Thursday, March 7, 2019

Beat Generation anniversaries and autobiographical reflections


These vintage photographs of City Lights Bookshop, Grace Cathedral (both in San Francisco) and the house in which Jack Kerouac died are representative of what others have called the Ebay Aesthetic—photographs haphazardly rephotographed not quite in focus against the background of the scrapbook from which they were removed for the occasion. But the occasion in this case is not Ebay but the solution to a minor mystery.

After a Facebook friends-only post requesting reminders of which 2019 anniversary it was that people had told me I should curate a show to commemorate, I have learned that the impetus in question was the upcoming fiftieth anniversary (on October 20) of the death of Jack Kerouac as a disillusioned 47-year-old curmudgeon taking care of his invalid mother in Saint Petersburg, Florida. I now realize I would rather prefer to honor the hundredth birthday (on March 24) of Lawrence Ferlinghetti, who as of this writing is anxiously hoping to be present at his own party, but either way, this is a great year for anniversaries of significant figures of the Beat Generation, of whom some are still with us and others flamed out before their fiftieth birthday.

I eventually realized that Beatness was an American version of neoromanticism ramped up to warp speed and that I probably had more in common with their precursors and near-contemporaries in England, or with Kenneth Rexroth, who was oldschool bohemian but emphatically not Beat, as he never tired of reminding us even as he celebrated the surviving Beats and brought them to UC Santa Barbara for his Poetry and Song class fifty years ago. (I vividly recall Gary Snyder discussing the transformative aural quality of Asian mantras while seated informally on the edge of a desk in a carefully de-geometricized room of standard-issue classroom furniture.)

On the other hand, Ferlinghetti has recently produced the two volumes of Americus, a highly allusive epic of our contemporary moment that is so suffused with presupposed knowledge that it probably requires extensive annotation for most readers under the age of fifty, and a good many of those over it. The Beat Generation was always a literary generation, presupposing enthusiasm for the work of extremely educated rebels who knew and subverted the standard curriculum even as they managed to be as streetwise as they were capable of managing.

Feeling frustration that I had missed out on its classic moment by virtue of having been only between five and ten years old when it was happening, I read with fascination the accounts of it in John Clellon Holmes’ Nothing More to Declare, which extracted the best lines from Kerouac and Ginsberg, the latter of whom described himself as “a great rememberer, redeeming life from darkness” and whose watchword was “Widen the area of consciousness.” I still follow the latter admonition, but went on to discover other great rememberers who have proven more lastingly compatible with my embarrassingly reticent temperament. W. G. Sebald trekking the Sussex coast and thinking about the traumas of history turned out to be more my speed, once he got round to doing such things and writing about them in his tragically truncated life.

Nevertheless, I’ve had a peculiar experience of reframing the Beat Generation, in the sense of George Lakoff’s notion of “framing” as putting ideas and events in a different surrounding context. All at once Ferlinghetti’s lifelong version of anarchist-tinged literacy seems like one valid version of Beatness, nicely complemented by Gary Snyder’s authentically Buddhist sojourns in an environmentally threatened wilderness. (The branch pursuing the barbaric-yawp side of Walt Whitman’s legacy has its own validity, but its devotees mostly proved ill-suited for surviving the long haul, as witness their variously early departures.)

I had been thinking about pursuing a series of essays on polymathic pilgrims searching for definitively final answers to life’s persistent questions (figures from Guillaume Postel to John Ruskin to Jean Toomer, fated to fail in their quests in ways ranging from tragic to pathetic, but always leaving behind lasting moments of insight attained en route)—but now I guess I have to detour through the folks who influenced my youth, without whom I probably wouldn’t have chosen to do graduate school in California to study with Mircea Eliade and thereby meet Kenneth Rexroth in the same academic year. (Joseph Campbell and Owen Barfield were lecturing regularly up the coast in Santa Cruz and San Francisco, so the theme of Dreams of a Final Theory was definitely my major topic then, as it is, whether delusionally or no, to this day.)

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