Saint Kerouac

Kerouac collage

Everything belongs to me because I am poor. – Jack Kerouac, Visions of Cody

Old literati thinking games like “Wouldn’t you like to have dinner with a movie star, a queen, or a famous inventor?” “What one book would you want to have if stranded on a deserted island?” “Look at page 51 of the book you are reading right now and read the fifth sentence” took on renewed life in our new world order of social media where we’re now once again friends with everyone we grew up with or ever knew. Players, masking insecurities, not risking vanity, play by the rules and go along with the easy answers, the safe book, something cool but not too far out, to not offend or confuse the masses. Maybe Bible or Readers Digest Condensed Version of Last of the Mohicans from collection bought at local yard sale, $10/box of 10, you couldn’t go wrong — Hemingway for some, collection of Dorothy Parker wisecrack poems for others.

I remember old Dad in his old age (54) sitting daily dressed in gray power plant uniform in lounge chair, south facing picture window his comfort view: bird feeder (he built with cedar scrap wood and an old water pipe), trees from ancient times, swamp, truck, and grand yard covered in white. I remember Winter. I remember his late February tomato plants with one juicy red gem coaxed over long snow season, the smell of cherry tobacco curling above from his pipe of old Canayen worldview, his focus on book after book, literature, it didn’t seem to matter, just to read.

I was not five years old when he took me along for a big ride, to Mrs. Johnson’s library in town, where sitting on dusty step among overfilled but proud small-town library shelves, I set about choosing baby books for my childish reading, his own pile of tomes readied to take home like a November buck or a fine mess of trout, checked out, to be returned by faithful union man of 9th-grade attainment (remembering now how he was left behind to help old-age grandfather, dead December 30, 1941 and dirt-farm misery; following ma and pa and sisters to Detroit, old Downriver Muskrat French hunting grounds, where LaForet’s and Benoit’s crowded in, defense factory work at sixteen, war and army not far beyond his horizon; remembering war-effort patriotism, forced removals from countryside to the trials of the dark and polluted city: woodsmen on the factory floor.) Books, an enchanted canoe to quiet river days of August humid airs along the Black with pa, to a boyhood of blissful unknowing poverty; hungry, but noble-spirited, river world Frenchmen.

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What’s My Story? Coupland’s “Generation X” and “America” by Jean Baudrillard

I have a habit of reading two books at a time, one in the daytime (more serious) and one at night (works with short, easier-to-read sections.) It often happens that the books are of a similar theme, one enriching my appreciation of the other. Such was the case when I read The Orenda and selections from the Jesuit Relations at the same time. I’ve just finished reading another two books that were similarly compatible reads: Canadian author Douglas Coupland’s Generation X (1991) and America by the French philosopher Jean Baudrillard (1983).

What could these ostensibly very different books possibly have in common? The Post-modernist Baudrillard is not a household name, but one of his works was the inspiration of something that is: his work Simulacra and Simulation is seen in the film The Matrix and the directors claimed that Baudrillard’s ideas influenced the film (Baudrillard said it was a misreading of his thought.) Canadian Coupland went on to have a solid writing career. This year, 2016, is the 25th anniversary of Generation X, a book that “defined an era” according to the cover of a recent edition.

Both books take to task their contemporary age (1980s/90s); in particular they critique modern American society, with its consumerism, lack of values, lack of traditions, and for the ‘theatre’ that serves as both as governance and culture. What is interesting about these critiques is how deeply dated they are. They read like ancient history reads to Latin majors: interesting, but not particularly important to how we live our lives today.

It’s difficult today to understand how important Coupland’s work was then. Even if, at the time, it was derided and mocked by the generation it supposedly spoke for, it did generate a great deal of response. Writing as someone who read it at 25, it did give voice to concerns about the future and what felt like the emptiness of American culture – the inaccessibility of meaning in a world of shopping malls. It arrived on bookshelves as I was graduating college during a recession, a young man with no direction, no contacts, and no network of family and friends to call on. It had to mean something.

Coupland took down several notches the “yuppies” whose BMWs had become symbolic of all that was wrong with America in the last decades of the 20th century, and who continued to seem to want to take all the best for themselves before the next generation got a crack at anything. Generation X mocked the entitled, and created characters that longed for real connections. The story was centered on people creating ‘stories’ for themselves. Being in the service of a prematurely-retired Hollywood/Wall Street elite was not failure, but a sort of freedom granted to a new generation for whom protest and the so-called “liberation” of the 1960s/70s were not defining events.

Similarly, in America, Baudrillard takes on the facade of the Reagan era, in which all of America became “Californian” — the co-opting of public life by actors who were playing roles. Power was once real, he writes, but now (in 1983), it is soft – an aura. He writes about the end of “the orgy”: that is, the 1960s/70s liberation movements, Woodstock, protests, war, free love. But for Baudrillard the elites of that era, the elites of “the orgy,” transformed into something new: “They are not the militants of happiness and success, but its sympathizers. The generation that has come from the sixties and seventies, but has rid itself of all nostalgia for, all bad conscience about…those wild years. The very last traces of marginality excised as if by plastic surgery…a generation…completely refocused upon themselves…”(p120).

Both works use “the desert” extensively as a metaphor for their times. For Baudrillard, the desert gave birth to all that was unreal: Los Angeles; Las Vegas; Air conditioning in the hottest, lowest point in America. Culture is a mirage in the desert of American civilization. At the same time, Americans are heir to an eternal promise, a land where there is always plenty for everyone. It is a utopia against Europe’s “hangover from bourgeois everyday life borne out of a dying aristocratic culture.” Statistics in Europe, he writes, are always tragic; in America they are an “optimistic stimulus as representing the dimensions of their good fortune, their joyous membership of the majority.”(p94).

Coupland’s characters take refuge in the desert. While they see all around them the excess of Palm Springs, the radical effects of plastic surgery and the atomic age, they come together as Americans do: they have circled their wagons — against the land of plenty. They are heirs to plenty to be sure, but they are opting out. Their picnic in a desert (of the real?) is interrupted by Japanese tourists who want to take their picture. In effect, that is the end of the story. If they are the scene, the evocation of real American life in the American cultural desert of Palm Springs, then they will inevitably exit the stage, leaving the enactment of culture to others.

The apocalyptics of Coupland are balanced with unbiased (but “retarded”) love found on the edge of a charred world; the nihilism of Baudrillard with an eternal optimism for an America he will never be part of. I don’t particularly care for Baudrillard’s analysis of American culture (but I wonder what he would say today) and I find the evacuation of the three protagonists of Generation X to rural Mexico a copout, a fantasy that was never really even a possibility for my generation.

I’ve enjoyed reading Baudrillard for close to 20 years, but I am not trained in philosophy and could very well have it all wrong. I’ve spent the past few years as an ex-pat using social media to try to create a continuity of culture in communities back home. Someone suggested that I was born a hundred years too late because of my dedication to fostering French Canadian and Métis culture. But in answer to that, and contrary to both writers, I do not believe that America is “empty” — it is not a cultural wasteland. I believe Americans actually want a connection to “culture” – a peg to hang their hats on, something deep, something Baudrillard might suggest the Europeans can’t let go of and we, Americans, can’t seem to grasp. But, we’re fighting for something, aren’t we?

And more to the point, I believe that Americans want meaning in their lives. If Baudrillard and Coupland touch on important ways of seeing, they mistake a fascination with illusions and celebrity with a lack of creativity, which is the fruit of optimism. But leaving, metaphorically or literally, is not the answer to finding connection or to finding yourself. Disengagement, even with a circle of friends, is not finding connection. It is abandoning something precious to someone else. It is just a kind of surrender.

POSTSCRIPT
Of Coupland’s many neologisms, there is one that I find applies increasingly to my life: Cryptotechnophobia: the secret belief that technology is more of a menace than a boon. I guess it’s not a secret anymore.

I Am Not A Francophile

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The Fleur de lys is perhaps the most widely recognized symbol of French heritage in North America. This flag is was designed by artist Simon Beaudry. “Drapeau monolys” 2008.

No, it’s true, despite all of the writing I have done on French heritage cultures in North America for the past few years: I am not a Francophile. I am also not a Francophone. Although I speak the language tolerably well, I am not fluent and do not feel right claiming to be a French-speaker in a comprehensive sense.

‘Francophone’ is a word that should be clear to everyone: it means a person who speaks French. (Although I imagine there could be a debate about whether speakers of Michif or Creole are Francophones.) Francophones live in and come from all over the world. To speak French has no bearing whatsoever on your race, creed, or ethnicity. It is a language. It is the language associated with particular cultures, such as the Québécois culture and the many associated Franco North American cultures descended from the settlers of New France. It is also the ancestral language of many Anglophones in North America.

But what is a Francophile? Generally speaking a ‘-phile’ of any sort is someone who has a deep interest in a particular topic. Think ‘Anglophile.’ An Anglophile is someone who can likely tell you the line of succession of the British Royal family to 50 or 60 people; who can recite the genealogies of monarchs; who have tea sets with Windsor Castle on them; and who love Roald Dahl and Downton Abbey.

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‘ti Jean Kerouac’s “Semi-Iroquoian French-Canadian Accent”

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