Beaudelaire & the ''Beats''

Take a phenomenon. And then de-fang it. Commodify it. Beatnik, a media stereotype of the 1950s and early 1960s, was a synthesis of the more superficial aspects of the Beat Generation literary movement of the 1950s into moralized and unflattering film images and a animated cartoon misrepresentation of the real-life people and the spirituality found in Jack Kerouac’s autobiographical fiction.Oversimplified and conventional formulas to create stereotypes somewhat approximated into a combination of elements that could be easily absorbed into American culture. I lifestyle image for the middle classes encapsulating ”dangerous fun” ; black turtlenecks, bongos, goatees, berets and dark glasses.beats1

A form of identity where adults could play dress up and feel ”hip”. Beatnik became a marketing tool that created archetypes that never existed. The cultural and emotional displacement, the yearning, became crystallized as false and misleading images reduced to an inventory of symbols to fit every wardrobe and income level until it bit the dust after 11-12 year olds defined themselves as ”beats”.A siphoning of the intangible literary and poetic magic into monetary figures, such as the price for a gram of hash. etc.

“Beat” came from underworld slang—the world of hustlers, drug addicts and petty thieves, where Ginsberg and Kerouac sought inspiration. “Beat” was slang for “beaten down” or downtrodden, but to Kerouac, it also had a spiritual connotation as in “beatitude”. In part, earlierliterary figures such as Charles Baudelaire ( 1821-1867 ) has touched on some of the aesthetic template, and figuring in what became termed as a form of artistic and literary decadence for its time.” The principal themes of sex  and death were considered scandalous. He also touched on lesbiansism , sacred and profane love, metamorphosis, melancholy, the corruption of the city, lost innocence, the oppressiveness of living and wine. Notable in some poems is Baudelaire’s use of imagery of the sense of smell and of fragrances, which is used to evoke feelings of nostalgia and past intimacy”. ( Joanna Richardson, Beaudelaire )

Maila Nurmi, Beat Generation, 1959

Maila Nurmi, Beat Generation, 1959


“The Beat Generation, that was a vision that we had, John Clellon Holmes and I, and Allen Ginsberg in an even wilder way, in the late forties, of a generation of crazy, illuminated hipsters suddenly rising and roaming America, serious, bumming and hitchhiking everywhere, ragged, beatific, beautiful in an ugly graceful new way–a vision gleaned from the way we had heard the word ‘beat’ spoken on streetcorners on Times Square and in the Village, in other cities in the downtown city night of postwar America–beat, meaning down and out but full of intense conviction–We’d even heard old 1910 Daddy Hipsters of the streets speak the word that way, with a melancholy sneer–It never meant juvenile delinquents, it meant characters of a special spirituality who didn’t gang up but were solitary Bartlebies staring out the dead wall window of our civilization–the subterraneans heroes who’d finally turned from the ‘freedom’ machine of the West and were taking drugs, digging bop, having flashes of insight, experiencing the ‘derangement of the senses,’ talking strange, being poor and glad, prophesying a new style for American culture, a new style (we thought), a new incantation–The same thing was almost going on in the postwar France of Sartre and Genet and what’s more we knew about it–But as to the actual existence of a Beat Generation, chances are it was really just an idea in our minds–We’d stay up 24 hours drinking cup after cup of black coffee, playing record after record of Wardell Gray, Lester Young, Dexter Gordon, Willie Jackson, Lennie Tristano and all the rest, talking madly about that holy new feeling out there in the streets- -We’d write stories about some strange beatific Negro hepcat saint with goatee hitchhiking across Iowa with taped up horn bringing the secret message of blowing to other coasts, other cities, like a veritable Walter the Penniless leading an invisible First Crusade- -We had our mystic heroes and wrote, nay sung novels about them, erected long poems celebrating the new ‘angels’ of the American underground–In actuality there was only a handful of real hip swinging cats and what there was vanished mightily swiftly during the Korean War when (and after) a sinister new kind of efficiency appeared in America, maybe it was the result of the universalization of Television and nothing else (the Polite Total Police Control of Dragnet’s ‘peace’ officers) but the beat characters after 1950 vanished into jails and madhouses, or were shamed into silent conformity, the generation itself was shortlived and small in number.” ( Jack Kerouac )

Lenore Kandel

Lenore Kandel


It was a return by the ”lost generation” back to home turf, and unpacking and hanging of sweet smelling, though dirty laundry.The dangerous aspect, was the beats, was an articulation of composing with the fatigue of living; getting off the capitalist treadmill, dropping out and letting the wind take you where you have to go. The futility of ambition, the futility of materialism, and an indirect attack on white anglo-saxon work ethic. The view, was that literature and the arts have, at its aim, to be decoupled and independent of morality, regardless of where this would lead to.,NewYork,1953.GIF">Jack Kerouac, Eliot Erwent photo, 1953

Jack Kerouac, Eliot Erwent photo, 1953


“There is an invincible taste for prostitution in the heart of man, from which comes his horror of solitude. He wants to be ‘two’. The man of genius wants to be ‘one’… It is this horror of solitude, the need to lose oneself in the external flesh, that man nobly calls ‘the need to love’.” The more a man cultivates the arts, the less randy he becomes… Only the brute is good at coupling, and copulation is the lyricism of the masses. To copulate is to enter into another — and the artist never emerges from himself”…I have no convictions, as they are understood by the men of my century, because I have no ambition… However, I have some convictions, in a nobler sense, which cannot be understood by the men of my time” (Charles Beaudelaire, quotes )

Essentially ,the beat poets were discovering the deeper underpinnings of American literature and poetry, and did this against an entrenched tendency to banalize these origins into a beatific vision of American life which involved closely defined conceptions of beauty and common perceptions of what could be referred to as ”pop icons”. Hollywood, with its vested belief in the ”American Dream”, rather than see it crash, tried desperately and successfully to manufacture evidence of its survival which involved a dumbing down and emasculation of threatening visions. Pacification at all costs.

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