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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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Chapter 1. Discovering the Liminal Beat Generation and its Communitas

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Chapter 1. Discovering the Liminal Beat Generation and its Communitas

Abstract: Turner’s studies on liminality and communitas, the liminoid, pilgrimages, and social dramas are introduced. Links to the Beats regarding Turner’s studies are made, and the research methodology for the dissertation is established.

1.1  A Generation on the Margins

It was during the time of the Beats and Hippie Generations that Victor Turner published his studies about liminality which were based on Arnold van Gennep’s study about the rites of passage published in 1909.40 Already presented at a conference in 1964,41 Turner’s “Betwixt and Between: The Liminal Period in Rites de Passage” was included in his book The Forest of Symbols in 1967. He introduces the three-part process of the rites of passage beginning with the pre-liminal break from society, to the transitional liminal phase, on to the re-admittance to society at the post-liminal stage; a passage which moves initiands from one status to another in society.42 In this study, he focuses on the liminal stage in relation to pre-industrial societies, mainly the Ndembu in Zambia.43 The liminal is when initiands enter a stage of limbo during a ritual and lose societal status determiners which are replaced by symbolic ambiguity.44 Initiands may be considered “‘invisible’” (Turner, Forest 95) to society while going through a transition since society cannot see that which it cannot define culturally;45 thus, they are laden with symbols defining their ambiguous state to “give an...

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