What Do You Want?

The question that appears to most personally address us is the one we find hardest to answer: ‘What do you want?’ It sounds like an opportunity; but speaking your heart’s desire is not simple, nor easy. There is something elusive about longing. It is better, in a way, to keep looking; then you won’t be disappointed. And now, there is so much to look at, and long for. It is not just ‘Coke’ that claims to be ‘It’; clothing, cars and cappuccino machines all insist, along with channel 9, to be the ‘One.’

It was not always so. Certainly, desire is perennial, but current consumption, what Canadian author Naomi Klein, calls ‘hand-to-brand combat’, is a recent invention. You can find its origins in the 1953 cult film, ‘The Wild One’, when a girl asks Marlon Brando: ‘What are you rebelling against?’ He pouts inside his biker jacket and shrugs: ‘Whaddya got?’ It is not a reply that identifies him or his demand. Rather, in the mode of what would become modern advertising, it is an attitude that reframes the question with a fashion-statement, that is, an opaque representation that implies you can have it all.

The sale of leather jackets went through the roof after the release of the movie, and the poster of Brando slouching across his Triumph became a best-seller, turning motorcycles into a symbol of youth rebellion. James Dean’s ‘Rebel Without a Cause’ (1955), ‘Jailhouse Rock’ (1957) and ‘Easy Rider’ (1969) soon followed. But what popular culture made of the film was not exactly what it was.

‘Johnny’, the character played by Brando, is a fidgety, troubled drifter, not the glamorous superman he was made out to be. He is searching for something – the plot suggests it might be love – and the hip talk, leather and loud exhaust, far from being ‘It’, are distractions to prop him up. The same sort of twist occurred four years after the ‘Wild One’ when Jack Kerouac published ‘On the Road.’

The book, when it came out in 1957, was praised by The New York Times as the voice of the Beat Generation, on a footing with Hemingway’s novel of the pre-war Lost Generation, ‘The Sun Also Rises.’ Dylan summed up the response when he drawled that Kerouac’s book had changed his life.

Like Brando’s ‘Johnny’, Kerouac’s protagonist, Dean Moriarty was quickly eulogised and emulated, becoming a model for later non-conformists, notably the hippies. But, as The New Yorker pointed out last month, ‘On the Road’ is not about hipsters looking for kicks, or subversives, rebels without a cause who point the way for the radicals of the 1960’s, nor is it an anti-intellectual celebration of spontaneity or an artefact of literary primitivism. “It is a sad and somewhat self-consciously lyrical story about loneliness, insecurity and failure.”

The word Beat, which the entertainment world turned into ‘beatnik’, has nothing to do with music, bohemian nihilism or Hollywood hedonism. It is old carnival slang, denoting “being beaten-down, poor, exhausted, at the bottom of the world.” Kerouac was talking about the ‘40’s Cold War cohort, which had been disillusioned by the war, the bomb and the ‘cold’ peace, but was obsessed with the question of how life should be lived. John Clellon Holmes, who wrote about Beats in 1952, thought that they were optimistic, risk-takers, seekers – young people with a “desperate craving for belief.”

How this transformed into the 60’s chaos of rich kids dropping out in communes, accountants buying Harleys, super-model, Kate Moss, parading Calvin Klein under the rubric of ‘heroin-chic’, and latterly, British actress, Sienna Miller, wearing peasant skirts and calling it ‘Boho-chic’ is a testament to media sleight-of-hand. It pays homage both to advertising’s rationale – don’t change the reality, change the perception about the reality – and to Freud, whose son-in-law, Edward Bernays, invented the public relations industry by taking a version of uncle Sigmund’s insights to Madison Ave in the early 1900’s.

Kerouac’s book – with its young cast criss-crossing America by car – was an inspiration for Baby Boomers hitting the road. But the novel is not about tourists, or as Boomers liked to say, travellers; nor is it about escape; it is about literature. Not just any literature, but a self-conscious attempt to explore a way of life that was coming to an end; before TV and the post-war boom, a way of life in small town America that could be dreamt about in black and white, without gadgets or a soundtrack.

That life has gone. As The New Yorker says, “there is little romance left in long car rides.” That is not just because of freeways, fast food fatigue and stranger danger. The dominance of fashion in culture now means that we are all instant retail rebels. Protest or discovery is just a matter of pulling on a T-shirt. Rather than keep detailed journals, as did Kerouac, we are more likely to maintain a wardrobe.

But most of all, loss and lack, which Kerouac knew and wrote about, as did Proust and Freud, is not fashionable: Turning your life into literature – as Kerouac tried to do – maybe romanticised but it won’t be interrogated. The task is too daunting. Kerouac’s book says that “…nobody knows what’s going to happen to anybody besides the forlorn rags of growing old”, but what we most hear about him is that he completed the novel in three weeks on a 120 foot roll of typewriter paper. What we don’t hear is that after that caffeine-fuelled marathon, he spent six years revising it. The novel is not myth – the result of a single burst of spontaneous composition – but deliberate, hard literary labour.

There were many words in before any worthwhile words came out. Like a useful psychoanalysis, the book is a kind of castration. Good literature, and I would argue, therapy, is like that. As Kafka says, the only books worth reading are those that stab and wound. Kerouac possibly never found what he wanted. He died, broken and alcoholic, in his 40’s. ‘On the Road’, though, in its 50th year, is still in print and still influential. The places it describes have gone, but the longing it expresses especially about male vulnerability linger, along with an evocation of a time before fashion stood in for feeling.