Antonio De Lisa- Existentialism, jazz and beat generation

Recent historiography has highlighted with sufficient clarity that the second half of the twentieth century was the century of the young. The entire period – especially starting from the 1960s – saw the rise of important youth movements. It is the moment in which adolescents and young people begin to have a relevant importance in society, adopting strongly characterizing attitudes, thoughts, philosophies, clothing, music. In turn, these models influence music, television, cinema and fashion. Here we will consider the first great European youth movement, the existentialist one, born immediately after World War II, and the first American youth movement, that of the Beat generation. Beyond the differences and changing perspectives there is a common thread that connects them: jazz music.

Philosophical existentialism is a philosophical current which arose in Germany in the wake of that rebirth of Kierkegaard’s thought which had its best fruit in Karl Barth’s (1919) commentary on the Epistle to the Romans of St. Paul. Existentialism took the name of Existenzphilosophie (Philosophy of existence) in its two German founders: Karl Jaspers and Martin Heidegger, who drew from Kierkegaard’s thought the re-evaluation of the single thrown into its finitude, abandoned to its choice, closed in its anguish, prisoner of his guilt, in the face of the optimism and panlogism of Hegelian philosophy.

Through Kierkegaard, existentialism is therefore reconnected with the dissolution of Hegelism, that is, with that movement that characterized the central decades of the century. XIX, and which still dominates the philosophical scene with the enormous diffusion of Marx’s thought (which, albeit with a different outcome, feeds on that same source). Two other thinkers of different origins are connected to the same problem of the dissolution of Hegelism, who, despite having met Kierkegaard only later, deserve the name of existentialists for that common derivation: the French G. Marcel and the Russian N. Berdjaev. The first starts from a rethinking of neo-Hegelism Anglo-American by Bradley and Royce; the second derives from a strong mar xistics; both have at the origin of their thinking an intense meditation on Schelling, whose fight against Hegel, which took place in Berlin in the 1940s. XIX and in general in the whole of the nineteenth-century Russian thought (not least Dostoevsky), clearly belongs to the dissolution of Hegelism. The French J.-P. Sartre and the Italian N. Abbagnano refer to existentialism, even if the previous and subsequent phases of their thought show that in the first it is a form of phenomenology linked to the thought of Marx and in the second of a kind of sociological pragmatism.

The main works of the real existentialists are articulated within a few years: the 1927 Being and Time by Heidegger and Marcel’s Metaphysical Diary, the three volumes of Jaspers’ Philosophie from 1932 and Berdjaev’s Spirit and Freedom from 1933. The fundamental concepts of existentialism are found in the constitution of a philosophy of the person, which affirms, against any possible integration into an all-encompassing totality, the human person as single and unrepeatable, unique and whole: true concrete reality, irreducible to both mere ” possibility” and the heavy “necessity”of a logical or social system, theocentric or humanistic as it may be, up to a philosophy of freedom.

In fact, existentialism has such an acute sense of freedom that it touches upon both arbitrariness, for which everything depends on the choice of the individual, and nihilism, in the sense that the “vertigo of freedom”, expressing itself in anguish, reveals the “being able not to be”, the nothingness on which the very concreteness of man is carved out; but on closer inspection the existentialist sense of freedom, giving man the awareness of his own finitude, bends him to the active acceptance of “what he is”, in a sort of creative obedience of his own personal and irreplaceable task. Finally, it is a philosophy in which the relationship with being is inseparable from the relationship that the person has with himself, so that every form of humanism is surpassed on the one hand – unaware of transcendence and content with the finite – and for the  other towards any form of objectivism, in the sense that being is unobjectable, and man cannot speak about it impersonally, nor can he question it without questioning himself.

In France, immediately after the war, existentialism was indelibly marked by the figure of Jean-Paul Sartre (1905-1980). The importance and greatness of Sartre the writer are linked to the terrible density of the world he intellectually elaborated, represented and staged: an absurd and repugnant world, a world “behind closed doors”, dominated by horror for the condition very existence. And yet the possibility of a way out is mentioned and consists in taking charge, once again, of one’s own action and in the capacity to accept within oneself a strong ethical and political responsibility.

An alternative figure to that of Sartre was that of Albert Camus. The broad lines of his human and literary philosophy can be found in the essays of Envers et l’endroit (1937; The right and the reverse) and Noces (1938; Wedding), based mainly on the ascertainment of the ineliminable absurdity of the human condition.

In those early essays Camus expresses the certainty that there is no other way out for humanity outside of this world. For now he seeks in the earth, in nature itself (solar and Mediterranean) the contact with reality, a reason for living. So again in the book that made him famous, L’étranger (1942; The stranger), and in the essays of Mythe de Sisyphe (1942; The myth of Sisyphus) where the feeling of the absurd, which is not in man or even in world, but in the coexistence of human beings, it finds its thesis.

“To live means to make the absurd live” and what matters, as far as man’s possibilities are concerned, is to transform this absurdity. From the individual experience Camus later passed to the general experience in Homme révolté (1951; Man in revolt) where the individual emerges from his own solitude, rebelling against the distance created between him and the world, in an impetus for creation. of a new society that reveals how “true generosity towards the future consists in giving everything to the present”.

In the novel La peste (1947), in the dramas of the État de siège (1948; The state of siege) and Les justes (1950; The righteous) a relatively optimistic morality is shed light on, that of solidarity with men “only in certainties which they have in common and which are love, suffering, exile “, matured by Camus in the years of the Resistance, of the struggle for the liberation of man conducted by the pages of Combat (of which in 1945 he had become editor in chief) , from the experiences that led him to reject the conclusions of Sartrean existentialism and those of Marxist materialism.

Paris in the immediate postwar period is the European capital of jazz; here many black musicians find refuge fleeing racist America, which does not consider jazz an art, which happens in the clubs of the French capital, where young intellectuals and artists are fascinated by African American music. Boris Vian, Sartre, Simone De Beauvoir, Juliette Gréco frequent the clubs where jazz is played: evidence of this interest is found in many literary works of the period. Intellectual Paris is on the left bank, the “Rive Gauche”, famous for its “bistrot” (cafes) and its exceptional cultural ferment and opens up to neighborhoods such as St. Germain-del-Prés. In this district, at the end of the 19th century, two cafes, the “Flore” and the “Deux Magots”, hosted intellectuals and politicians; even during the two wars the cafes continued to exercise an important political and cultural function; in 1942 frequented by the philosopher Sartre and his companion and writer Simone de Beauvoir, the “Flore” became the temple of the French intelligentsia. Later the cafes proved to be too distracting and the intellectuals took refuge in the “caves” where they played jazz and sang protest songs: Juliette Gréco, symbol of post-war French customs, made her debut in 1944 at the “Tabou”, the first “cave” “existentialist.

Also the author of stories and songs, Vian played his pocket trumpet (which in his writings is often found under the nickname “trompinette”) in the famous “Tabou” club (now closed) located in Rue Dauphine, near Saint Germain des Prés, in Paris. His most famous song is “Le déserteur”, with a distinctly pacifist text. Passionate about jazz, was the “contact” (among others) of Duke Ellington and Miles Davis in Paris. He has written for several French jazz magazines (Le Jazz Hot, Paris Jazz) and has published numerous articles on the subject also in America. Although he has never set foot in America, the themes of this country, jazz in particular, are often found in Vian’s art. His literary works are in fact intimately intertwined with his love for jazz. In the preface to L’Écume des Jours, he wrote: “There are only two things that matter: love, in all its forms, with beautiful girls, and the music of New Orleans and Duke Ellington. to throw away, because it’s ugly… “.

Vian was perfectly inserted in the Parisian “scene” of those years, with all the credentials; discovered and protected by Raymond Queneau, who opened the streets of Gallimard to him, collaborator of “Les temps modernes”, the magazine of Jean Paul Sartre, inventor of Saint Germain and his poetic caves by Juliette Greco, neighbor of Jacques Prévert, Professional trumpet player in classical jazz ensembles, guest of the famous sessions of the “satraps” heirs of Alfred Jarry and his ravings and satrap himself of the College of Pataphysics (together with for example René Clair, Jacques Prévert, Siné) surrealist and delusional , singer in public with Magali Noël: we have always wondered how he could have fulfilled such a complete fate as a cursed poet in just 39 years of life.

The young beats study Plotinus’ Neoplatonism, the cosmogonic theories contained in the book Eureka by Edgar Allan Poe, the mystical poems and ascetic treatises of St. John of the Cross, telepathy and the cabala.

The term “beat” echoes both the spontaneity of the rhythmic beat of jazz music and the “beatific” joys of Eastern mysticism, two vital components in Beat literary production. This movement, similar but more radical than that of the “Angry Young Men” of England, began in San Francisco, in whose cafes and art galleries poets and writers read, to the sound of jazz music, their works that wanted to express the spirit of a new generation in revolt against the conformism and respectability of the American middle class; against an “establishment” which aimed above all at maintaining bourgeois values and the post-war capitalist economy. Historically, it was against a false sense of security created in America by the Cold War and he Korean defeat that the works of these writers imposed themselves.

From the literary point of view, proposing works that are spontaneous in form and free in style and verse, the Beats were recognized, since the early sixties, as a new aesthetic movement that exalted the themes of the rediscovery of individual freedom through instinct, occasionality, oriental mysticism, drug use and establishing a poetic canon in which speech manifests a visceral relationship with language.

These writers who, by diversifying themselves, produced pure lyricism, satire, autobiographical prose, political manifesto, spontaneous poetry, memoirs, epistolary riffs and satire manifested, according to Anne Waldman, “an impulse to write that focuses and centers on magnanimity through language. Natural rhythms of American speech, jazz rhythms, freight carriage rhythms, industrial rhythms, rhapsody, skillful juxtapositions of verbal cut-ups and an expansiveness that mirrors primal chaos, all of this is constantly put into action. One type of writing that makes a mockery of the self-satisfied style. “

The hipsters movement had been the forerunner. This group of detached figures represents the US existentialist current, which recognizes the risk of an atomic war, and oppressively feels the weight of post-war US consumer society and the suffocating standardization of the masses. Hipster is a term born in the forties in the United States to describe jazz enthusiasts and in particular bebop. These were generally middle-class white kids, emulating the lifestyle of African American jazz musicians.

This type of subculture expanded rapidly, taking on new forms after World War II, when a thriving literary scene was associated with the movement. Jack Kerouac described the hipsters of the 1940s as wandering souls carrying a special spirituality. However, it was Norman Mailer who gave a precise definition of the movement. In an essay entitled The White Negro (1967), Mailer described hipsters as American existentialists, who lived their lives surrounded by death – annihilated by atomic war or strangled by social conformity – and who decided to ‘divorce society, live without roots. and embark on a mysterious journey into the subversive imperatives of the self “.

The author Frank Tirro, in his book Jazz: a History (1977), defines the hipsters of the forties in this way: “For the hipster, Charlie Parker was the role model. The hipster is an underground man, he is during the second world war what Dadaism was for the first It is amoral, anarchic, kind and civilized to the point of being decadent It is always ten steps ahead of the others thanks to its conscience.

He knows the hypocrisy of bureaucracy and the hatred implicit in religions, so what values do he have besides going through existence avoiding pain, controlling emotions and being cool? He looks for something that transcends all this nonsense and finds it in jazz.

Hipsters are aloof, they know the dangers and, therefore, they quit society and start chasing their deep existence. Hipsters are the serious, buttoned up, mystically in prey to the heroine that Kerouac describes in the first part of The Dungeons.

Next to these characters the beats emerge. Among the authors of reference: Jack Kerouac, Allen Ginsberg, William Burroughs, Gregory Corso, Neal Cassady, Gary Snyder, Lawrence Ferlinghetti, Norman Mailer. The suffering and fiery young beats, addicted to alcohol and marijuana, poets, novelists, who would like to share their love for everything with humanity and, instead, feel misunderstood. For their lifestyle they are often associated with the “Lost Generation”, and by the same admission of many beat writers, Whitman and Hemingway are at the origins of their literary ideas. But, in reality, the beat movement had a much more shocking scope, thanks also to the period in which it emerged.

The relationship of the Beat movement with jazz is much more fruitful of contamination between musical and literary suggestions than it happens in Europe. The new generations of rebellious intellectuals both in America and in Europe, however, recognize in jazz its quality of being an unconventional music. The great historian Eric J. Hobsbawm devoted an important chapter of his essay to the analysis of the public in America and Europe, with particular attention to “his” England. Hobsbawm points out that the boys of the Austin School in Chicago, including Bix Beiderbecke, Pee Wee Russell, Bud Freeman and Dave Tough, were scions of the good American bourgeoisie: this fact is proven by the lack of Italian or Slavic surnames that we see. constantly appearing in other chapters of jazz history.

These young people had intellectual pretensions, they read “committed” writers and rebelled against the “respectability” of the middle class, they often shared the idealization of black who in one of them, Milton Mezzrow, reaches worrying levels. The amateurs of the thirties are often young people with radical tendencies from the wealthiest and most influential families of the east, often belonging to the middle classes of the freelancers such as lawyers and doctors who refuse their birth rights or even accept a voluntary social demotion to approach the bohemian life of jazz musicians. “Their protest – writes Hobsbawm – also has a political sense, as they are people who reject the American way of life as a whole, without however replacing it with anything other than music, avant-garde existentialist philosophy, as well as a certain personal anarchism. “.

The English historian speaks of the generation of fans of the Thirties, but the same writers of the beat generation, the Hipsters who follow bebop, fit perfectly into this description, a sign that perhaps the evolution of the public is not characterized by such clear discontinuities between pre-bop jazz and, generalizing, avant-garde bop and post-bop. Perhaps the conclusion that can be drawn beyond the opposition between the bourgeoisie and the proletariat, mass music / elite avant-garde is another: the evolution of the public shows a trend that more or less remains the same. Music for a heterogeneous audience, made up of a large number of people with good education. In the group of young people who have approached him in the past, but nothing prevents a sociological investigation from being able to demonstrate that the same is true today, there is a significant number of rebels and nonconformists in revolt against the world.

Here is the conclusion reached by Hobsbawm to explain this protestatory aspect inherent in the very nature of jazz: “Being a community of rebels, the jazz-amateurs community always ends up finding affinities with other opposition movements, and sometimes, as in Anglo-Saxon countries of the thirties onwards, it is totally impregnated with Protestatary ideologies. Normally however, being a heterogeneous and individualistic public, it remains on the margins of active politics, and attracts both those who want to escape from the conventions, as those who want to break them down. The jazz of the twenties was completely apolitical. The jazz of the following twenty years turned to the left, and undoubtedly participated in the activities of the left, just as it cannot be excluded that in many socialist countries jazz is vaguely anti-socialist and involved in anti-socialist activities “. The influence of jazz on creative writing has been profound, particularly on that of Jack Kerouac. The new way of writing adopted by Kerouac was defined by himself as spontaneous prose, characteristic for its immediacy and its rapid flow, similar to that of jazz music.


 Vito Amoruso, La letteratura beat americana, Laterza, 1975.

Antonio De Lisa- Il jazz tra radici blues, modalismo e avanguardia, in “Sonus Live

Weiner Susan, Enfants Terribles: Youth and Femininity in the Mass Media in France, 1945-1968, The Johns Hopkins University Press, 2001.

Frak Tirro, Jazz: a History, 1977.

Antonio De Lisa
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