Friday, June 04, 2010

WHO CAME BEFORE THE BEATS?


Ever since the late fifties a large number of the intellectuals in this country (above) have been bohemians. Even some traditional intellectuals like Bill Buckley had a bit of a bohemian side to them, and enjoyed playing to bohemian audiences.  That's understandable. The 50s intellectuals seemed to be searching for something elusive,  and you always have a grudging respect for seekers, no matter how addled they may be in other respects.  


Before the Beats most intellectuals were attached to universities. There's was a frustrating era because everybody knew the old world had ended with WWII, but nobody had a handle on the new one.  With the radicalism of the Depression years and all the wartime propaganda for our allies Stalin and the Soviets, Marxism now had a place at the university table and a lot of academics didn't know how it fit with traditional liberalism. The response of some of these intellectuals was to be  placeholders. They were determined to shepherd the old ideas and values into the mysterious new era, integrating them with whatever scary radical thing would come next.


It was an odd time, an inbetween time. University presses put out thousands of books with unclear, mushy opinions that nobody wanted to read. Today you won't even find these books in used book stores or thrift store bins. They just don't have an audience. Maybe they never did. Half of the titles had "Crossroads" in the title, as in "Education at the Crossroads." The output of liberal arts universities at this time was so boring and muddled that young people began to self-educate, which is one of the ways the Beat movement began.  

I'm a traditional liberal so I have no sympathy with the liberal/Marxist synthesis that was painfully emerging in the 50s. On a purely human level though, I sympathize with the attempt of academics in mid-century to keep the old wisdom alive. Doing that in a world that had recently been gutted by fanaticism was a perfectly understandable thing to do. The problem was that the old wisdom, at least when it was stated in the old way, was curiously out of sync with the new era. Immensely destructive changes were ahead, and these heroic placeholders were doomed to pass unthanked into obscurity.  I think they knew that would happen, they just didn't know what to do about it.


Anyway,  they were a likable bunch of people who were riddled with funny quirks and affectations as many good people are. Pipes (okay, cigarettes), woolen tweeds,  bow ties, Terry Thomas moustaches...they had it all, as you can see in the films below.






Here (above) an unidentified announcer of that era sits with critic Lionel Trilling, and "Lolita" author, Vladimir  Nabokov. The set is a room filled with statues, wainscoting, pillars, old European furniture and a working oil lamp which functions as a sort of candelabra.  After talking for a bit around the lamp, all move over to the sofa, as if to enjoy cigars and brandy. It's a wonderful world where intellect and culture still have a place. It just seems funny to see all those cultural artifacts crammed into such a tiny space. I like it, though. If this show were still on I'd watch every episode. 


























Nabokov is fascinating, but he doesn't really say anything. Trilling attempts to say it for him and is good-naturedly rebuffed. Boy, you can never get creative people to tell you how they do what they do.

Trilling has real charisma. He has that great tortured look that intellectuals are supposed to have, as if every word was painful to enunciate.  The moderator, Pierre Berton,  does a great job of setting a musical tone that sets up pleasing counterpoints from his guests. It's a great little ensemble. Even if nothing memorable is said, it's wonderful theater.

Aaaargh! I'm too tired to write anymore.

23 comments:

Lester Hunt said...

I would watch that show too, but only if it could have people like Nabokov and Trilling on it. "In those days there were giants in the Earth." On the same theme, I once did a blog post on Frank Lloyd Wright on "What's My Line" and Hayek on "Meet the Press":

http://lesterhhunt.blogspot.com/2008/11/gods-on-tv.html

pappy d said...

The interviewer was Pierre Berton, a TV institution in Canada. How his hair styles changed over the decades!

I love watching Nabokov's face while Trilling is talking. The author's there to try to explain himself as a novelist, but finds himself taking exception to everything Trilling says in his defense.

You can't get acting like that from watching actors.

Eddie Fitzgerald said...

Lester: Nice links! It's always fun to see Wright, and the Hayek was a real treat. He found it difficult to make answers in just a few words, but what he said was solid.

Pappy: Ah, pierre Berton. Thanks for the info. I'm a fan of the guy now.

Vincent Waller said...

My God, a conversation.

RooniMan said...

OLd wisdom in the current era. I see it everyday.

Zoran Taylor said...

I like where this is going, because I've always been fascinated with the next shift that came. What might have happened if beat-era -but not NECESSARILY "beat"- progressive/intellectual/creative energy never shot itself in the foot and became hippie counterculture? What if The Twilight Zone, which pointed the way forward, had an impact equivalent to that of Easy Rider, and the latter had no reason to exist? Were Glam, Art-Rock, Stanley Kubrick and oh, let's say Chinatown REALLY the only outlets for pride in one's own aesthetic sophistication in a "Post-Woodstock World"? I can't even count the number of times I've read words off of sixty-something-year-old pages (don't you just LOVE that smell?) that sound very, VERY modern to me indeed. Mark Twain was as liberal as any thinking person alive today, without a doubt.

I suppose the simple fact that there were tons of young kids whose hormones were fucking with them just as the world around them was fucking them over (privilege schmivilege, there were riots, assassinations, a draft, a bullshit war and tons of police brutality) plus the fact that, like it or not, not EVERY member of the Greatest Generation was a great person and ignorance was NOT invented by the hippies....Well, it just sort of slides one way and doesn't look much like it could go the other. But just because you're angry doesn't mean you can't have a nice suit. I'm just saying.....

pappy d said...

Imagine if you will, a parallel universe. A handsome television producer unwinds at a small New York jazz venue, chainsmoking & drinking espresso. What he doesn't realise is that he's about to witness the premiere of "Howl". Near the end of the recital, he leaps to his feet & strangles Allen Ginsburg with the microphone cord in a benzedrine-fueled rage & flees into the night.

Severin said...

Do you think something like this could ever live again, on the net or elsewhere? Could there be something like this on the net already? Are we already bringing cultural discussions to life on this blog right here and now?! Well, I guess it's not quite the same without tweed suits, greasy hair, and strained social interactions.

I had fun drawing some caricatures, though.

Eddie Fitzgerald said...

Zoran: A very interesting thought! In a parallel universe the 60s revolution might have been more influenced by The Twilight Zone than by Easy Rider. Why did the hippies dominate the 6os, and not one of the other alternative lifestyle movements that were around at the time?

I really don't know why the hippie youth revolt happened. I don't think Vietnam or the assasinations explain it. The hippies released a lot of restless energy that was already there. Where did it come from? I don't know.

I don't really understand why The French Revolution, the American Civil War or the Bolshevik Revolution happened. People seem to be like grasshoppers that go into a swarm mode every once in a while. Maybe that potential is always there but only flares up when restraints are removed. Maybe there was something special about all these cases. I wish I knew.

Amanda H. said...

I don't know how I feel about the "beats" of the fifties.
Maybe I just don't 'get' them or something. I dunno.

thoughtsandlove said...

I should say that was most enjoyable.

Zoran Taylor said...

@pappy d:

Uh............okay.

Thanks.....?

pappy d said...

Oh hell, Zoran, I don't know. Who would YOU assassinate?

I'd say Ginsburg is the key. He knew Ken Kesey, a test subject of MKULTRA & the Merry Pranksters (Neal Cassady drove the bus), Bob Dylan, Tim Leary, Ram Dass. Take him out, & we'd all be wearing ties & thinking there was nothing odd about it.

Zoran Taylor said...

@ pappy d - ......wait, WHAT's odd about wearing a tie?

Zoran Taylor said...

Sorry pappy - I get your point now, but your wording flew just a bit too close to a National Lampoon-ish parody of "imagine-you-were-there" opening narration from an arts & culture-type documentary and it went right past me.

You're probably right, It seems Ginsberg influenced everyone. Do you think Burroughs somehow needed Ginsberg in a cultural sense? Might there have only been a certain number of months after the release of Howl within which Naked Lunch could have been published?

pappy d said...

Sorry, Zoran. I was trying for a Twilight Zone intro like Serling used to do after the opening titles. It just doesn't work without the voice.

Maybe the court victories for "Howl" encouraged them to publish "Lolita" in the States.

talkingtj said...

my impression is that the hippies began as an extension of the beats, they were originally out to live it 24/7 not just experiment then report it like the beats, when the media got wind of the hippie movement they promoted it like it was the next big thing so a lot of naive bored upper middle class kids jumped on the band wagon not knowing fully what they were doing.by the summer of 67 it was too late, a small movement that took their cues from the beats swelled and burst, by 68 the aftermath and the backlash was in full swing, by 70 the older generation began to give way and all the hippie hucksters moved in for the kill, thats were weve been for the last 40 years, a stalement-progress versus tradition versus common sense and standards, neither side winning.

Zoran Taylor said...

@ pappy d -

"I was trying for a Twilight Zone intro"

I got that. What I sensed was like a kind of hybrid "Inside The Actor's Twilight Zone". That's where I missed that you were making a point.

"Maybe the court victories for "Howl" encouraged them to publish "Lolita" in the States."

I believe -I'm not sure- there's actually some kind of irrefutable evidence of that. Like documents of actual Howl-centric debate in the court. I'd need to re-do my research on the subject to tell you anything more than that and this isn't really a great time for that....

pappy d said...

I do have an historical theory. A schism did arise in the beat generation between the pacifists who admired the Christian example of the civil rights movement & those who felt that violence was historically justified by Castro's victory in Cuba. Maybe the optimistic element gravitated away from heroin, bennies & somber clothing to LSD & bright colors.

The media had to invent a new label for them since "beatnik" no longer fit.

pappy d said...

Birdbrain:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zjXMVndc_pQ

(safe for work)

Eddie Fitzgerald said...

Pappy: Allen Ginsburg had a way of making him like you, even when you disagreed with him. In this case though, the content of the poem was so lacking in perspective that I had to stop listening at the halfway point.

Zoran Taylor said...

One thing I can say about Ginsberg that I have not heard anyone say yet: His VOICE holds ENORMOUS potential for caricature and subsequent transfiguration into the voice of a cartoon character of a different (but similar) name and nature, a la Peter Lorre and Larry Fine with Ren and Stimpy respectively. Ditto Burroughs, hilarious voice. And then the two characters should be partnered, just as their inspirations were in real life! (However secretly and perhaps briefly.)

pappy d said...

Eddie, it's a good point, but if you hang in, the 2nd half is funnier. For a punk anthem, it's fairly deep.