Thursday, August 25, 2011

Holiness and Beatitude

Holy! Holy! Holy! Holy! Holy! Holy! Holy! Holy! Holy! Holy!
Holy! Holy! Holy! Holy! Holy! Holy! Holy! Holy!
The world is holy! The soul is Holy! The skin is holy! The
nose is holy! The tongue and cock and hand and asshole
Everything is holy! everybody's holy! everywhere is holy!
Everyday is in eternity! Everyman's an angel!

(from Howl)

Stephen Prothero
Georgia State University

Although there was a smattering of early critical acclaim for the beat
writers, neither their literature nor their movement fared well with the
critics. One reviewer called William Burroughs's Naked Lunch "a prolonged
scream of hatred and disgust, an effort to keep the reader's nose down in
the mud for 250 pages." Kerouac's On the Road was said to distinguish
itself from true literature by its "poverty of emotional, intellectual, and
aesthetic resources, an ineptitude of expression, and an inability to make
anything dramatically meaningful." What bothered the critics most about
the beats was their negativity. Life claimed they were at war with everything
sacred in Eisenhower's America-"Mom, Dad, Politics, Marriage, the
Savings Bank, Organized Religion, Literary Elegance, Law, the Ivy League
Suit and Higher Education, to say nothing of the Automatic Dishwasher,
the Cellophane-wrapped Soda Cracker, the Split-Level House and the clean,
or peace-provoking H-bomb." The Nation dismissed the beats as "naysayers";
even Playboy called them "nihilists."
The beats responded to this critical chorus with one voice. "Beat,"
Kerouac asserted, stood not for "beat down" but for "beatific." "I want to
speak for things," he explained. "For the crucifix I speak out, for the Star
of Israel I speak out, for the divinest man who ever lived who was German
(Bach) I speak out, for sweet Mohammed I speak out, for Buddha I speak
out, for Lao-tse and Chuang-tse I speak out." To those who called "Howl,"
a "howl against civilization," Ginsberg replied that his signature poem was
a protest in the original sense of "pro-attestation, that is testimony in favor
of Value." He too described his protest in religious terms. "'Howl' is an
'Affirmation' by individual experience of God, sex, drugs, absurdity," he
explained. "The poems are religious and I meant them to be."
My thesis is that the beats were spiritual protesters as well as
literary innovators and ought, therefore, to be viewed at least as minor
characters in the drama of American religion. If, as Miller argues, transcendentalism
represented a religious revolt against "corpse-cold" Unitarian
orthodoxy, the beat movement represented a spiritual protest against what
the beats perceived as the moribund orthodoxies of 1950s America.

The beat movement began with the meeting of Kerouac, Burroughs, and
Ginsberg in New York in 1944, coursed its way through the San Francisco
poetry renaissance of the 1950s, and spent itself sometime in the early
1960s. It was led by three main figures-a working-class French-Canadian
Catholic from Lowell, Massachusetts (Kerouac), a middle-class Russian-
American Jew from Paterson, New Jersey (Ginsberg), and an upper-class
Anglo-American Protestant from St. Louis (Burroughs)-and included a
large supporting cast of novelists, poets, and hangers-on. What united these
men (and the vast majority of them were men) was a "new consciousness"
or a "new vision."

Like any spiritual innovation, this new vision included a rejection of
dominant spiritual norms and established religious institutions. Neither of the
two most popular spiritual options of the early postwar period-the new
evangelicalism of Billy Graham and the mind cure of Rabbi Joshua Liebman's
Peace of Mind (1946), Monsignor Fulton J. Sheen's Peace of Soul (1949),
and the Rev. Norman Vincent Peale's The Power of Positive Thinking (1952)-
seemed viable to the beats in the light of the long postwar shadow cast by
the Holocaust, the bomb, and the cold war. Thus Burroughs, Kerouac, and
Ginsberg joined neo-orthodox theologians H. Richard and Reinhold Niebuhr
in rejecting any easy return to normalcy and in damning the evangelical and
mind-cure revivals as vacuous at best. For this beat trio, neither positive
thinking nor evangelical Christianity could make sense of God's apparent
exodus from the world. But somehow Oswald Spengler's The Decline of the
West, a book the beats studied and discussed in the late 1940s, could.
Inspired by Spengler's apocalypticism, the beats announced the death of
the tribal god of American materialism and mechanization. ("There is a
God / dying in America," Ginsberg proclaimed.) But in keeping with
Spengler's cyclical view of history, they prophesied that a new deity was
arising from the wreckage. (Ginsberg called it ". . . an inner / anterior
image / of divinity / beckoning me out / to pilgrimage.")
In 1938, two years after his graduation from Harvard, William Burroughs
wrote a humorous yet foreboding short story entitled "Twilight's Last
Gleamings." Loosely based on the sinking of the Titanic, this cynical
satire is a dark allegory on the fall of America and the refusal of Americans
to accept the inevitability of their own deaths and the demise of their
civilization. Burroughs's characters are Neros with urban savvy: con men
conning, robbers robbing, preachers preaching as the ship goes down. The
moral of this story is well expressed in a later poem by Lawrence

The end has just begun
I want to announce it
Run don't walk
to the nearest exit.

Along with this preoccupation with America's eschaton, the theme of
individual suffering and death looms in beat writing. Unlike Liebman, Sheen,
and Peale, who resolved to will into existence a "placid decade," the beats
devoted their lives and their literature to understanding and explicating the
private hells of those who remained on the margins of postwar prosperity.
Burroughs's first four books-Junkie, Queer, Naked Lunch, and Yage Letters-
document in factualist style the horrors of addiction to "junk" in its
many forms (drugs, sex, power). Much of Ginsberg's work, including "Howl"
and "Kaddish," explores madness and death. Three of Kerouac's novels-
Maggie Cassady, The Subterraneans, and Tristessa-are odes to lost loves;
and his Big Sur depicts his own alcohol-induced breakdown.
If the beats had stopped here, critics' categorization of their work and
thought as morbid or mad might have been accurate. But like the Lutheran
preacher who hits her congregation with sin only to smother them with
grace, the beats sought to move beyond predictions of social apocalypse and
depictions of individual sadness to some transcendental hope. "The Beat
Generation is insulted when linked to doom, thoughts of doom, fear of
doom, anger of doom," Ginsberg, Corso, and Orlovsky protested in 1959.
"It exhibits on every side, and in a bewildering number of facets," John
Clellon Holmes added, "a perfect craving to believe. . . the stirrings of a
quest." Thus the beats' flight from the churches and synagogues of the
suburbs to city streets inhabited by whores and junkies, hobos and jazzmen
never ceased to be a search for something to believe in, something to go by.
From the perspective of Religionswissenschaft, the beats shared much
with pilgrims coursing their way to the world's sacred shrines. Like pilgrims
to Lourdes or Mecca, the beats were liminal figures who expressed
their cultural marginality by living spontaneously, dressing like bums, sharing
their property, celebrating nakedness and sexuality, seeking mystical
awareness through drugs and meditation, acting like "Zen lunatics" or holy
fools, and perhaps above all stressing the chaotic sacrality of human interrelatedness
or communitas over the pragmatic functionality of social structure.
The beats, in short, lived both on the road and on the edge. For them,
as for pilgrims, transition was a semipermanent condition. What distinguished
the beats from other pilgrims, however, was their lack of a "center
out there." The beats shared, in short, not an identifiable geographical
goal but an undefined commitment to a spiritual search. They aimed not to
arrive but to travel and, in the process, to transform into sacred space every
back alley through which they ambled and every tenement in which they
lived. Thus the beats appear in their lives and in their novels not only as
pilgrims but also as heroes (and authors) of quest tales, wandering (and
writing) bhikkhus who scour the earth in a never fully satisfied attempt to
find a place to rest. This commitment to the spiritual quest is expressed by
Burroughs in Naked Lunch:
Since early youth I had been searching for some secret, some key with
which I could gain access to basic knowledge, answer some of the
fundamentaql uestions.J ust what I was looking for, what I meant by
basic knowledgeo r fundamentaql uestions,I foundd ifficultt o define. I
would follow a trail of clues.
On the trail that Kerouac, Ginsberg, and Burroughs followed after the
war, one important clue was provided by Spengler: the suggestion that the
solution to their individual crises of faith (and to America's crisis of spirit)
might lie outside western culture and civilization, in the Orient and in the
"fellaheen" or uprooted of the world.
Inspired by a populism akin to contemporary Latin American theologians'
preferential option for the poor, the beats looked for spiritual insight
not to religious elites but to the racially marginal and the socially inferior,
Recalling Dostoevsky's "underground men," Ginsberg dubbed these characters
"subterraneans." Kerouac, assigning them a place a little closer to
heaven, christened them "desolation angels."
Of all these fallen angels, the beats were especially enamored of Herbert
Huncke, who according to Ginsberg "was to be found in 1945 passing on
subways from Harlem to Broadway scoring for drugs, music, incense, lovers,
Benzedrine Inhalers, second story furniture, coffee, all night vigils in
42nd Street Horn & Hardart and Bickford Cafeterias, encountering curious
& beautiful solitaries of New York dawn." Huncke embodied for the
beats both marginality and spirituality.
In his anonymity & holy Creephood in New York he was the sensitive
vehicle for a veritable new consciousness which spread through him to
others sensitized by their dislocations from History and thence to entire
generations of a nation renewing itself for fear of Apocalyptic Judgement.
So in the grand Karma of robotic Civilizations it may be that
the humblest, most afflicted, most persecuted, most suffering lowly
junkie hustling some change in the all-night movie is the initiate of a
Glory transcendingh is Nation'sc onsciousnesst hat will swiftly draw
that Nation to its knees in tearful self-forgiveness.
Initiated by Huncke into this "holy Creephood," Ginsberg, Kerouac, and
Burroughs now identified with the beat-up and the beat-down. Kerouac
dropped out of Columbia, and the same university expelled Ginsberg.
Burroughs began what would turn into a life of participant-observation of
the netherworlds of gangsters, addicts, and hustlers. Kerouac explored the
jazz clubs and marijuana bars of Harlem. Ginsberg investigated the lives of
the working class in Paterson, New Jersey. All three men attempted to
transform their experiences into literature worthy of Rimbaud or Baudelaire.
By venerating Huncke (who according to beat lore was the first to use the
term "beat") as a saint, the beats risked transforming their "new vision"
into an amoral, nihilistic apocalypticism. What prevented this outcome, at
least for Ginsberg and Kerouac, was the arrival in New York in 1947 of

Neal Cassady.
The "secret hero" of Ginsberg's "Howl" and the inspiration for the ecstatic
Dean Moriarty of Kerouac's On the Road,  Cassady was born, quite
literally, on the road (in a rumble seat in Salt Lake City while his mother
and father were making their way to Hollywood). His parents separated
when he was six years old, so he was raised by an alcoholic father in western
pool halls, freight yards, and flophouses. While a teenager, Cassady supposedly
stole over five hundred cars and seduced nearly as many women. He did six
stints in reformatories before landing in San Quentin in the late 1950s.
Kerouac and Ginsberg celebrated and romanticized Cassady as a "holy
goof." Kerouac, who by 1947 had grown tired of the apocalyptic intellectualism
of Burroughs, greeted the lusty Cassady as a "long-lost brother."
Contrasting Cassady to Huncke, Kerouac observed that "his 'criminality'
was not something that sulked and sneered; it was Western, the west wind,
an ode from the Plains, something new, long prophesied, long a-coming (he
only stole cars for joy rides)." Ginsberg also embraced Cassady, who
soon became his lover, in mythic terms-as "cocksman and Adonis of
Denver." Burroughs, however, dissented, dismissing Cassady as a con
man. Thus Cassady's arrival precipitated a split of sorts in the nascent beat
movement. The pro-Huncke Burroughs persisted in a more absurdist and
apocalyptic reading of the "new vision" (beat as beat down) while Ginsberg
and Kerouac attempted to incorporate in their new, pro-Cassady consciousness
some redemptive force or transcendental hope (beat as beatitude).
Cassady redeemed the beatific beats' "new vision" by pointing the way
to what would become two major affirmations of Kerouac's and Ginsberg's
spirituality: the sacralization of everyday life and the sacramentalization of
human relationships. If Dean Moriarty preaches a gospel in On the Road,
it is that every moment is sacred, especially when shared with friends. And
if he incarnates an ethic, it is that since all human beings are of one piece,
every person must share in every other person's sorrow just as surely as all
people will be delivered to heaven together in the end. Thus Cassady personified
for Kerouac and Ginsberg the sacred connections of communitas.
While Huncke symbolized the misery of lonely individuals suffering and
dying in dark Times Square bars, Cassady symbolized the splendor of cosmic
companions digging the open road.
Shortly after their initial encounter in 1947, Ginsberg and Cassady bowed
down together at the edge of an Oklahoma highway and vowed always to
care for one another. Seven years later Ginsberg and Peter Orlovsky agreed
to "explore each other until we reached the mystical 'X' together" and
promised "that neither of us would go into heaven unless we could get the
other one in." Such covenants expressed ritualistically Ginsberg's credo
"that we are all one Self with one being, one consciousness." They represented
an attempt to routinize the group's communitas, to incarnate
Whitman's vision of "fervent comradeship" in a spiritual brotherhood of
beatific monks.
Cassady inspired in this way a shift in the beatific beats' writing from
the pessimistic, Dreiserian realism that would mark Burroughs's work to a
more optimistic, even transcendental realism: literature as "a clear statement
of fact about misery... and splendor [my emphasis]." Like Burroughs,
Ginsberg and Kerouac would continue to depict the suffering of the fellaheen,
but unlike him they would insist that such suffering was both revelatory
and redemptive. And thus Kerouac insisted that while authors must "accept loss forever,"
they should nonetheless "believe in the holy contour of life."
Ginsberg took Burroughs's advice, and by mid-decade the novels and
poems of Kerouac and Ginsberg were filled with references to Buddhism.
In one eighteen-month period between 1954 and 1956 Kerouac meditated
daily and still found the time to write five books with a decidedly Buddhist
bent. Three of these works, Some of the Dharma (a thousand-page personal
meditation), Buddha Tells Us (an American version of the Surangama Sutra),
and Wake Up (a life of the Buddha) have never been published. A book of
Buddhist poems, Mexico City Blues, and a beat sutra entitled The Scripture
of the Golden Eternity appeared in 1959 and 1960 respectively.
In 1955 Ginsberg and Kerouac met Gary Snyder, a mountain poet and
Zen initiate, who contributed greatly to their understanding of Buddhism
and their commitment to it. Just as Neal Cassady appeared as Dean Moriarty,
the hero of On the Road, Snyder was immortalized as Japhy Ryder, the
thinly veiled protagonist of Dharma Bums. Although Kerouac was clearly
intrigued by Snyder and by Zen, he devoted a good portion of Dharma
Bums to arguments between Ray Smith (himself) and Ryder (Snyder) and
to criticisms of Zen. Smith, who presents himself not as a Zen Buddhist but
as "an old fashioned dreamy hinayana coward of later mahayanism," clashed
with Ryder and his Zen on a number of occasions. One of Smith's arguments
was that showing compassion (karuna) was more important than
achieving insight (prajna). Smith was especially critical of the violence that
sometimes attended uncracked Zen koans. "It's mean," he complained to
Ryder, "All those Zen masters throwing young kids in the mud because
they can't answer their silly word questions." "Compassion," Smith contended,
"is the heart of Buddhism." Unlike Ryder who had no use for
Christianity, Smith revered not only Avalokitesvara, the bodhisattva of
compassion, but also Jesus Christ. "After all," he explained, "a lot of people
say he is Maitreya [which] means 'Love' in Sanskrit and that's all Christ
talked about was love."
Despite such disputes, Kerouac, Snyder, and Ginsberg agreed on a few
crucial points that they shared with Buddhism (especially the Mahayana
tradition's Yogacara school). They believed, for example, that life is char-
acterized by suffering (dukkha) and impermanence (anicca). Yet they also
believed that this world, at least as it appears to our senses, is ephemeral
and illusory. "Happiness consists in realizing that it is all a great strange
dream," Kerouac wrote in Lonesome Traveler. And he echoed the sentiment
(albeit in decidedly biblical grammar) in Dharma Bums: "Believe that
the world is an ethereal flower, and ye live."
This shared awareness of what Ginsberg called "the phantom nature of
being" was tremendously liberating for the beatific beats. It enabled them
both to confront suffering and death as major obstacles in this relative
world of appearances and to see their ultimate insignificance from the
absolute perspective of heaven or nirvana. It empowered them, moreover,
to deny the absolute reality of the material world even as they affirmed
enthusiastically our spiritual experiences in it. Out of such paradoxes came
the this-worldly joy of statements like "This is it!," "We're already there
and always were," "We're all in Heaven now," "The world has a beautiful
soul," "The world is drenched in spirit," "everything's all right."
There is a constant tension in beat literature, therefore, between misery
and splendor, between an overwhelming sadness and an overcoming joy.
"The world is beautiful place / to be born into," Lawrence Ferlinghetti
observed, "if you don't mind happiness / not always being / so very much
fun / if you don't mind a touch of hell now and then." In the beat cosmos
God is both absent and everywhere. Dualisms between sacred and profane,
body and soul, matter and spirit, nirvana and samsara do not hold. Thus
Ginsberg's celebrated encounter with the poet William Blake in Harlem in
1948 incorporated both a vision of death ("like hearing the doom of the
whole universe") and a vision of heaven ("a breakthrough from ordinary
habitual quotidian consciousness into consciousness that was really seeing
all of heaven in a flower") And so one of Ginsberg's most profane poems,
"Howl," contains his boldest affirmation of the sacred camouflaged in
the profane:
Holy! Holy! Holy! Holy! Holy! Holy! Holy! Holy! Holy! Holy!
Holy! Holy! Holy! Holy! Holy! Holy! Holy! Holy!
The world is holy! The soul is Holy! The skin is holy! The
nose is holy! The tongue and cock and hand and asshole
Everything is holy! everybody's holy! everywhere is holy!
Everyday is in eternity! Everyman's an angel!

After the beat generation graduated from young adulthood to middle age
in the 1960s, beat writers went in different directions. Following an extended
stint at the wheel of the bus of Ken Kesey's Merry Pranksters,
Cassady collapsed along a railroad track and died of exposure in Mexico
in 1968. Kerouac's seemingly endless cycles of exile and return to his
mother's home in Lowell ended in 1969 when he died an alcoholic's death
of cirrhosis of the liver. Burroughs, perhaps the least likely of beats to
make it past middle age, is alive and well and enjoying the acclaim of
European critics. Ginsberg too has survived even his transmigration from
literary rebel to de facto poet laureate of the United States. In this way beat
writers have earned a place in the history of American letters.
What I have argued here is that the beats also deserve a place in American
religious history. More than literary innovators or bohemian rebels, the
beats were wandering monks and mystical seers. They went on the roadfrom
New York to San Francisco to Mexico City to Tangier-because they
could not find God in the churches and synagogues of postwar America.
They venerated the poor, the racially marginal and the socially inferior
because they saw no spiritual vitality in the celebrated postwar religious
revival of mainstream white preachers. And they experimented with drugs,
psychoanalysis, bisexuality, jazz, mantra chanting, Zen meditation, and new
literary forms in an attempt to conjure the gods within.
Like the transcendentalists who inspired them, the beats were critics of
"corpse-cold" orthodoxies; they were champions of spiritual experience over
theological formulations who responded to the challenge of religious pluralism
by conjuring out of inherited and imported materials a wholly new
religious vision. Like Emerson, the beats aimed to make contact with the
sacred on the nonverbal, transconceptual level of intuition and feeling, and
then to transmit at least a part of what they had experienced into words.
Like Thoreau, they insisted on the sanctity of everyday life and the sainthood
of the nonconformist. And like George Ripley and his associates at
Brook Farm, they aimed to create a spiritual brotherhood based on shared
experiences, shared property, shared literature, and an ethic of "continual
conscious compassion." With transcendentalists of all stripes, the beats
gloried in blurring distinctions between matter and spirit, divinity and humanity,
the sacred and the profane.
The beats diverged from their transcendentalist forebears (and toward
their neo-orthodox contemporaries), however, in maintaining a more sanguine
view of the problems of human existence and the possibility of social
progress. In the beat cosmos, society is running toward apocalypse; individuals
are doomed to suffer and die, and perhaps to endure addiction or
madness along the way. But in the beatitudes according to Kerouac and
Ginsberg, those who suffer are blessed, and the sacrament of friendship can
redeem a portion of that suffering. In the last analysis, "The bum's as holy
as the seraphim!" and everyone- junkies and criminals, beats and squares,
Catholics and Buddhists, culture-peoples and fellaheen-  is raised up from
the dreamworld of our quotidian existences and "buried in heaven together."


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