Wednesday, September 05, 2007

Jack Kerouac and On the Road

Fifty years ago today Jack Kerouac's novel, On the Road, was published. A tale of the frantic cross-continent travels of narrator Sal Paradise and his friend Dean Moriarty, seeking in search of they knew not what, only the rhythm and the pace of life accelerated until they were sprung clear out of any bourgeois frame of reference: "Yes! Yes! We know time!" The tale was autobiographical, an only thinly disguised telling of the journeys of Kerouac himself and his friend Neal Cassady.

They were part of what was known as the Beat Generation, along with other writers such as Allen Ginsberg and William S. Burroughs. But Kerouac was the greatest writer of all the Beats. He developed a writing style which was based in part on the pacing and the techniques of jazz music. He 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. But part of it is simply fascination with Kerouac's literary corpus— not only On the Road, but his other writings as well, The Dharma Bums and Desolation Angels and Big Sur and Tristessa and Old Angel Midnight and "October in the Railroad Earth" and so many more, oh, and the unfathomable brilliance of Visions of Cody.

I don't know why I didn't discover Jack Kerouac sooner. It wasn't until I was in my mid twenties that I ran across a paperback copy of On the Road, at Powell's Books in downtown Portland, Oregon. You know, that gigantic bookstore on West Burnside, across the street from what was then the Blitz-Weinhard brewery? This was 1983 or 1984.

I read the book, and I loved it. "Yes, yes, we know time!" Then it gathered dust on my shelf until I was in my mid 30s. This was when I began to collect and read everything I could find, by or about Jack Kerouac, Allen Ginsberg, William Burroughs, Neal Cassady, John Clellon Holmes, and the entire Beat Generation.

I've never been able to figure quite what it is about the Beats that so grips me. Like I say, part of it is Kerouac's luminescent noneuclidean jazz-inspired prose. But I think part of it has to do with mixed feelings I've always had about the Sixties.

It was during the cultural plate-tectonic shift known as the Sixties— really, the late 1960s on into the early 70s— that I came of age as an individual. Hey, beard, blue jeans, Beatles music, it shows? Without the experience of growing up in the Sixties, I can't imagine who I would be today.

The culture got some of the starch knocked out of it, and that was a good thing. Conformity slipped on a banana peel, and that was a good thing too. There was a genuine sense of spiritual questing. And on some deep level, something happened to the cultural sensorium. Any style or motif current in 1920 or 1950 was still available, in some key, in 1968 or 1998. Art deco? Formica tabletops? Egyptian hieroglyphics? No problem! While much of what flashed across the screen, post-Sixties, would have been unintelligible half a century earlier. Five surreal images per second? Fifty years ago, many TV commercials from the late 1990's would not even have been not understood— they would simply have frozen the brain in sensory gridlock. On a cultural level, on the simple level of images that flit through the mind's eye, the 60s did indeed open wide the doors of perception.

But the Sixties also gave rise to a festering sense of anger, self-righteousness, carefully nursed grievance, which was far from healthy. Rancor in the name of peace, vindictive intolerance in the name of tolerance— a bumper sticker I once saw sums it up: "Support mental health, or I'll kill you!" The nonconformity of the Sixties often struck me as a "nonconformity for the millions," mass produced, everybody different exactly alike, and woe betide the true individualist who differed not only from the conformists, but also from the nonconformists.

I think this is part of what I like about the Beat Generation. They really were different— not just from the mass culture, but from one another as well. They really were blazing their own trail— not just buying into some prefabricated and prepackaged "nonconformity" which was the same in New York and LA, in Pittsburgh and in Denver and in Urbana-Champaign.

"...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 centerlight pop and everybody goes 'Awww!'" —Jack Kerouac, On the Road. Published September 5, 1957.



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