Saturday, October 31, 2009

on kerouac, substance abuse, and the dangers of creativity

martyrdom is the often-accepted price for living a dangerously creative life. just ask Jesus. no matter how much you want to protect the beautiful, nonviolent fighters, we all understand that some of the braver of us will fall in an effort to create a beautiful world. it hurts me, but it makes sense...

but as i'm watching One Fast Move or I'm Gone, a movie about Kerouac's Big Sur, i realize what doesn't make sense to me is self-destruction by people who could've done good. or did do good but gave it up too easily. i'm no longer a believer in the romance of a short, self-immolating life.

Nirvana's Bleach is 20 years old now, and the effect that Cobain and Kerouac had on my little, indie-rock, angry, and angsty teen self cannot be overstated. \i think that, no offense to those fellas, that set me up for some pretty skewed visions of what made for good creativity. namely, drinking a lot and hurting yourself.

i stopped reading (and writing) poetry when i quit smoking, because i'd fallen into the trap of thinking that if i kicked my self-destructive habits (well, all except coffee and gossiping), i would lose my ability to string together words and to make meaning. i felt like giving up those vices would make me dull and safe.

In One Fast Move or I'm Gone, Joyce Johnson says "He [Kerouac] tried to give people what they wanted, and that required drinking a lot of alcohol." that's the same fear i struggled with, too, but times a billion for Jack. here's a man who's natural shyness is totally at odds with what the world began to demand from him. i can't imagine how terrible a conundrum that was.

and i know that, for many people, alcohol is an opportunity to feel like your best self - shining, creative, joyful, witty, and unafraid of the opinions of others. But Big Sur is the in-depth chronicle of the aftermath - what happens when you spend too much time drinking yourself into extroverted brilliance when all you really want is to be alone. For those who haven't read it, Big Sur (which is one of my very favoritest Kerouac writing ever) is the story of the effects of On the Road, the novel Kerouac's younger exploits which comes out when he's older and broke and living with his mother. Almost overnight, people start hunting him down, looking for a real, live beatnik, wanting advice on how to live the hard, great life. he tells of people who break the windows of his mother's house just to see him, of no longer being anonymous but also not really being known. He also was struggling with the throes of a really deep, consuming alcoholism, which he really wants to kick. Kerouac escapes to Big Sur and the solitude is, at first, a balm and then, after a drunken binge back in the City and an unforeseen party back at Big Sur, leads to a nervous breakdown that Kerouac describes in excruciating, exquisite detail.

it's a heart-breaking and claustrophobic novel, but it ends beautifully. Jack Kerouac, this busted-up, beaten-down Beat poet talks about how he finds some amount of faith that things will be well. it'd be too romantic to say he stopped drinking and too untrue to say he found God, but it does seem that something caught him at the precipice that time in Big Sur and kept Jack from falling over. the last line of the book is "On soft Spring nights I'll stand in the yard under the stars--Something good will come out of all things yet--And it will be golden and eternal just like that--There's no need to say another word."

whatever caught Kerouac doesn't catch everyone. and sometimes, as i've sadly seen first-hand, all the love and grace in the world won't keep someone from thinking their worthless. i know how much i've struggled with shades of these feelings, despite a family that loves me and a faith that gives me hope. for those who don't feel love, or whose brains attack their thought processes and fill them with poison, it must be so, so much worse.

so, tonight, knowing that i belong to a family and faith and community that believe in love and in service, i'll be praying for those who self-destruction puts them in the same dark place that Kurt Cobain and Jack Kerouac might have faced. And i'll pray that whatever got Jack through, got me through, gets them through, too, so that they can see that "something good will come out of all things yet."

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