A good read. And a few other things, by Madeleine Mead-Herbert

When we asked Madeleine Mead-Herbert to contribute a piece to our books section, we little expected this tour de force of sheer erudition. You are about to go on a rollercoaster ride from Michaelangelo through to Jack Kerouac, taking in such luminaries as Shakespeare, Kant and TS Eliot on the way. So grab a nice cup of your favourite coffee and enjoy a dose of real learning. We believe that the world will hear from this woman again. So remember- you read her first at Learning, Science and Society.

My Favourite book: On The Road – Jack Kerouac

By Madeleine Mead-Herbert

The Creation of Adam painting (Michelangelo, 1512)

This painting depicts the moment at which Adam is given consciousness; the ability humans have to think deeply and critically about life and the world around them. As you can see, the blanket around God is suggestive of the shape of the brain, something that Michelangelo would be aware of given his work in the medical profession. Additionally, on examining the expression of Adam’s face more closely, it could be assumed that before God’s touch, he is in fact rather gormless.

Descartes said the famous words ‘Cogito, ergo sum’ or ‘I think, therefore I am’ (1637). Through literature, there is a common trope where the challenges that come with consciousness lead to the protagonist’s demise. Each human will know the feeling of being unable to sleep because of racing thoughts or having a full body shudder whilst cringing at a memory of something said years before. Shakespeare emphasises the power and burden of consciousness through Macbeth who states ‘I am afraid to think what I have done’. This ability to ruminate and develop deep devouring emotions like shame and guilt are what destroy him. During the Romantic Period, Lord Byron depicted this same problem. His (quite nihilistic and perhaps adolescent) character Manfred states ‘thy heart and brain together’ and once again, it is this capacity for profound thought and reflection that cause so much pain for Manfred which leads ultimately to his untimely (and rather dramatic) demise at the top of the French Alps.

The philosopher Immanuel Kant was concerned about the Secularism and the decline of Christian beliefs and thus this painting provides a symbolic representation and insight into Kant’s summary of the Enlightenment period, quoted as ‘sapere aude’ or ‘dare to be wise’. Kant wanted individuals to think for themselves and not join the ‘great unthinking masses’. This call to celebrate deep thought and individualism was adopted whole-heartedly by American culture and Transcendentalism flourished with poets retreating to the woods to be away from society and be with their own thoughts. I must admit, this has acted as inspiration for what I have tried to replicate amongst the COVID-19 ‘Stay at Home’ and ‘Lock Down’ advice.

Thoreau went to Walden Woods and wrote ‘I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and ‘see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived’.

As a member of the Transcendentalist Movement, Whitman praised the individual who is ‘is complete in himself’ and has a ‘deathless attachment to freedom’.

In 1855, Walt Whitman wrote that the United States was ‘essentially the greatest poem’ and ‘poetical in nature’ due to her complex and contentious history, turbulent political movements and vast range of cultures that made the country was she was (Whitman, 2009: 439).

Jack Kerouac captured the desire to live ‘deathlessly’, think and be free, that Transcendentalists promoted through his masterpiece On the Road. This novel was largely auto-biographical and presented Kerouac’s experiences (as the character Sal) of travelling through America and Mexico with his friend Neal Cassidy (as the character Dean).

The novel starts with Sal expressing how he has been depressed and ‘feeling that everything was dead’. He tells the reader how he had always had plans to travel but had never actually mustered the momentum to go, he states ‘always vaguely planning and never taking off’. Upon meeting Dean, his life is propelled into adventurous travel and exploration.

My favourite quote from the start of the novel and a quote that has always stuck with me is:

I shambled after as I’ve been doing all my life after people who interest me, because the only people for me are the mad ones, the ones who are 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 yellow roman candles exploding like spiders across the stars and in the middle you see the blue centerlight pop and everybody goes “Awww!”

Sal ‘shamble[s]’ after the people that interests him rather than feeling a part of the excitement, he feels like he is on the peripheral. But by the end of the novel he is driven and passionate in his own right, even finding love.  

In my favourite poem, The Lovesong of J Alfred Prufrock by T.S. Eliot, this feeling of being trapped and apathetic is presented by the speaker:

And indeed there will be time

To wonder, “Do I dare?” and, “Do I dare?”

Time to turn back and descend the stair,

With a bald spot in the middle of my hair —

(They will say: “How his hair is growing thin!”)

My morning coat, my collar mounting firmly to the chin,

My necktie rich and modest, but asserted by a simple pin —

(They will say: “But how his arms and legs are thin!”)

Do I dare

Disturb the universe?

In a minute there is time

For decisions and revisions which a minute will reverse.

For I have known them all already, known them all:

Have known the evenings, mornings, afternoons,

I have measured out my life with coffee spoons;

I know the voices dying with a dying fall

Beneath the music from a farther room.

               So how should I presume?

And I have known the eyes already, known them all—

The eyes that fix you in a formulated phrase,

And when I am formulated, sprawling on a pin,

When I am pinned and wriggling on the wall,

The imagery of the pinned butterfly, the reduction of life to being ‘measured out in coffee spoons’, the refrain of ‘do I dare?’ to an audience who cannot respond to tell him ‘yes, do dare!’ and the mention of his aged persona making the possibility of change feel so finite.

This is what Kerouac manages to capture; action against apathy and his will to change and achieve the dreams that can so easily lay dormant. Sal’s actions are what I wish for Eliot’s Prufrock to do so that he can actually sing his ‘love song’.

Yes, it is true that we think and this is what makes us who we are but this ability to think can so frequently make us inert and unable to change or fulfil our dreams. A modern school of thought amongst sociologists and anthropologists is researching how humans cope with regrets about the past and so often think about ‘what could have been?’.

This novel gives me that sense of longing to travel and see the world. It makes me want to spend more time thinking positively and proactively about my dreams and ambitions for the future and how I will achieve them. This novel also gives me the drive to leave regrets in the past and accept that I can only change what I can, and move forwards, unlike Prufrock who wishes he was a pair of ‘ragged claws’. This synecdoche reflects his self-esteem, he wishes to be only a part of an inferior creature, moving sideways on the ‘floors of silent seas’.

So with all this time to think that lock-down has lent us, I wonder if you have assessed your future ambitions and priorities?

“The air was soft, the stars so fine, the promise of every cobbled alley so great, that I thought I was in a dream”

#jackkerouac #favouritebook #tseliot #existentialism #individualism #freedom

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