The Marginalian
The Marginalian

The Unphotographable: Jack Kerouac’s Soaring Diary Entry About Self-Understanding and the Elemental Vastness of the Windblown World

Sometimes, a painting in words is worth a thousand pictures. I think about this more and more, in our compulsively visual culture, which increasingly reduces what we think and feel and see — who and what we are — to what can be photographed. I think of Susan Sontag, who called it “aesthetic consumerism” half a century before Instagram. In a small act of resistance, I offer The Unphotographable — a lovely image in words drawn from centuries of literature: passages transcendent and transportive, depicting landscapes and experiences radiant with beauty and feeling beyond what a visual image could convey.

Jack Kerouac by John Cohen. (National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution.)

It is in dialogue with nature — especially in its most extreme moods — that human nature best clarifies itself. On November 12, 1947, sitting at his mother’s kitchen table in New York City’s working-class neighborhood Ozone Park while trying to get his first book published, having just coined the word “beat,” Jack Kerouac (March 12, 1922–October 21, 1969) penned a short, soaring diary entry, a phrase from which became the title of the excellent posthumous collection in which it appears: Windblown World: The Journals of Jack Kerouac 1947–1954 (public library).

He writes:

Powerful winds that crack the boughs of November! — and the bright calm sun, untouched by the furies of the earth, abandoning the earth to darkness, and wild forlornness, and night, as men shiver in their coats and hurry home. And then the lights of home glowing in those desolate deeps. There are the stars, though! high and sparkling in a spiritual firmament. We will walk in the windsweeps, gloating in the envelopment of ourselves, seeking the sudden grinning intelligence of humanity below these abysmal beauties. Now the roaring midnight fury and the creaking of our hinges and windows, now the winter, now the understanding of the earth and our being on it: this drama of enigmas and double-depths and sorrows and grave joys, these human things in the elemental vastness of the windblown world.

Complement with Pico Iyer’s lyrical meditation on autumn light as a lens on life, Kerouac on “the Golden Eternity,” and the stirring story of how he saved one young woman’s life with a song, then revisit other beautiful Unphotographables: Richard Powers on the majesty of bird migration; Georgia O’Keeffe on the grandeur of Machu Picchu; Iris Murdoch on the sea and the stars; an Alpine transcendence with Mary Shelley; an Alaskan paradise with Rockwell Kent.

Published November 12, 2022




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