(This essay appeared in translation in Croatia, and was set to appear in a book on Silvan Tomkins’s script theory in the US, but the book never came together. I thought I’d post it here for those who may be interested. I think it’s a solid take on Kerouac’s psychology. Let me know what you think. –Todd)
“The Whole Reason Jack Kerouac Ever Wrote At All“
William Todd Schultz
Department of Psychology
Forest Grove, OR 97116
**Please do not quote without first obtaining permission**
The poet Allen Ginsberg has called Kerouac “the great rememberer,” singling out his “tender brooding compassion for bygone scene & personal Individuality oddity’d therein” (1972, vii). Nicosia’s excellent biography of the writer is titled “Memory Babe,” a moniker bestowed on Kerouac by friends in school. These descriptions make sense. It’s difficult to think of a writer more devoted in his work to simply recording the past, to transcribing “a contemporary record for future time to see what really happened and what people really thought” (Kerouac, 1968). Kerouac’s is a fiction of anecdote. The work’s point is to recall, and in as much detail as possible. The results of this nostalgia fetish are not always positive. Kerouac pays little attention to the selection of detail. The meaning of incidents and what their reproduction contributes to a narrative he has no interest in attending to. Simply remembering is the goal; doing so for dramatic effect, or as a way of revealing character, or to symbolize large themes comes a distant second.
Memory is a complex subject in Kerouac. He makes no distinction between the veridical and what he calls “visions.” What he thinks he remembers is what happened. Epistemology becomes almost a theme in Visions of Gerard, a book Kerouac labels, intriguingly, his “most true.” The world, he says, is a “crystal ball of mind” (29). He writes, “None of the elements of this dream can be separated from any other part” (39). “Hearken to the olden message,” he intones: “it’s neither what you think it is, nor what you think it isn’t. . . none of it is even there, it’s a mind movie” (57). He observes at different points “I do believe I remember” and “Would I could remember,” comparing a particular scene to “a dream, a vision in the mind, which it is” (110). One gets the sense that picturing Gerard, Kerouac’s brother, who died at 9 when Jack was 4, is essential in some way–likely psychologically more than artistically– but as Kerouac laments, the “healing virtues” of such an act may escape him; he lacks “the bridge,” having “lost all my molecules of then without their taste of enlightenment” (4). In the book we hear confided Gerard’s dreams, Jack’s dreams, Jack’s very first memory, Gerard’s visions of heaven, Kerouac’s thoughts while in his crib– in other words, things that may have happened, things that did happen, and things that must have been totally invented, all undifferentiated, all on equal terms vis-a-vis reality.
And that is fine, of course. Psychologically all these visions, fantasies, dreams, or memories are on equal terms anyway. A scene may be just as significant when it did not happen as when it did– even more so, since scenes that did not happen are fantasies, and fantasies are part dream, part art. Benefits derived from differentiation of the real and unreal are therefore few or none. In this chapter I do as Kerouac does: make no distinction between visions and the veridical. I want to focus most on the Great Rememberer’s greatest memory of all– to ask what it means psychologically for Kerouac, and to show how it determines themes and characters central to his Duluoz Legend. For all this Gerard is key. He is the reason Kerouac wrote at all, Jack tells us: “Write in honor of his death” (112). He is the reason Kerouac is who he is. “I am made of loss. . . I have not been the same since my brother Gerard died, when I was four” (Kerouac, 1972, 397 & 359). And finally, he is the reason for, the star of, the memory I propose homing in on. In it Gerard’s function is revealed–along with the function of Kerouac’s art– one Jack never came to terms with, and that accounts for the brown gloom his characters move around in.
I described Gerard–what little seems known about him–in an earlier chapter. I’ll do so again here, but only in summary. His short life left a long death. For Kerouac he never did die, death being the birth of the image, as Thomas Mann put it. He may never have lived, for “only a contour-maker and shadow-selector could prove it, that in all the perfect snow any such thing ever did arrive say Yea and go away”– any such thing as “Gerard’s sweet flower face” (103). Kerouac was studying Buddhism very deeply before, during, and after he wrote Visions of Gerard. It taught him how “the whole world has no reality, it’s only imaginary” (103). Jack puts similar thoughts in Gerard’s head: “Maybe there’s nothing at all. . . All I gotta do is close my eyes and it all goes away. . . There is no Mama, no Ti Jean [Jack], no Ti Nin [sister], Papa–no me” (25).
By all–his family, friends, teachers at Catholic school– Gerard was taken as a saint (Kerouac tells us). He nursed wounded mice. He adored cats, who adored him. Birds fed from his hand. He drew so well his own father doubted the work was his. Because of the dreams he’d had of heaven–during which he saw the Virgin Mary, and white doves sat on his shoulder– nuns from the school came to pray at Gerard’s bedside, asking him questions the answers to which they took down on paper.
Kerouac began Visions of Gerard the morning of December 27, 1955. In the journal later published as Some of the Dharma, reflecting years of study of Buddhism, Jack writes almost forebodingly: “Today I begin the opening novel (chronologically) of DULUOZ LEGEND– VISIONS OF GERARD, the story of the first four years of my life, of my brother who is my true self as Bodhisattva Hero–the mournful idealistic little boy in the gloomy rain– if I cant (sic) handle this I’m lost–Took Benny for kickoff” (1999, 367). The book isn’t really about the first four years of Jack’s life. In fact, Jack plays no role at all, except the one he played in life– observer. Also, up till the day Gerard died, Jack wasn’t even Jack: “While he lived, I was not Ti Jean Duluoz, I was Gerard, the world was his face, the flower of his face. . . The first four years of my life are permeant and gray with the memory of a kindly serious face bending over me and being me and blessing me” (1991, 2).
In keeping with the intention to project into Gerard an ideal self, Kerouac makes him a composite comprised of his own wishes. On one hand he is objectively Gerard. Gerard existed, after all, and based on what he had heard about him, mostly from his mother, one assumes, Kerouac includes what he knows or thinks he knows. But Gerard is mainly a fantasy–part identification, part idealization. His Christlikeness is underscored. The book itself is a “Christly drama.” When the birds come flocking Gerard calls for bread, and multiplies it in crumbs. When his cat innocently eats the mouse whose life he’d saved, Gerard pulls her aside, tells her she won’t go to heaven if she goes on eating and destroying little animals. “I was amazed,” writes Jack, “as one might have felt seeing Christ in the temple bashing the moneychanger tables” (11). Kissing Gerard was like kissing an angel’s wing. When his mother complains of a headache, Gerard lays his head against hers and “waits to hear her cure” (40). When Gerard suffers, his laments and cries of pain recall Jesus on the cross, his pleas to his God: “O my Jesus you’ve left me alone and you’re hurting me–And you too, you were hurted–Aw Jesus–I’ll have to die, I’ll have to die–” (69). Kerouac calls it a “deicide” (117).
His Catholicism never left him. He always worshiped Christ. But Kerouac studied the Dharma too, the sutras and scriptures delivered by Buddha. So if Gerard is Jesus, he must also, as ideal, be Buddha, too. Gerard promises to deliver the world from its idea of itself “that it actually exists” (29). He “divines that all of this is pure division, a grief of separation, the cold is cold because there are two to know it, the cold and he who is en-colded” (42-43). Suffering perplexes him always: “aw God why’d you do all this this suffering?” Unceasing compassion flows from Gerard to the world even as he groans in the middle of his pain. He is immeasurably kind, patient, humble, the “ethereal flower, messenger from perfectness, hearer and answerer of prayer” (70). In a speech a month before his death he tells little Jack, “God put these little things [i.e., cats] on earth to see if we want to hurt them–those who dont do it who can, are for his Heaven–those who see they can hurt, and do hurt, they’re not for his Heaven–See?”
And even before all this, at the book’s start, Kerouac speaks of his “Amazed recollection that from the very beginning I, whoever ‘I’ or whatever ‘I’ was, was destined, destined indeed, to meet, learn, understand Gerard. . . and the Blessed Lord Buddha (and my sweet Christ too through all his Paulian tangles and bloody crosses of heathen violence)–To awaken to pure faith in the bright one truth: All is well, practice Kindness, Heaven is Nigh” (6). Gerard is blessed Lord Buddha and sweet Christ, he is Jack and Jack’s beliefs, he is mournful and idealistic in the gloomy rain (exactly like Jack is), and he is the ideal Jack aspires to, the imparter of immortal wisdom by way of 60,000 subtle gestures, as some define Zen. For all this the book sometimes feels like a protest. No one said Gerard was ever anything but these things, yet Jack wants to make certain nobody gets a wrong idea. And we do meet with incongruities here and there suggesting more ambivalence than Jack lets on. He calls his aim in writing the book “sick.” He labels himself a “Fallen Angel,” implying a Lucifer role he also refers to in an earlier letter to Neal Cassady (which I’ll be discussing soon). The day or two before Gerard dies, while describing the nuns taking down Gerard’s last words, Kerouac confesses “I’m afraid to say what I really want to say” (109). A few pages later, Gerard dead and “admitted to Perfectness,” Jack mysteriously mentions how “no one knows precisely what I know” (116).
The fierceness of Kerouac’s worship, its fixity, its prostration, raises the question of whether there exist different ideas and feelings he wants to avoid. As Freud said, we defend against unpleasant wishes by vigorously proclaiming their opposite. Gerard was not the opposite of a saint; at the same time, whatever real saintliness he possessed, Kerouac no doubt made saintlier still. At a deeper level, the wished-for Gerard, who was really the wished-for Jack, did not succeed in vanquishing another, far darker Gerard. This is where Kerouac’s “greatest memory” comes in.
Kerouac lived to remember. Slices of bread, even, he imagines being “big enough to write a biography on”– any flat surface will do. There are times he grieves “it’s all too much to remember” (2001, 55). His “sick neurotic” life he reduces to “trying to find [my] lost brother in the parlor glooms” (182). What he never really knew–Gerard–he never will forget; what he can;t remember, he conjures.
Two memories (or fantasies, or dreams, or visions) from his life stand out from all the rest. One of these, the time when days before his death Gerard so uncharacteristically slapped Jack in the face, I pursued in some detail already. This I called Kerouac’s “prototypical scene” (see chapter X). As prototypical scenes do by definition, Jack’s permeated his art. It resurfaces in an early vision meant to demonstrate how Gerard, too, is a sinner. (Recall how the slap as initially remembered was preceded by little Jack’s careless mistake of knocking over Gerard’s elaborate Erector set construction.)
At Friday afternoon confession Gerard explains how he hurt the heart of a boy who made him mad. “I pushed lil Carrufel,” he tells the priest. In the schoolyard Gerard had assembled a card-castle at recess; like Jack with the Erector set, the first grader Carrufel knocked it down, “coming too close and curious” (33). “His heart sank,” Gerard frets, “and it’s me that done it. . . When I pushed him he turned pale, he didn’t know anybody was gonna push him at that moment and that was the moment that hurt him” (33). The priest concludes, “Well, you know your sin–You’ll have to keep your patience the next time–Keep well your idea, that you have hurt his heart if not his body–you’ve understood it yourself. I am certain. . . that the Lord understands you” (37).
When Jack describes the slap, he makes sure to say it was inadvertent, that Gerard regretted it with remorse greater than Jack’s disappointed regret over what he had done. In fact the incident serves to illustrate a speech by Gerard about the importance of kindness and never hurting anyone. The Carrufel incident, a screen memory, or at least a derivative of the slap scene, allows Kerouac qua Carrufel to express his hurt less disguisedly, and also to name as a sin what Gerard had done. In any case, Gerard’s rage is real. He will sometimes hurt little boys, even when they do nothing wrong except want to be too near him.
The second memory/vision is the one I want to spend most of my time on. Like all important memories, it recurs. There was little difference between Kerouac’s life and his art; he wrote his fantasies and what he had lived. But alongside the books themselves, his most important autobiographical statement is a letter written to Neal Cassady on December 28, 1950 (Visions of Gerard would be started almost exactly five years later) that he calls “a full confession of my life” (1995, 246). Charter feels that this letter’s attempt to proceed into the actual truth of his life for Cassady “was the foundation for all of Kerouac’s subsequent books” (246).
It can’t be surprising that the letter’s chief subject is Gerard. Kerouac starts with a series of digressions–“I love to digress”– then promises several pages in, “No, we’ll get to the agonized cock of the matter. For my brother was sickly. His name, I say, was Gerard” (251). More hagiography follows. Kerouac quotes others to the effect that his brother was “the strangest, most angelic child” anyone had ever known. He recalls his mother telling of Gerard lying in the backyard grass with a hand cupped over his eyes. What are you doing? his mother wonders. Watching heaven, Gerard replies.
The family’s house was built over an ancient sunken cemetary, “they” said. “I mentioned the cemetary for one reason,” Jack explains: “one clear memory of companionship with the strange Gerard” (255). Little Jack and his sister Caroline are in bed, Gerard in his separate room. Lights flash mysteriously on the ceiling. The smaller children call for Gerard, who says he also saw the lights. “It was the souls beneath the house come forward to haunt us,” Gerard intones.
Amidst all this mystery, with the souls below the house shaking so violently in their graves as to dislodge plaster from the parlor ceiling, Kerouac recollects a “witching hour” memory most pivotal. “What night was it,” he starts, “that I woke up. . . and saw a tall, lank figure standing above my crib in stiff watchfulness of me?” He goes on: “The figure had wild unruly hair and seemed intent on me with hate. I drove it out of my mind at once that it was Gerard risen like a ghost from his bed of miseries–yet, it was Gerard and no one else. In utter dark of that time-night I stared back with rue at my haunter. Stiff, stiff, he never moved, never said a word, never barely breathed, and so persistent in his sullen, lidded look into my babycrib soul that I, in innocence, fell asleep impatiently. . . These are the beginnings of my mysteries. Was it my brother? Of course it was my brother. Who was my brother?” (256).
The book Doctor Sax, written two years after the Cassady letter, starts with the same haunting. “Doctor Sax I first saw in his earlier lineaments in the early Catholic childhood of Centralville–deaths, funerals, the shroud of that, the dark figure in the corner when you look at the dead man coffin in the dolorous parlor of the open house with a horrible purple wreath on the door. Figures of coffinbearers emerging from a house on a rainy night bearing a box with dead old Mr. Yipe inside” (Kerouac, 1959, 4; I’ll return to some of these details later). Added to this are “horrors of Jesus Christ” who was “at the foot of my bed pushing it one dark Saturday night.” Or, “either He or the Virgin Mary stooped with phorescent profile and horror pushing my bed.” In what he calls an intermixture of memory and dream, Jack confesses “I knew I was haunted but said nothing” (5). Skeletons dance in Kerouac’s dreams “because my brother Gerard haunted them” (5).
Later we hear again about the ancient sunken cemetary, the ghosts of the dead beneath the house rattling, crashing plaster again, knocking pickaninny Irish dolls from the shelf. “In darkness in mid-sleep night I saw him standing over my crib with wild hair, my heart stoned, I turned horrified, my mother and sister were sleeping in big bed, I was in crib, implacable stood Gerard-O my brother. . . it might have been the arrangement of the shadows.–Ah Shadow! Sax!” (35).
Kerouac reflects, “Presentiments of shadow. . . came to me early.”
Gerard may have been saintly, but most saints have their scary, sinister side as well– and Gerard is no different. He was born to die. And he haunts Jack hatefully, suggesting what’s in store later, when he really does pass away. I said this was Kerouac’s greatest memory. What I mean is that it determines both Jack’s psychology, his loss affliction or “Orpheus Complex,” and certain themes and characters populating his fiction (Schultz, 1996).
If for the first four years of Jack’s life “the world was Gerard’s face,” that fact does not change over subsequent decades. Gerard is everywhere. He is Buddha, Christ, Jack’s ideal self. He is also Doctor Sax.
Sax is a shape-changing vampire, snake, ghost, always lurking in flowing cape, “slouch hat,” with green face, red hair, red eyebrows, and “purplish” countenance. He summarizes little Jack’s fears, the most pressing of all being death. “When one dies,” Kerouac predicts, “three will die. . . two more will die, who will it be, what phantom is pursuing you?” (1959, 43). The tall, lank figure intent on Jack with hate, standing over his crib with wild hair is, as Kerouac free-associates to the vision, part Gerard, part Shadow, part Sax. It’s all one gloomy gestalt. The same link is made directly again when Kerouac recalls how he first saw Sax in the “corner when you look at the dead man coffin in the dolorous parlor” of the house “with a purple wreath on the door” (quoted more fully above, 4). This Sax/dead man–Mr. Yipe Kerouac calls him too– is first and foremost Gerard, who was prepared by undertakers for his “lying-in-state in our front parlor,” surrounded by wailing relatives with Sax-like “green faces of fear for death of death in time,” the house marked by a wreath with a “fatal blue ribbon” (1991, 110-117. For the trip to the cemetary even the coffin is slid out “sleek like a snake,” another Sax reference). Little Jack is gleeful, the death having excited him, so he gets sent upstairs to bed, where he dreams he is in the parlor again, by Gerard’s coffin and his “brown ghost” (112).
As the book (Doctor Sax) continues on, one senses Kerouac’s need to transform Sax/Gerard into a figure not wholly malevolent– someone unlike the Night Hater, in other words. Sax/Gerard may be a haunter, a “masked by night shadow flitting over the edge of the sandbank,” a “disease of the night” with secret wisdom, undreamed information– he “knew something that no other man knew” (142). But he is also a “personal angel,” “old, old friend,” and “secret lover” who uses herbs and powders to battle the forces of evil. Monks of the “Rooftop Monastery have sent Tibetan secrets to the King of Anti Evil, Doctor Sax” who incongruously announces: “I have dedicated my life to the search and study of the Snake. . . for no–these mortals. . . the children, the brown shroud of night–meet that I protect them from horrors they can not know” (151). In the end Sax/Gerard discovers that “the Universe disposes of its own evil” (245). The Great Black Bird ousts the Snake from its hole. Afterwards Jack still sees Sax from time to time–at dusk, in autumn– but “he only deals in glee now” (245).
When Kerouac speaks of the Night Hater memory as the beginning of his mysteries, he seems to be saying at least two things: that it lies at the core of the mystery of who he is as a person, and that it drives his art. It is a kind of source. In his writing Kerouac never stopped arranging this shadow who bore down on him with such hate. He will find this shadow elsewhere–everywhere– but he will either efface the hate entirely with goodness and immeasurable kindness, or turn it into an image ambiguous in nature, with a fate more hopeful than horrifying (as in the finale of Doctor Sax).
One other interesting memory that Kerouac calls “one of the first if not the very first” of his life concludes Visions of Gerard. It springs to mind as Jack describes the funeral, the coffin being lowered into the ground in the heavy rain. Kerouac is one year-old, with his mother in a shoe repair store full of shelves cluttered with dark shoes, and the vision is of “the great Gloom” (125). As they leave he suddenly sees a “little old man,” very Sax-like in strangely “Dostoevskyan” slanted gray hat and coat. It seems, he says, that the “little man” is moving towards an “inexpressibly beautiful opening in the rain where it will be all-sky and radiant, but I will never go there, as I’m being wheeled another way in my present vehicle [baby carriage]–He, on foot, heads for the pure land” (126). And so does Gerard, the other little man–his mother calls him “my little man, my little sad son”–who now motionless, his long face composed, all “beflowered and anointed,” is “delivered to that Pure Land where I could never go or at least not for a long time” (126). Four-year-old Jack wants somehow to express “Here and Now I see the ecstasy, the divine and perfect ecstasy, reward without end” (127).
Gerard is thus the Little Man too. It is as if any poignancy, especially one concerning death, returns to its roots– the “agonized cock of the matter.” The dead brother lurks in yet another interlude from Dr. Sax, this concerning “the night the man with the watermelon died.” It was a baneful black evening full of shrouds. Jack and his mother walk Blanche home to Aunt Clementine’s house where Uncle Mike is dying; “poet Mike,” the saddest Kerouac in the world (and “that is very sad,” Jack observes, 118). Mike wails, “O the poor Duluozes [Kerouac’s] are all dying!–chained by God to pain–maybe to Hell” (120). Little Jack and the two women pass a funeral home. The discussion is of astrology and fate. We hear how Blanche once tried to commit suicide from the Moody Bridge. Sax can be heard in the roar of the river below. The moon is full. It is a moon of death, Kerouac writes. A man in a suit wearing a hat and carrying a watermelon passes them on the bridge. Jack recalls “I was so happy” (127). But suddenly the man falls; they hear the great thump of the dropped fruit on the wood planks. When he reaches the watermelon man Jack’s “completely terrified and yet I feel the profound pull and turn to see what he is staring at so deadly-earnest with his froth stiffness,” sitting slumped near the rail (128). Is he dead? Jack asks his mother (a question he may have asked before, about Gerard). She makes a sneer, “That man is finished.” Like Sax, and like Jack too–who says of Gerard “I was the knower of this death”– Kerouac’s mother possesses “secret snaky knowledge about death” (129).
Jack and his mother race home “from that scene of moony death on the damned bridge”– one spanning the Merrimac River, maybe even the same bridge the family crossed with Gerard’s body on the way to the cemetary in Nashua. Back with the family Jack’s hair “stood on my head” (145). Something was “somehow wreathy purple and gloomy about our house that night”–the wreath and gloom recalling Gerard’s death. Jack recites a litany of fears. Fish heads cut off in the cellar, the turning visage of the St. Therese statue, doors yawning open in the closet of night, black spiders, and lastly, inevitably, the night Gerard died, and the “excited-by-death” relatives. This elicits “the constant fear” Kerouac had that “either or both of my parents would die” (146; “when one dies, three will die,” he had predicted earlier in the book). A neighbor (at an improbably late hour) strikes a log with his axe, and the family jumps. “I know now it was the voice of doom coming to prophesy my death with proper fanfare,” says Kerouac (146). For a moment he thinks it crosses even his mother’s mind, too, that “the man who died on the bridge was still after us–his spirit didn’t want to give up without a fight” (147).
A dream of Kerouac’s (undated) also connects the bridge and the watermelon man with Gerard. In the dream Jack crosses the Moody Street Bridge with a “holy goat” in his arms, a goat he later calls a “white Lamb.” He lowers him down on the planks, but the animal runs across the street and vaults the rail of the bridge “clean down to his death on the water-crashing rocks below” (Kerouac, 2001, 317). But Jack realizes he’s swimming, he missed the rocks. The lamb makes it to the shore. Running to the underbridge ramp Jack catches him in his arms– “I know I’ll get him by the feet, haul him up, and take him home.” When Gerard dreamed of heaven he was in a “little white wagon” pulled by “two little lambs” (54). To kiss Gerard, Jack muses, is “as soft a sin as kissing a lamb in the belly” (23). As Gerard lies in his sick bed his mother consoles him, “You’ll be well in two shakes of a lamb’s tail–” (71). And when little Jack imagines talks with Gerard in the days his brother was too ill to play, the conversation concerns clouds, kitties, and “lambs” (107). The Moody Bridge is a scene of death and suicide. The dream is a rescue, a picture of death defeated. The watermelon mad died, but Jack saved the lamb.
In any event the Night Hater has spawned another spirit in hot pursuit. Watermelon Man stares stiffly as he succumbs– just as, in the crib scene, the Hater looms in stiff watchfulness. The sight of the body, the presence of Kerouac’s mother, Uncle Mike’s laments, the funeral home the trio passes, the “baneful black evening” so like another gloomy night, the dream of the lamb on the same Moody Street Bridge– all of it evokes Gerard. And Watermelon Man is kin to still another Kerouac haunter– the “Shrouded Traveler” of On the Road and Book of Dreams.
On the Road is Kerouac’s most read novel. Dean Moriarty (Neal Cassady) is its energy, its personification of the West. “Shrouded in mystery,” he reminds Jack of “some long-lost brother.” In Visions of Cody, also about Cassady, Jack is far more explicit: “I am made of loss–I am made of Cody too. . . Yes, Cody is the brother I lost–he could very well have been my brother instead of the actual one I had who died” (318). Gerard is a saint, but a haunter too; Cassady “was so great, so good, that I couldn’t believe–he was by far the greatest man I had ever known. . but I also saw him as a devil, an old witch, even an old bitch from the start” (298). He is a “new kind of American saint”; yet he is also an Idiot, a HOLY GOOF, the Angel of Terror who, like any Angel, “had rages and furies” (1991, 38, 263). In a spooky reversal suggesting his status as both antithesis and mirror, Dean is five years younger than Jack (Gerard was Jack’s elder by five years). Jack is therefore Gerard in this relationship, and Dean little Ti Jean. Dean is the darkness, Jack is the light.
On the Road is a true hegira, a flight from danger. Its atmosphere is unremitting sadness. Wallpaper is sad, thumbs are sad, parks are sad, pots are sad. The red earth, the lights, the brown world, the night– all are sad, endlessly, enormously sad. What is Jack running from? The same Hater in the Night, though here he calls him the Shrouded Traveler. If Dean is Gerard, he must rise to the chase. “I had a vision of Dean,” Kerouac writes, “a burning shuddering frightful Angel, palpitating toward me across the road, approaching like a cloud, with enormous speed, pursuing me like the Shrouded Traveler on the plain, bearing down on me” (259). Earlier the spook is said to resemble a “strange Arabian figure” pursuing Jack “across the desert,” overtaking him finally just before he reaches “the Protective City” (124). Is it myself, wearing a shroud? Jack wonders. “Now that I look back on it,” he decides, “this is only death: death will overtake us before heaven” (124). The difference is, someone or something wants Jack’s death hastened.
In his Book of Dreams, a record of dreams Kerouac wrote out in most cases immediately upon waking, the Shrouded Traveler is a constant companion. Jack on one occasion connects him with his father. But the Traveler also sounds like the Night Hater’s double. In one dream of “madness and death” it’s “late at night” (2001, 233). He [the Shrouded Traveler] “wants to reach out for me,” Kerouac says. He “stands, in an ordinary white shirt, looking at me without expression”–like the Night Hater looked, persistently sullen and “lidded,” implacable.
When one image emerges as the determining nucleus of so many fantasies, the pivot point around which an entire writing life rotates, one can’t help but wonder at the mystery of it all, and the working of imagination over, or combined with, memory. Who was Gerard indeed? Who was Gerard not? Even Jack doesn’t know. Of Gerard he confesses to Cassady he lacks knowledge and “perhaps memory” (1995, 272). But the Great Rememberer can’t not remember. He feels the guilt, he is pursued, the brown gloom of the parlor won’t let him rest, he knows things he fears saying, and it all revolves around the “haunted sadness” that he feels in dreams is “white” (2001, 6). As the Traveler wears his white shirt. As the lamb Jack saves from death is white. As “Visions of Gerard is a poem of pure white” (1999, 416). All the “molecules” that might have brought Gerard back to Jack are lost. So his dead brother becomes a work of art. He lives as a force of substitute formations, each lending his voice to a general noise.
Loss can begin and end with idealization. Not even a murmur of dissent is allowed. The image must be protected, purified, bracketed against leakage. Kerouac tried this tack. In Visions of Gerard we meet a figure of supreme blessedness or beatitude. Jack was studying Buddhism at the time, reading sutras and meditating, so Gerard became Shakyamuni, the Sage of the Shakya clan, Siddhartha Gautama the historical Buddha. Jack never stopped worshipping Christ either, so Gerard multiplied loaves of bread and healed the sick. All the best in himself, every ounce of holiness he possessed Jack transferred to his saint brother. Gerard was the ideal Jack, a perfection to aspire to, a possible self. But what about all the rest of it? What to do with the guilt? Who was Jack really in relation to Gerard? Why did Gerard die and Jack live? Whose fault was that?
In dreams Jack is sometimes a murderer. He alludes to a “same terror” where “I murdered somebody or was a witness, and hid a revealing manuscript in a trash basket, it was pink, like lobsters, towels and walls of hospitals” (2001, 23). The identical “strange sad scenes haunted with guilt, that began long ago at the age of four [Jack’s age when Gerard died]” keep crowding his dreamlife (81). He finds himself alone in “the spectral house,” napping in the “dark bedroom of Gerard’s green desk.” Later there occurs “a sudden murder or discovery of murder. . . I’m destroying evidence, throwing things away–sorting objects–unrememberable horror but it always happens” (88).
In his confession letter to Cassady, Kerouac wonders, “Why did I secretly believe he probably hated me after all?”; Gerard, “who had been my great kind brother had also been my hater in the night” (272). The guilt Jack feels will only dissipate when he dies, he says. He says that he was “the knower” of Gerard’s death, and that Gerard had tried to destroy him. He feels the death was fated, that the shrouds living in the sunken cemetary below the house “were pulling [Gerard],” that “the spirits rattled for his spirit” (272). Gerard died to save Jack, “but my triumph was my loss,” Kerouac writes. “It’s as though Jesus was my brother and I was his flesh-and-blood Judas” (281). Rising to a sort of crescendo Kerouac concludes: “I betrayed him merely by living when he died. He was an angel, I was a mortal; what he could have brought to the world, I destroyed by my mere presence; because if I had not lived, Gerard would have lived” (282).
Why did Gerard hate? Because Jack did too. He wished Gerard dead and Gerard acceded– he died. As his mother lavishes attention on the ailing boy, fussing over him, serving him breakfast first, always before Jack, Kerouac pouts, rattles his crib (like the rattling dead beneath the house). “There’s no doubt in my heart that my mother loves Gerard more than she loves me” (72). He reaches the same conclusion in the “confession” letter, wondering “What was this conspiracy between my mother and brother against my father and me?” (257). What Jack fears is his own hate. His hate killed Gerard. His hate made him a murderer. His hate occasioned “the slap.” The Hater in the Night is Gerard, but he is Jack too, or Jack’s hate projected. The Shrouded Traveler is hate’s debt. And Jack intuited that life–his own– was the only possible repayment. Death had a score to settle. When Kerouac dreams of destroying evidence, what he’s struggling to conceal is the fact that he wanted his brother dead.
What about Jack’s status as knower? This goes to the heart of the mysteries. Death-knowledge is a feature shared by Sax, Kerouac’s mother, and by Jack himself. Signs are everywhere– in dreams, in the river under the Moody Street Bridge. In dreams begin responsibilities, said Delmore Schwartz; the same goes for knowledge. Jack knew but he did not act. His guilt was his failure to intercede. How? The shrouds wanted a spirit. Somebody was done for. One would go below, and one would be spared. In Kerouac’s first book (The Town and the City), very un-Kerouacian, written in a Thomas Wolfe vein before Jack discovered sketching and spontaneous prose, the style most definitive of his work, Francis and Julian Martin are twins. Both suffer sickness, but Julian dies while Francis lives on. Little Peter Martin, a third brother, even has trouble telling the two apart. When Julian dies, he rushes to his returning father, “Francis is dead, Francis is dead!” “You mean little Julian,” his father clarifies (Kerouac, 2000, 35). “Even when they lowered Julian’s little coffin into the grave. . . Peter kept thinking that it was Francis’ coffin” (35). Next the slap makes its inevitable appearance, but here it is Francis who delivers it, not Julian/Gerard. Despite this Peter still saves Francis’ life by laying a pile of “holy pictures” around Francis’ room as he sleeps. He prays to God that the pictures make Francis better, and a week later the boy rallies.
In his first book Kerouac thus spelled things out with special clarity. He makes himself Gerard’s twin. He makes himself sickly, just like Gerard. He makes both brothers equally death-qualified; either might have satisfied the shrouds. Little Peter expresses the duality of Kerouac’s desire. Jack wants Gerard dead, but he wants himself dead too. Or, he wants Gerard to live, and he wants to live, as well. There can be no solution, not in real life at least, not with the shrouds demanding a spirit. But in The Town and the City Kerouac has his cake and eats it too: there are two Gerards–Francis/Jack and Julian. One goes below, and the other survives. And the other survives because Peter–another Jack substitute– takes action. His prayers save him. Things get even a little more complex. Gerard’s full name was Francis Gerard Kerouac. So if Francis is part Jack, and little Peter part-Jack too, then Francis is also part Gerard. And if little Peter saves Francis while Julian dies, he also saves Gerard. This is wish-fulfillment par excellence. Gerard both dies and lives; Jack gets exactly what he desires.
In the simplest terms Kerouac suffers from what is called survivor guilt. Gerard would have brought wonderful things to the world, things Jack destroyed by living. What then to do? Approximate this wonder, actualize it. When Kerouac declares in Visions of Gerard that the only reason he ever wrote at all was because of Gerard, that he wrote in honor of Gerard’s death, he isolates the impetus behind his art. His art, only his art, warranted his existence. His art, his massive fame, was meant not for him, but for Gerard, not for Francis the survivor, but for Julian. Gerard was the artist, so Jack lived to make that promise real. His work was an obeisance. And because it symbolized Gerard’s loss it constantly occasioned guilt. In yet another dream Jack recalls “one awful central scene.” Again, as always, he’s “in the parlor brown and funeral and coffin-like, Gerard is dead in his coffin and all my writings are racked like candle flickers in a file box by the stuffed sofa in the suffocant gloom dark, literally writing in my brother’s tomb” (2001, 116). Little Peter said prayers for Francis, spread holy pictures around his sick bed; Jack offers his art instead, whose purpose is repayment. It flickers in the brown gloom. It’s the dead boy’s wreathy purple voice. It came too late to save Gerard, but it kept the Great Rememberer alive.
This experiment isn’t possible, but if half of what I’ve said is true, then had Gerard lived, there would be no Jack Kerouac. The Great Rememberer would have had nothing to recall, or the impetus for writing down everything, Jack would lack. As he tells his sister, “Now all I remember about Gerard is his slapping me on the face, despite all the stories Mom and Pop tell me of his kindness to me. . . I’ve been trying like hell, and all I can remember is that slap in the face” (87-88). So in Visions of Gerard Kerouac recovers imaginatively all the stories of kindness. Gerard’s christlikeness and boddhisatva nature is envisioned. But the slap is what Jack really knows, so he must make sense of that one memory, as well– thus we meet the Night Hater, Dr. Sax, the watermelon man, the Shrouded Traveler, that concert of gloom Kerouac never stepped out of, though in his art he tried to. The slap made the impossibly good Gerard necessary as a kind of protest, but it made all the other figures just as indispensable as a means of working through. Bringing out the hate and the guilt was Jack’s only means of moving beyond. He knew this. The hate and guilt he hoped to extract, “like a bad appendix” (88). And the means of extraction, he told his sister, was none other than psychoanalysis. “Psychoanalysis can make me remember the kind things Gerard did to me, and the kind feelings I had for him–which would thus balance against the terrible guilt complex and restore normalcy to my personality” (87).
Kerouac did suffer from a sort of complex. In fact, in an earlier
publication I gave the name “Orpheus Complex” to his pain (Schultz, 1996).
Deri and others (Deri; Maslow) observe that genuinely creative people resort
to repression considerably less than do non-creative people. Lack of
repression accounts for the equal rights demands of opposing drives. Non-
artists might deal with polarized needs by disavowing one while accentuating the other. Artists, in contrast, synthesize opposites within one complex symbolic form. Kerouac exemplifies this line of thought. The slap he might have repressed, and the image of the Night Hater, as well. He might have
accentuated good Gerard, all the kind things Gerard was said by his parents to
have done for him. But just like Orpheus, Jack could not help looking back;
he looked out of guilt, out of a need for reckoning. His Eurydice stalked him,
bore down on him with hate for what he had taken from her–life. And what
we refuse to forget, to cover up with opposites or negations, we must
somehow order. The raw material gets fashioned into the best possible
gestalt. Sax, for one, represents this blending– an eerie, darkly lurking
haunter on one hand, but a defender against evil on the other. Same with
Cassady, that angel of terror. Same with the “little man” of Kerouac’s earliest
memory who, Sax-like with his Dostoevskyan hat, faintly ominous in his
insistent presence, still finds his way to that inexpressibly beautiful opening
in the rain, that Pure Land.
Those with an “Orpheus Complex” also seek truth, the one sure
bulwark against death. What is true is true forever. Truth never dies; it stays what it is eternally. Kerouac for better or worse opposed all craft. His spontaneous prose resembled in its anti-censorship Freud’s concept of free-association. The first thought was the purest thought, and it made for the best art. To Ginsberg he explains his concept of sketching: “You just have to purify your mind and let it pour the words and write with 100 personal honesty both
psychic and social etc. and slap it all down shameless, willy-nilly, rapidly. . . It’s the only way to write” (1995, 356). As we saw, what Kerouac was trying like hell to remember was Gerard, something good about Gerard to balance out the badness of the slap and the Night Hater; and the whole reason he wrote at all was Gerard, in honor of Gerard. That being so, the development of a technique no different from free-association, a therapy tool, meets Jack’s need perfectly. His wish was to uncover, and his creative process supported that goal. He hoped to slap it all down—an interesting choice of words— shamelessly and in a sense artlessly, at least as far as art is traditionally understood as selection and shaping of events. But artless or artful, truth functioned antidotally. He must have figured it would set him free. It was the flickering candles in the brown gloom of the coffin, the cruel radiance of what is, to quote another Orphean artist, James Agee, who lost his father at age five.
As Freud said, we never relinquish love-objects. We search out
replacements. And Kerouac did this tenaciously. His ouvre reduces to hero-
worship. There is Cassady, of course, the hero of both On the Road and
Visions of Cody. There is Japhy Ryder (in real life the poet Gary Snyder), hero
of the Dharma Bums, about whom Alvah (Allen Ginsberg) ecstatically
exclaims, “Japhy Ryder is a great new hero of American culture.” Jack agrees:
“He’s mad! And other things I like about him, his quiet sad moments when
he don’t say much” (1976, 32). The quiet sadness Japhy shares with Gerard,
the original hero and boddhisatva saint. Snyder introduced Kerouac to
Buddhism, in fact, so the Zen-like qualities Jack finds in Gerard derive from
what he had seen in, and learned from, Snyder primarily. Doctor Sax too is
dotted with hero figures. Scotty Boldieu is a husky, strangely old looking 14
year old little league pitcher. “I liked him and hero-worshipped him
immediately,” Kerouac recalls (though he never hoped to “rise high enough”
to meet him). Jack reads his thoughts on the mound, imagines him “maybe
thinking about his mother who made him oatmeal and beans in the gloomy
gray midwinter dawns of Lowell” (37). Scotty never fails, Kerouac announces
gravely. And like all the other heroes, and anti-heroes for that matter, Scotty
is Gerard. As Kerouac explains, “his name was Boldieu, it immediately stuck
in my mind with Beaulieu—street where I learned, to cry and be scared of the
dark and of my brother for many years (till almost 10)—this proved to me all
my life wasn’t black” (38). The hero’s light makes the dark less fearful.
Finding heroes, another feature of the “Orpheus Complex,” allows for
continuing relations with those now gone. In Visions of Gerard Jack wonders
what Gerard would have done had he lived– maybe be a painter or a bridge
builder (49). By inventing brother-surrogates like Cassady and Snyder
Kerouac predicts Gerard’s possible futures. Gerard lives in fantasy, like all
lost objects. He is hallucinated alive.
Finally, early loss occasions receptivity to suffering. The world
becomes gloomy, just like Kerouac’s. And this gloom, tinged with the guilt of
the survivor, grows into a problem. It must be addressed. Possible
alternative states must be sought out. Trauma like loss drills a hole in that
self-protective carapace we all possess. Consequently loss-afflicted writers feel
more intensely. Reality destroys the capacity for denial (and repression).
Death happens, unfairly and with finality, and the question is both why, and
how to go on, what to do about it. Gloom gave all Kerouac’s books their
atmosphere. Sadness was what he felt and what he projected into his creative
world. Buddhism is a way out of suffering, impermanence’s anodyne; it
suited Kerouac ideally. He knew impermanence well. He also fought it, in
his way, by inventing a world of remembered visions that would outlast him
and never really die. In a preface to Big Sur he declares his ultimate intention
to “collect all my work and re-insert my pantheon of uniform names, leave
the long shelf full of books there, and die happy” (1962). It’s all a mind
movie. Form is emptiness and emptiness is form, as Kerouac knew from his
study of the sutras. But the form—words—kept coming in torrents, and
Kerouac kept writing this emptiness down with obsessive ardor. If he wanted
to live and die simultaneously, his words he wanted to be fully empty.
Jack Kerouac never got around to inserting his pantheon of uniform
names. The books are there on the shelf, but he did not die happy. He drank
himself to death in his mother’s home. The Angel of Terror, Cassady, was
dead too, a fact Kerouac resisted believing. By this time there was nothing left
to remember. The Gerard-haunted Duluoz Legend had all been put down on
paper, an entire mind emptied of its contents. The myth ended, and so did
the life, because the point of the life was the myth. Remembering was living.
Maybe there was some last truth, however unreassuring, the kind that came
as the undertakers took Gerard away, revealing “the scene behind the scene,”
the pure light of the Pure Land that cracked open in Jack’s head “like an
oyster and I see it, the house disappears in her Swarm of Snow–Gerard is dead and the soul is dead and the world is dead and dead is dead” (111). Two
forms, twins becoming emptiness.