by Adi Rajkovic
There have been many pivotal experiences and events that have influenced my vision as an artist, but the most arresting event (historically speaking) has been the Beat Generation. Although short lived and long ago in the 1950’s, I have learned more from the astute pantheons of the Beat Generation than I have from the spiritless stars that the current generation lionizes.
The Beat Generation was a group of people who had the audacity to rise above the cookie cutter civilization and form a union of aspiring artists that were all bored with society. I identified with the beats as individuals and as respected artists. I admired their charisma and virtue. Their motives were sincere, and their thesis, competent. The beats were pioneers with no destination, changing the world one impulse at a time.
Jack Kerouac introduced the phrase “Beat Generation” in 1948, generalizing from his social circle to characterize the underground, anti-conformist youth gathering in New York at the time. “Beat” originated from underworld slang – the world of hustlers, drug addicts and petty thieves, where Kerouac and his beat friends sought inspiration. Beat was slang for “beaten down” or oppressed, but to Kerouac, it symbolized being at the bottom and looking up.
With Kerouac as the protagonist of the Beat Generation, his entourage served as the other characters in this literary revolution. The core Beats included: Jack Kerouac, William S. Burroughs, and Allen Ginsberg. When these three creative minds came together they formed an intellectual environment that soon progressed into an intellectual community, and then a generation.
Ginsberg was notorious for writing the poem ‘Howl’, which became the focus of the obscenity trials in the United States that helped to liberalize what could legally be published. With his radical vocabulary and unorthodox style of writing, Ginsberg’s poems were heresy to some and brilliant to others. Being the queerest of the group, much of Ginsberg’s poetry was inspired by his infatuation towards Burroughs, Kerouac and other various Beats he encountered.
Burroughs controversial writing was also a subject of debate. Much of Burroughs’s inspiration for his novels came from his battles with drug addiction. After finishing his series of drug diaries, Junkie, and Queer, Burroughs explored a non-linear style of writing. When writing Naked Lunch, Burroughs used a cut-up technique, slicing up phrases and words to create new sentences. The avant-garde approach proved to be a success once Naked Lunch was published. Soon after publication, it was prosecuted as obscene by the Commonwealth of Massachusetts. However, in 1966 the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court declared the work “not obscene” based on the criteria developed largely to defend the book. The case against Burroughs’s novel still stands as the last obscenity trial against a work of literature.
Kerouac’s style was unlike that of Burroughs and Ginsberg’s. Kerouac’s first acclaimed novel, On the Road, was an account of his adventures while on a wild goose chase across America with his friend Dean Moriarty. Neal Cassady was Kerouac’s muse, and eventually the inspiration for the character of Dean Moriarty in On the Road, and later on Cody Pomeray in Visions of Cody. Cassady’s outlandish and uncanny personality is also credited as the inspiration for other Beat literature by Allen Ginsberg and later by Thomas Wolfe (one of the kings of the counterculture). Kerouac wrote about personal journeys in search of enlightenment. He eventually started writing in a style he called Spontaneous Prose, a literary technique akin to stream of consciousness.
The works of Beats that impacted me the most were the novels Naked Lunch, by Burroughs, On the Road and Dharma Bums, by Kerouac, and the poems ‘Howl’ and ‘Reality Sandwiches’, by Ginsberg. The fluent surge of words so bottomless and evocative, stirred something deep inside me. Kerouac’s words especially were able to rekindle my forsaken spirit. Growing up in a generation consumed by apathy, the fire inside me slowly ceased to burn, remaining dormant for a long time. My aloof perception of the world was shattered by the Beats. I have always believed that the purpose of exceptional art is to make one feel- to defrost emotions and sensations that have been numb for so long, and that is exactly what their words did for me.
Candor and humility were part of the thread that strung together Kerouac’s words, becoming stitches in a boundless fabric that like a Native American Morning Star quilt, held the traditions of an entire generation. The durable thread -now a flexible elastic, traveled through fits of madness, ecstasy, death, misery, fleeting infatuations, incessant heartbreak, euphoric comas enjoyed by junkies, remarkable revelations soon to be forgotten, spontaneous anger, impossible dreams, regretted altercations…each fiber- an event, an experience, a message…each fiber, a woven strand that interlaces into surrounding strands, forming a pattern, completing another chapter in time.
Each word I read was repeated by the voice in my head. Dialogues echoed for days and each sentence consumed was never digested. I embodied each character I met- In Dharma Bums I became a spiritual seeker, diligently following the path to enlightenment. I befriended a Zen lunatic and an eccentric librarian who shared my love for Buddhist philosophy, poetry and the simple life. As I learned to appreciate the outdoors, I fell in love with nature’s beauty. I preferred the mental rewards of time spent in solitude rather than the temporary fulfillment of company. When surrounded by the silence of the night, I found myself feeling freer than ever. The shining stars frozen in the omnipresent sky promised more than a pretty face. The dirt I sank my bare feet into was warmer than any cashmere sweater. The soaring leaves spoke of a truth more urgent than even a whisper of the words inside my head- the leaves, unbiased and respected, a fairer judge than any in court. The incandescent moon was brighter than any professor I have ever had. This is the education most valuable to the human soul- to be able to feel a sense of belonging in this world that everyone tries so hard to achieve with short lived possessions and social status. In the greatest poems, I encountered a million hollow dreams; I cringed as cigarettes rotted my teeth, I wrapped myself in a vine of honey suckles, I watched the sun until It faded, I talked to the sky, I imagined a white wedding splattered in paint, I lamented the death of a stranger at a charcoal funeral, my handkerchief damp with grief.
Through investigating the Beats I have been able to experience a renaissance in my soul. By integrating myself into each character I have been able to feel again. I experienced empathy for other people, a feeling that had perished with the rest. And through empathy I have been able to relate to people on a deeper level. I experienced a variety of emotions and for once they were not forced. I did not have to fabricate my own feelings to satisfy another. I now appreciated my emotions; histrionics and all. With this surge of clarity I feel more myself than I ever had. I recognize myself as an individual, not merely a shadow. The Beats showed me where my heart was, and how to use it. Previously my creativity was concealed by the veneer encouraged by society. I was overwhelmed by the blaring voice of the tabloids and the explicit images on television. I decided to no longer let my life be defined the toxic tongue of the media. And even though I never verbally endorsed the manufacturing of counterfeit smiles on rust colored Barbie’s, I was still just as responsible as anyone else for the current turmoil for merely watching it happen and not speaking up. My former position was the equivalent of a bobby pin in an avalanche of honey comb ringlets securing some peroxide blond bimbos tiara from falling off. I am no longer the metallic black bobby pin laminated in a sticky coat of hairspray, caught in a tangle of teased hair- my only purpose being to keep the precious crown glued to her scalp so that she would not commit beauty pageant suicide and humiliate herself in front of an audience of twenty people (fifteen of which are her immediate family members).
My most recent change in the hierarchy of society has given me an advantage to a wire set of 3cm prongs. I decided to make a change. What was supposed to be a sprinkle of rhinestones in the beauty queen’s hair became a sea and what became a sea soon became a swamp of crystallized glitter. The sparkling white summit of plastic jewels erupted. Hot tears stained her cheeks, denting the layer cake of foundation that she calls a face. Under the heat of her blistering tears, the mask slowly melts away. The elements of the mask are exposed: waxy coats of tin oxide, starch, carminic acid, titanium dioxide, tartarzine, animal fat, glycol, disterate, and bismuth oxychloride peel away, revealing organic silky white skin that glistens and sparkles greater than any of those synthetic stones. This is a complex metaphor of what I would like to accomplish: to one day reveal something awe-ing to the world. I have learned from the Beats that I the only way I can do this is through eradicating the facades of society that camouflage the real beauty.