Luke Miller rereads Jack Kerouac’s The Dharma Bums and On The Road
Known for putting the Beat Generation on the map, and still considered a classic 66 years after its first publication, On the Road is certainly Jack Kerouac’s most well-known and most widely read novel. It depicts Kerouac’s pseudonym Sal Paradise and Dean Moriarty (the literary conception of Neal Cassady) on their four-year travels back and forth across the United States. In an America just beginning the Cold War, when the number of homes with televisions increased from five thousand to eight million in just five years, Kerouac and Cassady hitchhike, bus, drive, and walk from San Francisco to New York City. Surrounded by the idiocy of civilization, they travel again and again in search of the next big adventure. But five years later, after Neal and Jack have become somewhat estranged, Kerouac (under the name of Ray Smith) finds a new path. Enlightened by his strong Buddhist faith and guided by poet, mountaineer and Zen Buddhist Gary Snyder (called Japhy Ryder), Kerouac describes in The Dharma Bums a different pursuit. The pursuit of truth. Kerouac exhibits his incredible eye for detail and complex description in seemingly Layman and un-composed writing in these two novels. His style is jumpy, and at times hard to follow, but simultaneously acts as an insight into his confused and bewildered mind. His development can be seen from one book to the other, as he changes from a thrill-seeking rambler to an existential, idealistic seeker of dharma.
The friend who first put the battered and scribbled copy of The Dharma Bums into my hands once compared Kerouac’s effect to that of Sylvia Plath’s: Plath seems to simply get it, completely understanding what a young woman is going through, and Kerouac does the same for young men. And when I turned the first page of my paperback, well-loved Dharma Bums, I understood precisely what she meant. Kerouac created his own type of writing which he referred to as “spontaneous prose”. He wrote as it came to him, without regard to conventional structure or grammar. He will satiate unending paragraphs of description, color, and exuberance with speculation and realization, and it is these that make his writing brilliant. Neal Cassady and Kerouac first became friends when Cassady asked to learn about how he wrote. As you read his unique and unorthodox style, the effect is that you step into his mind, and in his thoughts you find a common ground. His rambling, wandering nature relates to that desire to just go within me and within many other readers. His disenchantment with the American Dream (and many aspects considered part of ‘Westernization’) nearly 70 years ago is still applicable and understandable, and for many readers of Kerouac, empathetic.
Five years later, when Kerouac meets a new hero in the form of Gary Snyder, he finds himself on a different sort of quest: that for truth. We see a very changed Kerouac in The Dharma Bums. Throughout On the Road, Kerouac comments on the depression and loneliness of existence. In his descriptions of his friends, particularly Allen Ginsberg, Kerouac invariably writes of a sort of sadness reflected in their eyes. Even when they party wildly all night long, there is always a moment when Kerouac looks out at his surroundings and sees only despair. Unhappy people attempting to fill the fathomless void, and failing miserably. Everything must come to an end, and how sad an end it is. The Kerouac of The Dharma Bums, however, sees the void as placating. His Buddhism relies entirely on the world as an illusion. The mind creates the illusion, and the mind is itself the illusion, and so nothing more is possible but amusement in the void. He has somewhere along the way come to the conclusion that happiness is only possible if nothing is real. Otherwise, the turmoil, the dirt, the miserable chaos brings everything to an end. In these moments of clarity and meditation on nothing, we see a Kerouac full of happiness and contentment. We see this realization even within On the Road, as Kerouac slowly begins to develop his beliefs: “I knew, I knew like mad that everything I had ever known and would ever know was One.”
A chord struck firmly between the two novels is Kerouac’s total disenchantment with the American Ideal and Dream, especially that of the ‘fifties. A family was meant to settle down into a suburban home, the man work, the woman cook, the children learn, and every night they would sit down before their fancy new television set and watch the same shows as everyone else. Nature was to be condemned, right next to communists and anarchists. Conformity was key. How much of the world has really changed from the one Kerouac saw? Kerouac’s disgust with this culture can be seen consistently in his novels. He openly describes yabyum, sexual meditation, between himself, Gary Snyder, Allen Ginsberg, and a girl called Princess in The Dharma Bums. The character Dean Moriarty is incredibly promiscuous, highly controversial in an era of censorship and ‘decency’. But the truly divergent moment of Kerouac’s novels is when he openly challenges and condemns the “faceless wonderless crapulous civilization” we occupy. The true way of life, fulfilling, empowering, enchanting, is the life of the wanderer. Rambling from road to road, a pack on your back, a little food (and, for Kerouac, a decent amount of wine) in your belly, and the perfect, unending void open before you. In the final chapters of The Dharma Bums, Kerouac finds the truth on a desolate mountain top, no other human in sight, the pure simplicity of life laid out before him. And he understands what the wild, literary mountain-man Gary Snyder meant in all his lectures about the power of Nature. The world is a terribly depressing place, but all we can do is amuse ourselves in the void. For if everything is nowhere but in the mind, and the mind is but an illusion, then nothing matters, and everything is all right.
Luke Miller is an assistant fiction editor for The Missing Slate.
Featured image of Jack Kerouac © Getty/John Cohen.