Tuesday, April 6, 2010

Not Your Father's Beatitude

It's comforting to know that not everyone looked at the 1950's and said, "What a great decade!"  We have Congress, lead by Senator Joseph McCarthy, seeing Commies behind every rock and protecting American freedom by forcing people to sign "loyalty oaths."  We have society clamping down again, after it loosened up a bit to accomodate, well, war.  We have African-Americans agitating for the same freedoms at home that they enjoyed in the rest of the world (see "war" above).  We have Elvis.

In short, a lot of the violence and social upheaval that boiled over in the 1960's happened because it was all bottled up in the pressure-cooker of the 1950's.  I'm not going to repeat John Clellon Holmes here; I'm going to recommend that you read him for yourselves, by clicking here for the article he published in the New York Times in 1952, characterizing his tribe. 

Some of that tribe included Allen Ginsberg, (in the hat at right), and Jack Kerouac, (the man on Ginsberg's right).  The other members you may know are Gary Snyder, the poet, and Lawrence Ferlinghetti, owner of the City Lights bookstore in San Francisco, where a lot of poetry and literary rebellion happened.

The interesting thing about the Beats is that they were non-conformists who non-conformed in the same ways.  Most of them were gay, or bisexual, they all drank to -- here comes an understatement -- excess, recreational pharmaceuticals were their chosen path to spiritual enlightenment, and they disavowed materialism, stealing only when they absolutely had to.

And they wrote.  Dear whiz, how they wrote.  Poetry, essays, novels -- it all flowed from them like a stream, and like a stream, there's quite a bit floating around in there that you wouldn't want to encounter on a full stomach.  They also captured, in all of its unresolved anguish, the disillusionment of their generation.  They didn't package it for mass consumption; they didn't WANT mass consumption.  They wanted to be left alone to tell the truth as they saw it.  This was not a popular activity in mid-century America.

Thing is, they were right about so much of it.  Mainstream America wallowed in materialism, unthinking hawkishness, shallow intellectual life, and bland, watered-down spiritualilty. (Even as I write this, part of me thinks, "And this has changed, how?")

The telling of their own inconvenient truth produced no small measure of persecution. They were hauled into court on obscenity charges.  They had many bad trips, and I don't mean to Atlantic City.  They took involuntary vacations in mental institutions.  They occasionally died young.  Their influence, though, spread throughout a generation, and echoes down to our own.  Not so many people have read Allen Ginsberg's poem "Howl," but a LOT of people have listened to Bob Dylan, The Grateful Dead, U2, Rage Against the Machine,  and dozens of other musicians who trace their roots to the Beats.

Like lots of people who live fast and die young, the Beats inspired hero-worship and beatification (that means elevation to sainthood).  The truth is a lot more complicated, because like most of us, the good and bad in them are intertwined.  Some of those who made it out, Ginsberg among them, felt later that they'd done unintentional harm to thousands of people in the 1960's who bought into the philosophical hedonism and didn't realize the addictions, poverty, and disenfranchisement they were also buying.


  1. I guess these people were tired of being held down to the repressive nature of the decades before. I appreciate the attitude of "question everything," but I don't see the need to do drugs to achieve higher thinking. If anything drugs just slow down your brain and make your mind a big stupid sponge. Not that I'm an anti-drug campaign, but that sort of thinking I never understood.

  2. I dont get why people think that they need drugs to obtain a higher power of self being. Drugs will just mess up your ability to think and perform task and messes up youyr brain in the long term use of them. People who use drugs get addicted very easily. I dont see why people would even want to use drugs. I will never know what they are thinking when they begin to use them.

  3. I've done drugs, and I like them!....but I think expanding your mind a few times is very different than making it your life's purpose to erradicate ever brain cell life gave you.
    THe beat movement was nessacary to exposing the plastic indrenched lulling that our nation was mainlining into its veins.
    I adore the AMC show Mad Men. It takes an interesting look at society in the late fifties to early sixties. People were afraid to be different. People were obsessed with the Jones, communism, and one word Benjamin: PLASTICS. Adults remembered the great depression and WWII. And now there is a bomb out there that can KILL EVERYTHING. Television is an opium, but their fear was what they were choosing to medicate. Paranioa made this nation do some very unamerican things back then with the McCarthy "witch-hunts", and look out America because we're doing it again with the disease we happily call Homeland Security. And that's just a tip of the melting icebergs. Those who don't know their history are doomed to repeat it. Thank god for our freedom of speech, because maybe we don't need stream of conciousness, drug induced beat literature, but we need our own form of a wake call. Look up from your I Phones and think about the person next to you, Think about if your nation is doing whats good for its people, think about putting your Fox News induced fear on the shelf and having some regard for a fellow human being!!!!!!!!Wow I think my bleed liberal heart just lost too much blood, I feel wooosy;)

  4. I think drugs were a way for people to escape the world they were living in at the time and thats still true today. Im not saying its a good thing to get so high you become retarded but it definately does expand how you think and perceive the world. Think about every musician you can most of them have have or still use drugs. It just shifted during the time period from alcohol to other things.

  5. I think that the Beat Generation opened a new door to writing and how the world is viewed. Yes they used drugs and hallucinogens to expand their minds to write better. And Yes, it did eventually catch up with them causing health problems. But in their time they didnt know how it affected them or that is was as harmful as it really is. I mean seriously, when my parents were in high school they were allowed to smoke! Back then they didnt know how bad it was for you and thus were allowed to do it. Now days its against the rules to use any sort of tobacco product in a public school. (College on the other hand is different)
    My point is, if the writers of the Beat Generation never experimented with drugs or thought outside the box then it would never have influenced people. The movement would have eventually happened anyways, whether then or later on. They were singled out and frowned upon by some but they also inspired others to think outside the box and not be afraid to write what they wanted.

  6. I'm not trying to be an asshole, but also reading a book helps expand your mind.

  7. im actually incaptured by the way the beats viewed the world. it very much as made me realize how people think today, and ive noticed that not much has changed. it could just be the area we live in, but i would say that it is pretty much the same anywhere. now a days people just use drugs as a way to escape the world, not putting drugs up but atleast they were using it as enlightment and to gain some sort of spritual grasp. Kids today do not know about the issues, and as a matter of fact i dont know as much about what is going on as i wish i did, but even if i did then who would i discuss it with because most just dont care that much anymore.

  8. By Whitney Cooper
    I don't think it was necessary for the so called beat generation to use drugs to be creative. I have used drugs before and it didn't make me very creative at all. It might for some. In the 50's, and so on drugs were used to open up and be creative. Before the beat generation, I thought that writers were very creative.

  9. I'm a very biased person, I undertand where everyone's coming from with the usuage of drugs. I personally never want to use drugs because I like who I am and I don't want something so little like that to change me the way I am. However, I don't care what others do. If they do drugs, then that's their decision and if they believe its a relaxation/stress reliever, again, then that's their decision. Everyone only lives once, and everyone has the oppurtunity to live their life that God gave them the way they want to. I just hope everyone makes the right decision.

    But honestly, I think even if individuals don't have their own creativity, they should just accept them the way they are in their own terms. And not use drugs or other things to "help" them be creative.

  10. You're not being an asshole at all, just closing yourself off to experiences. Remember you only get one chance to live. Enjoy some pretty colors;)

  11. @CIG
    LOL! I've experienced many different drugs and pills...and have seen some very pretty colors. I guess I just love sober life a lot more. See, I can actually remember the pretty colors and experiences. Also, you don't have to be so paranoid about being caught.

  12. I don't think taking drugs is the answer to get a high. This whole movement just seems like an excuse to take drugs and drink. All of the things in life that people want to be comfortable are hard to achieve and this movement is an excuse to basically just give up.

  13. To erin, I think we misheard one another. I have used drugs in a manner that has not affected my daily activities......I have had fun, and enjoyed my experiences..had no intention of discrediting you..please don't be offended...just want people to think beyond what they are told...clearly you don't need to be told that...your life is yours, and mine is mine...we just have lived two different sides of a coin...and remember i never said that drugs should be used to destroy oneself..its all in time and place...please don't be offended,

  14. @CIG
    Man, I wish we would have this discussion face-to-face. I am in no way offended. See, while the internet is wonderful for many things, it's not so wonderful for having discussions :) Sorry if it came out in some other way, because I'm not offended...I see how you could think this though.
    I was agreeing with you, in that you can actually open your eyes to some things. But while I was doped up I didn't see too many wonderful things, I saw shady people that I really don't need to be around anymore. Now I do once and awhile enjoy to smoke with a close friend, but it's more just to relax, but I can do that with a beer too, ya know? All I really remember about being on drugs (which I dabbled in for 6 years) was being very paranoid towards the end. I noticed that the paranoia overwhelmed my brain from anything creative. But, that is just my experience, and I have absolutely no problem with people who just want to get high, but that's just not really my scene anymore.