You Don’t Know Jack (Kerouac)

Jack Kerouac was born March 12, 1922 and died October 21, 1969.  Nearly all people who knew him in the 1st degree of separation has died – not all, but most.  In recent years, books by the women he knew have been coming out, revising the fiction and the facts.  Kerouac wrote roman à clef novels.  Kerouac and his friends appeared in other roman à clef novels. The same crowd also wrote and talked endlessly about their lives.  Countless biographies have been written.  Then friends and lovers started publishing their stories.  Kerouac has always been ground zero for the Beat movement, and trying to understand why is a fascinating snark hunt that ultimately reveals a lot about universal psychology and philosophy.

Recently Carolyn Cassady died.  She was Camille Moriarty in Jack Kerouac’s On the Road, wife to real-life Neal Cassady, who was Dean Moriarty in the book.  Carolyn wrote her own books, Heart Beat and Off the Road.  Jack Kerouac haunts me, so it saddens me to hear about Carolyn, who now becomes another of the Beat Generation ghosts.

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In 2011 Lu Anne Henderson, who was Marylou in On the Road, and Neal Cassady’s first wife, had her side of the story told in One and Only.  Like Carolyn, Lu Anne was the oxygen atom to Kerouac’s and Cassady’s hydrogen atoms.  Camille and Marylou were the pivotal women of On the Road, so to get their stories is very revealing, even creating new mysteries.

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Finally, there’s Joyce Johnson.  In 1999 she came out with Minor Characters:  A Beat Memoir, and then in 2000, Door Wide Open, a collection of letters between her and Kerouac, and finally in 2012 The Voice is All: The Lonely Victory of Jack Kerouac, a major biography.  Joyce knew Kerouac just before and after the publication of On the Road.

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I often ask people:  Which would you rather do, write a great novel, or be a model for a character in a great novel?  Jack Kerouac wrote many novels and was a character in many more, and he has been the subject of many biographies.  Carolyn and Lu Anne were  featured characters in both the novels and biographies.

Jack Kerouac is a person I like to keep up with, even though he died in 1969, the year I graduated high school.  About every half decade I check out what new discoveries have been unearthed about his legend.  That’s the thing about legendary figures, they always evolve and mutate.  There is much to be learned about oneself by careful studying of other people.  Pick a person and try it out.  I find ambitious writers with lots of personal flaws to be quite revealing about life.  Jack Kerouac makes a particularly painful role model.

Most of Jack Kerouac’s novels are semi-autobiographical.  Many people read On the Road and never read another Kerouac novel – their curiosity for Beat life was quickly quenched.  A few more might go on to read The Dharma Bums, or even Big Sur or Visions of Cody, but for most readers, a little Kerouac goes a long way.  But if you’re like me, you keep reading books by and about Kerouac and the story changes as it becomes deeper.

Part of the problem is most readers think Kerouac equals the Beat Generation, and once they think they understand the Beats and reject their philosophy, because most do, they are through with Kerouac.  That’s too bad.  But to really know Jack, you have to separate him from the Beats and read him as one man trying to make literary sense of his reality.  Kerouac was on the edge of several social and literary movements, but because he was crowned King of the Beats, that’s all most people judge him by.

Some people study genealogy because they want to know about their ancestors, about their genes and blood.  Not me.  I consider myself a creation of pop culture, and I want to know my pop culture ancestors.  Who we are is our cultural history.  We’re all descendants of Judaism, Christianity, Greek philosophy, the Enlightenment, Science and a whole host of 19th and 20th century influences.  Most Baby Boomers focus on the 1960s, but to really know yourself requires getting to know the 1950s, 1940s and 1930s.  And to understand those times means studying the 1920s, 1910s and 1900s.  America is constantly changing and mutating.

I was born in 1951 and remember the 1950s.  My father died when I was 19, and I never really knew him.  He was born in 1920, and Jack Kerouac was born in 1922.  They both died miserable drunks a few months apart, both in Florida no less.  I use Kerouac to understand my father.  And to understand them both I need to understand the 1940s.

By the time the Beats got famous, their movement was already over, and had mutated into many new movements around the country. Go (1951) by John Clellon Holmes and On the Road (1957) by Kerouac, were the real Beat novels, and were about events a decade before the public discovered the Beats.  Kerouac was a character in Go, as was Neal Cassady.  Carolyn Cassady knew Kerouac in both the late 1940s and later in the 1950s, and her books, clarify the story.

The trouble with studying the Beats, is most of the documentation on them is about when they all got famous in the late 1950s.  What defined the Beats were their reaction to America in the late 1940s, but how we remember the Beats is defined by their public personalities of the late 1950s.  To understand Jack Kerouac means understanding American from 1945-1955, and even dividing that time into two parts.

Most people are shaped by their teen years, early twenties and late twenties, from 13-30.  Jack turned 20 in 1942, and 30 in 1952.  It’s those ten years that we want to get to know.  Later on, Jack tried to understand his own personal development by writing about his childhood, the 1930s.  It took a long time to get On the Road published, and by 1957 when it hit the scene, and defined the Beat Generation, Jack was 35, a burnout, living most of the time with his mother in Orlando, Florida, and committing slow suicide with a bottle.  He died at 47.  My father died at 49.  I was 19.

A good contemporary view of Kerouac in 1957 and 1958 is Door Wide Open by Joyce Johnson, a collection of letters between Johnson and Kerouac.  This is not the Kerouac of the 1940s.

There are people who never stop reading about Kerouac and the Beats.  This is hard to explain.  In a way, it’s like studying cosmology – there’s always more to discover.   First you are drawn to the excitement of rushing back and forth across America in the 1940s, but soon realize all this rushing is madness, that there is no normal life to be found.  You accept that poor Jack was a loser, a drunk, and the dazzling Neal Cassady was a low life hustler, con man, thief, and a man who would always let his wife, children and friends down, but they all loved him.

You walk away from the Beats thinking they were Nowheresville.  That’s too bad.  The real mystery is beyond the Hudson rushing across the plains at a 100 mph, the kicks, the drugs, smoking gigantic reefers in Mexican brothels, or following the mad ones Kerouac was so enamored with, but instead, we have to look over Neal’s shoulder’s to the American he was speeding by, to the couples they shared rides with, to people who own the cars they boosted, to the sane folks who saw them in the jazz joints acting like madmen.

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If you’re lucky, you’ll read one of the biographies  and discover Jack is more complicated.  Slowly this Charlie Parker generation starts coming alive, and you begin to realize that the Beats weren’t Beatniks.  America is the sum of all its hidden histories, and not the history they teach you in school.  Reading books by the Beats, and books about the Beats, leads to exploring a different 1940s America than what we remember from It’s a Wonderful Life (1946), The Best Years of Our Lives (1946), The Bishop’s Wife (1947), Miracle on 34th Street (1947) – the films by which most Americans remember America from 1946-1950, which is the time covered in On the Road.  It’s not that those great films are wrong, but they are only one facet of a multifaceted view.

All novels have a gestation period.  On the Road was published in 1957, but was about events from the late 1940s.  The Catcher in the Rye was published in 1951, the year I was born, but was about the earlier 1940s.  Also published in 1951 was From Here to Eternity by James Jones, which was about 1941.  Zeroing in on On the Road’s America, isn’t easy.  It comes before The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit (1955) about 1953, but I think many readers picture Kerouac’s adventures happening around the time of its publication in 1957, just after Sputnik went into orbit, and thus the term Beatnik.  We think of the Beats as the generation before the Hippies, but in reality, they were the 1945-1950 youth, and the famous 60s generation happened between 1965-1975.  1955-1965 included the folk generation, as well as the early rock and roll kids – think Grease and American Graffiti.

By 1957, Kerouac was well on his way to being a full time drunk.  His short moment of fame gave him enough money to reignite his life and go on a few more road adventures, that were mostly lonely and pathetic.  Kerouac in Paris is very sad.

If Kerouac had an artistic vision that chronicled his spiritual quest for transcendence in America, it wasn’t about the end of the 1950s when he was famous, it was about his life between 1940 to 1955, and even earlier when he tried to reconstruct his childhood of the 1930s.  Strangely enough, the late 1950s was Ginsberg’s time, because of the Six Gallery reading in 1955, and the beginning of the San Francisco Renaissance.  Kerouac was there, but his involvement was waning.  Kerouac had been a part of a reactionary movement a decade earlier at Columbia, with his anti-academic friends.  By the mid-1950s Kerouac wasn’t a leader but a follower, inspired by younger writers like Gary Snyder, who inspired his interest in Zen, Buddhism, hiking, mountain climbing, and spiritual practices.  By then, Beats, Beatniks and proto-Hippies were everywhere.  The counter culture was a good sized snowball rolling down the hill that would become an avalanche in the 1960s.

What I want to know about is the counter culture of the 1940s and 1930s.  The radicalization of America in the 1960s didn’t start then – it started much earlier.  I think we’re currently living through times getting ready for another big social change.  Whether the 2010s will be the 1960s, when all hell broke loose, or the 1950s or 1940s when the seeds were planted, is still to be seen.

JWH – 10/6/13

On the Road (2012)–1920, 1922, 1947, 1951, 1957, 1969, 1970, 1971, 2013

The new 2012 film version of On the Road, based on the classic 1957 novel gets only 44% positive rating with critics on Rotten Tomatoes.  Fans like it even less, with just 40% approval.  And I know why and understand their reasons, but it’s not the movie.

I loved the movie, but I’m haunted by the Beats.

I think director Walter Salles and screenwriter Jose Rivera, did an excellent job capturing Jack Kerouac’s novel.  But see, that’s problematic, since the book itself is hard to like, even though it’s considered one of the best American novels of the 20th century by many literary historians, and yes, hated by just as many.  However, On the Road is more than a novel, it’s a legend.  The characters are based on real people.  These people were so fascinating they became characters in many other novels by various Beat writers.  Countless biographies have been written about their beat lives, and over the years films and documentaries have been made trying to capture this very tiny subculture.  We’re not reviewing a movie, we’re reviewing mythology.

The encounter of two men, Neal Cassady and Jack Kerouac generated a whole literary movement, the Beat Generation.

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On the Road, came out in 1957, but was about Kerouac’s real life of 1947-1949.  It was essentially written by 1951, the year I was born, but tinkered with, and not published until 1957.  That’s a long time ago to most young movie goers today.  If Kerouac had lived he’d be over ninety.  So the 2012 film On the Road, is really a historical flick.  It’s about a bunch of unhappy crazy people who did a lot of drugs and rushed back and forth across the continent several times trying to find happiness, kicks, or just escape from their inner demons, obligations and boredom.

When I first read On the Road in 1969, it felt contemporary because the beats were a whole lot like the hippies, at least superficially.  It took me a while to realize that On the Road was about my father’s generation.  My dad was born in 1920, and Jack Kerouac was born in 1922.  Kerouac died at 47, in October of 1969, and my dad died at 49, in May of 1970.  They both died miserable drunks.  They both smoked a lot of unfiltered Camels.  They both travelled back and forth across America in a restless attempt to find themselves.  They both were failures at marriage and raising kids.  I use Kerouac to understand my uncommunicative father.

When you’re a kid and read On the Road for the first time it’s tremendously exciting.  It’s adventurous.  It’s about hitch-hiking.  It’s about sex and drugs.  It’s about jazz.  Yes, it’s that old, before rock and roll.  After doing a lot of drugs and hitch-hiking trips myself, I saw the book in a different light by 1971.  I reread On the Road every few years, and the older I get, the more I understand the suffering behind the story.

I wonder if the 60% of movie fans, and 56% of critics who watched On the Road are savvy enough to immediately realize that this story is about misery and not glamor?  To be on the road that much, to drink that much, to take that many drugs, to fuck that many people, requires a tortured soul driven by restless, existential pain.

Maybe I love this film because I read the pain in every character on the screen.  This is a great film when you realize it’s not a fun film.  Sure, they quote Kerouac’s famous lines twice in the film

The only people for me are the mad ones, the ones mad to live, mad to talk, mad to be saved, desirous of everything at the same time, the ones who never yawn or say a commonplace thing but burn, burn, burn like fabulous roman candles exploding like spiders across the stars and in the middle you see the blue centerlight pop and everybody goes ‘Awww!”

Kerouac rewrote his life to make it better, to romanticize it, to make it more meaningful, more exciting, but if you read the many biographies about Jack, you know he failed to fool himself.  He knew they were all beat characters.  When he discovered Zen, he hoped to put a spiritual spin on things, and hoped he could find enlightenment in his life, or at least write an enlightened view of it.  He failed.  Alcoholism consumed Kerouac, just like my dad, my dad’s brothers, and their father.  I come from two beat generations.

Everyone is initially seduced by Kerouac romantic spin on his life.  Everyone loves Neal Cassady/Dean Moriarty because he’s so wild and bangs all the chicks, but they forget that ole Dean will abandon you in a Mexico City flophouse when you’re out of your mind with dysentery and have no money, or run off and leave his wife and children to get his kicks making some other woman equally miserable.  Neal was a petty criminal, street hustler, con man and user of people, but all too often people loved him.  And Kerouac knew that.

Whether Sam Riley as Sal Paradise (Jack Kerouac) or Garrett Hedlund as Dean Moriarty (Neal Cassady) are convincing in their roles depends on your image of Jack and Neal.  I loved that the movie didn’t romanticize these two.  I don’t think Kerouac did either in his book if you read it closely, but too many would-be beats and hippies have.  I am reminded of the contrast between the 1968 book The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test by Tom Wolfe, about Ken Kesey and his Merry Pranksters and their trip across 1964 American in an old bus named Further, and the recent documentary Magic Trip that used actual film the Pranksters took on the trip.  History and nonfiction don’t match up.   For On the Road, history and fiction don’t match either.  A good writer can make real life a whole lot more glamorous than it is.  I believe Kerouac wanted to chronicle his life without the glamor.

Which brings us back to modern American movie goers, they are incurable romantics.  They hate realism.  They embrace a comic book view of reality.  That’s why I think 60% of them turned their thumbs down for On the Road.  That’s why the film played only one week in my city, and why there was only one other person in the theater when I went.  That’s why they didn’t like a realistic story about a struggling young writer who loves a low-life hustler and makes him the center of his novel, his life, even though time and again, the bastard left him high and dry, and crushed his soul.  Kerouac wrote a lot of books, but only the ones that have Neal in them still matter.  Jack returned to Neal time and again, in life and in books, but without Neal, Jack never could get his life together.  Success didn’t help, and only made it worse.

Neal Cassady was the bus driver for Ken Kesey and the Merry Pranksters, and Cassady brought the King of the Hippies to meet the King of the Beats.  It was a disaster for the old friends.   Jack and Neal are now legendary mythic characters.  Trying to understand the realism of their friendship requires reading book and after book, and now watching movie after movie.

I think if you’re among the people trying to understand the story of Jack and Neal, you must see this film.  Everyone else should be warned.  If you didn’t like it, then you’re lucky, you don’t have a beat soul.  If you love it, you’re among the haunted by the myths of the Beats.

4/4/13

Nonfiction, Fiction, History, Myth and States of Consciousness

Have you ever read a book about a real life event and then watched a documentary about the same subject?  The contrast of what we can learn from words and what we can learn from film is often jarring and sometimes shocking.  One of my favorite books from youth is The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test by Tom Wolfe.  Wolfe made literary fame by pioneering “new journalism” which is now called creative nonfictionThe Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test was considered the book that defined the hippies and their philosophy.  I read this book back in 1969, and now 42 years later I got to watch Magic Trip, a documentary that used actual film footage of Ken Kesey and the Merry Pranksters.   Wolfe interviewed all the principal people right after the events, and he also must have seen the original 30 hours of film, and I was blown away by the difference between the two ways of telling the same story.

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Truth is the actual events.  How close can we ever come to reconstructing the truth?  What is the best evidence for the truth?  When Farmer Ted bets his geeky friends he’ll hook up with Samantha in Sixteen Candles and his friends demand proof, he asks them what kind, and they say in unison, “Video!”   As far as I can imagine, video comes closest to the truth as any evidence we can find – but even then it’s far from perfect.  For centuries, before the advent of video, our knowledge of past events was based on writing.

How much can we know from reading?  Before writing was invented our worldview was limited to the here and now.  We had oral storytellers that conveyed news from distant lands and remembered events and people from the past, but it was very limited.  Most of the time people’s consciousness was focused on the present and the immediate world around them.  Then reading and writing was invented and information about endless places and countless past moments could be recorded so people could conjure up in their minds things that weren’t here and now.  But how effective is reading at reproducing the past?  How accurate can reading describe distant places and events?

All my life I’ve been a bookworm, spending hours a day with my head in a book.  When young I most read fiction, and felt that time away from reality was just escapist entertainment, but over the decades I’ve shifted to reading more nonfiction, and felt I was learning stuff about other places, people and the past.  But am I?

Lately I’ve been reading nonfiction books and then seeking out documentaries and photographs to supplement my reading, and in every case I’m shocked by how different my mental image from reading is from the photograph or film.  Words are black marks on white paper, but they attempt to encode information that comes through our five senses.  How well does any word for a color convey the actual color? Does the word blue suggest any particular shade of blue?  Picture the wall of paint sample colors at your local Home Depot.  Which of the thousands of blues are the one we call blue?  Now think about the other four senses and words for sounds, textures, tastes and smells.  How close do words come to the infinite varieties of sensual details?

Last night I watched a documentary Magic Trip about Ken Kesey and his band of Merry Pranksters taking a bus from the west coast to visit New York City for the 1964 Worlds Fair.  In 1969 when I read “The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test” by Tom Wolfe it blew me away by how exciting his non-fiction writing was at vividly conveying the story of these freaks on acid traveling across the country.  Over the years I’ve read more books and articles about this event, and the people involved.  To me this cross country trip was the legendary beginning of the hippies.  Of course I was wrong.   Kesey and his Merry Pranksters met the real hippies, like the Grateful Dead, when they got back from the trip and started promoting their acid test events.  Hippies already existed in 1964.

The documentary Magic Trip was created around the actual film the Pranksters took while on the trip and it blew my mind again.  It was absolutely nothing like I pictured from the Tom Wolfe book.  First off, Kesey and the Pranksters didn’t look like hippies – only the women had long hair.  And they all looked ordinary – I wouldn’t have named them the Merry Pranksters – that moniker seems way to grand for them.  The people in the film looked like college kids from the late 1950s or early 1960s acting really silly.  They looked more like early Beach Boys wearing stripe shirts.  Their antics looked as sophisticated as old episodes of The Monkees.

In some of the film clips Kesey and the Pranksters are on heavy doses of acid but you couldn’t tell that from what you see.  Now I know what they were feeling, I can remember that from those days.  Acid is like having a hurricane in your head, but you don’t see that from the outside.  What you see is kids being goofy and stupid.  Now in the book, Tom Wolfe tries to convey the epic psychological discoveries they were making – things going on in their heads, and the Magic Trip film tries to suggest that too, but the physical evidence of visuals from the film and sound recordings from tape just don’t back it up.  Wolfe wrote about what was going on in their heads and we can’t see that in the film.

As evidence of what actually happened I credit the film over Wolfe.  But is that fair or even accurate?  How much can we judge the truth of an event from what we can see and hear?  As counter evidence, how much do people know you from seeing you and hearing you talk?  See what I mean?  Reality and truth is deceptive.

It’s impossible to convey a psychedelic trip in words – and the clips of the trip festivals at the end of the movie don’t even come close.  What you see is kids dancing and acting weird and idiotic – no wonder the silent-majority Americans were freaked out by the freaks.  Back then the claim was drugs took you to a state of higher consciousness, but I always felt like they took me to a state of animal consciousness – a lowering.  Don’t get me wrong, it’s quite revealing, and you can learn a lot about how the mind functions, but all that talk about higher states was bullshit.  But then I value the verbal mind over the nonverbal mind.

In one part of the film, the west coast Merry Pranksters, along with their legendary bus driver Neal Cassidy, famed beat character Dean Moriarty from On the Road, meet up with his fellow real life On the Road beat characters Jack Kerouac and Allen Ginsberg.  Hippies meet their beatnik idols.  But things don’t go off well.  Jack is morose and turned off by the silly pranksters.  Then the west coast psychedelic legends go and meet the east coast prophets of LSD, Timothy Leary and Richard Alpert.  Leary is so turned off by them that he runs away and hides and leaves the future Ram Das to deal with them.  Leary and Alpert were trying to make LSD a serious tool for studying consciousness and these proto-hippies were abusing acid like teenagers breaking into their parents liquor cabinet.  In 1964 most people did not know what to make of these crazy kids.

Seeing Magic Trip was shocking to me.  Imagine how disturbing it would be to discover films of Jesus and his merry band of disciples.  Christianity has created thousands of different interpretations of the history of Jesus – so imagine if we got to see what Jesus really said and did?   Video can be so shocking to see after studying words.  We have no idea what Jesus was like or what he said.  Everything he supposedly said was recreated decades after the fact.  In The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test, Tom Wolfe is deifying Kesey and his disciples just three years after the real event, and it’s impossible to know how much of the legend is Wolfe and how much is Kesey?

Tom Wolfe had used words to make this trip into an epic adventure, a transcendental experience of the first order.  He totally mythologized the people involved – of course the Pranksters were trying to do that themselves even while they were on the trip.  They gave each other funny names making themselves into characters on an epic adventure traveling in their legendary bus Further.

Now I don’t mean to suggest that these folks weren’t experiencing eye opening philosophical experiences.  They were exploring a new consciousness, breaking out of the rigid 1950s stereotypes, and exploring new experiences that would come to be known as the psychedelic sixties – but it wasn’t new consciousness.   Throughout history groups of people have rediscovered the Dionysian joys of intoxication and ecstasy – and wanting to escape from the rigid confines of society.  Even in the film Kesey says they were too young to be beatniks and too old to be hippies.

I remember my psychedelic days from over forty years ago, and it pretty much followed the Pranksters.  Me and my friends did a lot of silly and stupid things while exploring the doors of perception.  I had been inspired by Timothy Leary and Aldous Huxley and wanted my trips to be scientific experiments into the mind, but they weren’t.  It was just me and my friends doing many of the same exact things the Pranksters did in Magic Trip – going group swimming, driving around in funny vehicles that got a lot of attention, trying to play musical instruments when we had no ability, getting zonked out by nature, admiring the beats, upsetting the older people.  Oh, I learned a lot, but I can safely say to kids today, don’t bother, there are much better ways to explore the mind.  Read Steven Pinker, Edge.org and learn how to achieve Zen mindfulness.

But does any of this answer the question about how much truth we can attain from words?  In terms of acquiring knowledge, words can get you far higher than any amount of acid.  Truth and experience are wordless – ineffable.  I’ve experienced wordless states of consciousness through drugs and a mini-stroke, and that’s not a normal human state of consciousness.  As humans, like it or not, our consciousness minds are based on words and language – and language and words do not mirror reality perfectly.  Or even closely.  I know there are non-verbal conscious states of mind but the past and future don’t exist in those states.  The mere act of trying to recreate the past is a verbal state of consciousness.

The real question is:  How close does the nonverbal reality match our verbal reality?  I don’t think very much at all.  My proof is the fact that we all live in different verbal realities, and even when several people experience the same event they seldom recreate the shared reality with the same words.

A good lesson in understanding this is to study writing creative nonfiction.  I took two MFA writing courses with Kristen Iversen dealing with Creative Nonfiction and I learned quite a lot about “telling the truth” with words.  It’s actually very hard, if not impossible.  One of the first writing lessons she gave our class was to take a memory from when we were young and put it into words.   Even here I’m being misleading.  I can’t remember the exact assignment.  I think she might have told us to pick a memory from when we were twelve, but I’m not sure.  What immediately occurred to me to write about was a memory of me staying with my grandmother who maintained an old apartment building on Biscayne Bay in Miami, and the night she gave me an old fishing tackle box left in one of the apartments, and how I went out alone to fish off the concrete wall by the bay.  The more I thought about the memory the more details I could dredge up, but eventually I realized I couldn’t be sure of any of the exact details.  Memory is so faulty, but they’re also tricky.  It’s easy to create false memories. But my final essay was praised in class for its vivid details.

Was the essay absolutely true?  No, it wasn’t.  But I didn’t feel I was lying either.  I had recreated in words what were vague impressions and memories in my mind.  Mining those memories took work.  There’s a quality of effort in recreating memories that is very enlightening.  But still this brings us no closer to explaining the difference between nonfiction, fiction, history and myth.

I have read many nonfiction books on Wyatt Earp.  I have seen many documentaries on Wyatt Earp.  I have read many fictional stories about Wyatt Earp.  I have seen many fictional movies about Wyatt Earp.  I have heard many people discuss Wyatt Earp as a legendary mythic character of the old west.  Which of these various modes of learning about Wyatt Earp are the best for knowing who the real Wyatt Earp was like?  Is Tombstone the movie better than The Last Gunfight the nonfiction book, or Doc, a fictional novel where Wyatt is a prominent character?  Or the  PBS American Experience episode about Wyatt Earp?

Here’s what I can tell you.  It’s only based on personal feelings.  Wyatt Earp the man who lived in the nonverbal reality of the 19th century is long gone and unknowable.  That kind of reality is unknowable.  That’s why it’s called ineffable.  I can say some fictional versions of Wyatt Earp vary far from the actual reality of the nonfictional evidence, but can we say the Wyatt we create with historical evidence is actually close the to real flesh and blood Wyatt?  Yes, I think we can, even though there are many nonfictional Wyatt Earps to consider.  Every account, whether fiction or nonfiction creates a new edition of Wyatt Earp.  But I actually doubt we really get that close to the real man – some accounts are just more factual than others.

Scientists like to entertain the idea of multiple universes because there should be an infinity of these other universes allowing endless versions of our own world, many just slightly different.  That’s how verbally reconstructed Wyatt Earps exists.  There’s an infinity of them.  Some of them are close to the real world that did exist, but it’s very hard to judge which are the closest.  We can spot the absurd examples easy enough like all the Wyatt Earps in science fiction stories, but we can’t say which historical Wyatt is actually the best.

I think we’re getting closer to understand nonfiction, fiction, history and myth, but we’re not there yet.  I am reminded of a book called The Origins of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind by Julian Jaynes.  What Jaynes suggested was for early humanity they had a different state of mind than we do now, which he called the bicameral mind.  I don’t want to go into the details of his theory other than to say that in the past we shifted from one kind of consciousness to another.  I just want to suggest that as our verbal consciousness evolved, we’re now shifting into a third state of consciousness.  This new consciousness is based on sharing facts and building a consensus model of reality based on science.

We’re not that good at it yet – the proof can be seen by how Democrats and Republicans model our political reality.  And even conservatives and liberals seldom share the same ideas.  But in theory we believe through science and other forms of knowledge, that we can model our complex social reality in political and economic laws, as well as nonfiction, history and even fiction.

In other words, many of us believe given enough facts we could prove to each other the validity of a model of reality.  Science has gone the furthest by explaining the physical world.  The consensus is very strong with that – there’s very little fiction or myth in science.  All other areas of knowledge, like politics, ethics, law, economics are a long way from matching reality with any kind of common agreement.  In other words, they are mostly built on fiction and myths.

What I’m saying finally is, we all like to believe that we can separate nonfiction and history from fiction and myths.  Whether that’s true or even possible, is still open for scientific evaluation.  In other words, if you hold any beliefs other than those covered by a narrow range of scientific study, you can’t be sure if there is any difference between nonfiction, fiction, history and myth.

There is no way to know who Ken Kesey or Wyatt Earp was scientifically, but is there any emerging discipline that could use consensus like science, to measure the accuracy between nonfiction and fiction?  Is the scholarship of History rigorous enough to make that claim?  Or will all areas of knowledge outside of science always by undermined by subjectivity?

JWH – 12/30/11