Archives For Beatdom #10

Forever Stung

By  Michael Hendrick

Illustration by Waylon Bacon

A spate of Christian/spiritual music washed over the AM/FM airwaves in the early-1970s. Jesus Christ Superstar primed the pump, and Norman Greenbaum had made spirituality a Top Ten hit the year before with his rocking Spirit In the Sky. In Eighth Grade,  my eighth year of going to the Holy Mass six days a week, a progressive nun from Philadelphia mimeographed lyrics to these and other pseudo-spiritual tunes, like Bridge Over Troubled Waters and I Am A Rock by Simon and Garfunkel. Passing out the lyrics pages, she explained the spiritual introspection in songs and managed to slip a bit of ‘Popery’ into the messages, as well.

Around that time, my grandfather died.  In those days, three days of wakes preceded the Funeral Mass…probably because it took that long to dig through the snow and frozen turf of snow belt cemeteries. My Uncle Keith, a classic example of the 1960s folk-guitar-priest, attended each day. As a priest, he employed great communications skills; he listened and responded to me as he would to an adult but the main impression he left upon me, The Impressionable Boy in Puberty,  lie in his kindness. At a difficult age when adults yelled at me everywhere I went or some short, older jocks from the high school took turns threatening me, a little kindness made for a long and lasting memory.

By the time George Harrison crackled through the radio with My Sweet Lord, Christ invaded my thoughts and pushed the horoscope and Zolar zodiac books to the side, making way for The Bible. If any kid stood ready for a conversion, it was me.

Buses from public schools carried public school students. A freshman at Holy Catholic High School, in the city, I rode city buses. Bus stops, in the 1950s-1970s USA, provided a convenient place for strange people to queue up. Drunks, head cases, the elderly, the young and the poor – the same groups we now view as ‘disenfranchised’ – waited for buses at every odd corner.

“I used to be Jerry Lewis’s father!” a hulking brute of a man, with a more pockmarks than I ever saw on a face before, told me, assertively. I did not argue.

A crazy-looking biker type with longish red hair, freckles, two missing upper front teeth and a welder’s cap turned backwards on his head, told me we could ‘share a hit of microdot,’ whatever that was, if I gave him a dollar. I saw him before. He infrequently rode the bus all the way out to Egypt, the village where I lived. Knowing nothing about drugs, I gave him a buck, along with an excuse about why I didn’t want my half. He took the cash and hurried away. It was only a dollar.

Another guy looked like a rock star, standing back from the curb, stylish unisex shirt with very short sleeves revealing thin arms with no hint of muscle but wrists hardly visible under bracelets, chains, braided strings and other baubles. Hair fell to his shoulders in a fashionably- long, black shag.  It was the best one I had seen since David Cassidy in The Partridge Family. He wore a large, red button on his chest, which said, in raised white letters, “GET SMART GET SAVED”, and his belt held several pouches, one revealing a row of colored highlighting markers. The crazy guy from Egypt only wanted a dollar; the cool-looking dude with the shag sought my soul. A big, goofy kid who attracted these types simply by dint of being well over six feet tall and having shoulder-length blonde hair, I understood neither.  It turned out that he was a senior at the same high school I attended. Living close, he could go home after classes, lose the suit and tie, then hit the streets in fashion, ‘cool for Christ’. Being friends with a cool, long-haired senior gave me added credibility in my freshman year.

The Forever Family formed in 1971 in Allentown, PA, as a loose band of rag-tag former hippies and disillusioned druggies. They sought comfort and spirituality and brotherhood and fellowship, all the things this thirteen-year-old needed. Relating to the other kids at school had always been problematic. We had moved from New York into a hick town when I was six and I never caught onto the secretive ways of the Pennsylvania Dutch and other clannish peoples who mostly populated the area. I was different and not used to acceptance. When Jack, the guy with the shag, started talking to me, there was a warmth and understanding to him, sort of like with Uncle Keith. In the beginning, The Forever Family was pretty pure. Everybody was kind and open and it gave me a place to go after school and on weekends. The main thing one had to do, obviously, was to get saved, like the button said. The buttons were sort of the beginning of the end, however, as far as the pure essence of the Family. People banded around Chip, a charismatic hippie-looking guy with reddish hair and beard, and a warm and ever-ready smile. He exuded comfort. The Family existed here and there in the public parks and at the house of Chip and his wife, Sam. The house being just a few blocks from the high school, it was a place to go when skipping class or waiting for the bus. It provided refuge.

According to many, trouble began with those buttons, which were the invention of Stewart Traill, now leader of the Church of Bible Understanding (COBU). The COBU is based in Scranton, PA, and makes most of its cash from diverting funds donated for the running of their mission in Haiti, various internet and newspaper sources reveal. Traill devised the “GET SMART GET SAVED” button. They were big, bright and drew attention. Both well-known and oft-hated, these buttons caught the eye and allowed the wearer to go to work. Work, in this version, was the saving of Souls, the conversion to Christ through the auspicious Holy Spirit, who would often make guest appearances at the mall fountain in front of the Orange Julius stand on Friday and Saturday nights. That Holy Spirit would come right into the mall and cleanse those Souls whenever summoned. I went for it. I accepted the Holy Spirit.  I promised to focus all my life on Christ as my only salvation.

At my own behest,  I adopted a uniform of black jeans and black tee shirt, with a hand-made leather pouch on my belt to carry a miniature Bible and some leaflets (known as tracts to the professional faithful) on how to save yourself and become one of us. A lot of people, mostly in my own real family, mocked my new, always-blackened presence, some referring to me as ‘the Father’. The button never appeared in my wardrobe, however. I am not sure if this was because of Stewart or myself. Buttons were awarded to ‘lambs’ who memorized ten Bible verses, picked by Stewart. Being very adept at memorization, ten verses would not have been a problem. Once you had the button, you were raised a level and given responsibility – mostly for bringing in new members.

Maybe my lifelong pattern of shirking responsibility saved me in this instance. On the other hand, all the other members were about six or seven years older than me.  Jack was closest in age. A thirteen-year-old does not hold as much sway as an older acolyte. Either way, it was lucky that I was just a bit too young.  Most followers were in late-teens or early-twenties and Stewart was in his late-thirties. Traill was a strong presence, who took the role of leader of the family from Chip, simply by constant badgering and intimidation of family members. He likened himself to Moses and Elijah and came on as a sort of John Lennon-like figure, with frame-less wire-rimmed glasses. Like Lennon he had a habit of growing long hair and beard, then shaving both to leave them grow again. It is significantly coincidental to note that the place where Traill met Chip, the Robin Hood Dell section of Allentown’s Lehigh Parkway park system, was often frequented by the real John Lennon, who lived nearby in NYC and brought his son, Sean, there in the last years of his life.

Traill picked out clothes for his wife, Shirley, to wear which were very sexually revealing; micro-mini skirts and low cut blouses, heels. She was his Yoko imitation, although I doubt that Yoko would have been told what to wear. The clothes seemed out of place but they did make me horny, the desired effect, no doubt. He weighed her on a scale in front of family members regularly and spanked her if she weighed too much. He forced her to ask permission to go to the bathroom. This part of Traill’s personal life did not seem to jibe with the message of the Good News…neither did the attack on his son, who was beaten senseless by several church members for publicly disagreeing with his father. Much of this was unknown to me at the time. My mind found distraction in what other followers wore, how they spoke and acted – after all, I needed role models and some of the Family members were very cool. I cannot say that I ever had a conversation with Stewart. Perhaps due to my age, he felt I was useless – since I was not old enough to work and hand over my wages and was too naive to be truly influential to adults. Chip and Sam always showed me warmth and grace and made me feel welcome. I tended to stick close to them as much as possible.

What did I care? I had a place to go after school and on weekends where I was accepted. Acceptance and separation are the two cudgels of cult power. Anti-parent sentiment ran hot. We were often reminded that Jesus said, “I did not come to bring peace; but a sword. For I came to set a man against his father and a daughter against her mother.” I had enough friction going on between my dad and myself, that this line alone kept me hanging around. The Lambs of God brought in the sheep of Stewart but I was an innocuous kid, just along for the ride, really. I had been hearing about the Holy Trinity at school and church six days a week and listening to them on the radio. The hippie-looking girls and the way they dressed were the main draw for me. I didn’t enjoy ‘witnessing the word’ with one of the red-buttoned ‘lambs’ as much as I did my own personal conversions of the souls of paisley chicks with tight jeans.

Besides saving souls at the Orange Julius, we witnessed in public parks, did community activities, like help the Red Cross assist victims of a recent hurricane by working in their clothes/food/distribution center (my first volunteer job in a history of 42 years of volunteering – so something stuck), studied Bible verse and discussed it and wandered, fairly aimlessly, looking for more souls. Sometimes we would set up elaborate scenes in public restaurants to attract the attention of other diners and then drop our message on them.

On Bible study – another bad thing about having the “GET SMART GET SAVED” button were the accompanying charges of being a ‘lamb’, such as the memorization of Stewart’s convenient Bible color-code system, wherein followers divine the truths in the Holy Word by marking certain passages with certain colors of highlighter markers. The color system presents a very primitive system of mind control. Certain colors hold different significance, while others make us feel different ways. If a color can evoke a feeling, then drenching a particular verse in a certain color imbues it with that feeling. Red causes aggression in humans just as it does in bulls. Having once been attacked by a bull while donning a red shirt, I can say this is no urban legend. Just as he usurped the leadership of the family through pushiness and intimidation, Traill had seen Jack color-coding his Bible, as we had been taught to do with our notes in high school, and thereby stole the ‘idea’ and ‘invented’ the Color Code.

The coding took the fun out of the words and isolated them into specific messages. Color psychology has undergone many changes since the 1970s but it is still no less effective than it was to the ancient Greeks, who slept in white to purify their dreams. Controlling the mind through color is subtle and effective. It must be. By the end of the decade, Traill presided over an estimated 65 ‘fellowship houses’ and real estate holdings including mansions in Florida and Philadelphia and four private jets. The money built up as he went through a well-thought-out process of collecting old vacuum cleaners from the trash, fixing them and reselling them, then expanding the vacuum sales into a vacuum cleaning business with followers in major US cities working for a dollar a day and donating the rest of their wages to the church, so it could buy more land and vacuums. The business still thrives, along with a series of second-hand shops which resell items plucked from trash or handed over to the church when followers give up the world and all that is worldly. It became so well known that a popular episode of the Seinfeld TV series focused an eopisode around them, calling them the “Carpet Cleaning Cult,” after their real business name of Christian Brothers Carpet Cleaning.

Some valuable lessons stuck to me from those days of cornering strangers and talking them into submitting to the Holy Spirit. How to use a person’s own words to trap them, how to manipulate the meaning of certain words and simple verbal bullying techniques – these methods stuck to me and helped me through life in becoming successful at sales jobs and getting Jehovah’s Witnesses off my doorstep. Developing a knowledge of scripture still comes in handy, as a choice line from the Holy Book will easily stymie an argument and allow me to ‘one up’ a verbal opponent…particularly if they are the moralistic type.

Near the end of my association with the Forever Family, news of a big meeting with a communal Baptism made the rounds. Taking place on a Sunday, it would be hard for me to sneak away from dinner at home and find a way to the church and back. No buses ran on Sunday and I had not learned how to properly hitch a ride yet. A resounding ‘NO’ met my request to attend the meeting, so my natural instinct to run away from home appeared and off I went. The meeting took place at an established church with an Evangelical ministry. A mix of regular church members and scruffy-cool Forever Family members filled the pews. Baptism took place in a large swimming pool, dug and built in the shape of the cross. The minister presided over his regular service and, towards the end, welcomed us, who had been reborn via Baptism of Spirit, and invited us to be baptized in the symbolic water. We shuffled into a room behind the altar, where we were given white robes to wear into the pool.

My dad carried a .50 caliber machine gun in the Third Marine Division, where he served three tours of duty in the Pacific Theater of World War Two, gunning down Japanese soldiers. I imagine he wore the same expression on his face when he pulled the trigger as the one he wore as he burst through the door behind the altar with my mother, who seemed bewildered but peeved. “…all that money..,” she repeated a few times. Not yet in my robe, my old man grabbed me and out we went. A bunch of astonished lambs looked on with mouths agape. Numerous lectures intertwined in the voices from the front seat of the car, as we rode home and I stared out the back windows, singing to myself in my head. Years later, my mother would recall the “trashcans full to the top with money” that she had seen as they hunted around behind the scenes, trying to find me in the temple. “…all that money…” A depression-age baby, it sort of haunted her.

In days to come, I still found my way out of class and sneaking down to the Forever  Family house. Things were changing. Expanding the business and setting up new houses, along with objections to the ruthless ways of Stewart, drove a lot of family members out of the cult and back into the rote of their pre-‘saved’ days. Some kids at school trusted me now, having seen me hanging with the group of long-haired freaks, and offered me drugs and other forms of companionship. Something about going out collecting vacuum cleaners did not appeal to me, not for free, anyway.

No taste of the Christ ever killed my natural instinct to make money to buy myself things my parents didn’t know about.  My mom took a real tip from the experience, and, seeing how well I could corner strangers verbally, one day she dragged me into the General Nutrition Store (GNC) at the mall and lied about my age, telling them that her sixteen- year-old needed a job.  Soon, on nights and weekends, I found myself accosting strangers with a spoonful of sunflower seeds, petitioning them to ‘try our Zesty Sunflower Seeds!’, as the light of the Orange Julius glared at me from the other end of the mall.

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.

Hinduism: A Different Beat

from Beatdom Issue 10 (buy here)

by Geetanjali Joshi Mishra and Ravi Mishra


As a religion, Hinduism has been one of the most ancient and generational expressions. These expressions and beliefs are handed down from the past generation to the present. The Hindu religious thought is such that, on one hand it seeks to exclude life and its aspects in its entirety, and, on the other, its beauty is such that it radiates in the full expression of all forms of life…those that have been considered mainstream through the ages and those that have baffled the matrix of the mainstream.  Hinduism is naturalistic. A true Hindu does not believe in institutionalized religion; far from it, he/she inherits a doubt in all things institutional and becomes culturally inclined to observe society from a distance whenever he/she finds it imposing upon his spiritual and personal growth.

The Bhagvad Geeta or the Song of the Lord, the greatest-known book to guide conduct and human existence in Hinduism, expects one to play one’s role in the social and the worldly structure while keeping oneself at bay from expectations of societal and worldly gains. Then, there are the ‘Renunciates’ – those that feel that the world and society are obstacles in the way of realization of truth and that to realize truth one has to look beyond and out of the social structures. These men and women earn the distinction of being the ‘Sadhus’. They have held light to the Indian Civilisation from time immemorial. They are the wise. Once, they were also the erudite holders of the scales of moral and social justice in society, though they, themselves, were out of it.

It is a fairly well-documented fact that the Sadhus and Indian religions have cast an impression on the writers of the Beat Generation. Allen Ginsberg and Peter Orlovsky had travelled extensively across India in 1961-62 and stayed with some very prominent thinkers and writers of the period. One of them was the current president of India, Pratibha Patil (then a girl of nineteen), with whom Ginsberg stayed in Varanasi in 1962. Patil has been known later to have tried psychedelic drugs with the Indian Sadhus – Baba Neem Karoli, in particular. The Beats and the Sadhus meet in the context of Hinduism in many ways. They had very similar philosophies and aims, which in the context of Hinduism make them so akin to each other. They both seek advancement of their souls and spiritual elevation. They look for it beyond the frontiers of common humanity. The world beyond ours’ hosts the road to their ‘unworldly’ and asocial spiritual fulfillment.

In Wandering With Sadhus: Ascetics in the Hindu Himalayas, Sondra L. Hausner, writes that the Sadhus do not believe in following the constraints of space and time. They believe in being on the move – as staying in one place restricts their intellectual and spiritual growth. One almost wonders if On the Road could have been written had Kerouac not experienced these brilliant realisations which richen his plot? The knowledge that Hinduism advocates is the knowledge that Kerouac offers his readers in his defining work. It is also the same as what made the Sadhus so venerated and revered: the experience of what lies beyond the common boundaries of Humanity. Dissociation from fixities is not the only common feature among the holy men ofIndia and the Beats. In the context of Hinduism’s infinity, drug use and sex for salvation are other commonalities. Although the latter appears confined to some obscure and secret societies of Sadhus, the former remains readily seen among them.

Lord Shiva, the Supreme God in Hinduism, one of the forms of the Hindu trinity of Brahama, Vishnu and Shiva, is worshiped with the offerings of cannabis and other intoxicants. Considered to be the supreme consciousness who lies outside the human realm he is still found somewhere within each of us. It is He we seek to explore and His energy that we wish to obtain by meditation, prayers and other spiritual means. Having gained the enlightenment and full of benevolence for all, the Sadhu wishes to dispel spiritual strength in the world and guide mankind on the right course. Shiva, the manifestly terrible form of the supreme consciousness, has also been called the most merciful in the ancient Hindi scriptures. It is this secret that the Beats and Sadhus seek.  They care not how they appear and the impression that they make on others – as long as they gain the spiritual strength to hold light to a saddening, darkening world. The Beats and the Sadhus are alive in us, in each of us. We have only to explore them to be mature enough to make our lives more meaningful.

In what may be regarded as one of the biggest fares of humanity in the world, the ‘Kumbh’ in the holy town of Allahabad in India, thousands of Indian holy men descend from the Heavens to Earth, in the midst of mortals…to spend a month or thereabouts with them. They are very strange people, or so we think. Some of them exist in utter defiance of humanity, and we can only ask what it is that they hold to be true. Society, social strictures, codes, values, morals as we know them, do not hold with the Indian Sadhus. They epitomize the most truthful essence of one of the most ancient and theologically superior religions of the world.

The one aspect where Hinduism comes closest to the Beat philosophy is the element of queer sexuality prevalent in both. In the vastness of the great Hindu mythology, the queer elements seem to be interspersed through the many religious texts that Hindus follow to understand their philosophical and religious truths. Although the age-old Hindu literature appears, by and large, to be mute on same-sex love and physical attraction, slips in sexuality, erotic same-sex fascination, and intersex or third gender characters are not very infrequent in the religious narratives of the Vedas, Mahabharata, Ramayana and Puranas and lore of the regions of the ancient land. In the words of Devaddata Pattanaik, a prominent speaker on mythology: queer manifestations of sexuality, though repressed socially, squeeze their way into the myths, legends and lore of the land.

To begin with, the compendium of Hindu mythology refers extensively to change of gender in the deities and their embodiment of different genders at different times. It also alludes to the combining forms of androgynous or hermaphroditic beings. The Gods participate too. They change sex or manifest themselves as Avatars of the opposite sex to facilitate sexual congress. Their influence on humans is such that the mortals also undergo sex-change through their actions, fructifying the curses or blessings, or as the natural reincarnates.

In addition, it may be said noted that Hindu mythology delves deep into incidents where sexual interactions serve a non-sexual, divine purpose; in some cases, these are same-sex interactions. Ambiguity in judgment of the Gods is revealed when the Gods sometimes condemn these inter-actions, but on the other hand, they occur with their blessing. These mythological interactions have been expressions both of male and female characteristics in the Gods as well as the mortals. Not bound by time and place – they may occur at the same or at different times. They might also become manifest with characteristics of both genders at once, such as ‘Ardhanarishvara’, the revered and widely worshipped figure created by the merging of Lord Shiva and his consort ‘Parvati’. The name Ardhanarishvara means ‘The Lord whose half is a woman’ which, in itself, creates sexual ambiguity. It is said that this form of Shiva represents the ‘totality that lies beyond duality’, and is studied in reference with the communication between mortals and gods and between men and women.

One of the most celebrated and written about examples of same-sex love and transgression of gender exists in the pages of the Bhagavata Purana. There, Lord Vishnu as an enchantress, ‘Mohini’ (a form he took in order to befuddle the demons into abandoning ‘amrita’, the elixir of life), charms Shiva, who is so drawn towards her that they have a relationship followed by the birth of a son. The Brahmanda Purana talks of Shiva’s wife Parvati, who ‘hangs her head in shame’ as she sees her husband’s pursuit of Mohini. Some of the stories also mention Shiva asking Vishnu to appear in the Mohini form again so that he can witness the actual transformation for himself.

Stories in which Shiva knows of Mohini’s true nature have been interpreted to ‘suggest the fluidity of gender in sexual attraction.’ Philosophers  interpret the narrative more profoundly. Pattanaik declares that efforts to focus only on homoeroticism ignore the narrative’s profounder metaphysical significance – Mohini’s femininity stands for the material aspect of reality, and her seduction is another attempt of Vishnu to induce Shiva into taking an interest in worldly matters. Scholars point to other stories to show that it is only Vishnu’s charm that has the power to enchant Shiva. A demon tries to kill Shiva by taking the form of a woman (placing sharp teeth in ‘his’ vagina). Shiva recognizes the impostor and kills the demon by the placing a ‘thunderbolt’ on his ‘manhood’ during their act of lovemaking.

The later Puranas talk of the origin of God ‘Ayyappa’ . Vishnu, as Mohini, is said to have conceived with the might of Shiva, and borne Ayyappa, whom he/she later abandons in shame. Some scholars dispute this version, arguing that Ayyappa sprang from Shiva’s semen, which was ejaculated upon Shiva’s embrace of Mohini. There are many versions of the Mahabharata wherein Krishna, an incarnation of Vishnu, also took the form of Mohini and married ‘Aravan’. This was done to let Aravan be given the chance to experience love before his death, as he had volunteered to be sacrificed prior to the Kurukshetra War to ensure the Pandavas victory. Krishna remained in mourning in the Mohini form for some time after Aravan’s death.

It is more among the humans, particularly in the context of the narrative of the Mahabharata, that sexual changes and slips manifest themselves. One such character becomes ‘Shikhandi’, originally born as a girl named ‘Shikhandini’ to ‘Drupada’, the king of ‘Panchala’. The stories tell us that in her previous lifetime, Shikandini was a woman named ‘Amba’, whom the great and mighty ‘Bhishma’ had rendered unmarriageable. Having been humiliated, Amba moved in search of revenge, undertook great austerities, and the Gods granted her wish to be the cause of Bhishma’s death.

Another such story that talks about queer sexuality is the tale of ‘Ila’, a king cursed by Shiva and Parvati to be a man one month and a woman the next, which appears in several traditional Hindu texts. After changing sex, Ila loses the memory of being the other gender. During one such period, Ila marries ‘Budha’ (the God of the planet Mercury). Although Budha knows of Ila’s alternating gender, he doesn’t enlighten the ‘male’ Ila, who remains unaware of his life as a woman. The two live together as man and wife only when Ila is female. In the Ramayana version, Ila bears Budha a son, although in the Mahabharata Ila is called both mother and father of the child. After this birth, the curse is lifted and Ila is totally changed into a man who goes on to father several children with his wife.

It may thus be seen that the Indian mythological world is replete with transgressions of sexuality to prove to man that sexuality is not constructed traditionally and historically – that same-sex love may be a yearning towards a greater fulfillment. In what may be regarded as the oldest surviving documents of man’s intellectual growth and religious stability, sex and its transgressions have only been the means to obtain the higher plane of human conscience, a life where even Gods desires change of form to demonstrate Nature’s instinct and unleashed, hidden desires.  Although the Beats and their thoughts did not spring directly from Hinduism, it is no less remarkable a coincidence that the two are so similar to each other. The Beats may be said to be the greater Hindu, a people who sought not institutions but individuals and looked for growth – not of restrictive notions but the advancement of the human soul.

The Weird Cult: How Scientology Shaped the Writing of William S. Burroughs

“Scientology was useful to me until it became a religion, and I have no use for religion. It’s just another one of those control-addict trips and we can all do without those.”


This essay would be a lot easier to write without using the word “Scientology”. The Church of Scientology has given itself such a bad name over recent decades that it has become almost a swearword, or perhaps the name of a cheesy soap opera. You can’t take it seriously, it seems, unless you have something terribly wrong in your head.

It’s hard for us today to separate the Church of Scientology from some of its ideas, or to look back and view it as it could have been viewed in the fifties and sixties, separated from lawsuits, spaceships and ‘Celebrity Centers’.

Yet once upon a time it didn’t look quite so crazy. Before it became such a joke, Scientology must have appealed to many free spirits in the Beat and Hippie realm. Some of the ideas posited by the movement’s founder, L. Ron Hubbard, really didn’t seem so ludicrous then. Jim Morrison, the Beatles, Leonard Cohen, and Tennessee Williams are all alleged to have dabbled in Scientology back in its early days.

It is unclear where and when exactly William S. Burroughs first came upon Scientology. Some sources claim that it happened in Tangier, at the 1001 Nights Restaurant, owned by Brion Gysin. The story goes that John and Mary Cooke – two oddly dressed, proto-hippy mystics who later came to be the main financial backers of the restaurant, and who were important figures in the founding of the Church of Scientology – came to snare Gysin for the fledgling religion, which Cooke reportedly described as “a billion buck scam”. They may have come on the advice on a Ouija board, or this may be mere conjecture. Gysin is said to have been skeptical of the movement from the get-go, but Burroughs – always infatuated by the weird and wonderful – dove head-first in. He supposedly described this meeting as “portentous”. He said the Cookes were “like holograms”.

However, although this story appears to be pretty widely accepted, it doesn’t seem to sit very well with other accounts. For one thing, Burroughs was living in Paris during most of 1959, at the Beat Hotel. For another, Gysin’s restaurant was shut down by the Cooke’s a year or more before, and Gysin was also living at the Beat Hotel during much of 1959. This would suggest that Gysin and Burroughs had met the Cookes much earlier – perhaps in 1956 or 1957 – however, in his October 1959 letters to Allen Ginsberg, Burroughs is excited about Scientology, suggesting that it was a relatively recent discovery.

One may well hypothesize that Burroughs learned about Scientology from Gysin, who learned about it from the Cookes (as the relationship between Gysin and the Cookes seems fairly well documented), and that Burroughs had seen or met them himself much earlier, thus explaining the “portentous holograms” quote.

Indeed, in the introduction to The Letters of William S. Burroughs Vol 1: 1945-1959, Oliver Harris states, “Burroughs’ letters show that Gysin was responsible not only for the aesthetic means of his new method [the cut-up technique] but also for its therapeutic ends. At its inceptions, the cut-up principle was directly related to L. Ron Hubbard’s ‘science of natural health’ known as Scientology.” So it seems that Harris also believed Burroughs had been introduced to Scientology by Gysin, who, on October 1st, 1959, told Burroughs about his first foray into cut-ups, which he had discovered by accidently slicing up sheets of newspaper.

It may seem odd to suggest that Scientology played a big role in the development of the cut-up technique, but the evidence certainly seems to point that way. For Burroughs, the cut-up technique and Scientology were not so far removed from one another. The Church’s teachings, he believed, could help him to resist social control through the removal of ‘engrams’ – negative feelings stored in the ‘reactive mind’. Burroughs was concerned about the use of language, and in particular the idea of words as a form of virus. In Word Virus: The William S. Burroughs Reader, he explains, “The word itself may be a virus that has achieved a permanent status within the host,” after detailing various forms of viruses. He then moves quickly into an explanation of how this relates to Scientology.


Ron Hubbard, founder of Scientology, says that certain words and word combinations can produce serious illnesses and mental disturbances… Mr. Hubbard bases the power he attributes to words on his theory of engrams. An engram is defined as a word, sound, image recorded by the subject in a period of pain and unconsciousness… Any part of this recording played back to the subject later will reactivate operation pain, or he may actually develop a headache and feel depressed, anxious, or tense.


Burroughs believed that it was possible for people to manipulate the reactive mind by placing words and images in popular media that would deliberately trigger engrams. He called these “commands” and said that they were often found in advertisements. This form of mind control, he said, aimed to stifle “positive action.”

It’s hardly surprising that Burroughs would be so drawn to the notion of engrams. After all, he had previously been fascinated by the idea of psychotherapy, and a number of other philosophies (including Korzybski’s General Semantics, which informed his preoccupation with the power of words), drugs and theories that aimed to eliminate suffering. Scientology differs from psychoanalysis in that it doesn’t interpret or evaluate, it only acknowledges, and Burroughs found this greatly appealing: “Scientology can do more in ten hours than psychoanalysis can do in ten years.” Burroughs was troubled by at least two major traumatic incidents in his past: something unnamed that happened as a child, which he speculated may have been sexual abuse, and, of course, the death of Joan Vollmer. Of Scientology he once claimed, “It feels marvelous! Things you’ve had all your life, things you think nothing can be done about – suddenly they’re not there anymore.”

Further evidence of the relationship between Scientology and the cut-ups comes in a pair of letters he wrote to Allen Ginsberg in October, 1959. These letters show Burroughs’ excitement at these wild new ideas, their impact upon his life and work, and also lend credence to the theory that Burroughs learned about Scientology when living in Paris, at the Beat Hotel.


October 27th

The method of directed recall is the method of Scientology. You will recall I wrote urging you to join your local chapter and find an auditor. They do the job without hypnosis or drugs, simply run the tape back and forth until the trauma is wiped off. It works. I have turned the method, partially responsible for recent change in assignment, and policy…As for my visions, we don’t talk about that. They go into the work. General advise on visions: “Cool it or use it.”


October 29th

I have a new method of writing and do not want to publish anything that has not been inspected and processed. I cannot explain this method to you until you have necessary training. So once again and most urgently (believe me there is not much time) – tell you: “Find a Scientology Auditor and have yourself run.”


The second letter, in particular, shows that Burroughs viewed Scientology as essential to Ginsberg’s understanding of this “new method of writing”. Whilst at the Beat Hotel, Burroughs collaborated with Gysin and Gregory Corso on a cut-up project that became Minutes to Go, published in 1960. In this pamphlet, Burroughs made an odd plea to his readers: “Do it yourself.” Clearly, he viewed the cut-up technique not just as some oddball literary device to amuse and inform his readers, but something to spread throughout humanity to defeat the “word virus” of which he was so afraid.

In 1961, Burroughs and Gysin collaborated with Anthony Balch on the short film, Towers Open Fire. This weird movie aimed to highlight the process of control systems decaying the human mind, and bizarrely featured lines taken from an old Scientology pamphlet. That same year Burroughs wrote The Soft Machine, the primary theme of which was that the human body (a soft machine) is fed by tapes controlled by some kind of authority. The only way to regain control is to battle the machine by cutting up reality. In the Appendix, Burroughs listed Scientology among the arsenal of weapons necessary to resist the controlling machines.

The following year, Burroughs wrote about Scientology in his novel, The Ticket That Exploded, calling the group, ‘The Logos’. Burroughs makes no real effort to alter the realty of the group, and explains one key process, that for Burroughs was Hubbard’s great contribution to mankind:


[They have] a system of therapy they call ‘clearing’. You ‘run’ traumatic material which they call ‘engrams’ until it loses emotional connotation through repetitions and is then refilled as neutral memory’. When all the ‘engrams’ have been run and deactivated the subject becomes a ‘clear.’


This process of becoming ‘Clear’ was important to Burroughs, who eventually became Scientology’s Clear No. 1163. Even in his later years, as a harsh critic of the movement, Burroughs maintained that the process of ‘clearing’ was a tremendous invention that Hubbard had given to mankind. It involved the use of something called ‘the E-Meter.’ Burroughs called it “a sort of sloppy form of electrical brain stimulation… a lie-detector and a mind-reading machine… Not the content, only the reactions.” He believed that it could help evade control systems (such as the mind control he associated with Mayan calendars), and as a “device for deconditioning.” Later, in his review of Robert Kaufman’s expose, Inside Scientology, Burroughs wrote, “The E-meter is, among other things, a reliable lie detector in expert hands. The CIA also uses lie detectors… With this simple device any organization can become a God from whom no thought or action can be hidden.”

In 1964, Burroughs wrote Nova Express, which dealt with Scientology without bothering to change names. It also continued to spread his message of the value of ‘clearing’ the importance of recognizing and dealing with ‘engrams’.


The Scientologists believe sir that words recorded during a period of unconsciousness… store pain and that this pain store can be lugged in with key words represented as an alternate mathematical formulae indicating number of exposures to the key words and reaction index… they call these words recorded during unconsciousness engrams sir… The pain that overwhelms that person is basic basic sir and when basic basic is wiped off the tape… then that person becomes what they call clear sir.


In 1968, Burroughs took his interest in Scientology even further and enrolled in a ‘clearing’ course at Saint Hill Manor in the UK, lasting from January to April. It was during this course that Burroughs was declared a ‘clear’, although he later admitted to repressing negative feelings towards L. Ron Hubbard’s “big fat face”. One account states that when the E-Meter picked up on his nerves, he said, he resented Hubbard’s “perfection”. Here, Burroughs was audited and took part in auditing others, something he claimed was very therapeutic. He obsessively made notes about the process, and even used these notes in his personal cut-up projects. The Henry W. and Albert A. Berg Collection at the New York Public Library has many of Burroughs’ notes and notebooks from this period.

Burroughs lived and worked in London for around six years, from the late sixties until the early seventies, during a difficult time in his life. Many of his friends died during this period, and Burroughs’ mental and physical health deteriorated rapidly. According to Barry Miles, who owned a bookshop that Burroughs often visited, Burroughs was “very much with Scientology” and claimed that his strong beliefs “cut him off from a lot of people.” Evidently, Burroughs would post notes around the bookshop, telling people that he would gladly audit them, even leaving his phone number. During this period, Burroughs was living with Ian Sommerville, who detested his lover’s “Operating Thetan glare”. (Operating Thetan, in Scientology terminology, is a step above Clear.)

By 1970, Burroughs was no longer affiliated with Scientology. He had always had his disagreements (in particular with L. Ron Hubbard and the Church’s “fascist” control policies) but things became ugly when he was declared to be in a “Condition of Treason” by the Church. The exact circumstances surrounding his departure and listing as an enemy of the religion are unclear, although it was likely related to his open disdain for the controversial “Sec Checks” that the Church performed to maintain security.

One of Burroughs’ long-held beliefs was that magic and curses held real power, and that he could use them to improve his life and smite his enemies. Indeed, in Paris he once cursed an old woman who ended up in hospital shortly after. He believed that recording images and sounds was a means to destroying that which was recorded, and so he launched an attack on the Scientology Centre at 37 Fitzroy Street by taking photos and tape recordings. Indeed, the centre closed shortly after, but only so that they could move to a better location that Burroughs unable to “destroy”.

Burroughs published a series of angry letters in Mayfair magazine, culminating in the wonderfully titled, ‘I, William Burroughs, Challenge You, L. Ron Hubbard’. This article was reprinted in the Los Angeles Free Press on March 6th, 1970, and is currently available online. It begins by briefly mentioning his respect for the E-Meter and Scientology’s “precise and efficient” therapy methods, but quickly descends into an attack on the “weird cult” and its refusal to share information, as well as “Mr. Hubbard’s overtly fascist utterances.”


Some of the techniques are highly valuable and warrant further study and experimentation. The E Meter is a useful device … (many variations of this instrument are possible). On the other hand I am in flat disagreement with the organizational policy. No body of knowledge needs an organizational policy.


The following year, Burroughs wrote the short story, ‘Ali’s Smile’, which was published by Unicorn Press as a limited edition of 99 copies. It begins with the protagonist, Clinch Smith, being described by a Scientologist friend as a “suppressive person”. Clinch then goes on an odd and violent killing spree, murdering some members of the religion. The story was reprinted in his collection of short stories, Exterminator!, in 1973. In 1985 it was released as Ali’s Smile: Naked Scientology, along with a number of essays, articles and letters on the subject of Scientology. Included were:


  • ‘Burroughs on Scientology’ (the disappointingly retitled version of ‘I, William Burroughs, Challenge You, L. Ron Hubbard’) which had appeared in Mayfair and the LA Free Press.
  • ‘Open Letter to Mr. Garden Mustain’ – Originally published in the East Village Other on July 7th, 1970, this is a reply to a letter in the LA Free Press. Burroughs asks what Scientologists think regarding marijuana and the Vietnam War.
  • ‘Review of Inside Scientology’ – As detailed below, Burroughs reviews the popular book for Rolling Stone magazine.
  • ‘Letter to Rolling Stone’ – This letter was written by R. Sorrell on behalf of the Church of Scientology, and said that “Mr. Burroughs may be a writer but cannot always be trusted to be an accurate one.”
  • ‘Answer to R. Sorrell’s Letter’ – On December 5th, 1972, Burroughs replied to R. Sorrell with attacks on various points, including Security Checks and financial misdeeds.


Burroughs’ war against Scientology continued on the pages of Rolling Stone magazine on October 27th, 1972, when he reviewed Robert Kaufman’s expose, Inside Scientology. His language is particularly brutal:


Scientology is model control system, a state in fact with its own courts, police, rewards and penalties. It is based on a tight in-group like the CIA… Inside are the Rights with the Truth. Outside are the Commies… the Suppressives.


Oddly enough, that same year Burroughs and Anthony Balch collaborated once again on a film, Bill and Tony. In the movie, Burroughs’ disembodied head floats around, describing the process of a Scientology auditing session.

Even in his final days, Burroughs dreamed about Scientology and L. Ron Hubbard. In his Last Words: The Final Journals of William S. Burroughs, he talks of dreams where Hubbard appears to him, and refers to Scientology as – if nothing else – a part of his education; something not to be forgotten. Clearly he learned a lot and valued certain lessons. Perhaps Scientology did truly help him, as it seems to have given him peace and to have acted – at least temporarily – as a coping mechanism in dealing with traumas from his past. Brion Gysin once quipped that Burroughs was probably the only man to ever make more money from Scientology than it made from him. Indeed, as this essay has demonstrated, his experiences with the “weird cult” have made their way into numerous essays, articles, journals, letters, short stories, novels and even his forays into film. Scientology was integral to the development of his most important literary method – the cut-up, and helped him to keep his name in the spotlight long after becoming famous as a “Beatnik”.




Baker, Phil, William S. Burroughs: Critical Lives

Bockris, Victor, With William Burroughs: A Report from the Bunker

Burroughs, William S., Ali’s Smile: Naked Scientology

Burroughs, William S. The Adding Machine: Selected Essays

Grauerholz, James (ed.), Last Words: The Final Journals of William S. Burroughs

Grauerholz, James (ed.), Word Virus: The William S. Burroughs Reader

Harris, Oliver (ed.), The Letters of William S. Burroughs Vol. 1 (1945-1959)

Hibbard, Allen (ed.), Conversations with William S. Burroughs

Lardas, John, The Bop Apocalypse: The Religious Visions of Kerouac, Ginsberg, and Burroughs

Miles, Barry, William Burroughs: el hombre invisible

Urban, Hugh B., The Church of Scientology A History of a New Religion




From Beatdom #10. Buy it at Beatdom Books


by Cliff Weber


Talking heads on swivel sticks

yammer incessantly

into my bleeding ears

while I stare ahead,

nodding on cue

like a fucking tchotchke desk bird who drinks water.

I am a trinket who serves no purpose,

waiting for someone to leave a window open

so I can fly into a nearby propeller.


I haven’t been published in almost a year

and tonight I’m reminded of that fact.

I open another beer and write this angry poem

out of frustration,

out of malice towards contemporary literature

and the art I have chosen to pursue.


I love writing,

god I fucking love to write,

but the apologetic “thanks but not thanks” emails

have been laying eggs in my brain for a while now

and I think they’re beginning to hatch.

I hear the first one poking its legs through

like a smoke bomb seeping through a screen door.

I hear another—

and a few more—

and soon a colony has formed

and I’m banging my head against my wooden desk.


“I’ll kill you all


I scream, waking my neighbors who shout back,

“We’re trying to sleep here shut the fuck up asshole!”

“Ah fuck you!” I holler back.


I start bashing my head with a frying pan,

pausing only slightly to finish the beer in hand

and regain sight.

“I’ll kill every last one of you eight-legged freaks!”


I’m convinced they’re scared,

hell I know they’re scared.

Shaking in their tiny fucking boots I bet.

“I won’t give up until you surrender

and crawl out of my ear waving tiny white flags!

Fuck your insincerity!

Fuck your half-assed template compliments!

Fuck your desire to print vanilla poetry!

I’ll have my way,

one of these days.

I’ll have my way and when I do–

I’ll tilt my head over the garbage disposal

and shake all you bastards out into hell.

Go ahead and accept bland bullshit,

you’re nothing more than colonies of insects.”


Did I mention that I haven’t been published in almost a year?

Review: One and Only: The Untold Story of On the Road

by Michael Hendrick

One and Only: The Untold Story of On The Road, may have played more to the heart had it been sub-titled The Untold Story of the Desolation Angels.  Published in November 2011, the volume is mainly comprised of Gerald Nicosia’s interviews with Lu Anne Henderson, former girlfriend of Jack Kerouac and Neal Cassady and first ex-wife of Cassady. Henderson, in On The Road, is referred to as ‘Marylou’.

Although not a character in the latter, her words paint, in the end, a portrait of the desolation of Jack and Neal, both driven to desperate distraction and depression by the roles and expectations foisted upon them in the former novel.  Also, through her words, we see how integral Lu Anne became in the formation of the Beat Generation; that she was not just another pert piece of jailbait Neal was known to chase.

We learn that Jack and Neal did not like each other.  Not many liked Neal, which can be blamed on fear, jealousy, or the thought of a natural born con dropped into the middle of a group of Columbia students.  Neal bared his heart and soul to Lu Anne; so did Jack. The two men came to know each other, not through interacting, but through what Lu Anne told one about the other, in the times they were alone together.  She loved them both and her love shone bright enough for them to see what was good, what brilliance burst from the other man. They became fast friends when Lu Anne introduced soul to soul; before that, they had trouble even having a simple conversation with each other.

On The Road presented Jack with a variety of psychic challenges from the constant worry and waiting for the publisher to accept it, to guilt-ridden doubt about how his friends would perceive the characters he forged from their earthly essences, to living up to being the character of ‘Sal Paradise’ – who with Neal as ‘Dean Moriarty’, gave a new sort of maverick hero to a strange new generation. This generation embraced, emulated, imitated and intoxicated itself into an active cerebral state where freedom of choice in our own fate and existence became true options by following the example of the rebel heroes. Mass emulation forced Jack and Neal into roles they had long outgrown. Not only that, Jack exaggerated and changed facts, so they had to live up to caricatures of themselves. In the meantime, their real blood spilled on the tracks.

Cassady, found himself stuck in Moriarty’s shoes ad infinutum, always ‘on,’ always the superhuman clown who was expected to perform constantly. A cross-over character used by Tom Wolfe, Cassady is seen as the man with the plan in The Electric Koolaid Acid Test, introduced in white tee and doing his famous hammer toss. Lu Anne never saw the hammer toss, although she had heard much of it, secondhand. When Neal finally talked about it, it was in shame, as he had painted himself into a predictable corner. In the beginning he felt obliged to live up to the image Kerouac had created and it had slowly turned into a sideshow, the hammer being the most obvious prop. Now he felt like a performing monkey. “I put on my act at six o’clock and eight o’clock,” he says, in Lu Anne’s best memory.


She is like a hip, sexy Dorothy, pulling back the curtains and revealing the Wizard(s)…Her lesson being pay no attention to the man behind the curtain. She knew the real men behind the curtain before the curtain cloaked them in myth and fable. Much of what she tells seems revelatory – but only in the context of how Kerouac tweaked real life into typed adventures. Jack and Neal – Men, not Gods – acted like most men do. If Neal had five dollars in his pocket, it was his five dollars. The Beats were not as communal a society as we would like to recall them as being. They were real people. They were selfish sometimes.

During the early 1950s Jack was in a state of high anxiety concerning his future, and the high expectations that went along with the hopeful success of his book, which he had started writing in 1948. Although, in legend, he is said to have written it all in one three-week stint,  he actually typed up the book on the infamous reel of teletype paper in 1951, culled from the notebooks that Jack always carried in his shirt pocket.  It was during the creative process of compiling these notes that Neal abandoned him and Lu Anne in San Francisco in 1949. Added to the frustration of butting heads with his publisher and trying to create a new style of prose, the rejection by Neal (who drove Jack and Lu Anne across the country, only to leave them stranded in the middle of the city with no cash while he returned to live with then-wife, Carolyn) seemed to set Jack off into a spiral of depression from which he would never fully recover. While most of the literary world and readers did not see this, Lu Anne did.

Lu Anne’s lot was not an easy one, either; bouts with irritable bowel syndrome eventually led to dependence on medications and ultimately to morphine and heroin addiction. While she outlived the pair of men, her lot was not easy. In the 1980s, she eventually returned to Denver, where she initially met Neal when she was fifteen years old, and cleaned up. Conducted in 1978, before her death from cancer in 2006, the transcription of the interview runs to some 34,000 words. We are also presented with 55 archival photographs of Lu Anne, Jack, Neal, Allen Ginsberg, Al Hinkle, and other Beat figures, some of which have never been seen before this printing by Viva Editions.

In many ways, it is more sobering than most volumes on Beat history. One telling incident is hopelessness concealed in the question Neal asked Lu Anne, when he finally went quiet and quit acting, “Where do we go from here, Babe?”

Tristessa: Heavengoing

by Paul Arendt


Jack Kerouac’s surroundings invariably affected his writing style. Narrator Leo Percepied’s voice in The Subterraneans reflected Kerouac’s emergent interest in psychology, and the author’s vision of the stream-of-consciousness as a frantic and self-conscious purge. This interest in psychology found its way into Kerouac’s aesthetic. The result was a manic prose. The narrator tore into his thought patterns and behaviors with a seemingly psychotherapeutic authorial agenda. Kerouac’s application of psychological theory in his writing allowed him to move beyond the stylistic limitations of On the Road and truly engage the stream-of-consciousness. His psychological definition for the stream-of-consciousness was, however, a temporary one. Upon completing The Subterraneans, he began to immerse himself in Buddhism, and this markedly changed both his aesthetic and his theories on the human experience.

Kerouac wrote Tristessa in Mexico at the height of his Buddhist studies. Religious devotion calms the narrator, named simply Jack. He no longer focuses on sex, self-loathing and shame as he did in The Subterraneans but on chastity, compassion and religious devotion. Jack explores his feelings for Tristessa, a Native Mexican morphine addict. Using an active present tense he muses on love, piety and drug addiction while considering Tristessa’s relationship with Catholicism and his own relationship with Buddhism. The writer has spent years refining stream-of-consciousness technique in his novels and poetry. Tristessa is an embodiment of Kerouac’s stylistic goals; the narrator’s arrangement of suffering, compassion, and spiritual awareness makes it thematically mature.

Still, the text is often excluded in criticism. The limited scholarly work focuses primarily on Kerouac’s handling of race and gender. Often, critics are compelled to bind The Subterraneans and Tristessa into one story, one idea, as they both concern a narrator exploring the essence of a dark-skinned woman. Stylistically and thematically the texts are quite different.

With a Buddhist’s detachment, the narrator separates himself from Tristessa’s world of morphine and poverty. From his own world he offers observation and metaphysical contemplation. The self-conscious writer now becomes a selfless Buddhist student, one who uses Tristessa and her home to meditate on the subjects of sadness and balance. The writer’s focused consideration of these two subjects, sadness and balance, is evidence that Kerouac had truly become a craftsman, that his post-On the Road work should be considered more relevant in criticism. Each step he took to develop his style led to different and more refined stream-of-consciousness. This is overlooked in most critical studies of the author.

Benedict Giamo recognizes Kerouac’s “impressive creative outpour” after he had discovered Buddhism. In “Enlightened Attachment: Kerouac’s Impermanent Buddhist Trek,” he writes that Buddhism was a valuable and perfectly timed “inspiration for [Kerouac’s] ongoing spiritual-literary-artistic quest” (180). Giamo is one of only a few critics who have explored that quest and its effect on Kerouac’s style. Buddhism certainly took his writing in a different direction, but, perhaps more importantly for Kerouac, it “provided the means and conditions necessary for delivering one from the trepidations of mortal hopelessness” (Giamo, 2003 181). Kerouac did not go through this spiritual transition alone; the religion made sense to many Beat writers, especially poets Allen Ginsberg and Gary Snyder. Buddhism proves central to the seven books Kerouac wrote during his most productive period (1955-1957): The Scripture of the Golden Eternity, Some of the Dharma, Desolation Angels, Visions of Gerard, The Dharma Bums, his collection of poems Mexico City Blues, and Tristessa.

Kerouac took Buddhism very seriously. It was not a passing interest. He writes in Some of the Dharma, a recently published journal, of his daily reading of Buddha’s Diamond Sutra, his exploration of other ancient texts, his experiences with meditation. He engaged and applied Buddhist ideas in his daily writing. But, as Gregory Stephenson submits in The Daybreak Boys, even though Kerouac embraced a very disciplined lifestyle, books like Tristessa give a narrow view of his relationship with Buddhism. Stephenson writes that Kerouac’s “affinities with the teachings of the Buddha are largely limited to his unreserved acceptance of” the first noble truth of Buddhism: All life is suffering (Stephenson 34). Kerouac offers emotionally balanced writing in Tristessa and the possibility of transcendence, but the nature of the work aligns with the idea that Kerouac never moved too far away from this first truth, from a lifelong artistic intention to prove that life is sorrowful:


Tristessa says ‘How is Jack-?-’she always asks: ‘Why are you so sad? -muy dolorosa’” and as though to mean ‘You are very full of pain,’ for pain means dolor-‘I am sad because all la vida es dolorosa,’ I keep replying, hoping to teach her Number One of the Four Great Truths,-Besides, what could be truer (18). 


The narrator makes it clear that suffering is not a product of chance but a function of human existence. Kerouac’s emphasis on this first truth in Tristessa, though he was quite educated in wider Buddhist theory, divulges an extremely focused artistic usage, but other elements in Tristessa demonstrate a wider application.

Though he spends considerable time filling passages with evidence of the first truth, with images of sadness and corrosion, Kerouac is also intent on combating it through writing of a faith he has in a shared destiny of transcendence and a calibrated scale on which all events are inevitably weighed. These attempts to combat sadness yield a wider usage of Buddhist theory as the narrator considers the idea of balance, divine compensation. He creates a surreal, almost dreamlike sorrow with Tristessa’s afflictions in the physical world – drug addiction, helplessness, poverty – but consistently emphasizes the harmony and amelioration to be found in the metaphysical world: “Bright Explanations of the crystal clarity of all the Worlds, I need to show that we’ll all be all right” (34). These bright explanations oppose, and perhaps make neutral, the dark observations.

As he considers the sad state of affairs in Tristessa’s home, Kerouac reasons with the subject matter by projecting onto it Buddhist Truth, Catholic symbol, and a conviction he has in an organizing principle. This organizing principle is a compassionate and neutralizing force, a mixture of Catholic God and Buddha which Kerouac began to assemble as he wrestled with a cultural homelessness, unsatisfied with the spiritually atrophied America he saw from the margins. The different parts of the religious mixture can be isolated and separated, but in the story they complement each other; they blend into each other to form a unified spiritual light that illuminates Kerouac’s writing, guides his romantic recollection with absolute language and a dual project: capturing the magnitude of sadness and balancing it on a scale. The emotional cadence of the story is determined by Kerouac’s constant juxtaposition of negative woeful image with positive multi-religious prose burst. Most of Kerouac’s attention seems to be on balancing pain with reward, on the construction of theories that rely on divine compensation, combat the pain, and function as an opposing weight on his scale. Paradoxical words, opposing emotive energies and balance are the new patterns which Kerouac uses in his stream-of-consciousness.

Kerouac is often seen as an improviser, but even they who pull art from the air in improvisation work from patterns. These patterns give an artist order and control in what seems to be random, chaotic, improvised expression. In “Revision, Prevision, and the Aura of Improvisatory Art,” David Sterrit notes how “extemporaneous creation is tempered in practice by realities of repetition” (171). Kerouac’s patterns in small, descriptive phrases reflect the emotional patterns in large passages and the intersecting “realities of repetition” that exist on, and outside, the page. The patterns of sadness and corrosion begin with the narrator’s initial description of the Mexico he sees around him. He travels through “the whore street district,” the “poor district of Rome” (9). Tristessa’s home is a “tenement cell-house” with “dripping faucets and pails” and “rain still falling from the leaves and boards that served as the kitchen roof” (9).  It is full of “chicken garbage” with wild animals sitting in their own filth, like the “little pink cat taking a little pee on piles of okra and chickenfeed” (9). The room is “ransacked as by madmen,” and the writer cannot adequately explain “the awfulness of that gloom in the holes in the ceiling” (12). From the streets to Tristessa’s tenement, Kerouac begins to lay out the indefatigable power of corrosion that will drive his story and function as a giant weight on one end of his scale.

During this impressionistic tour of Mexico, the writer introduces Tristessa as a walking paradox of sorts, a figure of beauty and corrosion, piety and sadness, a tortured angel. She is “high, beautiful as ever, goin home gayly to go to bed and enjoy her morphine,” yet her first words are “I am seek (7, 8).” In his first physical descriptions of her, Kerouac writes, “gorgeous ripples of pear shape her skin to her cheekbones, and long sad eyelids, and Virgin Mary resignation” (8). In this one description the reader finds the three key elements that shape his complex vision of Tristessa and what she represents: sexual beauty, sadness, and religious devotion. These elements are projected onto her throughout the story in descriptive patterns.

Descriptions of Tristessa contain paradoxes, disharmony, words and images that sit in direct opposition. She is a “sad mutilated blue Madonna,” and a “bundle of death and beauty,” whose face is “so expressive of the pain and loveliness that went no doubt into the making of this fatal world” (73, 52). In “We’re On the Road to Nowhere: Steinbeck, Kerouac, and the Legacy of the Great Depression,” Jason Spangler submits that the “melancholic mixture of possibility and disenchantment” in Kerouac’s work originated in the author’s childhood (310). The humbling forces of the Great Depression, and a catastrophic flood in his hometown Lowell, Massachusetts paved the way for these conflicting “realities of repetition” in Tristessa. As she simultaneously embodies the highest and the lowest, the corroded and the pure, as a tortured angel junky Tristessa seems a fitting subject for a meditation on the disharmony Kerouac sees in the human experience.

Kerouac’s descriptive patterns reflect his Buddhist understanding of illusion in the physical world: “everything is nothing” (32). This understanding is amplified in unforgiving paradoxes like “born to die BORN TO DIE I could write it on the wall and on Walls all over America …beautiful to be ugly…glad to be sad” and “living but to die, here we wait on this shelf” (32,42). Gregory Stephenson also notices these patterns and narrative tendencies in Tristessa. He finds that the phrases and passages in physical and emotive conflict with each other “represent both a microcosm of the dichotomies and contradictions of existence and a projection of [Jack’] inner conflicts” and they are all “emblematic of the irreconcilable duality of the world, its disunity and its disharmony” (Stephenson 34-5). The larger disharmony seems a more important subject than Tristessa’s specific disharmony; the narrator sees a world of Tristessas. But he can be the cause of Tristessa’s transcendence, and his own, through testifying to her holiness and the holiness of all.

The narrator faces the “irreconcilable duality” of the physical world, its paradoxes. He concludes that all the dualities, paradoxes and binaries are but mental fictions, illusions. His patterns of disharmony, his consistent emphasis on poverty, sadness, corrosion, contradiction, are balanced out by his use of spiritual conclusions. These conclusions appear often in prayers of lament: “Ah Above, what you doin with your children?…your stolen children you stole from your mind to think a thought because you were bored or you were Mind” (88). In his last thoughts the narrator writes “O movie – A movie by God…this is my part of the movie, let’s hear yours” (96). These conclusions function throughout the story as rifts that separate torrents of sad images, and they function as strategically placed punctuation marks. The first punctuation mark comes after setting up Tristessa’s home, addiction and sickness:


It’s gloom as unpredicted on this earth, I realize all the uncountable manifestations the thinking-mind invents to place wall of horror before the pure perfect realization that there is no wall and no horror just Transcendental Empty Kissable Milk Light of Everlasting Eternity’s true and perfectly empty nature (16).


This kind of verbal mathematics exists throughout the story. Tristessa’s pain, and Kerouac’s pain as witness, is inevitably neutralized through conclusions that seek to add holy illumination to a wretched mortal darkness, to qualify an organizing principle. In this moment, like many others, Kerouac leans on the infinite and absolute in his language, “uncountable manifestations” and “Everlasting Eternity,” the stillness of it all having a “perfectly empty nature.” Once these kind of moments begin repeating themselves, the reader can see them as another refrain, an always-applicable chorus to drown out the patterns of the saddest tune in all the world. Immediately, Kerouac begins arranging new images of sadness: a “dead dog in the gutter,” followed by “beggars on the sidewalk with no hats looking at you helplessly,” and a little girl next door “praying little woeful squeals enough to make a father’s heart break” (17). These knots are untangled in a similar manner. Absolute language amplifies the narrator’s spiritual conviction and his belief in a calibrated balance “that recompenses all that pain with soft reward of perfect silent love” (33).

This pattern continues as Tristessa’s woe becomes larger, and more specific. The narrator becomes increasingly reliant on his own vision of God, Buddhism, and the absolute language necessary to qualify them:


It makes me cry to realize Tristessa has never had a child and probably never will because of her morphine sickness (a sickness that goes on as long as the need and feeds off the need and fills in the need simultaneously, so that she moans from pain all day and the pain is real, like abscesses in the shoulder and neuralgia down the side of the head and in 1952 just before Christmas she was supposed to be dying) holy Tristessa will not be cause of further rebirth and will go straight to her God and He will recompense her multibillionfold in aeons and aeons of dead Karma time (22-3). 


This burst of writing builds again upon woeful images, but with a familiar formula. The facts of her life get worse and worse. The emotional content increases and increases, as does the need for absolute, conclusive theory. First Kerouac presents the image of Woman without Child, an image that is a result of an incapability. Tristessa has been denied a feminine function and instead must carry out a unisexual function of sadness. The morphine has replaced her sexual inclinations and her desire to procreate. Next, her incapability is placed into a circle of futility, evoking the ouroboros snake eating its tail to represent the cyclic prison of her drug addiction. Then comes an image of physical corrosion with Tristessa, beautiful and young, defaced by the drugs that control her. Finally an image of Tristessa dying on Christmas, an image of sadness gaining emotive power from the mention of religious celebration and thoughts of a suffering Christ. As is the rhythm of Tristessa, these images are neutralized by a final image of God, heaven, balance. Tristessa is rewarded, removed from the cycle of reincarnation. His attempt to sanctify Tristessa’s world is part of Kerouac’s balancing act as he considers a shared world and weaves images of mortal collapse with images of divine construction.

Kerouac scholar Robert Hipkiss writes that the narrator’s goal is to “minister to Tristessa’s condition with a dose of innocent faith,” though she is given much more than a dose (Hipkiss 7). Similarly, Benedict Giamo submits that Kerouac’s “compassionate response to [Tristessa] causes him to sanctify her world from the profane perspectives of abject poverty, drug addiction and junk-sickness-unto-death” (Giamo, 2000 104). This compassionate response is more evidence for Giamo that Kerouac’s writing became more complicated and more significant as he became more spiritually driven to write. This is the part of Kerouac’s catalogue that should invite more critical attention. His attempt to sanctify Tristessa’s world is part of his balancing act as Kerouac considers a shared world and weaves images of mortal collapse with images of divine construction.

This particular divine construction, that of Tristessa being rewarded for her pain and suffering with “dead Karma time,” comes from Kerouac’s own vision of the Buddhist idea of karma, the highest balance. Often credited with bringing Buddhism to the West, Geshe Kelsang Gyatso defines karma in these terms: “Every action we perform leaves an imprint, or potential, on our very subtle mind, and each karmic potential eventually gives rise to its own effect” (Gyatso 9). But Kerouac seems to think that each one of Tristessa’s actions and trials leaves an imprint directly on “her God.” In Kerouac’s interpretation of karma, Tristessa is not being rewarded for exhibiting positive action but for being so inundated with negative experience. The spiritual theories he imports are adjusted to fit into, or complement, his Catholic foundation.

In a scene where Tristessa runs out of morphine, she points to the sky and compliments Kerouac’s karmic theories. ‘So I geev every-things I have to my friend, and eef he doam pay me back…my Lord pay me back…More’” with Kerouac adding “as the spirit swims around the room I can tell the effective mournful horror of it (her reward is so thin) now I see radiating from the crown of her head innumerable hands that have come from all ten quarters of the Universe to bless her.” He concludes “her Enlightenment is perfect” (57). He also envisions a universal understanding of karma as he watches young Mexican baseball players, writing how “they wonder ‘Did I make a bad play in the fifth inning? Didn’t I make it up with that heet in the seventh inning?’” (43). Even Old Bull Gaines, a minor character who passes like a ghost, must find a delicate balance of chemicals to get to sleep, mixing morphine, codeine, coffee and cigarettes to find the Nirvana of sleep (48). Each separate element in the story challenges the author to find a place for it in a balance. Kerouac even balances an active, present tense narrative in the first half of the story with a reflective, past tense narrative in the second.

Indeed the most noticeable element in Tristessa is religion, its spiritual intent, its attempt to speak with a religious voice. The narrator lays out a complicated multi-religious network and ornaments Tristessa, her friends, her country, even the animals in her home, with Catholic and Buddhist symbols and sentiment. Kerouac’s mystic and reclusive nature provided him with years of solitude to practice Buddhist meditation and prayer. He withdrew from society. Tristessa is a product of that solitude, that mixture of spiritual introspection and detachment.

Kerouac weaves his Catholic upbringing and the ubiquitous Catholic imagery in Mexico into his new interest in Buddhist theory; he balances the imagery, precepts and metaphysical theories of these two religions, mixes them with his own unique language play and American poetics, and projects them onto subjects and objects as he writes. Though many of the narrator’s conclusions draw from Buddhist theory, he never wholly commits to Buddhism as an exclusive, superior means for understanding mortal trial. Benedict Giamo sees a tremendous value in Kerouac’s religious pluralism. He writes that after Kerouac’s “long and passionate engagement with Catholicism and Buddhism-amid a post-Nietzschean world spun out of divine orbit” he began ”craving for belief and devotion to affirmative conceptions of the sacred in human life” (Giamo, 2003 202). As Americans transitioned from their introduction to apocalyptic military power in World War II to the fear and confusion of the Cold War, Kerouac’s “affirmative conceptions of the sacred in human life” became all the more significant for his readership. He did not simply advocate intellectual resistance to mass American culture, he advocated the heavens when God seemed to be dead, or like Tristessa’s white dove (“God the Dove”), sitting “in nest ever contemplating the entire scene forever without comment” (25). Giamo also ranks Kerouac’s expression of Buddhism “among the most innovative evocations and energetic expositions of traditional Eastern belief in modern American literature” (Giamo, 2003 174).

Later in his life, when an interviewer asked Kerouac what the difference was between Jesus and Buddha, he answered “There is no difference” (Berrigan 68). While Kerouac isolates a pattern of sadness, and offers a thematic pattern in prayer, he ends up emphasizing what Giamo calls “the direct subjective experience of the divine as a living reality.” The reader can “pivot freely between the living Christ and the living Buddha, for each…manifests an imminent holiness in humankind” (Giamo, 2000 112). The narrator sees the names, the weight of each figure in religious history, as one name, one weight, and the emotive power in his language comes directly from the force of religious energies combined, the force of a writer who is writing of his faith, his private spiritual theories.

In Tristessa Kerouac advocates a Buddhist approach to his American readers, and while documenting his experiences with that approach he rejects the American sociocultural norm.  This rejection is also a pattern in Kerouac’s catalogue, as it is in other Beat Generation texts. Kerouac writes of the inner world, what could potentially happen inside that world. His commitment to self-exploration, self-cultivation and widening his own spiritual capacity anticipates the tremendous interest Americans have in Buddhism, yoga, acupuncture, imported wisdom. Allen Johnson writes of the significance of the Beat Generation authors in terms of the effects their resistance to typical American spirituality and ambition had on both the intrinsic and social consciousness of their readers. “The Beat rejection of consumerist aspirations and the existing economic order helped open the way for a critical perspective on modernity that still influences those who feel alienated from the dominant culture” (Johnson 122). The monkish and contemplative lifestyle Kerouac describes in his books offered an alternative, and therein lies the social significance of the Beat Generation. Due to critical emphasis upon On the Road, the scope of that social significance and intellectual resistance has been limited to wanderlust, drugs, jazz and hip language. The Beat writers moved away from the sensory pleasures found in On the Road; their critics did not.

Johnson sees writers like Kerouac giving his readers permission, through their writing, to look for a new angle. Similarly, Stephen Prothero contends “the Beats were spiritual protesters as well as literary innovators” (208). He believes this should make them more significant in conversations outside the literary sphere. He argues that the critical world should pay more attention to the curiously sustainable writers and poets of the Beat Generation and their contributions to the spiritual atmosphere of succeeding generations. Kerouac and the Beats “responded to the challenge of religious pluralism by conjuring out of inherited and imported materials a wholly new religious vision” (Prothero 220). Like the transcendentalists, who have solidified a place for themselves in American religious history, Kerouac made “contact with the sacred on the nonverbal, transconceptual level of intuition and feeling” and then transmitted what he found into his writing (Prothero 220). For this he, and other beat generation authors, should be included in discussions about American religious history. Their work helped to bring Buddhism into American intellectual and theological discussion, and contributed to the widening of a country’s religious landscape. This is not a common angle for literary criticism on Jack Kerouac, because to consider his application of spiritual theory would require a consideration of how his aesthetic developed over many years and projects.

Kerouac never turned his back on Catholicism. In Tristessa he places it right beside Buddhism to show them as flowers from the same stem, as two dogmatic systems that can synthesize the same world, the same ephemeral and convincing illusion, in similar ways. Kerouac writes “the Buddhas and the Virgin Marys are there reminding me of the solemn pledge of faith in this harsh and stupid earth” (16). The narrator swears “on the Bible on God on Buddha” (71). After lighting a cigarette with one of Tristessa’s prayer candles, he makes “a little French prayer: ‘Excuse mue ma ‘Dame’ – making emphasis on Dame because of Damema the Mother of Buddhas” (30). When watching moments of religious ritual, be it Tristessa praying for morphine or lighting a candle, he is quick to blur the line between East and West. “The Virgin Mary has a candle, a bunch of glass-fulla-wax economical burners that go for weeks on end, like Tibetan prayer-wheels” (11). A Catholic image is, more often than not, immediately followed with a Buddhist image. While briefly considering Tristessa as a sexual partner, a lover, a third wife, Kerouac finds her “lodged in the Virgin Mary, and her love of wish-for-me,” which “makes her as mysterious as the Tathagata whose form is described as being…as inscrutable as the direction in which a put-out fire has gone” (54). Tristessa is sexually unattainable, which the narrator romantically equates to holiness and purity. The writer then makes another quick association to Buddha essence, the Tathagata. Kerouac does not disregard his childhood religion, does not simply replace it with his current Buddhist interests, but incorporates it into the story with balance, seemingly matching image for image, symbol for symbol, god for god.

Religious balance is also seen in the way Kerouac expands the idea of sentience to bring into the narrative the animals in Tristessa’s home: a hen, a rooster, a dog, a cat, and a dove. Kerouac ornaments the human characters, Tristessa, her sister Cruz, their friend El Indio, with Catholic images. This human Catholicism is balanced by animal Buddhism. Kerouac projects onto each animal some kind of Buddhist nature, allowing the animals to participate in dialogue, and meditate on metaphysical subjects with superior understanding. The cat is “meditating among our mad endeavors like the Dove above” (29). He says, in Spanish, “Your cat is having golden thoughts,” assuming that as the cat is observing the filthy apartment, the daily drinking and morphine sicknesses, she understands everything completely, and knows all is still well (30). The dog has her own “reflections on the subject of Nirvana and death” (32). Kerouac also uses the dog to serve as an example of the trappings of impure thoughts. The dog howls in pain.  “Tristessa says she’s in heat and that’s why she cries” (13). The hen “walks around the golden kitchen of Time in huge Nirvana” (20). When pecked by its holy beak the narrator notes “what a gentle touch it is from Mother Maya,” and sympathetically calls the animal a “poor sentient being” (34,20). “God The Dove,” representing the silent organizing principle, is resting “in nest, ever contemplating the entire scene forever without comment” (25). The Buddhist animals, the Catholic angels and saints, the narrator’s own dogmatic amalgam, “it’s all taking place in one vast mind” (35). Expanded sentience works to balance Catholicism with Buddhist image and sentiment, and to reaffirm that all is well. In a way the narrator tries to prove that everyone, and everything, is practicing some kind of Buddhism, and they all know it without knowing it.

Though the thematic energies in Tristessa are balanced, and the language more elegant than in his previous works, the reader can still see traces of Kerouac’s old habits, residue from his psychological experience with The Subterraneans. When the narrator begins to wonder what Tristessa is thinking, worried she will judge him for the way he spends his money, he stops himself before the writing becomes overly self-conscious, “no time to think,” and continues on without incident (9). Aware of the trappings of sexuality, pleasure-seeking, powerful moments where the mind is controlled by the body, he writes of his experiment with chastity early in the story and how it will allow him to transcend the shallow flesh: “I have sworn off lust with women,- sworn off lust for lust’s sake,-sworn off sexuality and the inhibiting impulse- I want to enter the Holy Stream and be safe on my way to the other shore” (22). He understands the psychic boulders that could potentially dam the stream-of-consciousness. He understands that his neuroses will appear in his writing. By eliminating women and sex from his life, by eliminating the whole world of The Subterraneans, by moving away from its darkness, its sexual objectives, its ruinous cycle of sin and self-conscious reflection on sin, he can allow the stream to flow upward.

The line separating self-conscious participation and selfless observation can be seen more clearly as Kerouac reverts, in brief moments, back to his old self-conscious style. He becomes increasingly preoccupied with his own sexual feelings for Tristessa as the first section winds down; he begins to focus on himself, his place in the story. There is very little action in Tristessa. The narrator observes from the outside. Once he begins to think about participation, especially in the form of romantic pursuit, the content shifts abruptly, regresses back to the habits of neuroses-laden narrator Leo Percepied in The Subterraneans.


I don’t want to disgust Tristessa – It would horrify me to cause her ruinous fleshpetal tender secrets and have her wake up in the morning lodged against the back of some unwelcome man who loves by night and sleeps it off, and wakes up blearing to shave and by his very presence causes consternation where before there was absolute perfect purity of nobody (55).   


Jack finds so many moral flaws in his imagination when Tristessa resounds in his mind as an object of sexuality, and not a subject of sadness and religious devotion. The familiar self-loathing narrator returns in this moment. The balance begins to disappear as self-consciousness and thoughts of sexual conquest infiltrate the writing. He writes, “It’s all my own sin if I make a play for her,” for if he does make that play for her she would be nothing more than “a material witness to my murderous lust” (54). To curb his thoughts, to paint them as futile and empty gestures of the mind, he leans on the idea of Tristessa as a holy figure, a nun, a saint, an angel, a nonsexual idea that in its enlightenment floats above that kind of toil. “I play games with her fabulous eyes and she longs to be in a monastery” (58).

Tristessa’s second chapter finds Kerouac again returning to the Self, his personal trials, and thoughts of sexuality. This time he reiterates the Oedipus complex seen in The Subterraneans, and explicitly references his mother as he waves goodbye to unattainable and holy Tristessa: “I’ve screwed everything up with mama again, Oedipus Rex, I’ll tear out my eyes in the morning,” concluding that he is always “the positional son in woman and man relationships” (93). Perhaps this turn, or return, is inevitable in any of Kerouac’s works given that he is more often than not applying the self-conscious technique of the stream-of-consciousness, but the momentum gained by his observations in this text seems to disappear as the writer makes himself the subject at the end of each section. The fact that this happens so infrequently in Tristessa may be a testament to Kerouac’s Buddhist lens, as he tried in the middle of the 1950s, shortly before becoming a famous author, to place some distance between his spiritual experience and his physical experience.

Stylistically, and thematically, Tristessa was an achievement of Kerouac’s. It harmonizes the blurring melodies of the stream-of-consciousness style with long, overarching thematic drones. He created space for the drug-sick to have humanity and soul, though they struggle with the will in mortal skin. He welcomed imported spiritual wisdom during the peak of twentieth century American xenophobia. He concentrated his energies on compassion. Kerouac relied on his typing speed in The Subterraneans, and the result was engrossing and manic, but the story does not move far beyond the narrator’s ego. Tristessa, however, contains the same narrative energy, a signature of the stream-of-consciousness narrative energy, but it is ornamented with expansive thematic significance, and a thoughtfulness, for which the author should be known.




Jack Kerouac’s writing is a reflection of the maddening times he lived in, of the changing American realities in the twentieth century. He turned to the stream-of-consciousness, while turning away from ordinary American life and writing conventions. He retreaded inward, behind the eyes, and ensconced himself in the inner world because the external world was threatening, unsatisfactory, controlled. He discovered his own unique literary form; once he focused on the spiritual world, he successfully integrated significant content and profound insight into that form in works like Tristessa, Big Sur, and Visions of Gerard.

On the Road was published at the right time to speak for a collective unconscious, to guide a countercultural movement, but generations later we can see that timing also hid Kerouac’s post-road work in a haze of negative criticism and tunnel-vision emphasis on one lonely text. On the Road is well-written; Dean is a beautiful character. It is a period piece, he a timeless eccentric. Today people still reach for something when they read it, something that is gone.

While timing made Kerouac famous, it also made him simple. There was pressure placed upon him to embody the “beat generation.” All the positive and negative energies of this movement were projected onto him, and onto his famous travel novel. Six years after writing the novel—having become a spiritually driven prose poet, a quiet Buddhist wanderer, a prolific author with a style entirely his own—Kerouac was forced back into the skin he had shed. He was often asked to justify On the Road, qualify “his generation;” he was never taken seriously as an author, but was dismissed as some kind of spokesman for a small percentage of the American youth.

He is rarely allowed in the classroom; in the sphere of literary criticism he is rarely allowed his many dimensions, or his genius. He resounds as a simplified sociocultural figure, an icon, and not as an important American author.  Jack Kerouac, writer of the inner world in the twentieth century, rich with psychological and spiritual layers, a writer who harnessed the musical texture of language, who saw the synergy of poetry, prose and sonic melody. There is much to learn from his work. So many roads to take with him as a guide. So many roads, if only we get off the beaten path, the road often traveled that cuts across a flat earth, leave it and be heavengoing.


Works Cited


Berrigan, Ted. “The Art of Fiction: Jack Kerouac” Conversations with Jack Kerouac Ed.   Kevin J. Hayes, Jackson: UP of Mississippi, 2005. 51-81.

Giamo, Benedict. Kerouac, the Word and the Way: Prose Artist as Spiritual Quester, Carbondale:   Southern Illinois UP, 2000.

————.“Enlightened Attachment: Kerouac’s Impermanent Buddhist Trek.” R&L 35:2 (2003).    173-205.

Gyatso, Geshe Kelsang. Eight Steps to Happiness: The Buddhist Way of Loving Kindness, Glen       Spey: Tharpa Publications, 2000.

Hipkiss, Robert A.. Jack Kerouac: Prophet of the New Romanticism, Lawrence: Regents Press       of Kansas, 1976.

Johnson, Allen. “Consumption, Addiction, Vision, Energy, Political Economies and Utopian          Visions in the Writings of the Beat Generation” College Literature 32:2 (Spring 2005)    103-126.

Kerouac, Jack. Tristessa, New York: Penguin, 1992.

Prothero, Stephen. “On the Holy Road: The Beat Movement as Spiritual Protest.” HTR 84:2           (1991) 205-22.

Spangler, Jason. “We’re on the Road to Nowhere: Steinbeck, Kerouac, and the Legacy of the         Great Depression.” Studies in the Novel, 40: 3 (Fall 2008) 308-27.


Stephenson, Gregory. The Daybreak Boys: Essays on the Literature of the Beat Generation,            Carbondale: Southern Illinois UP, 1990,

Sterritt, David. “Revision, Prevision, and the Aura of Improvisatory Art.” The Journal of   Aesthetics and Art Criticism, 58:2 (Spring, 2000) 163-72.