COLUMN THIRTY-FOUR, JUNE 1, 1998
(Copyright © 1998 Al Aronowitz)
PART 11: THE BEAT PAPERS OF AL ARONOWITZ
(Photo Courtesy Myles Aronowitz)
CHAPTER ELEVEN: MURDER CAN BE BEAUTIFUL
[Back in 1959, when my bosses at the New York Post assigned this 31-year-old middle class asshole (a one-time Newark, N.J. police reporter) to write a 12-part series about the Beat Generation, the media was portraying the Beats as a bunch of switchblades, crooks, junkies, juvenile delinquents and generally the kind of company Allen Ginsberg had kept. Like Herbert Guilty of Everything Huncke. Or like Jack Kerouac, who got thrown in jail as a material witness after helping dispose of the weapon for one of his best friends, Lucien Carr, who murdered a creep trying to rape him. Or like the celebrated William S. Burroughs, who had been jailed in Mexico for playing William Tell with his wife while he was under the influence and his aim was low. Or like Neal Cassady, then in San Quentin on a pot rap. This was when truck drivers hollered at young men who wore beards, "Hey, beatnik!" The media was obviously reflecting the predictable middle class reaction to the values which have been so eloquently expressed by both Allen Ginsberg and Jack Kerouac in their writings and in what they said to me in these BEAT PAPERS OF AL ARONOWITZ. Back in the late 1950s was also when the late Norman Podhoretz, a Columbia classmate of Allen, was trying to make a name for himself in academic circles. Writing in Partisan Review, he volunteered an intellectual justification of the media's portrayal of the Beats as a bunch of switchblades. His arguments seem of little consequence today, but it was against a background of this mixture of alarm and derision that Michael McClure, to whom you were introduced in Column 33, uttered the words which have become the title of this chapter. "I did say that," he told me just the other evening when I phoned him. I'd sent him an advance copy of this chapter and he'd read it the night before. Except, the emergence of Podhoretz as an important character in the story turned Michael off. At first he suggested I rewrite the piece. "Yes, you're right," he said. "You captured it, but I wouldn't overdo this. I mean I think bothering to quote Norman Podhoretz is pretty useless. I mean I think that's kind of like quacking a dead horse. I don't think Norman Podhoretz is one of America's best thinkers. I don't think he was at the time, either. He was just another running dog for the establishment. If I were you, I would consider rewriting that article." I explained that what I am offering here is a never before published chapter I wrote almost 40 years ago because I think it has documentary value. "I read your article," Michael told me. "First of all I wondered if this was the same article you actually wrote 40 years ago and then just now you told me that isn't the case, it's an expansion of it. When I first read it, I thought it was a cut-up of the article you did then, and I had some difficulty understanding what the point of it was and then I felt some pleasure at the fact that---I felt this is good. Al has recorded some things that I think and I certainly said those things at the time and I tend to forget exactly how I said them, so that's good. They were the outcome of a boy who was 12-years-old when the atomic bomb was set off. I was quite aware of the atomic bomb being set off. I had already lived through the Second World War---. "I did not understand what this is about. I didn't understand this was the article you wrote 40 years ago or was it a cut-up of it? You told me it was an expansion of it and I look at it and this was interesting because I actually said these things and I tend to forget that. And this is the result of my generation, who'd been through the real brutalities of mass murders going on all around from the Holocaust to the South Pacific and having for their 12th birthday: SURPRISE! The atomic bomb set off. We had some very powerful ideas about what murder was or what violence was to work our way through. Because although you speak in your article about the jailbird Beats, I'm not a jailbird. There are actually very few jailbird Beats. Gregory was at Dannemora for a while. He had his high school graduation there. Allen didn't spend any time in jail. Jack didn't spend any time in jail. I don't think Burroughs spent any time in jail. Phil Whalen didn't spend any time in jail. Philip Lamantia didn't spend any time in jail. Gary Snyder didn't spend any time in jail. So what you're dealing with is you're speaking of a group of people who are primarily very intellective people, who are also in the midst of self-soul searching. Certainly, violence wasn't of an excessive interest as far as that period of time in our lives. It didn't come together at that time because we had been outlawed and we certainly saw ourselves as outlaws. We'd been outlawed by Time magazine, outlawed by Newsweek, outlawed by Life magazine. If there had been much television around, I'm sure we would've been outlawed on that, too. We were sort of---like there was a reward poster out for us: LET'S STOP THE BEATS! And we were certainly aware of that. That was on top of what our previous history---and I think there was a very touchy moment there. In my case also because I was dealing with insights I had with psychedelics. I see the ignorance of my arrogance or the arrogance of my ignorance speaking in those days. And I see it, what a thing that violence was like---I might've known a little bit about violence but I didn't know very much about enlightenment. And I rather enjoyed the truth of your article, quoting what I was saying but I would also point out that it was a year or two later that I was editing with Lawrence Ferlinghetti and David Meltzer The Journal For The Protection Of All Beings. But we were shifting from position to position constantly and the position we probably shifted to was one of a preservational perspective. Which would be, of course, that The Journal For The Protection Of All Beings was in fact that! A large scale journal put out by City Lights, in which we edited a place where people could say what they could not say otherwise. Which was our first object, of course: the protection of all beings, but meaning it seriously---whales, Native Americans and so forth. I think you caught a very critical time there. When people, when the media was excited, when people were excited by their own histories, young men were excited by their own histories, and it was about to turn over and I think it turned over. Yes, you're right. You captured it. . ." But, he explained, he also saw it in another way. "I think you're accepting the media position and accepting the Beats as jailbirds and it doesn't work. On the other hand, I did say that. I'm sure Gary said something like what he's quoted from and so forth. And Philip Lamantia said some interesting things, too. I think it's an interesting place that you caught. I think its interesting somebody actually caught me saying those things, because I remember saying those things for a very brief period of time, from, say---I would've been saying those things from '58 to '59---a spiritual position I was taking. But I can't buy this business of the Beats being jailbirds, because it's not true to my experience. It's much truer to your experience because you're there, talking to [Ray] Bremser [another jailbird poet]. I didn't know Bremser very well. He's primarily a New Yorker. You see Bremser. you see Gregory more than I do. And so, you're talking to a couple people who really have been in jail. But I'm speaking with Allen, with Jack, with Gary , with Phillip, with Diane di Prima, with Joanne Kyger---I'm not talking to anybody who's even been to jail. I'm talking with very high level spiritually involving people. I read that piece last night and I was dumbfounded. My feelings at that time were: 'That's really interesting, yeah he captured something there. But what is all this flogging of Podhoretz about? Who cares? I can't even make my eyes focus on the page when you do that. It's such a dead horse now.'" Momentarily flashing back to 40 years ago, Michael laughed: "FUN, eh man?" And then he added: "Yes, this is a document!"]
San Francisco poet Michael McClure, not even armed with so much as a pen, leaned forward conversationally and said: "Murder can be a beautiful thing." There was a certain fatal sureness to the way he said it. He said it as seriously as he takes himself as a poet, leaving a strong thankfulness that, for the time being at least, he was content with finding beauty elsewhere. But didn't the fact that Michael McClure could say such a thing illustrate what the press was saying about the Beat Generation?
"Sure," said poet Gary Snyder, "a lot of this leather jacket Beatness is a popularization of the real protest."
"But we're not juvenile delinquents," added poet Philip Lamantia. "Rather, we're part of an articulate juvenile delinquency."
That there is an affinity between the Beat Generation and violence has been reported not only in the daily newspapers but in documents of more probable permanence---the books written by the Beats themselves and also the books kept in various police departments. Because if, as poet Allen Ginsberg says, most of the significant Beat writers have become Beat by undergoing "a dark night of the soul," a number of them also have spent a few dark nights behind bars. The number, in fact, is formidable and, in some cases, so were the crimes.
The Beat Generation seems to have initiated a new era of jailhouse poets. More and more, inmates, ex cons and fugitives are emerging as dedicated writers. Novelist William Seward Burroughs, for one, tells of jumping bail twice in circumstances which might have prompted others to jump out of their skins. Gregory Corso received his baccalaureate at Dannemora. Ray Bremser learned to read and write at Bordentown. And, as for Jack Kerouac and Allen Ginsberg, both apparently gentle beings, their position on the sidelines of crime is equally apparent.They are spectators, observing violence and its creators as a part of life. But then, this is vantage point authors have consistently taken through the ages.
"The delinquency of poets." Lamantia explained, "is no new thing, although it probably never before occurred as a group manifestation. You might call this the 'Weird Generation.' In the 19th Century, the two great poets were entirely scandalous---Whitman and Poe. But in the 20th Century, everyone was scared to take risks. Then, suddenly, we move in that direction. I would call this an articulate delinquency. It's in a tradition that is ages-old---I mean the risking of death is a kind of virtue. In our time, violent death is the only way, and the risk of violent death is a hero's prerogative. But as far as Beat is concerned, the connection is in what we're not. We're all different. My poetry is different from Ginsberg's and McClure's poetry is different from the poetry of both of us.
And McClure thinks that murder can be beautiful.
Although it may be true that, as Lamantia said, poets have always been rogues, often living outside of society the better to observe it, or perhaps simply because it's more fun, one of the problems of the Beat Generation today is in being recognized as a literary movement rather than as a sociological phenomenon. To the daily press, there are no Beats but merely beatniks. And a rogue in a beard is no different from a rogue in black Leather jacket. The virtue if violent death has become the cult of James Dean. The homicidal tendencies of the young are exceeded only by the suicidal. The Beat Generation is not merely outside of society, it's against society, and it's all because of the hydrogen bomb, didn't you know?
And yet there does seem to be a certain simplicity to the clash between the Beats and the culture which has engendered them. Because although McClure's concept of murder is poetic, a guy getting his throat slashed has a much more prosaic view. In the egalitarian tradition which has dominated liberal intellectual thinking for the past several hundred years, violence is viewed through the eyes of its victim, a view which society still regards as valid.
But the Beats insist that it is society which commits violence and that violence is here to stay, a difficult sword to swallow for misguided Utopians striving for a day when both violence and its necessity can be eliminated. The Beats also point out that such differences in opinion breed violence. Critic Norman Podhoretz, although he agrees that Kerouac stands on the sidelines of crime, sees him not as a spectator but rather as a cheerleader.
"Even the relatively mild ethos of Kerouac's books can spill over easily into brutality," Podhoretz has written, "for there is a suppressed cry in those books: Kill the intellectuals who can talk coherently, kill the people who can sit still for five minutes at a time, kill those incomprehensible characters who are capable of getting seriously involved with a woman, a job, a cause."
Podhoretz, says he is on the side of law and order, or, at least, the established order, which sees law and order operating on the principle of cause and effect, with a reason for everything. Contrarily, the Beats subscribe more to mystical determinism, setting up a collision of philosophies more complex than, say, the blood-thickened plots of a Mickey Spillane novel or the murderous beginnings and loose ends of Hollywood thrillers.
"That's entertainment," say the Mickey Spillanes and Hollywood producers, but the Beats point to that kind of entertainment as an indication of both the hypocrisy and failure of the civilization which produces it, even if the good guy always wins. In a society that has so perverted, debased and contradicted its own values, who, the Beats ask, is to judge what is right and wrong and by what standards? And so a murderer, a thief, a robber, a pimp, a homosexual, a junkie or a hipster becomes his own arbiter, deciding life or death questions according to intuition and according to what angels tell him.
"What is consequent therefore," writes Norman Mailer in his analysis of hipsterism, The White Negro, "is the divorce of man from his values, the liberation of the self from the Super-Ego of society. The only Hip morality (but of course it is an ever-present morality) is to do what one feels whenever and wherever it is possible, and---this is how the war of the Hip and the Square begins---to be engaged in one primal battle: to open the limits of the possible for oneself, for oneself alone because that is one's need. Yet in widening the arena of the possible, one widens it reciprocally for others as well, so that the nihilistic fulfillment of each man's desire contains its antithesis of human cooperation. . . Hip, which would return us to ourselves at no matter what price in individual violence, is the affirmation of the barbarian for it requires a primitive passion about human nature to believe that individual acts of violence are always to be preferred to the collective violence of the State; it takes literal faith in the creative possibilities of the human being to envisage acts of violence as the catharsis which prepares growth. . ."
Mailer likens the hipster to what he calls a "philosophical psychopath," adding: "The psychopath murders---if he has the courage---out of the necessity to purge his violence, for if he cannot empty his hatred then he cannot love, his being is frozen with the implacable self-hatred for his cowardice."
But, more important perhaps, Mailer also likens the hipster to a seer, representing "the first wind of a second revolution in this century, moving not forward toward action and more equitable distribution, but backward toward being and the secrets of human energy."
Could it be that Mailer, having felt which way the wind is blowing, has bent with it? Once (or maybe even still) a socialist, springing from the same egalitarianism as, for example, Podhoretz, and from the same tradition of thought that views the universe through what it thinks of as hard and realistic eyes, Mailer has become somewhat of a hipster himself.
"Mailer's article," commented Jack Kerouac, "you know, The White Negro, well there's a précis of On the Road. It's always talking about it---he doesn't mention me in it---it, The Road, never the author of the philosophy of hepness. I don't trust Mailer. He's a hopeful politician."
Podhoretz doesn't seem to trust Mailer, either.
"To tell the truth," Podhoretz has written in Partisan Review, "whenever I hear anyone talking about instinct and being and the secrets of human energy, I get nervous; next thing you know he'll (Mailer) be saying that violence is just fine, and then I begin wondering
Critic Norman Podhoretz leads the attack against the Beats, accusing them of animating 'young savages' with switch-blades and zip guns
whether he really thinks that kicking someone in the teeth or sticking a knife between his ribs are deeds to be admired. History, after all---and especially the history of modern time---teaches that there is a close connection between ideologies of primitivistic vitalism and a willingness to look upon cruelty and blood-letting with complacency, if not downright enthusiasm. The reason I bring this up is that the spirit of hipsterism strikes me as the same spirit which animates young savages in leather jackets who have been running amuck in the last few years with their switch-blades and zip guns.
"What does Mailer think of those wretched kids, I wonder? What does he think of that gang that stoned a nine-year-old kid to death in Central Park in broad daylight a few months ago, or the one that set fire to an old man drowsing on a bench near the Brooklyn waterfront one summer's day, or the one that pounced on a crippled child and orgiastically stabbed him over and over and over again even after he was good and dead? Is that what he means by the liberation of instinct and the mysteries of being? Maybe so. At least he says somewhere in his article that two 18-year-old hoodlums who bashed in the brains of a storekeeper are murdering an institution, committing an act that 'violates property,' which is one of the most morally gruesome ideas I have ever come across, and which indicates where the ideology of hipsterism can lead. . ."
One answer to Podhoretz comes from John Clellon Holmes, in whose singular presence Jack Kerouac first baptized his Generation. Interpreting the Beat Generation as inclusive of all young people in search of inner and exterior spirituality, Holmes has written: \
"Even the crudest and most nihilistic member of the Beat Generation, the young slum hoodlum, is almost exclusively concerned with the problem of belief. It seems incredible that no one has realized that the only way to make the shocking juvenile murders coherent at all is to understand that they are specifically moral crimes."
Holmes, of course, takes a broad view of the Beat Generation, just as he does of violence, but is his view so broad that it includes the daily newspapers? If all young people in search of spirituality are members of the Beat Generation, are all young people in search of spirituality? Holmes seems to thinks so.
"You had this murky end of a decade, from 1945 to 1950, when everybody was kind of around," he said. "We were all very young, very eager for life, yet we couldn't throw ourselves into politics---that was nonsense---and we couldn't throw ourselves into writing sociological novels because American society was too complicated. All you felt was your youth, your eagerness. You wanted jazz, you wanted truth and the only truth you could accept was the truth you found in yourself, and that eventually came out to a religious truth or a spiritual truth. I think it's a post-war phenomenon---it's changed and it's developed in the last 10 years. The one public fact which hovered on the horizon all the time was war, the atomic bomb. . ."
Holmes has veered away from the beatness of, for example, Kerouac since the days when they were writing novels about each other, but he remains essentially Beat.
"The youth," he once wrote in Esquire, "who last summer stabbed another youth and was reported to have said to his victim, 'Thanks a lot, I just wanted to know what it felt like,' was neither insane nor perverted. There was no justification for his crime, either in the hope of gain or in the temporary hysteria of hate, or even in the egotism of a Loeb and Leopold, who killed only to prove they could get away with it. This was the sort of crime envisaged by the Marquis De Sade 150 years ago---a crime which the cruel absence of God made obligatory if a man were to prove that he was a man and not a blot of matter.
"Such crimes, which are no longer rarities and which are all committed by people under 25, cannot be understood if we go on mouthing the same old panaceas about broken homes and slum environments and bad company, for they are spiritual crimes against the identity of another human being, crimes which reveal with stark and terrifying clarity the lengths to which a desperate need for values which can draw the young. For in actuality it is the longing for values which is expressed in such a crime, and not the hatred of them. It is the longing to do or feel something meaningful, and it provides a sobering glimpse of how completely the cataclysms of this century have obliterated the rational, humanistic view of man on which modern society has been erected."
Meanwhile, back in San Francisco, poet Michael McClure frowned,
"You're interested in sociology," he protested. "I'm not interested in sociology. I'm interested in freedom. Do you know what the French poets say? Do you know what Artaud says? He says sociology is not important. All that matters is superhuman devotions and abominable crimes. All I'm worried about is individual liberty. When I say freedom, I mean spiritual freedom. I mean freedom to follow your own desires."
Although uninterested in sociology, McClure is very sociable. With his walls covered with paintings (some his own and others by friends, all of which someday may possibly be worth more money than McClure will earn in his lifetime) he lives in a typically immense San Francisco apartment with his Wife Joanne, a school teacher of uncommon ability and beauty, and with their three-year-old daughter, Jane, whose good looks already reflect those of her handsome parents. It has also been Jane's heritage to be celebrated in the verse of her father and several of his colleagues.
McClure sometimes works in a gymnasium as an instructor, which to him is the easiest job available for a person who looks forward to a day when he won't have to work at all. Fired by a compelling interest in science and in the possibilities of a new alchemy of human existence, McClure also looks forward to a day when he might become a biochemist. Until then, and probably even after, McClure remains a poet, something he says he has been since he was 14.
After growing up in Wichita, Kansas, McClure first became one of a group of poets who, after they grew up in all different parts of America, gravitated first toward New York before finally settling in San Francisco. This was the pattern followed by many Beat poets, from the plains to the city, except, McClure insists:
"But I am not Beat. I do not belong to tho Beat Generation! I don't live in North Beach, I'm married, I have a child, I don't wear a beard and I'm an atheist."
McClure isn't a murderer, either, but if poetry could kill, his face would decorate Post Offices across the country.
"What's wrong with violence?" he asked, matter-of-factly. "I think it's great. Violence is where you fulfill a desire instantaneously, regardless of the cost or consequences. And getting gasoline and sneaking up on an old man asleep on a park bench and setting fire to him is not fulfilling a desire. Not in a sense that it's a desire that needs to be fulfilled. Why are the kids doing it? They're doing it because they've seen it done in the movies. I believe in violence completely and explicitly as a means toward an end. But I don't believe in people going out and shooting one another. That's absurd. I don't believe in wars. I believe in personal violence. The only thing that's going to matter is when we find out that we're all immortal anyway. And if what we can do, when we don't like someone, is to kill them---and if they kill you---it doesn't make any difference because you are immortal. This is the only state that eventually we can exist in.
"When I was high on peyote, I discovered that I'm immortal. Well, what I'm saying is that all this sociological talk about violence isn't to the point because it's the state, the government that commits the violence, in the sociological sense, and that no one has the courage to commit actual violence, which is a beautiful thing. And which is as much your heritage as hallucination or psyche or anything else. What Podhoretz is talking about is sociological violence.
"Look, we are all predatory. All life is predatory. It depends on other living things for its existence, And, as a predator, one of the heritages we have is that of a predator of space. If you're a predator, you're conscious of space. So you look out and your desire within you projects itself out into that space. And violence, as much as serenity, is part of that heritage. And you can't tell me that there are very many things that are alive that don't depend on the destruction of some other living thing for their own benefit. And the idea of sublimating this thing is an absurdity because what you do in the sublimation is you cut
step on bugs
down your space. And since I think that life is activity and motion and not going toward an enlightenment, the only enlightenment is a complete feeling, a complete realization of the activity and motion that you are going through. That is enlightenment."
Zen Buddhist Gary Snyder doesn't, of course, agree with McClure about enlightenment, but his views on violence are similar and similarly non-violent.
"I don't even step on bugs," he said.
"No," commented his girl friend, poetess Joanne Kyger, "he just steps on people."
In any event, Snyder apparently would like to scrape Podhoretz off his sole.
"I don't see that there's any connection between these sadistic hoodlums in parks and what Kerouac or Ginsberg or anybody else is doing in literature," he insisted, although he explained that he did see a connection in the forces, sociological and otherwise, which have given rise to such disparate forms of beatness.
"What Kerouac and Ginsberg are protesting about are the things in this civilization that create people like that. The ridiculous thing is that all of these horrifying things that have happened are obviously caused by the whole sickness of the culture. And to say now, to try to pin the blame on a few writers is a non sequitur. You might, even say that a mind like Allen's or like Jack's is the kind of a person who has seen the possibilities of this kind of horrid and irrational violence in themselves, and, seeing that possibility, has tried to figure out why it got in them and then to try to create the scene that created them, out of a repugnance of this thing in themselves as much as anything else.
"As far as violence goes, any act done purely is a beautiful thing. What I mean is done with complete knowledge of the motives and consequences and complete acceptance of these. And when I say acceptance of the consequences, I mean quite a bit, because I am a Buddhist and the consequences of murder are enormous. But if one does it with full knowledge of this and in complete command of himself and acting out what he feels to be his deepest inner drive, then it's a beautiful thing. He has done what he had to do. He doesn't even have to think about it. If he is a person who can act that way, then he is aware of it all the time---it's an awareness that's with him, and the consequences are enormous because he has deprived another sentient being of his potential opportunities in his lifetime.
"This question of violence is one that I thought of in terms of Buddhist proscriptions against eating meat. And I tried vegetarianism for a while, not really for religious reasons, but simply because I wanted to see how it felt. But the question resolves itself down to this: you have to realize that the Oriental, the Hindu or Buddhist ideal of complete harmlessness and non-violence is absolutely unrealizable. And the Hindus and the Buddhists see all life as a continuum---animals, human beings and plants, and right down to things being part of the continuum, non-sentient things.
"All right, so you've quit eating meat, you're eating plants. And you're depriving something of life. It's the only way. You drink water and you're drinking down bacteria. The ancient Buddhist monks of India always carried a water strainer to strain their water so they wouldn't drink bugs. And they always had a staff with bells on it they would shake as they walked down a path, to scare away insects so they wouldn't walk on them. That's how far they tried to carry the idea of non-violence. But you have to accept actually at some point within yourself that no matter how you live you're actually living on other life. That all of us are. That it's always violence and always destruction. And that this is simply part of the conditions of being a living person---or a living being of any sort.
"I mean a lettuce screams in agony as you pick it, up and eat it. And the death of a tree is a horrible thing. As a matter of fact, I once worked in a logging camp that had an Indian fellow working in our crew and he was a longhair, that is to say he was an old-type Indian, an Indian that had braids. And one day he quit the camp, and I said, 'What are you quitting for?' And he said, 'I can't stand killing these trees. I hear them shriek every time we fell one,' And he went back and became a medicine man. He did. He became a complete visionary shaman after that and abandoned civilization, quit driving a car, moved out of his frame house and went back to living in a tepee. He went back completely Indian because he said he was so bugged by the killing of trees."
Critic Norman Podhoretz, advancing himself as a point man in defending the literary establishment against the Beat rebellion, doesn't see the Beats rejecting the sociology of their generation with the same totality that they reject its society.
"The ultimate question," he commented, "is the literary question. If one regards the Beat writers as products of the same forces which have produced the other phenomena of the age---juvenile delinquency, drug addiction, violence---then they have another kind of interest, a sociological documentary interest which has nothing to do with the question of their value to literature."
To which the Beats reply that the sociological documentary interest of their literature is only incidental. But they concede it is there.
"The sociology which everyone keeps applying to us is the kind of sociology normally tried by people who are not very intelligent to begin with", said Allen Ginsberg. "And the sociology is just on extension of their own ego-worries, just an extension of the adjustment-type sociology. The extent of their sociology is an evaluation of the clothes or how the clothes resemble Marlon Brando's or Elvis Presley's or the subject matter of the novel and Page Four of the New York Daily News, which worries them all the time. So this isn't sociology. This is a lot of academic bullshit by people who aren't trained sociologists and who know nothing about sociology and who only think they're sociologists. So none of these people have the right to talk about us rejecting sociology because they have rejected sociology. Jack Kerouac has given great sociological explanations.
"In his article, The Origins of the Beat Generation, he gave a long sociological exposition of where the Beat Generation comes from in American society. We are the ones who have been dealing in sociology but the sociology we have dealt with has been an actual sociology in fact. So, who are all these sociologists going around accusing everybody else of not understanding intellectuality what the sociology of the thing is? I know perfectly well I'm a non-conformist and an individual, but when I want my sociology I go to Walt Whitman's Democratic Vista, not to some creepy little conformist who's writing an article in Partisan Review to prove that it's all right for him to be an English instructor and not write.
"And as for what McClure says, to me there is a beauty in murder which every man feels and knows and that is why they sell so many copies of murders in the daily newspapers. It seems to me that the role of middle class critics who have been worried about violence has been to introduce a note of real fascist violence rising up from their own souls and attributing it to the poetry. For instance, Jack, in On the Road, deals with hubcap stealing, or whatever, stealing cars in a very lyrical way which would have pleased Dostoevsky---in a way that's sufficiently mellow and comes out of a large and humane enough human temperament to allow a person to steal like that without objecting to it.
"What Podhoretz and the rest of the critics who have contributed to it is a kind of frightened hysteria, an attribution of violence to the poetry and to 'the life' which has created a false impression all over the United States, because their ideas are disseminated down from Partisan Review and sent down through all the mass media every time they go on television or something like that until finally it reaches the Daily News and the Daily News' idea. So I think it is they who put the worst kind of violence to the poetry. It is they who have associated in the public mind poetry with violence in such a way that they betrayed the muse, that they betrayed poetry. This is a classic spectrum of human emotions that we've dealt with and we've dealt with it openly. They are afraid to deal with it openly and they get frightened of violence and they start calling out that we are a bunch of violent nuts, violent eccentrics. On TV, I heard that a painter murdered two girls and they called it The Beat Generation Murder. I blame that on newspapers, but I finally put the responsibility on Podhoretz's shoulders because it seems to me that Podhoretz is the one who is corrupting literature and connecting it with violence. His violence is his hatred of poetry.
"And I resent it. I resent it because it's piling up all sorts of people at my door who want to come and beat me up, thinking that I'm a switchblade artist. And not only that---it gets even worse. It gets even worse to the point where Podhoretz's ideas and the ideas of the people like him finally filter down through Partisan Review to, say, the University, of Chicago., and the University of Chicago decides that this is all so violent and so they suppress the Chicago Review because it publishes our work. So that Podhoretz's original discussion of how ungentlemanly we are finally winds up with the most fascist kind of censorship."
In certain circumstances, however, Ginsberg said that violence, like medicine and other unpleasantness, can be good for people.
"Someone," Ginsberg explained, "once asked me, 'Do you believe in the derangement of the senses?'---you know, that classic phrase from Rimbaud, the heroic French poet. Well he said in a letter, 'To became a poet, one must become a seer. One makes oneself a seer through 'a long, reasoned derangement of the senses.' That is the use of drugs and what-not. And constantly, like in critical stuff, we're accused of wanting to derange our senses for kicks and what-not. And the answer I gave that person was very straight. Which was, 'American society has gotten us so far removed from our actual self-individuality and our understanding of what our actual senses are that it might be necessary for someone to do violence to himself, to his psyche or even to his body, in order to shock himself almost into the freedom that is necessary for him to have, in order for him to begin operating as a man.'
"This is not that it's a moral good to do it or anything like that, but it's just that the situation in society has gotten so bad that this might be necessary, though the situation in this civilization has gotten so closed down and brainwashed that there is no direct way of searching for freedom any more---one can't step on the street and say one's free. It takes almost a kind of electric shock to the body to do it and to the whole mind. For that reason, ideas like McClure's and plain violence actually have a good therapeutic value, and if you ask any psychoanalyst, he'll tell you that's true."
As Jack Kerouac said, there is a multiplicity of misconceptions about the Beat Generation, and although the difference between the sociological view of violence and the literary view may be muted, so is any attempt to reconcile the two. The point is that there is a difference, and, perhaps, not such a muted one after all. But the popular emphasis has been on the similarity.
"Well," said Kerouac, who has remained a target for the majority of the attacks on the Beat Generation but who bas remained also resilient, willing to talk about it and full of candid charm, disarming even some of those who have been taking pot shots at him, "Well," he said, in his tenor, animated, musing voice, "the conclusion is simply that it is a literary movement, that's all. Podhoretz, he can't say that Marlon Brando is a lout because he portrays louts, eh? We don't extol violence. Sure, I extol Neal---Dean Moriarty is not violent. Holmes is the guy that literally extols violence. He stays home and never sees the horror. He thinks it's all so romantic, like his book, The Horn---he imagines what it was like when Billie Holiday was riding a freight train across Missouri in 1935 and Lester Young hopped in and all that stuff.
"He doesn't begin to realize how it is in mid winter"--and here, Kerouac's voice became lyrical---"how miserable it is to ride freight trains in mid winter. And, in Holmes, the train never stops, keeps going and going, they don't change crews or anything. And it's just absurd."---and Kerouac pronounced absurd as if the word itself were absurd---"And he was the one who said, Holmes was was the guy who said, who talked about that murder of the little crippled boy in the Bronx, and that colored kid pulled the knife out of the kid and said, 'Thanks. That was great.' Holmes said that was Beatly typical . . . No, you know, I think he's the one who brought on the 'violent' tag. And he's a completely unviolent man. He's secluded---he's a literary recluse, Holmes, doesn't know anything directly about most of his subject matter. If he wrote about what he knows---the Middle Class. . . I'm not talking bad about him. I always told him that he shouldn't write fiction. It's ridiculous. What does he know about hopping---Billie Holiday hopping a freight train? And if she did, how did it really happen, what was it really like? He wasn't there, how can he tell? Scott Fitzgerald said, 'Never write about anything you don't know about.'"
Kerouac described his own works as "first-person true stories," and in his constant travels through America, he has known, he added, a whole generation of people living "in poverty and tatters" and in the margin of the law and beyond. But the fact of the matter is that the beauty Kerouac has seen in the hobos and hipsters be has known has not been in their crime but in their creation---in their "long outlines of personal experience and vision, nightlong confessions full of hope that had become illicit and repressed by war, stirrings and rumblings of a new soul (that same old human soul)."
"Jack Kerouac," says Michael McClure, adding his voice to that of others, "is a saint---a Buddhist saint."
Certainly Kerouac's piety has been as manifest in his works as the criminals he has befriended.
". . .So then what horror I felt in 1957 and later in 1958 naturally," he has written in the aforementioned essay, The Origins of the Beat Generation, "to suddenly see 'Beat' being taken up by everybody, press and TV and Hollywood borscht circuit to include the 'juvenile delinquency' shot and the horrors of a mad teeming billyclub New York and L.A. and they began to call that Beat, that beatific. . .bunch of fools marching against the San Francisco Giants protesting baseball, as if (now) in my name, and I, my childhood ambition to be a big league baseball star hitter like Ted Williams so that when Bobby Thompson hit that home run in 1951, I trembled with joy and couldn't get over it for days and wrote poems about how it is possible for the human spirit to win after all! Or when a murder, a routine murder took place in North Beach, they labeled it a 'Beat Generation slaying' although in my childhood I'd been famous as an eccentric in my block for stopping the younger kids from throwing rocks at the squirrels, for stopping them from frying snakes in cans or trying to blow up frogs with straws.
"Because my brother had died at the age of nine. His name was Gerard Kerouac, and he'd told me 'Ti Jean, never hurt any living being, all living beings, whether it's just a little cat or squirrel or whatever, all are going to heaven straight into God's snowy arms so never hurt anything and if you see anybody hurt anything stop them as best you can' and when he died a file of gloomy nuns in black from St. Louis de France parish had filed (1926) to his deathbed to hear his last words about heaven. And my father too, Leo, had never lifted a hand to punish me, or to punish the little pets in our house, and this teaching was delivered to me by the man in our house and I have never had anything to do with violence hatred, cruelty, and all that horrible nonsense which, nevertheless, because God is gracious beyond all human imaginings, he will forgive in the long end. . ." ##
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