History repeats. So goes the adage, “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” And yet, that’s not to say that we always learn from it. Sometimes, we are not even aware that similar actions have gone before, such is the ebb and flow of history. Take for example the Baghdad battery, which you may or may not have heard of - a set of terracotta vases uncovered in Iraq, dated to approximately 250 BC and AD 224, that many researchers and scientists have claimed were filled with liquids such as lemon juice, wine, grape juice or vinegar, and, when suspended in the right combination, produced a weak electric current.
It is highly unlikely that a millennia old contraption in Mesopotamia influenced Alessandro Volta, when he invented the electric battery. Yet here was the same idea, popping up in two different times in history, with two different influences and in two different cultures, producing a similar overall result but in two very different ways. This certainly seems to also be the case when it comes to the modern day hipster and the ‘beatnik’ generation.
During the 1950s, amidst a climate of government oppression and post-war blues, the Beat Movement came to life. An undercurrent in society emerged, led by the thoughts and writings of American novelist and poet, Jack Kerouac. Kerouac saw that those in his social circle were ‘beaten-down’ by societal troubles; they were searching for some greater meaning. Soon, those in the Beat Movement came to be known as ‘beatniks’ - a play on words of the contemporary sputnik launch.
Their ‘beat’ wasn’t jazz - even though the stereotypical beatnik image is a black-turtleneck wearing, beret-adorned, jazz-loving cool cat. Their beat was beatitude – the search for happiness and meaning in a seemingly meaningless and miserable world. And, as with any ideology that finds its footing in practice, the reality of the beatnik became clouded. Fashion grasped on to the selling power of the Beat Movement. Turtlenecks sold out, berets too. Suddenly bongos became big sellers. Jazz clubs became hot spots. And, then followed an unhealthy amount of psychedelic drug use and violence. This underground movement reached the surface: changed, morphed.
Sub-culture, by definition, begins beneath societal perception. And, for the beatniks at least, a clear philosophy preceded this image. A search for meaning and happiness became a vehicle for selling expensive clothes. The Beat Movement sold an idea; image and fashion latched on with its money-grubbing paws.
Today, we have a similar movement in the noughties hipster generation. However, whatever parallels there may be between modern day hipsters and the hipsters of the Beat Movement, the two movements could not be more different. Modern day hipsters have banded around a subverted musical machismo - “I listened to them before they were cool” - repatriated clothes from the 80s and developed a collectively-held obsession for living in coffee houses. Where is the beat behind that?
Compared to what Kerouac envisioned, the modern day hipster is lukewarm and without substance. Here, an image was sold first, with the hope that a homogenous idealism would follow. A pallid hope that if folks were to dress in a particular way, certain beliefs would form.
Life today has advanced further than the 1950s - no doubt. Yet, cultural spectre still looms. A spectre whose voice decries the powers that be. We live in a time of recession, where getting by is, qualitatively, still just as hard as back then. There is still a beat to be caught today, and an open invitation to our generation to rally behind the ideal of change and happiness, much like Kerouac’s. Much more than coffee shops, much deeper than fashion, our generation has the opportunity to learn from what has gone before, to capture a greater vision for change and reinstall a meaningful ‘beat’ to our own generation. To go back to what it really all meant at the beginning.
'Rage Against The Fashion Machine' by Madison Stephens -->
Words: Aaron Lambley
Image Source: Still-shot from 'Funny Face' (1957) film by Stanley Donen