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Autobiographical Fictions: Ethnicity and Identity in Jack Kerouac’s Satori in Paris American Studies Today Online

Eftychia Mikelli holds a PhD from the Department of English Studies at Durham University, where she is currently employed as a postdoctoral teaching assistant. Her article explores the fictional aspects of identity formation in Jack Kerouac’s Satori in Paris, departing from previous autobiographical readings of the novel. Drawing upon Derrida’s deconstructive theories, it examines the ways in which the narrator’s attempts to establish a coherent ethnic identity are undermined by instability and hybridization.

By Eftychia Mikelli

Posted 06-Mar-2014


Autobiographical fictions
Hybrid identities
Works Cited


About forty years since Jack Kerouac’s death his legacy remains remarkably influential. Recent years have witnessed a renewed interest in Kerouac’s work, and the proliferation of Kerouac-related events internationally attests to the numerous ways in which his writing is still relevant today. [1] Book-length studies and articles on Kerouac continue to be published regularly, offering original interpretations of previously unexplored aspects of his work. But whereas criticism of On the Road and other wider known novels has been prolific, less attention has been paid to Satori in Paris, a novel composed about four years before Kerouac died (1965), and published in its entirety by Grove Press in 1966.[2] This article seeks to establish the significance of Satori in Paris in the Kerouacian oeuvre, exploring the complex aspects of identity formation that are addressed in the novel.

In Satori in Paris Kerouac provides a fictional version of a ten-day trip undertaken for the purpose of establishing a rapport with his ancestry in France. The story in the novel is about the French-Canadian narrator’s journey from America to France in order to track down his family line, which he believes to be of noble blood. He desires to investigate his past and thus embarks on a search for ethnic origins and identity: “my quest” (52, 92). The urgency to establish a stable identity becomes vividly communicated, as the novel’s main focus is on the narrator’s search for origins. However, this quest proves problematic, for the idea of origins is repeatedly questioned. The narration is accordingly structured around discontinuous episodes that reflect the fragmentation of the narrator’s quest.

Critical reaction to Satori has been largely unsympathetic. Clark argues that “the trip had gone by in a blur, and that word is the best description of Satori in Paris, a disturbing, unintentional ‘confession’ of how badly Jack had deteriorated” (203). Gifford and Lee refer to the trip narrated in Satori as “a lonely, abortive sojourn that resulted in little of value” (300) and Theado states that Kerouac “failed to achieve his purported goal of reaching his family heritage” (176). Indeed, the narrator’s inability to trace his origins lends validity to such comments. However, it should not be overlooked that the narrator’s quest for origins is part of a more fundamental attempt to establish an (initially ethnic) identity. The wider implications arising from reflections upon the concept of identity in Satori in Paris have rarely been substantially addressed by critics. My analysis aims to shed light on such considerations; disengaging Satori in Paris from several more conventionally autobiographical approaches that have been pursued in the past, I will explore the dynamics of the processes of identity formation that shape the novel.

Jack Kerouac

Jack Kerouac © Tom Palumbo

Autobiographical fictions

The fact that Satori in Paris has been inspired by Kerouac’s trip to France can to an extent account for the critical tendency to analyse the novel with close reference to the actual events in the author’s life. A first view of Satori would seem to justify this; it can be said that Kerouac himself is partly responsible, having stated that he has decided to use his real name, “because this story is about my search for this name in France” (8).[3] A preliminary exploration of the concept of autobiography is particularly useful here in order to illuminate the author’s claim to identification with the narrator and the complications arising thereof.

Rimmon-Kenan argues that autobiography is “in some sense no less fictional than what is conventionally classified as such” (3). In a work that bears his name as its title, Roland Barthes points to the impossibility of autobiography becoming an accurate transcription of reality: “I had no other solution other than to rewrite myself - at a distance - a great distance, here and now” (142). Burke maintains that in this, “Roland Barthes would seem to be breaking the timehonoured autobiographical contract - that the self writing and the self written on should be one and the same self” (54). In fact, the temporal distance between the actual taking place of events and their narration forbids the identification of the two. Subjectivity is yet another significant factor; individuals have different ways of perceiving events and then preserving them in their memory: “Autobiography expresses the play of the autobiographical act itself, in which the materials of the past are shaped by memory and imagination to serve the needs of present consciousness” (Eakin, Fictions 5). A variety of factors can intervene to reshape one’s perception. Memory is selective; certain events are recalled more vividly than others, and representation becomes increasingly problematic. Nonetheless, an autobiographical narration should not be taken as an absolutely artificial construct, completely severed from its author. To deny that Kerouac had indeed travelled to France would be foolish; however, the distinction between that and the work delivered, the product of the mind which gives birth to the fictional character, should be kept in mind.

This fundamental distinction intensifies the complications that transpire from the use of the proper name in the novel. The narrator draws attention to his passport “which says: ‘John Louis Kerouac’ because you cant go around America and join the Merchant Marine and be called ‘Jean’” (Satori 95); the tension between these two names is suggestive of more general confusion with regard to representations of Franco-American identity in the novel.

In his initial attempt to foreground an ethnic identity, the narrator sets out to track down his ancestry, which he believes to be of aristocratic origin: he mentions “nobles, of which I am a descendant (Princes of Brittany)” (Satori 16). He takes great care to stress that he comes “from Medieval French Quebec - via - Brittany stock” (45) and emphatically projects the noblesse of his family line, declaring that his “ancestor was an officer of the Crown” (51). Indeed, he traces his heritage “back to Cornwall, Wales, and Ireland and maybe Scotland afore that […] then down over to the St. Lawrence River city in Canada where I’m told there was a Seigneurie (a Lordship)” (73). The family heritage Kerouac has bestowed on his narrator constitutes the propulsive force behind the trip to France. Asserting his noble background, the narrator sets the scene for what appears to be for him a most dignified cause and a quest of ultimate importance; he feels that by tracking down his ancestry he is fulfilling a family dream (Satori 74). For the narrator of Satori in Paris the attempt to align himself with the heritage of the aristocracy of Brittany is the ultimate quest for identity. However, the projection of a multiplicity of geographical loci as “the origin” is from the start suggestive of the problems implicated in the narrator’s attempt to establish an ethnic identity.

Despite the narrator’s intentions, a number of predicaments blight his project. At the Mazarine Library of Paris he is informed that the records that he was looking for had been destroyed by Nazi bombings (22/52-3), then at the National Library he is not provided with the material he wants because the employees there mistrust him: “they all smelled the liquor on me and thought I was a nut” (33); he cannot find anything at the National Archives either (51). He subsequently misses his plane to Brittany and therefore has to travel by train (57-9). Eventually, he comes to realize that he cannot attain the desired results “because Johnny Magee around the corner as anybody knows can, with any luck, find in Ireland that he’s the descendant of the Morholt’s King and so what?” (52). Later, he bitterly wonders: “who ever thought that in my quest for ancestors I’d end up in a bookie joint in Brest” (92), openly acknowledging the vacuous nature of his pursuit. The fact that his search takes him to a bookie joint parodies the narrator’s initial purpose of tracing his aristocratic lineage. Finally, he openly admits: “my dreams of being an actual descendant of the Princes of Brittany are shattered” (112). In this light, proclamations like “the Little Prince” (54) and “the Prince of Brittany” (114) strike an ironic chord. The narrator has been looking for a solid marker of ethnic origin that would help him trace his genealogy; eventually he comes to realize that this is perpetually deferred. The narrator’s insistence on tracing his lineage is particularly striking, considering that America has traditionally welcomed ethnic diversity, promoting the importance of individual effort over ethnic background. That Kerouac’s narrative is driven by a desire to establish his ethnic origins therefore constitutes an ironic comment upon Cold War America’s lingering preoccupation with race, emphatically foregrounded in projections of otherness in novels such as On the Road and The Subterraneans. The narrator of Satori seeks an ethnic identity outside America; he has to be dislocated in order to be able to safeguard his effective re-entry into the country. The hybridized nature of his identity gives rise to a number of complications, and the inconclusiveness of his search for origins reveals his marginal experience of ethnicity. In this context, the fact that he brings back to his mother a trivial Breton butter bucket as a souvenir (82) can be interpreted as an ironic gesture, and his quest now becomes “adrift in the increasingly meaningless sea of ethnic signs and symbols” (Harney 377).

Hybrid identities

Not only is the narrator’s quest destabilized by the inability to reach an origin, but it also becomes difficult to define the exact nature of the identity he wishes to trace. The French and American elements that the narrator identifies as major components of his ethnic identity are in constant tension, and he is unsure whether he should think of himself as predominantly American or Breton. He initially takes pains to establish his Breton ancestry and distinguishes himself from other Americans in Paris, reflecting on the dismal state of an American he sees in a restaurant, and exposing the comic effect of two American sisters’ efforts to buy oranges (38-40). However, despite this attempt to dissociate himself from his American background, at other instances the narrator emphatically represents himself as an American, and furthermore, a tourist:So how can an American tourist who doesnt speak French get around at all? Let alone me?” (31). Later he describes himself “as a New Yorker” (37), whereas earlier he had stated that he lives in Florida (11). Thus, even with regard to his American identity there is no fixed point of reference. The narrator’s American persona is further outlined in phrases like: “looking like any decent American Boy in trouble” (69), “am a tourist” (76) and “it’s not my fault, or that of any American tourist or even patriot, that the French refuse the responsibility of their explanations -” (85). Such images do not only conflict with his projections of French identity, but also bear witness to forceful tensions inherent in its American representations, themselves already complicated by the hybridized nature of American identity.

The tension is further intensified as the synthesis of the narrator’s various identities proves problematic; he interchangeably moves from one to the other, unable to decide which of these (already ambiguous) identities suits him most. This oscillation is further highlighted in the alternate use of French and English throughout the narration, for example when a large paragraph in French is followed by its lengthy English counterpart in a passage that spans almost two pages in length (63-4). Such linguistic instability is suggestive of a more general tension in perceptions of ethnicity, also emphatically foregrounded in the narrator’s attempt to emphasize his Breton, as opposed to French, background. Breaking language down to the level of phonemes, he professes that Standard French language

has really been changed by the influx of Germans, Jews and Arabs […] and I also remind him […] that in those days you said not “toi” or “moi” but like “twé” or “mwé” (as we still do in Quebec and in two days I heard it in Brittany) […] François’ name was pronounced François and not Françwé for the simple reason that he spelled it Françoy, like the King is spelled Roy, and this has nothing to do with “oi” and if the King had ever heard it pronounced rouwé (rwé) he would not have invited you to the Versailles dance but given you a roué with a hood over his head to deal with your impertinent cou, or coup, and couped it right off and recouped you nothing but loss. (45-6)

Pitting Standard French against what he takes to be “generic” Breton, the narrator draws attention to a series of linguistic developments that undermine the coherence of Standard French linguistic identity. Against the admittedly hybridized French language the narrator positions the allegedly pure Breton one. However, the clarity of the meaning of “Breton” is soon called into question when, after having been overwhelmed with information, he exclaims: “what the hell […] everybody’s suddenly a Breton!” (93). The narrator momentarily expresses a belief in the “originary” nature of Breton identity, only to realize that the hybridization it has been subject to over the centuries problematizes any claims to “originality”.[4] The vacuity of the narrator’s search for a coherent ethnic identity is thus exposed. An integral ethnic identity cannot be attained, because it is constantly subjected to the Derridean notion of “supplementarity”. Derrida argues that “one cannot determine the center and exhaust totalization because the sign which replaces the center, which supplements it, taking the center’s place in its absence - this sign is added, occurs as a surplus, as a supplement. The movement of signification adds something, which results in the fact that there is always more” (99). Both Breton and Standard French are infused with a variety of new linguistic elements that are intended to compensate for the lack of an “original” centre. In this context coherence cannot be achieved, either due to an overabundance of linguistic traces or because these traces are never sufficient. In either case, the influx of novelty is never exhaustive; further supplementarity occurs and language remains perpetually unstable. It is a similar instability that characterizes the narrator’s  national identity, which is always in need of completion, as a variety of, often conflicting, ethnic fragments is repeatedly called upon to make up for the a priori lack of a generic and pure national origin, itself an ideological construct.

Therefore, it does not come as a surprise that the narrator’s initial claim that “this old name of mine […] is just about three thousand years old and was never changed in all that time and who would change a name that simply means House (Ker), In the Field (Ouac)” (72), is subsequently contradicted by a reference to an alternative spelling: “why did the pilot pick old Keroach? (Keroac’h, early spelling hassle among my uncles)” (95). These different versions also point to the instability of identity, which seems to be as susceptible to change as the various spellings of the narrator’s name. In an attempt to trace his origins, the narrator provides a detailed exposition of numerous variations on his name, evoking family and place names, and an assortment of “fatherlands” (73). In this context the importance of the etymology of the proper name is undermined, exposing the ironic overtones implied in the decision to name the narrator “Kerouac”. A poignant comment on notions of identity, the versatility of the proper name challenges the idea that a unified and stable ethnic identity can be achieved, and also questions the common critical assumption that the author Kerouac and his narrator’s persona can be taken as identical.

The proper name cannot be associated with a fixed signification, and its various linguistic substitutions forcefully introduce into the narrative:

the moment when language invaded the universal problematic, the moment when, in the absence of a centre of origin, everything became discourse […] that is to say, a system in which the central signified, the original or transcendental signified, is never absolutely present outside a system of differences. The absence of the transcendental signified extends the domain and the play of signification infinitely. (Derrida 91)

The variations on the name invalidate conceptions of “Kerouac” as a generic, original and independent identity; “Kerouac” only makes sense when defined against “Kernuak […] Kériaval […] Kermario, Kérlescant and Kérdouadec […] Kéroual” (73), and “Keroach? (Keroac’h)” (95). Identity now can only be understood within a system of significations, which are also subject to variation. This constitutes a major point of rupture with the notion of a coherent ethnic identity. Ethnic identity is dispersed in an infinite play of signification, which, according to Derrida, came into force “at the moment when European culture […] had been dislocated, driven from its  locus, and forced to stop considering itself as the culture of reference” (93).

If one were to seek such a moment in Satori, one would be tempted to position it in the narrator’s ancestors’ departure from France, speculating that the dislocation to which the “Kerouacs” have been subjected, both spatially and linguistically, has dissociated them from firm points of reference. However, such reasoning would be problematic in line with Derridean thought. I have already pointed out that the Breton/French languages, as individual expressions of European culture, are not free from external influences that have unsettled their referential authority. Therefore, it is more appropriate here to talk about a continuous, origin-less process, whereby the proper name, also conventionally a signifier of ethnic identity, is deprived of a fixed corresponding signified. This leaves us with a “structure of infinite referral in which there are only traces - traces prior to any entity of which they might be the trace” (Culler 99). In this context, the notion of identity is further destabilized, and the traditional function of the proper name is openly challenged. Culler argues that “effects of signature, traces of the proper name/signature in the text, produce a disappropriation while they appropriate” (192). The limitations of the narrator’s effort to use the proper name as license to appropriate a national identity, however, soon transpire. Bereft of even the illusion of unity, “Kerouac” is left pending in an infinite play of substitutions of the proper name, and, consequently, of ethnic identity.

Although the narrator’s influences are largely American, he nonetheless still carries elements of the French-Canadian tradition he has been exposed to by his family. The narrator is both Jack Kerouac, the implied American author who goes to France, and Jean-Louis Lebris de Kérouac, the descendant of French immigrants; these already problematic identities are in constant tension, prohibiting the formation of a coherent Franco-American identity. The hybridization of language reflects the more general hybridization of identity to the point where no pure elements can be singled out. In Satori in Paris the narrator is unable to reach a unified identity, because it is ultimately impossible to define its constituent parts; what ensues is “the disillusioned realization that the ethnie he wanted to return to was gone. It existed mostly as rhetoric, his own rhetoric” (Harney 378). The vacuous nature of the search for an ethnic identity in Satori is thus emphasized, and a series of associations that problematize the concept of identity beyond ethnic considerations is introduced.

The constructedness of identity and its subsequent potential to be modified is further exposed when the narrator assumes the persona of “Duluoz”, “a variation I invented just for fun in my writerly youth (to use as my name in my novels)” (101). The elusiveness of identity becomes more striking as the narrator steps in and out of personas in free association:

THIS COWARDLY BRETON (ME) […] this Kerouac who would be laughed at in Prince of Wales Land […] this boastful, this prune, this rage and rake […] “this trunk of humours” […] this fear-of-death tumor […] this runaway slave of football fields, this strikeout artist and base thief […] This, in short, scared and humbled […] descendant of man. (77-78)

Any claims to solid identity are further exploded, as an array of identities is laid in a paratactic order that suggests their interchangeability. This disorderly pastiche of identities is expressive of fragmentation. Despite the negativity implied in the narrator’s realization that his identity has become a composite of fragments, he nonetheless does not hesitate to experiment with projections of identity for the purpose of stylistic exercises, and playfully describes himself as being “crazy as that raccoon in Big Sur Woods, or the sandpiper thereof, or any Olsky-Polsky Sky Bum, or Route Sixty Six Silly Elephant Eggplant Sycophant and with more to come” (75). The playful tone of this utterance notwithstanding, the incoherence of these caricaturesque identities ultimately parodies the narrator’s (admittedly illusory) quest for identity. The narrator even refers to the Innkeeper of the Victor Hugo Inn as “Neal Cassady” in this blending of boundaries (83). Identity thus becomes discontinuous and loses its power of referentiality. In Satori in Paris it is not only “the referential basis of autobiography”, but identity itself that is inherently unstable. The quest for an ethnic identity is constantly interrupted and does not yield the desired results, as “locked out of a fading ethnoculture, ridiculed by his own filiopietistic search, Kerouac experiences a rupture in ethnicity” (Harney 375). Perhaps more importantly, however, the concept of identity is itself problematized, as conventional notions of autobiography give way to a recognition of the fictional dimensions it contains.


It thus transpires that the initial claim that “as in an earlier autobiographical book, I’ll use my real name here” (8) bears no special weight, save that of irony. This is further emphasized by the realization that ultimately there is no point of origin to be traced, as “to reenter the house of origins would require the death of memory” (Eakin, Touching the World 229). Reconstruction of the past through the memories of the present is an unreliable procedure that tears one further away from any intention of reaching “the origin”, already an illusion amidst hybridization and blurred boundaries. In this context, the proper name loses its significance, allowing for further play upon the unstable notion of identity, as American, Breton, literary and fictionalized identities fuse and inconclusively wrestle.

The ambiguity as to the narrator’s ethnic origins leads to a more general crisis in identity construction. Language cannot bear claims to stability and purity, urgently communicating the dispersal of the notion of identity. In Satori in Paris the concept of identity is scrutinized, dissected and broken down. In a 1960s context of rapid social transformations, Kerouac exposes the complications that arise from the attempt to establish a coherent ethnic identity. Sensitive to the cultural processes of his era, Kerouac is alert to the emerging Civil Rights Movement. Satori in Paris is deeply concerned with the interactions between ethnicity and identity and converses with articulations of ethnicity instigated by the proliferation of ethnic voices in America at the time. In its problematization of the concept of a unified identity, the novel addresses vital questions about the nature of identity, and often captures a postmodern sensibility.

Works Cited

Barthes, Roland. Roland Barthes by Roland Barthes. Trans. Richard Howard.

Basingstoke: Macmillan, 1977.

“Beat Film Series.” Harry Ransom Center. 22 Feb. 2009 ˂http://www.hrc.utexas.edu/events/2008/beatfilm/˃.

“Breton.” The New Encyclopaedia Britannica: Micropaedia. 15th ed. 2003.

Burke, Seán. The Death and Return of the Author: Criticism and Subjectivity in

Barthes, Foucault and Derrida. 2nd ed. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 1998.

Clark, Tom. Jack Kerouac: A Biography. 1984. London: Plexus, 1997.

Culler, Jonathan D. On Deconstruction: Theory and Criticism after Structuralism.

             London: Routledge, 1993.

Derrida, Jacques. “Structure, Sign and Play in the Discourse of the Human Sciences.” Modern Criticism and Theory: A Reader. Ed. David Lodge and Nigel Wood. 2nd ed. Harlow: Longman, 2000. 89-103.

Eakin, Paul John. Fictions in Autobiography: Studies in the Art of Self-Invention.

            Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1985.

---. Touching the World. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1992.

Gifford, Barry, and Lawrence Lee. Jack’s Book: Jack Kerouac in the Lives and Words

of his Friends. London: Hamish Hamilton, 1979.

Harney, Steve. “Ethnos and the Beat Poets.” Journal of American Studies 25. 3 (1991): 363-380.

Kerouac, Jack. Book of Dreams. 1960. San Francisco: City Lights Books, 1981.

---. Lonesome Traveler. 1960. London: Penguin, 2000.

---. On the Road. 1957. London: Penguin, 2000.

---. Satori in Paris & Pic. 1966/1971. New York: Grove Press, 1985.

---. The Subterraneans. 1958. New York: Grove Press, 1966.

McNally, Dennis. Desolate Angel: Jack Kerouac, the Beat Generation and America. New York: Random House, 1979.

            Rimmon-Kenan, Shlomith. Narrative Fiction: Contemporary Poetics. 2nd ed. London:

            Routledge, 2002.

Theado, Matt. Understanding Jack Kerouac. Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 2000.


[1] The 1951 Scroll on which On the Road was written has recently been on display at various venues throughout America and in 2008 it was exhibited in the Barber Institute of Fine Arts at the University of Birmingham in the UK. The British Arts Council sponsored the London International Poetry and Song Festival (LIPS II) in 2007 as a celebration of Kerouac’s On the Road and the Beats, and in 2008 the Harry Ransom Humanities Research Center held a Beat exhibition which included a Beat film series.

[2] McNally notes that initially the novel “was printed in successive issues of Evergreen [Review] that spring [1966]” (322).

[3] The other works in which the narrator is named “Kerouac” are Lonesome Traveler and Book of Dreams.

[4]The New Encyclopaedia Britannica is revealing of substantial racial blending that casts doubt over the notion of a “pure” Breton identity: 

The Celts are the first historically identifiable inhabitants of Brittany, but they probably intermingled with the earlier peoples […] Conquered by Julius Caesar in 56 BC, the region became part of the Roman Empire as Armonica […] After the Romans withdrew, Celts from Britain moved into the region to seek refuge from the Anglo-Saxon invaders of the 5th and 6th centuries […] Brittany became part of France when Anne, heir of Brittany, married two successive kings of France. (534)



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