On the Beat

For all the focus on China and writing wuxia I do, I thought it’d be a good idea to talk a little about my own non-Asian influences, because like America itself, I am nothing if I am not an amalgam of cultures. Jack Kerouac’s birthday is today, and he and the Beats rank quite highly in my list of influences.

In 1956, Allen Ginsberg wrote “Howl,” which is often thought of as the work which opened the Beat movement. The City of San Francisco attempted to sue Ginsberg on the grounds that the poem was obscene (it made mention of things such as drug use and homosexuality), and the trial garnered national attention. Ginsberg won, and even today, “Howl” is heralded among the greatest works of American poetry. A year later, Kerouac got “On the Road” published, and that sort of changed everything. The book lacks a central plot, instead wandering around as the theme and title imply. Like “Howl,” the “story” involves drug use, alternative religion, & alternative sexualities. In his winding narrative, Kerouac goes on to explore these things, as well as Jazz, being poor, and the centerpiece of the story – his complex friendship with the amazing but also imperfect Neal Cassady (called Dean Moriarty in the book).

In general, Kerouac is like digging through a dung pile you know contains diamonds. I’m critical of his work because I love it, and the most personally meaningful lesson to come out of the Beat Generation is the idea that a thing doesn’t have to be perfect in order to be great or worthy of experiencing. In fact, the Beats tended to celebrate the raw, imperfect, dirty things. “Composing wild, undisciplined, pure, coming in from under, crazier the better,” Kerouac wrote. I argue that a story must first live & breathe in the author before it can ever come close to the page, and though that internal story rarely matches what makes it to the page (because language isn’t always the best translator), we still read and write great literature. This could be said of any art medium, really.

I think the second big point for me is the idea of exploration – not only in a “getting out and experiencing / gathering empirical data” way, but in trying new things and going new places. The Beats largely disdained tradition and stagnation. William Carlos Williams, one of America’s most highly-regarded poets, advised Ginsberg to stray from classical ideas of poetry, and I think he hit that mark quite well. Kerouac’s rambly, plot-lacking stories strayed from tradition in a similar fashion, as did the drug-maddened and cut-up writings of Burroughs (William S., not Edgar Rice – different dudes). Their styles caused a lot of people to ask questions about art. Truman Capote (not a Beat) said of Kerouac’s style “isn’t writing at all—it’s typing.” A lot of people still agree with him, but the takeaway is that there’s more than one way to tell a story.

People of the time took in Beat literature and changed art and culture as we know it. They went out to explore music, painting, literature, the world, etc. even though what they did and made wasn’t perfect. The “hippies” are regarded by many as the immediate heirs of the Beats, but their legacy infiltrated and intermingled with so much of what we are today that it’s difficult to imagine what our art would be like today without them. And while we can look to the likes of Bob Dylan, the Beatles, Hunter S. Thompson, slam poetry, and the cyberpunk genre to see the influence of the Beats, I’m more interested in their  cultural and ideological influences, namely the two points I mentioned above.

  1. celebrate the flaws / mortality of a thing. If we’re gonna examine a hero as a common man, I feel like this is where that actually starts. While Superman is a popular figure who is often portrayed as invulnerable and lacking flaws, I would argue that such a description is ultimately uninteresting. Donald Maas once said that if your hero has to start the story as an invincible badass, show us one way / one thing about that them that’s human and ordinary. Let’s turn and look at Lord of the Rings, where Aragorn is sort of a Superman, and he teams-up with the Hobbits – short dudes who pretty much want to party, eat, and sleep all the time. They’re basically cats. Ok not really (yes really). We learn to love the Hobbits over the course of the story because they’re not invincible badasses who can overcome everything. Aragorn slicing his way through armies of orcs might’ve been a more action-packed story, but watching these ordinary, untrained, less than ideal short guys struggle through Cirith Ungol strikes closer to home, because that’s us in our everyday lives, trying to get out of bed, right?

    This is also, in my opinion, the foundation of what America is – a weird, crazy mishmash of people, cultures, languages, ideas, art forms, etc. We’re not some perfect, uniform people with clean-cut edges. Returning to our analysis of heroes, when “The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn” came out, Mark Twain caught a lot of flak for his portrayal of Americans as simple-minded, white trashy, and in some cases dishonest. Huck embodies all of those at different points, but in the end, he makes the right moral call, and that victory carries way more weight than it would’ve if he were some brilliant and ultra-capable ubermensch.

  2. Exploration / experimentation / breaking traditions. This has been an idea that’s been circulating around moviegoing circles for a while now – that there are a lot of remakes and reboots, but not a lot of new ideas. You can apply the same argument to all forms of art, philosophy, etc. Whether or not it’s true isn’t the point here. The point is that the Beats thrived on newness, on pushing boundaries, on doing things differently than they’d been done before, and that we’ve reaped benefits from their successes AND failures. Remember how I said Kerouac is like digging through a dung pile you know contains diamonds? Read it and you’ll see, and you’ll see why that statement aligns with this principle. Experiment, try new things, or old things in new ways. You’ll miss the mark a lot, but you might hit a few times too.

    Rolled-up in this is the fact that there are some things you can’t learn from a master. You have to get out into the world and put your hands into the soil. Cook up a new dish, drive that roads you’ve never driven down, see oceans and mountains you’ve never seen, write poetry & prose & stories that you or maybe nobody has ever written. If the end result is flawed or disappointing, look up at the first point and celebrate it anyway. Experience & experiment.

Now the real talk part. The Beats weren’t saints. They did and said some misogynistic & racist things, and I am in no way trying to cover that up, justify, or apologize for any of it. My only advice to the reader is that you 1. do your own research, and 2. examine things in the cultural / historical context. Example : when I tell you the Mongols supported freedom of religion, it doesn’t sound like that big of a deal in today’s world, but back in the 14th century, it was quite revolutionary to allow houses of worship devoted to different faiths in the same city. The bottom line is that yes, there was a dark side to the Beats, as there is with any grouping of human beings. Does that make them worthless villains? That’s up to you to decide.

I’ve also heard the Beats criticized over their love for the raw, un-edited, “un-processed” in that it shows disdain for things like refinement through practice and the intellectual component of craftsmanship. Sure, there’s merit to Kerouac’s idea of “first thought, best thought,” and how language is a mere tool through which we convey the pure, primal story within us, but none of that means you have to cast aside one tool in favor of another. Fun fact : when writing “On the Road,” Kerouac taped a bunch of paper together so he could continue typing with no interruptions. He didn’t stop to edit, just plowed on forward, but in the end, he did edit. He realized that step 1 was to stop kicking the story around in your head and get it out, and while that’s the best first step, he also realized that step 2 was to sit down and fix the parts that didn’t work. This is something I’ve been saying all along – don’t worry about how good or bad your first draft is, just get it onto the paper, BUT also don’t fool yourself into thinking your first draft is publishable.

Kerouac had 30 points of spontaneous prose, some of which are more like arcane riddles or fragments of dreams than advice. Like the rest of his writings, there are some gems in here though.

  1. Scribbled secret notebooks, and wild typewritten pages, for yr own joy
  2. Submissive to everything, open, listening
  3. Try never get drunk outside yr own house
  4. Be in love with yr life
  5. Something that you feel will find its own form
  6. Be crazy dumbsaint of the mind
  7. Blow as deep as you want to blow
  8. Write what you want bottomless from bottom of the mind
  9. The unspeakable visions of the individual
  10. No time for poetry but exactly what is
  11. Visionary tics shivering in the chest
  12. In tranced fixation dreaming upon object before you
  13. Remove literary, grammatical and syntactical inhibition
  14. Like Proust be an old teahead of time
  15. Telling the true story of the world in interior monolog
  16. The jewel center of interest is the eye within the eye
  17. Write in recollection and amazement for yourself
  18. Work from pithy middle eye out, swimming in language sea
  19. Accept loss forever
  20. Believe in the holy contour of life
  21. Struggle to sketch the flow that already exists intact in mind
  22. Dont think of words when you stop but to see picture better
  23. Keep track of every day the date emblazoned in yr morning
  24. No fear or shame in the dignity of yr experience, language & knowledge
  25. Write for the world to read and see yr exact pictures of it
  26. Bookmovie is the movie in words, the visual American form
  27. In praise of Character in the Bleak inhuman Loneliness
  28. Composing wild, undisciplined, pure, coming in from under, crazier the better
  29. You’re a Genius all the time
  30. Writer-Director of Earthly movies Sponsored & Angeled in Heaven
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About benjamininn

About myself are papers, lots of tea, computer monitors, a stapler, pens, an ancient phone, more tea, some paperclips, and a lot of air.
This entry was posted in Art, culture, Fiction, poetry, Reading, travel, Writing and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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