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Cool Shit: Jack Kerouac in Oedipus Rex


Eleventh grade was literal hell for me but that statement is true for all of high school. I was 14, going through puberty and struggling to understand my body. Aside from my painfully average hormonal teenage problems I went to a high school full of army brats and the semened offspring of Texan oil-rich people. It was essentially a low budget version of Heathers where everyone is an inbred hick with accents only rivaled in horribleness by their casual racism and xenophobia.

The high point of that year, maybe of high school in general is that I had one of those very cool and young teachers who “got it” which you knew because he had a tattoo. Somehow, even through my creepiness and likely very-scary-to-him infatuation, I managed to learn a lot. That year we read Allen Ginsberg and then made our way to Kerouac and it turned into this whole thing that consumed my life for years (literally until maybe my freshman or sophomore year of college). I became obsessed. I read every single Kerouac book ever (including the very bullshit and hard to get through pseudo catholic-buddhist dronings), I read Naked Lunch and Howl (which I had memorized parts of too). Even as the obsession began to wane I still made concentrated efforts to see anything relating to the Beats — Howl (the James Franco vanity project), Kill Your Darlings and whatever that horrible one with Kristin Stewart is called.

I read biographies on anyone of the Beat authors I could find, I even read the published book of letters between Kerouac and Ginsberg (it was exactly as interesting/boring as you think it is) which I stained with my salty faux-intellectual tears. Through all of the darkness and horror that you subject yourself too when you read about three white men and the various problems they faced in the 50’s (including Kerouac’s very repressed homosexuality) the splinter in my finger was Kerouac’s Oedipus complex.

I could just leave it there but I’m a cynical person and know that this sounds like Freudian yippie bullshit but it’s not. Kerouac, the youngest of two sons, saw his older brother Gerard die when he was four. At 24 Kerouac’s father died too. If you’re picking up the hints I’m dropping then you understand that conditions were ripe for an Oedipus complex. At the risk of being reductionist, Freud propositioned that the Oedipus complex is when sons subconsciously, or pre-linguistically, develop deep sexual feelings for their mothers resulting in feelings of animosity and competition with their fathers, whose position they hope to usurp. The men Kerouac had to battle quite literally died off one by one making him the sole male object of his mother’s attention and affection especially since she never entertained remarrying.

In 1952 Kerouac’s ex wife Joan Haverty Kerouac gave birth to Jack’s daughter, Jan Kerouac. Despite blood and DNA tests proving their connection Jack had a hard time accepting Jan as his daughter. This would have made sense if it meant he didn’t have to pay child support (he still did) or if it was a defense mechanism to keep up his rigid Catholic propriety (it wasn’t, him and Joan were married during Jan’s inception). The theory that Barry Miles, a biographer and close friend of Ginsberg and Burroughs, comes up with is that this was a severe manifestation of Kerouac’s Oedipus complex. He couldn’t accept any child not born from Mamere (the french term Kerouac used to refer to his mother) as his child because on some subconscious level Mamere was his wife.

I know that at this point it still sounds like I’m jumping to wild conclusions but — the issue was so well known that references to the toxic relationship between Kerouac and Mamere (it wasn’t one sided, Ginsberg had written letters detailing the blatant passes Mamere would make at her son) can be found throughout Beat writings, letters and diaries. Kerouac himself seems to have made an admission of this in his self-claimed “confessional” book the Subterraneans. In the book Jack names the narrator (himself) Leo Percepied. Leo — the name of his father, Percepied being French for pierced foot which is the ritual injury King Oedipus suffers as a baby in Oedipus Rex. In this book Jack struggles with balancing his relationship with his mother with a romantic relationship with Mardou, which is how we get exchanges like “Leo, I don’t think it’s good for you to live with your mother always” and “I try to spend my time, divide my time between the two of you.”

At one point, Leo frustrated by balancing both a normal romantic relationship with a woman, and a gross, uncomfortable toxic relationship with his mother, exclaims:

I finally decided to hell with her, my Ritz crackers and peanut butter would disappear. I pouted like a big baby over the thought of losing my home and going off into the unknown suicides of weddings and honeymoons.

It’s not a weird attempt to reconcile an argument in snack choosing, Ritz crackers and peanut butter are metaphor for the depth of his commitment and attachment to Mamere — a snack from his childhood that his mother continued to make for him into adulthood, a behavior that many of his friends had observed on several occasions. It’s hard to speculate why exactly Kerouac drank himself to death, it could have been the repressed homosexuality, the growing Catholic guilt or the depression but towards the end of his life Kerouac became increasingly uncomfortable and saddened by his inability to escape the grip Mamere had on him.

He drank himself to death. Which only another way of living, of handling the pain and foolishness of knowing that its all a dream, a great, baffling, silly emptiness, after all.

-Allen Ginsberg

There isn’t exactly a Readers Digest on Jack Kerouac’s Oedipus complex but I’d suggest reading the Subterraneans, King of the Beats and Jack Kerouac and Allen Ginsberg: The Letters

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