gistofthegrist

one-off at the wrist

Dead Sea Scrolls

… burn, burn, burn like fabulous yellow roman candles exploding like spiders across the stars.

On the Road, Jack Kerouac, 1957.

So I was in the British Library [London] yesterday renewing my reader’s pass and happened across the original manuscript of Jack Kerouac’s novel On The Road which is being display there for the next couple of months. This 120 feet scroll which sold at auction in 2004 for $2,200,000 has fascinated me since I learnt about it when a teenager.

But not for its literary merit [I tried to read it 30 years ago and found that, apart from the occasional good/interesting phrase, I found it actually rather boring. But then I had read Ballard’s Atrocity Exhibition before then] which I find to be founded more on the mythology that has sprung up in the 60 odd years since it was originally [at least partially] written.

Myth 1: The text was written over a period of three weeks in a frantic marathon writing session in April 1951.

Myth 2: The text was written in a unique fashion on a continuous roll of paper, without paragraph breaks, so Kerouac did not have to halt his creative flow.

The facts are that copious notes were kept during the road trip and there was much editing between 1951 and when the novel was finally published in 1957 [and since]. The text was typed onto sheets of paper which were taped together into a long roll. All ‘paper’ texts were scrolls rather than codex/book in form until 1AD.

So myths busted. The most interesting aspects of the novel are arguably its actual physicality. The browning and  ‘moth eaten’ paper. The xxxxx overtyping deletions of text necessitated by being typewritten. The process of reading the manuscript if it had been marketed in this form, as most would not have 120 feet in which to unravel the whole piece [that it wasn’t, to my knowledge, ever produced as a scroll seems a missed trick]. The form mirroring the content i.e. the long scroll symbolising the road itself?

Many of a Freudian bent will no doubt see this object in phallic terms? Personally I think Carolee Schneemann’s scroll was much more powerful.


Carolee Schneemann first performed “Interior Scroll” in 1975. She entered the performance space wrapped in a white sheet and carrying a bucket of mud. After undressing, she ritualistically painted her body with the mud and read from her book “Cezanne, She Was A Great Painter”. Schneemann then slowly extracted a scroll from her vagina and read a text that was a response to criticism from a male artist accusing her of making messy, female work.

I thought of the vagina in many ways – physically, conceptually: as a sculptural form, an architectural referent, the source of sacred knowledge, ecstasy, birth passage, transformation. I saw the vagina as a translucent chamber of which the serpent was an outward model: enlivened by its passage from the visible to the invisible, a spiraled coil ringed with the shape of desire and generative mysteries, attributes of both female and male sexual powers. This source of ‘interior knowledge’ would be symbolized as the primary index unifying spirit and flesh in Goddess worship.

Carolee Schneemann

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3 thoughts on “Dead Sea Scrolls

  1. I’m looking forward to seeing On the Road, the film

  2. Yes will be interesting to see how much is pure Hollywood fantasy? I guess these days we are getting farther and farther away from biopics and closer to some kind of equivalent to the infomercial i.e merely entertaining tales based only very very loosely on the protagonists real lives. Of course ALL biography is a form of fiction [and all cinema due to its ‘snapshot’ mode necessarily so] but we seem to be slipping into a ‘dead zone’ of reporting ‘history’?

  3. Democritus Junior. on said:

    I’m reminded of Truman Capote’s dismissive comment on Jack Kerouac’s books/style: “That’s not writing, it’s typing.”

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