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Saturday, January 26, 2013

The Novels Jack Kerouac Would Write Had He Received Effective Therapy

Movie star good looks, "amazingly blue eyes," arrested for decay. 
We could graph Kerouac's decline using a chemical diagram

"What Happened to Jack Kerouac" is a rerelease of a 1986 documentary with added material. Watched it last night. Was confounded.

Beat Generation novelist Jack Kerouac had everything. Often people say that such and such a person has "movie star good looks." You meet that person and realize that friends exaggerated. Jack Kerouac, with his jet black hair, "amazingly blue" eyes, and pouty face, was better looking than many movie stars. Clips of his appearance on Steve Allen's TV show reveal that in his prime, Kerouac carried himself with reserve and mystery and was as handsome and charismatic in motion as in a still photo.

Kerouac was lucky enough to be at the heart of one of the twentieth century's signature literary and social movements: The Beat Generation. He palled around with poets Allen Ginsberg, Gregory Corso and Gary Snyder, and novelists William Burroughs and John Clellon Holmes, impresario Lawrence Ferlinghetti and criminal raconteurs Neal Cassady and Herbert Huncke. He could not step without tripping over genius. Women adored him.

Jack Kerouac drank himself to death at age 47. Before he died, he sat around his suburban house with his mother, getting drunk and insulting her with the worst gutter language. He baited his friend and supporter, Allen Ginsberg, saying, in front of Jewish Ginsberg, that "Hitler should have gotten them all." He insulted Ginsberg during his 1968 TV appearance on the William F. Buckley TV show "Firing Line." Ginsberg, loyal friend, was in the audience.

Kerouac was no kinder to himself. "I was arrested two weeks ago. And the arresting policeman said, 'I'm arresting you for decay.'"

What the hell happened? What did Kerouac squander the physical beauty God gave him and the success his talent earned him? Why did he betray his friends, and himself?

People like this, who have everything and throw it away with both hands, make me crazy. I have so little and I try to cultivate and cherish, not destroy, my few gifts.

I asked this question on facebook and friend Joe Palinsky wrote, "he was brought up in a strict religious home, which he was never able to fully reconcile with the Buddhist teachings he later loved, then shunned, and the friends who lived in the worlds of depravity. He tried to balance all of this out, but eventually just couldn't, as seen in his work "Big Sur" which is definitely one of his most depressing books. Second, his mother was kind of nuts. He loved her and trusted her thoughts and opinions more than he should, and it made him escape into alcohol."

What Joe wrote makes sense. A romantic, titanic, artistic, Freudian, spiritual struggle.

I'm going to disagree. I'm going to venture a more right-wing answer, one grounded in chemistry.

I think Jack Kerouac had psychological problems, and he used drugs like alcohol, cigarettes, coffee, marijuana and Benzedrine to self-medicate. I think that that self-medication worked for a while, but, as the old saying goes, "First the man takes a drink, then the drink takes a drink, then the drink takes the man." I don't think that this drug use was romantic. I don't think that this was artistic. I don't think it was Freudian or religious. I think that this was pharmaceutical. I think you could reduce Kerouac's flowering and decay to a chemical diagram.

Kerouac was shy. You can see it in his Steve Allen and William F Buckley appearances. He finds it hard to make eye contact. It can't have been easy to be the most talked about writer in America. He relied on drugs to function. Drugs to get up to write, to get down, to alleviate his anxiety at parties.

A man met Kerouac at a party:

"For the entire evening, Kerouac sat alone in the living room, drinking, smoking dope, and resolutely ignoring all these kids who saw him as 'the man who launched the hippie world, the daddy of the swinging psychedelic generation,' to steal a phrase from the cover of my old Signet paperback of On the Road…Kerouac smelled terrible: boozy, tinged with sweat and urine." source

***

My senior year of college I was beaten and sexually assaulted in my natal home by a family member. I threw on a shirt and sneakers and ran out into the night wearing just that shirt, jeans, sneakers, no socks. There was change in the jeans pocket. I phoned a kind girl at school, Nancy Gallo. She allowed me to sleep on her floor for a couple of months.

I continued as a student, and earned straight A's that and the subsequent semester, my last. I worked as a nurse's aide, but that was not enough to cover all expenses.

My older brother Mike got married that year; I was not invited to the wedding and he did not ask why I had suddenly disappeared. I asked my sister for help. She told me to go to hell. I asked a priest on campus, Father Lou Scurti, for help. He gave me a paper bag with boxes of uncooked spaghetti in it. I phoned a shelter for battered women. The very self-righteous woman on the other end of the line said I didn't sound traumatized enough to receive their services. I asked Virginia Mollenkot, one of my professors for help. She said something about life being challenging and ended the conversation.

Strangely, I remember that year as being one of warmth and support. It came from unconventional people I met on the way.

A man named John Ellis, who called himself Orpheus, taught me how to find edible food leftover in restaurants and dumpsters. He also used to steal food for me. Charles, a very beautiful young man with long brown hair, gave me books. Charles gave me Jack Kerouac's "On the Road."

That year was a year of intense reading. I read Ram Dass' "Be Here Now." Blew my mind. I've never looked at time the same way. Annie Dillard's "Pilgrim at Tinker Creek" hit me like a mind-altering drug in its intense, exuberant plunge into the mystery of life. I say "I'm never taken acid, but I have read "Pilgrim at Tinker Creek." "On the Road" told me to live for the moment and celebrate my unconventional lifestyle, because conventional life was "square." "On the Road" told me to play the grasshopper, not the ant. I did hitchhike cross country.

***

I recently received a cancer diagnosis, which has caused me to look back at my life and assess it with a jaundiced eye. I see that assault, my escape from it, the response of teachers, priest, and family members, and the lifepaths I adopted, as the year everything went horribly wrong. I so wish I had been rescued that year. A rescue then would have meant so much for my whole life.

What kind of rescue did I need? I look back and wish I hadn't read the books I read, including "On the Road." What do I wish I had read?

I really needed to hear things that we've been taught to discount in America.

It's a right wing / left wing thing. It's an Apollo v. Dionysius thing. It's a sun v moon thing. It's a discipline v. self-control thing.

I wish someone, some older person, some mentor, had used words like "wrong" and "bad," had voiced judgment and condemnation.

See, we're not supposed to do that in our contemporary left-wing society. I wish someone had.

I wish someone had said, "What happened to you was bad and wrong. The world is a dog-eat-dog place. You have been screwed. You need to rise up and fight and gain a position that has been denied you. You can do that through hard work and self-discipline."

I wish I had had a right-wing mentor who would school me in the Hobbesian struggle that is life. Who would teach me to play the ant, not the grasshopper, in spite of the evil and hypocrisy I'd seen in the "square" world. I would eventually find that right-wing tutor, but it wouldn't be for many years, yet.

One of these days I want to write a blog post, "Top Ten Reasons I Am No Longer a Leftist." I want to talk about why I look back at that year I spent reading Jack Kerouac, and wish I had spent that year reading Ayn Rand. And how I've spent years trying not to die like Jack Kerouac.

***

Kerouac was undeniably talented. My first read of "On the Road" felt like I'd entered a doorway into a newer, better world. Now the book doesn't work for me.

I want Kerouac to use his talent to give me things he never gives, the kind of depth, insight, risk and investment that come, not from his "first thought best thought / disembodied poetics" writing style, but from the writing style of a more settled, grounded, self-disciplined, boring person. I want to read the writing of a square.

I wish someone had intervened in my life after that assault so many years ago.

What if someone had intervened in Kerouac's life? Gotten him counseling for his demons? What would he write then?

A whole new genre of writing suggests itself: the novels Jack Kerouac would write had he ever received effective therapy.

6 comments:

  1. Might going from Kerouac to Ayn Rand be to leap from the frying pan into the fire?

    I haven't read Kerouac, but i have read Ayn Rand (The Fountainhead - if that is the one about the architect), and the book about her and her disciples by Barbara Barton(?). It was a long time ago and I'm not too sure of names and titles here.

    The expression "blind guides" comes to mind in both cases, to be honest.

    I have found the Hebrew Psalmist's words to be true, when he wrote of God's inspired word:
    "Your word is a lamp to my foot
    And a light to my roadway".

    Its a light shining in a very dark place. It lights up the narrow road that leads to life, and to "the glorious freedom of the children of God".

    But what do you feel you would have done differently had you been guided by the principles of Ayn Rand, for example? I can see so many things I would have done differently if I had only known what the Bible actually says from the start.

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  2. Hi, Sue. The Ayn Rand comment was not meant literally. I used her name only as a direct contrast.

    I read a review of a book about competition this morning. It sounded like a serious book. I could have named that book, but its author is not as famous as Rand.

    Of course I was familiar with the bible, and the Bible didn't help much in those days. It still hasn't, when it comes to these issues.

    Please don't post a Jehovah's Witness answer. Thanks.

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  3. Hi Di.
    We're the net sum of fate, nature, and personal experiences. Kerouac and the others were geniuses in spite of the drugs and alcohol. The bad and good make us who we are. Jack may have been manic, doomed by chemicals and his own nightmares but in the end it's what we make of our lives that matters.
    He may not have wanted to or was unable to but he ( you and I ) are both the ant and the grasshopper.
    You're college experience was not the beginning of the hurt. It started early in life and you despite the obstacles you fought and you won. I know most days it doesn't feel like it but you won.
    If you had a nickel for every time someone told you you were trash you could buy America a round of drinks. Life/fate stacked the odds against a lot of the time but what's important is how we react under the circumstances life deals us.
    Look at Pollack or Hunter Thompson or Hemingway. Same stories. Same disappointment. The need to create kept them going but how they acted lead them to their ends.
    Replay that with people like Dickens or Stephen King. Life handed them lemons too. Both found ways of overcoming their demons.
    You do too.
    You write and live and you help hold up a light to others and make people think and kind and good.
    In the end that's what is important.

    I too read "On The Road"... and as a Paterson kid it meant a lot that the trip starts in Paterson over by Chauncey Street not too far from where I grew up.

    My story is no secret, but as a damaged kid living in Paterson I never thought I'd see anything or be anything. Hell is a very personal place. I could have been nothing, done nothing.
    I read On the Road and saw past the grim reality.

    We got skills, we do some good in the world and we make the best of what the day offers us.

    Kerouac abused his friend with his opportunity.
    You teach kids who might not see above the grim future, might never hit the road, have a life, be happy. You write and hold up the important questions so people will think about more than opportunities to feel good or dull the pain rather than figure out how to change things.

    I love Jack's writing ( Hemingway, Thompson too - we're kindred spirits ) but I don't know if I'd compare myself to them. Sometimes a friend just needs to remind us of our own worth.

    Heisenberg... I mean Otto

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    Replies
    1. Otto, thanks for sharing your thoughts.

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  4. Kerouac was a working class origin guy trying to do something usually reserved for elites, and with not too much help from anyone, and ended up, as I recall, going home to where he was born, finding no really friendly place in that world he tried to find a place in. Noah's doves.

    Nemo

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  5. Kerouac got his sense of entitlement to say outrageous and hateful words about Jews from his very Catholic mama.

    Goes to show - education is almost all that matters (ie how you raise your son/ daughter.

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