33 Readers
16 Sages

shell pebble

On closer inspection, still horrible

On the Road - Ann Charters, Jack Kerouac

Yeah, yeah. I couldn't care about the irresponsible, chauvinistic and ignorant protagonist and his witless quest.

Since writing the above I have read the PhD thesis of my friend, Loni Reynolds, on spiritual and religious themes in the Beats. After reading it I sent her this email:

Hi Loni,

Thanks so much for sending me your thesis, which I've now finished reading. It was so much more enjoyable and edifying to read than the literature it discusses! I feel Ginsberg comes out well, while the other three don't; I'm not inspired to read Corso and I don't feel any less hostile to Burroughs or Kerouac... But your exegesis rings incredibly true to me and reflects the way my friends and I responded to Beat literature when I was reading it, as an alternative in US culture to what we saw as repressive authoritarian Christianity on one side and souless hegemonic mass-culture-spewing capitalism on the other. The irrational and anti-rational perspectives you pulled out are so juicy. I love this quote “Sacrifice destroys an object’s real ties of subordination; it draws the victim out of the world of utility and restores it to that of unintelligible caprice” and also the idea of being given God to chew on to propitiate earthly suffering.

The idea of squandering excess sounded, when you mentioned it, as if it might undermine the reasons for my intense dislike of On the Road (apart from my visceral response to its misogyny, I hate it because only cis-het White men could possibly get away with such behaviour, and there is no resistance or challenge anywhere in the book to the centrality of the cis-het able-bodied White man) because it's not easy to answer the question of how privileged individuals should respond to their own status. Behind statements like this, quoted by my friend Samadrita in her review of the book:


"There was an old Negro couple in the field with us. They picked cotton with the same God-blessed patience their grandfathers had practiced in ante-bellum Alabama."

lie a kind of (unearned) excess, White privilege, which unlike money is difficult to 'squander' or renounce. Nonetheless, I believe renunciation is the ethical response to such privilege and this will be a lumpy, uneven process possible by more than one approach. I have an unfortunate tendency to think convergently, and I love it when that is disrupted by radical interpretations and rebellious literature (I think that's why I enjoyed your thesis so much) Considering that slaves laid the foundations and built the walls of the rational capitalism Kerouac rejects I wondered if I might be able to read Dean's self-emptying in On the Road as the renunciation of privilege, but finally I can't; the transformation from economic to spiritual value that enables Dean and Sal to experience the divine only reinforces their power and freedom: they can suck up money and use it to access God, coveted as the preserve of the 'God-blessed' (soulful) 'Negro'. While Black Americans are perversely envied, women are infantile; objects for male use, inherently incapable of understanding or accessing the sacramental world... But I will say no more about it.