Jack Kerouac

Jack Kerouac fascinates me. The man. His journeys. His writings. And what he was up to with language in all those books he wrote. Inspired by jazz music, Kerouac was trying to make language perform feats well beyond its rated capacity. And in a soaring, efflorescent, noneuclidean way, he did it.

To me, with my interest in signs and symbols, the what and the how and the why of Kerouac's success are of considerable import. What follows comes from three letters to a friend (1994-95), used by permission; and from a couple of journal entries.

Have been reading Jack Kerouac. Read Vanity of Duluoz, in which Kerouac relates his exploits as a college football hero, and in the merchant marine in WWII-- leading up to his realizations regarding "vanity of vanities," and his initial involvement with the "Beat Generation." Overall a very funny book. Filled with incidents so extravagant and bizarre, one would be hard put to credit them if one didn't know that the entire thing is strictly autobiographical.

Am now in the midst of Desolation Angels. Kerouac's stint, summer of 1956, as a firespotter on Desolation Peak in the Cascade Mountains in Washington(!!!), and his attempt afterwards to "come down from the mountaintop" and fit himself back into human society. None too easily, I might add.

Fascinated with Kerouac's use of language. His books have to be read aloud to be appreciated. Constantly bursting English syntax wide open, like new wine in old skins. (His "mountaintop experience" finally shatters, like light from the facets of a gem, into page after page of near-glossolalia.) Assonance, alliteration, rhythm, meter, fully as dense as in any poetry. Kerouac's own explanation was that he was attempting something with language analogous to jazz music-- thereby hoping to break out of the "twelve-tone chromatic scale" of ordinary English, as you and I have discussed on several occasions before.

Much material here that resonates with my work on metaphor.

R. came over for a visit late November, I finally went back on one of my vows and attended AAR [American Academy of Religion] with him in Chicago. We also hit that used book store that specializes in theological books-- I ended up toting an entire cardboard box full of books out of there! Agh, $240 worth of books in an afternoon! Numerous books I didn't have before by Barth, Brunner, R. Niebuhr. The writings of Carl Michalson, in copies formerly owned by Schubert Ogden-- Michalson didn't think much of process thought, and said so, so it's interesting to read Ogden's peevish marginalia! Man at Play, by Hugo Rahner.

Thought struck me on the way back from the local grocery store this noon. Now I know what the lawyers in the OJ Simpson trial remind me of. Philosophers debating epistemology. (Strangled, anguished cry: "I can't see-e-e-e my hands in front of my face!")

Have been reading lately the diary of H.L. Mencken. What strikes me is that all the foundational elements in the man's life were aesthetic. His work as a literary critic, as an author, as a newspaper editor, as editor first of The Smart Set and then of The American Mercury; his liking of good beer, of bad cigars, of Maryland terrapin (moved by my reading, I discover that turtle is unobtainable in local supermarkets); his main social outlet, the "Saturday Night Club," in which for over thirty years a group of friends gathered to bang out amateur performances of classical music and then adjourn for food and beer...

Mencken was intellectually brilliant. His (rather conservative) approach to morality shows through in his obstinate, curmudgeonly, but goodhearted opposition to all meddlesome puritanism, prohibition, and "do-goodism." But in the last analysis everything, for him, got refracted through the lens of the aesthetic.

By contrast, Jack Kerouac took the aesthetic level very seriously, but he ascended also to the level of dealing with goodness and truth. Admittedly, Kerouac's ascent was idiosyncratic, and had holes in it.

On the level of sins of the spirit, Kerouac was far more advanced than most people you will meet; indeed, he was almost a saint. But on the level of sins of the flesh, Kerouac's approach was very nearly, "let us sin that grace may abound."

Typical examples which display this dialectical tension: Kerouac would hang out with hookers on Times Square, because he saw Christ in them; but he would usually end up in bed with them. Kerouac would bring a crowd of old winos home with him for dinner; of course, to be sociable he would haul out several gallons of wine, and they would all get blasted together. Acted-out parables of the kingdom, very nearly: but they always ended badly.

And the literary style which Kerouac pioneered, based on jazz music, "playing between the cracks" and exploring "nonchromatic registers" by straining language to its rated capacity and beyond... From my work on the logical structure of metaphor, I can understand something of what Kerouac was trying to achieve. And achieve it he did, and with it irreducible gleanings of truth; but his insights were often truncated by his fascination with Buddhist epistemology. ("One is all, all is nothing, phylogeny recapitulates ontogeny and philosophy decapitates ontology. So mote it be!") (Emil Brunner: Opposed to Christian thought is the perennial philosophy, mystical in spirituality, pantheistic in ontology, apophatic in epistemology.)

Nonetheless, Kerouac did ascend to the levels of goodness and truth, whereas Mencken always remained firmly planted at the level of beauty. From a religious perspective, we might remark that Kerouac-- even at his most Buddhesque-- remained a practicing Catholic, whereas Mencken remained throughout life simply impervious to religion. (See the autobiography of Mencken's childhood, Happy Days-- ranks with the best of Mark Twain). In short, one might say that Kerouac, unlike Mencken, remained under the aegis of grace.

And this no doubt is a valid observation. However, if we abstract from this level and stay within the framework of the three transcendentals (Ah! Knowing it was me, you saw this move coming, didn't you?), we may observe that Mencken, for all his literary brilliance, stayed firmly within the bounds of "euclidean" modernity, whereas Kerouac's jazz-driven experiments with language amounted to a move to the "non-euclidean."

Mencken perhaps represents the best that secular modernity could have achieved, all things considered. The modern age, having begun in Descartes and come to term in Kant, could only end in disaster. But if modernity was to begin, neither in the sterile rationality of Descartes nor in the Jansenist fideism of Pascal, then perhaps we see in Mencken what could have resulted had the modern secular age found its point of departure instead in, say, the essays of Montaigne. And if modernity was to find its term, neither in the stringent self-limitation of the liberalism of Kant nor in the illimitable radicalism of the French Revolution, then perhaps its term would have appeared in the move to the aesthetic made by Friedrich Schiller in his Aesthetische Briefe, wherein he apposes to the Formtrieb and the Stofftrieb-- to the formal and material drives-- the Spieltrieb, the play drive. In order to short-circuit the sterile dreaming of the talking heads and the bloody visions of the secular messiahs, it may be necessary to restrict man's aim within the horizon of the aesthetic.

Mencken represents perhaps the best that modernity could have achieved, from within a secular perspective, as long as we remain "euclidean." However, with a move to the non-euclidean as exemplified by Kerouac, new possibilities open up. Self-styled "postmodernists" have lied to us by pretending that these possibilities dovetail neatly with the whole liberal-progressive-left agenda of late, decadent modernity. Even a century ago, Nietzsche knew better: when radical relativism pulls the rug out from beneath our feet, what remains underneath is not the unvarnished wood floor of social justice, but rather the bottomless abyss of the void.

However, perhaps like St. Peter, we may by faith walk on the chaos water-- even though there be "darkness upon the face of the deep," we be (like the eschatological Holy Spirit at the creation), in these Latter Days, "hoverin' over the face of the waters." Hover, to the tune of jazz music. As the Lord calls us to hover... "Lord, save or I perish!"

(This is serious)

The late 18th century Enlightenment subtracted Jesus, but promised, in a deist key, to retain God. The Victorian era subtracted God, but hoped to retain morality. The mid-20th century Camus existentialist, in the name of authenticity, cancelled morality, but clung to human nature. Now the slick, slimy, salamanderlike postmodernist has negated human nature, but suspending him-slash-her-self in midair by his-slash-her own bootstraps has promised to retain a nice NOW, PETA, Ben-&-Jerry's-ice-cream type concern with "social justice." Next, about 2017, Generation Z decides to subtract this last groundless hang-up, and then sic volo sic jubeo comes forth the last apocalyptic generation of jackbooted fascist totalitarians, with nose rings and navel pierces and other ritual mutilations-- "'Do What Thou Wilt' is the sum of the law"-- people being slaughtered by the millions on 3D TV over the Internet for worldwide entertainment just like ancient Rome-- old superannuated 1960's leftovers, in a Saturday afternoon TV special on channel 600, hauled out indignant and sputtering for that final hypodermic, or that final vivisection without benefit of the needle-- "We thought you would never leave social justice and vegetable rights behind," while the younger generation just laughs and jeers at the old fogeys-- unlike these aged Vietnam protesters, the youngsters know "the joy of the knife"-- it's Saturday afternoon TV entertainment, "one step beyond," as Nietzsche (or even more clearly, the Marquis de Sade) would have understood-- (or perhaps most clearly of all, John the Revelator)-- children in a suburban rec room in San Diego watch, entranced, on the computer monitor-- "We'll be back in a moment with the ritual human sacrifice contest, fluorescent orange team versus day-glo green-- AND YOU VOTE FOR THE WINNERS!!-- right after this word from our sponsor."

Kerouac, himself a cultural and political conservative, voiced much the same insight in his final essay, "Après moi, le déluge."

>>>All for now. Leave it to you to figure how much of this is serious, how much is leg-pulling, how much is non-euclideanly both/and. Gotta go run get another Red Dog from the fridge. See you in a few.

I sign myself self-referentially PMB,


My mind is still cycling through our discussion, week before last, of advocacy groups which suddenly, without apparent motive or goal, lapse into a self-destructive fugue of extremism. We discussed the NRA, pacifism, and peacemaking. I think one might also adduce feminism, which over the past ten years has more and more capitulated to its own most extreme elements.

What drives such groups to suffer such a lapse, I don't know. I did a paper for Langford which dealt with this question. Turns out that such behavior also abounds in the history of movements for an artificial world language (Esperanto and others), for calendar reform, and for idealistic causes in general. My conclusion in that paper (I drew heavily on Albert Camus' The Rebel) was that in our modern secular age, Judeo-Christian prophetism persists even where God has long since been dethroned. "Repent... in the name of the Void!"-- a recipe for extremism.

This is, of course, hardly a novel analysis.

As for the declining fortunes of liberalism, I don't know what liberals can do. Liberalism has made crucially important contributions to this country-- witness FDR in the Thirties, the Civil Rights movement in the Fifties and early Sixties, etc. Liberalism was once flexible and pragmatic. But over the past thirty years, liberalism has congealed into a rigid ideology.

Even more damaging, for many years now liberals have been unable to deal with criticism or dissent, save by resorting to shrill and hysterical invective. "Fascist! Nazi! Klansman!" This is usually the sign of a movement which, on some carefully repressed level, is afraid its beliefs can't stand up to the light of day.

Have been sitting around and reading Kerouac's Visions of Cody. True, there is something he is doing which is similar to John Cage. But Kerouac also deals with that point at which the sound of Cage bridges, spontaneously, to the music of Beethoven. Perhaps one key here-- and this may also relate to discussion of extremists, above-- is that, unlike most other twentieth-century "intellectuals," Kerouac was amazingly free of bitterness and animus. Antinomian, yes. Bitter, no. Biographer Gerald Nicosia somewhere observes that Kerouac was the last major American writer to take an essentially positive view of our culture. That may not be accurate to the letter, but it captures an important insight about Kerouac.

Of course, one would have to admit a covert dynamic link between Kerouac's magnanimity, and his inability to find limits-- just as one would have to concede a positive connection between my creativity, and my "do not be anxious about tomorrow, for tomorrow will be anxious about itself" approach to life!

This is one point which has interested me for many years: the hidden dynamic link, in persons, movements, societies, etc., between apparent polar opposites. I have for years noticed, for example, that proponents of tolerance tend to divide sharply into two categories: people who are themselves reasonably tolerant, and people who are among the most rabidly intolerant individuals you are ever going to meet. And so on through the list of most other real or alleged virtues. It is as if contrary tendencies not only cohabit within the same mindset, but positively egg each other on to further extremes.

Have been having some interesting "lucid dreams" on this topic lately, which (as often with things that come bubbling up to me out of the id) have yielded some important theoretical insights. For instance, when an activist wants to convince you of some "hot button" topic of which you disapprove, he will often link it-- not logically, not even plausibly, but simply by psychodramatic juxtaposition collage-- with some other "hot button" topic of which you approve. A lesbian couple adopting a child will be portrayed, for example, in as "nice" a middle-class, suburban light as can be. What came to me in some detail in a lucid dream the other night, is that this tactic is employed, not as you might first think, to bring the whole tableau into as close a conformity as possible with what you approve; not to minimize features of which you would disapprove; but precisely for the purpose of maximizing the tension between approved and disapproved elements. The newer the wine and the older the skins, the more violently something is apt to snap and give way.

This is especially effective where the "approved" elements may, in addition, "mask" features which the listener has psychologically repressed. He can then deal with the new disapproved "hot button," only by dealing also with the cluster of old approved "hot buttons," many of which may for him serve to conceal repressed items over which he is not at all easy. "Hook" a new item, collage-style, to a cluster of religious beliefs, for example, and you will be well on your way to making some believers agree with you on the new item-- precisely because beneath their veneer of belief lurk repressed tensions and doubts. In order to convince heretofore orthodox dupes about Sophia, one need not argue, one need not even make sense-- one need merely hook Sophia together, in a collage, with a cluster of religious beliefs many of which are already "old and familiar." The more bizarre the contrast, the more violent the tension, the more effective.

I think I am very much onto something here. And as I said, all this came to me in great detail the other night, about 4 AM, in a "lucid dream," the sort that comes on after a long stretch of insomnia.

Why am I so interested in Kerouac?

Perhaps because I sense in him a kindred soul. This is one path I myself could have followed, in my late teens or early twenties, had I not swung off on a different path. A heavy-drinking, plaid-shirted, blue-jeaned bohemian, into the ionosphere of Romish spirituality-- a political conservative but as an individual nigh-antinomian, a socially maladroit frickin' genius suffering and dreaming and writing late into the night, struggling on against all hope of ever succeeding in life-- sound like anybody we know?

Sounds like one Breton Canuck writer from New England.

Sounds like one bearded Welshman from Wisconsin, mathematician turned semiotician turned theologian turned...

Aw, hell-- it takes a Celt to know a Celt!

Funny. I think back over the history of my fascination with Kerouac. His name was one I'd heard bandied about down through the years, from time immemorial. So when I walked into Powell's Bookstore on West Burnside in Portland, Oregon-- fall '83? winter or spring of '84-- it was not as an unfamiliar name that I tumbled upon him in the fiction section.

I can still picture the bookshelf where I found his books. Go in the front door of Powell's, down and turn left as if you're heading over to the theology books. In through to the next room, turn left in the second or third aisle, and almost to the end, by the big plate-glass picture window that covers that whole end of the room. Near the end of the aisle, on the right, at about eye level, I found copies of several books by Kerouac.

Here's somebody I've heard of before.

Wanted to get each of his books-- how many titles? maybe four or five-- but in those days I was living on a tighter budget. So I settled for On the Road, which I'd heard of before, and The Dharma Bums, which looked likely.

Back with them to my basement apartment in the fastness of the Cascade Mountains, where I believe they resided in a low shelf in the table where my TV sat. Either that, or the board-and-cinder-block bookcase to the left of my armchair.

And sitting there in my apartment, no doubt drinking a Blitz-Weinhard or three (what season of the year was it? I don't remember), I read On the Road. I read it. It captivated me.

Yes! Yes! We know time!

Seems I informed R. of my new find. Back in Dubuque that fall (I believe) I lent the book to him, he read it, he too became a Kerouac-fanatic.

This was the season of our golden nights, drinking pitchers and shooting darts and talking general theology cosmology gibberish over at the West Dubuque Tap, me and R. and K.

Did I re-read On the Road some time in the next few years? Can't say. I know it stuck in my mind as a masterpiece. Even in the Durham Years-- though I can't remember where on my bookshelves it sat in my Durham apartment-- it remained a reference point for me. Interesting exercise: run a text-search on this journal, April 1990 onward, for occurrences of the name "Kerouac" and the phrase "on the road." I tried this once, several months ago. You'd be surprised what you turn up.

In all these years, I never touched The Dharma Bums. Why? I dunno.

Then I packed and moved back up to Wisconsin, and it was over a year before I had most of my books unpacked again. This time, in the manse at Prairie Dell, I put shelf after shelf of books on the bookshelves, behind glass-paned doors, which were set into one wall of my upstairs study. I remember that, with only a few inches of bookshelf space left to fill, and several boxes of books yet to unpack, I pondered which few titles to add to the shelves.

I picked On the Road and The Dharma Bums. "Oh, yeah. Kerouac. Man, that one book really hit home to me, when I read it years back. Years back... Yeah, it's really been years now, hasn't it?"

Not that I remember ever touching either book in my time at Prairie Dell.

Then, up to Madison for a summer of unemployment, summer of '93, and toward the end of August, Mendota already in the bag, I hit on a liquidator's outlet out on the west side of Madison. Shelf after shelf of books, paperbacks rebound in hardcover, seconds from a local book bindery-- apparently intended for public libraries?

Among the titles I rounded up for an even dollar apiece, was one Memory Babe: A Critical Biography of Jack Kerouac, by Gerald Nicosia.

In my last days in Madison and my first days in Mendota, I dipped into Nicosia. Fascinating! Never had I known Kerouac's life story. Never had I realized how heavily autobiographical his books were. So among his closest friends were Allen Ginsberg and William Burroughs?

Allen Ginsberg was a name generally familiar to me, beard, glasses, poet, like an item off E.D. Hirsch's quiz of cultural literacy.

William Burroughs? Well, back when I was a freshman at Wodemarch, eighteen years young, I'd somehow heard of Burroughs' Naked Lunch as something that was "right up my alley," just the sort of fiction I myself was starting at that time to write.

Until, that is, I managed to track down a copy, and was simultaneously anaesthetized and fascinated and repulsed by it.

But here was Kerouac, keeping company with the likes of Ginsberg and Burroughs! Nicosia's biography became more and more fascinating to me. Enough so, that when up in Madison late fall of '93 and dragged over by Steven to Border's Book Shop, I picked up a few more Kerouac titles. The Subterraneans. Book of Dreams. Dr. Sax. Tried reading the first of these one day, and while doing laundry. Got a fraction of the way through it. Read the Book of Dreams fairly thoroughly, by the simple expedient of flipping through it at random.

Continued steeping myself in Nicosia, which also became one of my regular "laundromat books," until no matter where I opened his book, I found myself reading familiar passages, read often several times before.

I had Kerouac's life down fairly thoroughly, if unsystematically, in my head.

Then, my trip in to Chicago with R. in November. Now considerably more flush with money than I'd been a year before, I picked every Kerouac title I could find off the shelves at 57th Street Books. Set me back $130, but I now had almost every title by Kerouac currently in print-- in Madison at Border's for Thanksgiving, picked up Visions of Cody and Tristessa, and a book of collected essays, Good Blonde, which apparently had appeared in print for the first time just recently.

Then, this past week, Maggie Cassidy at University Books, and The Scripture of the Golden Eternity at Border's, and that just about does it. There may be a few odd and rare, unreprinted Kerouac titles knocking around out there (each biographer's bibliography seems to list at least one title that the others have missed), but I am pretty close to having the entire Kerouac corpus in my possession.

And have been reading. Vanity of Duluoz. Desolation Angels. Golden Eternity. And bits and pieces of others.

And intend to keep reading, until I devour and digest the entire pile.

And what do I find in Kerouac?

A kindred spirit. Somebody who could have been me, if only I'd continued another ten or fifteen years on the trajectory I was on back in the Wodemarch days, or even during my golden Slatewood summers.

Someone whose theories of creativity and writing bear an uncanny resemblance to my "academic" research on metaphor, as well as to my peculiar notions of "realism" from back around the time I was writing The Mark of Abel.

And I could expand on all this, in further detail. But let that wait for another day.

This evening, I'm just trying to rest. Right?

Drove down to Madison Church Supply, discovered they had inside the display case an entire rack of St. Christopher medals. (Why didn't I notice that last time?) The woman at the cash register asked me if I was going on a journey, and I answered truthfully enough, "Yes, going down to visit a friend in Iowa next week." --Har, she thought I was a Catholic!!!-- Medal set me back $25, but it is a very handsome design, sterling silver, and Mom sewed it to the flap of my duffel bag, so I am ready for next week on the road, and so I take one more step in my Imitation of Kerouac.

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