Warning: This article contains plot spoilers.
The young Allen Ginsberg (Daniel Radcliffe) wants to be a writer. Escaping a troubled family situation, he arrives at New York’s Columbia University in 1944, innocent and impressionable. He soon finds himself bewitched by handsome classmate Lucien Carr, (Dane DeHaan) who encourages his iconoclastic tendencies. Carr also introduces him to William S. Burroughs (Ben Foster), a drug addict; Jack Kerouac (Jack Huston), a football player; and the doomed David Kammerer (Michael C. Hall).
Together they set out to challenge the status quo, proposing a new approach to literature which they call ‘The New Vision’. Following this intellectual vision, and their carnal appetites, they aim for the ‘uninfluenced, unrepressed, uninhibited expression’ of the self. Jazz music plays, cigarette smoke rises, typewriter keys clatter, and friendships are forged. However, obsession lurks in the background and it is not long before destructive passions threaten to overwhelm them all.
Nothing is new
In Allen’s first literature class at Columbia University, his teacher Professor Steeves (John Cullum) claims: ‘There can be no creation before imitation.’ The writers of Kill Your Darlings know this all too well, dealing as they are with a well-worn and cliché-ridden period of cultural history. Nor is their plot anything new: Kill Your Darlings is not the only fictional account of the murder of David Kammerer. In the film’s closing moments, a text card tells us: ‘William Burroughs . . . co-wrote his first novel with Jack [Kerouac], a novel based on David Kammerer's murder.’ This book, now published by Penguin, is called And the Hippos Were Boiled in their Tanks (written in 1945, but not published until 2008).
What the film does not mention is that Kerouac also wrote his own version of events. In his final novel, Vanity of Duluoz (1968), Kerouac describes his time at Columbia University, including characters that are thinly veiled versions of Ginsberg, Burroughs, Lucien Carr and David Kammerer. In the book’s own final pages, Kerouac reflects on ‘the sum and substance’ of his life so far. Bitter and disillusioned, he declares: ‘No “generation” is “new”. There's “nothing new under the sun.” “All is vanity.”’ He is knowingly quoting from the biblical book of Ecclesiastes, a text which the film also – perhaps unknowingly – relies upon.
‘Life is round’
The writer of Ecclesiastes begins by bemoaning the futility of human life:
‘Everything is meaningless,’ says the Teacher, ‘completely meaningless!’ . . . Generations come and generations go, but the earth never changes. The sun rises and the sun sets, then hurries around to rise again. The wind blows south, and then turns north. Around and around it goes, blowing in circles. . . . History merely repeats itself. It has all been done before. Nothing under the sun is truly new. Sometimes people say, “Here is something new!” But actually it is old; nothing is ever truly new. (Ecclesiastes 1:2, 4–6, 9–10)
This vision of life inspired the Beat Generation and their Romantic predecessors, as well as the literary intermediary between these two groups: William Butler Yeats.
When Allen and Lucien meet, one of the very first things Lucien asks is, ‘How's your Yeats? Have you read A Vision?’ He explains: ‘It's completely brilliant and impossible. He says life is round: we're stuck on this wheel. Living. And dying. An endless circle. Until. Someone breaks it. You came in here, you rupture the pattern. Bang: the whole world . . . gets wider.’
Lucien and his ‘guardian angel’ David are convinced that this is how the world works. In fact, when Allen first meets David, he is declaring to a gathered crowd of party-goers: ‘Life is round. Patterns, routines, a wheel of self-abuse. . . . Until. The disruption we long for comes along and the circle is broken.’ The implication is that Allen will be the longed-for disruption.
Destroy the old
Allen’s arrival at Columbia is certainly a catalyst: it allows Lucien to pursue his rebellious philosophy more energetically than ever before. Together with William (Bill) Burroughs, the pair begin to metaphorically and literally assault traditional literature. In a drug-induced frenzy, they grab books from David’s shelves and rip them to shreds. ‘Tear ‘em up boys,’ shouts Bill. ‘Destroy the old and build the new!’ From the literary shrapnel, they create a montage of cuttings which looks to them like a poetic revolution – but to many others it looks like a mess.
Professor Steeves is one of them. In his view, any poetry that ignores the rules is bound to end up in disarray: ‘Rhyme, meter, conceit. Without this balance, a poem becomes slack, sloppy. An untucked shirt.’ By contrast Allen and Lucien believe that for their literary heroes, Whitman and Rimbaud respectively, ‘The whole point was untucking your shirt.’ Perhaps, they think, the only solution for aspiring ‘sloppy’ poets is to dispense with the canon altogether. This is Lucien’s new plan: ‘Let’s come up with new words, new rhythms.’
Their poetry will not seek to contain and explain the chaos of life. Instead, it will unleash and celebrate the tumultuous side of human experience. It will be a completely new start, a ‘New Vision’, a break with the past. This idea excites Lucien. He claims: ‘I love first times. I want my whole life to be composed of them.’ The problem is, of course, that life cannot be constituted of only beginnings. Like any narrative, it is governed by rules. There must be a beginning, a middle, and an end. However revolutionary his spirit, Lucien cannot escape this reality.
The young poets think that their outpourings are the uninhibited expressions of the human soul but, as the film critic Peter Bradshaw puts it, ‘the poetic impulse is at least initially a flight impulse; an impulse away from a horrible real-world mess to a vantage point from where the mess can be artistically controlled, absorbed, acknowledged and accounted for.’
Allen is avoiding his difficult and painful home life. Lucien is lying to himself about his romantic and sexual impulses. Jack, perhaps, is escaping memories of his time in the Merchant Marines.
For all of their poetry, they are each avoiding saying what they really mean. Jack’s girlfriend Edie is on target when she accuses him of being vacantly verbose: ‘You just say that, but it’s one of your million words and they don’t mean anything!’ The writer of Ecclesiastes might ask: ‘The more words you speak, the less they mean. So what good are they?’ (Ecclesiastes 6:11).
In the end, all of their ecstatic new words avoid, rather than reveal, the truth about human life: that ‘God has dealt a tragic existence to the human race’ (Ecclesiastes 1:13).
The Decline of the West
So how can a writer access true emotions, true experience? Professor Steeves challenges his students: ‘You want life? You want the world on fire? The war awaits.’ These boys, however, want not just the ecstasy of danger, but the comforts of safety as well. They try to hang themselves for fun, laughing when they are unsuccessful. They roll themselves towards the river in empty beer kegs.
Yet whilst their friends fight in the trenches, they drink and smoke in jazz clubs. Jack claims: ‘Writers, real writers, gotta be in the beds. In the trenches. In all the broken places.’ These young writers are trying to ‘break the circle’ of tradition, but they are also desperately avoiding ‘the broken places’.
However, their ‘New Vision’ is not merely a detached intellectual or spiritual manifesto; it is accompanied by a reckless lifestyle of drink, drugs, cigarettes and sex. Again, the writer of Ecclesiastes has gone before them:
I said to myself, ‘Come on, let’s try pleasure. Let’s look for the “good things” in life. . . . After much thought, I decided to cheer myself with wine. . . . But . . . it was all so meaningless – like chasing the wind. There was nothing really worthwhile anywhere. (Ecclesiastes 2:1,3,11)
Allen is yet to learn the same lesson. He is so disoriented and bewildered by his new experiences that Lucien jokingly calls him ‘Allen in Wonderland’. Allen is quick to correct him in verse: ‘Be careful. / You are not in wonderland / I have heard the strange madness / long growing in your soul.’ Lucien seems constantly in the grip of this ‘strange madness’, which makes him defiant in the face of all opposition. He is particularly proud of the way in which he and his friends challenge institutionalised rules. ‘It is our duty to break the law,’ he claims. ‘It’s how we make the world wider.’
Indeed, Bill jokes, ‘a severe decline in moral standards’ may well be a direct side effect of the drugs that they take in order to fuel their creativity. Allen soon takes the argument to its logical conclusion, placing it at the heart of their manifesto: ‘The New Vision proclaims the death of morality.’ Having killed morality, the boys between them lie, steal, cheat, engage in sexual misdemeanours, and eventually do the unthinkable: commit murder.
Back to the beginning
Lucien is scornful of the yearbook photos and newspaper headlines that adorn Columbia’s ‘Hall of Fame’ wall display: ‘Look at them! Souvenir history. To make people think they left some mark on the world. Because otherwise nobody would ever know.’ Yet he is plagued by the same realisation as the writer of Ecclesiastes: ‘We don’t remember what happened in the past, and in future generations, no one will remember what we are doing now’ (Ecclesiastes 1:11). In order to be remembered, he needs to do something unforgettable. And unable to write great poetry – or indeed, anything – for himself, he is reliant on Allen and the other boys to help him secure his place in history.
The irony, of course, is that he never does become famous: many modern viewers will not have heard his name before watching Kill Your Darlings. Yet he does find his way onto the ‘Wall of Fame’, thanks to a newspaper story commemorating his trial for the murder of David Kammerer. ‘With death comes rebirth’, claims Allen. David’s death does mark a new chapter in the lives of each of the young men. Yet David cannot literally be reborn; nothing can undo Lucien’s terrible act. This is an ending, a finale, a conclusion. ‘The libertine circle has come to an end,’ Bill tells Allen. ‘Go back to the beginning.’
And if life goes round in circles, so does the film. It constantly returns to the same phrases and shots, playing sequences in reverse and using flashbacks to reveal hidden past moments. The whole film is wrapped up in a loop: it begins in almost the same way as it ends. As Lucien stands cradling David’s dying body – resembling a pieta or an image from Greek tragedy – Allen narrates: ‘Some things, once you’ve loved them, become yours forever. And if you try to let them go, they only circle back and return to you. They become part of who you are, or they destroy you.’ Faced with the reality of suffering, Allen sees two possibilities: assimilation or destruction.
The author and perfecter
The writer of Ecclesiastes has two pieces of advice for the young libertines:
Don’t let the excitement of youth cause you to forget your Creator. Honour him in your youth before you grow old and say, ‘Life is not pleasant anymore.’ . . . But, my child, let me give you some further advice: Be careful, for writing books is endless, and much study wears you out. (Ecclesiastes 12: 1,12).
We know that the real Ginsberg, Burroughs, and Kerouac did find their literary endeavours utterly exhausting at times. Indeed, they often felt that life wasn’t pleasant anymore. That’s exactly what Kerouac was expressing when he quoted Ecclesiastes in the conclusion to Vanity of Duluoz. What they struggled to uncover, but never found, was the reality that there is the possibility of transcendence.
For although things may seem futile, repetitive and hopeless, the writer of Ecclesiastes claims that there is also hidden order and logic to the universe. There are rhythms and patterns directed by the poet of the universe, who is always in control: ‘What is happening now has happened before, and what will happen in the future has happened before, because God makes the same things happen over and over again’ (Ecclesiastes 3:15).
This same God, we are told, ‘will judge us for everything we do, including every secret thing, whether good or bad’ (Ecclesiastes 12:14). So, whilst the film may feel unresolved or its conclusion unjust, there is an author who will write its true ending. We are not doomed to repeat the same cycle of love and violence forever, but the story of humanity can find a satisfactory conclusion. The circle of human history and suffering will, one day, be broken.