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Be Always Converting, Be Always Converted: An American Poetics.

Be Always Converting, Be Always Converted: An American Poetics.

Rob Wilson (Cambridge, MA: Harvard UP, 2009)

Beat Attitudes: On the Roads to Beatitude for Post-Beat Writers, Dharma Bums, and Cultural Activists. Rob Sean Wilson (Santa Cruz, CA: New Pacific Press, 2010)
   Tell all the Truth but tell it slant--
          Success in Circuit lies
         Too bright for our infirm

   Delight The Truth's superb surprise
   As Lightning to the Children eased
          With explanation kind
   The Truth must dazzle gradually
        Or every man be blind--

In this poem Emily Dickinson discloses her justification for her approach to poetry. People, she cautions, need to be eased into truth or else they might be blinded. One familiar story literally bears out this phenomenon. On the road to Damascus, the recently executed Jesus appears to confront Saul, a persecutor of Christians. Jesus' radiance knocks Saul to the ground: "And Saul arose from the earth; and when his eyes were opened, he saw no man: but they led him by the hand, and brought him into Damascus. And he was three days without sight, and neither did eat nor drink" (Acts 9:8-9). "Seeing the light" is a metaphor for a conversion experience that can be a relatively minor affair ("So that's why my car won't start!") or a soul-shaking event, as with Saul, who, regaining his sight, dropped his Greek name and became Paul, one of history's greatest evangelist. It is with this latter manner of conversion that Rob Wilson, professor of literature at the University of California, Santa Cruz, concerns himself in Be Always Converting, Be Always Converted. Wilson describes from numerous perspectives the particularly American ability to change one's spiritual perception, to adopt new views and beliefs that alter not only one's own outlook but the geopolitical landscape as well. For Wilson, conversion is not the completion of an act, but an act in process that potentially leads to re-version and counterconversion. Beat Studies scholars will be interested in the book's treatment of Bob Dylan as well as in the book's thorough and thoughtful integration of Beat ideals and Beatitude into Wilson's exploration of conversion, particularly in regard to Beat Studies' recent forays into transnationalism and geopolitics.

Conversion references percolate through the American idiom: "I am turning over a new leaf," "he is a new man," "she is a changed woman," "let's put the past behind us," and so on. A common aspect of these makeovers is that they take place within the individual, yet the capability of these conversions to regenerate individual lives represents a larger phenomenon of the democratic vista--America is fixated on and may be defined by conversion experiences. Wilson writes that "truckers, farmers, black nationalists, tattoo artists, boxers, confessional poets, baseball stars, supreme court justices, presidents, dharma bums, and economic hit men are all too driven by the tropes and dreams, energies, stories, codes, and sedimented figurations of the American religious imagination" (2). Wilson explores the nature of religious conversion and its effects on transnational affinities, American empire, as well as interior and individual processes of self-awareness. To illustrate his examination, he draws on the lives and writings of four figures who are widely divergent in terms of background and biography, but who each serve Wilson's purpose to demonstrate the effects of the conversion experience both personally and in larger contexts.

Wilson's task is a tough one; to paraphrase Raymond Carver, what do we talk about when we talk about conversion? Are there phenomenological studies of conversion experiences; are there available field studies that chart and assess the changes one goes through? Or, as is more likely, is Wilson grappling here with describing the indescribable, and therefore resorting to a technique of all-inclusiveness in order to avoid delimiting the expansiveness of his subject? What I mean by this is that Wilson pulls out all the stops, opens the floodgates, lets it fly, and not just occasionally, but on every page. When it comes to his sentences, he is a member in high standing of the everything-and-the-kitchen-sink club of writers. After opening the covers of his book, I found myself mystified after several pages of torrential prose in the introduction. When I arrived at the thesis, I hoped that this portion of the introduction would clarify and focus his point. I am not sure that it does, but you can decide for yourself:
   This book aims to show through its intensive focus on an eclectic
   (yet carefully chosen) range of postcolonial converts, from Henry
   'Opukaha'ia (the first Native Hawaiian convert), to Bob Dylan
   (Jeremiac troper of the American polity), the Tongan novelist Epeli
   Hau'ofa's counterformation into a transracial ecumene he calls
   "Oceania," and Ai (Afro-American-Japanese poet and maker of
   frontier violence and racial masks), that the--born-again
   experience can open up a language of possibility, metamorphosis,
   transregional migration, cultural unsettling, and geopolitical
   becoming that is much more unstable, open-ended, and
   world-shattering--as an event of social transformation and
   self-reinscription--than any doctrinaire account of religious
   conviction, semiotic certainty, colonized subjection, or
   ideological fixity would suggest. (3)

Indeed. I will not say that I am not excited by the possibilities he outlines. I am always willing to follow an enthusiastic guide, but I will admit that I was not entirely sure just where we were headed. I marvel at Wilson's fluidity, his erudition, his vocabulary, and his ability to build a construction that leads his reader to the periodic point of his statement. Having read the book, I can now go back and see the ways in which this vitally positioned sentence indicates the direction he will take, but quite a bit of Dickinson's "tell-it-slant" admonition remains apparent. When we piece together the meaning of this sentence (and it is important that we do since it announces itself as the proposal of the study), we may conclude that the result of the examination of these four "postcolonial converts" will be a realization of the "language of possibility" (right?) that "is more unstable, open-ended" than "any doctrinaire account." But upon re-reading the sentence (and I have done so many times), we could also conclude that not only the language but also the "metamorphosis, transregional migration, cultural unsettling" are also necessarily parts of the catalogue of conversion effects that go beyond doctrinaire accounts. But if this were the case, then the catalogue's main verb could not be "is," which it is; it would be "are," which it is not. So readers are challenged to make choices in deciding the meaning of the sentence, which they ought not have to do. I only go to these lengths to demonstrate the method readers (or at least this reader) had to undergo in order to process Wilson's points, not only here, but on every page of the book.

Though often obscure and ambiguous, Wilson's ambitious prose does serve to convey his depth of feeling for the significance of effects of conversion in the postcolonial period. After several stumbling attempts to read the book, I chided myself, not Wilson, for my difficulty in following the study. I liked what he was getting at, I sensed a kinship with a fellow traveler, and I sensed he was expressing an inclusiveness of spiritual sharing that helps us to see history and politics as emanations of personal inner transformations. Plus, you can learn quite a lot from Wilson, who dispenses his copious knowledge of Pacific culture and history and establishes the context for the significance of 'Opukaha'ia and Hau'ofa and their after-effects. Predictably he refers to Emerson, but also to a galaxy of other figures, including Muhammad Ali, Charles Baudelaire, Kenneth Burke, Johnny Cash, Charlie Chaplin, Ann Coulter, Gilles Deleuze, Ernest Fenollosa, Billy Graham, Woody Guthrie, Greil Marcus, Herman Melville, and on and on. Wilson frequently weaves in references to Beatitude and to Beat poetics, citing such Beat writers as Allen Ginsberg, Robert Duncan, William Everson, William S. Burroughs, Phillip Lamantia, Albert Saijo, Gary Snyder, and, predominantly, Jack Kerouac. The book is probably brilliant, and maybe that is why I am somewhat blinded by its message.

According to the introductory notes, Beat Attitudes, published by New Pacific Press, "comprises an open-ended glossary and archive of citations and sayings expressing various meanings of 'beatitude' at the core of the Beat cultural-political and literary attitude: an unfinished archive broad and implicative, with sayings that emanate about and from states of written and acted-upon beatitude" (2). One can open this small book, about the dimensions of one of those bus-station rack paperbacks of bygone days, to any page and find snatches of prose and poetry from throughout history that reflect a theme of Beatness. If you happen to open the book to page 105, you will find excerpts from Pamela Lu, William Blake, Albert Saijo, and William Wordsworth, interesting gatherings of thoughts coming together out of happenstance that challenge or reinforce one another. Wilson supplies occasional editorial comments, insights, and bridges among writers and ideas. The book concludes solidly with the Beatitudes of Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount. For readers who wish to track the quotations to their published sources, Wilson provides a comprehensive list of works cited.

Readers should avail themselves of this list of works, too, since unfortunately the quotations in the book cannot be trusted for accuracy. According to Wilson, when Jack Kerouac appeared on William F. Buckley's TV show in 1968, he defended his original conception of the Beat Generation, complaining that "in the papers they called it 'beat rioting' and 'beat insurrection.'" Kerouac actually said "beat mutiny," not "beat rioting." According to Wilson, John Clellon Holmes' "This Is the Beat Generation" contains this:
   A man is beat when he goes broke, and wagers the sum of his
   resources on a single number; and the young generation has done
   that from early youth. (84)

What Holmes published in the New York Times Magazine in 1952 was this:
   A man is beat whenever he goes for broke and wagers the sum of his
   resources on a single number; and the young generation has done
   that continually from early youth. (44)

Overall, the book is a fine guide for meditative reading and is a cache of spiritually affirming resources for those of us who like to flip a book open to a random page and be surprised.

Work Cited

Holmes, John Clellon. "This Is the Beat Generation." The Beats: A Literary Reference. Ed. Matt Theado. New York: Carroll & Graf, 2003: 43-46.

Matt Theado, Gardner-Webb University
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Author:Theado, Matt
Publication:Journal of Beat Studies
Date:Jan 1, 2012
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