Friday, June 19, 2015

A visit to Jack Kerouac's grave

I don’t typically post photographs of myself. I prefer to look out onto the world than to let the world look back at me.

It’s probably not the ideal trait. The ancient Greeks urged us to “Know thyself” and looking in the mirror isn't a bad place to start. And think of all those self-portraits hanging in the Met or in the Tate or in the Uffizi or the Louvre … they are the thread of the Self in western culture.

Frida Kahlo

Albrecht Durer

Gustave Courbet

Pablo Picasso

Rembrandt van Rijn

Vincent van Gogh

Stanley Kubrick

Andy Warhol

Vivian Maier

So I must remember that every time I think the modern selfie culture represents a major cultural ill, an unhealthy prioritization of the “me" over the "we", a narcissism of unconstrained license, I need only recall that it’s a puzzle we’ve been trying to deconstruct for a very long time.  It’s just that now technology has democratized it in the 21st century.

The First Selfie, taken by Robert Cornelius, Philadelphia 1839

Still, that’s not where I was going with all of this.

This past Tuesday, I did something of such personal significance in my own life story that I want to note it here. I went up to Lowell with Peter Blok ostensibly to look the industrial history of that city.

But because both Peter and I are of a certain age, we agreed at the outset how our day would end … We would make a visit, dare I say a pilgrimage, to Jack Kerouac’s grave.

There’s something about the Beats, and about Jack Kerouac in particular, that governed the thinking of a generation and then of another and then another. Bob Dylan was warmed by their light. The Grateful Dead grew up in the city of Lawrence Ferlinghetti and City Lights Bookstore.

Bob Dylan and Allen Ginsburg visit the grave, 1975

The Beats held sway for decades, so much so that when I was a teenager, they were still cool in an arty, pretentious kind of way.  I can still hear the late-night teenage cackle as Larry Fessenden and I and a couple of others strayed into the wee hours one summer's eve trying to get to the meaning of it all and why reading On The Road was so important.

As we walked past the rows of gravestones, Peter asked if I believed there was a goal to life. I understood the question to mean, do you think we're put on earth for a purpose.  No, I answered, that's not what life is. Life is life. It's its own thing. Goals are what we bring to the equation. That's how he thought of it too. It was exactly the conversation to be having while trying to find Jack Kerouac's grave.

Once there, I broke out my copy of On The Road, given me by Max Ryan in Berkeley in 1986, and I read the first few paragraphs aloud. It had a familiar jangly rhythm to it.

We each placed a quarter on the flat stone and left a piece of blueberry muffin there too because, as I cheekily opined, you never know what you're going to need on the road. The muffin probably ended up in the mouth of a squirrel or a rat and the quarter probably made it into the pocket of the cemetery staff but nevermind. Like most things having to do with the dead, we didn't really do it for them. We did it for us.

We took photos of ourselves, to mark us being where he was buried -- this working class kid of French-Canadian stock from Lowell, Massachusetts who went to Columbia University in the early '40s and then dropped out and eventually wrote an obscure novel that ended up taking on a huge force in American cultural history.

Back in Cambridge, we drank a beer at the Plough and Stars to his memory. Everyone we talked to we told ... we just returned from Jack Kerouac's grave. And everyone had a Jack Kerouac story.