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The Topographic Imagination: Kerouac, Regener, Kafka and the Quest for Self-Realization


Few of us think about the ways in which the topography of our environment affects our worldview. But when one takes a closer look at it, he/she finds a certain limiting aspect to where they live, while also discovering a definition of self in reference to this topography. In each of the novels of this study, the main character is defined by his geographic origin. Sal Paradise in Jack Kerouac's On the Road is from New Jersey, and eventually finds comfort in New York, but ultimately he is an Easterner. Frank Lehmann, in Herr Lehmann, is a Berliner, more specifically a Kreuzberger. He comes originally from Bremen, but in his ten years in Berlin he has found himself the location that fits his worldview. Finally, Josef K. is an urbanite. Kafka's Der Proceß is never located specifically in a geographic sense. However, as Max Brod points out, this is a "`zeitlose' Roman" (Brod 216). It is simultaneously an ortslose Roman. Located entirely within the city limits, the novel explores the topography of the city in the same way that Kerouac explores the United States.

In my analysis of literary representations of single men engaging in the struggle for self-realization, I employ the term "topographic imagination" to denote each individual's conception of the geographic and topographic space within which they live. The limits of the topographic imagination do not possess a physical dimension inasmuch as they are boundaries defined by the psyche.

Using the writings and theories of Leslie Fiedler, Gilles Deleuze, Félix Guattari, and Claire Parnet, this study explores the topographic imagination, that limiting force of identity, and its role in the quest for self-realization in the protagonists. All of them are aware of their limiting self-identity, but also unaware of what it will take to accomplish their goal of knowing themselves completely. Through a mapping of their rhizomes, and through Deleuzean lines of flight, all accomplish the becoming, the metamorphosis that is inherent in becoming a man. There is in each of the works a lack of certainty about what lies ahead, what is to be found around that next corner. Yet, this does not stop them. Unfettered by relationships, each is free to search the boundaries of their topographical imagination in search of "IT": in search of the power to define their lives and live modern life on their own terms.

Fiedler writes of the Frontier as "the margin where the Dream has encountered the resistance of fact, where the Noble Savage has confronted Original sin (the edge of hysteria: of the twitching revivals, ritual drunkenness, `shooting up the town,' of the rape of nature and the almost compulsive slaughter of beasts) we call simply: the Frontier" (Fiedler, A New Fiedler Reader 14). The Frontier is a place located outside of geography. It is more concerned with the margins; those places just outside the realm of our existence. Dreams meeting the resistance of fact, are, in fact, at the heart of the search for self-realization not only in the novels in question, but for the modern experience in general.

We are all always already in the milieu that comprises the rhizomatic existence. Although our lives contain a beginning and an end, we remember neither of them. As far as the human experience is concerned we live and experience in a series of dimensions and/or directions in motion. Our changes of dimension, aging, life experiences, etc. necessitate frequent, if not constant, metamorphoses. In my analysis, self-realization, the most important step in any life metamorphosis, necessitates a direct and intentional engagement with the rhizome.

This engagement eventually leads to a crossing outside of the realm of the protagonist's topographic imagination. This then is the moment of self-realization. Each novel is characterized by a moment in which the protagonist recognizes that by crossing out of the limiting space of his topographic imagination he has taken responsibility for his own actions and owned the possibility of his self-realization.

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