The following is a draft of an essay that was later published in literary journal Beatdom in 2010.
Note: my literary fixations have not changed.
Literature and the art of self-realisation
I was lucky. By the time I discovered that personal autonomy is one of those American tropes that gets full lip-service but absolutely no practical respect (see also: “all men are created equal” and separation of church and state), I’d read The Grapes of Wrath and it was too late. Already, tires on asphalt were singing and orange trees bloomed somewhere. There was also a dark undercurrent in Steinbeck’s prose, the murmured caution I might not survive the trip or, reaching an end, find what I was seeking.
The mythic American journey is a quest for self-realisation, a conscious effort to shake off the ties of convention and to seek truth through action. Henry David Thoreau showed the way when he went to Walden Pond to “suck the marrow out of life”. Note: it is okay to gather moss as you invent yourself. Movement, per se, is not the point. To actively choose a mode of being is what matters.
Hunter S. Thompson put this as beautifully as I’ve seen, advising his kid brother: “Don’t think in terms of goals, think in terms of how you want to live. Then figure out how to make a living”. I first read those words on a bus rolling through the high plains outside Mexico City and they echoed in my head as we plunged south, through the impoverished streets of Acapulco to the wild beaches of Guerrero. It struck me that in all my years of work and education no-one ever suggested it is important to think about how to live. If I wanted any wisdom on that front I would have to find it on my own.
Inspiration is rare because twenty-first century America is obsessed with security. Running away to find yourself is disreputable. The joy of movement, of self-propulsion, is viewed with suspicion because it is antithetical to stability. If even a fraction of the dreamers shrugged off the encumbrance of property, life insurance and steady jobs the social order would collapse. So Americans are allowed Easy Rider and On the Road, while being subtly shackled by 401(k) plans and 10 days per year paid vacation.
Daily life is full of opportunities to behave in familiar ways. The trick is to avoid doing so. This means taking a hard look at what convention has to offer, and refusing it. “This is why I left the States when I was 22,” rock icon Chrissie Hynde once remarked. “I saw that I was going to be trapped into buying a car so I could get to work so I could pay for my car.” Like all artists, she understands the vital importance of action, of embracing uncertainty. Such choices are fraught with insecurity; with the promise of bittersweet, intoxicating thrills.
“Nobody’s ever taught you how to live out on the street,” Bob Dylan hymns in Like a Rolling Stone, “And now you’re gonna have to get used to it.” Getting used to it is hard. If it weren’t everyone would do it. Death and desperation drive the Joads; in Breakfast at Tiffany’s Holly Golightly runs from the wilderness to the glass canyons of New York City to the jungles of South America, never quite catching up to her dreams. Their journeys are tragic, not triumphal, yet the dream remains – wistful, stubborn – of California sunsets and the glint of diamonds. Travelling your own road requires a fervent belief in the infinite possibilities of freedom, but catastrophe and failure are always among the possibilities.
Vincent Van Gogh, who is unjustly dismissed as an ear-hacking auteur, wrote luminous, philosophical letters pondering his struggles to live with artistic integrity in a material world. “I think that most people who know me consider me a failure, and… it really might be so, if some things do not change for the better,” he wrote on his thirtieth birthday. “When I think it might be so, I feel it so vividly that it quite depresses me… but one doesn’t expect out of life what one has already learned that it cannot give.” What life, faced square on, cannot give is any assurance of a happy ending. There is powerful literary testimony to the fact that courage is no guarantor of success.
Martha Gellhorn, novelist and war-correspondent extraordinaire, knew this better than most. I’ve dragged her superb memoir, Travels with Myself & Another, across two continents as much for the spine-stiffening effect of her brusque prose as for her mordantly funny stories of ‘horror journeys’. “Moaning is unseemly,” she concludes. “Get to work. Work is the best cure for despair.”
Contrary to popular belief, work matters to the wanderers. There is nothing lazy about going in search of experience. Hunter Thompson scraped, rowed and rolled across the Americas not because he didn’t want to work but because he wanted meaningful work. The tragedy of The Great Gatsby is that the idle rich flourish at the expense of hungry, intelligent young men who cannot find honest labour. Hell, even Dean Moriarty, “the most fantastic parking-lot attendant in the world”, pays for his adventure with stints of “working without pause eight hours a night.”
America trivialises the industry and vitality of people who carve their own paths because it needs well-rooted consumers to prop up its web of shopping malls, real estate brokers and HMOs. And because it is afraid of being called to account for broken promises about life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. In The Grapes of Wrath Steinbeck offers a deadly accurate diagnosis of establishment dread:
The Californians wanted many things, accumulation, social success, amusement, luxury, and a curious banking security, the new barbarians wanted only two things – land and food…. Whereas the wants of the Californians were nebulous and undefined, the wants of the Okies were beside the roads.
Land and food are buried deep in the heart of every personal saga. Even rolling stones need a resting place. (Kerouac first uses “beat” in the sense of beat-up, worn out, kicked around. Only later did it become a badge of honour.) Truth is, unhitching yourself from the comfortable yolk of everydayness is difficult business. It is an act of necessity, desperation even, undertaken by those who refuse to live half-lives. If you heed Thoreau’s injunction to “step to the music [you hear], however measured or far away”, you are liable to find yourself lost, cold, broke, alienated, adrift. Getting to California means crossing the Great Divide. Like as not, your only encouragement along the way will be the books at the bottom of your rucksack. And faith the destination will prove worthy of the journey.
- Capote, Truman Breakfast at Tiffany’s
- Dylan, Bob ‘Like A Rolling Stone’ from Highway 61 Revisited
- Eliot, T.S. ‘East Coker’ from Four Quartets
- Gellhorn, Martha Travels with Myself & Another
- Kerouac, Jack On The Road
- Steinbeck, John The Grapes of Wrath
- Thompson, Hunter S. The Saga of a Desperate Southern Gentleman
- Thoreau, Henry David Walden
- Van Gogh, Vincent The Letters of Vincent Van Gogh (ed. Mark Roskill)