Monday, May 11, 2009

Big Sur

I spent a day traveling across the Big Sur just some ten days ago, the coastal highway winding up and down the steep side of the mountain, opening and closing sudden vistas of thousand feet deep gorges, roaring waves, high rocks climbing out of the ocean like prehistoric monsters, hidden shores and creeks, sun and high ocean winds.

Jack Kerouac went mad at the Big Sur. It's a distinctive sign of the great writers, being able to choose the right places where to go mad: the likes of me end up going mad in places like Tennessee.

Kerouac's fatal encounter with the Big Sur begins with a good proposition about life, which I could not agree with more: after promising to himself "no more dissipation, it's time for me to quietly watch the world and even enjoy it... no more ... be a loner, travel, talk to waiters only, in fact, in Milan, Paris, just talk to waiters, walk around, no more self imposed agony ... it's time to think and watch and keep concentrated". With these thoughts he withdraws to a cabin in the woods at the Big Sur and spends night after night on the shore listening to the waves, writing their unlikely broken chant, which will become the poem "Sea". Nights and days in the solitude of the Big Sur gorges, under the high bridge of that same coastal road I've so recently seen, seem at first an idyllic return to a restored contact with nature, a poetic communion with the wind and the waves and the fog of the ocean. California, so beautiful and so tragic! The harmony transforms itself into darker and darker tones, until on the run from the Big Sur, he is back into his desperate San Francisco life. In the touching moment when, coming back from his retreat in the wilderness, he hears that his beloved cat Tyke has died, one can see how it is events of this kind, events sad but otherwise inevitable in the course of life, that at crucial times can crack our last resources of resilience. There by his friends of the City Lights bookstore, that same City Lights bookstore of San Francisco I've been visiting so often in these past months, Jack Kerouac back from the Big Sur rewrites once more the path of his life and stirs its course once again towards its ultimate self-destructive goal. Lacrimae rerum: the narration oscillates between "the backs and forths and pains of me in City and Sur, all piled up rationally now like a big construction". In his madness days he lives love as a desperate agony ("Lying mouth to mouth, kiss to kiss in the pillow dark, loin to loin in unbelievable surrendering sweetness so distant from all our mental fearful abstractions") but even this refuge is illusory as it is the getting drunk night after night, until the final delirium at the Big Sur, accompanied by the voice of the waves. "Masks explode before my eyes when I close them, when I look at the moon it waves, moves, when I look at my hands and feet they creep". His capacity to relate to others deteriorates: "so I keep coming back but it's all an insane revolving automatic directionless circle of anxiety, back and forth, around and around, till they're really by now so perturbed by my increasing silent departures and creepy returns."

After a botched attempt to see someone at the local psychological counseling service (sorry, only students and faculty of the university, no visitors) and another botched attempt at sitting in a talk at the conference I am supposedly attending, while spending the rest of the time wandering around a place that is more familiar than I would like it to be, I found in a heap of garbage left over by the post graduation campus exodus a very nice particle physics book someone must have decided to get rid of. I collected it out of the dust. It was in very good conditions, save for some wear at the bottom of the page and occasional small pencil marks, so I decided to keep it. It's the first volume of Gottfried and Weisskopf's "Concepts of particle physics" (which sells new on Amazon at 150 bucks). It's a curious book, though not a recent one, based on series of lectures given by the authors in the early 1980s at students spending the summer working at CERN. With in mind an audience with a minimum background of quantum mechanics, no quantum field theory required, the book gives a guided tour to the world of particle physics from isospin to the electroweak theory, CP violation, quarks and the standard model, and the questions of grand unification. It's not a textbook but it is well beyond a popularization book. It is a good summary of the long quest for understanding the subatomic world.

If I were inclined to view the world in the light of Jungian synchronicity, I would attach some special relevance to this random event: at the time when I touched the lowest point of the present journey, I stumble upon this "objet trouvé", this book emerging from the refuse, intact, like a phoenix from the ashes. It is inevitable to project onto it the voice of an inner call, a hand outstretched in the darkness, the opening of a door in the wall. It might not be such a bad idea to try and follow this dim light for a while, down the wells of silence and of the infinitesimal world of particle physics and maybe I'll even try to keep on going with that strange particle physics/cosmology paper I've been on and off trying to write.