Wednesday, July 23, 2008

Jack Kerouac's "specific elsewhere"

My book group just wrapped up our close reading of Jack Kerouac's On the Road. It was fascinating to see just how much depth the book has beyond the adolescent energy that most people talk about. In this reading of On the Road two things stood out to me in particular; the idea of Sal Paradise as "gonzo journalist" and Kerouac's concept of a "specific elsewhere."

"Gonzo Journalism" is mostly associated with Hunter S. Thompson and is a kind of journalism where the journalist is intimately involved with whatever is being written about, with the piece ultimately being as much about the journalist as about whatever was supposed to be reported on. (Desert race anyone?) In On the Road, Sal reports on two major entities, Dean Moriarity and America. In reporting Dean, Sal presents all of Dean's wild antics, his great rants, and his "digging" and in doing so Sal both creates and destroys one of the great mythological figures in American literature. In reporting America, Sal takes great care to give us a picture of everywhere he went and everywhere he drove through, building a portrait of the country through the accumulation of snapshots. On the Road is also filled with great Whitmanesque lists of the people of America. Juxtaposing these two subjects makes On the Road a book about the closing of the frontier. Both Dean and America vibrate with the energy of pioneers and the commitment to be always in a state of going where no one has ever gone before. But America has gone as far as it's going to go. There is no frontier left so that pioneering energy is turned in on itself, reverberating into the perversity of Wild West shows and eastern businessmen stuffing themselves into cowboy costumes. That same perversion of energy happens to Dean as well. He bounces from coast to coast, from place to place, leaving wreckage and wives everywhere he goes. In one moment this energy turns him into a godly hero and in the next it leaves him a raving madman. In a sense On the Road is an elegy to the frontier, a long wild wake for an American identity we have yet to replace.

Near the end of the book, when Sal, Dean, and Stan are in southern Texas, Kerouac uses the phrase "a specific elsewhere," and that described, to me at least, exactly where Sal and Dean were trying to go. A "specific elsewhere" is a paradoxical space in that the characters always know exactly where they are going—they're going to Denver, or New York, or Italy, or Mexico City, or "It"—and yet the place they are seeking is an inaccessible higher plane of existence that turns every arrival into the first step towards the next departure. Two techniques are presented as solutions to the paradox of the "specific elsewhere;" Dean's and Sal's. Dean's technique is to keep moving. Mexico City might be paradise but after three days, it's deficiencies in comparison to that higher plane of existence reveal themselves and push him on. Sal, however, creates a "specific elsewhere" through the writing of On the Road. By writing down his experiences, Sal creates a specific environment-- the words of the novel-- and in doing so creates The Denver, The San Francisco, The Texas, of his experience; he creates a place of inherent meaning, inherent it-ness. However, because it's a novel, its meaning has a level of flux and The Denver or The San Francisco will always be different to every reader and on every subsequent read.

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