In her essay, “John Clellon Holmes and Existentialism”, Ann Charters leaves the reader with a question: To the degree that Holmes’ thought was influenced by existentialism, was he closer to the position of Sartre or Kierkegaard? The main theme of this essay is to answer the question we are left with after reading Charter’s discussion of Holmes’ existentialism. (1)
After discussing the pervading influence that existentialism had on the Beat Generation, Charters explicitly develops Sartre’s themes from Existentialism and Human Emotions and Simone de Beauvoir’s 1947 article in the New York Times, “An Existentialist Looks at American,” explaining how existentialism influenced Holmes in particular. One is given the impression that Holmes’ existentialism was primarily developed out of his familiarity with Sartre’s ideas. She remarks, “In their rebellion against ‘anxiety and bewilderment’ of the square life, Holmes considered these characters as beat. They may or may not have argued about Sartre’s books at their drunken parties, but they were existentialist.” (2) Charters quotes Holmes in his 1958 Esquire article “The Philosophy of the Beat Generation”: “To be beat is to be at the bottom of your personality looking up; to be existential in the Kierkegaard, rather than in the Jean-Paul Sartre sense.” (3) It is here that we are led to ask why Holmes was more an existentialist like Kierkegaard rather than Sartre? “But the key essential question today is: What sort of existentialism? Religious or atheist? Kierkegaard or Sartre? (4) Charters goes on to say that Holmes never clarified the manner in which leans to Kierkegaard over Sartre, “nor did he even explain how he read Kierkegaard.”(5)
So the question that must be asked is how Holmes started with Sartre and ended with Kierkegaard’s brand of existentialism? What prompted the transition to Kierkegaard’s faith from Sartre’s atheism. We know after Holmes came home from World War II that he confessed that upon entering his chapel he found he could no longer pray. Holmes had reached the metaphysical-psychological state that Kierkegaard called Dread.
But to trace this deep seated feeling of dread, for Kierkegaard, a human being has to be dragged through several phases of the human condition. Before discussing these phases, it is first necessary to recognize Kierkegaard’s “Three Stages on Life’s Way”. The key is to be found in an earlier quote from Holmes when he said that to be beat is “to be at the bottom of your personality looking up.” (my emphasis) In my view this is the key to Holmes’ eventual turn to Kierkegaard. Kierkegaard tells us that people go will through three stages of life and that each stage ultimately takes one to the dread of metaphysical Angst.
In order, the three stages of life are the aesthetic stage (i.e. the stage the characters in the novel GO find themselves in). After the aesthetic stage we move to the ethical stage and then finally the religious stage.
With regard to the Beats in general and Holmes in particular, we can focus on the Aesthetic Stage of life. The aesthete, which is the stage we all start in, is a stage of compete sensual gratification. Here, one lies in the “cellar of the sensuousness.” This basement life, both literally and figuratively, starts with a hedonic quest than can never be fulfilled or fulfilling. It is the bohemian life of sex—in all of its many faceted ways. The lover Don Juan in the hero of this stage. The problem as Kierkegaard sees it is that it leads to a meaningless dead-end and only two possibilities for escape. One is certainly at the bottom (cellar/basement) looking up. What are the two possibilities left for escape? Either suicide or the “Leap of Faith.” For the aesthete, what leads to this dire result? According to Kierkegaard, the human subject goes from (1) boredom or, a general about life ennui—seeking gratification with fulfillment, (2) melancholy, an overbearing sadness about life in general, and, finally (3) despair—the ultimately hopelessness of one’s life.
Then one is confronted one of the two ways out—but there is one final episode to be faced. That is, these three stages give rise to Dread. What does Kierkegaard mean by Dread? Dread is the antipathetic sympathy and sympathetic antipathy that engulfs one’s entire life. Thus we are led to a personal choice for escaping the Aesthetic Stage.
Before discussing Kierkegaard’s concept of Dread, let us recall the last and most revealing scene in the novel GO . At the end of GO , which is largely an account of people living the bohemian life of the aesthete, Holmes (Hobbes) says to his wife on the ferry returning to Manhattan “Where is our home” he said to himself gravely, for he could not see yet.”(6) Charterts adds, “The anguish, violence, and claustrophobic atmosphere of Holmes’ novel characterize it is as an example of existential art.” (7).
The end of GO characterizes in Holmes own way a person in despair, helpless, homeless and aman who after his “kicks and parties” has reached the edge of decadence.
It will be helpful to say more about Kierkegaard’s notice of dread. As earlier defined above, dread is a condition of attraction and repulsion. Why? Because in our existential dread, one is attracted to the freedom to choose one’s path in the life that may bring the amount of the aesthetic stage. At the same time, one is repulsed by the sheer burden of having to accept the responsibility that goes with the risk, since our choices come without any criteria that the “leap of faith” we take is the correct one. Each person must take “the leap” in solitude—a move that defies rationality and rest solely on the faith of the existential subject.
Here we are beginning to “unpack” the view that Holmes’ version of existentialism that may have begun with Sartre (chronologically this seems to be the case) but clearly tends toward Kierkegaard’s existential psychology.
It has often been said that Kierkegaard crucifies rationality in his advice that to save one’s individuality one must put their faith in Blind Faith. It is noteworthy that Kierkegaard’s idea of faith is basically found in his definition of truth as the “passionate appropriation of an objective uncertainty.” This definition not only applies to Holmes through the character of Hobbes in GO, but to the Beats as a whole. Indeed, I will argue that Kierkegaard’s existential categories not only help us grasp his existentialism, but can be used as a guide for understanding the Beat Movement.
Before doing that, I would like to say more about Kierkegaard’s idea of faith and truth. To say that truth is the passionate appropriation of an objective uncertainty, Kierkegaard means that the human condition is confronted with a chaotic and confusing world—one that has joy and goodness, but also evil and painful experiences. And these lie outside our personal subjectivity, even so, one must appropriate them for him or herself in their own lives. We must take ownership in our personal lives.
The themes of the Beat Movement are certainly in line with Holmes’ turn toward Kierkegaard. The Beat Movement demonstrates the need for spirituality in Kierkegaard’s extreme, anti-orthodox, Christianity. Once again, think of Kierkegaard and Hobbes representing a personality at the bottom of his life, but, nonetheless “looking up.” And he looks up when led to the psycho-metaphysical condition of despair and, finally, utter dread.
Here, I would like to extend Kierkegaard’s existentialism beyond Holmes’ to the leaders of the Beat Movement, whose leap of faith was made by the need to create in a world that was tranquilized by the pressure to conform to the “American way of life.”
One way to do this is by addressing Kierkegaard’s seven existential categories and relating them to prominent themes in the Beat Generation.
Kierkegaard is the first existentialist to draw the famous distinction between authentic and inauthentic life. The authentic life is characterized by embracing the existential categories. This means that one has to recognize their freedom to (one) choose and to take responsibility for their choices. The Beats made the free choice to live life that was expressed in their creativity. As Holmes pointed out, the main question for the Beats is “How are we to live?” They were devoted to a lifestyle they chose that contrasted to the conformism and consumerism in America. To choose the authentic life, is to realize that the human has to embrace (two) subjectivity and not be turned into an object. The Beats used art to express their subjectivity and their refusal to be determined by the status quo of American life. These categories cannot be seen apart from the fact that one makes their choices with (three) passion. The Beats passionately appropriated their choices as indicated in their lifestyle and in their literature—this, in light of the fact that they were sarcastically categorized as “beatniks.” As Kierkegaard points out in the category of (four) risk, our passionate, subjective choices are made by facing the reality that there is no ultimate criteria for “confirming”—that one’s choice is the right one. The Beat lifestyle was lived on the precipice of risk. Note the stance on sex, drugs, literary style and the courage to fight (and win) the battle against censorship. When Kierkegaard speaks of (five) discontinuity he emphasizes that the human being is not a fixed object, he or she is a be-coming, a temporal being who is always confronted with desires. The Beats lived a life of continual on-going, taking on new experiences as they confronted their obstacles. Jack Kerouac’s “On the Road” is a trip that goes on and on and is not to be derailed. Related to discontinuity is (six) repetition—that one must continually make the “leap of faith.” It must be repeated over and over, and there is no finality to authentic experience. For the Beats, there is no final answer to how one is to live their lives. Beatness is a quest for spirituality. The final category is (seven) solitude. The authentic life is lived in solitude, knowing their passionate, risky choices are made by the free, responsible subject. “The Dharma Bums” is a beautiful account of a person living in solitude. This solitude, for the Beats, is not alienation, it is the recognition that in our solitude is an authentic freedom to embrace our deeper self and passionately appropriate our world in the solitude of each person.
The similarities between the existential categories and the Beats helps one understand the nature of their existentialism. The first being that the authentic life is one that embraces the existential categories. This aligns the Beat generation with the genuine lifestyle as distinct from the inauthentic life that opposed to the Beats emerging after World War II and the Cold War. Secondly, and most important for this essay, is that now we have further answers to the question why Holmes and the Beat generation can be seen as living Kierkegaard’s brand of existentialism rather than the atheism of Sartre.
Holmes, and others, saw themselves in the cellar of the displaced and determined aesthetes “looking up,” in faith, that a spiritual quest for meaning in life was possible and this quest is the essence of the authentic life.
- Ann Charters, ”John Clellon Holmes and Existentialism,” The Philosophy of the Beats, ed. Sharin N. Elkholy (University of Kentucky Press 2012), 133-146.
- Ibid p. 139.
- Ibid p. 142.
- Ibid p. 143.
- Quoted in Charters p. 140.
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