Monday, March 30, 2009

On the Road: I Just Like the Beat

Did your parents ever ask or have you ever asked your children, "How do you stand listening to the terrible lyrics of your rap and rock music?" It is likely that the response went something like, "I don't listen to the lyrics Mom, I just like the beat." Honestly, I am guilty of saying it. But not until recently did I discover the terrible irony in my response. It turns out the inspiration behind most rock, pop, rap, and r&b music today comes from a very sick and perverted hedonistic and shamanistic philosophy reintroduced and popularized by a small group of crude writers and poets known as the "beat writers."

I was listening to the following lecture by Yale English professor Amy Hungerford's on Jack Kerouac's novel "On the Road." Honestly, I knew of this book but really didn't have a full appreciation of how important this book is to our current political and cultural challenges in America. Thanks to this lecture and the Internet, I now have a new understanding for how Modern and Post-modern American literature, art, poetry have influenced western culture and politics.

Religious, Classical, Humanistic, and Romantic philosophy actually share something in common. They all share the optimistic view that ultimate truth and absolute morality can be known and applied to form a perfect culture and society. However, after the suffering during the Great Depression and the genocide practiced by Stalin and Hitler during World War II a new modern philosophy or nihilism emerged that was inherently and intrinsically pessimistic. Nihilist philosophers were ardent atheists based what they say is the "problem of suffering." Or in other words, because bad things happen to good people, God cannot exist. Nihilism suggested that there is no meaning for life and therefore because there is no God then death causes the cessation of consciousness. The result of this thinking led to the conclusion that if we all die tomorrow, we might as well eat, drink, and be merry today.

In the 1940's and 50's the United States emerged from World War II as the most powerful nation on Earth. Men returned home from the war, got married, and moved their families from the cities out to the suburbs. This new middle class bought cars, dishwashers, laundry machines, and television sets while at the same time participated in organized religion. However, some of the children of the "greatest generation" became delinquent. The movie "Rebel Without a Cause" starring James Dean in 1955 was based on a scientific paper from 1944 by Psychiatrist Dr. Robert Lindner with the same name. This paper ascribed childhood delinquency to the seeming hypocrisy of parents who profess religious spirituality, but demonstrate superficial materialism and consumerism. While this wasn't a logical justification for self-centered behavior, children did use the materialism of their parents to rationalize their hedonism. And children weren't the only ones who used this excuse. The poor in America envied and resented the prosperity of the new middle class used this excuse as well.

Friedrich Nietzsche lost faith in God after the suffering of WW2, Charles Darwin denied God after losing his daughter Annie to disease, and James Joyce (idolized by the beat writers) turned from God over the social and sexual guilt he experienced growing up Catholic. These influential philosophers, scientists, and authors reflected and influenced a general rejection of faith in America and Europe. However, the human soul has an inherent need for spirituality. Unfortunately, parents were ill-equipped to answer their children's spiritual questions regarding the purpose of life. Consequently, this opened the door for the counterfeit and debased philosophies of humanism, and hedonism and an archaic form of spirituality known as shamanism which involves taking mind-altering, hallucinogenic substances.

So, what is "On the Road" about and how does it relate to all this? Honestly, let me just say that I haven't read this book nor do I think I will read it. However, the Amy Hungerford's lectures do a great job at summarizing the book. During the late 1940's a small group of writers at Columbia University in New York claimed to obtain truth from the rebellious, fallen, lost and "beat" generation by living and writing about this self-centered and hedonistic lifestyle. This New York circle of beat writers includes Jack Kerouac, John Holmes, Lucien Carr, Alan Ansen, Allen Ginsberg and William Burroughs. Kerouac's "On the Road" together with Ginsberg's poem "Howl" and Burroughs "Naked Lunch" are the three most important works of the beat writers. These poems and novels triggered obscenity hearings around the country after being ban at many schools like James Joyce's "Ulysses" before them.

"On the Road" by Jack Kerouac's is autobiographical in nature and tells the story of the beat writers with the young man Neal Cassady who is called "Dean Moriarty". Neal Cassady was born in Salt Lake City, Utah but suffered the death of his mother at 10 years of age. He was raised with his alcoholic father in Denver, CO on skid row. Neal was in and out of jail or reform school until 1945 when at age 20 he married LuAnn Henderson and went to New York on their honeymoon where he first met Jack Kerouac and Allen Ginsberg. A year later Neal moved to New York to join the beat writers. There seems to have been a mutual fascination. Cassady lacked significant formal education but tried to sound educated as he tried to emulate Kerouac and Ginsberg. Kerouac on the other hand was just as interested in emulating Cassady and another friend, Herbert Hunke, as Cassady was interested in emulating Kerouac. Ginsberg was fascinated with Cassady for other reasons and had a sexual relationship with him over the next 20 years. The Book chronicles the travels of this group with Cassady across the United States and back to Denver to experience his life of debauchery, drug abuse, and hedonism first-hand.

But unlike Nihilist philosophers who denied any type of spirituality. The Beat writers attempted to mixed into their writing Judeo-Christianity and Eastern Religious thought except when it came to the part about temperance and self-restraint. Their philosophy seemed to be that they could attain enlightenment through drug use and unrestrained sexuality. Their writings refer to several instances of hallucinatory visions while under the influence of illicit drugs. It is no surprise the Beat writers identified with certain Native American tribes and other Southeast Asian groups as "noble savages" who also practice shamanism. In fact, Kerouac and the group make a special side trip to try peyote with a group of Native Americans in "On the Road."

These beat writers automatically garnered a cult following which continues to the present. And not surprising. These writers identified a hedonistic sub-culture, emulated it, and then wrote propaganda to justify and glorify the lifestyle. More and more youth in America and around the world began reading this literature and sought to emulate it, and these and other beat writers continued to glorify the behavior. In addition, these writers inspired a whole generation of musicians who used the influence of Blues and Jazz and created Rock and Roll. Hundreds of Rock and Roll bands including the Beatles, Grateful Dead, Queen, and Bob Dylan claim inspiration from the these beat writers and numerous of songs have been written about them. I realized I have one on my ipod. "Hey Jack Kerouac," Natalie Merchant and 10,000 Maniacs.

But while the rebel kids of the 50's didn't have a cause, the Vietnam gave the kids of the 60's a new justification. Consequently, the "beatniks", "bohemians hedonists" and "hipsters" of the 50's became the "hippies" and "peaceniks" of the 60's in Berkley, California. This counterculture group embraced the sexual revolution and experimented with drugs all while protesting against the war. By the late 70's and early 80's this generation of "baby boomers" finally married and settled down, but the philosophies are still reflected and protected today through social liberalism. After the Vietnam War this group searched for new causes. Many from these "dead beats" remained politically active by joining pro-communist groups united against what they saw was US capitalist imperialism. Later this group gravitated towards environmental issues and are behind the recent "man-made global warming" delusion. Most recently, this group has been advocating for same-sex marriage which they are calling "the civil rights issue of our generation."

MTV, VH1, and BET use the same tactics today as the beat writers. MTV claims it is simply holding up a mirror to society. However, that mirror is only reflecting a specific debased and corrupt sector of society. Consequently, kids across the world are exposed to this depraved sector of society and are seeking more and more to emulate what they see glorified on MTV. So, it is no surprise that we have seen hedonistic behavior spiral out of control with Generation X. Unfortunately, too many in our society say, "kids will be kids" and "I just like the beat" without considering the dire consequences of our unrestrained, family and self-destructive, hedonistic behavior.

So, what happened to the Beat writers? After spending time in France at the Beatnik Hotel and in Mexico and Florida, the movement remained strong in San Fransisco which attracted a large homosexual population with the support of Allen Ginsberg. But despite being very politically powerful in San Fransisco and even having very liberal federal judges but were not powerful enough to overturn proposition 8 defining marriage as only between a man and woman. But the New York and Boston Liberals have been moving in increasing numbers to Vermont and are recently attempting to approve same-sex marriage as Massachusetts and Connecticut have done. As for the beat writers themselves, they have all since passed away. Some earlier then others from overdose or health conditions relating to drug and alcohol abuse. Unfortunately, the self-destructive philosophy continues which resulted in the early deaths Jack Kerouac, Neal Cassady, and others like Elvis Presley, Marlyn Monroe, and Kurt Cobain and hundreds of thousands of youth who just like the beat.

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