Haunted California(s)

Karlstad, June 15-18, 2006: Space Haunting Discourse

Proposed by Bent Sørensen, Aalborg University, Denmark

This workshop aims to investigate a number of ways in which place and writing can meet. The textualized location of choice is California, with a specific bias towards representations of haunted California(s) of the past, present and future. The genres of writing presented may include fiction; poetry/song lyrics; and creative non-fiction in the form of nature writing, travel writing, anthropology texts, memoirs and (auto) biographies etc. Writers might include Richard Brautigan, Henry Miller, Jack Kerouac, Gary Snyder, John Muir, Barry Lopez, Alfred and Theodora Kroeber, Ursula LeGuin, Andrei Codrescu, Walt Whitman, Woody Guthrie, Joni Mitchell, Brian Wilson, a.m.o. The theoretical background for the workshop will be provided by discussions of place and setting in literary theory, as well as a general discussion of representation/mimesis and identity as currently employed in cultural and literary studies.

Individual papers:

Representations of Big Sur in Late Modernist and Early Postmodern­ist American Writing (Bent Sørensen, Dept. of Languages and Intercultural Studies, Aalborg U., Denmark) i12bent@hum.aau.dk

Henry Miller, Jack Kerouac and Richard Brautigan all wrote prose about Big Sur, California. This locus haunts these writings in three different ways: To Miller (Big Sur and the Oranges of Hieronymus Bosch, 1957) the potential of Big Sur as a true artists’ commune was lost to progress and materialism. He is haunted by the unrealised potential of a Romantic locus amoenus. To Kerouac (Big Sur, 1962) the California coast he had loved to explore with Gary Snyder as his Buddhist mountain goat guru in the 1950s (the subject of Dharma Bums, 1958) was becoming a site of horror and delirium (tremens) by the early 1960s when he revisited Big Sur and Rainbow Canyon in search of peace of mind and inspiration for a ‘sea-poem’. He is haunted by the loss of self and connection to a genius loci in the potentially sublime coastal vistas. To Brautigan (A Confederate General from Big Sur, 1964) the locus of Big Sur has already become a fully textualized topos which can only serve as a vehicle for pastiche and postmodern parody of his modernist precursors’ anxieties. His text is haunted by intertextual ghosts of Kerouac and Miller’s gender and racial values, which are spoofed and sent up by Brautigan’s unlikely crew of beatnik womanisers and exploiters of both land and native American (and Confederate!) heritages.

San Francisco as a Road Scholar’s Beginning and End (Camelia Elias, Department of Languages and Intercultural Studies, Aalborg University, Denmark) camelia@hum.aau.dk

Andrei Codrescu’s writing about California is a mixture of nostalgia, irony and a contextualization of place from the point of view of the born commentator. Having been involved in and now often looking back at the 70s counterculture, Codrescu uses California, and particularly San Francisco to pass judgment on the state of American culture at large. Commenting with regularity on National Public Radio’s program “All Things Considered”, Codrescu’s insights about the West Coast, often delivered in a deadpan voice, both haunt the places he describes and are themselves, in turn, haunted by these places. This paper examines the significance of place for a writer such as Codrescu, for whom detachment and closeness work simultaneously towards identifying what constitutes the literariness of place. Codrescu’s eclectic interests – editing influential poetry and fiction collections such the series “Exquisite Corpse”, appearing in the media, giving lectures in likely and unlikely places, making documentaries – and versatile writing – poetry, fiction, essays – form a reflection on the kind of eclecticism he sees represented even in places which experience a multicultural abandonment. This paper argues that San Francisco, for Codrescu, constitutes the literariness of a place represented by abundance and abandonment in its intersections with “literal and metaphorical exiles from the status quos of society”.

Surfin’ California with Whitman and The Beach Boys (Søren Hattesen Balle, Department of Languages and Intercultural Studies, Aalborg University, Denmark) shb@hum.aau.dk 

While Whitman only wrote one poem about California in 1860, The Beach Boys wrote and produced several songs about it in the years between 1962 and 1966. Apart from the hundred years separating Whitman and The Beach boys, a cultural gap also exists between them. Whitman represents the high point of American literary Romanticism, whereas The Beach Boys became the sixties’ most well-known pop icon of surf music and surf culture. Nevertheless, their common interest in California as a particular topographic image of the American West invites comparison and further study.

This paper aims to make an intertextual reading of Whitman’s “Facing West from California’s Shores” and selected songs by The Beach Boys, arguing that the Californian beach functions as a cultural topos of an American locus amoenus in the texts of both Whitman and The Beach Boys. Significantly, the belatedness with which The Beach Boys are haunted by and pick up on Whitman’s image of the Californian beach results in a kind of Bloomean misprision, in the sense that they (re)inscribe it in a sixties’ context of youth and consumer culture. To Whitman, the shores of the American West coast incarnate the home of perennial homelessness, dislocating any conventional sense of home as a place of resting. One hundred years later The Beach Boys seem to invest the West coast with similar cultural values. The Californian beach is still a homely site for constantly being on the move; only this time it is invested with the ambience of youth and surf cultural phenomena such as leisure, Woody cars, surf boards, fast sex, dancing, etc. And to top it all, in a utopian vision of mass cultural imperialism the Californian surf culture is even imaged as extending itself transcontinentally and transglobally, thus transplanting its home of eternal movement and time off worldwide.

Imagining the California Native : a ghost in French travel accounts (1854-1915) (Pierre-Louis Verron, Université Paris-Sorbonne Paris IV and University of Ottawa) plverron@hotmail.com

Representations of California Indians in French travel accounts are one of the best examples of how travelers describe the elusive Other through their own cultural references. These natives were an enigma for the travelers who tried to figure out their true identity : were they actually Chinese, Japanese, Hebrew, Polynesian, Basque or descendants of Atlantis ?

Most of the time, travelers just took a glimpse of a few drunk Indian beggars on inner California roads and extrapolated their experience. Whether it was because of extinction (Indian genocide by Anglo-Saxon Gold Rush pionners) or of assimilation (Indians becoming “civilized” or being perverted by white civilization and disappearing as “Indians”), there were no more “true” Indians in California for them. Consequently, travelers mostly wrote about this California Indian, who was no more, as an imaginary and often idealized relic of the Spanish missions era, recreating a Californian catholic utopia in their accounts.