Published on September 24th, 2016 | by Lucie Pierron0
The Beat Generation
America after all it is you and I who are perfect not the next world.
Your machinery is too much for me.
You made me want to be a saint.
There must be some other way to settle this argument.
Burroughs is in Tangiers I don’t think he’ll come back it’s sinister.
Are you being sinister or is this some form of practical joke?
I’m trying to come to the point.
I refuse to give up my obsession.
America stop pushing I know what I’m doing.
America the plum blossoms are falling.
Allen Ginsberg, America.
Allen Ginsberg, poet and photographer, leading figure of the movement named ‘Beat Generation’, invites us to enter right at the heart of this movement which was born in the 1950s and will scandalize a puritan America, post Second World War. This movement that brings together intellectuals and artists from the four corners of America, whose purpose is to denounce racism, homophobia and to assert real sexual freedom, marks a sharp break that initiates the Cultural Revolution of the 1960s.
But how to understand the Beat Generation? First of all, where did this name come from? Several explanations are possible.
The first comes from the word “beat” itself, which would refer to a man at his most bared: a man crushed, beaten by life and who would be the slave of this domination, on a daily basis.
The second, more cheerful, would directly refer to jazz and the rhythm (beat) played by jazzmen. The influence of jazz indeed played a role in the development of this movement as evidenced by the influence of Charlie Parker on Kerouac.
The third explanation comes directly from one of the largest participants in the Beat Generation: Jack Kerouac. Known mainly for his novel “On the road”, Kerouac claims the term as his own by creating the expression of “Beatitude Generation” from scratch. Through this denomination, Kerouac envisions a blessed generation, detached from the traditional mold, ready to push the limits of the world by exploring it fully.
But if the discovery of the unknown is geographic, it is also cerebral. The Beatniks (1) practice the use of hard drugs that push the limits of their mind and take them to an unknown afterlife.
The issue of hard drugs is far from being anecdotal in the formation of the Beat Generation. It started this way.
J. Kerouac, A. Ginsberg, and W. Burroughs meet at Columbia University in 1943. Burroughs, true mentor of the group because of his age (he is 30 years old whereas the others are only 20), introduces them to the consumption of hard drugs and opens them to the world that surrounds them. These neophytes will then acquire a taste for adventure, which will never leave them.
But to reduce the Beat Generation to a certain vision of the world and the consumption of illicit substances would taint this movement, which resulted in the outbreak of one of the richest literatures of 1950s America.
These writings are significant for America at the time, just bruised by the Second World War. It is McCarthyism which settles within the context of the Cold War. These young writers will distinguish themselves by individually using words and language in a unique way. Indeed Jack Kerouac, known to type very fast on his typewriter, will write the manuscript of “On the road” in one sitting. To do so he uses a special paper that allows him to not change it. As can be seen at the Centre Pompidou exhibit, the original manuscript of On the road is 36 meters long, and is the result of a wild night of writing. It is not this manuscript that was published by the publishers though. A modified version, less confusing, would be used for the edition. Indeed the use of drugs and alcohol during this first phase of writing had made certain passages of Kerouac’s text ineligible.
This 36 meters long legacy is irrefutable proof of the influence of Surrealism on the writing of Kerouac: automatic writing is here applied to its paroxysm.
In a completely different vein, W. Burroughs surrounded by J. Kerouac and Bryon Gysin work the American language with tape recorders. They thus create texts, which are summaries of various original texts to achieve a unique montage which would aim to reveal what is hidden in the text’s body. This technique is called the cut up. The collaboration between these two major writers led to very rich works, as evidenced by their novel “And the hippos were boiled in their tank” written in 1945. As Allen Ginsberg notes in an interview presented in the exhibit, this collaboration is also the result of the mutual admiration between Kerouac and Burroughs.
The Beat Generation would therefore not be a literary movement in itself but rather the product of meetings that helped to shine a light on various literary influences.
The best example of this uncommon extravagant and fertile collaboration is the ‘Beat Hotel’ located at 9 Git le Coeur Street in the Latin Quarter in Paris. This little shack first hosted Allen Ginsberg and his companion Peter Orlovsky, then William Burroughs among other tenants. This pension is a perfect example of the artistic proliferation, which enabled the creation of “Naked Lunch” by Burroughs, his major work, as well as the most famous and intimate photos by Ginsberg, in the annals to this day.
I can only encourage you to promptly visit this exhibit, which takes place at the George Pompidou Center until October 3, 2016, and which allows to become fully aware of the importance of these artists and to not reduce this movement to the classic “On the Road” by Kerouac.
For those who would like to try reading these works, I highly recommend “On the Road”, “Naked Lunch”, “And the hippos were boiled in their tank”, as well as the poem “Howl” by Ginsberg… happy literary flight!
1. Beatnik: a young man or woman manifesting, through their deliberately neglected appearance, their erring lifestyle, and their general conception of happiness, their revolt against the so-called consumer society. (Definition from the National Center of Textual and Lexical Resources)
This article was translated in English by Sandrine Sweeney.