UNREADABILITY On the Road from Alexia to Zaum
for Lou & his secret autobiographies
Unreadable Incapable of being read; illegible; not worth
New Expanded Webster's Dictionary (1988)
Unreadable 1 Too dull or difficult to read 2 Illegible
3 Of a facial expression, a remark, etc;
New Shorter Oxford Dictionary Vol. 2 (1993)
"If it's not in writing it never happened."
Popular saying often found on signs in places of
"Even I can't read my own handwriting".
(Insofar as nobody loves my dashes anyway, I'll
use regular punctuation for the new illiterate
Jack Kerouac,VANITY OF DULUOZ
If you ask a write-wright, a real writer, he'll
tell you that a word written in one particular
handwriting or set in a particular typeface is not
the same word written in different lettering.
V.Khlebikov & A. Kruchonykh "The Letter as Such"
I become a transparent eyeball; I am nothing see
all. . . It is not words only that are emblematic; it
is things which are emblematic... The world is
Alexia: A loss of the ability to read or understand
the written word . . . a complex visual disturbance
resulting from a disease in the visual association
areas at the back ofthe brain. From the Greek preface
"a" meaning "without"+"lexis", meaning "word"=
The horizons of (visible) unreadability are an arcing in the
mind's eye. From the unreadabilty of alexia's diseased back
brain area to the all-is-readability of the transparent eyeball
is a passage from the opaque to the omniscient. . . Unreadability
is also a form of enclosure of the readable, which is an elastic
area between the "too dull" and the "too difficult". It also in a
sense marks a failure: it is "illegible", it is "not worth
A transcendental ecstasy, a brain disease, a dullness,a
difficulty, a poorly written script, not of value. . . the
unreadable evades a standard written test... presents an
indeterminancy... a riddling Sphinx. . . on the road from a
complete inability and absence to an immediate apprehension and
plenitude . . .
It may signal an ineptitude or a deliberate evasion...
As an example, substitute "readings" for "meanings": in the
Not only do the words change meanings, but meanings vary
locally. A final glossary, therefore, cannot be made of
words whose intentions are fugitive (W.S.Burroughs,JUNKY).
Unreadability is a paradoxical situation: rather than
marking a terminus of readability, it opens up potentialities,
possibilites of reading and misreadings, creative and otherwise.
This may mean that the unreadable is simply a form of Rorsach
Test in which each subjectivity confronted with the unreadable
contributes a version of readability, or that on the other hand,
unreadability may be a form of concealment--a code known only to
those for whom it is intended to be read. A method of
control, secrecy, manipulation...
Unreadability is also a manifestation of an uncanny other.
It exists in the present moment to a would-be reader as the sign
that someone, somewhere, sometime experienced the moment in
which the text was/is/will be readable. The unreadable posits not
only a writer for whom the text was/is readable, but as well a
reader for whom, to whom it was/is/will be readable. An unknown
other is present in the unreadable--not only the writer whose
presence is inscribed--but an other reader--who received,
receives, will receive these signs. An uncanny other reader
haunts the would-be reader as much as the unknown/unknowable
unreadable writer. . .
. It is also possible for the unreadable to come into being even
to the writer in the process of writing,as each new action of
inscription leaves the previous behind--a trace vanishing into
the past to be picked up and given a possible mis/reading by an
other--a message in a bottle--a suicide note... a clue for a
hoped-for rescue. . . or a dreaded capture ...as the writer's
writing becomes unreadable to the writer . . . and open to the
mis/readings of others ...
Indeterminacies and certitudes of others' reading one's own
writing-become-unreadable to oneself . . .
Paranoia or freedom of this:
"They are trying to make me forget my amnesia!"
cries Carl Solomon in transcribed taped conversation in his
MORE MISHAPS. . . or an exultant Herman Melville, writing to
Nathaniel Hawthorne in August 1851 as he finishes MOBY DICK:
Possibly, if you answer (this letter), and direct it to
Herman Melville, you will missend it--for the very fingers
that now guide this pen are not precisely the same that just
took it up and put it to paper. ..
The writer moving among unreadabilities and readabilities of
her/his own writings . . . probing truths and deceits, openings
through/in.. . and opacities of .. . standards . . . .
In the opening page of VANITY OF DULUOZ;the last book of
his published in his lifetime,Jack Kerouac announces that he will
dispense with his infamous dashes and instead use regulation
punctuation and standard sentence structure "for the new
illiterate generation" to read.
Kerouac opens up several interesting questions regarding
unreadability. One of his bases for writing ("silent meditation
going a hunded miles an hour") was to express "the unspeakable
visions of the individual". Silence, speed,the unspeakable--and
meditation, visions,specifically those of the individual.
Writing as vision--and visuality; a form of swift picture writing
more immediately apprehended than the speakable;the speed of
light being greater than that of sound ("Book-movie, the original
American form"). Kerouac is positing an almost direct telepathic
apprehension of an idiosyncratic writing of visions in a society
which has created illiterates in this regard through the
standardization of writing and speech. Standardization in this
sense does away with a reading of visions,of an individual
experience of them. It creates a new form of illiteracy--one that
can only read a very narrow set of approved signs--all in order,
to follow orders ... delivered in well crafted writing,structured
sentences. A norm of normalcy outside of which lies outlawry and
insanity, other forms of illiteracy which can be surveilled and
Of course, Kerouac's writing was lampooned and attacked--
hence the bitter notice in VANITY OF DULUOZ of his attempt to
conform. Truman Capote famously called it "typing,not writing"--
an interesting twist on Kerouac's individuality of writing in
that, by being typed, it conformed to a machine skill, whereas
"writing" presumably meant a much more highly trained,and elitist
skill practised only by acknowledged "master" craftspeople.
Kerouac often responded that "craft"for him meant "crafty"--
a form of lying:
What I find to be really "stupifying in its unreadability"
is this laborious and dreary lying called craft
and revision... sheer blockage of the mental spontaneous
process known 2,500 years ago as "The Seven Streams of
Swiftness" ("The First Word", in GOOD BLONDE & OTHERS).
Again, Kerouac brings up speed,"Swiftness" being a writing
in direct relation with the flow of the mind uninterfered and
uninterupted by the double damming of "the conventional English
sentence. . . so ironbound in its rules.. .that I couldn't
express myself through that form anymore" and its further
strangulation by revision.
Revision for Kerouac is an after the fact/act reworking,
rewording, repressing of the "spontaneous bop prosody" of "the
unspeakable visions of the individual". "Unspeakable', that
is, within standardized structures of "the conventional Englsih
sentence" which is the lying "craft" of a "labored out
sentence". (Like a prison term--"paying a debt to society".) The
slowing down remove and revisioning from the spontaneous produces
a "stultifying unreadability", a lying, accepted and hailed for
its being conventional.
Kerouac uses as examples of the direct spontaneous
expression of truth the Buddha's Surangama Sutra and the Gospel
of Mark 13:11. In both, what is first expressed is direct from
the "enlightening nature of Pure Mind Essence" and the Holy
Spirit. "First thought, best thought"as Allen Ginsberg phrased
this message in relation to writing.
Writing as "silent meditation going a hundred miles an hour"
moves from being solely a notation of the visual image before the
writer's mind's eye to one of sound also. Since the sounds are
from "unspeakble visions" they begin to become ever more
Pentecostal, extending and exploding phonemes beyond conventional
(or earthbound) meanings.
Kerouac sees this as going into an "orbit around (my) mind"
which can go too far outwo/ards even for him. Kerouac notes this
orbit needs still to be linked to one conventional aspect of
language: "to break through the barrier of language with WORDS".
The danger of going beyond words produces what even for him is
another form of unreadablity:
But I'd gone so far to the edges of language where the
babble of the subconcious begins, because words "come from
the Holy Ghost" first in the form of babble which suddenly
by its sound indicates the word truly intended ...I began to
rely too much on babble in my nervous race away from cantish
cliches. . . ended up ravingly enslaved to sounds, became
unclear and dull (my emphasis) as in my ultimate lit'ry
experiment Old Angel Midnight . . . There's a delicate
balancing point between bombast and babble ("First Words").
(Bob Cobbing, the great English sound/visual/verbal poet,
performer, editor and publisher of Writers Forum who printed
the first complete version of OLD ANGEL MIDNIGHT told me
he considered this the greatest sound poem of the 20th
This brings Kerouac to the point (1967) he makes in VANITY
OF DULUOZ (also 1967); that his "Space Age" writing needs to make
a "retreat back towards" a more conventional readability for the
"new illiterate geneneration". (Ironically a generation that
Kerouac is always thought of as having a major influence on.)
. . . so many critics have laughed at me . . . never for
one moment calling me "sensitive" or artistically dignified
but an unlettered hoodlum . . . (now) I'm having to retreat
closer back to the bombast (empty abstraction) of this
world and make my meaning plainer, i.e. dimmer, but the
Space Age of the future won't bother with my "later" works
if any, or with these millions of other things written today
that sound alike ("First Words").
Notable in this retreat for Kerouac is that these "First
Words" are a rewrite--a revision--(January 1967) of his first
(June 1959) "Last Words" columns for the same Escapade
magazine.(Also reprinted in GOOD BLONDE & OTHERS.)
It's a sad twist on "the first shall be last, and the last
The 1959 column ends on a prophetic note that the new
writing by himself and many others that Kerouac is championing
will be, as he notes in "First Words", read for far longer than
his "later works".
Editors and writers have been engaged on a campaign of
systematic rejection of everything except the most
systematic manuscripts. In fact, the notebook should
come back, printed,and like in France the cheap paperback
editions of a writer's entire collected works,
notes, outcries and doodles-drawings and all. This would
institute a literature of facts of life and writing,
not of mere readability measurement (my emphasis). . .
the emergence of something better than the novel . . .
and something better than fanciful versification,
to be rejected as diarrhea of the mouth by critics for fifty
years but accepted and enjoyed as unabashed language
by readers (italics Kerouac's)("Last Words One").
In 1969, during the last months of his life, Kerouac's
vision has become even more pessimistic with regards to
unreadability. In a column for the Chicago Tribune Magazine of 28
September called "After Me, the Deluge" Kerouac writes of a
psychedelically affected form of consciousness akin to alexia:
. . . they would see to it. . . (that) no one in America
could address a simple envelope or keep a household budget
or a checkbook balanced (writing as a measurable value) or
for that matter legible(.) In fact, wouldn't it be better
if nobody at all could count change anymore and of course
forgot how to read . . . the better to haul the branle-cul
fools off to camps when used? (Documented as insane, of
course.) (Also collected in GOOD BLONDE & OTHERS)
Kerouac's "retreat closer back to bombast" to make his
meaning "dimmer" becomes a turning away from the "raving"
of his "enslavement to sounds" which became "unclear and dull"
is paralleled in this vision of illegibility and illiteracy
in the "pyschedelic multimedia. . .happenings" which are
to be used by the system "engaged on a campaign of sytematic
rejection of everything except the most systematic manuscripts."
These systematic documents are then used to document the
illegible and illiterate multimedia and happenings--not so far
removed from Kerouac's own "Book-movie" and the soundpoetry
"ravings" of OLD ANGEL MIDNIGHT--and proceed to put them all in
camps for the"insane".
Kerouac went up to the edge and at the end, wanted to hang
on to a sanity "closer back to bombast". (Closer back to earth
than the Space Age orbitings of his own mind.) Frightened by the
ravings of his "enslavement to sounds" he clung to the idea that
a breakthrough in language had to be made with "WORDS". In a
sense this is a turning away from the Holy Spirit, the Buddha's
sutra, not in terms of meanings but of sounds beyond meanings,
bounding beyond boundaries... in the last resort, to cling still
to readability as a guarantee of social stability, evading the
"camps" for the outlaws and insane . ..
What Kerouac didn't know was that this going beyond had
already been done in the Zaum activities of a number of Russian
Futurist poets. Zaum (pronounced ZA-oum)andmeaning"transrational"
or "beyonsense" (Paul Schmidt's translation) was a form of poetry
introduced in 1913 by the poets Victor Khlebnikov and Alexei
Gerald Janecek in the introduction to his THE LOOK OF
RUSSIAN LITERATURE notes that the period roughly extending from
the supressed Revolution of 1905 to the succesful one of October
1917 was also a time of intense debate over the much needed
overhaul of the Russian alphabet itself. Into this arena of the
instability and indeterminancy of the basic building blocks of
the written/readable the Zaumniki charged:
Why don't they (other writers,critics) just go ahead and
dress it (the word) up in prison clothes? You've seen the
letters of their words--strung out in straight lines with
shaved heads, resentful, each one just like the others--
gray, colorless--not letters at all, just stamped out marks.
And yet if you ask a write-wright, a real writer, he'll
tell you that a word written in one particular handwriting
or set in a particular typeface is totally distinct from
the same word in a different lettering (Khlebnikov and
Kruchonykh, "The Letter as Such", 1913).
This visual written shifting can be carried even further
than Melville's noted above: the writing does not even need to be
done by the writer--but is to be rewritten, written over again,
by an other. As for printing, this can also be done by hand:
using rubber stamping rather than a conventianal press.
Two circunstances obtain:
1. Our mood alters our handwriting as we write.
2. Our handwriting, distinctively altered by our mood,
conveys that mood independently of the words. We
must therefore consider the question of written signs--
visible, or simply palpable, that a blind man could
touch. It's clearly not necessary that the author
himself should be the one who writes a handwritten book;
indeed, it would probably be better for him to entrust
the task to an artist ("The Letter as Such").
Zaum can be seen as a visual letter-by-letter expression
of Kerouac's "spontaneous bop prosody", the very act of the
shaping of the letter conveying meanings beyond the word created.
Yet this would still be near the realm of what Keruac writes of
in "The Last Word One" column:
. . . the notebook should come back, printed, and like
in France the cheap paperback edition of a writer's
entire collected works, notes and outcries and
doodles-drawings and all.
Yet by having the handwriting being done by an other,
how does this not alter the original spontaneous handwritten
expression of a "beyonsense"?
In Kerouac, the spontaneous writing is "to be accepted and
enjoyed as unabashed language by readers". The energy transfer
of writing (to paraphrase Charles Olson's 1950 "Projective
Verse") in Zaum is not directly to the reader, but to the
When a piece is copied over, by someone else or even
by the author himself, that person must reexperience
himself during the act of recopying, otherwise the
piece loses all the rightful magic that was conferred
upon it by handwriting at the moment of its creation,
in the "wild storm of inspiration"("The Letter as Such").
In Kerouac's spontaneous, swift writing,the image/sounds in
the writer's mind's eye/ear are to conveyed directly to the
reader. The writing is a conduit through which these pass from
"the unspeakable visions of the individual" to the "reader '
All the reader needs to do is read the writing in its own
"unabashed language" instead of "mere readability measurement".
Zaum goes much further: the reader needs to experience the
"beyonse" directly by recopying the writing itself--for it is not
the meaning that is to be conveyed, but "mood", emotion,
"beyonsense" of "the letters of their words--strung out in
straight lines with shaved heads".
Rather than being "ravingly enslaved to sounds" as Kerouac
sees himself as having become, Zaum posits the act, the
experience to oneself of handwriting--whether the original or
hand made copy-- as providing a freedom from the enslavement of
standardized language. Visuality, palpability (in the case of the
blind) and the sounding of these beyond the enslavement of words
goes further than that of Kerouac's "breaking through the barrier
of language with WORDS".
Many historians and critics (see Janecek's superb Zaum The
Transrational Poetry of Russian Futurism) have noted that
Kruchonykh was interested in and influenced by Russian
Pentecostal ritual practices resulting in Divinely inspired
"speaking in tongues". Kerouac found that this experiencing had
led him to writing "babble" that was "dull and unclear".
Unreadable in the dictionary definition. Since Zaum dispenses
with the dictionary as a prison camp, it is not confined by the
standard presentations of unreadability--it opens new dimensions
of readability beyond these. The emphases on the tactile,
the sonic and the visual open the outwa/rds of "beyonsense"
in new directions, backward, forward, upside down.
The unreadability of both Zaum and Kerouac for many is due
to an indeterminacy in regarding them as "primitve" or as
"intelligent" "real artists/writers" in terms of "craft". This
either/or is a refusal to accept the "both/and" opened in their
works. (A similar yet more immediately recognizable example is
the very sophisticated Art Brut made by Dubuffet.)
The "primitive" aspects of both Zaum and Kerouac led to both
being accused of "hooliganism". (The Zaumnikis' fellow Futurist
Mayakovsky extolled and lived this part to the full
prior to the 1917 Revolution. He had been imprisoned during the
1905 revolt. He literally had been enslaved, with shaved head--a
convict and outlaw--later a champion and figurative captive of
the new Soviet State.) As Kerouac noted, he was often described
as "an unlettered hoodlum".
Zaum presents another aspect of unreadability related to
Kerouac's. This is the question of speed. Kerouac emphasizes
speed in the act of writing as "silent meditation going a hundred
miles per hour". He notes both scribblings in notebooks (their
page size limits dictating, along with the image and the "babble"
their taking form as poems) and the use of the typewriter, which
is still determined partially as a handwriting, the skill and
speed of the typist coming into play.
The physical speed of writing is to match as best it can the
speeding mind and its flows. In Zaum, speed is produced in a
different, seemingly opposite manner. With its emphasis on the
handwritten, the recopying, the hand stamping of letterings and
its being by these limited in the number of editions produced
(compared to Kerouac's "16 originally-styled volumes. . .
translated into 16 languages in 42 countries") Zaum seems very
slow. Even its recognition outside of the Russia of its time has
been very slow in coming. (It was eventually suppressed by the
Soviets--imprisoned and unread in sealed off library collections,
or hidden fugitively in Kruchonyhk's apartment. Zaum editions
were even found suffed inside his sofa on his death.)
This slowness however conceals a paradoxical speed: that of
intuition and feeling. The indeterminate unreadability of Zaum
confronts the would-be reader and copier with a visuality that
"calls forth", cries out, via the sounding out of its particles.
Unloosed from the enslavement of the word, soundings bring a
physical recognition and performance that is immediate in its
feeling. (As Ornette Coleman said later of Free Jazz, "it's not
about notes, it's about feelings".) This emphasis on a
simulataneous "primitivism" and an unloosening of boundaries in
"beyonsense" is both a reconnecting with a pre-standardized
verbal environment and a gesturing, a pointing towards the
"beyond"("Za") of the future implicit in Russian Futurism.
This emphasis on the basic building blocks of visual letters
and feeling is also emphasized by the Suprematist painter Kazmir
Malevich. Malevich, Kruchonyhk, and the musician Matyushin
attended the "First All-Russian Congress of the Wordwrights of
the Future" on July 18-19, 1913 and there began to conceive the
production of the Futurist opera VICTORY OVER THE SUN presented
on December 3 and 5 of the same year. (Khlebnikov contributed a
Prologue to the piece.)
While the opera was in production the student actors were
on the verge of mutiny, claiming the words were incomprehensible.
Kruchonyhk asked Matyushin to "explain (them) the essence of the
incomprehenisble words". "They saw no sense and didn't want to
perform without understanding." Matyushin then explained:the
relationship of the incomprehnsible/unreadable to the changing of
words themselves, with links in the distant past and moving into
We don't always notice changes in language as we live
in our own time. The words and the language are constantly
changing. If the culture of a people is great and active,
then it tosses away outmoded words and creates new words
and word combinations (Janecek's ZAUM: 123).
This emphasis on the constant changing of language and words
is close to Burroughs' "therefore a glossary cannot be made of
words whose intentions are fugitive". Instead of hunting down the
fugitive meanings, Zaum proposes to accept their indeterminancies
and unreadabality (not being in a glossary or dictionary) and
explore these in terms of emotions, feelings.
Beginning with his sets for the opera, Malevich launched
into the Non-Objective emotionality of the basic forms and colors
of Suprematism. He sees these as related to the letters and
sounds of Zaum:
This was received as "incomprehensible", unreadable and,
for the artist,a sense of being a fugitive:
When, in the year 1913 . .. I took refuge in the square
form and exhibited a painting which consisted of
nothing more than a black square on a white field, the
critics,and along with them the public,sighed "Everything
which we loved is lost. We are in a desert . .. Before
us is nothing but a black square on a white bacckground.. .
The square seemed incomprehensible and dangerous. . .
No more "likeness of reality", no idealisttic images,
--nothing but a desert!
But this desert is filled with the spirit of non-
objective sensation which pervades everything.
Even I was gripped by a kind of timidity bordering
on fear. . .
But a blissful sense of liberating non-objectivity
drew me forth in to the "desert" where nothing is real but
feeling... and so feeling became the substance of my life.
This was no "empty square"which I had exhibited but
rather the feeling of non-objectivity ("Suprematism", 1927).
In Malevich, Zaum, Kerouac, the unreadable, the
incomprenhensible, the border-line insane (Kerouac's discharge
from the U.S.Navy declared him a "borderline personality") are a
simultaneous consciousness of being a fugitve from conditioned
standards of being, perception, soundings. feelings and also a
sense of being liberated. The question of unreadability
becomes by extension a questioning of the entire social
structuring of the individual. Zaum and Suprematism were
eventually suppressed by the Soviet State and one finds Kerouac
despite the 16 translations in 42 countries feeling he has to
"retreat backs towards bombast" out of fear of his going too far
out into "babble". Paradoxically, despite his fame, he feels
himself still on the borderlines of hooliganism, official
"borderline" insanity and unreadability. His visions windup with
camps and the enslavement to words made up of shaved heads. His
sense is that the orignal feeling creating his works has been
deliberately misread and turned into "a new illiterate
generation". Ironically and cruelly, their illiteracy will make
them easy prey to be locked up as insane hoodlums. Malevich and
Kruchonyhk found themselves living in a time and place where this
occured on a daily basis. To survive they became as fugitively
invisible as possible, The questioning implicit in unreadability
is a dangerous activity. And--a freeing one, if accepted and
worked with, even when driven "underground"--it carries within
itself the energy and conviction that sometime, somewhere by
someone it will be "unearthed" and hopefully its feeling will be
Unreadability is not to be dictated and controlled by
a "readability measurement", it is not an area of exclusion,nor
an exclusive area, but one where contact exists beyond these:
"I is an other" as Rimbaud found. It is this uncanny other of I
that exists to be contacted in the unreadable.
Beginning with his sets for the opera, Malevich launched
into the Non-Objective emotionality of the basic forms and colors
of Suprematism, which he saw as related to the visual/sonic
letters of Zaum:
The letter is not a symbol for expressing things, but
a sonic note (not a musical one). . . (passing) from
letter to letter . . . more perfectly than from note
to note. . .
Arriving at the idea of sound, we obtained note letters
expressing masses. Perhaps in a composition of these
sound masses (former words) a new path will be found
. . . we tear the letter from a line, from a single
direction, and give it the possibility of free
movement. (Lines are needed in the world of bureacrats
and domestic correspondance.) (Like Kerouac's checkbooks;
readability connected with value.). . . we arrive at a
distribution of letter and sonic masses in space
similar to painterly Suprematism. These masses will
hang in space and will provide a possibility for
our consciousness to move farther and farther from earth
(Kerouac envisioning in "The First Word" spontaneous writing
as the flow of mind "in its spacetime continuum" as the
Space Age Prose/Poetry of astronauts. "It may be they won't
be reading anything else but spontaneous writing...")