Domestic Apocalypse and the Thought of America

Michael Boughn


When Emerson, in the essay “Circles”, writes, “The way of life is wonderful, it is by abandonment”, he is taking a defining American motif—the notion of America as unprecedented, as founded not on a determining and traceable paternity (a determining mode of thinking in aristocratic social orders for whom such lines establish or found authority, and so, untenable for a putative democracy, however immature or imperfect)—and subjecting it to multiple torsions. The sense of loss always associated with being abandoned, or orphaned, is here transformed, or augmented, by a sense of liberation. If terror lurks in this moment, it’s the terror of modulation or metamorphosis, the giddy fear with which we meet our new selves and their endlessly new worlds. We may in this sense imagine ourselves, or come to ourselves, standing in the alien forest with Mary Rowlandson as she represents herself, bereft of solaces, our faces smeared with the blood of horse liver. Joseph Riddell has argued that American writing is characterized by the staging of a crisis of origins and originality. To be abandoned is to find ourselves in such a crisis.

In Jack Kerouac’s On the Road, this crisis hovers around two orphans searching for a father. One of the driving energies of On the Road has to do with knowing America—who knows it, how they know it, what the status of that knowing is. While a general crisis of paternity haunts the book, one of its specific forms is a crisis of literary paternity. These fathers, the literary ones, can be found, unlike other fathers in the book, so the crisis here is not one of indistinguishable or obscured origins, but one having to do with fathers whose work has failed to find a home, or make a home for itself. The America they thought and wrote—the America of Emerson, Whitman, Thoreau, the America embodied in the imagination of Ishmael and Huck and Jim—America represented as in motion toward its further possibility, exodic and unsettled, has not been found or founded by those calling themselves Americans. As yet undiscovered, no one is even looking for it. What we fail to know is not what America is, but whether there is an America at all and where it might otherwise be, given the failure of the writing of those literary fathers to find a home. These fathers and the America they imagined rattle around in On the Road like bones in a box.

One name for this fact might be what I’m calling here domestic apocalypse. On the Road opens into a world of domestic apocalypse which founds what Sal Paradise calls the death of the world: “I first met Dean not long after my wife and I split up. I had just gotten over a serious illness that I won’t bother to talk about, except that it had something to do with my miserable weary splitup and my feeling that everything was dead.” In one sense, we can read this proposal as what we now call psychological, as resting in Sal’s affective numbing as a result of the shock of his loss. Affective numbing can be seen in terms of either the withdrawal of what is implicitly proposed as the animated world (as opposed to the current dead world) or as the recovery of cathected energies of the psyche, a kind of mourning in Freudian terms, as if the animating energies that were previously invested in the domestic relationship extended beyond it to the world as a whole, so that when it dies, so does the world. In either case, like the Ancient Mariner, Sal finds himself separated from that which he was previously joined to, where this vocabulary of separation and joining applies equally to his wife and the world. It’s almost as if the experience of intimacy, of a familiarity so thorough that its knowledges are unquestioned, has no boundaries, that it neither extends nor encompasses from a centre out, but that one simply enters it. What one knows in marriage is always that which is beyond what one knows and the domestic is the site of this.

Our word domestic comes from the Latin domus, house, whose complex and tangled filiatiations lead to such widely diverse words as dominion, Madonna, domination, demoiselle, Dominus, indomitable, and domain. In English, the word domestic has long been associated with intimacy. John Donne, for instance, writes of a knowledge that is “so domestique, so near, so inward to us, that our conscience cannot slumber in it, nor dissemble it.” In The Winter’s Tale, Leontes’ madness, his insistence on terms for knowing that subject it to conditions it cannot possibly meet, conditions beyond the human, is located as a terrible inability to know that he is the father of his children, an inability which provokes a madness that leads to the death of both his wife and child. Stanley Cavell has proposed that this moment registers tremors radiating from the growth of skepticism and its subtle intrusions into the life of the ordinary world. It is a moment when the world is perceived suddenly as withdrawing its intimacy from us. If Shakespeare’s sense of this loss of our intimate knowledges of the world is connected to the rise of the new sciences, Cavell suggests a vocabulary—possession and dispossession, appropriation, ownership, belonging[s]—that also links it to profound shifts in the spheres of work and economies. If, under these extreme pressures in the life world, knowing moved from the aegis of domesticity to the aegis of dominion, what happened to the experience of intimacy?

Sal’s relationship with Dean, his writing of Dean (which is what On the Road in fact is) tracks a particular attempt at the recovery of what is recorded as lost in the book’s opening. Dean calls it “IT”. Whether he is stealing cars for kicks, or sticking his face in the bell of a blaring sax, getting blasted on weed and having orgiastic sex with Mexican prostitutes, or bouncing back and forth between three marriages, the proposal (which, I remind you again is contained in Sal’s representation of Dean—I can see no reason not to have recourse to all the complexities and cautions we know to be involved in reading a novel) is that IT is a direct, unmediated knowledge of existence or god or the void, in any case, some ultimate fact we have otherwise lost contact with. Dean proposes to reconstitute an intimacy, to break down or through some barrier that seems to separate us from the world (in this formulation his similarity to Ahab is striking), or perhaps, through sheer, mad speed to catch the world as it withdraws from us, to overwhelm that distance between us and the world, a distance which mutes or dampens knowing, and make himself one with it. This drive is what puts him at odds with the women in the novel.

The usual way of reading the presentation of women in On the Road is to see them as somehow interfering with what might be called freedom, anyway with one idea of freedom that circulates widely in America, and then to either excuse or attack that presentation. This is not an uncommon representation of women by certain men in certain situations, where freedom is understood as a kind of unrestricted movement of men together. I think here of Leslie Fiedler’s still provocative analysis of classic American writing by men as being dominated by a kind of exclusionary homoerotic or homosocial bonding, a society of men going about their business together, which is the business of exploration or adventure or some other domain imagined as being exclusive to them. In this context women often figure as mother, where mother is the one who says, “No, you can’t go out until you clean up your room,” or some other restrictive injunction that limits the impulse to get moving or keep moving.

In a sense, this is in fact how Galatea Dunkle is presented in On the Road, or at least how Sal perceives her. She is the voice of the otherwise missing mother who hauls Dean up on the carpet and scolds him in front of his friends, telling him he has no respect for anyone, accusing him of acute narcissism, and pointing out how he uses people, then throws them aside. The outburst is provoked by Dean’s abandonment of Camille, but it is also hauntingly prophetic of Dean’s relation to Sal, of what happens once they reach Mexico City and Dean abandons Sal to his serious illness. Sal is unable to hear what Galatea Dunkle is saying at this time, falling into a kind of grumpy adolescent rationalization of Dean’s behaviour, although later, after Dean abandons him, Sal comes to think of Dean as a rat, and he clearly, even cruelly, rejects him at the end of the novel. But Sal’s inability to hear what Galatea says at this time doesn’t have to be our inability. In that case we are forced to admit some moral centre to his tale that is outside Sal’s experience of it, located within the haunting voices of these women and what they know.

If domestic is associated early on with intimacy, with a knowing that only comes with close familiarity, later that intimacy comes to be seen as something tamed, and much later still, when that taming takes on an extremely negative coloration, with bringing under control, as if to be domestic is to be like a cow or a chicken, domesticated, bereft of originating energies, transformed into a passive creature, utterly under control, even powerless. Here, I think, we can locate the, or anyway, a beginning of the difficulty these boys have in finding the domestic situation both of them obsessively crave. Here “domesticate” carries with it a deep sense of loss. While the OED registers this usage in relation to animals from the mid‑seventeenth century, it doesn’t indicate when the word started to be used pejoratively in relation to ideas or intellectual and artistic practice. I would suspect this development to have occurred sometime around the beginning or middle of the nineteenth century when the cult of bourgeois domesticity had become increasingly associated with a stifling propriety, and artists and intellectuals increasingly saw themselves as outlawed from such stability and from the social order it had been made to represent, rather than as voices of that order as they would have been a short time before. In a world shaped by or informing an unalterable sense of inside and outside, and of the domestic as an inside which provided protection from a brutalizing outside, what Christopher Lasch has called a haven from a heartless world, the place of the artist and thinker necessarily was outside.

The shifting architecture of domesticity has always yielded to multiple forces. The cult of domesticity in 1950’s America, the world of On the Road, has been associated with a kind of spiritual exhaustion generated by 20 years of crises—first the depression, then the war—, the continuation of the nineteenth century flight from urban life to some imagined suburban Arcadia, social theories of the therapeutic function of the family, and the increasing alienation of work time from the rest of life and resultant pressures on the domestic, the family, to provide meaning in lives otherwise given to alienated labour. It was, in any case, understood as a specific and enclosing unit, one in which the pieces, or members, were integrated into a contained wholeness that served to replicate itself, to produce a fundamental stability that ordered the social world. While not hierarchical in the way that the nineteenth century family was proposed, the 50’s middle class family was nevertheless fixed in its divisions of labour, and equally determined in its proprieties, at least on the surface. It constituted itself as a wholeness in which, as Hans‑Jost Frey might put it, “everything has its place and in which nothing is missing or excessive.” The authorized image of the fifties family came to be seen by those outside its domain as the image of the foreclosure of originality within the social, and in that sense, the founding institution, the founding relation, of what Emerson called conformity, the refusal of aversion and abandonment, the loss of America.

The problem Sal and Dean face in their orphanedness is that they have no experience of the ordinary, of a quotidian intimacy unoccupied by the bearable and the whole, where the utterly disastrous is also understood to have no remainder and so to be part of the order of the whole. This wholeness is the wholeness of (the illusion of) certainty—think here of the crisis of doubt which leads to domestic apocalypse on The Winters’ Tale, Leontes’ obsessive desire for certain knowledge of his paternity and Hermione’s fidelity. The unbearable, the superfluous, the fragmentary, these accesses to intimacy seem approachable in a world of domestic apocalypse only in the domestic antithetical, the road. But the hopelessness of this is that within the antithetical lurks the thesis. You could say that within a world characterized by the foreclosure of intimacy within the domestic, all possibility of intimacy is foreclosed. At the end of The Winter’s Tale only the miraculous reclamation of the domestic, the reanimation of Hermione within a world reconfigured by Leontes repentance allows the reconstitution, the rearrangement of the heartmind towards a refounding of intimacy. In On the Road this rearrangement, this new American constitution is never found and a measure of this failure is the continued impossibility of realizing a new domestic order, one based perhaps on the fragmentary rather than the whole.

For all Sal’s proclamations to the contrary, he is never able to actually be at home within the domestic as it’s proposed. This may have something to do with the idea of domesticity in the U.S. in the 50’s. It may have to do with the state of the American constitution. Whatever the reason, the problem is presented in the novel in terms of Sal’s romantic and metaphysical self‑delusions, his inability to know himself. Within the text, these moments are marked by what traditionally is called irony, though perhaps we need a new name for it when it occurs within the provenance of “spontaneous bop prosody”, whatever that is, exactly. Whatever we call it, it works through a funny kind of duplicity in the writing. In the first book, for instance, when Sal moves in with Terry, the Chicana woman he meets on the bus to LA, and starts picking cotton, the entire episode takes on a bizarre quality. The image of this young, east coast hipster pretending that he’s a Negro picking cotton is a bit hard to take straight, although the text never openly signals that it shouldn’t be. Only someone who never had to pick cotton could find it as romantic as Sal does, especially when taking into consideration the pedigree of this activity as the foundation of American slavery. In fact, Sal seems to spend most of the time pressing his face into the earth thinking how beautiful it all is, while Terry and her child do the actual work for him. Seen in this context, his commitment to his new life as what he calls “a man of the earth” is little more than a romantic delusion. As such, it’s harmless. The problem is that when he decides to abandon the delusion, it’s the woman and child who pay. Sal, who all along had access to money from his aunt, bails out when the weather starts to get cold, suggesting it’s for the good of the kid. Meanwhile Terry and her child are condemned to return to an abusive and hopeless situation.

“See you in New York, Terry,” I said. She was supposed to drive to New York in a month with her brother. But we both knew she wouldn’t make it. At a hundred feet I turned to look at her. She just walked on back to the shack, carrying my breakfast plate in one hand. I bowed my head and watched her. Well, lackadaddy, I was on the road again. (85)

The text seems, on the one hand, to present Sal’s duplicity as a simple given, a fact. There is no commentary on it, no open textual acknowledgment of it. Yet at the same time it is presented in such a way that not only is it inescapable, but it generates a duplicity in the text itself. Every detail demands that we acknowledge it: his lie about seeing her in New York, the breakfast plate in her hand, the duplicitous bowing of his head, followed by his exultation to be out of there.

            Sal and Dean’s quest is unsuccessful because neither of them is represented as capable of existing within the ordinariness of a domestic relationship. Not that they don’t want to. At one point Dean is married to or nearly married to three women at once. Sal constantly complains throughout the novel that he wants a wife and family. Yet whenever he is with a woman, he is represented as evading intimacy and the ordinariness that nurtures it, either through metaphysics or romance. Sal’s night with Rita Bettencourt in Denver is an example of the former. Having gotten her into bed he

blows it:

She was a nice  little girl, simple and true, and tremendously frightened of sex. I told her it was beautiful. I wanted to prove this to her. She let me prove it, but I was too impatient and proved nothing. She sighed in the dark. “What do you want out of life?” I asked, and I used to ask that all the time of girls.

“I don’t know,” she said. “Just wait on tables and try to get along.” She yawned. I put my hand on her mouth and told her not to yawn. I tried to tell her how excited I was about life and the things we could do together; saying that, and planning to leave Denver in two days. She turned away wearily. We lay on our backs, looking at the ceiling and wondering what God had wrought when he made life so sad. (57)

Now it’s possible, again, to read this straight, but such a reading, it seems to me, misses the richness of the depiction of Sal’s self‑deception, a self‑deception that runs through the entire novel. You can bet that regardless of what Sal thinks, “we” weren’t wondering what God had wrought. That prerogative belongs to Sal alone, though his continued self‑delusion requires that he project the same metaphysical angst onto his partner. Here his turning to questions of “life” and “God” is a way of using metaphysics to evade his sexual failure, which is also to say his failure to enter into an ordinary world of intimacy, of knowing.

Having failed to find IT through their increasingly mad, velocitized sprints along the classic American east/west axis, the axis of American space, Sal and Dean turn south to travel the north/south axis of temporality. Their plunge into Mexico is a desperate attempt to go back in time, to find an American origin by a return to what these gringo boys imagine to be the primitiveness of pre‑industrial Mexico. “Man, this will finally take us to IT!” Dean says. But again they fail. Their objectification and romanticization of the Mexicans they meet lead them to a whorehouse and an afternoon of drugs and wild sex, during which what’s emphasized by the narrative is the desperation of the young women—really girls—they buy for sex, in an enactment of the typical North American relationship to the other. Rather than intimacy, they revert to commodification. As if to make sure we understand the stakes here, Kerouac ends the episode with a wailing baby: “. . . somewhere I heard a baby wail in a sudden lull, remembering I was in Mexico after all, and not in a pornographic hasheesh daydream in heaven” (291). Perhaps I’m overburdening this moment with significance, but for me that baby wail carries all the weight of the impossibility of the domestic, and the intimacy it houses, that the events in the whorehouse imply. Unable to find a way back to the domestic, the world remains dead for Sal and Dean.

Other ironies abound in this Mexican trip. In a sense, Sal and Dean become the unconscious carriers of the death of the world, typhoid Marys of time (as opposed to Proust, whom Sal calls a “teahead of time”). Witness Dean’s exchange with the little Mexican girls drawn from their traditional employments to the side of the road (the same road of the book’s title) to trade stones with the gringo tourists. In exchange for their crystals, Dean give s them a wrist watch, the ultimate manifestation of the alienation and discipline of industrial cultures, the little machine which, strapped to our arms, ruthlessly and relentlessly divides time into even units, coordinating us so we can fit into what Sal, earlier in the book, calls the mad hoorair of America. Such moments continuously shift the tenor of the presentation of the events on the road, calling into question not only Sal’s self‑knowledge, but our ability as readers to know what exactly transpires in this narrative. It’s doubly ironic that such a narrative has come to be read as a paean to the movement it represents, as if somehow this movement, Sal and Dean’s crazed speed, is the same as that proposed in Emerson’s notion of abandonment. In fact it’s the ghost of that, what was left after America abandoned itself.


Works Cited

Cavell, Stanley. Disowning Knowledge in Six Plays of Shakespeare. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge UP, 1987.

Emerson, Ralph. “Circles.” In The Essays of Ralph Waldo Emerson. Cambridge, Mass.: The Belknap Press of Harvard UP, 1987.

Frey, Hans-Jost. Interruptions. Trans. Georgia Albert. Albany: State U of NY Press, 1996.

Kerouac, Jack. On the Road. 195 5. NY. Penguin, 1976.

Riddle, Joseph. Purloined Letters. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State UP, 1995.

Shakespeare, William. The Winter’s Tale. In William Shakespeare, The Complete Works. NY: The Viking Press, 1969.