beats vs. beatniks

The Digestion of an American Myth

by Grant L. Allen

Our Founders     The distortion that a sign suffers as it crosses over into myth is paradoxical in that the original idea is simultaneously reduced and enlarged. In Myth Today Roland Barthes writes, "Myth is speech stolen and restored," but when it is restored, we find that the distortion that it has undergone results in its being both more and less than it was before it became a myth.

The original sign (signifier and signified) is enlarged partially because of its very status as a myth; It achieves a new and wider acceptance in the social consciousness. At the same time, as the result of its traveling through the "language machine," an original, often complex concept is reduced into a single signifier. This signifier comes to represent a concept that, previous to its becoming a myth, had to be experienced or explained at length in order to be understood. To a large extent the original concept is devoured by society and the end product is, if I pursue this metaphor, linguistic excrement. I use this description because in many cases complex ideas are reduced to a single word or catch phrase that becomes practically meaningless in its attempt to encompass a much larger group of ideas than a single sign is able to support. As the price for its acceptance into the mass mind something essential is invariably lost. The dull tool that is language is blunted further. In some situations people end up arguing over something they fundamentally agree upon simply because they define their words differently. The creation of myth magnifies this problem.

Our Founders     The mythic sign is like a jigsaw puzzle piece that must be made to fit into the enormous puzzle of language that is passed to us through history; That piece never seems to fit in its original form. Society, in its attempt to make this new piece fit, is invariably forced to trim and add to the piece here and there in an attempt to make it fit into the larger framework of language. In becoming a part of this framework the new myth takes on a new importance while at the same time losing part of itself. As it is assimilated the original idea is in many ways reduced to the lowest common denominator of society's language. Society's only way of understanding a new idea is through its existing language, complete with all of its old assumptions and underlying ideologies. I will use the myth of the "beatnik" to illustrate this process, because I feel that during the Fifties the "beat" idea was devoured by society and excreted as the beatnik myth.

Our Founders     "Beat" as it refers to an idea and a generation, was a word first coined by Jack Kerouac at the beginning of the fifties. It produced icons that run the gamut from Dean Moriarty, the protagonist of Kerouac's novel On the Road, to Dobie Gillis' goateed sidekick Maynard G. Krebs. In the distance between Dean and Maynard we can witness the incredible distortive effect that myth has on reality. These icons represent, to some extent, the difference between the "beats" as they knew themselves and the "beatniks" as they were defined and translated into myth by a Fifties mind set. A large part of the distortion that the "beats" suffered was due to their intentional opposition to the conformist consumer nature of 1950s America. Mainstream society's attempts to understand the "beats" was, in many ways, its attempt to fit a round peg in a "square" hole. It appears, in retrospect, that "understanding" was not what a large part of the population was attempting. Ignoring Kerouac's attempts to define the "beat" ideal as a quest for joy in a decade of cold war and McCarthy, the media was quick to attach many of what society considered sins to the "beats."

Our Founders     The original idea of what it meant to be "beat" was simultaneously enlarged and reduced by its passage into myth. It was enlarged in that it introduced American society at large to previously seldom heard of topics such as marijuana and Zen Buddhism. It helped bring bebop jazz as played by great black musicians like Charlie "Bird" Parker to a larger audience as well as bringing poetry into a modern setting. The myth of the beatnik set the stage for the bohemian and counter culture movements of later decades.

    At the same time, "beat" lost its original, intended meaning. Society came to regard the beatnik as unwashed, lazy, immature and in some cases dangerous and perverted. Beatniks became confused with Blackboard Jungle type juvenile delinquents and were portrayed as such in several violent exploitation films such as The Beat Generation and The Wild Party. In their myth making role, Hollywood films seldom seem to get it right. The "beats" by their very nature didn't fit into mainstream society and as a result they were devoured by the existing ideology.

Our Founders     The transition from beat idea to beatnik myth distorted the original almost beyond recognition. The "beat" lost his or her identity and became, to some extent, a cartoon character, a stereotype; Today, many peoples' concept of what is "beat" is based entirely on Maynard G. Krebs, bongos, turtleneck sweaters, and berets. At the same time, the creation of a myth gave the movement a larger audience, introduced a larger section of society to some new ideas and provided a much needed counterpoint to "square" society. By expanding the American Underground, it helped set the ideological stage for bohemian and counter culture movements of the Sixties and Seventies. Another positive aspect of the beatnik myth is that it forced the "beats" themselves to reexamine their ideas, to evolve and to move on ideologically. Hopefully the "beat's" transition into myth will not cause us to forget or lose touch with the questions asked and lessons learned by the "beat generation."

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