Jack Kerouac, famously named: King of the Beats. His famous book On The Road became the travelling novel of a generation, his writing style splattered onto the page in a way that could only be possible with 3 weeks of non-stop writing coupled with coffee and amphetamines could muster. Big Sur is like On the Road if On the Road had been written by someone who was tired of being known for his travelling adventures. Kerouac maintained that On the Road was part of a larger series of stories, otherwise known as The Duluoze Legend. Big Sur is the second last novel in that series, with the last one, Satori in Paris, being written shortly before he died from Cirrhosis of the liver. After reading Big Sur its no surprise that Kerouac ruined his liver via alcohol. The road in a way had destroyed his mind, and alcohol was his solution. Big Sur grapples with Kerouacs attempt to find his mind again, whilst watching Kerouac descend into paranoic madness each step of his journey to bliss.
The story of Big Sur fluctuates between a cabin owned by Kerouacs friend Monsanto (Lawrence Ferlinghetti), and the wild life of San Francisco. Kerouac is not the man he once was. He bitterly complains about how he takes the train over to San Francisco from New York rather than hitchhiking as he was known for. While On The Road readers would see Kerouac as eternally in his 20s, life goes on. Kerouac is now fairly well off, having the ability to wine (literally and figuratively) and dine pretty much all of his Beat writer friends. He hates the fame that On the Road has brought him, simply for the pure fact that he is no longer the person he once wrote about. Kerouac’s found Buddhism, and yet at the same time he’s always wondering whether people are out to get him. His escape to Big Sur is a chance to change that, to take a step back from the madness, and the alcohol, and really breath for a while.
Kerouacs first journey to Big Sur is absolutely blissful. He writes poetry, he stays sober, he feeds the birds, and the mule (Alf). Kerouac imagines great stories of mountains, and journey’s; there is something in his choice to be alone that frees him. The escape to nature has given him a peace that he could not find around other people. His voluntary exile breathes a form of salvation into him. Rather than being bound to Cody, or Jarry (Gary Snyder, famous in Kerouacs other book Dharma Bums), or anyone, Jack is finally free to take a step back and evaluate his life. Like Zarathustra, whose time before he comes back into the world, Jack finds some sort of respite in the cabin, a sort of personal release from the responsibility of being a Beat icon. We are given two contrasting situations: the ever maddening world of the city, and the peaceful bliss of foggy, treacherous Big Sur.
Kerouac, however, is no hermit, no Buddhist Monk, who can withstand the silence for two long. The writer rarely writes for themselves, their works needing to be selfishly screamed from mountaintops for all to hear. Kerouac returns to the city, like Zarathustra, except rather than bringing the word that “God is Dead”, Jack is brought back into the madness, having forgotten the truths he found in the quiet respite of Big Sur. Kerouac rushes to take people back to Big Sur, but in the process, forgets the power of Big Sur is that it lacked the people and alcohol that had really been moving his life. While having Cody and others at Big Sur, Monsanto points out that the place really cannot be fully appreciated when other people are around. Echoing “Hell is other people” Kerouac’s choice to bring people to Big Sur ruins its beauty. What was once silent appreciation, and a oneness with the sound of waves crashing against the rocks, becomes a cacophony of liminality. Big Sur is now no longer either safe haven, nor the party of San Francisco. It is somewhere in between, and the contradiction of being alone, and being attached by a chain pull Kerouac back and forth, like the rocking of violent waves.
What Kerouac’s looking for, and what he suggests we too look for, is that peaceful silence. Kerouac hears voices in his head that make him suspicious of things. He wallows, waiting for other people. His life in the book becomes a metaphor (no doubt one he only half intended). His only peace is in the silence, the retreat into sleep and quiet content. It is only when the voices are quelled, and the questions are answered that Kerouac gets to sleep. It is the choice that is in itself freeing.