Wednesday, May 19, 2010


In German and Latin, the name “beat” derived from “Beatus” means “happy.”

In Swiss, the name means “blessed”.

Lisa Phillips, in her article, Beat Culture: America Revisioned, alludes to the contested nature of the meaning of “beat”, derived from the name that the Beat Generation eventually donned. She reveals that Herbert Huncke was the first to use the term in conversation, while John Clellon Holmes was the one who deemed the three iconic Beat poets—Allen Ginsberg, Jack Kerouac, and William Burroughs—as members of the Beat Generation in a New York Times article published in 1952.

Common readings of the term “beat” refer to the notion of being “beaten down”: a reference to those who are downtrodden but still alive and kicking. The term also provokes a notion of unbridled vengeance as the repressed fight back after a history of being mistreated. However, Phillips fails to mention that art from this period hardly gave witness to this notion of being burnt out or overrun. Rather, the work strove for an aesthetic defined by a distinct sense of vivacity—albeit sometimes nihilistic—that portrayed the immediacy and immanence of the fast and furious lives of the Beats. This sense of gestural drive is particularly apparent in the work of Franz Kline. It was in the search for the transcendental that the Beats were able to portray the street reality of their lives.

Alternately, the movement could be understood through the auditory lens of beats in music, particularly jazz improvisation. Not only are beats the seminal element and driving force of music, but contemporary musicians with whom the Beats were in cahoots with, redefined the ways in which beats were previously used in musical scores. Suddenly, the emphasis was on the downbeat, or the upbeat, or neither. The use of repetition with slight variations, as is apparent in the work of Wallace Berman, was certainly audible in Jazz. The immediacy of improvisation, mirrored in the gestures of the Abstract Expressionists, particularly Jackson Pollock, spoke to the urgency of time as the Beats sought the most heightened experiences in the present rather than re-presentations of those experiences.

The sociopolitical climate of the era lent itself to this frame of thinking and producing art. A meaning of the term “beat” that Phillips omits is that commonly used in theatrical texts where the word is used to signify a rest, a moment of silence, or a changed intention of the actor. This reading of “beat” can be ascribed to the liminal space between what the Beats considered to be the reality and the promise of American life (Phillips, 26). The Beats existed in the betweenness of wars. As the generation that came of age in the shadow of a World War, who also saw the potential for nuclear annihilation on the horizon, the Beats existed in a beat of relative rest. Consequently, the Beats turned to any visionary experience that would allow them to temporarily escape the reality of their corporeal existence. They sought transcendence whether through religion or drugs in order to find that beat, that moment of silence between the world’s destructive episodes. This moment of silence, of course then reproduced in poetry readings, would become the defining characteristic of the Beats in the media. Kerouac, at the Brandeis Forum in 1958, later reasserted his initial interpretation of “beat” to its spiritual connotation in reference to things that were “beatific.” This reading is congruent with Phillips’ mention that the Beats were interested in a renaissance of spirituality to avoid the coercion of culture enforced by the increasingly mediatized culture of the time.

The most ironic component of the Beats’ lifestyle was the sense of community created in their Bohemian adoption of anti-conformist beliefs; which by establishment, rendered them a collective of counterrevolutionaries rather than individuals. It was the Beats’ attempt to escape the beaten track that rendered them susceptible to cooption by the mainstream. Moreover, while Phillips’ article includes a picture of an African American man drinking from a water fountain with the sign “Colored” in the background, and she writes of the Beats’ interest in the “undiscovered man,” there is a distinct omission of the notion that the Beats were not nearly as obscured from society as some of its other constituents. Thus, while the Beats have been enshrined in pop culture as emblems of rebellious counterrevolutionaries, there was an entire race of people who would soon redefine the notion of a history of being “beat” who would reclaim the forefront of social consciousness in the coming years.

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