March 5, 2010


What follows is a short selection of quotes from an essay by Norman Mailer, entitled “The White Negro.” The essay and some of the conclusions which Mailer draws are flawed, and famously so, and he admitted half as much later in his life. The essay, however, is not without merit, especially those passages which examine the psychology of the Beats, here referred to as “hipsters.”

It may be fruitful to consider the hipster a philosophical psychopath, a man interested not only in the dangerous imperatives of his psychopathy but in codifying, at least for himself, the suppositions of which his inner universe is constructed. [....] the psychopath is a rebel without a cause, an agitator without a slogan, a revolutionary without a program: in other words, his rebelliousness is aimed to achieve goals satisfactory to himself alone; he is incapable of exertions for the sake of others. All his efforts, hidden under no matter what disguise, represent investments designed to satisfy his immediate wishes and desires.

That part about psychopaths is interesting, and I want to come back to it. But first:

What happened to the Beats? Movements rarely vanish; they usually evolve. The evolution of Beat poetry seems reasonably easy to trace: one branch grew into the acid-washed music and associative poetry of the Sixties; one branch grafted itself to the burgeoning (and often bourgeois) confessionalists. I'd go as far as to suggest that the phrase “codifying...the suppositions of which his inner universe is constructed” is a fair, if incomplete, characterization of confessional poetry: a seed buried in the psychology of the Beats.

Mailer draws many connections (some of them patently offensive) between the Beats and the black culture of the first half of the 20th century, particularly jazz culture. He expresses the manner in which young poor and middle-class whites glommed on to black culture, absorbing the rebellious expressiveness of the black “lifestyle” and the “primitive” idiom of jazz. Mailer makes the daft assertion that suffering and oppression enriches a culture, and seems nearly envious of how “beat” the blacks in America were.

The Beats were not vapid or parasitic, sponging significance from an oft-oppressed race and culture. Rather, the Beats constructed identity and did so to a specific purpose. What Mailer identifies as psychopathy seems more like consumerism to me, and indeed the Beats strike me as cultural aficionados, shoppers in the vast mall of the arts and of human experience, which includes religion, myth, regionalism, literature, vice, sexuality, and politics. Their psychology and aesthetic are assemblages, not finished and coherent models. Mailer interprets this as purposeless, as playing in the mud, but it seems that the creative product was the purpose, the means was the evolving model. The Beats created through cross-contamination, by mixing their influences, and they did so, perhaps, to reveal life as a mingling affair, a performance, an experience which cannot be deferred to a church, state, corporation, retirement, or the afterlife. They also seemed to understand the effect of consumerism and the importance and opportunity inherent in managing influences and consumption. If we are what we eat, the Beat logic goes, we should pay attention to our diet. Their chose to consumer elements of culture which were beautiful, ephemeral, complex, and human, which stood in stark contrast to the homogeny which popular culture proffered.

And as much as I argue for poets serving a societal role, I bristle at Mailer’s assumption that artists must serve a radical or revolutionary function to be socially relevant or culturally responsive. Mailer conveniently overlooks the social purpose present in much of the Beat’s work, from “America,” to “Smokey the Bear Sutra,” to “Junkie.”

Mailer too infers that the Beats were ultimately doomed by their infantile psychology, which he believed made them susceptible to, among other things, totalitarianism. This cynicism ignores the evolution of the movement, but ignores too that their cultural success allowed their work to become a commodity, which inevitably opened the Beats to parody. The specific cultural pastiche behind the Beats became dated; culture moved on, and the Beats became the poet-as-cliche in the later half of the 20th Century. The underlying psychology of the Beats, however, continued to be revived in artistic movements, from Warhol to Grunge music.

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