“Literature...represents the ultimate coding of our crises, of our most intimate and most serious apocalypses. Hence its nocturnal power.” — Julia Kristeva, Powers of Horror: An Essay on Abjection
To call themselves a “beat generation” (Charters xx) meant more than just a tag with which the group of mid-20th century writers could label themselves with, or a group to belong to; it was a vision. “Beat” was an ethos that was set into motion by aspiring writers, John Clellon Holmes and Jack Kerouac, during a late night conversation about “social trends and cultural changes” that the newly acquainted friends were having over drinks in November of 1948 (Charters xix). Kerouac officially coined the term after the publication of his first novel, The Town and the City, and it has since stuck with this group of rebellious, inassimilable post World War II writers. It spurred a movement that would give voice to “a generation of furtives” who felt a “weariness with…all the conventions of the world” (Charters xix). In exploring the novel through the lens of Julia Kristeva’s theory of abjection, it can be reasoned that the presence of 38 the abject was deeply rooted within Kerouac’s life from an early age, and continued to be a central interest as the community of Beat writers formed. The abject can then be traced throughout On the Road in the characters’ thoughts and actions, as well as Kerouac's writing style, and understood as a consequence of the unavoidable and ominous abjection that was present since his childhood.
Kristeva articulates various facets of the theory of abjection in Powers of Horror: An Essay on Abjection. While the multiple layers present in this text have the potential to produce fascinating analyses, the sections about abjection’s “otherness” and lack of objecthood; the loathsome qualities for which it becomes expelled; the dejectedness that causes it to stray; the sense of hope and renewal that emerges from it; and the cathartic powers of literature, yield particularly interesting insight for exploring Beat life and its correlation with On the Road.
As a shy and introverted child, Kerouac was determined to fulfill his dream of becoming a successful writer, despite ridicule from his schoolmates for aspiring toward this non-masculine normative career (Antonelli). His early schooling was a strict training in obedience and submission. In an attempt to break from the educational institution’s constraints and the harsh criticism from his peers, Kerouac accepted a football scholarship to Columbia University in 1939 in defiance of being labeled a “sissy” (Antonelli). In relating the events of Kerouac’s life to Kristeva’s theory of abjection, an analysis of her piece “Neither Subject Nor Object” is useful. Here Kristeva writes that the abject is not “a definable object;” rather, it is a “violent, dark revolt of being,” that which is “opposed to I” (7). In this instance, the I signifies his peers, the dominant, collective group, and Kerouac signifies the abject. The abject is “radically excluded” and “reject[ed]” by I because of its opposition to it and its ideologies (Kristeva 1). The abject “repuls[es]” while simultaneously drawing in I by acting as a means for which it can define itself by; that which it is not (Kristeva 1). By opposing dominant ideology and aspiring toward a non-normative career, Kerouac poses a threat to the subjectivity of the centripetal—his peers. Thus, he is rejected and derogated by them. His existence reaffirms their conformist ideologies as normal, while also reaffirming their identities by defining themselves by what they are not—Kerouac. Furthermore, by accepting Columbia’s football scholarship in defiance of the label “sissy”, Kerouac “does not cease challenging [his] master” (Kristeva 1), i.e., the centripetal.
While at Columbia, Kerouac bonded with like-minded aspiring writers, such as Allen Ginsberg, Lucien Carr, and William Burroughs, who also opposed the modern conformist ideologies of the time (Charters 8). These writers formed what has come to be known as The Beats, “a small bohemian group that came together in the 1940s and was vaulted from anonymity into the public eye in the 1950s following the highly publicized appearance of Ginsberg’s ‘Howl’ and Kerouac’s On the Road” (“Sordid” 11). These texts “appeared just as a vigorous public debate about conformism was reaching its peak” (“Sordid” 11). Aside from writing, the Beats sought to establish a centrifugal space on the margins of mainstream society in which they could escape from the homogeneity of 1950s American conformity and explore their individuality (“Sordid” 12). They did this by living adverse lifestyles involving “homosexuality, addiction, and petty crime” (“Sordid” 23), largely in opposition to the ideologies of the centripetal. Subsequently, the bohemian group was alienated; left to navigate their way through the confines of the centrifugal and find solutions to the deficit of opportunities for artists in post war industrialization (“Sordid” 14).
As a continuation of Kerouac’s abjection, the Beats adopted this role in relation to mainstream society. Again, Kristeva’s “Neither Subject Nor Object” is useful in viewing the Beats as abject. In this liminal position, they “[lie] outside, beyond the set, and [do] not seem to agree to [I’s] rules of the game” (Kristeva 1). Their “appalling studies of the night” (Kerouac 126) including, but not limited to, homosexuality, promiscuity, and drug and alcohol abuse signifies the abject—a “violent, dark revolt of being...ejected beyond the scope of the possible, the tolerable, the thinkable...[i]t lies there, quite close, but it cannot be assimilated” (Kristeva 1). Thus, this way of life could not have been accepted by mainstream society as it was viewed as “[a]n ambiguous reality...inspir[ing] ambivalent feelings” (Bourdieu 56) for its nonconformity. In living lives viewed as adverse to the mainstream and defying dominant societal values, they were rejected by the centripetal. Additionally, as the Beats refused to adhere to the ideologies of the centripetal, they viewed the marginalized centrifugal as a place of “possibility in an American modernity that seemed increasingly homogenous” (“Tenement” 60).
Kerouac’s rejection of mainstream ideologies in his early school years and again later with fellow non-conformist Beat writers precipitated his injection of the abject into his writing. Here, the sections “The 39 Improper/Unclean,” “An Exile Who Asks, ‘Where?,’” and “The ‘Chora,’ Receptacle of Narcissism” provide useful insight in elucidating the abject in On the Road. Kristeva articulates that the presence of a cadaver is “the utmost of abjection” (4). It breaks the borders between life and death, by “[showing] what I permanently thrust aside in order to live,” that is, “body fluids” (Kristeva 3). The body “extricates” these on the border of life, and “such wastes drop so that I might live, until, from loss to loss, nothing remains in me and my entire body falls beyond the limit— ...cadaver (Kristeva 3). These wastes signify the other side of the border, that which is repugnant and “the most sickening” (Kristeva 3). In breaking down this border, I is thus the one being expelled, and the “elsewhere” of death is now “jettisoned, abjected, into ‘my’ world” (Kristeva 4). Kerouac alludes to the image of a corpse in chapter eleven of part three in On the Road when Sal Paradise relates an anecdote from his life in 1942:
I was the star in one of the filthiest dramas
of all time. I was a seaman, and went to the
Imperial Café on Scollay Square in Boston
to drink; I drank six glasses of beer and
retired to the toilet, where I wrapped myself
around the toilet bowl and went to sleep.
During the night at least a hundred seamen
and assorted civilians came in and cast their
sentient debouchments on me till I was
unrecognizably caked (231).
The corpse reminds us of the limits of life, and here, huddled around a place of disposal, Sal’s body has reached its limit. Inebriated to the point of unconsciousness, Sal has polluted his body into vulnerability, unable to cease the abuse of debouchments. Consumed by refuse to the point of unrecognizability, he is no longer himself; rather, he is a “jettisoned object” (Kristeva 2). Sal’s body signifies the irrevocably rejected abject corpse, repudiated by those who encounter it.
The seemingly endless journeys that Sal and Dean continually embark on across America are reminiscent of the abject, as the lifestyles they lead simultaneously attract and repulse them. The “Depression-era anxieties of what America represents as opposed to what it might and should represent” (Spangler 312) are significant to Sal and Dean’s motivation for travelling. At a time when “cultural hegemony [was] sought at the expense of individualism” (Spangler 313), Sal and Dean were journeying coast to coast hoping to discover ulterior spaces that were free for the exploration of their individuality. They use “the highway as an escape route from repressive culture” (Spangler 320), rather than adhering its hegemonic expectations— steady jobs, monogamous relationships, stable homes, etc. Life on the road “fascinates [their] desire” (Kristeva 1). They travel coast to coast four times, as each time never seems to fully satisfy their need for freedom and excitement. They crave the experience of everything the impetuous highway has to offer—vast and unexplored landscapes, diverse peoples, various narcotics, bars, and whorehouses. However, they recognize that the realities of living life on the road are not exclusive to all that attracts them. Intertwined within Sal’s enthusiasm for their spontaneous journeys are contradictory descriptions that elucidate a sense of repulsion toward the open road: “the raggedy madness and riot of our actual lives, our actual night, the hell of it, the senseless nightmare road” (Kerouac 239). The harsh realities of the vast and mysterious “rolling foothills” (Kerouac 171) and the “vast expanse” (Kerouac 59) of highway are not the pure “sweet, singing bliss” (Kerouac 175) that they continually yearn for.
Upon returning home and parting ways with Dean, Sal recognizes that fleeing the homogenized centripetal does not always offer a superior alternative: “I gaped into the bleakness of my own days” (Kerouac 240). This suggests that continuously embarking across the country is not always entirely fulfilling. Rather than feeling “exulted” (Kerouac 132), Sal feels desolate. Disregarding any previous disappointments, they repeatedly traverse the expansive highway in an act of rebellion against the conformities of the laws and expectations of the centripetal—stealing gas and groceries, while never maintaining permanent jobs or homes. They even endeavor to escape from these confines: “lets go to Italy...We’ll go dig all the crazy women in Rome, Paris” (Kerouac 184), yet they always stay within America’s borders. Sal and Dean simultaneously yearn for and loathe America. The contradictory feelings and views that they have toward it elucidate notions abjection, a sense that they are being drawn in to it while simultaneously pushing it away.
Kerouac presents us with scenes of the abject, however aspects of it can also be found within his writing style. The abject infects Kerouac’s writing much like Kristeva’s cadaver represents “death infecting life” (4), with Kerouac writing in a “series of violently oxymoronic narrative twists” (Ellis 128). In a broad scope of the novel, these contradictions can be found ubiquitously in the descriptions of sporadic Dean. Throughout the novel, Kerouac designates Dean using epithets 40 connoting great superiority: “saint” (188), “Angel” (259), and even “God” (205), descriptors which are completely contradictory to: “rat” (285), “madman” (43), “crazy” (210), and “devil” (213). They are oxymoronic in that Sal alternates between using terms to praise Dean and ones to degrade him. This literary technique represents the contradictory action of abjection that one encounters while simultaneously being repulsed by and drawn toward an object. Kerouac employs this technique as well when describing cityscapes. Upon Sal’s return to New York, centered within Times Square, he says, “seeing with my innocent road-eyes the absolute madness and fantastic hoorair of New York” (102). Describing the city using contradictory adjectives again invokes feelings of the abject, leaving the reader to question whether Sal is rejecting or embracing it, particularly since he continually leaves New York for the West coast. Kerouac writes in an emulative style to the contradictory aspect of abjection by juxtaposing oxymoronic terms and phrases. As such, it can be asserted that the abject has infiltrated his writing as it has infiltrated his life.
Amidst the rubbish, refuse, rags, and scum that Kerouac presents to us, there lies deep within, a small sense of hope and renewal that emerges from within abjection. In Kristeva’s “An Exile Who Asks, ‘Where?’” she articulates that “[t]he one by whom the abject exists is thus a deject who [separates] [himself] and therefore strays instead of getting his bearings...belonging” (8). For the dejected, the encompassing world causes him to:
Constantly question his solidity and impel
him to start afresh. A tireless builder, the
deject is in short a stray. He is on a journey,
during the night, the end of which keeps
receding. He has a sense of the danger, of
the loss that the pseudo-object attracting
him represents for him, but he cannot help
taking the risk at the very moment he sets
himself apart. And the more he strays, the
more he is saved (Kristeva 8).
Dejected from the centripetal, the Beats, and thus Sal and Dean, signify Kristeva’s journey of the stray. They are “making [their] appalling studies of the night” (Kerouac 126) as they continually stray “all the way across the country” (Kerouac 18). Searching for centrifugal spaces where they are free for the exploration of individuality is a continuous journey. As America was becoming predominantly homogeneous, the sense of a personal identity was continually receding, and thus their journey continued. Yet, these countless journeys led to unexplored territory allowing for new experiences, identities, and personal bonds; as such, they were saved from the homogeneity of the centripetal.
In Kristeva’s “The ‘Chora,’ Receptacle of Narcissism” she further refers to a sense of hope and renewal. Where abjection ends “a start of life, of new significance” (Kristeva 15) arises. An emergence of this sense strikes Sal shortly after he blatantly states that he “[has] nobody, nothing” (Kerouac 163), subsequent to abandonment by Dean, and again by Marylou, in San Francisco. He suddenly reaches “ecstasy” while wandering the streets “across chronological time into timeless shadows, and wonderment in the bleakness of the mortal realm” (Kerouac 164). “Ecstasy” is repeated twice in a single passage to explicate his revitalization: “I stopped, frozen with ecstasy on the sidewalk...I was delirious...I tingled all over from head to foot...And just for a moment I had reached the point of ecstasy that I had always wanted to reach” (164). Sal’s rejuvenated sense of self, experienced in the streets of San Francisco, brought him the new significance he yearned for. The notion of moving beyond the death kicking at his heels signifies the start of life that Kristeva discusses, further underscored by Sal’s claim that he has “died and been reborn numberless times” (Kerouac 164).
Again, the notion of renewal arises when Sal, Dean, Marylou, and Ed travel through South Carolina and beyond Macon, Georgia. They “realized that in the darkness all around [them] was fragrant green grass and the smell of fresh manure and warm waters,” indicating they had finally made it to the South and “left the winter!” (Kerouac 132). The trajectory into a new season and location elucidates a sense of renewal. Moving into spring, the season of change and growth signifies “the start of life” (Kristeva 15). The exclamation mark further underscores their feelings of “exul[tion]” (Kerouac 132) upon reaching this pinnacle, and emphasizes the significance of this renewal. Kerouac’s presentation of the abject in On the Road can further signify Kristeva’s theory of abjection when considering her discussion on the process of writing. She explains that the “nocturnal power” of literature aids the writer in his/her
afflictions (Kristeva 208). Literature “represents the ultimate coding of our crises, of our most intimate and most serious apocalypses,” and the process of writing offers a cathartic release for the writer (Kristeva 208). By inserting scenes illustrative of the abject and using descriptive terms evocative of it, Kerouac can thus relieve himself of the abject feelings precipitated by his own life 41 experiences through the cathartic process of writing. His close relationships with fellow Beat writers also provided a means for working through his afflictions by collaboratively working with and among like-minded individuals. By participating within the liminal, subcultural community of those who share the same ideologies, Kerouac was provided with a sense of comfort and security— others with whom he could identify.
In writing about his adventures across the country, Kerouac, as a novelist, contributed “greatly to the public recognition of this new social entity [the Beats]—especially by inventing and spreading the very notion of bohemia” (Bourdieu 56). He quickly became the spokesperson for the Beats after his critical acclaim for On the Road in The New York Times by Gilbert Millstein, placing them on the cultural map, and providing like-minded individuals with a new set of values severed from mainstream America. “The glimmer of possibility that emerges at [the] end of the road” (“Sordid” 16), after the commencement of the “whole mad swirl” (Kerouac 11) of the journey, signifies the presence of the abject. It’s an abjection that presented itself early in Kerouac’s life, trailing along through the formation of the subcultural community of “bearded, bedraggled American youths” (Kerouac 261) identified as the Beats. Consequentially, this abjection is injected into the novel through the thoughts and actions of the characters and in the style of writing. In turn, the writing of abjection can be signified as a cathartic working out of emotions, thus lending Kerouac an outlet for the afflictions of his youth, while also providing a sense of identity in “a new collective space” (“Sordid” 18) that is the bohemian centrifugal.