What’s Happenin’ Man?

Or in today’s hip vernacular, What up?

This essay was suggested by a piece on National Public Radio in which the commentator was reviewing a book by John Leland entitled Hip: The History analyzing who or what has been “hip” or “cool” throughout American history. The term “hip” comes from a West African language and means loosely to “wake up” or to be in touch with what is really happening. To give it a more profound meaning than the author probably intended, we could say it is driven by the desire to know the nature of reality.

“Hipness” in America as a cultural construct grew from the nexus of African American and European yearnings. For example, Leland contends that the European stream is, not surprisingly, represented by the Transcendentalists Emerson and Thoreau and in literature by Melville and Whitman. Emerson and Thoreau were advocating such “cool behavior” as individuality (non-conformity), civil disobedience, and self-reliance. Samuel Clemens’s Huck Finn is “hip” exhibiting the traits of wise innocence while being a “trouble-maker” (non-conformist). And finally, an unlikely example of Bugs Bunny as “hip” is due to his ability to be creative and live by his wits when confronted with challenging circumstances.

My own quest for “hip-ness” among other yearnings led me to jazz in high school. Inevitably I would come to see Miles Davis as the embodiment of what was “cool” because of that which I heard in his music and saw in his attitude toward life. All of the traits mentioned in the paragraphs above could be found in the music and person of Miles Davis. Indeed, one of his record albums was entitled “Birth of the Cool.” (In my opinion, the best jazz album ever recorded.)

As I’ve already hinted, underneath the longing to be cool is the deeper universal yearning to find the answer to the first of the Three Great Questions Where am I? All of us seek, albeit for the most part unconsciously, to understand the nature of reality and the consequences which that answer would have for us personally and for humanity as a whole.

So, while I was obviously reading into this commentator’s book review a lot more than he intended, I think that all art including non-fiction is driven by a writer’s unconscious goals. Similarly, much of life for each of us as human beings takes place below our conscious realization. So, the good news is that the majority of the answers to our most troubling questions are close at hand, especially in our striving to create the good, the true and the beautiful.

Plato said, “beauty is Form enough.” Since the Greeks were correct in thinking that beauty was the most important of their goals, then no wonder we find in our creative artists much that is “cool.”


Find a much more in-depth discussion in books by Roy Charles Henry.

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