Sunday, October 23, 2011

On the Road by Jack Kerouac

After three Russian novels, I was looking for something different. Enter Kerouac. I got this book for a dollar at the farmer's market. After three weeks of watching youthful Slavs visit the picturesque countryside, only to slowly waste away under a grim fog of sourceless Russian ennui, I caught a ride with young Kerouac as he hitchhiked across the country, stayed with friends in rundown apartments and generally experienced life, liberty and the pursuit of consciousness, occasionally frequently with chemical assistance. This book is truly iconic in its description of the Beat generation, and only slightly disturbing was my discovery that Jack Kerouac's altered states of consciousness weren't all that different from my usual states of consciousness. 

For example:
        "For just a moment I had reached the point of ecstasy that I always wanted to reach, which was the complete step across chronological time into timeless shadows, and wonderment in the bleakness of the mortal realm, and the sensation of death kicking at my heels to move on, with a phantom dogging its own heels, and myself hurrying to a plank where all the angels dove off and flew into the holy void of uncreated emptiness, the potent and inconceivable radiancies shining in bright Mind Essence, innumerable lotus-lands falling open in the magic mothswarm of heaven. I could hear an indescribable seething roar which wasn't in my ear but everywhere and had nothing to do with sounds...I realized it was only because of the stability of the intrinsic Mind that these ripples of birth and death took place, like the action of wind on a sheet of pure, serene, mirror-like water."

I can dig that. Even without benzedrine. But Kerouac insisted that his novel detailed not a drug spree but a religious journey. In his words, it "was really a story about two Catholic buddies roaming the country in search of God. And we found him. I found him in the sky, in Market Street San Francisco (those 2 visions), and Dean (Neal) had God sweating out of his forehead all the way. THERE IS NO OTHER WAY OUT FOR THE HOLY MAN: HE MUST SWEAT FOR GOD. And once he has found Him, the Godhood of God is forever established and really must not be spoken about." 

I know what you mean, Jack. There's a certain threshold that, when you cross it, you leave the world of words behind, and what is beyond there can't really be spoken about. It can't be brought back into the land of speech, incarnated into a body of grammar, without being torn apart as it enters the dimension of duality. So it stays out there, and when you try to talk about it part of your mind has to go out there to think about it, and then the person you're talking to realizes that you're not all here, and they're right. You're not. But it's not the benzedrine talking, it's the beatific vision. I've been there too, Jack, just over the threshold, at the place where Beat was born.

Related explanatory facts: Kerouac wrote the novel in three weeks, typing continuously onto a 120-foot roll of teletype paper. This led to Truman Capote's well-known zinger, "That's not writing, that's typing".   

The Beat Generation is often seen as a space-holder between WWII and the turbulent sixties, but without the Beats, the sixties as we know them would not have happened. The Beats influenced Jim Morrison, Bob Dylan and, of course, the Beatles. They demystified drug use, explored multiple spiritual traditions, fought censorship, pursued ecological viewpoints, opposed the military-industrial complex and appreciated idiosyncrasy over conformity. "Nobody knows whether we were catalysts or invented something, or just the froth riding on a wave of its own. We were all three, I suppose." - Allen Ginsberg  

Kerouac himself describes Beat as "(being) watchful, catlike, the street but not of it. ...It's a sort of furtiveness, like we were a generation of furtives. You know, with an inner knowledge there's no use flaunting on that level, the level of the "public,"a kind of beatness-I mean, being right down to it, to ourselves-and a weariness with all the forms, all the conventions of the world... we're a beat generation." Kerouac saw his generation as the beatific generation; the generation that would see God, but in the end his vision was a hopeful projection onto his generation, and did not manifest in reality.

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