Traveling Companions Flee from Cold War “Containment” in On the Road and The Motorcycle Diaries
Rise up in birth with me, my brother.
From the deep zone of your wide-spread sorrow give me your hand.
—Pablo Neruda, “The Heights of Macchu Picchu”
At the conclusion of George Roy Hill’s 1969 Western/buddy film Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, the pair of outlaws has this exchange in the middle of their last gun battle:
BUTCH: I got a great idea where we should go next.
SUNDANCE: Well, I don’t wanna hear it.
BUTCH: You’ll change your mind once I tell you—
SUNDANCE: Shut up.
BUTCH: Okay, okay.
SUNDANCE: It was your great ideas got us here.
BUTCH: Forget about it.
SUNDANCE: I never want to hear another one of your great ideas, all right?
BUTCH: All right.
BUTCH: BUTCH: Australia.
During this scene the character of Sundance (Robert Redford) takes a cloth from his pocket and almost absentmindedly wraps the wounded hand of his partner, Butch (Paul Newman). This moment of tenderness conflates two fights happening of very different scales: a massive shootout to the death, and the long-running spat between men who have been traveling together, perhaps for too long. In the middle of a desperate battle against an overwhelming force, their petty domestic squabble finds an intimate little truce. Like many mainstream cultural products from the 1950s and 1960s, this film is an appropriate allegory of the tensions of the Cold War. A pair of men, closely bound and on the run, find themselves surrounded by forces much, much larger than they.
Their plight is a familiar one; tales of pairs on the road proliferated during the high Cold War, defined roughly as the period from the end of World War II to the late 1960s. Some of these traveling pairs were seeking something, others running away. Notable examples include Vladimir Nabokov’s novel Lolita (1955) and Dennis Hopper’s film Easy Rider (1969), whose protagonists embark on road trips to distance themselves from the standards of the time, in order to engage in things they really shouldn’t. Their escape fantasies highlight the sharp normativities and anxieties of the period.
Arguably the most representative narrative of this very American kind of tale is Jack Kerouac’s 1957 semiautobiographical novel On the Road. This work and the many that followed its contours—what became the American road genre—are so tied to the specific context of the US Cold War that it is somewhat remarkable the genre traveled to other times and places as well. But the road genre did travel—to Latin America, for example. Before examining this strange migration, we should outline the uniquely North American specifics of the genre, its shape and sources, in order to highlight the peculiarity of its transcultural passage.
The novelist Thomas Pynchon recalls his time as a beginning writer during the late 1950s: “I think, looking back, that there might have been a general nervousness in the whole college-age subculture. A tendency to self-censorship. It was also the era of Howl, Lolita, Tropic of Cancer, and all the excesses of law enforcement that such works provoked” (xiv). The postwar economic boom in the United States provided a robust consumer society and a sense of economic security. But this prosperity found itself at odds with the constant insecurity posed by the Soviet menace, creating W. H. Auden’s “Age of Anxiety.”
The cognitive split between material comfort and the ever-present threat of annihilation led to an unprecedented psychic tension. It also generated an intense culture of normativity, intended to calm and domesticate the tension and the paradox that was generating it. The clichéd characterization of the 1950s is one of generalized numbness, as laid out in the 1959 poem “Memories of West Street and Lepke” by the confessional poet Robert Lowell. The poet pads around in his pajamas, institutionalized and sedated:
These are the tranquilized Fifties
and I am forty.
Ought I to regret my seedtime? (85)
Lowell’s verse captures the unreal, sedated quality of that period after the war. What should have been a well-earned and placid middle age is instead filled with incapacitating anxieties and regrets. A suffocating sense of confinement and an awareness of artificiality define the time: “tranquilized,” yet not peaceful. The knowledge that everything could be blown up at any moment induces a localization and an internalization, a turn from the epochal (“These are the tranquilized Fifties”) toward the deeply personal (“I am forty”). It is a survival tactic against the pressure.1
This complex, almost universal, response—a psychosocial and cultural analogue to the political and military strategy adopted in response to the Soviet menace—led to what Cold War scholars such as Alan Nadel and Elaine Tyler May have labeled “containment culture.” According to them, containment was the overarching narrative for the period as well as its master trope. An extensive body of scholarship argues that containment shaped the US national imaginary and inflected just about every level of discourse, public and private. The simplistic binary of “us” against “them” became an almost overwhelming paradigm and metaphor, and ultimately its simplicity provided a regulatory tool for many long-standing and completely unrelated social tensions.
Nadel examines how the stark global East/West response to the Soviet “other” was easily superimposed onto many internal “enemies.” This Cold War dualism was conveniently invoked as a disciplining shorthand for many other conflicts: the witch hunts of McCarthyism and the House Un-American Activities Committee persecuting popular culture; the response to the civil rights unrest of the period, which identified the “upstart Negro” with communism because both were simultaneously visible and invisible; the terms of perversion and promiscuity that framed discussion (and prosecution) of sexual “deviances” in ways usually reserved for the Soviet enemy.
This stark polarization also laid the groundwork for the societally forced normalization of the “good”: the mythology of the middle-class nuclear family living a serene existence in sharp disregard of the threats from outside. Leading a calm, comfortable life was the best form of defiance. “Normal” life would stave off the looming threat. This was not a case of mass delusion; everyone knew that not all was perfect. In fact, the superficially placid domestic narratives of 1950s normativity led to momentary eruptions of all sorts, unhealthy aberrances lurking in plain sight. But these would only be defeated by that aggressive normalcy, the rule of the domestic. As May writes,
In the domestic version of containment, the “sphere of influence” was the home. . . . Within its walls potentially dangerous social forces of the new age might be tamed so they could contribute to the secure and fulfilling life which postwar women and men aspired. Domestic containment was bolstered by a powerful political culture that rewarded its adherents and marginalized its detractors. More than merely a metaphor for the Cold War and the home front, Containment aptly describes the way in which public policy, personal behavior, and even political values are focused on the home. (16)
For our purposes, a key aspect of Cold War containment is its size, its sense of scale—or, rather, the two scales that coexisted simultaneously: one, the small and inward-looking refuge, and the other a vast, global, threat. As May puts it, the “large, multifarious, national policies became part of the cultural agenda” of “ordinary citizenry,” people living their daily comfortable and materially secure lives (8).2
The immediate response to the insecurity of the time was a retreat to the space of the well-off middle-class family, and a “parlor aesthetic.” The tract-housing living room, bourgeois good taste, and explicitly apolitical forms reigned, resisting the underlying global tension through domestic “tranquility.” This inward-looking normativity was the American version of central European Biedermeier, the hermetic culture of middle-class gentility that pervaded polite society just after the horrors of the Napoleonic Wars, when the Austrian Empire’s Chancellor Metternich ruled repressively over an affluent but tense peace. Neoclassical simplicity and sedate tonality dominated. Of this period and its aesthetics James Sheehan says, “In contrast to public culture, the private sphere was familiar rather than monumental, enclosed rather than open, inward looking rather than expansive. For the private sphere, people wrote piano solos rather than symphonies, designed villas rather than public buildings, did family portraits rather than official statues. This was a domestic world furnished with sideboards and comfortable chairs, filled with painted porcelain” (535–36). That European period of relative wealth and intense conformity produced complicit self-censorship—just as Pynchon recalls about the 1950s. There was a universal unwillingness to dissent from the official culture, concentrating instead on the comfort afforded by the new prosperity. There was little motivation to acknowledge the internal or external pressure, lest that ruin everything for everybody. The memory of recent horrors—be they the Napoleonic Wars or World War II—kept everyone complicit with the charade. This domestic peace, however, could not continue unchallenged. A restless youth would rise up—in the revolutions of 1848 in Europe, and in the 1960s in the United States.3
After a rending world conflict, the United States in the late 1940s and 1950s was looking inward, to the comfort of close familial proximity. Like Biedermeier’s turn toward the ephemeral—light verse, tasteful interior design, and gossamer parlor music—the North American middle class turned to the hearth. Television and movie escapism ruled; Disneyland opened its fantasy doors in 1955. When families forayed outside of their homes, they carried that world along with them. Mobile homes were the rage. Road vacations along the new Interstate Highway System were made quite easy in the powerful family car—now within the acquisitive reach of the middle class—a portable, tailfinned microcosm of the family home.
Concentrating on what was supposedly stable—the nuclear family, the economy, material ease—made emotional sense, given the conflict in the air. The retreat into domestic spaces, of course, didn’t mean that either the conflict or its shadow had been banished from those comfortable spots. But acknowledging it would have meant giving in to it, and the fear of what everybody knew was there was sublimated into the available aesthetic and social forms. Fallout shelters were a version of the repressed fears. Manicured domesticity offered a counterbalance to the lurking sources of tension, large and small.
A Return Home
The speed of geopolitical rearrangement after 1945 is striking but logical. The immediate shift from hot war to Cold War required a new mentality and an attendant language. Winston Churchill was one of the defining voices of both conflicts. During the darkest moment of World War II, in his “Finest Hour” speech to Parliament (1940), he famously laid out the scale of the conflict by invoking the personal places where the desperate struggle would need to happen: “We shall fight on the beaches, we shall fight on the landing grounds, we shall fight in the fields and in the streets, we shall fight in the hills; we shall never surrender” (316).
But just six years later, on March 5, 1946, when the hot war was over and won, Churchill issued his “Iron Curtain” speech defining the terms of the new Cold War. He laid out how radically everything had changed, and he inaugurated the rhetoric that would accompany this new conflict. The terms are familiar, similar to his earlier speech: once again he invoked a juxtaposition of the small and local with the large. But now this was far more dramatic. In the 1946 speech—nominally about the “special relationship” between the United States and Great Britain—he described the new enemy in terms of what would be required of those fighting it: “The safety of the world, ladies and gentlemen, requires a [new] unity in Europe, from which no nation should be permanently outcast. . . . Twice the United States has had to send several millions of its young men across the Atlantic to fight the wars. But now war can find any nation, wherever it may dwell, between dusk and dawn” (7289). Inaugurating the cooperative internationalism that would soon split the world in two, Churchill hinted at an intimate sense of place and home, the “dwelling” of an entire community of nations. The newly awakened Soviet foe, replacing the recently defeated fascists and their crudely geographic and material ambitions, was a much larger and darker threat, an idea bigger than simple imperialism. And this idea could lurk everywhere and anywhere in the new, vast, indefinite space-time “between dusk and dawn.”
Countering this new idea, this enemy-as-abstraction, required a new sense of temporality and an attendant psychology, but, most important, a new sense of the enormous differences in scale. Instead of the physical beaches, streets, hedgerows, and massive mobilizations of World War II, the new battlefield would be intangible, located in the even more contained space of one’s own head. But a largesse was also required, said Churchill, and a largeness: a “new unity,” a grandness of all like-minded nations that would form a kind of nurturing global family “from which no nation should be permanently outcast,” a welcoming domesticity of the like-minded, at once enormous and intimate.
This intensifies the dichotomy already present in the earlier hot-war rhetoric. In the new locus of conflict, it would be up to individual citizens to make the difference on the small scale. The key to victory would be in close quarters—the only available place to defeat the enormous threat. The stakes of this asymmetrical relationship could not be more pronounced. The threat of global annihilation—the fate of everything that mattered to all humanity—would be settled in local spaces, putting put those small places under a warning that they were on the front line, and an immense amount of pressure.
Hence the sense that in postwar America the retreat into the normalized, suburban refuge was, even more than a duty, a heroic gesture. The identical walled havens of the Levittown suburbs offered a fractal version of the besieged nation. Picket-fence fortresses contained tiny multitudes and kept out the hordes. On a small scale, they stood in for the war against the enormous intangibles, be those communistic, racial, sexual, or affective.
US diplomat George Kennan’s “Long Telegram” to the state department from Moscow in 1946, later echoed in an article he published anonymously in Foreign Affairs magazine, is a foundational text of the Cold War, because it set out to define the “Soviet psyche.” It emphasized how the United States needed to show constancy and restraint—self-containment—in order to triumph over the Soviets’ undisciplined, almost lewd aggression. The communist Russians, Kennan argued, were counterpointed by an equally virile but disciplined United States, while the Soviets were unable to contain their “vital fluids” (39). They were bad men.
Masculinity and the kinds of relationships through which men could relate to each other were also redefined under the pressures of the Cold War. Another influential essay from this period, “Come Back to the Raft Ag’in, Huck Honey!” (1948) by American literary and cultural critic Leslie Fiedler, explores a consistent thread in American literature: a pattern of male escape. Focusing on what he calls “boys’ adventure stories” by writers such as James Fenimore Cooper, Herman Melville, and Mark Twain, Fiedler connects this pattern to two contemporary “deviances”: Blackness and homosexuality. According to Fiedler, those who identified with and lived out lives within those labels were forced into an in-house, accounted-for marginality; they had to adapt to a role of recognizable otherness within the normative culture. The characters in the works Fiedler studies took to the road to escape the enforced binary of their condition by making them unlocatable: as travelers, they were no longer “one of those” people. Reflecting the Cold War pressures of the time, Fiedler implies that the titular normativity of gender and race was everywhere and shaped everything, and that it was hard to escape. But some tried (670–71).
This idea extends into an interesting implication about what was specifically not the norm—the counterculture—and about the pressures that drove it during the 1950s. One common reading about the era is that its rebels, its restless young men, were simply responding to the suffocating normativity and generalized anxiety through forms of delinquency. But, given the relative comfort and prosperity of the period, this delinquency was relatively small, attention-seeking gestures, often focused on individual, if vibrant, representatives—the iconic rebels—rather than on movements (even the civil rights movement can be read this way); think of Marlon Brando, James Dean, Elvis Presley, Rosa Parks. Among these individual-scale objectors, seekers, and dropouts were the Beats and the jazz musicians of the Benzedrine-driven bop they listened to, the rock-and-rollers, and the daring iconoclasts of the early civil rights movement. These heroic, mercurial figures were out to reject the normalcy of the time. Pynchon recalls trying to become a writer in the shadow of the Beats:
Like others, I spent a lot of time in jazz clubs, nursing the two-beer minimum. I put on hornrimmed sunglasses at night. I went to parties in lofts where girls wore strange attire. I was hugely tickled by all forms of marijuana humor, though the talk back then was in inverse relation to the availability of that useful substance. I already knew people who would sit in circles on the deck and sing perfectly, in parts, all those early rock’n’roll songs, who played bongos and saxophones, who had felt honest grief when Bird and later Clifford Brown died. . . . When the hippie resurgence came along ten years later, there was, for a while anyway, a sense of nostalgia and vindication. Beat prophets were resurrected, people started playing alto sax riffs on electric guitars, the wisdom of the East came back in fashion. It was the same, only different. On the negative side, however, both forms of the movement placed too much emphasis on youth, including the eternal variety. Youth, of course, was wasted on me at the time. (xiv)
These 1950s “dropouts” were quite oppositional but also localized, functioning as sharp but relatively individual—contained—exceptions, always on a small scale. They were, as Pynchon writes, explicitly not like the massive and collective expressions that would come later, in the 1960s and 1970s.4
The intimacy of the mainstream “containment culture” seems to have carried over into its escapees and rebels, whose rebellion included a turn toward closeness. In the case of Kerouac’s On the Road, the smallness of middle-class life couldn’t contain Sal Paradise, so he chose another smallness, one that was on his own terms: on the move. One way to read On the Road is as a dispatch by the malcontents of empire telling the mainstream to bug off. But another is to read it as a story of those malcontents as refugees, who, in a way, find a place of their own that is really not so unlike the home that they’ve fled. They are looking for the same, only different.
This dynamic is visible to someone like Pynchon, who arrived at the alternative scene just too late. Seeing it in the rearview mirror can explain its fundamental nature: “Eventually as post-Beats [we came] to see deeper into what, after all, was a sane and decent affirmation of what we all want to believe about American values” (xv). Pynchon confirms that these localized rebellions—these little 1950s escapes from little places into similarly little places—are actually “a sane and decent affirmation” of exactly what these rebels were pretending to leave behind. They were simply trying to find a hearth of their own, their version of that little household, on the move. As critic Kris Lackey notes, Kerouac’s book is “a novel of little households and big highways” (138).
You must know that I do not love and that I love you,
because everything alive has its two sides.
—Pablo Neruda, “Love Sonnet XLIV”
Like the original picaresque initiated by the Lazarillo de Tormes, discussed in chapter 2, On the Road is predicated on a deep but oddly nihilistic determination to live fully and at all costs to overcome a stiflingly bad situation. Another connection to the picaresque is Benedict Anderson’s attraction to the genre as a useful tour d’horizon by outsiders looking in, as explored in his Imagined Communities. These travelers’ revelations ring true precisely because they are compromised, or at least ambivalent. They are also critical and blunt, but still complicit with the project of empire. Told by a hardened outsider, the picaresque eyewitness account can be critical while at the same time functioning as a corroborating instrument. On the Road, like the Lazarillo de Tormes, offers unvarnished dispatches from the margins of empire, and it depicts the places that set those limits: roadside diners, racially edgy jazz clubs, reform schools, hospitals, bohemian hangouts with their puerile intellectualism, migrant worker camps, amphetamine “connection” bars, places of commerce both legal and illegal, and Mexico. The reports about these places can easily be read as celebratory of what they are not (the mainstream) and emancipatory, as vibrant exceptions. Or they can be seen as places with which the travelers, gladly, do not form a permanent bond. Perhaps they are both.
There is a continuity linking these places. At the start of the book, Sal Paradise writes about the terms of his trip with Dean: “I first met Dean not long after my wife and I split up. I had just gotten over a serious illness that I won’t bother to talk about, except that it had something to do with the miserably weary split-up and my feeling that everything was dead. With the coming of Dean Moriarty began the part of my life you could call my life on the road. Before that I’d often dreamed of going West to see the country, always vaguely planning and never taking off. Dean is the perfect guy for the road” (3). Sal takes off to replace the disaster of his youthful marriage. He substitutes a new and exciting relationship, deeply alive, for the just-ended one that had nearly killed him. But despite the frenetic, Benzedrine-driven appetites driving this new trip, it mimics the ideal of what it proposes to leave behind, shaped by the need for intimacy and domesticity, for the model nuclear family. Despite the adamant insistence on constant mobility and the implied promise of freedom, the travelers set out within a parallel “little household” reformulated as a portable—and masculine—domesticity. If one squints hard enough, it becomes clear that the pair of road travelers looks like the “normal” families they have so emphatically left behind.
The domesticity of their breakout is, like everything else touched by the Cold War, a conflation of scale. To reprise Eve Kofsosky Sedgwick’s observation that homosocial relationships are triangular and include a complicating, outside element that ultimately binds men together (as discussed in chapter 3), the road genre’s homosocial third element is the enormous nation that they power through—the backcountry roadsides of (mostly) the South and the West, the “coldwater flats” of its cities, the deserts and migrant camps. This vast, scrolling reality stands in sharp relief against the smallness of their “little household” (Lackey 138). And the contrast bestows an epic quality upon their story. As Kerouac would later write about the goal of his trip, “Dean and I were embarked on a journey through post-Whitman America to find that America and to find the inherent goodness in American man” (Leland 17). To find a generalized quality, an inherent goodness: this deceptively simple desire takes the mitigating factor in Sedgwick’s homosocial triangle to an enormously wide angle, to the scale of the entire national landscape and its universal “goodness.” Vastness is the road genre’s essence—but paradoxically, so is intimacy.
This gets more interesting. The story of restless young men taking to the road to discover the “real” country—actually escaping and being with each other in an attempt to refashion the unacceptable intimacies from which they’ve escaped—is deeply tied to a specific waypoint, the Cold War in the United States. Yet the genre traveled on to other places. “Road” works have flourished in Latin America. Recent examples include Chilean novelist Roberto Bolaño’s The Savage Detectives (1998), Mexican director Alfonso Cuarón’s film Y Tu Mamá También (2001), and the short story and related graphic novel Road Story (2007) by Chile’s Alberto Fuguet, a prominent member of the post-Boom’s “McOndo” generation of younger writers who reacted to it. But the most insistent champion of this genre in Latin America has been the Brazilian film director Walter Salles, whose passion for the road runs deep. Salles even directed the first cinematic version of On The Road (2012).5 His most interesting conversation with the US road genre, though, is his film The Motorcycle Diaries (2004), chronicling the real-life trip of the young Ernesto “Che” Guevara, the future revolutionary, and his traveling companion, Alberto Granado. Their journals and letters from 1952 provide the narrative basis for the film.
The voyage of the road genre to Latin America raises the question of just how dependent this master narrative is on the specific context of US postwar prosperity and American empire at a particular high point in history. The objects of desire generated by the United States (a prosperous but encircled nation, and the resulting intimist Biedermeier-like culture) would logically be quite different from the social and political contexts of Latin America. So, how does the road genre, so inextricably shaped by its time and place, carry through to Latin America, with its entirely different political circumstances and social realities—even reverse ones, given Latin America’s position relative to the United States?6 Asked more simply, what happens when this quintessentially North American master narrative—young men searching for themselves (and each other) via road trips through the heart of empire—transmigrates onto another landscape, equally enormous but vastly different (if still American)? Latin America is quite pointedly not empire, and if anything, it is the subject of empire.
In Latin America, the road genre finds itself redeployed to times and places that are explicitly not at the heart of empire: Argentina, Chile, and Peru of the early 1950s (and by superimposition the 1990s and 2000s, when Salles’ movies were filmed). Do the resonances, contours, and anxieties that framed this narrative at its source travel with it? A partial answer: the juxtaposed scales—the ratios of the story, and the ratios of desire—remain basically unchanged, but what is contained in these scales is not. And thus the resulting stories, anxieties, and travels are ultimately different, if proportional to each other.
The fundamental difference between the two journeys—Kerouac’s and Guevara’s—is what each pair of travelers sees “out there,” and how that relates to the homes they left behind. Although the natural vistas the Argentines saw from their motorcycle were as vast and breathtaking as any Sal and Dean would have seen through their windshields and Greyhound bus windows, Ernesto’s South America would have been quite different from the United States, at least in terms of the poverty on view as they traveled. The urban Argentina of Córdoba and Buenos Aires, where Alberto and Ernesto began their trip, was essentially first-world in 1951. But from there, they traveled into a stark and progressively racialized third world, into a kind of poverty deeper than any in the United States—or at least what Sal and Dean were able to see of it.
During the seventy years before Ernesto and Alberto’s trip, Argentina had achieved unprecedented economic growth and reached social stability, fueled by an enormous tide of European immigration that swelled the metropolitan centers, from 37 percent of the population in 1895 to 63 percent in 1947 (Anderson, Che 29). Steady development, guided by a series of more or less democratic governments, had begun slowing down during the Great Depression and World War II (military dictatorships and labor unrest had started creeping in). But when the populist Juan Perón came to power in the 1940s there was a temporary reprieve to the decline. The Peronista government was strong-armed, corporatist, and protectionist. By the early 1950s, when Ernesto and Alberto abandon their studies and their place in the Argentine middle class to take off on their trip, that middle class was relatively safe—especially in comparison to the rest of South America. Urban Argentina in 1950 was still by far the richest place on the continent. The young men’s path away from Buenos Aires follows a trail of incremental poverty, starting in Chile. The display of inequality reaches its climax in Peru, where the per-capita GDP in 1950 was roughly half that of Argentina.7
By contrast, while Sal and Dean do see economic inequality—one of Sal’s stops on his initial trip in 1947 is to pick cotton in a Mexican migrant camp in California—they seem to skim past it, always remaining at a distance. During their second trip in 1949, from North Carolina via New Orleans to San Francisco, they roar through the bayous:
“Man, do you imagine what it would be like if we found a jazzjoint in these swamps, with great big black fellas moanin guitar blues and drinkin snakejuice and makin signs at us?”
There were mysteries around here. The car was going over a dirt road elevated off the swamps that dropped on both sides and drooped with vines. We passed an apparition; it was a Negro man in a white shirt walking along with his arms up-spread to the inky firmament. He must have been praying or calling down a curse. We zoomed right by; I looked out the back window to see his white eyes. “Whoo!” said Dean. “Look out. We better not stop in this here country.” At one point we got stuck at a crossroads and stopped the car anyway. Dean turned off the headlamps. We were surrounded by a great forest of viny trees in which we could almost hear the slither of a million copperheads. The only thing we could see was the red ampere button on the Hudson dashboard. Marylou squealed with fright. We began laughing maniac laughs to her. We were scared too. We wanted to get out of this mansion of the snake, this mireful drooping dark, and zoom on back to familiar American ground and cowtowns. There was a smell of oil and dead water in the air. This was a manuscript of the night we couldn’t read. An owl hooted. We took a chance on one of the dirt roads, and pretty soon we were crossing the evil old Sabine River that is responsible for all these swamps. With amazement we saw great structures of light ahead of us. “Texas! It’s Texas!” (169)
The “apparition” of the “Negro man” is not much more than a puerile prank to spook a girl. Despite the thrill of possibly discovering “a jazzjoint” with “great big black fellas moanin guitar blues,” the swamp and its “slither of a million copperheads” is a place they’d rather not get out of the car to see. They remain in their little moving home until they reach their next safe little island, a more recognizable Texas of (white) diners, cities, and country fairs, and on to the next apartment of someone from their small but spread-out circle of like-minded youth rebels. They will make stops with their friend Bull Lee, or with one of Dean’s wives, or some other friend from the jazz underground.
“This was a manuscript of the night we couldn’t read”: the vastness is illegible to them—and exciting—but that illegibility tightens their focus to their little portable space. The only thing they could see was a tiny point of light, the “red ampere button” inside their little car/living room. For Sal and Dean, the allure of the landscape’s enormity and variety serves both as an object of impossible desire and as a foil, a contrasting counterpoint to their own close-quarters erotic attraction for one another. These complicated erotics are just as inexpressible as the vast land, and just as incomprehensible to those watching them closely—the women they’ve abandoned in their confining domestic situations:
I learned that Dean had lived happily with Camille in San Francisco ever since that fall of 1947; he got a job on the railroad and made a lot of money. He became the father of a cute little girl, Amy Moriarty. Then suddenly he blew his top while walking down the street one day. He saw a ’49 Hudson for sale and rushed to the bank for his entire roll. He bought the car on the spot. . . . Now they were broke. Dean calmed Camille’s fears and told her he’d be back in a month. “I’m going to New York and bring Sal back.” She wasn’t too pleased at this prospect.
“But what is the purpose of all this? Why are you doing this to me?”
“It’s nothing, it’s nothing, darling—ah-hem—Sal has pleaded and begged with me to come and get him, it is absolutely necessary for me to—but we won’t go into all these explanations—and I’ll tell you why. . . .No, listen, I’ll tell you why.” And he told her why, and of course it made no sense. (110–11, my emphasis)
Dean told her “why,” but readers never get to hear that why—only, gleefully, that it made no sense.
The almost nonsensical imperative to get out there on the move, to find “that America,” becomes a perpetual postponement of meaning, a sort of excuse to prolong their time with each other. The enormity of one side of the triangle—the vast “America”—is what makes that possible. It extends the trip, hopefully indefinitely. This is similar to how literary critic Paul de Man defines irony: “Permanent parabasis,” in which a Greek chorus’ meandering asides to the audience become the narrative itself, the new constant (Blindness 228).
Their road trip is also a running postponement of the pull of the normative. The massive asymmetry within the road relationship is unsettling and exhilarating, and yet ultimately it repeats what’s waiting back home. Another way of considering this is via a phenomenon observed by postcolonial theorist Leelah Gandhi, about the unusual friendships that can happen between the colonizer and the colonized. In what normally would be a vastly unequal relationship, a bond of “philoxeny” is formed, based on mutual impetus for reinvention of a relationship, by forcing a “cultivated ataraxia, or invulnerability, and autarkia, or self-sufficiency” (29).
The bond in On the Road, while not between colonizer and subject, is predicated on a massive asymmetry in the triangle of desire. Given the enormous size of one angle, that boundless landscape, it is certainly a “cultivated ataraxia,” and “autarkia.” The smallness of the portable home stands in sharp contrast with the entire “sad American night,” a deliberately interminable object, the end of which can’t be fathomed even after days of continual driving: “O sad American night! Then we were in New Mexico and passed the rounded rocks of Raton and stopped at a diner, ravingly hungry for hamburgers, some of which we wrapped in a napkin to eat over the border below. ‘The whole vertical state of Texas lies before us, Sal,’ said Dean. ‘Before we made it horizontal. Every bit as long. We’ll be in Texas in a few minutes and won’t be out till tomorrow this time and won’t stop driving. Think of it’” (156).
Just as it did for the cowboys and the gauchos, the whole of America stands as a constant reminder of the pair’s fundamental pressure-tightness, the smallness of their little space in contrast with the world through which they traverse. In unequal relationships, says Gandhi, the asymmetry of the “local or global” is “emotionally risky.” And journeys into asymmetry lead to unexpected places: they result in reinvention. (In The Motorcycle Diaries, reinvention will be the case with Ernesto’s political awakening, soon to turn him into “Che.”) On the Road is both the story of a reinvention of domesticity, via detour—through a resizing of its triangularity—and the story of Sal’s own reinvention, as a writer. In The Motorcycle Diaries, these stories transmigrate into a story of political reinvention. This is not to say that On the Road isn’t political, but it doesn’t tell the story of a political awakening.
In a psychoanalytic comparison of On the Road and The Motorcycle Diaries, the critic Josefina Saldaña Portillo makes the compelling case that the distinction between the two sets of travelers is that Sal’s trip represents unresolved melancholia for the lost object—the “already lost ideal of white freedom”—whereas Ernesto becomes a “textbook example of successful mourning.” Saldaña Portillo argues that this is because Ernesto’s observations are those of a trained physician who is developing a political “diagnostic function”; he has an eye for injustice and “constantly historicizes, contextualizes, analyses and draws conclusions” (92). Sal, on the other hand, simply “fetishizes impoverished racialized subjects as the condition of possibility for his white freedom” (100). But Saldaña Portillo concludes that ultimately both trips are centered on the loss of an abstraction, the racialized other, that ultimately translates into an egotistical instrument of self-affirmation. Although Ernesto’s engagement with that self-confirming other might be more socially aware than Sal’s, Saldaña Portillo maintains, it still amounts to no more than “great, grave, dead Indians” whose admiration for the lost Inca empire was because it had “resisted the colonizing Spaniards unto death” (102). In other words, on the road, boys can’t help being boys: their quixotic searches are quests by the heroes and warriors of Empire.
I would disagree with this reading, given the vast difference in the territories of the two trips. While I agree that both sets of travelers are inward-looking and their journeys are ultimately self-confirming, there is a larger sociohistorical difference at hand to consider.
Empire without Empire
Despite the formal similarities between The Motorcycle Diaries and On the Road, the backcountries through which they take us are very, very, different. Naturally the trips produce different results. The narrative of The Motorcycle Diaries is driven by its off-camera future: Ernesto and Alberto will evolve from young, adventurous students into world-changing revolutionaries. Everyone knows that is coming and their road story serves as an explanatory backstory. The afterlife of the Argentines’ trip both reinterprets and extends the story of Sal and Dean.
The Argentines’ road trip is informed by two important textual works. The first is the Canto General by Chilean poet Pablo Neruda, a collection of Petrarchan love songs addressed to the landscape—to the physicality of the continent and its history—expressed in terms of bodily desire. It is a Whitmanian celebration, or, as one critic has phrased it, the “erotics of geography.” The second is the Seven Interpretative Essays on Peruvian Reality (1928) by the Marxist theorist José Carlos Mariátegui. Neruda’s book serves as a useful tool for the pair of travelers. Ernesto was fond of quoting this well-known poetry to girls (Anderson 36). Neruda’s poetry is something Ernesto carries with him from home; the poet’s Romantic, breathtaking visions of the Americas spurred the travelers’ imagination about what they would see. Indeed, the trip was partly plotted on the cartographic flow in the sequence of poems. The film, just like the book of poems, climaxes with an emotional visit to the ruins of Machu Picchu; the cornerstone poem is “The Heights of Macchu Picchu.”
The book by Mariátegui, on the other hand, is something they discover out there, once they are on the road. In Peru they are generously taken in by Dr. Pesce, a socially conscious physician who runs a leper colony in the backcountry. The good doctor offers them “food, clothes, and some very good ideas,” as Ernesto says in a letter to his mother (heard in voice-over in the film). Pesce hands Ernesto a copy of Seven Essays, a book previously unknown to him. Looking up from it, he exclaims in wonder that “Mariátegui talks about the revolutionary potential of the natives and farm workers of Latin America. He says that the problem of the Indian is the land and that the revolution should not be an imitation. It should be original and indigenous” (170). Then the film switches to a scene of what director Salles has called the “documentary” perspective of The Motorcycle Diaries, which consists of actual interviews with present-day, nonactor indigenous subjects, filmed in black-and-white. Although these scenes are anachronistic and break the narrative frame, they are meant to be representative of the people the travelers would have encountered (“Notes” 67).
Ernesto’s minimal summary of Seven Essays is fairly accurate, but there is a nuance to take into account. Mariátegui was an unusual Marxist in that he was deeply committed to the “telluric,” the specific here and now of the land, which he believed should not be ignored in the class struggle. He also felt that employing the ideas of international Marxism to fix the problems specific to Latin America, and explicitly those of Peru, could dilute that local perspective. The standard international model of proletarian empowerment could easily miss the unique relationship existing between the Peruvian people and their specific place. Mariátegui wrote extensively about that link, focusing on his interpretation of the indigenous notion of Tawantinsuyo—both a religious code and a concept of oneness with the earth. He argued that Tawantinsuyo could be the atavistic “moral” force to counter the imperialistic “theocratic” Incas, and the Spanish Catholic institutions that replaced them (146–68). Mariátegui invoked the prehistory of the indigenous population in his treatment of their current impoverished condition, concluding that a true revolutionary solution required returning to the links with the land. This, in turn, would lead to a home-grown recovery of the means of production: class struggle would come from within, through a return to the way things had been before Inca and European conquest, long before any Enlightenment notions of industrial-age revolution had forgotten this pastoral source. In a way, Mariátegui proposed Marxism without Marx, an “original and indigenous” Marxism.
Mariátegui’s practical proposal for land reform was to break up gamonalismo, the system of haciendas and monopolies, and to replace it with individual, family-plot farming within a collective framework, guided by the collectivizing spirit of Tawantinsuyo. This would require communal ownership and consultative decision-making: avant-la-lettre sustainability, employing long-established technology that can only happen at a small scale, via mutual agreement and shared ownership.8
Mariátegui’s idealistic and idealized plan for local indigenous revolution resonated with the young Ernesto. Mariátegui offered a way for him to understand what he had been seeing in the vastness of his trip, visions that had deeply affected him but required unpacking. He needed a way to understand the specific, racialized, desperate poverty afflicting the Latin America he was witnessing for the first time. What Mariátegui proposed for Peru, his brand of reverse-engineered Marxism, was a retreat into little homesteads. Ernesto felt the resonance of this proposal within himself.
Ultimately the resort to the small-scale solution in the middle of an engagement with something breathtakingly and seemingly unsurmountably large extended to Ernesto the revolutionary. The principal philosophy of Che Guevara, of the man he would become, was known as foquismo—a military and doctrinal strategy of independent operation by highly mobile revolutionary cells, or focos. In his manual on guerilla warfare he writes how “each guerrilla fighter carries his complete equipment” and is capable of operating for an indefinite period away from the main forces (85). As a result, “the nomadic life of the guerrilla fighter in this stage produces . . . a deep sense of fraternity” among his small group of travelers operating independently (89). These groups would operate almost like families on the move, carrying everything they needed on their backs. And the monumental undertakings that would result would be made possible by the intimacy that originated in their travels, a sustaining bond that would lead to bigger things.