edge archiving.

“a snail crawling, slithering along the edge of a straight razor… and surviving”
August 22, 2010, 6:27 pm
Filed under: longer pieces

The Rim as the “End”: Metamorphosis and/or Apocalypse Now

by Madeline McDonald Lane

It makes no sense to talk about liberation to free men – and we are free if we do not belong to the oppressed minority… But the truth is that this freedom and satisfaction are transforming the earth into hell. The inferno is still concentrated in certain far away places: Vietnam, the Congo, South Africa, and in the ghettos of the “affluent society”: in Mississippi and Alabama, in Harlem. These infernal places illuminate the whole.

— Herbert Marcuse, 1966 Political Preface of Eros and Civilization

Edge” Interventions: Spatiotemporal Problematics of the “Rim”

While the Pacific “Rim” discourse conceivably opens a space to explore critical perspectives on transnationalism and transculturation, these efforts are inevitably compromised by the “rim” itself as a theoretical apparatus. The “rim,” in Christopher Connery’s critique of this discourse, presumes a unity “across oceans, across ethnic and racial divides… a centeredness with no center, a totality, an unbrokenness. A rim is… the horizon of capital, of history, of space and time.” Rather than establishing a diasporic modality, the “rim” is entirely determined by a hegemonic geo-imaginary: the “rim” spatiality, Bruce Cumings argues, “is neither a self-contained region nor a community, but just that: a rim – peripheral and semiperipheral societies oriented toward Tokyo and the U.S. market.” As a spatial metaphor structured by capitalism, the “rim” is, in David Harvey’s terming, “fixed,” and thus cannot be thought through, but is rather structured to reflect a stasis of theory and an immobility of politics. In order to theoretically engage this geo-imaginary, it must be challenged – it must be asked, as Cumings articulates, if there is “[another] way of constructing ‘Pacific Rim’?”

To this problem of the “rim” as hegemonic framing, a dialectic of global / local presents the necessary mode of critique. In its spatial fix, the “rim” exhibits a process of globalism subsuming localism – and thus, it is imperative to recover the local imaginary from this universalizing structure. To conceive of the Pacific not as “rim,” but rather as “locality,” Connery argues, is to “[pull] a large part of the globe back out of the end of history, and might make it imaginable as a place where capital’s hegemony could be un-imagined, rather than totalized.” And yet, localism alone is insufficient to this intervention on “rim” discourse. In order to do the work of un-imagining, as Connery suggests, it is moreover crucial to engage with a dialectical alternative – an alternative which, unlike the “rim,” operates not only in terms of spatiality, but also temporality.

The problematics of what Cumings conceives as “rimspeak” are thoroughly saturated in the narrative of capitalist expansion and global imperialism in Apocalypse Now – what is effectively Francis Ford Coppola’s postmodern re-mapping of Conrad’s Heart of Darkness. In Apocalypse Now, the tropes of the “rim” are extensive: cultural exchange becomes a process of territorialization. The river from Saigon to Cambodia transforms into a landscape of re-westernization, complete with newly constructed stadiums and imported Playboy bunnies, and soldiers surfing to the revealing soundtrack of the Rolling Stones’s “I Can’t Get No Satisfaction.” Rather than transculturation, this is a narrative of re-culturation. And yet, the film is also a narrative of struggle. Specifically, the struggle in Willard’s experience of traveling the river to find Kurtz – and ultimately, his experience of Kurtz’s “unsound methods” — is a struggle to inhabit the “rim,” and to therein move with the teleology of globalization. Moreover, it is this struggle which yields a counter to the “rim” in Willard’s first encounter with Kurtz – an audio recording, in which Kurtz hauntingly emerges with the recollection, “I watched a snail crawl along the edge of a straight razor. That’s my dream. It’s my nightmare. Crawling, slithering along the edge of a straight razor… and surviving.” In the following reading of the film, I will propose this “edge” as a crucial allegory, with which to make sense of Willard’s narrative of struggle, but to also push against the “spatial fix” imposed by the “rim” in Pacific region discourse. Whether Kurtz’s “edge” does the work of un-imagining capitalist hegemony will be the question compelling this reading: can this metaphor be used not only as a mode of critique, but also as a mode of re-orienting and re-routing the geo-imaginary of Vietnam war narratives?

The River to Kurtz: A Geography of Edge-Sites

[Kurtz] had something to say. He said it. Since I had peeped over the edge myself, I understand better the meaning of his stare, that could not see the flame of the candle, but was wide enough to embrace the whole universe, piercing enough to penetrate all the hearts that beat in the darkness… All this was the expression of some sort of belief; it had candor, it had conviction, it had a vibrating note of revolt in its whisper, it had the appalling face of a glimpsed truth – the strange commingling of desire and hate.

— Marlow, from Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness

Even before Willard learns of Kurtz – and hears his audio-recorded voice – the film draws on the “edge” as a trope by which to conceive of placehood. The film begins with Willard, stumbling from his bed and looking out the window: “Saigon,” he says, “shit.” Willard, however, could be anywhere: in his hotel room, he is found “waiting for a mission,” drinking himself into a state of near total self-destruction, and reflecting on his loss of home. “Every time I think I’m going to wake up back in the jungle,” he narrates. It is Willard’s inability to distinguish “here” from “there” that establishes his hotel room as the film’s first edge-site. Willard constructs this edge-site with his self-containment – with the unlit room, curtained from the sunny and bustling Saigon – and his intoxication. His occupation of the room becomes a temporal edge, a space of waiting, or liminality.

When Willard is finally called for his mission, the “edge” is no longer a mode of understanding the character’s limbo, but rather an allegory for his developing insanity. As Kurtz recounts his dream / nightmare of the snail on the straight razor, Willard is being assigned to this existence. Willard’s mission is “different this time,” he narrates, because he must kill an American. He takes the mission, however — “what else was I going to do?” he asks himself. From thereon, the river to Kurtz’s “camp” becomes the straight razor, while Willard becomes the snail: hovering in a state in which suicide and survival are as indistinct as here and there. Ultimately, Willard’s mission is an existential decision: in accepting a mission that, as his superiors specify, “does not exist,” Willard effectively assigns himself to the same fate of nonexistence, or, edge-existence. Whether there is a distinction between these termings will be key to this reading of the film, but more specifically, of the film’s political project.

Throughout the film, Kurtz’s allegory provokes a geography of the river as the edge of nightmare and dream, and the land as a diverse set of edge-sites. The first of these sites is encountered at the mouth of the river, where Willard meets Lieutenant Colonel Bill Kilgore and his crew, who are to escort Willard through the initial stage of his journey. In the short time he is there, Kilgore transforms the beach into an extensively westernized territory: the scene becomes inundated by American signifiers, as Willard traces through a movie set, in which a documentarian instructs him “don’t look into the camera, this is for television.” At the edge of reality and staged reality, the beach hosts different registers of imperialism, posed by Kilgore’s imperative that his soldiers either “fight or surf.” It is in this sense that Kilgore re-territorializes this edge-site, where to surf becomes a mode of conquering – as Kilgore pronounces, “Charlie don’t surf.” Through the course of the scene, the beach is inundated by brightly-colored smoke flares and visions of bloodied, screaming soldiers and terrorized Vietnamese. Kilgore throws playing cards onto Viet Cong corpses, as he yells orders to his men amid the sound of explosions. The site takes on a chaos which, by the end of the evening, turns into a “beach party,” complete with bonfires and barbeque. The beach, in its conquering, is taken to an edge of absurdity.

After Willard’s experience with Kilgore, to “get off the boat” becomes a crucial trope to the film, the stakes of which are elaborated once Willard and his boat crew leave behind their “surf or fight” escorts. The Chef – who is “wrapped too tight” for the war – gets off the boat with Willard to find some mangoes. As they wander through the jungle, and the Chef delivers a detailed monologue about his position as a saucier “back home” in New Orleans, the film captures a quiet, darkened scenery, overtaken by trees and vines. While the Chef is certain that they will find a mango tree, however, they are instead charged by a tiger, who leaps out from the jungle foliage. Barely surviving the encounter, the Chef and Willard flee to the boat. The crew responds with little information, and after watching the Chef unravel out of panic – screaming and shedding his clothing – they are surprised to learn that what caused this terror was not “Charlie,” but rather an animal. Yet more specifically, what traumatizes the Chef is the edge-site of the jungle, to which the tiger acts as a figure. For Willard, this experience brings him to the observation that “home didn’t exist anymore” — which is the Chef’s precise point of panic. To the Chef, the tiger is quite powerfully a figure of this realization about his home: as he describes the work he did in New Orleans, his momentary return to “home” — to his existence as a saucier, whose priority is to find mangoes, rather than to fight – is disrupted by the material conditions of his surroundings. It is the Chef’s attempt to make the jungle his home, and to therein imperialize the jungle, that provokes his panic. This is a panic which stems from the Chef’s inability to inhabit the jungle as an edge-site. As he reflects on the Chef’s experience of this encounter, Willard develops a crucial trope in his voice-over: he narrates, while the Chef’s screaming goes mute, “never get out of the boat, unless you’re going the whole way.” From this point on, to get out of the boat becomes a form of edge-crossing. To cross the edge imposed by the river is to push out of the river’s trajectory – to traverse beyond the river as the straight razor of Kurtz’s nightmare, and to inhabit a site of contradictions.

The particular contradiction of each of the film’s edge-sites is the contradiction of localism and globalism. In the case of the Chef’s experience of the jungle, this edge-site is figured as a place which resists its use-value in the Chef’s search for mangoes, and which asserts its locality in the force of the tiger’s attack. The tension between local and global is reiterated soon thereafter, with the film’s perhaps most memorable tangent. As Willard and his crew continue “slithering along” the edge of the river, they make a stop at a port where the Army has arranged for a performance by Playboy bunnies in a stadium specially designed for the entertainment of soldiers. In the stadium, soldiers gather to gawk at the bunnies, who prance around the stage, scantily clad in thematically apposite costumes: one is dressed as a native American princess, another as a cowgirl, and the other as a sailor. While the entertainment provokes a scene of sexual frenzy – in which the soldiers become aggressive and unruly, leading the bunnies’ manager to evacuate the premises on a helicopter – what remains all the while apparent is the scene’s imperialist subtext. As the camera captures the performance of hyper-sexualized colonial caricatures, it cuts to a shot of the stadium perimeter: a barbed wire fence, grasped by a long line of silent, frozen Vietnamese onlookers. The image represents one of the more subtle moments of the film, while it is also one of Coppola’s most forceful political gestures. The fence comes to impose a physical barrier between the global and local.

What is critical to the playboy bunny scene is not the barrier between the global and local, however, but the interaction between global and local contradictions which is brought about by the site’s spatiality as an “edge.” In the scene, the local emerges as that which suppresses the global, and engages in what Lefebrve discusses as “the contradiction between the global and the subdivided.” In Lefebrve’s theorization of the local as “subdivided,” another contradiction “between centre and periphery” is moreover conceived: “effective globalism implies an established centrality,” he argues, “the concentration of ‘everything’ that exists in space subordinates all spatial elements and moments to the power that controls the centre. Compactness and density are a ‘property’ of centres; radiating out from centres, each space, each interval, is a vector of constraints and a bearer of norms and ‘values’.”Yet it is this site’s situation at the edge which reconstitutes the center through the periphery. Within the center posed by the stadium, the attempt to commodify colonialism into a playful striptease gradually collapses in synchronicity with the blunt, disturbing representation of colonized onlookers. In this edge-site of performative and actualized colonialism, the striptease – and the center – ultimately become untenable.

From the tension between the global and local in each of the river’s edge-sites, there is moreover a tension over the notion of home. To Willard’s assertion – that “home didn’t exist anymore” — there is an edge-site distinctly in contrast, where a French family of plantation owners hosts the crew in what the insist is still “our home.” Like all of the film’s excursions off the boat, the plantation scene is strikingly distinct from the landscape presented by the river. Willard and his crew emerge from the looming danger of a fog, and into a warmly-lit, bourgeois dining room, accented by the sound of silverware clanking against flatware and contented wine-sipping. Throughout the scene, Willard remains silent, as if stupefied by an experience of belonging, or placehood. And yet this site is more specifically at the edge of two colonial histories. It is in this sense that the plantation’s “edge” bares compatibility with the “rim”: it describes a site of transnational exchange, while that exchange moreover describes a process of colonial expansion. As Willard and his crew are served an elaborate feast, their hosts remark on the extent to which their Vietnamese servants have mastered French cooking. For the French in the scene, “this is our home” because they have never lived elsewhere; but when the plantation patriarch’s daughter seduces Willard and tells him “your home is here,” Willard inherits this “home” from a past which is not his own – just as the servants inherit a mastery from a national cuisine which is not their own. In both cases of the servants and Willard, “home” belongs to a particular currency that forecloses transculturation: this is a site which resists edge-crossing, which resists, as Willard articulates, “going the whole way.”

In the narrative of Willard’s journey up river toward Kurtz, each edge-site the crew encounters marks a different trajectory which is nevertheless enveloped by the teleology of the river – the teleology of global capitalism. When the crew gets out of the boat, they experience the failure of these trajectories. The Chef fails to render the jungle into a bountiful mango tree, the Playboy bunnies fail to render the narrative of American colonization into a striptease, and ultimately, Willard fails to render the French plantation into his home. Throughout these excursions, as Willard narrates, Kurtz’s “voice in that tape… really put the hook in me.” To continue with this metaphor, in his journey up the river, Willard must be fished from the memory of his debriefing. After hearing Kurtz’s audio recording, Willard is told by his superiors that Kurtz’s “methods became unsound.” In addition to supplying the film’s central allegory of the snail on the edge, Kurtz’s audio-recording poses the crucial question, “what do you call it when the assassins accuse the assassins?” As he progresses up the river, Willard puts Kurtz’s question into a state of constant combat with the presumption of one Army official: that “out there with those natives, there must be the temptation to be a god.” Ultimately, it is this state of constant combat which generates the “edge” of the river – the straight razor on which Willard and his crew must slither and crawl in order to reach Kurtz. While Kurtz’s question attempts to confront the contradictions of the war’s neo-colonial project, the presumption of Willard’s superior is that these contradictions are ineluctable – that Kurtz is destined to reiterate the project rather than escape it. From this tension, the film cultivates the “edge” within a particular spatiotemporal dialectics which I will now elaborate.

This is the End”

Before Willard’s narration begins, the soundtrack makes the film’s opening proclamation: with the vision of a row of palm trees bursting into flame, Jim Morrison’s voice eerily declares, “This is the end / Beautiful friend / This is the end / My only friend, the end / Of our elaborate plans, the end / Of everything that stands, the end / No safety or surprise, the end.” From thereon, the “end” becomes the dominant trope of the film – and furthermore, what organizes the “edge” which describes the river to Kurtz. More specifically, this apocalyptic “end” is the end of history – the “end” which Francis Fukuyama notoriously deems the “point where we cannot imagine a world substantially different from our own, in which there is no apparent or obvious way in which the future will represent a fundamental improvement over our current order.” Here, the “end” takes on two iterations: it is at once the “end” of no future, and the “end” of the spatial fix. And yet, Fukuyama’s “end” insufficiently accounts for the film’s use of Morrison’s “end,” which engages the “apocalypse” dialectically with the idea of a constant “now.” The dialectic submitted by the film’s title figures an “end” in a never-ending present, or a fate of what Benjamin conceives as “homogeneous, empty time.” However, this temporal “end” develops in synchronicity with the spatial apocalypse of the narrative as well: the “end” of locality under threat of the homogenization and emptying-process of globalized space.

In effect, the “end” temporality and spatiality posed by the film is precisely the “rim” posed by Pacific region discourse. The “end” renders the space of Vietnam territorialized to a point of no return – it is a Vietnam completely subsumed by western expansion, and moreover, a Vietnam of irretrievable locality. While the temporality of the film’s “edge” dialectics are situated on an axis of what Jameson calls the postmodern “crisis in historicism,” the “edge” very crucially engages in a spatial dialectic as well – that between the locality of edge-sites, and the globality of an “end” brought forth by capitalism. Nevertheless, the “end” is what mobilizes the film, as it compels the narrative up the river. From its geography of edge-sites, the film narrates a dialectic, and pushes against the initial declaration of the “end” with a vision of revolutionary possibility. This tension is ultimately conceived in the terms which Norman O. Brown figured as “apocalypse and / or metamorphosis”: the “edge” of the film, therein, is a temporal dialectic of “end” and futurity. It is in this sense that the “end” is the apocalypse which David Harvey conceptualizes as the “spatial fix”: the self-perpetuating crisis of geographical expansion, the addiction to territorialization.

The spatiotemporal “end” of Apocalypse Now, therein, accounts for a saturation point. This point is locatable in time and space, marking a “now” from which there is no return and no redemption. While the narrative of the film finds movement in the dialectic of time and space established by the “end,” this movement is more particularly oriented toward an alternate saturation point: what Willard describes as Kurtz’s “breaking point.” In his debriefing with Army officials, this point is articulated in psychological, behavioral terms. According to the officials, Kurtz’s decision to settle off river coincided with a shift in behavior “beyond the pale of decent human conduct.” Kurtz’s move “beyond” is what makes his particular “edge-site” distinct within the film’s geography. Whereas each of the sites on the way to his are spaces produced by a friction of placehood – by the struggle to recover locality within global networking – Kurtz’s decision to “get off the boat” takes on a different formation. Ultimately, Kurtz’s project is the “breaking point” of capitalism, and yet, it is moreover a point of return.

* * *

Throughout this analysis, I have placed particular emphasis on the geography of the film as operating synchronically with Kurtz’s “edge” allegory – and along the terms of this emphasis, it is most critical to locate Kurtz’s “breaking point” as what Willard narrates as “the end of the river all right.” As they gradually approach Kurtz’s settlement, Willard and his crew move beyond a passage of cliffs, presenting one of the more formidable images of the film. From the vantage of the boat and its remaining survivors, the cliffs peer above and obstruct any vision of the sky – figuring the river as a crack, barely pushing through the vastness of a mountainous region. What rises from this moment in the film is a “break point” in its geography, or a spatialization of the “end” of the river’s array of edge-sites.

As the final destination of the film, Kurtz’s edge-site must be understood as situated within the spatiotemporal dialectics of the narrative’s “end” tropology, but the site must also be engaged as a “point” from which Kurtz attempts to entirely abandon the teleology structured allegorically by the river as the edge of the straight razor. More precisely, Kurtz’s edge-site is an “end-site.”

The Breaking-Point

On his way to what I would call the film’s “end-site,” Willard makes the important gesture of leaving behind the documents he acquired from the officials who gave him his assignment. This is a gesture which must be understood as Willard’s attempt to abandon the content of his de-briefing, and moreover as his attempt to understand Kurtz through a different narrative than that created by his dossier. Earlier in the film, Willard reflects that the dossier presented a considerable challenge to the impression of Kurtz he absorbed in his de-briefing – being the impression which “put the hook” in him in Kurtz’s audio recording, rather than the actual formal de-briefing performed by his superiors. Very importantly, this act of abandonment is mediated by the river – by the trajectory of global capitalism which Kurtz attempts to traverse: as Willard and the Chef sail toward the camp, the “end of the river,” Willard leaves behind a trail of photographs, records, and correspondences which, until then, have supplemented direct interaction with Kurtz and his political project.

When they finally arrive at the “end-site,” Willard and the Chef are immediately greeted by a photojournalist who assures them that he is an “American civilian” – the character played manically by Dennis Hopper – and who provides what is effectively an alternate de-briefing to Willard. In contrast to the narrative passed on from the Army officials, the photojournalist – who remains unnamed through the rest of the film – attempts to convince Willard of Kurtz’s status as a “great man.” And yet, when Willard reaches this point in the river, he is entirely uninterested in the photojournalist’s critique. Rather, all that Willard wants is to make contact with Kurtz.

Before Willard succeeds in reaching Kurtz, the film takes the time to explore the particularities of Kurtz’s camp to an extent which catalyzes some of the problematics that, from thereon, begin to surface in later sequences of dialogues between the characters. In its first appearance, the “end-site” emerges from a dense fog. As Willard and the Chef float toward the dock of the river, after passing through the formidable cliffs – the film’s final geographical imagining of edge-space along the river – they pass through the barrier created by Kurtz’s followers, who have painted themselves white, and lined themselves in canoes along the coast. Above these followers are lines of rope from which dead bodies hang, rotting in the air while surrounded by flies and dripping blood into the water below. The site itself is a land of ruins – a setting which hosts tarnished architecture, overgrown by the jungle and obscured by the fog. Once the photojournalist has offered himself as their tour-guide, Willard and the Chef walk through a mass surrounding what is presumably Kurtz’s sanctuary, and the photojournalist notes that Kurtz’s “people” are south Vietnamese, the Vietcong, Cambodians, and Americans. From this initial presentation, there is indeed the possibility at this “breaking point” of an alternative to the river’s trajectory – a line of flight, from which the cultural trends of globalization are countered by a project of locality, and a project to, as Connery emphasizes, “un-imagine hegemony.” As Willard and the Chef absorb from this first encounter, the site bares a utopian possibility. And yet, as the Chef articulates, the “end-site” comes forth, to the contrary, as a form of “pagan idolatry.” While the Chef’s response to Kurtz’s camp is itself ideologically saturated – reflecting the very westernism to which Kurtz, at least ostensibly, offers a critique – the “end-site” is nevertheless inadequate as a site of un-imagining hegemony.

In its breaking from the river, Kurtz’s site is rather determined by hegemony as a looming point of reference. Beginning with the photojournalist, the camp takes shape with cultural signifiers of America. Despite its seeming project of transculturation –the cohabitation which the photojournalist quickly remarks upon, in his alternate de-briefing – Kurtz’s camp is nevertheless a breaking point held in a stasis of localism and globalism, and moreover, mobility and immobility.

Metamorphosis at a Standstill

As he elaborates the dialectics of apocalypse and / or metamorphosis, Norman O. Brown specifies that “the metamorphosis is a… turning.” In its application to Kurtz’s “edge” project, this emphasis on “turning” is critical to the localizability of his camp. At the end of the river, Kurtz’s site confronts the Brownian dialectic by means of this problem of movement: in reaching his “breaking point,” does Kurtz move into a process of metamorphosis? Does Kurtz’s edge-site push beyond the “end” — is the “end” countered by a turning? To these questions, it is imperative not only to explore the site of Kurtz’s “edge,” but to trace its orientation in relation to the “end.”

In both its spatial and temporal iterations, Kurtz’s site is uniformly oriented by a project of return – an orientation which, as Brown accentuates, constitutes a metamorphosis in its attempt at “turning.” Kurtz gets out of the boat in order to go “the whole way,” and to create movement beyond the edges imposed by the river’s orientation toward a temporal “end of history,” and toward a spatial end of placehood. To counter the river’s end-orientation, Kurtz’s site must be understood as baring an orientation toward the past. More specifically, the past from which Kurtz imagines the orientation of the “edge” is an idealized time and space – a spatiotemporal rendering of history which is inherently utopian.

Willard encounters Kurtz’s utopianism in their first conversation. A few hours after Willard arrives, Kurtz sends a crowd of “his people” — as the photojournalist calls them – to drag Willard through the rain into the crumbling stone architecture which has become, as a vestige of the past, a spatialization of Kurtz’s edge. Willard moves slowly through a hallway, covered in mud, and sits down upon instruction. After a pause, Kurtz’s voice emerges from the shadows, where Kurtz sits in a corner, looking very different from the dossier photographs Willard left behind in the river. As Kurtz begins to speak, he reveals a bowl placed in his lap, from which he pours handfuls of water over his shaven head. Between the two figures, the distinction is striking: Willard, on the ground, is the picture of filth, while Kurtz sits above him, cleansed in an act of self-baptism. By this point in the film, Willard brings to the scene a narrative of preconceptions – much of which he has struggled to maintain through the course of his journey up the river – and it is crucial to understand Kurtz’s self-introduction as a moment of attempted redemption. Moreover, it is his attempt at redemption which must be situated as the compelling force of his return orientation: at the end of the river, Kurtz has become a man who, in freeing himself from the past, nevertheless seeks to re-imagine history.

In keeping with the scene’s redemptive tropology, Kurtz and Willard’s first conversation establishes a new edge-site which, crucially, is figured within Kurtz’s utopian imaginary. After Willard divulges that he was born in Ohio, Kurtz recalls a plantation overgrown by gardenias that seemed like “heaven on earth.” As he elaborates this undeniably pastoral vision, Kurtz invokes an “edge” with evident parallels to the site he has produced at the end of the river. Like the gardenias of the plantation, the jungle appears to have re-claimed Kurtz’s edge, which is overgrown with vines and overtaken by fog and the sound of flies. And yet, in the midst of the beautiful description Kurtz imparts to Willard, Kurtz importantly remarks that this “heaven on earth” is an edge-site which must have gone “long ago.” It is in this sense that Kurtz’s orientation is not only oriented toward the past, but oriented toward an irretrievable past – this is a past which has no dialectical bearings on the present, or the future. While Kurtz idealizes his site as a place which redeems history, it is ultimately a place which remains in a standstill: an “edge” in metamorphosis, caught in the time and space of the “now.”

It is precisely because of the spatiotemporal orientation of Kurtz’s edge-site that his utopianism cannot become mobilized as a “breaking point” of metamorphic potential. From Kurtz’s idealization of the past, his utopianism renders a “now” informed by irretrievability of its point of reference: as a result, his utopia is what marks the film’s apocalypse. Rather than producing a place which makes a vision of “return” into a possibility, Kurtz re-produces the spatiotemporal dialectics of the river. This is the stasis which Baudrillard develops as a counter to the “end of history” — and which Kurtz, in his attempt to revolutionize this “end,” is stuck within. As Baudrillard describes, what is perhaps even more apocalyptic than the “end” is the “illusion of the end,” which poses an end of futurity: “The future no longer exists. [And] if there is no longer a future, there is no longer an end either. So this is not even the end of history.” The orientation which Kurtz cultivates at the “end of the river” takes on this illusion, which Baudrillard refines as the belief that:

…the collapse of the great empires opens up a renewal of history, whereas it merely opens out on to the metastases of empire… The great dismantled systems… find the means to perpetuate themselves in another way, not by dynastic filiation as in the past, but by something like fractal division, by scissiparity: micro-imperia, mico-dictatorships, micro-autarkies bearing within themselves, in miniature, all the stigmata and vices of empire… The end of empires means the unrestricted reign of slave micro-systems.

While Kurtz’s “breaking point” endeavors to return, its edge-site nevertheless opens out into the structural repetitions which Baudrillard conjectures. Ultimately, it is from the impossibility of Kurtz’s spatiotemporal orientation that his site becomes a micro-system of the hegemony from which it seeks a redemptive past.

The re-production of hegemony in Kurtz’s camp presents a problem of American imperial methodology which Willard continually struggles against following his first de-briefing. Once Kurtz has confronted Willard about the ultimate terms of his mission for the Army, Kurtz beheads the Chef and places Willard in captivity. After locking Willard in an underground chamber for a long period of confinement, Kurtz decides to free his captive. Before declaring Willard’s freedom, however, Kurtz sits at a stoop, outlined by light and surrounded by children, and reads Willard an article from Time magazine: America is “winning the Vietnam war,” the article states, by means of “[bringing] the enemy to the point of being unable to continue fighting.” While Kurtz presents the article with an implicit critique of the Vietnam war – and an implicit critique of Willard’s mission – the article moreover describes the method by which Kurtz has chosen to deal with the threat of his own assassination. In his ostensible rejection of the Army, and its system of hegemony, Kurtz nevertheless produces a space which reiterates the Army’s methodology and, therein, perpetuates the structure of global capitalism in a localized formulation on what would be called the Pacific Rim.

Break on Through to the Other Side”

After revealing his own “unsound methods” and adhering to the presuppositions of Willard’s de-briefing, Kurtz frees Willard from captivity as form of suicide. At the end of the river, Kurtz has become the snail, uncertain of the worser fate between survival and death. Brought to the “heart of darkness” imposed by Kurtz’s “end-site,” Willard is brought to the recognition of Kurtz as a perpetuator of hegemony – a colonist, whose primitivist project is structured by be-headings, torture, and captivity chambers. Ultimately, Willard and Kurtz act out of the same impulse: in deciding to complete his mission, Willard is compelled by a desire for movement, just as Kurtz desires movement beyond the metamorphic standstill of his camp. It is along the terms of each character’s desire that the conclusion of the film presents another “breaking point.” In reaching this “breaking” in its narrative, however, the film arrives at yet another edge-site of space and time – an edge which renders the future either uncertain, or nonexistent.

As in its opening sequence, the film’s conclusion is in part structured by the lyrical content of its soundtrack. While the film begins with a pronouncement of “the end,” its narrative ends with the demand to “break on through to the other side.” The scene begins with Willard preparing himself to murder Kurtz, painting himself in mud just as he was painted before their first encounter. All the while, near the coastal line of the river, Kurtz’s people gather for the ritual sacrifice of a cattle. As Willard moves past the scene outside Kurtz’s sanctuary, Jim Morrison’s voice once again emerges in the soundtrack:

You know the day destroys the night / Night divides the day / Tried to run / Tried to hide / Break on through to the other side / Break on through to the other side / Break on through to the other side, yeah / We chased our pleasures here / Dug our treasures there / But can you still recall / The time we cried / Break on through to the other side / Break on through to the other side.

For the remainder of the film, these lyrics serve as the narrative’s conclusive dialogue. In its gradual intensification, the song conceptualizes Kurtz’s assassination as the moment of Willard’s ultimate edge-crossing – as the point of the narrative at which the protagonist finally reaches the ascendance of the bildungsroman, and at which the “end” is pushed beyond a state of metamorphosis at a standstill. And yet, this movement toward “the other side” is achieved only to be negated. As Willard breaks through the edge of the “end,” he finds himself back at the “end” of the film’s beginning.

While Willard stabs Kurtz to death in the darkness, and Jim Morrison’s voice becomes more and more forceful, the film cuts back to the scene of the cattle’s slaughter, entangling Kurtz’s assassination in a system of ritualism. Once Kurtz has died, Willard stumbles out of the sanctuary, covered with blood. At the top of a long set of steps, he looks down at Kurtz’s people, and in this moment an earlier point of Willard’s narration becomes ultimately clarified: “There is no way to tell his story without telling my own.” Like Kurtz, Willard imagines “the other side” as a form of suicide: he looks out to the mass of Kurtz’s followers, and awaits a violent uproar. To the contrary, however, the people bow down. In murdering Kurtz, Willard inherits Kurtz’s Messianism – he inherits a “home” at the end of the river.

The “End” and / or the “Now”: Conditions of Possibility in a Geography of Edge-Sites

While the narrative of Apocalypse Now is a journey weaving between edge-sites, the “end-site” of Kurtz’s camp is where the “edge” no longer provides a mode by which to un-imagine the hegemony imposed by global expansionism. The “edge,” in Brown’s conception, constitutes a metamorphic “turning,” and yet it is a turning which folds into itself, and becomes subsumed by the “rim.” Rather than a metamorphosis, Kurtz’s site takes on the spatiality of the rhizome – the plateau which Deleuze and Guattari imagine as “a map that is always detachable, connectable, reversible, modifiable, and has multiple entryways and exits and its own lines of flight.” However, in elaborating this system, Deleuze and Guattari clarify that:

Every rhizome contains lines of segmentarity according to which it is stratified, territorialized, organized, signified, attributed, etc., as well as lines of deterritorialization down which it constantly flees. There is a rupture in the rhizome whenever segmentary lines explode into a line of flight, but the line of flight is part of the rhizome. These lines always tie back to one another.

Within this system, the “edge” tropology is re-coded. To reach a “breaking point” or to “break on through to the other side” suggest movements which are inevitably absorbed by the rhizome. The “edge,” therein, is the illusion of a line of flight, while ultimately, any attempt to revolutionize is always already folded back in. Willard’s decision complete his mission follows this trend of re-absorption. Whereas the movement he desires is conceived as an escape – an act of de-territorialization – what takes place at this “end” instead is a re-territorialization. In his endeavor to rid himself of Kurtz, Willard instead becomes Kurtz.

The “end” which is formulated by the last scene of the film represents a “breaking point” which nevertheless reveals the promise of escape – the promise of a line of flight from the trajectory established by the “end of history.” Willard decides to “break on through” as a means of what Benjamin imagines as an explosion from the continuum of history: a revolutionary bursting free of historical teleologies and linear time. What prevents this line of flight, however, is the orientation of Willard’s movement beyond the “end” — therein, the spatiotemporality of his revolutionary imaginary. Ultimately, both Willard and Kurtz fall into the rhizomatic modality, which simultaneously defeats the continuum of history, while it moreover defeats the Benjaminian explosion: what is lacking in this system is a dialectical configuration of space and time.

To the problematics posed by the rhizomatic repetition of the film’s last scene, David Harvey offers a useful point of contrast. What is crucial to any intervention on global capitalism, Harvey asserts, is not only a utopian orientation, but moreover a spatiotemporal dialectics, which, for both Kurtz and Willard, presents the crisis in each of their “breaking points.” In bringing themselves to the “breaking point,” each character imagines the port, yet as Harvey further articulates, “the task is to pull together a spatiotemporal utopianism – a dialectical utopianism: that is rooted in our present possibilities at the same time as it points towards different trajectories for human uneven geographical developments.” Ultimately, the apocalypse posed by Kurtz’s “end-site” develops from the spatiotemporal unavailability of his utopian vision. Along Harvey’s demands, what is missing from Kurtz’s project is not a “relation to both space and time,” but rather a dialectical correspondence between space and time which rejects the teleology of globalization, and which asserts a different trajectory for the future. In his vision of the past as a temporal and spatial point of no return, Kurtz creates a place which structurally forecloses the Benjaminian formulation of a Messianic “now.”

Edge Dialectics: Imagining the Rim and its Breaking-Point

As Harvey helps to clarify, the crisis of Kurtz’s edge-site is not its spatiotemporal utopianism, but its spatiotemporal dialectics. What ultimately folds the site back into an apocalyptic, rhizomatic spatiality is its un-dialectical orientation toward the past: in a present which poses the perpetuation of “no future,” Kurtz seeks a temporality which insufficiently constructs a “breaking point” from global capital. Rather, in the film’s formulation, edge-crossing yields reiteration, but no metamorphosis. The edge, therein, becomes a dialectic “standing still” — a stasis which Benjamin conceives as inherently imagistic: “dialectical images,” Benjamin claims, “are wish symbols. Actualized in them, together with the thing <Sache> itself, are its origin and its decline.” As a dialectical image, the “edge” contains a wish for turning which, in Kurtz’s imaginary, is necessarily the turning of decline. Reiteration is metamorphosis, but it is the “end” metamorphosis – the turning, and folding in toward apocalypse.

Kurtz’s “edge” articulates a longing for a primal, unavailable past which fails to dialectically engage with the present, or the future – it fails to imagine new conjectures beyond the teleology it hopes to escape. Yet this “edge” must ultimately be understood as a failure of the revolutionary possibilities of an edge discourse – a discourse which carries with it the dialectical potential to “break through” the hegemonic structure of the global geo-imaginary. While Kurtz constructs an edge which becomes absorbed into repetition, enveloped by the rhizomatic “rim,” there is nevertheless an edge with a different set of trajectories. What remains crucial, in the nascence of this discourse, is an intervention to the spatiotemporal orientation of the “rim” which produces sites of not only localized resistance, but utopian dialectics.

“Pacific Rim Discourse: The U.S. Global Imaginary in the Late Cold War Years,” 41

“Rimspeak; or, The Discourse of the ‘Pacific Rim’,” 65

To this problem of the spatial imagination of this discourse, Arif Dirlik further elaborates that “The Pacific region is an idea, if not just an idea, and terminology that pretends to a physical concreteness in its delineation is misleading to the extent that it conceals its origins in the human activity that produced the ideas.” Dirlik describes the historical conditions which led to the “invention” of the Pacific region as “a EuroAmerican global vision that incorporated the region’s peoples into a new inventory of the world and established relationships that bound them together in a regional structure. This structure expressed the demands of the nascent capitalist order that informed the new vision, rather than expressing needs intrinsic to the region.” (“The Asia-Pacific Idea,” What is in a Rim? 21, 24)

“Rimspeak; or, The Discourse of the ‘Pacific Rim’,” 68

“The Oceanic Feeling and the Regional Imaginary,” 306

Dirlik expands on this insufficiency in his essay “Global in the Local”: “Local resistance under the [global] circumstances must be translocal both in consciousness and action if it is to be meaningful at all,” to which he adds that “The dilemma is heightened by the fact that local consciousness, which is necessary as the basis for resistance, contradicts the translocal activity and consciousness that is a necessity of successful resistance. If this contradiction is overcome, the very fragmentation of the globe by capital may be turned to an advantage by resistance movements: the demand for authentically local against its exploitation as a means to assimilation may ‘overload’ global capitalism, driving it to fragmentation.” (“Global in the Local,” Global / Local, 41)

The “edge” is moreover a mode of engaging the Pacific “inside-out” — a process which Rob Wilson explores as a conceptualization of “global/local interweaving and postmodern interface [which] implies that the inside is already outside and vice versa: the boundary does not hold, impurity and difference exist as everyday fate, and the categories mix and bleed into one another in unstable new ways. Like a double exposure on one plate, ‘inside’ suggests complexity, reversal, juxtaposition, and even confusion.” (Inside Out, 6-7)

Heart of Darkness, 65

My emphasis on ‘place’ will draw from discourse on space which, as in Henri Lefebvre’s articulation, “implies a truth of space, and this must derive not from a location within space, but rather from a place imaginary and real – and hence ‘surreal’, yet concrete. And, yes – conceptual also.” The “edge” operates as a mode of placehood which draws from this demand for space to be conceived by means of these dialectics of imaginary and real, of space and time, global and local. Through the course of the essay, I will continue to extend the dialectics of ‘place’ from this point of reference. (The Production of Space, 251)

The “edge,” in this sense, serves to address what David Harvey poses as the problem of “[finding] a way to make sense of diverse, particular and often quite idiosyncratic geographical variations in relation to more general processes of capital accumulation, social struggle and environmental transformation.” And yet, as I will go on to explore in this essay, the “edge” is an apparatus which, contrary to the “rim,” lends itself to thinking through this problem of uneven geographical development, while it does not alone suffice to make sense of processes of capitalist expansion. (Spaces of Global Capitalism: Towards a Theory of Uneven Geographical Development, 78)

The Production of Space, 356

During the course of their dinner conversation, the patriarch of the family clarifies this sense of colonial inheritance when he tells Willard, “The Vietnamese… we worked with them, made something – something out of nothing… We want to stay here because it’s ours – it belongs to us. It keeps our family together.”

The End of History and the Last Man, 51

“Theses on the Philosophy of History,” 262

It is in this sense that the film’s “end” more precisely takes on the formulation of Baudrillard’s apocalypse, which reflects a temporality of perpetual present, rather than the a temporal “end” which Fukuyama suggests. In The Illusion of the End, Baudrillard suggests that “the future no longer exists. But if there is no longer a future, there is no longer an end either. So this is not even the end of history. We are faced with a paradoxical process of reversal, a reversive effect of modernity which, having reached its speculative limit and extrapolated all its virtual developments, its disintegrating into its simple elements in a catastrophic process of recurrence and turbulence… By this retroversion of history to infinity, this hyperbolic curvature, the century itself is escaping its end. By this retroaction of events, we are eluding our own deaths. Metaphorically, then, we shall not even reach the symbolic term of the end.” Later in this essay, Baudrillard’s diagnostic will provide a means of understanding the apocalypticism which paradoxically emerges from Kurtz’s utopian orientation – an orientation which, as I will elaborate, is reversive to the point of dystopianism. (The Illusion of the End, 11)

In his essay “Periodizing the 60s,” Jameson elaborates this crisis as a crisis of representation, and suggests that “the most intelligent ‘solution’ to such a crisis does not consist in abandoning historiography altogether, as an impossible aim and an ideological category all at once, but rather – as in the modernist aesthetic itself – in reogranizing its traditional procedures on a different level.” The “edge,” within the frame of this allegorically-oriented project, attempts to do this critical work which Jameson demands of historiography under threat of postmodern narratology: to recover the politics of history, while negotiating with ideological structures. (“Periodizing the 60s,” 180)

Harvey clarifies this term etymologically: “In English, the word ‘fix’ has multiple meanings. One meaning, as in ‘the pole was fixed in the hole’, refers to something is secured in space: it cannot be moved or modified. Another, as in ‘fix a problem’, is to resolve a difficulty, take care of a problem. Again, the sense is that things are made secure, but by returning things to normal functioning again… This second meaning has a metaphorical derivative, as in ‘the drug addict needs a fix’… Once the ‘fix’ is found or achieved then the problem is resolved and the desire evaporates. But, as in the case of the drug addict, it is implied that the resolution is temporary rather than permanent… It was primarily in this last sense that I first deployed the term ‘spatial fix’ to describe capitalism’s insatiable drive to resolve its inner crisis tendancies by geographical expansion and geographical restructuring.” (“Globalization and the ‘Spatial Fix’”, 24)

In his chapter “Boundary” from Love’s Body, Norman O. Brown writes a formulation of these tropes as intrinsically connected: “To the breaking point.” He writes, “Carrying the thought through to the end; crucial experiments, experimentum crucis. A witness (martyr) steadfast to the end, tested in extremis. Extremism. Truth is not in safety or in the middle.” (Love’s Body, 186-187)

Apocalypse and / or Metamorphosis, 9

The Illusion of the End, 10-11

The Illusion of the End, 50

A Thousand Plateaus, 21

A Thousand Plateaus, 9

Deleuze and Guattari include this piece by Sylvano Bussati as an epitaph to the Rhizome chapter of A Thousand Plateaus, while it can moreover illustrate the edge-practice generated by this ontology. Lines of flight are each systemically inseparable from the webbing of multiplicities.

Spaces of Hope, 189

Spaces of Hope196

The Arcades Project, 911


Big Sur edges: Kerouac & Brautigan
August 22, 2010, 5:26 pm
Filed under: longer pieces

Salvation Now, or, the ‘Last’ Frontier’:

Endings and Futurities in Two Big Sur Narratives

by Madeline McDonald Lane

“Living here, whether at the edge of the sea or on top of a mountain, one gets the feeling that it is all happening ‘out there’ somewhere. One is not obliged to read the daily paper over his morning coffee nor tune in on the radio for the latest shock injection. One can live with or without, take it or leave it.”

— Henry Miller, Big Sur and the Oranges of Hieronymous Bosch

Mecca of Sex and Banned Literature”

Particularly during the postwar era, Big Sur marked an incubator for the creative, sexual, religious and psychedelic experimentation which would become assimilated into the mainstream of sixties youth culture. In Big Sur’s literary scene, perhaps the most quintessential figure was Henry Miller, who took up residence from 1944 to 1962. Eventually, as Jeffrey John Kripal writes, Miller would establish a legend of Big Sur “that would stamp the place as a mecca of sex, [and] banned literature.” In his memoir about his time there, Miller writes of the setting’s residents as being “not concerned with undermining the vicious system but with leading their own lives – on the fringe of society. It is only natural to find them gravitating towards places like Big Sur… we are in the habit of speaking of ‘the last frontier.’” As Miller specifies, the countercultural “fringe of society” was not so much a space of activism, but rather a place for retreat. While San Francisco hosted mass movements which were oriented towards reconfigurations of the urban – such as the subjects of Joan Didion’s critique in another edge narrative, “Slouching Towards Bethlehem” – with a ‘back to the garden’ movement, or, in the specific case of the Diggers, with situationist and pro-anarchical politics, Big Sur had a different orientation, and much of the setting’s literature describes the desire to escape – the desire to go beyond the Pacific edge, into a space of beatitude and new religiosity.

As an “edge” to inhabit, Big Sur appealed to Miller as a place that would in some sense maintain his expatriate status. After spending ten years in Paris – the period he documented in Tropic of Cancer, Tropic of Capricorn, and Black Spring – Miller would eventually reflect on Big Sur as his “first real home,” in part because of the “alien world” to which it offered him access: “Doubtless those who appreciate ‘home’,” Miller wrote,

…are the eternal vagabonds, the outlaws. If I am ever to venture forth into the world again I trust I can now offer something of a root as well as flower. To offer simply what Big Sur has taught me would be no small thing. I say Big Sur, not America. For, however much a part of America Big Sur may be, and it is American through and through, what distinguishes it is something more than the word America conveys.

Miller’s Big Sur and the Oranges of Hieronymous Bosch particularizes this “alien world” as not simply a place to remain an ex-American, but rather a place to connect to something transformative, at the edge of the Pacific, and to extend beyond some already determined concept of ‘Americanness.’ As he describes, the experience of alienation was integral to this home for permanent outsiders, providing Miller with a critical distance from the ongoing events of the postwar period, while keeping him in close proximity to an alternative reality – a community of creative and countercultural energies that would anchor him to Big Sur for eighteen years.

Ultimately, Miller would “venture forth into the world again” and leave for Los Angeles, marking a point of considerable transition in Big Sur literary tradition. This was also the year, 1962, that Robinson Jeffers would die, after spending nearly fifty years as the “poet of Carmel-Sur,” and living at what he called the “Continent’s End.” In the midst of this transitional moment, two new writers emerged from the tradition of Big Sur narrative in the counterculture. Following the success of On the Road, The Subterraneans, and The Dharma Bums, Jack Kerouac wrote Big Sur as a more despairing, existential continuation of his self-referential beatnik saga – what he called the “Duluoz Legend.” Kerouac’s wide-reaching celebrity status made the novel an eagerly awaited publication, and much of the novel in fact describes Kerouac’s particular desire to retreat from his “King of Beatniks” persona. Richard Brautigan wrote a Big Sur novel that year as well – although, unlike Kerouac, Brautigan would not have the commercial appeal to publish A Confederate General From Big Sur for two more years. Each author offers a different account of what would happen to Miller’s “last frontier” in Big Sur, situating their narratives in the setting with markedly different orientations at the historical edge of the early sixties, at the edge of the California geo-imaginary, and moreover, at a burgeoning utopian world space in the globalized horizon.

* * *

i had envisioned you


on the spontaneous pilgrimages…

quick flight to the border of reality

to beyond time journey…

in quest of seclusion

where blue ether touches everywhere


the infinite horizon



was a thought which


followed DEATH

— Brenda Frazer, “Poem to Lee Forest: /a commemoration/or recourse

to Elemental Beauty”

The Country and the City

Both Kerouac and Brautigan narrate the Big Sur pilgrimage with San Francisco as their point of origin – as the point from which “Big Sur” represents the “Big South,” but also as a place containing its own conceivable “fringe of society.” For Kerouac especially, Big Sur offered a retreat from the dominance of San Francisco’s beat culture. While Kerouac sought refuge from the spotlight of this moment, however, Brautigan escaped to Big Sur with different incentives. Unlike Kerouac, Brautigan was already at the fringe of the city: his trip to Big Sur came at the beginning of his career, years before the popularity of Trout Fishing in America. As a result of these alternate experiences of San Francisco – or, perhaps more crucially, these distinct modes of urban inhabitance – each author’s retreat to Big Sur has an acutely different set of incentives. Yet in each case, Big Sur very significantly transforms into a place of both de-urbanization and psychopolitical edge-crossing.

Brautigan and Kerouac similarly develop a struggle to de-urbanize from a long tradition of country and city narratives – which in these cases, maps onto another narrative of California as the frontier. In the narrative of the San Francisco to Big Sur ‘retreat,’ there is moreover the possibility to think through this movement between sites as attempts to escape frontierism as a mode of urbanizing. The resistance to reproduce the experience of the city in the country is a resistance to the logic of capitalist expansion – Kerouac and Brautigan both demonstrate a longing for a different existence, within the fringe, or the ‘edge’ of the postwar boom.

Beginning with Kerouac’s novel, the country and the city are initially framed within an analogy to heaven and hell. From the first chapter of Big Sur, Jack Duluoz seeks to correct the hellishness associated with the urbanity of his San Francisco experience:

I wake up drunk, sick, disgusted, frightened, in fact terrified by that sad song across the roofs mingling with the lachrymose cries of a Salvation Army meeting on the corner below ‘Satan is the cause of your alcoholism, Satan is the cause of your immorality, Satan is everywhere workin to destroy you unless you repent now’ and worse than that the sound of old drunks throwing up in rooms next to mine, the creak of the hall steps, the moans everywhere – Including the moan that had awakened me, my own moan in the lumpy bed, a moan caused by a big roaring Whoo Whoo in my head that had shot me out of my pillow like a ghost.

For Kerouac, de-urbanization is anticipated as spiritual cleansing – a process which he imagines will purify him from the personal demons he associates with his life in San Francisco. Yet the dominant conflict of Kerouac’s narrative is his protagonist’s attempt to psychically sever himself from the city. This conflict becomes immediately apparent when Duluoz arrives at Big Sur: although he attempts to absorb himself in what he calls a “dreamy meadowland” as an escape from the satanic city, his attempt is quickly disrupted: “I’d just popped thru from hell into familiar old Heaven on Earth, yair and Thank God (tho a minute late my heart’s in my mouth again because I see black things in the white sand ahead but it’s only piles of good old mule dung in Heaven).” Here Duluoz describes a celestial experience which is nevertheless haunted by “black things.” This hellish mirage reveals the psychical baggage which the character brings with him, yet once he recognizes that it is in fact mule dung, this image also comes to signify the setting’s earthliness. What looms over Duluoz is not the hell imposed by urbanity, but rather the hell imposed by his psyche: although he imagines Big Sur as a place of total retreat, his arrival fails to bring about the liberation which he seeks a process of de-urbanization.

Through the course of Kerouac’s novel, Duluoz makes three retreats to Big Sur, each of which further collapses the distinction initially made between country and city. In this unfolding, the demons of San Francisco colonize Big Sur, while Duluoz becomes defeated by a lost sense of place – a sense of psychical disorientation. No longer capable of maintaining his experience of retreat, Duluoz suffers a breakdown which reaches its climax in the following hallucination:

I see the Cross, it’s silent, it stays a long time, my heart goes out to it, my whole body fades away to it, I hold out my arms to be taken away to it, by God I am being taken away my body starts dying and swooning out to the Cross standing in a luminous area of the darkness… [I] let myself go into death and the Cross: as soon as that happens I slowly sink back to life – Therefore the devils are back.

The Cross culminates Duluoz’s longing for spiritual cleansing, and his inability to achieve that cleansing, while it moreover presents a different kind of edge which Duluoz does not dare reach beyond: “the devils are back” precisely because Duluoz is still alive; his escape is not in the country, but rather in his death.

In contrast to Kerouac’s spiritual pilgrimage, Brautigan’s narrative describes the pursuit of an alternate reality – an edge of possibility. Lee and Jesse, Brautigan’s main characters, retreat to Big Sur as a means of transformation, and as a means of re-imagining the reality imposed by the city. In the beginning of the novel, the characters go to the city’s public library in order to verify the existence of Lee’s ancestor – the novel’s namesake – after meeting one another in a bar. When they fail to make this verification, Lee refutes the library book’s account of history, demanding that Jesse “believe [till your dying day] that a Mellon was a Confederate general. It’s the truth. That God-damn book lies! There was a Confederate general in my family!” To preserve this “truth,” the characters leave for Big Sur, where they believe that they can sustain themselves within an autonomous imaginary space. Although they seemingly remove themselves from the reality of San Francisco, however, both characters attempt to construct a life in the country which cannot possibly be preserved. Much like Duluoz’s search for heaven on earth, the alternative reality in Brautigan’s novel represents that which is both desired yet irretrievable in Big Sur.

Irretrievability arises as the crucial challenge in each Big Sur narrative, taking particular form in the very notion of ‘country.’ In The Country and the City, Raymond Williams elaborates on this struggle as one which can be understood as a longing for childhood:

…how often an idea of the country is… not only the local memories, or the ideally shared communal memory, but the feel of childhood: of delighted absorption in our own world, from which, eventually, in the course of growing up, we are distanced and separated, so that it and the world become things we observe… what was once close, absorbing, accepted, familiar, internally experienced becomes separate, distinguishable, critical, changing, externally observed.

What Williams describes as the distance and separation of growing up becomes, in both narratives, absolutely entangled with a conception of the country retreat as an experience of actualizing a return to that which is fundamentally unattainable. For Kerouac and Brautigan alike, urbanization is a process of growing up: separation from childhood, therein, is distance from the country. However, as the country’s initial appeal unfolds into an impossibility in both narratives, the longing for a “delighted absorption in our own world” becomes increasingly intense as well. This tension between the actualization and desire for retreat results in a collision, generating a dialectical edge which is reached by the conclusion of each novel. Yet in reaching this edge of the possible – and of the proliferation of urbanization in global capital – these authors describe very different moments of confrontation in their final chapters.

The Spatiotemporal Edge

By the end of both novels, the failure to retreat in the country culminates in an encounter with the ocean. In each case, the oceanic represents that which is exceeding an edge imposed by time and space – an edge which at first compels the characters to Big Sur, but which does not ultimately facilitate an experience of urban escape to the desired, globally returning extent. Consequently, the ocean becomes the continuation of what is originally anticipated in Big Sur, and the idealized space of the country is projected beyond the coastal edge in both conclusions. In each case, however, the ocean takes on a distinct form, with the edge of the Pacific provoking a different orientation toward an idea of ‘history.’ Still, before considering the situation of these narratives at the edge of history, it will be crucial to think through precisely what is at stake in the temporality and spatiality evoked by the oceanic edge.

Like the country and the city, the ocean conjures an enduring literary tradition in which these authors are certainly invested. When he was asked in an interview about the final chapter of Big Sur – a poem entitled “Sea: Sounds of the Pacific Ocean at Big Sur” — Kerouac responded that “Joyce [was] gonna’ sit by the sea. He’s blind, remember? He’s gonna sit by the sea and write the sounds of the sea, and he died and didn’t do it, so I did it for him.” In Kerouac’s narrative especially, the inheritance of this literature is quite prominent. In addition to his homage to Joyce, Kerouac’s final chapter must also be read as the reification of Henry Miller’s “last frontier” — and therein, a modernist tropology – as the barrier of representation which is inhabited, but which cannot be crossed.

Kerouac’s poem comes from a voice which hovers within an edge-space – an edge between levels of intelligibility and representability, between Hegelian registers of land and sea, between life and death. Ultimately, the “last frontier” in the poem incites the anxiety that initially surfaces in Duluoz’s hallucination of the Cross:

A troublesome spirit / hanging hanging here cant make it / in the void – The sea’ll / only drown me… We try to make our way in self reliance, aid / not ever comes too quick / from wherever & whatever / heaven dear may have suggested to promise us — / But these waves scare me — / I am going to die / in full despair.

The experience of imminent death is symbolically catalyzed by the Cross and the “last frontier,” and it yields a very particular spatiality. In the case of the Cross, Duluoz holds out his arms “to be taken away to it,” feeling the pull of redemption in being confronted by his mortality. At the frontier, however, death no longer holds the promise of heaven for the voice found “hanging here cant make it.” After retreating to the country for spiritual cleansing, Duluoz is brought to the edge of “full despair,” and as he gives up on his notion of the country, he moreover gives up on what he describes earlier as “childhood reveries”: he recalls “I conceived myself as a special solitary angel sent down as a messenger from Heaven to tell everybody or show everybody by example that their peeking society was actually the Satanic Society and they were all on the wrong track.” When the narrative ends at the ocean, the possibility of redemption has been defeated. The Cross no longer appears for Duluoz “to be taken away,” provoking a response to the frontier which has a distinctly inward orientation.

The inwardness of Kerouac’s narrative develops into several iterations. In taking Duluoz to this edge, Kerouac disrupts the fragile deviations of his authorial voice, and engages in a more psychically-driven, introspective poem that is no longer masked by the notion of an alter-ego: he writes in clear self-reference that “These words are affectations of sick mortality.” Through the course of the novel, the celebrity from which Duluoz seeks his escape becomes more apparently mediated by Kerouac’s own self-destruction. While this self-destruction begins to surface with Duluoz’s alcoholism, his personal demons manifest in moments of Kerouac’s explicit self-representation as a writer. At one point, he explains that “the sea swirls up but seems subdued – It’s not like being alone down in the vast hell writing the sounds of the sea.” In this sense, Kerouac’s entire narrative can be read as a mediation on the edge – a mediation which negotiates between a self and a mediated self, and furthermore, between self-preservation and self-destruction. By the end of the novel, however, what is beyond this edge remains impenetrable, and Kerouac retreats into an existence of both intoxication and introspection.

While Kerouac concludes his novel with Duluoz ricocheting off the edge and heading back to San Francisco, Brautigan’s narrative represents a strongly outward orientation. Like Duluoz, Jesse is compelled toward the “last frontier,” where he narrates that the ocean “rolled to its inevitable course: our bodies at the edge with Lee Mellon rolling dope.” Inhabiting this edge-space, the characters use drugs as a means of projecting the country onto the rolling ocean, and preserving their desire for an alternative reality and autonomous imaginary. The psychical frontier of Kerouac’s ocean is reconfigured as a psychedelic contact zone for Brautigan: a space in which the psychical becomes externalized. Rather than retreat from the ocean, Lee and Jesse interact with the edge, and ultimately – as in Duluoz’s hallucination of the Cross – allow themselves “to be taken away to it.” Lee and Jesse come to inhabit this edge space by breaking down the temporal barrier of the “last frontier” — defying the very notion of an “end.” Entitled “To a Pomegranate Ending, Then 186,000 Endings Per Second,” the last chapter of Brautigan’s narrative poses “Ending” as an edge-site which moreover maps onto a particular orientation to historical time and globalized space.

Between Big Sur and A Confederate General From Big Sur there stem two divergent spatiotemporal figurations: contrary to Kerouac’s inward and backward occlusion at the frontier, Brautigan traverses this edge-space and extends outward. While it is a novel decidedly concerned with the past, Confederate General is nevertheless directed by its futurity, making contact with the transformative energies of the sixties in a way which is entirely absent through the course of Kerouac’s narrative. Brautigan cultivates this futurity in the novel all the while, until this temporality ultimately breaks free of the frontier with Brautigan’s particular configuration of “Ending.”

Brautigan’s last chapter reflects on the novel’s end itself as a form of edge-space, while it denies any definitive ending to its narrative of futurity. After offering five possible variants on this edge, Brautigan entitles the novel’s “last” ending “186,000 ENDINGS PER SECOND”: “Then there are more and more endings: the sixth, the 53rd, the 131st, the 9,435th ending, endings going faster and faster, more and more endings, faster and faster until this book is having 186,000 endings per second.” Here, Brautigan applies a calculus of time and space – the speed of light – which brings “this book” beyond frontierism. At this edge imposed by the limits of nature, Brautigan’s “endings” burst into light, culminating in a nexus of temporalities, or a multiplicity of possibilities and impending transformation that evokes a particularly Benjaminian sense of revolution – as Benjamin writes, revolution is marked by the “continuum of history [exploding].” Throughout the novel, this continuum of history represents an edge which Brautigan consistently attempts to break through. Down to the very premise of a Confederate general from Big Sur, the narrative of Brautigan’s pilgrimage insistently re-negotiates the terms of linear history. Yet Brautigan’s resistance to “ending” is moreover an attempt to situate his novel in the present. In specifying that “this book is having 186,000 endings per second,” Brautigan writes his narrative from the perspective of a permanent “now.” It is in this sense that Brautigan’s futurity becomes a mode of historical orientation which is nevertheless rooted in its presentness: as Benjamin argues, “History is the subject of a structure whose site is not homogenous, empty time, but time filled by the presence of now. Thus, to Robespierre ancient Rome was a past charged with the time of the now which he blasted out of the continuum of history.” In his rejection of this continuum, Brautigan organizes his history according to a different temporality. As “this book” defies its own ending, blasting at the speed of light, Brautigan generates a moment of historicity which becomes electrified by revolutionary time.

From the bursting energies of his last “ending,” Brautigan concludes his novel with an explosion of temporalities – a blasting out of the continuum, as Benjamin puts it – which extends out toward the ocean, making contact with a more global vision of the sixties. In his essay “The World Sixties,” Christopher Connery imagines a worlded sixties as one which “serves as another scene of possibility, another set of conjunctures, a lens through which we can reflect on change and transformation, on the dialectics of success and failure, and on the current situation.” For Brautigan, this worlded vision emerges with a multiplicity of transformative possibilities imagined in his “last” ending – an ending which signifies an opening up of history: a vision of history which defies any attempt to become occluded within the continuum, but which is moreover firmly rooted in the “presence of now.” In this configuration of “now,” Brautigan taps into what Connery discusses as energies and newly developed forms which “remain available to future conjunctures.” Ultimately, Brautigan’s future seeks an autonomy which, as I will now explore, can only be made possible through breaking down the frontier of linear time, and therein defeating the spatial barriers which obstruct his vision of historical and world contact, as he confronts the horizon of global capitalism.

* * *

So far in this essay, I have considered Brautigan and Kerouac as reflecting oppositional spatiotemporal orientations, each of which geographically map onto Big Sur at the “edge” of the ocean, yet which also historically map onto 1962 at the “edge” of the sixties. For both novels, these orientations develop in response to the failed attempt to de-urbanize – as frontier pilgrims, they bring the city with them. While Kerouac reifies the “last frontier,” this is not Miller’s “last frontier”: Kerouac’s experience becomes colored by his regret and longing for the past. As I have also argued, the “frontier” is transformed into a space of contact for Brautigan, which is a distinction I will further develop within this spatiotemporal framing. This binary of “contact” and “frontier,” however, has bearings on another edge which these authors also straddle – that between the historical and the mythological, respectively. The frontier represents a barrier of history for Brautigan, while for Kerouac, it is a barrier preserving a connection to a mythological past.

Let to themselves people

grow their hair.

Left to themselves they

take off their shoes.

Left to themselves they make love

sleep easily

share blankets, dope & children

they are not lazy or afraid

they plant seeds, they smile, they

speak to one another. The word

coming into its own: touch of love

on the brain, the ear.

We return with the sea, the tides

we return as often as leaves, as numerous

as grass, gentle, insistent, we remember

the way,

our babes toddle barefoot thru the cities of the universe.

— Diane Di Prima, Revolutionary Letter #4

186,000 Edges Per Second

Myth is the unitary construction of the thought which guarantees the entire cosmic order surrounding the order which this society has in fact already realized within its frontiers.

— Guy Debord, The Society of the Spectacle

In Kerouac’s “Sea” poem, the frontier is an uncrossable edge, and evokes an immobility in Kerouac’s narration which Barthes identifies as integral to mythology. For Barthes, “the very end of myths is to immobilize the world,” and as a result,

Every day and everywhere, man is stopped by myths, referred by them to this motionless prototype which lives in his place, stifles him in the manner of a huge internal parasite and assigns to his activity the narrow limits within which he is allowed to suffer without upsetting the world.

Duluoz turns into the victim of this parasite, steadily through the narrative, as he is stopped by the myth of American frontierism and becomes compelled to turn inward. The frontier represents these “narrow limits” of suffering for Kerouac, who ultimately surrenders to what Lyotard would call “le mur du Pacifique.” As a result of this “wall” of the frontier, California becomes, as Baudrillard argues, “[imprisoned] by its own beatitude… whereas the demand for happiness used to be something oceanic and emancipatory, here it comes wrapped up in a foetal tranquility.” Kerouac’s psychical turn attests to this foetal existence, which Baudrillard describes as the fate of the simulacrum – an “inward-looking illusion” promoted by Californian frontierism. At the end of Big Sur, it is this experience of “le mur du Pacifique” which prompts the self-destruction in Kerouac’s poem. Kerouac no longer believes in heaven, but only hell. This is a vision of the edge as apocalypse – what has been pronounced as “the end of history.” In taking himself to this edge of postmodern damnation, Kerouac surrenders to the frontier: he surrenders to an existence in which the real and the imaginary bare no distinction, and moreover, to an existence which is mythically oriented. Kerouac’s mythological turn, as Barthes explains, is the evaporation of history.

While their orientations are split at this spatiotemporal edge, Kerouac and Brautigan are similarly terrorized by “le mur du Pacifique.” And although Kerouac submits to the simulacrum, and to the frontier’s mythological past as history, he represents this as a suicidal, apocalyptic moment in the novel’s conclusion. Yet in Brautigan’s “endings,” he imagines a future beyond this barrier, specifically in his first section, “A Pomegranate Ending.” After getting high and looking into the ocean, Jesse goes on a walk with the character Elaine, who is described as beautiful and “really on an erotic thing.” In this conceivably ideal situation, however, Jesse explains, “I could only look at it like somebody watches a pinball machine” — and as Elaine continues her “erotic thing,” Jesse’s experience becomes increasingly mediated: he watches her take off her clothes and thinks of “Hamlet, some kind of weird Hamlet where maybe Ophelia would take her clothes off like Elaine was doing,” as he wonders why he cannot get an erection. Ultimately, Jesse explains, “nothing happened.” While in Kerouac’s experience of the frontier, “le mur du Pacifique” activates self-destruction, for Brautigan this wall induces impotence – it prevents the creation of anything new. Elaine has become a “thing,” a commodity, a pinball machine, or the simulation of Ophelia. Like Duluoz, Jesse is pulled inward through the course of this scene: Jesse narrates that he “felt very strange and confused inside.” The escape from Duluoz’s fate, however, comes with the “pomegranate” of this first “ending.” When Roy Earle arrives at the beach, Elaine asks him if he has lost something, to which he replies that he “Forgot my pomegranate.” With this quick exchange, Brautigan begins to break from the frontier and into an attempt at contact – an attempt which reaches toward the future, and toward experience beyond postmodern repetition.

Contrary to Elaine’s damnation to thingness, Roy Earle’s pomegranate is an object saturated with mythology, a symbol of fertility which defies Jesse’s impotence, which nevertheless is the entry-point to what Brautigan imagines as beyond the edge of postmodernity. This entry-point is presented at a very particular moment, when Jesse reflects that “there was nothing else to do, for after all this was the destiny of our lives. A long time ago this was our future, looking now for a lost pomegranate at Big Sur.” Here, the nexus of Brautigan’s temporalities accumulate. Jesse’s search for the pomegranate is a search for raw material, in a world in which history has evaporated into myth, and in which everything has been rendered simulatable. Yet after he has pronounced that this search is his destiny, his next sentence registers a different temporal mode: “destiny” is configured as the future of the past as it occurs in the “now.” From this temporal accumulation, Brautigan creates a space which makes contact with the possibility of redemption. Brautigan draws on the pomegranate as a passage to what Norman O. Brown configures as the “return to symbolism” — a redemption which “gathers up the past into the present in the form of a recapitulation… It is a gathering up of time into eternity; a transfiguration of time.” “186,000 ENDINGS PER SECOND” epitomizes this Brownian process of temporal “gathering”; the pomegranate, however, is the instigator of Jesse’s search for what Brown conceives as “symbolical consciousness” — beginning “with the perception of the invisible reality of our present situation,” Brown explains, “Real life is life after death, or resurrection. The deadness with which we are dead here now is the real death; of which literal death is only a shadow, a bogey.” In this sense, the “end” projected onto Kerouac’s frontier represents a death which has already occurred – and, to the contrary, Brautigan’s search for the pomegranate makes an attempt at this resurrection, through contact with the “invisible reality” of simulation. Yet the pomegranate is not found by the end of this “ending,” and it stays with the characters on the beach, which becomes a space of interaction between “le mur du Pacifique” and symbolical consciousness.

The particular spatiality offered by the beach can be understood as what Jean-Didier Urbain explains as “cocooning” that takes place on beaches. Brautigan’s use of the beach certainly aligns with this “cocooning” metaphor, which suggests that the beach preserves this space of creative interaction, but which also presupposes a bursting in the future: from the cocoon, something must fly away… in Brautigan’s vision, at the speed of light.

What takes flight with the “endings” of Brautigan’s conclusion is a new formulation of history which combats the ahistoricism and flatness of an impending scene of globalization. Beginning with the project of his characters – to believe in the Confederate general – Brautigan interrogates what Brown discusses as the Protestant literalism of modern historical consciousness, which aims “to establish for historical events a single simple, solid, and constant meaning – what really happened.” In his refusal to submit to this form of historical consciousness, Brautigan responds to a crisis of historical thinking – a crisis to which, as Jameson emphasizes, a new “concept of history” must be posed. For Brautigan, this concept is redemptive, while it demands a ‘newness’ which is also a return: for each “ending” there is another “ending,” producing a history which, as Brown imagines the “full circle” of redemption, “finds the New in the Old, and the Old in the New.” This redemptive cyclicality yields a future which is made whole in relation to history – it envisions what Benjamin describes as “a redeemed mankind [which] receives the fullness of its past – which is to say, only for a redeemed mankind has its past become citable in all its moments.” In the collision of ultimate possibility which occurs in the last “ending,” symbolical consciousness explodes from the cocoon of the simulacrum, and activates this cycle of redemption by liberating a past which has been oppressed by the mythology of the frontier, the stasis of “le mur du Pacifique,” and the flattening of global capitalism.

Along this interpretation of Brautigan’s return to symbolism, the seagull emerges as an organizing symbol which, through the course of the other “endings,” motivates a new, Brownian symbolical consciousness. After Jesse thinks to himself in the first ending, “There should be a bird that… sings when you are impotent,” each of the following “endings” begins with “A seagull flew over us.” The seagull becomes this bird, symbolizing the solution to Jesse’s impotence at the edge of “the end of history.” Through the course of the “endings,” the seagull’s symbolism provides a constant, while the possibilities of its symbolism are exploded in alternative temporalities.

In his second “ending,” Brautigan describes a great distance from the seagull, and the impotence of the characters corresponds with this distance: Jesse remarks that “Nothing had changed. They were exactly the same.” While the seagull flies over them, they remain fixed within a postmodern cocoon, yielding an “ending” which expresses the same resignation in Kerouac’s poem. In the third “ending,” however, the seagull begins to sing: “its voice running with the light, its voice passing historically through songs of gentle color. We closed our eyes and the bird’s shadow was in our ears.” The synesthesia of this description opens a new realm of possibility, beyond the stasis of the photographic existence – and as the seagull passes “historically through songs of gentle color,” Jesse is offered redemption. The longing for redemption grows from the first “ending,” and culminates in Brautigan’s fifth “ending” — before “this book is having 186,000 endings per second” — when Jesse sees the seagull flying over him and, as he narrates, “I reached up and ran my hand along his beautiful soft white feathers.” Through the course of these “endings,” Jesse becomes activated. Not only does he imagine redemption from simulation, but moreover the re-birth of history.

The Resurrecting Edge

If, through poetry, we restore to the activity of language its free field of expression, we are obliged to supervise the use of fossilized metaphors. For instance, when open and closed are to play a metaphorical role, shall we harden or soften the metaphor?… Each metaphor must be restored to its surface nature; it must be brought up out of habit of expression to actuality of expression. For it is dangerous, in expressing oneself, to be “all roots.”

— Gaston Bachelard, The Poetics of Space

The ‘edge’ offers a mode of thinking about the revolutionary sixties which puts symbolical consciousness into practice. Yet as a symbol, the ‘edge’ must be crossed. In his nonfiction novel Hell’s Angels, Hunter S. Thompson concludes with a meditation on this symbol:

You watch the white line and try to lean with it… howling… watching for cops, but only until the next dark stretch and another few seconds on the edge… The Edge… There is no honest way to explain it because the only people who really know where it is are the ones who have gone over. The others – the living – are those who pushed their control as far as they felt they could handle it, and then pulled back, or slowed down, or did whatever they had to when it came time to choose between Now and Later… But the edge is still Out there. Or maybe it’s In.

In his figurations of time and space, Thompson provides an “edge” which echoes each of our early sixties pilgrimages to Big Sur. But the edge is moreover conceived in the form of a return: Thompson’s ‘edge’ is both In and Out, symbolically linear and cyclical at once. It is in this sense that Brautigan draws on the ‘edge’ of Big Sur to imagine the symbolic possibilities of redemptive history, but also to pose this redemption as a form of utopianism which confronts the conditions of possibility posed by the “endings” of postmodernity. Brautigan’s utopianism is what compels the spatiotemporal dimensions of his narrative: it is the force which bursts from the beach, taking form as redemption. Ultimately, utopia is the critical distinction between these Big Sur narratives. While Kerouac becomes paralyzed by his nostalgia, and by his longing for the unachievable, Brautigan reflects a directionality in his oceanic utopianism: as David Harvey writes, “The problem is that without a vision of Utopia there is no way to define that port to which we might want to sail.”

Brautigan’s utopia explodes from the postmodern, and circles back toward a resurrected yet re-figured symbolism. Although Brautigan imagines beyond “le mur du Pacifique,” the very notion of utopia is radical to postmodernity: “the waning of the utopian idea,” Jameson writes,

… is a fundamental historical and political symptom, which deserves diagnosis in its own right – if not some new and more effective therapy. For one thing, that weakening of the sense of history and of the imagination of historical difference which characterizes postmodernity is, paradoxically, intertwined with the loss of that place beyond all history (or after its end) which we call utopia.

In this sense, Brautigan’s return to symbolical consciousness provides this “more effective therapy,” as a vision of utopianism which is in itself a full experience of historicity – bringing about a completeness, or a dynamism, which breaks beyond the edge of linear history.

Yet it is crucial to think of Brautigan’s narrative as a response not only to the eve of “the end of history,” but moreover to another set of possibilities, developing from the revolutionary energies of the early sixties, and into a Jamesonian orientation toward the sixties as a period of:

great social ferment but seemingly rudderless, without any agency or direction: reality seems malleable, but not the system; and it is that very distance of the unchangeable system from the turbulent restlessness of the real world that seems to open up a moment of ideational and utopian-creative free play in the mind itself or in the political imagination. If this conveys any kind of plausible picture of the historical situation in which utopias are possible, then it remains only to wonder whether it does not also correspond to that of our own time.

This tension between reality and unchangeability is precisely the edge upon which Brautigan situates his “utopian-creative free play” — and the edge which Big Sur ultimately comes to symbolize. In his resistance to a definitive “ending,” however, Brautigan’s utopian vision is unendingly correspondent to “our own time,” as Jameson terms it. When “this book is having 186,000 endings per second,” Brautigan’s narrative shifts temporalities and enacts a permanent presentness – a locus of transformation which cannot be suppressed by linear history, and which creates a space for re-imagining the possibilities of “this book” as it is being read now.

By grounding his narrative in the present, Brautigan conceives of history as what Harvey calls “the port to which we might want to sail.” History emerges at the speed of light, instilling a Benjaminian “conception of the present as the ‘time of the now’ which is shot through with chips of Messianic time.” The present enables this Messianism for Brautigan – and yet this redemption is imagined possible with the “time of the now” as a most ultimate edge-space. From Brautigan’s Messianic present, a dynamic emerges which reflects a particular form of utopianism – a form which is necessarily dialectical: in order to conceive of a dialectical utopianism, Harvey argues, “the task is to pull together a spatiotemporal utopianism.” This spatiotemporal dimension is what brings about the transformation in the last of Brautigan’s “endings.” From the edge of space and time, the last “ending” bursts into dialectical form, symbolically breaking free of the frontier, and the barriers of representability posed by “le mur du Pacifique.” Brautigan’s psychogeography, therein, rests on an edge of endings and new beginnings: the end of history yields historicity, postmodernity becomes redeemed by the resurrection of symbolism, while global capital is disrupted by a new world space.

In its dialectical formulation, the edge performs a double-movement as a symbol for Brautigan’s utopianism of both futurity and resurrection. Its redemptive orientation is what renders the edge circular, and directed by return. Yet all the while, Brautigan seeks a symbolical consciousness which is new. Through the progression of his “endings,” Brautigan calls for the erasure of “le mur du Pacifique,” while his protagonist, Jesse, becomes more and more interactive with the narrative’s symbolism: ultimately, Jesse reaches out to touch the seagull as it flies over him – an act which, as Barthes would argue, goes “back to the distinction between language-object and a metalanguage.” Brautigan imagines a utopianism which reflects this language – a “political language” Barthes claims, which “represents nature for me only inasmuch as I am going to transform it, it is a language thanks to which I ‘act the object.’” This transformation is what eventually inspires Jesse to break free of infinite simulation – to progress from the “ending” in which his friends are unchanging photographs, to the “ending” in which he hears the seagull’s song and puts his fingers through its feathers. In this figuration, consciousness becomes symbolical, while historicity becomes revolutionary. The experience of history which explodes from Brautigan’s “endings” is an experience of return, projected onto a redeemed, utopian future while being fixed in the “time of now” with revolution always already present: this return is brewing within an edge space, waiting to burst.

Big Sur and the Oranges of Hieronymous Bosch, 145

Esalen, 36

Big Sur and the Oranges of Hieronymous Bosch, 18

Big Sur and the Oranges of Hieronymous Bosch, 33

In his essay “Strange Gray Myth of the West,” published months after Kerouac’s death, Richard Hill wrote that the novel was “the crucial book in Jack’s chronicle. It was the book in which his drinking, his hangover paranoia that his friends were using him, destroyed the old ties with the West.” (Empty Phantoms, 416)

The Beat Reader, ed. Ann Charters, 381

Kerouac’s longing to escape his celebrity comes early on in the novel, when he writes “I’ve bounced into… City Lights bookshop at the height of Saturday night business, everyone recognized me (even tho I was wearing my disguise-like fisherman’s hat and fishermen coat and pants waterproof) and ‘t’all ends up a roaring drunk in all the famous bars the bloody ‘King of Beatniks’ is back in town buying drinks for everyone.” (Big Sur, 3-4)

Raymond Williams elaborates on the tropes of this distinction as “powerful feelings [that] have gathered and have been generalized. On the country has gathered the idea of a natural way of life: of peace, innocence, and simple virtue. On the city has gathered the idea of an achieved centre: of learning, communication, light. Powerful hostile associations have also developed: on the city as a place of noise, worldliness and ambition… a contrast between country and city, as fundamental ways of life, reached back into classical times.” (The Country and the City, 1)

Big Sur, 5-6

Big Sur, 13

Big Sur, 205

A Confederate General From Big Sur, 31

The Country and the City, 297

Alain Corbin writes of the ocean as having a similar promise of de-urbanization: the ocean is sought to “cure the evils of urban civilization and correct the ill effects of easy living, while respecting the demands of privacy.” (The Lure of the Sea, 62)

Empty Phantoms, 195

Big Sur, 232-233

Big Sur, 205

Big Sur, 117

Big Sur, 233

Big Sur, 97

A Confederate General From Big Sur, 153

Jesse continues, “We smoked five or six chunks of dope and then the ocean began to come in on us in a different manner.” (ibid.)

Here, the distinction between ‘frontier’ and ‘contact zone’ is crucial. In Imperial Eyes, Mary Louise Pratt elaborates on the implications of each term: “’Contact zone’… is often synonymous with ‘colonial frontier.’ But while the latter term is grounded within a European expansionist perspective (the frontier is a frontier only with respect to Europe), ‘contact zone’ is an attempt to invoke the spatial and temporal copresence of subjects previously separated by geographic and historical disjunctures, and whose trajectories now intersect.” The greater historical and global dimensions of Pratt’s distinction will become increasingly central to this essay. (Imperial Eyes, 7)

Zizek intervenes on the use of Lacanian “traversing”as yielding a notion of fantasy which is “a kind of illusory screen blurring our relation to partial objects.” Rather, Zizek insists, “This notion may seem to fit perfectly the commonsense idea of what psychoanalysis should do: of course it should liberate us from the hold of idiosyncratic fantasies and enable us to confront reality the way it effectively is… this, precisely, is what Lacan does NOT have in mind – what he aims at is almost the exact opposite. In our daily existence, we are immersed into “reality” (structured-supported by the fantasy), and this immersion is disturbed by symptoms which bear witness to the fact that another repressed level of our psyche resists this immersion. To “traverse the fantasy” therefore paradoxically means fully identifying oneself with the fantasy – namely with the fantasy which structures the excess resisting our immersion into daily reality.” (The Liberal Utopia)

A Confederate General From Big Sur, 159

“Theses on the Philosophy of History,” 261


The Worlding Project, 78

The Worlding Project, 84

The Society of the Spectacle, 127

Mythologies, 155

“Le mur du Pacifique” will be a continual point of reference in the larger work.

America, 45


In his critique of postmodernism, David Harvey writes of “the mirror of mirrors” as a variation of this simulacrum posed by Baudrillard: Harvey argues that “One of the prime conditions of postmodernity is that no one can or should discuss it as a historical-geographical condition.” (The Condition of Postmodernity, 336) This resistance of the postmodern will be further considered through the conclusion of this essay.

Mythologies, 151

A Confederate General From Big Sur, 155


A Confederate General From Big Sur, 154

A Confederate General From Big Sur, 157


Love’s Body, 208

Love’s Body, 207

At the Beach, 190

Love’s Body, 198

“Periodizing the Sixties,” 180

Love’s Body, 205

“Theses on the Philosophy of History,” 254

A Confederate General From Big Sur, 156

A Confederate General From Big Sur, 158


A Confederate General From Big Sur, 159

image by Kyle McKinley: the Kerouac / Brautigan split at the Big Sur edge

The Poetics of Space, 221

Hell’s Angels: A Strange and Terrible Saga, 271

Spaces of Hope, 189

“The Politics of Utopia,” 36

“The Politics of Utopia,” 46

“Theses on the Philosophy of History,” 263

Spaces of Hope, 196

Mythologies, 145-146