Spontaneity, immediacy, and difference: Philosophy, being in time, and creativity in the aesthetics of jack kerouac, charles olson, and john cage

Journal Article (Chapter)

At the outset of The Four Quartets (1936) quoted above, T. S. Eliot takes up the possibility that the problem of historical conditioning (the limits placed on human freedom/being by history) might be resolved by drawing a contrast between a processual, which is a historical mode of being limned as "time present and time past," and a unitive present. This is thought of as "the still point of the turning world" without which "there would be no dance" even though "there is only the dance."1 Although this moment precedes postwar thematization of immediacy under the tropes of spontaneity and the popular call to "be here now," the text provides evidence that the new emphasis on spontaneous praxis in the work of a range of artists was not simply an expressionist response to the violence of World War II. Rather, this new aesthetic program consistently carried forward an ongoing attempt to address the post-Enlightenment articulation of historical consciousness as a limit condition for awareness and identity. In what follows, I explore what I call the schematization of being in time in the work of three artists- The writers Jack Kerouac and Charles Olson, and the composer John Cage- All of whom are thought of as introducing foundational frameworks for an emerging aesthetics of spontaneity and immediacy. In each case, I explore the debts the artist owes to one or another of the early- Twentieth-century philosophical schemas that directly thematize an account of being in relation to successive moments of time. These include the use Kerouac made of the philosophical/historical schema laid out in Oswald Spengler's Decline of the West, Charles Olson's adaptation of key structures and terms used by Alfred North Whitehead in the elaboration of his metaphysics, the influence of the Perennialist philosophy and Vedanta-based aesthetics of Ananda Coomaraswamy on John Cage's understanding of silence as deep measure. The aim of this essay is to suggest that there are important differences with respect to the ways in which these artists conceptualized the position of the human being in time and that these differences lead to different understandings of the nature and virtues of immediacy and spontaneity. These differences are rooted in their respective philosophical influences and are, in the end, different kinds of arguments about the kinds of freedom one finds in what Eliot called the still point of the present. In delineating influence and borrowing, I have chosen not to address either the truth claims made by a given philosopher or the fidelity of the artist to the philosophical concepts that influenced their compositions or their own versions of such concepts, an undertaking beyond the scope of this forum. By first exploring the relationship between philosophical discourses and theories of creativity in Kerouac, Olson, and Cage, I aim to show how the differences between their sources and influences lead to very different conceptions of what is at stake in a moment of creative expression. Making sense of these differences allows us to better assess the nuances around the notions of immediacy and spontaneity, which are powerful tropes associated with the 1960s and the Beats in particular. Copyright © 2012 by The University Press of Kentucky. All rights reserved.

Duke Authors

Cited Authors

  • Need, D

Published Date

  • December 1, 2012

Start / End Page

  • 195 - 210

Citation Source

  • Scopus