'A Song of Beauty and Death: Kerouac’s Music of Sublimity in Tristessa'

Harma, Tanguy. 2016. ''A Song of Beauty and Death: Kerouac’s Music of Sublimity in Tristessa''. In: 5th Annual Meeting of the European Beat Studies Network (EBSN). Manchester, United Kingdom 27-29 June 2016. [Conference or Workshop Item]

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Abstract or Description

This paper will focus on the unique combination of beauty and death in Jack Kerouac’s Tristessa (1960). I will explore the paradoxical movement of construction and glamorisation of narrative forms, and their subsequent revocation and destruction in the novella. Kerouac, succumbing to the tropes of Orientalism, provides the reader with an idealised picture of a young Mexican woman – Tristessa – who transcends the grim reality she is immersed in through self-destruction. As a morphine user and passionate Catholic, Tristessa embodies a principle of death that is strangely alluring to the narrator. In connecting the textual strategies of glamorisation to the processes of annihilation that the novella features, I will show how Tristessa encapsulates the phenomenon of the Sublime – as developed specifically by Immanuel Kant – in its contents as well as its style. Kant’s metaphysical framework will be useful to decipher this foundational paradox, which is expressed aesthetically through the intensification and magnification of the debasement of the heroine by, and for, the autodiegetic narrator Duluoz. Consequently, Tristessa will be devised as an aesthetic project with a morbid perversion lying at its core: I will argue that its momentum is located in the fragile balance between the substantial depiction of the Sublime and the outrageous decomposition that it yelds. It is precisely this irreconcilable contention that endows the novella with an erotic tension, as Kerouac convokes the forces of the Sublime in order to revoke them in the macabre dissolution of beauty of an extraordinary nature.

Item Type:

Conference or Workshop Item (Paper)


Kerouac; Tristessa; Beauty; Death; Kant; Sublime; Creation; Destruction; Morphine; Catholicism; Sycretism; Orientalism;

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Departments, Centres and Research Units:

English and Comparative Literature


28 June 2016Accepted

Event Location:

Manchester, United Kingdom

Date range:

27-29 June 2016

Item ID:


Date Deposited:

06 Jul 2016 15:02

Last Modified:

29 Apr 2020 16:19



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