UBC Theses and Dissertations

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UBC Theses and Dissertations

Theme of suffering in the novels of Jack Kerouac, Leonard Cohen, and William Burroughs. Clifford , Jean Marie


This thesis considers the theme of suffering and its resolution in the novels of Jack Kerouac, Leonard Cohen, and William Burroughs, three avant-garde contemporary writers. It discusses most of their work in a general way, with reference to the theme of suffering; and it also analyses in a much more detailed manner the Subterraneans by Kerouac, The Favorite Game and Beautiful Losers by Cohen, and Naked Lunch by Burroughs. Cohen envisions man as a suffering being who experiences his pain in many different ways. He criticizes the old ritual patterns in which suffering once took its form - the pattern of religion which teaches man that suffering is good, and History which teaches that the cycle of civilization operates only in terms of the torturer and his victim. He rejects, too, the contemporary form of pop art which ignores the fact that suffering is a very real and overwhelming part of man. Having lost the old ritual patterns of suffering, man feels alienated from his own personal pain. Through the magic of good art, Cohen feels, man can regain entrance to his own being, for by experiencing another's suffering in art, he can regain his own awareness of suffering. If we misinterpret or misuse our own pain, we become one of Cohen's 'losers,' for we lose the core of our being to false ritual. Cohen believes the ancient notion that suffering deepens character, and he argues that man, through an understanding of his own pain, becomes a richer and better person, more capable of recognizing the magic which exists along with pain. For magic does exist with pain, and in art we gain a momentary entrance into this world of magic. Through the investigation of self and the uniqueness of self, man comes to recognize the uniqueness and magic of all. The artist takes on the role of prophet visionary showing all men that "magic is afoot." Jack Kerouac suffered a different form of pain - a pain which originated in his desperate search for innocence. His Catholic heritage taught him that the world of mind and spirit could see God, while the physical body was the realm of the sinful and guilty. His life became a quest in search of an innocence in which man could, transcend his guilt and shame and become beatific. Kerouac named the entire beat generation beatific, but he could not evade his feeling of guilt and shame within his own life, and he fluctuated throughout life between ecstatic idealism and hopeless despair. His strong mother fixation was a major cause for the split between his sense of idealism and the life of the physical body - and his mother became associated in his mind with those aspects of consciousness he considered 'ideal.' Yet Kerouac also longed for freedom and individuality, realms of experience outside his mother's hold. He expressed his life within his art, showing his tension and anguish from the pull of these two forms of experience. Kerouac's final interpretation of suffering paralleled the Catholic vision, for art became, in his life, a means of personal confession and penance. William Burroughs' despair is expressed through fear and rage, and a figurative comparison with 'paranoia' defines the range of his suffering fairly closely. Burroughs fears persecution from society which controls man through his need, fearing especially the implosive and depersonalizing forces of society which threaten to degrade and annihilate man. Man's own body takes part in this social degradation, for it is man's body which succumbs to addictive need. Burroughs strives to preserve his sense of inner reality and freedom at all costs. He purges his own personal sense of fear through his art, and art becomes, in his use of it, a social act of exorcism. He shouts the unspeakable and becomes a priest in a cultural purification rite; he shows the absurdity of man's reality in the form of comedy and dream and these become the source of his release. He defends himself against social control by his ability to exaggerate the power of society to the point of the grotesque, and art becomes the written form of his protest.

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