David S. Calonne, The Spiritual Imagination of the Beats (Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 2017), 244 pp.
Jack Kerouac famously defined the “Beat Generation” as a group of people who are beaten down by society and at the same time—or indeed for that very reason—beatific, seeking blissful states of spiritual revelation, most notoriously through the use of mind-altering drugs, but more significantly through artistic expression. It is in this search for spirituality that the literary output of those writers associated with Beat literature unfolded as a complex and diverse corpus of cosmological ideas that have significantly impacted U.S. literature and society from the late 1950s onwards. While Beat criticism has extensively explored the influential role of Buddhism in Beat literature early on, David Stephen Calonne’s The Spiritual Imagination of the Beats is the first in-depth study concerned with the presence of a wide and diverse range of non-dominant, heterodox forms of spirituality in the work of nine authors associated with the Beat Generation (in order of appearance: Diane di Prima, Bob Kaufmann, Jack Kerouac, Allen Ginsberg, William S. Burroughs, Gregory Corso, Philip Lamantia, Philip Whalen, and Gary Snyder). Calonne aims to investigate how the Beats incorporated these heterodoxies into their work and how their countercultural implications have come to shape the cosmologies and politics of each author.
Each chapter of The Spiritual Imagination of the Beats delivers a convincing close reading of one particular oeuvre, all the while Calonne’s study never fails to illuminate the intricate interconnectedness of individual Beat cosmologies. The order of the chapters works well towards the book’s overall thematic coherence, taking into account the biographical and literary connections between authors, but it also furthers a political agenda: understudied figures Diane di Prima and Bob Kaufmann are addressed before the so-called “major Beats” Kerouac, Ginsberg, and Burroughs. With small exceptions in his discussion of Burroughs, Calonne adheres to his promise of providing only “limited biographical detail” to elucidate “how individual psychology is related to the particular orientation of each author” (12). The introduction to The Spiritual Imagination of the Beats contextualizes the Beats within a larger literary tradition that formed as a reaction to the rationalization of modern Euro-American societies, for instance, the Romantic poets Blake, Keats, and Shelley, and the subsequent chapter draws attention to the ways in which the authors discussed were highly indebted to poets Kenneth Rexroth and Robert Duncan, who—so Calonne—functioned as their “intellectual guides” and poetic predecessors (14). At the same time, Calonne acknowledges the specific historic and political circumstances that produced the countercultural spiritualities of the Beats, considering them a reaction to “organized religion’s corruption and hypocrisy during a century of genocide and nuclear proliferation” (5).
Calonne’s argumentative framework is directly inspired by Diane di Prima’s term of the “‘hidden religions:’ [a] term for heterodoxies that have characterized countercultural minorities from antiquity to the present” (1). The spiritual denominations in question (Ismailism and Sufism, Kabbalah, Gnosticism, and Vajrayana) represent “offshoots” of “the world’s major faiths” (Islam, Judaism, Christianity, and Buddhism), and they qualify as countercultural since they were “often rejected or deemed ‘heretical’ by dominant majorities” (1). For the same reason, the Beats displayed a deep fascination with magic, alchemy, astrology, and Tarot; spiritual “disciplines” that have been denounced as “superstitions” and hence “anathema” (1), especially due to the triumph of rationality in Euro-American culture ever since the Enlightenment and the rise of the natural sciences in the mid-nineteenth century. Exploring these interests, Calonne’s study diligently points out that “the Beats did not seek to replace one dogmatic system with another,” but how, instead, they fused different spiritual traditions to create “individual modes of both personal and political resistance to the American Establishment” (1). Accordingly, The Spiritual Imagination of the Beats reads the Beats as counterculture, and their employment of heterodox spiritualities is considered as furthering their political and social protest; a protest that is constructive rather than destructive as Calonne argues with John Clellon Holmes: “the Beats’ ‘almost exclusive concern is the discovery of something in which to believe’” (2).
The Spiritual Imagination of the Beats thus presents a long-overdue and crucial supplement to Beat criticism, most notably for its informed and extensive close readings of hitherto neglected works and themes, as well as for tying up loose ends. For example, while Calonne does follow-up on the long-established importance of Jazz, particularly Bebop, in Beat literature (specifically in the work of Kaufmann and Kerouac), he also investigates music as a spiritually revelatory mode of thought in general, unearthing the extent to which classical music (notably the work of Johann Sebastian Bach, Johannes Brahms, and John Cage) shaped the works of poets like Philip Whalen and Diane di Prima. Rereading the “major Beats,” Calonne brings to light how Armenian-American author William Saroyen supplied Kerouac with a template for a combined vision that incorporates Christianity and Buddhism, how Ginsberg eagerly studied Plotinus and the mystical writings of St. John of the Cross and St. Teresa of Avila, and how Burroughs’s later novels, in particular The Western Lands, essentially emerged from his deep engagement with the Egyptian Book of the Dead. Furthermore, Calonne focuses on Gregory Corso’s obsession with angelic imagery (elucidating the meaning of Ginsberg’s famous characterization of the Beats as “angel-headed hipsters”) and the figure of St. Francis; he highlights the role of Philip Lamantia as a point of contact and facilitator between U.S.-American literature and European Surrealism, and, using the prime example of Philip Whalen, he underscores the significance and influence of spiritual practice, Zen Buddhism in particular, that inspired Beat literature alongside “the more cerebral” traditions (151).
In consideration of Calonne’s conclusion that Diane di Prima’s “genius has been scandalously ignored” (14) and in light of the current politics of Beat criticism which display the intent to shift focus from the undeservedly overarching figures of Kerouac, Ginsberg, and Burroughs to authors hitherto considered minor Beats, specifically the “Female Beat[s]” (14), it is unfortunate that di Prima remains the only female author included in Calonne’s investigation. Lenore Kandel, who gained notoriety for the obscenity trials that followed her publication of The Love Book (1968), a poetry volume inspired by tantric Buddhism (a school part of the Vajrayana Buddhism Calonne focuses on), too, would have made a great fit. Likewise, the work of Joanne Kyger, who often finds mentioning in Beat lore simply as ‘the wife of Gary Snyder’ (26), would have offered a unique perspective specifically for her deep interest in and engagement with Zen Buddhism. Notwithstanding this shortcoming, The Spiritual Imagination of the Beats leaves very little room for negative criticism. In light of his overall focus on the Beat Generation as spirito-political counterculture, Calonne’s final chapter on Gary Snyder may have focused in more detail on how Native American culture and Buddhism came to shape Snyder’s countercultural politics. Calonne neglects, for instance, Snyder’s short essay on how Buddhism could provide the philosophical grounds to conceive of political anarchy. It also needs to be noted that while the dichotomy of dominant vs. countercultural spiritual traditions produced by the term “hidden religions” proves itself a very functional working concept for Calonne’s study of the Beats, there are a few cases which elude such categorization (e. g. Mayan and Aztec religions and the cult around the Egyptian Book of the Dead, which Corso and particularly Burroughs employ).
It is one of the major perks of The Spiritual Imagination of the Beats that Calonne’s straightforward and adequate prose provides easy access to both Beat literature and the tradition and cosmologies of the “hidden religions” even to readers who are not familiar with either topic. Calonne delivers an incredibly far-reaching, well-founded, and well-researched study which successfully evinces that “far from dilettantish dabbling in supposedly exotic heterodoxies, the Beats engaged in a serious, scholarly exploration of a variety of philosophical traditions” (175), and he has thus pioneered the way for further investigations into the numerous countercultural cosmologies that manifest in Beat literature.
Stefan Benz (Mannheim)