The Beats reconsidered

by Robert Inchausti

I am Buddha come back in the form of Shakespeare for the sake of poor Jesus Christ and Nietzsche. – Jack Kerouac

I have tried many times to share my admiration for Jack Kerouac with my Catholic and Buddhist friends. But as a rule, his reputation as a know-nothing Bohemian so precedes him that they simply refuse to take me (or him) seriously. And I can understand their skepticism. His most famous novels are written in a self-invented “bop-spontaneous” prose – a jazz inspired meld of improvisation and stream of consciousness. And the stories he tells are largely autobiographical accounts of his interactions with various social misfits and outsiders. So when Kerouac says, “I have nothing to offer anybody but my own confusion,” it is easy to take him at his word.

Yet serious readers should not be so easily fooled. Kerouac’s Dionysian revels and Dostoyevskian reflections lend weight to his work rather than detract from it. And there other are reasons to consider Kerouac among the most important American spiritual writers of the last half of the twentieth century. Not only did he refashion American Transcendentalism through the modern idioms of jazz, haiku, and memoir, but he also inspired a small army of imitators and disciples who carried his literary project far beyond anything he could have accomplished on his own.

Ethan Hawke (the actor) once said that Kerouac “made it cool to be a thinking person seeking a spiritual experience.” And there is no doubt that the writers Kerouac knew and inspired – iconic figures like Allen Ginsberg, William Burroughs, Gary Snyder, and Michael McClure – did just that. And taken together, they have produced one of the most profound bodies of spiritually oriented literature since the American Renaissance – with Jack playing “Emerson” to Ginsberg’s “Whitman” and Snyder’s “Thoreau.”

At the heart of this re-visioning of American Letters resides Oswald Spengler’s eccentric, magisterial opus The Decline of the West – a book that greatly influenced both Kerouac and Burroughs and provided the vocabulary and conceptual framework for very idea of a Beat Generation. Central to Spengler’s thesis is the notion that all cultures begin as “cults” – spiritual enterprises designed to convert the “zoological struggle for survival” into a pursuit of various high ideals. In India, for example, life is organized around the transformation of the interior life; whereas in the modern West, it is organized around taming nature to produce the greatest good of the greatest number.

As cultures age, Spengler observed, they inevitably decline into “civilizations,” which means that the mechanical operation of their institutions come to replace the idealistic zeal that fueled their collective endeavors in the first place. Altruism gives way to the imperatives of practical life, and over time everyday existence becomes less and less of a heroic adventure and more and more of an “irreligious” routine. This “decline” can go on for hundreds and hundreds of years. In fact, according to Spengler, most civilizations spend the greater part of their lifespans “in decline.”

And yet, Spengler also noted that a “second religiosity” often emerges in the twilight of waning civilizations when the old symbols take on a new meaning and renewed vitality. These cultural revivals are normally short-lived, but during them a more inclusive interpretation of the founding tradition takes place that serves as a preview of the next great world civilization waiting in the wings of human history. A good example of this can be seen during the Axial Age when the Buddha refurbished what had become a rigid Hindu religious system into a method for universal Enlightenment and when Elijah united the twelve tribes of Israel around a more inclusive, visionary interpretation of the Mosaic Covenant.

The Beats came of age just as the United States – in order to win a world war against its fascist enemies – had reorganized itself into a security state. The ensuing Korean War only increased this move away from democratic values, and as a result, the Beats found themselves, like every American coming of age in the late forties and early fifties, caught between a new mass mediated consumer society and their own aspirations for a life of personal freedom and self-expression. As Norman Mailer put it in The White Negro, post-war America was rapidly dividing itself “between the hip and the square,” between the status-seeking “Mad Men” in their grey flannel suits and Allen Ginsberg’s Angel headed hipsters seeking “the ancient heavenly connection to the starry dynamo in the machinery of night.”

Spengler called these idealistic culture-bearers living on the margins of civilization “The Fellaheen.” Originally a derogatory term used to describe displaced Egyptians living within the Roman Empire, the fellaheen represented a more inclusive interpretation of the prevailing cultural myths, images, and memes than the conventions of the prevailing civilization allowed. And although Spengler himself was an arch-conservative who saw the fellaheen as essentially powerless retrogrades doomed to fail, the Beats admired their sincerity and the deep piety that “filled their waking-consciousness with the naive belief that there [was] some sort of mystic constitution to reality.”

When Allen Ginsberg began Howl with those memorable lines, “I have seen the best minds of his generation destroyed by madness,” he was speaking for those fellaheen idealists not yet recognized as a progressive force in contemporary history – a fellaheen avant-garde, as it were, whose story had already been told in six unpublished novels by Jack Kerouac.

The Beats saw themselves as living in the middle of two very different historical epochs. On the one hand, they spoke for a new, international spiritual community coming into being and on the other, for an old-fashioned candor and tenderness seeking expression within the new regime. When Kerouac admitted that, “I had nothing to offer anybody but my own confusion,” he wasn’t being nihilistic – just offering an honest, “hip” characterization of what it felt like to be caught between cultural idealism and “civilized” order. As one might surmise, not many grasped the Spengler meta-historical perspective behind the Beats’ revolt, and so the intellectual sources of their work remained mysterious – even to many of the Beats themselves.

The Buddha taught there were two sides to the truth: one absolute and the other relative – one religious and the other political. Little wonder then that, for the Beats, Buddhism became the new realism, poetry a tool for enhanced perception, science a critique of ideology, and Spengler’s meta-history their founding metaphysic. Literature was always to be something more than literature, something more akin to scripture. Kerouac once even described it as the Vedic yoga of the West having more in common with the sacrament of confession than the rhetoric of Aristotle.

To be beat is to live a spiritual (i.e. cultural) life in a civilization increasingly deaf to its own ideals – a civilization gaining in worldly power, but losing its character and its soul. By defending altruism over cynicism, the Beats reanimated hope and turned popular novels from escapist entertainments into memoirs of personal liberation and poetry from the exquisite expression of stoic sentiments into popular prophecy and public declamation. Over time, they became less focused on reconstituting American democracy and turned towards articulating an explicitly syncretic universal religious vision informed by the latest breakthroughs in ecology, biology and anthropology. Jack Kerouac’s original devotion to order, tenderness, and piety was carried into the future by Gary Snyder’s Practice of the Wild and Michael McClure’s Meat Science Essays. And so, to speak of the spiritual vision of the Beats today is to speak of an international amalgam of values and practices religious in nature, improvisational in form, and democratic in aspiration.

The Beats roamed their own interior landscapes as freely as they hitchhiked rides across the country. Sometimes, the Buddha captured their imagination, sometimes it was Saint John of the Cross or Wilhelm Reich. Other times it was Hafiz or Scientology – sometimes even LSD. But whatever their interests of the moment, these mystics without portfolio were never – as charged – spiritually promiscuous. For the most part, they took each one of their enthusiasms seriously as a separate and distinct experiment in living.

In Hard to be a Saint in the City, many of the Beats’ most compelling ideas are arranged in an order that gives significant shape to what first must have appeared to be a disheveled attempt to wrestle with an angel. I have proceeded entirely inductively – collecting passages and then sorting them into categories to reveal (I hope) hitherto unseen patterns. I have juxtaposed different yet similar Beat voices – one against another – to bring the old works together in a new way so that readers can discern on their own the deeper connections and the values of their ideas.

This update is necessary because the Beat achievement, although popularized, has also been defamed and distorted. A moribund nostalgia threatens to recast these serious religious writers into icons of pop culture hedonism. And yet when we read what they wrote in their own words, we can see, perhaps for the very first time, what they truly stood for: an important moment in Western cultural evolution when a declining civilization got a peek at its own impending Apocalypse and took an important step back from the looming abyss.

Sixty years ago, we were not quite yet ready to see what we now can no longer ignore – the world as Buddha glimpsed it from under the Bodhi tree and Jesus saw it from Golgotha – a burning, power-driven world run by bureaucrats and oligarchs increasingly indifferent to its saints and the highest ideals of their very own culture. It is hard to be a saint in the city because the city no longer has any use for its saints. And yet, Kerouac believed that The Diamond Sutra and The Sermon on the Mount were signaling to us through the flames. This book begins with a diagnosis of the spirit of our age and then proceeds to a defense of those inclusive, universal human values forged in the forty thousand years before written history when our genome and all the world’s mythologies first came into being.

From Hard to Be a Saint in the City by Robert Inchausti © 2017 by Robert Inchausti. Reprinted in arrangement with Shambhala Publications, Inc. Boulder, CO. Robert Inchausti is the author of Thomas Merton’s American Prophecy, Subversive Orthodoxy, and edited The Pocket Thomas Merton and Hard to be a Saint in the City.

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