‘‘All Wet Black Sunken Earth Danger’: Cosmic Alienation and Disintegration in Jack Kerouac’s Big Sur'

Harma, Tanguy. 2015. '‘‘All Wet Black Sunken Earth Danger’: Cosmic Alienation and Disintegration in Jack Kerouac’s Big Sur''. In: ‘Environments: Landscapes and the Mind’. Goldsmiths, London, United Kingdom. [Conference or Workshop Item]

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Abstract or Description

Jack Kerouac’s Big Sur (1962) is a novel that introduces a radical break in the Duluoz Legend and in Kerouac’s writing. The book explores the misadventures of Jack Duluoz – Kerouac’s autodiegetic narrator – who, as he relocates to the spot of Big Sur by the Pacific Ocean, spirals into physical decay and mental annihilation. It is the relationship between the narrator and the natural and symbolic environment of Big Sur that I intend to decipher in this presentation.
The way in which Duluoz envisages his retreat at Big Sur is characteristic of Kerouac’s early writing. The narrator’s anticipation of the spot partakes in the myth of the primitive, where nature is envisaged as essentially benevolent and untouched by civilisation, allowing mystical insights. I will evoke American Transcendentalism to show how this tradition is referenced through Duluoz’s projection of the place in particular.
Upon arrival on the spot however, the narrator’s dreams of self-reliance and mystical communion with nature turn immediately sour: the maritime air and giant waves of the spot affect the narrator in an unprecedented way, enhancing his existential crisis. More precisely, Duluoz’s relocation to Big Sur will be envisaged as a fall into the absurd. As the novel generates an extreme sense of alienation that stems from the dichotomy between the subject and his environment, I will refer to Camus’s The Myth of Sisyphus (1942) to reflect upon Duluoz’s feeling of the absurd and highlight the function of the place in the process.
In the end, Duluoz’s estrangement from nature produces a spectacular disintegration of the self in the form of mental fragmentation and physical dissolution. In these terms, Duluoz’s encounter with the spot of Big Sur exemplifies a profound rupture in Kerouac’s ethics and aesthetics; I will show in the conclusion that such a rupture pre-empts a triple return for Kerouac: a return to Catholicism, to Lowell and his childhood, and to his European origins.

Item Type:

Conference or Workshop Item (Paper)


Jack Kerouac; Big Sur; alienation; disintegration; American Transcendentalism; the absurd; Camus.

Departments, Centres and Research Units:

English and Comparative Literature


19 June 2015["eprint_fieldopt_dates_date_type_shown" not defined]

Event Location:

Goldsmiths, London, United Kingdom

Item ID:


Date Deposited:

25 May 2016 09:34

Last Modified:

29 Apr 2020 16:18



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