Saturday, May 19, 2012

Love in the Time of America

Henry Miller in Big Sur
I'm feeling restless. It's my affliction. It's not a bad one, as afflictions go- I could be a grown man in shorts. Or do heroin. But I am restless, and feel the need to move.

Writers love this disease. If they don't have it themselves, they tell the story of it. So many great stories are based on the love of moving right along. Talking to my good friend and official demi-god The Mighty Hercules lately about road novels, I was inspired to revisit one of my favorites, Henry Miller's The Air-Conditioned Nightmare. It is my favorite thing of Miller's and one road novel that really stays with me. The basic overview of the book is simple: Miller comes back to the States as an expat, escaping war in Europe. He is disgusted by much of what he sees, but he finds positive aspects of America while he travels. It isn't a story of growth or acceptance. Like all great road novels, it's about the journey for the sake of the journey. Miller tells of his travels because that is what is happening.

I've been reading a lot of these books lately. I find myself relishing novels by Kerouac, Miller, lesser known gems like I See By My Outfit by Peter Beagle. I think they make sense to me now in a way that they didn't before, as I've traveled more, spent nearly five years overseas, and felt more restricted by life circumstances. I loved these books when I first read them at 19 and 20. I appreciate them now. Back then they represented possibilities, potential futures that myself and my friends could live. Now they mean something more complex and strange- the sense of community and isolation that I have as a (Oh My) basically middle aged man. (Wait is 35 middle aged? I guess not... but close?)

America is such a country of potential. It is frustrating because the greatness that lurks everywhere. The geographical perfection, the powerful ambition and drive... these are balanced by the greed and pathological individualism that infects us. Having spent time in a other countries always makes Americans conscious of this contrast in identity. It's a personality disorder on a nationwide scale. We are what we pretend to be, and what we have chosen to be. We are the past and the future. Reading stories of our past back to Whitman and Emerson, it seems like this has always been the case. We've always been a nation of confused identity. Or at least our writers and scholars have thought so.

Living currently in small town America, I have a desire to go to cities, to see more of the urban America. A part of me, logically or not, always sees urban America as the authentic experience of being the United States. Funnily enough, most Americans I talk to don't think this, but many foreign visitors do. They see America as big city because of their own media and preconceptions, I suppose. I'm not sure why I do. But there it is.

The road novels I love mostly talk about small town America. They love the cities intensely, or hate them with equal passion. But they talk more about rural and small town America. I wonder if it that is because, like me, they see it as strange and confusing. Or because they see the real essence of the American experience there, and wish to explore it. Kerouac is especially hilarious in this regard, since he sings the praises of these little towns that he spends hours visiting, and then complains about the cities that he settles in for years.

Kerouac eventually went home, to his small town New England past. He resigned himself to unhappily finishing his years with the familiar. I can't imagine doing that, personally. It's actually a deep-seated fear of mine. When I was young, I was firmly convinced (like every young man reading Kerouac and listening to punk rock, I'm sure) that my life was destined to be lived out penniless and free, drifting from place to place, without a home. Of course that is silly- and mostly untrue. (Well, I'm penniless enough. And I do tend to drift. But I take a lot of home with me.)

But in all of the nonsensical romanticism and flowery prose of the myth, there is a glimmer of reality hidden. I'm still desperate to find that authentic identity of my country, and myself. I still pull up roots and change what I can to see the United States from a new angle, to approach the problem of our national disorder from a new perspective. I'm interested in it, perhaps above everything else in my life. I want to understand it.  Reading those novels about travel, traveling myself for so much of my life... these are ways to find those stories again, and gain some comprehension. Until I get that... Well, I'll be restless. Ready to move.


Herc! said...

Having seen a lot of this country, I've never been convinced that we have a national identity. I know it's sort of a cop out thing to say.

How do we reconcile Seattlites and wacky Arizonians? New Yorkers and people in West Virginia? Is there something we all identify with?

If there is, I'm not sure it's a good thing. Maybe it's that ruthless individualism. In some, like where I grew up, it's blind faith to Christianity and blind patriotism. In Seattle, it's the similarly poisonous idea of entitlement (NPR, goji berries, etc) and not stopping at stop signs!

But contrast that with people of all political denominations who will go far FAR out of their way to help another.

Maybe contrast is our national identity. We certainly swim in it. Look at Arizona. Some of the most beautiful land in the world coupled with some of the most wacked out wingnuts on the planet.

People are simultaneously different and the same wherever you go. And with the rapid changes in terrain and environment (or the complete lack of change in some places), as you travel, you change a little bit each mile.

Bah. I don't really know. So looks like I'll have to hit the road again to find out.

Ryan Beggar said...

I think you're really right about the lack of national identity. Although I haven't traveled the US nearly as much as you have, I haven't seen it either.

The best case I could make for it (and maybe this is another blog post, honestly) was my trip I took with my friend Yuko across California and Utah in 1999. Showing her the west, and explaining places like WV and NY along the way... Something about it made sense. Maybe, as you say, it's an identity of contrast. Or some kind of mutual individualism.

There is that weird positive and negative blend. We Americans are a silly people. Interesting as hell, though.

And hey, blogging again! Woo! Extreme!

Ryan Beggar said...

BTW, explaining Utah in Japanese?! Hard as heck.

jeff said...

Its funny, but I've been thinking about this same thing lately. Tho, in terms of a rejection of travel. I keep coming back to this idea in mysticism, stated well in some Taoist text I believe, that "The person of Tao can travel the universe without leaving their home, while the worldly person will travel the universe and find nothing".

While I certainly don't subscribe to some sort of extremism in this regard, I can't let go of the idea that travel, like anything in our culture, can easily become just another form of consumption; the anxiety for/against it being the same anxiety that drives consumerism as a whole. But, more importantly, its beginning to seem to me that collecting experiences, like collecting objects, can easily lead to a kind of quantity over quality issue in which the experiences are never appreciated because one is too busy anxiously seeking out new ones.

This is, of course, not a criticism, but it is how I've come to understand the American obsession with the road, and road stories. Like most themes in fiction, the road story tells us about our lives and the journeys we take, regardless of whether or not we ever take to the Road. But as Americans, as consumers par excellence, we unnecessarily reify this notion into history. Or, perhaps better put, we don't allow ourselves to be satisfied with, and truly enjoy, what we have (including, obviously, the occasional awesome trip!), but have to seek out greater and greater highs, traversing the world looking for something that can only really be found by traversing our inner selves.

Well, enough of that feel good hippy crap.

Ryan Beggar said...

Jeff- I think that's a good point. And I do fall into it a bit- especially on my trips where I indulge myself, stay in hotels, etc. I'm searching without searching, sometimes. And I've run across people who do that to an extreme. The RV people sometimes remind me of that aspect of America, taking every luxury and collecting states' paraphernalia.

But we're nomadic beings, in many ways. It's a natural drive (hehe) to move, to go along. Keeping in motion while staying conscious of the place you are... that's a pretty awesome goal.

jeff said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
jeff said...

That's a really good point. Tho, the caveat I would propose is this: we are also tribal beings, and most nomadic people would travel in large groups; a mobile community.

So it forces me to wonder if travel-consumerism is, like all forms of consumerism, in part, a search for community (the Divine, in this case, being understood as Community at the highest level of Reality, and thus the search for community and the search for the Divine are, on at least one level, one and the same... as the Beats, at their best, tried to tell us).

This, perhaps, presents the difficulty of solo- or small group-traveling in the current context: it makes community formation difficult, in a grounded / practical sense. (In retrospect, I know that my years of manic travel, solo or with TAN, were not only profoundly consumerist, but incredibly disrupting to my community on many levels.) To this end, I don't think its an accident that capitalism forces us into various kinds of un-/up-rooted forms of being (i.e. traveling for jobs, traveling to find cheaper rent, traveling to find "something"), while disabling community oriented nomadism and attempting to commercialize traditionally non-consumerist forms of travel (religious pilgrimage being the most obvious example of this, in my mind).