A nihilist program is a beautifully democratic approach to literature.
—Paul Goodman, Utopian Essays
The core of the heresy of the Free Spirit lay in the adept’s attitude towards himself: he believed that he had attained a perfection so absolute that he was incapable of sin. Although the practical consequences of this belief could vary, one possible consequence was certainly antinomianism or the repudiation of moral norms. …
Disclaiming book-learning and theological subtleties, they rejoiced in direct knowledge of God—indeed, they felt themselves united with the divine essence in a most intimate union. And this in turn liberated them from all restraints. Every impulse was experienced as a divine command; now they could surround themselves with worldly possessions … now, too, they could lie or steal or fornicate without qualms of conscience. For since inwardly the soul was wholly absorbed into God, external acts were of no account.
—Norman Cohn, The Pursuit of the Millennium
Looking back on it now, it seems peculiarly appropriate that the only real job that the Beat poet Allen Ginsberg ever had—for more than a few weeks, anyway—was in market research. He clearly had a tremendous gift in this direction. For although he later ridiculed his time on Madison Avenue (“We spent $150,000 to learn that most people didn’t want furry teeth,” he scoffed)—as indeed he ridiculed every other aspect of middle-class, bourgeois life—his own career as a poet and spiritual guru depended crucially on his talent as a tireless self-promoter. It was the one talent, in fact, that he indisputably possessed in great abundance.
Readers only vaguely familiar with Ginsberg’s life and work will doubtless find this surprising. When he died at seventy of liver cancer last April, Allen Ginsberg was almost universally celebrated as a major literary figure—and one who, moreover, exercised a benign if sometimes “controversial” influence on the cultural and ethical life of his times. A smiling, sybaritic hippie, lost in clouds of incense and marijuana, chanting mantras, seducing young men, he disparaged the United States while preaching non-violence and love, and taking off his clothes in public at every opportunity. It says a lot about our culture—or perhaps it is one more testimony to Ginsberg’s marketing skills—that such a man should be exalted by the mainstream press as a beneficent or at least harmlessly amusing presence.
The few dissenting voices (which included a note in the May 1997 New Criterion) were drowned out in a chorus—one might say a “Howl,” after Ginsberg’s best known poem—of fulsome eulogy.The New York Times, for example, hailed Ginsberg as “the poet laureate of the Beat Generation,” “one of America’s most celebrated poets,” whose “irrepressible personality … provided a bridge between the Underground and the Transcendental.” An hour-long PBS television documentary that aired in September paraded a long list of luminaries, from Joan Baez to Norman Mailer, to extol his “courage,” his literary and spiritual daring, and (a favorite epithet) his “gentleness.” Not to be outdone, the well-known poetry critic and Harvard professor Helen Vendler writes in the September/October 1997 issue of Harvard Magazine about Ginsberg’s “great gifts to world culture,” “the moral base of his poetry,” and her “own profound gratitude for his work and the life out of which it came.” (“He allowed me my own rage, social criticism, and coarseness,” she explained, no doubt correctly.)
Ginsberg’s friend William S. Burroughs II, Beat novelist and sometime heroin addict, whose paternal grandfather invented the adding machine, got a similarly enthusiastic send-off when he died at eighty-three in August. No one spoke of his “gentleness,” of course. “Gentleness” was definitely not part of Burroughs’s reputation as the author of Junkie, Naked Lunch, and other surrealistic hymns to violence, drug abuse, and extreme sexual degradation. “Bill was never keen on the love-and-peace side of the sixties,” one fan noted. “The only way I’d like to see a policeman given a flower,” Burroughs sneered, “is in a flowerpot from a high window.” Even so, a memorialist in New York magazine assured readers that, whatever his pathologies and fondness for guns, Burroughs was really “a sweet, funny, and lonely man. Just lovely.” And naturally there were plenty of encomia to Burroughs’s “courage,” “candor,” and “strange genius,” his exalted place (in the words of The Los Angeles Times) as “a seminal figure of the Beat Generation.” “Seminal,” indeed: “He spent years experimenting with drugs as well as with sex,” The New York Times cheerfully reported, “which he engaged in with men, women, and children.”
The enthusiastic praise that Ginsberg and Burroughs elicited on the occasion of their deaths was not just valedictory piffle, white lies that surround the dead like a second shroud. During his lifetime, Ginsberg was showered with just about every literary award and honor it was possible to win, short of the Nobel Prize, including the National Book Award, election to the American Academy of Arts and Letters, even, in 1993, the Chevalier de l’Ordre des Arts et Lettres. This enemy of “materialism” and the corporate culture of “Amerika” had his eight-hundred-page Collected Poems published by Harper & Row (now HarperCollins), and received more than one million dollars for his “papers” from Stanford University. Burroughs, who lacked Ginsberg’s charm and craving for publicity, did not prosper to the same extent. But he, too, lived to see himself lionized, both as an important literary figure and as a hero and role model for countless rock musicians, from The Beatles to David Bowie. Having begun as outlaws from the establishment, literary and otherwise, Ginsberg and Burroughs were taken up by a grateful academic establishment desperately in search of something to say. Innumerable papers, monographs, and dissertations have appeared to praise and interpret their works, and both men were the subject of fawning biographies in the early 1990s.
The third celebrated member of the Beat triumvirate, Jack Kerouac—the man who coined the phrase “Beat Generation” (and who, one is reminded again and again in the “literature,” suggested the title of Naked Lunch to Burroughs)—managed to drink himself to death in 1969 at the age of forty-seven. Consequently, he missed out on a lot of what we might call the pre-posthumous adulation showered on his friends Ginsberg and Burroughs when the culture caught up with their radicalism in the 1970s. But Kerouac, too, was subsequently lionized by the establishment he once affected to scorn. Not only are all (or virtually all) his works still in print, but Viking recently honored him with a fat Portable Jack Kerouac, a tribute once reserved for genuinely accomplished writers. There is a scholarly edition of his letters from 1940–1956 (with no doubt more to come) and a special fortieth-anniversary reissue of Kerouac’s most famous book, On the Road, first published in 1957. There are also the usual academic studies and at least one star-struck biography. His home city of Lowell, Massachusetts, even saw fit to name a new park after him in 1987.
About the Beats generally, an obituary for Burroughs in The Washington Post admirably summed up the current state of received opinion. The obituarist quotes from a book of Burroughs’s dreams: “I attend a party and dinner at Columbia. Allen Ginsberg is there and rich. He has founded some sort of church.” The obituarist comments: “This was no dream; this was reality. … [Today,] the church of the Beats is stronger than ever, unquestionably the most significant literary congregation in America since the Lost Generation of Hemingway and Fitzgerald.”
Well, that is partly true. The Beats were tremendously significant, but chiefly in the way that they provided a preview in the 1950s of the cultural, intellectual, and moral disasters that would fully flower in the late 1960s. The ideas of the Beats, their sensibility, contained in ovo all the characteristics we think of as defining the cultural revolution of the Sixties and Seventies. The adolescent longing for liberation from conventional manners and intellectual standards; the polymorphous sexuality; the narcissism; the destructive absorption in drugs; the undercurrent of criminality; the irrationalism; the naïve political radicalism and anti-Americanism; the adulation of pop music as a kind of spiritual weapon; the Romantic elevation of art as an alternative to rather than as an illumination of normal reality; the pseudo-spirituality, especially the spurious infatuation with Eastern religions: in all this and more the Beats provided a vivid glimpse of what was to come.
The chief difference between the Beat Generation and the Sixties was the ambient cultural climate: when the Beats first emerged, in the mid-Fifties, the culture still offered some resistance to the poisonous antinomianism the Beats advocated. But by the time the Sixties established themselves, virtually all resistance had been broken down. It was then that the message of the Beats gained mass appeal. Reaction to the Vietnam War probably did more than anything to enfranchise their antinomianism, though the introduction of the birth-control pill certainly did a great deal to further the cause of the sexual revolution, a prime item on the agenda of the Beats. In short order, the unconventional became the established convention; the perverse was embraced as normal; the unspeakable was broadcast everywhere; the outrageous was met with enthusiastic applause.
In a word, establishment of the Beat “church” was significant as a chapter in the moral and cultural degradation of our society. Regarded as a literary phenomenon, however, what the Beats produced exists chiefly as a kind of artistic antimatter. It would not be quite right to say that its value is nil, for that might imply an innocuous neutrality. What the Beats have bequeathed us is actively bad, a corrupting as well as a corrupt phenomenon. Two things have kept what the Beats wrote in circulation: the academic maw with its insatiable appetite for verbal fodder of any kind, and the unhealthy craving for instances of psychopathology that the Beats not only exemplified but also helped to foster in their work and in their lives.
Of the Beat triumvirate, Kerouac was probably both the most pathetic and least noxious. Psychologically, he was a mess—as indeed were Ginsberg and Burroughs. But, unlike them, Kerouac lacked the knack of sanctifying his pathologies and inducing others to bow down in obeisance. The three met in 1944 when Ginsberg was a student at Columbia College. In 1945, they lived together, with a shifting cast of low-life friends, in an apartment leased by Joan Vollmer, a drug-addicted student at Columbia’s School of Journalism whom Burroughs, despite his homosexuality, married.
Having explained that “it was not long after Bill’s sixteenth birthday that he conducted his first experiments with mind altering drugs,” Burroughs’s biographer Barry Miles gives us a good sense of the Beat life on 115th Street. (Why is it that drug abuse is always described as an “experiment”?)
Bill continued his experiments with drugs, joined by Allen, Jack, and Joan. Joan had developed a liking for benzedrine, which was easily available in nasal inhalers, and she quickly became addicted. Jack took so much that his health suffered; he became very run down and developed phlebitis in his legs. Ginsberg found that benzedrine made him write “stanzas of gibberish” and used it less than the others. … Bill’s friend [Herbert] Huncke took to using the 115th Street apartment as a place for storing stolen goods, once even leaving a stolen car parked outside. Bill was shooting up quite openly in front of everyone.
Burroughs, who had graduated from Harvard a decade earlier, was in and out of jail, living a drug-sodden existence in New York on an allowance from his parents. As Miles explains, “$200 a month, … which in 1946 was plenty to live on, was not enough to feed his habit. Bill began helping Phil White roll drunks on the subway.” Although not as susceptible to criminal machinations as Burroughs, this was Kerouac’s world as well, just as it was Ginsberg’s: the botched world of the an Ivy-leaguer flirting with the underworld from a position of privilege. Kerouac, too, had attended Columbia for a few semesters in the early 1940s, but dropped out in 1942. He enlisted in the Navy in 1943, was discharged for psychiatric reasons a few months later, and drifted back to New York. He was married three times: twice for a matter of months, the last time in 1966 when he was already lost in an alcoholic fog. He had a daughter by his second wife, but hysterically denied paternity and refused to pay a penny for child support until the child was ten years old (at which point the court ordered him to pay twelve dollars a week until the child was twenty-one). When not “on the road,” he spent most of his adult life living with his mother.
Although predominantly heterosexual, Kerouac also had sex with Ginsberg and Burroughs (who in turn had sex with each other). For all of them, sex functioned chiefly as a prop to wounded narcissism. For Ginsberg and especially for Burroughs, this transformed sex into an obsessive, predatory activity in which an endless stream of “partners”—male or female, young or old—became little more than discardable accessories to masturbation and fantasies of absolute transcendence. Kerouac’s insecurities hobbled this aspect of his narcissism, making him somewhat less promiscuous but also distinctly more helpless than his friends.
Kerouac famously wrote On the Road in less than three weeks on a single continuous roll of paper: 175,000 words in twenty days. In this he was abiding by the procedures he had outlined in his once-famous manifesto “The Essentials of Spontaneous Prose” (1953). Two samples:
LAG IN PROCEDURE. No pause to think of proper word but the infantile pileup of scatological buildup till satisfaction is gained, which will turn out to be a great appending rhythm to a thought and be in accordance with Great Law of timing.
CENTER OF INTEREST. Begin not from preconceived idea of what to say about image but from jewel center of interest in subject of image at moment of writing, and write outwards swimming in sea of language to peripheral release and exhaustion—Do not afterthink except for poetic or P.S. reasons. Never afterthink to “improve” or defray impressions, as, the best writing is always the most painful personal wrung-out tossed from cradle warm protective mind—tap from yourself the song of yourself, blow!—now!—your way is your only way—“good”—or—“bad”—always honest, (“ludicrous”), spontaneous, “confessional” interesting, because not “crafted.”
It is possible that such stuff once seemed fresh. Nowadays, it reads as sub-Romantic adolescent nonsense, the kind of thing you hope high school teachers are busy discouraging. On the Road, too, is a period piece: it is the literary equivalent of the huge fins on a 1950s Cadillac, though not as impressive. Kerouac’s flat “this-happened, then-this-happened, then-this-happened” prose is a caricature of Hemingwayesque precision: a barren rather than a pregnant sparseness.
We drove to Terry’s family shack. It was situated on the old road that ran between the vineyards. It was dark when we got there. They left me off a quarter-mile away and drove to the door. Light poured out of the door; Terry’s six other brothers were playing their guitars and singing.
In short, an insomniac’s dearest wish. Truman Capote had the last word on Kerouac’s prose when he observed that “it isn’t writing at all—it’s typing.”
It is impossible to look so kindly on Ginsberg’s or Burroughs’s literary work—or so indulgently on their lives. Significantly, the most famous work of both writers—Ginsberg’s Howl and Other Poems (1956) and Burroughs’s Naked Lunch (1959)—first came to public notice through the obscenity suits they provoked (which, like all court decisions that promote pornography, are invariably described as “landmark” by their partisans). As was seen clearly when the works first appeared, their primary claim is not literary but ethical or moral. More precisely, both issued a defiant challenge to prevailing moral standards, Howl in its glorification of drugs, madness, and promiscuous sex, Naked Lunch in its grisly depiction of depravity, sexual torture, and heroin-induced dementia. The challenge, alas, encountered no effective resistance. In one of the many flattering obituaries that appeared about Burroughs, a long-time associate is quoted as saying that “William Burroughs opened the door for supporters of freedom of expression.” Obituaries of Ginsberg were full of similar testimony: the poet as crusader for free speech. In fact, both writers contributed heavily to the debasement of the debate over free speech by implicating it irrevocably in the defense of pornography. If they “opened the door” on anything, it was on the academic and social enfranchisement of pornography as a morally neutral matter of “lifestyle.”
Most of Ginsberg’s poetry is little better than doggerel. “Hum Bom!” (1984) is typical.
I Whom bomb? We bomb them! Whom bomb? We bomb them! Whom bomb? We bomb them! Whom bomb? We bomb them! Whom bomb? You bomb you! Whom bomb? You bomb you!
And so on, for two pages. Ginsberg’s style is often praised as “Whitmanesque” by its fans, but that is a calumny upon Whitman. It is true that, like Whitman, Ginsberg makes abundant use of anaphora, repeating certain phrases again and again for rhetorical effect. But what was fresh and individual in 1855, when Whitman published the first edition of Leaves of Grass, seems, in Ginsberg’s hands, mannered, pretentious, hectoring. There’s much more wind than Whitman in Ginsberg’s verse. In the breathless effervescence of Song of Myself, Whitman transformed megalomania into poetry: the merely personal is lost in an almost mystic apprehension of nature. In Ginsberg, the megalomania is always personal. His preachy verse lurches from the sickly sentimental, to the pornographic (“Sweet Boy Gimme Yr Ass”), to the politically tendentious (“Verses Written for Student Antidraft Registration Rally 1980”). There are several poems to drugs: “Mescaline,” “Lysergic Acid,” “A Methadrine Vision in Hollywood,” etc., and lots of four-letter words and descriptions of sex acts.
“Kaddish” (1959), after “Howl” his best-known poem, is meant to be an elegy for his mother, who died in an asylum in 1956 shortly after Ginsberg authorized that she be given a lobotomy. Some people have claimed to find it moving. It is a long, shapeless, stream-of-consciousness rant in which Ginsberg settles various family scores and says a lot of disgusting things about his mother that, because of the “Whitmanesque” bad writing, are supposed to be touching.
“Howl,” in addition to being Ginsberg’s most famous poem, also epitomizes a central mendacity of the entire Beat enterprise. In essence, the poem is a paean to madness and drug abuse as the only really authentic responses to life in a repressive society: “I saw the best minds of my generation destroyed by madness, starving hysterical naked, / dragging themselves through the negro streets at dawn looking for an angry fix. …” Of course, far from being “the best minds” of his generation, “the angelheaded hipsters” whom Ginsberg saw destroyed, in the psychiatric institution where he was incarcerated for eight months in the late 1940s, or later when he became a prophet of psychedelia, were the unhappy misfits of a prosperous and overindulgent society. In romanticizing their madness, Ginsberg deliberately falsified their suffering. As the critic Norman Podhoretz observed in the August 1997 number of Commentary (“My War with Allen Ginsberg”), Ginsberg’s suggestion that madness provides access to a higher reality is “heartless nonsense.” “There was,” Podhoretz notes, “something cruel about drafting such pitiable creatures into the service of an ideological aggression against the kind of normal life to which they would have given everything to return.”
This glorification of madness, drug abuse, criminality, and excess is a defining current of the Beat sensibility. Burroughs’s biographer Barry Miles tells us that all the Beats “shared a passionate desire to ‘widen the area of consciousness,’ ” and cites their insatiable appetite for drugs as one evidence of this desire. In 1966, Ginsberg even testified before Congress about the “mind expanding” potential of psychedelics. In fact, as the philosopher Harvey Mansfield has observed in his essay “The Legacy of the Late Sixties,” the idea that drugs are an aid to “mind expansion” is “an illusion so pathetic that one can hardly credit that it was once held.” It is a prime example of what the historian Christopher Lasch once called “The Banality of Pseudo-Self-Awareness.” The central appeal of drugs, as Mansfield noted, “is that of infinite power together with infinite desire.” It is not an accident that a celebration of drugs went hand in hand with the sexual revolution and the tremendous upsurge in juvenile political radicalism. Here is Timothy Leary describing Ginsberg’s reaction to a dose of psilocybin in 1960:
Allen, completely naked except for his glasses, waved a finger in the air. “I’m the Messiah,” he proclaimed. “I’ve come down to preach love to the world. We’re going to walk through the streets and teach people to stop hating. … We’ll call Kerouac on Long Island, and Kennedy and Khrushchev and Bill Burroughs in Paris and Norman Mailer. … We’ll get them all hooked up in a big cosmic electronic love talk. War is just a hang-up.”
“And then,” Leary noted in a memoir, “we started planning the psychedelic revolution.”
There is something highly comic in this preposterous spectacle, of course—especially in the prospect of calling on Norman Mailer to help with the envisioned love march. But there is nothing at all funny about the many shattered lives that the Beats’ glorification of excess left in its wake. William Everson, a second-tier Beat propagandist and poet, has written that the rise of the Beats marked the “reemergence in the twentieth century of the Dionysian spirit.” In a sense this is right. But it would be closer to the truth to say that the rise of the Beats marked the elevation of criminal irresponsibility in American society to a new position of romance and respectability. Who knows how many lives were blighted as a result of Ginsberg’s proselytizing on behalf of drugs and promiscuous sex?
Burroughs’s even creepier world, marked by paranoia and unrelieved sordidness, has left a number of individual casualties we know about quite well. It would be difficult to overstate the loathsomeness of Burroughs’s opinions. Asked about Christianity, he said: “I’m violently anti-Christian. It was the worst disaster that ever occurred on a disaster-prone planet, the most virulent spiritual poison. … Fundamentalists are dangerous lunatics. There’s really no place for them in an over-crowded life boat. They’re a menace.”
Burroughs apparently thought women were a menace, too. He once advised Peter Orlovsky, Ginsberg’s boyfriend, to “take a tip from me, kid, and steer clear of ’em. They got poison dripping all over ’em.” In an interview from 1969, Burroughs explained that “I think love is a virus. I think love is a con put down by the female sex. I don’t think it’s a solution to anything. … I think they [women] were a basic mistake, and the whole dualistic universe evolved from this error.” Ginsberg recalled that Burroughs, in a fit of paranoia, believed that women were extraterrestrial agents and that “maybe you had to exterminate all the women, or get rid of them one way or another. Evolve some sort of male that could give birth by parthenogenesis.”
Barry Miles claims that Burroughs later “modified” his feelings about women. Perhaps he did. In any event, in 1951 Burroughs was living in Mexico with his wife, Joan, and the young son he had fathered. Unable to procure her favorite amphetamines, Joan was drinking a quart of tequila a day—which, Burroughs’s biographer tells us, cost four cents, “the cost of a boy,” whose services Burroughs’s availed himself of regularly. Burroughs’s drug of choice at the time seems to have been yage (a hallucinogen that Ginsberg indulged in frequently as well). He was also drinking heavily. One afternoon, he and Joan were very drunk at a friend’s apartment. “Bill opened his travel bag,” Miles recounts in his biography, “and pulled out the gun.” Burroughs then said,
“It’s about time for our William Tell act. Put a glass on your head.” They had never performed a William Tell act before but Joan, who was also very drunk, laughed and balanced a six-ounce water glass on her head. Bill fired. Joan slumped in her chair and the glass fell to the floor, undamaged. The bullet had entered Joan’s brain at the temple. She was pronounced dead on arrival at Red Cross Hospital.
Burroughs jumped bail and fled Mexico rather than stand trial. He later said that it was his wife’s death that made him a writer, forcing him into “a lifelong struggle, in which I have no choice except to write myself out.” Another choice might have been to lead a responsible life and take care of the son he had fathered and the daughter he had inherited from his wife’s previous marriage. But Burroughs abandoned them both to other family members. His son survived until 1981, when he finally managed to drink himself to death at the age of thirty-three. Burroughs claimed to have felt badly about that, too.
There is not much to be said about Burroughs’s writing. It consists of semiliterate ravings by a very sick mind, a kaleidoscope of surrealistic depictions of drug-taking and sex. One of Burroughs’s favorite scenarios was to picture young boys being simultaneously hanged and sodomized. Nevertheless, great claims have been made for Burroughs’s writing, particularly Naked Lunch. One academic essay compares Burroughs’s book with Wittgenstein’s Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus: “the sex and sadism,” this writer tells us, “springs not from the diseased mind’s explosion into a chaos of violence and obscenity but from the major conventions of a literary genre and from the world-view suggested by the procedures of philosophical analysis and implied in the early work of Wittgenstein.” Only slightly less ridiculous was the claim made by the critic and novelist Mary McCarthy in 1963 that there were “many points of comparison” between Jonathan Swift and Burroughs, and that, “like a classical satirist, Burroughs is dead serious—a reformer.” McCarthy was wrong. Burroughs was not a reformer. Unlike Swift, he had no ideal to oppose to the degradation his books depicted. On the contrary, he was a cynical opportunist who realized that calling his work “satire” could help exempt it from legal action.
One of the most remarkable things about the Beat Generation was the extent to which its spokesmen managed to con a gullible public into accepting their publicity. They told the world that they were rebelling against a drab, repressive society, and the world believed them. In fact, when the Beats hove into view, in the late Forties and early Fifties, American society was vibrantly alive. In the aftermath of World War II, it was confident, prosperous, and dynamic, helping to rebuild a shattered Europe and rising to contain the newly militant Soviet threat. Notwithstanding the distraction of Senator McCarthy and his hearings, domestic life in the United States had never offered young people more real freedom, economically, socially, or intellectually. Universities were newly galvanized and cultural life was marked by a seriousness of purpose and level of accomplishment that have never been regained.
The Beats disparaged all this, preferring fantasies of absolute liberation to the real freedoms that surrounded them. Like the medieval heretics Norman Cohn wrote about in The Pursuit of the Millennium, the Beats cultivated an extreme narcissism that bordered on self-deification and that “liberated them from all restraints” and allowed them to experience every impulse as “a divine command.” What Norman Podhoretz observed of Ginsberg was also true of the Beats generally: they “conjured up a world of complete freedom from the limits imposed by [bourgeois] responsibilities.” Podhoretz added, “It was a world that promised endless erotic possibility together with the excitements of an expanded consciousness constantly open to new dimensions of being: more adventure, more sex, more intensity, more life.” Alas, the promise was illusory. Instead of an “expanded consciousness,” the Beats purchased madness, ruination, and, for many, an early death. Their attack on bourgeois responsibility led not to greater freedom but to greater chaos. The erotic paradise they envisioned turned out to be rife with misery.
In a memorable image, Immanuel Kant spoke of a dove that, soaring above the ground and feeling the resistance of the air, imagines that “its flight would be easier still in empty space.” The dream of absolute fulfillment cultivated by the Beats is just as illusory and just as dangerous. The Beats, like their successors in the Sixties, have often been described as “idealists.” But fantasies of total gratification are not the product of idealism. They arise from a narcissism that, finding the world unequal to its desires, retreats into a realm of heedless self-absorption. Modesty, convention, and self-restraint then appear as the enemies rather than as the allies of humanity. In this sense, the Beat Generation marks a step back from civilization itself. As Walter Bagehot noted many years ago, savages prefer “short spasms of greedy pleasure to mild and equable enjoyment.” Ginsberg, Burroughs, and Kerouac were all on the side of the savage. That their existential heresy was not only perpetuated but mythologized and spread abroad as a gospel of emancipation is something for which we have the Sixties to thank—or to blame. The Beats did a remarkable job of marketing their perversions and self-indulgences. But just as America’s cultural revolution drew on the example of the Beats to propagate its radical antinomianism, so the Beats required the Sixties to complete their own apotheosis.
This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 16 Number 2, on page 4
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