Kerouac: A Psychonaut in Denial
At the turn of the 1960s, Jack Kerouac found himself in a profound state of limbo, representing the climax of an existential crisis that predated his life as a published author. He had been looking for an "answer" to his problems since his early twenties (1), yet for a variety of reasons his dilemma remained unresolved. Then a 35-year-old Jack became famous in an instant when On the Road was published in the fall of 1957, and this led to the total disruption of his already chaotic life. Suddenly his world became very claustrophobic, as he was pushed into the role of a counter-culture celebrity despite the fact that very few were giving him credit as a legitimate author of American literature.
In his 1962 novel Big Sur, Kerouac reflects on the period: "...I've been driven mad for three years by endless telegrams, phonecalls, requests, mail, visitors, reporters, snoopers..." (2). Kerouac wrote that book in October 1961 by fictionalizing events that had happened mainly in the summer of 1960 -- a trip from New York to California, visiting San Francisco, Bixby Canyon, and San Jose (where Neal Cassady was living). It was his first lengthy trip in three years, and Big Sur was the first book he completed since writing The Dharma Bums in November 1957. Kerouac's plan was to pass the summer in solitude so that he could recover his mental balance while checking the publisher galleys for his Book of Dreams (3). Lawrence Ferlinghetti, whose budding City Lights imprint would be publishing the dream book that year, told Kerouac to stay at his cabin in Bixby Canyon, on the Pacific Coast south of Monterrey (technically just north of Big Sur).
In the period surrounding both the events depicted in Big Sur and the writing and editing of the book, Jack actively experimented with certain psychedelic substances that hadn't yet made a large impression on the American culture: mescaline, ayahuasca, and psilocybin mushrooms. At the start of Big Sur, he mentions some of these substances in a slightly negative manner, as if to suggest that they had worsened his overall mental condition: ". . . 'One fast move or I'm gone,' I realize, gone the way of the last three years of drunken hopelessness which is a physical and spiritual and metaphysical hopelessness you cant learn in school no matter how many books on existentialism or pessimism you read, or how many jugs of vision-producing Ayahuasca you drink, or Mescaline take, or Peyote goop up with---" (4).
However, this can't be the whole story, since Kerouac's letters offer an entirely different view on his psychonautic exploration during this time. Jack first tried mescaline in October 1959 (5), and he was apparently most open about it with Allen Ginsberg, to whom he wrote the following on June 20, 1960: "When on mescaline I was so bloody high I saw that all our ideas about a 'beatific' new gang of worldpeople, and about instantaneous truth being the last truth. etc. etc. I saw them as all perfectly correct and prophesied, as never on drinking or sober I saw it -- Like an Angel looking back on life sees that every moment fell right into place and each had flowery meaning..." (6). This kind of clarity must have been cherished by a guy who saw his life as a long chain of rambling misadventures. Kerouac was even moved to create a 5,000-word "Mescaline Report" in order to document his hallucinations and revelations. He said he intended to take mescaline monthly, and he couldn't wait to test out LSD (lysergic acid diethylamide). In the same letter Kerouac mentioned his intention to flee New York, shortly before Ferlinghetti suggested that Jack use his cabin as an escape. The actual trip lasted about two months, from mid-July to mid-September 1960.
After returning from California, Kerouac had the opportunity to try ayahuasca on October 7, 1960 (7). Ginsberg had just visited South America and brought back some of the liquid preparation, also known as "yagé" (pronounced "yah-hey," but they usually misspelled it as "yage"). William S. Burroughs had done the same in the early 1950s, as documented in his fictionalized letters titled "In Search of Yage" (written in '53 but not published until '63). Kerouac seems to have tasted the real thing, since, according to Ginsberg (writing during the event), Jack remarked, "This is one of the most sublime or tender or lovely moments of all our lives together . . ." (8). That's not to say the experience was only positive. In June 1963 Jack reflected to Allen that, when he would wander into Manhattan for drinking binges, "I come back [to Long Island] with visions of horror as bad as Ayahuasca vision on the neanderthal million years in caves, the gruesomeness of life!" (9).
A few months after Kerouac's ayahuasca trip, in January 1961, he ingested capsules containing the extract of what he called "Sacred Mushrooms" (10), a nickname for psilocybin (11). Ginsberg had recently visited Timothy Leary at Harvard to participate in Leary's soon-to-be-controversial psychedelic studies. Ginsberg brought the capsules back to New York to distribute to various people, and Kerouac went to Allen's Manhattan apartment to try them for himself (12). Kerouac's reaction to this experience is recorded in a letter he sent to Timothy Leary later that month (known as the "Dear Coach" letter). Jack wrote, "Mainly I felt like a floating [Genghis] Kahn on a magic carpet with my interesting lieutenants and gods... some ancient feeling about old geheuls [sic] in the grass, and temples, exactly also like the sensation I got drunk on pulque (13) floating in the Xochimilco gardens on barges laden with flowers and singers... some old Golden Age dream of man, very nice" (14).
Kerouac's final experiment of this period came in December 1961 (as least, according to the published literature). It's fairly evident that on this occasion Kerouac ingested actual dried psilocybin mushrooms instead of capsules (15).
During the writing of Big Sur, some of these psychedelic experiences crept into the book despite Kerouac's initial statement about "metaphysical hopelessness." Upon awaking from a bizarre dream sequence, "Jack Duluoz" (Kerouac's fictional projection of himself) reflects on the "millionpieced mental explosions that I remember I thought were so wonderful when I'd first seen them on Peotl and Mescaline...broken in pieces some of them big orchestral and then rainbow explosions of sound and sight mixed" (16). The "peotl" (or "peyotl," the indigenous spellings of "peyote") cactus has long been consumed by tribes in northern Mexico and the American southwest for the psychoactive mescaline it contains (17).
Kerouac first encountered peyote eight years before his trip to Bixby Canyon, while living with Burroughs in Mexico City in 1952. The two embarked on a fruitful series of peyote trials that Kerouac described in his letters to friends back in the United States. On March 12 of that year, Jack wrote to John Clellon Holmes about what was possibly his first full-on psychedelic experience, conveying "the wild visions of musical pure truth I got on peotl (talk about your Technicolor visions!)..." (18). Shortly thereafter, on June 5, Kerouac wrote again to Holmes, telling of the time when a few "young American hipsters" gave him and Burroughs some peyote, after which the duo walked around Mexico City at night. In a park Jack found himself "wanting to sit in the grass and stay near the ground all night by moonlight, with the lights of the show and the houses all flashing, flashing in my eyeballs..." (19).
This letter is important for another reason; in it Jack explains the thrill of writing with his new "sketching" style, an early conception of what he would later call "spontaneous prose." Late in October 1951, Kerouac's friend Ed White had suggested that Jack try to write as though he was painting a scene (20). Kerouac told Holmes he was "beginning to discover...something beyond the novel and beyond the arbitrary confines of the story . . . into the realms of revealed Picture . . . revealed whatever . . . revealed prose . . . wild form, man, wild form. Wild form's the only form holds what I have to say -- my mind is exploding to say something about every image and every memory in -- I have now an irrational lust to set down everything I know -- in narrowing circles..." (21).
The strong parallel between the "rainbow explosions" Kerouac saw on mescaline and peyote, and the feeling that he was "exploding" to describe his thoughts about reality, suggests that Jack's psychedelic exploration in 1952 had a decisive influence on what would become his trademark prose style.
Big Sur generally depicts Kerouac's brush with "insanity" as stemming from his alcoholism. There's hardly a time in the book when "Duluoz" is not holding a bottle of whiskey or wine. But as the story progresses, some of the descriptions seem to fall way outside the scope of what alcohol can do to a person's mind and one's perception of reality. For instance, when Jack's friends try to get him to eat some food, he's too distracted by his mental aberrations. "Masks explode before my eyes when I close them, when I look at the moon it waves, moves, when I look at my hands and feet they creep---Everything is moving, the porch is moving like ooze and mud, the chair trembles under me" (22). Notice again the mention of "explosions." Or examine the aforementioned dream sequence, in which Jack sees numerous "Vulture People" copulating in a trash dump. "Their faces are leprous thick with soft yeast but painted with makeup...yellow pizza puke faces, disgusting us...we'll be taken to the Underground Slimes to walk neck deep in steaming mucks pulling huge groaning wheels (among small forked snakes) so the devil with the long ears can mine his Purple Magenta Square Stone that is the secret of all this Kingdom---" (23).
Even a glance at Kerouac's Book of Dreams makes it obvious that he frequently had extraordinary night-visions. But such passages really bring to mind a few specific things: the psychedelic experience, existentialist literature, and the rare cases in which the two are combined. Though Kerouac more often talked of his fondness for Dostoevsky than for later existentialists, Jean-Paul Sartre's 1938 novel Nausea (not published in English until 1949 ) is an indubitable precursor to Big Sur. Nausea contains a first-person journal-style account by a French man named Roquentin, who unexpectedly becomes overtaken by mortal horror and bodily uneasiness. As Roquentin says early in the novel, "Then the Nausea seized me, I dropped to a seat, I no longer knew where I was; I saw the colours spin slowly around me, I wanted to vomit. And since that time, the Nausea has not left me, it holds me" (25).
There's a deeper connection between the two novels as well. In his 2002 book Breaking Open the Head, Daniel Pinchbeck reports that Sartre tried mescaline in 1935 as a research subject in Paris. Pinchbeck writes that "long after the physical effect of the drug had worn off, Sartre found himself plunged into a lingering nightmare of psychotic dread and paranoia; shoes threatened to turn into insects, stone walls seethed with monsters" (26). Pinchbeck infers that this influenced the writing of Nausea -- but he thought Sartre's affliction lasted about a week. Actually Sartre experienced hallucinations of shellfish (usually lobsters, but he also called them crabs) for years, according to a 2009 book of conversations between Jean-Paul and John Gerassi, whose parents were close friends with Sartre. Gerassi quotes Sartre saying, "Yeah, after I took mescaline I started seeing crabs around me all the time. They followed me in the streets, into class... I would wake up in the morning and say, 'Good morning, my little ones, how did you sleep?' " (27).
In 1954, thanks to Aldous Huxley's The Doors of Perception, the Western world became much more aware of the potential promise of mescaline as a visionary aid. But interspersed with descriptions of his wondrous hallucinations, Huxley cautioned not to place too much expectation on mescaline for spiritual enlightenment (28). Still, the book was extremely influential in the literary world, and it paved the way for the psychedelic uprising that Leary and others would lead in the 1960s.
So it's a bit surprising that someone in Kerouac's position, writing a book like Big Sur in 1961, wouldn't emphasize psychedelics more or even try to work them into the plot, if only through a flashback or some similar device. Not only did he largely leave them out of the book, but he actually downplayed the way they had guided his own "mysticism" -- something that, in retrospect, is clearly evident in books from his "Duluoz Legend" (as he called his oeuvre of semi-autobiographical fiction) such as On the Road (published in 1957), The Dharma Bums (1958), and Visions of Gerard (1963). Kerouac even amended the line about "the mad ones" early in Road that would become his most famous quote, and -- perhaps not unexpectedly -- the final wording seems influenced by his 1952 peyote experiments. In the 1951 "scroll" version (not published until 2007) it read "burn, burn, burn like roman candles across the night" (29). But in the 1957 version, the line went "burn, burn, burn like fabulous yellow roman candles exploding like spiders across the stars and in the middle you see the blue centerlight pop..." (30).
It all seems even more suspicious after learning that mescaline actually renewed Jack's faith in his unique prose style in 1959, just as peyote seems to have inspired the style initially in 1952. Soon after taking mescaline, Kerouac told Ginsberg that during the trip he'd had "the sensational revelation that I've been on the right track with spontaneous never-touch-up poetry of immediate report..." (31). Kerouac's "Essentials of Spontaneous Prose" held that writing should be "confessional," "always honest," and-the part most tied up with myths about Kerouac-have "no revisions" (32). We've already seen one case where Kerouac revised a work that he claimed to be an entirely spontaneous composition. So one can't help but wonder-was Kerouac being as honest as he claimed in his prose theory?
Other information in the "Dear Coach" letter helps to answer the question of why Kerouac would downplay psychedelics in his fiction and public statements. As he told Leary, "It was a definite Satori. Full of psychic clairvoyance (but you must remember that this is not half as good as the peaceful ecstacy [sic] of simple Samadhi trance as I described that in Dharma Bums)" (33). Kerouac intended for The Dharma Bums to be read as a resolution to the existential conflict so visible in earlier books like On the Road and The Subterraneans. He also hoped for it to be a life manual for anyone in a similar situation, because in the mid- to late-1950s he viewed Buddhism as "the answer." In other words, Kerouac perceived the potential rise of psychedelic drugs in the 1960s as a threat to the usefulness of his own body of work. In turn, his disparagement of psychedelics -- and his silence (outside of private letters) about their potential advantages -- was propaganda for the Duluoz Legend.
In fact, Kerouac found little use for Buddhism in his personal life by the start of the Big Sur period. His devout Catholic family had been fighting him about it for years. And as he told Carolyn Cassady after writing Big Sur -- specifically referring to the end of the book, which describes his mental breakdown -- "I realized all my Buddhism had been words -- comforting words, indeed" (34). Despite that, he still made Desolation Angels a sort of sequel to Dharma Bums a few years later, keeping much of the Buddhist terminology in place.
This differs substantially from the idea espoused by many of Kerouac's biographers, who took a line of recorded conversation in the "Dear Coach" letter ("walking on water wasn't built in a day") as a sign that Jack saw very limited value in psychedelics. As it turns out, Kerouac's literary treatment of psychedelics is one of many routes to a rude awakening about the Duluoz Legend, showing that it's far less "objectively" true than commonly thought. In Big Sur, Kerouac wanted the cause of his mental breakdown to be alcoholism fueled by fame and "mortal existence," not a spiritual awakening (or re-awakening) inspired by psychedelics.
We can deduce this by looking at Kerouac's October 1961 letter to Ferlinghetti, whom Jack actually visited again in San Francisco before returning to the East Coast in September 1960. As Kerouac writes, "...I was going to have lots more at the 'end' when I come to your house 706 but suddenly saw the novel should end at the cabin..." (35). So Big Sur ends the way it does because of a literary decision that Kerouac made, not necessarily because it depicts the way the events "objectively" happened.
Kerouac wasn't only deceiving his readership; he was deceiving himself. His unwillingness -- or his inability -- to revise his view of reality and existence according to his own subjective life experience led to his early death in 1969. Just as a butterfly transforms from a caterpillar, he could have emerged from his chrysalis a twice-born being. The story behind Big Sur shows that Kerouac had the opportunity to progress through his existential crisis and live an entirely new life of liberation and prosperity. His loss need not be our own.
This excerpt was originally published as a longer essay in Beatdom Magazine under the title "Death Within A Chrysalis."
1. Kerouac, Jack. Windblown World. Ed. by Douglas Brinkley. New York: Penguin Books, 2004. pp. 61-66.
2. Kerouac, Jack. Big Sur. 1962. New York: Penguin Books, 1992. p. 4.
3. Kerouac, Jack. Selected Letters, 1957-1969. Ed. by Ann Charters. 1999. New York: Penguin Books, 2000. pp. 296-297.
4. Kerouac, J. Big Sur. pp. 7-8. Long ellipsis was in original; short ellipsis is mine.
5. Kerouac, J. Selected Letters, 1957-1969. pp. 252-253.
6. Kerouac, J. Selected Letters, 1957-1969. p. 292.
7. Maher Jr., Paul. Kerouac: His Life and Work. 2004. Lanham, MD: Taylor Trade Publishing, 2007. p. 414.
8. Maher Jr., P. Ibid. p. 415. Ellipsis was in original.
9. Kerouac, J. Selected Letters, 1957-1969. p. 419.
10. In both the second volume of Selected Letters and Kerouac: A Biography, Charters writes erroneously that Kerouac took LSD (lysergic acid diethylamide) in January 1961. In the biography she also mistakenly states that Kerouac went to Cambridge, Mass., to see Leary.
11. "Psilocybin Mushrooms." Erowid. Accessed on 6/4/2011. http://www.erowid.org/plants/mushrooms/mushrooms.shtml
12. Lee, Martin A. and Bruce Shlain. Acid Dreams: The Complete Social History of LSD: the CIA, the Sixties, and Beyond. 1985. New York: Grove Press, 1992. pp. 78-82. Note: they mistook Northport as being in Massachusetts, instead of Long Island, New York.
13. An alcoholic Mexican drink made of fermented agave. See: "The Spirits of Maguey" by Fire Erowid. Erowid. Nov 2004. Accessed on 6/14/2011. http://www.erowid.org/chemicals/alcohol/alcohol_article1.shtml#pulque
14. Kerouac, Jack. "Dear Coach: Jack Kerouac to Timothy Leary." Acid Dreams Document Gallery. Website for the book Acid Dreams by Martin A. Lee and Bruce Shlain. Ellipses were in original. Accessed on 3/3/2011. http://www.levity.com/aciddreams/docs/dearcoach.html
15. Kerouac, J. Selected Letters, 1957-1969. p. 363.
16. Kerouac, J. Big Sur. p. 211.
17. "Peyote." Erowid. Accessed on 6/6/2011. http://www.erowid.org/plants/peyote/peyote.shtml
18. Kerouac, Jack. Selected Letters, 1940-1956. Ed. by Ann Charters. 1995. New York: Penguin Books, 1996. p. 336.
19. Kerouac, J. Selected Letters, 1940-1956. pp. 368-369.
20. Charters, A. Ibid. pp. 139-140.
21. Kerouac, J. Selected Letters, 1940-1956. p. 371. Long ellipses were in book; short ellipsis is mine.
22. Kerouac, J. Big Sur. p. 200.
23. Kerouac, J. Big Sur. pp. 208-210.
24. "Nausea." Wikipedia. Accessed on 6/6/2011. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Nausea_%28novel%29
25. Sartre, Jean-Paul. Nausea. 1938. New York: New Directions, 1964. p. 18-19.
26. Pinchbeck, Daniel. Breaking Open the Head. New York: Broadway Books, 2002. p. 122.
27. Allen-Mills, Tony. "Mescaline left Jean-Paul Sartre in the grip of lobster madness." The Sunday Times of London. 11/22/2009. Ellipsis was in original. Accessed on 10/31/2010. http://www.timesonline.co.uk/tol/news/world/europe/article6926971.ece
28. Huxley, Aldous. The Doors of Perception & Heaven and Hell. New York: Perennial, 2004. p. 41.
29. Kerouac, Jack. On the Road: The Original Scroll. New York: Viking, 2007. p. 113.
30. Kerouac, Jack. On the Road. 1957. New York: Penguin Books, 1991. pp. 5-6.
31. Kerouac, J. Selected Letters, 1957-1969. p. 363. pp. 252-253.
32. Kerouac, Jack. "Essentials of Spontaneous Prose." The Portable Beat Reader. Ed. by Ann Charters. New York: Viking, 1992. pp. 57-59. Italics were in original.
33. Kerouac, J. "Dear Coach: Jack Kerouac to Timothy Leary."
34. Kerouac, J. Selected Letters, 1957-1969. p. 353.
35. Kerouac, J. Selected Letters, 1957-1969. p. 358.
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