The Beats, like their successors in the Sixties, have often been described as ‘idealists’. But fantasies of total gratification are not the product of idealism. They arise from a narcissism that, finding the world unequal to its desires, retreats into a realm of heedless self-absorption. Modesty, convention, and self-restraint then appear as the enemies rather than as the allies of humanity. In this sense, the Beat generation marks a step away from civilization.

Although aesthetically nugatory, “Beat Culture and the New America” was an exhibition of considerable significance — but not in quite the way that Lisa Phillips, its curator, intended, Casting a retrospective glance at the sordid world of Allen Ginsberg, Jack Kerouac, William S. Burroughs, Lawrence, Ferlinghetti, and other Beat icons, the exhibition unwittingly furnished a kind of pathologist’s report on one of the most toxic cultural movements in American history.