Beat Attitude

In Go, John Clellon Holmes sketches some of the leading figures of the Beat Generation. We get a picture of their different attitudes, in every sense of the word: the way they talk, the way they carry themselves, the way they refuse to fit in and be normal. And we see how different each Beat was: there’s no single way to be Beat, each one following his own path to “Beatitude.”

Allen Ginsberg is “on the bottom, looking up.” This is the only way to notice the sky, he says. He looks around with “benevolent satisfaction in everything”. See as he climbs out of the car onto the crowded streets. He sympathises with “the rush and hurry” around him but he doesn’t approve of its seriousness. What has got into these souls that stream past him to make them so frantic? They’re at war with time and space, never satisfied with the spot they find themselves in. And yet Allen looks up even to these hurried souls, observing them as a child observes adult behaviour, looking up from his solitary play to notice the unexplained practices of those beings from a different world.

While Allen looks up, Jack Kerouac looks down. He sits in the bar, looking at the cigarette in his hand, talking softly to the friend beside him. He’s wrestling with life, and he’s trying to communicate his struggle. He’s depressed, pondering “enigmas.” He hopes he’ll win love by writing –– it’s the only reason he does it, and the only hope he feels he has. He knows the answer to his problems: to accept that “life is holy in itself.” All he has to do is accept his life as it is and everything will be right with the world. And yet he can’t stop this slow, low pondering. He can’t stop struggling.

Sometimes Jack will look up from his reverie and he’ll see his friend Neal Cassady, King of the Beats, a man who never looks up or down but always side to side, nervous, taking in every scene and looking for every opportunity, “digging everything,” and if he’s not digging he’s “waiting” for something to dig, rat-like, King Rat, his edgy movements an endless dance, and if he hears music he’s locked onto that, cheering the musicians on, joining in, “rapping” and tapping bars, dashboards, tables, and shouting “Go! That’s right!” His smile is intense, we’re told, he’s focused on whoever is talking, or singing, or playing, and he can see right away what’s good and right and true in whatever he sees. He’s communicating, always communicating, secretly, using rhythm, and everyone tuned in can understand and they know who Neal is –– what he is –– the moment they see him. “He has his miseries,” Jack reminds us. But when you’re tapping into the deepest mysteries how could you not have miseries? Neal is not oblivious to the sadness of the world –– he’s felt it and sunk down into it and risen from it, and he knows the great secret, that rhythm is the key to everything, unlocking every door, opening onto every avenue, every possibility . . .

Compare Neal’s “restless energy” to the frantic hurrying of those serious souls on the night-time city streets. And the morbid struggling of Jack sat contemplating into his beer. Neal can seem reckless, hopping from here to there, in the bar or behind the wheel, taking his eyes off the road as he drives . . . and yet he has a “reckless precision” –– he’s carefree but not careless, he’s not lost, he’s not at war with the forces of time and space, he works his magic on them, dancing to the rhythm he finds, dancing the way he must dance, and he’s aware, deeply aware of the bodies and souls he sees and hears around him.

(I’ve been reading The Portable Beat Reader, edited by Ann Charters and published in 1992 by Penguin Classics. It’s a collection of some of the best writing from the Beat Generation, with interesting little introductions to each writer.)

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