Kerouac’s Tristessa: Chastening Sexual Desire by Grell Grant

In the beginning, there is Tristessa, on the road in Mexico, and with her, a would-be fellow-traveller, Jack, a deeply pained, American adventurer.  She is a faithful dweller in the modern equivalent of Augustine’s earthly city, immersed in the grimy, dark, odoriferous, and occasionally, transcendent moments of her lonely, disordered life.  And Jack risks being drawn into the psychological maelstrom she creates, as he befriends her, ultimately spiritualizing both her confusing, frightening life and its profound impact on him.   As prostitute and drug addict, she lives dangerously, on the existential edge or nihilistic margin, like Camus’ Meursault, testing the emotional and social limits, courting disaster and death.

Tristessa and Jack, then, are committed to contrasting lifestyles, respectively represented by Nietzsche’s distinction between the Dionysian and Apollonian elements in human nature.  In short, she spontaneously says yes to life, grim and trying as it often is.  Typically, he says perhaps or maybe, as he struggles to maintain an ambivalent, Buddhist detachment, attempting to transmute the erotic surges she invariably awakens in him, into moments of creativity, sublimating his desire into literary epiphanies.  That is, she creates herself in immediate, wilful (and sometimes destructive) acts of living, blind to occasions for critical reflection, fully embracing her often negative possibilities.  While he substitutes authentic relating (and real as opposed to fantasied sexual loving) for visionary, aesthetic acts.  Giving priority to literature, writing her poems and letters, he mindfully retreats from her simple desire for him and from his own complex need to possess her.

Indeed, Jack consistently privileges personal (some feminist might say, masculine) detachment over emotional fusion (caring, psychological flourishing) and mutually shared, erotic pleasure (egalitarian, sexual loving).  From a Freudian perspective,  he, in the flow of his interactions with Tristessa, maintains a comforting distance by both idealizing and devaluing her as a woman he both desires and fears.  On the one hand, when idealized, she symbolizes his passionately valued, spiritual life.  If she is perfect, then he, given their alliance, is also perfect.  As holy Tristessa, his Mexican Madonna, she casts a transcendent spell, and contact with her spiritually elevates him.  On the other hand, when devalued, she becomes a repository for his fears of hopeless addiction and possibly lethal disease.  Avoiding genuine contact with her, he precludes his vulnerability to contamination to experiencing psychological and physical damage.  Ultimately, he, as if following some secret Platonic dictum, leaves the emotionally-laden world of his and her vital, desiring bodies.  And he ascends to an aesthetic union with her other-worldly, spiritual beauty.

Jack, thus, gives little weight to Tristessa’s interest, except as they are ontologically grounded by his own.  Indeed, he is largely focused on maximizing his own individual good (by achieving the redemption/transcendence he values), and on her instrumental role in enabling him to achieve this end.  Given, this egoistic ethical focus he loses sight of her as a unique person, with needs and aspirations of her own.  If Jack were able to step beyond his own psychological/spiritual preferences, he would have discovered one, or both of the following possibilities of deepening his inner journey with Tristessa.

Firstly, there is compassionate love (or Agape).  To the degree that Jack, in loving Tristessa, allows her to define his identity as a compassionate giver of spiritual wellness, to that degree he transcends his ethical egoism.  And acknowledging her as a spiritual seeker, in her own right, he takes initiatives, aimed at bringing about her redemption/transcendence, at securing her spiritual wellbeing, and at transporting her beyond the drug- and John-infested world, in which she is socially and economically trapped.  In this context, his conduct is guided, not by his own needs, but undertaken on behalf of Tristessa.   His love flows into, shapes, and nourishes the spirit latent within her.  And this is offered, for her sake, not as a prelude to her serving him.  Of course, even though, at times he speaks passionately of Eros, Jack misses the vital link between genuine love and deep compassion.     

Secondly, there is Tantric love (or Kama Sutra).  From this standpoint, Jack, in loving Tristessa sexually, responds to her quest for spiritual wholeness.  Basking in their shared ecstasy, they are exposed to a higher reality, and move into a deep union, beyond their surface differences of blood and soil, inside the outer claims of opposing egos, to a spiritual center, a sacred core, which reveals their shared identity, their metaphysical oneness.   Ultimately, embodied in their sexual embrace is a manifestation of the Divine.   Thus, Jack’s opposition of the sexual and the sacred is transcended.   Pleasing, and in this case healing, the body is not opposed to nurturing and elevating the spirit.       

In the end, there is Jack, accepting the call to adventure:  setting of, alone, on the road again.  The novella is resolved with him, not rueful, but largely triumphant, denying his need for Tristessa (and so, perhaps, latently affirming it).  He is now ready, even emboldened, to reprise his drama, repeat the torturous story.   Indeed, He will now “go light candles to the Madonna”.  So Jack returns to his distant path, an orbit, at once familiar and unknown.  And tonight, as every night, his spirited angel, his ardent Madonna, waits.

Grell Grant is a Contributing Editor at sunday @ 6.

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