Paul McQuade

Sur (Keruouac)

Paul McQuade
            Three trips to Big Sur in Big Sur. Book, place, one name on top of the other. Superimposition, a sur-position. Sur: derivation of the super, the above, the beyond, and an out of: un sur trois, one out of three. The Big Sur, this grand sur, then, this big out of, this big beyond, is not Kerouac’s first sur; not by a long shot, loin de là, one could say. But where is this ‘there’ () from where we are far (loin)? If we have passed it, then we have passed it on the road (sur le chemin).
            On the Road: published 1957, Viking Press.
             A legend is born.
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            The word legend comes to us from legenda, things to be read, but it does so through a borrowing. It incurs a debt to French that it refuses to pay. And it does so in an entire history of indoctrination. Legenda bids us read our legends. Gaze upon (sur) the debt and the history a legend denies. It harbours them inside itself, encists them, encrypts them. Embraces them only in parenthesis. It closes over (sur) this space with its second-face: the lid of the tomb, on which (sur) is carved the death mask. The mask thus claimed as proper face. Tutankhamen recognisable only in gold.
            Not only is Jack Kerouac a death mask, he is one of many, one out of (sur) many. Could we count them, in the interest of working out the debt and its surplus, its sur-plus? John, Jean, Kerouac. Paradise, Jack, Sal. Between each it would be necessary to name the join where the death mask masks the face, where this supplement thus sur-plants. The superimposition of the name Jack over the name Jean-Louis and the legend of Jack Kerouac and his America. Jean-Louis Kerouac or Jack Kerouac’s America? The two cannot be dissimulated save by one taking precedence over (sur) the other. This is a big sur. The biggest, perhaps.
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            Why this dwelling on (sur) the sur (on)?
            Fidelity (of a sort). An archaeology that comes dangerously close to grave-robbing. An attempt to face what is beneath the gravestone. An impossible task. There will always be something on (sur) the face we are trying to see. The legend of Kerouac and his America hides inasmuch as it reveals, for its superimposition erases what it represents, effaces and disfigures that which it figures and to which it gives face (Kerouac’s). The task is to grapple with palimpsest, no matter how big, even one as large as this Sur, whose magnitude is that of an entire country: el país grande del sur, that big country of the south, which becomes, then as now, Big Sur. The magnitude of this task is as big as America itself. As what presents itself beneath the death mask of America.
            But here we will not speak Spanish. No matter its place or the legacy of the superimposition that has constituted the history of the Americas through the history of empires and their names (Roman, Spanish, British, American). We turn to French. A French unrecognisable to France as much as it is unrecognisable to Montreal. Jack Kerouac’s first tongue is his mother tongue, properly speaking. Joual. And Kerouac remarked that he loved America because it took in immigrants. But this claim is masked; it rots beneath the legend of Kerouac (Jack) himself, as much as Kerouac (Jean-Louis) himself decomposes beneath it.
            Here we will simply insist upon parenthesis.
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            America (North [Antigua and Barbuda, Bahamas, Barbados, Belize, Canada, Costa Rica, Cuba, Dominica, Dominican Republic, El Salvador, Grenada, Guatemala, Haiti, Honduras, Jamaica, Mexico, Nicaragua, Panama, Saints Kitts and Nevis, Saint Lucia, Saint Vincent and the Grenadines, Trinidad and Tobago, the United States of America], South [Argentina, Bolivia, Brazil, Chile, Colombia, Ecuador, Guyana, Paraguay, Peru, Suriname, Uruguay, Venezuela]).
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            1957, On the Road. But the road does not begin there — the legend does.
            We must read this legend, what is written there, on (sur) the scroll of the manuscript that serves as origin: point of departure. 1951, Jack Kerouac begins to tell the legend of the scroll. Jean-Louis Lebris de Kerouac breathes beneath the death mask of Jack Kerouac; interred beneath the name that is above (sur) him. His breath fills every word of the legend and is buried beneath these words.
            This is how the legend goes: in 1946, a certain Jack Kerouac (Jean-Louis Kerouac) met Neal Cassady, travelled on the road (sur le chemin) between 1947 and 1950, and in 1951, Jack Kerouac sits down to write, in three weeks, on 120 pages, the entirety of On the Road.
            (Jean-Louis Kerouac is born in Lowell, Massachusetts, in a working-class French-Canadian community. Un Petit Canada. At age six, he learns to speak English. He does not become fluent in it until his teens.)
            (In 1952, on a five-day trip to the New Mexico desert, Jack Kerouac writes 50 pages of Sur le chemin. The text, written in the language of the street (langue de la rue), has the same name as On the Road, and “on the road” is even its subtitle. But Sur la route [On the Road] is not Sur le chemin: On the Road. The stories are different. The road is the same.)
            (When Kerouac translates Sur le chemin into English, the road disappears. Instead he speaks of an old bull and a bowery. Both texts are unpublished.)
            Jack Kerouac travels down and up the road, right to left, coast to coast. According to legend, in 1951, he produces a scroll of unmediated thought, free-form, free-association, impression of America auto-affectively reproducing itself, almost mechanically. Kerouac has the mould; after him come a series of others in the same shape and form, termed free, though this word requires its own parenthesis.
            Why, then, Sur le chemin?
            In 1952, Jack Kerouac comes back to the desert to mourn the death of himself.
            “I cannot write my native language and have no native home any more.”
            — J.(L). Kerouac.

I didn’t know who I was — I was far away from home, haunted and tired with travel, in a cheap hotel room I’d never seen, hearing the hiss of steam outside, and the creak of the old wood of the hotel, and footsteps upstairs, and all the sad sounds, and I looked at the cracked high ceiling and really didn’t know who I was for about fifteen strange seconds. I wasn’t scared; I was just somebody else, some stranger, and my whole life was a haunted life, the life of a ghost. I was half-way across America, at the dividing line between the East of my youth and the West of my future, and maybe that’s why it happened right there and then, that strange red afternoon.1

            What does this mean? Between East and West, precisely half-way across America and also half-way between past and future, Kerouac feels no longer himself. The life of a ghost: it takes place in the present (half-way between past and future). Would it be possible to name the ghost that haunts Kerouac here? The temptation is to name it Jean-Louis Lebris de Kerouac, to claim that Kerouac is haunted by who he was and is, the son of immigrants (“haunted and tired by travel”), his whole life “a haunted life”. But this spectre is in general; it is someone else. Somewhere, a child is being beaten. The ghost of Jean-Louis is kept at bay as much as it is embraced, half-way between origin and terminus, which is to say, on the road (sur le chemin).
            Why should so much be held here, on the sur, the being-on-beyond-and-outside?
            We are half-way there.
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            Three trips to Big Sur. None of them will yield any sort of peace to Jack Duluoz (Jack [Jean-Louis] Kerouac [Kerouac]). From Sur le chemin to Big Sur, the grand sur; Jack has grandit, grown up. And he is not faring well.
            He is not who he is.
            At Big Sur, the waves of the sea speak to him. La mer speaks to him in the language of his memère, his mother, the language he has lost:

Les poissons de la mer

   parle Breton——

Mon nom es Lebris

   de Keroack

 Parle, Poissons, Loti,


Parlning Ocean sanding

  crash the billion rocks——2

The sea gives his name back to him. But the accent is different. And strangely familiar.
            Kerouac’s tongue disobeys (spontaneous, impressionistic, &c.) the prescripts of English (American) and French (Joual) because it is already broken, and in a certain sense, outrunning itself along this road. On the Road, Sur le chemin. Between the two: Jack (Jean-Louis) Kerouac.
            By the time of Big Sur, America has named this haunted man its son. Our Jack Kerouac. Fordist manufacture of a generation: a thousand Kerouacs, a thousand young radicals, thousands on thousands, no more hope of the one out of (sur) many.
            The road leads to Big Sur; but it stops, it breaks, it frequents a series of haunts.
            The road lets itself be haunted.
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            The road leads through a sepulchre. Does all travel run the risk of haunting? There are ghosts on this road (sur ce chemin). Without boundary or border; without origin or terminus. Interminable. The specific location of the half-way is also far from there (loin de là).
            Is it a coincidence that Jack Kerouac be presently present only at the point farthest from his past and farthest from his future, that he be free to be himself only in that instance where he is no longer himself?
            By the time of Big Sur, America has passed him by; it has surpassed him. After On the Road, America paves over the grave of Jean-Louis, just as it does Jack Kerouac later in Big Sur. A series of knocks and scratches on the lid of a coffin. If they had a bell, they would ring it: one knell after the other.
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            The road bends. It stretches out and touches the speaking-sea. The road arcs its way across the waves. The road is forever. It fails to complete, at any point, the full circle of a parenthesis. It is the half-way; an open bracket.
            Somewhere along this road there is a graveyard. We will be with ghosts for a time. Fifteen strange seconds. Maybe more. There is a name on a headstone. It reads: “John L. Kerouac”. One more death mask.
            And above (sur) it, embraced only in quotation, the words: “Ti Jean.”
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            Ghosts on the road. We will have passed them. Passed over (passer sur) Jack Kerouac (Jean-Louis Lebris de Kerouac). Passed him by on the road to the big Sur; this deathly joint where the self is hinged. Open, shut, open, shut. Interminable revolution of death masks. Revolving gravestones all along the highway: gleaming with the finger-grease of diner patrons, seen for a second, like a phantom in the doorway. Slam of a car door. Gone, again, as if never really there.
            Their names return to us in the language of gasoline.


1 Jack Kerouac, On the Road (Penguin Books: London, 1991), p. 15-16.

2 Jack Kerouac, “Sea: Sounds of the Pacific Ocean at Big Sur”, in Big Sur (Penguin: London, 2012), p. 220.

PAUL MCQUADE is a Scottish writer and translator currently marooned in Upstate New York. His work has recently been featured in or is forthcoming from From Glasgow to Saturn, Gutter, Pank, and the Freight anthology, Out There. He is the 2014 recipient of the Sceptre Prize for New Writing. His favourite road to travel is the A82, which cuts along Loch Leven before passing through Glen Coe in the Highlands of Scotland.