Who were these Beatniks, exactly, and what legacy did they leave behind? This article is an attempt to clear up Pokey’s ramblings – in a fuzzy-muddled, hallucinogenic, toad-licking kind of way. History is fraught with such movements that attack societal conformity, but why exactly do such movements feel the need to fly so far from the establishment’s coop? Before we delve into the Beat movement, let’s take a moment to explore the life of the Beat generation’s reigning eschatological poster-child, Jack Kerouac-ac-ac-ac-ac, you outta know by now.
In 1954 Jack was 29 years old, divorced, essentially unpublished, and still living with the folks. Life was indeed suffering. Reportedly, his mother mimicked this belief, often dropping hints like, “Time for work, bitch,” and “Beatniks? How about the F’n Couch Potatoes?!”
In a turn of events that some deem fortuitous, this soiree into Professional-Couch-Potatodom (PCP) sparked Kerouac’s fascination with Buddhism (coincidentally, so did phencyclidine). Apparently, requiring a much-needed sojourn from his more domestic sojourn, at 31 Kerouac committed to the ascetic life for 40 days. During this time, he grew his own food, meditated frequently and vowed “no alcohol and no sex.” By day three, however, this was modified to “no light beer and no fat chicks.”
How did the unusual marriage between Beatism and Buddhism fare, you ask? Well, let’s see … out of Buddha’s eight-fold path, six were pitched, one was deemed voluntary, and the last became mostly optional. Perhaps the largest affront to Buddhism came when the “four noble truths” were reduced to the “three groovy suggestions.” Oh, and Jack’s contribution to Buddhist terms didn’t help matters: Dharma = truth law, Bodhisattvas = beings of great wisdom, and Jack’s contribution, Trainbumbeatattvas = poets who bitch-slap hobos.
This random hobo abuse theme reappears again and again in Kerouac’s work. A lost chorus from Mexico City Blues captures the profound irreconcilable differences between Beatnik and Buddhist philosophies:
- Bitch-slapp’n dat hobo – oh shit! Harm none!
- Find nirvana at the next stop, upon tomorrow’s fiery tip
- But for today, what the heck, just keep bitch-slapp’n dat hobo
You know, I really set out to do an informative article. Whereas some liberties may have been taken with the details of Kerouac’s life and works, I believe I have captured the essence. The question remains, what were these free-spirited wander-lusters driving at? How did these ragtag hipsters impact our culture so profoundly for decades to come? Certainly parts of On the Road tugged at my very psyche, urging me in the mid-nineties to consider getting into a black Mazda Protégé for three months with a guy known only as Shag – a protégé in his own right – to traverse this groovy jumping wasteland (a misadventure worthy of at least a footnote in the annals of stupid and superfluous road trips: sorry Flagstaff). Still other parts of Kerouac’s epic adventure made me want to draw the shades and curl up under the covers with a good book (even Bill Clinton’s autobiography: shudder).
Ginsberg tells us these “desolation angels” were trying to “resurrect a lost art or a lost knowledge or a lost consciousness,” and to this ends some credit is clearly due. The Beats seemed to believe that through absolute hedonism, and an almost Pythonian knees-bent-running-about-advancing-behavior, they could reach some higher ineffable realm – piercing that Fine Linen, as it were. The Beats did awaken something inside of us, something dark, naked and howling – something that not only captured the collective zeitgeist but also plied it with alcohol and did inappropriate things to it.
In the end, however, this Beat Generation got lost along “the Road” somewhere between nihilism and nirvana (or in our case, Nebraska: same thing). They exited stage left of this noble odyssey, and were perhaps trapped, at least metaphorically, in the timeless cave of that one-eyed giant Cyclops.
Where did the Beats blow it? How could drinking and screwing to bluesy jazz rifts ever be wrong?
If that’s wrong, I don’t want to be right
My turn on the zeitgeist, bitch.
Folks like Ken Wilber might suggest that the Beatniks fell victim to something called the pre/trans fallacy. Whaaa? (Just be careful when you Google this, that’s all I’m saying.)
Basically, the pre/trans fallacy involves mistaking regressive or magical thinking with transpersonal, post-rational stages of development. Whaaa? Essentially, too much of the Beat movement stressed impulsive obsessions at the exclusion of all else. This, incidentally, translates to three separate child support checks for three different women (yes, by the way, the checks are in the mail).
How should we integrate the lessons of the Beat Generation? For starters, we drink only one adult beverage, not eighteen, we hit on only one slinky chicky-wik, not 18, and let’s make sure when the police arrive that they are all 18. Otherwise, at some point, we need to put on our clothes, shake Chris Hanson’s hand, and go home to pay the mortgage…if they let us leave at all. And, if we long to head out On the Road again, we think twice before quitting our jobs and entering black Mazda Protégés with dubious characters known only as Shag (which wasn’t all that bad, save some dicey moments in Utah). Let’s consider creating without destroying, tuning in without dropping out, and, whereas we should not be slaves to our social structures, nor should we outright torch them amidst these youthful flits through ego-driven waters. Like that time in Utah…sorry Utah.