A wise man once said, "When I come to Paris in March and get drunk and pass out you may all stomp me to death in the gutters of St. Danis and I will rise going Hm he h eee hee hee he ha ha and be Quasimodo." This man was the late and great Jean-Louis Kérouac, better known as Jack Kerouac. Yes, the same Jack Kerouac that hitchhiked across the country dozens of times and wrote a novel in three days straight while purportedly hopped up on Benzedrine. The same man that was married three times by the time he was 47, at which age he died of an internal hemorrhage caused by a lifetime of excessive drinking. This is the man who has inspired my literary career, who changed my life with endless strings of incomprehensible complete-sense nonsense. A photo of him cradling a kitten holds a four-by-six-inch space on my bedroom wall, and eight (and counting) volumes of his work line my bookshelf at home, making my personal collection 8.25 percent Kerouac, 91.75 percent everything else (I calculated that. The percentage is exact).
The first and inexplicably important thing to note is that Jack is not so much an author as he is a lyrical musician of sorts. His writing is not meant to be read for plot, nor his sentences dissected. His works are like jazz compositions -- the reader has to feel them out, ride the rhythm of his syntax and effortlessly absorb the semantics of his word choices. The most common misconception I've found to be believed among the anti-Jack cohort echoes what Truman Capote said about On the Road: "That's not writing, it's typing." Fear not, however; I have reason to believe that the cause of this fault lies not (entirely) in your court, AJCs (Anti-Jack Cohort). I think the discrepancy is rooted in the fact that we are taught, and subsequently communicate through, the Language of Thought. We use dictionaries and spellcheck and we proofread and edit, and before we speak we must be certain that we are right. We rely on facts and data, and we can affirm and disprove each other's statements using facts and data. This is a fair and valid method of communication. The problem is, Jack speaks the Language of Feeling. Dictionaries and spellcheck and facts are completely useless weapons against the cavalry of ostensible absurdity that is Jack's writing.
The beautiful thing, though, is that it's not nonsense, it only seems that way to us, speakers of the Language of Thought, for we are hindered by the rules and restrictions of our dialect, and the society in which our dialect prevails. In Tristessa, Jack wrote: "I realize all the uncountable manifestations the thinking-mind invents to place wall of horror before its pure perfect realization that there is no wall and no horror just Transcendental Empty Kissable Milk Light of Everlasting Eternity's true and perfectly empty nature." Who would have thought to say Transcendental Empty Kissable Milk Light of Everlasting Eternity? I don't think anyone could have. But if we understand what he's saying, we feel it. We know exactly what this looks like. It's synesthetic; if I focus, I can experience the milky white light, and it's... transcendental... and... empty. Try to explain it in a more conventional way and the impact can never be as great, nor as deep.
There's something inherently more tactile, visual and emotional about the way Jack writes. It's transportive, almost as though I am Jack and I am the Milk Light and I am the realization, simultaneously. When he said, "Then she was running down the street with her $2, going to the store long before it opened, going for coffee in the cafeteria, sitting at the table alone, digging the world at last, the gloomy hats, the glistening sidewalk, the signs announcing baked flounder" in The Subterraneans, I, too, am digging the world at last. There's a rush of relief that floods my body when I register what it's like to sit at a table after coming in from the rain, being chilly but not shivering, just cold enough that my jacket is comforting but not overwhelming; sitting alone, looking around, wide-eyed, absorbing, being aware of how dismal everything is and seeing the unfettered grace of being conscious enough to comprehend the gloom.
I'm often told that Jack's work is something that most people are into as teenagers, but grow out of soon after teenagerdom ends. After Kerouac we pick up Nietzsche and Tolstoy and Dante and we never look back. That's just how it goes. Jack is like our training wheels -- we learn from him how not to be, so that when we grow up we can look down on others in disdain when they romanticize the Beat Generation, scorning their sad preoccupation with immaturity, recklessness and youth. How unfortunate it is that they couldn't move past high school. To understand the misconception here, it is critical to note the stark contrast between myself and Jack. I am a vegan straightedge homebody, if I were to categorize myself. My idea of 'experimenting' is trying the oil cleansing method on my face; my average Friday or Saturday night consists of me reading on my couch, or maybe, if I'm feeling up to it, I'll go to a yoga class.
Undoubtedly, I am the inverse of everything that he is. And yet, I love him. Why? How? Wherefore? Because, as I said, the plot lines of his novels don't mean much. He may have climbed Matternhorn Peak with Gary Snyder, but the point of him writing The Dharma Bums wasn't to tell people that they should really go out and climb Matterhorn, too. It's the way he tells his ridiculous stories that matters. How he writes "Leave me alone I am so delicate" and I can't help but feel like I need to hug a crumbling flower. But it's also because he says things like, "But the bushes and the rocks weren't real and the beauty of things must be that they end." He doesn't go off an existential tirade and renounce the world in a flourish of artfully worded cynicism.
Jack reminds me gently that we're floating in the middle of nowhere and we won't figure out where we are until we touch down at home base once more, but it's a-OK because there's a beauty to the cycle of life that we are a part of, and it's best if we try to accept as much of reality as we can confirm is real, instead of digging our heels into the ground, fighting death to the last second. In other words, pain is not suffering; it is the resistance to suffering that is painful. When Jack began to vomit up blood on October 20, 1969 all he said to his wife was, "Stella, I'm bleeding." He had to be persuaded to go to the hospital. He had been killing himself for years, and he knew it. But he didn't fight it. I'm sure he and his friends and family wished he had, but that wasn't the way things played out. He contributed to this world all that he did, and then he left. No heel-digging, no suffering.
It's time that the myth is debunked that Jack's writing was about THROW EVERYTHING OUT THE WINDOW GRAB A CARDBOARD SUITCASE AND HITCHHIKE TO FRANCE ON BENZEDRINE, because (a) that is completely inaccessible to about 99 percent of the population, and (b) that actually sounds like a terrible experience. I don't love him because him and I have any particular hobbies in common; I actually doubt we would have been friends had we known one another. I love him because there is so much urgency in his writing, so much honesty, so much unfiltered this-is-what-I'm-thinking-and-thus-who-I-am-take-it-or-leave-it. And that's how he changed my life. He taught me that there's simply NO TIME to be vacillating and tiptoeing around going "hmm haww should I do/say/think it hmmmm I dunno!!!" and he knew that, and that's what part of it's about. And if I hadn't learned that, I'd be in a paralyzed ball in the corner of a white room twitching and crying. He taught me to free myself, to say "F*** it, and f*** you" to everything that tries to hold me back from realizing my true self, from reaching as high and/or as far as I want.
I have been called out for writing LIFE, in the same vein as REALITY, both of which supposedly indicate that Jack insists that we must, as my caller-outer said, cast off the veil of habit and (insert cardboard-box-benzedrine-France line here). An understandable misconception, yes, but a misconception nonetheless. I wrote LIFE because once you've tapped into it, once you really get what Jack and his work are about, you can't help it. You really mean it. You feel like you have to make sure everyone knows that you don't just mean "life," as in "a bug's life" or "life is good," or something mundane like that, but you mean the entire, urgent, honest, pure, everythingness of existence, that life. And in your urgency to make sure people know which life you're talking about -- you feel that it is your obligation, as a human bean, to say exactly what you mean or else you would feel as though you were lying -- you capitalize everything, hoping that our language's limited characters can somehow convey the difference.
"You see how honest-dishonest I am? You see how good-bad the world? You see how we must shelter ourselves from the cold-warmth?" - letter to Allen Ginsberg, December 16, 1948
I won't hate you if you give Jack's work a second (or first, or third, or twentieth) try and genuinely don't...gulp...like it. I promise. At least you made an effort. But if you refuse to read any of his writing and continue to dismiss him as an invalid literary figure, I will give you a dirty look. Perhaps even a succession of angry glares. Lacking knowledge is not a sin in and of itself, it's when we have knowledge that we choose to ignore that it becomes an issue. So give him another chance. Who knows, you might just find a soul mate.
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