The Ecological Roots of the Beats and Zen Buddhism – a Lecture by Jordan Savage

A brief article on Essex PhD student Jordan Savage’s lecture on the Beats. Unfortunately the focus of this talk was more on Zen Buddhism than wilderness, but it was still very interesting and I hope some might be interested.

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Over the summers of 1955 to 1957 Jack Kerouac, Gary Snyder and Philip Whalen worked as fire marshals on the North Cascades Mountains. While camped up on their separate peaks the Beat writers passed the time talking to each other over the radio, attempting to reanimate flies with electricity and being inspired to write their own individual accounts of their time and the revelations this wilderness inspired within them. It was these texts that were the focus of Essex PhD student Jordan Savage’s lecture in Ipswich Town Hall. In an ornate room, decorated with oil paintings and feeling miles away from the typical drab lecture theatre, she expanded, through close reading of the texts, on the ecological roots of the Beat generation and their Zen Buddhist inspirations.

To open the audience was bought into the mind-set of the Beat poets, explaining the use of haiku to sound like a saxophone tune and seeing poetry as a manifestation of mind, which lead us into a close reading of two poems by Gary Snyder. Both poems described the same event; Synder being alerted to a fire and putting it out with Whalen, but one is ‘The Text’ while the other is ‘The Myth’. Savage explained how ‘a conversation is built into the two poems’ and how ‘The Myth’ mythologises the situation, positioning a night’s event into the totality of cosmic history.  But although ‘The Text’ may seem on first reading a straight forward recount of the action it is in fact imbued with mythology itself, as they lay in mud and ashes echoing Achilles in The Iliad. Savage draws this image out into a wider explanation of myth being embedded in human consciousness, culture and, most importantly, the creation of poetry. Furthermore these two pieces represent the separation of mind/body dualism as one represents the physical action itself while the other delves into the mental consequences of the event.

Savage also uses a comparison of texts to analyse Kerouac’s response to landscape, namely in On the Road and The Dharma Bums. She says that On the Road’s end displays a mythologisation and a concept of a New Frontier for America. The point is raised that this vision of America created in On the Road has been commodified, as the dispossession of the era is romanticised and sold back to us in the form of tacky films that are completely disconnected from the original text.

We must ask how the perception of the Beats and possibly even the world as a whole would be if the message from The Dharma Bums has been taken up instead. The Dharma Bums concludes with a strong sense of the Catholic meeting Buddhism but making the reader aware that the whole novel and every event within it is just part of a bigger whole and purely simple.

This is the main point that Savage choose to emphasis in her lecture. She pinpointed the sense of an anti-climax at the end of both Snyder and Kerouac’s texts that symbolise the neutrality in Buddhism. Highlighting how there is so much commotion in the world but nothing is more important than anything else and there is an immense void that is particularly felt by the writers when they are on their solitary mountain peaks. This is what they receive from the wilderness they are immersed into during those summer months and as they protected the areas from ravaging fires it may be seen as an example of symbiotic relationship, one of harmony. Within these texts a sense of Kerouac’s, and particularly Snyder’s, involvement in Deep Ecology is imbued in their Buddhist concepts.

Savage concluded with Phillip Whalen, who was unfortunately rushed at the end due to the amount Synder’s work was expanded on.  The final lines:

There’s just the void, and little old Duluse me, and not even that (sic.)

once again remind us that in the Buddhist ideas of the universe, that many of the Beats greatly took to heart, ourselves and even the immovable mountains are as unimportant as every other aspect of life.

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One Response to The Ecological Roots of the Beats and Zen Buddhism – a Lecture by Jordan Savage

  1. Reblogged this on Lost in the Industrial Jungle and commented:

    Something I wrote a while back, thinking about it again as I am about the have an essay published in Beatdom, a literary journal dedicated to the Beats

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