BIG SUR by Jack Kerouac

The conventional thing to say is that readers only familiar with On the Road will be shocked by this novel.  Conventional views are not always wrong but, in this case, I feel it would miss some subtleties.  Those who regard On the Road as a cultural landmark and Kerouac as a kind of guru may well indeed be shocked by Big Sur.  Those who read On the Road as a novel and view Kerouac as an artist will be saddened by Big Sur but hardly surprised.

I didn’t really think much of Aram Saroyan’s foreword to the Penguin edition of Big Sur.  It seemed pretty thin and unnecessary but he did have one great insight.  At the very end of the foreword, almost as an afterthought, Saroyan wrote: “Above all, he [Kerouac] was a tender writer.  It would be hard to find a mean-spirited word about anybody in all his writing.”  While I can think of a few sharp words, Saroyan’s point is hard to deny.  Kerouac, as an author at least, was a man of almost bizarre empathy.  In fact, if there is a problem with his writing, it is his inability to limit his affections.  While this attribute is admirable, it sometimes prevented Kerouac from sifting through his own feelings.  This leads to a form of aesthetic chaos that somewhat damages the later chapters of Big Sur.

Despite this, the writing is, as usual with Kerouac, beautiful and haunting.  And perhaps this confusion was part of a plan.  Reading this book, I was struck by its resemblance to the writings of Japanese haiku poet Matsuo Basho.  I’d read that Kerouac admired Basho and the poet is actually mentioned in Big Sur.  Still, the connection is noticeable even before Kerouac’s reference to Basho.  The preoccupation with nature’s grandeur and indifference, the overpowering but strangely reserved registering of emotions, and the longing for connections with friends all have a Basho-like aura about them.  Of course, these had always been concerns of Kerouac’s and he has his own unique take on them.  Reading Basho, however, seems to have helped Kerouac become more aware of the things that mattered most to him as a writer.  Perhaps unfairly, I had always thought of the Beat movement’s interest in Buddhism and other Eastern philosophies and religions as fleeting and shallow.  There is certainly plenty of confusion and faddiness in much Western understanding of Eastern thought.  I haven’t read the most famous Beat document in this vein, Kerouac’s novel The Dharma Bums, which I know has been criticized by some Buddhists.  However, in Big Sur at least, Kerouac’s approach to Eastern thought is mature and artistically fruitful.  We can’t always expect authors to be scholars.  They might be inspired by ideas but misunderstand them.  Sometimes this can be problematic, other times their mistakes can be glorious as long as they are viewed as their own insights and not sharply compared to their original inspirations.  In Basho, Kerouac found a glorious way to help him understand and explain his own misery.

Make no mistake, Big Sur is a tragic and, at times, devastating novel.  It is probably one of the most notable explorations of an emotional collapse by a major writer.  Such a collapse could hardly have been avoided by a man like Kerouac.  As this novel makes clear, there probably never was a human being less suited to celebrity and yet, due to a quirk of his times, Kerouac became a celebrity and it crushed him.  He was not an angel.  He contributed to his own downfall and, as Big Sur intriguingly makes clear, he was well aware of the paths that might have saved him.  In the end however, he was simply incapable of taking the long, hard walk to a form of peace.  You do not have to consider Kerouac a martyr to find this unbelievably sad.

There is joy in Big Sur, however.  Kerouac’s disdain for Herman Hesse makes for hilarious reading.  His discovery of a copy of James Boswell’s The Life of Samuel Johnson in a toilet is a marvelous comic passage that helps dispel the myth of the Beats as scowling hipsters.  Even more surprising is his enjoyment of Boswell’s work unless I missed some sarcasm there.  Finally, the moments where Kerouac glimpses the kind of happiness he never found are stunning, albeit deeply disturbing since we can tell, even early in the book, that it will never be attained.

Let’s Hear a Play!, Part 3: A Review of SODOM, OR THE QUINTESSENCE OF DEBAUCHERY by ? and IRENE by Samuel Johnson

Since I first became aware of the great tradition of British drama, I’ve noticed the periods known as the Restoration and the Eighteenth Century are constantly both linked and contrasted.  There are a number of anthologies that collect plays from both periods.  In the popular imagination, I suspect they are a single, amorphous blob of a time that can be roughly described as “after Shakespeare but before the Romantics.”  However, critics and commentators often seem to consider the two periods as more sharply distinct from one another.  The general consensus seems to be that the Restoration was a period of bold experimentation and transgressive wit.  The Eighteenth Century, on the other hand, is often described rather negatively as marked by caution and sentimentality.  Overall, critics seem to think of the Eighteenth Century as an unfortunate, conservative reaction to the glorious Restoration.  Without meaning to, I recently read one play each from these periods.  In some ways, they are extreme examples of the conventional wisdom I just described.  However, I found my reactions to each piece going in some surprising directions.

Sodom, from the Restoration, is an example of that odd, somewhat contradictory genre, the closet drama.  Closet dramas have a theatrical structure but are not meant to performed on stage.  Instead, they are either recited in small groups or simply read.  In the case of this play, it could hardly have hoped for any public performance in its own time.  Sodom has the form of a raucous comedy but is filled with unending, and totally open, sexual humor.  Anyone who has the idea that raunchiness was invented in the 1960s would do well to read this play.  Some of the sex on display is, thankfully, no longer considered immoral, such as homosexuality.  Other aspects are as obscene and offensive now as they were in the 1600s.  The question of authorship intrigues many today.  It is possible that Sodom was written by John Wilmot, 2nd Earl of Rochester, one of the period’s greatest poets and a notorious sexual libertine.  Before reading Sodom, I took a look at a number of Rochester’s most important poems to see if I could detect any links.  There are certainly moments when the verse in Sodom achieves a sophistication that is at least approaching that found in Rochester’s work.  Other sections of the play, however, are merely doggerel.  This certainly doesn’t rule out Rochester’s authorship.  Poets in those less self-conscious, pre-Romantic periods often seemed more willing to write in different styles, varying their approaches to hit a variety of goals.  Despite this, Sodom never quite rises to the level of quality I found in Rochester’s poetry.  I cannot claim to be anything more than an amateur offering an opinion but, if I had to decide, I would say Rochester was either uninvolved or only a junior collaborator.  Still, there is a firm kinship between the worlds of Rochester and Sodom.  Both leave one feeling depressed and hopeless.  I’m all for satire and transgression in art but this play, as clever and funny as it is at times, just left me feeling hollow.  As they intended the play as an attack on King Charles II, the author or authors may be exempt from providing depth and feeling, but that doesn’t make for very pleasant reading.

Moving to the Eighteenth Century, Irene was the only play written by the great critic and general man of letters, Samuel Johnson.  While it apparently did well enough on the stage when Johnson first produced it, the play has since come to be seen as an artistic disaster.  To be sure, the poetry in the play is pretty bland.  It has none of the eloquence and fluidity of Johnson’s magnificent prose and it isn’t even as good as his B/B+ poetry.  Still, I liked it!  After reading a little about Irene, I was fully expecting it to be a chore to get through.  But, while its failings are obvious, the play is actually entertaining and even a little moving.  Johnson’s plot is decently constructed, the characters exhibit some degrees of depth, and, contrary to what many have said, Johnson shows himself keenly aware of stage requirements.  True, a sense of theatricality did not come naturally to him but he did a fair enough job of learning.  While the verse is insipid, it is, at least, pleasing to the ear.  When you get right down to it, Irene is an opera libretto.  On its own, it is decent but rather lightweight.  If Handel or Mozart had set it to music, it might have risen to greatness.  While all of these are virtues, what I really loved about Irene was its celebration of virtue itself.  Johnson avoids making the play a sermon but there is no mistaking his moralistic vision.  We have a tendency to turn up our noses at this kind of thing.  I used to myself and I still feel the instinct.  As the years have gone by, however, I’ve started sneering less and less at artists who glorified decency and even sacrificed some of their aesthetic skill to the concept.  Johnson’s compassion and humanity may not make Irene a great play but I think its ideas, and Johnson’s earnest attempt to dramatize them, are worthy of respect.

There is plenty to celebrate in the Restoration and plenty to criticize in the Eighteenth Century.  Still, when cheering on wit and mocking moralizing, we might want to occasionally ask ourselves if we’d rather be witty or good.  More importantly for many of us, to which of these concepts, wit or goodness, would we rather be subjects to?

Let’s Hear a Play!, Part 2: A Review of THE ORESTEIA by Aeschylus (translated by Robert Fagles)

How could I ever forget the first time I became familiar with the story of the House of Atreus?  I was in high school and a teacher offered tickets for a trip to Broadway to see Sophocles’ Electra.  Not to brag (much), but I ended up being the only one who went.  To this day, I remember almost every detail of that production.  However, what I remember even better are the thoughts that flooded through my mind on the way home and over the next several days.  The worst feeling was summed up by the question I kept asking myself: “So it’s always been like this?”  Yes, many human beings have come a long way since Ancient Greece.  Many have not.  And even those that have frequently end up falling back, pushed by their ignorance and pettiness into the savage cycles of cruelty and vengeance they smugly assume are safely locked in the past or confined to less “advanced” places.

As great as Sophocles’ play is, Aeschylus’ sequence of plays is even more comprehensive in its treatment of the ultimate dysfunctional family and the issues brought up by its tragedies.  One of the most remarkable things about reading it is seeing how it functions on both the political and the familial level.  Many authors, quite understandably, have trouble linking these two spheres of human experience.  However, Aeschylus doesn’t just link them.  He puts them together.  We see how the torments of private life and the agonies inflicted on people in the name of ideology often spring from the same dark sources.  Indifference to suffering, be it violent or verbal, public or confined to the home, is frequently the result of the refusal to let go of the past and at least try to forgive.

Aside from these thought-provoking aspects, The Oresteia is a masterpiece of theatricality.  The centuries have done nothing but magnify the power of Aeschylus’ dramatic skill.  In the first play, Agamemnon, the pounding, almost unbearable suspense and tension put many modern thrillers to shame.  The Libation Bearers, the second play, tells the most famous part of the story, that of Orestes’ return and confrontation with his mother Clytaemnestra.  It would take far too much space to list everything that makes The Libation Bearers so perfect but I will mention the finale.  It is of such bone-chilling horror that I get goosebumps even thinking about it!  Tragically, the fourth part, a comic epilogue called Proteus, has been lost, probably forever.

Anyone who knows The Oresteia will notice that I have not mentioned the third part, The Eumenides.  Today, when there is a wonderful book or movie, I’m often both hopeful and skeptical when a sequel is announced.  Sequels can be pretty awful but, when done right, they can be extremely gratifying.  However, when a third part is talked about, I usually get VERY concerned.  Parts three (and beyond) take uncommon talent to get anywhere near right.  This was as true in Athens before the birth of Christ as it is today.  As the only surviving sequence of Greek plays,  The Oresteia is also the only surviving attempt to provide a satisfying solution to the problems of the cursed House of Atreus.  Aeschylus uses this play to plead for a move away from bloody vengeance and towards lawful compromise.  Does it work?  Is it convincing?  In the fine introduction to Robert Fagles’ translation, Fagles and W. B. Stanford, make big claims for The Eumenides.  Fagles knew Aeschylus inside and out as his riveting translation proves.  Still, I can’t agree.  The Eumenides doesn’t quite come off, for all its immense poetic beauty.  Still, Aeschylus’ answer is really the only one there is.  Without it, one way or another, we remain in the clutches of the red-eyed skeletons of fury that we all like to think are dead or at least exiled.  If Aeschylus’ noble but forced solution is rejected, then it really will always be like this.