Beat Generation

1 Introduction:

The Beat Generation emerged in America in 1950s, which turned out to be a suffocating age. The intensively industrialized civilization brought about economic affluence but led to the mental bareness. Individuality and freedom had been deprived of mercilessly .The beat movement not only announced the spring of a new literary conception but also predicted an overall liberation of mind. And much more importance was attached to the choice of their life made in the hard times. Nearly all the members were gays, and had the experience of drug smoking. They embraced the extreme individualism, and took the morbid craze as an effective means to break through the bound of conventional moral and legal system.

They recorded the experience of themselves and revealed the truth of bottom through their works, giving a long howl of pain to the modern civilization, which deprived the human freedom. In their eyes, the arts and behaviors were closely related; the arts reflected the behaviors, while the behaviors embodied the arts.

Among the influential members were Allen Ginsberg, William Burroughs and Jack Kerouac. The term “beat generation” was introduced by Jack kerouac sometime around 1948 to describe his social circle. The major beat writings included Jack Kerouac’s On the Road, Allen Ginsberg’s Howl and William Burroughs’ Naked Lunch.

Allen Ginsberg was probably one of the best-known contemporary poets in recent history. He was born in 1926 in Newark. Many of his writings were interpreted as controversial and obscene. The reading of Howl resulted in the arrest of Lawrence Ferlinghetti, the owner of City Lights Books, on obscenity charges. The authorities objected to Ginsberg’s openness concerning his homosexuality as well as the graphic sexual language. Many of his other writings deal with subjects such as narcotics.

William Burroughs was born in1914 in St. Louis. He was well known for his openly homoerotic tendencies and his experiments with narcotic substances. Most of his writing centered on the underworld and drug sub-cultures and his film, Naked Lunch, achieved cult status.

Jack Kerouac was born in 1922 in Lowell, Massachusetts. As the author of the infamous novel, On the Road, Kerouac became a leader and a spokesman for the Beat Movement. Many critics often questioned Burrough’s literary merit, observing that much of his work was mundane rambling that encouraged and glorified a world of drugs and immorality.

2 The social background of the beat movement

The beat movement broke out in special social and political background in America. After World War II, the America began to tend to a closed society. Intensive mechanization and more application of new technology deprived of the people’s privacy and freedom, and was taken as the supreme ideology, which could completely manipulate the man and the surroundings. The abuse of nuclear weapon created new source of terror, convincing people that human would be devastated by the power of science. As the escalating of power of the Pentagon, many military bases were set up all over the world to open a way for the American supremacy policy. The traditional tolerant ideas for the differences of the ideology had degenerated into the zeal for the political uniformity. The respect for individuality had been denied, which was replaced by the suppress of the public opinion and censorship for writing works. This industrialization development guided America into the economic affluence but led to the mental lack and loss of honestness. In the stifling atmosphere, the beat movement aroused surprisingly. It initiated a new style full of freedom. The beats were taken as a group of cynics, addicted to the drug, crimes and homosexuality. They took themselves as a band of vagrants forsaken by the orthodox culture, a group of vanguards holding a new and eccentric outlook on morals, a group of anonymous writers creating only for themselves.

3 The outlook of beats on life

3.1 The root of the beats’ outlook on life

The outlook of beats on life was rooted in the radical romantic philosophy. They were in turn influenced by William Blake, Walt Whitman and Henry David Thoreau. They carried forward the Thoreau’s attitude to life –radical idealism, which was full of the skeptics about the industrial civilization and strong desire for the return to natural idyllic life. Like Whitman and Blake, they extolled all creatures and advocated the typical American style purity, simplicity, and freshness.

3.2 The rejection of the prevailing American middle class values

Then, the beats rejected the prevailing American middle class values, which aimed at the pursuit of ease and comfort. They showed strong contempt for the comfortable but very dull life style of middle class, and compared it to ” a pool of the stagnant water “which stifled the breath of individual freedom to death. They turned a blind eye to the convention and pursued the new exciting life full of the adventure and surprise, which had broken through the restriction of conventional morals. The beats drank themselves in the drug, and crimes, and took these as the bliss of life, as they thought that they lived for themselves and considered themselves as the championship for the liberty. But everything turns to the opposite when it reaches to the extreme. So the beats’ excessive violation of convention and riot against orthodoxy incurred bitter and fierce slander and censure from many critics. They were nicknamed “desperados”, a group of illicit who wantonly broke the laws to satisfy their mean desires. The beats attempted to prove their firm faith in the freedom with the unorthodox views on life. But their lifetime efforts turned out to vain, only got a little approval and compassion.

3.3 The pursuit of the individualism

The beats found the American convention of respect for individuality had been corrupted by the industrial civilization. They felt such a sense of suffocation that they had never experienced ever since as to try to seek a new field for individual development. “I saw the best minds of my generation destroyed by madness, starving hysterical naked”, Allen Ginsberg gave such a howl of pain to the industrial civilization in his Howl. They accepted the reclusive life with pleasures to withdraw from the uproar of community. The beats lived in solitude, and created amazing works in the tranquility. They found the quiet life was a good way to break away from the moral restriction and legal sanction. When they embraced the excluded values on the world, they were doomed to be sent into floating vagrant life.

It seemed that the beats were satisfied with this life. They roamed about everywhere all over the world. And the roaming life turned out to be an effective means to escape from the worldly uproar, as there were no conception of family, career and community in their mind. They solved the puzzle of the life and searched for the source of artistic creation during the ceaseless roaming experience. Besides, the beats upheld fanatically the anarchism. They abused the corrupted government, and compared it to the “cancer cell” parasized on the national regime. Burroughs considered that the federation was operated by a handful of political gangsters who plotted to set up a centralized state to intrude on the freedom and privacy of public.

4 The beats’outlook on the literature

Beside the unique outlook on life, the beats as a school of literary scholars also set up a brand new style and model for the literary creation. The beats upheld a true and typical American literature, which was free, open and fresh. They put forward a new aesthetic standard of literature to break through the constraint of convention and rejected the prevailing academic attitude to poetry. These standards could be characterized in the following terms:

(1) They based the poetry on the true experience of life and made their works the true record of realistic life.

(2) They emphasized the uglification and distort of humanity to reflect the deformed development of society.

(3) They held absolute faith in the instinct and opposed the modification and polish.

(4) The inspiration of creation originated in the free and unconstrained flow of association.

(5) Created a new and exciting rhythm to coordinate with the free association.

And these items would be explained in details as follows.

4.1 The true record of realistic life

Nobody but the beats could bring the true fragments of individual experience into the literary creation. Their works were almost the portray true to life .The beats initiated the style of confession. They persistently recorded the real feelings of their own lives in their writings. “Truth is beauty”, which was the generally acknowledged principle governing the creation of the literature. Under the guide of this principle, the beats took the realistic life as suitable subjects of works and worshipped them as totems. In 1950s Kerouac lived in Mexico and suffered from the severe disease and poverty, though he still worked hard regardless of the hard condition. And the hero of his work On the Road Dean was complete reproduction of himself. Dean led a rootless and purposeless life. He didn’t know what to do, and where to go. His conduct was driven by the changing weird ideas coming out of the mind.

The capricious temperaments of Dean was surprisingly similar to Kerouac himself. A friend of Kerouac said that talking with Kerouac was like talking with many people, because his mood was fluctuating like the turbulent waves. The beats’ works were also true exposition of their own nature. The characters in beats’ work were almost blemished by some flaws in the morals: drug-smoking, excessive drinking, homosexuality, criminal offences. As the characters of works, the beats played the same parts in their own lives. They indulged in the drug and crimes .The beats took this exposition of nature as an aesthetic standard. They held that arts and the behaviors should mutually influence. The arts reflected the behaviors, while behaviors performed the arts and supplied source materials for arts.

4.2 The beats’ emphasis on the dehumanization and the distort of humanity
The beats’ emphasis on the spiritual dehumanization was direct respond to the American self-betray and self-damage. The America was undergoing a continuous decline, while the uglification symbolized regeneration. The beats’ efforts to extend the literature theme were unprecedented. Nothing could not be listed into the scope of literary description: naked sleeper, vagrants, drug-smoker, rioting face, even the prostitutes on the street. Anything could be the object of description. The beats’ works manifested a kind of open life without the restriction of the orthodox morals. They took the corrupt life as a longstanding reality and an effective means to expose the darkness of society. They also found it the outlet to drain the mental stress for them. William Burroughs brought the drug and homosexuality scenes into the poetry in 1950s. He portrayed the agony of mental torture and used the obscene language, which was full of bitter satires. His representative work Naked Lunch displayed a nightmare-like picture full of gloomy and terrible scenes.

In Naked Lunch Burroughs transforms the body’s addictive nature into an entity called the “Human Virus” or the “evil virus.” The virus lives upon the human host, satisfying its own needs for drugs, sex, or power (the three basic addictions for Burroughs) through demonic possession, which dehumanizes the human being by making him subservient to a physical or psychological need. When addicted or possessed, the human being becomes identical with the virus and regresses to a lower form of life. Through the distort of human nature, Burroughs expressed the pain of people lived in the morbid developing society and brought the dark side of humanity to light. Allen Ginsberg’s Howl had been accused for the radical views and vulgar language when it was published. He aimed the target of attack at the mechanical civilization of America after the World War II, and cursed it as “Robot apartments! Invisible suburbs! Skeleton treasuries! Blind capitals! Demonic industries! Spectral nations! Invincible mad houses! Granite cocks! Monstrous bombs!”

The Kerouac ‘s On the Road is the true record of another abnormal life. The hero was an absolute insane, who was driven by the bizarre ideas in the mind. He took delight in his absurd behaviors and drank himself in the wild sensual stimulus. The deviation from the normal model showed that the beats had shifted from the singing of virtue to the distort of the human nature, which proved to be an effective tool for uncovering of the deformed development of society. Whitman’s conception of affinity (also the compassion for everything) played the role of mould in Ginsberg’s poem. Whitman loudly appealed to the public: everything was born equally. Anything including the pirates, the prostitutes, the slaver, the businessman could be brought into the works. This practice influenced Allen Ginsberg greatly. Ginsberg began to accept that the poetical language came from the usual language of common people. And he declared that the writers should embrace the commonplace, explore and defer to the popular and mean things.

4.3 The absolute faith in the instinct and opposing of the modification
The beats attached much importance to the instinct and held that the words were the voice of mind. Kerouac suggested that writers should regardless follow the initial impulse from the bottom, which was regarded as the aesthetics of poetry creation. This view carried forward the William Wordsworth’s philosophy of poetry creation: “All good poetry is the spontaneous overflow of powerful feeling”. This theory also came from the Surrealism´╝îwhich emphasized the casual stream of consciousness, aiming to display the real thinking process without the control of morals or the aesthetical standards. Surrealism held that the poetry is indeed a form of discovery through the illusion. The surrealist induced the spontaneous illusory feelings. Ginsberg went on with the theory of surrealism .He claimed that “These psalms are the workings of the vision haunted mind and not that reason which never changes.” He took notice of the ideas from the flashing across the mind in the dream, and took them as the preposition of realistic poetical creation. In order to recall the spontaneous feelings, the beats brought the drug smoking and the meditation of Buddhism into poetry creation. The effect of drug was marvelous. It could create mysterious illusion. Coleridge claimed that his KublaKhan was completed in the fantasy produced by the marijuana.

Ginsberg also tried to extend the scope of consciousness at risk of the damage of the drug to his body. He wrote as he took the drugs and drunk himself into the spontaneous illusion produced by the acid. Besides, they also learned a lot from the Meditation. Through the tranquil thinking, they got themselves into the wild imagination and dismissed the turmoil inference from the mind. Then the stream of thought would gush out from the bottom. The beats took the process of creation as the improvisation of Jazz. They wrote what they thought of by instinct. They pursued the unexpected ceaseless stream of consciousness, constantly using the changing images to go on the waves of consciousness, because in their eyes the cease means the death. The firm faith in the instinct made the beats unanimously oppose the modification: they held that literature should express common and pure feelings freely, instead of the obscure and complicated structure of rhetoric.

Writers should record instantly what he thought of, rather than make modification afterwards. In their eye, modification meant disguise of truth as well as the lie told before the practical experience. Allen Ginsberg held absolute faith in the instinctual impulse, so he never regarded the etiquette or used the soft euphemism. In his poem America, he cursed the American abuse of nuclear bomb, and yelled ” Go fuck yourself with your atom bomb”, which not only made many critics trembling with amazement but also caused the much agitation in the American literary arena.

4.4 The inspiration of creation from the fluent association

The beats broke the formal logic of convention verse and put the stress on the free flowing stream of consciousness. Kerouac thought that the beauty of poem originated from the free and fluent association. In this respect, Kerouac carried forward romantic philosophy of Wordsworth to its limit. He held that writers should recollect an act or feeling through the free association, and he replaced this normal flow of consciousness stream with the wild fantasy, which could achieve the goal of: letting the consciousness flow smoothly. The writers’ purpose is “struggle to sketch the flow that already exists intact in mind”, which should be violent and unconstrained from the bottom. The beats delighted in the extreme release of feelings and tried to find a kind of language, which could not block the free flow of the consciousness stream. They realized the importance of the natural language, which broke through the restriction of the conventional language. There was no logical language structure in Whitman’s mind during the process of creation. He released the waves of fantasy regardless of the pattern of verse meter.

So his verse was like the fluid melody charged with the wild ecstasy. Kerouac maintained that “no periods separating sentence-structures already arbitrarily riddled by false colons and timid usually needless commas-but the vigorous space dash separating rhetorical breathing”. So the punctuation marks should also be omitted so that the sentences could be completely in harmony with the consciousness stream. William Burroughs invented a new writing technique –shifting. He collected some fragments from the extensive reading, casual conversation, and newspaper, and then rearranged them into a whole.

This unique technique made the images in his works shift quickly from one to another, and produced an extraordinary momentum and energy, which were in step with rate of free association. For example, the scenes in the Nake Lunch changed rapidly, “In Yemen, Paris, New Orleans, Mexico City and Istanbul”; in a sentence emerged five scenes. Besides, in his works, nearly all the logical transition structure such as the link words were dismissed on purpose for the smooth flow of association. As a result, the steam of consciousness could skip from one image to another swiftly. This means was applied skillfully in the beginning of Allen Ginsberg’s Howl.

Ginsberg listed a series of sentences led by the word “who” to describe the “the best minds of my generation destroyed by madness”:

“Who bared their brains to Heaven under the El and saw Mohammedan angels staggering on tenement roofs illuminated,

Who passed through universities with radiant cool eyes hallucinating Arkansas and Blake light tragedy among the scholars of war,

Who were expelled from the academies for crazy & publishing obscene odes on the windows of the skull,

Who cowered in unshaven rooms in underwear, burning their money in wastebaskets and listening to the Terror through the wall,

Who got busted in their pubic beards returning through Laredo with a belt of marijuana for New York,

Who ate fire in paint hotels or drank turpentine in Paradise Alley, death, or purgatoried their torsos night after night”.

These successive turbulent scenes were linked closely without any transition, and caused a burst of irresistible impact, which carried the consciousness stream through without stopping.

5 Conclusion

The beats initiated a free style. They gave free rein to their literary creation and meanwhile embraced unconventional life style. They always took themselves as the sages bearing the mission of supplying more alternatives for the life and literature. The significance of beat movement was reflected on their efforts to set up more new standards of life. When the mainstream of history tends to the uniform model, the revolting outlook on life supplied new choices. These choices mean the creation, which means more new choices coming from the creation. But the beats’ efforts to create more choices came to naught. The crazy life style pursued by beats in the youth did not bring more choices. They ate their own bitter fruit when they entered their declining years.

Some were mysteriously missing and others yielded to the criticism from the public. The new conception of literary creation advanced by the beats turned out to be eliminated by the ruthless materialization in that age. Almost half a century has passed, the beats had chanted their own elegy of life and literature. As the fellows behind them, when faced with the deafening lines, the spontaneous voice of the mind which focused on the terrible experience and association, what would we think of?

In some way, we had been confronted by the choices made as beats. Now we lived in the dull world lacking in the diversity and individuality. The voice of multi-culture was drowned by the uproar of the uniform model, and the liberty of individuality was confined by the rigid dogmatism. Our age is calling the reconstruction of moral standards, the emancipating of the mind as well as enhancing of individuality. We should carry on the values advocated by the beats –liberty, openness. So we think it necessary to make clear that the attitude towards life and literature was the matter of individuality choice, not the impose from the group. In any way, individual choices mean the toleration of things which is disgusted by oneself but maybe appreciated by others.

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