Study Guide

Big Sur Literature and Writing

By Jack Kerouac

Literature and Writing

"One fast move or I'm gone, " I realize, gone the way of the last three years of drunken hopelessness which is a physical and spiritual and metaphysical hopelessness you cant learn in school no matter how many books on existentialism or pessimism you read, or how many jugs of vision producing Ayahuasca you drink, or Mescaline take, or Peyote goop up with – (2.1)

From the beginning of the novel, Jack admits that his kind of sickness can only be felt – it can't be understood through literary renderings.

Tho why after three weeks of perfect happy peace and adjustment in these strange woods my soul so went down the drain when I came back with Dave Wain and Romana and my girl Billie and her kid, I'll never know -- Worth the telling only if I dig deep into everything. (5.2)

Jack has already suggested that his experiences can't be adequately explained to his readers. Maybe he's writing Big Sur for his own benefit, to better understand what happened in the cabin by the woods.

And such things -- A whole mess of little joys like that amazing me when I came back in the horror of later to see how they'd all changed and become sinister, even my poor little wooden platform and mill race when my eyes and stomach nauseous and my soul screaming a thousand babbling words, oh -- It's hard to explain and best thing to do is not be false. (6.7)

Big Sur is characterized by a raw honesty – as though Kerouac is attempting, quite genuinely, to figure out and convey his experiences to us.

Long nights simply thinking about the usefulness of that little wire scourer, those little yellow copper things you buy in supermarkets for 10 cents, all to me infinitely more interesting than the stupid and senseless "Steppenwolf" novel in the shack which I read with a shrug, this old fart reflecting the "conformity" of today and all the while he thought he was a big Nietzsche, old imitator of Dostoevsky fifty years too late (he feels tormented in a "personal hell" he calls it because he doesnt like what other people like! ) -- Better at noon to watch the orange and black Princeton colors on the wings of a butterfly -- Best to go hear the sound of the sea at night on the shore. (7.1)

Big Sur touches on the inability of literature to accurately reflect reality. Nowhere is this rift more apparent to Jack then out in Monsanto's cabin, where the natural world is larger and grander than life.

And as far as I can see the world is too old for us to talk about it with our new words -- We will pass just as quietly through life (passing through, passing through) as the 10th century people of this valley only with a little more noise and a few bridges and dams and bombs that wont even last a million years -- The world being just what it is, moving and passing through. (7.5)

Much of Big Sur has to do with Jack looking for a purpose, or meaning for his life. It's possible, then, that writing the novel at all has to do with leaving some mark on the world, and getting around the curse of transience he discusses here in this passage.

And the sadness of it all is that the world hasn't any chance to produce say a writer whose life could really actually touch all this life in every detail like you always say, some writers could bring you sobbing thru the bed f***in bedcribs of the moon to see it all even unto the goddamned last gory detail of some dismal robbery of the heart at dawn. (12.3)

Is this what Jack aspires to in his writing? What makes it so impossible?

The night ending with everybody passing out exhausted on cots, in sleepingbags outside (McLear goes home with wife) but Arthur Ma and I by the late fire keep up yelling spontaneous questions and answers right till dawn like "Who told you you had a hat on your head? " -- "My head never questions hats" -- "What's the matter with your liver training? " -- 'My liver training got involved in kidney work" (19.4)

Jack has already established that words are a poor reflection of the mind. This sort of free association might be the closest he gets to expressing the mind and spirit.

Our radio plays rhythm and blues as we pass the joint back and forth in jutjawed silence both looking ahead with big private thoughts now so vast we cant communicate them any more and if we tried it would take a million years and a billion books. (25.3)

In their close friendship, Jack and Cody don't need words. Their ability to communicate goes beyond the spoken word.

Mighty genius of the mind Cody whom I announce as the greatest writer the world will ever know if he ever gets down to writing. […] Besides I can see from glancing at him that becoming a writer holds no interest for him because life is so holy for him there's no need to do anything but live it, writing's just an afterthought or a scratch anyway at the surface -- But if he could! if he would! (25.3)

This passage illustrates more squandered potential. Much of the sadness of Big Sur comes from this sort of "could, would" wishful thinking.

Nobody in the world even ever dares to write the true story of love, it's awful, we're stuck with a 50% incomplete literature and drama -- Lying mouth to mouth, kiss to kiss in the pillow dark, loin to loin in unbelievable surrendering sweetness so distant from all our mental fearful abstractions it makes you wonder why men have termed God antisexual somehow -- The secret underground truth of mad desire hiding under fenders under buried junkyards throughout the world, never mentioned in newspapers, written about haltingly and like corn by authors and painted tongue in cheek by artists, agh (26.6)

Writing can touch neither the pain of Jack's delirium nor the heights of pleasure. Both extremes of are off limits to the written word.

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