by Paul Arendt
Jack Kerouac’s surroundings invariably affected his writing style. Narrator Leo Percepied’s voice in The Subterraneans reflected Kerouac’s emergent interest in psychology, and the author’s vision of the stream-of-consciousness as a frantic and self-conscious purge. This interest in psychology found its way into Kerouac’s aesthetic. The result was a manic prose. The narrator tore into his thought patterns and behaviors with a seemingly psychotherapeutic authorial agenda. Kerouac’s application of psychological theory in his writing allowed him to move beyond the stylistic limitations of On the Road and truly engage the stream-of-consciousness. His psychological definition for the stream-of-consciousness was, however, a temporary one. Upon completing The Subterraneans, he began to immerse himself in Buddhism, and this markedly changed both his aesthetic and his theories on the human experience.
Kerouac wrote Tristessa in Mexico at the height of his Buddhist studies. Religious devotion calms the narrator, named simply Jack. He no longer focuses on sex, self-loathing and shame as he did in The Subterraneans but on chastity, compassion and religious devotion. Jack explores his feelings for Tristessa, a Native Mexican morphine addict. Using an active present tense he muses on love, piety and drug addiction while considering Tristessa’s relationship with Catholicism and his own relationship with Buddhism. The writer has spent years refining stream-of-consciousness technique in his novels and poetry. Tristessa is an embodiment of Kerouac’s stylistic goals; the narrator’s arrangement of suffering, compassion, and spiritual awareness makes it thematically mature.
Still, the text is often excluded in criticism. The limited scholarly work focuses primarily on Kerouac’s handling of race and gender. Often, critics are compelled to bind The Subterraneans and Tristessa into one story, one idea, as they both concern a narrator exploring the essence of a dark-skinned woman. Stylistically and thematically the texts are quite different.
With a Buddhist’s detachment, the narrator separates himself from Tristessa’s world of morphine and poverty. From his own world he offers observation and metaphysical contemplation. The self-conscious writer now becomes a selfless Buddhist student, one who uses Tristessa and her home to meditate on the subjects of sadness and balance. The writer’s focused consideration of these two subjects, sadness and balance, is evidence that Kerouac had truly become a craftsman, that his post-On the Road work should be considered more relevant in criticism. Each step he took to develop his style led to different and more refined stream-of-consciousness. This is overlooked in most critical studies of the author.
Benedict Giamo recognizes Kerouac’s “impressive creative outpour” after he had discovered Buddhism. In “Enlightened Attachment: Kerouac’s Impermanent Buddhist Trek,” he writes that Buddhism was a valuable and perfectly timed “inspiration for [Kerouac’s] ongoing spiritual-literary-artistic quest” (180). Giamo is one of only a few critics who have explored that quest and its effect on Kerouac’s style. Buddhism certainly took his writing in a different direction, but, perhaps more importantly for Kerouac, it “provided the means and conditions necessary for delivering one from the trepidations of mortal hopelessness” (Giamo, 2003 181). Kerouac did not go through this spiritual transition alone; the religion made sense to many Beat writers, especially poets Allen Ginsberg and Gary Snyder. Buddhism proves central to the seven books Kerouac wrote during his most productive period (1955-1957): The Scripture of the Golden Eternity, Some of the Dharma, Desolation Angels, Visions of Gerard, The Dharma Bums, his collection of poems Mexico City Blues, and Tristessa.
Kerouac took Buddhism very seriously. It was not a passing interest. He writes in Some of the Dharma, a recently published journal, of his daily reading of Buddha’s Diamond Sutra, his exploration of other ancient texts, his experiences with meditation. He engaged and applied Buddhist ideas in his daily writing. But, as Gregory Stephenson submits in The Daybreak Boys, even though Kerouac embraced a very disciplined lifestyle, books like Tristessa give a narrow view of his relationship with Buddhism. Stephenson writes that Kerouac’s “affinities with the teachings of the Buddha are largely limited to his unreserved acceptance of” the first noble truth of Buddhism: All life is suffering (Stephenson 34). Kerouac offers emotionally balanced writing in Tristessa and the possibility of transcendence, but the nature of the work aligns with the idea that Kerouac never moved too far away from this first truth, from a lifelong artistic intention to prove that life is sorrowful:
Tristessa says ‘How is Jack-?-’she always asks: ‘Why are you so sad? -muy dolorosa’” and as though to mean ‘You are very full of pain,’ for pain means dolor-‘I am sad because all la vida es dolorosa,’ I keep replying, hoping to teach her Number One of the Four Great Truths,-Besides, what could be truer (18).
The narrator makes it clear that suffering is not a product of chance but a function of human existence. Kerouac’s emphasis on this first truth in Tristessa, though he was quite educated in wider Buddhist theory, divulges an extremely focused artistic usage, but other elements in Tristessa demonstrate a wider application.
Though he spends considerable time filling passages with evidence of the first truth, with images of sadness and corrosion, Kerouac is also intent on combating it through writing of a faith he has in a shared destiny of transcendence and a calibrated scale on which all events are inevitably weighed. These attempts to combat sadness yield a wider usage of Buddhist theory as the narrator considers the idea of balance, divine compensation. He creates a surreal, almost dreamlike sorrow with Tristessa’s afflictions in the physical world – drug addiction, helplessness, poverty – but consistently emphasizes the harmony and amelioration to be found in the metaphysical world: “Bright Explanations of the crystal clarity of all the Worlds, I need to show that we’ll all be all right” (34). These bright explanations oppose, and perhaps make neutral, the dark observations.
As he considers the sad state of affairs in Tristessa’s home, Kerouac reasons with the subject matter by projecting onto it Buddhist Truth, Catholic symbol, and a conviction he has in an organizing principle. This organizing principle is a compassionate and neutralizing force, a mixture of Catholic God and Buddha which Kerouac began to assemble as he wrestled with a cultural homelessness, unsatisfied with the spiritually atrophied America he saw from the margins. The different parts of the religious mixture can be isolated and separated, but in the story they complement each other; they blend into each other to form a unified spiritual light that illuminates Kerouac’s writing, guides his romantic recollection with absolute language and a dual project: capturing the magnitude of sadness and balancing it on a scale. The emotional cadence of the story is determined by Kerouac’s constant juxtaposition of negative woeful image with positive multi-religious prose burst. Most of Kerouac’s attention seems to be on balancing pain with reward, on the construction of theories that rely on divine compensation, combat the pain, and function as an opposing weight on his scale. Paradoxical words, opposing emotive energies and balance are the new patterns which Kerouac uses in his stream-of-consciousness.
Kerouac is often seen as an improviser, but even they who pull art from the air in improvisation work from patterns. These patterns give an artist order and control in what seems to be random, chaotic, improvised expression. In “Revision, Prevision, and the Aura of Improvisatory Art,” David Sterrit notes how “extemporaneous creation is tempered in practice by realities of repetition” (171). Kerouac’s patterns in small, descriptive phrases reflect the emotional patterns in large passages and the intersecting “realities of repetition” that exist on, and outside, the page. The patterns of sadness and corrosion begin with the narrator’s initial description of the Mexico he sees around him. He travels through “the whore street district,” the “poor district of Rome” (9). Tristessa’s home is a “tenement cell-house” with “dripping faucets and pails” and “rain still falling from the leaves and boards that served as the kitchen roof” (9). It is full of “chicken garbage” with wild animals sitting in their own filth, like the “little pink cat taking a little pee on piles of okra and chickenfeed” (9). The room is “ransacked as by madmen,” and the writer cannot adequately explain “the awfulness of that gloom in the holes in the ceiling” (12). From the streets to Tristessa’s tenement, Kerouac begins to lay out the indefatigable power of corrosion that will drive his story and function as a giant weight on one end of his scale.
During this impressionistic tour of Mexico, the writer introduces Tristessa as a walking paradox of sorts, a figure of beauty and corrosion, piety and sadness, a tortured angel. She is “high, beautiful as ever, goin home gayly to go to bed and enjoy her morphine,” yet her first words are “I am seek (7, 8).” In his first physical descriptions of her, Kerouac writes, “gorgeous ripples of pear shape her skin to her cheekbones, and long sad eyelids, and Virgin Mary resignation” (8). In this one description the reader finds the three key elements that shape his complex vision of Tristessa and what she represents: sexual beauty, sadness, and religious devotion. These elements are projected onto her throughout the story in descriptive patterns.
Descriptions of Tristessa contain paradoxes, disharmony, words and images that sit in direct opposition. She is a “sad mutilated blue Madonna,” and a “bundle of death and beauty,” whose face is “so expressive of the pain and loveliness that went no doubt into the making of this fatal world” (73, 52). In “We’re On the Road to Nowhere: Steinbeck, Kerouac, and the Legacy of the Great Depression,” Jason Spangler submits that the “melancholic mixture of possibility and disenchantment” in Kerouac’s work originated in the author’s childhood (310). The humbling forces of the Great Depression, and a catastrophic flood in his hometown Lowell, Massachusetts paved the way for these conflicting “realities of repetition” in Tristessa. As she simultaneously embodies the highest and the lowest, the corroded and the pure, as a tortured angel junky Tristessa seems a fitting subject for a meditation on the disharmony Kerouac sees in the human experience.
Kerouac’s descriptive patterns reflect his Buddhist understanding of illusion in the physical world: “everything is nothing” (32). This understanding is amplified in unforgiving paradoxes like “born to die BORN TO DIE I could write it on the wall and on Walls all over America …beautiful to be ugly…glad to be sad” and “living but to die, here we wait on this shelf” (32,42). Gregory Stephenson also notices these patterns and narrative tendencies in Tristessa. He finds that the phrases and passages in physical and emotive conflict with each other “represent both a microcosm of the dichotomies and contradictions of existence and a projection of [Jack’] inner conflicts” and they are all “emblematic of the irreconcilable duality of the world, its disunity and its disharmony” (Stephenson 34-5). The larger disharmony seems a more important subject than Tristessa’s specific disharmony; the narrator sees a world of Tristessas. But he can be the cause of Tristessa’s transcendence, and his own, through testifying to her holiness and the holiness of all.
The narrator faces the “irreconcilable duality” of the physical world, its paradoxes. He concludes that all the dualities, paradoxes and binaries are but mental fictions, illusions. His patterns of disharmony, his consistent emphasis on poverty, sadness, corrosion, contradiction, are balanced out by his use of spiritual conclusions. These conclusions appear often in prayers of lament: “Ah Above, what you doin with your children?…your stolen children you stole from your mind to think a thought because you were bored or you were Mind” (88). In his last thoughts the narrator writes “O movie – A movie by God…this is my part of the movie, let’s hear yours” (96). These conclusions function throughout the story as rifts that separate torrents of sad images, and they function as strategically placed punctuation marks. The first punctuation mark comes after setting up Tristessa’s home, addiction and sickness:
It’s gloom as unpredicted on this earth, I realize all the uncountable manifestations the thinking-mind invents to place wall of horror before the pure perfect realization that there is no wall and no horror just Transcendental Empty Kissable Milk Light of Everlasting Eternity’s true and perfectly empty nature (16).
This kind of verbal mathematics exists throughout the story. Tristessa’s pain, and Kerouac’s pain as witness, is inevitably neutralized through conclusions that seek to add holy illumination to a wretched mortal darkness, to qualify an organizing principle. In this moment, like many others, Kerouac leans on the infinite and absolute in his language, “uncountable manifestations” and “Everlasting Eternity,” the stillness of it all having a “perfectly empty nature.” Once these kind of moments begin repeating themselves, the reader can see them as another refrain, an always-applicable chorus to drown out the patterns of the saddest tune in all the world. Immediately, Kerouac begins arranging new images of sadness: a “dead dog in the gutter,” followed by “beggars on the sidewalk with no hats looking at you helplessly,” and a little girl next door “praying little woeful squeals enough to make a father’s heart break” (17). These knots are untangled in a similar manner. Absolute language amplifies the narrator’s spiritual conviction and his belief in a calibrated balance “that recompenses all that pain with soft reward of perfect silent love” (33).
This pattern continues as Tristessa’s woe becomes larger, and more specific. The narrator becomes increasingly reliant on his own vision of God, Buddhism, and the absolute language necessary to qualify them:
It makes me cry to realize Tristessa has never had a child and probably never will because of her morphine sickness (a sickness that goes on as long as the need and feeds off the need and fills in the need simultaneously, so that she moans from pain all day and the pain is real, like abscesses in the shoulder and neuralgia down the side of the head and in 1952 just before Christmas she was supposed to be dying) holy Tristessa will not be cause of further rebirth and will go straight to her God and He will recompense her multibillionfold in aeons and aeons of dead Karma time (22-3).
This burst of writing builds again upon woeful images, but with a familiar formula. The facts of her life get worse and worse. The emotional content increases and increases, as does the need for absolute, conclusive theory. First Kerouac presents the image of Woman without Child, an image that is a result of an incapability. Tristessa has been denied a feminine function and instead must carry out a unisexual function of sadness. The morphine has replaced her sexual inclinations and her desire to procreate. Next, her incapability is placed into a circle of futility, evoking the ouroboros snake eating its tail to represent the cyclic prison of her drug addiction. Then comes an image of physical corrosion with Tristessa, beautiful and young, defaced by the drugs that control her. Finally an image of Tristessa dying on Christmas, an image of sadness gaining emotive power from the mention of religious celebration and thoughts of a suffering Christ. As is the rhythm of Tristessa, these images are neutralized by a final image of God, heaven, balance. Tristessa is rewarded, removed from the cycle of reincarnation. His attempt to sanctify Tristessa’s world is part of Kerouac’s balancing act as he considers a shared world and weaves images of mortal collapse with images of divine construction.
Kerouac scholar Robert Hipkiss writes that the narrator’s goal is to “minister to Tristessa’s condition with a dose of innocent faith,” though she is given much more than a dose (Hipkiss 7). Similarly, Benedict Giamo submits that Kerouac’s “compassionate response to [Tristessa] causes him to sanctify her world from the profane perspectives of abject poverty, drug addiction and junk-sickness-unto-death” (Giamo, 2000 104). This compassionate response is more evidence for Giamo that Kerouac’s writing became more complicated and more significant as he became more spiritually driven to write. This is the part of Kerouac’s catalogue that should invite more critical attention. His attempt to sanctify Tristessa’s world is part of his balancing act as Kerouac considers a shared world and weaves images of mortal collapse with images of divine construction.
This particular divine construction, that of Tristessa being rewarded for her pain and suffering with “dead Karma time,” comes from Kerouac’s own vision of the Buddhist idea of karma, the highest balance. Often credited with bringing Buddhism to the West, Geshe Kelsang Gyatso defines karma in these terms: “Every action we perform leaves an imprint, or potential, on our very subtle mind, and each karmic potential eventually gives rise to its own effect” (Gyatso 9). But Kerouac seems to think that each one of Tristessa’s actions and trials leaves an imprint directly on “her God.” In Kerouac’s interpretation of karma, Tristessa is not being rewarded for exhibiting positive action but for being so inundated with negative experience. The spiritual theories he imports are adjusted to fit into, or complement, his Catholic foundation.
In a scene where Tristessa runs out of morphine, she points to the sky and compliments Kerouac’s karmic theories. ‘So I geev every-things I have to my friend, and eef he doam pay me back…my Lord pay me back…More’” with Kerouac adding “as the spirit swims around the room I can tell the effective mournful horror of it (her reward is so thin) now I see radiating from the crown of her head innumerable hands that have come from all ten quarters of the Universe to bless her.” He concludes “her Enlightenment is perfect” (57). He also envisions a universal understanding of karma as he watches young Mexican baseball players, writing how “they wonder ‘Did I make a bad play in the fifth inning? Didn’t I make it up with that heet in the seventh inning?’” (43). Even Old Bull Gaines, a minor character who passes like a ghost, must find a delicate balance of chemicals to get to sleep, mixing morphine, codeine, coffee and cigarettes to find the Nirvana of sleep (48). Each separate element in the story challenges the author to find a place for it in a balance. Kerouac even balances an active, present tense narrative in the first half of the story with a reflective, past tense narrative in the second.
Indeed the most noticeable element in Tristessa is religion, its spiritual intent, its attempt to speak with a religious voice. The narrator lays out a complicated multi-religious network and ornaments Tristessa, her friends, her country, even the animals in her home, with Catholic and Buddhist symbols and sentiment. Kerouac’s mystic and reclusive nature provided him with years of solitude to practice Buddhist meditation and prayer. He withdrew from society. Tristessa is a product of that solitude, that mixture of spiritual introspection and detachment.
Kerouac weaves his Catholic upbringing and the ubiquitous Catholic imagery in Mexico into his new interest in Buddhist theory; he balances the imagery, precepts and metaphysical theories of these two religions, mixes them with his own unique language play and American poetics, and projects them onto subjects and objects as he writes. Though many of the narrator’s conclusions draw from Buddhist theory, he never wholly commits to Buddhism as an exclusive, superior means for understanding mortal trial. Benedict Giamo sees a tremendous value in Kerouac’s religious pluralism. He writes that after Kerouac’s “long and passionate engagement with Catholicism and Buddhism-amid a post-Nietzschean world spun out of divine orbit” he began ”craving for belief and devotion to affirmative conceptions of the sacred in human life” (Giamo, 2003 202). As Americans transitioned from their introduction to apocalyptic military power in World War II to the fear and confusion of the Cold War, Kerouac’s “affirmative conceptions of the sacred in human life” became all the more significant for his readership. He did not simply advocate intellectual resistance to mass American culture, he advocated the heavens when God seemed to be dead, or like Tristessa’s white dove (“God the Dove”), sitting “in nest ever contemplating the entire scene forever without comment” (25). Giamo also ranks Kerouac’s expression of Buddhism “among the most innovative evocations and energetic expositions of traditional Eastern belief in modern American literature” (Giamo, 2003 174).
Later in his life, when an interviewer asked Kerouac what the difference was between Jesus and Buddha, he answered “There is no difference” (Berrigan 68). While Kerouac isolates a pattern of sadness, and offers a thematic pattern in prayer, he ends up emphasizing what Giamo calls “the direct subjective experience of the divine as a living reality.” The reader can “pivot freely between the living Christ and the living Buddha, for each…manifests an imminent holiness in humankind” (Giamo, 2000 112). The narrator sees the names, the weight of each figure in religious history, as one name, one weight, and the emotive power in his language comes directly from the force of religious energies combined, the force of a writer who is writing of his faith, his private spiritual theories.
In Tristessa Kerouac advocates a Buddhist approach to his American readers, and while documenting his experiences with that approach he rejects the American sociocultural norm. This rejection is also a pattern in Kerouac’s catalogue, as it is in other Beat Generation texts. Kerouac writes of the inner world, what could potentially happen inside that world. His commitment to self-exploration, self-cultivation and widening his own spiritual capacity anticipates the tremendous interest Americans have in Buddhism, yoga, acupuncture, imported wisdom. Allen Johnson writes of the significance of the Beat Generation authors in terms of the effects their resistance to typical American spirituality and ambition had on both the intrinsic and social consciousness of their readers. “The Beat rejection of consumerist aspirations and the existing economic order helped open the way for a critical perspective on modernity that still influences those who feel alienated from the dominant culture” (Johnson 122). The monkish and contemplative lifestyle Kerouac describes in his books offered an alternative, and therein lies the social significance of the Beat Generation. Due to critical emphasis upon On the Road, the scope of that social significance and intellectual resistance has been limited to wanderlust, drugs, jazz and hip language. The Beat writers moved away from the sensory pleasures found in On the Road; their critics did not.
Johnson sees writers like Kerouac giving his readers permission, through their writing, to look for a new angle. Similarly, Stephen Prothero contends “the Beats were spiritual protesters as well as literary innovators” (208). He believes this should make them more significant in conversations outside the literary sphere. He argues that the critical world should pay more attention to the curiously sustainable writers and poets of the Beat Generation and their contributions to the spiritual atmosphere of succeeding generations. Kerouac and the Beats “responded to the challenge of religious pluralism by conjuring out of inherited and imported materials a wholly new religious vision” (Prothero 220). Like the transcendentalists, who have solidified a place for themselves in American religious history, Kerouac made “contact with the sacred on the nonverbal, transconceptual level of intuition and feeling” and then transmitted what he found into his writing (Prothero 220). For this he, and other beat generation authors, should be included in discussions about American religious history. Their work helped to bring Buddhism into American intellectual and theological discussion, and contributed to the widening of a country’s religious landscape. This is not a common angle for literary criticism on Jack Kerouac, because to consider his application of spiritual theory would require a consideration of how his aesthetic developed over many years and projects.
Kerouac never turned his back on Catholicism. In Tristessa he places it right beside Buddhism to show them as flowers from the same stem, as two dogmatic systems that can synthesize the same world, the same ephemeral and convincing illusion, in similar ways. Kerouac writes “the Buddhas and the Virgin Marys are there reminding me of the solemn pledge of faith in this harsh and stupid earth” (16). The narrator swears “on the Bible on God on Buddha” (71). After lighting a cigarette with one of Tristessa’s prayer candles, he makes “a little French prayer: ‘Excuse mue ma ‘Dame’ – making emphasis on Dame because of Damema the Mother of Buddhas” (30). When watching moments of religious ritual, be it Tristessa praying for morphine or lighting a candle, he is quick to blur the line between East and West. “The Virgin Mary has a candle, a bunch of glass-fulla-wax economical burners that go for weeks on end, like Tibetan prayer-wheels” (11). A Catholic image is, more often than not, immediately followed with a Buddhist image. While briefly considering Tristessa as a sexual partner, a lover, a third wife, Kerouac finds her “lodged in the Virgin Mary, and her love of wish-for-me,” which “makes her as mysterious as the Tathagata whose form is described as being…as inscrutable as the direction in which a put-out fire has gone” (54). Tristessa is sexually unattainable, which the narrator romantically equates to holiness and purity. The writer then makes another quick association to Buddha essence, the Tathagata. Kerouac does not disregard his childhood religion, does not simply replace it with his current Buddhist interests, but incorporates it into the story with balance, seemingly matching image for image, symbol for symbol, god for god.
Religious balance is also seen in the way Kerouac expands the idea of sentience to bring into the narrative the animals in Tristessa’s home: a hen, a rooster, a dog, a cat, and a dove. Kerouac ornaments the human characters, Tristessa, her sister Cruz, their friend El Indio, with Catholic images. This human Catholicism is balanced by animal Buddhism. Kerouac projects onto each animal some kind of Buddhist nature, allowing the animals to participate in dialogue, and meditate on metaphysical subjects with superior understanding. The cat is “meditating among our mad endeavors like the Dove above” (29). He says, in Spanish, “Your cat is having golden thoughts,” assuming that as the cat is observing the filthy apartment, the daily drinking and morphine sicknesses, she understands everything completely, and knows all is still well (30). The dog has her own “reflections on the subject of Nirvana and death” (32). Kerouac also uses the dog to serve as an example of the trappings of impure thoughts. The dog howls in pain. “Tristessa says she’s in heat and that’s why she cries” (13). The hen “walks around the golden kitchen of Time in huge Nirvana” (20). When pecked by its holy beak the narrator notes “what a gentle touch it is from Mother Maya,” and sympathetically calls the animal a “poor sentient being” (34,20). “God The Dove,” representing the silent organizing principle, is resting “in nest, ever contemplating the entire scene forever without comment” (25). The Buddhist animals, the Catholic angels and saints, the narrator’s own dogmatic amalgam, “it’s all taking place in one vast mind” (35). Expanded sentience works to balance Catholicism with Buddhist image and sentiment, and to reaffirm that all is well. In a way the narrator tries to prove that everyone, and everything, is practicing some kind of Buddhism, and they all know it without knowing it.
Though the thematic energies in Tristessa are balanced, and the language more elegant than in his previous works, the reader can still see traces of Kerouac’s old habits, residue from his psychological experience with The Subterraneans. When the narrator begins to wonder what Tristessa is thinking, worried she will judge him for the way he spends his money, he stops himself before the writing becomes overly self-conscious, “no time to think,” and continues on without incident (9). Aware of the trappings of sexuality, pleasure-seeking, powerful moments where the mind is controlled by the body, he writes of his experiment with chastity early in the story and how it will allow him to transcend the shallow flesh: “I have sworn off lust with women,- sworn off lust for lust’s sake,-sworn off sexuality and the inhibiting impulse- I want to enter the Holy Stream and be safe on my way to the other shore” (22). He understands the psychic boulders that could potentially dam the stream-of-consciousness. He understands that his neuroses will appear in his writing. By eliminating women and sex from his life, by eliminating the whole world of The Subterraneans, by moving away from its darkness, its sexual objectives, its ruinous cycle of sin and self-conscious reflection on sin, he can allow the stream to flow upward.
The line separating self-conscious participation and selfless observation can be seen more clearly as Kerouac reverts, in brief moments, back to his old self-conscious style. He becomes increasingly preoccupied with his own sexual feelings for Tristessa as the first section winds down; he begins to focus on himself, his place in the story. There is very little action in Tristessa. The narrator observes from the outside. Once he begins to think about participation, especially in the form of romantic pursuit, the content shifts abruptly, regresses back to the habits of neuroses-laden narrator Leo Percepied in The Subterraneans.
I don’t want to disgust Tristessa – It would horrify me to cause her ruinous fleshpetal tender secrets and have her wake up in the morning lodged against the back of some unwelcome man who loves by night and sleeps it off, and wakes up blearing to shave and by his very presence causes consternation where before there was absolute perfect purity of nobody (55).
Jack finds so many moral flaws in his imagination when Tristessa resounds in his mind as an object of sexuality, and not a subject of sadness and religious devotion. The familiar self-loathing narrator returns in this moment. The balance begins to disappear as self-consciousness and thoughts of sexual conquest infiltrate the writing. He writes, “It’s all my own sin if I make a play for her,” for if he does make that play for her she would be nothing more than “a material witness to my murderous lust” (54). To curb his thoughts, to paint them as futile and empty gestures of the mind, he leans on the idea of Tristessa as a holy figure, a nun, a saint, an angel, a nonsexual idea that in its enlightenment floats above that kind of toil. “I play games with her fabulous eyes and she longs to be in a monastery” (58).
Tristessa’s second chapter finds Kerouac again returning to the Self, his personal trials, and thoughts of sexuality. This time he reiterates the Oedipus complex seen in The Subterraneans, and explicitly references his mother as he waves goodbye to unattainable and holy Tristessa: “I’ve screwed everything up with mama again, Oedipus Rex, I’ll tear out my eyes in the morning,” concluding that he is always “the positional son in woman and man relationships” (93). Perhaps this turn, or return, is inevitable in any of Kerouac’s works given that he is more often than not applying the self-conscious technique of the stream-of-consciousness, but the momentum gained by his observations in this text seems to disappear as the writer makes himself the subject at the end of each section. The fact that this happens so infrequently in Tristessa may be a testament to Kerouac’s Buddhist lens, as he tried in the middle of the 1950s, shortly before becoming a famous author, to place some distance between his spiritual experience and his physical experience.
Stylistically, and thematically, Tristessa was an achievement of Kerouac’s. It harmonizes the blurring melodies of the stream-of-consciousness style with long, overarching thematic drones. He created space for the drug-sick to have humanity and soul, though they struggle with the will in mortal skin. He welcomed imported spiritual wisdom during the peak of twentieth century American xenophobia. He concentrated his energies on compassion. Kerouac relied on his typing speed in The Subterraneans, and the result was engrossing and manic, but the story does not move far beyond the narrator’s ego. Tristessa, however, contains the same narrative energy, a signature of the stream-of-consciousness narrative energy, but it is ornamented with expansive thematic significance, and a thoughtfulness, for which the author should be known.
Jack Kerouac’s writing is a reflection of the maddening times he lived in, of the changing American realities in the twentieth century. He turned to the stream-of-consciousness, while turning away from ordinary American life and writing conventions. He retreaded inward, behind the eyes, and ensconced himself in the inner world because the external world was threatening, unsatisfactory, controlled. He discovered his own unique literary form; once he focused on the spiritual world, he successfully integrated significant content and profound insight into that form in works like Tristessa, Big Sur, and Visions of Gerard.
On the Road was published at the right time to speak for a collective unconscious, to guide a countercultural movement, but generations later we can see that timing also hid Kerouac’s post-road work in a haze of negative criticism and tunnel-vision emphasis on one lonely text. On the Road is well-written; Dean is a beautiful character. It is a period piece, he a timeless eccentric. Today people still reach for something when they read it, something that is gone.
While timing made Kerouac famous, it also made him simple. There was pressure placed upon him to embody the “beat generation.” All the positive and negative energies of this movement were projected onto him, and onto his famous travel novel. Six years after writing the novel—having become a spiritually driven prose poet, a quiet Buddhist wanderer, a prolific author with a style entirely his own—Kerouac was forced back into the skin he had shed. He was often asked to justify On the Road, qualify “his generation;” he was never taken seriously as an author, but was dismissed as some kind of spokesman for a small percentage of the American youth.
He is rarely allowed in the classroom; in the sphere of literary criticism he is rarely allowed his many dimensions, or his genius. He resounds as a simplified sociocultural figure, an icon, and not as an important American author. Jack Kerouac, writer of the inner world in the twentieth century, rich with psychological and spiritual layers, a writer who harnessed the musical texture of language, who saw the synergy of poetry, prose and sonic melody. There is much to learn from his work. So many roads to take with him as a guide. So many roads, if only we get off the beaten path, the road often traveled that cuts across a flat earth, leave it and be heavengoing.
Berrigan, Ted. “The Art of Fiction: Jack Kerouac” Conversations with Jack Kerouac Ed. Kevin J. Hayes, Jackson: UP of Mississippi, 2005. 51-81.
Giamo, Benedict. Kerouac, the Word and the Way: Prose Artist as Spiritual Quester, Carbondale: Southern Illinois UP, 2000.
————.“Enlightened Attachment: Kerouac’s Impermanent Buddhist Trek.” R&L 35:2 (2003). 173-205.
Gyatso, Geshe Kelsang. Eight Steps to Happiness: The Buddhist Way of Loving Kindness, Glen Spey: Tharpa Publications, 2000.
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In the late spring of 1939, Weldon Kees, his wife Ann, and his parents, John…