October 5, 2007

Kerouac's On The Road: The 50th Anniversary Of A Book I Had Not Read




So I read it.  

What is striking is how little it resembles the book everyone seems to think it is.  

Has anyone actually read this book?  Nine people total, all literary critics?

Enough has been written about the book itself.  A more interesting question is why so many people got it so wrong.  


I can't be the only one whose impression of the book, from hearing about it but not actually reading it, was that it was about young, potent men, lost in a growing commercial society, two coiled springs ready to pop, looking for adventure-- America style.   And this Road Trip that launched a thousand, other boring, useless road trips, was about young men looking to experience the world, really see, really live, really feel, free of the constraints of an artificial post war soulless society.  So, khakis on and Moleskine's in shirt pockets, top down on an old convertible, they set out to find life.  Testosterone, benzedrine, and a full tank of gas.

Well, guess what?  That impression is wrong.  You know what the book is really about?  It's a primer on how to be a narcissist.

Right off the bat: these are not cool guys.  This isn't even Henry Miller uncool.  This is not a dismissive insult, but the only word that can be used to describe the Sal Paradise/Kerouac character is "dork."  Remember the guy in high school who quoted Monty Python and the Monster Manual-- seemed smart-- but was unable to distinguish himself in any meaningful way?   He has big ideas, of course, but is full of ambivalence, lacking in any type of purposeful drive, no real direction.   Restless, but lazy.  That's Sal, that's On The Road.  This is not testosterone augmented with benzedrine.  This is a guy who likes his naps.  Here are the first two sentences of the book:

I first met Dean not long after my wife and I split up. I had just gotten over a serious illness I won't bother to talk about, except that it had something to do with the miserably weary split-up and my feeling that everything was dead. (1)

You can already tell this is going to be the story of a passive guy who needs to be lead.

Well, he finds such a leader in Dean Moriarty.  I won't bore you with the character analysis; suffice it to say that Dean is (I guess) the "free-spirit" character everyone imagines the book must be about, bedding women, stealing cars, doing whatever the moment calls for.  I know it sounds very superman, literary, but it's not.  Dean isn't an antihero, or even amoral, or a free spirit-- he's simply a jerk.  I defy anyone to identify anything he does in the book that is worthy of any sort of praise or emulation.  When he talks, your sole instinct is to open fire at a Starbucks.  You don't want to be Dean Moriarty, you want to bitch slap him.  Not only does he do nothing of any value to anyone, he does nothing with purpose.  He's a bullshitter without any reason to bullshit.  It's empty, idiotic.  Here, I literally opened the book to a page and put a finger down:

[Sal] said, "there must be some ideal bars in town."

"The ideal bar doesn't exist in America.  An ideal bar is something that's gone beyond our ken.  In 1910 a bar was a place where men went to meet after work, and all there was was a long counter, brass rails, spittoons... Now all you get is chromium, drunken women..."

Here's another, again at random, I swear: 

"The truth of the matter is we don't understand out women; we blame on them and it's all our fault," I said.

"But it isn't as simple as that," warned Dean.  "Peace will come suddenly, we won't understand when it does-- see, man?" 

I've heard these same kind of sentiments expressed hundreds of times, not ironically always in bars and coffeeshops. And I had the same reaction then: if she sleeps with him, I'm going  Unabomber. 

But enough about the characters, what about the spirit of the book?  You know, getting out there, seeing life?

The notion that they're trying to experience things or learn things or grow is precisely wrong.  That's the mistake nearly everyone I talk to has made.  The experiences are incidental, the learning completely absent; the real purpose of the trip is to say that you went on the trip.

It seems impossible to me that you could take a trip around the country and literally notice nothing about your surroundings, but that's exactly what happens.  I know "America" is supposed to figure prominently into the spirit of the book, but it could easily have been A Railpass Through Europe  or Backpacking Through The Warsaw Pact and it would have made no difference, at all.   That America is not well described could be dismissed as poor writing, but it's actually an example of very accurate writing: the setting has no external importance whatsoever-- except as it impacts them.  That's narcissism.  It's simply a prop for an image they want to convey; traveling down Route 6 for them is the same as the career of the female lead in every romantic comedy (writer/designer) or the apartment of the male lead, rich or poor (Soho loft.) 

They're always rushing to get to the next great place; every place they get to turns out to be a disappointment.  And so off again to the next great place. For some reason this is taken to be the result of some inner passion, some drive to experience new things.  It's not.  The real point of the drive is: as long as they're traveling, they don't have to confront the reality of a place.  

The entire spirit of the book can be summarized by Dean's words: "Sal, think of it, we'll dig Denver together...!"  That's what a man who is trying to con a woman into running off with him would say.  Denver, really??  Really?  Why?  Because it starts with D?  I'd at least momentarily entertain the theory that D cities are great places to get to, but the real reason he wants to get to Denver, or anywhere else, is precisely because the longer he stays in any one place, the better chance he'll be discovered to be a loser.  Time to go where the grass is greener, somewhere people don't know you're there to crap on it.

That's what the Road is.  The Road isn't freedom, or possibility, or growth; it's denial.  It's not having to confront the triviality and purposelessness of your existence.  It's not having to listen to your Mom tell you you aren't going to get into college with those grades, or a wife who nags you about being out all night drinking instead of fixing the bathroom because, well, you've been out all night drinking and not fixing the bathroom.

This narcissistic ambivalence is the root cause of their disappointment in each-- the same  reason dating is so hard for some teens and 20-somethings.   You don't actually want a girl, they want the possibilities of a girl, before she becomes a real person.  Before you learn she likes American Idol, before you discover her annoying laugh, and, most of all, before she finds out who you really are-- before you can't fool her anymore. 

If you want further evidence of this parallel, consider the book describes numerous encounters with really young girls.  I'm guessing Kerouac wasn't trying to convince us he was a pedophile;  So why tell us?  Take it at face value, what appeal could there be?  The same as for any regressed pedophile: it's easier to convince a young girl (or a broken girl) that you're somebody.  The strong but introspective loner; the mustached, Porsche driving, sophisticate; a good lover, a genius, an artist, whatever.  Try that on a normal woman and you know what you get?  Fake orgasms.

This is the story of two guys at the junior prom, standing in the corner, fantasizing about what it'll be like after they get discovered.  Not that they're taking any concrete steps towards that end beyond simply fantasizing.

And further supporting their small mindedness-- they're thinking about what those girls at this dance will think about them ten years from now.

Narcisissm is consciously creating an artificial identity that you then fight tooth and nail to get others to believe is true. That's On The Road.  Not just the plot of On The Road, but On The Road itself.  Consider how it was written: everyone knows  that Kerouac was high on benzedrine, and the book poured out of him, in three weeks of sleepless creation, typed onto a single, long scroll of paper, unedited, raw, real.  But here's the thing: the book wasn't the result of that process, he planned that specific process in advance, on purpose.   Same with the cross country trips--  this wasn't a restless guy, who had to travel, had to move, and then later wrote a memoir; he went on the trips in order to write a book. He actually started the book before he even went on the trip.  The process didn't generate a book; the process was the whole point.   The novel's popularity rests entirely on the image around it, that he created, on purpose.  That's why its popularity exists despite apparently so few people actually having read it.  If the book had been published anonymously, no one today would have ever heard of it.

This is the main problem with people who love On The Road but have never actually read it.  They think Kerouac is in that book, so they think they like Kerouac.  Or, at least, the person they think Kerouac is, i.e. the character in the book, or, more accurately, the character they think is in the book.

This partially explains some of the problem Kerouac had after the publication of the book. By the time it was published in 1957 he was 35, but it was about trips he had taken ten years earlier.  People hounded him see if he was like Dean (in fact, Kerouac was Sal, but everyone wanted him to be the "cool" character.)  They wanted him to be a young, free-man hipster type, not a lonely alcoholic living with his mom.   But that's what he had wanted them to think when he wrote it.  When he's taking the trips and writing the book, creating an identity and convincing people of it is all that's important.  But by the time he's 40 and that fake identity never really pans out, he's disgusted with himself.  I'm going to guess that of the 9 people in America who have actually read the book, most read it in high school.  If they read it as adults, they'd probably feel about it like Kerouac did at 40:

At the end of the book (SPOILER!) Sal/Kerouac becomes disillusioned, disgusted with Dean.  Relationships end for everybody, but what's different is Kerouac is disillusioned by Dean as a mentor.  Who the hell has mentors?  Answer: people looking to become something they are not.  That's what happened to Kerouac.  Now he's 40: he's not Sal, he's not Dean, he's not a hipster, and damned if everyone didn't misunderstand the book (of course: they had only read about it.)   I can understand why he becomes a drunk.  That's where unrequited narcissism always leads.

It seems a lot of people have developed notions and ideas that are partially informed by On The Road-- the version that they imagine exists, the one with Nietzschean super-antiheros looking for truth behind the wheel of a convertible.  But what happens to those ideas when you one day discover that your version was wrong?

Here's your tie in to medicine.  Doctors like to remind people that "there's still a lot we don't know."  That's a distraction from the more truthful version, "there's a lot we don't know about what is already known, that we're supposed to know." They have notions of what the clinical trials showed, or what Freud said, or how medicines work, that are wrong-- but they're basing entire careers on these wrong ideas.

Here's the thing: even when someone actually sits and reads the primary text and finds it is different, it doesn't replace their existing (wrong) information, it only supplements it.  There's not one On the Road that people got wrong; there are now two On The Roads, one they read and one they imagined existed, and they get to pick which one they want.  I guess that's ok, as long as it's only On The Road.



1. Interestingly, Kerouac's original version wrote not of the separation of his wife, but of the death of his father, which is not only more accurate, but considerably more powerful, especially as it related to "the feeling everything was dead."  I don't know what to make of this change. 


I found out about OTR, Ulys... (Below threshold)

October 5, 2007 9:35 PM | Posted by Tony von Krag: | Reply

I found out about OTR, Ulysses and the Hobbit in '65. Of them all only the Tolkein I've been able to finish. Each is a "road" story but IMO the self absorption and turgid writing destroy the journey OTR & Joyce want to tell.

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May I suggest that no one, ... (Below threshold)

October 5, 2007 10:06 PM | Posted by Lucent: | Reply

May I suggest that no one, anywhere, ever, in the history of the world has ever put pen to Moleskine without visualizing the completed, ragged book levitating behind futureglass as the timeless relic of revolution its author always knew it would be?

Alone's response: of course. But the point here is that Kerouac created a book he hoped would be timeless, but instead sparked an idea everyone associates with the book and him, but which is neither the book nor him. I'd expect him to be one bitter man, with so many "agreeing" with things he never wrote nor believed. Hey, Marx is like that.

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I haven't read On the Road,... (Below threshold)

October 6, 2007 4:58 AM | Posted by acute mania: | Reply

I haven't read On the Road, but what you say about narcissism is dead on. BTW-I haven't gotten very far in life and I really like the way you think. Would you be my mentor?

Alone's response: Trust me, you don't want me as a mentor, nor as a friend. But, to quote Homer Simpson, "I like the way you think. I'd like to subscribe to your newsletter."

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Yeah, I never read On The R... (Below threshold)

October 6, 2007 2:16 PM | Posted by Fargo: | Reply

Yeah, I never read On The Road either, primarily based on the sort of people who have suggested it to me. Being someone who endeavors to finish any book they start reading, I want to extend a hearty thanks for saving me the trouble.

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<a href="http://www.newyork... (Below threshold)

October 6, 2007 4:32 PM | Posted by Shalmanese: | Reply


Alone's response: (quoting from the link, above):

“Hey, look, it’s that kid Simon, who wrote that scathing poem for the literary magazine.”

“You mean the one about how people are phonies? Wow—I loved that poem!”

“Me, too. Reading it made me realize for the first time that everyone is a phony, including me.”

“The only person at this school who isn’t a phony is Simon.”

“Yeah. He sees right through us.”


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“The only people for me are... (Below threshold)

October 6, 2007 9:27 PM | Posted by shaan: | Reply

“The only people for me are the mad ones, the ones who are mad to live, mad to talk, mad to be saved, desirous of everything at the same time, the ones who never yawn or say a commonplace thing, but burn, burn, burn, like fabulous yellow roman candles exploding like spiders across the stars and in the middle you see the blue centerlight pop and everybody goes "Awww!”

Alone's response: exactly. "never say a commonplace thing." See my excerpts above. "mad to be saved" from what? How? As the result of what energy or work by you? "Who never yawn." Then why need so many amphetamines?

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If anyone would like some b... (Below threshold)

October 6, 2007 9:43 PM | Posted by AK: | Reply

If anyone would like some background on the various artists, entrepreneurs, hustlers and visionaries who influenced the 1960s, get and read Gary Lachman's book, Turn Off Your Mind:The Mystic Sixties and the Dark Side of the Age of Aquarius.

Last Psychiatrist might find this item interesting. Lachman reports what happened to Kerouac when K took a job as a fire watcher.

This job entailed living in complete solitude, in a cabin, in the silent wilderness of Desolation Peak--and staying there for sixty six days.

"Kerouac lived alone for sixty-six days", Lachman wrote. "The idea was to get enlightened or at least have visions. The universe had other plans. A kind of lunacy without the Zen descended upon Kerouac. Peering at the cold, snowbound expanse of silent rock,mute forest, and humbling peaks, Kerouc felt he was looking at a mirror. What he saw was a void, otherwise known as Jack Kerouac. No booze, no drugs, no sex, no cars, stone cold sober, Kerouac had an unexpected encounter with himself. The unreadable tracts of spontaneous prose that make up Desolation Angels (1960) is one result of Kerouac's unsuccessful attempt to capture strange forces.'

(Lachman, Turn Off Your Mind, page 109)

As we know, classical psychoanalysts found themselves stymied by those persons unable to tolerate the task of lying on the couch, facing the wall, and free associating.

Living alone for sixty six days in silent wilderness would be even more hazardous for those lacking sufficient ego strength.

Alone's response: wow, that's amazing. Amazing it happened, amazing no one seems to know about it, and amazing Kerouac seemed not to have learned anything at all from the experience-- he was in his 30s when he did this? "without the Zen..." to my point: how obtuse do you have to be when a form of enlightenment literally slaps you in the face for two months, and you get nothing out of it?

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Actually, I;m pretty sure t... (Below threshold)

October 6, 2007 10:57 PM | Posted by Jennifer Emick: | Reply

Actually, I;m pretty sure the benzedrine tale is an urban legend.

And of course it's about narcissim...that's what being twenty is about- and I don't know who told you about the book, but they were dead wrong- the self-centeredness of the characters is central. It may be a tad ironic that twenty-somethings miss the point, or that boomers sentimentalize about it, but that's not Kerouac's problem.

Alone's response: it appears the benzedrine was really just coffee, lots of it. But the rest of your point may be right; in which case, what does it mean when two generations of readers think the story is a template, when it's really a reflection?

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LP wrote:"..." to ... (Below threshold)

October 7, 2007 8:17 PM | Posted by AK: | Reply

LP wrote:

"..." to my point: how obtuse do you have to be when a form of enlightenment literally slaps you in the face for two months, and you get nothing out of it?"

(Correct me if I am wrong, I am not a clinician.)

It is not a matter of being obtuse; it means lacking sufficient inner stablity to hold and abide when the silent wilderness holds up a mirror and you face your emptiness. Quite intelligent people may be unable to do it if fragile inside.

When I was a tiny kid, I went electively mute. In the very early Sixties, they did not yet know how to do family therapy. The best the children's clinic could do was to have my parents come in for individual therapy, while I participated in the school program.

(Which worked. I resumed talking--a very good thing since I nearly was Dx'd with autism.)

My mother noticed that Dad stopped going to sessions and asked her therapist why the clinic did not insist that he particpate.

They told Mom that thier take on Dad was that he was so internally fragile they feared he would decompensate if exposed to insight therapy and they did not have any assurance that they would be able to put him back together again.

And a cousin of mine, son of my father's brother, tried classical psychoanalysis and could not tolerate the task of lying on the couch and free associating--a 50 minute hour equivalent of what Kerouac sought to do while fire-watching on Desolation Peak for 66 days.

My cousin was helped only when his analyst referred him to another practitioner who had trained with Heinz Kohut and had methods of working with those persons who could not bear the lack of structure inherant in classical psychoanalysis.

My therapist said, rather sadly, 'No matter how infuriating their behavior is, the thing to always remember about narcissistic people is that they live in terror no matter how well it is walled off.'

This guy also gets support from a consultancy group and makes jolly sure to take days off.

The sad thing reading the Lachman book is that many of the charismatic people whose ideas and projects inspired the Sixties were highly inspirational, but unable to reciprocate the loyalty of wives, children, and their closer associates.

Alone's response: I'd say your therapist is almost right-- it's not terror, it's dread. Dread that unless you micromanage all of everything, everything will collapse/everyone will leave you. And about inner stability: yes, exactly.

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OTR was voted as one of the... (Below threshold)

October 7, 2007 9:41 PM | Posted by Patrick Cullinan: | Reply

OTR was voted as one of the
top 100 literary works of the 20th century. In the year 2007 you are offering up a psychoanalytic review of events that were written about that were a narrative of 1947-1951. When you dump
that MD and acquire a Phd. in English Lit. I then might give a shit about your opinion of a literary work.

Alone's response: I'm curious a) which part of my post was psychoanalytic; b) why you think a PhD in English lit makes one more able to discuss the book; c) and if a PhD is relevant, why a vote by Time Magazine and its readers has any weight?

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Just got back from a short ... (Below threshold)

October 7, 2007 10:17 PM | Posted by Jim Williams: | Reply

Just got back from a short trip to Lowell, MA to look at the scroll, birthplace, grave, etc. We had the same discussion in the car on the way back.

Some of Mark Twain's characters reflect the racism and stupidity of his time. It may be easier for me to read because I live a century later and have not had to personally experience racism.

Nick Hornby writes High Fidelity about a shallow character that cannot express emotions or his own thoughts so he substitutes lists of commercial/pop culture icons. But people don't see the shallowness, they see "he's just like me!"

Don DeLillo is the hardest for me, as it hits the closest to home. He shows the vacuous, selfish, greed that destroys our families, communities, our environment, and our relationships with others. But there are too many who like his books because they can "relate" (if you can even use that word in this case) to his characters.

A good novel is not always, or perhaps ever, about what we should aspire to. Often it tries to show that what we imagine or desire is not quite what you thought it would be.

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Modern Library not Time:</p... (Below threshold)

October 8, 2007 8:09 AM | Posted by Patrick Cullinan: | Reply

Modern Library not Time:

The Modern Library's panel, a division of Random House, included Cerf, Daniel J. Boorstin, A.S. Byatt, Shelby Foote, Vartan Gregorian, Edmund Morris, John Richardson, Arthur Schlesinger Jr., William Styron and Gore Vidal -- seven men and one woman.

I was too sarcastic. You
know that there has been
way too much print about this book lately. People are over analyzing, crapping on Kerouac's personal life, etc. It is just a god damn book finished in 1951 about a road trip in America.

Though, I would like to know what you think of the mind of Cormac Mccarthy. Now there is one sick prick. I love his writing.

Alone's response: there is a Time Best 100, and On The Road is on it, which is why I thought you were referencing those guys (Grossman is also responsible for Time's Person of The Year.) I haven't read McCarthy (yet)-- it took me 50 years to get to On The Road!

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Another On the Road Narrati... (Below threshold)

October 8, 2007 12:03 PM | Posted by AK: | Reply

Another On the Road Narrative--Carlos Castaneda

Having Ph.D degrees means very little---intellectuals can be seduced by fad/herd mentality, too. This is not supposed to happen, but unfortunately it has happened.

A depressing example:

Carlos Castaneda got a Ph.D in anthropology for The Teachings of Don Juan, despite his never producing field notes, films or any solid proof that Don Juan existed.

Extensive research has demonstrated that Castaneda's work was fraudulent.

Tales of Don Juan was also an 'on the road' narrative that colonized the inner life of a whole generation--and it also generated an entire public myth of Carlos Castaneda himself.

Yet after Tales was published, discerning persons noted that the book gave no solid information about the locale where the events took place--nothing about the actual harsh physical conditions of the Sonoran desert, where a stroll at mid day can be lethal unless a person takes extensive precautions.

Castaneda did not have his Don Juan character speak or use terms from the Yaqui language--the book gave little notice to what any shaman could consider important---family ties, tribal ties, seasons of the year, specific names of plants and animals etc.

This absence of regard for surroundings is similar to what is mentioned about Kerouac--that the landscape isnt give much mention.

There is a lot of information on this site.


For very sad evidence of how Ph.D's and the academic establishment can fall victim to fad mentality, read Carlos Castaneda, Academic Opportunism and Psychedelic Sixties, by Jay Courtney Fikes.

(Fikes has lived amoung the Huichol tribe and reported at least one instance of a Huichol shaman attacked and robbed at home by greedy westerners questing psychedelic drugs. One outcome of Castaneda's fiction was that shamanism was commercialized, attracted impatient greedy people, and tribal peoples found themselves overrun. In some cases, due to the excesses of these starry eyed visitors, the tribal people's quiet use of psychedelics was threatened with criminalization)

In a footnote, Fikes notes people have been injuired taking Datura plant according to indformation in Castaneda's books.

Other information is available in Castaneda's Journey:The Power and the Allegory by Richard de Mille (who found that Castaneda used ethnographic material that itself was sloppily done

and for a report by a person do did follow Castaneda down his road and learned to her cost how a narcissist is unable to reciprocate love and loyalty---read Amy Wallaces memoir The Sorcerer's Apprentice: My Life with Carlos Castaneda.

When Wallace bore witness to the ugly reality of actually living under Castaneda's childish and cruel authority, she caught hell from people who had never lived with Castaneda, but who had linked thier inner lives to the 'on the road' narrative crafted by Castaneda--and the fictional public personal created by Castaneda to conceal his fragile self.

Regrettably, my alma mater, UCLA, saw fit to publish an anniversary edition of Castaneda's Tales of Don Juan. Ph.D's and university presses can remain prisoners of fad mentality.

It is fascinating that people like Kerouac, Castaneda and others can be very inspirational, yet be hurtful, even highly destructive when they attempt intimate relationships.

Because of this inspirational capacity, they can be highly beguiling, perhaps because they are as small children in adult bodies, with adult language and artistic skills.

The child aspect that is public issues for in creativity, charm, and the inspirational/charismatic capacity--and that is what the public, including the Ph.D tastemakers enjoy.

But in private, these same people can be quite disastrous to live with--and that public aspect is usually dismissed as irrelevant by those who only care about the public, artistic output.

But the wives, girlfriends, parents and those whose loans go unpaid--they make the art possible, but the price they pay in loyalty goes unreciprocated.

My mother made the mistake of getting involved with such a person--and refused to admit it.

Alone's response: inspirational even before anyone reads the book. It seems to me that books like this speak to some archetype or primitive model, which immediately we connect with, facts notwithstanding. The Bible is like that as well-- people "predict" what it says and go at it full force. In a way, early Protestantism was a way of preventing this ad hoc interpretation (Catholicism) by forcing people to read the book itself. As for living with these people, I'd say you run into a classic narcissist/borderline dyad, wherein the Castaneda-type personality overwhelms the relationship, and everything is seen from that context. The result is misery, of course, but an inability to appreciate where the misery is really coming from-- you project it outwards.

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I couldn't really answer th... (Below threshold)

October 8, 2007 12:56 PM | Posted by Jennifer Emick: | Reply

I couldn't really answer that, except that people seem to make an art of missing the point. It might just be that people identify with a character, and that blinds them to the author's real intent.

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You have the be the most na... (Below threshold)

October 8, 2007 11:59 PM | Posted by A Doc: | Reply

You have the be the most narcissistic psychiatrist I've ever seen. Please get over yourself.

Alone's response: no. The blog and the post may, in fact, be indicative of my narcissism, but you can't extrapolate to how I behave as a doctor.

As to my narcissism, you could have made an astute comment, something like, "rather than this being a review of the book itself, it's a review of your relationship to the book and to the people who read it-- isn't that an example of your own narcissism?" To which I would have responded, "oh you think you're better than me? I call you out, bus stop at 3:30." And then you would have said, "no way am I fighting you." And I'd say, "why, you chicken?" and you'd say, "I don't fight narcissists, I force them to confront their distorted projections of internalized objects." And then I would have laughed and said, "hey, what's with the square?!" and then gone home and got drunk on rum and cried while naked in a dark and lonely apartment. But "please get over yourself" is good too, I guess.

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(quote)Alone's response: in... (Below threshold)

October 9, 2007 9:07 AM | Posted by AK: | Reply

(quote)Alone's response: inspirational even before anyone reads the book(unquote)

That is what I find fascinating--that people can get inspired/internally colonized by an idea about a book, before having read the book, or without having read it.

A friend of mine survived being in a destructive personality cult led by a charismatic psychopath. The cult was based on the work of Gurdjieff.

My friend is still ashamed, decades later, of the terrible things he did when in the group...and wrote,

"Nowadays, even before people hear about, "Work," it is as if they already have psychic receptor sites for it: dendrite cookies awaiting one command stroke at the right moment, and click: two weeks later their entire library is in boxes and they've sold the bedroom set."

(Meaning all people need to hear is some uber myth about Perfect Romantic Love or being On The Road, or getting Special Powers from a Native American Wizard who decides they are special enough to receive such powers, or through admission to an elite, hidden, secret school of esoteric studies--in response to which they sell their belongings and move into a creepy, abusive community or relatonship centered on someone who knows how to they've sold their exploit thier inner landscapes--what my pal called 'dendrite cookies.'

Must mention my mother gave me a copy of Catcher in the Rye for my 13th birthday.

I just couldnt see the point of the damn book.

The only thing I took from it was advice from Holden Caulfield's mentor who warned him,

'An immature man wishes to die nobly for a cause.

A mature man wishes to live humbly for one.'

Alone's response: Catcher In The Rye is a perfect example of this. In fact, grab anyone who thinks that's a great book, and ask him why it's got that title. Then punch him. (Actually, I'm guessing you're not the punching type.) But without being easily critical, there must be something to the idea of archetypes, that simply the whiff that a book realtes to one gets us excited even before we read the book.

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<a href="https://thelastpsy... (Below threshold)

October 9, 2007 1:43 PM | Posted by Anonymous: | Reply

A Doc--

"But 'please get over yourself is good too, I guess.' "


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I'm a little biased maybe, ... (Below threshold)

October 9, 2007 2:45 PM | Posted by Japhy: | Reply

I'm a little biased maybe, having been named after a Kerouac alias.

I think you're undervaluing the historical context a little. Neal Cassady (Dean) is a real guy, these are real words, these are real people forming the underpinnings of our narcissist society.

This right here, is the fountainhead of everything you're talking about in a way.

Kerouac is a young guy who is traveling everywhere he can, and (as you note) mostly following people; so, this book, he's mostly following Neal Cassady - and most of what you're ragging on Kerouac for, is mostly Neal's behavior. And as you note, they eventually have a falling out.

I don't dispute that most people haven't actually read On The Road, nor the rest of his books - but it's worth picking up a few of them, to get a real feel for Kerouac the man. He's actually pretty humble and well balanced, I think.

Also, you're saying "there must be something to the idea of archetypes".. well, yeah.

If you're creating an archetype, that's pretty powerful. Part of the value of this book is that it's not a stereotypical road trip story, it's the road trip story that created the stereotypes.

I'm kind of rambling here, but one last point:

I think you're actually criticizing the disconnect between how you perceived the book, and how you perceive society's perception of the book. (which is the sort of insight that I read your blog for!)

That gets a little muddled as a criticism of the book itself, which isn't really fair to Kerouac, or the book as a piece of literature.

He documented a character that stills inspires passion, and provokes discussion, 50 years later, and which echoes in a way, many of the things you're saying about our society. How is that not a book you'd recommend reading?

Alone's response: you pretty much hit the nail on the head. I know it's real, that's the point. In effect, Kerouac('s book) legitimized-- nay, encouraged-- adolescent style narcissism for adults. (I don't mean this as an insult, I'm stating what I believe is a fact.)

And I know Kerouac isn't like Sal in the book-- or, more accurately, by the time he wrote the book, he was no longer like Sal. That's exactly what's wrong with people misperceiving the book. Kerouac, in effect, "grew up." What he wrote about-- scratch that: what everyone THINKS he wrote about no longer resonated with him, personally, hence his descent into alcohol. Here are all these people, who Kerouac can only conclude are idiots, taking speed and driving across country, trying to emulate-- the best analogy I can come up with is that you marry a girl who _looks_ like Angelina Jolie, but you swear to her it's because you love her, but, by the way, can you call her Angie?

So my issue isn't with the book, though I stand behind my assessment that it's not that good. You are correct: it is muddled as criticism of the book, nor do I have a problem with Kerouac, per se. No, my real issue is specifically all those people-- not just individuals, but an entire culture-- influenced by something that at best is misinterpreted, at worst does not exist.

Strikingly bad analogy, but it makes my point: it's bad enough you think you're Neo; it's bad enough you want to be like Neo, but it is amazingly bad for humanity when you want to be the Neo that a retarded person who saw the movie described to you. You know what that gets you? Columbine.

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"on the road" is a work of ... (Below threshold)

October 9, 2007 2:48 PM | Posted by Noebie: | Reply

"on the road" is a work of which it can truly be said "if i have to explain it to you, you wouldn't understand"

people either "get it" or they don't

my sympathies to those who don't

Alone's response: fair enough. NEXT UP: HOWL

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I am glad I never 'got it'.... (Below threshold)

October 9, 2007 3:17 PM | Posted by AK: | Reply

I am glad I never 'got it'.

On the Roadster types usually need other people who will come on in, rescue them, pay thier bills.

Its like Dennis the Menace announcing to his mom that he is running away from home, yet unconsciously assuming that Mom and home are still going to be there for him when it starts to rain.

Every time I meet or hear about a charismatic type, I react by wondering how well they treat their bed partners and kids.

That's the real test.

I grew up in a household where my mother mirrored a charming narcissist and totally refused ever to admit she had made a mistake.

I paid a big fat price in therapy bills.

So...I dont trust the romance arguement any more.

For a corrective to On The Road, read a Sixties Memoir entitled Sleeping Where I Fall by Peter Coyote.

He tells with utter humility how he was a hippie, on the road type and how, after his father died, he fucked up as executor of the estate. The piece of property left to Peter's mother was potentially very valuable.

His mother knew her son's habits and insisted that he promise that he not permit his road bum friends to move into the house. She needed to sell the place to get some assets for her old age and could not afford to run the risk of having it trashed.

Well, her idiot son let his moocher friends talk him into letting them move in, the place got messed up, and it sold for less than it was worth.

Coyote wrote this admitting he had been a total schmuck to his mother.

He admitted he'd gotten into using heroin as a statement of freedom.

Years later, he was still on needles. He had contracted Hepatitis C from his heroin use and now needs regular visits to a practitioner of Chinese medicine to manage the chronic liver inflammation caused by the Hep C virus.

Coyote had also tried to pal around with the Hells Angels, but without joining them.

They got fed up with his one the fence stance and showed up one night and trashed the joint like a pack of Visigoths.


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News flash: authors, in re... (Below threshold)

October 18, 2007 12:25 PM | Posted by CMR: | Reply

News flash: authors, in real life, are a pain in the butt. Film at eleven -

Please - I'm sure it's invigorating to unload on poor Jack, but have you spent a couple afternoons hunting water buffalo with Hemmingway? Drinking drinking drinking with Fitzgerald? Doing God knows what with Hunter Thompson? Hell, organic farming with Kingsolver?

You're not the first one to point out that Sal and his friends were in many ways shallow, impulsive, womanizing (or wanna-be womanizing) self-aggrandizing, etc etc. Lots of ink has been spent recently saying exactly the same thing about Jack himself, by people who actually knew him.

Incidentally, a lot of people actually have read the book.

Let me suggest that the kind of self-invention that Kerouac undertook was a genuinely novel thing in his day. And he was expressing a broadly held frustration with the suffocating post-war aspirations of gray-flannel-suits, Levittown, conformity and materialism. It's not hard to draw present-day parallels.

And while he may have been inarticulate about what he actually found on the road, what he saw between Kansas City and Denver, he enunciated clearly the urge to run and find something different from what confronted him at home - an urge that is nearly universal. Maybe there is something magical and beautiful in America. Certainly there is something liberating in travel, about being able to introduce yourself and have a blank slate.

Maybe the best value in the book is the realization that you are somebody different when you first meet somebody - maybe some better, more focused, un-beaten-down version of yourself. Or that those people, when they first meet you, are willing to treat you differently than the people they are tired of in their own lives. And that by keeping moving, you can continue to have this moment, this meeting, without all the clutter and expectations.

Maybe the real achievement is the smithing of the friends and experiences of his own life into such a piece of literature. All literature (one would hope) is creative but in this book he betrays more of his own circumstances and mental state than in most. That we can talk about Kerouac and about Sal (and his other characters) in some unified fashion and there is some accuracy in this, and that we cannot really discuss the novel as an artifact separate from Kerouac's own life and experience, this has value. I have very little knowledge or interest in the circumstances in which a lot of the books I have read got written - but people are going to haggle over Kerouac, his friends, his loves, his mental state and his road for a long long time hence, and in doing so we grasp at what he really did feel or want to feel in those moments.

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your favorite book sucks</p... (Below threshold)

October 18, 2007 12:40 PM | Posted by random internet asshole: | Reply

your favorite book sucks

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If he'd left in the sex the... (Below threshold)

October 18, 2007 12:40 PM | Posted by Scamp: | Reply

If he'd left in the sex these guys had with each other, the book might have more potency.

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That's narcissism. It's... (Below threshold)

October 18, 2007 1:02 PM | Posted by Stephen: | Reply

That's narcissism. It's simply a prop for an image they want to convey; traveling down Route 6 for them is the same as the career of the female lead in every romantic comedy (writer/designer) or the apartment of the male lead, rich or poor (Soho loft.) ....or like a blog, written under a made up name

Alone's response: actually, the latter is not narcissism. Self-promotion, or self-aggrandizement, is not the same as narcissism. For example, a setback in self-promotion results in sadness. A setback to a narcissist-- a narcissistic injury-- results in rage.

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Yeah, of course, all writer... (Below threshold)

October 18, 2007 1:08 PM | Posted by Anonymous: | Reply

Yeah, of course, all writers are narcissists. Surely as a blogger you realize this.

It doesn't sound like you read the book very carefully. Of course, it's hard to read when your head is up your ass.

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You immediately performed t... (Below threshold)

October 18, 2007 1:54 PM | Posted by john spain: | Reply

You immediately performed the two acts that render a piece of criticism difficult to take seriously:
- You dismissed the characters as being too jerkish to be interested in, and
- You claimed the characters and book as entirely without goal or point.

Not to be a jerk myself, but those are kind of the hallmarks of a 7th grade book report. "This is stupid, rah rah rah, why do people like this?" The answer lies in peeling beyond the words on the page, something most readers can't really do. Your real problem is with the majority of the readers, people who take only the thinnest slice off the top of the characters and see something to emulate rather than taking stock of the entire book and realizing how stupid everything is.

Good books aren't supposed to inspire you to do anything, they just hold up a dirty mirror. Most authors I like aren't people I personally hold in great regard but whose works mirror reality in spectacular ways. (I.e.: Gabriel Garcia Marquez is BFF with Castro and Chavez, Kerouac was a dick, and Hemingway ... well, lets not go there. I'm willing to bet you didn't read "The Sun Also Rises" though. Maybe I have a soft spot for testosterone driven novels about men forever stuck in adolescence, but I digress)

I agree with Jennifer Emick's response (and your reply) above, as well as some of the other musings in the comments. A lot of people take a character study and remove only the good portions (or portions they can imagine to be good) and leave the bad, the easiest modern example being the movie Scarface.

But in the end you can't dismiss a book based on the cult that surrounds it. Believe me, I've tried. One day when I get over this problem more fully I'll bring myself to read an Ayn Rand book.

- From a former lit major turned attorney

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Spot on. I read On the Road... (Below threshold)

October 18, 2007 1:55 PM | Posted by Barry: | Reply

Spot on. I read On the Road as a teenager, and bought the image hook, line and sinker. I even took a few road trips because of my ridiculous obsession. Later, in college, I had roomates who used to read beat poetry to each other and they sounded ridiculous. So, just to make sure that my beloved OTR wasn't as ridiculous as the rest of Kerouac's output, I gave it another read. Turns out, whoops, it's pretty terrible.

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You are obviously a female.... (Below threshold)

October 18, 2007 2:21 PM | Posted by Anonymous: | Reply

You are obviously a female. You've subjected a book written at a different time and from a different perspective with your own narrow mindset of today. Too bad.

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I've read Sun Also Rises. ... (Below threshold)

October 18, 2007 3:53 PM | Posted by thelastpsychiatrist: | Reply

I've read Sun Also Rises. And Atlas Shrugged.

But my point (again) is not about the book itself. True, I think it's an idiotic book. But my "anger" is directed at all the people who hear about the book and create thoughts, opinions, identities based on what they think it says. Take medicine: how would you feel if doctors didn't read the studies themselves, and simply went with whatever the reps, thought leaders, or throwaway supplements told them to do? Oh, wait...

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Jesus Christ you sound like... (Below threshold)

October 18, 2007 4:40 PM | Posted by Ed: | Reply

Jesus Christ you sound like an asshole. Dean and Sal not cool enough for you? You didn't associate with the wallflowers at prom? You always had your shit together? You've never wanted to say fuck it all and get away from everything? Never were stuck with a friend who was out of control -- but hey, he was your friend? You've never been unable to figure out your direction in life?

It isn't news that a lot of dumb college freshman try to imitate Kerouac's sad sad way of living. I wouldn't wish that kind of life on anybody, and you're right to be concerned about the way Kerouac romanticizes his depressing existence. But if you can't relate and sympathize with people have stared into themselves and want to find something meaningful, but instead find nothing -- if you can't understand that this emptiness hurts, and that the only thing that some people can do is to start moving and drinking and smoking and screwing to keep from shooting themselves in the head, you should get into a new line of work.

Ok, there are several ways to respond, so I'll pick this one: I'm not railing against Kerouac per se, nor people who read his book and derive some sort of inspiration from it. I am railing against the people who derive inspiration from Kerouac's book WITHOUT ACTUALLY READING THE BOOK. Obviously the book "speaks" to millions of people, even if only at certain points of their life. And people bring a lifetime of their experience, etc to a book and get different things out of it. But I want to know what kind of a person DOES NOT BOTHER TO READ THE BOOK but uses that book to build up an identity, based solely on what he THINKS IT SAYS. The problem there isn't with the book-- which I hated, I'll admit-- but the narcissism of the pretend-reader who is looking only to validate an identity he made up, that he thinks his pretend version/intuition of OTR will support.

As an aside, the person who stares into himself and "finds nothing;" or who has the constant lingering suspicion that he is a "fraud" or fooled people into getting a job, through school, etc-- that person is not a narcissist, by definition. And, in those cases, the only efficacious treatment is books and movies. Take that to the APA.

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I think you meant to post a... (Below threshold)

October 19, 2007 9:30 AM | Posted by john spain: | Reply

I think you meant to post as a reply to my comment but wound up as an anon at the end. Or at least I hope that's what happened, and I'm not replying to a random stranger.

Yeeeaahhh see that's why I stopped going to therapy and tend to avoid doctors. That and the fact that everyone I've been close to who have gone to therapy have learned that the answer to anyone elses problem is "deal with it," and they've basically turned into unempathetic reclusive dickwads.

Wait, in other words they turned into narcissists. Suddenly the genius of this post comes full circle.

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What a terribly negative bl... (Below threshold)

October 21, 2007 7:21 PM | Posted by Kerouac Fan: | Reply

What a terribly negative blog. Is sitting around disparaging a long-dead writer really a productive use of time or writing ability? Talk about narcissism. Reviewing a book just to bloviate about your own intelligence. Classy.


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You've gotta be kidding, yo... (Below threshold)

October 27, 2007 11:05 PM | Posted by Marra: | Reply

You've gotta be kidding, you mean all those people bought the book and never read it, sure whatever. You don't need to tell us about a book we've all read long before you. We know what it's about and apparently we're still buying it. And no one anywhere thought didn't have their head under a rock thought that Kerouac was Dean or wanted him to be; we did our research, we knew who was who. We dug it, we still dig it.

You are the narcistic one, thinking we care what you think and stating your thoughts as facts. Maybe you should write a book, maybe you'll become an icon too.

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Interesting that in the com... (Below threshold)

October 27, 2007 11:18 PM | Posted by marra: | Reply

Interesting that in the comments the only people that agree with you are the ones that have also not read the book.

It's kinda like me not knowing you but for some reason thinking you're a boring self absorbed prick. Which by the way I do so I guess we're more alike than I like.

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I understand what you are c... (Below threshold)

November 5, 2007 4:32 AM | Posted by Anonymous: | Reply

I understand what you are conveying in your blog. People like On The Road for their image of it...to keep with the psychological spin everyone's doin' we'll call it a case of symbolic interactionism" at work...."I like a piece of work because of the image it projects about me"...Desolation Angels gives some insight to the older Kerouac you are talking about, and how he felt about people who bought some shallow image of "the beats"...he dreads over a wave of posuers who would say "daddy-o" and "I dig it" and recreate an image. It's the same as later generations of punk copying images from liner notes to be "original"...and thus the meaning of the real original work is lost...sorta.

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I give you ten bonus points... (Below threshold)

November 8, 2007 2:42 AM | Posted by SentWest: | Reply

I give you ten bonus points for suggesting the punching of Catcher in the Rye fans.

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"On the road, men are shoot... (Below threshold)

November 14, 2007 8:00 PM | Posted by Kent: | Reply

"On the road, men are shooting jack,
And talking of Jack Kerouac."

I'm sure that's what Eliot would have penned had "Prufrock" been written 40 years later. It's the same thing--folks want to appear artsy and cultured about without actually being immersed in the art world, the literary world, the hippie movement, the Beats, etc.

LOTS of people claim to have read books they have never read, seen films they have never laid eyes upon. As Alone says, they are trying to build a personality around what they think is "cool" and/or meaningful.

Road novels usually focus on a character searching for himself. Usually he finds something, but in this case, not really. Sal Paradise is looking into a mirror and seeing nothing.

That's the issue with folks who glom onto popular culture to build themselves. Sal thought it would be romantic to travel the land and find himself. When the trends subside and the surface is pulled away, nothing of substance is left.

They are like the narrator at the end of Eliot's "The Waste Land" who says, "These fragments I have shored against my ruins." They are comprised of nothing except ruins, so they attempt to build something, anything, to make themselves seem purposeful.

But in the end, those who affect an attitude based on lies must look in that mirror, see nothing meaningful, and say, "The horror! The horror!"

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I've enjoyed reading some o... (Below threshold)

December 17, 2007 11:51 PM | Posted by chris laughton: | Reply

I've enjoyed reading some of the posts on your website, some I agree with, some I don't, all have been intriguing. I have to part company with you on this one though... I've read On The Road,not once, but several times, and my fondness for it has only grown. It's certainly not without flaws, but the ordinariness of it's main characters is exactly it's brilliance. It departs from the standard that the protagonist has to be a hero (or anti-hero even). I agree with your assertion that the books famed exhuberance masks an inability to cope with or accept the reality of a stay-put, 9-to-5, wife-and-kids existence. In the end, it's a bittersweet and beautiful slice of life. I love it and think it's one of the most influential literary works of the 20th century. (even if to only 9 of us)

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I didn't get very far in OT... (Below threshold)

February 27, 2008 1:37 AM | Posted by bman: | Reply

I didn't get very far in OTR -- a chapter or two and I got kind of bored and irritated. That said, I'll venture a comment anyway.

It seems to me that a portrayal of narcissism is certainly valid, especially at the time when it was written; a time when a whole generation created their own particular form on narcissism. Of course that leaves the question of whether J.K. was actually a
Narcissist, or an artist portraying narcissism. It sounds like the former, but maybe it doesn't matter.

I agree with the author of this blog that it's disturbing that an image might be built-up around a book which doesn't correspond to the book at all. This kind of reputation might actually prejudice a reader into thinking that the actions of the "cool" character in OTR are actually cool!

What's a more disturbing idea is that people have actually read the book, and actually respond to the shallow-ness of it. Some of these people have represented themselves in this discussion I think...

And yes, I was twenty once, and experimented with manipulating/creating an image of myself;
thank god I'm not twenty anymore!

What's being iconized in this book is garbage. But hey, I might just be against the trend, cuz' it seems to me that our society is fostering narcissism more and more. It's easier to sell things to narcissists who don't really have a solid sense of self...

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you use modern slang to hid... (Below threshold)

March 29, 2008 7:43 PM | Posted by FATNEEK: | Reply

you use modern slang to hide old fashioned views - "people these days..."
you are the closer one to being the "dork" - i wonder how long it took to write this repetitive review (i havent read it all btw...i just distinguished these things from the first lines! amazing!)
you are also the narcissist here: the way you say "i won't bore you with..."; "these are not cool guys. This isn't even Henry Miller uncool". In fact thats the exact kind of self-gratifying humour associated with "dorks". *I'm proud of who I am...I don't need to be like these 'cool kids'*


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Sorry to disagree with the ... (Below threshold)

April 22, 2008 2:07 PM | Posted by Anonymous: | Reply

Sorry to disagree with the stream of the unconscious here but I too just re-read Kerouc's On The Road.
The first time was when I was 11 in 1966.
I interpreted the book the same way over the 42 year span.
I assume the critics of the book just dont get the concepts.
The difference between their interpretation and mine is like the difference between sullen disaffection with life and the brazen attempt to make a synthetic apriori judgement about reality.
Oh, sorry. I forgot you were unconscious/uneducated and uncreative.
Never mind. No, really!

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The book was about narcissi... (Below threshold)

July 18, 2008 12:06 AM | Posted by Natalie: | Reply

The book was about narcissism. And Absurdism. Of course they're full of shit. Of course they're lazy and self-absorbed and idealistic. Some readers don't see that and get carried away in the myth. Others recognize the irony. The point is that they learned about themselves and experienced some shit and moved on. It's like a long, loosely-edited version of Waiting for Godot.

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I came across this entry th... (Below threshold)

August 2, 2008 6:02 PM | Posted by Anonymous: | Reply

I came across this entry through a google search and, having no information on you, the author, assumed you were a fairly well-written college sophomore. I mean all that implies. You cannot blame commenters for thinking you are criticizing the book: your introduction (people haven't read the book but assume a grand notion of something based on an idolized, historical, inaccurate figure) is not actually the thesis of your post. You offer character quotations and then criticize the characters. Which is fine, if that's your point (i.e.,"I hated the book because") but if you meant to discuss how some aggrandize what was not the point of the book, adolescence, fictional vs. historical figures, you went the wrong way.

Now, if I got this from a college sophomore, I'd definitely give them a B+ for good language (mostly) and just because it wouldn't be another love letter to OTR (it just gets old). But I would tell the student to visit the writing center and get some assistance on formulating a thesis and supporting it.

Here you go, honey.


Please stop reading Nietzsche. Go outside and get some sunshine.

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you're an idiot, and a "dor... (Below threshold)

November 17, 2008 7:37 PM | Posted by Anonymous: | Reply

you're an idiot, and a "dork," and probably a much bigger narcissist than any of the characters you attempt to describe. first off, how can you begin to think you know about a book which you've never read? secondly, the majority of what you say about otr is incorrect. i wouldn't say they're disappointed with the places they get. they move on because THOSE places are not the point of the journey (this is not some meaningless rat race where the goal is simply to get to a trivial location on the map). the entire point is the journey itself, and had you been taught anything about east asian philosophy you might actually be able to appreciate this novel. kerouac is a subtle writer, so i can see how some one who never learned how to read carefully and critically would miss what he is really saying. you might want to actually read otr (vewwyyyy swowwy) before you rip it with false claims that have absolutely no valid backing. thirdly, any one who a. thinks they can judge the art of others and b. just blogs in general is a HUGE narcissist (any one who thinks that what they have to say or how they feel is important enough to blog about is an absolute idiot and thinks they are far too important). no one fucking cares.

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Yes, Anonymous. No one car... (Below threshold)

November 18, 2008 3:56 PM | Posted by anon: | Reply

Yes, Anonymous. No one cares. Not you, especially. His writing does not connect with you in any way, intellectually or emotionally.

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maybe you should stop stati... (Below threshold)

December 2, 2008 1:59 PM | Posted by anonymous: | Reply

maybe you should stop stating your opinions of the book as facts.

"The notion that they're trying to experience things or learn things or grow is precisely wrong. That's the mistake nearly everyone I talk to has made."

I'm sorry? the mistake everyone else is making? even kerouac himself, the author of the book, didn't know what his own book was about? but clearly you did, and we're all wrong.

...Who's the narcissist again?

Truthfully i can understand you or anyone else saying they didn't enjoy the book. Like music, books are all opinion. Theres no right or wrong when it comes to different tastes. On The Road is a very strange book, and when i hear people say they were put off by it it doesn't bother me. Maybe it's not for them, and the books that they read i wouldn't enjoy either.

The problem comes when people try to say that this book means nothing, and that its trash. This novel spoke to me on an intimate level. I'm not saying that you "didn't get it", but it seems you and others who dislike the book take it at face value. You don't read deeper into it past what you would need to write an english essay on it. Sure, you recognized the "themes", but really its all about the feelings the book brings up in you, and those can't be analyzed.

Interestingly enough, i had NEVER heard about this book until i bought it. I picked it up on a whim and was about half way through it before i heard anything about the people behind it. By that time i was already enjoying it, and that was no way influenced by the stories of kerouac's personal life. i didn't learn about the 'scroll' until after i was finished.

You also mention how only literary critics could like this book. Honestly i would expect literary critics to hate it. Frankly, from a technical point of view, it's a mess. But that doesn't matter. When somebody writes a story that speaks to you on a deeply emotional level you don't stop them and say "That's all swell, but that last sentence was grammatically incorrect".

On the Road is probably one of my favorite books, if not my favorite. And yes we're all entitled to our opinions, but don't act like your word is the deciding factor.

_ _ _ _ _ _ _ _

You can respond to this if you like, but honestly i probably won't ever see it. I found your website via StumbleUpon so i likely won't come across this again. :D

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I don’t know what people sa... (Below threshold)

December 5, 2008 5:46 PM | Posted by Beth: | Reply

I don’t know what people say about ‘On The Road,’ and I can’t really be bothered to look it up. Your argument that so many people have “got it so wrong” seems fruitless in that you don’t even seem to be concerned about what getting it right would be about. You say that “even when someone actually sits and reads the primary text and finds it is different, it doesn't replace their existing (wrong) information, it only supplements it.” You did the same thing - rather than experiencing the book for yourself, you looked at it through someone else’s eyes - you looked for “young, potent men, lost in a growing commercial society, two coiled springs ready to pop, looking for adventure-- America style.” And when you didn’t find it, instead of finding what it was REALLY about, you only looked at all of the things that were OPPOSITE your expectations. You speak of two “On The Road”s. Speaking as an artist, I am nonplussed at this obvious false dichotomy.

I wanted to write something in response to your post, because I believe the book is wonderful. I’m not really interested in spouting praise like “it’s wonderful that there are so many interpretations of the work” or “it changed my perspective on life.” What I want to say is that it would be great if people were more honest. I don’t really expect my wish to produce results, but then did you expect your rant to keep already closed-minded people from picking up this book? I do think it’s a shame that you practiced this kind of manipulation. I think it’s more a shame that you, yourself, are a victim of it.

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this is a more complete res... (Below threshold)

December 6, 2008 3:12 PM | Posted by Beth: | Reply

this is a more complete response to your post, with which i didn't want to crowd your page. http://jallands.blogspot.com/2008/12/to-last-psychiatrist-re-your-blog-about.html

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i read this book when i was... (Below threshold)

December 20, 2008 1:20 AM | Posted by Smoke Dog: | Reply

i read this book when i was a freshman in high school. my mother told me it was epic and a great transcript that described the american dream. far be it from me to insult one of our countries finest poets, but i thouht it was just about a guy who got fucked up with his friends and drove across country. in terms of that formula, i think fear and loathing in las vegas was a much better example of chasing down the american dream.

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I read this book a few mont... (Below threshold)

February 1, 2009 5:26 PM | Posted by Adam: | Reply

I read this book a few months ago, as I was trying to catch up on some of that 'classic' 20th century American literature. So I picked up a copy of OTR, Catcher in the Rye, and Catch 22. Of the 3, the only one that I positively loathed was OTR. I couldn't believe that this was seen as an amazing book, for the same reasons you wrote about. The characters seemed like the kind of people I'd avoid at all costs if I were to meet them. People hold Dean up as some kind of hero, and I was confused about this when I finished it: the guy abandons several women with whom he had children, and ends up pathetic, alone, broke, begging for a place to stay. He is completely unable to forge meaningful relationships with anybody: his relationship with Sal is a fucking joke.
Like you said, people are more in love with the ideas they THINK are behind this book than the book itself.

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i got into the beat writers... (Below threshold)

February 3, 2009 8:25 AM | Posted by butler: | Reply

i got into the beat writers in my early twenties. as a young writer i was drawn to these guys because of what i had heard about them and the times. searching for an identity, looking to break free from all that conservative mumbo jumbo and really write about the truth. the way it really was. to find something more than what we were being force fed as a society. what i found was a let down. all the beat writers where a joke. Sad losers looking for something better and never finding it. i felt ripped off that there was no "Paradise" to be found. OTR wasn't about all that shit that people thought it was about, it was about being trapped and trying to break free but realizing that you never could and things just were the way they were. The whole conception of OTR being this book about freedom was incorrect. It was about looking for that freedom and not finding it. which is pretty much what happens in the book and is what happens in real life. I learned that for the most part writers are all a bunch of cry baby losers who live with their moms who are disillusioned and jaded. the whole mythology behind OTR gets you in the door but once you're there you get the real story and no matter how jack tries to make it sound pretty (because he's afraid and he feels he needs to...we all do..) it still stinks. welcome to the real world. jack was a dirty sad boozer trying to suck Ginsberg's cock by the end. what you're saying about on the road is true but don't you think that once you get passed all the glitz that's been built up by those 9 critics and years of writers and poets gumming Kerouac's ghost that what he had to say and i mean really say makes sense? I didn't like the guy and i didn't really like the book because of my preconceived expectations of it but after re-reading it this past year i understood the shear soul crushing sadness that K must have meant but could never face. the sadness of searching in vain for something that never has and never will exist.

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one of the things that make... (Below threshold)

May 3, 2009 1:23 AM | Posted by Alice: | Reply

one of the things that makes kerouac who he is is the fact that the characters in his books and the people that were presumably around him were often more interesting than he himself was. but this solidifies him, as a writer is usually an observer.i always found a lot of the hippie "philosophical" mumbo jumbo in his novels very annoying and yes, narcissistic. though what's gained him his credibility is his style, he has his own approach at writing. you have to be a bit of a fan of poetry to fully appreciate him, i mean, if you think stephen king is an amazing writer then you won't very well grasp the appeal of jack kerouac. it's kind of like steven speilburg vs ingmar bergman (though kerouac is no bergman). there's a big difference between a story teller who is well-read and a writer who takes it on as an art, who'll write 4 pages interpreting something insignificant like an exchange between two strangers in a cafe. some writer write with the intent to appeal to a large audience, some with the intent just to record and collect. kerouac was definitely the latter. as with a lot of authors, in my opinion, it's his faults that shape his perks. without his narcissism, he'd have skipped the fruitless ranting we all love to try to be clear and precise and well, dreary.

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I am personally SO SO SO si... (Below threshold)

August 30, 2009 9:18 PM | Posted by Rick Dale: | Reply

I am personally SO SO SO sick of the casual way the term "narcissist" is thrown around these days that I can't even describe the depth of my revulsion to this entire boring treatise. I've read Kerouac extensively, not just his books but his letters and journals and interviews, as well as bios about him. Was he a narcissist? WHO CARES? Why do you have to label everyone with some DSM-IV diagnosis? Whether or not Kerouac was a narcissist is so irrelevant as to be laughable! I LOVE HIS WRITING! And it is not your job nor is it in your power to get in the way of that.

Why don't YOU write a book that will sell 100,000 copies a year 50 years after it's written and then we'll have a discussion.

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Dude. I pretty much felt th... (Below threshold)

October 17, 2009 2:53 AM | Posted by Synesthesia: | Reply

Dude. I pretty much felt the same way about this book. That it was emptiness trying to be full and profound and failing.

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shaan posted:<... (Below threshold)

November 7, 2009 3:08 PM | Posted, in reply to shaan's comment, by kowsik: | Reply

shaan posted:

“The only people for me are the mad ones, the ones who are mad to live, mad to talk, mad to be saved, desirous of everything at the same time, the ones who never yawn or say a commonplace thing, but burn, burn, burn, like fabulous yellow roman candles exploding like spiders across the stars and in the middle you see the blue centerlight pop and everybody goes "Awww!”
(emphasis mine)

If our philosophy is all about living to impress others, are we not back to living for others. But, according to most intellectuals, this seems to be a better life to lead than that of the common man who values his obligations to the society more than his momentary fancies. This the second time that I have come across this quote. It reminds me of the movie Devil's Advocate, it ends with Pacino's character (devil?) saying, "Vanity, my favourite sin!"

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I've always thought Kerouac... (Below threshold)

January 26, 2010 2:48 PM | Posted by Anonymous: | Reply

I've always thought Kerouac and Ginsburg were the heavy metal guitarists of the Beats: embarrassingly proud of being able to move their lips and fingers faster than they thought. Vivaldi, too, used to brag about being able to compose faster than the copyists could write out the parts. And his counterpoint and lasting value are nothing next to Bach's.

Readers love On the Road because they're dilettantes who think the act of writing is like some facile false confession -- tossed off between orgies, binges and crimes. In reality, anything worth reading was either written arduously or by a human instrument that was arduously honed until the first draft held the cumulative craft of a lifetime of revisions. Keats, Flaubert, Beckett, Flann O'Brien, Robert Musil, Jan Potocki, Thomas Love Peacock -- all aspired to the craft unironically because they were working on the best books they could write, not filling space, not aiming for a high word count, not standing there picturesquely pretending they didn't have to work to produce masterpieces (of which, for Kerouac, there are none).

Jack Kerouac is a litmus test for purging your writers' circle of the mediocre and the wistful. If someone you know worships Kerouac, they're either hacks without talent or armchair explorers living vicariously through a hack who lived both vicariously and sloppily and passed it off as closely observed experience. People who want to read the beats are in better hands with Diane DiPrima (and, later, the black mountain poets).

Kerouac kidded himself that he was playing jazz, but Charlie Parker and Coltrane knew how to riff over changes. Thomas Pynchon riffs over the changes of myths and stories, making something new (The Crying of Lot 49). Kerouac was so clueless he never even knew where the changes were. That's why he has no legacy, no school, but inept frat road diaries the torture of poetry slams.

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Totally agree. Kerouac suck... (Below threshold)

January 26, 2010 11:42 PM | Posted by y: | Reply

Totally agree. Kerouac sucks.

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I feel the same way about a... (Below threshold)

January 27, 2010 12:34 PM | Posted, in reply to Synesthesia's comment, by caeia : | Reply

I feel the same way about a lot of so-called modern art. It's more about the story behind the art, the statement behind the art than the actual art itself. da Vinci was good because he could paint, most moderns think they're good because they "make statements".

Give me a book that I'll read for fun -- that's a good book. Guve me a statement ladden wankfest, and I'll get nothing from it.

Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Mainetenence is decent, but I think even then, it's overrated as "Literature"

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Da Vinci was good because h... (Below threshold)

January 27, 2010 3:16 PM | Posted, in reply to caeia 's comment, by More like, : | Reply

Da Vinci was good because he could think.

Interestingly, he suffered from ADD, then known as damaged brain syndrome.
He was sent by his first major patron to a Florentine scientist for a special medication. But refused to tae it. Google: Of My Own Volition: Learning to Organize My Unchained Brilliance, by Leonardo Da Vinci.
its an obscure essay from his 'hillside' notebooks.
Can the title be any more pretentious?

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I think it's his worst book... (Below threshold)

February 6, 2010 1:36 PM | Posted by Anonymous: | Reply

I think it's his worst book. It was hard for me to finish it, but I enjoyed reading several others that he wrote. These books were much more entertaining to me when I was young. In retrospect, with more years under the belt, I can't understand why it was so highly praised as a great piece of art. Most of the Beats probably were narcissists.

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I read this book two or thr... (Below threshold)

April 26, 2010 11:48 AM | Posted by Lorri Craig: | Reply

I read this book two or three decades ago, and remember it more than most because of it's crazy off-the-wallness. I agree that Karouc's lead characters were highly self indulgent personalities, self medicating their way through life. I've always thought that's exactly the flavour that Karouc was trying to get across. I don't think it's coincidental that the book and film, like the adventure they tell, start off as an exciting and so so different experience, then drift into a dull, boring repetitiveness that you just want to stop. Isn't that what people say about LSD trips and extreme drug abuse?

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Let me guess. You're probab... (Below threshold)

October 3, 2010 6:02 PM | Posted by Jim Cummins: | Reply

Let me guess. You're probably a huge fan of that Viennese quack they call Freud right? When you happen to have a hand in one of the most important subcultures of American history maybe then you can make judgements about the frail egos of some of the last century's greatest poets. You might be even more cynical than these cats were. At least they dealt with their problems like men - 50 cents for a fifth and your night was golden.

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LOL I think that's how TLP ... (Below threshold)

October 4, 2010 2:45 PM | Posted by rox: | Reply

LOL I think that's how TLP deals with his problems as well, only he has to pay more for it.

There was a biography on Allen Ginsburg that I read in highschool and I read Howl and I glanced through On The Road but, the biography of Allen Ginsburg was way more interesting than On the Road.

Madness, purposefully going into a mental hospital just to see what it's like? Dealing with an insane mother, talking about sex and drugs in public when it made everyone cringe?

It was a great book to read as a highschooler.

And you know I even wound up at the host school of the Jack Keroac school of disembodied poetics. The poetry readings were painful, everyone had to talk in the "poetry voice" as I called it and I think it actually took away from the writing which may have been good. I don't know because all I could think is does EVERYONE have to use this same voice?

The... MAN walkingintothestreet... he STAAAAANDS! And when... he standshehastostandagainstthe SUN. And the SUUUUUN....... glaringasitwereuponouremptyeyes.... it ... echoes in the hearts of... PEEEEOPLE

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Huh. I remember starting to... (Below threshold)

October 24, 2010 2:14 AM | Posted by Penelope: | Reply

Huh. I remember starting to read On The Road a few years ago and dropping it after a few pages. It was the first time I started a book and felt... unwelcome. Like I was accidentaly listening to someone else´s conversation in a bar, and not in an interesting I-wonder-what-happened-next sort of way. It just felt like something not meant for me to read. Maybe it was for the reasons described here.

Also: isn´t it funny how people tie their identity to their likes and dislikes? How they run to defend this identity at the smallest perceived threat?

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Florence King writes very w... (Below threshold)

February 23, 2012 9:36 PM | Posted, in reply to john spain's comment, by Anonymous: | Reply

Florence King writes very well about Ayn Rand.

I wish Alone would write something about John Didion. I adore her---but I'd love to know what other people think. She did some great stuff about the 60's, 70's too.

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Kerouac fan....."bloviate"?... (Below threshold)

September 8, 2012 11:34 AM | Posted, in reply to Kerouac Fan's comment, by Matthias: | Reply

Kerouac fan....."bloviate"? Talk about a pretentious and prideful display of pseudo-intelligence. Arcane Latin verbs that STILL FUCKING REQUIRE A PREPOSITION AFTER THEM? Nice, dude. Really nice. I don't mean this to discourage. I just think using reason is essential to rational discourse--(banal phrasing, I know)--and what you delivered was presumptuous horseshit.

So read the post. I can't guarantee that you'll have a different analysis--and THAT IS FINE--but at least you'll have an analysis. If you're going to denigrate someone (and said someone's blog)...that's the real issue here...defend it well. You did not.

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"That's what the Road is. ... (Below threshold)

March 8, 2013 2:38 AM | Posted by Ray: | Reply

"That's what the Road is. The Road isn't freedom, or possibility, or growth; it's denial. It's not having to confront the triviality and purposelessness of your existence." Well what else would this particular guy have written? And is it his fault? I know you are saying that this is about phonies who haven't read the book, but I wanted to use the above quote to illustrate something from a discussion many years ago. But first, you've said in many posts America = Narcissism (more or less). I remember a dialogue in a class on semiotics how the Pyramids for Egyptians stand as a signifier for their culture in they way that the Great Wall is for China etc.... and can you guess what America's was? The Road. So if what you say about "the road" is true, as a symbolic of denial. I'd say that fit's American culture to a "T" from the moment it was decided someone was 3/5th human and other people on their land weren't really there. That we would be now laced in, criss-crossed and hog-tied by the greatest symbol of denial and still see freedom....well.

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You make an interesting obs... (Below threshold)

March 8, 2013 6:32 AM | Posted, in reply to Ray's comment, by Anonymous: | Reply

You make an interesting observation (by the way, where do you go for classes on semiotics? The closest I could get at Uni of Melbourne was linguistics and philosophy of language) but I don't think your claim is true, or at least not any more.

In order for On the Road to be a symbol of America as a civilization, Americans would have to be aware of their own narcissism, infantilism, ennui and so on. In On the Road, Kerouac is very explicit about these fundamental aspects of American experience at every turn.

I would argue that the U.S.A. as a society is now too anti-literary and anti-introspective to be aware of its narcissism in this way.

If there IS a symbol for the current condition of America, its Pyramids, its Great Wall, so to speak, that symbol is the state of Israel.

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Alone, where can I email yo... (Below threshold)

July 20, 2013 10:47 PM | Posted by Christopher Hyatt (Not my real name): | Reply

Alone, where can I email you? Or call you? I need to tap into your brain. My future depends on it.

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<a href="http://www.jimgoad... (Below threshold)

September 12, 2014 3:46 PM | Posted, in reply to AK's comment, by Ciarog: | Reply


"Alone: The Bible is like that as well-- people "predict" what it says and go at it full force."

Well, if you're looking for the oldest "roadtrip" story out there, the account from the Book of Exodus might be it. It's a lot shorter than most people seem to realize.

Maybe it's a generational problem; deranged greatest/silent genners inspiring delusional baby boomers. Sun Also Rises and Catch-22 have also been mentioned, as has Catcher in the Rye; I read that one later in life than I should, learned that it was a miserable book about a miserable boy. Far from the sociopath's handbook that I was hoping for.

"CMR: And he was expressing a broadly held frustration with the suffocating post-war aspirations of gray-flannel-suits, Levittown, conformity and materialism. It's not hard to draw present-day parallels."

Keep hating on that office job, snowflake. Meanwhile, my grandparents spent the decade picking cotton. The cotton fields are all buried under parking lots for businesses that went out of business shortly after the Iraq Surge ended.

I've never been all that interested in or impressed by the idea that the 50's were somehow uniquely "conformist" or "materialist". Compared to what? The Clinton Administration?

I think what you really mean by that that time period was "boring", and what you mean by that is that the money was good and there were no major wars (well, Korea, but it ended so quickly that the college boys never had to worry about going).

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