Spirit of the age

Spirit of the age

I believe in the worth of history. However, the historical perspective is troublesome because with every telling of the tale we cannot cease our compulsion to rewrite it in our own image, as we are now, or rather, as we would like it to be. Placing writers like Jack Keroauc in the larger context of constructs like “the Beat generation” limits them, but at the same time, illuminates their difference from the arbitrary constructs.

The troublesome concept of “generations” can be traced to the romantic essayist William Hazlitt. In his book The Spirit of the Age, he offers commentary and gross generalizations about his “generation” which are at once contradictory and comforting in their simplicity. For example, in his chapter on Coleridge he proposes:

The present is an age of talkers, and not of doers; and the reason is, that the world is growing old. We are far advanced in the Arts and Sciences, that we live in retrospect, and doat on past achievements. The accumulation of past knowledge has been so great, that we are lost in wonder at the height that it has reached, instead of attempting to climb or add to it; while the variety of objects distracts and dazzles the looker-on. What niche remains unoccupied? What path untried? What is the use of doing anything, unless we could do better than all those who have gone before us?

And yet, Hazlitt concedes in his chapter on Byron that:

Lord Byron is dead: he also died a martyr to his zeal in the cause of freedom, for the last, best hopes of man. Let that be his excuse and his epitaph!

The Spirit of the Age which Hazlitt seeks to contain includes those who were “talkers not doers” (like Southey, Coleridge, Wordsworth, etc.), and those who were zealous champions of the cause of freedom and fought in battle (like Byron) or produced revolutionary pamphlets at the risk of their lives (like William Blake, Tom Paine, Percy Shelley, etc). The neat concept of history falls apart with even the slightest scrutiny. It could be argued that it is the process of youth to age which is the real distinction. Coleridge, Southey and Wordsworth were all “revolutionary” in their youth and denied the martyrdom of dying young, they become objects of scorn in their old age.

Hazlitt’s case for William Godwin, using Wordsworth as a mouthpiece, points at the problem of perspectives that shift with age:

‘Throw aside your books of chemistry,’ said Wordsworth to a young man, a student in the Temple, ‘and read Godwin on Necessity.’ Sad necessity! Fatal reverse! Is truth then so variable? Is it one thing at twenty and another at forty? Is it at a burning heat in 1793, and below zero in 1814? Not so, in the name of manhood and of common sense! Let us pause here a little. Mr. Godwin indulged in extreme opinions, and carried with him all the most sanguine and fearless understandings of the time. What then? Because those opinions were overcharged, were they therefore altogether groundless? Is the very God of our idolatry all of a sudden to become an abomination and an anathema? Could so many young men of talent, of education, and of principle have been hurried away by what had neither truth nor nature, not one particle of honest feeling nor the least show of reason in it?’

I believe that retrospective critiques of Kerouac and others who sought to break the bounds of the weight of literary tradition, to find the spirit of their age, suffer greatly when examined through the framework they sought to overthrow. Because they sought to break through, however, they must be examined inside that matrix, which has moved on since the time they wrote. Did they capture a spirit, or merely expose their irreverence for the world to see? History is the final judge, jury, and executioner in these matters.

I do not doubt the sincerity of Kerouac’s belief, only the ultimate worth of a lifestyle built on restless movement and above all else, speed. Age tempers these notions: “When I was faster I was always behind,” as Neil Young says, or as the penultimate line in Easy Rider succinctly puts it, perhaps the best reflection of the sixties is: “We blew it.” As my father always said, “Hindsight is 20:20.” Longshoremen philosopher Eric Hoffer declares reason why we feel compelled to start moving best: “The best impetus for moving forward is to have something to run away from.” Generalizations of history are good at describing the disenchantment, the “beaten” nature of the beats, and why they took their show on the road. The question addressed and left unanswered by Kerouac is: where do you run when there is no place left to go?

The only thing that remains is to revel in the trip itself. This is great advice when you are young, but age brings reflections on what you have left behind. On the Road cannot be read with that weight held in the mind. A free-flowing, stream of consciousness prose style is perhaps the only real contribution of Kerouac when viewed through the lens of age. However, to sense only that is to miss the spirit of freedom, a freedom from possibility which lies at the core of Kerouac (and perhaps Henry Miller too, from an earlier generation). The labels of Lost Generation or the later Beat Generation are shaky simplifications that don’t really hold up. But it’s the way that history deals with things.

Hazlitt’s Wordsworth was astute: “Because those opinions were overcharged, were they therefore altogether groundless?” Wordsworth’s question does not require an answer, for those who read only to revel in the freedom. Literature scholars are bound to attempt an answer, however. And the answer, in Kerouac’s case, is to perhaps just dodge and say that he was not groundless, just unrealized. He has stiff competition from the generations that came before and after when it comes to his worth as a literary figure. But there is no denying his importance as a central figure as a spirit of his age.

I revisited some memories of Keroauc from his close friends in the oral biography Jack’s Book. Alan Ginsberg relates their first meeting with William Burroughs:

So Jack and I made a formal visit to Bill, and I remember that he had copies of Yeats’ A Vision, which Lucien had been carrying around. Shakespeare, Kafka: The Castle or The Trial, The Castle I think; Korzybski’s Science and Santity, Spengler’s Decline of the West, Blake, a copy of Hart Crane, which he gave me and I still have, Rimbaud, Cocteau’s Opium. So those were the books he was reading, and I hadn’t read any of those. And he loaned books to us . . .

Most of these books are on my shelf. It feels kind of weird, thinking that it is a writer’s job to overcome this weight and move the project forward. I think Kerouac and Ginsberg “moved the project forward” a bit, but only just a bit. The idolatry of my youth is gone, and now I look to all books as things I can use, but things I must overcome if I am to move on. I suspect Kerouac felt the same way, though he never seemed to get past the breakthrough phase into the realm of pure vision, in the way that Blake or Yeats did.

Perhaps though,
it’s fitting that the spirit of this age be incomplete and unrealized. Perhaps that’s true of all the ages, and only history can find the neat closure that we so fervently crave. I think that the new pluralist trends are a good thing; there is no one spirit of the age, only spirits that we can seek to comprehend.

Yes, I know that Spirit of the Age is a Hawkwind song too. But Hazlitt said it first. Hazlitt’s defense of Godwin would be the only sort of defense that I would offer for Kerouac, but this matters little to a young reader who would drink deeply of the speed, the movement, and the joy that is deeply conveyed with its dark side intact, in the writing of Jack Kerouac. Under 25? You must read On the Road. At least, if you have the flame of disenchantment within you. Who doesn’t, when they are young?