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.