Archives For Nick Meador

Eating the Beat Menu

Words by Nick Meador

Illustration by Kaliptus

(from issue 10, available at Amazon)

Jack Kerouac’s books contain such a variety of subjects, styles, and voices that his readers have never shared many common characteristics. On the surface, many of Kerouac’s books seem to exude a tone of rebellion against mainstream culture and everything that comes with it, be it business, government, or religion. This voice speaks to the counterculture that has existed in the developed Western world since the 1950s. Similarly, Kerouac’s major works reflect his heavy interest in Buddhism during the ‘50s – an appealing characteristic to the hordes of young Americans disillusioned with their indoctrination under the various denominations of Christianity. Yet behind Kerouac’s Buddhist leanings remained his consistent views about Catholicism, as well as his constant mentions of Christian iconography in his writing. This voice calls to those who never fully departed from the Christianity or Judaism of their youth, often because of the painful experience of disagreeing with family tradition. What most readers don’t know is that Kerouac himself lived almost entirely in this religious mindset, spurning the counterculture altogether.

In the late ‘50s, Kerouac was rather enthusiastic about the “hipster” movement happening in New York, but he used a different name for it. In September 1957 Kerouac stated on national television that “the Beat Generation ‘was basically a religious generation’ and that he was ‘waiting for God to show his face.’”[1] Just before then he had written an article titled “About the Beat Generation” in which he claimed that Oswald Spengler had “prophesied” this sort of movement. Kerouac wrote to his friend Philip Whalen that he “wanted (as originator of the phrase) to sneak it in that it means religiousness, a kind of Second Religiousness (that Spengler spoke) which always takes place in late civilization stage… The 2nd Relig. is sublime…a reappearance of the early springtime forms of the culture.”[2] Kerouac wasn’t the only one calling it a religious movement. In the same year Norman Mailer referred to the hipster scene as “a muted cool religious revival to be sure…”[3] Mailer defined “religious” only in passing, saying that “one must have one’s sense of the ‘purpose’—whatever the purpose may be…”

Kerouac had first consciously linked his mostly literary/philosophical ideas to religion in 1954 while visiting his hometown of Lowell, Massachusetts. When he went, in his words, to “sit in meditation in the absolutely deserted afternoon church of Ste. Jeanne D’Arc,” it dawned on him that Beat didn’t just mean “down and out”; it also meant “beatific.”[4] That word holds a specifically Catholic connotation, since “beatification” is one of the steps in the canonization of a saint after a person has died.[5] But also, “beatific vision” denotes “the direct knowledge of God enjoyed by the blessed in heaven.”[6]

To Mailer the Beat movement had a more figurative connection to religion, but Kerouac saw a literal relationship. In fact, Kerouac criticized those like Mailer who, in the words of Kerouac scholar Ann Charters, “stressed the antisocial image (‘Beat’) of the hipster instead of pointing out the religious significance (‘beatific’)…”[7] The result was that Kerouac confused most of the audiences who heard his attempts to explain “the Beat Generation,” even though he had been developing these ideas for at least three years before becoming a hit author. Writing to the editor of a Catholic magazine shortly after his “beatific” realization, Kerouac outlined his belief that “self-realization or highest perfect wisdom, ecstasy of transcendental insight…can only be achieved in solitude, poverty, and contemplation.

“…I intend to ascend by stages & self-control to the Vow to help all sentient beings find enlightenment and holy escape from the sin and stain of life-body itself—”[8]

These statements reflect the unique mash-up of Catholicism (a prominent branch of Christianity) and Buddhism that Kerouac tried to manifest in his life. Kerouac was raised in a fundamentalist Catholic environment, directed mostly by his parochial school and his devout mother Gabrielle. He didn’t rebel against this indoctrination in an outward way. Kerouac’s first wife, Edie Parker, writes in her memoir You’ll Be Okay that Jack even studied the Bible as a young adult in the early 1940s. “While he wasn’t working he was either sleeping or barricading himself in the bathroom for hours at a time reading Shakespeare and the Bible.”[9] And Douglas Brinkley, editor of Kerouac’s journal collection Windblown World (containing entries from 1947 to 1954), says that Jack had drawn crucifixes throughout his hand-written notebooks.[10]

However, by the 1950s Kerouac apparently had mixed feelings about Christian scripture, and he may have come to relate more to the figure of the Buddha than to Jesus Christ. For instance, in a letter to Carolyn Cassady written on July 2, 1954 (just before attributing the religious meaning to “Beat”), Kerouac said, “I’m sure Christ never trekked to the Orient, only wish he had, one dab of Buddhism would have wiped clean from his mind that egomaniacal Messiah complex that got him crucified and made Christianity the dualistic greed-and-sorrow Monster that it is… Buddha never claimed to be God, or Son of God…”[11]

In a similar way, Kerouac connected with and wrote about the Buddhist concept of the “Bodhisattva.” He introduces the term into the “Duluoz Legend” in The Dharma Bums as “meaning ‘great wise being’ or ‘great wise angel’…”[12] Alan Watts, philosopher of Zen Buddhism, also discusses the term in his influential 1957 book The Way of Zen: “From the popular standpoint, the Bodhisattva became a focus of devotion (bhakti), a savior of the world who had vowed not to enter the final nirvana until all other sentient beings had likewise attained it.”[13] He says the term “bodhi” means roughly “awakening.”[14] Yet another meaning is the view of Bodhisattva as “he whose being is enlightenment.”[15]

The original meaning of “Beat” as “down and out” still fit into Kerouac’s religious aspirations, because Jack found evidence for it in both Catholicism and Buddhism. “Ray Smith” (Jack’s fictional version of himself) of Dharma Bums says he “was just interested in the first of Sakyamuni’s four noble truths [of Buddhism], All life is suffering. And to an extent interested in the third, The suppression of suffering can be achieved, which I didn’t quite believe was possible then.”[16] In Visions of Gerard, Kerouac uses similar words when portraying his Catholic family: “…we were made to suffer and be harsh in return, one the other, and drop turds of iron on brows of hope, and mop up sick yards and sad–– ‘…All right, we’re all born to die, it’s the same story for everybody, see?’ …there’s no explaining your way out of the evil of existence.”[17]


On the one hand it was paradoxical for the Beat Generation to seek out religion, since the Western youth movement defined itself largely by a departure from traditional morals, accepted social norms, and mainstream culture. But on the other hand, Existentialist literature heavily influenced the “hipster” or Beat movement of the 1950s – and, as Walter Kaufmann explains in his 1956 anthology Existentialism from Dostoevsky to Sartre, “…religion has always been existentialist: it has always insisted that mere schools of thought and bodies of belief are not enough, that too much of our thinking is remote from that which truly matters, and that we must change our lives. It has always been preoccupied with suffering, death, and dread, with care, guilt, and despair.”[18]

Many of these writers – Kerouac and Mailer included – faced sizeable existential conflicts of their own. With that in mind, it seems natural that Mailer would call the “hipster” an “American existentialist,” in addition to proclaiming the budding counterculture a “religious revival.”[19] In the same piece Mailer writes that “the element which is exciting, disturbing, nightmarish perhaps, is that incompatibles have come to bed, the inner life and the violent life, the orgy and the dream of love, the desire to murder and the desire to create, a dialectical conception of existence with a lust for power, a dark, romantic, and yet undeniably dynamic view of existence…”

Statements like these tie the post-war counterculture symbolically to what might be described as the original Western counterculture, which began in the first centuries A.D.: Gnosticism and alchemy. For our purposes, Gnosticism can be understood as an early form of Christianity, while alchemy – commonly misconstrued to be merely a fledgling version of chemistry – was also a psycho-spiritual practice found in various forms throughout the world, with the utmost goal of individual development. Carl Jung, the founder of analytical psychology, specifically calls alchemy an “undercurrent” to Christianity and says it “endeavors to fill in the gaps left open by the Christian tension of opposites. […] The alchemists ran counter to the Church in preferring to seek through knowledge rather than to find through faith… But in reality they were in much the same position as modern man, who prefers immediate personal experience to belief in traditional ideas… The central ideas of Christianity are rooted in Gnostic philosophy… It was founded on the perception of symbols thrown up by the unconscious individuation process which always sets in when the collective dominants of human life fall in to decay.”[20]

Jung devised that term, the “process of individuation,” to describe the sort of personal evolution that can occur when the conscious and unconscious elements of the Self become integrated through keeping a dream journal, “active imagination” (interacting with figures from dreams and fantasies), and other related methods. As he writes, “Individuation, becoming a self, is not only a spiritual problem, it is the problem of all life.”[21] Jung discovered through his work as a psychoanalyst in the early twentieth century that, in dreams and other altered states of consciousness, people had access to symbolic imagery and information with parallels in world mythology, art, and religion from throughout the ages, regardless of whether those people had ever been exposed to the content in their waking lives. Not only that, but Jung later saw the same symbolism at work in alchemy. He called the common symbols “archetypes,” and the metaphysical realm from which they sprung he named “the collective unconscious.”

The evidence became so startling that Jung had to depart from his mentor, Sigmund Freud, in order to remain scientific. The primary reason for Jung’s disillusionment was that Freud wanted to make a dogma of his sexual theory of psychoanalysis, based on three developmental stages (oral, anal, genital) and the idea that repressed sexuality led to the manifestation of most of our culture.[22] As Jung writes in his autobiography, “a dogma, that is to say, an undisputable confession of faith, is set up only when the aim is to suppress doubts once and for all.” Jung’s perspective applies not only to Freudian psychology but also to the creeds of churches – which Jung carefully distinguishes from the spiritual side of religion. “A creed gives expression to a definite collective belief, whereas the word religion expresses a subjective relationship to certain metaphysical, extramundane factors. […] To be the adherent of a creed, therefore, is not always a religious matter but more often a social one and, as such, it does nothing to give the individual any foundation.[23]

The mythologist Joseph Campbell wrote his classic The Hero with a Thousand Faces (1949) under heavy influence from Jung and Freud, because Campbell saw psychoanalysis as the key to understanding world mythology (including religious myth).[24] In that book, Campbell tracks the parallels between myths from different places and eras, and synthesizes them into a single “Monomyth.” As he writes, “In a word: the first work of the hero is to retreat from the world scene of secondary effects to those causal zones of the psyche where the difficulties really reside, and there to clarify the difficulties, eradicate them in his own case (i.e., give battle to the nursery demons of his local culture) and break through to the undistorted, direct experience and assimilation of what C.G. Jung has called ‘the archetypal images.’”[25]

In short, the process of individuation requires a decisive withdrawal from worldly affairs: social, professional, etc. And that process should very well be considered “spiritual” or “religious” development. In the “hip” lingo of the 1950s, this sort of activity was associated with the word “dig,” as in, digging into one’s own mind or soul. Mailer explains: “…you say simply, ‘I dig,’ because neither knowledge nor imagination comes easily, it is buried in the pain of one’s forgotten experience, and so one must work to find it, one must occasionally exhaust oneself by digging into the self in order to perceive the outside.”[26] In this case, the goal was to be prepared to handle anything that arises in life, be it an external (social) or internal (psychology) issue. Mailer specifically hoped to guard against “a pain, a guilt, a shame or a desire” that could disrupt one’s conscious mood or behavior.

By the mid-1940s, Kerouac had already involved himself in the world of New York “hipsters.” But the “movement” really came to fruition in the early ‘50s (at least, in its secular form), as depicted in books like The Subterraneans. Then Kerouac became infatuated with Buddhism in 1954, and that influenced most of the books he wrote from that point on, even the version of On the Road published in 1957. To this day, Kerouac’s best-known statement on Buddhism remains The Dharma Bums, a novel written in November 1957 based on experiences in 1955 and ’56. While it is published simply as “fiction,” the book – like the rest of Kerouac’s “Duluoz Legend” – is still considered at least “semi-autobiographical” in the sense that it is based on events from his life and written from the first-person perspective. Because of that, the reader gets a basic overview of some of Kerouac’s efforts at spiritual (or metaphysical) development, many of which seem to suggest that Jack was decisively engaged in his own process of individuation. From surface appearances, we would expect this to be the case for anyone following the “Beat” creed.

Kerouac had known for some time that he wanted to be a writer, but his discovery of Buddhism appears to have given him the desire to teach as well – that is, to teach the wisdom of Buddhist scriptures, or “sutras,” to the unknowing American masses.[27] Just as he had read the Bible incessantly, in 1954 Kerouac began to do the same with English and French translations of Eastern scriptures. One of his favorites was A Buddhist Bible, an anthology by Dwight Goddard that contained The Diamond Sutra, among others.[28] In the first published biography on Kerouac, Charters comments aptly on Jack’s sudden interest in Eastern religion: “Buddhism was a discovery of different religious images for his fundamentally constant religious feelings. He always remained a believing Catholic. It was just that, for a time, he was a self-taught student of Buddhism. He read widely and deeply in Buddhist texts, translated sutras from the French, and even wrote a biography of the Buddha. But at the root of his absorption in Buddhism was the fact that he felt it offered him direct philosophical consolation for the disappointments in his life, and, particularly, for the drawn-out agony waiting to place On The Road and the refusal of publishers to recognize his genius.”[29]

Kerouac considered The Dharma Bums to be a prominent part of a Buddhist awakening happening in the United States in the late 1950s. With Western readers buzzing over the English-language works on Eastern philosophy and religion by Alan Watts, D. T. Suzuki and others, Kerouac wrote to Whalen that “1958 will be a great year, year of Buddhism. …now with Dharma Bums I will crash open whole scene to sudden Buddhism boom…”[30] But in the process of propagating “the path,” he made a few miscalculations. First, he imagined that the Western translations were exact equivalents to the Eastern originals – and that Eastern religion could be fully understood by reading scriptures alone. Second, he mistook religious myths (Eastern and Western) for literal truth, instead of what they actually are: symbolic descriptions of natural processes, both physical and metaphysical. Or stated a different way, he invested too much in words, while mostly missing out on the subjective experience to which the words refer. We’ll examine both in turn.

Since Kerouac had read the Eastern scriptures in French and English, with the concepts already transmuted into Western culture, he was immediately drawn to Buddhism. He felt no conflict using different words if they appeared to mean the same thing as the ones in his native Catholicism. In fact, the new terminology gave him an edge as a writer. Alien words like “Zen,” “Bodhisattva,” and “satori” retain a fresh feel in Western minds even today. But the Eastern scriptures were not written in a Western language. As Watts explains, the path by which Buddhism spread from India to China and Japan is not even fully known, so describing the religion and its development presents many difficulties. “The first, and most serious, is the problem of interpreting the Sanskrit and Pali texts in which ancient Indian literature is preserved,” writes Watts. “This is especially true of Sanskrit, the sacred language of India… Both Western and Indian scholars are uncertain as to its exact interpretation… The discovery of proper European equivalents for philosophical terms has been hindered by the fact that early lexicographers were all too ready to find correspondences with Western theological terms, since one of the primary objects of their studies was to assist the [Christian] missionaries.”[31]

Also, Westerners were largely unaware that Eastern philosophy had survived mostly through oral history and direct instruction, as opposed to the written, pseudo-historical accounts and imitative rituals (i.e., indirect metaphysical experience) in the Western monotheisms. As Jung puts it, “…the ideal [of Christianity] has been turned by superficial and formalistically-minded believers into an external object of worship, and it is precisely this veneration for the object that prevents it from reaching down into the depths of the psyche… Christ can indeed be imitated even to the point of stigmatization without the imitator coming anywhere near the ideal or its meaning.”[32] The result was a state of widespread confusion in which many people had a sense of understanding Buddhism when in fact they did not.

This problem is actually a compound one. Not only did Kerouac take for granted that he understood Eastern philosophy after reading the English translations, but he actually contributed to the Western misconceptions of Eastern ideas by putting them in his books, primarily in The Dharma Bums. One of the most persistent errors is the Western understanding of “karma,” which in its current English denotation is more Christian than Buddhist. Like most Westerners, Kerouac uses the word in Dharma Bums with a sense of cosmic morality, suggesting something like “what goes around, comes around.” As “Japhy Ryder” (based on Kerouac’s friend Gary Snyder) puts it, “…when I discovered Buddhism and all I suddenly felt that I had lived in a previous lifetime innumerable ages ago and now because of faults and sins in that lifetime I was being degraded to a more grievous domain of existence and my karma was to be born in America were nobody has any fun or believes in anything, especially freedom.”[33] According to Watts, the idea that “faults and sins” could affect someone’s future life is an odd combination of Christian “morality” and Eastern reincarnation. “Buddhism does not share the Western view that there is a moral law, enjoined by God or by nature, which it is man’s duty to obey. The Buddha’s precepts of conduct…are voluntarily assumed rules of expediency, the intent of which is to remove the hindrances to clarity of awareness. Failure to observe the precepts produces ‘bad karma,’ not because karma is a law or moral retribution, but because all motivated and purposeful actions, whether conventionally good or bad, are karma in so far as they are directed to the grasping of life.”[34]

In other words, no act is “good” or “bad” in itself, but is so judged depending on the perspective of the observer; so this process is relative to a person’s upbringing, worldview, value system, etc. People produce “bad karma,” however, when they grasp at theoretical outcomes in life (i.e., what seems like a “good” idea, plan, or scheme). Such an idea is so foreign to Western minds that we simply fit it into our own pre-existing “moral” constructs. By extension, Westerners tend to speak in ways that split thoughts and feelings from the person “having” them. Actually a person is empirically (measurably) inseparable from those very thoughts and feelings – an idea that didn’t fully enter Western thought until Alfred Korzybski developed general semantics in the 1930s. Watts writes: “This nonduality of the mind, in which it is no longer divided against itself, is samadhi…a state of profound peace.”[35] Yet Kerouac uses the term samadhi in a different sense, calling it “the state you reach when you stop everything and stop your mind…”[36] Kerouac was attracted to the idea of clearing the mind of its contents – and even Watts sometimes seems to be suggesting such a thing. But this entirely misses the point, as we’ll see shortly.

Watts also says that the long-term goal is a “natural, ‘un-self-grasped’ state of the mind.” In fact, this is basically what is meant by the original concept of nirvana. As Watts explains, “Nirvana is the way of life which ensues when clutching at life has come to an end.”[37] Opposed to this is the idea of samsara, which Watts calls a state of “pure self-frustration,” or “the vicious circle…the Round of birth-and-death.”[38] In Kerouac’s Dharma Bums, as in most Western discussions of these topics, nirvana and samsara are equated roughly to the places of “heaven” and “hell” from Christian doctrine. For example, in this dialogue, “Ray Smith” (Kerouac’s self-image) seeks clarification from “Japhy Ryder”: “’We’re all in Heaven now, ain’t we?’

“’Who said so?’

“’Is this nirvana we’re in now or ain’t it?’

“’It’s both nirvana and samsara we’re in now.’

“’Words, words, what’s in a word? Nirvana by any other name.’”[39]

Of course, Kerouac also missed the true meaning of the term dharma. He uses “Dharma bum” to signify little more than a “rucksack wanderer” [40] – a blend of American hobos and outdoorsmen, and Buddhist monks who spent their lives removed from society, often in the mountains. Watts writes that “the Buddha’s Dharma [is] the method or doctrine whereby self-frustration is brought to an end.”[41] The fact that Kerouac died at age 47 of an abdominal hemorrhage brought on by severe alcoholism is proof enough that Kerouac never escaped his state of “self-frustration.” When one examines the evidence, it becomes clear that Kerouac had little concern for using the terms how they were intended to be used. Some of the Eastern words he used most frequently had little or no connection to the original meanings. Or even if Kerouac knew the meaning, he usually made little effort to explain it to his audience. He was satisfied to toss around Buddhist terms as though they were wild cards, whether or not they matched the reality of what was happening in his life. In practice Bodhisattva became “hipster,” satori became “pseudo-enlightenment,” and “Zen”…well, by the sound of Kerouac’s “Zen Free Love Lunacy,”[42] it seems that it became the hippie movement of the 1960s.

Today, in the twenty-first century, many people do the same when discussing shamanism, the “chakra” system from Kundalini yoga, and other non-Western traditions. Watts calls this sort of thing “[eating] the menu instead of the meal,” or “climbing up the signpost instead of following the road.”[43] He was actually drawing from Korzybski, who writes, “A map is not the territory it represents…”[44] Kerouac often made what Korzybski would call “aristotelian misevaluations” – which essentially means that, in line with Western tradition (going back to Aristotle), Jack focused on verbal definitions of “religious” activity, while remaining largely ignorant of subjective metaphysical (i.e., internal, psychological, “spiritual”) development.

Some ideas with a more mythological basis will help demonstrate the problem. One example is Kerouac’s use of the term “yabyum,” which he introduces in Dharma Bums through the character “Japhy” as a “traditional…ceremony from Tibetan Buddhism” in which a woman sits face-to-face on a man’s lap, both often nude and presumed to be engaging in coitus.[45] But in the context of the novel, “yabyum” is used synonymously with “sex” or “orgy” (group sex). This is equivalent to the Western misconception of Tantric yoga as merely a sexual activity. Campbell writes in Hero that yabyum doesn’t necessarily relate to the act of intercourse at all. The mythological images of united male and female are symbolic of “eternity and time,” and are often depicted as a single hermaphroditic entity. “This is the meaning of those Tibetan images of the union of the Buddhas and Bodhisattvas with their own feminine aspects that have seemed so indecent to many Christian critics. …the female form (Tibetan: yum) is to be regarded as time and the male (yab) as eternity. The initiate, through meditation, is led to the recollection of this Form of forms (yab-yum) within [oneself].”[46]

A related mix-up happens in Dharma Bums when the reader is introduced to the “mandala.” In the story, Japhy draws a circular design on the ground that, he says, will allow him to “predict the future.”[47] While it’s not incorrect to call the mandala a “magic circle,” this sort of description doesn’t provide much understanding. Jung found such circular designs in religious artwork throughout the world, and he came to think of them as “a psychic centre of the personality not to be identified with the ego.”[48] In other words, the mandala is a symbolic representation of the Self in its totality – including but not limited to the parts that fall into conscious awareness. Symmetrical designs such as mandalas or yantras have also long been used to focus awareness during meditation.[49] Jung’s colleague Aniela Jaffé explains their significance: “In terms of psychological symbolism, it expresses the union of opposites—the union of the personal, temporal world of the ego with the non-personal, timeless world of the non-ego. Ultimately, this union is the fulfillment and goal of all religions: It is the union of the soul with God.”[50]

Although it’s largely absent from the Christian tradition, meditation is a key component of any subjective spiritual exploration. Kerouac incorporated meditation into his lifestyle during the peak of his infatuation with Buddhism, and he thought strict self-discipline would bring greater results. However, Kerouac’s use of Benzedrine for recreation and writing had by that time caused a drastic reduction in his physical health. As Charters explains, “His legs, already suffering from insufficient blood circulation with phlebitis, pained him excruciatingly in the crossed-leg [meditation] posture.”[51] It’s unfortunate that Kerouac stuck to that meditation position so doggedly, since it’s not at all required. According to Watts, many schools of Buddhism criticize sitting meditation with the aim of achieving “Buddhahood,” because it means one is grasping for results or caught in “attachment to form.”[52] Really one can enter a state of meditation (i.e., contemplation, focused awareness, “mindfulness,” etc.) while undertaking any activity. This is yet another example of Kerouac putting too much emphasis on an idea from Buddhism, while missing the point of the experience.

Similarly, Kerouac got the impression that one of the main points of meditation was to deactivate the apparatus of thought. He wrote a poem to Ginsberg titled “How to Meditate” that read in part: “…the mind blank, serene, thoughtless. When a thought comes a-springing from afar with its held-forth figure of image, you spoof it out…and it fades, and thought never comes––and with joy you realize for the first time ‘Thinking’s just like not thinking––so I don’t have to think any more.’”[53] As it turns out, this is only the goal in certain schools of meditation (and it might not even be the optimal way to meditate), as Arnold Mindell – a Jungian Analyst who went on to develop his own school of Process-Oriented Psychology (also called “process work”) – explains in Working On Yourself Alone (1990). Using wisdom from alchemy, Taoism, and other traditions, Mindell addresses the common assumptions that have developed in the Western approach to Eastern practices. “Like western instructors, many Buddhist teachers are, in principle, open to all experiences, techniques and religions, but in practice they tend to stress an inner focus which represses fantasies, spontaneous thoughts or ideas, and emotional affects. As a result, meditators are often bothered by unavoidable ‘disturbances’ which they are taught to tolerate.”[54] Instead of attempting to wipe out such “distractions,” Mindell argues, working with them can lead to great progress in the process of individuation.


When The Dharma Bums was published in 1958, Gary Snyder’s first responded with warm praise, calling it a “beautiful book” and saying that “Alan Watts is knocked out by the book & said so on the radio…”[55] However, Snyder – who had travelled to Japan to study Zen Buddhism – changed his tone by March 1959, as Charters informs us. “Snyder wrote Kerouac, ‘I told you I liked it, but that doesn’t make it right. What concerns me is your mind . . . Do you think you understand [Buddhism]?’ […] Later Snyder told interviewers that Japhy Ryder was a fictional character, not a realistic portrayal of him, and that Kerouac’s narrative about meeting him and the other poets in California in 1955 should be read as a freely embellished work of Jack’s imagination.”[56]

As we saw above, Kerouac’s attraction to Buddhism was based mostly on its apparent consolation for his trouble getting on with life. But other than the idea that “life is suffering,” Kerouac was equally attracted to the idea that “life is a dream.” In the same July 1954 letter to Carolyn Cassady quoted above, Kerouac wrote: “After reading the Diamond Sutra, which says that all things, including asceticism, are but a dream and an arbitrary conception not to be grasped, it seems I’ve been loosening my grip on Virtue…”[57] Helen Weaver got a close look at Kerouac’s interest in Buddhism while dating Jack in the late 1950s, as she shared in a 2010 interview with Beatdom editor David Wills. “The Buddha taught that the physical world around us is an illusion, as is our fixed idea that each of us is a separate self. […] When I tried to discuss our ‘problems’ with [Jack] his eyes would just glaze over and he’d tell me ‘Everything is fine, don’t worry. Nothing is real—it’s all a dream.’ So early on I got the impression that his Buddhism was just a big philosophical rationalization for doing whatever he wanted.”[58]

The field of quantum physics has now provided some evidence for the idea that the physical universe is illusory in nature. But that doesn’t require faith or belief – and it has a limited application to daily life and “ordinary” states of consciousness. In essence, Kerouac was asking people to believe something that they had not perceived directly. For most people, “reality” is based on sensory information and mental constructions enforced by social interaction. As Jung said above, dogma offers no direct path to spirituality. Even in the early twentieth century, the founders of Eastern studies in the West were calling scriptures such as The Diamond Sutra works of “metaphysical agnosticism.”[59] That is, “there is a sense in which the ‘highest perfect knowledge’ may be referred to as ‘unknown.”

Many times now we’ve come across the concept of the “union of opposites” or “incompatibles”; Jung also called them “irreconcilables.”[60] From a Jungian perspective, the goal of alchemy and Gnosticism (as well as some Eastern practices) is to integrate the conscious ego with the personal and collective unconscious – i.e., to integrate the psychic opposites. In Jung’s system this is done mostly by working with dreams, visions, and synchronicities (meaningful coincidences). But Mindell has expanded upon that in process work to include body symptoms, spontaneous movement, relationships, world conflict and more. Others would say that psychedelic substances serve the same purpose. The point in all cases is to bring disavowed parts of the Self into conscious awareness.

None of this has any connection to what we now call “religion.” “Religions are divisive and quarrelsome,” writes Watts. “…as systems of doctrine, symbolism, and behavior, religions harden into institutions that must command loyalty, be defended and kept ‘pure,’ and—because all belief is fervent hope, and thus a cover-up for doubt and uncertainty—religions must make converts. […] Irrevocable commitment to any religion is not only intellectual suicide; it is positive unfaith because it closes the mind to any new vision of the world. Faith is, above all, open-ness—an act of trust in the unknown.”[61] Strangely enough (considering his earlier disparagement of Christ’s “egomaniacal Messiah complex”), Kerouac was trying to convert people to his “Beat” creed so that he wouldn’t have to face his own unconscious Self. His Westernized Buddhism functioned as a half-conscious cover-up for Jack’s lifelong attachment to his mother (part dependency, part Oedipal complex) and, therefore, to the pessimistic worldview of fundamentalist Catholicism.

Kerouac had “discovered” Buddhism at one of the lowest points in his life, when he was desperately hoping to publish On the Road and become a respected author. As Jung’s colleague Marie-Louis von Franz explains, this is the exact sort of circumstances that would lead someone toward true metaphysical development. “The actual processes of individuation—the conscious coming-to-terms with one’s own inner center (psychic nucleus) or Self—generally begins with a wounding of the personality and the suffering that accompanies it. This initial shock amounts to a sort of ‘call,’ although it is not often recognized as such. On the contrary, the ego feels hampered in its will or its desire and usually projects the obstruction onto something external.”[62] In Kerouac’s case it was the publishers who took the blame, and he subsequently directed his efforts externally into the study and practice of Buddhism. But the “call” was not to “help all sentient beings,” as he wrote Carolyn Cassady in 1954; it was first and foremost an inward call.

This leads us to yet another meaning behind the term Bodhisattva. On the one hand (in Campbell’s words): “…all suffering…the mad figures of the transitory yet inexhaustible, long world dream of the All-Regarding, whose essence is the essence of Emptiness: ‘The Lord Looking Down in Pity.’

“But the name means also: ‘The Lord Who is Seen Within.’ We are all reflexes of the image of the Bodhisattva. The sufferer within us is that divine being. […] This is the redeeming insight.”[63] Luke in the Christian tradition brings essentially the same message – that the “kingdom of God is within you.”[64] Of course, that notion has been withheld from parishioners or distorted to maintain their dependence on the Church. That institution talks incessantly about the resurrection of Christ, without ever clarifying that it is a symbolic expression of the possibility of human rebirth. In the Catholic world of Kerouac’s upbringing – as in the “Duluoz Legend” that he went on to write – we are merely “born to die” (as we saw above from Visions of Gerard). His mother had stamped this defeatist message into his mind since he could remember. It is mostly a philosophy of self-fulfilling (self-defeating) prophecy and mortal despair.

While it seems that Kerouac played an important role in a Western post-war spiritual awakening, this has by and large been a superficial movement. Kerouac’s mash-up of Buddhism and Christianity was a template for most “New Age” practices and sub-cultures that claim to use Eastern religion and philosophy to heighten “spirituality” or “consciousness.” In reality, we have yet to transcend our mostly Western mental formulations about metaphysics, and writers like Jack Kerouac are actually holding us back.


[1] Kerouac, Jack. Selected Letters, 1957-1969. p. 73. From editor’s note by Ann Charters.

[2] Kerouac, J. Selected Letters, 1957-1969. pp. 66-68.

[3] Mailer, Norman. “The White Negro.”

[4] Kerouac, J. Selected Letters, 1940-1956. pp. 447, 526. Also: Charters, Ann. Kerouac: A Biography. pp. 200, 389.

[5] “Beatification.” Wikipedia. Accessed on 10/9/2011.

[6] “Beatific vision.” Merriam-Webster Dictionary. Accessed on 10/9/2011.

[7] Kerouac, J. Selected Letters, 1957-1969. p. 93. From a footnote by Ann Charters.

[8] Kerouac, J. Selected Letters, 1940-1956. pp. 444, 447-448.

[9] Parker Kerouac, Edie. You’ll Be Okay: My Life with Jack Kerouac. p. 242. Also, p. 106.

[10] Kerouac, Jack. Windblown World. Ed. by Douglas Brinkley. p. xv.

[11] Kerouac, J. Selected Letters, 1940-1956. p. 427.

[12] Kerouac, Jack. The Dharma Bums. p. 12.

[13] Watts, Alan. The Way of Zen. p. 60.

[14] Watts, A. Ibid. p. 44.

[15] Campbell, Joseph. The Hero with a Thousand Faces. p. 151.

[16] Kerouac, J. The Dharma Bums. p. 12.

[17] Kerouac, Jack. Visions of Gerard. pp. 13-14.

[18] Existentialism from Dostoevsky to Sartre. Ed. by Walter Kaufmann. pp. 49-50.

[19] Mailer, N. Ibid.

[20] Jung, C.G. Psychology and Alchemy. pp. 23, 35.

[21] Jung, C.G. Psychology and Alchemy. p. 124.

[22] Jung, C.G. Memories, Dreams, Reflections. pp. 149-151.

[23] Jung, C.G. The Undiscovered Self. pp. 20-22.

[24] Campbell, J. Ibid. p. vii.

[25] Campbell, J. Ibid. pp. 17-18.

[26] Mailer, N. Ibid.

[27] Charters, A. Ibid. p. 218.

[28] Kerouac, J. Selected Letters, 1940-1956. pp. 415-416. Kerouac called it “The Buddhist Bible.”

[29] Charters, A. Ibid. pp. 190-191.

[30] Kerouac, J. Selected letters, 1957-1969. p. 111.

[31] Watts, A. Ibid. pp. 30-31.

[32] Jung, C.G. Psychology and Alchemy. p. 7.

[33] Kerouac, J. The Dharma Bums. p. 31.

[34] Watts, A. Ibid. p. 52.

[35] Watts, A. Ibid. p. 53.

[36] Kerouac, J. The Dharma Bums. p. 33.

[37] Watts, A. Ibid. p. 50.

[38] Watts, A. Ibid. p. 48.

[39] Kerouac, J. The Dharma Bums. p. 114.

[40] Kerouac, J. The Dharma Bums. pp. 97-98.

[41] Watts, A. Ibid. p. 51.

[42] Kerouac, J. The Dharma Bums. p. 30.

[43] Watts, Alan. The Way of Zen. p. xi. Also: The Book: On the Taboo Against Knowing Who You Are. 1966. New York: Random House, 1989. p. 13.

[44] Korzybski, Alfred. Science and Sanity. p. 58. Italics are Korzybski’s.

[45] Kerouac, J. The Dharma Bums. p. 28-31.

[46] Campbell, J. Ibid. pp. 169-170.

[47] Kerouac, J. Ibid. pp. 53-54.

[48] Jung, C.G. Psychology and Alchemy. pp. 98-99.

[49] Mindell, Arnold. Working On Yourself Alone: Inner Dreambody Work. p. 25.

[50] Jaffé, Aniela. “Symbolism in the Visual Arts.” Man and His Symbols. Ed. by C.G. Jung. pp. 267-268.

[51] Charters, A. Ibid. p. 219.

[52] Watts, A. The Way of Zen. pp. 110-111.

[53] Charters, A. Ibid. pp. 219-220.

[54] Mindell, A. Working On Yoursel Alone. pp. 5-8.

[55] Kerouac, J. Selected Letters, 1957-1969. p. 177. Letter from Gary Snyder to Jack Kerouac.

[56] Kerouac, J. Selected Letters, 1957-1969. p. 213. Charters added “Buddhism” in brackets.

[57] Kerouac, J. Selected Letters, 1940-1956. pp. 426-427.

[58] Wills, David. “Helen Weaver: Remembering Jack Kerouac.” Beatdom. Issue 5. January 2010. p. 69.

[59] The Diamond Sutra. Translated and introduced by William Gemmel. p. xiii. Referring to statements by Max Müller.

[60] Jung, C.G. Psychology and Alchemy. pp. 146-147.

[61] Watts, A. The Book: On the Taboo Against Knowing Who You Are. pp. 10-11.

[62] Von Franz, M.-L. “The Process of Individuation.” Man and His Symbols. Ed. by C.G. Jung. p. 169.

[63] Campbell, J. Ibid. p. 161.

[64] “Kingdom of God.” Wikipedia. Accessed on 10/31/2011.

Death Within a Chrysalis

by Nick Meador

At the turn of the 1960s, Jack Kerouac found himself in a profound state of limbo, the climax of an existential crisis that predated his life as a published author. He had been looking for an “answer” to his problems since his early twenties,[1] yet for a variety of reasons his dilemma remained unresolved. Then a 35-year-old Jack became famous in an instant when On the Road was published in the fall of 1957, and this led to the total disruption of his already chaotic life. Normally the restless man would alternate between living at his mother’s East Coast home (which at the time was either in Orlando, Florida, or Northport, Long Island, New York) and a few faraway destinations, most often Mexico City or the San Francisco Bay Area. But suddenly his world became very claustrophobic, as he was pushed into the role of a counter-culture celebrity despite the fact that very few were giving him credit as a legitimate author of American literature.

In his 1962 novel Big Sur, Kerouac reflects on the period: “…I’ve been driven mad for three years by endless telegrams, phonecalls, requests, mail, visitors, reporters, snoopers…”[2] Kerouac wrote that book in October 1961 by fictionalizing events that had happened mainly in the summer of 1960—a trip from New York to California, visiting San Francisco, Big Sur, and San Jose. It was his first lengthy trip in three years, and Big Sur was the first book he completed since writing The Dharma Bums in November 1957. Kerouac’s plan was to pass the summer in solitude so that he could recover his mental balance while checking the publisher galleys for his Book of Dreams.[3] Lawrence Ferlinghetti, whose budding City Lights imprint would be publishing the dream book that year, told Kerouac to stay at his cabin in Bixby Canyon, on the Pacific Coast south of Monterrey (technically just north of Big Sur).

On the surface, Big Sur is a record of Kerouac’s battle with “delirium tremens,” the term Jack and the Beats used to describe the peculiar kind of madness that results from severe and prolonged alcohol abuse. Kerouac had long dealt with a drinking problem, and even by age 26 it occurred to him that he should cut back. On March 22, 1948, he wrote in his journal, “I started drinking at eighteen but that’s after eight years of occasional boozing, I can’t physically take it any more, nor mentally. It was at the age of eighteen, too, when melancholy and indecision first came over me—there’s a fair connection there.”[4] Yet his alcoholism reached new extremes after the publication of On the Road. In addition to losing his treasured privacy, Jack was also shocked by Neal Cassady’s arrest for possession of marijuana in 1958, for which Neal served two years in a California prison.[5] After this, despite the fact that Kerouac had purchased their house with royalty money from On the Road, Jack’s mother Gabrielle (also known as “mémêre,” Québécois for “grandma”[6]) banished from their home both Allen Ginsberg (because of his Judaism, homosexuality, and radical poetry) and the drugs Jack commonly used like Benzedrine and marijuana.

But Kerouac didn’t refrain from drug use altogether. In the period surrounding both the events depicted in Big Sur and the writing and editing of the book, Jack actively experimented with certain psychedelic substances that hadn’t yet made a large impression on the American culture: mescaline, ayahuasca, and psilocybin mushrooms. At the start of Big Sur, he mentions some of these substances in a slightly negative manner, as if to suggest that they had worsened his overall mental condition: “. . . ‘One fast move or I’m gone,’ I realize, gone the way of the last three years of drunken hopelessness which is a physical and spiritual and metaphysical hopelessness you cant learn in school no matter how many books on existentialism or pessimism you read, or how many jugs of vision-producing Ayahuasca you drink, or Mescaline take, or Peyote goop up with–––That feeling when you wake up with the delirium tremens with the fear of eerie death dripping from your ears…”[7]

However, this can’t be the whole story, since Kerouac’s letters offer an entirely different view on his psychonautic exploration during this time. Jack first tried mescaline—the psychoactive compound also found naturally in the peyote cactus—in October 1959,[8] and he was apparently most open about it with Ginsberg, to whom he wrote the following on June 20, 1960: “When on mescaline [last fall] I was so bloody high I saw that all our ideas about a ‘beatific’ new gang of worldpeople, and about instantaneous truth being the last truth. etc. etc. I saw them as all perfectly correct and prophesied, as never on drinking or sober I saw it—Like an Angel looking back on life sees that every moment fell right into place and each had flowery meaning…”[9] This kind of clarity must have been cherished by a guy who saw his life as a long chain of rambling misadventures. Kerouac was even moved to create a 5,000-word “Mescaline Report” in order to document his hallucinations and revelations. He said he intended to take mescaline monthly, and he couldn’t wait to test out LSD (lysergic acid diethylamide). In the same letter Kerouac mentioned his intention to flee New York, shortly before Ferlinghetti suggested that Jack use his cabin as an escape. The actual trip did last about two months, from mid-July to mid-September 1960.

After returning from California, Kerouac had the opportunity to try ayahuasca on October 7, 1960.[10] Ginsberg had just visited South America and brought back some of the liquid preparation, also known as “yagé” (pronounced “yah-hey,” but they usually misspelled it as “yage”). William S. Burroughs had done the same in the early 1950s, as documented in his fictionalized letters titled “In Search of Yage” (written in ’53 but not published until ’63). Those are presented along with correspondence and journals by Burroughs and Ginsberg in the 2006 book The Yage Letters Redux, originally published in slimmer form as The Yage Letters in 1963. While it wasn’t published in Burroughs’ work, he actually identified the genus of ayahuasca’s key ingredients in June 1953, before anyone from Western civilization had done so publicly.[11]

Kerouac seems to have tasted the real thing, since, according to Ginsberg (writing during the event), Jack remarked, “This is one of the most sublime or tender or lovely moments of all our lives together . . .”[12] That’s not to say the experience was only positive. In June 1963 Jack reflected to Allen that, when he would wander into Manhattan for drinking binges, “I come back [to Long Island] with visions of horror as bad as Ayahuasca vision on the neanderthal million years in caves, the gruesomeness of life!”[13]

In January 1961, a few months after Kerouac’s ayahuasca trip, he ingested capsules containing the extract of what he called “Sacred Mushrooms,”[14] a nickname for psilocybin.[15] Ginsberg had recently visited Timothy Leary at Harvard to participate in Leary’s soon-to-be-controversial psychedelic studies. According to Martin A. Lee and Bruce Shlain’s book Acid Dreams, when Ginsberg called Kerouac during his psilocybin trial to announce that he was God and demand that Jack come try the mushrooms immediately, Jack replied, “I can’t leave my mother.”[16] Ginsberg brought the capsules back to New York to distribute to various people, and Kerouac went to Allen’s Manhattan apartment to try them for himself.

Kerouac’s reaction to this experience is recorded in a letter he sent to Timothy Leary later that month (which, for unknown reasons, was omitted from Kerouac’s Selected Letters, 1957-1969, the second volume of correspondence edited by Ann Charters). Jack wrote, “Mainly I felt like a floating [Genghis] Kahn on a magic carpet with my interesting lieutenants and gods… some ancient feeling about old geheuls [sic] in the grass, and temples, exactly also like the sensation I got drunk on pulque[17] floating in the Xochimilco gardens on barges laden with flowers and singers… some old Golden Age dream of man, very nice.”[18]

Kerouac’s final experiment of this period came in December 1961 (as least, according to the published literature). It’s fairly evident that on this occasion Kerouac ingested actual dried psilocybin mushrooms instead of capsules. He wrote to Ginsberg and Peter Orlovsky (Ginsberg’s lover) that he had just finished transferring the Big Sur manuscript from the teletype roll to standard pages, “all done in ecstasy, in fact (with bennies [Benzedrine])—Also ate 12 SMushrooms in one afternoon and wanted to send telegram to Winston Churchill something about an old Baron crying for his hounds in his ‘weird weild weir,’ thinking, on psilocybin, one baron to another he’d understand—”[19]

During the writing of Big Sur, some of these psychedelic experiences crept into the book despite Kerouac’s initial statement about “metaphysical hopelessness.” Upon awaking from a bizarre dream sequence, “Jack Duluoz” (Kerouac’s fictional projection of himself) reflects on the “millionpieced mental explosions that I remember I thought were so wonderful when I’d first seen them on Peotl and Mescaline…broken in pieces some of them big orchestral and then rainbow explosions of sound and sight mixed.”[20] The “peotl” (or “peyotl,” the indigenous spellings of “peyote”) cactus has long been consumed by tribes in northern Mexico and the American southwest for the mescaline it contains.[21] Kerouac first encountered peyote eight years before his trip to Bixby Canyon, while living with Burroughs in Mexico City in 1952. The two embarked on a fruitful series of peyote trials that Kerouac described in his letters to friends back in the United States.

On March 12 of that year, Jack wrote to John Clellon Holmes about what was possibly his first full-on psychedelic experience, conveying “the wild visions of musical pure truth I got on peotl (talk about your Technicolor visions!)…”[22] Shortly thereafter, on June 5, Kerouac wrote again to Holmes, telling of the time when a few “young American hipsters” gave him and Burroughs some peyote, after which the duo walked around Mexico City at night. In a park Jack found himself “wanting to sit in the grass and stay near the ground all night by moonlight, with the lights of the show and the houses all flashing, flashing in my eyeballs…”[23]

This letter is important for another reason; in it Jack explains the thrill of writing with his new “sketching” style, an early conception of what he would later call “spontaneous prose.” Late in October 1951, Kerouac’s friend Ed White had suggested that Jack try to write as though he was painting a scene.[24] Kerouac told Holmes he was “beginning to discover…something beyond the novel and beyond the arbitrary confines of the story . . . into the realms of revealed Picture . . . revealed whatever . . . revealed prose . . . wild form, man, wild form. Wild form’s the only form holds what I have to say—my mind is exploding to say something about every image and every memory in—I have now an irrational lust to set down everything I know—in narrowing circles…”[25]

The strong parallel between the “rainbow explosions” Kerouac saw on mescaline and peyote, and the feeling that he was “exploding” to describe his thoughts about reality, suggests that Jack’s psychedelic exploration in 1952 had a decisive influence on what would become his trademark prose style.

Kerouac’s first efforts to develop his sketching method resulted in Visions of Cody, written in 1951 and ’52. He further honed the style with Doctor Sax and, in early ‘53, Maggie Cassidy. But in the fall of ‘53, Kerouac wrote The Subterraneans, which was the closest to a prequel of Big Sur that Jack composed during this period when he “discovered” spontaneous prose. It was not only a stylistic precedent, but also a thematic one—specifically the themes of self-sabotaged relationships, nervous breakdowns, and creeping insanity. In both novels Kerouac focuses largely on his own life and “internal monologue” instead of employing a “hero” like Cassady (called “Dean Moriarty” or “Cody Pomeray” in Kerouac’s novels) or Gary Snyder (“Japhy Ryder” of The Dharma Bums) to carry the story. As Kerouac writes halfway through Big Sur, “I’m beginning to go seriously crazy, just like Subterranean Irene went crazy…”[26] This is actually a cryptic clue in which he’s evoking “Mardou Fox” of Subterraneans, the love interest of protagonist “Leo Percepied” (another name for “Jack Duluoz”). “Mardou’s” real name was Alene Lee, but Jack referred to her as “Irene May” in Book of Dreams.

Once again, Big Sur generally depicts Kerouac’s brush with “insanity” as stemming from his alcoholism. There’s hardly a time in the book when “Duluoz” is not holding a bottle of whiskey or wine. But as the story progresses, some of the descriptions seem to fall way outside the scope of what alcohol can do to a person’s mind and one’s perception of reality. For instance, when Jack’s friends try to get him to eat some food, he can’t take more than a bite. He’s too paranoid that they’re trying to poison him, and he’s too distracted by his mental aberrations. “Masks explode before my eyes when I close them, when I look at the moon it waves, moves, when I look at my hands and feet they creep–––Everything is moving, the porch is moving like ooze and mud, the chair trembles under me.”[27] Notice again the mention of “explosions.” Or examine the aforementioned dream sequence, in which Jack sees numerous “Vulture People” copulating in a trash dump. “Their faces are leprous thick with soft yeast but painted with makeup…yellow pizza puke faces, disgusting us…we’ll be taken to the Underground Slimes to walk neck deep in steaming mucks pulling huge groaning wheels (among small forked snakes) so the devil with the long ears can mine his Purple Magenta Square Stone that is the secret of all this Kingdom–––“[28]

Even a glance at Book of Dreams makes it obvious that Kerouac frequently had extraordinary night-visions. But such passages really bring to mind a few specific things: the psychedelic experience, existentialist literature, and the rare cases in which the two are combined. Though Kerouac more often talked of his fondness for Dostoevsky than for later existentialists, Jean-Paul Sartre’s 1938 novel Nausea (not published in English until 1949[29]) is an indubitable precursor to Big Sur. Nausea contains a first-person journal-style account by a French man named Roquentin, who unexpectedly becomes overtaken by mortal horror and bodily uneasiness. As Roquentin says early in the novel, “Then the Nausea seized me, I dropped to a seat, I no longer knew where I was; I saw the colours spin slowly around me, I wanted to vomit. And since that time, the Nausea has not left me, it holds me.”[30]

There’s a deeper connection between the two novels as well. In his 2002 book Breaking Open the Head, Daniel Pinchbeck reports that Sartre tried mescaline in 1935 as a research subject in Paris. Pinchbeck writes that “long after the physical effect of the drug had worn off, Sartre found himself plunged into a lingering nightmare of psychotic dread and paranoia; shoes threatened to turn into insects, stone walls seethed with monsters.”[31] Pinchbeck infers that this influenced the writing of Nausea—but he thought Sartre’s affliction lasted about a week. Actually Sartre experienced hallucinations of shellfish (usually lobsters, but he also called them crabs) for years, according to a 2009 book of conversations between Jean-Paul and John Gerassi, whose parents were close friends with Sartre. Gerassi quotes Sartre saying, “Yeah, after I took mescaline I started seeing crabs around me all the time. They followed me in the streets, into class… I would wake up in the morning and say, ‘Good morning, my little ones, how did you sleep?’” [32]

In 1954, thanks to Aldous Huxley’s The Doors of Perception, the Western world became much more aware of the potential promise of mescaline as a visionary aid. But interspersed with descriptions of his wondrous hallucinations, Huxley cautioned not to place too much expectation on mescaline for spiritual enlightenment.[33] Still, the book was extremely influential in the literary world, and it paved the way for the psychedelic uprising that Leary and others would lead in the 1960s.

So it’s a bit surprising that someone in Kerouac’s position, writing a book like Big Sur in 1961, wouldn’t emphasize psychedelics more or even try to work them into the plot, if only through a flashback or some similar device. Not only did he largely leave them out of the book, but he even downplayed the way they had guided his own “mysticism”—something that, in retrospect, is clearly evident in books like On the Road (published in 1957), The Dharma Bums (1958), and Visions of Gerard (1963). Kerouac even amended the line about “the mad ones” early in Road that would become his most famous quote, and—perhaps not unexpectedly—the final wording seems influenced by his 1952 peyote experiments. In the 1951 “scroll” version (not published until 2007) it read “burn, burn, burn like roman candles across the night.”[34] But in the 1957 version, the line went “burn, burn, burn like fabulous yellow roman candles exploding like spiders across the stars and in the middle you see the blue centerlight pop…”[35]

It all seems even more suspicious after learning that mescaline actually renewed Jack’s faith in his unique prose style in 1959, just as peyote seems to have inspired the style initially in 1952. Soon after taking mescaline, Kerouac told Ginsberg that during the trip he’d had “the sensational revelation that I’ve been on the right track with spontaneous never-touch-up poetry of immediate report…”[36] Kerouac’s “Essentials of Spontaneous Prose” held that writing should be “confessional,” “always honest,” and—the part most tied up with myths about Kerouac—have “no revisions.”[37] We’ve already seen one case where Kerouac revised a work that he claimed to be an entirely spontaneous composition. So one can’t help but wonder—was Kerouac being as honest as he claimed in his prose theory? To begin to understand that, we must descend into Jack’s past.

In the spring of 1943, Kerouac enlisted in the Navy with the intention of serving the U.S. as a pilot in the growing European conflict. However, he failed the pilot exam and ended up in boot camp in Rhode Island.[38] When he refused to participate in the drills one day, he was taken to the Navy’s psychiatric hospital for observation and was soon diagnosed with “dementia praecox,”[39] which today would be called “schizophrenia.”[40] But Jack’s symptoms are more important than the term applied to them, and in his letters to friends he didn’t seem too worried about what he called the “irregularity” of his mind. Writing to childhood friend G.J. Apostolos, Kerouac explained that he had a “normal” side (embodied in G.J.) that loved sports, drinking, and sex—and a “schizoid” side (embodied in another Lowell friend, Sebastian Sampas) marked by introversion, alienation, and eccentricity. But there are hints that this “schizoid” side was actually closer to the core of Jack’s true self, whereas the “normal” side may have been a show he put on to survive with schoolmates, family, and society. “It is the price I pay for having a malleable personality,” Jack wrote from the Navy hospital. “It assumes the necessary shape when in contact with any other personality.”[41]

Had Jack grown up in the second half of the 20th century, he probably would have been diagnosed with “schizoid personality disorder” or “schizotypal personality disorder”—which are both considered “schizophrenia spectrum” conditions. The “schizoid” label corresponds to a preference for solitude, a lack of close relationships outside one’s immediate family, and an inability to express emotions.[42] “Schizotypal” refers to these characteristics, but the person must also exhibit delusions, peculiar beliefs and superstitions, paranoia, and other similar traits.[43]

This was a different time, and Kerouac’s condition was never fully understood by the people in his life. Yet if we’re going to comprehend what happened to him, we have to keep in mind that he undoubtedly fit the “schizotypal” diagnostic criteria. A series of letters that Kerouac wrote to Cassady around New Year’s 1951 help explain why.

When Kerouac was only four years old, a tragedy occurred that would affect him for the rest of his life. His older brother Gerard died of rheumatic fever in 1926 at the age of nine,[44] and throughout life Jack harbored two “peculiar beliefs” that stemmed from Gerard’s passing. One was that he believed his brother Gerard was a saint, an angel, and even Jesus; the other was that he felt responsible—and, therefore, guilty—for Gerard’s death.[45] In the letters, Kerouac claims to remember the events of 1926, despite his young age at the time. Not only that, but he says he remembers his own birth in March 1922. But Kerouac also seems conflicted. He admits to Cassady that some of his “memories” are based on family pictures, and says that he “wouldn’t be able to tell you this now, if everyone [in my family] hadn’t told me a thousand times, and each time I don’t believe it, because I don’t remember a thing…”[46]

More importantly, Kerouac says that he considered dreams and memories to be equivalent. He thought a person’s dreams came “from that part of his brain which has stored up a subconscious vision of an actual experience.”[47] This is basically a Freudian theory of dream analysis, which holds that the elements of conscious experience are repressed into the subconscious mind and then become dream content, sometimes expressing hidden (unconscious) wishes or desires. So when Jack had a dream of himself as a one-year-old baby, he regarded it as a playback of his own memory—though he had no conscious recollection of that time apart from the dream.

In addition to equating dream and memory, Kerouac also believed that “dream and vision are intertwinable with reality and prophecy.”[48] In other words, when the young Jack became aware of Gerard’s inevitable death, that in his mind (even his adult mind) seemed to have been a prophecy of Gerard’s death—which implied that young Jack had actually caused Gerard’s death. It wasn’t just Jack’s awareness of Gerard’s condition that created the guilt, but actually an incident that happened shortly before Gerard passed. Kerouac thought he remembered carelessly knocking down Gerard’s erector set, which inspired Gerard to slap his face and yell harsh words. Burroughs helped Kerouac sort out these memories in 1945, figuring, as Kerouac put it in the letter to Cassady, “that I resented the slap in the face and wished Gerard would die, and he died a few days later.”[49]

But Kerouac still seems confused, because a part of him remembered not really understanding what it meant when he found out Gerard was dead. He says he never cried, probably because he thought (in accordance with Catholic doctrine) that Gerard was at peace in Heaven. As Kerouac put it in 1951, “I knew, as I have never known since, that death does no harm…”[50] One paradox inherent in Catholicism is that the Church instills adherents with a severe horror of death, while simultaneously asking them to believe in a Biblical afterlife. Jack apparently felt fearless again after trying mescaline, which is a common reaction to the psychedelic experience. As he wrote to Ginsberg in October 1959, “I now no longer sad about sadness of birth-and-death scene because all that I had divined about the truth…was SEEN not just divined or known—”[51]

There’s a reason for Kerouac’s confusion: it seems that most of his “memories” from before the age of six are based on stories told to him by his parents, largely his mother.[52] In the letters, Kerouac carefully points out which details are from his own vague memory (e.g., not knowing why his family cried about Gerard), and which are details that his mother vehemently defended as true despite Jack’s inability to remember them. In 1945 Kerouac even told his sister that, in his words, “…I feel as though I don’t have a mind or will of my own.”[53] Therefore, Burroughs was helping Jack decipher mostly Gabrielle’s memories—memories that Jack assumed to be true because, according to his worldview, memories were equivalent to reality. Actually memory is very fallible, partly because every individual perceives the world in a slightly different manner.

Gabrielle’s version of reality was that Gerard had always acted kind and saintly toward Jack—but Jack became jealous of all the attention given to the sickly Gerard, and resented Gerard’s vengeful slap. But Kerouac notes that his mother suffered a “nervous breakdown” when Gerard died, during which all her teeth fell out.[54] He writes to Cassady, “The sight of this holy child slowly dying might have affected her mind at the time, and her stories about him may today be exaggerated…”[55] Yet he considered similar stories from his father and other relatives to be “verification” of Gabrielle’s version. Kerouac was even informed that a priest, neighbors, and business associates “spoke in the same way about Gerard: to the effect that he was the strangest, most angelic gentle child they had ever known.” But Pauline Coffey, a former neighbor of the Kerouac family, had a different impression of Gerard: “There was nothing exceptional about him. He was like any other kid—it was the mother—if you’ve ever lost a child, you would understand.”[56]

When Kerouac reflected on these memories five years after his “confession” to Cassady, while writing Visions of Gerard in January 1956, he omitted all his own personal doubts and stuck to his family’s Myth of Gerard. Charters’ biography offers a perceptive analysis of that novel: “Mémêre’s stories about Gerard were the framework for Jack’s narrative… The world of his experience and the world of his imagination came together in Visions of Gerard as in no other book in the Duluoz Legend.”[57] One of Gabrielle’s stories was key in establishing Gerard as a “saint.” As Kerouac tells it in the novel, Gerard fell asleep in class at their Catholic school and dreamt that the Virgin Mary took him away to Heaven in a “snow-white cart drawn by two lambs, and as he sits in it two white pigeons settle on each of his shoulders…”[58] When Gerard’s teacher woke him, he announced that he had seen the Virgin, and “we’re all in Heaven–––but we dont know it!” Since this was in December 1925, about seven months before Gerard died, it’s implied that the dream was premonition of Gerard’s imminent passing, as well as his Heavenly designation as a saint.

Kerouac didn’t doubt that such a thing happened, which in his mind would have meant that Gerard literally met the Virgin Mary. That’s partly because Kerouac himself remembers experiencing holy visions as a child. He tells Cassady that his life “is filled with superstitions,” and in the Catholic Church “much mysticism is sown broadspread from its ritual mysteries…”[59] Jack then tells of “the statue of St. Therese, whose head is often seen turning by madtranced watchers; whose head I myself saw turning, head-of-stone.” But biographer Paul Maher Jr. explains that Catholic school classes of that time viewed a motion picture in which the statue’s head was made to turn with trick photography.[60] Whether or not the kids were told that it was an illusion, the point—just as with other religious indoctrination—was to convince them that it was actually possible. In that sort of fundamentalist Catholic environment—made even more severe by the delusions of his grieving and mentally unstable mother, who built up the Myth of Gerard to keep Jack in a state of constant inferiority­ and thereby manipulate him like a marionette—it appears that Kerouac felt extreme pressure to have mystical beliefs, superstitions, visions, and fears.

All of this must be taken into account when reading Big Sur, especially the segment towards the end when “Jack Duluoz” experiences visions of a cross. Kerouac writes, “For a moment I see blue Heaven and the Virgin’s white veil…by God I am being taken away my body starts dying and swooning out to the Cross standing in a luminous area of the darkness…”[61] Of course, this is reported during the peak of Jack’s nervous breakdown, when he also allegedly hears voices speaking an indistinguishable language in his ear, senses a flying saucer searching for him in the trees, and mistakes a sleeping young boy for an evil warlock.

Just before then Jack had become increasingly disoriented, repeatedly saying or thinking, “I can’t understand what’s going on–––“[62] He says he wishes that Cassady were around to explain everything in a way that made sense. Actually this is the role that Gabrielle played in Jack’s life more often than anyone else. Just as Jack trusted mémêre’s version of the past, he also trusted her to interpret current events. And during Jack’s three-year imprisonment with his mother from late 1957 to early 1960, their “reality” consisted largely of fear over a supposedly imminent “Communist” uprising—a fear fueled by government officials and compliant mass media during the height of the Cold War. When “Duluoz’s” friends try to feed him in Big Sur, he thinks, “…this secret poisoning society, I know, it’s because I’m a Catholic, it’s a big anti-Catholic scheme, it’s Communists destroying everybody…in the morning you no longer have the same mind–––the drug is invented by Airapatianz, it’s the brainwash drug…”[63]

In reality Kerouac was recalling his experience with Leary’s psilocybin mushroom capsules, which he describes—along with a reference to the “Dear Coach” letter—in his 12/28/1961 missive to Ginsberg: “I incidentally wrote Timothy Leary…that I think this is the Siberian sacred mushroom used by Brainwash-inventor Airapantianz to empty American soldier prisoners in Korean brainwash program—Because if you become so emptied you don’t even care if you’re Kerouac or Ginsberg or Orlovsky, and what that meant to you before, then you’re ready to become anything at all, for any reason, even perhaps an assasin [sic]?”[64]

Unfortunately Kerouac projected any suspicion and anger he felt towards his mother onto other people, whether it was his late brother Gerard or father Leo, living individuals like Ginsberg or Kerouac’s first two wives (Edie Parker and Joan Haverty), or more hypothetical groups (in Kerouac’s immediate experience, that is) like “the Communists.” After mentioning the apparent brainwash potential in the letter to Leary after his January 1961 psilocybin trial, Kerouac wrote that he spent “3 days and 3 nights” talking with his mother while, it seemed to him, the mushrooms were still affecting his mind. The result, in his words: “I learned I loved her more than I thought.”[65] Somehow Kerouac didn’t connect his concerns about brainwash potential with the effect that Mémêre was having on him. One can find examples of these mental slips involving his mother scattered throughout the “Duluoz Legend.”

Later in the letter, Jack included a statement that helps to answer the question of why he would downplay psychedelics in his fiction and public statements. As he told Leary, “It was a definite Satori. Full of psychic clairvoyance (but you must remember that this is not half as good as the peaceful ecstacy [sic] of simple Samadhi trance as I described that in Dharma Bums).” Kerouac intended for The Dharma Bums to be read as a resolution to the existential conflict so visible in earlier books like On the Road and The Subterraneans. He also hoped for it to be a life manual for anyone in a similar situation, because in the mid- to late-1950s he viewed Buddhism as “the answer.” In other words, Kerouac perceived the potential rise of psychedelic drugs in the 1960s as a threat to the usefulness of his own body of work. In turn, his disparagement of psychedelics—and his silence (outside of private letters) about their potential advantages—was propaganda for the Duluoz Legend.

In fact, Kerouac found little use for Buddhism in his personal life by the start of the Big Sur period. His devout Catholic family had been fighting him about it for years. And as he told Carolyn Cassady after writing Big Sur—specifically referring to the end of the book, which describes his mental breakdown—“I realized all my Buddhism had been words—comforting words, indeed—“[66] Despite that, he still made Desolation Angels a sort of sequel to Dharma Bums a few years later, keeping much of the Buddhist terminology in place.

But there was a more personal element to Jack’s spurning of psychedelics. As his own descriptions of chemical experiments attest, psychedelic substances can provide the very sort of “visions” (i.e., hallucinations) that were so cherished in the fundamentalist Catholic worldview. According to the “mysticism” that Jack knew as a child, visionary ability was even a primary criterion for becoming a “saint” (like Kerouac’s beloved St. Therese) or an “angel.” Therefore, if it became public knowledge—or if his mother found out—that his visions didn’t always happen spontaneously, then it would harm his attempts to live up to the Myth of Gerard, the larger-than-life standards that Jack’s mother had held for him since before he could remember. This is likely the reason why, after giving Ginsberg his “Mescaline Report” in early 1960, Jack wrote to Allen from Chicago (en route to San Francisco and Bixby Canyon), “Hold the Mescaline Notes till I get back in Fall—Don’t give em to my mother.”[67] It’s probably also the reason why that “Mescaline Report” has apparently vanished from existence (though it might be in his archives in Lowell, MA, or at the Berg Collection in the New York City Public Library).

This differs substantially from the idea espoused by many of Kerouac’s biographers, who took a line of recorded conversation in the “Dear Coach” letter (“walking on water wasn’t built in a day”) as a sign that Jack saw very limited value in psychedelics. As it turns out, Kerouac’s literary treatment of psychedelics is one of many routes to a rude awakening about the Duluoz Legend, showing that it’s far less “objectively” true than commonly thought. In Big Sur, Kerouac wanted the cause of his mental breakdown to be alcoholism fueled by fame and “mortal existence,” not a spiritual awakening (or re-awakening) inspired by psychedelics, and definitely not his “tyrannical…mother’s sway over me” (as he referred to it once in The Subterraneans [68]). Furthermore, he wanted the cure to be “Christ,” “God,” the “Cross,” and his mother. As Kerouac writes on the last page, “My mother’ll be waiting for me glad–––“[69]

We can deduce all of this by looking at Kerouac’s October 1961 letter to Ferlinghetti, whom Jack actually visited again in San Francisco before returning to the East Coast in September 1960. As Kerouac writes, “…I was going to have lots more at the ‘end’ when I come to your house 706 but suddenly saw the novel should end at the cabin…”[70] So Big Sur ends the way it does because of a literary decision that Kerouac made, not necessarily because it depicts the way the events “objectively” happened.

Kerouac wasn’t only deceiving his readership; he was deceiving himself. His unwillingness—or, since it’s time we start taking his “dementia praecox” diagnosis more seriously, his inability to revise his view of reality and existence according to his own subjective life experience led to his early death in 1969. Just as a butterfly transforms from a caterpillar, he could have emerged from his chrysalis a twice-born being. The story behind Big Sur shows that Kerouac had the opportunity to progress through his existential crisis and live an entirely new life of liberation and prosperity. But his loss need not be our own.

[1] Kerouac, Jack. Windblown World. Ed. by Douglas Brinkley. New York: Penguin Books, 2004. pp. 61-66.

[2] Kerouac, Jack. Big Sur. 1962. New York: Penguin Books, 1992. p. 4.

[3] Kerouac, Jack. Selected Letters, 1957-1969. Ed. by Ann Charters. 1999. New York: Penguin Books, 2000. pp. 296-297.

[4] Kerouac, J. Windblown World. p. 62.

[5] Charters, Ann. Kerouac: A Biography. 1973. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1987. pp. 303-304.

[6] Kerouac, J. Selected Letters, 1957-1969. From footnote #1 by Ann Charters. p. 164.

[7] Kerouac, J. Big Sur. pp. 7-8. Long ellipsis was in original; short ellipsis is mine.

[8] Kerouac, J. Selected Letters, 1957-1969. pp. 252-253.

[9] Kerouac, J. Selected Letters, 1957-1969. p. 292.

[10] Maher Jr., Paul. Kerouac: His Life and Work. 2004. Lanham, MD: Taylor Trade Publishing, 2007. p. 414.

[11] Burroughs, William S. and Allen Ginsberg. The Yage Letters Redux. 1963. San Francisco: City Lights, 2006. From the introduction by Oliver Harris. pp. xx-xxii.

[12] Maher Jr., P. Ibid. p. 415. Ellipsis was in original.

[13] Kerouac, J. Selected Letters, 1957-1969. p. 419.

[14] In both the second volume of Selected Letters and Kerouac: A Biography, Charters writes erroneously that Kerouac took LSD (lysergic acid diethylamide) in January 1961. In the biography she also mistakenly states that Kerouac went to Cambridge, Mass., to see Leary.

[15] “Psilocybin Mushrooms.” Erowid. Accessed on 6/4/2011.

[16] Lee, Martin A. and Bruce Shlain. Acid Dreams: The Complete Social History of LSD: the CIA, the Sixties, and Beyond. 1985. New York: Grove Press, 1992. pp. 78-82. Note: they mistook Northport as being in Massachusetts, instead of Long Island, New York.

[17] An alcoholic Mexican drink made of fermented agave. See: “The Spirits of Maguey” by Fire Erowid. Erowid. Nov 2004. Accessed on 6/14/2011.

[18] Kerouac, Jack. “Dear Coach: Jack Kerouac to Timothy Leary.” Acid Dreams Document Gallery. Website for the book Acid Dreams by Martin A. Lee and Bruce Shlain. Ellipses were in original. Accessed on 3/3/2011.

[19] Kerouac, J. Selected Letters, 1957-1969. p. 363. I added “Benzedrine” in brackets.

[20] Kerouac, J. Big Sur. p. 211.

[21] “Peyote.” Erowid. Accessed on 6/6/2011.

[22] Kerouac, Jack. Selected Letters, 1940-1956. Ed. by Ann Charters. 1995. New York: Penguin Books, 1996. p. 336.

[23] Kerouac, J. Selected Letters, 1940-1956. pp. 368-369.

[24] Charters, A. Ibid. pp. 139-140.

[25] Kerouac, J. Selected Letters, 1940-1956. p. 371. Long ellipses were in book; short ellipsis is mine.

[26] Kerouac, J. Big Sur. p. 156.

[27] Kerouac, J. Big Sur. p. 200.

[28] Kerouac, J. Big Sur. pp. 208-210.

[29] “Nausea.” Wikipedia. Accessed on 6/6/2011.

[30] Sartre, Jean-Paul. Nausea. 1938. New York: New Directions, 1964. p. 18-19.

[31] Pinchbeck, Daniel. Breaking Open the Head. New York: Broadway Books, 2002. p. 122.

[32] Allen-Mills, Tony. “Mescaline left Jean-Paul Sartre in the grip of lobster madness.” The Sunday Times of London. 11/22/2009. Ellipsis was in original. Accessed on 10/31/2010.

[33] Huxley, Aldous. The Doors of Perception & Heaven and Hell. New York: Perennial, 2004. p. 41.

[34] Kerouac, Jack. On the Road: The Original Scroll. New York: Viking, 2007. p. 113.

[35] Kerouac, Jack. On the Road. 1957. New York: Penguin Books, 1991. pp. 5-6.

[36] Kerouac, J. Selected Letters, 1957-1969. p. 363. pp. 252-253.

[37] Kerouac, Jack. Essentials of Spontaneous Prose.” The Portable Beat Reader. Ed. by Ann Charters. New York: Viking, 1992. pp. 57-59. Italics were in original.

[38] Kerouac, J. Selected Letters, 1940-1956. From editor’s note by Charters. p. 49.

[39] Kerouac, J. Selected Letters, 1940-1956. p. 56. This citation also goes with “irregularity” quote below.

[40] Korn, Martin L. “Historical Roots of Schizophrenia.” Medscape. Undated. Accessed on 6/9/2011.

[41] Kerouac, J. Selected Letters, 1940-1956. pp. 61-63.

[42] “Schizoid personality disorder.” BehaveNet. Undated. Accessed on 6/9/2011.

[43] “Schizotypal personality disorder.” BehaveNet. Undated. Accessed on 6/9/2011.

[44] Maher Jr., P. Ibid. pp. 18-20.

[45] Kerouac, J. Selected Letters, 1940-1956. pp. 246-263, 282.

[46] Kerouac, J. Selected Letters, 1940-1956. p. 261.

[47] Kerouac, J. Selected Letters, 1940-1956. pp. 267-268.

[48] Kerouac, J. Selected Letters, 1940-1956. p. 269.

[49] Kerouac, J. Selected Letters, 1940-1956. p. 259. Also, p. 87.

[50] Kerouac, J. Selected Letters, 1940-1956. p. 272.

[51] Kerouac, J. Selected Letters, 1957-1969. p. 252.

[52] Kerouac, J. Selected Letters, 1940-1956. p. 249. He writes, “Six years later…I looked about for the first time and realized I was in a world and not just myself.”

[53] Kerouac, J. Selected Letters, 1940-1956. p. 88.

[54] Kerouac, J. Selected Letters, 1940-1956. p. 258.

[55] Kerouac, J. Selected Letters, 1940-1956. p. 253.

[56] Motier, Donald. Gerard: The Influence of Jack Kerouac’s Brother on His Life and Writing. Harrisburg, PA: Beaulieu Street Press, 1991. pp. 4-5. Quoted from Kerouac: His Life and Work by Paul Maher, Jr. p. 19.

[57] Charters, A. Ibid. pp. 254-255.

[58] Kerouac, Jack. Visions of Gerard. 1963. New York: Penguin Books, 1991. pp. 51-55.

[59] Kerouac, J. Selected Letters, 1940-1956. p. 270

[60] Maher Jr., P. Ibid. pp. 22-24.

[61] Kerouac, J. Big Sur. pp. 204-206.

[62] Kerouac, J. Big Sur. pp. 155-159.

[63] Kerouac, J. Big Sur. p. 203.

[64] Kerouac, J. Selected Letters, 1957-1969. p. 363.

[65] Kerouac, J. “Dear Coach: Jack Kerouac to Timothy Leary.”

[66] Kerouac, J. Selected Letters, 1957-1969. p. 353.

[67] Kerouac, J. Selected Letters, 1957-1969. p. 299.

[68] Kerouac, Jack. The Subterraneans. 1958. New York: Grove Press, 1994. p. 47.

[69] Kerouac, J. Big Sur. p. 216.

[70] Kerouac, J. Selected Letters, 1957-1969. p. 358.