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Liminality and «Communitas» in the Beat Generation

Aaron Christopher Mitchell

The Beat Generation questioned mid-twentieth century America and sought the margins of society. This book analyzes the literature and lifestyles of the Beat authors Jack Kerouac, William S. Burroughs, and Allen Ginsberg in regard to Victor Turner’s anthropological studies. The Beats separated from society by willingly entering the rites of passage. Liminal symbolism is apparent in their literature such as in movement, time, space, pilgrimages, and monstrosities. In their liminal stage, they established «communitas» and developed anti-structure. They questioned society and made proposals to change it in their liminoid literature. The Beats shared similarities with previous countercultures, and they influenced the following Hippie Generation.

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Abstract: The Beats marginalize themselves from society and enter the rites of passage guided only by liminal elders. They remain in a liminal state, establish communitas, and create anti-structure which is seen in their liminoid literature.

The model of the rites of passage for Victor Turner given at the beginning of this study can now be used to visually reflect upon how the Beats fit into this model. Turner’s structure involves a linear process for initiands moving from the pre-liminal to the post-liminal with guidance from elders while the initiands establish communitas:

The Beats, however, do not necessarily transition in a direct linear position, but rather remain in a vicious circle between the liminal and the post-liminal. Communitas is established and maintained. The elders are in a liminal state: ← 297 | 298 →

The Beat Generation was a group of aspiring writers who were attracted to one another for reasons of their marginality in their own respective ways. The founding of the group lie in the turbulent years of WWII. The war and the resulting Cold War were major crises which furthered their break with society. By marginalizing themselves, they entered a liminal state, of which there was no return for them. The course of a rite of passage from pre-liminal, to liminal, and onto post-liminal1086 does not occur as would be expected for the Beats. They remain aloof in the liminal state. Victor Turner’s research mainly focuses on non-postindustrial...

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