Saturday, September 25, 2010

On the Road with The Fountainhead

I am reading both On the Road, by Jack Kerouac and The Fountainhead by Ayn Rand. Just cuz. I’ve tasted both before.

At this point, it is hard to see the news in OTR. It is there, but the legends, the promotions, the bullshit, and the votive actualities of the real world participants of the events described all overwhelm the tender novel. Still, it reads with freshness, even as it sags into the romantic hokum that felled the Beats. Yes, I am saying the Beats were felled. Self-inflicted felling, let us say, but felling nonetheless.

The adventures are both exultant and silly. I see the effect of such rangers as Thomas Wolfe and John Dos Passos in Kerouac’s gritty spree. I also see Kerouac transcending that oblivion of novelistic finality. A singular chemical reaction occurs amidst the stories and characters that he recounts and invents.

One can bring up Proust, of course. Kerouac lived it loud whereas Proust mediated events across half his life. Truman Capote—remember him?—wrote his own Proustian exercise, Answered Prayers. Highly capable horseshit. It is instructive to consider these three novelistical assertions.

Proust’s work is not just contemplation but a vivification of his discernment. The exercise of embedding moments into his understanding provided his life. His writing dazzled into the opportunity of reflection.

Capote, alas, charged gossip with importance. He must’ve thought that the glow he perceived around Babe Pauley and Lee Radziwill was common knowledge. Madame Vendurin interests us not because she was a superb upper class twit, but because Proust efforted to look real hard. Capote merely flicked a gesture at these mavens, as if that were enough. I highly recommend Answered Prayers for its fervent art for not art’s sake stance. Really.

Kerouac received Cassady, and to a lesser extent all the others of his crowd. He is participant but what jolts us is how Cassady and the others pull him along. I must say that not one name in Kerouac’s work sounds plausible. The cipher is obviously forced.

The Fountainhead fits in with all this, perhaps surprisingly. Heroic Howard Roark is an overdrawn masterpiece. His egoism reigns mightily. At the beginning of the novel, he has just been kicked out of college. In his architectural studies, he refuses to give in to any impulse that is not of a dedicated purity. Tasked to produce drawings for classical or gothic structures, he unswervingly creates more unguent modernism. Rand stokes that grandeur finely. The book’s quite inviting, with Roark up against ambitious duplicity at every turn, while he in pureness only wants to make mere mile high buildings dedicated to his perfect vision. And he will succeed! The sad train wreck of Kerouac, spent, seems unnecessarily true to life compared to Roark.

More Beats to the Beats

Stephen Vincent comments on my Kerouac post below. I bring it forward here because it is apposite:

At this point in history - apart from shear pleasure of much good "Beat" writing, whatever that might connote (& there is a lot of it), it's also interesting to contemplate its primarily masculine orbit and the corollary view of women with particular myths, and methods of enforcing those myths; it's mostly disturbing. That is the jarring outbreak of feminism in the late 60's was provoked by the oppressive power of those myths. In the current ongoing celebration of Beat writers & writing, I don't know that this issue gets much consideration. It was bad stuff and not good for the health of either men or women. I am still shucking it - velcro (those mythse) to the psyche as it was/is.

The maleness of the Beat Movement must be admitted. Much of the writing strikes me as simply puerile, I mean the attitude pressing the writing. The wanderlust is a fantasy mythos that directs stupidly towards stopgap goals. Kerouac wafted innovatively into Buddhism but Catholicism proved a heavy lode (awesome pun, eh?). I think I was always aware of the hip embargo that the Beats instigated. The acculturated gulag of style in the guise of freedom shows itself lacking. The Beats are worth studying,and then you move on.

Monday, September 20, 2010

Kerouac and the Beats

I saw a bio of Kerouac at the library while looking for other things, and brought it home. By Paul Maher, Jr., who’s from Lowell, it made me think how little I have read by or learned about the Beats. Passing odd.

I never read Kerouac in high school. It seems like aspirant high school writers will naturally tilt towards Kerouac. There is an appeal there that perhaps mimics that of Catcher in the Rye. I grew out of my interest in Salinger in about a year, but I believe Kerouac remains a serious component to modernist thinking. I do not mean that Kerouac is an essential influence for anyone—I guess I do not recognize that necessity—but he certainly offers something potent to consider.

I do not know how I escaped high school without reading On the Road, but I did. My reading of the Beats proves remarkably thin. Here’s the inventory:

  • Kerouac: On the Road (partial), Visions of Cody (partial), Mexico City Blues (complete), various short things, I presume
  • Ginsberg, I have read much of his Complete Poems, his Indian Journals, and this and that
  • Burroughs, Naked Lunch (partial), Soft Machine (partial)
  • Cassady, The First Third (complete)
  • Holmes, nuthin’
  • Corso, smattering of poems

I have actually done better by the 2nd level of Beats like Welch, Whalen, Snyder, Lamantia. Two points interest me here: that I didn’t finish the novels and that I am generally poorly read in these writers.

Regarding not finishing, my experience has been that the reading just fades. I get the energy but lose interest. As to why I never read much of the Beats, something telling could lie underneath.

The Beats supply a good exemplar of the writing process, of how to just get the words out. A young writer gets the message: trust your writing inclination. The results will be miserable until you develop your aesthetics, but the Beat sense of release offers a positive program.

It is a funny group of artists, held together by the same fragile logical component as any art movement.The Beats had their own patented jive that made them both ridiculous and wonderful to the public. They were rock stars, tho without quite the outlay of lucre. Their unique path became trammeled rather quickly by poseurs and flop sweat. Really,  the dynamics were just plain weird.

Neal Cassady was no writer in any formally striving way, tho his letters and their impetus are central components to the Beat mythos. Cassady himself, in all his sociopathic marvelousness, conditioned much that went on among the Beats. And then he moved on to Kesey’s trip, furthur on. And then, like Kerouac, he died the death.

Tho my reading on Kerouac largely faded in progress, I still consider his oeuvre an essential modern object. If I haven’t read him well, it is a receptivity problem on my part. I never fully disliked reading what I’ve read by him (and I like Mexico City Blues), it just never rang my bell.

The Beat myth is pretty ragin’, it must be admitted. I’d heard the name Lucien Carr associated with the Beats. Maher’s book recounts the alarming death of David Kammerer at the hands of Carr, a story I somehow completely missed. Maher describes it oddly. Kammerer, who was Carr’s teacher, made advances on Carr one night, so Carr stabbed him 12 times with a pocket knife them weighted the body and tossed it in the river.

Only when I read Wikipedia’s account did it make more sense. Kammerer had a long history of stalking Carr. Carr left different schools 4 or 5 times to get away from Kammerer, who nonetheless showed up at the each next school. I get the 12 knife blows, knowing that. Carr went to both Burroughs and Kerouac after the killing, and Kerouac particularly abetted Carr’s attempt to cover the crime.


The Big Three—Burroughs, Kerouac, and Ginsberg—are interesting writers. Burroughs is distractingly weird but the vigour is obvious. Kaddesh, Howl and a few other poems are enough to put Ginsberg in the pantheon, but jeez, his lows were worse than Whitman. I have his early Collected Poems, and the amount of doggerel to be found there, especially later on, is discouraging. Kerouac seems to have a clearer sense of oeuvre, a dynamism of his personal aesthetic sense. Granted I have already made clear on what evidence I make these value judgments, but I think with the Beats, with so much mythos to swat aside, I’m on terra fairly firma.

I mean, how many young cats decided to hitchhike across America, or at least say they did, on the impulse and input of Jack Kerouac? That is of course so much outside the writing, and yet it aint. Young writers need the picture of energy, of the active writer who gets across. cummings is not an influence for me, in the sense of someone I loved reading. But his example of freedom was a strong gesture towards what I could accomplish. The Beats as a group, and Kerouac particularly, show how you can howl.