How Do You Tell Who's Sane
and Who's Insane?
In trying to define the Beat movement and explain the underlying basis of Beat thought, John Clellon Holmes explained that he saw the Beat writings as “describing a new sort of stance toward reality, behind which a new sort of consciousness lay.” (Charters, xix) That consciousness was not only new but notably contrary to the collective consciousness of mainstream 1950s America, and the underlying thoughts were so deviant from the acceptable mainstream thoughts that they were considered not only unconventional but irrational or insane. This dichotomy of mainstream sanity opposed to the perceived insanity of anyone who would be different became a defining element of the Beats, a group who simply could not find truth or comfort in the confined reality of ‘sane’ mainstream America. Once they had breached the barrier of conventional reason, the Beats embraced the unrestrained creativity offered by such ‘insanity’ and incorporated unfettered, uncensored thought directly into writing, creating not only a new consciousness of subject matter but also of language and composition as well.
To the casual observer, America in the 1950s appeared quite sane and rational. “The upbeat theme of the postwar period was prosperity” and America saw itself as “a nation capable of almost anything.” (Breines, 4) In fact, Americans were very sure of themselves at this time, and while this confidence was widespread, it was strongest in those people who were directly benefiting from the economic comfort of mainstream, acceptable American society. Wini Breines quotes Doug McAdam concerning the confidence of the American people, noting how Americans had a collective “’self-assurance’ and ‘exaggerated sense of importance and potency,’” (Breines, 5) which embodied the sane, controlled, and prosperous mainstream.
The overconfident face of America was a façade, however, concealing deep fears regarding the cold war, nuclear bombs, and the not-so-distant horrors of the recently-won world war. There was “a contrasting underside of postwar American culture consisting of fears and anxiety that mocked the barbeques and hoola hoops” which epitomized the upbeat American confidence. (Breines, 6) Rather than cope with their fears and problems, however, Americans attempted to suppress them and hope that these problems would diminish with time. In this spirit of denial, mainstream America attempted to disqualify anyone who spoke against the façade of idyllic prosperity and serenity, ostracizing those people in society who would not conform to culturally acceptable roles or who would not squelch the disquietudes of their subconscious. A stand against the abnormal, including insanity, allowed people to “’vent their fearful or hostile feelings and declare themselves on the side of order and authority.” (Breines, 8)
The problem with the ‘sane’ viewpoint of mainstream America was that it was based upon a lie, a supposition that Americans could overcome anything, even if they refused to consciously face it. Allen Ginsberg explained the problem himself when he wrote that, “There is a crack in the mass consciousness of America – sudden emergence of insight into a vast national subconscious netherworld filled with nerve gas, universal death bombs, malevolent bureaucracies, secret police systems, drugs that open the door to God, ships leaving Earth, unknown chemical terrors, evil dreams at hand.” (Ginsberg, 220) Rather than bury them, Ginsberg openly faced the horrors that most Americans refused to admit existed. For certain people like Ginsberg, failing to accept, acknowledge, and cope with those problems was simply creating even greater problems as a result, problems which, left unchecked, could eventually cripple the American people. Ginsberg wanted to forestall that eventuality. In his words, “the stakes are too great – an America gone mad with materialism, a police-state America, a sexless and soulless America prepared to battle the world in defense of a false image.” (Ginsberg, 221) This sort of dangerous denial of reality practiced by mainstream Americans seemed to Ginsberg and others to be much more irrational than the viewpoints and actions which the mainstream defined as clinically insane.
A struggle thus developed based upon the definition of insanity, forming groups such as the Beats who viewed mainstream ‘sanity’ as truly insane and mainstream ‘insanity’ as less repressed and fabricated than what was considered sane and normal. Ginsberg believed “that what seems ‘mad’ in America is our expression of natural ecstasy … which suppressed, finds no social form organization background frame of reference or rapport or validation from the outside and so the ‘patient’ gets confused thinks he is mad and really goes off rocker.” (Ginsberg, 209) In this way, people with unconventional or unacceptable views and perspectives were forced by the institutions of America to be silenced lest they upset the tenuous façade created and enjoyed by the mainstream. America thus protected itself from facing its own worst fears, but it destroyed individuality and creativity by forcing everyone to accept the mainline opinions. “The result for all too many patients [of psychoanalysis] is a diminution, a ‘tranquilizing’ of their most interesting qualities and vices. The patient is indeed not so much altered as worn out – less bad, less good, less bright, less willful, less destructive, less creative. He is thus able to conform to that contradictory and unbearable society which first created his neurosis. He can conform to what he loathes because he no longer has the passion to feel loathing so intensely.” (Mailer, 592) These successes of the mainstream were a defeat for the individual; such defeats “attack the body and imprison ones energy until one is jailed in the prison air of other people’s defeats, boredom, quiet desperation, and muted icy self-destroying rage.” (Mailer, 584-585) Even though mainstream society was fighting to maintain their concept of rationality, many people refused to lose their individuality, their creativity, or their objectivity, even if the cost was to be labeled insane or to actually, indeed, become insane.
Facing the unreality of mainstream America, many people, including the Beats, chose to embrace what the mainstream opposed – in this case, insanity. If the sanity of the mainstream was so false and destructive then the unrestrained, openly expressive avenues of insanity might well be rewarding. By putting aside the restraints of conventional sanity, a person could share a more realistic view of the world, just like the “psychopath who extrapolates from his own condition, from the inner certainty that his rebellion is just, a radical vision of the universe.” (Mailer, 589) By letting go of the conventional sanity; by refusing to suppress the anxieties of the masses; and by refusing to accept the façade of the prosperous, powerful, and perfect America, the Beats believed they could attempt to find a true view of reality which could attempt to move mankind past the problems of the moment. “It may be fruitful to consider the hipster a philosophical psychopath, a man interested not only in the dangerous imperatives of his psychopathy but in codifying, at least for himself, the suppositions on which his inner universe is constructed.” (Mailer, 588) Norman Mailer believed that embracing psychopathy – embracing insanity – could help men understand themselves, their fellow man, and the world they had created, frightening though that world might be.
The Beats not only distrusted and disliked the mainstream idea of sanity, but they saw inherent value in the open creativity of the minds of those who would be considered insane by society. While the mainstream sought to tame or confine those they considered insane, the Beats wanted to nurture them. Consider Jack Kerouac’s pleasure at describing a young Cody. “If you’ve been a boy and played on dumps you’ve seen Cody, all crazy, excited and full of glee-mad powers, giggling with all the pimply girls in back of fenders and weeds till some vocational school swallows his ragged blisses and that strange American iron which later is used to mold the suffering manface is now employed to straighten and quell the long wavering spermy disorderliness of the boy.” (Kerouac, “Visions” 221) Cody is free, unhindered, and full of unlimited potential, but he is clearly in danger of being ‘molded’ into the restrained sanity of the mainstream, something which would clearly crush the spirit and individuality of this rambunctious young boy, and something the Beats could not bear to see.
The Beats opened themselves to accepting the benefits of what the mainstream would consider ‘insane.’ They believed that embracing insanity would result in a lack of any hindrance to expression, imagination, or emotion. While their application of insanity or subconscious thought varied slightly from artist to artist, the open attitude to the overall concept was universal among the Beats. Ginsberg wrote that he had, “observed [his] mind … and [had] exercised it so [he could] speak freely, i.e., without self-conscious inhibited stoppings and censorships which latter factors are what destroy speech and thought rhythm.” (Ginsberg, 213, original emphasis) Ginsberg wanted to bypass the suppressed fears of society as well as his own societal inhibitions and reach the truth of his inner mind and perhaps the hidden truths of the universe. Kerouac’s goals were similar. In describing what he saw as essential in producing his spontaneous prose writings, Kerouac cited the need for a “MENTAL STATE” where one could write “’without consciousness’ in semitrance … allowing subconscious to admit in own uninhibited interesting necessary and so ‘modern’ language what conscious art would censor.” (Kerouac, “Essential” 58) Kerouac’s intentions were not so different than Ginsberg’s, and likewise Amiri Baraka’s goals were very similar to them both. Baraka wrote that, “the statement Kerouac makes about writing without consciousness, i.e., ‘MENTAL STATE’ … is the most paradoxical but perhaps the most instructive statement in the whole essay. This is not to be interpreted as ‘clinical unconsciousness’ … but as other consciousness … This is the consciousness that supercedes or usurps the normal consciousness of the creator.” (Baraka, 350-351, original emphasis) Baraka, like other Beats, was celebrating a mental state that wasn’t “normal” by the standards of society. He was celebrating something that was an “other” consciousness – a new consciousness – and a ‘new stance toward reality,’ exactly as described by John Clellon Holmes.
Even by modern standards, the open acceptance of the subconscious or insane by the Beats may seem extreme and certainly unconventional, but by the standards of 1950s America this outright embrasure of insanity was revolutionary. To some in the society of the 1950s it would be seen as frightening and obscene, but to many it would be liberating and exciting, allowing them to face their fears of the past and present and shed the moral and rational constraints of a tremendously conservative mainstream culture. Without question it was a new consciousness from what was promoted and accepted in the mainstream, and it was in many ways the path toward conceiving and experiencing reality in a whole new way. Reason and rationality were no longer the stable domain of the mainstream in America because the Beats represented something equally real, even if radically different from the values and ideas promoted in American society. For the Beats this was not only a new way to view life but also a new method for creating literature and expressing language. Very different from the stylistic, rule-dominated methods of using words practiced by the mainstream, the new consciousness of the Beats made possible whole new method s for expressing thought, and this opposition to conventional thought, rationality, and composition would have lasting effects upon literature in America and the world.
Breines, Wini. “Introduction.” Young,
White, and Miserable: Growing Up Female in the Fifties. Boston:
Beacon Press, 1992. 1-24.
Baraka, Amiri. “Letter to the Evergreen Review About Kerouac’s Spontaneous Prose.” The Portable
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Charters, Ann. “Introduction.” The Portable Beat Reader. Ann Charters, ed. Penguin: New York, 1992.
Ginsberg, Allen. “A Letter to Eberhart.” Beat Down to Your Soul: What was the Beat Generation? Ann
Charters, ed. Penguin: New York, 2001. 208-221.
Kerouac, Jack. “Essentials of Spontaneous Prose.” The Portable Beat Reader. Ann Charters, ed.
Penguin: New York, 1992. 57-58.
Kerouac, Jack. “Visions of Cody.” The Portable Beat Reader. Ann Charters, ed. Penguin: New York,
Mailer, Norman. “The White Negro.” The Portable Beat Reader. Ann Charters, ed. Penguin: New
York, 1992. 582-605.