Japanese Beatniks and Revised Boy Scouts

Michael Hayward

William S. Burroughs was the most subversive of the writers known collectively as “the Beats,” his writings influencing the avant-garde of later generations. The Revised Boy Scout Manual: An Electronic Revolution (Ohio State Press) is an obscure bit of Burroughsiana that first appeared in audio form on cassette in 197. This edition has been collated and synthesized from various versions of Burroughs’s text: “typescripts, tape recordings, periodical publications, books, and online.” The Revised Boy Scout Manual is essentially an extended rant, a metaphorical “call to arms,” crossed with a practical “how to” manual, for those who oppose and wish to overthrow the status quo. The tactics? Any- and everything from stockpiling small arms (which, Burroughs notes, are only effective “in a condition of chaos such as could be expected after a nuclear attack”) to a radical revision of language (“The definite article THE will be deleted and the indefinite article A will take its place”). You can hear Burroughs’s distinctive nasal snarl in every phrase: “The food in England is now fit only for the consumption of an underprivileged vulture”; “Slaughter the shits of the world, then we can all have some fun for a change.” The Revised Boy Scout Manual is both of its time (the proto-revolutionary 6s) and timely: our era’s “1%” could easily be added to the long list of entrenched enemies / oppressors / surveillors who are identified in Burroughs’s text: “police, army, navy, business, mass media, CIA.”

Kerouac: Beat Painting (Skira) is the exhibition catalog for a 218 gallery show mounted by the Museo MA*GA in Gallarate, northern Italy. The show presented “a series of never-before-seen artworks, images and studies representing the visual art of Jack Kerouac,” nearly 1 works which Kerouac created during the late 195s and early 196s. The catalog also collects a sheaf of critical essays on Kerouac’s visual art, from writers who seem to delight in demonstrating their command of art-theory and other jargon, bandying terms like “Beat syncretism,” “heirophanies” and “oneiric imagination.” Kerouac was a writer first and foremost, but his painting was guided by the same desire: to channel spontaneity, and to avoid self-censorship. One of the critical essays in Beat Painting, from Sandrina Bandera, quotes from one of Kerouac’s 1959 notebooks, in which he exhorts himself to “USE BRUSH SPONTANEOUSLY: i.e. without drawing, without long pause or delay, without erasing… pile it on.” Kerouac’s visual art will always be seen as a minor curiosity in comparison to his novels, which remain influential fifty years after Kerouac’s death.

Several Beat writers acknowledge the influence of Buddhism and Asian culture, but the influence worked in both directions: a generation of Japanese poets saw the Beats as emblematic of American cool. This aspect of the association is explored in Japan and the Beats, a special issue of the Tokyo Poetry Journal (ToPoJo). One highlight of the issue is an English translation of a 1992 interview with “Japan’s first hippy,” the late Nanao Sakaki. Sakaki, who was a good friend of both Gary Snyder and Allen Ginsberg (and of Vancouver poet Trevor Carolan) used to spend a lot of time walking in the mountains of Japan and the deserts of the southwestern United States, covering up to 45 kilometres a day. “In the winter I like to be in the snowy mountains, and in the summer I like to go swimming in the coral sea.” There’s a slight Canadian connection as well, through Kazuko Shiraishi, a poet once described by Kenneth Patchen as “the Allen Ginsberg of Japan.” Shiraishi—who is represented by a pair of poems that show Ginsberg’s influence, and by a biographical essay (by A. Robert Lee)—was born in Vancouver in 1931, and raised in Japan, where she now lives.

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