Archives For October 2013

Chelsea’s Ghosts Revisited

For literary types and students of Beat history who intend to invest a few cool million in real estate at the someday gentrified Chelsea Hotel, consider a few things. Yes, this was the home of Herbert Hunke and Gregory Corso, and Bill Burroughs and Ginsberg and Kerouac all stayed or passed through here and numerous writers and artists and near writers and near artists and every other type of, as Burroughs might say, “characters” from the world’s stage, and shall we say even those from under the world’s stage, some through windows and through walls, have passed through. The twelve-story hotel, built in 1883-1884, has a history of ghosts and is one of the most haunted buildings in New York City. It truly ranks as a Beat Hotel.
At times, many times, there have been strange and mighty strange occurrences taken place at this place, things of an unworldly nature, things of the occult, dark things, such as a resident evil spirit. There is a blog devoted to the ghosts of the Chelsea, with information on the ghost of Kerouac’s inspiration, long-term Chelsea resident, Thomas Wolfe. The blog also suggests that it is not too late to meet the old gentleman, Herbert Hunke, called “the junky ghost.” Hunke lived there toward the end of his life. As Hamlet quipped, “no traveler returns,” from the “undiscover’d country,” but at the Chelsea, perhaps some “travelers” never left.trespasser on stairs, chelsea hotel
Residents speak of a vortex of “bad energy” that toiled, toiled, boiled, and bubbled at the Chelsea, weird sisters, weird brothers, sometimes a mix of both, nothing was too strange and little was out of bounds. Physically, one never knew when a body might come crashing out a window or hurling down the stairwell. What might seem hyperbole isn’t. Murders, suicides, and fires were commonplace. If you’re considering property at the Chelsea, and if you’re a tidy housekeeper, you might rid your home of those unclean spirits with the help of an experienced exorciser, unless that is what draws you there in the first place. For those so inclined, have a look at “The Gray Man of the Chelsea” involving a young boy’s attraction to the staircase in Ed Hamilton’s book on the hotel.
On a recent visit to the Chelsea, we met longtime resident and choreographer Merle Lister. Ms. Lister has been living at the hotel since 1981 and has her own ghost. In her seventh-floor room she once felt the presence of a woman dressed in white who kindly removed a knot from her hair. “Dance of the Spirits” was created by Merle in 1983 honoring the Chelsea’s 100 year anniversary. In that dance appears a white-clad apparition.
The Chelsea is under construction, but the famed staircase decorated with wrought-iron balustrade that ascends to the twelfth floor remains intact. A skylight crowns the top of the stairwell.
Curiosity seekers are forbidden in the hallways and regarded as trespassers.
In The Town and the City the Lucien Carr character, Kenny Wood asks, “Have you ever been haunted by a spook? Did you ever wake up in the middle of the night and find one leaning over your bed, leering?” Boo.




To learn more about the history of the Beat Generation at the famous Chelsea Hotel, read James Lough’s wonderful and meticulously researched oral history, This Ain’t No Holiday Inn.

David S. Wills reviewed it for Beatdom #13:

Submissions Update: Beatdom #14

This is a series of updates on the submissions process for Beatdom #14.

Firstly, thank you to everyone who has submitted to Beatdom during this last submissions period. Both the quantity and quality of material has been higher than at any stage in the last six years. Thank you also to anyone who has liked, shared, retweeted, or otherwise assisted in spreading the word about our upcoming issue. Traffic to the website and Facebook page has been growing quickly, and we are determined to make this is the best issue so far.

The deadline for submissions to Beatdom #14 will close on 1st November. The only exception to material received after that date is by prior arrangement. If you have something that will be submitted late, please contact the editors immediately. After this date the editors will decide upon which of the wonderful submissions we will include in this issue and get in contact with the contributors as soon as possible.

With only three days remaining to submit, we would like to inform any potential contributors that we already have a large quantity of material regarding William S. Burroughs and Jack Kerouac, and would suggest that any late submissions or queries revolve around other figures.

Finally, an important update:

Due to the high volume of submissions, the usual e-mail address – – has been full for the past 24 hrs. Any submissions sent during that time have not been received and should be resent. Sorry for the inconvenience.



Here are some links to movie-related works Beatdom has previously published:

Filming the unfilmable

The Beat Generation on Film

Yony Leyser Interview

Interview with Howl Directors

and more….


And here is our cheesy, ridiculous trailer that we hope you’ll enjoy:


Fact and Fiction in Fear and Loathing

Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas: A Savage Journey to the Heart of the American Dream is now generally considered a work of fiction. It is the work for which Hunter S Thompson is best known, for which he receives the greatest praise and parody, and about which the most debate exists. It’s the book that inspired a generation of wannabe Gonzo writers, sent idiots armed with quotations to hassle Thompson wherever he went, and made the author a public enemy and the biographer of modern America. It was his On the Road. None of his other books contained such excess, madness and brilliance. He incriminates himself, sends each and every reader into shock and fits of uncontrollable laughter, and sums up the death of hope for the American Dream as eloquently as any great writer.

It bugged Thompson to see idiotic kids running about in Hawaiian shirts, sun hats, sunglasses, smoking cigarettes from long holders, pushing their poor imitations on MySpace forums and quoting passages from FLLV about bats and drugs… Suspiciously, only the quotes used in that unfairly derided movie starring Johnny Depp… It’s the book that hardcore Thompson fans pretend is their least favourite of his, but which was deservedly the book that earned Thompson his place in the canon of Twentieth Century American literature.
Dr Gonzo

The creation of the book came with Thompson’s attempt to write an expose on the death of Ruben Salazar. In order to interview his source, attorney Oscar Zeta Acosta, the two escaped the racially heated tension of Los Angeles and went to Las Vegas to cover the Mint 400 for Sports Illustrated. The job was meant to be a simple process of writing copy to accompany a series of photos, but Thompson began writing notes for a book about the death of the American Dream. The Salazar piece was written for Rolling Stone, while Thompson wrote the manuscript for Fear and Loathing in his spare time. Sports Illustrated ‘aggressively rejected’ Thompson’s article on the Mint 400, which by the time he submitted it, had spiralled to ten times the desired word count.[1]

The best way to understand the book is to read Thompson’s Jacket Copy for Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas: A Savage Journey to the Heart of the American Dream, as published in his collection, The Great Shark Hunt. Here Thompson describes his views on the book, stating the result was ‘a failed experiment in gonzo journalism.’[2] However, this doesn’t mean that Thompson necessarily viewed the book as a failure, but rather that he envisioned the literary genre of Gonzo, set out its principles, and then failed to achieved what he’d set out to accomplish. He wanted to record events exactly in his notebook, and then publish the notebook, much like he claimed to have done with the ‘Kentucky Derby’ piece. However, he ended up editing and writing frantically, and the result was the book.

The statement that the book was ‘a failed experiment in gonzo journalism’ implies that he intended the book as purely journalistic, but that it failed. Whether it failed as journalism or as his particular and intended form of journalism is unclear. However, he precedes the statement of Gonzo failure with musings about Faulkner’s notion of good fiction being more true than journalism. Thompson argues that both fiction and journalism are ‘artificial categories’, and then gives up trying to explain, resorting to an explanation of his own hybrid theory of Gonzo. Certainly, the mention of Faulkner’s idea is a suggestion that perhaps Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas was more a novel than a work of journalism, but that given the subject of the novel was the end of the drug decade and the American Dream, then the loosely autobiographical nature of the text qualifies the novel to a status of accurate depiction more appropriate and comprehensive than any work of pure journalism could have achieved.

So there we have the story of a journalist failing to report his story, written by a journalist failing to report his story, with the result being a novel more accurate than any journalism, and taking into account, and beautifully describing the state of the era and the death of an idea…

So then Thompson accurately described a generation, a time, an event, and a host of ideas. But the book itself was about the story of Raoul Duke and Doctor Gonzo, based on Thompson and Acosta, going to Vegas to cover the Mint 400. How much of their bizarre and illegal actions actually occurred?

Certainly, the framework of the book was invented during Thompson’s rewriting of the original notes that he believed would be published raw and unedited as his intended version of Gonzo. Whereas he wanted everything as it happened, jotted down and accurate, he later resorted to changing the chronology of the events, having over a month of action crammed into a few days. For example, the race and the narcotic convention took place over a month apart, with the Mint 400 starting on Sunday 20th March, 1970, and the convention on 25th April. However, certain truths do hold up to scrutiny, as Debbie Reynolds indeed played the Desert Inn the weekend of the race. And his description of the topless dancers at the Circus Circus holds up to historical study, too.[3] Thompson later stated, in his Rolling Stone interview with P.J. O’Rourke, that time in the novel was unclear and insignificant, and that moving the two events closer together really didn’t matter.[4]

It’s very possible that Thompson invented much of the action and dialogue in the book, as any novelist would, to convey the ideas he wanted to convey and to entertain the reader. Two drug-addled maniacs on the loose in a city of people as depraved and ignorant as the maniacs certainly sets an interesting premise for an indictment of Las Vegas, and of modern American greed and affluence. At the same time Thompson was having his characters live out the dying days of the hippy generation, when drug use was widespread, and by having his characters embody the hedonistic madness, he could pass comment on the death of the sixties idealism.

Yet knowing what Thompson was like as man, it’s hard to believe everything that happened was fictional. Indeed, Thompson himself has never claimed the work to be entirely factual, but it was always a given that he used language to make things sound a little more exciting. He was notorious for showing off and getting in trouble, and while he probably created many of the incidents as foregrounding for the espousing of ideas, it’s unlikely that much was created solely in his head. In the BBC documentary, Fear and Loathing on the Road to Hollywood, he says: Raoul Duke ‘was a vehicle for quotations nobody else would say… that was me really talking.’[5]

Getting back to Thompson’s own explanation of Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, it’s again hard to take anything as definite truth. The piece was written some six months after writing Fear and Loathing, and that was back in the days before fame and the security of being respected. Thompson’s credentials then relied on his talent, his intelligence, and his bad-boy reputation. It was the insanity that sold the copies, and the genius that got the reviews. Yet those were dangerous times, and admitting entirely to the actions contained within the book would have been foolish. He never denied nor fully owned up to what allegedly happened in Vegas. What he writes is about having fun in Las Vegas, suggesting strongly that he did do all the things Raoul Duke did, without directly reference any specific action. However, he then states ‘Only a goddamn lunatic would write a thing like this and then claim it was true.’[6]  This suggests either that the work was so obviously fictional and barely based on any form of truth that it would be idiotic call it journalism, or, more likely, that it would be foolish to own up to the realities of the text, but that Thompson didn’t mind implying that what happened accurately depicted.

Even twenty-five years on, in an interview with Rolling Stone, Thompson is coy with his explanations of ‘the Vegas book.’ ‘”A work of the imagination” was what [Random House editor] Jim Silberman came up with. Of course, it didn’t stick. We went to “nonfiction,” which led to it being categorised as “sociology.” As far as I was concerned, I was writing what happened to me in Las Vegas. It was just in the gonzo thinking, taking it one step further.’[7]

Certainly he sought some infamy after writing the text, first chastising the editors of Sports Illustrated for passing up his piece, telling them they had ‘set in motion a fantastic mushroom… When you see the fireball, remember that it was all your fault.’[8] Then he told the story of his rejection, repeatedly calling it ‘aggressive’ and changing the alleged desired word count and the number he supposedly sent the editors.

Thompson then sent his manuscript to Tom Wolfe, telling him it was largely written in ‘an all-night drink/drugs frenzy’ and later edited together in a hotel. Thompson then informed Silberman that he was not on drugs while writing anything to do with Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, and that the book was rather ‘a very conscious effort to simulate drug freakout… I didn’t really make up anything – but I did, at times, bring situations & feelings I remember from other scenes to the reality at hand.’[9] This is perhaps the most telling and convincing explanation of the composition of Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, as it allows us to combine the knowledge that we have of Thompson – that he was a crazed drug fiend and a professional and intelligent writer. He was professional enough to produce a book drawing upon his drug experiences as a front for exploring the Death of the American Dream, a theme he had been trying to write a book about for years. In the end, the chaos of the story became significant in itself, and one must wonder whether Thompson deliberately created or recounted the madness as a reflection upon society, or the loss of any meaning in that still-chased fantasy. Bruce-Novoa, claiming that Thompson’s work was essentially fiction, stated, ‘Gonzo fiction becomes a metaphor for the chaos of the American dream… [it] is fiction at work to produce that “truer reality” Faulkner sought.’[10] John Hellmann thought similarly of the comedy of the book: ‘The exposure of American values as self deceptions, has so long been typical of modern American literature, the search for those ideals can no longer be taken seriously.’[11] In other words, perhaps Thompson wrote his ridiculous parodies and comedies as a mockery, not necessarily on a person or group of people, but rather of the American Dream and American values.


Drugs certainly are what gained Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas its notoriety. Those who know nothing of his work are aware of the book and the film and all the illegal substances. Yet only Thompson and Acosta knew the truth behind the story in regards drugs. We can pick apart names and places and dates, but the drugs are something different, and we are pretty much reliant upon later interviews with Thompson to gain and insight into how much of it was true.

In one sense, it’s all true, in as much as the book is about Thompson looking at the world around him, with a head full of drugs. His perceptions may have included hallucinations, but he recorded them as accurately as he could, and in that sense, what he saw was reflected in the book. He may have used comedy and exaggeration, but he wrote about what he saw and thought.

But did he take what he said he took, and does it matter? No, it probably doesn’t matter because he used drugs as a device. Indeed, they were instrumental in the creation of the book, but also a literary tool. Thompson claimed drug logic took him from LA to Las Vegas, propelled the story as one long act of drug logic, and then helped and hindered him in writing the manuscript. They provided the plot and the style of narrative. They acted as a view to the counterculture, and as a way of highlighting the nature of the non-drug taking world.


The important thing in Hunter’s life, actually, is seeing that great country… go down the drain. The drugs play a part in it, it’s only another way of twisting the mental image… Maybe he needed something to speed himself up, to keep going, I mean in a way as a kind of dedication, just in order to see what he wanted to see.[12]


If we are to believe that Thompson and Acosta took massive quantities of various substances during their trip, which we should, then that brings us to the question of whether or not Thompson accurately reflected upon the experience. He told O’Rourke, in the Rolling Stone interview, that remembering and adequately describing a drug experience was one of the hardest things he’d ever done.[13]

This interview, ‘Fear and Loathing at 25’ allows us perhaps the reliable source of information about book from the author, as so much time had elapsed since its publication that Thompson really had nothing to prove. He was established and successful, and had nothing to hide nor gain in revealing the truth. Whereas in the ‘Jacket Copy’ piece, he wished to boost his reputation, but also had to avoid bringing the wrath of the law upon himself and Acosta, here Thompson discusses the circumstances of its conception without such motivation.

When discussing how much was true and how much was fabricated, Thompson mentions ‘imaginary alligators’. Obviously such things were hallucinations, but they were, as O’Rourke comments, ‘real imaginary.’ That is to say, what Thompson saw may not actually have been there, but he saw them nonetheless, and wrote about them. Therefore he accurately and truthfully recorded a trip. His thoughts were wild and absurd, but he really did think them.

The actual physical drugs, as mentioned earlier, probably existed, but we must consider how much Thompson exaggerated or hid, and how important this is to the text. If he exaggerated for theatrical or comical effect, and the drugs were merely a device, then it’s not that important, but would certainly push the labelling of the book closer to the fiction category. But it’s hard to say for sure what exactly was consumed.

The book famously begins with unrepentant drug use, and soon sees the description of the drugs allegedly consumed throughout:


We had two bags of grass, 75 pellets of mescaline, five sheets of high-powered blotter acid, a saltshaker half-full of cocaine, and a whole galaxy of multi-colored uppers, downers, screamers, laughers… and also a quart of tequila, a quart of rum, a case of Budweiser, a pint of raw ether and two dozen amyls.[14]


Thompson follows this description with the claim that all of it was collected in one night of furious driving around Los Angeles. Knowing Thompson through his work and the testimony of those that knew him, it’s easy to believe that he could have owned and consumed all of this, but it’s harder to believe that it was all gathered in one night. This claim sounds more like a method of setting up the story – an early introduction to the carnage and depravity. Whether it’s true or not, we know from reading this that the protagonists are heavy drug users, and in some kind of rush.

Thompson liked to set himself as a device within his writing, whether as a pillar of relative normality in Hell’s Angels or a lost and confused reporter in ‘The Kentucky Derby is Decadent and Depraved’. In Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas it seems that he took a role similar to that of ‘The Kentucky Derby’ and added more drugs to reflect upon the world around him and the death of something that had for a long time been mired in drug talk. The drugs worked for him, and although he may not have advocated them to others, they were an essential component of his greatest book.

One of his most famous drug references was the passage in Fear and Loathing with adrenochrome. To see the importance of Thompson’s description upon the history of the drug, and the relative lack of knowledge surrounding it, one must simple Google it. There is very little known about the substance, and it remains uncontrolled in the United States. According to Terry Gilliam, director of the movie, adrenocrome was an invention by Thompson, and consequently both the book and movie portray a fictional drug.[15] However, unknown to Gilliam, but presumably known to Thompson, the drug exists. Its effects, however, are known, and the method of its production is fictionalised in both the book and the movie. For a start, adrenochrone is produced not through the extraction of a human pineal gland, but rather through the oxidation of epinephrine.[16] The effects of adrenochrome are also debated, as some scientists believe it to be hallucinogenic and others don’t. Perhaps Thompson heard of the drug through Aldous Huxley’s Doors of Perception.

[1] Hunter S. Thompson, The Great Shark Hunt: Strange Tales from a Strange Time (Picador: London, 1979) p. 114

[2] Ibid

[3] F. Andrew Taylor, The City: In Search of Thompson’s Vegas, from, 1997

[4] O’Rourke, P.J., ‘Fear and Loathing at 25’, Rolling Stone, November, 1996

[5] Fear and Loathing on the Road to Hollywood

[6] Thompson, The Great Shark Hunt p. 116

[7] O’Rourke, ‘Fear and Loathing at 25’, Rolling Stone

[8] Back of ’72 book

[10] Bruce-Novoa, J., ‘Fear and Loathing on the Buffalo Trail’ MELUS 6.4 (1979) p. 43

[11] Hellmann, J., ‘Journalism and Parody’ p. 82

[12] Steadman talking in Fear and Loathing on the Road to Hollywood

[13] ‘Fear and Loathing at 25’

[14] Thompson, Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas: A Savage Journey to the Heart of the American Dream

[15] Gilliam, T., ‘Director’s Commentary’, Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas

[16] MacCarthy, Chim, Ind. Paris 55,435(1946)

Another Beatdom Books Publication Coming Soon

Next month – November, 2013 – Beatdom Books will publish its first ever novella. The title is Wood Splinters and it is written by Cia Mathew. The plot follows the adventures of a pregnant med student with a wooden leg and a penchant for collecting human body parts.

See here for more details.


By Jared Carnie


Soon you’ll be gone and there’ll be no time for this.

Soon you’ll be gone and there’ll be no time for poetry.


Soon you’ll be gone and there’ll be no more mornings.

There’ll be no more sunrises

No more sunsets

No more sunny afternoons.


Soon you’ll be gone and there’ll be no more music.

There’ll be no more Miles

No more Hendrix

No more songs stuck in your head

No more singing in secret at the top of your voice

No more dancing across the kitchen while you dry.


Soon you’ll be gone and there’ll be no more walking.

There’ll be no more fresh air

No more watching the clouds

No more ducking the trees

No more jumping over the puddles

No more jumping into the puddles.


Sure, there’ll be no more debt.

There’ll be no more traffic

There’ll be no more work

No more dentist

No more bad news

No more fuel prices

No more shit on your shoes.


There will be no hangover.


There will be a perfect silence.


You won’t be able to feel it.


You can see it getting bigger on the horizon.


Do what you must.


Do it while you can.


Write about it.

Write a terrible novel that screams out your soul.

Pretend you’re Dostoyevsky.


Delete your Facebook and visit your friend in Peru.


Don’t accept the systems.

They can have it all once you’re gone.


Tell her you love her.

Tell him you love him.

Tell her you love her.



Thank your family while they have the time.

Thank those that have been like family.


Get up in the middle of the night.

You can’t sleep? Good.

There is plenty of time for that

And the sky is painting stars

Just for you

Dancing the delicate infinity.


Read Baudelaire. Get drunk.

Play guitar badly while your friends sing along.


Spend nights dazzled by New York neon

And spend nights on the beach

Away from everything but the tide.


Give what you don’t need

And do what you can.

Not everybody has the freedom you do.


Go days without food.

Have better things to do.

Feast on what you find.


Be awake when they go to sleep.

Find out what they’re missing.


Avoid movies.

You already know the ending

It’s time to be the hero.


Ignore anyone with wisdom.

Soon they’ll be gone too.


Don’t avoid their eyes

Avoid their shadows.

Don’t let them cover you.


Make love.

We’re running out of it.

We could do with some more.


Scribble on the newspaper.

Facts aren’t understanding.


Have morals.

Don’t have politics.


Breathe while you can.

It’s the taste of the path.


Hold this up.


Get a lighter

Get a match

Get a fire.


Watch it go.


Let it get as close to your fingertips

As you can stand

Then leave it a second longer.


Soon you’ll be gone

And no one will be able to tell you.

“Kerouac Succumbs”

Forty-four years ago today, Jack Kerouac died. This article, taken from Georgia’s Waycross Journal-Herald, and written by the Associated Press, shows the popular perception of Kerouac at the time of his death.

Kerouac Death News Article

He was well-known, certainly, but hardly respected. The man was still considered part of the disreputable “beatnik” movement, despite his personal disavowal of it. He was also considered a hopeless alcoholic (which was a fairly accurate assessment) and therefore there appears to be little surprise or remorse at his passing.


Golden peach and Irish rose
Black hair falls on cheeks of snow
High school first love like no other
Cherry blossoms in green spring
Melts the poet athlete’s heart
Red lip kisses at the start
The beauty of Maggie
The poetry of Maggie
The love of Maggie, as only the young know it
The beauteous Brunette of rooftop seas
And white ice skates and upside down and creamy cream cakes
She could have been the mother
Or daughter of angel light
Maggie loved him
She was a good girl
Mary marry or the Magdala clock?
Casting magic stardust trick
Silk mill diamond winter night
Hugs and twinkles squeezes tight
Dance dark blizzard light as flight
Spring prom sour grays the green
Glitter jades Manhattans scene
Sad pink homespun death moon gown
Gardenia wilts hangs tired down
Powdered swans swam round and frowned
Home cries Maggie home home home
Sit thee on thy pale couch
Wooden porch of Concord River
Takes away cold hearted shiver
[Jack Kerouac wrote Maggie Cassidy in 1953. It was published in 1959.]

Volume III: Abyssophobia

All the unhappiness of men arises from one single fact, that they cannot stay quietly in their own chamber.

-Blaise Pascal


Pascal argues that men avoid sitting alone in a room because they are naturally unhappy. He says that if our condition were truly happy, we would not need diversion from thinking of it in order to make ourselves happy. Without diversion, however, man has nothing to deflect thoughts of death, ignorance, grief—thoughts that arouse awareness of his feeble and mortal condition. To be happy, we must remain willfully ignorant of our condition by seeking “bustle, noise and stir…women, war, and high posts”. In a word, “the chase.”

The mistake in this thinking, according to Pascal, is not the seeking of excitement itself, but the belief that the objects of our quests would really make us happy. In this sense, all pursuits are vain. Human activity is merely a diversion from the human condition.


Psychology recognizes two related phenomenon that might explain our aversion to sitting alone in a room with no distractions. Autophobia is an abnormal and persistent fear of loneliness, of being alone, of solitude. There is also monophobia, which can manifest as the fear of being alone at home. But I posit that there is another irrational fear—one not recognized by psychology or medical science—that can explain man’s fear of himself alone with himself. Let us call the condition abyssophobia—the fear of abysses.

Fear of abysses is the exact opposite of the fear of heights. It is a fear of depths—bottomless depths. A man who sits alone in a room dwells in the abyss, which is to say the emptiness of existence, the nothingness of being. He fears he may fall so deeply into himself that he never returns.


If we accept Pascal’s assertion that all of humanity’s problems stem from man’s inability to sit quietly in a room alone, can we then conclude that the solution to man’s problems lies in learning to sit quietly in a room alone? The Christian philosopher Pascal would likely say “yes”, provided that man accept Jesus Christ as his lord and savior. This is implied when he said that man should seek “a more solid means” of escaping from our misery.

In spiritual practices that recognize dualism, enlightenment is attained when dualistic thinking is overcome. Dualism in Christianity is a rather complicated picture, ranging from the division of good and evil gods to the freewill that separates humankind from God to the Gnostic belief that God and mankind are distinct but interrelated.

The ideas of redemption and atonement in Christianity rely on a dualistic view. On the one hand is Man, with his imperfect nature, and on the other hand is the perfect nature of God embodied in Christ. God and creation are reconciled by the death and resurrection of Jesus, and man and God are reconciled by man’s acceptance of Jesus.

Applying the dualistic lens to Pascal’s assertion that “man is unhappy”, it must then be the case that “God is happy.” On this matter Pascal says that “If man were happy, he would be the more so, the less he was diverted, like the Saints and Gods.” From this, we might also say that neither Saints nor Gods suffer from Abyssophobia.


Another Frenchman, Michel Houellebecq, offers a different type of dualism. He refers to the time when a young person takes a strong interest in the world as the domain of the struggle, as contrasted with the domain of the rules. The former is a time when one takes an interest in the world and, in the words of the novelist, you believe in the existence of another shore. And so you plunge into the cold water and you begin to swim.


Pascal’s Pensées, insightful as it is in places, offers scant few answers for the non-Christian dualist (here defined as one who believes in a higher state of man, beyond his mere humanity).

How is he to be redeemed, to atone, for his naturally vain and unhappy state? Should he sit in rooms alone, like the Buddha beneath the Bodhi Tree? Ought he to face his abyssophobia and hope to emerge somehow as a saint, a bodhisattva?


He who does not see the vanity of the world is himself very vain, says Pascal. “Indeed who do not see it but youths who are absorbed in fame, diversion, and the thought of the future? But take away diversion, and you will see them dried up with weariness.”


Following university I lived in a 3-bedroom apartment with friends. One night shortly after moving in I found myself all alone and overwhelmed with despair. “Where has everybody gone?” I thought. “What happened to my life?”

For four years my life had been ceaseless bustle, an endless chase. Having at last caught up with myself, I scarcely had a clue what to say to myself. It was a meeting between strangers, and the results were predictably awkward. I went to bed well before midnight that evening, something I normally do only when convalescing.


The domain of the struggle began in earnest for me not during college (which was still firmly in the domain of the rules) but a year after graduation, when I set off to travel the world and become a writer.

Having achieved both goals, I now spend much more time sitting quietly in rooms alone. Regarding writing, the older I get, the more ambiguous I feel about attaching my name to conceptions. As for travel, I find that a walk around the block is just as good for what ails you as a trip around the world.


Writing as vanity. Travel as vanity. Women as vanity. War as vanity. High posts as vanity. A lasting name as vanity. Bustle, noise and stir as vanity. The chase as vanity. All as vanity?

I would like to ask Pascal this question above all others: if one understands that it is the chase, and not the quarry, which he seeks, is this a departure point for the pursuit of truly meaningful activities? Or is the recognition of our vanity the ultimate expression of vanity?


I often take walks along the Willamette River. During the summertime kids hung out along the shore. The girls chatted in groups while the boys took turns jumping into the river.

I love to see young people having fun. Smooth, sinewy bodies, untouched by wrinkles, laughing and smiling in the summer sun. They are beautiful flowers in full bloom. God knows they have their cares and worries, but everything is still provided for them gratis.

You go into debt when you’re older, and not just in terms of money. Debts of gratitude, spiritual debts, emotional debts—so many things to pay back. These kids owe nothing to nobody. For that, I envy them more than for their perfectly-ripe-flower beauty.

Young people understand that life is short. What they don’t understand is that life is also long. At around the age of 30 a great weariness begins to overtake you. “If only life would slow down a little bit,” you think. “I need a little time out of the glare, a chance to rest the senses.”

Life, of course, affords no such timeouts. Reality is unrelenting. The age of the struggle never really ends. Thus the weariness builds, sleep becomes bliss, and Death is no longer so sinister.


“You long believed in the existence of another shore,” writes Houellebecq. “Such is no longer the case. You go on swimming, though, and every movement you make brings you closer to drowning. You are suffocating, your lungs are on fire. The water seems colder and colder to you, more and more galling. You aren’t that young any more. Now you are going to die.”


As it gets to be around 8:00, the time when darkness gains the upper hand on daylight, I feel a great sense of ease come over me. Even when I’ve been pacing the floors and climbing the walls I experience great relief in the waning hours of the day. Soon there will be closure, if only for 8 hours.

Three decades into life the shore you started from has passed out of view. Turning back is no longer a possibility, yet the shore you set out for still has not come into view. You must keep going…but which way to go? Peril abounds. To the North lies an island of cannibals, to the south the Sirens, to the West Scylla and Charybdis.

You must pick a direction and go on swimming, even though you would like to rest. It’s been a very long journey, and there’s much farther still to go. And you’re so very tired.


The Second Wave of American Interest in Japanese Culture: Alan Watts, Jack Kerouac, and Gary Snyder

by Charlie Canning

Photos by John La Farge and David S. Wills


Since the Treaty of Kanagawa in 1853, the United States and Japan have had a long and varied history. Initially, the United States wanted trade with Japan to extend American influence in Asia as well as to compete with Britain, Russia, and France. These were mercantile and political concerns that had little to do with Japan as an extant civilization with something to offer the West. But three times in the last one hundred and fifty years, American interest in Japan has been decidedly cultural.

The first wave of American interest in Japanese culture was brought about by a group of writers and art collectors from Boston in the 1880s that included Edward S. Morse, Ernest Fenollosa, and William Sturgis Bigelow. Henry Adams, John La Farge, and Percival Lowell would follow. Small as it was, this group of Bostonians had enormous influence on the reception of Japanese culture and art in the United States.

The second wave of American interest in Japanese culture took place in the 1950s. This time around, it was a West Coast phenomenon based not on Japanese art but on Zen. The works of D. T. Suzuki were widely read and later popularized by Alan Watts. Jack Kerouac, who had became an overnight sensation with the publication of On the Road, popularized Zen (and Japanese culture) further, in his novel The Dharma Bums. Finally, the poet and writer Gary Snyder, himself mythologized in Kerouac’s writings, led the way by traveling to Japan and entering a Zen monastery.Amida Buddha at Kamakura by john La Farge

According to Roland Kelts in his book Japanamerica: How Japanese Pop Has Invaded the U.S., we are currently experiencing a third wave of interest in things Japanese. This time around, it is an interest in Japanese pop culture that is the driving force. Behind this trend are the game platforms manufactured by Nintendo and Sony as well as Japanese manga and anime.

Although the second wave of interest in Japan has much in common with both the first and third waves, it is singular in many respects. One thing that sets it apart from all other periods is that it followed close upon a war. Considering the antipathy, fear, and hatred that had been whipped up by World War II, this is surprising. But after the war, there was a reappraisal of Japanese culture that began to go significantly beyond the “know your enemy” brand of research typified by Ruth Benedict’s groundbreaking study, The Chrysanthemum and the Sword (1946).

Another thing that differentiates the second wave from the first and third waves was that it was primarily religious in nature. Although it might be argued that Fenollosa and Bigelow were also interested in religion (both ultimately “converted” to Buddhism), they were principally art collectors who developed an interest in religion. The group in the second wave, however, traveled light. They were in it for the Zen. (Some of the Buddhas that Fenollosa brought to the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston are over two meters tall. The Beats carried theirs in their backpacks.)

A third major difference between the waves was that the second, unlike the first and the third, was countercultural. The interest in Zen Buddhism was driven by a deep dissatisfaction with the prevailing culture in America. Although one could argue that both Fenollosa and Bigelow were dissatisfied with Boston culture, their aim was more to share the artistic wonders of Japan with their countrymen than to challenge the prevailing mythos of Boston, New York, and Washington, D.C. Henry Adams was dissatisfied, to be sure, but he looked more to the medieval cathedrals of France rather than to the temples of Japan for his unifying vision of cultural force.

Finally, the second wave is quite singular in that its influences were readily absorbed into an American subculture. In this respect, the Beats may have borrowed a page from the Japanese: Watts, Kerouac, Snyder, and others took something foreign and made it their own. Now that Zen Buddhism has become popular on both coasts of the United States, it may be surprising to learn that it was relatively unknown in America before the 1950s. There are several reasons for this. One was that Christianity as the predominant faith of America was largely unquestioned. Another was that Buddhism was an Oriental rather than an Occidental religion. A third was the war. And finally, there was the language barrier. Many of the Buddhist texts were written in Asian languages and had never been translated into comprehensible English.

As Ann Douglas has pointed out, “Interest in the East had been building since the late 1940s, part of what historian Robert Ellwood calls ‘the spiritual underground’ of Cold War America.” (xvii) Thomas Merton’s The Seven Story Mountain (1948) and Joseph Campbell’s The Hero With a Thousand Faces (1949) were widely read and discussed in academic circles.

The central figure in the introduction of Zen Buddhism to America was D. T. Suzuki. Suzuki was a fine translator, but since there was not a lot written about Zen to begin with, his greatest contribution was in explaining things that were seemingly beyond words. In his books Essays in Zen Buddhism (3 vols. 1927-1934), Studies in the Lankavatara Sutra (1930), The Training of the Zen Buddhist Monk (1934), An Introduction to Zen Buddhism (1934), Manual of Zen Buddhism (1935), and Zen Buddhism and Its Influence on Japanese Culture (1938), Suzuki sought to make Zen intelligible to a Western audience.

Suzuki began lecturing at Columbia in 1951. At first, the turnout was often quite small. But the few who heard his lectures were singularly impressed by his scholarship, wit, and saint-like bearing. He was a favorite of both Joseph Campbell and Alan Watts. Later, Jack Kerouac, Allen Ginsberg (both one-time Columbia students), and Gary Snyder would read him voraciously. Although Professor Suzuki had a sublime way of explaining Zen, his books were primarily for an academic audience. It was up to Watts, Kerouac, and Snyder to popularize Zen still further.

Englishman Alan W. Watts (1915-1973) was a prodigy of sorts who developed a lifelong passion for Buddhism and Oriental philosophy when still a child. He published his first booklet on Zen in 1932 when just twenty-one years old. Though Watts’ The Spirit of Zen was largely derivative of Suzuki’s three-volume Essays in Zen Buddhism, Watts’ contribution was in making what was both foreign and sublime that much more accessible to the general reader. Watts combined a lucid prose style with an engaging wit and an uncanny feel for the right metaphor. Allied to this was an abhorrence of any form of philosophical cant or academic posturing. He had no patience with those who sought to use language to obscure meaning or truth. Like Suzuki, who was in many ways his spiritual mentor, Watts wanted to be understood.

After marrying the daughter of Ruth Fuller Everett (later Sasaki) in 1938, Watts moved to New York City where he studied Zen with Sokei-an Sasaki. Later, he left New York to enter the seminary in the hopes of one day bridging the gap between Christianity and Eastern religions. This was to be a recurrent theme throughout the remainder of his life.

In 1951, Watts relocated to San Francisco where he soon became one of the most recognizable figures in the Bay Area. He continued to write and publish on all sorts of religious, spiritual, and political subjects and had his own weekly radio show, (some of these broadcasts are now available for download on iTunes). Watts’ enthusiasm was contagious and he soon developed a large following both in California and on college campuses around America. Throughout the 1950s and 1960s, young people across the nation were reading books by Watts with titles like The Wisdom of Insecurity (1951), The Way of Zen (1957), Nature, Man and Woman (1958), This Is It and Other Essays on Zen and Spiritual Experience (1960) and Psychotherapy East and West (1961).

Another cult figure of the 1950s and 1960s that did much to promote Japanese culture in America was writer Jack Kerouac (1922-1969). Kerouac’s breakout novel was On the Road, published to wide acclaim in 1957. Here we have Kerouac’s frenetic “spontaneous prose,” a breakneck monologue of highways, truck stops, freight trains, jazz, cigarettes, and booze.

Kerouac’s next novel The Dharma Bums was published in 1958. Although similar in some respects to On the Road in its depiction of the “devil-may-care” life of the modern American hobo, The Dharma Bums sought to portray the more spiritually driven quest of the Buddhist bihhiku or wanderer. Buddha himself was a wanderer, we are told, and he reached nirvana through travel and meditation. Might young people in America reach enlightenment in a similar way?

The hero of The Dharma Bums is Japhy Ryder (a “semi-fictional” character based on Gary Snyder), “a kid from eastern Oregon” who “learned Chinese and Japanese and became an Oriental scholar and discovered the greatest Dharma Bums of them all, the Zen lunatics of China and Japan.” (6) Japhy introduces Ray Smith, the narrator of The Dharma Bums and Kerouac’s alter ego, to the Chinese and Japanese forms of Buddhism. There are frequent references to Japan and Japanese culture throughout the novel including allusions to D. T. Suzuki’s books on Zen, Okakura Tenshin’s The Book of Tea, R. H. Blyth’s four-volume work on haiku, and the stone gardens of Roanji.

Kerouac’s portrayal of the spiritual quest had tremendous appeal – especially among young people. In his “Introduction” to Kerouac’s biography of Buddha, entitled Wake Up, Professor Robert A. F. Thurman recalls his own reading of The Dharma Bums when the novel first came out in 1958:


 But now I realize that when I read The Dharma Bums as a teen in the late fifties, I was exposed to perhaps the most accurate, poetic, and expansive evocation of the heart of Buddhism that was available at that time. Not to say that it was perfect, or to pretend that I would be able to tell if it was or wasn’t – it’s just that it is so incredibly inspiring, and must have deeply affected my seventeen-year-old self in 1958, the year it was first published and the year I ran away from Phillips Exeter Academy and went looking for a revolution. (vii-viii)


Some critics, however, including Alan Watts, did not think that Kerouac’s understanding of Buddhism was all that accurate. Thurman again notes, “The thing about Kerouac that might have made him less accepted among early California Buddhists – Gary Snyder and Alan Watts and others – was that he was not taken by the Ch’an/Zen line of things, though he loved the writings of Han Shan, the ‘cold mountain’ poetic meditations transmitted by Snyder. Kerouac was more moved by the Indian Mahayana line ….” (ix)

In his book Buddhism in America, Joseph M. Kitagawa wrote of the popularity of Zen Buddhism among the Beats and “the temptation to consider Buddhism as a sort of escape from workaday reality.” “Young nonconformists in America” have tended “to use Buddhism for non-religious ends.” (327) But for Kerouac, it didn’t really matter whether he understood Zen perfectly or not. He was a Catholic who viewed Buddhism and Catholicism as one and the same. And as Ann Douglas has pointed out, “At a time when Americans were routinely told they had only two choices – Soviet-style communism or American capitalist democracy and all that went with it – Buddhism offered a third way.” (xxii) Kerouac’s novels were popular among the youth of the 1950s and 1960s because they offered a spiritual rationale for leading an alternative lifestyle.

The final person responsible for the second wave of interest in Zen Buddhism and Japanese culture is poet and environmental activist Gary Snyder (1930-). Snyder came to Japan on a scholarship from the First Zen Institute of America in 1956. Initially, he practiced Zen at Shokoku-ji in Kyoto, the same temple where the great landscape painter Sesshu had studied with Shuban. Although Snyder had not come to Japan to study painting per se, Chinese landscape painting (later referred to as Bunjin-ga in Japan) was to have a profound effect on both his poetry and his environmental activism. As Dana Goodyear has noted in her 2008 article on Snyder in The New Yorker, “Snyder’s most complex and difficult work is ‘Mountains and Rivers Without End,’ a poem cycle that absorbed him from 1956 until 1996, and whose title is taken from a category of Chinese landscape painting.”

The connection between Chinese landscape painting, Snyder’s poetry, and his environmental activism is to be found in the spiritual dimension of the paintings. They combine philosophical ideas and meditation with key natural elements (mountains, rivers, and trees), in an attempt to express “the beauty of the natural world.” (Munsterberg 128) For anyone who can appreciate this, conservation is axiomatic.

Snyder continued his studies of Zen Buddhism in Japan throughout the 1960s. After returning to the United States, he settled in the California foothills of the Sierra Nevada Mountains in 1971. Since then he has published widely on all manner of themes, trying to integrate his poetic vision with the Buddhist precept of the “right means of livelihood.” This has resulted in a unified, spiritual form of grounded environmentalism that seeks to connect people with their immediate surroundings.

The final thing that should be said about Snyder is that while others may have “talked the talk” about Zen, Snyder has “walked the walk.” Not content with just reading about Zen and Japanese culture in a library, Snyder traveled to Japan, entered a Zen monastery, and learned the language. Both in his writings and in his life, he has served as an exemplary model for others about how best to live and learn about all cultures whether they be foreign or our own.

In a letter to Snyder just before The Dharma Bums was published, Kerouac wrote that he “hoped to ‘crash open whole scene to sudden Buddhism boom … everybody reading Suzuki on Madison Avenue,’ paving the way for Snyder’s poetry. ‘Gary, this is your year,’ he promised.” (Douglas xviii) Although this didn’t happen, the influences of the second wave on both American and Japanese culture are still with us today. The present interest in New Age spiritualism is a direct outgrowth of the Buddhism of the Beats and the “Age of Aquarius” of the Hippies. Gary Snyder and the environmental movement are still going strong.



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