Be A Better Beat
I love the Beat Generation.
Too young to be exposed to the real thing first hand, I encountered them as a child via beatnik characters on TV shows and cartoon.
Hold that thought for a second:
What I was seeing were caricatures (i.e., actors in costumes performing from scripts written by non-beatniks) of people (i.e., real life beatniks) imitating a generation of poets / writers / artists / musicians who flared to life almost a decade before I was born.
And yet somehow that connected with me.
The signal -- even for young pre-school Buzzy boy -- penetrated the noise.
Who were the Beats and what was the Beat Generation?
Answer to second question first:
The Beat Generation was three guys (or four, or five, depending on who’s telling the story) who hung out together and smoked and drank and talked about life and art and meaning…it was jazz musicians meeting in nameless unlicensed after hours dive joints to jam and improvise and try to figure out what the hell it was that they weren’t finding in their regular club gigs…it was artists glaring at a freshly finished canvas and slashing it to ribbons saying, “No! No! Not this! Not this!”…it was dancers and film makers and people who didn’t know exactly what it was that they were trying to find, only knowing what they were finding in the world around them wasn’t it.
What did it mean to be “beat”?
Again, that depends on who’s telling the story -- and when.
The earliest version of the naming says “beat” came from street slang of the era: “I’m beat” as in wore out / exhausted / broke / without hope / defeated / empty / at wit’s end.
Later -- much later -- this was ret-conned into “beatitude”.
As in the Sermon On The Mount, as in angelic, as in satori.
There’s a little bit of fact in that, a little bit of fiction, but a big dollop of truth.
Read the Sermon On The Mount.
That’s the gospel of people who have been battered down and marginalized by the culture around them.
Beat -- but not beaten.
That first generation was comprised of people who didn’t know exactly what it was they were looking for, but they knew the culture around them was not providing the answer.
That culture exhausted them, jabbering at them in what might as well have been High Martian, demanding obeisance to insane idols and ideals. The original Beats were not meant for this world, and in their quest to find their rightful place, left a paper trail that provided a map for millions to follow.
Mind you, that was not entirely a good thing…
Going back to our first question, who were these Beats?
Ground Zero was three men who pretty much defined the movement, indeed, who put the movement in motion.
The holy -- and yet simultaneously unholy -- trinity of Kerouac, Ginsberg, and Burroughs.
This post was spurred by the recent spate of revelations and accusations against preachers, performers, and politicians.
Those accusations raise a compelling question: Can we learn from terribly flawed human beings, or do their flaws negate their message?
Look at that first generation of Beats. They were not a bunch of choir boys (or girls; females are terribly underrepresented in the history of the Beat Generation, but they were there, they were there).
Indeed, that first generation of Beats includes drunks and druggies, abusers and adulterers, frauds, thieves, at least one full blown sociopath, and two bona fide murderers.
You have to reach all the way back to the Renaissance to find another equally hard-living / hard-loving / hard-drinking crew that transformed their society with angelic visions.
Because for all the havoc the Beats wreaked in their personal lives, they did transform the culture around them.
The Beats begat the Beat Generation; and the Beat Generation begat the beatniks; and the beatniks begat the hippies; and the hippies begat the counter-culture.
At the counter-culture is still with us, marginalized, ignored, pushed aside, but still there.
What the Beats did was to give voice to those who felt that whatever it is they were looking for, this ain’t it.
And that’s a small but crucial distinction between the Beats and the aforementioned preachers, performers, and politicians.
Because those aforementioned preachers, performers, and politicians set themselves up as moral exemplars.
The Beats -- the original Beats and the first generation they spawned -- did not.
Rather, they cast themselves as seekers of truth, albeit more than willing to take diversions into hedonism and self-gratification.
That hedonism and self-gratification is what too many people gleaned from the antics of the beatniks and the hippies, a faux philosophy extolling the pursuit of pleasure instead of the enjoyment of life.
Too often whatever spiritual and philosophical truths the first Beats pursued were not merely overlooked but completely ignored by people who wanted the imitate the highs but not the depths of the Beat Generation.
People looking for a good time, not a good life.
Take inspiration from the good, avoid the damaging.
We are entering a dark time, a time in which the forces of greed and hate work hand in hand to turn us against one another, to strip us of our individuality and humanity, to count us as worthless except for what they can extract from us.
We are entering a dark time, and anyone who claims to have The Answers is one of the forces aligned against us.
People are stumbling about in the dark, alone and afraid.
There need to be a few of us out there with lanterns.
© Buzz Dixon