Friday, August 31, 2007

Jack was language

"Time being of the essence in the purity of speech, sketching language is undisturbed flow from the mind of personal secret idea-words, blowing (as per jazz musician) on subject of image." That's Jack Kerouac.

My Jack is the writer and voicer of babbleflow, e.g.

Aw rust rust rust rust die die die pipe pipe ash ash die die ding dong ding ding ding rust cob die pipe ass rust die words-- I'd as rather be permiganted in Rusty's moonlight Rork as be perderated in this bile arta panataler where ack the orshy rosh crowshes my tired idiot hand 0 Lawd I is coming to you'd soon's you's ready's as can readies by Mazatlan heroes point out Mexicos & all ye rhythmic bay fishermen don't hang fish eye soppy in my Ramadam give--dgarette Sop of Arab Squat

--not the novelist of themes (wanderlust, national anti-identity, discovery of the true self). So it baffles me a little, or anyway bores me, when celebrations or indeed criticism of Kerouac focus on the new teen generation's response or indifference to On the Road.

This past year was the 50th anniversary of the publication of that book. We at the Writers House staged a marathon reading of the novel from start to finish. I participated, reading a passage for a half hour or so. As I read myself, and listened to others, I could hear how right I and others have been to conceive of this project as most interestingly a wordy, languagy thing.

What's important about this half-century is the scroll Jack used in composition--a single flow of paper, a means of thwarting the stop that coming to the end of 11 inches of dried pulp encourages.

What's important is language's own performance--its thingness.

But then there are the journalists, "covering" this 50th. And of course form doesn't sell newspapers.

I'm sure that when the Philadelphia Inquirer's reporter interviewed Erin Gautsche, our amazing Program Coordinator, she told him all kinds of things about the sound of the language, about the experience of reading the novel aloud as a community. But the reporter's angle was the usual topical thing, and in this passage he's writing about how and why today the book doesn't quite have the grip it once did. Here's a passage (and here's the whole article):

These days, though, kids don't react the same way. "They're more detached from the book and its message than students before," [Hilary] Holladay [director of the Kerouac Center for American Studies at the University of Massachusetts, Lowell] said. They are not gripped by the romantic notions that fevered Kerouac's brain. Could that spell an end to On the Road's relevance?

Certainly, the political incorrectness of the writing seems dated to today's young readers. For others critical of the book, there is a sense that it has been overrated through the years, and that there are better novels with better stories to tell.

To today's readers, parts of the book seem immature, even ridiculous, said Erin Gautsche, program coordinator of Kelly Writers House, a literary arts organization housed at the University of Pennsylvania.

The group did its own celebration of the book's 50th anniversary earlier this year.

"When you read Kerouac's descriptions of sharecroppers in the South and people in Mexico, he has an old-fashioned idea of race: that of the noble savage."

Kerouac saw poor minorities and other impoverished types as holy innocents untouched by the "dirtiness" of capitalist culture, Gautsche said. "They were shown as peaceful, happy, simple people," she added.

Also, as some readers have learned in dismaying second reads, a good deal of the book is simply about boorish guys looking for sex from disturbingly young, poor girls.

Here's Clark Coolidge on the topic of Kerouac's babbleflow.