Satori in Paris

by Jack Kerouac
(1966)
   Though arguably the weakest novel in the “Duluoz Legend,” Satori in Paris does offer some important insights regarding the state of Jack Kerouac’s mind at the end of his career. In 1965 Kerouac took a trip to Paris to research his family history. In particular, he hoped to find the military records of the first Kerouac who came to Canada as a soldier. Satori in Paris dramatizes this 10-day misadventure in which he fails to find the origins of his family but does drink very good old cognac. He wrote Satori in Paris, he told john clellon holmes, in seven days in longhand with a pencil. To get into the mood of the trip, he drank old cognac as he wrote, and he later told the Paris Review that Satori in Paris was thus the only novel he ever wrote while drunk. The novel was first published in three installments in the Evergreen Review and later as a complete novel in hardback by Grove Press. In the first chapter Kerouac defines a satori as a Japanese term meaning “sudden illumination” or literally a “kick in the eye,” thus relating a satori to what the Beats referred to in the 1940s as “eyeball kicks.” What exactly has been illuminated for him is unclear even to him, although it relates to the simple kindness of a cab driver driving on Sundays to support his family. Kerouac uses the cabby’s real name as well as his own real name in this book (as he does in lonesome traveler), for this is a book about names. He states the plot of the book simply: “I had come to France and Brittany just to look up this old name of mine which is just about three thousand years old and was never changed in all that time.” The book will be a “non-fiction” one he says, dismissing “fiction” as being “madeup stories and romances about what would happen IF” which “are for children and adult cretins.” As one of his last works and one that centers on his ethnic origins, it thus stands in contrast to his first novel, The town and tHe city, in which almost all traces of his French-Canadian, Catholic heritage have been eliminated. Even in on tHe road, Sal Paradise is Italian.
   At La Bibliotheque Nationale, Kerouac’s research is stymied by uncooperative librarians and by the fact that the Nazis destroyed the list of the officers in Montcalm’s army of 1756 in Quebec; one of those soldiers was Kerouac’s first North American forbearer. He finds Paris to be “a tough town.” A gendarme intentionally misdirects him, and he ends up facing a government building where the guards eye him suspiciously as he lights a cigarette. The scene is a recurring one in Kerouac’s work in which society (America and now Paris) is increasingly becoming a police state that does not permit the wanderings of the likes of Kerouac. In spite of the wrong turns the trip takes, Kerouac has actually planned it very carefully. He intends to stay at an Inn in Finistère on the Atlantic coast and write “Sea: Part II,” a sequel to his sound–poem of the Pacific Ocean that was published at the end of BiG sur. He has even included a plastic bag in which to write in case the weather is bad.
   Satori in Paris is a book about language, and Kerouac shows himself throughout the book to be a brilliant and witty linguist. In a cross-table dinner conversation with a Paris art dealer, Kerouac lectures on the evolution of the French language. Kerouac’s French is “Canuck” French, and it sounds the way French did 300 years earlier in Paris. Paris French in 1965, he has to admit, has been corrupted by other European influences that did not corrupt Canadian French. Still, the old French men and women at the restaurant listen to him with pleasure, slightly embarrassed by his old-fashioned tongue, but laughing with him and enjoying him. He has a satori at this point about language: “That people actually understand what their tongues are babbling. And that eyes do shine to understand, and that responses are made which indicate a soul in all this matter and mess of tongues and teeth.” He also showcases his talent for linguistic play by translating a conversation between himself and a French mystery writer into a formal sounding English that renders their dialogue comic and stilted.
   Kerouac wonders, “Why do people change their names?” The question is of interest to Kerouac and his readers, for Kerouac is known for his cleverly disguised names in his fiction, all done to protect him from libel suits. His name, he says, means “House” (Ker) “In the Field” (Ouac). Later, in Brittany, he searches for the old Breton name Daoulas, saying that “Duluoz” was a variation on that name he invented as a pseudonym for his “non-fiction” writings. As the book comes to a close, he starts to imagine that strangers are calling out his name, referring to him derisively as Kerouac the King, for Kerouac maintains that he has a royal lineage. The book thus ends with repeated echoes of the name that Kerouac came to find. In the final chapter, he once again circles the subject of why people are ashamed of their names, and he answers his question by having the most simple of human exchanges take place between strangers: “He [his taxi driver] tells me his name, of Auvergne, I mine, of Brittany.” Breaking his longstanding policy of creating an alias for his characters, he refers to his cab driver by his actual name. It is worth noting that Kerouac often said that in his old age he intended to rewrite all of his books and put in the real names; however, he died in middle age before he could act on this intention.
   Rob Johnson

Encyclopedia of Beat Literature. . 2014.

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