The Paradox of Thanatos: Jack Kerouac and Allen Ginsberg

From Self-Destruction to Self-Liberation

by Tanguy Harma (Author)
©2022 Monographs XII, 180 Pages
Series: Modern American Literature, Volume 74


More often associated with hedonism and cheap thrills than with notions of alienation and suffering, Beat literature has rarely been envisaged from the perspective of the paradoxical dynamics at play in the writings. What this book evidences is that the sacrosanct quest for transcendence staged by Kerouac and by Ginsberg is underpinned, primarily, by a trope of nullification that acts as a menace for the self. This tropism for destruction and death is not only emblematic of their works, it is also used as a literary strategy that seeks to conquer the fear of self-annihilation through the writing itself. It is precisely this interplay—approached through an Existentialism that simultaneously converges upon the Transcendentalist legacy of Beat writing—which probes the paradoxical dimension of the texts, enabling the mythological figure of Thanatos to take centre stage.
The critical synergy of the book, brought about by relating American literature and culture to European thought, enables in-depth analyses of a selection of novels and poems, grasped through their aesthetic, ontological and historical dimensions. Shedding new light on the literary strategies of two widely misunderstood American writers of the twentieth century, this captivating study into the drives for self-destruction and self-liberation encapsulated by Kerouac and Ginsberg sets out to reinvent the well-worn definition of ‘Beat’ through its original approach—an essential critical piece for all those interested in the American counterculture.

Table Of Contents

  • Cover
  • Advance Praise
  • Title
  • Copyright
  • About the author
  • About the book
  • This eBook can be cited
  • Contents
  • Foreword
  • Introduction: The Quest for Thanatos
  • PART I Lapsing into Alienation: Strategies for Self-Destruction
  • 1 The Transcendental Ontology of Jack Kerouac and Allen Ginsberg
  • The Pursuit of Transcendence
  • From the Vision to the Visionary
  • Embodying the Essence of Nature: Toward a Transcendental Ontology
  • Existential Authenticity and the Menace of Alienation
  • 2 The Mirror on the Road: Kerouac’s Vision of Anguish
  • The Vision of Anguish
  • Big Sur and the Loss of the Visionary
  • Echoes from Walden
  • “The Vulcan’s Forge Itself”: The Fall into the Absurd
  • 3 The Pith of Existential Nothingness: Ginsberg’s Moloch
  • “The Best Minds of my Generation” vs. Moloch
  • The Cultural Predicament of Modern America
  • The Consciousness of Death
  • The Urizenic Mind
  • PART II Toward Self-Liberation: Engagement, Movement, Disengagement
  • 4 Existential and Transcendental Forms of Engagement in Ginsberg’s “Howl”
  • An Epic Form of Commitment
  • The “Footnote to ‘Howl’”: Pantheism, Immanence, and the Intuition
  • Fulfilling the Idea within the Self: Intuitive Performativity in “Howl”
  • 5 The Phenomenological Poetics of Jack Kerouac and Allen Ginsberg
  • “Coming from within, out”
  • As Existence Precedes Essence, Form Precedes Content
  • “A Sense of Dooming Boom”: The Dionysian Impulse of Thanatos
  • Streaming Live from the Transcendent: Ginsberg’s Poetics of Transcendental Performativity
  • From the Poetical to the Political: Toward the Collective Vision
  • 6 Kerouac’s Solipsistic Revolt: The Strategy of Disengagement
  • Disengagement and the Search for Authenticity
  • The Revolt: Camus, Thoreau, Kerouac
  • A Retreat into the Self
  • The Sacrificial Vision
  • Conclusion: The Paradox of Thanatos
  • Index
  • Series Index

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Scholarship in the humanities can be a lonely business. While social scientists have their research teams and natural scientists the comradery of the laboratory, the literary critic often feels isolated, staring into books and screens while sitting on hard chairs in musty libraries. Thus, there is the palpable joy one feels when finally discovering another soul researching the same topics, addressing the same concerns, investigating the same problems. It is always a comfort to know someone else is out there.

I first met Tanguy Harma at a European Beat Studies Network conference in Brussels in 2015. Peggy Pacini and Polina Mackay, two excellent Beat scholars who helped organize the event, took me aside and wittily intimated that I would “enjoy” his work. They were correct. Hearing my first book, Capturing the Beat Moment, engaged critically and intelligently by Harma in his presentation was indeed flattering. Even more satisfying, however, was the thought that another Beat scholar was examining the same sort of questions that animated my own research. Harma’s interest in putting the Beats into dialogue with Existentialism and other theoretical concerns had piqued my interest, and I eagerly anticipated more work from him.

It came as a pleasant surprise to recently discover that Harma had a book coming out, and moreover that he wanted me to write a Foreword to it. The ←vii | viii→Paradox of Thanatos, the text now in front of you either physically or virtually, makes good on the promise implicit in Harma’s earlier presentation in Brussels. Harma triangulates Allen Ginsberg’s and Jack Kerouac’s emblematic works from the 1950s—including “Howl” and On the Road—with the American Transcendentalism of Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau and the French Existentialism of Jean-Paul Sartre and Albert Camus. The result is an engaging exploration of how Ginsberg and Kerouac confront negativity in a bid for transcendence through writing. Well-written and well-argued, The Paradox of Thanatos critically engages numerous concerns in the scholarship, such as Beat visionary experience, their fascination with death, the quest narrative, and the spontaneous method (among many others), deepening our understanding of what the Beat desire to step “outside” everyday experience and traditional modes of thought might mean.

Harma’s willingness to re-examine concepts that have often been given short-shrift make his book an important contribution to the field. Many critics have remarked that On the Road offers two divergent readings, depending on age: young readers gravitate toward Dean’s rebellious desire for transcendence in all its myriad forms, while older readers routinely pick up on Sal’s brooding melancholy in the face of life’s constant sense of loss. But rather than simply acknowledge these readings, why not examine both in more detail? Better yet, why not put them into dialogue, as Harma does here? Demonstrating how the drive toward self-destruction can be a positive move toward self-liberation (though always subject to failure), The Paradox of Thanatos offers a new “way in” to important issues in Beat Studies that demand further engagement and better historical and cultural contextualization.

This book is also part of an important trend in Beat Studies that places these works into broader dialogues. The transnational impulse has given us a series of studies that examine how the international has influenced the Beats, and how the Beats have left their mark on literatures throughout the world. Reading Kerouac and Ginsberg through Sartre and Camus, for instance, extends important work done by Véronique Lane in her The French Genealogy of The Beat Generation. But Harma’s inclusion of Thoreau and Emerson also invokes the American Renaissance as a lens for understanding Kerouac and Ginsberg’s interest in nature, offering lines of inquiry that extend the work on the Beats and ecology begun by Chad Weidner in important new directions. Unless Beat Studies wants to become simply an obscure sub-specialty of twentieth-century American Literature, we need to place the Beats into wider contexts that illuminate not only their place in American and World letters but demonstrate their ←viii | ix→importance for contemporary discussions and concerns. Harma’s book provides an excellent example of how this type of broad-ranging intellectual inquiry can be fruitfully conducted.

As I argue in Ambiguous Borderlands: Shadow Imagery in Cold War American Culture, there is a darkness that propels the work of Kerouac and Ginsberg forward, a fascination with the shadows that pushes each author to attempt to describe what ultimately cannot be named. Harma’s work shines light into these occluded spaces, giving us a better account of how Kerouac and Ginsberg attempt to profit from their forays into the dark spaces of imagination. Beat writing is often derided as solipsistic, but as Harma brilliantly shows, only by turning inward to confront our own doubts and fears can we begin to think about moving outward into new modes of being.

The Beats’ desire to push boundaries is not limited to a mid-century iconoclasm. On the contrary, they continue to provide a blueprint for action that helps us to make sense of the never-ending struggle to negotiate the forces of death and destruction. But this blueprint needs the sort of critical examination that Harma provides in order to separate the possibilities offered by Beat formulations from their potential limitations and problems. This is important work because the paradox of Thanatos that Harma reveals in Ginsberg and Kerouac is ultimately our paradox too: the incessant need of every human to come to terms with a darkness that is simultaneously an important means of finding the light.

Erik Mortenson
October 2021

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Introduction: The Quest for Thanatos

Looking back on the “Nifty Fifties,” novelist and chronicler John Clellon Holmes recalled how the works of Beat poets and writers were used “as bibles for hipness by the Beatniks, derided as incoherent mouthings by the critics, and treated as some kind of literary equivalent of rock’n’roll by the mass media.”1 Whether glorified or vilified, the Beats have remained notorious throughout the years, shown in a revival of fervor for Beat literature in the last decade and also by a thriving interest in the Beats in latter-day literary criticism. And yet, misconceptions about the Beats prevail: misunderstandings, which can be traced all the way back to the reception of Jack Kerouac’s On the Road in 1957 and to the trial that followed the publication of Allen Ginsberg’s “Howl” a year earlier. More often associated with hedonism and cheap thrills than with notions of alienation and suffering, the Beat literary production has rarely been envisaged from the perspective of the paradoxical dynamics at play in the writings; a perspective through which the menace of death resonates, equivocally and paradoxically, as both a destructive motif and a creative one.

Everlasting icons of pop culture, Allen Ginsberg and Jack Kerouac, are frequently seen, along with William Burroughs, as the (un)holy Trinity of Beat writers. A media construct from the 1950s, the term “Beat generation” is far-reaching and encompasses a broad range of cultural, artistic, and literary practices. The ←1 | 2→phrase has been used, and often abused, as a blanket statement to describe a countercultural expression that came of age after World War II in reaction to what was perceived as the debilitating effects of the rife conformism of an America whose founding genius, some felt, had been traded away for a prosperous economy, a devouring mania for social control and a mortiferous lifestyle. Nevertheless, for the sake of a classification that loosely coheres culturally, this designation entails a series of reductions that tend to homogenize the movement to which it refers, failing to account for its intrinsic diversity and overlooking the fundamental divergences between its different representatives. As such, the “Beat generation” tag remains too generic and largely ineffective to allow for insightful enquiries into the works of Kerouac and of Ginsberg, whose characteristics and idiosyncrasies largely transcend its boundaries.

The stereotypical conception of Kerouac by the general public as “King of the Beats”—a sobriquet he abhorred—contributed to one of the greatest misunderstandings in the history of American literature. In spite of appearances, Kerouac may be relocated within a long tradition of poets and writers who entertained a genuine fascination for death—or rather for the idea of death; a fascination highly romantic and troubling, whose formulation in the writing was deeply paradoxical. While Kerouac’s blazing temper has been portrayed at great length by a plethora of biographers, some, such as Ann Charters and Gerald Nicosia, have uncovered a more grievous condition: a muffled sadness, a sorrow even, evanescent yet deep-rooted, nurtured by a saturnine disposition.2 Both Charters and Nicosia have pointed out the loss of Kerouac’s brother Gerard, aged nine, in an attempt to account for this indelible melancholy, speculating on the psychological impact of this tragic loss on a four-year-old “Ti-Jean”—Kerouac’s French-Canadian nickname as a child. Other critics, such as Joy Walsh, have stressed the role played by the Roman Catholic education that Kerouac received in his childhood, which undoubtedly paved the way for a life-long feeling of guilt;3 a burdensome, celestial guilt that his infatuation with Buddhism in the 1950s could not suppress—as Kerouac put it pithily in Vanity of Duluoz (1968), “what SIN is there, but the sin of birth?”4 At any rate, the elusive darkness that so mysteriously shrouded Kerouac’s persona also impregnated the novels of the Duluoz Legend—the name given by Kerouac to his oeuvre, covering a dozen of individual works that cohere into a greater corpus—a darkness allegorized by the Great World Snake and other ominous figures in Doctor Sax (1959) or sublimated through the narrator’s impossible love for Tristessa, a conceit for death in the eponymous novel (1960).5 In fact, a shadow was already lurking behind the clamor of On the Road (1957), in which Kerouac’s consummate writing also allowed for a sense of ←2 | 3→despair to pierce the text in spasms of bleakness and upon which only a handful of critics have attempted to shine a light.6 This inflection became more and more pressing as Kerouac’s writing career progressed, reaching a paroxysmic agony in the harrowing Big Sur (1962). This pervading darkness in the writing is met, crucially, with an aesthetics that both accentuates and transcends it and which is key for the staging of a foundational antagonism between two major forces of existence: one tending toward fear, stasis, and nothingness and the other toward movement, transcendence, and ultimate being. I argue that this polarity and its modes of expression, intricate and paradoxical, actively shape the works in ways that have largely escaped critical attention thus far; an axiomatic polarity whose terms and dynamic articulation through the writing will be unraveled in this book through close analysis of a selection of road novels—principally On the Road and Big Sur.

Ginsberg’s writing is also immensely equivocal with regards to the tight interweaving of motifs of destruction with the possibility for emancipation and salvation in his poetry. Inspired by both myth and history, these motifs are derived from a great variety of literary and spiritual traditions, reactivated in the post-war context. Following in the footsteps of Whitman, Ginsberg used the poetical form of the free verse to craft a poetics that embodies, within its very lines, the yearning for self-liberation that his poems so frantically articulate in their contents. Simultaneously, Ginsberg’s writing is informed by a trope of social protest, which is fueled by his participation in the countercultural politics of the 1950s and beyond. For Ginsberg, the sources of ruination are located, primarily, in the adverse conditions of a reality that jeopardizes human integrity and curbs the expression of the full magnitude of one’s own subjectivity; a reality, cold and spiritless, often mechanized and standardized, whose modus operandi foregrounds an ominous estrangement, which is devastating both for the individual and for the collective. In the majority of his poems, it is the sociohistorical predicament of the post-war moment which is devised as toxic for the self: acting as a historical menace on the desires, the hopes and the dreams of a generation of Americans invigorated by a communal faith in an existence more authentic, more absolute, and transcending—an existence worth living for. The culmination of the Cold War and the internalization of its ideological battle, the materialistic ethos of the era but also its social and literary constrictions, are profusely dramatized and envisaged as stifling and intrinsically detrimental not only for individual self-fulfillment but also for the very possibility of self-expression and poetical imagination. In doing so, Ginsberg stages a poetical confrontation between alienation and emancipation with intertwined ramifications on the social, ontological, and ←3 | 4→spiritual planes together; a confrontation, often channeled through myth in his early poems, that this book will aim to decipher in greater detail.

What truly unites these two “Beat” authors, more than anything else, is their marked yet complex relationship with Romanticism. For Kerouac as well as Ginsberg, the emblematic relation between outer and inner nature is exemplified by an irresistible urge toward natural phenomena, often experienced as a site for self-discovery. In their respective writings, nature functions as a trope of innocence and imagination where intuition and instinct rule over reason and intellect; a trope through which alienation and suffering are fully endured, sometimes exalted, but also redeemed and transfigured. Throughout the works of the Duluoz Legend, Kerouac copiously idealizes nature, which is rendered spiritual in essence. It suffuses the writing with a transcendental aura that provides early texts such as On the Road with a sporadic yet distinct sense of continuity and harmony between self, nature, and the divine—something referred to as “visions” by Kerouac, which he frequently repositioned within a Catholic framework. In the American Romantic tradition as well as for Kerouac, visions materialize a form of connection with divinity: they channel the insight of a universal principle that is transcendental in nature. Most importantly, they induce an ontological state—that of the visionary—that acts as a gateway for the emergence of a higher form of being; a conception that tallies with a Transcendentalist ethos and also had a deep impact on Ginsberg.


XII, 180
ISBN (Hardcover)
Publication date
2022 (May)
post-war American literature Beat writing Existentialism Transcendentalism alienation engagement revolt existential authenticity transcendental ontology visionary pantheism myth
New York, Bern, Berlin, Bruxelles, Oxford, Wien, 2022. XII, 180 pp.

Biographical notes

Tanguy Harma (Author)

Educated in France and in the United Kingdom, Tanguy Harma received his PhD in English in 2018 from Goldsmiths, University of London. His international experience in higher education (University of Minnesota, Goldsmiths, University of Southampton) brought him this year to Istanbul Kültür University, where currently teaches in the Department of English Language and Literature and continues his exploration of the writings of the American counterculture.


Title: The Paradox of Thanatos: Jack Kerouac and Allen Ginsberg
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