Fated by their enthusiasms, admirations, wonderments and assorted devotional attitudes towards “great writers”, seeing books as spiritual beacons, rallying cries or, worse yet, jelly doughnuts of wisdom, youthful readers full of ardent focus, often forget that the mistral of a real Fate is right behind them, blowing them backwards towards the future. More to the point, the young reader resembles a figure in Paul Klee’s famous drawing called “Angelus Novus,” an angel depicted staring fixedly at something distant while a steady wind blows his outstretched wings from behind. The angel is contemplating the past, which he understands as a single great catastrophe piling ruin upon ruin. While preferring to stay awake and make whole what has been smashed, the wind is blowing from Paradise and has caught the angel’s wings with such violence that he can no longer close them. This irresistible future towards which we are being blown, writes the great cultural critic Walter Benjamin, is called progress. Early reading with its cults of Nietzsche or Tolstoy (or, of course, Rod McKuen) and its amplified pleasures (usually shared by friends, peers, fellow “intellectuals” and a few bearded professors), offers the naïve promise of autonomy defined as freedom from restraint on the one hand, or unlimited horizons on the other. Surely, the young reader believes, things will be different for me.
Take for example the innermost thoughts of a young French aspiring “man of letters” named Philippe Jullian, who at age 23 was spending World War II in Paris under German occupation. On June 8, 1942, Julian confided to his diary: “Read ‘Poor Folk’ and felt like a character out of Dostoyevsky, just as I felt extremely Proustian three years ago. I always see myself through the colored windows of my admiration. I’m afraid of having no more great works to immerse myself in. After Balzac, Proust, Dostoyevsky and the English, what is left for me?” (Journal 1940-50, Paris, Grasset, 2009, related in a NYROB article by Ian Buruma) Here, like all of us early in the reading life, Jullian happily pursues his enthusiasms towards a limbic climax, a kind of emotional, hormonal, and psychotropic hero-worship that begins in extrinsic “admiration” for various writers in sequence and eventuates as a solipsistic echo inside the nervous system. It’s a rich irony to be young and aspire to freedom only to wind up wearing some writer’s book like a fashion statement that is disposable, recyclable, and fungible. We wouldn’t be young and in the reading life if we didn’t discover a writer, swear by him, and become a convert, pledging allegiance to the presumed doctrines and stances of The Book, at the same time acting like some kooky individualist around campus. There were, in my day, your Barth freaks, your Vonnegut freaks, your Tillich freaks, your Marcuse freaks and, a lot of Marshall McLuhan freaks, including me. I was even a Hesse freak, for God’s sake.
Most of this is the harmless byplay of leisure. Consider however what Count Harry Kessler, the famous diarist and bon-vivant, had to say about certain enthusiasms current in Germany during 1895: “There is probably no twenty-to-thirty-year old tolerably educated man in Germany today who does not owe to Nietzsche his world view.” (“Berlin in Lights: The Diaries of Harry Kessler 1918-35, Weidenfield and Nicholson, London, 1971). What one thinks of as a world view as a youthful reader, or even as a young adult ironing out the wrinkles of one’s responsibilities and exercising some limited power, is often a structural miscalculation of a sort, either a misreading of specific texts (Nietzsche, for example, would probably have rejected adulation by scar-faced German students), or an enthusiasm for a Book which disguises much deeper prejudices, social relations, cultural preoccupations and historical crudities (anti-Semitism, xenophobia, nationalism, racism, religious fundamentalism, ad nauseum). Following on the cult of Nietzsche was a minor cult of Knut Hamsen who influenced Jack London, Ernest Hemingway and a host of yearning anti-sentimentalists, though it’s plain to see that Hamsen himself was under the sway of Nietzsche. A snowball like this, once rolling downhill, soon becomes an avalanche. For those who don’t think much about the power of books, consider World War I and all the Supermen who died.
Enthusiasms and their underlying social and psychological causes are part of the past that we reading Angels observe while being blown helplessly toward the future. Nothing stands as more poignant than Jack Kerouac’s enthusiasms expressed so beautifully and harmoniously in Dharma Bums:
I reminded myself of the line in the Diamond Sutra that says, “Practice charity without holding in mind any conceptions about charity, for charity after all is just a word.” I was very devout in those days and was practicing my religious devotions almost to perfection. Since then I’ve become a little hypocritical about lip-service and a little tired and cynical. Because now I am grown so old and neutral…But then I really believed in the reality of charity and kindness and humility and zeal and neutral tranquility and wisdom and ecstasy, and I believed that I was an old time bhikku in modern clothes wandering the world (usually the immense triangular arc of New York to Mexico city to San Francisco) in order to turn the wheel of the True meaning, or Dharma, and gain merit for myself as a future Buddha (Awakener) and as a future Hero in Paradise.
How heartbreaking to hear the confession of a broken-down alcoholic mama’s-boy that once he “really” believed in the reality of charity, kindness, humility, zeal, neutral tranquility, wisdom and even ecstasy. It’s an Eden, recollected in a drunken, haywire neuron-blotched and blowsy brain. Kerouac, rhapsodizing about a 1955 train ride north from LA, just outside Santa Barbara on a cool foggy night, describes sharing a bottle of wine with a “little hobo” for whom he felt both love and pity. How terrible it must have been for him to grow “so old and neutral.” The past, in this casting, becomes prolegomena, we readers knowing that Kerouac’s belief in the reality of charity (etc.) in that gondola heading north was itself an alcoholic drama. In short, Kerouac was not only blown backward toward the future, but began to tumble, head over heels, coming to rest finally in his Maman’s mobile home outside St. Petersburg, Florida many years later, his liver and life equally wrecked.
I read Dharma Bums on a dirty mattress spread on the bare floor (the walls painted black by my ex-roommate) of a shabby rental house in north Oakland, California, sometime in early 1973. Broken-hearted, mostly alone, largely drunken—sitting all afternoon during those days on a sunny stoop (reading and drinking red wine) surrounded by hollyhocks and tree roses while the police helicopter whirred overhead, I tried desperately to believe in charity and neutral tranquility. Here, in Kerouac, was a kindred spirit long dead. One discovers eventually that there is no such thing as a “world view” worth a damn. An emerging critical faculty convinces that books teach us nothing save the lonely business of thinking for ourselves.