The Glamorisation of Death in Kerouac's Tristessa


Tanguy Harma

This essay explores the presentation of beauty and death in Jack Kerouac’s 1960 novella Tristessa. It scrutinises a set of narrative strategies that perform the glamorisation of forms and, simultaneously and paradoxically, the glamorisation of their revocation and destruction. In a crucial way this double movement echoes the metaphysical concept of the sublime developed by Immanuel Kant. The framework of Kant’s sublime, therefore, is used to analyse the relationship between the strategy of glamorisation that propels the narrative, and the processes of destruction and self-destruction that haunt Kerouac’s text.

Tristessa was produced over two separate phases: the first part was penned in the summer of 1955 as Kerouac paid a visit to lifelong friend and writer William Burroughs, who was then living in Mexico City; the second part was written one year later in the autumn of 1956. The novella tells the story of unrequited love between Jack Duluoz – a figuration of the author himself – and a young Mexican woman named Tristessa, who is using and abusing morphine as she spirals into addiction. Narrated in the first person, it is the narrator’s attraction to Tristessa’s beauty and self-destruction – in fact, a beauty generated by self-destruction from Duluoz’s perspective – that constitutes the basis of this story. In literary terms, she embodies a remarkable oxymoron that intermingles beauty with death, joy with fright and redemption with threat. In fact, it seems that Tristessa is death in disguise: through a rhetorical process of personification, Kerouac gives a physical form to his obsessive preoccupation with death, by making it beautiful and enticing; in one word, desirable.

As we consider the nature and modality of the aesthetic phenomenon at stake in the representation of the relationhip between Tristessa and the narrator, the concept of the sublime becomes particularly relevant in regards to Kerouac’s narrative project. We will now turn to the main lines of the concept of the sublime as defined by Kant in Critique of Judgement (1790) and Observations on the Feeling of the Beautiful and the Sublime (1799) in particular.[1]

Kant’s Sublime: Terror, Pleasure, the Interplay on Reason

Immanuel Kant (1724-1804) investigated our capacity to form aesthetic judgement on phenomena around us. In this regard, the philosopher considered the notion of the sublime as distinct from the beautiful. The beautiful is an object of contemplation that provides pleasure through its mere form. The sublime, on the other hand, has an extra element in its definition; it involves a breach in rational understanding – manifested through a tremour – that has at its origins the amplitude of its scale:

For it is quite conceivable that, despite all the uniformity of the things of nature according to universal laws, without which we would not have the form of general empirical knowledge at all, the specific variety of the empirical laws of nature, with their effects, might still be so great as to make it impossible for our understanding to discover in nature an intelligible order, […] so as to avail ourselves of the principles of explanation and comprehension of one for explaining and interpreting another, and out of material coming to hand in such confusion (properly speaking only infinitely multiform and ill-adapted to our power of apprehension) to make a consistent context of experience.[2]

Kant goes a step further in his definition of the sublime by distinguishing two different types. The ‘mathematical sublime’ is a phenomenon that ‘can only occur through the inadequacy of even the greatest effort of our imagination in the estimation of the magnitude of an object’, that is to say, where the mere magnitude of raw nature outruns mental figuration.[3] The other type of sublime is referred to as the ‘dynamic sublime’, expressed through the unfathomable might of the phenomenon: ‘In the immeasurableness of nature and the incompetence of our faculty for adopting a standard proportionate to the aesthetic estimation of the magnitude of its realm, we found our own limitation.’[4] In other words, this type of sublime occurs when the incommensurable powers of nature invalidate man’s capacities and mental abilities.

There is, then, an element of irrationality, as the sublime momentarily upholds the mechanism of reason. In the occurrence of the sublime, fear escalates into terror precisely because reason is incapable of foreseeing and evaluating the risks that may befall the subject. In fact, reason is deterred because the sublime is devised as infinite and unbounded: ‘[…] the sublime is to be found in an object even devoid of form, so far as it immediately involves, or else by its presence provokes, a representation of limitlessness, yet with a super-added thought of its totality.’[5] Faced with such an extraordinary phenomenon, the receiver’s imagination is unable to interpret it, and it thus becomes a ‘source of fear’.[6]

Yet, there is a form of enjoyment in the process as well: after its initial shock, the sublime generates pleasure in the subject’s mind by overcoming the impossibility of its representation through the conceptualisation of the infinite and the immeasurable. That is to say, through abstraction, reason eventually defeats nature, generating a particular pleasure in self-reflection. As scholar Gene Ray notices:

First, pain: the imagination is humiliated before the power or size of nature. Then pleasure, admiration, self-respect: the fallback to reason, that power of the mind that elevates humanity above mere sensible nature, however mighty or boundless it may be. Terror and shame give way to a proud and enjoyable self-contemplation.[7]

Although Kant’s categorisation of the sublime primarily applies to nature, it can be applied to individuals, and therefore Kerouac’s heroine Tristessa, as translator and scholar John Goldthwait confirms: ‘The beautiful and the sublime are aesthetic categories but since they can be attributes of human subjects and since the sensitivities toward them are human sensitivities, they can also be guides to conduct.’[8] Besides, what is crucial about this concept is that it is located within the subject: ‘For the beautiful in nature we must seek a ground external to ourselves, but for the sublime one merely in ourselves and the attitude of mind that introduces sublimity into the representation of nature.’[9] It only exists as a phenomenon that takes place in the receiver’s mind. Thus, the sublime is, in fine, mediated through the observer: in this regard, the irruption of the sublime in Tristessa is nothing more than a vision located in the narrator’s mind. The following considers the presence of beauty in Tristessa, which is interpreted as an aesthetic phenomenon that is instrumental in the occurrence of the sublime in the novella.

The Beauty of Tristessa: Body, Country, Myth

Duluoz, as a first-person narrator, celebrates Tristessa’s beauty throughout the novella, which is construed by Kant as a pre-condition to the emergence of the phenomenon of the sublime. Tristessa is a ‘beautiful girl’ with a ‘big sad face’, whose beauty is described at length.[10] Her beauty is emphasised and magnified to a considerable extent: from the first page onward, Kerouac praises her physical attributes. As soon as Tristessa walks into the scene, the pathos of the environment that Duluoz describes vanishes: the words ‘high’, ‘beautiful’, ‘gayly’ and ‘enjoy’ here surround her name.[11] A few pages later, the narrator insists on the purity of her look: ‘they are dove’s eyes, lidded, perfect, dark, pools, mysterious’.[12] The dove represents a Christian allegory: it suggests innocence and benevolence, it is also the metaphorical ‘holy ghost’, that is the divine form sent by God - without contest, Tristessa is touched by grace.

Beyond her physical appearance however, it is her cultural background that Duluoz praises and fantasises about. In fact, Tristessa belongs to a specific geographical and socio-cultural environment that is alluring to Kerouac. From On the Road to Tristessa, Mexico was intensely desired and idealised by Kerouac for ideological reasons. The writer’s representation of Mexico partakes in Romanticism through the themes that are conveyed – in its celebration of nature and non-Western cultures especially. In terms of content, Mexico stands south of the frontier of Western civilisation: it is the mythical South for Kerouac, which takes on the form of an Eden on earth for the writer. A safehaven for illigitimate behaviour as well as a land for opportunity, it lured post-war pioneers in search of a new frontier. It might very well stand, in Kerouac’s writing, for what the West had been to nineteenth century America: namely, a land which, as formulated and fantasised in the collective unconscious, is beautiful and untouched by the industrious action of men, a fertile land that offers visitors the illusion of the possibility of retrieving lost innocence. At a time when the American Dream had disappointed many nationals, and especially the Beats, Mexico encapsulates the belief that ‘things can be perfect again’.[13] Beyond the idealisation of the land, Kerouac suffuses Tristessa with a consistent compassion-turned-adulation for Mexican people. Strikingly, their representation partakes in Orientalism. As defined by Kerouac scholar Jacqueline Starer, Orientalism’s themes deal with universal compassion, faith in every man’s holiness, and belief in divinity; it is critical of material progress, and holds intuition as the only valid method of investigation.[14] This is of course a copiously hackneyed aesthetic: in its articulation of stereotypical themes, Orientalism overlooks the plurality and miscellaneous composition of what it references as non-Western cultures.

Nonetheless, the operations of Orientalism, its perspective and its imagery, can be seen at work in Kerouac’s romanticisation of Mexico. In Kerouac’s literary project Mexicans are assimilated to the archetypal figure of the primitive, itself a product of Orientalism. This figure encapsulates the quintessential relationship of cosmological unity between a people and its environment: it promotes an alleged harmony between nature and culture. We can read into this an attempt by Kerouac to adopt Spengler’s dialectics for ethical and aesthetic purposes, as the reccurrent themes of Orientalism, in many ways, match with Spengler’s themes:[15] they are nature in opposition to culture, childhood to adulthood, non-Westerner to Westerner, as innocence to knowledge and intuition to intellect.[16]

As Robert Hipkiss pinpoints, Kerouac romanticises hobos, black people, native cultures – in fact all those dwelling in the margins of America’s modern civilisation – because they can keep ‘emotional responses to life free and instinctive, always remaining in touch with the innocent primal vision of God’s saving beneficience at the core of things’.[17] In effect, as Duluoz reports in the novella: ‘Everything is so poor in Mexico, people are poor, and yet everything they do is happy and carefree […] Tristessa is a junkey and she goes about it skinny and carefree, where an American would be gloomy.’[18] More generally in Kerouac’s novels, as Hipkiss remarks, ‘the adulation of the so-called primitive is the obverse of the civilized lament.’[19] Consequently, Tristessa’s mythified socio-historical origin is, in itself, synonymous with cultural euphoria: the fantasised purity that stems from it will be used and abused to complete the celebration of her beauty.

Tristessa is therefore praised as much for her physical beauty as for what she stands for in counter-cultural terms, through a triple process of idealisation of her own character, of the land of Mexico and of the projected phantasm of the mythology of Mexico altogether. This overdetermined idealisation is significant in regards to the sublime: it is central to Kerouac’s embellishment of the text. Put concisely, through the dramatisation of beauty, Kerouac creates a favourable aesthetic ground for the emergence of the sublime. The following section deciphers how Kerouac brings the second condition – namely, the element of shock and terror – to the text, which allows for the emergence of the phenomenon of the sublime in the novella.

Catholicism in Tristessa: Strategies of Crucifixion

Tristessa’s appearance, however idealised, is not completely uni-dimensional. As evident in the following description, Kerouac conditions Tristessa’s beauty: ‘… and long sad eyelids, and Virgin Mary resignation […] and eyes of astonishing mystery with nothing-but-earth-depth expressionless half disdain and half mournful lamentation of pain’.[20] Her aspect is far from being smooth and polished. Beisdes, the religious allusions are central to the representation of Tristessa’s beauty. Indeed, the novella offers a reenactment of Christ’s passion where the authorial figure, Kerouac’s autodiegetic narrator (namely Duluoz) stands for the Creator, and Tristessa embodies the suffering of Christ as she goes through a process of crucifixion. In the end, the Christic figure (Tristessa) will be saved by the Creator (Kerouac/Duluoz), as the latter confirms at the end of the text: ‘Look, I’ll save her yet.'[21] For Tristessa is undeniably engaged in a process of self-destruction that assumes the form of crucifixion, as Duluoz narrates the progressive stages of sickness that her addiction to morphine provokes. There is, then, a sadistic aspect to the representation of Tristessa from the author’s perspective, especially in her descent into hell as her body is gradually debased and vilified throughout the novella, as we are about to see.

Singularly, Tristessa is able to absorb Kerouac’s sadistic narrative spells while remaining magnetic and alluring: the contradiction is crucial in the ambivalence that characterises Tristessa, and it reproduces the very duality found in the sublime. Tristessa is thus represented by Kerouac as embodying the intermingling of beauty and pain: these two factors interact with one another in a process of qualification and annihilation of forms. Seen from the opposite point of view, from Tristessa’s perspective, the phenomenon may be described as a masochistic tendency. In fact, Kerouac’s religious depiction of Tristessa brings her close to martyrdom, for Tristessa, as a Catholic, believes in redemption through pain, a paradigm modelled on the life of Christ. The following passage illustrates this point:

[O]nce a year together they’d taken hikes to Chalmas to the mountain to climb part of it on their knees to come to the shrine of piled crutches left there by pilgrims healed of disease, the thousand tapete-straws laid out in the mist where they sleep the night out in blankets and raincoats – returning, devout, hungry, healthy, to light new candles to the Mother and hitting the street again for their morphine –[22]

This is how Tristessa continuously references the masochistic regime of religion, and in particular Catholicism’s, which is seen in this description of pilgrimage. Kerouac uses the characters’ bodies to signify forms of annihilation, as the constant degradation of their physical condition mimics processes of crucifixion. That is, according to the codes of Catholicism, Kerouac punishes the transient body to elevate the soul. Hence this paradoxical statement formulated by Duluoz in the second part of the novella: ‘And as I know death is best’.[23] In other words, the body must be abjected for the soul to be saved: as Kerouac stands for Tristessa’s Creator, he must degrade and destroy her form to free her divine essence.[24] This is described on the last page of the novella: ‘Bull and Tristessa are both bags of bones – But O the grace of some bones, that milt a little flesh hang-on’.[25] It is only once the body decays that the Creator may rejoice, and even find beauty (‘the grace’ of it) in the process of debasement. This process finds its final form in total annihilation. It is then that the body-less individual will be returned to the creator, as this quote by Duluoz – as the representative of the divine – implicitly suggests: ‘I think of the inexpressible tenderness of receiving […] the sacrificial sick body of Tristessa and I almost feel like crying.’[26] This is the cycle of life found in Catholicism: carnal existence, death and disencarnate re-birth. This pattern synchronises with the Christian dialectic of crucifixion and resurrection described by the Bible, and that Kerouac reproduces in its text.[27]

The Drugs in Tristessa: Terror, the Principle of Death and the Sublime

Although Tristessa hosts, without contest, an intense religious impulse within herself, she simultaneously keeps searching for drugs to feed her habit: ‘[S]he is so high all the time, and sick, shooting ten gramos of morphine per month’.[28] As the tongue slips on ‘gramos’, the text suddenly reflects the obsessive language of the Mexican characters (Tristessa, Cruz and El Indio): all of them are stuck in a vicious cycle of drug addiction and sickness, in which the only release from the suffering of their condition is brought by the next shot of morphine, which simultaneously intensifies and prolongs their sickness. As Kerouac confirms: ‘Morphine sickness [is] a sickness that goes on as long as the need [for the drug,] and feeds off the need and fills in the need simultaneously’.[29]

In addition, Duluoz remarks that ‘morphine takes all the sex out of your parts’.[30] In relation to psychoanalytic theory, then, morphine addiction becomes the dialectical opposite of the sex drive: it is, in essence, a death drive.[31] In paralleling morphine with death, Kerouac not only foreshadows the ultimate annihilation of the characters, he encapsulates risk, principally the potential of death through the use of morphine. The drugs then stand for the death principle of the novella. As a consequence, morphine plays an essential role in the modality of the sublime in the text: because morphine equates to the chance of death, it stands for one of the two polarities of the regime of the sublime, namely the feeling of terror suggested by the possibility of self-annihilation.

As the novella proceeds, the vicious cycle of addiction is represented in increasingly intense terms. Tristessa’s condition deteriorates: ‘[T]he fragile and holy countenance of poor Tristessa, the tremulous bravery of her little junk-racked body that a man could throw up in the air ten feet – the bundle of death and beauty –’[32] Tristessa’s beauty is still present, but becomes qualified in a specific way. As Tristessa is sucked into self-destruction, two poles emerge: on the one hand there is Tristessa’s everlasting beauty; on the other hand the terror of death. The ambivalence with which Kerouac endows Tristessa is more apparent in the second part of the novella; it provides a more radical insight into her debasement – and merging with death – through her drug use. As she goes through fits of brutal madness, she becomes uncontrollable. Convulsing and fainting many times, her head is partially bandaged [33]: she is mummified, as if death had tried to carry her away prematurely.

Significantly, although Tristessa becomes an easy pray for death, she does not lose her auratic power. Her behaviour becomes unsteady and erratic, but her overall beauty, according to Duluoz, is saved: ‘She would look awful if she wasnt holy Tristessa’.[34] This is a degraded kind of beauty, but still a form of beauty: the conditional proposition emphasises her ‘holiness’, as if Kerouac himself sympathised with the debasement of her body. Further on:

[…] here comes a strange woman up the steps, unearthly and pale, slow, majestic, neither young nor old, I can’t help staring at her and even when I realize it’s Tristessa I keep staring and wondering at this strange woman.[35]

The ultimate occurrence of the fusion between Tristessa’s grace and the destructive action of the drugs – that is between beauty and death – lies at the end of the novella when, after Tristessa has fainted, the narrator recalls: ‘I can sense it now in her silence, "This is what you give me instead of death?" – I try to know what to give her instead – No such thing better than death.’[36] The oxymoronic structure of this last phrase heralds a paradox that is foundational in Tristessa and which likens the novella to a process of reverence and idolisation of death.

In the end, it is death itself that is the essential paroxystic element in Tristessa’s ontology, as seen and understood by Duluoz. More than a quest, death is a component of Tristessa’s identity itself. Thus, the principle of death that animates her provokes the dissolution and remodelling of her own form in the novella: through her addiction to morphine, as we have seen, her physical aspect constantly changes and yet never loses its singular magnetism. Therefore, in proving the presence of the intangible principle of death that lies within her, Tristessa becomes an embodiment of death. This narrative strategy partakes in the sublime, because Tristessa’s appearance is both feared and idealised, that is, imagined and fantasised. As Kant pinpoints:

For the sublime […] cannot be contained in any sensuous form, but rather concerns ideas of reason, which, although no adequate presentation of them is possible, may be excited and called into the mind by that very inadequacy itself which does admit of sensuous presentation.[37]

To sum up, Tristessa entertains an ambivalent sense of beauty, a beauty based on a process of annihilation of forms. First, Kerouac instills beauty into the text by idealising the character of Tristessa, as well as her geographic and cultural environment as devised through an Orientalist perspective. Once the form of beauty is erected, Kerouac methodically destroys it by means of an analogy with the Christian paradigm; simultaneously, he uses morphine – a drug with ultimate self-destructive proprieties – to debase and annihilate the very form of beauty previously constructed. Crucially, this double movement corresponds to the theory of the sublime: there is beauty on one hand and terror on the other, which has been defined so far as the terror of destruction of forms – principally, the terror inherent in Kerouac’s strategy of the annihilation of the human body. In Kant’s definition of the sublime, the element of terror, besides the element of death that it contains, also corresponds to the notion of immeasurableness and boundlessness, so much so that it cannot be apprehended by means of the senses: ‘The sublime is that, the mere capacity of thinking which evidences a faculty of mind transcending every standard of sense.’[38] That is to say, the sublime does not need to be visible to be revealed: the senses, by nature, have a limited function as the sublime transcends them. Nonetheless the phenomenon of the sublime may be felt: the next section will investigate how Tristessa heralds a transcending ‘faculty of mind’ with which Kant endows the sublime.

Religious Syncretism: The Divine Made Indecipherable

The sense of transcendence in Tristessa stems, primarily, from Kerouac’s representation of spirituality.In fact, Tristessa in its entirety reads like an East-meets-West narrative. This is due to Tristessa’s origins, of course, but also to the recurring marks of Duluoz’s Buddhism. Crucially, the two different parts of Tristessa are articulated according to the Buddhist economy of desire. The first part starts with Duluoz’s affirmation of repudiation of his will, especially in sexual terms: ‘I have [...] sworn off sexuality and the inhibiting impulse’.[39] Duluoz’s statement accords with the ethics advocated by Buddhism, especially in regards to sensual desire. In the second part however, Duluoz renounces his vow and intends not to hold himself back any more. Thus, his desire becomes fully assumed as his suffering significantly increases throughout the second part: as Duluoz disengages from the ethical frame of Buddhism, his ego takes over. The punishment is immediate: the autodiegetic narrator comes face to face with a series of challenging situations that bring him deeper and deeper into sorrow (‘I never dreamed it could be this bad’).[40] The narrative thread that brings Duluoz further into disappointment is designed in accord with the origin of suffering conceived in Buddhism: Kerouac punishes Duluoz for breaking free from the law of the dharma.

Beyond the echoes of Buddhism that plague the novella, it is determinant to notice that Buddhism and Catholicism overlap in Tristessa. In fact, Buddhism gets entangled in a Christianised framework. As this passage shows:‘I see […] innumerable hands that have come […] to bless her and pronounce her Bodhisat […]. Her Enlightenment is perfect […]. "She’s an Angel"’.[41] Here, Kerouac mixes up religions as Tristessa is compared to both a Bodhisattva and an Angel. He extracts holy figures from each religious system that symbolise deliverance from the body, and places them in the narrative, locating them on the same level. This syncretism stems from several traditions that articulate a form of pantheism, among which the one of Transcendentalism, especially in regards to its theological outcomes. Transcendentalism conceived the divine as ruled by a principle rather than a god head. This principle was seen as ubiquitous; since all the living was concerned, then divinity was everywhere in humankind and in nature as well: ‘… and if all – God, humankind, nature – emanate from the same source, then the natural world and its inhabitants are microcosms of the macroscopic divinity.’[42] The influence of Transcendentalism in Kerouac’s work, especially at the theological level, is crucial. In drawing inspiration from it, Kerouac could freely disseminate a multiplicity of religious references that would not cancel one another, but reinforce the search for divine compassion in his writing.

This is how Kerouac creates a syncretic spirituality that runs throughout the novella. This syncretism, in fact, operates as a movement from religion to mysticism. In the intermingling of different religious systems, each religious system loses its specific frame; in the process, and within the frame of Transcendentalism, religious systems become indifferentiated. In this way they turn into mysticism, which is the intuition and experience of the theological without the medium of a normative religious system behind it. This mysticism, whose contours cannot be precisely defined any more, is all-encompassing and participates in the sublime precisely because it is boundless and infinite.

In the end, the narrative strategy of religious syncretism in Tristessa is meaningful vis-à-vis the sublime. The miscellaneous composition of the text, in terms of spirituality, sets up a dialectical frame that seeks to contain both the irrationality and the immensity of the phenomenon of the sublime. As scholar Gene Ray remarks, quoting Theodor Adorno, the sublime is ‘Erschütterung, the tremor or shudder of what is beyond imagination and conventionalized experience’.[43] Thus Kerouac suffuses the novella with the immateriality and indecipherability of the mystic experience; it crucially provides his text with a regime that is able to illustrate the incommunicability of the phenomenon of the sublime.

The Subject of the Vision: Towards a Self-Destruction of the Text

Nonetheless, the fact that it is Duluoz who witnesses all this is crucial. As Kant argued, the sublime is strictly located within the receiver’s mind:

If however, we call anything […] sublime, we soon perceive that for this it is not permissible to seek an appropriate standard outside itself, but merely in itself. It is a greatness comparable to itself alone. Hence it comes that the sublime is not to be looked for in the things of nature, but only in our own ideas.[44]

This formulation implies that the sublime is entirely produced by the subject. Therefore, it is through the autodiegetic narrator that the reader has access to the phenomenon of the sublime, which is Duluoz’s vision. This capacity of the subject to produce the sublime can be read in the novella. As we pay attention to Kerouac’s representation of the narrator, the first element that strikes us is his passivity. As Beat critic Matt Theado remarks, ‘[v]ery little happens in this story, for the core of Duluoz’s experience here is observation and reflection, not action. […] [H]e observes the scenes around him without interfering.’[45] This statement is evidenced by the description of Duluoz’s room in Mexico City. It is located on the top floor of a buidling [46], and, perched high and hard to reach, it convokes images of a look-out post in the reader’s mind: a look-out from where the narrator can meticulously observe the Mexican action. Therefore, Duluoz stands for the subject of the phenomenon of the sublime.

And yet, as he watches, Duluoz feels alarmed, not to say, disturbed. Concomittant to his eager contemplation, he nourrishes an unexpected will to disappear: ‘All I wanted to do was get away’, ‘[a]ll I wanta do is go straight home’.[47] It seems that the spectacle Duluoz attends to generates a series of paradoxical feelings: there is both delight in the act of contemplation, and a feeling of anxiety of a peculiar nature. This is, in essence, the mark of the feeling of terror that the sublime provokes, and that cripples the narration as the novella proceeds.  These antagonistic feelings make Duluoz's narration quite unreliable, as it displays marks of confusion and irrationality:

I’ve seen it a million times, in Mexico the young men want the young girls – Their birthrate is terrific – They turn em out wailin and dying by the golden tons in vats of semiwinery messaferies of oy Ole Tokyo birthcrib – I lost track of my thought here.[48]

Here, the syntax spirals into loose association of ideas (‘birthrate’/’birthcrib’, Mexico’/’Tokyo’). It indicates a floating moment during which the narrator’s consciousness is disconnected from reality, letting the flow of words pile up until reason is finally recovered: ‘I lost track of my thought here’.[49] This passage encapsulates a radical version of the aesthetic practice of Kerouac: the prose is pushed to an extreme form and meaning becomes extremely tenuous. However, its lyrical texture surprises the reader, who must work through the unconventional syntax to try and make sense out of it. As Theado remarks about Tristessa, ‘sound, sense, and apparent nonsense mingle in the prose’.[50] Thus, Duluoz’s ravings in the form of the flow of association of ideas – ideas which belong to the subconscious and which are expressed as such – make sense in regards to the modality of the sublime [51]: they mimic a specific moment of the sublime, namely the temporary disjunction of reason.

In other terms, the fierce attacks of the sublime, by means of the textual strategy of its embodiment (Tristessa), have a notable effect on the narration, especially in the confusion that possesses the autodiegetic narrator who beholds the vision. Narrative confusion tallies with the theory of the sublime, especially in the emergence of a regime of irrationality that is triggered by the phenomenon. As Kant points out: ‘The sublime [involves] a presentation of an indeterminate concept of reason’.[52] In the end, these passages account for moments that signify the defeat of sense in rational terms. These passages attempt to reproduce, within the form of the text, the process of the sublime as described by Kant. Duluoz’s occasional twisted and confused narration encapsulates the failure of existing tools of literary communication to produce a complete and coherent representation of the phenomenon of the sublime, which relentlessly challenges the rational framework of the novella.

To conclude, we can say that the advent of the sublime in Tristessa not only entails and encompasses the forms of the novella, but that the sublime injects a specific quality into these forms: namely, a feeling that provokes both pleasure (in their contemplation), and terror, stemming from the promise of their own dissolution. That is to say that Tristessa constructs a beauty of a sublime nature in order to destroy it in the end.

Therefore, the text engages in the construction of situations and characters that conceal a movement toward death. The paradox of the novella is expressed aesthetically through the intensification and magnification of Tristessa by, and for, Duluoz. By means of representational strategies that betray a process of glamorisation of the heroine and her Orientalised cultural milieu, Tristessa is othered and displaced into the fantasy of the primitive. The representation of her beauty, although multi-layered, is based on a chiaroscuro that is ambivalent: the more Tristessa’s body is degraded throughout the novella, the more sublime she becomes, underlining a paradoxical pattern of glorification of death throughout the text. The debasement of Tristessa that we have outlined is accompanied by an immoderatefeeling of compassion that Kerouac suffuses the narrative with. To strengthen its effect, he uses religious syncretism, that is, the association of two religious systems that merge into a boundless mysticism that is both compelling in its compassionate effect, and threatening in the indecipherability. Crucially, this textual strategy corresponds to the feeling of terror that partakes in the sublime. Duluoz however, as the beholder of the vision of the sublime, becomes its victim: as the narrator-observer is subject to Tristessa’s sublimity, he is forced to relinquish his rational instruments. As an effect, the syntax is unstable, digressive and confused. Duluoz’s narration self-destroys; it reflects aesthetically the spell of the sublime from the point of view of the receiver. This is how Tristessa exemplifies the phenomenon of the sublime in its content as well as its style. An aesthetic project with a morbid perversion lying at its core, Tristessa’s momentum is located in the fragile balance between the substantial depiction of the sublime that we have deciphered in this article, and the outrageous decomposition that it yelds. This ambivalence illustrates the erotic dimension that the novella is based upon, convoking the forces of the sublime in order to revoke them in the macabre dissolution of beauty of an extraordinary nature.


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Kerouac, Jack, Tristessa (New York: Penguin Books, 1992)

Myerson, Joel, Transcendentalism: A Reader (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000)

Ray, Gene, Terror and the Sublime in Art and Critical Theory: From Auschwitz to Hiroshima to September 11 (Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2010)

Spengler, Oswald, The Decline of the West, trans. Charles Francis Atkinson, ed. Helmut Werner (New York: Oxford university Press, 1991)

Starer, Jacqueline, Les Écrivains Beats et le Voyage (Paris: Didier, 1977)

Theado, Matt, Understanding Jack Kerouac (Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 2000)

Tytell, John, Naked Angels: The Lives and Literature of the Beat Generation (New York: McGraw-Hill, 1976)

Walsh, Joy, Jack Kerouac: Statement in Brown: Collected Essays (New York: Textile Bridge Press, 1984)


[1] See Immanuel Kant, The Critique of Judgement, trans. James Creed Meredith, ed. Nicholas Walker (Oxford: Oxford World’s Classics, 2007), and Observations on the Feeling of the Beautiful and the Sublime, trans. John T. Goldthwait, California Library Reprint (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1960).

[2] Kant, Critique of Judgement, p. 25.

[3] Ibid, p. 103.

[4] Ibid, p. 111.

[5] Ibid, p. 90.

[6] Ibid, p. 109. In Kant’s positivist framework, this dismissal of reason is painful – and ideologically puzzling – as the subject cannot rationally conceive the essence and form of the object that he/she is contemplating.

[7] Gene Ray, Terror and the Sublime in Art and Critical Theory: From Auschwitz to Hiroshima to September 11 (Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2010), p. 28.

[8] John T. Goldthwait, ‘Translator’s Introduction’ in Kant, Observations, p. 28.

[9]  Kant, Critique of Judgement, p. 93.

[10] Tristessa, p.10.

[11] Ibid, p. 7.

[12] Ibid, p. 26.

[13] Richard J. Gray, American Poetry of the Twentieth Century (London: Longman, 1990), p. 6.

[14] See Jacqueline Starer, Les Écrivains Beats et le Voyage (Paris: Didier, 1977).

[15] See Klaus P. Fischer, History and Prophecy: Oswald Spengler and the Decline of the West, American University Studies Series 9, History, 59 (New York: Peter Lang, 1989), pp. 107- 123.

[16] See Oswald Spengler, The Decline of the West, trans. Charles Francis Atkinson, ed. Helmut Werner (New York: Oxford University Press, 1991). Spengler theorised Western civilisation as an increasing rationalisation that disconnected man from his natural environment: imprisoned by his relationship to time, and disconnected from direct action, man had lost his ‘cosmic beat’ – the ability to connect to the here and now in the most direct and intuitive way (Spengler, pp. 102-126).  See also Michael D'Orso, ‘Man Out of Time: Kerouac, Spengler, and the “Faustian Soul"’, Studies in American Fiction, 11 (1983), 11-20. 

[17] Robert Hipkiss, Jack Kerouac, Prophet of the new Romanticism: A Critical Study of the Published Works of Kerouac and a Comparison of them to Those of J.D. Salinger, James Purdy, John Knowles and Ken Kesey (Lawrence: Regents Press of Kansas, 1978), p. 13.

[18] Tristessa, p. 29.

[19] Hipkiss, p. 7.

[20] Tristessa, p. 8.

[21] Ibid, p. 65.

[22] Ibid, p. 12.

[23] Ibid, p. 81.

[24] This dynamic reproduces the process of the crucifixion of Christ as reported in the Bible.

[25] Tristessa, p. 96.

[26] Ibid, p. 53.

[27] See Joy Walsh, Jack Kerouac: Statement in Brown: Collected Essays (New York: Textile Bridge Press, 1984).

[28] Tristessa, p. 10.

[29] Ibid, p. 22.

[30] Ibid, p. 95.

[31] See Sigmund Freud, Beyond the Pleasure Principle, trans. C.J.M. Hubback, ed. International Psycho-analytical Library (Memphis, TN: General Books, 2010).

[32] Tristessa, p. 52.

[33] Ibid, see p. 80.

[34] Ibid, p. 86.

[35] Ibid, pp. 72-73.

[36] Ibid, p. 82.

[37] Kant, Critique of Judgement, p. 92.

[38] Ibid, p. 98.

[39] Tristessa, p. 22.

[40] Ibid, p. 84.

[41] Ibid, p. 57.

[42] Joel Myerson, Transcendentalism: A Reader (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000), p. xxix.

[43] Ray, p. 32.

[44] Kant, Critique of Judgement, p. 97.

[45] Matt Theado, Understanding Jack Kerouac (Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 2000), p. 129.

[46] See Tristessa, p. 50.

[47] Ibid, pp. 28 and 37.

[48] Ibid, p. 56.

[49] Ibid, p. 56.

[50] Theado, p. 32.

[51] Some of Kerouac's syntactical digressions originate in the unconscious through the technique of unrestrained association of ideas, notably used by the Surrealists. Kerouac mostly refused to alter them through revision: ‘Kerouac knew that the integrity of pure experience and the feelings that actually attended the moment of occurrence could best be achieved when the writer removed all procedural lags, when his momentum was such as to obviate the Flaubertian obsession with the precise word; instead, the writer should release an "infantile pileup of scatological buildup words", relying on the freest of associations rather than selectivity of expression. [...] The writer was not to revise his original impulses, for revision was a function of conditioning, a concession to standards of taste and propriety that belonged to the temporal community and not to the universal strains that Kerouac sought to capture. Revision was inhibition, the censoring of the purity of the writer’s vision, the betrayal of immediacy, the lie in the face of actual experience.’ (John Tytell, Naked Angels: The Lives and Literature of the Beat Generation (New York: McGraw-Hill, 1976), p. 144).

[52] Kant, Critique of Judgement, p. 91.