on Big Sur and being truly beat

Tim Bixby Creek Bridge

Bixby Creek Bridge, Big Sur 2016 (photo by Timothy Fernandez)

Last year, I was lucky enough to drive North up the California coastline with some friends, from Los Angeles to San Francisco, passing through – among other places –  Santa Barbara, Santa Cruz and Big Sur. The rugged, wild coast was like nothing I’d really seen before: Big Sur, in particular, was like an inverted and distorted version of the Australian (New South Wales) East coast way back across the Pacific, but even more untamed, intense, extreme, and just “big”.

When my parents took the same journey a few months later, they – being old hippies themselves – visited City Lights Bookstore in San Francisco and my dad picked up a copy of Jack Kerouac’s Big Sur, which he passed on to me. Although Kerouac had never really appealed to me before, I found time to read this one recently and to my surprise, I loved it: the usual bluster and machismo of Kerouac being greatly tempered in this novel by his world-weariness (and apparent psychological decline) at the time of writing, as well as by the imagery of the Sur itself – the immensity of nature carrying with it the ability to dwarf any petty, writerly concerns. For the most part, glorified descriptions of drinking, smoking and treating women as objects are replaced by descriptions of sloping pine forests, wooded cliffs, clear streams, and all of it crumbling into the endless, roaring sea (a presence in the novel that becomes either liberating or terrifying).

Tim Big Sur

Me and a friend looking way out into the world, Big Sur 2016 (photo by Timothy Fernandez)

Reading Big Sur, it got me to thinking: why is it that Kerouac’s cultural significance has dropped off so hard from one generation to another? Plenty of baby boomer / gen. X readers will readily mention him – and the Beat generation in general – as either a favourite or at least a touchstone, but among my peers (myself included) not many can be bothered, or if they/we are, there’s something glaringly irrelevant about all that On the Road style stuff.

One answer as to why seems to be the blokeyness of it all, the aforementioned machismo, but I don’t think this completely answers the question of the waned relevance of the Beats (as evidence, see the prevalence of blokey, misogynist art – same as it ever was). Rather, I think a more direct reason is that the Beats don’t really have a modern grasp on what it is to be beat: how distant and impossible the notion of dropping out or being “on the road” feels. Liberation outside of society, or even the notion of writing as a tool of liberation or emancipation (social or personal) is very distant. In 2017, the idea of wanderlust – of being able to quit the rat race – of following passions at whatever cost, seems completely impossible in the face of work, money, rent, and diminishing returns on all three.

In Kerouac’s Big Sur (written towards the end of his life), revelations and escapes are neutered and come to nothing: epiphanies dwindle, euphoria waxes and wanes. San Francisco, city of lights and drunkeness, infringes time and time again on the peaceful wooded escape, the Waldenesque fantasy. At the story’s end, the ultimate revelation visited upon the author isn’t spiritual or social insight but the author’s friend telling him to calm down and take things as they come, to not be so serious about life. This seems to me why Big Sur makes more sense to a modern reader: the tiredness, the thwartedness of it all. Only the irreducible sea provides refuge, and even this is difficult, inhuman, and wavering.

strindberg’s ‘easter’ and absolution

I think about August Strindberg’s play Easter fairly often. I first read it when I was about eighteen, at a time in my life when I really enjoyed reading a play in a single sitting, usually in the afternoons. I lived in a room above a bookstore that received the full brunt of afternoon sunlight, and I’d sit there with the curtains drawn drinking strong coffee that I’d only just learned how to brew, half naked and sweating profusely. There was something oddly psychedelic about the whole setting, although it’s hard to pinpoint why – I think a large part of it, beyond the inhuman heat and my intolerance for caffeine, was that it was a time in my life when I first realised (and realised in a bodily, visceral level) that life is just irreducibly strange (even when not that strange at all, on the surface) and that the mere fact of being and existing can be heavy. “The great fragmentation of maturity” was a line I read at the time from (I think) Henry Miller and it made and makes a lot of sense: the moment of shattering, where you begin to understand that life doesn’t loop back or stand still or tie itself up, but instead, just goes on…

Anyway, I digress. Easter was one of the plays that I read in this period, and for such a simple story, it’s never left me. The action of the play takes place over (surprise) Easter, and the central theme is of the main characters (in particular the young man Elis)  struggling with the guilt they carry from past actions, and the suffering they go through as these things are remembered and relived. The chief conduit for this recurring suffering, and the emblem of this theme, is the old enemy Lindkvist, who stalks the outside of the characters’ house, remaining shadowy and unseen until the end of the third act. Lindkvist has old scores to settle with the family, but it’s not anything he says that causes pain – it’s his mere presence: his shadow falling across the windows is enough to invoke, in the long-suffering Elis, all the horrors of the past that reach their fingers into the present day.

Knowing only a bit of Strindberg’s biography, it’s hard not to see something of self-portrait in Elis: his paranoia, fearfulness and suffering seem to mirror the playwright’s own tortured attitude towards life and equal feelings of victimisation and guilt.  It’s the sense that no skeleton stays in the closet for long, that no accounts remain unsettled – indeed, this “settling of accounts” is a recurring metaphor for guilt in the play: not just the real monetary debts owed to Lindkvist, but the “spiritual” debt following on, and the wider sense of accounts and debts as is invoked by the religious holiday itself.

As an unseen force, Lindkvist makes a powerful character, but even more striking is when he does appear onstage to resolve the drama and effectively end the play. By act III, all suspicions and anticipation of sadness and pain have come to a head, and there is a sense that what has been sowed will finally be reaped: Lindkvist’s knock on the door comes as a terrible omen. However, this isn’t how things turn out. Lindkvist is forgiving and kindly, and arrives only to relieve Elis and the others of their guilt: to wipe clean the slate, and to allay all fears.

This, I think, is the most compelling part of the play. There’s something almost naive about this unlikely scenario of absolution: something almost painful in Lindkvist’s deliverance from fear. It reads like an imagined, timeless moment – the eschatological Easter Sunday, maybe – where all fears are proved false and all hopes are realised: a moment craved for in secret, whispered in dreams, where the many fragments of life come together again, where all ends meet, and where salvation is offered unreservedly to all we sinners. It’s framed by a religious feeling in the play, but to me the scene with Lindkvist goes deeper:, almost to something childlike: the desire to be cradled, to be absolved of all pain and frailty, to be told that everything is alright.