Notes from underground

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Archive for the tag “hipsters”

An Orthodox hipster?

A few weeks ago I came across a Facebook group called Ask an Orthodox Hipster.

I’ve always had a yen to be a hipster, but I don’t think I’ve ever made it. I suppose the closest I got was a wannabe.

What is a Hipster?

My Concise Oxford Dictionary c1964 doesn’t have it, though I’d been using the word for at least four years before I bought the thing.

But my Collins English Dictionary (Millennium Edition) has:

  • hipster n 1 slang, now rare 1a an enthusiast of modern jazz 1b an outmoded word for hippy
  • hippy or hippie n, pl -pies (esp. during the 1960s) a person whose behaviour, dress, use of drugs etc., implied a rejection of conventional values.

It also gives hippy as meaning having large hips, which is why I prefer the spelling hippie for the other meaning.

Nowadays, however, hipster seems to have come back into fashion and is no longer outmoded, but probably about ten times as common as hippie.

I suppose the term hipster was first popularised with that meaning by Allen Ginsberg in his poem Howl:

I saw the best minds of my generation destroyed by madness, starving hysterical naked,
dragging themselves through the negro streets at dawn looking for an angry fix,
angelheaded hipsters burning for the ancient heavenly connection to the starry dynamo in the machinery of night,
who poverty and tatters and hollow-eyed and high sat up smoking in the supernatural darkness of cold-water flats floating across the tops of cities contemplating jazz,

And after a few weeks as a member of the Ask an Orthodox Hipster group I can see that yes, it is a place for those burning for the ancient heavenly connection to ask questions.

Christian World Liberation Front, Berkeley, California, 1970

And even before the Internet took off, other Orthodox Christians have had a kind of hipster missionary outreach, or started a hipster ministry and then were drawn to Orthodoxy, such as Fr Jack Sparks of the Christian World Liberation Front.

From here on, this gets personal, so quit now if that’s not your thing.

I discovered that the Ask an Orthodox Hipster group differs from other Orthodox groups on Facebook, in that people do not seem to be angry, or attacking each other. If someone asks a question that people can’t answer, they don’t denounce the question as stupid and the questioner as stupid for asking it, they just pass on to the next thing.

I’ve also found that quite a lot of the questions are ones that I have already answered, at least to some extent, in blog posts I’ve written over the last 10-12 years, and if they aren’t, the question is also sometimes a good prompt for a new blog post.

And this perhaps can provide me with a useful occupation for retirement.

Before retiring one thinks of all the things one could do if one had the time, but one does not have time to do when one is working. Many of the things I hoped to do when I retired had to do with Orthodox mission and evangelism, and visiting Orthodox mission congregations and helping them along by teaching and training their leaders and so on. But they are fairly widely scattered, and visiting them costs money. And I think well, I can’t afford to get the car serviced this month, because I have to pay the doctor, or the dentist, so maybe next month. But next month the car not only needs a service, but also a new battery. And the month after that something else is broken, and the price of petrol keeps going up.

But helping people with answers to questions asked on the Internet requires no physical travel, and can actually reach much further, all over the world, in fact. So I think this Orthodox hipster business could be quite fruitful.

We still continue to visit the mission congregations at Atteridgeville (35km west) and Mamelodi (18km East) on alternate Sundays, but travel farther afield will be much more rare physically, but not necessarily electronically.

 

 

Beatniks

BeatniksBeatniks by Toby Litt

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I enjoyed this novel about wannabe beatniks in Bedford, England, perhaps because I too was a wannabe beatnik. The point here being that a wannabe beatnik is a wannabe wannabe, at two removes from the real thing. There were the Beats, a literary countercultural movement of the 1950s, and then there were their groupies, their hangers on, nicknamed “beatniks” by a journalist, by analogy with sputnik, the first artificial satellite to orbit the earth, launched from the Soviet Union in 1957, the year in which Jack Kerouac‘s novel On the road was published. As sputnik orbited the earth, so did beatniks orbit the Beats.

The problem is that the characters in this book, Jack and Neal and Maggie and Mary are just about 40 years too late. Jack and Neal are not their real names, they have adopted the names of their heroes, Jack Kerouac and Neal Cassady. Jack, especially, is obsessive about being “cool” and “hip”, and sees them as angelheaded hipsters burning for the ancient heavenly connection to the starry dynamo in the machinery of night. But in the rather middle-class surroundings of Bedford it is rather difficult to picture them as those who poverty and tatters and hollow-eyed and high sat up smoking in the supernatural darkness of cold-water flats floating across the tops of cities contemplating jazz, to quote Allen Ginsberg‘s poem Howl. Ginsberg read his poem at a now-legendary poetry reading in San Francisco, which sparked off a poetry renaissance. So in the book Jack organises a poetry reading in the Bedford Public library, reading his own poetry, which even his admirer Mary has to admit is excruciatingly bad.

As Jack Kerouac’s character Sal Paradise goes on the road, hitch-hiking across America, so Jack and Company go on the road… to Brighton, where they stay with a dead poet’s uncle, and try to live up to Jack’s impossible ideals of hipness and coolness, and will not acknowledge anything that has happened in the world after about 1966. But there is also a sense in which they get the time-frame wrong. Jack tries to follow the scenario of On the road, but though it was published in 1957, it was about the Beats of the 1940s, not the 1950s, and by the mid-1960s it was almost all over, though it had a kind of revival, in a form that Jack could not accept, in the hippie movement of the 1960s.

To say much more about the story would reveal too much of the plot, except that in the end even Jack comes to realise that he has been trying to live an impossible dream, and the shattering of his illusions has shattering consequences for them all.

The basic problem, of course, is that to be obsessed with the ideal of “coolness” is the antithesis of cool, and the harder they try to adhere to it, the farther away it recedes. So Jack becomes a kind of Great Gatsby of the 1990s, trying to relive an imagined past.

I don’t think you have to be familiar with Beat Generation literature to enjoy this book, but it wouldn’t hurt to have read a couple of books by Jack Kerouac, and Ginsberg’s poem Howl. You can find some useful links here.

View all my reviews

So much for the “review” part of this, which I shared on Good Reads, but perhaps there is more to be said. I was turned on to Beat Generation literatrue by an Anglican monk, Brother Roger, of the Community of the Resurrection, when he read a paper at a student conference. The paper was Pilgrims of the Absolute, and if you click on the link, you can read it too.

Waiting for Godot, in Linbro Park

Waiting for Godot, in Linbro Park

As I said, I could identify with the with the characters in the book to some extent, because I too was a wannabe beatnik. There we were, practising waiting for Godot in Linbro Park, which we drove to in a beat up old car with a half-jack of white Malmsey under the front seat. Godot never came, of course, and we didn’t wait all that long either — just till the wine was finished. That’s part of being a wannabe — when you get bored with it you can pack up and go home. Actually the place where the picture was taken is now all built up, and is called Far East Bank, but back then it was just empty veld between Alexandra and Linbro Park.

In the book beatniks Jack refuses to travel to Brighton on the motorway, because it wasn’t built in 1966. Well, we didn’t travel on the N3 highway back when the photo was taken, for the simple reason that it hadn’t been built yet. Now runs across the hilside a couple of hundred metres past my right elbow in the picture. And, like Jack, I still don’t drive on the N3 even though it is there now, but for a somewhat different reason — they’ve started charging tolls on it, but that’s another story.

I suppose the difference between us and the characters in the book is that we were closer in time, if not in distance, to the people we sought to emulate, perhaps 3-5 years after, rather than 35 years later. And we were not quite so obsessive as the people in the book about living other people’s lives. We thought some of their ideas were good, and some not so good, some things we would like to emulate, and others not. Most of it needed to to be adapted to other times, other places, other circumstances.

The hippies, who followed the Beats about 10 years later, adapted their movement, so that it was not mere imitation They coined a phrase for it, “Do your own thing”. But the characters in the book were trying very hard to do someone else’s thing, and that, as I’ve already said, is the antithesis of “cool”.

There is a saying attributed to Dostoevsky, “Talk nonsense, but talk your own nonsense. It is better to go wrong in your own way than to go right in somebody else’s.”

 

It’s cool to be hip but not hip to be cool

A couple of days ago there was some discussion about the following article in some Usenet newsgroups. I was interested in it because of the use of the word “hipster”. It seemed to be used with a meaning very different from the meaning I understood.

I’m interested in words and how they are used, partly because it used to be my job as an editor for several years, though it would probably be truer to say that I got into the job because of my interest in language and usage rather than the other way round.

Anyway, the article was The Daily Cardinal – Song causes local hipster to self-destruct:

MADISON, WI—Tens of twenties of Madison’s hippest are gathered in mourning this afternoon following the news of the tragic death of local hipster Charles “Wayne” Duchene, 22, who died a horrific and most likely cliche death late Monday evening at a Foo Fee Foe concert.

Duchene’s body was found in a puddle of his own PBR at approximately 11:15 p.m. Monday night at the entrance of The Dank Bank, an obscure venue located just off the Capitol Square.

Now this is a student publication and it’s obviously satire, but they have to be satirising something. I had to ask about PBR, which I at first took to be one of those three-letter abbreviations for various medical conditions that hypochondiacs sprinkle their conversations with and expect the rest of us to understand. It transpired that it did not stand for something like Personal Bodily Refuse, but was an allusion to a local beer, though I gather many people who know the brew think there is little difference, but more of that later.

So what is a hipster?

As I understand it, a “hipster” was orginally a jazz fan, and especially a fan of “cool” jazz, a “hip” or “hep” cat.

In Beat Generation circles it was extended to mean someone who was hip to the lies of mainstream culture, and who disaffiliated from it and rejected its values, who did not get over excited over the things pimped by the advertising industry and so on, who was detached from all the frenzy about brands and fashion. That was the essence of “cool” in those days.

As Lawrence Lipton put it in his book “The holy barbarians” (Lipton 1959:150):

The New Poverty is the disaffiliate’s answer to the New Prosperity. It is important to make a living. It is even more important to make a life. Poverty. The very word is taboo in a society where success is equated with virtue and poverty is a sin. Yet it has an honourable ancestry. St. Francis of Assisi revered poverty as his bride, with holy fervor and pious rapture. The poverty of the disaffiliate is not to be confused with the poverty of indigence, intemperance, improvidence or failure. It is simply that the goods and services he has to offer are not valued at a high price in our society. As one beat generation writer said to the square who offered him an advertising job: ‘I’ll scrub your floors and carry out your slops to make a living, but I will not lie for you, pimp for you, stool for you or rat for you.’ It is not the poverty of the ill-tempered and embittered, those who wooed the bitch goddess Success with panting breath and came away rebuffed. It is an independent, voluntary poverty.

So the hipster, or the beat, had a cool and detached attitude to the frenzy of the striving for success in mainstream society.

“Beatniks” were groupies or wannabes. The word was coined by a journalist by analogy with “sputnik” — beatniks were those who were in orbit around the beat movement, but were not central to it.

By the late sixties “hipster” had got shortened to “hippie”, and while the hippies were successors to the beats as a countercultural movement, they were a little less cool. To be “cool” suggested being detached, laid back, not excited by the constant changes of fashion and the striving for success. It was the role of a passive and cynical observer.

Hippies were more active, and more positive in trying not merely to disaffiliate from mainstream culture, but to try to create an alternative to it, an alternative culture and an alternative society.

But the impression I got from the article that sparked off this post is that the writer was using “hipster” in an entirely different sense, to mean something almost opposite from what it meant in the 1950s and 1950s.

I wondered how widespread that usage is — can anyone explain the writer’s usage, and do they share that understanding of the word today, and how did it get to mean almost the opposite of what it meant 50 years ago? “Cool” seems to have changed its meaning a lot in the last 50 years, so I wonder if “hipster” has likewise changed, so that it no means nearly the opposite of what it did back then.

I watch “Top Gear” on TV, and there they discuss what constitutes a “cool” car, and it is clear that their idea of “cool” is very different from mine. My 1961 Peugeot station wagon, with rusty door panels and empty cold-drink cans rolling around on the floor, bought cheap from an open air used car lot where a rickety wooden shack was the “office”, bought on the “zero maintenance” plan, was my idea of a “cool” car, but I doubt very much if the “Top Gear” people are using “cool” in that sense.

Another thing that illustrates the change in the meaning of words like “cool” is Levis jeans. They were cool back then and they are regarded as cool now, for entirely different reasons, and for entirely different values of “cool”. When I bought my first pair of Levis there was only one shop in Johannesburg that sold them, imported them from the USA. It was not advertised and nor were Levis. You learnt about it by word of mouth. It was also a decidedly unfashionable shop in a decidedly unfashionable part of town, Jeppestown, which seems to have escaped the gentrification that has transformed other run-down suburbs. Levis were the opposite of fashionable, tough working clothes that one bought a couple of sizes too big because they would shrink to fit. No one with any fashion sense would be seen dead in Levis. How have the mighty fallen!

But the guy whose death was described in the article in question sounded anything but “hip” to me, the very opposite of “hip”, in fact. So I still wonder what the writer meant by “hipster”, and whether other people understand “hipster” in the same way, and can explain what they mean by it.

To get back to PBR briefly, the Urban Dictionary defines it as:

PBR
abbreviation for pabst blue ribbon beer, which is simultaneously the best and worst beer ever brewed. it is typically on special at bars for twelve cents a pint. also doubles as a laxative.

Pabst Blue Ribbon is a lot like the band Bright Eyes,
Hipsters love it, but everyone else thinks its liquid shit.

Hipsters again. It’s got to mean something in Wisconsin that is different from what it means in the rest of the world… or does it?

Perhaps I should retreat into the past, to when I was a wannabe hipster, and a wannabe beatnik (and if a beatnik is a wannabe beat, then a wannabe beatnik is a wannabe wannabe). My twenty-year-old self went to visit Brother Roger, an Anglican monk of the Community of the Resurrection, whom I regarded as the authority on all things hip and cool (he lent me books by Jack Kerouac, and the Lipton book I quoted above, and many others besides). So I wrote in my diary for 23 June 1961

… later went to see Brother Roger. There he sat, outside the priory in jeans and sweatshirt, on the library steps, luxuriating in the sun studying Lipton’s Holy Barbarians. Studying, yes, truly it is the text book, and he said that he had a book by Clellon Holmes, The horn, about a jazz man, and he says it in that zestful rapturous way of his, which makes me think he gets the utter limit of enjoyment out of everything he does. “It’s wonderful,” he says, “simply wonderful.” And when he says it you know he really means it. He told me about what he is going to say at Modderpoort, and he isn’t giving them Bloy this year, but Jean somebody. The Observer calls him the poet of evil, who has spent half his life in jail, and is something of a misanthropist and hates society, patron saint of the Beats. He gave me a play for the AYPA, by Charles Williams, called House of the octopus, and there was a boy there called Abel, a black boy studying for his matric, and says he is a cat and loves jazz, and Bach, and plays a clarinet which got broken. So I talked a bit to Abel and found he lives in Orlando where he goes to AYPA meetings and is staying at the priory during the vac to study. He is a nice cat, a hip spade cat.

The AYPA was the Anglican Young Peoples Association, a youth organisation with branches in various parishes. Modderpoort was the venue of the annual conference of the Anglican Students Federation, where Brother Roger was going to read his paper about the Jean somebody, who was actually Jean Genet (that was the first time I’d ever heard of him), and you can read his paper, Pilgrims of the Absolute, here.

Yes, I’ve written about this stuff before, sorry if anyone was bored, but I suppose those who have seen it all before wouldn’t have got this far anyway.

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