Some impulse compelled me to begin reading Big Sur by Jack Kerouac— probably because I instinctively felt it would be in line with what I’m writing at the moment. I don’t have the book here, so read the first few chapters online. Tonight I watched the movie adaptation that was made several years ago. It didn’t get good reviews, and I understand why, but I definitely got something out of it; I’d say that of the handful of movies made about his writing and the Beats, it probably captures the feeling and truth of their relationships, that time, and his writing the best. Except, it’s 15 years after On The Road, and chronicles his alcoholic haze and delirium tremens and utter dissipation. The plot is inadvertently clever— he’s in what is probably one of the most beautiful places in the Universe, and all he can see is decay, death, awfulness, and suffering, and is gradually killing himself through drink and pessimism and becoming borderline psychotic… When one is 26 years old and hitchhiking around the country, sleeping rough, and throwing one’s last handful of money into the ocean, it’s vibrant and romantic; when one is 40, haggard and grizzled, not so much… The book/film also inadvertently chronicle the deep cultural changes that took place in the US after 15 years. He tries to hitchhike back to San Francisco from Lawrence Ferlinghetti’s cabin in Big Sur, but by then hitchhiking is no longer quite in vogue, the media has scared people too much, and on top of it he looks like a world-weary, out-of-shape, wizened wastrel, sticking his thumb out, and nobody will stop the entire day to pick him up, so he ends up walking back almost the entire way. Meanwhile, many of his friends have gone on to take ‘sensible’ positions in society… He does seem to have made some money from his writings— apparently, enough to live on simply— but spends most of it on alcohol, and at times loaning or giving it to Neal Cassady (when he’s visiting the San Francisco area)… And yet, the kind of relationships he has with his male and female friends, as portrayed in this book and movie, are still more informal, easy, earnest, forthright, magnanimous, freewheeling, and generous than one can hardly ever find in contemporary America nowadays (which is eminently sad). And people are more easy, friendship-wise, affection-wise, sex-wise. (Although of course these are the countercultural elements. Mad Men, for instance, often shows a different side of the coin.) And the environment is much more pristine, less polluted (also sad)… It struck me that a dissolute character such as he had become could no longer quite gain respect even in the America of there-and-then (1962). He had become something like a tragic French dissipated, disconsolate, artistic type, outwardly cynical, but with a core of gold— something like Celine, or one of those grizzled male chanson singers, and at that point probably only would have truly been lauded for these qualities (mostly wrongly, of course, but there is something partly noble about this deep-sightedness into the suffering of life and stoic suffering and self-destruction) only in a country like France, or Russia… A number of times t/o the film (and I would imagine in the book, as most of the narration and dialogue is faithfully taken from it), he says that everything he wrote about Zen, or the Absolute, just feels like empty words. It was just braggadocio, romantic philosophizing and posturing, wordplay, and he doesn’t understand or feel any of it. He’s not sure he ever did. The woman whom Neal Cassady sets him up with quotes something about the Absolute, and he says he doesn’t understand what she’s talking about. She says, Why, you yourself wrote that. He says he really didn’t know what it meant then— maybe he was trying to convince himself of something— and doesn’t understand it now… I recall William Butler Yeats writing a similar thing later in life: Everything Mystical he wrote was a kind of self-deluding, trying to account for the tragedy of impermanence, but on final account likely a nice story he had told himself so he wouldn’t be afraid… It struck me that Kerouac, F. Scott Fitzgerald, and Kafka have a lot in common psychologically. All saw (or felt) deeply into the darkness and suffering of existence, none of them could handle it. All felt estranged from their general milieu and the superficialities therein (as most artists do, or at least have historically, to some extent). All longed to return to the vibrancy of youth— the insouciance, the vibrancy of experience (even if partial or illusory)— and the ‘pristineness’ and protectiveness of childhood— wrapped in the snug wooly ignorance and warmth of childhood, protected from the elements and harsh realties of life, awash in imagination. All subconsciously submitted to their fears and sufferings and killed themselves— Fitzgerald and Kerouac through drink and profligacy, Kafka by developing in all likelihood what was a psychosomatic illness, or creating the external conditions for the illness. Kafka was at once the weakest and strongest of them, and hence overall (though not in some particulars) the deepest and most resplendent. He was so weak that he couldn’t even dissipate himself, but had to subconsciously will himself to develop an illness. His ego-sense so traumatized that he felt himself a tiny vermin unfit to have been born. He also had the most difficult childhood of the three by far— and yet, one can tell he longed to return to the general childhood state. As we all do, to some extent… I doubt whether most teenagers and 20-somethings who read Kerouac’s earlier books know much about his later, Tolstoyan (who chronicled and saw into all facets and stages of worldly life) descents and struggles. He was one who felt more than thought. Perhaps through that ‘Dark Night of the Soul’ he was truly coming to a Siddharthan awareness of existence, and if he had not decimated himself through drink into borderline insanity, had he come through the other side (as Dostoevsky did after the imprisonment and firing squad), he would have developed a more trenchant and Tolstoyan view of existence. But alas. He did go to Paris, wrote a terrible, almost unreadable hodgepodge of gibberish about it, a few more such books— and ‘the rest,’ well… We can only hope that our conditions are a little more favorable. God bless you, and God rest you in peace, Jack Kerouac.
– Jan 2016
illustration: Yuri Tchary
Just read the 100-something page autobiography Elliot Rodger wrote in the year leading up to his killing spree, and while maybe these sentiments are untimely and offensive, I cannot help but observe that his psychological state seemed to be as much or more a product of peculiar contemporary American culture than his own genetical predisposition, and most likely could have been avoided and indeed reversed in the direction of compassion had the garden of his mindspace developed in another climate, say, in Scandinavia or Western Europe.
An intensely sensitive, emotional child, intelligent in many respects, with something of a philosophical and artistic temperament, seemingly naturally rather fixatative and compulsive (tendencies which could have been steered towards self-expansion and philanthropy, rather than introversion and disgust).
The collective hyper-focus on individualism, lack of community and social checks and balances, palpable though unspoken obsession with social status, worship of celebrity and physical appearance, unchecked emotional and physical bullying, and collective obsession with mind-addling and attention-depriving media distractions, among other factors, slowly withered, atrophied, and crushed him, rendering him obsessed with disgust and retribution.
Of course, nothing is ever an ‘excuse’ for murder, and yet, a person only does what their current level of consciousness allows them to do. If we had been more conscious, we would have done things differently.
The idea of ‘free will,’ if such exists, plays a key role here, whatever it is.
The relatively recent spate and uptick in “random” and “senseless” mass murders of all kinds really speaks more about the Collective Psychology of the culture (and to some extent all of humanity at the moment) than any young individual exponent. But this is a thought too scary for the vast majority of people to confront, for it puts them in front of a mirror, and so they attribute it to “aberrance” and “insanity” and try to put it out of their minds.
In the autobiography, Rodger expresses great enthusiasm, fondness, and tenderness for various family members and friends he had in life (mostly earlier in life). At one point, he claims that when he was a teenager, he saved his baby brother from drowning (a brother whom in the last months of his life he would fantastize about possibly murdering). This all points to the complexity of emotions, human relationships, life, and consciousness, and that the psychological state is hardly fixed, but fluctuating in every moment upon a certain fundament built over time (itself more stable, but also incredibly fleeting within the vastness of time). One must tend constantly to one’s mental garden.
If reincarnation exists, maybe he will experience inadvertent retribution from the reincarnated souls of those whom he murdered, but maybe salvation from the reincarnated soul of his brother or some other figure he helped in this life. At least, it is curious to observe the infinitely multifaceted ricochetings and reverberations of what could be called ‘Karma,’ or the ‘Karmic Web.’
* * *
Must amend the last email a little. Had only read the first 2/3 or so of the autobiography when I sent it, and then decided to finish it. The rest of the autobiography sees the writer devolve further, and more uninhibitedly reveal thoughts and impressions. He comes across as somehow stunted in some mental capacities— whether because he is a little ‘autistic,’ whatever this means, or because he was deprived of adequate social contact and conditioning for so long that he remained in a semi-adolescent mindset. By the end, the narrative reads almost like Gogol (Diary of a Madman) or something Dostoevsky or Sartre might concoct.
Will add two other elements to the contemporary American ethos that impacted him: Anti-intellectualism and pop culture (what if he had truly been immersed deeply in a breadth of good writings since childhood), and obsession with and inflation of primal and erotic sexuality (Eros).
Another observation: The alarming ease with which this young, awkward, suspicious individual purchased powerful handguns.
Anyone interested to further their understanding of human psychology would do well to read, or at least intelligently skim, this narrative.
I actually skimmed this “manifesto” yesterday as well. My enduring impression is similar to yours. He’s obviously “responsible” for his actions, but I was ultimately left with a feeling of great sadness in that it’s clear that a lot of people failed this person. Certainly, his parents, his friends, society. He never got the help or emotional nourishment he so clearly needed. As I read through it, the odd feeling going through me was that I “got it.” In a weird way, I sympathized. We’ve all felt rejection and alienation. In this sense, his screed was very relatable— in kind, if not in degree, that is. The wrong lesson to draw, I agree, is that he was “crazy.” He simply fell through the cracks of an often harsh modern society, where there is little safety net to prevent one from falling into the despair of loneliness and rejection.
The repeated insistence on his own feelings of worthlessness, or lesser-than. One-down. Not enough. It’s usually one’s family that instills in one a feeling of inherent worthiness, so that’s why I must say that it’s likely his parents failed him (but why, because their parents likely failed THEM). And revenge, violence, as an antidote to it all. His revenge is couched in language of superiority. He talked about proving his “worth,” showing them all what he’s made of. The psychological dynamic here is clear. A classic case of a person with an extreme feeling of worthlessness compensating by grandiose behavior. Puffing oneself up. Many men do this in various other ways, again, to a much lesser degree.
Lastly, it’s led me to think about the nature of revenge. One might think that revenge is evolutionarily a useless behavior, though I just read an article recently arguing that evolutionarily revenge did serve a purpose. One is wounded by another, and one cannot undo the wound. However, if one takes revenge on the initial aggressor, the wounded individual sends a signal to society that there will be consequences for future aggressions. Revenge is meant to signal strength to society. Psychologically, perhaps, to rebuild one’s own sense of strength. This is all not to say, of course, that revenge is a just behavior. I’ve never subscribed to the “argument from nature,” saying that because a behavior has some basis in instinct, we should automatically affirm it. But you do see these primal instincts play out in individuals whose souls have no higher instincts— borne of art, or the intellect, or social capital— to appeal to.
It’s all very sad, though. “All the lonely people / Where do they all come from”
I’m cautious in saying that his parents failed him, or at least more than all parents, by virtue of being fallible human beings and also the subjects of misguided childish projections, inevitably fail their children.
One must consider: All sociopaths, arguably born sociopathic by nature, have mothers and fathers, sometimes attentive and loving ones. The best parenting cannot prevent nature, or fate, or whatever you’d like to call it, from infrequently producing a child devoid of empathy.
What is more likely is that Rodger’s parents, particularly since they emigrated from other countries and cultures, failed to see or understand the peculiar onerous climate, social mores, and media that this keenly sensitive, narrow-thinking child was exposed to at school and in all facets of his personal life, or the extent of his suffering and escalating neurosis and eventually psychosis. Even by Rodger’s own account, slanted of course from his perspective in the last year of his life, throughout his life his parents tried fitfully to help him find a stable social environment, switched him from school to school to facilitate this, and got him various assistance in the form of socialization counselors and therapists. Not having more information, it’s difficult to say what precisely his upbringing was like.
Eh… I don’t know. Steering a kid towards therapists, and switching him schools is not really the same thing as real emotional support. Validation, encouragement, time. I get the sense he was really raised by nannies. That can be hugely destructive. I think a lot of high-powered parents think they can outsource the raising of their child when, in fact, without a quota of simple one-on-one time, a child can suffer devastating feelings of rejection or abandonment or inherent worthlessness. And when I say his parents likely “failed” him, I mean this in the most forgiving way. As I say, it’s likely because they didn’t know how to be parents or show real emotional support, likely because of their own upbringings. And, yes, all parents are imperfect, but when you’ve read as I have into the literature [of parenting], and the anecdotes of various examples of parenting, there very much is “better” and “worse” here. Not all parents are equal. In Terrence Real’s book, for instance, you see parents who get drunk every night and pass out, leaving their children to take care of themselves, or physically abusive fathers, or emotionally abusive mothers. My parents were far from perfect, but they weren’t THAT bad. So, there is better and worse here, even if ultimately we can forgive the bad parents their failings.
Hm, I don’t know. Maybe. There is just not enough information on these accounts. One gets the sense that his mother was not particularly wealthy and moved, it seemed every several years, from house to apartment to condo to apartment etc— which must not have been very stabilizing for her children— and did seem to show him some attention and affection. There is less information about the father.
Also found this curious: “My mother and father had been married for a couple of years before my mother became pregnant with me. In fact, her pregnancy was an accident. She had been taking pills to prevent pregnancy, but when she visited my father on one of his film sets, she fell ill and the medication she took for that illness thwarted the effect of the anti-pregnancy pills, and so their— lovemaking during this period resulted in my life.”
If this is true, wonder whether these ‘pills to prevent pregnancy’ (birth control pills) could have caused some biological damage in the foetus, accounting for Rodger’s vaguely developmentally stunted quality— which apparently was diagnosed as “High-Functioning Asperger’s”— that one picks up on in the autobiography.
Another compelling quote: “I really liked the character Anakin Skywalker, and I was amazed to see his epic transformation into Darth Vader on the high quality big screen.”
–from May 2014
What can be said? Zillions of people talk about environmental sustainability, and then do little about it, partly out of ignorance, partly out willful ignorance, partly out of laziness. The planet’s seriously ill. The ocean’s a cesspool of plastic. Some more plastic containers and utensils with your take-out, sir?
One of the groups I represent, E—, has probably spent millions of dollars and thousands of man hours on passing plastic bag bans in California (plastic bags being a great contributor to the pacific garbage patch). They’ve historically been stymied at the state level by the plastic industry (chiefly, a shady trade group called the American Petroleum Institute), but in recent years have taken the strategy of trying to pass bans at the city level and have been very successful actually (I think they’re up to 45 cities now, including LA just last week). It’s good news but then again it’s outrageous that relatively poor nonprofits should have to fight for years to pass legislation that is so clearly in the public good. Is it that the public and elected officials are tragically myopic? Too zoned out and solipsistic to pay attention? Both, and also something about the rise of the corporate state, plutocracy, etc.
Plastic bags— It seems virtually impossible to wean anyone off them unless the government enforces it (as Bloomberg is doing with corn-syrup based sodas in NY, which I approve of). Even armchair and staunch environmentalists succumb to accumulating them.
The first culprit here is ignorance. Ultra large and powerful corporations and their lobbyists, through marketing, legal machinations, and other more insidious measures, consciously engender ignorance and then further exploit it. So the most marginalized and uneducated communities are the most susceptible to absorbing beliefs and habits grossly against their own (and the planet’s) interests.
There are still many stores in New York— liquor stores, for instance, some groceries— that will force you to take plastic bags, or at least try to.
The other major culprits, I’d wager, are willful ignorance, laziness, and fear— fear of standing out from the consumerist crowd, the legions marching proudly with their disposable coffee cups, plastic bottles, and plastic bags containing newly purchased goods.
The solution is for companies to be responsible for the entire longevity of the products they produce. With 8 billion people in the world, if you produce some tiny plastic nib, that’s potentially billions upon billions of these nibs getting into the environment. Companies must make parts and packaging out of earth-friendly biodegradable materials that quickly decompose after use, or otherwise be wholly responsible for the reclamation, recycling, and earth-friendly destruction of their products (but there is too much room for error and malfeasance in the latter).
–from June 2012
I have been thinking about this, and I think that Leonard Cohen is bequeathing a deeper oeuvre to the world than Bob Dylan.
Bob Dylan is more popular, and may forever be, but Leonard Cohen’s oeuvre is deeper. Life, even the rarefied heights of art, is in large a popularity contest— a bitterness many a poet writes about.
A particular work of art, if apprehended mindfully and properly, may deepen one’s perception a fraction of the depth one already brings to it, but typically not much more.
And the masses, that is, the mean of people between the two extremes of the metaphorical spectrum of perception, are by nature forever moderate in perception. If all people saw as artists, new artists would emerge to reveal deeper mysteries.
The perennial struggle of the artist, especially in placetimes of little depth. How to proffer an art that aspires to the deepest and most noble when the society could care less about such things, in fact, often doesn’t even know they exist.
All things considered, I think our placetime, meaning, all people alive, has a middling or maybe fair reach of depth. Bob Dylan appeals to the more earthly, fiery and somewhat more simplistic impulses and interpretations than Leonard Cohen does, and this aesthetic appeals to a greater number.
I grant that Bob Dylan’s music overall— songwriting, technique, musical tableaus, landscapes— is significantly richer than Leonard Cohen’s, especially due to its sheer voluminousness and diversity. But, taking the entire offering, the music, the words— I think Leonard Cohen’s oeuvre overall is deeper, reveals a greater degree of ‘Truth.’ If I had to choose between having heard one but never the other, I would say, wistfully— for I love Bob Dylan— it would have to be Leonard Cohen. Maybe a more enlightened posterity will agree.
1. “The perennial struggle of the artist, especially in placetimes of little depth. How to proffer an art that aspires to the deepest and most noble when the society could care less about such things, in fact, often doesn’t even know they exist.” I think that you underestimate “society.” I suspect increasingly that the actual, individual people in our society are not as shallow or ignoble as many of our cultural signs (i.e. popular television, movies, music) would suggest. It is difficult to imagine that a society that elected George Bush twice, for instance, could be at all noble. And yet wherever I go— Colorado, New Jersey, New York, etc— I meet a great many people and I so rarely meet anyone I find base or ignoble. I see depth, or a certain wisdom, in almost everyone (some more or less). Moreover, artists whom I meet are no more or less likely to possess spiritual or intellectual depth. A mechanic or professor or waitress is as likely to possess such qualities, no more and no less.
This all matters.
2. Cohen and Dylan… I don’t like the Bloomian game of ranking artists, but if I had to… I would agree with you, of course. Dylan, I think, is a better “songwriter,” by which I mean— narrowly— that he excels more at that elusive craft of pairing words and music into a symbiotic whole. But Cohen’s songs, in the end, are “better,” if we mean “more profound,” more truthful, poetic.
I both agree and disagree on both observations. I agree that each person is of the same essence and aspires to the same ‘depth,’ and that each person has depth in various aspects, and some people who in most accounts are oblivious have more depth in particular aspects than those who in most accounts are very ‘deep.’ I do think that the mean of people, which is the majority, have a moderate amount of ‘depth’ overall… One need not be an artist, of course, to possess a lot of depth. There are plenty of artists who are pretty shallow. Art, after all, is also just a word, and anyone can call themselves an artist. Since I was comparing two artists, I used this word, but one can substitute ‘person of depth,’ or ‘artist of depth.’ When we speak of the artist as an archetype, we implicitly assume ‘great artist’ or ‘artist of depth.’ The artist of depth (especially in shallow placetimes) is concerned that what they proffer won’t be accepted by most people, for, though each person has the flame of depth somewhere in them, this flame isn’t bright enough to accept the proffering; most will ignore, overlook, deride, and the artist of depth will be reduced to making art for oneself, which is what they are basically doing anyway, in that all is one and one is all, but the work won’t be accepted— and then more practical matters of subsistence also factor.
One could be the only person (being) alive deep enough to perceive something. No one else could perceive this thing, and also be so shallow as to deride or even execute one for it— this happens perennially. But there is a fine line between delusion and true insight, and the chances of being deluded are inordinately higher.
Looking at the world entire, I am not too pessimistic about our age overall. As I say— ‘I think our placetime has a middling or maybe fair reach of depth.’
In order to believe the above, of course, one need believe, or at least entertain belief, in an Objective reality.
As for ranking art or any other act of profundity. It’s a paradox— profundity can’t be quantified in terms of value, yet we exist precisely because of value, assess everything in these terms, and are the great valuers of all earthly species. So, on one hand, it’s impossible to say who’s ‘deeper,’ but on the other we have an intuitive sense of the question (depending, of course, on one’s own depth), and, forced to choose, would ultimately opt for one over the other, as you’ve done a little begrudgingly.
By the way, when I said Leonard Cohen’s oeuvre compared to Bob Dylan’s, I meant just their musical oeuvres— not including books of poetry or prose, visual art, or any other standalone art they’ve made outside of their musical offerings.
–from Jan 2009