It is somehow paradoxical that Rob Wilson’s Beat Attitudes : on the Roads to Beatitude for post-Beat Writers, dharma Bums and cultural-political Activists is presented as a collage because it gives several glimpses -a fragmented vision- of a notion we try to grasp in its wholeness: What is the Beat Generation?
Actually, the collage may be the best form we could wish to have in order to get the best understanding of the Beats. Precursors, beat writers, friends, inspirations, critics, biographers,… Beat Attitudes is an attempt of theorizing without having a theory since what is dealt with is not to be theorized: “joy of heart”, “blessedness” -in other words: feelings.
The first half of the book is focused on something that was not the first beat spirit but yet made the movement take a new, spiritual turn: Beatitude. “Kerouac was meditating when an insight about the Beat Generation overwhelmed him. The word “beat” meant “beatific” he realized and suddenly the movement acquired significant new moral and philosophical underpinnings.” (Ellis Amburn).
In “Lamb No Lion”, Kerouac explained this new definition of beat in the meaning of beatitude:
“Beat doesn’t mean tired or bushed, so much as it means beato, the Italian for beatific: to be in a state of beatitude, like Saint-Francis, trying to love all life.”
Thus, the Beats then considered beatitude as the goal of their quest. I say quest because it is exactly what Kerouac and his friends started first involuntarily, without knowing its object, for they first were a generation of “crazy, illuminated hipsters suddenly rising and roaming America, serious, bumming and hitchhiking everywhere, ragged, beatific, beautiful in an ugly graceful new way.” (Kerouac, About the Beat Generation). They were “just” happy people experiencing their youth and life. But this experience was already built around a first meaning of “beat” since the word was “primarily in use after World War II by jazz musicians and hustlers as a slang term meaning down and out, or poor and exhausted” (Anne Charters, The Portable Beat Reader).Therefore, the first meaning of “beat” appears to fit the beats’ attitudes since we know that they had little money (remember Kerouac inviting Joyce Johnson to a café and she ends up paying for the coffee and Kerouac’s dinner!), they stole gas on the road to keep going; Kerouac was an alcoholic, they took drugs and often stayed awake for several days in a row, writing, driving, partying… I dare say they must have been pretty down and out and exhausted, in every sense of the word.
The feeling of exhaustion is core to beatitude -or beat-titudes-, Holmes elaborates in those terms: “beat means not so much weariness, as rawness of the nerves; not so much “being filled up to here” as being emptied out. It describes a state of mind from which all essentials have been stripped, leaving it receptive to everything around it.” Holmes’s words thus orientates the beat generation towards the idea of necessary void or emptiness that is to be filled when they experience harmony and wholeness with themselves. Being beat may refer to a sort of personal awakening, a type of epiphany that makes you become self-aware and the void is the pre-existing condition for this spiritual find to happen. Henry Miller draws a beautiful parallel with this necessity of emptiness in Hamlet: “Grass only exists between the great non-cultivated spaces. It fills in the voids. It grows between -among the other things. (…) But the grass is overflowing, it is a lesson of morality.”
Emptiness is essential to the beat movement, the beats had to create it: “to be beat is to be at the bottom of your personality, looking up.” (according to Holmes). So, to find beatitude, the beats had to experience emptiness by “practicing a little solitude once in a while” in order to make this void an inner as well as an external reality and let beatitude fill in the voids of their souls. This clearly spiritual and quasi-religious side of the Beats made me understand the new soul-searching mindset they were in better. Their double quest for void and then inner peace with oneself certainly gave way to occasional epiphanies or personal insights.
Beatitude seems to be the expected and long lasted for goal of the “flashes of insight, experiencing the ‘derangement of senses’.”
But how did the beats celebrate this “derangement of the senses” (if it is to be understood as the result of their taking drugs in their attempt of reaching an uncommon self-awareness) when claiming at the same time to a divine blessing and happiness or at least a spiritual disposition for another understanding of life? How did the craziness of their deeds match the religious yearnings they had ? How would you personally understand ‘derangement of the senses’ ?