Howl by Alan Ginsberg begins with one of the most iconic lines in American poetry:
I saw the best minds of my generation destroyed by madness
I read that line, then I read the whole poem. All 19 pages. All three parts.
The work never failed to impress.
The beats have always touched me.
Burroughs is in Tangiers I don’t think he’ll come back.
Something about the escapism had always resonated with me.
Sitting on a cafe terrace in Pokhara, Nepal, the line had taken on a different timbre.
I opened my computer, and read an old essay I’d written in the style of On the Road.
A pair of excerpts from “My Modern Day Beat Experience.” Unpublished Creative Nonfiction Essay. June 2012.
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‘This all happened not long after my girl and I split up. She had just failed to get over a serious illness that I won’t bother to talk about, except to say that it had something to do with the miserably weary world and her feeling that she was better off dead. With the leaving of that girl that summer began a part of my life you could call a modern day beat experience. With her I’d dreamed of living life fully, maybe to counteract the way she kept herself from doing just that. Doing something, anything, always moving never anchored, had always seemed glamorous and glorious and gorgeous.
Still seemed gorgeous that summer filled with people leaving my life. My sister Christina, off to smash headfirst into Peace Corps bureaucracy in Benin. Abraham, the only guy I hung out with smart or weird enough to keep up with me, off to Europe, where he would be kicked back to the states after a semester for smoking too much weed and cutting too many classes. Sophia, my first “I love you” kiss and my sex and my stress and now my ex, off to her tiny mountain town, the closest thing to a sanitarium she could stomach. I found myself lost, alone; as did they.
Jack Kerouac’s 19th essential for spontaneous prose: accept loss forever.
Christina threw herself into vaccinating African children, saving the world one needle at a time. Abraham threw himself into Schedule-I substance abuse. Sophia threw herself into a bottle of pills; a team of doctors called time-of-death while simultaneously rushing to bring her back from the light which months later she will tell me doesn’t exist. I threw myself into my university summer course, E 420: Beat Generation Literature.
I could say a lot of things about this period of my life. I could defend my choices; I could condemn myself. I’ve thought a lot about whether you can justify this sort of behavior. But when people ask me how I feel about it, I prefer to simply smile, shrug, and borrow a phrase from today’s hip-hop brand of carefree cultural icons. “You only live once.”
‘Half a year later, I will find myself in a bookstore, in the back of a coffee shop, in the middle of a Colorado blizzard, buying a copy of On the Road: the Original Scroll as a Christmas present. It’s for myself. The clerk and I will chat idly while she slowly does the arithmetic on my purchase by hand. “I read this twenty years ago,” she will say. “It made me want to go hop trains.”
“Lifestyle isn’t so appealing now?”
“No. I don’t think it ever was,” the clerk will say. “I think he glorified it. Easy to do when you’re a drunk.”
Jack Kerouac’s 27th essential for modern prose: In praise of Character in the Bleak Inhuman Loneliness
You could see the Bleak Inhuman Loneliness eat Kerouac from the inside. Drunk, sweaty, and slurring on Firing Line, 1968, his last televised appearance, Kerouac may as well have been dead then— why bother waiting the extra year for the liver cirrhosis and internal hemorrhage? And sure, On the Road seems glorious and chic and rebellious in all the right ways. It always has, despite the terrible tragedy of the tale. And honestly, I enjoyed living life beat, for some months and moments. But getting into bar fights at forty-six (as Kerouac did, weeks before his death), or spending your energy endlessly pursuing a slit between the legs, or bouncing from place to place just to avoid the Bleak Inhuman Loneliness sure seems a little sad.
The sadder thing is: sprawled across my bed, staring at the walls, I’m not even sure which is the Character, and which is the Bleak Inhuman Loneliness. The two weave in and out of each other so much I can’t decide in which category my weekend—my friends—my life—belongs. There’s character and there’s loneliness but it’s all mixed up and smashed together and inextricable; impossibly distant. There is no dichotomy. There are no easy categorizations. I find myself frustratingly foreign.
Character and Bleak Inhuman Loneliness don’t exist in opposition to each other. They exist besides each other and inside of each other. I’m living a bleak life, filled with characters. To have one without the other would be to have less than nothing.
I should know this, of course.’
Four years time separated that moment and this one, and yet none at all. I gazed out across the lake, at nothing in particular.