...I wanted still to believe in the narrative and in the narrative’s intelligibility, but to know that one could change the sense with every cut was to begin to perceive the experience as rather more electrical than ethical.
—Joan Didion, The White Album
It is debatable that ethics, per Didion, exist more cogently in a linear framework. Ethics are ineffable: the air we walk through more than the path we walk on. In The White Album, Didion’s meta-analysis of the summer of 1968, she postulates that the world, or her world at least, had derailed from the structured realm of stories to a chaos of senseless images depicting ever more senseless acts—“not a movie but a cutting-room experience.” Forty-three years later, I believe this experience has fragmented even further, and that the movie has cut itself, frame by frame, into an image onslaught. The linear, morally-inflective movie narrative of human existence was dying already in the ’60s, it is now dead, and we exist in both an ur-cutting-room, belonging to prehistory, and a post-history cutting-room belonging to a technologically determined world. As a writer, I believe that the ethical now must exist within the electrical. There is, for me, an ethics—or, perhaps more precisely, an ethos—in teasing out the meaning behind and inside this contemporary experience of perpetual montage, and building for these electrical encounters a temporary shelter in linear text.
To find meaning in a world filled with too much always resides in the individual: it is the writer who must drive writing toward its relevance. And that is what I love about writing. Its demand for inborn authenticity from its maker is what allows it to be animated to an autonomous existence, and to be determinable from the piles and piles of meaningless words looming, literally, everywhere. When I first started writing as a child, it was to escape, to give words to a world I found difficult to negotiate, and to create an identity where I felt one was lacking. I thought I could author myself braver and smarter and write my way out of a life that made me unhappy. After writing poorly, I realized that I had to do for myself all the things I wanted my writing to do for me, and that it was the writing that would follow me, not the other way around.You need to come to the truth of yourself to be a good writer, and you need to express that truth, without compromise, if you want to engage with your subject matter in a meaningful way.
That was Kerouac’s great discovery in On the Road.The kinds of things that he and Neal Cassady were talking about, he finally discovered were the subject matter for what he wanted to write down...You have many writers who have preconceived ideas about what literature is supposed to be, and their ideas seem to exclude that which makes them most charming in private conversation. Their faggishness, or their campiness, or their neurasthenia, or their solitude, or their goofiness, or their— even—masculinity, at times. ...There should be no distinction betweenwhatwewritedown,andwhatwereallyknow,tobegin with.
—Allen Ginsberg Interviewed by Thomas Clark in 1965 for The Paris Review
Kerouac embodied an ethos of compulsive creation— an ethics of reckless electrics. His genius was in his capacity to live completely within the world and within himself. His work illustrates, perhaps more than any other, the pure point of being a writer and writing. His truth is terrible and exciting; it’s the truth of a deeply irresponsible person. The ethics are in that. Perhaps only in that. He communes with the world but invests nothing toward it, and will take no accountability for it. Kerouac is rarely doing the right thing, but neither is he writing himself out of his own cage: he stays locked into the incessancy of his own experience. In doing so, he seems to be critiquing those writers who can’t be so unrelenting in their personal honesty.IfTruman Capote’s critique of Kerouac’s text was “typing, not writing,” one could imagine the implied counter-critique would be “lying, not living”—that Capote’s prose, even at its most critical, is essentially a paper castle crafted with sprinkles with fairy dust, exalting the author’s own dream worlds, false illusions and reinventions of self and fact.
But that is what makes Capote’s prose a work of art, and not an expression of personal truth. In its silk-flower beauty, Capote’s fiction (and even his non- fiction) holds a hyperbolic magnifying glass up to a world embalmed in inauthenticity and highlights the bizarre and very human search for authenticity in artifice. Similarly, Georg Lukács, in his 1910 essay “The Foundering of Form Against Life,” quotes Søren Kierkegaard proclaiming, “Kierkegaard made a poem of his relationship with Regine Olsen, and when Kierkegaard makes a poem of his life he does so not in order to conceal the truth but in order to be able to reveal it.” In Kierkegaard’s view, it was one gesture in his personal biography—the willful and insincere destruction of a love relationship—that would transcend his life into poem.The inherent lie of this renunciation of love was transformed into an impersonal, universal truth of human alienation.That is what great art does.
Kerouac did not need such grand, précising gestures, because he was nothing but gestures. He was a man made of poetry. I believe some people create their art and some people exist as their art.
Interviewed in 1977 for The Paris Review by Linda Kuehl, Didion makes the statement that “style is character.” You are how you write. A more prosaic formulation of Kerouac’s ecstatic line, but holding similar notes. In Didion’s The White Album, she talks about driving in a car and turning up Glen Campbell’s “Wichita Lineman” very loud to drown out an internal refrain: “petals on a wet black bough,” from Ezra Pound’s “In a Station of the Metro.” For her, the phrase “has no significance for me but which seemed that year to signal the onset of anxiety or fright.”
I have a different phrase that, for different reasons, tracks me down. From Kerouac’s 1960 novella Tristessa: —Where miraculously, now, I see the little pink cat taking a little pee on piles of okra and chickenfeed—The p and k sounds jumping after each other and kicking each other. The cat is all cats—especially feminine, pink; especially feral and discreet. An animal—perhaps the only one—that makes its most base bodily functions and elemental existence elegant and sweet. It is miraculous. In Tristessa, Kerouac makes his reader understand his immediate love and joy of all living things, and his equal and necessary blindness toward all the things that destroy life. It’s so beautiful, in the same way that Pound’s petals on a bough—faces in the crowd—are beautiful. Unlike Didion, these words don’t register discomfort for me.The opposite: they are like prayer.They are words that follow me to make me think about the need for rhythm, composition and writing.To remember that I was and am no longer the daughter of a Massachusetts mill town French Canadian boy like Kerouac, who was in tune with his art and all out of step with life.To remember that I was and am no longer the daughter of an inquisitive girl enmeshed with existence like Didion, who didn’t know what to do with the summer of 1968 or many summers after that.
When I was a child, I used to obsessively put my hand on my chest to check if my heart was still beating—logical medical advice on this matter didn’t deter me. When I grew out of that, I used to tap out different rhythms using my fingers against my thumb, tapping out this same rhythm over and over again on each hand until I could end each phrase on an even beat. When I learned about poetry, I would do the same thing, tapping out each syllable: lit/tle/pee/on/ piles/of/ok/ra/and/chick/en/feed. Hearing a beat and tapping a rhythm made and make feel a sense of the world within myself. Now I tap on a keyboard and think about art. •