Remembering the Dangers of Being on the Road
By Dale Smith, Fri., Aug. 3, 2001
San Francisco Beat: Talking With the Poets
edited by David Meltzer
City Lights Books, 370 pp., $19.95 (paper)
Book of Dreams
by Jack Kerouac; introduction by Robert Creeley
City Lights Books, 356 pp., $17.95 (paper)
The Place of Dead Roads
by William S. Burroughs
Holt, 306 pp., $13 (paper)
Cities of the Red Night
by William S. Burroughs
PicadorUSA, 332 pp., $14 (paper)Jack Kerouac Is Pregnant: Stories
by Aurelie Sheehan
Dalkey Archive Press, 190 pp., $11.95 (paper)
Somehow, somewhere in the last decade or so, the liberating, bohemian vernacular of the Beats transformed itself into a digestive for popular consumption. Images of Jack Kerouac and Allen Ginsberg hailed passersby from urban billboards promoting khaki pants. In 1994, William S. Burroughs appeared in Nike ads hinged to a sagey epigram: "The purpose of technology is not to confuse the brain but to serve the body." In May, Colts owner James Irsay paid more than $2 million for the 120-foot scroll of paper Kerouac used to write the Beat Ür text, On the Road. That novel, with Burroughs' Naked Lunch and Ginsberg's long poem, "Howl," remains the defining prose expression for the spontaneous, street-smart, and culturally alienated group of artists, hustlers, addicts, and freakniks who survived at the fringe of postwar New York City. Sharing a literary ground with Walt Whitman's output, those books reached beyond socially acceptable limits of writing to present a broad and risky engagement with personal experience. (Both "Howl" and Naked Lunch were tried for obscenity by U.S. courts, thereby publicly testing the verbal limits of that experience.) Preoccupied with social liberation, ecstatic sexuality, and personal salvation, they expressed dread and paranoia of government, the military, and other social tyrannies that controlled McCarthy-era America. This grassroots literary movement hustled the streets instead of university halls at a time when the spoils of war bloated the self-image of a nation. Oddly, in time, these outsiders' words would come to embody the period and ultimately help spark the revolutions to come in the Sixties. But nothing since has surpassed the Beats' primal image of the road. The movement of bodies in space, "to put it country simple" (as Burroughs liked to say), is what Beat writing boils down to.
Despite its high regard today as cultural capital and the appropriation of its hip style and fashion by younger generations of techno geeks, rewards to individual artists of the Beat generation have been slow coming. When I spoke with her recently, legendary poet Diane di Prima said, "If I'm a famous Beat poet, why can't I pay my rent?" Few if any of the Beat writers received secure academic posts, a reward expected by many writers today. Despite the masterful adaptation by David Cronenberg of Naked Lunch for the screen, there have been few attempts to translate Beat works into visual expressions. What sold was an attitude, a pose of liberation, while the personal visions and dangers of the road permanently negated monetary success on the cultural market.
"The reclamation and reinvention for the Beats and Beat literature in the nineties is an international phenomena that at once recognizes the dissident spirit of the Beats and removes it from historical complexity, makes it safe, and turns it into projects and artifacts," writes San Francisco poet David Meltzer. "The more removed from history's discomfort, the easier it is to imagine and consume history without taking on its weight."
Recent publications, or re-publications, complicate in some ways the reigning dogmas of Beat mythology. Edited by Meltzer, San Francisco Beat: Talking With the Poets gathers 17 interviews ranging in time nearly 30 years. The discussions focus on many of Meltzer's peers, including Diane di Prima, Gary Snyder, Joanne Kyger, and Philip Whalen. There also are lesser-known names of the Beat canon, like Jack Hirschman, Lew Welch, and Jack Micheline, significant contributors to a poetics of fierce engagement executed with humor and vernacular sensitivity.
"I have no idea about the Beat movement," di Prima says in one response. "To this day, I find it very difficult, as I'm sure you do, or anyone does, that people assume that whatever we were doing then we are doing now." Comparing Fifties economic conditions to the present, she acknowledges, "It was OK for me. Look at how awful it is now for everybody. I mean, it is fucking difficult. Drugs have been given a bad name. Traveling freely on the road would be a form of insanity. Money is so tight, nobody works twenty hours a month and studies their art. ... There was some kind of wild permission that we took. ... Real life, as we lived it, is fading, so there's this terrific Beat fantasy."
These interviews present an oral history of the creative Renaissance that exploded in the Fifties and Sixties. "There's not a real center of poetry anymore," poet Joanne Kyger declares. "I think of the readings of the late sixties, where we had 500 to 1,000 people at a reading. Poetry was the news, the cultural news, and I don't think we've had this kind of energy, these voices for a while." As a document of cultural history, San Francisco Beat should help place the Beats in perspective of the greater context of midcentury cultural history. It also counters in some ways the calcifying effect Beat mythology has played on popular consciousness.
Jack Kerouac's expansive genius for language produced some provocative formal experiments. Book of Dreams, one of the more important examples, has been reissued recently with 200 additional dreams that weren't included in the first edition. In his introduction, Bollingen Prize-winning poet Robert Creeley grounds the intent of Kerouac's book for readers more familiar with traditional prose models of writing. "The 'Jack' I found in this book was not a consistent or necessarily integrated presence," he writes. "He was of necessity the multiple, the many in one, the all that being one is. ... He loved the muffling, displacing edge between consciousness, as it's called, and the dream-filled sleep one leaves to come back to it."
Kerouac reveals a sublunary text of psychic vision, twilight confidentiality, and automatic transcription of images and conversation. "The reader should know that this is just a collection of dreams that I scribbled after I woke up from my sleep," he writes in the book's foreword. "They were all written spontaneously, nonstop, just like dreams happen, sometimes written before I was even awake."
Composed of discrete paragraphs, unconventional punctuation, with sentence fragments sustained by dashes, the dream writing here at first seems unfocused, haphazard, and daunting. But a few pages into the flow of these rhythmic, musical passages and the sustained narrative of nocturnal transmissions reveals energy of extraordinary concentration. He gathers these images of the psyche with humble curiosity, presenting them as the found components of his unconscious. Sometimes strange, funny or mundane, at others difficult, appalling or revealing, the dream narratives here are sustained by frank observations and unlimited internal resources of self-perception:
Earlier my father was back among the living -- very pale -- but sure of his own health -- and had just got a new job in New York -- but I know he's going to die -- especially from his face -- He's been down to the Union -- Meanwhile I'd been high on a great building overlooking infinitesimal harbors, unafraid -- The history of the Kerouacs in huge spectral dream New York.
Most amazing in the clarity of this writing is his capacity for revealing that reservoir of images psychologist Carl Jung identified as the collective unconscious. "Our early childhood years are not years at all," Kerouac writes, "but a sweet outpouring of eyes." He establishes meaning in these pages through a stacking of imagery, finding the moral value of waking life in the darker recesses of his dreams. Almost as if reminding us of a forgotten platitude, he writes, "It is only when dreams lose their importance that the dirty business of evil begins." Here, in "the sweet small lake of the mind," dream narrative swerves into consciousness, breaking out against "one corner of vast America."
With equal intensity of vivid visualization, two re-publications of William S. Burroughs' midcareer masterpieces afflict, disrupt, and suspend conventional senses of narrative. The Place of Dead Roads and Cities of the Red Night share themes of global intrigue, sexual convulsion, drug addiction, violence, and ritual murder. If you're familiar with Naked Lunch, consider these novels an extension of similarly far-out and autobiographical themes.
The Place of Dead Roads opens with an old-time shoot-out. With deadpan humor and an immaculate eye for detail, Burroughs stuffs the Western genre with gangsters, space monsters, and addicts. In his perversion of the Old West, we see it fresh, violent, and raw. Imagine a movie starring John Wayne, beaten, sodomized, his guts blown out through the solar plexus. That's the territory Burroughs enters, extending a theme of North American expansion, debasement, and violence. From ancient Egyptian mythology to an accurate knowledge of weaponry, Burroughs borrows from multiple traditions to deepen his Western. Kim Carsons stars as the queer outlaw, and with his extended gang of "Johnsons" he seeks to establish safe havens for homosexuals, dope fiends, and gangsters. But Burroughs addresses the psychic content of the unconscious rather than appealing to the social conditions he finds stale and confining. In the opening scene, after Kim "shoots a hole in the moon," a sudden gathering of "father figures rush on stage":
"STOP, MY SON!"
"No son of yours, you worthless old farts."
Kim lifts his gun.
"YOU'RE DESTROYING THE UNIVERSE!"
While Burroughs idealizes loners and the values of scrounging in an uncertain wilderness, he writes with surprising moral ardency. He's a kind of 20th-century Charles Dickens, but in reverse, assaulting stale moral assumptions to excavate an ethics of active human significance. His insights are gained through the moral resources of his characters, pitted as they are against abusive and abstract social conditions. Good and evil are inverted. The good a society is conditioned to do becomes an administered evil so great only an opposite condition nurtured within the individual can make it right. "Later," Burroughs says of his hero Kim Carsons, "when he becomes an important player, he will learn that people are not bribed to shut up about what they know. They are bribed not to find out. And if you are as intelligent as Kim, it's hard not to find things out. Now, American boys are told they should think. But just wait until your thinking is basically different from the thinking of a boss or a teacher. ... You will find out that you aren't supposed to think."
Kim Carsons' Gnostic pursuit of good and evil leads him across the globe and into outer space (a favorite haunt for many of Burroughs' characters). The novel ends where it began, with a gunfight, and Kim's death, a kind of portal to Cities of the Red Night.
Dedicated "to the Lord of Abominations, Humwawa, whose face is a mass of entrails," Cities of the Red Night is introduced with ritual magic to express a toxic imagination. With deep understanding of Aztec demonology and ritual practices, he issues a cautionary note to readers who would embark on his vile quest into extraordinary psychic states: "NOTHING IS TRUE. EVERYTHING IS PERMITTED."
Written before news of the AIDS epidemic had become widely known, Burroughs writes with prophetic intuition of a sexually transmitted virus. In what is partly a detective story, partly sci-fi, characters debate "the wisdom of introducing Virus B-23 into contemporary America and Europe. Even though it might quiet the uh silent majority, who are admittedly becoming uh awkward, we must consider the biologic consequences." Of course, for Burroughs, this is also a human virus. "The whole quality of human consciousness, as expressed in male and female, is basically a virus mechanism."
The imaginary cities of the red night (Tamaghis, Ba'dan, Yass-Waddah, Waghdas, Naufana, and Ghadis) host the psychic and physical events of Burroughs' narrative. Boys march through jungles, they "frisk by, singing." Others "in codpieces and leather jerkins carrying musical instruments from the Middle Ages invade American Express." The anatomically expressive language offers vivid images of glorious depravities. Strangulation, mutation, and masturbation occupy many of the narrative sequences as the battle for the psychic manipulation of these cities builds with dramatic tension.
"All my books are all one book," Burroughs said in a rare 1974 interview. Both Cities of the Red Night and The Place of Dead Roads share extraordinary themes of psychic depth and explosive narrative accumulation. They also are picaresque tales in a narrative tradition that dates to antiquity. But Burroughs expands the geography to include inner, and outer, space. His ritual quests through language, sex, and graphic violence expose the humane condition of his heart. He is a visionary romantic, despite the calculated coldness of his writing.
Unlike Burroughs' assault on social values, Aurelie Sheehan's recently reprinted (and carefully titled) collection, Jack Kerouac Is Pregnant, gathers 15 stories that focus primarily on relationships of young women to contemporary urban environments. They address youth, family, love affairs, pregnancy, and relations between the sexes. The title story has little to do with Jack Kerouac. Instead, it's about a young woman coming to terms with her pregnancy and the increased awareness of her confining situation. Subtitles to the story ironically spell out a kind of instruction manual of self-help: "How to Be a Passenger on a Motorcycle," "How to Be a Future Wife," and "How Not to Be a Pansy."
The book's self-conscious prose, however, with calculated narrative disruptions of anxious significance, couldn't be further from the concerns of Kerouac or Burroughs. Not that this book should be compared to those others, either for criticism or comradeship, but its title begs some consideration in relation to the Beat oeuvre it invokes. Instead of spontaneity, vernacular accuracy, and narrative quests, Sheehan's prose moves from repressed circumstances to self-conscious liberation. It functions on a different scale, too, turning inward and reflective rather than extroverted with robust masculine attentions. Hers is a woman's perspective, of course, and formally resists Beat prose models. As a critical gesture in that regard, her prose does its job.
"Ignore the baby mouse your cat brought into the bedroom," one character admonishes herself. "Read the advertisement for the perfume you are going to wear. Discuss it with your mother. Wear the dress you found on the side of the road during a light summer shower. Order something with herbs. Smile. Order a drink that reminds you of the lover. Look at your date's lips while he is speaking: wonder."
Sheehan, who teaches writing at the University of Arizona, has written a provocative first book, wielding her knowledge with a careful deployment of craft. Her formal innovations are intrinsic to each story, and the book's title suggests explorations of considerable depth. She uses the cultural capital centered on Kerouac's name, however, to extend her own concerns, anchored meanwhile to a literary movement of some magnitude. This is not entirely her fault. There's a large body of contemporary literature that engages social issues of identity and gender by recycling and re-evaluating previous literary or historical models. While it's necessary to critique that cultural inheritance, it's important, too, to seek and retain what's useful in it. For the Beats, emotional knowledge extended from perceptive acts of great clarity and sincerity, not a sublimated, self-conscious prose style.