Kerouac and the Decline of the West: Semmelweis7 on the Beats, Vitalism, and the future of literature in America

Greetings Semmelweis, thank you for taking the time to discuss Kerouac and your recent book “Jack Kerouac and the Decline of the West,” through Rogue Scholar Press. Before we get to the topic of the book, can you tell us how you discovered Kerouac and what effect he had on you?

Thanks for having me here. I found Kerouac when I was in high school, like many people do. A friend of mine had On The Road and recommended it to me, and from there I learned about the whole Beat movement. I’m sort of an obsessive researcher so when I get interested in something, I really dig into it, so pretty soon I was reading Burroughs, Ginsberg, Gregory Corso and also some of the writers who influenced them, the people they talked about like Rimbaud and Blake. That’s a good habit which I’ve retained to this day—read the people who influenced the people you like, find out who inspired them. Although I didn’t learn about Rimbaud from the Beats, I learned about him from Eddie and the Cruisers.

As far as Kerouac’s influence, reading On The Road and other of his books wasn’t an immediate life-changing experience for me the way it apparently was for some people. For example, Bob Dylan says he left Minnesota for New York because he read that book. For me, Kerouac kind of got subsumed in the larger pile of books and ideas that I was interested in at the time, which was primarily the Beats and the Existentialists. From Existentialism I gravitated more towards philosophy than literature, and also became more interested in politics. This was the late 90s, the time of the anti-globalization movement. I think the main thing I took from Kerouac and the Beats, as far as initial influence, was the idea of being a dissident intellectual.

I’ve seen Kerouac’s work referred to as “vitalist” and Bronze Age Mindset likened to On the Road, at least in effect. Do you consider it a vitalist work and, if so, what does that mean to you? Do you agree that there’s some legitimacy to evoking On the Road when discussing Bronze Age Mindset?

It’s not just On The Road, I see Kerouac as fundamentally a vitalist writer, that’s his worldview. His tombstone says simply “He honored life” and I think that’s true, what comes through in almost all of his books is this deep love of life in all its complexity, all its facets. Even the way he writes about food, he’ll take an experience like eating at an old diner or even opening up a cheap can of pork and beans and describe it as this fantastic experience in terms of the senses. That’s probably part of what drew him to Buddhism, that sort of deep appreciation and attention to detail. (Although the other thing that drew him to Buddhism is his sense of melancholy and despair—that’s part of life too.)

On The Road is an especially vitalistic work because of Dean Moriarty / Neal Cassady, who seemed to be charged with the elan vital at a higher voltage than most. Kerouac has that famous passage about “the only ones for me are the mad ones, the ones who go go go and burn like roman candles” etc. Kerouac thought there was something iconic and quintessentially American in Neal Cassady, so he wrote about him in two books, On The Road and Visions of Cody. The latter can be hard to read at times but has some incredibly beautiful passages, one of which Jack read aloud on the Steve Allen show along with the ending of On The Road, you can find that clip on youtube. He had a great voice and could really make his words come alive. Neal Cassady was one of those guys who just had an abundance of nervous energy and couldn’t sit still, and also got excited by anything and everything. I love the way Kerouac writes his dialogue, always saying “Yass! That’s right!” The fact that they were all taking copious amounts of benezedrine probably helped too. It’s interesting that the early Beat movement was primarily fueled by stimulants—coffee and speed—and then later by psychedelics and downers. It was better in the beginning.

In my book I talk about how Kerouac, when he was in college, consciously set himself in opposition to the dominant intellectual currents of the time, which were cynical and despairing and lifeless. There’s a great line in Cormac McCarthy’s The Sunset Limited where he says “All of Western civilization just turned out to be Hitler and Stalin,” which is an absurd statement but one that has gained a lot of adherents in the last seventy-five years. Kerouac’s vitalism, which can be seen as a kind of Nietzschean yea-saying to life, was very much a reaction against all that boring intellectual ennui.

Regarding Bronze Age Mindset and On The Road, I very much agree and only wish I’d thought of the comparison myself. I think it was Anna Khachiyan who first said this. Of course they are very different books—on the surface they are completely dissimilar, nothing in common—but the comparison lies in the fact that they’re both books that can change your life. In the future people will talk about how reading BAM changed their life the same way older people talk about On The Road now. But ultimately I think BAM will have the more important legacy because the message is purer and healthier. Kerouac inspired a lot of nonsense, and he himself recognized this and lamented it.

In many ways I see Kerouacs experiences and novels as a Nietzschean “saying yes to life,” but Evola discusses the Beats in terms of Nietzsche from the opposite direction, from that of nihilism in the wake of the death of God. But Kerouac was acutely aware of what he was doing, as the namesake of your book indicates, a sort of rekindling of the Faustian Spirit in the face of nihilism and decline. Were the Beats a symptom of nihilism, or a refutation of it? Is vitalism a way to carries us through the Decline of the West, or is it the brief, last flame of a dying fire?

This is a question I don’t have the answer to. Because we live in this sort of interregnum period, we are all waiting, and no one really knows what will come next. Heidegger said “Only a god can save us” which I take to mean some kind of re-emergence of religious sensibility. But a real and authentic one, not the “second religiousness” that Spengler writes of and which we see now in the New Age movement and many other things as well, including many aspiring trads who are well-meaning but don’t realize that they’re larping.

In a world in which the lineages of Tradition have been broken off, the only option is to return to the source, to begin from scratch with one’s immediate experience. The forms that are meant to carry the torch of Tradition have been emptied of that fire, and so Nietzsche’s approach, and to some extent Evola’s as well, influenced by Nietzsche, is to work with the flame of life that is within oneself. This is perilous and sure to be fraught with error, but it seems that the more traditional paths are equally so nowadays

In terms of whether a movement is destined to fade out, I think it has to be accepted that all movements will eventually fade out, just like every human being will die. What matters is the fire that burns inside of it during its time

Myself and several of my friends became disillusioned with Kerouac in our mid 20s, and it seems the same happened to you. Before discussing your rediscovery, would you care to explain the experience of parting ways with him?

I think I initially lost interest in Kerouac as I gravitated away from literature towards philosophy and politics. I thought Kerouac wasn’t political enough, or philosophical enough. As I continued to grow and as my politics and worldview changed, many of the people I read in my adolescence no longer held any interest for me. I slowly began to see how the Beat movement had been a largely corrosive influence on Western civilization, especially in the ways in which it served as a precursor to the sixties cultural revolution. You see that most clearly in a character like Allen Ginsberg, and to a lesser extent, in William Burroughs. I also became increasingly suspicious of these supposedly rebellious and edgy movements which nonetheless enjoy widespread promotion and approval in society. Much like BLM now—if every mega-corporation and government agency in the world is on your side and giving you sponsorship, you’re not “the resistance”—the Beat movement and especially the subsequent 60s counterculture was an establishment psyop. It, or rather a certain version of it, was promoted in the big media outlets and publishing houses, and still is now. It probably began as a real avant-garde and genuinely counter-cultural idea, but as Guy Debord says, the Spectacle can absorb just about anything and use it for its own purposes, and that’s exactly what happened to the Beats and their heirs. I find it both laughable and infuriating that most boomers can’t see this and still think their youth movement was an authentic rebellion rather than a cat’s paw for the establishment.

How did you come to revisit him and why did you feel it was worthy of a book? What was your intention in writing your book?

I think my interest started to revive when they published the scroll version of On The Road some years ago. I read it just out of curiosity as to how it was different, since it has a rather legendary status in literary history, and was surprised by how much I liked Kerouac’s writing, how much energy it had. He’s a lot like Henry Miller in that way, another vitalist writer from that era. Some time after that I read Vanity of Duluoz, which I had never read before as it’s not one of his more well-known works, and I saw for the first time something of how Kerouac saw himself and how he saw what had happened to America during his lifetime. I had read Ann Charters’ biography of him years ago and I think some other works about him as well, but I had never gotten any sense of the view that comes through in Vanity. Most commentators and biographers gloss over his final years, just saying ‘he drank too much and became bitter.’ That’s true, but he was remarkably lucid right until the end, and the reasons why he became bitter are very interesting and relevant. 

So my intention in writing the book—which isn’t really a proper book but rather a long essay—was just to show something of the perspective that comes through in his final book. A few others had previously written relatively short pieces about “the conservative Kerouac,” pointing out that he was a Republican or some other small fact that just comes across as a quirk, but I found them all lacking depth. So I started digging, at first just out of my own curiosity, and kept finding more interesting stuff.

Incidentally, when I was on one of my several Kerouac-inspired cross country trips I had a 5 hour layover in Salt Lake City to change buses, and the scroll was there in a museum as part of the tour it took around the country. I walked to the museum but it was closed that day! There was a big cut-out of Kerouac in the window and I sat under it smoking cigarettes, staring at the mountains, while some other traveler rambled on to me about how the Salt Lake was man-made (I still have never researched to see if that was true).

In any event, I’d like to branch out to the rest of the beats for a moment. Would you call the beat movement a net positive or net negative for American culture? In your answer, try to elaborate the good and the bad aspects, regardless of whether you see them as detrimental to American culture.

I would have to say it’s been a net negative. I think it was a mixed bag from the very beginning—composed of what Kerouac at the time called “Wolfeans” and “Black Priests”—and once it became something the media wanted to use, they shaped it to their own purposes and turned it into both a caricature and a corrosive. And it was already partly a corrosive to begin with. My book isn’t about the Beat generation but only about Jack Kerouac, who I think stands apart from the other major Beat writers in important ways, and I try to show how and why. My larger approach, not only to this subject but to much else in 20th century popular culture, is that you have to exercise discernment and try to find the elements which are positive, which can be useful, while understanding that you are dealing with a pozzed culture. You’re looking for the lotus in the mud, to use a Buddhist metaphor. I’ve discussed this a bit with my friend Ben Braddock, who also likes Kerouac and we both also have an abiding interest in the history of the Kennedy presidency. Now JFK was a liberal who, seen from the right, did a lot of damage and especially his brother Teddy did a lot of damage with his 1965 immigration bill. But nonetheless you can point to JFK as an example of a handsome and virile President who had real style, in contrast to boring and ugly politicians. You can point to the La Sierra Fitness program, which was more important than anyone realized at the time and which I had really hoped President Trump would adopt and promote as his own.

So I’m trying to engage in a form of literary and cultural criticism which takes its inspiration from Julius Evola, who always wrote about various topics “seen from the Right.” I feel that too many writers and thinkers on the contemporary Right willingly confine themselves to a kind of intellectual and cultural ghetto wherein they only read and discuss artists and thinkers who were explicitly right-wing. So you get a lot of essays about Mishima, and Wyndham Lewis, and Houellebecq, all of which are great, but I want to expand the discourse where we can talk about others who were not necessarily “right-wingers” but who may have elements of value in their work.

As far as what was good and bad about the Beats—Good: the idea of being a dissident intellectual and artist; anti-authoritarianism (Burroughs’ ideas about control and addiction remain very relevant); the exaltation of creativity; anti-materialism and the quest for a renewed spirituality, especially one rooted in immediate experience; the emphasis on friendship. Bad: everything else. The break with tradition which made subsequent generations not bother to read the Classics because “first thought best thought, muh spontaneous prose” (Boyd Rice pointed out that at least the original Beats were well-read, whereas all their subsequent disciples have been illiterate morons); the sexual revolution aspect, which led to sixties’ “free love” ethos and thereafter divorce and broken families, as well as the gay liberation movement (two of the three major Beat writers were openly homosexual); the sloppy fashion; the drug use and abuse; the anti-Americanism and anti-Westernism, which was never there in Kerouac but is very much present in Burroughs and Ginsberg and which helped lead to the anti-American, anti-Western, anti-white “counterculture” of the sixties.

Speaking of Allen Ginsberg, I have mixed feelings about him; while I dislike the majority (but not all) of his poetry, and I mostly dislike his influence on culture and the lifestyle he endorsed, it cannot be denied that he was an important figure in the revitalization of poetry and literature in America. He encouraged and promoted many of his friends and continued to throughout his life, and he brought the names and works of poets into mainstream discourse. What are your thoughts on him, as a literary figure? 

I’m not a fan. I started my book with a riff on one of his most famous lines, “I saw the best minds of my generation destroyed by Allen Ginsberg” because I think he epitomizes the kind of destructive cultural influence that came to predominate in America. I can’t really think of any of his poems that I like—I think “Howl” is overrated. I find his personality obnoxious. It’s true that he did promote a lot of other people including Kerouac, but as I mention in my book, he also controlled the perception of Kerouac’s legacy to some degree, deemphasizing the things that he didn’t like. I suppose I could be accused of doing the same thing, but if you want to read Kerouac-was-a-liberal there are plenty of other books out there.

At the end of the day, the differences between Kerouac and Ginsberg are there for all to see in their respective physiognomies. Just compare them. Ginsberg was this gnomish, scheming little creature, and Kerouac was, as he was called, “a lumberjack with a typewriter.” Which is not to say a simpleton, he was incredibly intelligent.

In your book you discuss the negative effect the New York literary press had on Kerouac’s legacy and the way they ignored him and failed to note when his peers stole from him or reworked some of his ideas. Do you perceive this sort of picking of favorites going on in literature, throughout the 20th century and even today? 

The “literary scene” is closed off, artificial, and as far as I’m concerned, dead. Probably always was, but more so now than ever because censorship and political correctness are stronger than they’ve ever been. Most authors and books in the mainstream are astroturfed, and I think this has been going on for a long time. I totally ignore the New York Times “bestseller list” and 99% of authors published by mainstream publishers. It’s all fake and gay.

Most of the classics of literature couldn’t be published today, not by a mainstream publisher. This is part of why I want to promote the kind of rightist lit crit that I mentioned above—all your classics are belong to us. I disagree with the statement that “all the great writers of the past were right-wingers”, they weren’t, but by today’s standards they were all reactionary fascist white supremacist nazis because, you know, there weren’t any trans people of color in Hemingway.

Are there any American literary figures since the Beat Generation you admire or enjoy reading? Or any writer for that matter, American or otherwise. 

At first I thought you said “besides the Beats” so I was going to go back to all the great writers that came before them that I like. But it seems you’re asking me about writers who have come afterwards. That’s tough. I think American literature has taken a big nose dive since the Beats, and partly because of the Beats, because of their influence on literary styles and sensibilities. I don’t think there’s been a proper group of allied writers, people who know each other and promote each other’s work, since the Beats, a group like the Lost Generation writers of the 20s. Not until now, anyway, that’s what the frogs are, or at least have the potential to be. 

I think a lot of great writers end up going into television or film because that’s been the dominant storytelling medium for decades now—“literature” is kind of a ghetto, and a very pretentious one. Nic Pizzolatto is great, he has a novel and a book of short stories but it’s obvious that his best writing has gone into True Detective. James Ellroy is great. Philip K. Dick is interesting. 

Among the dissident lit scene there’s so many good writers like Mike Ma, Andy Nowicki, Karl Dahl, Doonvorcannon, Delicious Tacos and many others. Tacos is probably the best example of a guy who’s “made it” as a writer on his own terms, I think that inspires a lot of other people. What we’ve had up until now is a lot of literature of despair, people giving voice to their alienation and depression in a modern world that has become fundamentally sick and hostile. I suppose that’s necessary but what I hope to see more of are uplifting works, works full of energy that inspire action. Bronze Age Mindset is a book like that. It figures that it’s a work of expat lit—I don’t know if a book like that could be written from inside the walls.

Are you working on any writing projects at the moment? 

I have entirely too many ideas bouncing around in my head for various essays or stories or maybe even a novel that I hope to write someday. I don’t want to mention anything specific here because chances are I’ll get distracted and end up doing something else first

Published by flightastral

Forcing the Unity of Existence

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