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Lions Roar : November 2006
SHAMBHALA SUN NOVEMBER 2006 78 Who were the Beat Generation writers? A grouping certainly, but as Michael Davidson points out in his 1991 examination of mid- century poetics, The San Francisco Renais- sance, there was no unified “Beat” picture in play. The San Francisco scene, he writes, was prone to “sectarian rivalries among persons, manifestos, and subgroups within the city.” The poetries and strategies employed by the various groupings of writers were diverse and disparate from the outset. “Beat” was/is a many-headed thing, rath- er than a coherent, joined-up, on-message grouping. What united these writers was their resistance to the brutalizing confor- mity of middle-century America. This is, ar- guably, of more significance now than ever before. Resistance to normalization is still imperative. The Beats had the march on consumerism (Burroughs’ Algebra of Need—the addiction of consumption), the development of the mass media as a vehicle for social control, the fear of invasion and nuclear holocaust, and the specter of McCarthyism and the anticommunist witch-hunt of that era. Today’s escalated world of global capitalism, beauty and body fascism, 24-hour global mass media surveillance, nuclear pro- liferation, weapons of mass destruction, identity theft, interna- tional terrorism, and the rising specter of totalitarianism across Howl of Resistance / British writer STEPHEN MOONEY says we need the Beats’ example of resistance to oppressive conformity more than ever reotyped mentality, experimenting a great deal with drugs, with psychoanalysis, with hypno-analysis, with writing, and finally arriving at a kind of writing that was like the nature of his own mind, primarily visual. I remember when talking with Burroughs once, I asked him what he was thinking of. He had his hands over his typewriter, hovering, ready to write something. “What are you thinking of?” And he said, “Hands pulling in nets from the sea in the dark.” I said, “That’s a very Blakean image of God the Fisher, or some- thing.” He explained that it was just the visual memory of fisher- men on the beach at Tangiers, pulling in their nets at dawn. Bur- roughs’ thought forms were primarily visual, whereas mine were more verbal, auditory, rhythmic. We were interested in the texture of consciousness and how to notate it on the page, preoccupations that go through to the present for everyone alive of that group. By 1950 Kerouac had begun reading Buddhist texts, in reaction to our friend Neal Cassady, who was involved with Edgar Cayce, a sort of “channeling” specialist somewhat famous in those years. Kerouac thought this was a crude provincial American “Billy Sun- day in a suit,” so maybe go back to the original text relating to me- tempsychosis and reincarnation. Kerouac began reading Goddard’s Buddhist Bible, which had samples of Hinayana and Maha-yana texts, including the Diamond Sutra, and some Vajrayana texts, at least relating to Milarepa and others. And he laid that trip on me. Now as an ex-Communist Jewish intellectual, I thought his pronouncement of the first noble truth, that existence was suffer- ing, was some sort of insult to my left-wing background, since I was a progressive looking forward to the universal improvement of matters, if only through spiritual advancement. Kerouac’s in- sistence was that existence contained suffering. I thought he was trying to insult me, for some reason or other. It took me about two years to get it through my head that he was just telling me a very simple fact. I still remember the first real dharma instruction I got from Kerouac, which was consistent with Burroughs’ laconic cynicism and critique of “all apparent phenomena”: “All conceptions as to Ginsberg works on “Howl” in a friend’s apartment in San Francisco, June, 1956