by Marx’s vision of a society without economic class or political coercion could so quickly show itself to be ruthlessly totalitarian and dictatorial. Philosophers as diverse Hannah Arendt, Isaiah Berlin, and Karl Popper, reflecting upon the Marxist historical and philosophical impulses of the nineteenth century, concluded that utopian thinking akin to that of Marx’s work—but certainly...

    • Being-at-Home: Gary Snyder and the Poetics of Place
      (pp. 47-62)
      Josh Michael Hayes

      What does it mean to be at home in a place? Is the home a psychic space we project upon the places we inhabit, or does it possess a specific geographical location that defines our identity as human beings? Moreover, can we ever really be at home? These are all questions that might be uniquely attributed to the poetry and prose of Gary Snyder as a participant in the Beat Generation. While Snyder has acknowledged that he does not easily identify with the popular cultural history of this generation, I hope to provide a series of preliminary gestures that might...

    • From Self-Alienation to Posthumanism: The Transmigration of the Burroughsian Subject
      (pp. 65-78)
      Micheal Sean Bolton

      The connections between William S. Burroughs’s narrative and stylistic innovations and postmodern theory have been well established in Burroughs criticism. Many critics recognize that his disintegrations of conventional prose effectively reflect postmodernism’s concern with societal as well as artistic fragmentation. Less frequently considered, though, are the implications of Burroughs’s reconception of the subject for understanding the plight of subjectivity in postmodernity. Postmodernism views subjects as fractured beyond reintegration, and representations of postmodern subjects in literature are often marked by psychosis, disconnectedness, and self-alienation. The subjects in Burroughs’s novels seem to particularly exemplify this condition of self-alienation. “Burroughs’s ultimate vision of...

    • “I am not an I”: Performative (Self) Identity in the Poetry of Bob Kaufman
      (pp. 79-96)
      Tom Pynn

      When Simone de Beauvoir (1908–1986) came to the United States in the late 1940s and published her essay “An Existentialist Looks at Americans” in theNew York Times Magazine(Beauvoir 1947), she came to many of the same conclusions that Beat writers and their consociates did about American existence. Beauvoir tasted “a flavor of death” in America. While there is an “American dynamism” that asserts “itself against the inertia of the given by dominating things, by invading them, by incorporating their structures into the world of man,” she explained, most Americans are essentially “waiting for death” (13). Beauvoir characterized...

    • Tongues Untied: Beat Ethnicities, Beat Multiculture
      (pp. 97-114)
      A. Robert Lee

      Beat, and Beat authorship, under the auspices of multiethnicity, multicultural philosophy? The notion might at first seem a template too far, special pleading. For as a postwar American literary heritage, the terms of reference have been largely of other kinds—a circuit of poetry, fiction, life-writing, performance, and visual creativity at once countercultural, given over to the creative spirit freed and in opposition to the mainstream. This was art-and-life dissent to be seen as the very challenge to 1940s–1950s conformism at home and Cold War and U.S.–Soviet atom-bomb stasis abroad. Here was consensual Middle America defied if not...

    • Joanne Kyger “Descartes and the Splendor Of”: Bridging Dualisms through Collaboration and Experimentation
      (pp. 115-130)
      Jane Falk

      In the late 1990s, two seminal anthologies, Brenda Knight’sWomen of the Beat Generationand Richard Peabody’sA Different Beat,focused on women writers of the Beat Generation who had not previously been considered part of the male-dominated Beat canon. The West Coast poet Joanne Kyger was one of these. Coming to San Francisco from Santa Barbara in the spring of 1957, Kyger was first drawn to the San Francisco Renaissance poets Robert Duncan and Jack Spicer, joining their circle. However, through her acquaintance with and subsequent marriage to Gary Snyder, and her friendships with Philip Whalen and Lew Welch,...

    • John Clellon Holmes and Existentialism
      (pp. 133-146)
      Ann Charters

      When Holmes wrote this statement he was remembering back to the Christmas of 1947, when he was a twenty-one-year-old unpublished, aspiring novelist living in Manhattan at Fifty-Sixth Street and Lexington Avenue, soon to meet another young aspiring novelist, Jack Kerouac. In the autumn of 1948, shortly after they had met and become friends, they were deep into a long conversation in Holmes’s apartment when John—always temperamentally a writer in search of order and coherence—asked Jack to come up with a term describing the “questing” quality of their group in the fervent years after the end of World War...

    • Wholly Communion: Poetry, Philosophy, and Spontaneous Bop Cinema
      (pp. 147-162)
      David Sterritt

      One rarely turns to the movies for insights into Beat poetics. Apart from avant-garde shorts by Bruce Conner, Ron Rice, Robert Frank, and Alfred Leslie, and a few others, not many films offer more than dim reflections of the Beat sensibility.¹ Given this scarcity, it’s unfortunate that Peter Whitehead’s uniqueWholly Communionhas been almost entirely overlooked since its completion in 1965. Filmed at a massively attended poetry event that included readings by Allen Ginsberg, Gregory Corso, and Lawrence Ferlinghetti, among others, the movie stands with the most vigorous expressions of Beat consciousness in any medium. In this essay, I...

    • High Off the Page: Representing the Drug Experience in the Work of Jack Kerouac and Allen Ginsberg
      (pp. 163-178)
      Erik Mortenson

      Just what is the body’s knowledge? A scar traces the history of a laceration; a pain in the back indicates bad posture; a runny nose predicts a cold. The body is ours to read like a text, provided something occurs. Otherwise, it becomes all too often a mere given, an instrument used to grasp, to move, to live. Only through the prism of a rent do we witness the body itself in all its fullness and possibility. For those of us who desire such a glimpse, alteration becomes a necessity. But how should we attempt such a mutation without damaging...

    • Genius All the Time: The Beats, Spontaneous Presence, and Primordial Ground
      (pp. 179-194)
      Marc Olmsted

      The Beat literary movement cannot be understood in the fullest sense without some examination of Buddhism, particularly in the forms that were available to these mystinauts: explorers of mind and beyond mind to the nature of awareness itself. The poet Anne Waldman, commenting on what constitutes “Beat,” perceives “an as-yet unacknowledged body of uniquely articulated and salutary ‘dharma poetics’—that derives from Buddhist psychology and philosophy” (Waldman 2009, 164–65). Following Waldman’s thinking, one can conclude that the Beat literary movement involved a sacred worldview linked with the aspiration to actualize compassionate and empathetic conduct, an intuitive Tantric Buddhism. While...

    • Spontaneity, Immediacy, and Difference: Philosophy, Being in Time, and Creativity in the Aesthetics of Jack Kerouac, Charles Olson, and John Cage
      (pp. 195-210)
      David Need

      At the outset ofThe Four Quartets(1936) quoted above, T. S. Eliot takes up the possibility that the problem of historical conditioning (the limits placed on human freedom/being by history) might be resolved by drawing a contrast between a processual, which is a historical mode of being limned as “time present and time past,” and a unitive present. This is thought of as “the still point of the turning world” without which “there would be no dance” even though “there is only the dance.”¹ Although this moment precedes postwar thematization of immediacy under the tropes of spontaneity and the...

    • Two Ways of Enduring the Flames: The Existential Dialectics of Love in Kierkegaard and Bukowski
      (pp. 213-226)
      Andreas Seland

      To attempt to place Kierkegaard’s and Bukowski’s work into the same context may on the face of it seem like an odd, maybe even forced maneuver, something along the lines of a deconstructive tactic. The dialectical complexities of a nineteenth-century dandy-martyr and Romantic, and the crystalline, modern prose of a run-down Los Angeles drunk. That seems like a tough fit. But if one takes time to reflect and look at it from a bird’s-eye view, it becomes apparent that they actually share a lot of principal motifs: Both emphasize the solitary individual; both turn their back upon the values and...

    • Anarchism and the Beats
      (pp. 227-242)
      Ed D’Angelo

      The first problem that we seem to be confronted with when we try to compare the philosophy of the beats to the philosophy of anarchists is that the beats were poets, not philosophers, and do not seem to have had a “philosophy.” But things are not as they seem.

      Following Oswald Spengler’s idea of a second religiosity that arises out of the primitive elements (the “fellaheen”) of a declining civilization, the beats understood themselves to be religious prophets of a new form of liberated consciousness. Poetry was both a means to achieve this new form of consciousness and a means...

    • Between Social Ecology and Deep Ecology: Gary Snyder’s Ecological Philosophy
      (pp. 243-266)
      Paul Messersmith-Glavin

      Gary Snyder is not a philosopher, nor does he “consider himself particularly a ‘Beat.’”¹ Snyder is a poet, an essayist, an outdoorsman, and a practitioner of Buddhism. But despite his reluctance to identify with the Beat title, he has been an undeniable influence on the Beat generation and its writers. He was fictionalized as the character Japhy Ryder in Jack Kerouac’sThe Dharma Bums,² and helped initiate the San Francisco Renaissance by organizing poetry readings with his close friend Allen Ginsberg, among others, thus ushering in the Beats as a recognized social force. Although not a philosopher in the traditional...

    • William Burroughs as Philosopher: From Beat Morality to Third Worldism to Continental Theory
      (pp. 267-280)
      Jones Irwin

      The literary oeuvre of William Burroughs occupies an enigmatic position both in relation to the aesthetic movements of his time and the wider philosophical thematics of this period. In this essay, I want to focus especially on the latter problematic—the question of “Burroughs as philosopher.” Even on a superficial inspection, it is clear that Burroughs’s work is significantly concerned with philosophical issues such as the relationship between the social and the individual, the experience of mortality, the nature of artistic integrity, and the distinction between morality and immorality. In relation to the question of morality, for example, Burroughs certainly...

  8. List of Contributors
    (pp. 281-286)
  9. Index
    (pp. 287-292)
  10. Back Matter
    (pp. 293-294)