Losing the Beat

What turned me off of beat literature? Good question. Mostly I think it is just aesthetic temperament. In The Birth of Tragedy Nietzsche divided aesthetics into two camps: the Dionysian and the Apollonian. The former loves art that's free, energetic, emotional, filled with longing and sensuality. This is the impulse that guides most of beat literature, and in the American tradition it goes right back to Emerson and Whitman.

In A Supermarket in California, Ginsberg calls Whitman "dear father, graybeard, lonely old courage-teacher." And in On the Road, Kerouac captures this Dionysian impulse perfectly while describing Sal Paradise following Dean Moriarty and Carlo Marx through the dark streets of New York:

... and I shambled after them as I've been doing all my life after people who interest me, because the only people for me are the mad ones, the ones who are mad to live, mad to talk, mad to be saved, desirous of everything at the same time, who... burn, burn, burn like fabulous yellow Roman candles exploding like spiders across the stars.
The Dionysian temperament is highly seductive. I have always adored women with this primal sensuous energy, but it would be (and has been a few times) a disaster for me to fall in love with them. I am, for whatever reason, essentially Apollonian by nature, which means I am partial to balance, restraint, lucidity, order, spareness, clarity. While I am often moved by Dionysian art and artists (Whitman and Dostoyevsky really do it for me), I can't live there. For me it's Hume, not Coleridge. Neo-classical facades, not swirling Baroque excess. Auden and Larkin rather than Ginsberg or Burroughs.

There was a time before I knew this about myself, however, when I was very much affected by the beats. They influenced my writing and thinking a lot. But there wasn't much romance in being a bodhisattva for me. See, all that dynamic beat energy is like any other form of energy. It's subject to the second law of thermodynamics: the entropy of any totally isolated system not at thermal equilibrium will tend to increase over time.

For me, art is about the struggle for equilibrium and the desire not to become a totally isolated system. Art is more a process of constraining and shaping energy than merely releasing it in "fabulous yellow Roman candles that explode like spiders across the stars." Indeed, Kerouac's writing is something like the second law of thermodynamics: a wonderful explosion followed by a few sputters and increasing entropy. Read his late work. He drank himself into an embittered right-wing haze in his mother's living room, then keeled over dead. I suppose I enjoy a good explosion as much as the next guy. I just can't live there.


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