Category Archives: Beat Generation

Patterns: Wilde, Kerouac, Baudelaire

As I’ve mentioned before, one of the things I enjoy most about reading literature is spotting patterns across genres, cultures and times. It’s fascinating to see how great writers and poets, separated by wide chasms of every manner, are struck by the same abstract thought, and then crystallise into words, depending upon the dictates of their own personal voice. Yesterday, I was reading Oscar Wilde’s bitingly funny The Importance of Being Ernest, when I came across this line:

“It is always painful to part from people whom one has known for a very brief space of time. The absence of old friends one can endure with equanimity. But even a momentary separation from anyone to whom one has just been introduced is almost unbearable.”

When spoken by a character who bears more than a passing resemblance to Harry from The Picture of Dorian Gray, these words are more than half-jest. I’ve found that quite a few of Wilde’s most profound insights are delivered in the language of jest. In any event, this immediately reminded me of two other writers, each as different from the other as they are from Wilde.

In On the Road, Jack Kerouac writes: “A pain stabbed my heart, as it did every time I saw a girl I loved who was going the opposite direction in this too-big world.”  These words are written (or perhaps more accurately, spoken) about a woman he has met, quite literally, on the road, two minutes before. Kerouac’s spontaneous prose is a world away from Wilde’s clipped, manicured and elegantly-constructed lines, and yet the sentiment is quite identical.

The unique tragedy of a transient meeting, where – paradoxically – the depth of feeling depends upon its very transience (because of the supreme scope it leaves to the imagination!), is – in my view – most beautifully described by Baudelaire, in the famous A Une Passante (‘To a Passerby”). The last six lines of the sonnet – which is about a single glimpse of a woman, which the poet catches in a passing crowd – are:

A lightning flash… then night! Fleeting beauty
By whose glance I was suddenly reborn,
Will I see you no more before eternity?

Elsewhere, far, far from here! too late! never perhaps!
For I know not where you fled, you know not where I go,
O you whom I would have loved, O you who knew it!

Previously, I’ve discussed how this poem’s sentiment resembles the troubadour concept of “amor de lonh” (“love from afar”), where the very strength of desire is founded upon the impossibility of its fulfillment. Walter Benjamin, writing about this poem, says that “this is the look… of an object of a love… of which one might not infrequently say that it was spared, rather than denied, fulfilment”, and that “the never marks the high point of the encounter, when the poet’s passion seems to be frustrated but in reality bursts out of him like a flame.”

Benjamin also says that “it is a farewell forever which coincides in the poem with a moment of enchantment.” The idea of an eternal parting, that follows upon a moment’s communion, is the other, dominant sentiment of A Une Passante, and this is where the obvious similarities with Kerouac and Wilde come in. In many ways, this is akin to non-fulfillment. Both situations involve a paradox – things that we think are antithetical to love or desire here become their apotheoses. Both are, ultimately, about the failure of passion to achieve its goal – and that is exactly the point. And yet, the sentiment is subtly different. In amor de lonh, and the first reading of A Une Passante, desire is defined by the very impossibility of fulfillment. In Wilde, Kerouac, and the second reading of A Une Passante, it is, on the other hand, the tantalising possibilities that a moment’s meeting allow the imagination to play with, that form the core of the feeling. Both, in their own way, count pain as an essential component of true depth of feeling.

The richness of A Une Passante – and how it gives one new things to think about on each reading, and how so many diverse writings seem to lead back to it – never ceases to amaze me!

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The Greeks got it wrong: Jack Kerouac’s On the Road – I

On the Road. Kerouac’s great travel memoir. The book that came to define the Beat generation. Of hitch-hiking across the length and breadth of America without a plan, destination or money; of jazz, alcohol and sex-fueled nights, of weary, grey dawns hunting for the next meal in some decrepit old town, of never-ending car rides into blazing sunsets, of everlasting day-and-night long conversations about life, philosophy and nothing at all, behind the wheel of a car, by a railroad track, or in a dingy hotel room. Disjointed, fractured, almost incoherent at times – and yet, that is not all there is to On the Road.

The heart of the book, and indeed the key to understanding what Kerouac is trying to do with it, I think, lies in the following paragraph:

As in a dream, we were zooming back through sleeping Washington and back in the Virginia wilds, crossing the Appomattox River at daybreak, pulling up at my brother’s door at 8 AM. And all this time Dean was tremendously excited about everything he saw, everything he talked about, every detail of every moment that passed. He was out of his mind with real belief. ‘And of course now no one can tell us that there is no God. We’ve passed through all forms. You remember, Sal, when I first came to New York and I wanted Chad King to teach me about Nietzsche. You see how long ago? Everything is fine, God exists, we know time. Everything since the Greeks has been predicted wrong. You can’t make geometry and geometrical systems of thinking. It’s all this! He wrapped his finger in his fist; the car hugged the line straight and true.

This is a fascinating bit of writing, for a number of reasons, but I particularly want to focus on the emphasised lines. The reference to geometry is both intriguing and telling: ever since Pythagoras discovered that the intervals between musical notes can be expressed in numerical terms (ratios), geometry, art and beauty have been inextricably linked in Greek – and following upon them, the European – philosophical and aesthetic tradition. Harmony, balance, proportion, order – these, for Plato and Aristotle, were the fundamental determinants of beauty (Aristotle notoriously – and hilariously – said once that the male body was inherently more beautiful than the female, because it was more clearly differentiated into distinct parts, and therefore subject to the laws of proportion to a greater degree). And these ideas are seen predominantly in Greek sculpture, in the emphasis on metre in Greek lyric poetry, and of course in Greek music. The classical themes were taken up again in the Renaissance: for Leonardo da Vinci, for example – as seen here – the most ideally-proportioned, and thereby most beautiful human body (the “Vitruvian man”, taken from the Roman architect Vitruvius) was once that could – with arms and legs outstretched, fit precisely within a perfect circle and a perfect square. In other words, since the time of the Greeks, through the Enlightenment and beyond, beauty has come to be linked with a set of ideas rooted in geometry, ideas of balance, proportion and harmony.

And it is in this context that Kerouac’s comment about the Greeks becomes so meaningful. Everything since the Greeks has been predicted wrong, he says, because geometrical systems of thinking are fundamentally flawed. On the Road, then, is not just a travel memoir, a series of successive “kicks” from travel and all its accompaniments; it is Kerouac’s aesthetic manifesto that he sets up in opposition to the dominant idea of beauty-as-geometrical-harmony. This is why On the Road arrives out of nowhere and goes nowhere. That is why if you look for structure, for symmetry, for a narrative with a categorical beginning, a clear ending and internal consistency throughout, you will be disappointed. There is no method to the madness. And that is precisely the point. Beauty, Kerouac shows us, can spring out of confusion, chaos, disorder, discordance, dissonance. The kind of beauty that Kerouac is interested in is the one practiced and preached by Dean Moriarty and Carlo Marx, a fervid, fervent, wild and rarely – if ever – reflective journey of discovery that excludes nothing, has no predetermined end-point or goal, and makes itself up as it goes along.

They [Dean and Carlo] rushed down the street together, digging everything in the early way they had, which later became so much sadder and perceptive and blank. But then they danced down the streets like dingledodies, and I shambled after as I’ve been doing all my life after people who interest me, because the only people for me are the mad ones, the ones who are mad to live, mad to talk, mad to be saved, desirous of everything at the same time, the ones who never yawn or say a commonplace thing, but burn, burn, burn like fabulous yellow roman candles exploding like spiders across the stars and in the middle you see the blue centrelight pop and everybody goes ‘Awww!’ What did they call such young people in Goethe’s Germany?

The particularly interesting thing in this passage, I think, is the contrast set up at the beginning of the paragraph between Dean/Carlo then and now. They later became perceptive, he says. And what, indeed, is being perceptive but to be able to spot patterns and likenesses between seemingly disparate events, circumstances and people or, in other words, to be able to impose some scheme of order upon existence – and back we arrive upon the ideas of order, balance, harmony.

One of the important components of Kerouac’s aesthetic vision is repeated emphasis upon the absence of a goal, or a destination, a rejection of closure.

There were two young boys from Columbus, Ohio, high-school football players, chewing gum, winking, singing in the breeze, and they said they were hitch-hiking around the United States for the summer. ‘We’re going to L.A.!’ they yelled.

‘What are you going to do there?”

‘Hell, we don’t know. Who cares?’

And that, indeed, pervades the book. Much later, Dean almost echoes the sentiment word for word:

“‘Sal, we gotta go and never stop going till we get there.’

‘Where we going man?’

‘I don’t know, but we gotta go.

There is no point to Sal Paradise and Dean Moriarty’s frenzied dashes across all the thousands of miles of America – but paradoxically, perhaps that is the whole point; no defined place they’re getting to but right back where they started, and nothing really to show for it. All they’re doing is “crossing and recrossing the country every year, south in the winter and north in the summer, and only because [he] had no place he could stay in without getting tired of it, and because he had nowhere to go but everywhere, keep rolling under the stars…

Indeed, not only is this the state of affairs, it seems to be an essential state of affairs if one is to actually appreciate life and the world. Kerouac makes his strongest statement to that effect when he says, shortly and bluntly: “I was having a wonderful time, and the whole world opened up before me because I had no dreams.” Dreams – dreams of something, of getting something, again, an externally created imposition upon the fabric of the world, an obstacle and a hindrance to truly experiencing it.

But, as is often the case with Kerouac, the issue is far more complicated. Having established the ideal of aimless-wandering-because-you-just-cannot-sit-still (“we were all delighted, we all realized we were leaving confusion and nonsense behind and performing our one and noble function of the time, move. And we moved!), he proceeds to systematically undermine it throughout the book. Even in the Dean-Sal dialogue quoted above, it begins with Dean saying ‘till we get there.’ (but then, there exists a ‘there’) There is a slip, at one point, where Sal tells two of his traveling companions, “I hope you get to where you’re going, and find happiness there.” A bigger slip, later, when he tells Dean and Marylou that he’d like to find a girl he can marry and have his soul grow old with, because all the ‘franticness and jumping’ can’t go on forever, because ‘we’ve got to go someplace, find something.” But perhaps most interesting is his response to Carlo Marx’s question, “there’s one last thing I want to know“, Sal comes up with this striking response:

That last thing is what you can’t get, Carlo. Nobody can get to that last thing. We keep on living in the hopes of catching it once for all.

This is a familiar theme. It is Aeneas’ ever-receding shore that flees from him even as he struggles towards it so that he can find a home at last; it is Byron lamenting man’s ability to conceive of a perfection that he knows he can never achieve; it is Shelley’s vision, “forever sought, forever lost“. And in the context of On the Road, it suggests that there is, after all, some purpose, some reason behind all that wandering (other than the inability to sit still), something that Sal and his friends are seeking for, searching for through the wandering – yet not are they unable to even know what it is, what they do know is that they will never find it. It would be simplistic, I think, to label what they’re looking for as truth, perfection, beauty, or even some variant of gnothi seuton because it isn’t something that a word or a term can capture. And Kerouac is perhaps at his eloquent best when he does have a shot at describing – or not describing – this strange sense of longing:

“… and the whole thing was hopeless, besides which Lucille would never understand me because I like too many things and get all confused and hung-up running from one falling star to another till I drop. This is the night, what it does to you. I had nothing to offer anybody except my own confusion.

And this, I think, is the tension that lies at the heart of On the Road: there is the mad, unbounded, unreflexive exuberance of Dean Moriarty zipping his way through the roads of America that exists in itself and for itself, nothing more, that needs neither apology nor justification, that is, indeed, the only way to drink life to the lees; and yet, there is the realisation that something impels this mad dash, something that “our broken civilisation” cannot provide, which is why we take to the road in the first place – only to find that no matter how hard or long we chase, it remains as elusive and out of reach as it was before we set out.

(to be contd.)

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Spontaneous Prose and Striking Beauty: Jack Kerouac, Lonesome Traveler – II

In the last post, I wrote about the spontaneous prose that Kerouac employs in Lonesome Traveler in order to capture the essence of a certain way of living. The style, however, has another effect: the fragmented sentences, rolling into each other, establish a certain kind of rhythm and movement, a series of gritty, earthy images succeeding one another, merging into one another. But sometimes, right in the middle of this, Kerouac drops an exquisitely crafted half-sentence or two, jerking the reader clean out of the comfort that pages of the same kind of writing have lulled him into. The defamiliarisation makes it striking. So, for instance, while describing life in the Mexican village with its tacos, sombreros and guns, Kerouac suddenly comes up with this philosophical observation:

“… that timeless gaiety of people not involved in great cultural and civilisational issues…

Or then again, this stunning bit of imagery towards the end of describing the journey from Seattle to the Cascade Mountains:

… the great peaks covered with trackless white, worlds of huge rock twisted and heaped and sometimes almost spiraled into fantastic unbelievable shapes.

And then again, a little later:

Because silence itself is the sound of diamonds which can cut through anything.

While describing his time in Africa:

The black and white tiles of the outdoor cafe where I sat were soiled by lonely Tangier time.”

On the beatniks in New York:

Now the poets just go there… and dream over the fading cups of tea.”

This line also typifies another striking technique that Kerouac uses often in Lonesome Traveler: adjectives and nouns that have no business being anywhere near each other occur regularly in consonance, to achieve a weirdly defamiliarising – yet very powerful – effect. Notice that “fading” would be normally used to qualify “dream” – indeed, what is a “fading cup of tea” anyway (a cup can fade, but a cup of tea?)? And yet, “fading dream” is a cliche, worn smooth and ineffective by overuse; by this switch, Kerouac manages to convey the sense of a time that is ending and passing away for the beatniks, and their longing to cling on to it nonetheless, in a way that “fading dream” would simply have diluted. So, at other places, his lights ululate, it is his fishermen (and not the process of fishing) who are rhythmic, a farmhouse has a grey-green warmness, and Van Gogh’s blue reveals a “joy red mad gladness.” Notice how colours, smells, motion, temperature and so many other seemingly disparate variables are placed together; the objective, I think, is the same again: the entire lived experience, as it happens to us, without the artificiality of pausing to order and categorise it into labels. In life, smells, tastes, colours, memories, desires – all these and more, come to us bound up with each other even though they might not be supposed to. Kerouac, I think recognises that.

And lastly, on to politics. There are two points I wish to raise here. First – if the raison d’etre of the Beat Generation was nonconformity and the rejection of established wisdom, then Kerouac sure has a strange way of expressing it. He begins his trip to Europe by writing about Provence as seen through the eyes of Cezanne, and Arles as seen by Van Gogh. He cites Flaubert, Rimbaud and Balzac to make a point about the dreary provincialism of French life, and refers to Proust and Dostoevski within two pages of each other. In Paris, he visits The Louvre, and waxes lyrical about Rubens, Brueghel, Rembrandt and Van Gogh. He uses the phrase “Johnsonianly sad” to describe his impressions soon after landing in England (such literary references are, in fact, scattered throughout the book). And while leaving England, he comes up with this gem:

“At the last moment, I discovered the Old Vic while waiting for my boat train to Southampton. – The performance was Antony and Cleopatra. – It was a marvelously smooth and beautiful performance. Cleopatra’s words and sobbings more beautiful than music, Enobarbus noble and strong, Lepidus wry and funny at the drunken rout on Pompey’s boat, Pompey warlike and harsh, Antony virile, Caesar sinister, and though the cultured voices criticised the Cleopatra in the lobby at the intermission, I knew that I had seen Shakespeare as it should be played.”

For a man who allegedly defined “counterculture”, this frank and entirely unashamed familiarity with and love for what can certainly be referred to as “The Canon” (or, more accurately, a part of it) in European literature and art. Perhaps Kerouac had hit upon the important truth that you cannot reject something without knowing what it is that you’re rejecting (and when you take the trouble to engage with it, you find enough worth keeping). So perhaps Kerouac’s knowledge and use of the classical writers and painters should hardly come as a surprise – every great rule-breaker, it seemed, mastered the rules before he decided to break them, and Kerouac seems to have done the same.

Secondly, politics as appearing in the book: it does so incidentally, almost as an afterthought. But it is that precisely what makes it so compelling. Lonesome Traveler is primarily a travel memoir, whatever else it may be, and it cannot ever be a political tract. But for all that, it is the very manner in which political commentary occurs – as random throwaway remarks – that leaves a lasting impression. In my last post, I cited the part in which he laments the decline of jazz in a commercial society – such remarks about. For instance, describing his experiences at the USA-Mexico border, Kerouac writes:

You just wait patiently like you always do in America among those apparently endless policemen and their endless laws against (no laws for).

While watching a bull die at the end of a bullfight:

Matador walked one way, bull the other with sword to hilt and staggered, started to run, looked up with human surprise at the sky and sun, and then gargled.”

Ostensibly, it is simply description; it is not even couched in the language of a plea, an argument or an exhortation. But those two simple words “human surprise” are enough to make it one of the most eloquent testaments against bullfighting specifically, and violent sport involving animals, more generally.

The last chapter of the book, The Vanishing American Hobo (available here), is certainly the most overtly political of the lot. Kerouac explains how, as the twentieth century progresses, the rise of the surveillance state makes the hobo (that is, for our purposes, beatnik) redundant, since he finds the going far, far more difficult. Kerouac is witty, savage and acerbic. Consider, for instance:

In America, camping is considered a healthy sport for Boy Scouts but a crime for mature men who have made it their vocation.”

There is a strong sense, in the essay, that with the disappearance of the hobo, a certain kind of freedom and a certain kind of spontaneity will also disappear. Whether that is something to be desired or not may be set aside for now; but this much is true: after a grand journey with Kerouac from the peaks of the Cascades to Southampton, and so much in between, one cannot help but feeling a powerful sympathy as well as admiration for the people who live – or lived – such lives.  Whatever reasons there may be, their passing is something to mourn. Because now, as Kerouac says, in the last line of his book:

The woods are full of wardens.”

I cannot recall a more powerful way to end a piece of work. And as I wandered through the Lake District the last three days, and saw among the wild woods and fells of Grasmere, seeing so many signs reading “PRIVATE PROPERTY – KEEP OUT”, I couldn’t but help feeling how, in those few words and that simple image, Kerouac has summed up one of the core predicaments of the 20th and 21st centuries.

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Spontaneous prose and striking beauty: Jack Kerouac, Lonesome Traveler – I

“Sixty three sunsets I saw revolve on that perpendicular hill – mad, raging sunsets pouring in sea foams of cloud through unimaginable crags like the crags you gayly drew in pencil as a child, with every rose-tint of hope beyond, making you feel just like them, brilliant and bleak beyond words.”

Lonesome Traveler is Kerouac’s “other” travel memoir – the one that isn’t On the Road. I was only dimly aware of its existence until I saw it sticking out rather prominently, on sale, in a second-hand bookshop in Canterbury. Kerouac’s writing has always intrigued me; and I have long been fascinated by the entire “Beatnik” generation of the 50s and 60s, with their connections to the civil rights movement, to the (so-called) sexual revolution, and ultimately to 1969. Lonesome Traveler address these themes, albeit incidentally; more than anything else, though, it is an astonishingly wide-ranging travelogue, from a high mountaintop in the Great Northwest to a railroad track, from Tangiers to Provence. Kerouac is a wanderer with no destination – but not, indeed, the equivalent of a Parisian flaneur, languidly observing the cityscape before him, always a spectator, slightly detached, mildly contemptuous and never entirely involved with the drama that is being played out before him – no, Kerouac’s wandering takes place at a fervid, feverish, burning pace, and everywhere he goes, he is immersed – lost, even – in the world in which he has arrived.

The style used to express this is “spontaneous prose”. It is characterised by fragmented sentence-parts, bound together in sequence with scant punctuation. The idea, as I understand it, is to set down the flow of thoughts as they come to one, without artificially constraining them within pre-determined sentence-structures. Two samples:

The Nightclubs of Greenwich Village known as the Half Note, the Village Vanguard, the Cafe Bohemia, the Village Gate also feature jazz (Lee Konitz, J.J. Johnson, Miles Davis), but you’ve got to have mucho money and it’s not so much that you’ve got to have mucho money but the sad commercial atmosphere is killing jazz and jazz is killing itself there, because jazz belongs to open joyful ten-cent beer joints, as in the beginning.”

And:

“… how I saw that Frisco California white and gray of rain fogs and the back alleys of bottles, breens, derbies, mustachios of beer, oysters, flying seals, crossing hills, bleak bay windows, eye diddles for old churches with handouts for sea dogs barkling and snurling in avenues of lost opportunity time, ah – loved it all, and the first night the finest night, the blood, ‘railroading gets in yr blood’ the old hoghead is yelling at me as he bounces up and down in his seat and the wind blows his striped visor cap and the engine like a huge beast is lurching side to side 70 miles per hour breaking all rulebook rules, zomm, zomm, were crashing down the night and out there…”

It is striking. It needs intense concentration to follow the thread of thought as it spins its way into all kinds of random contortions. And it takes some getting used to. But I think it works. It works in the same way that the fragmented style of first-wave modernist poetry worked. Think of Eliot’s The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock. The point of the broken, scattered verse is precisely to capture the broken, scattered nature of Prufrock’s thoughts, his hundred indecisions, visions and revisions, his hesitation, his “I dare not” waiting upon his “I would” – and through that, both to rebel against the romanticist conception of the unity of the soul, as well as to capture something of the essence of life in the rapidly-changing twentieth century, with its sense of displacement, drift and uncertainty. To my mind, Eliot succeeds so spectacularly not only because his fragmented form fits his chosen themes, but because after you’ve read Prufrock, you realise that the form is the only vehicle with which to express that particular set of thoughts. Prufrock would fail utterly if it was written in alexandrines, or consisted of couplets in iambic pentameter, or in the form of a villanelle, or a traditional sonnet (in fact, while the first two stanzas follow something like a sonnet format, they depart so much from it that the model is perhaps simply to establish that it is a love poem, although of a very different kind) – because all those forms suggest a structure and symmetry that is entirely alien to Prufrock.

Something similar, I feel, is at play with Lonesome Traveler. Sentence structure and punctuation imposes a kind of order that would be at odds with the life that Kerouac is describing. It would be at odds with the crazy life on the railroad, the smoking of opium joints in a village on a hitch-hike through Mexico, the fourth-class voyage on the packet from Tangiers to France, or for that matter, with the drug-and-poetry infused nightlife of the beatniks in New York. Of course, that is not to say that you can write any old thing – just think of some (but by no means all) of the poems of Ezra Pound, or Auden’s imitations of Eliot, where the broken verse simply dissolves into senselessness – and you realise that merely working with fragmented form is no guarantee of form – it must also make sense! And Kerouac, well, I don’t think he always makes sense – but he often does, and when he does – like in the two paragraphs I quoted – the effect is very Prufrock-esque – the form and the theme and the content all mesh together perfectly, so that any other way of expression becomes unthinkable.

Another – slightly different way – of looking at it. Here is a Monet painting of a snowbound landscape. Now one of the points about the impressionist movement – as I understand it – with their hurried brush-strokes and use of lines – was to depict things as they appear to us, not just visually, but to all the senses and the mind as well. The affect that the shimmering of water has, for instance (see another Monet) – or, in the example above, the haze of the snow. So, what may be otherwise perceived as a lack of finish, or a coarseness, is actually a tool to portray reality as we feel and sense it, and not just as it might look. And similarly, Kerouac’s prose depicts life as it is lived, not merely described. 

(to be contd.)

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