Monday, May 18, 2015

`The Generic Beatnik Source'

With age comes dignity, right? If only it were so. Life denies some the gifts of comportment and self-respect. Illness and good works unrewarded challenge the most stoical natures. But some never aspire to self-respect and settle for self-esteem, the default mode of the spiritually indolent. My generation overflows with unreconstructed hippies, Whitmanesque babies, Panglossian potheads, Che devotees and Zen nihilists. We are an enduring embarrassment, and not merely to our children. Seventeen years ago this week, Anthony Hecht published “Indolence,” our definitive group portrait, in The New Yorker:                                

“Beyond the corruption both of rust and moth,
I loaf and invite my soul, calmly I slump
On the crowded sidewalk, blessed to the gills on hemp;
Mine is a sanctified and holy sloth. 

“The guilty and polluted come to view
My meek tranquility, the small tin cup
That sometimes runneth over. They fill it up
To assuage the torments they are subject to 

“And hasten to the restoratives of sin,
While I, a flower-child, beautiful and good,
Remain inert, as St. Matthew said I should:
I rest, I toil not, neither do I spin. 

“Think how this sound economy of right
And wrong wisely allows me to confer
On all the bustling who in their bustling err
Consciences of a pure and niveous white.” 

A nice takedown of Whitmanesque posturing and Jesus-freak self-righteousness. The second allusion to the first gospel, Matthew 6:28, equates the flower-child with “the lilies of the field.” After “Indolence” appeared in Hecht’s final collection, The Darkness the and Light (2001), Eleanor Cook wrote to ask if he had Robert Browning’s “Johannes Agricola in Meditation” in mind. Hecht said no, but added, in a letter dated Jan. 7, 2002: 

“My speaker was far less a theologian/philosopher than Browning’s was. But I had [in mind], apart from the generic beatnik source, a passage of Auden in For the Time Being. In Herod’s speech he declares that if the `rumor’ of salvation by the New Dispensation is not stamped out, "Every corner-boy will congratulate himself: `I’m such a sinner that God had to come down in person to save me. I must be a devil of a fellow.' Every crook will argue: `I like committing crimes. God likes forgiving them. Really the world is admirably arranged.'" 

The Gospel According to Arlo Guthrie.

1 comment:

Dick Cornflour said...

For what it's worth, Arlo Guthrie has become a libertarian who supports Republican candidates.