Monday, June 21, 2010

Readings: The Hipster as Horror Show

A couple of days ago, while delving in the dusty obscurity of the university archives, I came across a 1965 Encyclopedia Britannica reprint entitled, The Year’s Developments in the Arts and Sciences – Literature, authored by Stephen Spender. As 1965 was a watershed year for me—the year I graduated high school and entered the University of Michigan as an English literature major, I brought the little volume back to my desk to read it, and remember.

Stephen Spender’s name, but not really his work, was well known to me. He is described in the front of the booklet as “poet, critic, editor, translator, and lecturer.” That covers a lot of ground. He first provides the reader with a survey of some of the notable novels published in 1964, and then moves on to poetry. Of the novelists covered, I had read at least one novel by several (Saul Bellow, William S. Burroughs, William Golding, Christopher Isherwood, Jack Kerouac, Norman Mailer). Of the rest, I knew the names of some, although I’ve never read any of their works (Louis Auchincloss, John Braine, Anthony Powell, Angus Wilson), while I’d never heard of the others (John Stewart Carter, Elizabeth Taylor, Keith Waterhouse.)

I was sailing right along, enjoying Spender’s insights into the works he was discussing, until I got to Spender's exposition of Jack Kerouac’s Desolation Angels. This happens to be my favorite Kerouac novel. Spender has a few nice things to say about the beginning part of the book, in which Kerouac writes of his alter ego’s stint as a lookout atop a fire tower on Desolation Peak in northwestern Washington. But then Spender, in my humble opinion, loses it:

After 120 pages, however, Kerouac, thinly disguised as a character called Jack Duluoz, descends from the heights to San Francisco, and now we are among the beatniks with their beards and blue jeans; their stage properties of the bed and bottle in the pad; their ritualistic parties; their cult of an incommunicable witless slang with which they wish to communicate with everybody; their resort to alcohol, drugs, and sex, which they regard as Aladdin lamps supposed, after rubbing, to produce the genie of spontaneous utterance; their pretentious anti-intellectual streams of ideas; their name-dropping acquaintance with God, Christ, Buddha; their air of superiority over everyone who is disciplined, intelligent, industrious, humble; their total incapacity to enter into any real interchange of conversation; the tendency of all their activities toward the brawl, the prayer meeting, or the sexual orgy (all and any of which they regard as interchangeable); their lives forever verging on a nonstop party where everyone is proving to everyone else (down to stripping off the last inch of clothing) how natural he is and how spontaneous. Everyone here is a genius, but no one say anything interesting.


So “uncontrollable involuntary thoughts” become the criterion by which everything is judged. This is so unreliable a standard that Kerouac’s world is one in which people are totally lost, unable to do anything except try to live up to the act of self-conscious spontaneity which is the common pretense of the group.

Spender totally decompensates when faced with that which he cannot understand, and of which he cannot, therefore, approve. Kerouac and his hip friends are not playing the game; they are flouting the rules; and to make the whole thing worse—it works! (Kerouac lives on. But John Stewart Carter?)

Moving on to poetry, Spender laments the recent death of T.S. Eliot. Now Eliot is a man of whom Spender can most certainly and vehemently approve. This, even though Eliot, like Kerouac, has had visions of his world as a “wasteland”:

Eliot, as it were, built critical awareness into his poetry. The reader discovers in the poem the values which support its culture. In T.S. Eliot, critical consciousness of the problem of writing poetry in a fragmented society is inseparable from the act of writing the poem. The conflict between a tragic awareness of the destructive forces and an intellectual determination to construct something affirmative upon their denial is the basic drama of his work, both poetry and prose. [...] What was new in the early Eliot was not the aestheticism but the intensity of his disgust at modern life and his intelligent transfusion of a Baudelarian sensibility into English poetry.

Apparently Kerouac transfused too much Rimbaudian Drunken Boat and too few Flowers of Evil. Tsk. In Spender’s world, the arbitrary must dominate the spontaneous, lest all hell break loose and Saint Stephen be unsure of what’s real. It’s either balls or brains; but never both. Choose one, won't you, please?