On the Road with Jack Kerouac
Rev. Jeffrey Symynkywicz, October 15, 2006
So it was with Kerouac. Destroyed by madness (and drink) at the end, he died old and beaten, worn out well beyond his 47 years—alternately starved and drowned by the notoriety and fame he had hungered for, but with which he had never been comfortable—exposing his experience nakedly in his writings for all the world to see, yet in many ways a stranger to himself, battling throughout his life the demands of loss and longing and repressed sexuality. His personal story is a tragic story really. He would seem to be little more than a sad footnote to American literature—of little abiding interest—if he hadn’t said so many things that made so much sense—if he hadn’t struck such a responsive chord in the souls of some us Americans who have lived and come of age in the years since the end of the Second World War.
Kerouac and the Beats represented the restlessness, the discontent, of the generation that followed the War. His On the Road was to the post- World War Two period what Hemingway’s “The Sun Also Rises” was to the “Lost Generation” that followed World War One. A generation of men—the “Greatest Generation” the would later be called-- had gone off to war, in Europe, and in the Pacific, to defeat tyranny, and make the world free again. They returned home to business as usual, and what many saw as moribund blandness and boredom and a distinct lack of national imagination. The rising wave of the Beats was a cry of protest against this blandness and lack of purpose, a deep sense of discontent with the seeming shallowness and lack of meaning of materialistic, conformist modern life. The priorities of most of the people of their age seemed to be to get married, settle down, move to the suburbs, have children, buy a house, and accumulate possessions. The Beats, on the other hand, were nothing if not unsettled: they were constantly in motion, always moving (like Dean Moriarty), always “on the road”. Theirs was a journey without a destination; an endless search for some deep and ethereal “purpose” or “meaning” in life.
It is striking how similar to life in the 1950s life in present-day America has become. (At least, that’s how I see it.) now, I know that I have gone on interminably in the past about the menace of this acquisitive culture of ours—this “rich in things and poor in soul” land in which we live, and about the “dictatorship of materialism” I see us living under today. I think I must seem to be something of a one-string banjo on this particular subject sometimes.
But when I look out at the materialist madness of our culture—a madness that shows little sign of abating (I’m afraid that our children and grand-children are, in the main, even more materialistic than we are)—a culture that trivializes spirituality, and marginalizes religion to the outer boundaries of people’s lives, at best—then, yeah, much of what Kerouac wrote makes good sense to my ears. As when he says: “Great things are not accomplished by those who yield to trends and fads and popular opinions.”
At the times they are alive—at the times in which they are writing and creating in their rebellious, spontaneous, often messy sort of way-- society tends to look upon people like Kerouac and his comrades as nuisances, or curiosities, oddballs, perhaps. Or, they’re considered dangerous, troublemakers, and they’re banned outright, or marginalized and rendered beyond the pale. Or, all too often, they’re bought off, and commercialized, till they succumb to the lure of attention and money, and become caricatures of themselves, like Allen Ginsberg, raging voice of the Beats, appearing on the Merv Griffin Show in the 1960s and 70s, as a silly old beatnik, a shadow of his former self.
But still, the truths that such “troublemakers” teach abide. Walt Whitman was derided as a pervert and a threat to public morals in his own time; within a generation or two, he had come to be hailed universally as a true American prophet. Sometimes, the passage of time opens our eyes. As Don McLean wrote of Vincent Van Gogh:
It was hard to listen to Kerouac at the time in which he was alive. It still is hard to listen to him. Lost as he and his Beat contemporaries were in their bohemian excess of drugs and alcohol and libertine sexuality, one could be excused for not wanting to bother digging through the garbage heap to find the pearl of great price. There is often in the Beats—Kerouac included—a lot of nonsense and egotistical drivel that has to be scraped away before the wisdom can emerge.
But perhaps this is a journey of exploration that is worth the price.
Kerouac himself said that his family’s motto should have been: “Love. Work. Suffer.” Out of the hard-edged French-Canadian working class home in which he had been born there developed both deep wellsprings of passion, and deep channels of pain; both streams held together in the confluence of a life whose demands would never let up. When he was still a freshman at Columbia, his football coach already said of him, “That boy is tired.” Pain was etched deep inside him from an early age, and there’s no surprise that, later in his life, Kerouac drifted toward Buddhism with its First Noble Truth that “All life is suffering.”
Finding some meaning and purpose amidst the pain was Kerouac’s lifelong goal—the reason for his constantly being “on the road”—always searching, struggling, to discern the ‘Why?” at the heart of existence. InDesolation Angels, Kerouac writes about a summer he spent alone as a fire lookout in California’s North Cascade National Park. One night, he said, he sat alone atop his mountain, staring out at the vast expanse of darkness spreading out before him, seemingly endlessly. “Every night,” he wrote, “I still ask the Lord, ‘Why?’ And I haven’t heard a decent answer yet.”
But if there would be no final answer, there would still be the search, the journey. And it would be along the way of that journey that Kerouac would find his glimpses of the sacred and the divine. His goal was to live each moment, and experience the luminousness of those beings brought in his presence—whether the mythical view of his saintly brother Gerard or the heroic archetype of the inspired Dean Moriarty, with his “holy lightning gaze”, and divinity flashing in his eyes. Every person was holy, Kerouac believed, a speck of God—and our goal was to slow down enough to experience them as they truly were—to be with them and see in them the face of the holy.
“The only people for me are the mad ones, the ones who are mad to live, mad to talk, mad to be saved, desirous of everything at the same time, the ones who never yawn or say a commonplace thing, but burn, burn, burn, like fabulous roman candles exploding like spiders across the stars—”
To him, that divine madness was in all of us, in each and every one of us.
Kerouac was striving and seeking—and in so doing, imploring all of us along with him—to find the preciousness in life, and to discern our connection and interconnection with that larger life—that deeper reality—within us and beyond us, always surrounding us, always enfolding us.
“The earth is one,
In the moonlit
the Woods Edge
But a huge bug
landed on my arm
to mock me
And the tree
Waved at me
With its million eyes…
[The earth is one,
All is same.”
There is grace and holiness in everything—and in everyone, Kerouac reminds us—echoing so many great mystics and artists-- from William Blake’s song of innocence:
To Whitman’s “Song of the Open Road”:
We can never escape the inevitable suffering and death brought on by the passage of time, Kerouac believed. But in our love for one another—in all the forms that love takes, from the most intimate to the most universal—we can transcend that pain, and turn it from meaninglessness toward meaning. And through our work—through our raw creativity poured forth upon the world, untrammeled by the expectations of society and the niceties of the polite company of expected literary, grammatical and syntactical inhibition—we can even transcend death in a way, and gain an intimation of immortality, and pass down some of the truth of who we are to those who will come after us.
The tragedy of Kerouac—and the Beats in general, perhaps—is that in their mad rebellion against the ways of their fathers and the powers that be, they offered little more than a great cosmic “Howl”—little more than rage for the sake of rage—a rage soon deemed pathetic and hypocritical in the light of their own libertine failures and all-too-human limiations, as well as by their own aversion to the hard work it takes to change—to change society, or to change oneself.
The Beat Generation represented the ultimate dissatisfaction of a civilization whose moral values have broken down, a culture with little faith or practice in the values it professes to believe.
The ideals which our society professes to believe are one thing. But the real values by which it actually lives are quite another. Kerouac and the Beats saw that the high-sounding rhetoric and the real bottom-line values of our culture were in stark contrast to one another: that you couldn’t have a society that really believed both in the Sermon on the Mount and the tenets of mad dog, survival-of-the-fittest-capitalism—and that, in the end, the bottom line of the “real world” would win out. They saw that a society which professed to believe in both sets of principles was hypocritical at best, and deeply neurotic at worst.
As the anthropologist Ashley Montagu has put it:
“Human beings living in a society in which such mutually irreconcilable, such conflciting and false values are dominant, are likely to be confused and confusing. Those who subscribe to such values damage not only themselves but wreck havoc upon their children…”
They wreck havoc upon their children-- whether of the Lost Generation after World War One-- or the Beat Generation after World War Two-- or the present disaffected and confused generation of young people now among us…
But it’s not enough simply to rage against the machine. It’s not enough simply to rebel. It’s not enough simply to act morally superior to the shallowness and apathy of one’s times. Nor is it enough just to lose onself in the anarchy of personal salvation, or esoteric cults or practices, or merely sensual pleasure, or the self-destruction of alcohol or drugs (it’s no surprise that some Native American groups labeled alcohol “liquid cosmology”—but a cheap fix of ”enlightenement” does not salvation bring.)
The tragedy of Kerouac and the Beats was that, in too many cases, they became the things they hated. Against the unthink and conformity of their times, they posited only a new cult of unthink and blind conformity. It was only a matter of times before the Beats became the Beatniks, and their vision of a better world became trivialized and commercialized.
When On the Road was finally published in 1957, Jack Kerouac went from total obscurity to worldwide fame in the matter of a few days. With the spotlight suddenly on him, Kerouac appeared on a radio program, and the announcer asked him, “Well, what do you want now?” And Jack replied, in words that even he didn’t totally understand: “I want God to show me his face.”
It was in that search for the holy—in the Catholicism of his childhood, which he never really left-- in the Buddhist philosophy he adopted later in life-- in his endless, manicc struggle to create—create-- create—write—write—write-- in his hunger for deeper, truer, more real relationships—in all these things and more-- this was what Jack Kerouac was looking for: for God to show his face to him, at last.
That face is best shown, of course, in love.
And love is the opposite of escape.
In seeking to escape from life, we turn our backs on the face of God.
But by engaging life, in all its messiness and contradictoriness and complexity and hurt and pain—and in all of its joy and peace—and most of all love—we glimpse the holy, and the best that is in all of us, and gain the strength to begin the work of building the holy city, on the road of right here and now.