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Jack Kerouac's Road to Postmodernity

Paper Type: Free Essay Subject: Cultural Studies
Wordcount: 3879 words Published: 11th Jul 2018

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Jack Kerouac’s Road to Postmodernity: Tracing the Beat Rhythm through Lyotardian Sensibility.

  • Dr. Ashima Bhardwaj


Abstract: Jack Kerouac was an author of the iconic text On the Road that gave birth to the Beat Generation in America. He was the spokesperson of this cult movement who also bugled the advent of Postmodernity in America much before than the claimed Euro-centric origins of the movement. The aim of the paper is to critique On the Road utilizing the critical equipment of Jean Françoise Lyotard, a thinker of the late 20th century. The clarity of his thoughts helped to define the postmodernist tendencies prevalent in the works of Kerouac. The text showcases that postmodernism did not emerge in the artistic or cultural arenas of European Sixties but was a product of much earlier American Post-war transitional years. His work remains an epilogue to Modernism and a prologue to Postmodernism. The paper would contend that the American Postmodernist in literature begins with Beat writings.

Keywords – Postmodernism, Beat movement, Paralogy, Metanarrative, Grand narrative, Differend, Sublime.

Postmodernism has been a decisive instrument in the tool box of critical theory. Much before the coinage of the term ‘Postmodernism’ in the criticism terminology, the Beat writer Jack Kerouac had bugled its advent by denouncing the rigid societal structures in his writing style, narration and even in the way he lived. The paper would scrutinize the text of On the Road from the perspective of Jean Françoise Lyotard’s critical framework. Lyotard’s philosophy highlights the postmodernist tendencies that have been an innate part of Kerouac’s repertoire. Lyotardian concepts would be extremely relevant in interpreting the transitional Post-war phase in America. In the process the contribution of On the Road in establishing postmodernity in America would become visible. Kerouac’s seminal work On the Road was a stimulus to the tremors of arriving postmodernity in America much before the European claims of the movement’s inheritance. The novel transformed the American literary landscape and a Beat Generation raised its head from the sinister alleys, crowning Jack Kerouac- the King of Beatniks.

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Kerouac’s works and life depicts an advent of Postmodernism much before it is registered in the European criticism. The Postmodernism as a phenomenon was prevalent in 1940’s in America instead of the claimed decade of 1960’s in Europe. Jack Kerouac’s lifestyle and the body of his works bespeak of the transitional period where postmodernity began to emerge. The literary notoriety gained by Kerouac, the hyped image of him as the trendiest fashion icon by media and his being a writer for being famous are the effects of the postmodernist tremors in womb. Kerouac’s work On the Road plays an important role in giving birth to Postmodernism. Kerouac has alluded to this changing era with his stylistic breakthrough, acuity and originality.

Postmodernism, as a term, contains its own paradox. The word ‘post’ refers to an aftermath as well as it includes the sense of being constructed on the base of Modernism. In Lyotard’s work The Postmodern Condition: A Report on Knowledge, he differentiates between modernist and postmodernist art. He argues that the art forms of these periods incorporate Sublime and also express the inexpressible. Lyotard states that the modernist art reduces the enormity of an event to a recognizable form. But the postmodern work by contrast presents the un-presentable in presentation itself and in the process denies the work to have a recognizable form. Postmodernist art refuses to be contained by the accepted notions of art forms. In this vein, Kerouac has called his novel On the Road an ‘Epos’- falling outside the definition of an epic. Kerouac’s writing style was the first shock to the accepted ways of book writing. The first version of On the Road was written in record twenty days, single spaced paragraph of 175,000 words, typed on a 120 foot long taped paper scroll. It is said that Kerouac took the scroll to Robert Giroux, the editor of Harcourt Brace and rolled it out. But Giroux asked him how he could print that. Books could not be afforded to look like it. This novel became a legend.

Kerouac was aware of the repercussions as he had given a voice to the silenced and the marginalized communities in the work. He had destabilized the hierarchical standards. Hereby compatibility can be observed with Lyotards’s Postmodernism. For Lyotard, Postmodernism is not a chronologically demarcated period. It is a response to a changing culture. Lyotard’s idea of Postmodernism, stresses on the need of recognizing the failings in a system and resisting the dominant modes in practice. Kerouac’s work gives the center stage to the marginalized forms that form the very crux of Beat life. The novel describes a trans-racial, transgendered countercultural backdrop. It defines those changes which surfaced up in the post-war generation. America was the only country to emerge as a leading power from the ashes of the World Wars. The Eisenhower era followed the dictum of least interference. The state absolved from an active participation in the lives of the citizens. The stability so achieved was temporal as insecurities were depicted in maniacal car journeys by the heroes of Kerouac’s work. In Lyotardian terminology it can be seen as breaking of a grand narrative.

Lyotard’s concept when applied to the novel magnified the areas depicting heterogeneity. In the novel On the Road, Sal Paradise (Jack Kerouac) and Dean Moriarty (Neal Cassady) journey across America and towards the end they undertake a trip to Mexico. The journeys of the two heroes emphasized on the multi-perspectives of viewing a nation and strengthened the notions of believing in the necessity of difference. The novel strongly rejected the defining narratives. In Lyotard’s sensibility, the Metanarratives fail in a postmodern world. In the post- industrial society, the grand narratives of Speculation and Freedom also collapse. Lyotard asserted that no effort should be made to conceive a universalizing narrative. This breaking of narratives was essential. It gave space to the multitudes of stories that were subdued earlier by the Metanarrative. The two American Beats are in the search of ‘IT’ which is a fathomless ecstasy. They are poor and beaten down but the spiritual search in their conscious minds elevates them. They gain beato– the beatific existence in their journey. Sal and Dean’s friendship saw many ups and downs but it was always the road which joined them. Kerouac’s text is the prophetic roadmap charting a search for life in the fellaheen world lying on the verge of the consumerist western civilization. The novel has an inbuilt tendency of non-conformism. The characters have offered resistance in their own unique way. They use drugs for getting ecstatic experience. Sex becomes a potent tool to shatter the traditional ways of thinking. The non-conformism displayed by the characters synchronizes with the concepts of Lyotard. His postmodernism involves an interrogation of the hegemonic structures set by the society.

The journey taken by Sal Paradise and Dean Moriarty (Neal Cassady) becomes a kaleidoscopic search for life. Sal undertakes the journey to escape the monotonous life and to overcome depression from a failed marriage and illness. He takes four trips along with other beat figures across America. Hitch- hiking on his route, he wants to reach the Promised Land of Denver. On his truck ride he becomes aware of multiple narratives which go into the making of a nation. He receives a cultural shock in a ‘Wild West Week’ celebration. In this event a simulacra of the pristine Texas glory is created. People imitate Texan life in cowboy hats and boots. This simulation is far way from reality. Sal’s stay at Chad King’s house in Denver reveals the downside of rising capitalism. Chad’s father had invented a spot remover that was now copied by a big firm. While Chad’s family lived in poverty, the company was soaring high in profits. Capitalism had made people subservient to its demands. In the name of progress, Lyotard says that system becomes a ‘vanguard machine’ which is dragging humanity and de-humanizing it. People are hegemonized by totalitarian discourses, grand narratives and metanarratives.

Kerouac shows how the upcoming Postmodernity is an incredulity displayed towards such metanarratives. There are two types of grand-narratives- the narrative of emancipation and speculative grand narrative. In the grand narrative of emancipation, knowledge becomes a liberating force. Kerouac thus attempts to provide an antidote to metanarrative and grand narrative constructions of prosperity under the garb of Capitalism. The speculative grand narrative ends in a realization of the state of non-progress. Similarly Postmodernist void becomes prominent as in the Wild West Week, and thus the grand narrative of emancipation breathes its last. Sal Paradise also declares that he can feel the world collapsing around him. He has understood the raggedness of America and thus the idealistic visions start evaporating.

Sal meets Carlo Marx (Allen Ginsberg) in Denver. Carlo makes him realize through his poems that language itself has a linear progression and dreams are a mosaic of the figments of imagination. Sal witnesses the disintegration of myths thus upholding the advent of postmodernity. In LA he meets a Mexican girl, Terry. They make love and she tells him to believe in manana: tomorrow things would be better. Kerouac makes his protagonist feel the presence of the Grey myth of the West and dark myth of the East. Death becomes the ultimate reality that Sal is afraid of. Here one can see a parallel of Kerouac’s beliefs and Lyotard’s philosophy. Lyotard’s Postmodernism is differentiated from Modernism as it exhibits a celebration instead of fear. This fear finds a vent in the make-up of Dean Moriarty (Neal Cassady) for he is a performer who is not afraid of anything- not even death. Sal sees that Dean was mad in his movements that included:

a shaking of the head, up and down, sideways; jerky, vigorous hands; quick walking, sitting, crossing the legs, uncrossing, getting up, rubbing the hands, rubbing his fly, hitching his pant, looking upand sudden slitting of the eyes to see everywhere (Kerouac, On the Road 110)

Dean in his madness embodies the Lyotardian principle of Paralogy. Lyotard argues that in modern science the new discoveries that take place open up new language games. They defy the existing norms thus changing our former opinions. Paralogy- the fase logic has the potential to revert the existing understanding of the world. In the novel, Dean becomes the fountainhead of power that destabilizes logic. In Postmodern transitions, Paralogy of Dean helps to from new language games nullifying every other format. Postmodernism is not then an utterly hopeless era where anything goes, rather it is a continuum where resistance has to take birth. The pinnacle of Dean’s games is reached where he asks Sal to make love to his girlfriend Marylou in order to see how she makes love to another man. Sex here becomes a beatific experience where, “three children of the earth try(ing) to decide something in the night and having all the weight of past centuries ballooning in the dark before them.” (Kerouac, OTR 125). At one point Sal justifies Deans’ fulfillment of physical love. For him it becomes a medium to relish physical sensation of the source of life bliss, and a way of returning to innocence. For Sal, love becomes a refuge. Late in their journey, Dean shows the way to throw off every burden. He convinces Sal and Marylou to strip and run wild celebrating their existence.

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Sal and Dean visit Old Bull Lee (William Burroughs). They take drugs which become a mode to enter into ecstasy. Old Bull Lee’s drug intake has led him to an awareness of seven personalities within him, “each growing worse and worse.The top personality was an English Lord, the bottom an idiot. Halfway he was an old negro” (Kerouac, OTR 137). No authentic self is sustained by him and his body becomes a site of conflict. Lyotard claims that in postmodernism the authentic self ceases to exist. The identity crisis can also be witnessed as a deconstruction taking place due to an instability set in the post-war years in America. The drug induced hallucinations bespeak of ‘cannibalization’ of real self in a post-industrial society. Old Bull Lee’s wife Jane (Joan Vollmer) enjoys reading the classified newspaper. When Sal asks her if she is looking for jobs she replies that she was reading the want ads as they are the most interesting component of a newspaper. The classified newspaper advertises the ads that are being produced by a system. In Postmodernist space, as Lyotard says the Denotative and Prescriptive principles fail to sustain themselves. Denotations prescribe the world whereas Prescriptions tend to change it. The classified space is a sheer mockery on the system. In the first instance, modern politics deals in Prescriptions which are based on Denotations, as Simon Malpas writes, “if the good of society is X, we should do Y” (Malpas 5). Secondly in the Totalitarian regimes as well as democracies, Prescriptions are not given down from any authority but are imbibed by people. In On the Road, Old Bull Lee and Jane challenge the Denotative and Prescriptive principles making every authoritative voice redundant. They thwart the system but Dean’ madness engulfs it altogether.

In the next spring journey a new height is embarked by Dean and Sal. They give lifts to hobos, visit pubs, and listen to jazz. It becomes visible what is common between them- the Road. By living a ragged beat life they are participating in the void of Postmodernism. The void can be discovered in their lives when they discuss their roles in the family. Dean’s marriages, divorces and the kids from this experience do not curtail his exuberance for life. Through the application of Lyotardian philosophy, in Dean Moriarty’s case one can observe the formation of a ‘Differend’. It is a concept given by Lyotard which refers to a wrong occurring at a particular moment. Differend occurs when both good and evil occur at the same time. Sal sympathizes with Dean saying, ” Poor, poor Dean- the devil himself had never fallen further; in idiocy, with infected thumb, surrounded by the battered suitcases of his motherless feverish life across America and back numberless times, an undone bird. ” (Kerouac OTR 178 ) The presence of good and evil breaks the stereotype image of hero-villain boy. Dean embodies the Differend himself. In a Differend one faces the situation where all that remains is injustice. One is prevented from having a role in the game of justice. Language is unable to explain the event and as a consequence the victim is thrown into ‘silence’. No one approves of Dean’s life and he cannot utter a single word to defend himself when a friend scolds him. For Lyotard:

The Differend is a moment of silence, a stutter in the flow of language where the right words will not come. It marks a point of suffering where an injustice cannot find a space to make itself heard where an injury is silenced and becomes a ‘wrong’. Differends are a point of departure for Lyotard’s exploration of the politics and philosophy of language in the Differend. (Malpas 60).

The Injustice in Lyotardian sensibility manifests in the novel as Dean is blamed by his fellows for being a selfish maniac. But they cannot understand that Dean Moriarty has stopped role-playing. He is only following his urge to MOVE on the road. He inquires, “What’s your road man?holy boy road, mad man road, rainbow road, guppy road, any road. It’s an anywhere road for anybody anyhow. Where body how?” (Kerouac, OTR 237).

The next Mexico trip of Sal and Dean is a version of apocalyptic tone of postmodern. Together Sal and Dean challenge certain language games and create their own rules. According to Lyotard language is a medium to explicate the play of language games. There are three features of language games as given by Lyotard. First, the language games are an object of contract between the players. Second rules have to be sustained. Third, every utterance is a move of the game. The language games then decide the relationships and bonding in a society. The language game played in the void, has the ability to say the unsaid. This ability has been achieved by Dean for he is a hipster who has abandoned every responsibility. They traverse tracing the fellaheen civilization of Mexico that offers a contrast to the consumer culture hypocrisies. America has a sense of finite reality which is generated by the consumerist industry. Kerouac’s reaction against this is a reverence for residue left in Mexican culture with is depthless signifiers.

Kerouac’s fellaheen world is the pure primitive humanity where ecstasy can be found. This raw ecstatic force is defined as “IT”. This “IT” can be treated as a version of Lyotard’s Sublime. Lyotard’s presumption is based on the notion of understanding how postmodernist art is empowered by Sublime. It demolishes the mediocrity of general opinion and employs the power of sublimity in analyzing the limit set by the society. The cause of Sublime remains un-deciphered yet it can be conceived. Lyotardian Sublime is understood in two ways: one termed by him as Modern and the other is Postmodern. One symbolizes modernist melancholia and the other is postmodernist jubilation. Modernist sadness is burdened with a longing for the world of stability whereas Postmodernist Sublime discovers new channels of expression. Postmodernist work breaks rules, challenges hierarchy and raises questions against hierarchy. In Kerouac’s text, the “IT” becomes the epitome of Sublime. It is an ambiguous experience that constructs and demolishes itself. The aesthetic experience of Kant is bifurcated into the Beautiful and the Sublime. Whereas Lyotard’s Sublime occurs with a simultaneous existence of pain and pleasure. Sublime brings rapture and horrifies at the same time. The pain represents modernist nostalgia and pleasure embodies postmodernist celebration. The Sublime for Sal crystallizes in Dean Moriarty. Dean has the ability to enter ecstasy through sex, drugs and music. He imparts this wisdom to Sal. Nothing matters if one enters into the labyrinth of “IT”-the spastic power.

Sal also becomes aware that Dean is the victim as much as he is a con-man. In Mexico, Sal gets dysentery and fever and becomes unconscious for many days. Dean deserts him and leaves for New York. A simultaneous existence of dark and light elements emerges in Dean’s character. The absolute goodness is countered by absolute evil. In such a situation no justice can be excluded. A residue of the feeling of injustice remains. Lyotard has elaborated the concept of ‘Justice’ in a heterogeneous environment. His concept in context of the novel helps in understanding the injustice done to marginalized communities. Beats are the spokesperson of marginalized voices. They as a community include hobos, pimps, prostitutes, blacks, Hispanics, junkies and drug peddlers. Sal and Dean through their message of liberation provide justice to the down trodden victims of a Capitalist society. Based on Kant’s Critique of Judgment, Lyotard explains the injustice, by introducing the theory of genre of discourse. Judgment takes place when a specific genre of discourse is selected to understand the particular state of affairs. Judgments can thus be classified into two types- Determinate judgments and Reflective judgments. Determinate judgments take place when we fit in a given idea of a particular formulated context. Determinate judgments are made by the bourgeoisie on the Beats. In case of reflective judgment, a strange new event occurs and a search for context is generated. Lyotard gives an analogy of an archipelago where a navigator has to find his way linking various islands. Judgment becomes the basis of sailing among the islands. Reflective judgment sustains itself in the postmodernist philosophy as there are no pre-fixed laws of attributing justice. Dean becomes the ‘crazy Ahab’ who then gives direction to the crew. Beats then indulge in Reflective judgments and give a new terminology to the system. Through their freedom they refuse to be judged by the norms of determinate judgments. Instead they pass on reflective judgments that initiate a role reversal between the dictator and victim.

The quest motif takes the heroes of the novel to various places. This technique helps Kerouac to depict the transition taking place over the whole continent. In the end one realizes that there is no escape from reality. Dean says, “No more land! We can’t go any farther ’cause there ain’t no more land.” (Kerouac, OTR 161). The road takes you back from where you started. Dean had come knocking at Sal’s door and their journey had begun. In the end the ‘madman’ Dean comes again and leaves without Sal. Dean’s behavior though muted still carries a resistance. He symbolizes the Lyotardian ‘Seed of Disruption” whose impact remains on Sal and at a macrocosmic level, on the generations to come. Dean comes to meet Sal in New York from San Francisco, coming five weeks before the scheduled time. Sal has to leave him around a street corner as he has to go with another friend, but he continues to think of Dean who had come just to see him.


Kerouac, Jack. On the Road. Penguin, 1972.

Lyotard, Jean Françoise. Le Differend: Phrases in dispute. Translated by Georges Van Den Abbeele. Theory and History of Literature. Vol. 46. University of Minnesota Press. 2002.

—. The Postmodern Tradition: A Report On Knowledge. Translated by Geoff Bennington and Brian Massumi. Theory and History of Literature. Vol. 46. University of Minnesota Press. 1984.

Malpas, Simon, ed. Jean Françoise Lyotard: Routledge Critical Thinkers. Routledge 2003.


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