Enemies of Reading: Taking omphalopsychitism “On the Road”

Opinion June 8, 2012 0 Comments

A poster for the new film version of "On the Road."

by Hugh Gilmore

Full many a jest was made in the 1960s based on telling someone to “stop being an omphalopsychite.” With “omphalos” being Greek for one’s navel, and “psych” referring to studying, it was our jovial way of saying to a friend, “Hey, stop contemplating your belly button and come back to earth – the commune needs some potatoes peeled right now.”

Omphalopsychitism! (Gosh, I can’t get over the thrill of saying it again – do you have any idea how many newspapers would let a writer use that word? None, other than the Local. We trust our readers!). Anyway, studying your navel was a part of the deep counterculture that swam up to the dock with the tide of the roaring 60s. It arrived like a beaver carried along in a muddy flood.

Everyone wanted to wise up, above the mundane. Various forms of Eastern wisdom had floated around the edges of Western culture for years, but always as an esoteric branch of learning. Among the smart set, for short.

But the West Coast poets associated with the Beat Movement, people like Gary Snyder and Kenneth Rexroth, joined by the likes of Jack Kerouac and Allen Ginsberg, brought Zen Buddhism into popular culture. Nowadays, even manufacturers of contemporary teen apparel know and use the word “Zen” in thousands of contexts.

And flying in, right behind the Beat/Zen movement came (Holy Cow!) the Beatles and George Harrison’s guru, Maharishi Mahesh Yogi. Thousands of people began trying to practice Transcendental Meditation. And coming in sideways to this whirling circus, neither last nor least, were Dr. Timothy Leary and Dr. Richard Alpert (later known by his religious name, Ram Dass). They advocated that the drugs that were formerly taken for mere pleasure should be taken in order to pursue enlightenment. Many tried.

Which brings us to today, an era in which Americans now contemplate other people’s bare belly buttons, instead of their own. This Great Turning Outward, as it’s now known, helps us skip the search for inner truth in favor of outward beauty. Ever onward!

In this connection, I am happy to say that the long-awaited screen version of Jack Kerouac’s “On the Road” should be coming to local theaters soon.

Francis Ford Coppola bought the rights to Kerouac’s classic 1950s road vie back in 1979, thinking he’d write the screenplay and get it produced. He was thwarted at every turn as he tried to get a credible version of the book translated to the screen.

A few years ago he began collaborating with Walter Salles (director of “The Motorcycle Diaries”) who agreed to direct the film adaptation of “On The Road.” It was shown at the Cannes Film Festival on May 23 of this year and should be locally released any day now.

Given the casting, the film is bound to attract a wide youth audience. Sam Riley plays Sal Paradise (Kerouac’s alter ego); Garrett Hedlund plays Dean Moriarity; Kristen Stewart plays Marylou, and Kirsten Dunst plays Camille. The cast also includes Viggo Mortensen, Terrence Howard, Amy Adams and Steve Buscemi.

Two hesitations: “On the Road” was my favorite book when I read it as a college freshman. Since I was 18 and all the characters from the book were in their late 20s, I felt like a boy watching and envying grownups. Now that the film has finally been made, I’ll be depending on actors and actresses I know primarily from youth-oriented movies to bring the book to life.

Kristen Stewart, in particular, is a stalwart of the Twilight series of Vampire movies in recent years. I’ll try not to let that spoil things for me. Sometimes actors and actresses bring more life to a script than the author did.

My second hesitation is that the movie is scheduled to run 137 minutes. Considering that the book never really had a plot, the film is probably going to wander around as much as the characters did.

If you’re ever looking to read a book about this era, I highly recommend Joyce Johnson’s “Minor Characters” (1983). In it, she relates how she started going to Greenwich Village as a teenager, hanging around the folk and beat scenes. Eventually, being cute, smart, educated, hip and artistic, she knew just about everyone from every scene. After a blind date with Kerouac set up by Allen Ginsberg, she and Kerouac became friends, then lovers, then friends, then lovers, for years.

This book presents a detailed portrait of the Greenwich Village scene and Jack Kerouac and their relationship in the critical years 1957-1958, with Kerouac poised on the edge of being “discovered.” “On the Road” had sat on various editors’ desks for more than six years before it was finally published. Johnson was with him the night the reviews came out, nursed him through his hangover and new bout of drinking when the phones started ringing the following morning.

“Minor Characters” is tender, perceptive, loving and funny. It is beautifully written and quite literary and poetic without letting those qualities hurt the flow of the exciting narrative.

It is also required reading in many places as a brilliant portrait of the way women were brought up and expected to be the audience for art and music and literature, but never the performers. The feminist movement was just a few beats behind when Kerouac finally got the spotlight he’d struggled toward for so long.

Hugh’s recent books, “Scenes from a Bookshop” and “Malcolm’s Wine” are available at bookstores everywhere, most easily from Amazon.com.

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