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The Last Psychiatrist reviews Kerouac’s “On The Road”
October 18, 2007 7:46 AM   Subscribe

Kerouac's On The Road: The 50th Anniversary Of A Book I Had Not Read I can't be the only one whose impression of the book, from hearing about it but not actually reading it, was that it was about young, potent men, lost in a growing commercial society, two coiled springs ready to pop, looking for adventure-- America style. And this Road Trip that launched a thousand, other boring, useless road trips, was about young men looking to experience the world, really see, really live, really feel, free of the constraints of an artificial post war soulless society . . . That impression is wrong. You know what the book is really about? It's a primer on how to be a narcissist.
posted by jason's_planet (136 comments total) 18 users marked this as a favorite

 
So is Dharma Bums a guide on how to recover from narcissism then?
posted by drezdn at 7:50 AM on October 18, 2007


I used to enjoy The Last Psychiatrist, but I'm beginning to feel as though it is becoming a primer on how to be a narcissist.

I guess I shouldn't be surprised though-- that's what blogs (and bloggers) mostly are, right?
posted by dersins at 7:53 AM on October 18, 2007


Here is all you need to read from that book:

"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 roman candles exploding like spiders across the stars and in the middle you see the blue center-light pop and everybody goes, 'Awww!'"

The rest of it is kind of meh. Though, there's another good bit where he talks about a horn player in a jazz band having "it", but I can't find it.
posted by empath at 8:07 AM on October 18, 2007


Some of the comments are amusing, and at least one matches my initial thought after reading this post: "And of course it's about narcissism...that's what being twenty is about."

Disclaimer: can't be arsed to read the damn thing myself
posted by Slothrup at 8:07 AM on October 18, 2007


I'm sorry JP, but this is just the latest tedious example of a blowhard coming along who reads Kerouac's book shallowly, believes he is the first person on Earth to see through the Kerouac myth to the naked emperor cowering behind it, and then proceeds to inform the world of his non-insights at tiresome length, while slagging Kerouac for "poor writing." (At least Truman Capote's campy putdown, "That's not writing, it's typing," was succinct.)

These pissy, tone-deaf, middlebrow hit-pieces have been their own anti-Beat cottage industry since On the Road was published, whether it was John Ciardi's "Epitaph for the Dead Beats" (in which he sniffed, "Heaven knows the young need their rebellions") or deconstructions of "the Beat Mystique" ("the tunneling hipster's avoidance of feeling," etc. etc.) by Herbert Gold, who would later on pretend that he had championed his ol' buddies the Beats all along.

Not to belabor this too much, but for instance, this psychiatrist seems to earnestly believe that he is the first person to notice that the character of Sal Paradise in the book is not that of a superhipster, but a "dork." In fact, anyone familiar with Kerouac's work knows that that is precisely the essence of Kerouac's persona in all of his books: the more-timid observer, the voyeur, the faithful sidekick to Neal Cassady/Dean Moriarty. That's in part why the Paradise/Moriarty dynamic works -- the tension between Dean's boldness and Sal's reserve.

Anyway, there's no news here, or very little.
posted by digaman at 8:09 AM on October 18, 2007 [19 favorites]


Another link or two would have been appreciated. For starters, try Louis Menand's recent piece in the Nyer about OTR.
posted by It ain't over yet at 8:09 AM on October 18, 2007 [1 favorite]


Read the book years ago. Suggestion:" read and jusge it for yourself. Skip the middleman.
posted by Postroad at 8:09 AM on October 18, 2007


I was ready to dismiss this until:

You don't actually want a girl, they want the possibilities of a girl, before she becomes a real person. Before you learn she likes American Idol, before you discover her annoying laugh, and, most of all, before it becomes clear you can't fool her anymore.


That hit me a little too hard. And then:

Narcisissm is consciously creating an artificial identity that you then fight tooth and nail to get others to believe is true.


Ouch. Damn. Could someone please pass the Zoloft? Is it good on narcissism?
posted by neat-o at 8:11 AM on October 18, 2007 [10 favorites]


Here is a much more excellent analysis of Kerouac -- including a much sharper and more knowing view of his "narcissism" and other problems -- by Joyce Johnson, who was Kerouac's girlfriend when On the Road was published, and went on to write her own fine Beat memoir, Minor Characters.
posted by digaman at 8:16 AM on October 18, 2007 [3 favorites]


That's in part why the Paradise/Moriarty dynamic works

Of all the beat writers though, Kerouac is the one that I like the least. I'm no literary critic, but my own take on him is that he's a sexist, conservative mummy's boy. Self indulgent, drinks too much, and really doesn't contribute much in the way of form, IMO. He was just fortunate in that he was hanging around with a bunch of really cool guys who *were* doing something new and different (in the shape of Burroughs and Ginsberg) and so he was like a reporter who just happened to be in the right place at the right time, bringing back dispatches from the new cultural front lines in the form of novels.
posted by PeterMcDermott at 8:16 AM on October 18, 2007


That's a fantastic review, btw, and I think that was part of the reason I didn't finish the damn thing. Some sparkling prose but incredibly unlikable characters.
posted by empath at 8:18 AM on October 18, 2007


He's wrong about most things in this article, but very right about the hipster/dork issue.

So much of San Francisco's tourism industry seems to be based around the image of all of these arty poets running around in the 50s. A lot of fuss over a lot of gay nerds sitting around reading French surrealists.
posted by roll truck roll at 8:19 AM on October 18, 2007


The Menand piece in the New Yorker is thoroughly excellent.
posted by Slothrup at 8:21 AM on October 18, 2007


I had no idea Holden Caulfield was a literary critic with his own blog.
posted by sleepy pete at 8:22 AM on October 18, 2007 [6 favorites]


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 roman candles

So, manic depressives and meth addicts?
posted by doctor_negative at 8:24 AM on October 18, 2007


Maybe someone can nudge TheLastPsychiatrist and let him know this is here.
posted by Terminal Verbosity at 8:24 AM on October 18, 2007


For what it's worth, Peter, Ginsberg told me several times that he sometimes considered himself a minor imitation Kerouac. Ginsberg's two greatest poems -- "Howl" and "Kaddish" -- were written specifically with Kerouac's writing in mind, and Burroughs wouldn't have even been a writer without Kerouac's encouragement. Kerouac also helped invent the innovative form of Burroughs' breakthrough Naked Lunch by gathering up scraps of Burroughs' paper from the floor and putting them in the order they were published; Kerouac also provided the title for that book.

sexist, conservative mummy's boy

No quarrels there, but it's like dismissing Pound as a "mean-spirited, self-important, willfully obscure anti-Semitic fascist crank obsessed with money." In other words, guilty as charged, and still missing the point -- though not everyone has to get the point.

I sometimes think that many of Kerouac's innovations are invisible ("kind of meh") now because they became so pervasive; like kids who listen to the Beatles now and dismiss them as "overrated" because they sound like Oasis.
posted by digaman at 8:26 AM on October 18, 2007 [11 favorites]


I thought I was the only one bored to tears by OTR. Thanks for letting me know I'm not alone...
posted by louie at 8:27 AM on October 18, 2007 [1 favorite]


Metafilter: A lot of fuss over a lot of gay nerds sitting around reading French surrealists.
posted by digaman at 8:28 AM on October 18, 2007 [5 favorites]


I, for one, have read the whole book several times, and I think it's wonderful. Great descriptions of jazz musicians and William Burroughs and small-town America ... The Last Psychiatrist can go fuck himself. I bet his favorite book sucks.
posted by Camofrog at 8:29 AM on October 18, 2007


The entire spirit of the book can be summarized by Dean's words: "Sal, think of it, we'll dig Denver together...!" Really, fuckhead? Really? Why? Because it starts with D? I'd at least momentarily entertain the theory that D cities are great places to get to, but the real reason he wants to get to Denver, or anywhere else, is precisely this: the grass is always greener somewhere you aren't.

I agree with the author's critique 100%. I have always hated this book; it started in high school when I noticed the predictability of the cool, literary types' answer to "what's your favorite book/ author?" Almost always: On the Road/ Kerouac, Atlas Shrugged, The Fountainhead/ Ayn Rand, Catch-22, or, if they were super-cool, it would be something more "obscure," maybe, Confederacy of Dunces. I always thought that On the Road was a particularly appropriate response from a hipster, though, seeing as how it is the most self-absorbed, vapid tripe that has remained popular more because it is a concept that people can't shake than because it is a great piece of literature. On the Road--yuck--and yes, I'm sure reading it as an adult would make me want to tear my eyes from their sockets as reading it at fifteen was painful enough.
posted by exacta_perfecta at 8:32 AM on October 18, 2007


I sometimes think that many of Kerouac's innovations are invisible ("kind of meh") now because they became so pervasive; like kids who listen to the Beatles now and dismiss them as "overrated" because they sound like Oasis.

I think you raise some very good points digaman.

For me, I see Kerouac as an author you have to read at a certain point in your life to really enjoy (for me that was 19-20ish). To my young self, the idea of living a wild life and hooking up with women was profoundly appealing, I just never quite pulled it off and eventually moved on.

Another book that I have a similar "time and place hunch about" is Catcher in the Rye, but I've only read the first few chapters, and then, a few years after it would have appealed to me.
posted by drezdn at 8:32 AM on October 18, 2007


I have a similar feeling to Louie—I hated that book, and I hated everyone in my high school who loved it.
posted by klangklangston at 8:33 AM on October 18, 2007


This is the 45th minute anniversary of a post I haven't read.
posted by kuujjuarapik at 8:33 AM on October 18, 2007 [2 favorites]


So, manic depressives and meth addicts?

I spent a few years hanging out with 'the mad ones', and I would say yes, that's a pretty fair description.
posted by empath at 8:33 AM on October 18, 2007


i think you have to read all of kerouac's "duluoz" novels to really understand him and what he was trying to do - and the the whole "beat" thing is a distraction from it, not the subject of it

forget "on the road" - start with "visions of gerard" or "big sur"

"vanity of duluoz" reveals that he was a wandering soul long before he ever met up with the rest of the beatnik gang and it doesn't treat the world as some kind of artificial background for him to be a beatnik legend in
posted by pyramid termite at 8:33 AM on October 18, 2007


The opposite of the "time and place" book, would be the books that seem to get better to as you experience life. For me, The Great Gatsby was profoundly boring the first time I read it. The second, with more life experience, I realized it had some tremendous views on class.
posted by drezdn at 8:34 AM on October 18, 2007


but the real reason he wants to get to Denver, or anywhere else, is precisely this: the grass is always greener somewhere you aren't.

Another pseudo-insight, as if Kerouac was unaware of the hopelessness of the search for the place where he would finally feel content. That was one of his primary themes, elaborated in later books into Buddhist considerations of dukkha, which can be translated as "persistent unease." But Beat critics have never gotten that, blasting Kerouac for promising "kicks" and instead delivering sad knowledge of the world. That was Kerouac's point.
posted by digaman at 8:42 AM on October 18, 2007 [3 favorites]


I'm gonna stop posting (for at least a few hours!) after this but you're so right, Pyramid Termite -- Visions of Gerard is a heartbreakingly beautiful book, and my favorite of his non-Beat stuff.
posted by digaman at 8:44 AM on October 18, 2007 [1 favorite]


OTR is kind of like the Mona Lisa. It's a not-bad product of an excellent artist. Not his best work, but not his worst...and not at all worthy of such mega-iconic status or the pedestal it's put upon.
It's no surprise that about 90% of the people who claim it as their favourite book couldn't name two others by Kerouac, let alone have read them.
posted by rocket88 at 8:45 AM on October 18, 2007


really doesn't contribute much in the way of form, IMO. He was just fortunate in that he was hanging around with a bunch of really cool guys who *were* doing something new and different (in the shape of Burroughs and Ginsberg) and so he was like a reporter who just happened to be in the right place at the right time

Heh. Kerouac was the Ben Fong-Torres of his generation.
posted by psmealey at 8:49 AM on October 18, 2007 [1 favorite]


Has anyone actually read this book? Nine people total, all literary critics?

Not a great way to start off the criticism with a false assumption.
posted by destro at 8:50 AM on October 18, 2007


I enjoyed this because it reenforced my own beliefs.
posted by Bookhouse at 8:54 AM on October 18, 2007 [3 favorites]


I read On the Road when I was in college, and I, too, was bored by it. As I recall, I had to force my eyes across the pages until I was done, because by God I was going to finish it. It never grabbed me. I liked The Dharma Bums much better, maybe because I didn't approach it with such great expectations. (I did like Great Expectations.) I liked The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test a lot more than OTR--that was what a road book should be like, even if it was written by a white-suit-wearing guy who wasn't necessarily there half the time. And, of course, Kesey & Co. visit Kerouac during the course of that book and the visit is a complete bummer for all involved. (I liked Minor Characters a lot too.) Lately, with all the anniversary hoopla going on, I've been thinking I should revisit On the Road now that I've got a few more miles on me.
posted by Man-Thing at 8:54 AM on October 18, 2007


As usual with the last psychiatrist's media critiques, I think he has some interesting points to make, but they don't quite gel with the media he's actually writing about. It's interesting, but seems excessively vitriolic.

All kinds of things become popular and a Big Deal just because of what they represent at the time they are originally released.
I read On the Road and I wasn't crazy about it either, but I thought it was fascinating just because of what it is, and what it meant to so many people, and just examining the cultural ripples it made. Same deal with The Big Chill, Dirty Harry, or Less Than Zero... That doesn't mean that I want to go back and crap on them now for not being everything they represented back then.
posted by zebra3 at 8:58 AM on October 18, 2007 [1 favorite]


Narcisissm is consciously creating an artificial identity that you then fight tooth and nail to get others to believe is true.

Definitely the best line in the Psychiatrist's otherwise-lame article, and I also immediately assumed he was addressing bloggers.

Or at least sockpuppets. ;)
posted by rokusan at 8:58 AM on October 18, 2007


Well, it's a good thing this dude didn't start out with a book like, say, Desolation Angels. Sal Paradise has got nothing on poor ol' Jack Dulouz. When I was reading that book some passages were so pathetic and contemptible that I would rethink the wisdom of the whole "First Thought --- Best Thought" thing. Like "Wow Jack, maybe you shoulda kept that to yourself. You're embarrassing." Not that I couldn't relate to those parts, just that I know I could never air out that kind of dirty laundry and I'm still torn as to whether that's a good thing or a bad thing.
posted by GalaxieFiveHundred at 9:01 AM on October 18, 2007


Much obliged for your thoughtful counterpunches, digaman, and I'd like to kind of underscore this one:

Beat critics have never gotten that, blasting Kerouac for promising "kicks" and instead delivering sad knowledge of the world. That was Kerouac's point.

Exactly his point. This is probably the biggest misapprehension being leveled at On the Road in its anniversary year - that Kerouac himself thought Sal was an unqualified hero (let alone that Dean was). As those same critics like to note - as if they discovered it last week in the diaries hidden in the floorboards of his Jersey home or something - Kerouac was a sad, lonely drunk who never completely outgrew his mother. And yet they presume, apparently, that none of the characterization of Sal as such a man was intentional, that there was no self-loathing involved in On the Road, that Kerouac was utterly lacking in the ability for honest introspection. It's a myopic, meanspirited, and envious reading.

Just because a couple of generations now of would-be Sals have turned a conflicted character into a one-note myth don't make it so. Or, as Sloan so memorably put it, "It's not the band I hate, it's their fans . . ."
posted by gompa at 9:01 AM on October 18, 2007 [3 favorites]


Wow. Lots of good points made here, pro and con.

For now, I'd just like to respond to this one:

It's no surprise that about 90% of the people who claim it as their favourite book couldn't name two others by Kerouac, let alone have read them.

I've noticed that many people (not all, but quite a few) who claim to revere the Beats, revere Ginsberg, etc. are people who don't read that much, who don't have a good background in literature. For them, On The Road is more of a lifestyle prop, like a poster or t-shirt. So it shouldn't be a surprise that you encounter so many self-proclaimed fans who can't name two other books by Kerouac; they may not have read two other books in their entire adulthood.
posted by jason's_planet at 9:03 AM on October 18, 2007 [1 favorite]


I read this book and I happened to really like it. The review seems to completely miss the point of the book -- this is the story of a group of frustrated young men who don't really know where their place in the world is -- but they know it's not where they currently are and they know that the status quo holds no future for them.

It's an intimate and honest portrait of flawed young men moving away as a group and trying to find something different while they are changing and exploring -- both their new surroundings and themselves.

I wish the reviewer had read this with a more open mind was less inclined to pepper the review with unfounded assumptions and snark. Ironically, it made me dismiss the review as easily as the writer dismissed On The Road.
posted by Alexandra Kitty at 9:04 AM on October 18, 2007


I love "On the Road", I appreciate digaman's contributions to this thread, and I accept Ginsberg's authority, but there is no way in hell I would take the time to read the scroll. The thought of it makes my stomach turn.
posted by bukvich at 9:05 AM on October 18, 2007


"You can already tell this is going to be the story of a passive guy who needs to be lead."

Cool, I love stories about metal.
posted by mr_crash_davis at 9:07 AM on October 18, 2007 [1 favorite]


A lot of gay over reading nerds sitting around a lot. surrealists of Metafilter: French fuss
posted by Sparx at 9:08 AM on October 18, 2007 [1 favorite]


I didn't read On The Road until I was in my late forties, clearly well past the sell by date for first timers. Still, I liked the book, though it's not on my top books short list. Perhaps if I had read it back in college, or even high school. But I'm well past those periods of my life and my world doesn't allow me the liberty of indulging myself in such a way.

Am I resentful? No, not at all. The things I wish to know and the lands I hope to discover are available to me when I wish. I don't have to leave it all behind and I feel no desire to do so. When I look at how Kerouac's life ended, I'm thankful that I chose the way I did, not resentful.
posted by tommasz at 9:09 AM on October 18, 2007


I've noticed that many people (not all, but quite a few) who claim to revere the Beats, revere Ginsberg, etc. are people who don't read that much, who don't have a good background in literature. For them, On The Road is more of a lifestyle prop, like a poster or t-shirt. So it shouldn't be a surprise that you encounter so many self-proclaimed fans who can't name two other books by Kerouac; they may not have read two other books in their entire adulthood.

I totally agree. That's in part because in America, everything is turned into a lifestyle prop, and also because On the Road is a popular enough book that it gets read by people who don't otherwise read -- i.e., the glass is half-full rather than half-empty. You could plug names and titles into your statement like Hunter S. Thompson, Harry Potter, Philip K. Dick, The Basketball Diaries, Kurt Vonnegut, Ender's Game, or Robert Anton Wilson and it would still be true.
posted by digaman at 9:14 AM on October 18, 2007 [1 favorite]


But I'm well past those periods of my life and my world doesn't allow me the liberty of indulging myself in such a way.

If you don't have kids, you're never too old. Go for it.
posted by empath at 9:15 AM on October 18, 2007 [1 favorite]


I don't care much for the link. The last psychiatrist's cricticism is very shalllow. I don't even like On the Road that much, but I really liked and recommend Big Sur and Desolation Angels - they're really good studies of being lost and overwhelmed and searching.

This thread , however, is great - especially digaman's contributions.

Digaman, I might be picking you up wrong, but did Ginsberg tell you that personally? If so, I'm not hip enough to mask my admiration. Either way, way cool.
posted by tiny crocodile at 9:21 AM on October 18, 2007


You don't want to be Dean Moriarty The Last Psychiatrist, you want to bitch slap him.

I'm one of the nine people that have read OTR and I liked it. Liked it the first time I read it, liked it the fourth time I read it. OTR is just one of those books that strikes a chord with me so I revisit it it every three or four years to see if it still holds any appeal for me. It does. Perhaps because I never expected it to be a life changing literary masterwork when I first read it.
posted by MikeMc at 9:22 AM on October 18, 2007


I've noticed that many people (not all, but quite a few) who claim to revere the Beats, revere Ginsberg, etc. are people who don't read that much, who don't have a good background in literature. For them, On The Road is more of a lifestyle prop, like a poster or t-shirt. So it shouldn't be a surprise that you encounter so many self-proclaimed fans who can't name two other books by Kerouac; they may not have read two other books in their entire adulthood.

HA! I agree completely. In fact, when I first started college I actually wrote a song about this phenomenon, called "Coffeehouse Girl," the lyrics for which went in part:

"Hey, my little coffeehouse girl:
Is it true what they say?
That you've read every book Kerouac wrote
but you've never read Hemingway?"

(My wife always chided me for being too mean spirited, maybe even a little misogynistic with that one, but how could I resist such a perfect rhyme?)

On topic: I definitely think Kerouac was a grossly overrated narcissist. The Beats all were. The whole Beat movement was essentially about self-worship and self-glorification, despite its shallow dabbling in Buddhist philosophy. Hell, Ginsberg (who was a far better writer from a purely technical point of view) was a card-carrying member of NAMBLA, if that tells you anything about the psychological character of the Beat movement in general.
posted by saulgoodman at 9:29 AM on October 18, 2007 [2 favorites]


Don't forget Burroughs' "William Tell act".
posted by empath at 9:35 AM on October 18, 2007




Digaman, I might be picking you up wrong, but did Ginsberg tell you that personally? If so, I'm not hip enough to mask my admiration. Either way, way cool.

Tiny, never mind the admiration, but yes Ginsberg did tell me that personally -- I was his teaching assistant at Naropa University and knew him well for 20 years.

And Saul, really, try to do a little more homework next time. West Coast Beat Gary Snyder was one of the first American Zen students to study in Japan; Philip Whalen was ordained as a monk and eventually became the head teacher (roshi) of his own Zen center here in San Francisco; and Ginsberg was a student of the Tibetan Buddhist lama Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche for at least ten years, until Trungpa's death, at which point he became a student of Gehlek Rinpoche. Not quite "shallow dabbling," sir, though Kerouac's interest in Buddhism wasn't as long or practice-oriented.
posted by digaman at 9:43 AM on October 18, 2007 [3 favorites]


So it shouldn't be a surprise that you encounter so many self-proclaimed fans who can't name two other books by Kerouac; they may not have read two other books in their entire adulthood.

Favorited 'cause it's true. SO true.

(Oh, and while not necessarily on topic, I'm with Man-Thing's comments above, too -- I only lasted through about the first hundred pages of On the Road, which bored me senseless, but I devoured Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test. Tangentially related at best, but still...one is a fantastic, compelling work, and the other is...On the Road.)
posted by kittens for breakfast at 9:44 AM on October 18, 2007


Don't forget Burroughs' "William Tell act".

Yeah, terrible. There can be no doubt that Burroughs was a callous, self-serving prick, but he was also a terrific writer and incisive observer of human behavior.
posted by psmealey at 9:45 AM on October 18, 2007


Pfft. I hated On The Road in high school. High School. "Last Psychiatrist" indeed-- I'm way ahead of you, buddy.

In other news, I haven't read On The Road again yet, but other reading about him has revealed him to be an interesting and compelling writer. Also, if he wasn't as great a writer as Allen Ginsberg, I have a feeling he was about ten trillion times less annoying. In fact, he seems like a pretty all right guy. Anybody who road-tripped with Robert Hunter is o.k. by me.
posted by koeselitz at 9:57 AM on October 18, 2007


Can one of you billion bloggers out there do me a lifelong favor and construct a timeline of what books to read when? From like 5 onward?

Many thanks in advance.

For my own part, I'll get the ball rolling by suggesting the obvious with Catcher in the Rye at 16, On the Road at 19, The Narnia Chronicles at 13, Good Night Moon at 3, and Proust at 74.
posted by It ain't over yet at 9:57 AM on October 18, 2007


Not quite "shallow dabbling," sir, though Kerouac's interest in Buddhism wasn't as long or practice-oriented.

digaman: Sorry, you make a good point--particularly where Snyder (some of whose work I still respect a great deal) is concerned. I suppose the "shallow dabbling" comment really applies more to the Beat's fan club, although I do think it might be a fair criticism of Kerouac (unless you know something I don't, which isn't too unlikely).

Still, it's possible to take on whatever guru or join whatever community one wants and that still doesn't guarantee against achieving only a shallow understanding of Buddhist teachings.

I mean, Kerouac in particular almost seems to revel in his own desires--when is his work not primarily focused on restless desire, yearning, thirst for new experiences, etc.? How's any of that consistent with the Buddhist ideals of non-attachment and cessation of thirst?
posted by saulgoodman at 10:00 AM on October 18, 2007


Digaman that is so great. Slight derail, but when I was twelve or thirteen I was at home with my folks (in Ireland) watching a dull Saturday night light entertainment chat show on TV.

From nowhere, Ginsberg appeared, reciting something amazing, accompanying himself on a squeezebox. He was totally incongruous and brilliant. I had no idea who he was, but his performance was rivetting. His presence was magnetic, even on a cheap velour-y set, bookended by dull interviews with actors.

In case anyone Irish is reading - the chat show was Kenny Live with Pat Kenny. Pat freaking Kenny.
posted by tiny crocodile at 10:10 AM on October 18, 2007


Saul, the discussion of Buddhism would take longer than the shallow dabbling we can accomplish here would require, but suffice it to say that many schools of Buddhism prescribe not suppressing desire and attachment, but being mindful of them as they arise. Kerouac's books can be seen as one man's attempt to closely observe his mind and the world around him, including his own desires. Doing so, he comes to many of the same conclusions that Buddha did, particularly the notion of dukkha that I linked above.

Still, it's possible to take on whatever guru or join whatever community one wants and that still doesn't guarantee against achieving only a shallow understanding of Buddhist teachings.

Well, sure, but that's why things like Whalen receiving dharma-transmission are important; it was a measure of his understanding.
posted by digaman at 10:18 AM on October 18, 2007


As the guy in high school who seemed smart but is unable to distinguish himself in any meaningful way, I resent the critic's comparison.

Best synopsis of OTR: "Deadbeat dads waste the child support."
posted by Alvy Ampersand at 10:19 AM on October 18, 2007


can't be the only one whose impression of the book, from hearing about it but not actually reading it, was that it was about young, potent men, lost in a growing commercial society, two coiled springs ready to pop, looking for adventure-- America style.

There actually was a show like this, which borrowed directly from On The Road, called Route 66. It was a terrific show, but probably colored a lot of what think OTR should be.
posted by Astro Zombie at 10:38 AM on October 18, 2007


but being mindful of them as they arise.

Digaman: You're right. This isn't the appropriate time/place for an in-depth discussion of this, but I personally don't believe what you describe accurately characterizes what Kerouac was doing (I also don't see any necessity to imagine a dichotomy between suppressing desire and being mindful of it because mindfully attending to desires causes them to disappear quite naturally without any volitional effort on the part of the observer--suppression of desire, which is actually a form of negative-attachment, is just another form of destructive attachment).

I now realize looking back that some of my remarks about the Beats were overly general and too harsh. I should have been more measured in my statements.
posted by saulgoodman at 10:38 AM on October 18, 2007


The excellent Menand piece in The New Yorker mentioned earlier: Drive, He Wrote.
posted by phliar at 10:49 AM on October 18, 2007 [2 favorites]


What I find tiresome are people who write scathing critiques of real writers, but that are themselves examples of bad writing. How can there judgement have any credibility.
posted by Mental Wimp at 10:50 AM on October 18, 2007 [1 favorite]


Hi. I wrote the offending article everyone is here discussing.

I can't defend the post-- I do suck at writing, and an opinion is simply that, but I would like to clarify one very important mistake some here are making, especially Digaman: I'm not criticizing the book. I'm criticizing the people who assume they know and love the book without actually having read it.

Digaman actually came close to my position with his comment about posturing. The book is incidental to this discussion; sure, I didn't like it, I found it idiotic and shallow, but that doesn't merit a review of the book. What was amazing to me is how, for so many years, so many people-- an entire culture, let's admit-- attributes to that book things that are not there; derive/ outright create an identity from the book which is flatly contradicted by the actual words of the book.

Every copy of OTR (and Catcher, and Nietzsche...) should come with a warning label: RTFB!!! That way it isn't just a prop, a signifier, a coffeehouse table holder.

BTW, some (very few) may have noticed no new posts. That's because upgrading Movable Type is, well, death.
posted by TheLastPsychiatrist at 10:52 AM on October 18, 2007 [1 favorite]


A good friend of mine has been telling me for years that On the Road is a reprise of Dante's Inferno (as is Scorcese's Closing Time, in my opinion), the spiral of Hell unrolled, as it were, with Sal Paradise as Dante and Dean Moriarty as Vergil, and I have been planning to reread it with that in mind.
posted by jamjam at 11:03 AM on October 18, 2007 [1 favorite]


digaman, thanks for your comments in this thread. I'm also adding to the list of people who are saying read Visions of Gerard and Desolation Angels. I'm sorry if it's been mentioned before, but in respect to this

For them, On The Road is more of a lifestyle prop, like a poster or t-shirt.

You are completely right, jason's_planet. I would guess that it's also part of the reason why Kerouac died sort of bitter and lonely, hating the beatniks and hippies he helped create.
I could be wrong about this, though. I haven't really studied Kerouac/Beats/etc. since I was a teen.

Also, if you can find them, check out the recordings of him reading while Al Cohn and Zoot Sims trade sax solos. Yeah, it's cliche now, but it sounds amazing.
posted by sleepy pete at 11:06 AM on October 18, 2007 [1 favorite]


Metafilter: I can't defend the post-- I do suck at writing

You know who else is a narcissist?
(If you think ‘it’s me’ - it’s you. If you don’t think ‘it’s me’ - it’s you)

OTR is LOTR without hobbits, elves, dwarves, ents, the ring, wizards, songs...ok, they’re rather different really. But it’d make a nice crossover Sam as Dean - etc.

Read and enjoyed it. But I won’t be re-reading it. I like Kerouac’s spoken word poems much more. His writing in OTR isn’t really imbued with his sardonic wit. It’s like a kind of smirky jelly thing he’s got going (gotta be jelly ‘cos jam...etc). It’s all over his spoken word stuff.
posted by Smedleyman at 11:07 AM on October 18, 2007


Here, Diga says this:

"Not to belabor this too much, but for instance, this psychiatrist seems to earnestly believe that he is the first person to notice that the character of Sal Paradise in the book is not that of a superhipster, but a "dork." In fact, anyone familiar with Kerouac's work knows that that is precisely the essence of Kerouac's persona..."

That is exactly what I am saying. The problem with so much in our culture, and even in medicine, is that so much of what we (think we) know comes from secondary sources at best, and it's often not just incomplete but completely wrong. If I told you how many doctors think drug A is the treatment for something-- because Pharma, or a "thought leader" told them it was, when in fact it is contraindicated, you would be horrified.

This is something that worries me immensely. It's not terribly dangerous if some tool with a wallet-chain thinks he's Sal Paradise, lothario and warrior-poet; but when people practice medicine, or choose products, or vote using the info from the most charismatic source and can't be bothered-- nay, don't need to check up on things, well...
posted by TheLastPsychiatrist at 11:08 AM on October 18, 2007 [2 favorites]


For what it's worth, Peter, Ginsberg told me several times that he sometimes considered himself a minor imitation Kerouac.

To be honest, I think my problem with him is not so much the quality of his writing -- though I've never really been a fan of it -- as him. I think I would have liked Ginsburg, despite his NAMBLA membership. And because he was so shocking, so funny and so innovative, I idolized Burroughs in my youth, despite his tendency to be a nasty, misogynistic fuck at times. But Kerouac always reminded me of somebody's drunken old dad. Thought he was cool in the 50's, but had nothing to say that I was ever interested in hearing.

A long time ago, I had a book that was a collection of correspondence between Burroughs and Ginsberg, and it painted a very different picture of them than the one that you tend to see in the hagiography. Burroughs was almost like a stalker, whining about Ginsberg having dumped him, and threatening suicide, or yet more chaotic drug use if he didn't get more of Ginsburg's attention. Ginsberg had just holed up with Peter Orlovsky, so he just wasn't innarested in no creepy old-man dick now he was with his hot young boyfriend.

I really wish I still had a copy of that book -- published on some small press and presumably long out of print now.
posted by PeterMcDermott at 11:14 AM on October 18, 2007 [1 favorite]


empath: "The rest of it is kind of meh. Though, there's another good bit where he talks about a horn player in a jazz band having "it", but I can't find it."

That's one thing, though. I don't think the beats really 'got' jazz. One of my favorite parts of the (massive, interesting, but sometimes pedantic) Ken Burns Jazz series is the moment when they show a clip from an interview with the always-engaging Ginsberg, who spouts that jazz is so free, so open, that anybody can just walk up and blow the horn, and whatever notes that come out are the music. Directly followed by an interview with a musician, who states plainly that music is hard to play, that jazz takes discipline, and that you have to study for years to get as good as the greats.
posted by koeselitz at 11:16 AM on October 18, 2007 [2 favorites]


I like jazz. Grandma likes jazz. Dad hates it and prefers country. I hate country. Grandma loves country.

How about that? Different people have different tastes in music.
posted by ruthsarian at 11:16 AM on October 18, 2007


Scorcese's After Hours, that is. I always make that mistake, for some reason.
posted by jamjam at 11:16 AM on October 18, 2007


Well, nice to see TLP here to discuss his post. That won't prevent me from posting my intended initial response, which was that I found the review beyond juvenile in it's language, and bizarre to the point of creepy in it's fixation of some kind of PTSD reaction to the stereotypes of highschool. I suppose I could have predicted, but I did not expect the similar vitriol in the thread here. I can understand being fed up with the hoards of those that do not read arbitrarily selecting some work to brandish as an identity identifier, in my case I associate this type with Zen and the Art. Regardless, this resentment seems to have as little to do with the actual book as the loathed pop culture fixation. Half the people decrying those who worship the book without having read it haven't read it themselves. I'm not saying OTR is a timeless masterpiece and everyone must cherish it as the bible. But I think it's a successful text with a lot of emotion and self-awareness, and doesn't warrant a fraction of the vitriol I'm seeing here.
posted by kaspen at 11:19 AM on October 18, 2007


sleepy pete - that’s exactly the box set I have. When I was in college I played some of it for a girl I was seeing and she looked at me like I was nuts.
“It’s Jack Kerouac.”
“Who?”
“He’s a famous writer - he wrote ‘On the Road’”
“I don’t care where he wrote, it sounds weird.”
- Verbatum. Honestly.
(Y’know that Family Guy where Brian is dating the stupid but good looking girl? Yeah. Except like 90% of them there. Ah, good ol cornfield U.)
posted by Smedleyman at 11:21 AM on October 18, 2007


I always liked Kerouac's readings, too. Though he's no Steven Jesse Bernstein.
posted by saulgoodman at 11:26 AM on October 18, 2007


  • Jack Kerouac explains On the Road
  • Jack Kerouac reads from On the Road
  • 10,000 Maniacs - Hey Jack Kerouac

    Sorry. That really is a god-awful song, but I couldn't help myself.

  • posted by psmealey at 11:31 AM on October 18, 2007 [1 favorite]


    In other words, no one really likes On The Road. They really like Kerouac. Or, at least, the person they think Kerouac is, i.e. the character in the book, or, more accurately, the character they think is in the book.

    People seem to be having some trouble here. The post is not a criticism of Kerouac, it is a criticism of who a certain kind of reader wants Kerouac to be, and therefore is a criticism of the reader.

    The criticism of the blog author;s vitriol is ironic, considering the the fawning going on in here over Ginsburg, who turned anger and vitriol into an art form. The poem was called 'Howl', remember? It wasn't called "Let's Discuss".
    posted by Pastabagel at 11:32 AM on October 18, 2007 [1 favorite]


    I idolized Burroughs in my youth, despite his tendency to be a nasty, misogynistic fuck at times

    Oddly, I idolized Burroughs in my youth *because* of his tendency to be a nasty, misogynistic fuck at times.
    posted by Slothrup at 11:42 AM on October 18, 2007


    It's a primer on how to be a narcissist.

    It seems this Last Psychiatrist is trying to make a name for himself on the back of someone else's work. Is that not narcissism?
    posted by Rashomon at 11:43 AM on October 18, 2007


    From the article: "You know what the book is really about? It's a primer on how to be a narcissist."

    From TLP's post: "I'm not criticizing the book. I'm criticizing the people who assume they know and love the book without actually having read it."

    You do criticize the people who like the book, TLP. You also snark at specific "random" passages, Kerouac's later life and suicide, his writing method, and his character's flaws (as if flawed characters make flawed literature).

    Why change your tune now?
    posted by MotorNeuron at 11:47 AM on October 18, 2007


    10,000 Maniacs - Hey Jack Kerouac

    Sorry. That really is a god-awful song, but I couldn't help myself.
    posted by psmealey at 11:31 AM on October 18 [+] [!]


    No it isn't, but that version isn't so great.

    Also, a lot of the stuff from the box set can be found in those youtube links of psmealey's.
    posted by sleepy pete at 11:52 AM on October 18, 2007


    TLP: That is exactly what I am saying. The problem with so much in our culture, and even in medicine, is that so much of what we (think we) know comes from secondary sources at best, and it's often not just incomplete but completely wrong. If I told you how many doctors think drug A is the treatment for something-- because Pharma, or a "thought leader" told them it was, when in fact it is contraindicated, you would be horrified.

    Hmm. This is a weird spin. I would say two things: first that it's entirely reasonable to expect that powerful and timely works should have cultural influence beyond the parameters of their creator's initial intent (ie cultural appropriation is a totally natural and entirely healthy phenomenon, and it'd be foolish to outlaw it); second that it is only fair to decry misinterpreters of the original text if the accuracy of the interpretation is your sole criteria. And why would you hold millions of young adults to such academic criteria? Che has been misinterpreted too. So has that Bruce Springsteen song, Born in the USA. So what. Culture is a 2-way street.
    posted by It ain't over yet at 12:19 PM on October 18, 2007


    I think most Beat Generation works are poor-to-mediocre works of art, but they so perfectly captured a certain time period and certain attitudes that they deeply appeal to the fantasies of male adolescents of literary pretensions. Here are some of the elements of the Beat Generation myth that, combined in that brilliant admixture, made their works irresistible to adolescents:

    -- The teenage wanderlust; the fantasy that when you're no longer under your parents' thumb you will take to the road, by hitchhiking or train hopping, and explore the country.

    -- The hope that, once you're out of your parents' home, that you will be surrounded by brilliant, literary friends who are all producing their inspired literary works.

    -- The idea that life will be a perpetual round of exciting parties, marijuana smoking, jazz playing, miscellaneous girls to hit on and sleep with, and all-night conversations about deep literary or philosophical topics.

    -- The exciting realization that, even if you were an outcast in high school, you can be "cool" in your twenties.

    -- And, perhaps most importantly, the fantasy that you can escape the drudgery of traditional adulthood, by joining forces with your brilliant literary friends, and your adulthood will be conducted with all-night conversations, all-night parties, the ecstasy of literary creation, and girls and jazz.

    The Beat Generation, by their mere existence, proved that it is possible to live that intoxicating life. Unfortunately for most of us, the chances of us getting enmeshed with that perfect mix of individuals, all of whom possess greater-than-typical literary abilities, with a work ethic to actually have significant literary careers, is infinitesimally small. But think about how remarkable it is that Burroughs, Ginsberg, Kerouac, Corso, Snyder, Holmes, plus a ton of minor writers like Huncke, Carl Solomon, Ferlinghetti, etc., all knew each other intimately and all published a lot of books. It's amazing that such a circle of intimates was so damned productive.

    As we get older, we see through the pretensions of the Beat Generation, and realize the books weren't as good as we had thought they were. But still, you can't deny the power of the fantasy that is fueled by the Beat Generation. For example, consider the appeal of a book like Naked Lunch. The appeal of Naked Lunch is not that you can read it and enjoy it as literature; rather, the appeal is that somebody actually got away with writing such a book, had it taken semi-seriously by the national press, acquired a "bad boy" reputation in the process, and parlayed it into sustainable career basically being a dope-smoking, globe-trotting perpetual adolescent. What literary teenager doesn't love the idea of writing a shocking experimental book that outrages the middle class and funds a lifetime of traveling, drug-taking, and fucking? It's very appealing to a teenager who fears growing up to be an insurance salesman like Dad.

    The whole of the Beat movement was greater than the sum of its parts. The Beat Generation was sort of a perfect storm of elements that appeal to male teenagers with literary ambitions who longed for transcendence from humdrum middle class existence.
    posted by jayder at 12:41 PM on October 18, 2007 [5 favorites]


    The problem with so much in our culture, and even in medicine, is that so much of what we (think we) know comes from secondary sources at best, and it's often not just incomplete but completely wrong.

    This is roundabout nonsense and in no way explains or excuses the petulant garbage that litters your article, much like this rotten tangent:

    Narcisissm is consciously creating an artificial identity that you then fight tooth and nail to get others to believe is true. That's On The Road. Here's an example: everyone knows the the story that Kerouac was high on benzedrine, and the book poured out of him, in three weeks of sleepless creation, typed onto a single, long scroll of paper, unedited, raw, real. But here's the thing: the book wasn't the result of that process, he planned that specific process in advance, on purpose. Same with the cross country trips-- this wasn't a restless guy, who had to travel, had to move, and then wrote a memoir; he went on the trips in order to write a book. He actually started the book before he even went on the trip. The process didn't generate a book; the process was the whole point. It's not a story, it's a character summary, it's a CV. The novel's popularity rests entirely on the image around it, that he created, on purpose. That's why it's popularity exists despite apparently so few people actually having read it. If the book had been published anonymously, no one today would have ever heard of it.

    That's not a criticism of the reader, or the deluded beat groupie, as it were. You are talking about the author, and you are talking about the framework he set out to accomplish certain goals, whatever they where. It seems as if the only valid way to perceive On The Road as anything other than a marketing experiment by Kerouac would be if the scroll was wrapped around his fetus as he popped out of the womb - would that be OK with you then? Would that smash through the conceptual framework which was obviously such a gimmick, because he had the idea before he wrote the book?

    You are so terribly misguided in your assertions that your reply here is simultaneously dubious and more inane than the original article itself. Things don't readily exist and functionally merge in the environment of a vacuum, the world around you is no different. Your blog is no different, and this website you are posting to now is no different. You can't criticize Kerouc for working within constraints because people have misinterpreted them as the only parameters for his success - then turn around and make some strange analogy with regards to the ignorant thought patterns and gullibility of humanity at large.

    Every copy of OTR (and Catcher, and Nietzsche...) should come with a warning label: RTFB!!!

    Get over yourself...
    posted by prostyle at 12:55 PM on October 18, 2007 [1 favorite]


    It's a pretty lacking understanding of narcissism.

    Narcisissm is consciously creating an artificial identity that you then fight tooth and nail to get others to believe is true.

    This is, of course, not narcissism at all. This is what normal human beings do all the time. They create a 'model' of themselves which they offer to others and attempt to make real in their actions. Only in the most intimate spaces is this model ever abandoned and something like 'that's just me' and this is only possible because there is no threat of judgment. Any artist who makes a serious commitment to an aesthetic, who willing accepts the extreme discipline necessary to give birth to a new style, approaches the extreme opposite of the narcissist, the human sacrifice. The entire point of narcissism is that it yields absolutely nothing to others, especially not the ability to judge.

    Every copy of OTR (and Catcher, and Nietzsche...) should come with a warning label: RTFB!!! That way it isn't just a prop, a signifier, a coffeehouse table holder.

    It's pretty hilarious that you would throw Nietzsche in there. You simply couldn't be wrong about Nietzsche and, it occurs to me, a serious reading of him might benefit you. After all your larger critique is just a superficial dumbing down of his. N is the first and, to date, most meaningful critique of the western decadence that you are railing against. He was the first to recognize the "anarchy of atoms" that occurs in Western art and thought when there is no larger structure, no underlying foundation like God or Science, is available to act as an anchor or solidifying force. The entire notion of decadence as the break down and smashing of the larger whole, as the failure to create a truly new structure rather than just offering up a bunch of props and gimmicks that hang together loosely and meaninglessly, as the ultimate failure to communicate because ideas and words no longer work for or against anything they just swirl around meaninglessly like gas atoms -- this is only possible in light of N's larger metaphysical framework.

    This is also probably the flaw in your reading of Kerouac. You simply don't appreciate that the creation of the Beat aesthetic at that point in American history was actually a pretty damn significant accomplishment requiring an enormous sacrifice, a willingness to really zag while the entire nation was zigging. Again, this kind of commitment is pretty much the complete opposite of narcissism. So I just don't think it's fair to lay the 'original sin' of narcissism at his feet. If there is a crime that he's guilty of it's that of pacifism and the sentimental over-valuation and romanticizing of human life. But, honestly, that's a small or at least not such an exceptional flaw. It's a crime that everybody since the big R could be charged with. Like most major problems if you look deep enough you'll find the French are largely responsible.
    posted by nixerman at 12:56 PM on October 18, 2007 [1 favorite]


    This is my favourite book. It gave me hope at a time of my life when I needed it most. I attended a conservative Christian high school - Daniel Dennett was Erskine Fellows Schollar in my second year.

    Dennett destroyed belief, Kerouac taught me to accept this.
    posted by Samuel Farrow at 1:17 PM on October 18, 2007


    Interesting post jason's_planet. Thanks.

    While I've admired The Last Psychiatrist's thoughts about the Sopranos and narcissists, this particular commentary about On the Road seems especially bilious. It sounds like he's angry the book and author have been blindly idealized and I agree with him there, wholeheartedly. But I think he's throwing out the baby with the bathwater.

    Agreeing with The Last Psychiatrist that Kerouac would likely be diagnosed as a pathological narcissist and that On the Road has been pedestalized, but On the Road was part of a bigger picture after WWII. Paradoxically, the book and author encouraged some of the post war generation to be truth seekers, to examine the rigidity of their parents' lives then, the dangerous conformity (which included the Joseph McCarthy scapegoating), the materialism and ticky tacky box life that was being promoted by Madison Avenue. In spite of its flaws I do think it was an important book. Kerouac had a profound influence on Allen Ginsberg, who I think was an extraordinary thinker, certainly a culture hero of mine since I was a little kid. Howl, the poem.

    There's been a lot of blind idealization in the world, I'm curious about why he picked this author and book.

    While seeing flaws in narcissists, both somatic and cerebral, I think it is still possible to value their creativity and what they produce out of that creativity. Picasso, who I think was also a pathological narcissist, is another example of a real bastard in his personal life, classic narc who changed the world with his art. From what I've heard, innovative Craig Venter of the Genome Project, also is a classic cerebral narcissist.

    The Productive Narcissist: The Promise and Peril of Visionary Leadership

    The topic of this post reminded me of my first, warnocked, horribly written, first MeFi post. *cringe

    (Defending my idiocy and ineptitude, I first thought MeFi posts could be part of a MeFi conversation and was referring to EricBrooksDotCom's comments in another thread discussing narcissism - in which a cigar spliff and hallucinating were mentioned. That thread was later edited to the version now in the MeFi archives. Matt was so patient with me, a deep n00b, taught me basic html by email so I could post here. *Thanks so much again Matt.)

    I think it's possible to see an alkie narcissist, like Kerouac, for what they are and still appreciate On the Road for a number of reasons, including its historical impact.
    posted by nickyskye at 1:18 PM on October 18, 2007


    Whoa, there. People! Friends! MeFites! prostyle! Chill out!

    1. The blog post takes to task popular perception of OTR, contrasting that with the TLP's reading of the book.

    2. His reading of OTR as a fundamentally narcissistic work is contentious, but doesn't deserve anywhere near the anger evident in this thread.

    3. The post is not nearly as dismissive of Kerouac and OTR as people seem to think. When TLP writes that the process of writing the book was intentional, it's a critique of those who imagine the book to be some authentic outpouring of a troubled wanderer, not a condemnation of the whole project. It's a classic mistake—a critic calls out certain qualities in a piece and people get outraged that they would so easily condemn the work.

    4. Critique of Western decadence? In this piece? I don't see it. Seriously.
    posted by wemayfreeze at 1:28 PM on October 18, 2007 [2 favorites]


    Great review, I couldn't agree more. I'd go a step further and say that, almost to a man, the beats were self-obsessed navel gazers who created a brief but powerful literary black hole selling themselves rather than their pedestrian works (much the same as Dave Eggers, et al, have been doing the last few years).
    I'm also amused and relieved that it took all of what? five comments before someone self-righteously chimed in with "but maaan, you just don't get it, maan." The comment that separates the true beat fellators from the pretenders.
    posted by mikoroshi at 1:28 PM on October 18, 2007 [1 favorite]


    I read and enjoyed Naked Lunch as literature (of course, I like surrealism too, so, tastes vary).
    And the beats are often as underrated as their impact has been overexposed. It was a sort of democratization of intellectual and spiritual thought where, for the most part in the U.S., not many people had the tools or skills to produce art, and literature, like music, was socially monopolized.
    What Podhoretz said with irony, I say with conviction: “This is the revolt of the spiritually underprivileged.”
    Indeed, that’s why so many folks reached out to eastern thought and religion.
    posted by Smedleyman at 1:33 PM on October 18, 2007


    Nthing Dharma Bums over On The Road. I would also recommend Ann Charters' biography of Kerouac.
    posted by stinkycheese at 1:34 PM on October 18, 2007


    Never was a fan of the Beat idea, particularly, but I finally picked up Dharma Bums this year (and finished it, thank you). Narcissism? Yep. Post-adolescent fantasy? Check. But I hold no animosity because of that. Reading Keruoac reminds me of talking to a certain stripe of bright high-schooler: There's the remembrance of a mindset past, of having all of life unspooling like an open road, and the occasional thoughtful sentence. Between each insight, though, is a tiresome string of memememememe.

    I'm happy having red Bums, but OTR is gonna have to wait until I've finished Moby Dick. Now, that's a road trip.

    A friend of mine said something that struck me as true: Most things most people read, including me, are mental popcorn. And that's fine; we need that (if only to relax and not become insufferable, gay, French psycho-literary bloggers). But if a book as an idea -- just one thought that makes you think or learn or see existence with a bit more clarity -- it's a worthwhile read. Most books don't, though. For me, Bums had one... but that's for another post.
    posted by slab_lizard at 1:46 PM on October 18, 2007


    So everyone is on the same page: narcissism and from the DSM.

    Specifically, consider the quote above, "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 roman candles exploding like spiders across the stars and in the middle you see the blue center-light pop and everybody goes, 'Awww!'"


    And then look at indicators 1-4, 8, and 9. The only people for him are "the ones who never say a commonplace thing", but "burn like fabulous roman candles".

    On the Road is largely autobiographical, so it is impossible to criticize the psychological impact of the book on a reader without criticizing the psychology of the characters in it that the reader may identify, which in this case also happens to mean a criticism of the author.

    These days, the book has been popularized as a counterculture anthem, even if it isn't that. So what is to be said of the people who read books like they wear fashionable clothing, with no thought to the substance of it, but only attaching themselves to the superficial outrage on the surface of it?


    This is also probably the flaw in your reading of Kerouac. You simply don't appreciate that the creation of the Beat aesthetic at that point in American history was actually a pretty damn significant accomplishment requiring an enormous sacrifice, a willingness to really zag while the entire nation was zigging.


    What was significant about the beat aesthetic that hadn't already been undertaken by jazz (which the beat co-opted) or black writers of the time, or even writers of the Harlem Renaissance from a generation earlier? Beat is the dominant culture looking into itself, which is a fine thing I suppose, but it isn't truly the outside looking in, the way jazz really was.
    posted by Pastabagel at 2:35 PM on October 18, 2007 [2 favorites]


    Slothrup writes 'Oddly, I idolized Burroughs in my youth *because* of his tendency to be a nasty, misogynistic fuck at times.'

    It must have been a real disappointment to you then, to read his cat book and realize that when it all boiled down to it, he was just another soppy sentimental old queen.
    posted by PeterMcDermott at 2:53 PM on October 18, 2007


    An essay aimed squarely at the TL:DR crowd? Air conditioners to Eskimos.
    posted by First Post at 2:54 PM on October 18, 2007


    > What was significant about the beat aesthetic that hadn't already been undertaken by jazz

    The Beats consciously adapted the sounds, rhythms, startling juxtapositions, openness to improvisation, and blues essence of jazz into prose, which was a huge innovation. Since then, that impulse has degenerated into the tacky "jazzoetry" spouted at slams, but at the time Kerouac was writing, it was a huge step forward that inspired everybody from Dylan (who particularly loved Kerouac's "Mexico City Blues") to Gus Van Sant (who was once planning to make a movie of On the Road that never happened.)

    I don't buy that "co-opted" stuff. The essence of jazz itself is "co-opting" -- ask the ghost of Miles Davis, who "co-opted" everybody from Debussy to Jimi Hendrix to Sly and the Family Stone, and in the process revolutionized jazz. And the Beats knew jazz intimately. There is a track called "Kerouac" recorded in a Harlem bar by Dizzy Gillespie, Charlie Christian, Don Byas and others. "Ah," you think, "cute little homage to the white jazz novelist." Then you realize it was recorded in 1941, when Kerouac was only 19 or 20; he made such an impression on the musicians that they named a jam after him when they made the record.

    TLP, thank you for joining this discussion and offering your perspective.
    posted by digaman at 3:12 PM on October 18, 2007 [1 favorite]


    The criticism of the blog author;s vitriol is ironic, considering the the fawning going on in here over Ginsburg, who turned anger and vitriol into an art form. The poem was called 'Howl', remember? It wasn't called "Let's Discuss".

    This is a statement made by a person who hasn't read much of Ginsberg's work, which championed compassion and humanity over "anger and vitriol." (The title of "Howl," by the way, was provided by Kerouac.) There is anger in "Howl" -- I certainly wouldn't call it vitriol -- but it's mostly directed at Moloch, the dehumanizing force of capitalism, war, and institutionalized inhumanity. That's not only an important distinction, it's crucial to understanding Ginsberg's work.

    Ginsberg's tender elegy for Jack Kerouac, "Memory Gardens," ends with these lines:

    ...Well, while I'm here I'll
           do the work --
    and what's the Work?
            To ease the pain of living.
    Everything else, drunken
           dumbshow.

    Not quite the voice of someone occupied with turning vitriol into an art form.
    posted by digaman at 3:27 PM on October 18, 2007


    The appeal of Naked Lunch is not that you can read it and enjoy it as literature

    I disagree. Naked Lunch is a hilarious book that combines several streams of "subterranean" American humor -- the high camp of drag queens, the alcoholic misanthropy of W.C. Fields, the over-the-top irreverent madcap energy of the Marx Brothers, the seen-it-all insider jokes of junkies and jazz musicians -- into a completely original prose voice, a New Thing Under the Pale Sun of most 1950s literature. I still laugh out loud reading it. Imagine coming across this passage in 1959, when most academics and "serious" littérateurs were wondering with T.S. Eliot if they "dared to eat a peach." You don't have to like this writing -- it's not like Burroughs was trying to amuse mass audiences -- but its manic energy was indeed fresh in its time, and indeed literature. It's still hard to find writing with this much exuberance:

    "Leif The Unlucky was a tall, thin Norwegian, with a patch over one eye, his face congealed in a permanent, ingratiating smirk. Behind him lay an epic saga of unsuccessful enterprises. He had failed at raising frogs, chinchilla, Siamese fighting fish, rami and culture pearls. He had attempted, variously and without success, to promote a Love Bird Two-in-a-Coffin Cemetery, to corner the condom market during the rubber shortage, to run a mail order whorehouse, to issue penicillin as a patent medicine. He had followed disastrous betting systems in the casinos of Europe and the racetracks of the US. His reverses in business were matched only by the incredible mischances of his personal life. His front teeth had been stomped out by bestial American sailors in Brooklyn. Vultures had eaten out an eye when he drank a pint of paregoric and passed out in Panama City Park. He had been trapped between floors in an elevator for five days with an oil-burning junk habit and sustained an attack of the D.T.s while stowing away in a footlocker. There was the time he collapsed with strangulated intestines, perforated ulcers and peritonitis in Cairo and the hospital was so crowded they bedded him in the latrine, and the Greek surgeon goofed and sewed up a live monkey in him, and he was gang-fucked by the Arab attendants, and one of the orderlies stole the penicillin, substituting Sani-flush."
    posted by digaman at 4:13 PM on October 18, 2007 [2 favorites]


    Am I the only person in the world who read the book and was actually inspired to hit the road? How embarassing.
    posted by telstar at 4:20 PM on October 18, 2007


    I disagree. Naked Lunch is a hilarious book that combines several streams of "subterranean" American humor -- the high camp of drag queens, the alcoholic misanthropy of W.C. Fields, the over-the-top irreverent madcap energy of the Marx Brothers, the seen-it-all insider jokes of junkies and jazz musicians -- into a completely original prose voice, a New Thing Under the Pale Sun of most 1950s literature.

    This is a good point. I recall reading this volume of Burroughs' letters when it came out in the early nineties, and suddenly feeling like I understood what Burroughs was doing (in fact, I think his letters are actually a better testimony to his greatness than his fiction), and you sum it up nicely. I think that Burroughs is the best writer of the Beat Generation. I think that, at the time the major Beats were active, the idea that Burroughs' work was the most lasting may have seemed laughable.
    posted by jayder at 4:24 PM on October 18, 2007


    ah yes, tender humanity... as in:

    Yes, Master--shove your throbbing cock in my asshole
    again and again--Yes, Master! Make me kneel before you
    and... (etc...)

    --"Yes, Master," Fall of America

    (I've read quite a lot of Ginsburg's work myself. And with all due respect, there's some serious vitriol in there, occasionally. Among other things.

    Still, your specific point is probably valid. It's not excessively vitriolic, to be sure. But the sex with young boys from poor countries aspect of Ginsburg's later work really undermines any gushy humanistic sentiments his work might have had at its core, from my POV.

    In fact, learning about those particular aspects of Ginsburg's personal life contributed to a very profound, near suicidal depressive episode I went through at one point in my life, as a disillusioned young adult who had idolized the Beats in general and Ginsburg in particular for a good part of his adolescence, and who had serious difficulty coming to grips with the ugly reality of my idols, and humanity in general.)
    posted by saulgoodman at 4:25 PM on October 18, 2007


    For me, the worst part of the 50th anniv of OtR has been the realization that 50 years later, pretty much the same percentage of people still have no fucking clue what Kerouac was about. It's really sad. (As was he.)
    posted by nevercalm at 4:36 PM on October 18, 2007 [1 favorite]


    I think that, at the time the major Beats were active, the idea that Burroughs' work was the most lasting may have seemed laughable.

    Yeah, jayder -- I know exactly what you mean, and have thought this myself. It's interesting. Burroughs' work certainly seems more contemporary than 99 percent of the work of the lesser Beats.

    tender humanity

    Damned right, SaulGoodman -- the humanity of being open about your most private, embarrassing fantasies, in the hope of both alchemizing personal shame into fearlessness, and helping other people feel less ashamed about their own inner lives. Are your private sexual fantasies restricted to necking with your wife at the malt shoppe, or something?

    (The name of the poem is "Please, Master," not "Yes, Master." And the name of the poet is "Ginsberg," not "Ginsburg.")

    But the sex with young boys from poor countries aspect of Ginsburg's later work

    The "poor countries" of New Jersey and Colorado, perhaps? I knew the guys who Ginsberg slept with and wrote about in his later poems, and they were usually suburban guys in their late teens or early 20s, and hardly impoverished. Nice folks, too. Many of them are still my friends.

    You want to bust a Beat writer for sleeping with "young boys from poor countries"? That would have been Burroughs, who paid for the services of hustlers in Tangier regularly -- as he wrote about in his work.
    posted by digaman at 4:47 PM on October 18, 2007


    eh, i would have made a really big deal about spelling ginsberg's name properly myself once. in fact, i would have been falling over myself at the prospect of chatting with someone who actually knew him personally. my memory of cosmopolitan greetings (dedicated, coincidentally, to someone who shares my name, steven taylor) is that in one poem he describes waking in the arms of an indonesian boy he'd paid to take home. but maybe i'm misremembering. or maybe the account was fictionalized. doesn't really matter. i don't mean to bust ginsberg's chops, or to single him out. my point is more about the extreme self-absorption (from an outside point of view) of the beat movement generally. and i suppose it has been a while since i last read ginsberg, since i got both the title and the lyric of the "master" poem wrong. anyway, my point is, it's not as if ginsberg's work is all sunshine and light. sure, everyone has dark fantasies (though I'm sure there's considerable variation in the degrees of darkness particular individuals are capable of), but to think that publicly disclosing one's darkest fantasies somehow elevates them to the level of universal truth is narcissistic in the extreme, and i think it would be absurd not to acknowledge that there's a strain of narcissism in kerouac, ginsberg and virtually all the beats (probably in writers and artists in general, really). that said, i still respect a lot of ginsberg's work. i was just really personally disappointed when i first realized he was not only a human, but at least as deeply flawed as the rest of us. guess that's just the price of hero-worship.
    posted by saulgoodman at 5:29 PM on October 18, 2007 [1 favorite]


    I totally hear you, SG. You can imagine how disillusioned I was at 19 when I first met Ginsberg and realized he was human! (When I told Philip Whalen about that, he replied, "What's so great about having illusions?")

    Steven Taylor is a sweetheart. I believe he's now the dean of Naropa or something.

    my point is more about the extreme self-absorption (from an outside point of view) of the beat movement generally

    I don't disagree.

    it's not as if ginsberg's work is all sunshine and light

    Nor is human nature -- and that was his very point. To put it all on the record.

    I agree that Ginsberg was terribly narcissistic, having suffered from direct exposure to his narcissism for 20 years [smile]. He begins one poem called "Ego Confession" with the line, "I want to be known as the most brilliant man in America." That ain't the voice of humility! But it's one of the reasons he was attracted to Buddhism.
    posted by digaman at 5:40 PM on October 18, 2007 [1 favorite]


    I read OTR when I was 14. It was cool. But at 14 you kind of need a book like that (and like Catcher In The Rye) to help you explain some of your typical inchoate feelings and yearnings to yourself. If you're 50 and you still think it's the greatest book ever, that's a whole other story.
    posted by jonmc at 5:44 PM on October 18, 2007


    wow, What an awesome and illuminating thread.
    posted by nickyskye at 5:51 PM on October 18, 2007


    Fuck. I was nipples-deep in what was almost certainly the longest comment I'd ever written on this site in 7 years, and this computer hard-reset, for the first time ever.

    So I'll just repeat the first sentence, which was something like: thanks, digaman, for saying with more eloquence and knowledge the things I'd have said in this thread.

    And this, since the thread has moved on in the hours since I started writing this comment:

    If you're 50 and you still think it's the greatest book ever, that's a whole other story.


    Perhaps, but I derive great pleasure from revisiting the books I loved as a young man, with decades more life under my belt and etched into my face, and if they were truly great books, they have new lessons to teach me as a man that I wasn't able to learn as a boy.

    The 'greatest X ever' is not a phrase that thoughtful people ever use in any seriousness, I don't think.
    posted by stavrosthewonderchicken at 5:55 PM on October 18, 2007



    That ain't the voice of humility! But it's one of the reasons he was attracted to Buddhism.

    I can certainly identify with that. Thanks for your perspective, digaman. I'll stop derailing now.

    posted by saulgoodman at 5:56 PM on October 18, 2007


    Perhaps, but I derive great pleasure from revisiting the books I loved as a young man, with decades more life under my belt and etched into my face, and if they were truly great books, they have new lessons to teach me as a man that I wasn't able to learn as a boy.

    As do I. I'm simply saying that On The road is very much a young man's book, is all, and I am no longer a young man.
    posted by jonmc at 6:08 PM on October 18, 2007


    I must admit that the guy who wrote the article seems like he'd be a miserable guy to drink with.
    posted by jonmc at 6:23 PM on October 18, 2007


    I'm simply saying that On The road is very much a young man's book, is all, and I am no longer a young man.

    Nor am I, nor am I. But although in a way I agree with you that On The Road is in some ways a young man's book, for me at least, I think it's a book that still, after the 8 or 10 times I've read it over the years (yeah, I know, but I've read literally dozens of books by Kerouac and many others that many times), has things to offer that I find rewarding.

    Kerouac wasn't much of a human being in many ways -- for me, at least since I got out of my teens, there is no element of hero-worship there -- but his work (along with that of many other 20th century authors, mostly American) has been pretty important to me.

    It's long been fashionable to some extent to sneer at, I don't know, unaffected sincerity, and I understand with some chagrin given how much love I have had over the years for the work of the Beats (and, say, Henry Miller (horrors!) and Hunter S, to name a few reprobate others in the tradition) that there has pretty much always been a tendency of 'fans' of that work to be sophomores and man-children. Kerouac, from what I understand, has been enjoying a bit of a revival in critical respect in recent decades, but the reputation of his work as the province of the puerile and post-pubescent remains.

    So be it, I guess. I was that once, too.
    posted by stavrosthewonderchicken at 6:24 PM on October 18, 2007


    I'm not trying to imply that Miller or Thompson were part of the Beat movement, of course, by the way: I just collocate them in my mind, because I discovered them about the same time, and they set my brain to ringing like a bell when I was a much much younger man.
    posted by stavrosthewonderchicken at 6:30 PM on October 18, 2007


    there has pretty much always been a tendency of 'fans' of that work to be sophomores and man-children. Kerouac, from what I understand, has been enjoying a bit of a revival in critical respect in recent decades, but the reputation of his work as the province of the puerile and post-pubescent remains.

    Yeah. These days, when I get into a Kerouackian frame of mind, it's usually because I had a shitty week at work or something (It's an effect akin to hearing 'Born To Run' in a traffic jam*). But at the same rime I can dig on humanity and people and the shit they do without having to pack up a car and drive off to Denver. You can have Kerouackian experiences just walking around the block if you approach it right.

    *fanboy tangent: to give Bruce his due, he addresses the dark side of his own wishes with 'Darkness On The Edge of Town' and 'The River,' far more deeply than Kerouac did. And I'll be the first to admit that I discovered Kerouac via rock and roll, like most readers my age
    posted by jonmc at 6:33 PM on October 18, 2007


    Well said, Stavros.

    I loved OTR when I was a young man, and then when I was in my late 20s, I decided that it was juvenile and sloppy and that I had grown out of it. Then I grew back into it. Then out of it again. Its relevance comes and goes in cycles in my life, like a favorite album. But I've stopped ever thinking that it's just merely a young man's book. We all need a shot of that young man every now and then, just like we all need a shot of what's missing from that book sometimes.
    posted by digaman at 6:48 PM on October 18, 2007


    Only one mention of John Clellan Holmes and his novel Go in this whole discussion.

    Y'all are slipping.
    posted by John of Michigan at 7:21 PM on October 18, 2007


    Only one mention of John Clellan Holmes and his novel Go in this whole discussion.

    Y'all are slipping.
    posted by John of Michigan at 7:22 PM on October 18, 2007


    Opps.

    Also, anyone criticizing Maggie Cassidy can meet me at the flagpole at three o'clock.
    posted by John of Michigan at 7:23 PM on October 18, 2007


    There is a track called "Kerouac" recorded in a Harlem bar by Dizzy Gillespie, Charlie Christian, Don Byas and others.

    digaman, this recording was done by a guy sitting in the audience at what was an after hours (and effectively underground) jam session at Minton's. It's essentially proto-Bop, fast tempos and based on common chord changes or the changes from popular swing tunes. The 'Kerouac' track may not have originally called that but there's no question who it was eventually named for.

    It's an interesting recording, particularly if you're interested in what jazz Kerouac and his friends were listening to when the events of OTR originally happened. The players all had day jobs with popular swing bands but once they were over, it was off to Minton's to play all night. Even today, you can sense the freedom and willingness to explore new ideas that Kerouac and others readily picked up on.
    posted by tommasz at 7:51 PM on October 18, 2007


    I guess I should have mentioned the recording's name. I've seen it called a number of things but "After Hours" is the version on Amazon.
    posted by tommasz at 7:55 PM on October 18, 2007


    So everyone is on the same page: narcissism and from the DSM.

    Well I figured sooner or later somebody would trot out that venerable tomb, the DSM. That's the problem with sloppily tossing around big fat words like 'narcissism.' But since the dawn of time people have been trying to pathologize the behavior of great artists and thinkers and it just always smells so very wrong. Psychology is already a stupid pseudo-study but this psychology-at-a-distance is especially worthless. So let's not. If you insist on pursuing such a diagnosis I certainly won't follow.

    What was significant about the beat aesthetic that hadn't already been undertaken by jazz (which the beat co-opted) or black writers of the time, or even writers of the Harlem Renaissance from a generation earlier? Beat is the dominant culture looking into itself, which is a fine thing I suppose, but it isn't truly the outside looking in, the way jazz really was.

    Truth be told I mostly agree with you. But this criticism can be taken too far. I have a close friend who insists that pretty much every notable 20th century American writer should have been born as a poor black woman. If they had been born as such then they would've been able to appreciate the reality of violence and their art would've been so much, much deeper for it. Instead we get a bunch of white guys "playing" at writing, as she puts it. Now there's something to this criticism I think but I trust you can also see how radical and dangerous it is. So it's one thing to criticize Kerouac for being overly sentimental and romantic, too inwards looking, perhaps even for refusing to seriously engage with the world and grow up -- after all, being on the road is ultimately just a way of running away from the world and Kerouac's knows this but does it anyways etc etc. But this criticism shouldn't be taken to the point where his work is completely dismissed as "artifice." People who do this, who obsess over authenticity and seriousness in art, are on their way to a very bad place. Personally, I remember feeling OTR was just boring the way television is boring: lots of stuff going on, stuff here, stuff there, people talking, coming and going, this and then that, etc etc. Very little actually happening.

    But it did have a strong sense of style and style is simply a lot more important than many people realize. Now the book lends itself to a kind of physical humor. A lot of stupid kids will read it and simply stop thinking. They are just "moved" by it and it's questionable what, if anything, is actually doing the moving. That's what great style does when it is left to itself. It seems all flourish and bright colors and clangy music. But, first, this doesn't diminishes the sacrifice that was necessary to bring such a thing into existence. And, second, consider that sometimes, for many people to stop thinking might actually be a good thing. There is a power to the book if it sets people in motion even if it's for all the "wrong" reasons. TLP's essay isn't entirely without merit but it comes across as schoolmarm finger wagging. It's like the kid who's just discovered Santa Claus isn't real so Christmas is now sucks. Really. Grow up. You're still getting presents.
    posted by nixerman at 8:27 PM on October 18, 2007 [1 favorite]


    I have to respond directly to nixerman because he brings up an important point, about which I feel pretty confident he is wrong.

    What he says is that my description of narcissism (create an artificial identity that you then fight tooth and nail to get others to believe) is wrong because "normal human beings do it all the time." That is so wrong. Or perhaps I'm misinterpreting your words, so I'll just clarify: if you consciously create an artificial identity-- if, while getting others to believe it, you have a sneaking suspicion you made it up-- that's not normal at all. I may puff up my chest, pretend to read philosophy, etc, to get the girl of my choice to be interested in me; but that's not narcissism because the goal there is to get the girl. Narcissism would be if the point was to get the girl to believe my story, period. Getting her is a secondary goal. Following from that, "the entire point of narcissism is that it yields nothing to others" is also very wrong. The point is that narcissism is specifically detrimental to others because it is a manipulation of them-- he is like a parasite-- feeding off their acceptance of his identity.

    That said, your next two paragraphs are, unfortunately, exactly the point of my Kerouac post: assuming you know what I wrote without actually reading what I wrote. I can completely sympathize with the position that you might not want to read my crap; but to critique that crap in an AP English essay without actually reading it is, well...

    Janeane Garafalo has a joke: "I went out to Hollywood and met all these actors... but they're all so self-absorbed, they're just waiting for your mouth to stop moving so they can talk about themselves....(pause)... I guess it would help if I listened, but they're just talking crap anyway..."
    posted by TheLastPsychiatrist at 8:34 PM on October 18, 2007 [1 favorite]


    Comparing On The Road and The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test is like comparing Sgt. Peppers to Oliver Stone's The Doors.
    posted by solipsophistocracy at 9:07 PM on October 18, 2007


    I suppose nearly all the better-known "beat" writers were severely flawed human beings in one way or another. But I still love 'em.

    I'm grateful to the more intelligent commentary here, which looked beyond superficial aspects of the work of Kerouac and others. I loved "On The Road," which I've read in English and Serbo-Croatian and (believe it or not) I'm actually reading now in its Romanian version ("Pe Drum.") It's not the best book by Kerouac, but it's still a fave, and in many ways it's the most evocative of a certain very American mentality. This was intriguing to me as a European girl before I came to America, and it's still compelling somehow. I come back to it, marvel at some of the passages and have a few laughs . . . it's like seeing an old friend.

    The Duluoz works are "better," and to me, something like "Visions Of Gerard" was haunting enough that I can remember long passages nearly verbatim. Those who've read Kerouac behind the obvious title or two will find someone who struggled horribly with issues of ego, identity and self. To sum him up as simply a "narcissist" is a terrible misreading of the man's work.

    It's a testament to all these works that they manage to cause such heated discussion after roughly half a century -- and this *still* despite the fact that popular culture has sucked up, absorbed and cast back so much of their impact, imagery, power and magic that what people seem mostly to focus on now is the stuff that never mattered much to me (nor, I imagine, to most fans) - irrelevancies such as "Kerouac as mama's boy" being just one example.
    posted by Dee Xtrovert at 9:32 PM on October 18, 2007


    Thanks for that info, tommasz.

    particularly if you're interested in what jazz Kerouac and his friends were listening to when the events of OTR originally happened

    Indeed.

    Speaking of bebop and the Beats, here's a rarely-seen photo of young Ginsberg and Thelonious Monk.

    TLP, as far as reading what you wrote goes, well, I did. You say:

    It seems impossible to me that you could take a trip around the country and literally notice nothing about your surroundings, but that's exactly what happens. I know "America" is supposed to figure prominently into the spirit of the book, but it could easily have been A Railpass Through Europe or Backpacking Through The Warsaw Pact and it would have made no difference, at all.

    You say "literally," "nothing," and "exactly" -- very absolute words. And yet, when I pick up my copy of OTR, I find it full of little hilarious and/or touching gems of description like this:

    [in Hollywood]
    "Terry and I ate in a cafeteria downtown that was decorated like a grotto, with metal tits spurting everywhere and great impersonal stone buttockses belonging to deities and soapy Neptune. People ate lugubrious meals around the waterfalls, their faces green with marine sorrow."

    [in St. Louis]
    "Old steamboats with their scrollwork more scrolled and withered by weathers sat in the mud inhabited by rats."

    [in Tracy, CA]
    "Tracy is a railroad town; brakemen eat surly meals in diners by the tracks. Trains howl away across the valley. The sun goes down long and red. All the magic names of the valley unrolled -- Manteca, Madera, all the rest. Soon it got dusk, a grapy dusk, a purple dusk over tangerine groves and long melon fields; the sun the color of pressed grapes, slashed with burgundy red, the fields the color of love and Spanish mysteries. I stuck my head out the window and took deep breaths of the fragrant air."

    ---

    On the Road is mostly given to descriptions of people, yet Kerouac still manages to slip in these little précis of places. You've talked a lot about people "not reading" the text, and yet when I read it, I don't find that Kerouac "literally noticed nothing about his surroundings."
    posted by digaman at 9:41 PM on October 18, 2007 [1 favorite]


    People ate lugubrious meals around the waterfalls, their faces green with marine sorrow.

    You know, it's little unremembered (by me) bits like this, unfashionable as they are now (I think), that remind me what a huge influence all that early Beat reading was on my own writing style, such as it is. I love that sentence.
    posted by stavrosthewonderchicken at 9:47 PM on October 18, 2007


    Indeed, Stavros. It's a wonderful sentence. It's both vividly painted and coyly self-conscious of its over-the-top-ness, and the phonemes -- say it aloud -- are exquisite.
    posted by digaman at 9:51 PM on October 18, 2007


    ...surly meals in diners by the tracks...howl away across the valley...magic names of the valley unrolled ...a grapy dusk...fields the color of love and Spanish mysteries...deep breaths of the fragrant air

    Reading those words now I felt a rush of what it was like to first read OTR in 1966, when I was 12. There was his embrace, as if he were having sex with the world while being intensely lonely, his adoration of the hobo life, in love-hate with wandering. His writing gave me permission to have mixed feelings and to be passionate about the beauty of the world, places and times, savor the wonder.

    There was that contrasted by his being cut off from loving relationships with others, which left me disturbed, a residue of what felt to me like his despair. It made sense his inability to connect played out in the sad lives of his only child, Jan, who wrote Baby Driver. It's as if Jack's being haunted by Neal also haunted her life. His wife wrote Nobody's Wife: The Smart Aleck and the King of Beats. "She was unprepared, however, for Kerouac's conventional ideas about a wife's place, whether in public or in bed." Telling that Joyce, who was with Jack just as he rocketed into the limelight, named her book Minor Characters: A Beat Memoir.
    posted by nickyskye at 10:40 PM on October 18, 2007


    Exactly, empath. Exactly.
    posted by Football Bat at 11:38 PM on October 18, 2007


    Janeane Garafalo has a joke: "I went out to Hollywood and met all these actors... but they're all so self-absorbed, they're just waiting for your mouth to stop moving so they can talk about themselves....(pause)... I guess it would help if I listened, but they're just talking crap anyway..."

    In a script, ...(pause)... is often written as (beat)

    Pretty freaking Twilight Zone if you ask me
    posted by Sparx at 3:05 AM on October 19, 2007


    Nice post, Nicky.
    posted by digaman at 7:53 AM on October 19, 2007


    It's jason_planet's stimulating post and a thread that became a wonderful and interesting dialogue with your knowledge and experience.

    But if you're saying you liked my last comment, thank you :)
    posted by nickyskye at 10:07 AM on October 19, 2007


    Yes, I was.
    posted by digaman at 10:11 AM on October 19, 2007


    i'd just like to add, a la narcissism, that two of my blog posts have made it to Metafilter, and both generated more comments than any other post that week (Halloween=203 and this one.) I'll take at least partial credit for that...

    It seems fitting to close here; let me thus Godwinize the thread.

    "Hitler!"

    Good night, everyone.
    posted by TheLastPsychiatrist at 1:43 PM on October 19, 2007


    Christ, what an asshole.
    posted by solipsophistocracy at 3:08 PM on October 19, 2007


    "Godwin's law (also known as Godwin's Rule of Nazi Analogies)[1] is an adage formulated by Mike Godwin in 1990. The law states:[2]

    As an online discussion grows longer, the probability of a comparison involving Nazis or Hitler approaches one.

    Godwin's law is often cited in online discussions as a caution against the use of inflammatory rhetoric or exaggerated comparisons."

    Interesting. This thread, however, became increasingly civil as it went along, richer, more friendly, adult and contemplative. Not at all suffering from Godwin's law.
    posted by nickyskye at 4:44 PM on October 19, 2007


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