Tag Archives: Kerouac

“Walk On!”: Bruce Chatwin’s ‘Songlines’

“I had a presentiment that the ‘traveling’ phase of my life might be passing. I felt, before the malaise of settlement crept over me, that I should reopen those notebooks. I should set down on paper a resume of the ideas, quotations and encounters which had amused and obsessed me; and which I hoped would shed light on what is, for me, the question of questions: the nature of human restlessness.”

According to Australian creation myths, the world was sung into existence. In ‘Dreamtime’ – time before time, and time of creation – the Ancestors wandered all over the continent. As they walked, they sang the name of everything in their path: living beings, tree and leaf, wood and water, sand and rock – and their song created the world. The paths on which they walked are the “songlines” – a “labyrinth of invisible pathways which meander all over Australia.”

Bruce Chatwin’s Songlines is a (quasi-fictional) quest for those invisible pathways that form such an integral part of the Australian aborigine mythos. Part travel-memoir, part historical and sociological enquiry, and part journey of self-discovery, Songlines is ultimately a work of translation: a translation of concepts and ideas from another imagination into something comprehensible to us. In that sense, it needed someone like Chatwin to write it: a man who travels and immerses himself into aborigine life, but is also able to write about it in a language that makes sense to non-aborigines.

The story is told through the prism of the Aborigine land rights movement. Chatwin’s friend – and guide – is the classic wanderer-between-worlds (like the half-breed and the mulatto), who must must discover the path of the songlines so as to advise a railway company where not to lay their tracks. The journey brings the travelers into close contact with the keepers of the songlines, and helps Chatwin discover the essence – or the meaning – of the songlines themselves:

Supposing we found, somewhere near Port Augusta, a song-man who knew the Lizard song? Suppose we got him to sing his verses into a tape-recorder and the played the tape to Alan in the Kaititj country? The chances were he’d recognize the melody at once – just as we would the ‘Moonlight’ Sonata – but the meaning of the words would escape him. All the same, he’d listen very attentively to the melodic structure. He’d perhaps even ask us to replay a few bars. Then, suddenly, he’d find himself in sync and be able to sing his own words over the ‘nonsense’… regardless of the words, it seems the melodic contour of the song described the nature of the land over which the song passes. So, if the Lizard Man were dragging his heels across the salt-pans of Lake Eyre, you could expect a succession of long flats, like Chopin’s Funeral March. If he were skipping up and down the MacDonnell escarpments, you’d have a series of arpeggios and glissandos, like Liszt’s Hungarian Rhapsodies… certain phrases, certain combinations of musical notes, are thought to describe the action of the Ancestor’s feet. One phrase would say, ‘Salt-pan’; another, ‘Creek-bed’, ‘Spinifex’, ‘Sand-hill’, ‘Mulga-scrub’, ‘Rock-face’ and so forth. An expert song-man, by listening to their order of succession, would count how many times his hero crossed a river, or scaled a ridge – and be able to calculate where, and how far along, a Songline he was.”

Discovering the meaning of the Songlines helps Chatwin develop the central thesis of his book: the idea that all languages originally began in song, because “Music… is a memory bank for finding one’s way about the world.”

Somewhere near the end, the narrative breaks off suddenly, and Chatwin fills around fifty pages with quotations about wandering, that he has gathered from a lifetime of reading. The intermission is jarring, but some of the quotes leap out at you. The Kalevala, for instance, spoke of an “internal burning… the wandering fever.” Verlaine called Rimbaud “the man with the footsoles of wind.” Perhaps fittingly, one of the last quotes is that of the Buddha (his last words): “Walk on!

Because of its broken narrative structure, and its (often confusing) meanderings between fact and fiction, it is difficult to classify Songlines. At times, it reminded me of Kerouac: there is the same urgency about walking on and walking light, a vaguely similar stream-of-consciousness approach to the prose, and a similar disregard to symmetry, structure and form – both in the accumulation of experience, as well as in the writing. Ultimately, though, Kerouac leaves you with a clear sense of something – whether it is a romanticised vision of the hobo, or a shuddering relief at his return to ‘civilisation’. Songlines, however, is more difficult because of its lack of a conclusion. Perhaps it is best to read it as one would read a book by Nietzsche: as a series of aphorisms, to be soaked in rather than to be made sense of, and to be read for atmosphere and lyricism, nothing more.

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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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