The Paradox of Thanatos: Jack Kerouac and Allen Ginsberg From Self-Destruction to Self-Liberation

Harma, Tanguy. 2022. The Paradox of Thanatos: Jack Kerouac and Allen Ginsberg From Self-Destruction to Self-Liberation. New York: Peter Lang. ISBN 9781433189074 [Book]

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Abstract or Description

More often associated with hedonism and cheap thrills than with notions of alienation and suffering, Beat literature has rarely been envisaged from the perspective of the paradoxical dynamics at play in the writings. What this book evidences is that the sacrosanct quest for transcendence staged by Kerouac and by Ginsberg is underpinned, primarily, by a trope of nullification that acts as a menace for the self. This tropism for destruction and death is not only emblematic of their works, it is also used as a literary strategy that seeks to conquer the fear of self-annihilation through the writing itself. It is precisely this interplay – approached through an Existentialism that simultaneously converges upon the Transcendentalist legacy of Beat writing – which probes the paradoxical dimension of the texts, enabling the mythological figure of Thanatos to take centre stage.
The critical synergy of the book, brought about by relating American literature and culture to European thought, enables in-depth analyses of a selection of novels and poems, grasped through their aesthetic, ontological and historical dimensions. Shedding new light on the literary strategies of two widely misunderstood American writers of the twentieth century, this captivating study into the drives for self-destruction and self-liberation encapsulated by Kerouac and Ginsberg sets out to reinvent the well-worn definition of ‘Beat’ through its original approach – an essential critical piece for all those interested in the American counterculture.

With a preface by Erik Mortenson

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Table of Contents


INTRODUCTION. The Quest for Thanatos

PART 1. Lapsing into Alienation: Strategies for Self-Destruction

CHAPTER 1. The Transcendental Ontology of Jack Kerouac & Allen Ginsberg
The Pursuit of Transcendence
From the Vision to the Visionary
Embodying the Essence of Nature: Toward a Transcendental Ontology
Existential Authenticity and the Menace of Alienation

CHAPTER 2. The Mirror on the Road: Kerouac's Vision of Anguish
The Vision of Anguish
Big Sur and the Loss of the Visionary
Echoes from Walden
“The Vulcan's Forge Itself”: The Fall into the Absurd

CHAPTER 3. The Pith of Existential Nothingness: Ginsberg's Moloch
“The Best Minds of my Generation” vs. Moloch
The Cultural Predicament of Modern America
The Consciousness of Death
The Urizenic Mind

PART 2: Toward Self-Liberation: Engagement, Movement, Disengagement

CHAPTER 4. Existential & Transcendental Forms of Engagement in Ginsberg's “Howl”
An Epic Form of Commitment
The “Footnote to ‘Howl’”: Pantheism, Immanence, and the Intuition
Fulfilling the Idea within the Self: Intuitive Performativity in “Howl”

CHAPTER 5. The Phenomenological Poetics of Jack Kerouac & Allen Ginsberg
“Coming from within, out”
As Existence Precedes Essence, Form Precedes Content
“A Sense of Dooming Boom”: The Dionysian Impulse of Thanatos
Streaming Live from the Transcendent: Ginsberg's Poetics of Transcendental Performativity
From the Poetical to the Political: Toward the Collective Vision

CHAPTER 6. Kerouac's Solipsistic Revolt: The Strategy of Disengagement
Disengagement and the Search for Authenticity
The Revolt: Camus, Thoreau, Kerouac
A Retreat into the Self
The Sacrificial Vision

CONCLUSION. The Paradox of Thanatos


Beat generation; alienation; self-destruction; post-war era; transcendental; myth; vision; Thanatos; emancipation; Existentialist theory; American Transcendentalism; history; intuition; visionary; performativity; self-expression.

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English and Comparative Literature


May 2022

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Date Deposited:

09 Jan 2023 09:56

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09 Jan 2023 09:56


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