Sunday, February 22, 2009

Ayn Rand - Jack Kerouac connection

This blog, The Daily Beat, is about Jack Kerouac. I make no excuses. Sometimes entries are unabashed commercials for my book, The Beat Handbook. Again, I make no excuses. Always, my daily entries have something to do with Jack or the beat generation, even when it's a stretch to make the connection. Some entries are short, some long, some serious, some tongue-in-cheek, some tired & lazy, some inspired & profound.

I don't know what today's is (other than long). But I do know it's about a connection between Ayn Rand and Jack Kerouac.

I've been reading Rand's For The New Intellectual (1961, New York: Signet). Watching the film The Passion of Ayn Rand inspired me to finally sit down and read something of hers. I wasn't interested in tackling The Fountainhead or Atlas Shrugged, and serendipitously I had a copy of For The New Intellectual laying around that I had purchased a few years ago. It contains excerpts from both those novels.

I found the below excerpt from Atlas Shrugged of particular interest. The excerpt is titled "The Nature of an Artist" and presents part of "a conversation between Dagny Taggart, the heroine of the story, and Richard Halley, a great composer, who is now on strike" (p. 116). As you may know, the plot of the novel is what would happen if all "men of the mind" went on strike. This is Halley speaking:

Name me a greater example of such devotion than the act of a man who says that the earth does turn, or the act of a man who says that an alloy of steel and copper has certain properties which enable it to do certain things, that it is and does--and let the world rack him or ruin him, he will not bear false witness to the evidence of his mind! This, Miss Taggart, this sort of spirit, courage and love for truth--as against a sloppy bum who goes around proudly assuring you that he has almost reached the perfection of a lunatic, because he's an artist who hasn't the faintest idea what his art work is or means, he's not restrained by such crude concepts as 'being' or or 'meaning,' he's the vehicle of higher mysteries, he doesn't know how he created his work or why, it just came out of him spontaneously, like vomit out of a drunkard, he did not think, he wouldn't stoop to thinking, he just felt it, all he has to do is feel--he feels, the flabby, loose-mouthed, shifty-eyed, drooling, shivering, uncongealed bastard! I, who know what discipline, what effort, what tension of mind, what unrelenting strain upon one's power of clarity are needed to produce a work of art--I, who know that it requires a labor which makes a chain gang look like rest and a severity no army-drilling sadist could impose--I'll take the operator of a coal mine over any walking vehicle of higher mysteries (p. 116).

Now if Rand isn't speaking here directly of Kerouac, then I must be falling into a true conspiratorial fugue.

Sloppy bum?
Higher mysteries?

I'm not going to defend Jack. He needs no defense. But I will posit this: It may well be that Rand inadvertently gave Jack the inspiration for the phrase, "Zen Lunatic," which he uses in The Dharma Bums.

Here's my thinking. On The Road came out the same year as Atlas Shrugged. We can speculate that the two authors read each other's works. Note this interview with Rand (after her death) from Cosmic Baseball Association:

CBA Your last work of fiction, Atlas Shrugged was published in the same year as Jack Kerouac's On the Road. Did you ever read Kerouac?

AR I read On the Road. Kerouac was basically seduced by priestesses, starting with his mother. He is too enshrouded in his religion addicition [sic]. A slightly later novel of his, The Dharma Bums attests to this point.

CBA How would you compare Kerouac's "spontaneous bop prosody" concept with your own writing style?

AR Spontaneous or automatic writing is the antithesis of conscious rational calculation, yes? But my approach to writing, the method I employed did not completely avoid taking advantage of certain subconscious influences. In my "Fiction Writing" lectures that I delivered in my apartment in 1958 I remember telling the students that as one approaches the writing of any given scene or paragraph, one has the sense or 'feel' of what it has to be by the logic of the context-and one's subconscious makes the right selections to express it. Later, one checks and improves the result by means of conscious editing. I probably edited my writing a lot more than Kerouac did.

Okay, not a scholarly point but it shows that others have speculated that at least Rand read Kerouac. So let's say Kerouac - who was a prolific reader - read Atlas Shrugged. It's likely that his reading of that novel preceded completion of The Dharma Bums, which was published in 1958. If he did, he would have known that the above passage from Halley's speech was directed at Kerouac's self-professed characteristics and writing style. How ironic that Jack might have adopted the phrase lunatic from Rand herself, given that she was criticizing him!

With some real scholarly research, I guess we could pinpoint Jack's first use of the word "lunatic" from his journals and letters. I'd rather leave that alone for now because the irony of Jack being inspired by Rand's critique of him makes me smile. But I can go it one better.

Maybe Rand and Kerouac had a torrid love affair during the early 60s. She lived in New York City. Jack frequented the city off and on. Perhaps he read her critique of him in Atlas Shrugged (don't we often critique those we secretly admire?) and decided that this was a woman he wanted to get to know better. Around 1955, Rand entered into an affair with her intellectual protege, Nathaniel Branden. The affair ended around 1960, so Rand was lonely and hurt and Jack was on the prowl (always), and . . . well, the rest may be history.

Or fantasy. But it's always fun to speculate about such things. If you run into any other Kerouac-Rand connections, let me know.

In the meantime, check out some Ayn Rand if you never have. I don't agree in large measure with her philosophy ("Objectivism"), but she makes some points along the way with which I agree.

And she had passion. So did Jack. That's what moves a writer! That's what makes us read!


Ronid Aka Akhu said...

It is wonderful feeling to read this piece. Never knew about Kerouac-Rand connection.
Thanks Rick!

Anonymous said...

I think part of Kerouac’s genius was that that his writing was decidedly spiritual in nature—that he did feel things so purely. Like you said though, Jack needs no defense. I’m glad he was able to turn the tables by coining a phrase inspired by her harsh criticism. Sweet irony. The Rand-Kerouac connection is a really cool one. Thanks for this post.

Rian Murray said...

I think part of Kerouac’s genius was that that his writing was decidedly spiritual in nature—that he did feel things so purely. Like you said though, Jack needs no defense. I’m glad he was able to turn the tables by coining a phrase inspired by her harsh criticism. Sweet irony. The Rand-Kerouac connection is a really cool one. Thanks for this post.

The Right Guy said...

If you read Branden's critique of Rand, he felt that Rand's philosophy did not address the emotional side of human beings. We are not Vulcans like Mr. Spock where only rationality rules and it sets us up as much as many religions do to failure because neither unifies the consciousness of the human mind. We are not completely emotional/spiritual or completely rational. Nathaniel Branden addresses this. As far as Kerouac goes, I have read on the Road a couple times, and reading his work is more like experiencing something than reading and digestion. I like both authors (And Ken Kesey is great too). There's no reason you cannot admire both.

Rick Dale, author of The Beat Handbook said...

TRG, we agree: there's no reason we can't like both! I just happen to disagree somewhat with Rand's philosophy, and you captured why. I especially like your description of Kerouac as experiencing something rather than reading and digestion.

Theobald said...

On the subject of "certain subconscious influences," Rand, like Jack, liked her benzedrine.

Theobald said...

On the subject of "certain subconscious influences," Rand, like Jack, frequently resorted to benzedrine.

Unknown said...

This is all speculation of course, but in Kerouac’s Old Angel Midnight there is a line that goes;"I saw lines drop like lint off kittyfur nightbed brain thought & never heaved to Atlas Shrug". After reading that I started this search to see if there was a connection between them both as they are two of my favorite authors and philosophers, so I would be delighted if there is one, but there is little evidence outside of circumstantial to prove said theory.

Unknown said...

Funny, the logic here, but none the less could apply as BOTH were self-absorbed, highly creative, yet very aware of the social mores of their times.