Twofer: Football and the Fall of Jack Kerouac; Should Literature Be Political?

by lizard

I know I’ve linked to Ron Silliman’s blog before, but I’ll do it again, because for writers and readers, it’s a great resource.

Two links caught my eye. The first: Football and the Fall of Jack Kerouac. It’s a really interesting article that is of course just speculation, but it makes sense. Here’s an excerpt:

If it were possible to examine Kerouac’s brain, the question could, perhaps, be answered definitively. We could learn, for instance, if he suffered from chronic traumatic encephalopathy, the progressive neurodegenerative disease that has been found, so far, in the brains of more than fifty former football players. Because C.T.E.’s symptoms overlap with those of Alzheimer’s disease and other forms of dementia, it can be diagnosed only by autopsy, and Kerouac didn’t leave his brain to science.

Still, he did leave his writing, which, along with the recollections of his friends and acquaintances, provides a certain amount of insight into his medical history. I assembled what I found about Kerouac’s head injuries and decline into a dossier and sent it to a handful of experts on the subject.

“Kerouac had all of the symptoms of C.T.E.,” Robert Cantu, a neurosurgeon and co-director of Boston University’s Center for the Study of Traumatic Encephalopathy, told me. “I don’t think it’s possible, especially since you cannot be certain about the presence of C.T.E. without examining somebody’s brain, to other than speculate about whether he may have had some of his issues as a result of brain trauma. My gut feeling is he did.”

The other link is to a keynote address given by Amanda Lohrey at The Melbourne Writer’s Festival, titled Should Literature Be Political?.

Here is one chunk:

The first half of the twentieth century was characterised by fierce debates about the relationship between politics and art, largely inspired by militant Left movements throughout Europe. One thinks of Bolshevik agitprop on the role of art to enlighten and inspire the masses by unmasking false consciousness and modelling possible utopias. My generation of Left artists was influenced by debates between European Marxists on the politics of representation and the most politically effective genres of realism. Among the most robust of these was the argument between German playwright and poet Bertolt Brecht and the distinguished Hungarian theorist George Lukacs and the strategic nature of all literary forms was encapsulated in a checklist of questions posed by Brecht: Who is this sentence of use to? Who does it claim to be of use to? What does it call for? What practical action corresponds to it? What sort of sentence results from it? What sort of sentences support it? In what situation is it spoken? By whom? (Brecht on Theatre: The Development of an Aesthetic, trans John Willett 1977).

And here is another:

Fredric Jameson has written of the power of systems to co-opt and defuse even the most potentially dangerous forms of political art by transforming them into cultural commodities, especially in the case of case of modernist art but also in the domain of fiction. In his scarifying critique of the postmodern novel, The Postmodern Aura (1985) Charles Newman writes of ‘the redundancy of the adversary style’ in an era in which avant-gardism becomes fashionable and a consumer passion for novelty creates ‘an entire culture of short-term traders’. What is new and temporarily shocking soon passes into the banality of the over-exposed and in first world countries the ‘problem’ of art becomes not its repression but public indifference to it.

Food for thought.

  1. d.g.

    Funny f*ing country: The estimated 3.2+ trillion-dollar cost of the Afghanistan, Iraq and Pakistan wars will leave the majority of Americans happily uncaring, if not ignorant. Start a Facebook lead stating that taxes went to pay for a $5,000.00 piece of art depicting naked people and you will have a mini-blog-revolution on your hands.

  2. Actually, I’m the person who sent the Kerouac page to Ron Silliman.

    I got it from

    I also sent it to other contemporaries of Kerouac (he was a bit before Ron’s time) and was appalled to realize that those friends and mutual acquaintances we shared long ago are becoming extremely thin on the ground.

    I’ve become aware of some departures in odd ways. I was watching world traveler Anthony Bourdain on CNN and he visited Ted Joans’ home in Timbuktu. I assume Ted was long dead but had no idea he had spent many of his declining years on the southern edge of the Sahara.

    I’ve resorted to the Social Security Death Index at times to see who’s left. I just found Danny Propper on it, after wondering about his fate for years.

    Some of my old buds lasted way longer than I’d expected. Actually, I’m surprised I’ve lasted this long.

    I sent the article on Jack to Charles Plymell and he responded with a 1963 picture of himself on what looked like a Honda 160 or 305 on Market St. in San Francisco, talking to Neal Cassady on the sidewalk, and another contemporaneous one of Neal and Ann in a store.

    I sent it to others from that same set, over half a century ago, including Steve Levine. Steve is still alive and as brilliant and hospitable as ever: I was able to visit with him in New Mexico last year.

    I don’t know about the “diagnosis” of CTE for Jack. He drank like a big mouth bass, and that may have more than a little to do with his deterioration as well.

  3. dbudge55

    I think Kerouac hurt his head in a drunken brawl with William Burroughs arguing over the Oxford Comma in Lowell, MA. They were both arrested.

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