Featured Reviews, VOLUME 5

The Philosophy of the Beats – Sharin Elkholy, Ed. [Feature Review]

Page 2 – The Philosophy of the Beats

For those interested in the Beats there are so many good essays in this book it is impossible to note them all. Two of my favorites are on Diane di Prima and Joanna Kyger. These are insightful treatments of overlooked women who not only outlived many of their Beat contemporaries, but also perhaps outgrew them. The di Prima essay (by R.G. Quinn) situates her in a larger context of French feminism (with helpful comparisons to Cixous, Irigaray,and Kristeva) and explicates her “feral sexuality.” Di Prima underlines the masculinist nature of the Beat movement and their “gendered ignoring” of female Beat poets. The Kyger essay (by J. Falk) explores this even further through an examination of Kyger’s prose poem “Descartes and the Splendor Of” which deconstructs and subverts Descartes’s privileging of the rational, “feminizing Descartes” by rooting reason in the imagination which is rooted in the body and not the other way round.

Another of my favorites is Christopher Adamo’s essay on Kerouac arguing that On the Road is a work of “utopian individualism” in a world where “the hegemonic grip of the present society has virtually foreclosed setting a spatial political utopia anywhere on this planet.” I agree that in Beat literature community is too divorced from place. The self is uprooted and flies (often psychotropically) above the surface. The only potential location for home is in the body itself. This is why the exploration of sexuality and drug use is so central to the Beats, especially Ginsberg. In the popular mind the Beats are united by a community of style around music, language, clothes, and attitude. They sought embodiment with a vengeance and the transgression of bodily prohibitions in terms of sex, drugs, or discourse was the closest thing to a creed they had. But primarily the Beats were looking for a way to feel at home in the world. Society as given was a consuming and conforming machine (Ginsberg called it Moloch). Where sanity and morality are determined by conformity then only the mad are truly sane, and only the immoral are truly good.

Another valuable essay is Eric Mortenson’s on Kerouac and Ginsberg’s drug-induced literary composition which sought to privilege the body as the primary site for poetics. Moretenson draws parallels with Deleuze and Guattari’s “experimental body” and quotes Henry Miller’s desire “to succeed in getting drunk, but on pure water” (which is it seems to me a desire to be Pentecostal without the Holy Spirit!). Two other essays link William Burroughs’ work to contemporary postmodern theorists. Burroughs perhaps preceded someone like Derrida in suspecting that freedom for the self may not be found in unity, but in disintegration and the multiplication of identities.

Ed D’Angelo’s “Anarchism and the Beats” is a fascinating glimpse at anarchism’s abiding invisibility in American culture. The pre-Beat poet Kenneth Rexroth is the anarchist behind the scenes influencing Ginsberg towards a more activist stance in relationship to both nuclear disarmament and the Vietnam War. Another thing I learned from this essay (and another one by David Need) was the influence that Oswald Spengler’s Decline of the West (1918) had as a shared text among the early Beats. Spengler predicted that a new religiosity would arise out of the primitive elements of a declining civilization. Following Spengler, the Beats could understand themselves to be prophets of a new consciousness. Remaining wary of politics and ideology they could affirm that the transformation of consciousness would eventually lead to a new form of political engagement.

Gary Snyder’s environmental pragmatism distinguishes him in the Beat circle. Ginsberg, Kerouac, and Burroughs are city dwellers. Where Snyder connected with the Beats was in his poetry, his disciplined pursuit of Buddhist spirituality, and his desire to put humanity back in touch with our “wild” selves. But for Snyder home must be a geographic location and not just a psychic space. Place is an experience that deepens over time as one grows into and inhabits a place. My favorite essays in this volume all involve Snyder and include Josh Michael Hayes on the poetics of place, Paul Messersmith-Glavin on deep ecology, and D’Angelo’s on beat anarchism. You will find your own favorites and the volume is diverse enough to have something for everyone.

When I imagine going on the road with some of the early Beats I see Ginsberg as the loud, obnoxious, nonstop talker in the back seat always needing a bathroom stop. Burroughs is manic and wants to drive, but you’d be crazy to let him. Kerouac can drive forever, but never wants to stop. And Gary Snyder has the maps and is the only one who knows where the hell we should be going.


R. Dean Hudgens is an ordained Mennonite pastor in Evanston, Illinois where he is part of Reba Place Fellowship and also serves on the pastoral team at Second Baptist Church which is celebrating its 130th year as Evanston’s oldest African-American congregation.


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C. Christopher Smith is the founding editor of The Englewood Review of Books. He is also author of a number of books, including most recently How the Body of Christ Talks: Recovering the Practice of Conversation in the Church (Brazos Press, 2019). Connect with him online at: C-Christopher-Smith.com

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