Monday, August 17, 2009

Looking for the meat in the Beat Generation

Very oddly, two of the three main products of the Beat Generation aren't works of art in an absolute sense but are instead meta-commentary on ways of life that were ongoing when the stuff was written. I'm talking about "Howl" and "On the Road", with Howl being more meta than On the Road, and Naked Lunch rounding out things as the third major product. All of it brings me to the question of what was substantial in the Beat Generation's corpus that wasn't in and of itself a commentary on the Beat generation? I know it goes beyond just a subculture, but a series of works by a subculture, written about the subculture, where the subculture itself doesn't produce anything that isn't a commentary on itself, is meaningless. Which is why finding Beat works that engage the fundamental questions of art and life, without talking about themselves, are necessary to honestly get what's going on. Burroughs, Ginsberg, and Kerouac are famous, as famous as rock stars, but for what? Two of them, Ginsberg and Kerouac, are pretty much famous because they're the progenitors of the Beat matter if folks can't express just what the Beat generation was or what it stood for.

A good way out of all of this comes from Ed Sanders and Gary Snyder, both of them Beats who have contributed positive ideas about art and society and haven't just talked about themselves. Burroughs as well, but Burroughs is a special case in that he really went his own way.....and in that he consistently kept writing and publishing up until his death instead of resting on his laurels.

I think that for the post-modern generation that we are, meta on meta on meta is not getting us anywhere. We have to reconnect with something solid beneath all of it. In the process we may have to kill our idols, including the Beat triumvirate, in order to really understand where they're coming from.


Rick Dale, author of The Beat Handbook said...

Enjoyed your post. Thought you might appreciate my review of a collection of letters between Snyder and Ginsberg:

John Madziarczyk said...

Thanks for the tip!