Jack Kerouac and the Beat Generation
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Jack Kerouac was responsible for spawning the literary movement that became known as the Beat Generation, a movement not only significant to literature, but one which incorporated music and visual art to chart a personal progression. Kerouac “was the leader of a literary movement and a way of life he thought was a passing fad.”
The basic characteristics of “Beat” are defined in Kerouac's 1957 novel On the Road, a text which was to become a virtual gospel for the Beat Generation. As the author of this commandment, Kerouac became known as the “King of the Beats.” His reaction to this title is documented in an article printed in Playboy, “The Origins of the Beat Generation” (“Journal of Beat Poet Holmes recalls friendship, death of Jack Kerouac”).
The term “beat” has a range of meanings, affording critics of “Beat” writing a rich array of ambiguities for their textual analyses. As an adjective, it was most famously defined by Allen Ginsberg, a member of Kerouac's close knit group, as “exhausted, at the bottom of the world, looking up or out, sleepless, wide-eyed, perceptive, rejected by society, on your own, streetwise,” while the word beat was originally used as a musical term by post-World War II musicians in reference to an individual or tune that was exhausted or downbeat.
At the time, America herself was “beat”- the country had emerged from the 1930s disaster of economic depression only to find itself entangled in World War II, and having to deal with threats from the “reds” and the ominous propositions of McCarthyism. In one striking blow to Kerouac and other Bohemians, a definite link between smoking and lung cancer was confirmed in 1953. Kerouac's audience was a disenchanted, self righteous population, an unguided generation with no clear direction or idea of what they wanted form life and too powerless and world-weary to go out in search of the meaning of their existence. Such readers found refreshment and salvation in Kerouac's self-declared confusion, embodied most apparently in his definitive novel- On the Road.
Kerouac's style, like all of the Beat writers, is defined simply and very easy to recognize. The Beat Generation “saw themselves on a quest for beauty and truth, allying themselves with mysticism. The works themselves were to be streams of consciousness written down spontaneously and not to be altered or edited” Kerouac himself simply stated, “if you change it… the gig is shot.” Poets and novelists of the Beat Generation labelled Kerouac the embodiment of Beat and hailed him as leader of the movement, the “King” term is perhaps more carefully chosen than it appears, patriarchally loaded as it is. Other well-known authors of the Beat Generation include Allen Ginsberg, Lawrence Ferlinghetti, William S. Burroughs, and Ken Kesey.
1. Kerouac's “Spontaneity” and the Beats.
While the title implies supreme spontaneity, Kerouac was never quite as deliberately spontaneous as his legend has insisted. His plan was to create a “giant epic in the tradition of Balzac and Proust”, but he never managed to determine a literary technique capable of welding the separate books of his Duluoz chronology into a coherent whole, “even if he tried”. Ann Charters is the voice behind much of the critical discussion of Kerouac's overwhelming legend-making aspiration,
“He couldn't come up with any literary technique to help him fit all the volumes of the Duluoz Legend into one continuous tale. All he could think of was to change the names in the various books back to their original forms, hoping that this single stroke would give sufficient unity to the disparate books, magically making them fit more smoothly into their larger context as the Duluoz (Kerouac the Louse) Legend…[H]e wanted the books reissued in a uniform edition to make the larger design unmistakeable.”
To claim that each individual novel is insufficient without integration into the larger context of the legend assumes a very conventional definition of legend. Not only is it linear and coherently chronological, it is also bound by the rules of time that govern reality. Of course there is no real reason why this should be so. Kerouac's “beats” create permanent and timeless impressions, and unending rhythms like Nature herself- the beat will go on if it is not bound by temporality or rationality, but, like a true legend, circulates and permeates the universal consciousness all the time, for all time. A legend can, after all, be many things: an unauthenticated story from ancient times; an allegorical tale of obvious exaggeration or fallacy; simple fame; an explanation accompanying an image or map- and, in music, a composition capable of relating a story- even without words.
Charters' criticisms fall away rapidly. Kerouac's work easily adheres to each of these versions of the term “legend”, as if he is unconsciously sensitive to the subtle multiplicity of the word, and feels obliged to fulfil the word's promise. His work is carefully designed, indeed, he was preoccupied by the notion of design- the pre-styling of the free-styling- and perhaps not, then, the carefree and careless King of Beats.
The assumption of wild abandon seems to arise from misunderstandings of the term “free prose.” The “free” to which Kerouac refers does not, in any way, signify a relinquishing of control. It is, however, rather like Wordsworth's “spontaneous overflow of powerful feeling,” which creates an impression of experimentation but really represents a highly contrived artifice to contain the exuberance of “natural” speech. Associating Kerouac's particular diction with what he has called, “the unfulfilled linguistic intentions of the British Lake poets,” Tytell asserts that Kerouac sought a diction compatible with the natural and irrepressible flow of any “uncontrollable involuntary thoughts” that he had to release.
While Kerouac clearly hoped that his “Spontaneous bop prosody” would “revolutionize American literature”, just as Joyce had revolutionized English prose, “spontaneous bop” has musical implications far more than literary ones. Kerouac and the other Beat writers listened to music as they worked, and “bop” surely applies to the jazz which accompanied their writing, more than anything; the music of Charlie Parker, Dizzy Gillespie, and Thelonius Monk.
In many ways Kerouac's literary technique is structured on a model of Jazz riffs- the impulse for both being to perfect a deliberate style that does not look deliberate, something which systematically generates an impression of spontaneity. Albert Murray has defined a jazz riff as,
“a brief musical phrase that is repeated, sometimes with very subtle variations, over the length of a stanza as a chordal pattern follows its normal progression…Riffs always seem spontaneous as if they were improvised in the heat of the performance. So much so that riffing is sometimes seen as synonymous with improvisation…not only are riffs as much a part of the same arrangements and orchestrations as the lead melody, but many consist of nothing more than stock phrases, quotations from the same familiar melody, or even clichés that just happen to be popular at the moment.”
Such is the technical “improvisation” of Kerouac's prose. Despite his declared disinterest in music, Kerouac's writing evidences a profound identification of the creation of music with that of literary works. As he states in his Paris Review interview:
“As for my regular English verse, I knocked it off fast… just as a musician has to get out, a jazz musician, his statement within a certain number of bars,” and later likens the writer's craft to that of the hornplayer,
“I formulated the theory of breath as measure, in prose and in verse, never mind what Olson, Charles Olson says, I formulated that theory in 1953 at the request of Burroughs and Ginsberg. Then there's the raciness and freedom and humour of jazz.”
In Kerouac's own terms, then, the beat follows the phrasing of the jazz model. In his theory of “breath as measure” he reveals his acute attention to the sentence- elsewhere denounced- and even acknowledges the control of cadence. His contemporary critics occasionally saw musical rhythm in Kerouac: Tallman found a version of sentimental thirties music in “The Town and the City”, where melody rather than a storyline, controls the work. “On the Road,” however, demonstrates a departure into bebop, “Where the sounds become BIFF, BOFF, BLIP, BLEEP, BOP, BEEP, CLINCK, ZOWIE! Sounds break up. And are replaced by other sounds. The journey is NOW. The narrative is a humpty dumpty heap. Such is the condition of NOW.”
It's impossible to avoid the philosophical and religious implications of this kind of anti-chronology. Just as music appears endless, repeatable, circular and circuitous, such is the freedom of writing unshackled to narrative.
In Kerouac's novel, Big Sur, the message appears to be that since Nature is a part of the self, and to fear it is to fear oneself. The two meanings of Nature become one: “human nature” is animalistic, and this novel is cautionary to the extent that it shows the dangers of failing to acknowledge this.
Kerouac's nature/Nature synthesis represents the essence of his Buddhist sympathies, and this in turn relates to the literary theme of tracing a path. It is hard not to read this author without conflating the mystical with post-modern work on impasses, such as Derrida's aporia, and the sense that however far we go we can never escape our selves. It recalls the Buddhist expression, “Wherever you go, there you are.”
“I am beginning to see a vast Divine Comedy of my own based on Buddha-on a dream I had that people are racing up and the Buddha mountain, is all, and inside the Cave of Reality.”
The immediacy of his writing adds to the sense of guru-like mysticism in Kerouac's work: his work spills out like revelations, if not beats, we certainly get the sensation that he is “King” of something. The work responds to deconstructive literary theory because of its very currency- it has almost completely evaded the conventional segregation and hierarchy of speech and writing.
“My work comprises one vast book like Proust's except that my remembrances are written on the run instead of afterwards in a sick bed.”
“Criticism is forced to be perpetually lagging behind the designs and dictates of the author, whilst the work's language is seen as a simple means towards a referential end. Language is thereby devalued to the status of an instrument.”
Barthes's statement, “it is only through the function of the author as the possessor of meaning that textual reality is made obeisant to extra textual reality” is almost the antithesis of Kerouac. Kerouac's restoration program also depends on the author's willingness to disappear slightly and conduct meaning, but uniquely, Kerouac demands that the hierarchy of the “textual and extra-textual” be flattened. Not only this, but that the direction of realist discourse be inverted. As Barthes describes it,
“the author is always supposed to go from signified to signifier, from passion to expression…the critic goes in the other direction…the master of meaning…is a divine attribute…from the signified towards the signifier.”
Clearly Kerouac does not begin with the apparent and source its cause. He is the archetypal author, travelling from a source within himself - a “passion”- towards a grand confection of layered expressive analogies. This critic is not working as an unseen evangelist of truth-in-nature, but uses nature as a space to unveil meaning, that is, to work from the “signifier” of the word, to the “signified” of the writing, like a painter signing his own name on the canvas. In fact, Kerouac is suspended between the conditions of observer and recorder. The recorder's self is neither ejected nor declared in his writings, but rather encrypted- both in and as the writing. This partly explains the fascination that encrypted and marginalized author figures hold for Kerouac.
His own experience of suspension and estrangement from easy linguistic categorisation, and from the body of conventional society, is unconsciously articulated in all Kerouac's writings. The very potent agency of unconscious in itself is of course another “natural” tie, binding this writer to the natural world. When, in Big Sur, he talks of the meandering river/path leading into/out of the picture, he is describing the same path into and out of meaning which he himself treads. As a fugitive of consciousness, he travels from work to signifier -in the sense of both meaning, and of the artist, the maker of meaning, and his conclusions merge meaning and its maker into a single signifier. As an author, Kerouac functions as a human conduit to bring external reality to “textual reality”- and is guided in this venture by the original source, the world outside. All this is reinforced, and microcosmically present, in Kerouac's easy fluctuation into and out of the page, into and out of the rythm- all of which implies a certain arbitrariness of the page. This is not carelessness, but merely the flip-side of significance. It simply doesn't matter to Kerouac whether a symbol works in one direction or another, the importance is the motion- the action- itself.
This is particularly evident in the repeated jazz references in “On the Road”. The musical analogy for temporal progression is made explicit as Kerouac's fundamental modus operandi. When he describes his unique philosophy of composition, “blow as deep as you want to blow,” it seems he imagines the writer as a kind of horn-player. He attaches his methodology to a rationale for his bizarre habits of punctuation,
“ Method. No periods separating sentence-structures already arbitrarily riddled with false colons and timid usually needless commas- but the vigorous space dash separating rhetorical breathing (as jazz musicians drawing breath between outblown phrases)”
The words occurring between dashes resemble linguistic entities unaligned with the conventional subject-verb arrangement of English sentences. These linguistic configurations appear to obey a different notion of time to the “real” world, with its “real” language. Traditionally, a sentence fixes time by acting as a frame for the past-present-future sequence. The conventional sentence does not allow the motion, flash, and fluctuation of Kerouac's writing ambition. In this way, the musical analogy enables Kerouac to construct a notion of time outside of the temporal constriction of conventional literature. His work is less poetic, non-linear, and dislocated. A phrase need not refer to the outside world, for it can now begin and end with reference only to its own rhythm- a truly poetic quality,
“ 'measured pauses which are the essentials of our speech'-'divisions of the sounds we hear'-'time and how to note it down' (William Carlos Williams).” So Kerouac's prose is measured with breath, and timing holds the key to its rendition. As he describes the process,
“Time being of the essence in the purity of speech, sketching language is undisturbed flow from the mind of personal secret idea-wrds, blowing (as per jazz musician) on subject of image”
On the Road is an attempt to solve the time/space problems Kerouac is troubled by, but his success is always qualified by what we might term psychoanalytic obstacles. However much he attempts to overrule the order of cause and effect, past and present, this author must remain subject to the government of his own past. His repeated attempts to perfect the form contradict the effort itself, of course- and this is Kerouac's paradox. The more he writes, the more he develops, and the more evident the writer's evolution, the more it relates to a chronological dynamic. In the same way that labouring spontaneity foregrounds the labour, and consequently the author's hand, aspiring to defeat timeliness through constructing a series of books over years only betrays his inescapable mortality, tying him inextricably to the outside world in spite of himself.
The writing brings to mind the words of art critic, Michael Fried, whose anxiety around the visually present world is everywhere present in his work,
“…a means of evoking an experience of journeying corporeally through space as opposed to merely viewing a world present to eyesight but fundamentally out of reach.”
It is clear that Kerouac's work is a melancholic writing of history i the most literal sense: his books create chimeras of invisible historical figures, and in so doing evoke their absence- an absence which inevitably feeds his unfalsifiable claims, and, unfortunately for Kerouac, the claims of unfalsifiability made against him.
2. The Beat and the Origin
"The life of every Beat Writer is characterized by a prolonged psychic crisis that is finally resolved by means of a sudden vision or insight"
James T. Jones, in his book Jack Kerouac's Dulouz Legend: The Mythic Form of an Autobiographical Fiction, argues forcefully for an Oedipal analysis of Kerouac's work. Grouping the Kerouac texts in the Freudian context, particularly the Oedipus myth, Jones reflects on ways in which Kerouac's depiction of family relationships - and by extension, relationships in his personal life and as "fictionalized" in his prose - may be explained through Freud. His look extends to the enduring relationship between Kerouac and his mother, the residual rivalry with his father, sibling rivalry with his older deceased brother Gerard, and eventually a succession of male colleagues. Big Sur's alcohol-induced nervous breakdown is perceived as being induced by or symptomatic of his catastrophic attachment to his mother and obsession with the psychic tensions induced by the Oedipal family struggle.
As Jones writes, "Jack Dulouz , suffering from the effects of chronic alcoholism and sensing an impending nervous breakdown, seeks refuge at the oceanside cabin...unfortunately, like the grove of the Eumenides in Oedipus at Colonus, it is full of reminders of both the cause of his misery and the fate that awaits him,"
The oedipal signifier works in two directions, then, standing outside of time. The “Origin” supplied by the grove recalls the past and anticipates the future. A visit to the canyon in which the breakdown took place, its rumbling surf and endless brook which babbles with vital noise, and the yawning canyon recall Kerouac's hometown of Lowell. We are reminded of the grotto of Our Lady of Lourdes, and the bridge across the Merrimack River there. Since Kerouac was introduced to it by his brother Gerard, the site, with its awesome mystical potency, is described with passion. The sounds seem to express, yet barely contain, the power of the place: as the river water cascades over the long weir, traffic roars in the background. All this combined with the anthropomorphically cragged vista of the grotto itself creates a sense of almost unbearably powerful otherness, an origin in nature now frighteningly alien to the human soul.
Kerouac's realism in Big Sur may be summarised as the doomed ambition to structure impossible desire. The labour of the carefully constructed “Beat” pattern is present in the background, as a sort of displaced metaphor for the mental and physical effort of writing. Thus Kerouac's “Beat” takes the anti-mimetic definition of realism one step further- since writing does not have to relate to what it depicts, it will resist immediacy, but relate in specific and indirect ways to the author's private life. In many ways, Kerouac's enterprise resembles that of a visual artist at least as much as an aural or literary construction. Courbet's paintings, for example, operate in a very similar way to Kerouac's works. They share this meta-symbolism, with particular interest in representing origins as water, or indeed as female genitalia- and also aspire to an impossible merging with lost roots. In Courbet's art the impossible merger is one of body and work; for Kerouac it is the artifice of language and the unruly inevitability of the natural- taking him as close as anything ever can to his father. An erotics of the word and image is then inevitable, and Kerouac finds one fully-formulated and ready to use, in Freudian psychoanalysis.
While studies on Courbet resituate sexual difference within the (male) painter-beholder, rather than between him and his representations, Jack Kerouac does something subtly different. Through its emphasis on the writing/experiencing incommensurability, Kerouac resituates sexual difference within the (male) writer/reader rather than between the artist and their work. The authorial voice is only ostensibly the source of psychoanalytic narrative- in fact the same narrative can be sourced through theoretical channels (backwards “into the page”) to the writer, and, if we believe him, to the reader too.
“ It grew exceedingly hot and strange…We were going though swamps and alongside the road at ragged intervals strange Mexicans in tattered rags walked along with machetes hanging from their rope belts, and some of them cut at the bushes. They all stopped to watch us without expression. Through the tangled bush we occasionally saw thatched huts with African-like bamboo walls, just stick huts. Strange young girls, dark as the moon, stared from mysterious verdant doorways,”
Psychoanalysis corroborates Kerouac's general preoccupation with the fantasy of origination, in the case of Big Sur, the origination as personified in the figure of the father. In this imagery from On the Road, the dark girls are linked to the moon, loaded words like “thatch” and “bush” are always used alongside “machetes” and eery expressionlessness. Reading Kerouac like a goya painting or a poem, we can easily recognise the guilty violence involved. Kerouac's unedited unconsciousness reveals his sense of alienation, as the girls who are so strange are like the moon- nature is female- irresistible, unfathomable, untouchable. The horizontal “thatch” or “low bush” of the women is disrupted by the weapons and interference of the vertical agent of the male machetes. The interference in the body of water is the same- or at least, linguistically symmetrical- to the interference on reality that the act of writing always engenders. If female bodies and contrived spontaneity are references to the origin and the unconscious ambition to merge with the origin; then any discreet writing surface is fetishised as an oedipal object of impossible desire, always disrupted, interfered with and disfigured by the very desire that defines it.
Kerouac's Freudian desire to merge with the source must disturb the way he perceives himself. In fact, it illustrates and literally reflects the way in which we, as readers, percieve ourselves - in so far as we are reflections of our origins- how it is only through disturbance that we can become aware of the source. If any reflection were perfect, with no material interference, we would have no way of knowing that it was a reflection. Kerouac's tireless autobiography project is not only a non-narcissistic event, but an entirely natural one. In Hegel's Aesthetics such self-portraiture is established as a primal impulse of self-identification. According to Hegel, for man to become self-conscious he must first “represent himself to himself”, and second,
“man brings himself before himself by practical activity…this aim he achieves by altering external things whereon he impresses the seal of his inner being and in which he now finds again his own characteristics. Man does this…to strip the external world of its inflexible foreignness and to enjoy the shape of things only an external realization of himself.”
Hegel goes on to describe a child's impulse to throw stones into a river: there is no reflection involved, none of the self-annihilating narcissism of “passive desiring seeing”, but a declared primacy of action over seeing. Kerouac is invoked by Hegel's wording, “the continuity between ordinary action and the action of producing works of art is already implied by the image of the drawing of circles in the surface of the water.”
These circles are inscriptions of objects on flat planes that require a certain maturity of consciousness to interpret as the effects of a (manual) cause. Here, Kerouac's dormant reference to, and defence of, his own ideal situation as a realist author is very evident. In a later paragraph from Fried the message that the self is best quietly discovered through displaced descriptive action is completely inescapable,
“ the effacement of the very conditions of resemblance (the breaking of the mirror-surface of the river) also means that the boy's relation to the spreading circles in the water might be described in Flaubertian language as 'present everywhere but visible nowhere'.”
A sentiment repeated in Kerouac's poetry, which “breaks” the reflective power of water by introducing the contrasting element of heat and dryness,
“Describe fires in riverbottom
sand, and the cooking;
the cooking of hot dogs
spitted in whittled sticks
over flames of woodfire
with grease dropping in smoke
to brown and blacken
the salty hotdogs,
and the wine,
and the work on the railroad.”
The desire to identify with the origin, whether through disturbing the water, impersonating the father, or labouring to represent oneself to oneself, may always end in action, but it is only ever the action of wrenching open the facture of desire. The impulse to create will always be driven by a lack, and Kerouac is most conventionally “Realist” when he recognises this. Kerouac, after all, is aiming to reorganise an imbalance of power, and to characterise a sense of the monadic “other”.
Philosophically, Kerouac's work is incredibly resistant to the Other, to the point that he scarcely needs the anterior of an audience. In spite of his evident veneration of the “Natural”, the world beyond that of writing/reading is so unbearable that Fried has trouble imagining it, levelling the differences between interiors and exteriors and converting all mimetic imagery into narratives of action or narratives of material: surfaces to be read. To the extent that it is a self-sufficient sign-system (and I am arguing it is far more than this) Kerouac's work evacuates the reader and effectively “reads itself”. It fits Derrida's conception of autobiography,
“My written communication must…remain legible despite the absolute disappearance of every determined addressee…for it to function as writing…to be legible. It must be repeatable, iterable, in the absolute absence of the addressee” Again, this supported by the assertions of one anonymous online Kerouac archivist,
“Almost everything he wrote was autobiographical. Like Thomas Wolfe, he saw writing as identical with introspection. The word 'fiction' does not really describe his work. It was more like self-directed psychoanalysis, except that his outlook was more religous and tragic than psychological. His books are crowded with his friends, lightly disguised behind new names. Allen Ginsberg, for instance, appears variously as Carlo Marx, Adam Moorad, Irwin Garden, Leon Levinsky and Alvah Goldbrook. Late in his life, Kerouac even considered publishing a unified edition of all his works, with all the characters representing himself appearing under a single name, Jack Duluoz (French for 'Jack the Louse').”
This homogenising impulse, the need to resist difference and integrate everything, drives the rhetorical case which Kerouac makes in an attempt to show that outdoor scenes are actually the same as indoor ones. It is affected spontaneity of language which Fried cites as the connection between the inner and the outer. Indoor and outdoor scenes are treated as having the same character and affect, to the extent that they have a rhythm and no inherent narrative. Kerouac's holistic ambition repeats itself on every level- here the very scene of representation is moulded by the realist theory. The internal and external scenes, like the internal and external levels of a psyche, become one, as they are united in common, necessary pain, of the disfiguring theoretical intervention.
Applying psychoanalysis to Kerouac, this does look like an attempt at integrating the repressed inner and outer of the psyche, where the first might be characterised as darkness, depth, recession, primordial instinct, and the past, and the second as light, shallowness, presence, and surface agency.
Didja ever tell him
about water meeting water-?
O go back to otter-
Clock-Gomeat sea need
be deep I see you
in Old Britanny
Say yes. Say yes to the sea. Say yes to chaos. Say yes to eternity. Say yes and let it all go. Go, go... to the sea. To the waiting open arms of the sea. You and me... you and me... the sea. Yes. Let us be. There is light.”
Reflections are also the assertion of the horizontal. In spite of the violence metaphorically wrought, and acknowledged by his writing, Kerouac's work is concerned with empowering the natural within the man. The vigorous negation of comfortable feminine origination in his poetry refuses to allow the implied horizontality of the original sheet of paper to be wholly superseded, and in effect suppressed, by the verticality of the outside world. Psychoanalysis works through poetry subliminally, appealing to the subconscious by encoding itself in visual puns like reflections.
3. Missed Beats – Misunderstandings and misnomers
It has been claimed that, for at least one definition of the word, Kerouac was not a “Beat” at all. Mayer writes,
“A “keen observer rather than a confident insider,” Kerouac never really was a member of the Beats though he was among them from the beginning and as a chronicler cast their emergence into prose. When Daniel Belgrad remarks that Kerouac “would attend parties only to sit silently in a corner, listening intently to the multiple conversations and noting them down in his memory,” he is in line with a comment by Ginsberg, “I guess [Kerouac] felt more like a private solitary Melvillean minnesinger or something.”
“Subterranean Kerouac”, a biography by Ellis Amburn, develops the oedipal theme in his work, referring notably to his “dream-fear of homosexuality.” Claiming that Kerouac became a “homophobic homoerotic” by the early nineteen forties, Amburn insists that in the fifties, while an increasing misogyny came to pervade writings like Some of the Dharma, “his homophobia was increasing in direct proportion to his homoerotic activity.
, ” a development which might have been facilitated at least partially by Kerouac's worsening dependency on alcohol.
Kerouac is known as the king or the speaker of the beat generation and his writings are probably the most widely read works for anyone studding the beat culture, but there is real evidence that he resisted the title of “King”, particularly the patriarchal overtones. Even in 1952, John Clellon Holmes's book “Go” presents Kerouac as Gene Pasternak, railing against “all that free-love stuff, that liberal bohemianism, between friends.” Kerouac's 1958 novel “The Subterraneans” features a narrator whose sexual hang-ups are barely known to him. Ben Giamo has termed the narrator's stance in the novel as “a curious form of approach/avoidance.”
The author's avatar in “The Subterraneans”, is French Canadian. His name is “Leo Percepied” and it has been appropriated for psychoanalysis. Kurt Mayer claims that as his first name is that of Kerouac's father, and his last, literally translates as“pierced foot,” the character's name is an obvious Oedipal reference. The character's destiny echoes Jack's, as he abandons pretentions to being middle class, and ultimately returns to his mother's house. Jack, of course, always returned to “Memére”- Gabrielle Kerouac, what Mayer refers to as the “only consistent relationship in his life”.
The novel begins provocatively, “this is the story of an unself-confident man, at the same time of an egomaniac,” As the novel progresses we find the anxious character being transported from New York to San Francisco. Perhaps this displacement somehow stands for the distance the author puts between himself and those peopling his narrative- although we know that, as the Buddhists say “wherever you go- there you are”, and there can be never be any real success in efforts to distance oneself from one's labels. In Giamo's words, it is “as though Kerouac wants to disavow early on the role of spokesman of the beats, let alone king or father.”
It is essential to bear in mind that the accolade of “King of the Beats” was not coined by Kerouac, but has been adopted by his followers. It is an implicitly patriarchal title, one that has subsequently invoked a range of responses framed by psychoanalytic paradigms. Several convincing arguments have shown that the patterns of Kerouac's writing have been deliberately modelled on the musical inflection of jazz.
More interestingly, though, is the notion that his work is not “spontaneous” in the sense so often asserted, but is, like jazz music, compiled from pre-selected “riffs”. This does not necessarily undermine the regal title, but it would seem to compromise the usual assumption of the term “Beat” as some harnessed and continuous natural mystery, like a heartbeat, or the endless rhythms of nature. In other words, if Kerouac is the father of Beat, it is because he created the word itself, and the conscious generation of the term is identical to the conscious construction of the prose style. This need not be a criticism of Kerouac, but on occasions where people have misunderstood the nature of Kerouac's “spontaneity”, it has certainly been presented as such.
Examining the “King” part of the title has opened up the oedipal question. Since Kerouac's work has been seen to be both so emphatically autobiographical and so uncompromisingly unconscious, there is a clear case for Freudian interpretation. His fictional work documents several instances where Kerouac appears to be thematising his anxiety around familial rivalry, his anxious disassociation from females, and the paradoxical yearning to return to the feminine source. I found that oedipal analysis led me to an assessment of Kerouac's realism, and have expounded on the notion that water is often one (and only one) signifier of “origin” in Kerouac's work, and that the reflection afforded by water is frequently identified with the an introspective reflection occurring within the psyche. Not only that, but since perfect reflections disguise the reflective material, writers keen to represent language to itself, as authentically as possible, are presented with a painful inevitability. To reproduce mimetically is generally to damage the original, one can never retrace the origin of inspiration precisely, as Derrida has shown, so Kerouac's realism will always be infused with both pain and guilt.
Finally, Kerouac's critical reception has generally betrayed severe misconceptions about the nature of his work. When critics concede, for example, that the book “On the Road”-and its author- were instrumental in “rucksack revolution, the “praise” is unwelcome, as Kerouac is reduced to a one-book author despite the fact that he published some twenty volumes in a relatively short space of time, ranging widely across prose and poetry. Indeed, merely acknowledging of a sociohistorical fact smacks of a thinly veiled aesthetic grudge displaced onto a novel that is in fact far more conventional than critics often acknowledge. The book is more interesting and relevant, paradoxically, when its sexual politics are not read as propagation of libidinous licentiousness.
Amburn, Ellis. Subterranean Kerouac. The Hidden Life of Jack Kerouac. New York: St. Martin's P, 1998.
Boston University Bridge “Journal of beat poet Holmes recalls friendship, death of Jack Kerouac.” [Boston] 7 Dec. 2001, Vol. V, No. 16 ed. 20 Oct. 2004
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Charters, Ann, ed. Liner notes to Howls, Raps & Roars: Recordings From the San Francisco Poetry Renaissance. Fantasy, 4FCD-4410-2, 1993.
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