The Beats as we know them are a New York City phenomena and walk hand in hand with Abstract Expressionism as one of the great defining moments of art in the second half of the 20th century. Just like Jackson Pollock and William DeKooning were all about reinterpreting what painting meant, so the Beats were trying to redefine linguistics in a way that made poetry and prose contemporary, or at least brought it up to date from the days of the Lost Generation, who expatriated to Paris after World War I. The Beats were the fallout of the existential crisis brought on by the nuclear bomb, and a seminal Beat poem by Gregory Corso called “Bomb” appeared on the page in the form of a mushroom cloud. The Beats were interested in writing from their wits and believed the concept of “first thought was the best thought,” even though they may not have lived by this credo it was a defining trait of their aesthetic stance. It was similar to an Abstract Expressionist looking for a perfect stroke on the canvas that somehow said everything about an internally troubled excited knowable state, even if he/she worked on the painting for weeks, months, or years. The goal of both movements, along with Be-Bop, was to express a moment of feeling without being restricted in time, even if this took years of practice. It might seem a quaint idea from a 2015 perspective but art was very tied to rules when the Beats wrote to the rhythm of their breath, or to the sounds of Charlie Parker’s alto sax, and it was a revolutionary act that scared a lot of critics and aesthetes into thinking the Beats were turning back the clock on poetry and were like modern day Neanderthals rather than the greatest minds of their generation. Yet that’s an image they would’ve been proud of in their inner circle, just like the Abstract Expressionists wanted to get back to primal thinking. The Beats were audacious but demanded to be taken seriously, which is probably why they earned the moniker of angry young men. Continue Reading…
Archives For Gary Snyder
October 7th, 1955, was arguably one of the most important dates in American literature. On that date, in a “run down second rate experimental art gallery” (a former auto repair shop) in San Francisco, in a room crowded with a hundred young men and women, Allen Ginsberg read for the first time an early draft of his poem, “Howl.” Among the bohemian audience was the poem’s future publisher, Lawrence Ferlinghetti, who immediately recognized its potential, and requested the manuscript. “Howl” would go on to become the most important poem of the late-twentieth century and, alongside T.S. Eliot’s “The Wasteland,” perhaps the most important of the entire century. It would challenge America’s censorship laws, inspire unprecedented cultural and social change, and give the country its most recognizable and influential poet since Walt Whitman. Continue Reading…
On Dave Moore’s wonderful Beat Generation Facebook group – a partner to the very active Jack Kerouac group – there is at present a thread discussing the following cover for Jack Kerouac’s classic, The Dharma Bums.
(The discussion actually revolves around the front cover and not the whole jacket as featured above.)
The person who originally posted the cover remarked that it was the, “Worst cover ever!” and questioned whether or not the cartoony style made the reader expect a graphic novel rather than a modern literary classic.
While some people defended the cover or at least suggested that it was not all that awful, many commenters showed their disapproval. It was described as “truly ugly,” “unspeakably ugly,” “juvenile,” and a few people took issue with the fact that Kerouac is depicted as a dog.
Putting aside the inside flaps, which contain a bizarre comic strip (based upon dialogue from within the book), I must say that I take an opposing view to most of the people in the thread. I rather like the cover. For a start, the colours are pleasant. The simple orange and black appeal to me, seem to reflect the melancholy under-riding the book, and also are a nod to its publisher, Penguin, of whose Classics series this is a part. Moreover, Kerouac frequently describes the sun, and in particular the sunrise, as well as the fire and rocks of his mountain camp, as orange. He also drinks orange juice, eats oranges, eats on orange crates, and Japhy Ryder keeps his Buddhism books on shelves made of orange crates. Towards the end of the book, discussing what is and isn’t real, Kerouac argues with his family over the validity of an orange. Does it exist as we perceive it?
I’ll admit that the image of Kerouac as a cartoon dog is unusual and did catch me a bit off guard. The edition I own features a tramp-like man and the woman by his side. It adheres more to the hobo-beat vibe that pitched the book at a certain demographic in the footloose, hitch-hiking sixties.
So why depict Kerouac as a cartoon dog? Maybe it’s again a matter of sales and demographics – Penguin Classics wants to grab readers of a certain age who are perhaps more interested in comic books or graphic novels. While the old debate about judging a book by its cover tells us that the content is more important, we can never forget that first you have to grab the reader’s attention. And if a cover endears a new generation of readers, what’s the harm? The old guard might complain, but they’re hardly going to give up on Kerouac because of one cover…
When we think of Kerouac, we’re more likely to think of cats. Not just because Kerouac, like so many other writers, including his friend William S. Burroughs, was a cat person, who wrote about and was photographed with his cats, but because in Beat parlance, he was a cat. A cool cat, a hep cat, etc. Indeed, in The Dharma Bums, Kerouac both references actual cats that he owned, and also refers to Gary Snyder’s character, Japhy, as a cat: “Japhy I gotta hand it to you, you’re the happiest little cat in the world.”
It is less frequent in Kerouac’s novels to see references to dogs, either as animals or a description for a person. They are sometimes viewed negatively. In On the Road, for example, dogs are barking at Kerouac and trying to bite him. Yet, in The Dharma Bums, there are more references to dogs than cats, and they are viewed as overwhelmingly positive. Even when these references are seemingly innocuous they are connected to the spiritual and religious ideas Kerouac had at the time. As the book advances, dogs become undeniably important to Kerouac’s personal journey.
About halfway into the book Kerouac describes a conversation between him and Gary Snyder, wherein Snyder asks “What would you say if someone was asked the question, ‘Does a dog have a Buddha nature?’ and said ‘Woof!'”Kerouac claims that this is part of Zen Buddhism, which is “silly” and concerned with verbal games rather than serious religious thought. Although he is dismissive of Zen Buddhism, Kerouac is tying the dog into the discussion and connecting it, as representative of the animal kingdom, to the Buddha. Until this point dogs had existed largely as a backdrop – their barks as the soundtrack to serene nights and meditation.
Later, we are introduced to “Bob, a big bird dog,” in a scene of pure serenity, where Kerouac’s character comes as close to nirvana (the word on his sign on the book’s cover) as he ever would:
After they’d gone to bed I put on my jacket and my earmuff cap and railroad gloves and over all that my nylon poncho and strode out in the cottonfield moonlight like a shroudy monk. The ground was covered with moonlit frost. The old cemetery down the road gleamed in the frost. The roofs of nearby farmhouses were like white panels of snow. I went through the cottonfield rows followed by Bob, a big bird dog, and little Sandy who belonged to the Joyners down the road, and a few other stray dogs (all dogs love me) and came to the edge of the forest. In there, the previous spring, I’d worn out a little path going to meditate under a favorite baby pine. The path was still there. My official entrance to the forest was still there, this being two evenly spaced young pines making kind of gate posts. I always bowed there and clasped my hands and thanked Avalokitesvara for the privilege of the wood. Then I went in, led moonwhite Bob direct to my pine, where my old bed of straw was still at the foot of the tree. I arranged my cape and legs and sat to meditate.
The dogs meditated on their paws. We were all absolutely quiet. The entire moony countryside was frosty silent, not even the little tick of rabbits or coons anywhere. An absolute cold blessed silence. Maybe a dog barking five miles away toward Sandy Cross. Just the faintest, faintest sound of trucks rolling out the night on 301, about twelve miles away, and of course the distant occasional Diesel baugh of the Atlantic Coast Line passenger and freight trains going north and south to New York and Florida. A blessed night. I immediately fell into a blank thoughtless trance wherein it was again revealed to me “This thinking has stopped” and I sighed because I didn’t have to think any more and felt my whole body sink into a blessedness surely to be believed, completely relaxed and at peace with all the ephemeral world of dream and dreamer and the dreaming itself.
He we see Kerouac at his happiest and most content. He has achieved peace, or “blessedness.” And he is surrounded by dogs. “All dogs love me,” he claims, as they follow him. Then, as he meditates, so do they. “The dogs meditated on their paws,” he claims. As all thought is lost, he is aware only of sounds in the distance – one of which is a dog barking. His entire religious experience, here, is tied to the presence and existence of these animals.
He goes on to give one of the best known quotes from this novel when he says, “One man practicing kindness in the wilderness is worth all the temples this world pulls,” while petting Bob, and seems to relate this action as the aforementioned act of kindness. He observes that, when considering the concepts of Buddhism, he is no different from the dogs that sit around him as he meditates, saying, “All living and dying things like these dogs and me coming and going without any duration or self substance…” The dogs are clearly inextricably linked to his spiritual discoveries.
The dogs appear in the novel when Kerouac is happy or making some sort of discovery. Bob, a bright white dog, at one stage literally leads Kerouac down a “dark path.” The imagery there is hardly subtle. The dogs are leading or accompanying Kerouac on his personal journey. This means that dogs have acted as both his followers and his guides. Towards the end of the book, when spring comes and he is thinking less about philosophy and learning to enjoy simply existing, is is again surrounded by “happy dogs,” who are “yawning and almost swallowing [his] Dharma.” Along with the usual spring imagery of budding flowers, the dogs are ever present for his own reawakening. As he enjoys the feeling of “ecstasy of the endless truebody” (his enlightenment) he “consorted only with dogs and cats.” He has achieved total happiness at this stage and it is clear he views the dogs as an essential component of its attainment.
Sunday afternoon, then, I’d go to my woods with the dogs and sit and put out my hands palms up and accept handfuls of sun boiling over the palms. “Nirvana is the moving paw,” I’d say, seeing the first thing I saw as I opened my eyes from meditation, that being Bob’s paw moving in the grass as he dreamed.
Kerouac’s ecstasy is short-lived, however, as his family – who are largely disturbed by his happiness – want Bob chained up. His brother-in-law explains that the dog is simply too expensive to have its freedom. It should remain chained up in the back yard, lest he lose money. The symbolism here is obvious: freedom and happiness are all well and good, but the cold reality of life means that we are shackled and denied our natural state of being. At this point in the book, Kerouac’s family are trying to get him to give up his Buddhism and come back to his regular life. Indeed, in reality Kerouac was convinced to return from his Buddhist wanderings and live in the reality unto which he was born – living with his mother until his early death.
Kerouac returns to the woods to muse this situation, and finds shame in having pride in his kindness to animals. He comes to his next great realization – everything is “empty” and does not exist as perceived. “My pain was in getting rid of the conception of people and dogs anyway, and of myself.”
Throughout the book, dogs are symbolic for Kerouac. They have followed him, guided him, and surrounded him during his quest for enlightenment and understand. They are inseparable from his spiritual discoveries, and represent his adventure beyond simply a man with a backpack. So why not have him represented as a dog on the book’s cover? If Kerouac eventually realizes that “the conception of people and dogs” is false, why not swap a human for a dog? It seems to me that in The Dharma Bums Kerouac was going beyond the physical in search of a greater truth. If the orange that his brother-in-law presented did not exist, and nothing existed, then surely a dog is as valid a representation of the story as a man.
From Beatdom #15 – Available now on Amazon as a print and Kindle publication:
The Beat Generation is often viewed as apolitical, apathetic, selfish, and borne out of the post-WWII era of prosperity. They are viewed as rich kids who chose a bohemian lifestyle as a matter of fashion, as part of a teenage rebellion that went on too long, and inspired too many imitators, and eventually morphing into the beatniks and hippies of the fifties and sixties. Getting to the heart of the Beat ethos isn’t easy, as this is a literary grouping of rather different individuals, over a long period of time, with entirely different philosophies and styles relating to their art. That “post-WWII era” label, then, is important in defining them. If we must group them together, we can define them by opposition to the oppressive society in which they lived. They supported sexual freedom, opposed big government, and pondered to what extent madness was a path to genius.
The Beats are never viewed as coming out of World War II. They are the next generation, the post-war generation. For them it was all supposedly history, or at the very least so far removed from their own existences that it may as well have happened on Mars. Never mind that the core of the Beat group – Jack Kerouac, Allen Ginsberg, and William S. Burroughs – met during the war. Never mind that they all lived through it, that most of them had served to some extent in their nation’s military, that they had opinions and experiences, and that perhaps it was more important in their lives than they would admit. Unlike previous generations, the Beats never had a great war novel and never spoke passionately in favor of their country’s interests.
To be fair, they seldom addressed it in their literature. I asked Noah Cicero, author of The Human War, in an interview last year, what he thought defined the Beat Generation and, interestingly, he was quick to define them by their lack of interest in WWII:
All of my grandparents and their friends were born in the 1920s and what I noticed from personal experience is that …WW2 was very important in defining their mental attitudes about life. The war always seemed to define them – like their lives were pre- and post-war. You couldn’t talk about my neighbor without mentioning that he had shrapnel in him from WW2. Other writers from their generation all had famous war books: Norman Mailer, Saul Bellow, Joseph Heller, James Jones, Richard Yates, and even Kurt Vonnegut. Even John Rawls, who was the most influential philosopher of their generation, had fought in the war. But the Beats had not gone to war and they had not even considered it worth mentioning in their writing.
The Beats weren’t about the past; they wanted to define the future. To them the war was this dumb foolish thing humans had done to each other, and it had no real reason; maybe just some grumbling out of the darkness of our souls. But the future had come, the war was over, and it was time to look to the future. How do we make a world that doesn’t have giant wars and holocausts? That was their concern, making a new world.
The suggestion that the Beats had not gone to war isn’t actually true. Kerouac, Ginsberg, Carl Solomon, Gary Snyder, Herbert Huncke, and Bob Kaufman all served in the Merchant Marine, which although is not a fighting unit, certainly made a massive and dangerous contribution to the war effort. Burroughs, who was older than the others, attempted to join the air force, obtained seaman’s papers, and eventually got stuck in the army. Later, Peter Orlovsky (Ginsberg’s long-time partner) served in the Korean War. It’s true that they didn’t get shot at in the trenches of Europe or fight for an island in the Pacific, but they lived through the war, they served their country, and they decided, to paraphrase Cicero that “war sucks.”
Later, the Beats would become somewhat associated with the anti-war movement, but this was much further down the line, when it was even harder to define what exactly “Beat” meant. By the time the Vietnam War was being protested, it was twenty years since they were hanging around Columbia University, talking about the New Vision, and they were scattered around the world, involved in the murky business of literary fame, and associating with new movements. Ginsberg was leading the transformation of youth from beatnik to hippie, while Burroughs was fighting his own personal wars and trying to rile up the youth in order to fight the Control Systems. Meanwhile, Kerouac was busy drinking himself to death, muttering about the Vietnamese ploy to lure quality American jeeps into their otherwise impoverished country.
So while it is difficult to define the Beats satisfactorily, most definitions seem to remove war from the context, sidelining it as an interest of one or two people, like Ginsberg or Corso, who only became politically interested in the years after the Beats ceased to exist as a literary or cultural movement, when the predominate countercultural force of the day was a more political and activist movement to which they aligned themselves partly to stay relevant. But perhaps it is time to examine just how the war shaped their lives and influenced their craft.
“Wars don’t advance mankind except materially”
In 1942 Jack Kerouac was twenty-two years old and feeling both the urge to serve his country and support his family. He enlisted in the U.S. Marine Corps and explained his feelings in a letter to a girlfriend:
For one thing, I wish to take part in the war, not because I want to kill anyone, but for a reason directly opposed to killing—the Brotherhood. To be with my American brother, for that matter, my Russian brothers; for their danger to be my danger; to speak to them quietly, perhaps at dawn, in Arctic mists; to know them, and for them to know myself. . . I want to return to college with a feeling that I am a brother of the earth, to know that I am not snug and smug in my little universe.
However, Kerouac very quickly had a change of heart and decided, instead, to sign up for the Merchant Marine. He had recently met a Merchant Mariner called George Murray, who had given Kerouac a copy of Coleridge’s Rime of the Ancient Mariner, and explained the pay and benefits that came of traveling the dangerous Atlantic waters. Before Kerouac had even shipped out, the German Navy had launched a devastating campaign against the Merchant Marine and their Navy escorts, attempting to stop the Allied forces from getting support to Western Europe. In his Kerouac: The Definitive Biography, Paul Maher Jr. called Kerouac “either brave or naïve” for enlisting, as the statistics for Merchant Mariners were grim.
Rather, it seems Kerouac’s motivation stemmed from his literary ambitions. He saw life at sea, or in war, as valid material for future writing projects. After signing up for the SS Dorchester, he lay in bed pondering his place among “the ancients” (perhaps a reference to the Coleridge poem) and concluded that he would “write and write and write about the Merchant Marine.” He determined that the experience would make him “a great writer… That is why I think I shall come back.” Carl Solomon, when later asked about why so many of the Beats joined the Merchant Marine, offered the more prosaic explanation that it was because of movies like Action in the North Atlantic, which romanticized the experience.
The SS Dorchester’s task was to depart in late July for Greenland, where it would deploy almost six hundred construction workers to support building work in Allied bases. For Kerouac, the choice of crew on board the ship was perfect. Like Burroughs’ Tangiers, it was an assortment of misfits destined to be immortalized in literature. There were “drunks, Indians, Polocks, Guineas, Kikes, Micks, Puddlejumpers (Frogs, me), Svedes, Norvegians, Krauts and all the knuckleheads including Mongolian idiots and Moro sabermen and Filipinos and anything you want in a most fantastic crew.” Kerouac labored away at scrubbing pots and pans from the kitchen that fed the entire crew, and at night he filled his journals with notes about the bizarre people around him.
His stint in the Merchant Marine lasted three months. At the offset of his journey he noted in the eyes of his fellow sailors the “flowers of death,” and when he returned to Boston he decided to go back to college. The SS Dorchester sank on its next voyage. Of the 751 people on board, only 229 survived, and Kerouac counted several friends among the dead. As an incredibly empathetic person, particularly sensitive to the suffering of his fellow man, it is hard to imagine how devastating this must have been for Kerouac, and it certainly informed his views on war.
After only a month back at Columbia he decided to enlist in the US Naval Reserve. He signed up one year and then one day after the Japanese bombing of Pearl Harbor, for a four year stint. However, once again it was the romance of the experience that drew him; the potential literary material he would gain. In November, he wrote, “I believe I want to go back to sea… for the money, for the leisure and study, for the heart-rending romance, and for the pith of the moment.”
But, despite his apparent enthusiasm for the sea, prior to basic training Kerouac requested a transfer to the aviation department. He tested well in most regards, but was rejected as he didn’t appear to grasp the mechanics of flying, and ended up in basic training. In Vanity of Duluoz, he recalled the experience:
I entrain to Boston to the US Naval Air Force place and they roll me around in a chair and ask me if I’m dizzy. “I’m not daffy,” says I. But they catch me on the altitude measurement shot. “If you’re flying at eighteen thousand feet and the altitude level is on the so and such, what would you do?”
“How the screw should I know?”
So I’m washed out of my college education and assigned to have my hair shaved with the boots at Newport.
Kerouac’s military experience was to prove a tremendous failure. After only ten days in boot camp, he was assessed as so unfit for the environment that he was relocated to a military hospital for further examination. The last straw had been when he theatrically threw down his gun and refused to handle something explicitly designed to kill human beings. His files (which are extensive, at 150 pages) show that he was considered “abnormal,” and that a “neuropsychiatric examination disclosed auditory hallucinations, ideas of reference and suicide, and a rambling, grandiose, philosophical manner.” He was labeled as suffering from schizophrenia and further hospitalized.
In Vanity he described the experience:
Well, I didn’t mind the eighteen-year-old kids too much but I did mind the idea that I should be disciplined to death, not to smoke before breakfast, not to do this, that, or thatta . . . and this other business of the admiral and his Friggin Train walking around telling us that the deck should be so clean that we could fry an egg on it, if it was hot enough, just killed me.
[A]nd having to walk guard at night during phony air raids over Newport RI and with fussy lieutenants who were dentists telling you to shut up when you complained they were hurting your teeth. . . .
They came and got me with nets. . . . “You’re going to the nut house.” “Okay.” [S]o they ambulance me to the nut hatch.
On June 10th, 1943, the Navy told Kerouac that he was to be discharged “for reasons of unsuitability rather than physical or mental disability, and on the 30th his duty was officially terminated.
During this period, Kerouac managed to finally put his experiences at sea into writing, in a novel which was only published in 2011, called The Sea is my Brother. Unimpressed by his work, he called it “a crock as literature,” and didn’t bother trying to find a publisher for it. The manuscript was 158 pages, which makes it only slightly longer than his medical files from his time in the Navy.
Despite his experiences, Kerouac was eager to return to the sea, and in August, 1944, he boarded the SS George Weems bound for Liverpool, England. At sea he read a great deal, and in England he got drunk and wrote tirelessly. He returned to New York in October, marking the end of his career in the Merchant Marine. His involvement in the war had amounted to some construction work on the Pentagon and two trips at sea.
During WWII Kerouac had been torn between his mother’s pro-war sentiment and his father’s opposing views. In the end, despite the hold his mother had over him, Kerouac remained fairly anti-war for the duration of WWII, and lamented the senseless killing of men and women. This set him apart in a patriotic country determined to win the war, where pacifism was a dirty word. During the Korean War he was also uncertain:
“I believe in the people of America but I can’t get patriotic about fighting in Korea because I don’t see why we went there in the first place.” He later explained in a letter to Stella Sampas that he was steadfastly anti-war. Talking of her brother – and Kerouac’s close friend – he wrote:
“Ah I wish Sammy had lived – what a great man he would have been – Wars don’t advance mankind except materially – The loss of people like Sammy… makes the earth bleed…”
Yet Kerouac would not entirely maintain this pacifist stance. By the 1960s he was embittered and falling more under the influence of his mother. He was embarrassed by his association with “beatniks” and hippies, and also his friend, Allen Ginsberg, who was an icon of the anti-war movement. Kerouac said he was full of “pro-Castro bullshit,” meaning that Ginsberg was a Communist, which Kerouac now hated. He also despised the unpatriotic hippie “rabble.”
Kerouac is often described as being in support of the Vietnam War, but this is not necessarily true. While his political views and general outlook had soured and toughened, he was still at heart a sensitive soul, even if he was confused and angry on the surface. In the midst of the Cold War, despite having adopted his mother’s insidious conservatism, Kerouac saw on TV a newsreel of Nikita Khrushchev visiting the United States, and felt a great compassion for the Soviet leader. Khrushchev, as part of the childish Cold War mind games was forced to stand on a baking runway in the sweaty Washington, D.C. summer heat, and Kerouac wrote “I demand justice for this man Khrushchev.” As his friend, John Clellon Holmes, commented, Kerouac may have had his political views, but at heart he simply could not stand to see a human being suffer like that. By this stage he was again set apart – a patriot in a country sick of war – but while he supported the United States and despised the Communists, he was appalled by the killing of both Americans and Vietnamese.
“At Hiroshima all was lost.”
William S. Burroughs was born in February, 1914, making him the only member of the Beat Generation to have lived through both World Wars. He graduated from Harvard in 1936 and his parents paid for him to travel Europe, where he stayed for a period as he studied medicine in Vienna. Here he enjoyed the homosexual bohemianism that was soon to be crushed by the expansion of Nazi Germany. As Hitler pushed forward, Burroughs married a Jewish woman called Ilse Herzfeld Klapper in order to help her escape persecution. His time in Europe may well have informed his later distrust of governments and laws as, James Grauerholz describes, “he never forgot that everything Hitler had done was legal.” In fact, Burroughs’ uncle, Ivy Lee, was the publicist Hitler had hired to improve his image and this also informed Burroughs’ distrust of language itself, knowing all too well the difference between words and reality.
In 1940, Burroughs was lost, with his personal life an absolute mess, facing legal problems, and in therapy. World War II was raging in Europe, and only a year later the United States would join after the Pearl Harbor attack in December, 1941. Burroughs decided to enlist, as part of an attempt to straighten out his life. He obtained a pilot’s license and flew hundreds of hours of practice, but he was rejected by the Navy, the Glider Corp, and the American Field Service. He was turned down by all of them on account of poor eyesight, flat-footedness, and all-round poor health. After this, he attempted to sign up for the pre-cursor to the CIA, the OSS. Again, he was turned down. Throughout his life, Burroughs found it hard to fit in.
In wanting to be a pilot or a spy, Burroughs was ultimately seeking adventure. He wanted what he saw in the books of his childhood – daring missions over enemy lands and behind enemy lines. “I would have been into that whole espionage thing,” he later explained. He was not exactly enamored by war or particularly keen to fight for his country, however. When asked what he thought about the war in later years, he replied, “Nothing,” and when the interviewer pushed as to whether he was caught up in patriotic fervor, he said, “No…”
When America did enter the war, Burroughs was unexpectedly drafted into the infantry at Jefferson Barracks, near St. Louis. Like Kerouac, he found basic training to be intolerable. The reality of fighting hand-to-hand or living in the trenches was not as exciting as being a pilot or spy. He felt that he belonged among the officers, and he asked his mother to intervene. Laura Lee Burroughs pulled a few strings and soon the army was aware of Burroughs’ colorful background and his mental health issues, and he was given an honorable discharge in September, 1942. He had been in the army since May.
In 1944, World War II came to an end as the United States dropped atomic bombs over Japanese cities, targeting civilians and threatening to continue along this route unless Japan surrendered. While the rest of the country celebrated victory, Burroughs was horrified by the loss of life. In his youth he had studied at Los Alamos in New Mexico, which was later taken over by the U.S. government and used in the development of the Manhattan Project. He also felt a connection by way of the Missouri-born president that had issued the order to drop the bombs. For Burroughs this act was about the most important moment in human history – a point of no return. He began to fantasize about the past, realizing that now he was living in an era dominated by nuclear hysteria. For Burroughs, nuclear weaponry was far worse than conventional bombs, and not just in terms of the number of potential dead. Allen Ginsberg paraphrases him:
the problem with the atom bomb is that its temperature is so high that it’s a “killer of souls.” So human beings have arrived at a situation where they can be the Killer of Souls.
However, Burroughs was not exactly known for his empathy. To him war was a matter of practicality, and he showed little emotion when discussing it. He had strong ideas and ideals, but he didn’t seem to equate the suffering of others to the immense internal suffering he felt from the tragedies and troubles in his own life. Even in his disdain for the atomic bomb he was frighteningly practical. In 1961, he told Allen Ginsberg and Gregory Corso:
In the event of atomic war there is a tremendous biological advantage in the so-called undeveloped areas that have a high birth rate and high death rate because, man, they can plow under those mutations. The country with a low birth rate and low death rate will be hardest hit — and so the poor may indeed inherit the earth, because they’re healthier.
The Cold War, to Burroughs, was not about America and the Soviet Union. They were allies, as far as he was concerned, in the fight against humanity. It is a “pretext,” he says, “to conceal and monopolize research confining knowledge to official agencies.” Burroughs began thinking about war on a greater scale – it was no longer a matter of simple territory or loss of life, but a war into the mind. As the fifties moved into the sixties and then the seventies, his preoccupation with fighting involved more abstract forces than simple armies and governments. In his Nova Trilogy we have intergalactic war. A consortium of insects from Venus is attacking Earth, and it’s not a battle with guns. The weapons included orgones, engrams, and lasers.
Weapons that change consciousness could call the war game in question. All games are hostile. Basically there is only one game and that game is war. It’s the old army game from here to eternity. Mr. Hubbard says that Scientology is a game where everybody wins. There are no games where everybody wins. That’s what games are all about, winning and losing . . . The Versailles Treaty . . . Hitler dances the Occupation Jig . . . War criminals hang at Nuremberg . . . It is a rule of this game that there can be no final victory since this would mean the end of the war game. Yet every player must believe in final victory and strive for it with all his power. Faced by the nightmare of final defeat he has no alternative. So all existing technologies with escalating efficiency produce more and more total weapons until we have the atom bomb which could end the game by destroying all players. Now mock up a miracle. The so stupid players decide to save the game. They sit down around a big table and draw up a plan for the immediate deactivation and eventual destruction of all atomic weapons. Why stop there? Conventional bombs are unnecessarily destructive if nobody else has them hein. Let’s turn the war clock back to 1917.
Burroughs was obsessed with war and it is a major theme throughout his books. Yet, unlike the other Beats, Burroughs struggled with empathy. The reality of it eluded him. For him it was an existential battle. When asked about America’s war on Vietnam, he replied that he couldn’t understand the stupidity of it – not because men were being sent over to kill people and be killed, but because it was an unwinnable war, which, he observed, had been clearly documented during the French occupation of Indochina. For him, as a self-professed “factualist,” it was ludicrous to start a war that was doomed to be lost. He went on, however, to confirm Kerouac’s suspicion that “Wars don’t advance mankind except materially,” and that governments need to stay at war in order to balance their economies. One gets the impression that this would be just fine with him, if only he didn’t have such a distrust of governments.
In 1968 he attended the Chicago Democratic Convention with Jean Genet, Norman Mailer, and Allen Ginsberg. By this point Burroughs’ enemies were becoming more abstract than simply government or alien invaders, and his preferred method of fighting back was the tape recorder. Utilizing his literary cut-up technique, he would run around with the tape recorder, going back and forth along the tape and cutting sounds in randomly. He would use this method against a coffee shop his disliked, and against the Scientology headquarters in London, after going to war with them. His theory was that he could disrupt the flow of time by cutting it up. In Chicago he was trying to incite riots by playing riot sounds in the crowd of anti-war protestors.
Later in life he would become more interested in traditional weaponry. Although he had always maintained a soft-spot for guns, they would increasingly fascinate him, and even in his final days he would shoot around his home in Kansas and subscribe to gun magazines. Burroughs was somewhat of a libertarian and his paranoia dictated that he keep guns around just case his government tried any funny business. He is famously quoted as saying, “After a shooting spree, they always want to take the guns away from the people who didn’t do it. I sure as hell wouldn’t want to live in a society where the only people allowed guns are the police and the military.”
War and weaponry dominated his literary output, and in his final years he still maintained a fiery disposition, apparently viewing these things as an inevitable part of human – and even non-human – nature:
This is a war universe. War all the time. That is its nature. There may be other universes based on all sorts of other principles, but ours seems to be based on war and games. All games are basically hostile. Winners and losers. We see them all around us: the winners and the losers. The losers can oftentimes become winners, and the winners can very easily become losers.
“Go fuck yourself and your atom bomb”
When Pearl Harbor was bombed in late 1941, Allen Ginsberg was fifteen years old. However, raised in a household of intense political and philosophical debate, he was a frighteningly outspoken teenager, and wrote passionate letters about the war to the New York Times. The first, three weeks after the Pearl Harbor attack, show us his perceptive nature as he details the events, from almost the end of the First World War, leading to what he considered America’s inevitable entry to the Second.
Our stupidity has reaped its harvest and we have a bumper crop, since we sowed the world’s biggest blunder. The death toll in this war has been at least four million… There is no preventable catastrophe in recorded history paralleling this.
He goes on to lay the blame at the feet of U.S. congressmen, who have demonstrated “mental impotence and political infirmity.” It is a remarkable, if short, letter that shows the biting and inquisitive intelligence of Ginsberg even at such a young age.
In 1943, Ginsberg was seventeen years old and eager to impress his older brother, Eugene, who was serving in the army. At home they had engaged in political and intellectual debate, and this continued through their letters. Allen noted that Eugene appeared unhappy about life in the army, and teased his brother quite harshly about his former opinions, as Eugene had evidently changed his mind about the draft:
I would suggest that if you favored the Draft Act in 1940; that you approved the 18-45 draft ages; that you were an “interventionist.” If, then, you find yourself in the unhappy predicament, of being drafted and rather roughly handled by the army, you may have cause for sorrow or pained resignation, but not at all for bitterness and disgust.
Allen then suggested that Eugene attempt to write some poetry, but that if it didn’t work, he should attempt to “end the war or at least have your head shot off trying.”
After this rather cruel jibe, Allen continues his philosophical debate with Eugene, showing a surprisingly Burroughsian coldness and factualism in his arguments. He neatly answers his brother point-for-point on a number of topics, but it seems that they both agree with a sentiment that is echoed throughout Ginsberg’s later life, and also appears to have been grasped by both Burroughs and Kerouac, that war is never in the interests of the people, but rather a tool of the government and the elite.
There was never any real cause for a war; no war was really ever justified. Wars come about when the opposing forces, either one side or the other, or both, were sincere but wrong… [or] acts unintelligently… This war: one side or the other is acting unintelligently. We are, certainly in America and Britain and Russia. Of course (no knowing smiles now) the other side is acting even more unintelligently than we, and so we are justified. Dear Eugene, if you can only persuade Hitler to act understandingly and rationally… without persecution and conquest and brutality, why, then we will have removed the synthetic, the false cause of war.
It appears, putting aside Allen’s teasing and humor, that the two brothers largely agree with one another and are both decidedly against the war because it has little to do with the will of people, and everything to do with the greed and prejudice of a few powerful men.
Despite his pacifism, Ginsberg followed his friends and joined the Merchant Marine in the summer of 1945 (coincidentally, although they had not yet met, this was the same time Carl Solomon, to whom he would dedicate his most famous poem, joined the Merchant Marine and sailed to France). However, he soon came down with pneumonia and was confined to the hospital, where he read War and Peace. A few weeks after the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and Japan’s surrender, he wrote to his old professor, Lionel Trilling from the U.S. Maritime Service Training Station in Sheepshead Bay, New York. However, rather than the end of the war, Ginsberg was looking to discuss poetry, and to defend his recently acquired hero, Arthur Rimbaud, whom Trilling disliked. Ginsberg wrote a long letter defending Rimbaud, and connecting him to what he hoped would become a vibrant post-War poetry scene. Later, in early 1946, Ginsberg continued to write Trilling, sending him poems inspired by his time in the Times Square underground. Although he mentions voyages around seas of the United States, it seems Ginsberg is more interested in poetry than politics at this stage, and Bill Morgan, who edited his letters, notes that, like Kerouac, Ginsberg took advantage of his time at sea to read and write extensively. His observations, too, seem similar to Kerouac’s, as Ginsberg found the misfits on board his ship to be a source of literary inspiration.
Strangely, although his first stint in the Merchant Marine was short and is given relatively little consideration in any of the books about his life, Ginsberg seems to list it as an important point in his development as an artist. In an autobiographical note that accompanied “Howl” and featured on a “business card” he made in 1966, he listed it as one of a few events in his life that had led to his success: “High School in Patterson til 17, Columbia College, merchant marine, Texas and Denver, copyboy, Times Square…”
For Ginsberg, as for other young men, the sea promised money and adventure. Ginsberg makes reference to the desire to work on ships throughout his letters, and in 1956, he returned to the sea. Even after success as a writer, without any real money coming in, the sea allowed him the freedom to put pen to paper, the opportunity to explore the world, and of course the means to pay his bills.
For Ginsberg, war was always a more abstract concept than it was for Kerouac, and less practical than Burroughs seemed to consider it. He was raised in a household where the reality extended about as far as the discussion, and although he craved experience, his experiences were somewhat limited. Ginsberg would continue to become more stringent in his pacifism, and more vociferous in his attacks on what he perceived to be the real cause of war. He later articulated his belief that America had been carefully manipulated into a violent warmongering monster in the years following WWII, and perhaps during the war itself. He blamed anti-Communist purges and secret interventionism. His early perceptions of war were colored by the terms “isolationist” and “interventionist,” and while he didn’t use these later, perhaps that is because isolationism effectively ceased to exist as the U.S. became gripped by McCarthyism and a hawkish military industrial complex began manipulating global events in the interests of a few wealthy Americans.
As the era of the beatniks transformed into that of the hippies, Ginsberg made the switch and continued to be a figurehead of this next counterculture. It began with his usual role of spokesperson and literary agent for his friends, and as an advocate of individual freedoms, but by the mid-sixties he was synonymous with the new anti-war movement that had gripped the United States.
In November, 1965, Ginsberg wrote a leaflet called “How to Make a March/Spectacle” that suggested a new approach to demonstrations against the Vietnam War. Rather than attempt to display their anger, effectively fighting against fighting, Ginsberg thought that the anti-war movement should use love to counter hate. Rather than being anti-war, the formerly disruptive and violent protests should become pro-peace. This stemmed from Ginsberg’s Buddhist leanings, which he had adopted in the 1950s. Although Ginsberg didn’t use the term “flower power” on the leaflet, he spoke of using “masses of flowers” in protest, and later the term “flower power” became attributed to him.
In 1966, while travelling across the United States, Ginsberg recorded on an Uher tape recorder what would become known as one of the greatest anti-war poems, “Wichita Vortex Sutra.” In phrasing that hardly seems dated, given the bloodlust of western governments in the twenty-first century, he juxtaposes images of the American continent with fragmentary news reports, at first using terms like “tactical bombing” and “limited objectives” and then moving into a more irate state, talking about the “human meat market.” His careful switching of phrases like “operation” and “death toll” to descriptions of people being hit with “six or seven bullets before they fell” brings home a jarring truth about the nature of war and its manipulation in popular media. His poem, which is perhaps as ambitious and effective as “Howl” or “Kaddish,” continues as it mixes advertisements with imagery from radio and television reports. He succeeds in what was the primary aim of the anti-war movement at the time – making the inhuman nature of war tangible without desensitization, so as to appall people as they should be appalled by the horrors of war which are so easily and commonly glorified.
It is hard to overstate the importance of Ginsberg’s role in the anti-war movement. He has become a symbol of peace. It is almost ironic that Ginsberg was so famous for leading the anti-war movement, as he was always at war with something. But Ginsberg’s war was always one of peace, one without bloodshed.
But the success of the hippies and of “flower power” in the sixties, however, perhaps doomed pacifism, as even Ginsberg struggled to relate the realities of war and expose the manipulation of people in subsequent decades. He continued to present injustices perpetrated by his country’s government well into the 1990s, but by this stage it had become passé. A poem like “Wichita Vortex Sutra” would have little effect on a generation that was paradoxically so aware of violence that it was blind to it, so used to corruption that it seemed normal, and so familiar with the idea of protest that protest seemed futile. Ginsberg worked to demonstrate the insidious creeping influence of organizations like the CIA, and was often proven correct in his assertions, but after the 1960s there was nothing more that could shock, and the government had already ensured, post-Watergate, that there was no real accountability, and no lasting repercussions.
In this posthumous volume of Lowell A. Levant’s collected work, readers will notice four main qualities of his poems. First, as observed by his mentor, Pulitzer Prize winning poet Gary Snyder, there is “the complex depth of his writing about work, machinery, trucks.” Second, there is attunement with nature, characteristic of “Deep Ecology” poetry. Third, there is music, which he also created when he played a Jew’s harp, sang, or strummed his guitar. Finally, Lowell’s poetry often took the form of the unfiltered, unfettered, free-associative declarations of the Beat Poets of his time, particularly those of Allen Ginsberg, whom Lowell admired.
About the Author
Lowell A. Levant was born in St. Paul, MN, was raised in Los Angeles, and attended the University of California, Berkeley. Lowell was a participant in the Free Speech Movement and a conscientious objector during the Vietnam War who did alternate service. He had the twin vocations of poet and truck driver. He rose to prominence in Berkeley in the 60s as a member of the Artists, Musicians, Poets, and Sympathizers Local of the I.W.W., whose work was collected in Poems Read in the Spirit of Peace and Gladness.
Readers will notice the complex depth in his writing about work, machinery, trucks, equipment, repair, and maintenance – all in a deceptively befuddled voice that masks the surprising competence of what is actually being done. These poems are a unique presence in the real world and have great confidence and firmness.
Gary Snyder, author of “Turtle Island,” 1975 winner of the Pulitzer Prize for Poetry.
There is an extraordinary quality to Lowell’s poems, which I noticed the first night I met him at a group reading. I was very struck by the poem “Enkidu,” indeed, both the force and power of his imagination at work and that someone was writing a poem about that figure from Gilgamesh, not something that showed up in poetry readings in those days!
Kenneth Irby, author of “The Intent On: Collected Poems, 1962-2006.”
Lowell’s elaborate pointless digressions best represents one’s actual experience, free from rational or conceptual posturing, a self-aware consciousness working it out with the acute eye of an opened mind.
Will Staple, author of “Luminosita Numinosa: New Poems.”
Lowell Levant bore one of the purest and most lyrical poetic voices of the wild and wondrous 1960s in Berkeley, and continued to write and read inspired poetry until his sad passing in 2010.
Gene Anderson, author of “The Pursuit of Ecotopia.”
ISBN: 978-0-615864-45-7, $14.95
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To a Fog-Covered Moist Carpet of Precarious Rivers, Pussy-Brambles, Eucalyptus, Moss and Cow-Dung – Dead and Alive, Uneven and Unordered, Just East of Tilden, With a Fence Around It.
You move in the gazes that turn intent
from the side, toward me,
in the smile that pulls in smoke
and in the deliberate long puffs,
in the delicate exact turn of the breasts
with the hand to the chin
and to the back of the car seat
that served as a couch,
with the forearms to the calves,
in the blinks, the finger tips, the strolls,
and the statue of liberty pose to the West,
in the urge and in the way
to soar within the flesh –
that ride on the witches carpet:
ambiguous and sneaky
complicated and useless
requiring order but demanding that it not be form,
for even the best shoes wear out,
while bare foot prints on the shifting sands last forever –
Finally you move in the unpracticed purrs
in my tense, tired lap, so that I may realize
ISBN: 978-0-615864-45-7, $14.95
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by Charlie Canning
Photos by John La Farge and David S. Wills
Since the Treaty of Kanagawa in 1853, the United States and Japan have had a long and varied history. Initially, the United States wanted trade with Japan to extend American influence in Asia as well as to compete with Britain, Russia, and France. These were mercantile and political concerns that had little to do with Japan as an extant civilization with something to offer the West. But three times in the last one hundred and fifty years, American interest in Japan has been decidedly cultural.
The first wave of American interest in Japanese culture was brought about by a group of writers and art collectors from Boston in the 1880s that included Edward S. Morse, Ernest Fenollosa, and William Sturgis Bigelow. Henry Adams, John La Farge, and Percival Lowell would follow. Small as it was, this group of Bostonians had enormous influence on the reception of Japanese culture and art in the United States.
The second wave of American interest in Japanese culture took place in the 1950s. This time around, it was a West Coast phenomenon based not on Japanese art but on Zen. The works of D. T. Suzuki were widely read and later popularized by Alan Watts. Jack Kerouac, who had became an overnight sensation with the publication of On the Road, popularized Zen (and Japanese culture) further, in his novel The Dharma Bums. Finally, the poet and writer Gary Snyder, himself mythologized in Kerouac’s writings, led the way by traveling to Japan and entering a Zen monastery.
According to Roland Kelts in his book Japanamerica: How Japanese Pop Has Invaded the U.S., we are currently experiencing a third wave of interest in things Japanese. This time around, it is an interest in Japanese pop culture that is the driving force. Behind this trend are the game platforms manufactured by Nintendo and Sony as well as Japanese manga and anime.
Although the second wave of interest in Japan has much in common with both the first and third waves, it is singular in many respects. One thing that sets it apart from all other periods is that it followed close upon a war. Considering the antipathy, fear, and hatred that had been whipped up by World War II, this is surprising. But after the war, there was a reappraisal of Japanese culture that began to go significantly beyond the “know your enemy” brand of research typified by Ruth Benedict’s groundbreaking study, The Chrysanthemum and the Sword (1946).
Another thing that differentiates the second wave from the first and third waves was that it was primarily religious in nature. Although it might be argued that Fenollosa and Bigelow were also interested in religion (both ultimately “converted” to Buddhism), they were principally art collectors who developed an interest in religion. The group in the second wave, however, traveled light. They were in it for the Zen. (Some of the Buddhas that Fenollosa brought to the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston are over two meters tall. The Beats carried theirs in their backpacks.)
A third major difference between the waves was that the second, unlike the first and the third, was countercultural. The interest in Zen Buddhism was driven by a deep dissatisfaction with the prevailing culture in America. Although one could argue that both Fenollosa and Bigelow were dissatisfied with Boston culture, their aim was more to share the artistic wonders of Japan with their countrymen than to challenge the prevailing mythos of Boston, New York, and Washington, D.C. Henry Adams was dissatisfied, to be sure, but he looked more to the medieval cathedrals of France rather than to the temples of Japan for his unifying vision of cultural force.
Finally, the second wave is quite singular in that its influences were readily absorbed into an American subculture. In this respect, the Beats may have borrowed a page from the Japanese: Watts, Kerouac, Snyder, and others took something foreign and made it their own. Now that Zen Buddhism has become popular on both coasts of the United States, it may be surprising to learn that it was relatively unknown in America before the 1950s. There are several reasons for this. One was that Christianity as the predominant faith of America was largely unquestioned. Another was that Buddhism was an Oriental rather than an Occidental religion. A third was the war. And finally, there was the language barrier. Many of the Buddhist texts were written in Asian languages and had never been translated into comprehensible English.
As Ann Douglas has pointed out, “Interest in the East had been building since the late 1940s, part of what historian Robert Ellwood calls ‘the spiritual underground’ of Cold War America.” (xvii) Thomas Merton’s The Seven Story Mountain (1948) and Joseph Campbell’s The Hero With a Thousand Faces (1949) were widely read and discussed in academic circles.
The central figure in the introduction of Zen Buddhism to America was D. T. Suzuki. Suzuki was a fine translator, but since there was not a lot written about Zen to begin with, his greatest contribution was in explaining things that were seemingly beyond words. In his books Essays in Zen Buddhism (3 vols. 1927-1934), Studies in the Lankavatara Sutra (1930), The Training of the Zen Buddhist Monk (1934), An Introduction to Zen Buddhism (1934), Manual of Zen Buddhism (1935), and Zen Buddhism and Its Influence on Japanese Culture (1938), Suzuki sought to make Zen intelligible to a Western audience.
Suzuki began lecturing at Columbia in 1951. At first, the turnout was often quite small. But the few who heard his lectures were singularly impressed by his scholarship, wit, and saint-like bearing. He was a favorite of both Joseph Campbell and Alan Watts. Later, Jack Kerouac, Allen Ginsberg (both one-time Columbia students), and Gary Snyder would read him voraciously. Although Professor Suzuki had a sublime way of explaining Zen, his books were primarily for an academic audience. It was up to Watts, Kerouac, and Snyder to popularize Zen still further.
Englishman Alan W. Watts (1915-1973) was a prodigy of sorts who developed a lifelong passion for Buddhism and Oriental philosophy when still a child. He published his first booklet on Zen in 1932 when just twenty-one years old. Though Watts’ The Spirit of Zen was largely derivative of Suzuki’s three-volume Essays in Zen Buddhism, Watts’ contribution was in making what was both foreign and sublime that much more accessible to the general reader. Watts combined a lucid prose style with an engaging wit and an uncanny feel for the right metaphor. Allied to this was an abhorrence of any form of philosophical cant or academic posturing. He had no patience with those who sought to use language to obscure meaning or truth. Like Suzuki, who was in many ways his spiritual mentor, Watts wanted to be understood.
After marrying the daughter of Ruth Fuller Everett (later Sasaki) in 1938, Watts moved to New York City where he studied Zen with Sokei-an Sasaki. Later, he left New York to enter the seminary in the hopes of one day bridging the gap between Christianity and Eastern religions. This was to be a recurrent theme throughout the remainder of his life.
In 1951, Watts relocated to San Francisco where he soon became one of the most recognizable figures in the Bay Area. He continued to write and publish on all sorts of religious, spiritual, and political subjects and had his own weekly radio show, (some of these broadcasts are now available for download on iTunes). Watts’ enthusiasm was contagious and he soon developed a large following both in California and on college campuses around America. Throughout the 1950s and 1960s, young people across the nation were reading books by Watts with titles like The Wisdom of Insecurity (1951), The Way of Zen (1957), Nature, Man and Woman (1958), This Is It and Other Essays on Zen and Spiritual Experience (1960) and Psychotherapy East and West (1961).
Another cult figure of the 1950s and 1960s that did much to promote Japanese culture in America was writer Jack Kerouac (1922-1969). Kerouac’s breakout novel was On the Road, published to wide acclaim in 1957. Here we have Kerouac’s frenetic “spontaneous prose,” a breakneck monologue of highways, truck stops, freight trains, jazz, cigarettes, and booze.
Kerouac’s next novel The Dharma Bums was published in 1958. Although similar in some respects to On the Road in its depiction of the “devil-may-care” life of the modern American hobo, The Dharma Bums sought to portray the more spiritually driven quest of the Buddhist bihhiku or wanderer. Buddha himself was a wanderer, we are told, and he reached nirvana through travel and meditation. Might young people in America reach enlightenment in a similar way?
The hero of The Dharma Bums is Japhy Ryder (a “semi-fictional” character based on Gary Snyder), “a kid from eastern Oregon” who “learned Chinese and Japanese and became an Oriental scholar and discovered the greatest Dharma Bums of them all, the Zen lunatics of China and Japan.” (6) Japhy introduces Ray Smith, the narrator of The Dharma Bums and Kerouac’s alter ego, to the Chinese and Japanese forms of Buddhism. There are frequent references to Japan and Japanese culture throughout the novel including allusions to D. T. Suzuki’s books on Zen, Okakura Tenshin’s The Book of Tea, R. H. Blyth’s four-volume work on haiku, and the stone gardens of Roanji.
Kerouac’s portrayal of the spiritual quest had tremendous appeal – especially among young people. In his “Introduction” to Kerouac’s biography of Buddha, entitled Wake Up, Professor Robert A. F. Thurman recalls his own reading of The Dharma Bums when the novel first came out in 1958:
But now I realize that when I read The Dharma Bums as a teen in the late fifties, I was exposed to perhaps the most accurate, poetic, and expansive evocation of the heart of Buddhism that was available at that time. Not to say that it was perfect, or to pretend that I would be able to tell if it was or wasn’t – it’s just that it is so incredibly inspiring, and must have deeply affected my seventeen-year-old self in 1958, the year it was first published and the year I ran away from Phillips Exeter Academy and went looking for a revolution. (vii-viii)
Some critics, however, including Alan Watts, did not think that Kerouac’s understanding of Buddhism was all that accurate. Thurman again notes, “The thing about Kerouac that might have made him less accepted among early California Buddhists – Gary Snyder and Alan Watts and others – was that he was not taken by the Ch’an/Zen line of things, though he loved the writings of Han Shan, the ‘cold mountain’ poetic meditations transmitted by Snyder. Kerouac was more moved by the Indian Mahayana line ….” (ix)
In his book Buddhism in America, Joseph M. Kitagawa wrote of the popularity of Zen Buddhism among the Beats and “the temptation to consider Buddhism as a sort of escape from workaday reality.” “Young nonconformists in America” have tended “to use Buddhism for non-religious ends.” (327) But for Kerouac, it didn’t really matter whether he understood Zen perfectly or not. He was a Catholic who viewed Buddhism and Catholicism as one and the same. And as Ann Douglas has pointed out, “At a time when Americans were routinely told they had only two choices – Soviet-style communism or American capitalist democracy and all that went with it – Buddhism offered a third way.” (xxii) Kerouac’s novels were popular among the youth of the 1950s and 1960s because they offered a spiritual rationale for leading an alternative lifestyle.
The final person responsible for the second wave of interest in Zen Buddhism and Japanese culture is poet and environmental activist Gary Snyder (1930-). Snyder came to Japan on a scholarship from the First Zen Institute of America in 1956. Initially, he practiced Zen at Shokoku-ji in Kyoto, the same temple where the great landscape painter Sesshu had studied with Shuban. Although Snyder had not come to Japan to study painting per se, Chinese landscape painting (later referred to as Bunjin-ga in Japan) was to have a profound effect on both his poetry and his environmental activism. As Dana Goodyear has noted in her 2008 article on Snyder in The New Yorker, “Snyder’s most complex and difficult work is ‘Mountains and Rivers Without End,’ a poem cycle that absorbed him from 1956 until 1996, and whose title is taken from a category of Chinese landscape painting.”
The connection between Chinese landscape painting, Snyder’s poetry, and his environmental activism is to be found in the spiritual dimension of the paintings. They combine philosophical ideas and meditation with key natural elements (mountains, rivers, and trees), in an attempt to express “the beauty of the natural world.” (Munsterberg 128) For anyone who can appreciate this, conservation is axiomatic.
Snyder continued his studies of Zen Buddhism in Japan throughout the 1960s. After returning to the United States, he settled in the California foothills of the Sierra Nevada Mountains in 1971. Since then he has published widely on all manner of themes, trying to integrate his poetic vision with the Buddhist precept of the “right means of livelihood.” This has resulted in a unified, spiritual form of grounded environmentalism that seeks to connect people with their immediate surroundings.
The final thing that should be said about Snyder is that while others may have “talked the talk” about Zen, Snyder has “walked the walk.” Not content with just reading about Zen and Japanese culture in a library, Snyder traveled to Japan, entered a Zen monastery, and learned the language. Both in his writings and in his life, he has served as an exemplary model for others about how best to live and learn about all cultures whether they be foreign or our own.
In a letter to Snyder just before The Dharma Bums was published, Kerouac wrote that he “hoped to ‘crash open whole scene to sudden Buddhism boom … everybody reading Suzuki on Madison Avenue,’ paving the way for Snyder’s poetry. ‘Gary, this is your year,’ he promised.” (Douglas xviii) Although this didn’t happen, the influences of the second wave on both American and Japanese culture are still with us today. The present interest in New Age spiritualism is a direct outgrowth of the Buddhism of the Beats and the “Age of Aquarius” of the Hippies. Gary Snyder and the environmental movement are still going strong.
Adams, Henry. The Education of Henry Adams. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1961.
“Alan Watts.” Wikipedia. 3 Nov. 2008. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Alan_Watts.
Benedict, Ruth. The Chrysanthemum and the Sword. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1946.
Douglas, Ann. Introduction. The Dharma Bums. By Jack Kerouac. New York: Penguin, 2006. vii-xxviii.
Kitagawa, Joseph M. “Buddhism in America” in On Understanding Japanese Religion.
Princeton, NJ: Princeton UP, 1987, 311-328.
Faas, Ekbert. “Gary Snyder.” Towards a New American Poetics: Essays & Interviews. Ed. Ekbert Faas. Santa Barbara, CA: Black Sparrow Press, 1978, 91-104.
Fields, Rick. How the Swans Came to the Lake: A Narrative History of Buddhism in America. 3rd ed. Boston: Shambhala, 1992.
Goodyear, Dana. “Zen Master.” The New Yorker 20 Oct. 2008:66.
Hayes, Kevin J., ed. Conversations with Jack Kerouac. Jackson: U of Mississippi P, 2005.
Kawamura Junko. “Noh.” Kyoto Journal 70 (2008): 77.
Kelts, Roland. Japanamerica: How Japanese Pop Has Invaded the U.S. New York, Palgrave Macmillan, 2006.
Kerouac, Jack. Book of Haikus. Ed. Regina Weinreich. New York: Penguin, 2003.
—. The Dharma Bums. New York: Penguin, 2006.
—. On the Road. New York: Penguin, 1972.
—. The Portable Jack Kerouac. Ed. Ann Charters. New York: Penguin, 2007.
—. Road Novels 1957-1960. New York: Library of America, 2007.
—. Wake Up. New York: Penguin, 2008.
Kitagawa, Joseph M. “Buddhism in America” in On Understanding Japanese Religion. Princeton, NJ: Princeton UP, 1987, 311-328.
McKibben, Bill. American Earth: Environmental Writing Since Thoreau. Library of America. New York: Literary Classics, 2008.
Munsterberg, Hugo. The Landscape Painting of China and Japan. Tokyo: Tuttle, 1956.
Murphy, Patrick, ed. Critical Essays on Gary Snyder. Boston: G. K. Hall, 1991.
Murphy, Patrick D. Understanding Gary Snyder. Columbia, SC: U of South Carolina P, 1992.
“Philosophical paintings from intellectual giant.” Daily Yomiuri 30 Aug. 2003: 16.
Thurman, Robert A. F. Introduction. Wake Up. By Jack Kerouac. New York: Penguin, 2008. vii-xxix.
Snyder, Gary. Earth House Hold: Technical Notes & Queries to Fellow Dharma Revolutionaries. London: Jonathan Cape, 1970.
—. Interview with Ekbert Faas. Towards a New American Poetics: Essays &
Interviews. Ed. Ekbert Faas. Santa Barbara, CA: Black Sparrow Press, 1978.
—. Look Out: A Selection of Writings. New York: New Directions, 2002.
—. Regarding Wave. New York: New Directions, 1970.
Steuding, Bob. Gary Snyder. Twayne’s United States Authors Series. Boston: G. K. Hall, 1976.
Suzuki, Daisetz T. Zen and Japanese Culture. Bollingen Series LXIV. Princeton: Princeton UP, 1959.
Watts, Alan. Beat Zen, Square Zen, and Zen. San Francisco: City Lights, 1959.
—. In My Own Way: An Autobiography 1915-1965. New York: Pantheon, 1972.
—. The Spirit of Zen: A way of life, work and art in the Far East. 3rd ed. London: John Murray, 1958.
Zen Buddhism is nearly impossible to write about. The use of words and logic to explain Zen are in opposition to its nature, one free of such restrictions. The question then arises: how can we know the principles of Zen if we can’t directly talk about them? The solution is that we study the principals of Zen, which are contrivances, to forget them in order to move closer to Zen. The point of such a contradictory exercise is to provide a base from which we practice zazen in order to shed away our dualistic ways of thought and proceed towards Satori, or Zen enlightenment. This is at the core of the Zen Buddhist practice and was central to the Buddhist influenced work of the Beat Generation writers Allen Ginsberg, Gary Snyder, and Jackson Mac Low. These writers used Zen Buddhism as an influence to present a countercultural Zen aesthetic that frees the reader from the mainstream materialistic culture by exemplifying what an understanding of a truer nature of existence or satori-like experience might look like with poems that mirror the meditative practice of zazen. Ginsberg’s “Last Night in Calcutta” synthesizes Zen enlightenment while Snyder’s “Riprap” and Mac Low’s “1st Dance—Making Things New—6 February 1964” provide us with zazen meditative “kôans” to contemplate. These poems are awakenings that transcend the dualistic and show us how we can arrive at a deeply realized nature of existence.
Allen Ginsberg’s “Last Night In Calcutta” begins: “Still night./ The old Clock ticks,/ half past two. A ringing of crickets/ awake in the ceiling. The gate is locked/on the street outside–sleepers, mustaches,/nakedness,/but no desire. A few mosquitoes/waken the itch, the fan turns slowly–/a car thunders along the black asphalt,/a bull snorts, something is expected–/Time sits solid in the four yellow walls.” (1-11) The opening phrase “Still night” frames the poem and the quietude of this opening utterance accomplishes two things: it centers the poem in the present, and invites us into Ginsberg’s zazen meditation. The lines that follow further establish this work as a meditation. The poet’s perception of his surrounding, the “old clock ticks…a ringing of crickets/ awake in the ceiling,” show him embarking on his meditation and exemplify his opening of “the hand of thought” through zazen practice. These lines are fixed in Calcutta, May 22, 1963, and present a grounded immediacy. This is what is, there is no construction, no imposition, these lines are and “time sits solid in the four yellow walls” of this place.
This opening initiates the zazen meditation and becomes more deeply entranced in Zen with the twelfth and thirteenth lines that read, “No one is here, emptiness filled with train/ whistles & dog barks, answered a block away.” (12-13) The statement is curious. If no one is here, who is writing the poem? The disintegration of the ego, of “I”, is essential in Zen, and for man to move closer to satori he must not suffer under the imposition of selfhood. Ginsberg is exercising this freedom, removing signs of egotism and self in order to get to the true nature of existence. We must note that Ginsberg, quite a self referential, does not use any personal pronouns in this poem and this is a testament to this poem’s Zen aesthetic. These selfless lines drive the poem deeper into zazen and set the poem in orbit around a possible satori state of transcendence.
The rest of the poem hovers around the Zen principal of satori and shows what this awakening to the nature of existence might look like. Ginsberg shows us that his meditation reshapes his understanding of existence and delivers him to a higher understanding through Zen. This epiphany is exemplified in the thirty-sixth line of the poem: “Skin is sufficient to be skin, that is all.” The realization that skin is skin shows the new way of thought achievable through enlightenment. This line is a shedding of meaning and focuses on the true nature of existence through Zen as being one that is inexplicable. This poem encapsulates Ginsberg’s aesthetic understanding of Zen and its poetic application. Ginsberg simulates the zazen process for us as readers with this poem and shows us what a satori epiphany looks like.
Gary Snyder’s poem “Riprap” and Jackson Mac Low’s “1st Dance—Making Things New—6 February 1964” are both Zen poems that provide us with “riprap” of our own on our journey towards satori. Snyder’s and Mac Low’s poems are not exhibitions of satori or an awakened state (as we saw with Ginsberg’s “Last Night in Calcutta”) but instead they are kôans that are meant to provide us with meditations that contribute to our Zen practice. We must quickly define “Kôan” and “Riprap” so that we may understand how these poets use these ideas in their poems. A “kôan” is a fundamental part of Zen Buddhism; it is a story, dialogue, question, or statement provided by a Zen master for a student to meditate on during zazen. A kôan is meant to transcend rational thought moving one closer to an intuitive state on the way to satori. “Riprap” is loosely defined as a set of stones one lies down on as a path to create traction, and we can see how a kôan might be considered a mental riprap of sorts. The concept of both of these poems, as kôans that provide us as readers with riprap, creates a framework into which we may understand the Zen aesthetic Mac Low and Snyder employ.
Snyder’s poem “Riprap” opens with the lines, “Lay down these words/ before your mind like rocks.” (1-2) This is an invitation. The poem is presented as a kôan with these lines, and Snyder is asking us to use this poem as “riprap” for our own personal zazen exercise. Snyder, like a Zen master, guides us through a meditation: “place [these words] solid, by hands/ in choice of place, set before the body of the mind in space and time:” (3-6) This instruction ends with a colon and the poem then lists what we are to “set before the body of the mind” to meditate on in this kôan. Snyder lists, “Solidity of bark, lead, or wall/ riprap of things:/ Cobble of milky way,/ straying planets/ these poems, people.” (7-11) The solidities in the first line send us into contemplation on the categorization of things and attempts to strip the meaning from this duality through juxtaposition. We are challenged to question this quality of things as “solid.” The list of “milky way” “straying planets” “poems” and “people” presents another set of comparisons. Snyder’s kôan poem induces a zazen state that forces us question the linguistic duality or separation of things, and we can’t help but meditate on the question: are we part of the Milky Way, a straying planet, a person, or are we poems? Finishing this poem we come to question the initial invitation of “laying down these words” and sit with the kôan contemplating if these words are riprap from which we gain a footing on our Zen way, or are we meant to lie down and forget the words that make us this poem.
Jackson Mac Low’s “1st Dance—Making Things New—6 February 1964” is a kôan that invites us into contemplation like the poem “Riprap” by Gary Snyder. The fundamental difference between Snyder’s poem and Mac Low’s is that “1st Dance” is more obtuse and lacks the instructive quality seen in Snyder’s poem. “1st Dance”, from the collection The Pronouns, opens with the pronoun “He.”(1) This is quite different from Ginsberg’s pronounless “Last Night in Calcutta” and Snyder’s use of the possessive “your” in “Riprap.” Mac Low’s use of the indefinite pronoun creates an ambiguity not present in the other poems. We immediately begin to question who “He” is. The poem then proceeds with a series of surrealistic images of what “He” does. The first two lines read, “He makes himself comfortable/ & matches parcels.” What does Mac Low mean by “matches parcels?” There is an inherent contradiction in “matching” or bringing together in pairs and “parceling” or dividing into portions. The lines that follow also stultify. Mac Low writes in lines 6-7, “Soon after, he’s giving cushions or seeming to do so,/ taking opinions” and we are left to wonder what this means. These lines act, just as Snyder’s poem, as a kôan, but are more perplexing because of these strange images that clear our mind and break down our categorized thought.
Mac Low ends the poem with, “A little while later he gets out with things/ & finally either rewards someone for something or goes up under/ something.” (15-17) and these final lines are an ambiguous riddle which sends us into a state of zazen that transcends rational thought. There is less invitation and instruction here compared with Snyder’s “Riprap” and Mac Low seems less of a Zen master and more of a Zen practitioner. Mac Low pushes with this poem towards the transcendence of dualistic meaning and both ushers us and forces himself along on the journey towards satori. This poem offers a pure Zen aesthetic that initially confounds but hidden deep within it is the possibility of eventual satori state of enlightenment.
There are a few problems regarding these poems as Zen poems that we must confront. Zen Buddhism is a laborious task. There are no quick roads in Zen. In the early 1950’s, D.T. Suzuki and Alan Watts popularized the principles of Zen in the Western world, and made them seem quickly accessible to all and any, (these poets are adapting Zen from what they learned from Watts and Suzuki and these poems make Zen seem extremely accessible.) This claim for Zen as accessible to all is not the case. Zen is something you dedicate your life to, that you must practice rigorously each day. Zazen is an especially painstaking activity of thousands of hours of meditation in order that one might come close to satori, while knowing quite well that they might never achieve this understanding. If this is the case, why do Ginsberg, Snyder and Mac Low write these poems that synthesize the zazen meditation? The answer is that these poets are showing us how this Zen process works and are using the zazen meditation and the kôan as a framework to present a poetic counter-reality that uses Buddhism as an aesthetic principal. This type of poem allows Ginsberg to show us what satori might look like, and for Snyder and Mac Low to help us on our way by providing meditative kôans. These poems invite the reader into a zazen state that opens his eyes to question: how can we transcend rational thought, break free of mainstream materialistic culture, and get closer to understanding the true nature of existence? These men show us this is possible, and that the Zen way is the road that will get us there even if it is not true to the sense of Zen, but instead what we then must call “American Zen.”
1. Zazen is the Buddhist meditative practice of “opening the hand of thought.” This is done while sitting and allowing the mind to become unhindered by its many layers. When this is achieved the experience gives way to an insight into the nature of existence and the individual then gains satori or enlightenment.
2. Satori refers to the “enlightenment” or individual awakening to a world that transcends the dualistic mind and deeply realizes the nature of existence as it is achieved through Zen.
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.
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.
As we move towards our 5th anniversary (that’s in May, folks, get ready to celebrate!) Beatdom is putting together its eleventh issue. The theme of this upcoming issue is Nature. That’s right, another fairly obvious topic, following on from Drugs and Religion. Granted, this one is a bit less controversial, but it is nonetheless a topic on which we could take any number of approaches.
As usual, we are primarily seeking essays. The rule of thumb in regards Beatdom submissions is this: Essays get read first. That doesn’t mean we don’t care about poems and stories; but essays take up the bulk of the magazine. We appreciate each and every submission, but we have to prioritize.
So, we imagine you probably have your own ideas for what to write about, but if not, here are some starters:
- Kerouac’s time in the wilderness
- Gary Snyder
- The Beats as an urban movement?
- Ginsberg and Burroughs’ trips into the jungle
- The influence of nature upon Beat poetics
- Environmentalism in literature
And of course there are many, many more. Please let us know asap what you are planning to submit in order to avoid having all our writers covering the same topic.
If you are planning to submit poetry, fiction, or art, please don’t feel left out. Your submissions are welcome. Be warned, though: the “slush pile” of poetry submissions is massive. We can’t guarantee a reply to these submissions unless we plan on using your poem in the magazine. All submissions, whether fiction, non-fiction, poetry, or otherwise, should ideally concern the topic of Nature.
For all submissions, please be professional. Include a cover letter with some short biographical details, a little about what you are submitting and why, and your submission as an attachment. If you send a blank e-mail with an attachment, or something like “heres what i just rote dude im sure u dig it”, then your submission will not be read. If your submission is comprised mostly of typos, it will also probably go unanswered.
Sorry to throw down so many rules, but as Beatdom grows, so does the number of submissions received, and the task of editing the magazine grows ever more difficult. Rest assured, we do appreciate everyone who shows interest in the magazine.
All submissions to the usual address: editor [at] beatdom [dot] com. Deadline: April 1st (no foolin’).
by Nick Meador
At the turn of the 1960s, Jack Kerouac found himself in a profound state of limbo, the climax of an existential crisis that predated his life as a published author. He had been looking for an “answer” to his problems since his early twenties, yet for a variety of reasons his dilemma remained unresolved. Then a 35-year-old Jack became famous in an instant when On the Road was published in the fall of 1957, and this led to the total disruption of his already chaotic life. Normally the restless man would alternate between living at his mother’s East Coast home (which at the time was either in Orlando, Florida, or Northport, Long Island, New York) and a few faraway destinations, most often Mexico City or the San Francisco Bay Area. But suddenly his world became very claustrophobic, as he was pushed into the role of a counter-culture celebrity despite the fact that very few were giving him credit as a legitimate author of American literature.
In his 1962 novel Big Sur, Kerouac reflects on the period: “…I’ve been driven mad for three years by endless telegrams, phonecalls, requests, mail, visitors, reporters, snoopers…” Kerouac wrote that book in October 1961 by fictionalizing events that had happened mainly in the summer of 1960—a trip from New York to California, visiting San Francisco, Big Sur, and San Jose. It was his first lengthy trip in three years, and Big Sur was the first book he completed since writing The Dharma Bums in November 1957. Kerouac’s plan was to pass the summer in solitude so that he could recover his mental balance while checking the publisher galleys for his Book of Dreams. Lawrence Ferlinghetti, whose budding City Lights imprint would be publishing the dream book that year, told Kerouac to stay at his cabin in Bixby Canyon, on the Pacific Coast south of Monterrey (technically just north of Big Sur).
On the surface, Big Sur is a record of Kerouac’s battle with “delirium tremens,” the term Jack and the Beats used to describe the peculiar kind of madness that results from severe and prolonged alcohol abuse. Kerouac had long dealt with a drinking problem, and even by age 26 it occurred to him that he should cut back. On March 22, 1948, he wrote in his journal, “I started drinking at eighteen but that’s after eight years of occasional boozing, I can’t physically take it any more, nor mentally. It was at the age of eighteen, too, when melancholy and indecision first came over me—there’s a fair connection there.” Yet his alcoholism reached new extremes after the publication of On the Road. In addition to losing his treasured privacy, Jack was also shocked by Neal Cassady’s arrest for possession of marijuana in 1958, for which Neal served two years in a California prison. After this, despite the fact that Kerouac had purchased their house with royalty money from On the Road, Jack’s mother Gabrielle (also known as “mémêre,” Québécois for “grandma”) banished from their home both Allen Ginsberg (because of his Judaism, homosexuality, and radical poetry) and the drugs Jack commonly used like Benzedrine and marijuana.
But Kerouac didn’t refrain from drug use altogether. In the period surrounding both the events depicted in Big Sur and the writing and editing of the book, Jack actively experimented with certain psychedelic substances that hadn’t yet made a large impression on the American culture: mescaline, ayahuasca, and psilocybin mushrooms. At the start of Big Sur, he mentions some of these substances in a slightly negative manner, as if to suggest that they had worsened his overall mental condition: “. . . ‘One fast move or I’m gone,’ I realize, gone the way of the last three years of drunken hopelessness which is a physical and spiritual and metaphysical hopelessness you cant learn in school no matter how many books on existentialism or pessimism you read, or how many jugs of vision-producing Ayahuasca you drink, or Mescaline take, or Peyote goop up with–––That feeling when you wake up with the delirium tremens with the fear of eerie death dripping from your ears…”
However, this can’t be the whole story, since Kerouac’s letters offer an entirely different view on his psychonautic exploration during this time. Jack first tried mescaline—the psychoactive compound also found naturally in the peyote cactus—in October 1959, and he was apparently most open about it with Ginsberg, to whom he wrote the following on June 20, 1960: “When on mescaline [last fall] I was so bloody high I saw that all our ideas about a ‘beatific’ new gang of worldpeople, and about instantaneous truth being the last truth. etc. etc. I saw them as all perfectly correct and prophesied, as never on drinking or sober I saw it—Like an Angel looking back on life sees that every moment fell right into place and each had flowery meaning…” This kind of clarity must have been cherished by a guy who saw his life as a long chain of rambling misadventures. Kerouac was even moved to create a 5,000-word “Mescaline Report” in order to document his hallucinations and revelations. He said he intended to take mescaline monthly, and he couldn’t wait to test out LSD (lysergic acid diethylamide). In the same letter Kerouac mentioned his intention to flee New York, shortly before Ferlinghetti suggested that Jack use his cabin as an escape. The actual trip did last about two months, from mid-July to mid-September 1960.
After returning from California, Kerouac had the opportunity to try ayahuasca on October 7, 1960. Ginsberg had just visited South America and brought back some of the liquid preparation, also known as “yagé” (pronounced “yah-hey,” but they usually misspelled it as “yage”). William S. Burroughs had done the same in the early 1950s, as documented in his fictionalized letters titled “In Search of Yage” (written in ’53 but not published until ’63). Those are presented along with correspondence and journals by Burroughs and Ginsberg in the 2006 book The Yage Letters Redux, originally published in slimmer form as The Yage Letters in 1963. While it wasn’t published in Burroughs’ work, he actually identified the genus of ayahuasca’s key ingredients in June 1953, before anyone from Western civilization had done so publicly.
Kerouac seems to have tasted the real thing, since, according to Ginsberg (writing during the event), Jack remarked, “This is one of the most sublime or tender or lovely moments of all our lives together . . .” That’s not to say the experience was only positive. In June 1963 Jack reflected to Allen that, when he would wander into Manhattan for drinking binges, “I come back [to Long Island] with visions of horror as bad as Ayahuasca vision on the neanderthal million years in caves, the gruesomeness of life!”
In January 1961, a few months after Kerouac’s ayahuasca trip, he ingested capsules containing the extract of what he called “Sacred Mushrooms,” a nickname for psilocybin. Ginsberg had recently visited Timothy Leary at Harvard to participate in Leary’s soon-to-be-controversial psychedelic studies. According to Martin A. Lee and Bruce Shlain’s book Acid Dreams, when Ginsberg called Kerouac during his psilocybin trial to announce that he was God and demand that Jack come try the mushrooms immediately, Jack replied, “I can’t leave my mother.” Ginsberg brought the capsules back to New York to distribute to various people, and Kerouac went to Allen’s Manhattan apartment to try them for himself.
Kerouac’s reaction to this experience is recorded in a letter he sent to Timothy Leary later that month (which, for unknown reasons, was omitted from Kerouac’s Selected Letters, 1957-1969, the second volume of correspondence edited by Ann Charters). Jack wrote, “Mainly I felt like a floating [Genghis] Kahn on a magic carpet with my interesting lieutenants and gods… some ancient feeling about old geheuls [sic] in the grass, and temples, exactly also like the sensation I got drunk on pulque floating in the Xochimilco gardens on barges laden with flowers and singers… some old Golden Age dream of man, very nice.”
Kerouac’s final experiment of this period came in December 1961 (as least, according to the published literature). It’s fairly evident that on this occasion Kerouac ingested actual dried psilocybin mushrooms instead of capsules. He wrote to Ginsberg and Peter Orlovsky (Ginsberg’s lover) that he had just finished transferring the Big Sur manuscript from the teletype roll to standard pages, “all done in ecstasy, in fact (with bennies [Benzedrine])—Also ate 12 SMushrooms in one afternoon and wanted to send telegram to Winston Churchill something about an old Baron crying for his hounds in his ‘weird weild weir,’ thinking, on psilocybin, one baron to another he’d understand—”
During the writing of Big Sur, some of these psychedelic experiences crept into the book despite Kerouac’s initial statement about “metaphysical hopelessness.” Upon awaking from a bizarre dream sequence, “Jack Duluoz” (Kerouac’s fictional projection of himself) reflects on the “millionpieced mental explosions that I remember I thought were so wonderful when I’d first seen them on Peotl and Mescaline…broken in pieces some of them big orchestral and then rainbow explosions of sound and sight mixed.” The “peotl” (or “peyotl,” the indigenous spellings of “peyote”) cactus has long been consumed by tribes in northern Mexico and the American southwest for the mescaline it contains. Kerouac first encountered peyote eight years before his trip to Bixby Canyon, while living with Burroughs in Mexico City in 1952. The two embarked on a fruitful series of peyote trials that Kerouac described in his letters to friends back in the United States.
On March 12 of that year, Jack wrote to John Clellon Holmes about what was possibly his first full-on psychedelic experience, conveying “the wild visions of musical pure truth I got on peotl (talk about your Technicolor visions!)…” Shortly thereafter, on June 5, Kerouac wrote again to Holmes, telling of the time when a few “young American hipsters” gave him and Burroughs some peyote, after which the duo walked around Mexico City at night. In a park Jack found himself “wanting to sit in the grass and stay near the ground all night by moonlight, with the lights of the show and the houses all flashing, flashing in my eyeballs…”
This letter is important for another reason; in it Jack explains the thrill of writing with his new “sketching” style, an early conception of what he would later call “spontaneous prose.” Late in October 1951, Kerouac’s friend Ed White had suggested that Jack try to write as though he was painting a scene. Kerouac told Holmes he was “beginning to discover…something beyond the novel and beyond the arbitrary confines of the story . . . into the realms of revealed Picture . . . revealed whatever . . . revealed prose . . . wild form, man, wild form. Wild form’s the only form holds what I have to say—my mind is exploding to say something about every image and every memory in—I have now an irrational lust to set down everything I know—in narrowing circles…”
The strong parallel between the “rainbow explosions” Kerouac saw on mescaline and peyote, and the feeling that he was “exploding” to describe his thoughts about reality, suggests that Jack’s psychedelic exploration in 1952 had a decisive influence on what would become his trademark prose style.
Kerouac’s first efforts to develop his sketching method resulted in Visions of Cody, written in 1951 and ’52. He further honed the style with Doctor Sax and, in early ‘53, Maggie Cassidy. But in the fall of ‘53, Kerouac wrote The Subterraneans, which was the closest to a prequel of Big Sur that Jack composed during this period when he “discovered” spontaneous prose. It was not only a stylistic precedent, but also a thematic one—specifically the themes of self-sabotaged relationships, nervous breakdowns, and creeping insanity. In both novels Kerouac focuses largely on his own life and “internal monologue” instead of employing a “hero” like Cassady (called “Dean Moriarty” or “Cody Pomeray” in Kerouac’s novels) or Gary Snyder (“Japhy Ryder” of The Dharma Bums) to carry the story. As Kerouac writes halfway through Big Sur, “I’m beginning to go seriously crazy, just like Subterranean Irene went crazy…” This is actually a cryptic clue in which he’s evoking “Mardou Fox” of Subterraneans, the love interest of protagonist “Leo Percepied” (another name for “Jack Duluoz”). “Mardou’s” real name was Alene Lee, but Jack referred to her as “Irene May” in Book of Dreams.
Once again, Big Sur generally depicts Kerouac’s brush with “insanity” as stemming from his alcoholism. There’s hardly a time in the book when “Duluoz” is not holding a bottle of whiskey or wine. But as the story progresses, some of the descriptions seem to fall way outside the scope of what alcohol can do to a person’s mind and one’s perception of reality. For instance, when Jack’s friends try to get him to eat some food, he can’t take more than a bite. He’s too paranoid that they’re trying to poison him, and he’s too distracted by his mental aberrations. “Masks explode before my eyes when I close them, when I look at the moon it waves, moves, when I look at my hands and feet they creep–––Everything is moving, the porch is moving like ooze and mud, the chair trembles under me.” Notice again the mention of “explosions.” Or examine the aforementioned dream sequence, in which Jack sees numerous “Vulture People” copulating in a trash dump. “Their faces are leprous thick with soft yeast but painted with makeup…yellow pizza puke faces, disgusting us…we’ll be taken to the Underground Slimes to walk neck deep in steaming mucks pulling huge groaning wheels (among small forked snakes) so the devil with the long ears can mine his Purple Magenta Square Stone that is the secret of all this Kingdom–––“
Even a glance at Book of Dreams makes it obvious that Kerouac frequently had extraordinary night-visions. But such passages really bring to mind a few specific things: the psychedelic experience, existentialist literature, and the rare cases in which the two are combined. Though Kerouac more often talked of his fondness for Dostoevsky than for later existentialists, Jean-Paul Sartre’s 1938 novel Nausea (not published in English until 1949) is an indubitable precursor to Big Sur. Nausea contains a first-person journal-style account by a French man named Roquentin, who unexpectedly becomes overtaken by mortal horror and bodily uneasiness. As Roquentin says early in the novel, “Then the Nausea seized me, I dropped to a seat, I no longer knew where I was; I saw the colours spin slowly around me, I wanted to vomit. And since that time, the Nausea has not left me, it holds me.”
There’s a deeper connection between the two novels as well. In his 2002 book Breaking Open the Head, Daniel Pinchbeck reports that Sartre tried mescaline in 1935 as a research subject in Paris. Pinchbeck writes that “long after the physical effect of the drug had worn off, Sartre found himself plunged into a lingering nightmare of psychotic dread and paranoia; shoes threatened to turn into insects, stone walls seethed with monsters.” Pinchbeck infers that this influenced the writing of Nausea—but he thought Sartre’s affliction lasted about a week. Actually Sartre experienced hallucinations of shellfish (usually lobsters, but he also called them crabs) for years, according to a 2009 book of conversations between Jean-Paul and John Gerassi, whose parents were close friends with Sartre. Gerassi quotes Sartre saying, “Yeah, after I took mescaline I started seeing crabs around me all the time. They followed me in the streets, into class… I would wake up in the morning and say, ‘Good morning, my little ones, how did you sleep?’” 
In 1954, thanks to Aldous Huxley’s The Doors of Perception, the Western world became much more aware of the potential promise of mescaline as a visionary aid. But interspersed with descriptions of his wondrous hallucinations, Huxley cautioned not to place too much expectation on mescaline for spiritual enlightenment. Still, the book was extremely influential in the literary world, and it paved the way for the psychedelic uprising that Leary and others would lead in the 1960s.
So it’s a bit surprising that someone in Kerouac’s position, writing a book like Big Sur in 1961, wouldn’t emphasize psychedelics more or even try to work them into the plot, if only through a flashback or some similar device. Not only did he largely leave them out of the book, but he even downplayed the way they had guided his own “mysticism”—something that, in retrospect, is clearly evident in books like On the Road (published in 1957), The Dharma Bums (1958), and Visions of Gerard (1963). Kerouac even amended the line about “the mad ones” early in Road that would become his most famous quote, and—perhaps not unexpectedly—the final wording seems influenced by his 1952 peyote experiments. In the 1951 “scroll” version (not published until 2007) it read “burn, burn, burn like roman candles across the night.” But in the 1957 version, the line went “burn, burn, burn like fabulous yellow roman candles exploding like spiders across the stars and in the middle you see the blue centerlight pop…”
It all seems even more suspicious after learning that mescaline actually renewed Jack’s faith in his unique prose style in 1959, just as peyote seems to have inspired the style initially in 1952. Soon after taking mescaline, Kerouac told Ginsberg that during the trip he’d had “the sensational revelation that I’ve been on the right track with spontaneous never-touch-up poetry of immediate report…” Kerouac’s “Essentials of Spontaneous Prose” held that writing should be “confessional,” “always honest,” and—the part most tied up with myths about Kerouac—have “no revisions.” We’ve already seen one case where Kerouac revised a work that he claimed to be an entirely spontaneous composition. So one can’t help but wonder—was Kerouac being as honest as he claimed in his prose theory? To begin to understand that, we must descend into Jack’s past.
In the spring of 1943, Kerouac enlisted in the Navy with the intention of serving the U.S. as a pilot in the growing European conflict. However, he failed the pilot exam and ended up in boot camp in Rhode Island. When he refused to participate in the drills one day, he was taken to the Navy’s psychiatric hospital for observation and was soon diagnosed with “dementia praecox,” which today would be called “schizophrenia.” But Jack’s symptoms are more important than the term applied to them, and in his letters to friends he didn’t seem too worried about what he called the “irregularity” of his mind. Writing to childhood friend G.J. Apostolos, Kerouac explained that he had a “normal” side (embodied in G.J.) that loved sports, drinking, and sex—and a “schizoid” side (embodied in another Lowell friend, Sebastian Sampas) marked by introversion, alienation, and eccentricity. But there are hints that this “schizoid” side was actually closer to the core of Jack’s true self, whereas the “normal” side may have been a show he put on to survive with schoolmates, family, and society. “It is the price I pay for having a malleable personality,” Jack wrote from the Navy hospital. “It assumes the necessary shape when in contact with any other personality.”
Had Jack grown up in the second half of the 20th century, he probably would have been diagnosed with “schizoid personality disorder” or “schizotypal personality disorder”—which are both considered “schizophrenia spectrum” conditions. The “schizoid” label corresponds to a preference for solitude, a lack of close relationships outside one’s immediate family, and an inability to express emotions. “Schizotypal” refers to these characteristics, but the person must also exhibit delusions, peculiar beliefs and superstitions, paranoia, and other similar traits.
This was a different time, and Kerouac’s condition was never fully understood by the people in his life. Yet if we’re going to comprehend what happened to him, we have to keep in mind that he undoubtedly fit the “schizotypal” diagnostic criteria. A series of letters that Kerouac wrote to Cassady around New Year’s 1951 help explain why.
When Kerouac was only four years old, a tragedy occurred that would affect him for the rest of his life. His older brother Gerard died of rheumatic fever in 1926 at the age of nine, and throughout life Jack harbored two “peculiar beliefs” that stemmed from Gerard’s passing. One was that he believed his brother Gerard was a saint, an angel, and even Jesus; the other was that he felt responsible—and, therefore, guilty—for Gerard’s death. In the letters, Kerouac claims to remember the events of 1926, despite his young age at the time. Not only that, but he says he remembers his own birth in March 1922. But Kerouac also seems conflicted. He admits to Cassady that some of his “memories” are based on family pictures, and says that he “wouldn’t be able to tell you this now, if everyone [in my family] hadn’t told me a thousand times, and each time I don’t believe it, because I don’t remember a thing…”
More importantly, Kerouac says that he considered dreams and memories to be equivalent. He thought a person’s dreams came “from that part of his brain which has stored up a subconscious vision of an actual experience.” This is basically a Freudian theory of dream analysis, which holds that the elements of conscious experience are repressed into the subconscious mind and then become dream content, sometimes expressing hidden (unconscious) wishes or desires. So when Jack had a dream of himself as a one-year-old baby, he regarded it as a playback of his own memory—though he had no conscious recollection of that time apart from the dream.
In addition to equating dream and memory, Kerouac also believed that “dream and vision are intertwinable with reality and prophecy.” In other words, when the young Jack became aware of Gerard’s inevitable death, that in his mind (even his adult mind) seemed to have been a prophecy of Gerard’s death—which implied that young Jack had actually caused Gerard’s death. It wasn’t just Jack’s awareness of Gerard’s condition that created the guilt, but actually an incident that happened shortly before Gerard passed. Kerouac thought he remembered carelessly knocking down Gerard’s erector set, which inspired Gerard to slap his face and yell harsh words. Burroughs helped Kerouac sort out these memories in 1945, figuring, as Kerouac put it in the letter to Cassady, “that I resented the slap in the face and wished Gerard would die, and he died a few days later.”
But Kerouac still seems confused, because a part of him remembered not really understanding what it meant when he found out Gerard was dead. He says he never cried, probably because he thought (in accordance with Catholic doctrine) that Gerard was at peace in Heaven. As Kerouac put it in 1951, “I knew, as I have never known since, that death does no harm…” One paradox inherent in Catholicism is that the Church instills adherents with a severe horror of death, while simultaneously asking them to believe in a Biblical afterlife. Jack apparently felt fearless again after trying mescaline, which is a common reaction to the psychedelic experience. As he wrote to Ginsberg in October 1959, “I now no longer sad about sadness of birth-and-death scene because all that I had divined about the truth…was SEEN not just divined or known—”
There’s a reason for Kerouac’s confusion: it seems that most of his “memories” from before the age of six are based on stories told to him by his parents, largely his mother. In the letters, Kerouac carefully points out which details are from his own vague memory (e.g., not knowing why his family cried about Gerard), and which are details that his mother vehemently defended as true despite Jack’s inability to remember them. In 1945 Kerouac even told his sister that, in his words, “…I feel as though I don’t have a mind or will of my own.” Therefore, Burroughs was helping Jack decipher mostly Gabrielle’s memories—memories that Jack assumed to be true because, according to his worldview, memories were equivalent to reality. Actually memory is very fallible, partly because every individual perceives the world in a slightly different manner.
Gabrielle’s version of reality was that Gerard had always acted kind and saintly toward Jack—but Jack became jealous of all the attention given to the sickly Gerard, and resented Gerard’s vengeful slap. But Kerouac notes that his mother suffered a “nervous breakdown” when Gerard died, during which all her teeth fell out. He writes to Cassady, “The sight of this holy child slowly dying might have affected her mind at the time, and her stories about him may today be exaggerated…” Yet he considered similar stories from his father and other relatives to be “verification” of Gabrielle’s version. Kerouac was even informed that a priest, neighbors, and business associates “spoke in the same way about Gerard: to the effect that he was the strangest, most angelic gentle child they had ever known.” But Pauline Coffey, a former neighbor of the Kerouac family, had a different impression of Gerard: “There was nothing exceptional about him. He was like any other kid—it was the mother—if you’ve ever lost a child, you would understand.”
When Kerouac reflected on these memories five years after his “confession” to Cassady, while writing Visions of Gerard in January 1956, he omitted all his own personal doubts and stuck to his family’s Myth of Gerard. Charters’ biography offers a perceptive analysis of that novel: “Mémêre’s stories about Gerard were the framework for Jack’s narrative… The world of his experience and the world of his imagination came together in Visions of Gerard as in no other book in the Duluoz Legend.” One of Gabrielle’s stories was key in establishing Gerard as a “saint.” As Kerouac tells it in the novel, Gerard fell asleep in class at their Catholic school and dreamt that the Virgin Mary took him away to Heaven in a “snow-white cart drawn by two lambs, and as he sits in it two white pigeons settle on each of his shoulders…” When Gerard’s teacher woke him, he announced that he had seen the Virgin, and “we’re all in Heaven–––but we dont know it!” Since this was in December 1925, about seven months before Gerard died, it’s implied that the dream was premonition of Gerard’s imminent passing, as well as his Heavenly designation as a saint.
Kerouac didn’t doubt that such a thing happened, which in his mind would have meant that Gerard literally met the Virgin Mary. That’s partly because Kerouac himself remembers experiencing holy visions as a child. He tells Cassady that his life “is filled with superstitions,” and in the Catholic Church “much mysticism is sown broadspread from its ritual mysteries…” Jack then tells of “the statue of St. Therese, whose head is often seen turning by madtranced watchers; whose head I myself saw turning, head-of-stone.” But biographer Paul Maher Jr. explains that Catholic school classes of that time viewed a motion picture in which the statue’s head was made to turn with trick photography. Whether or not the kids were told that it was an illusion, the point—just as with other religious indoctrination—was to convince them that it was actually possible. In that sort of fundamentalist Catholic environment—made even more severe by the delusions of his grieving and mentally unstable mother, who built up the Myth of Gerard to keep Jack in a state of constant inferiority and thereby manipulate him like a marionette—it appears that Kerouac felt extreme pressure to have mystical beliefs, superstitions, visions, and fears.
All of this must be taken into account when reading Big Sur, especially the segment towards the end when “Jack Duluoz” experiences visions of a cross. Kerouac writes, “For a moment I see blue Heaven and the Virgin’s white veil…by God I am being taken away my body starts dying and swooning out to the Cross standing in a luminous area of the darkness…” Of course, this is reported during the peak of Jack’s nervous breakdown, when he also allegedly hears voices speaking an indistinguishable language in his ear, senses a flying saucer searching for him in the trees, and mistakes a sleeping young boy for an evil warlock.
Just before then Jack had become increasingly disoriented, repeatedly saying or thinking, “I can’t understand what’s going on–––“ He says he wishes that Cassady were around to explain everything in a way that made sense. Actually this is the role that Gabrielle played in Jack’s life more often than anyone else. Just as Jack trusted mémêre’s version of the past, he also trusted her to interpret current events. And during Jack’s three-year imprisonment with his mother from late 1957 to early 1960, their “reality” consisted largely of fear over a supposedly imminent “Communist” uprising—a fear fueled by government officials and compliant mass media during the height of the Cold War. When “Duluoz’s” friends try to feed him in Big Sur, he thinks, “…this secret poisoning society, I know, it’s because I’m a Catholic, it’s a big anti-Catholic scheme, it’s Communists destroying everybody…in the morning you no longer have the same mind–––the drug is invented by Airapatianz, it’s the brainwash drug…”
In reality Kerouac was recalling his experience with Leary’s psilocybin mushroom capsules, which he describes—along with a reference to the “Dear Coach” letter—in his 12/28/1961 missive to Ginsberg: “I incidentally wrote Timothy Leary…that I think this is the Siberian sacred mushroom used by Brainwash-inventor Airapantianz to empty American soldier prisoners in Korean brainwash program—Because if you become so emptied you don’t even care if you’re Kerouac or Ginsberg or Orlovsky, and what that meant to you before, then you’re ready to become anything at all, for any reason, even perhaps an assasin [sic]?”
Unfortunately Kerouac projected any suspicion and anger he felt towards his mother onto other people, whether it was his late brother Gerard or father Leo, living individuals like Ginsberg or Kerouac’s first two wives (Edie Parker and Joan Haverty), or more hypothetical groups (in Kerouac’s immediate experience, that is) like “the Communists.” After mentioning the apparent brainwash potential in the letter to Leary after his January 1961 psilocybin trial, Kerouac wrote that he spent “3 days and 3 nights” talking with his mother while, it seemed to him, the mushrooms were still affecting his mind. The result, in his words: “I learned I loved her more than I thought.” Somehow Kerouac didn’t connect his concerns about brainwash potential with the effect that Mémêre was having on him. One can find examples of these mental slips involving his mother scattered throughout the “Duluoz Legend.”
Later in the letter, Jack included a statement that helps to answer the question of why he would downplay psychedelics in his fiction and public statements. As he told Leary, “It was a definite Satori. Full of psychic clairvoyance (but you must remember that this is not half as good as the peaceful ecstacy [sic] of simple Samadhi trance as I described that in Dharma Bums).” Kerouac intended for The Dharma Bums to be read as a resolution to the existential conflict so visible in earlier books like On the Road and The Subterraneans. He also hoped for it to be a life manual for anyone in a similar situation, because in the mid- to late-1950s he viewed Buddhism as “the answer.” In other words, Kerouac perceived the potential rise of psychedelic drugs in the 1960s as a threat to the usefulness of his own body of work. In turn, his disparagement of psychedelics—and his silence (outside of private letters) about their potential advantages—was propaganda for the Duluoz Legend.
In fact, Kerouac found little use for Buddhism in his personal life by the start of the Big Sur period. His devout Catholic family had been fighting him about it for years. And as he told Carolyn Cassady after writing Big Sur—specifically referring to the end of the book, which describes his mental breakdown—“I realized all my Buddhism had been words—comforting words, indeed—“ Despite that, he still made Desolation Angels a sort of sequel to Dharma Bums a few years later, keeping much of the Buddhist terminology in place.
But there was a more personal element to Jack’s spurning of psychedelics. As his own descriptions of chemical experiments attest, psychedelic substances can provide the very sort of “visions” (i.e., hallucinations) that were so cherished in the fundamentalist Catholic worldview. According to the “mysticism” that Jack knew as a child, visionary ability was even a primary criterion for becoming a “saint” (like Kerouac’s beloved St. Therese) or an “angel.” Therefore, if it became public knowledge—or if his mother found out—that his visions didn’t always happen spontaneously, then it would harm his attempts to live up to the Myth of Gerard, the larger-than-life standards that Jack’s mother had held for him since before he could remember. This is likely the reason why, after giving Ginsberg his “Mescaline Report” in early 1960, Jack wrote to Allen from Chicago (en route to San Francisco and Bixby Canyon), “Hold the Mescaline Notes till I get back in Fall—Don’t give em to my mother.” It’s probably also the reason why that “Mescaline Report” has apparently vanished from existence (though it might be in his archives in Lowell, MA, or at the Berg Collection in the New York City Public Library).
This differs substantially from the idea espoused by many of Kerouac’s biographers, who took a line of recorded conversation in the “Dear Coach” letter (“walking on water wasn’t built in a day”) as a sign that Jack saw very limited value in psychedelics. As it turns out, Kerouac’s literary treatment of psychedelics is one of many routes to a rude awakening about the Duluoz Legend, showing that it’s far less “objectively” true than commonly thought. In Big Sur, Kerouac wanted the cause of his mental breakdown to be alcoholism fueled by fame and “mortal existence,” not a spiritual awakening (or re-awakening) inspired by psychedelics, and definitely not his “tyrannical…mother’s sway over me” (as he referred to it once in The Subterraneans ). Furthermore, he wanted the cure to be “Christ,” “God,” the “Cross,” and his mother. As Kerouac writes on the last page, “My mother’ll be waiting for me glad–––“
We can deduce all of this by looking at Kerouac’s October 1961 letter to Ferlinghetti, whom Jack actually visited again in San Francisco before returning to the East Coast in September 1960. As Kerouac writes, “…I was going to have lots more at the ‘end’ when I come to your house 706 but suddenly saw the novel should end at the cabin…” So Big Sur ends the way it does because of a literary decision that Kerouac made, not necessarily because it depicts the way the events “objectively” happened.
Kerouac wasn’t only deceiving his readership; he was deceiving himself. His unwillingness—or, since it’s time we start taking his “dementia praecox” diagnosis more seriously, his inability to revise his view of reality and existence according to his own subjective life experience led to his early death in 1969. Just as a butterfly transforms from a caterpillar, he could have emerged from his chrysalis a twice-born being. The story behind Big Sur shows that Kerouac had the opportunity to progress through his existential crisis and live an entirely new life of liberation and prosperity. But his loss need not be our own.
 Kerouac, Jack. Windblown World. Ed. by Douglas Brinkley. New York: Penguin Books, 2004. pp. 61-66.
 Kerouac, Jack. Big Sur. 1962. New York: Penguin Books, 1992. p. 4.
 Kerouac, Jack. Selected Letters, 1957-1969. Ed. by Ann Charters. 1999. New York: Penguin Books, 2000. pp. 296-297.
 Kerouac, J. Windblown World. p. 62.
 Charters, Ann. Kerouac: A Biography. 1973. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1987. pp. 303-304.
 Kerouac, J. Selected Letters, 1957-1969. From footnote #1 by Ann Charters. p. 164.
 Kerouac, J. Big Sur. pp. 7-8. Long ellipsis was in original; short ellipsis is mine.
 Kerouac, J. Selected Letters, 1957-1969. pp. 252-253.
 Kerouac, J. Selected Letters, 1957-1969. p. 292.
 Maher Jr., Paul. Kerouac: His Life and Work. 2004. Lanham, MD: Taylor Trade Publishing, 2007. p. 414.
 Burroughs, William S. and Allen Ginsberg. The Yage Letters Redux. 1963. San Francisco: City Lights, 2006. From the introduction by Oliver Harris. pp. xx-xxii.
 Maher Jr., P. Ibid. p. 415. Ellipsis was in original.
 Kerouac, J. Selected Letters, 1957-1969. p. 419.
 In both the second volume of Selected Letters and Kerouac: A Biography, Charters writes erroneously that Kerouac took LSD (lysergic acid diethylamide) in January 1961. In the biography she also mistakenly states that Kerouac went to Cambridge, Mass., to see Leary.
 “Psilocybin Mushrooms.” Erowid. Accessed on 6/4/2011. http://www.erowid.org/plants/mushrooms/mushrooms.shtml
 Lee, Martin A. and Bruce Shlain. Acid Dreams: The Complete Social History of LSD: the CIA, the Sixties, and Beyond. 1985. New York: Grove Press, 1992. pp. 78-82. Note: they mistook Northport as being in Massachusetts, instead of Long Island, New York.
 An alcoholic Mexican drink made of fermented agave. See: “The Spirits of Maguey” by Fire Erowid. Erowid. Nov 2004. Accessed on 6/14/2011. http://www.erowid.org/chemicals/alcohol/alcohol_article1.shtml#pulque
 Kerouac, Jack. “Dear Coach: Jack Kerouac to Timothy Leary.” Acid Dreams Document Gallery. Website for the book Acid Dreams by Martin A. Lee and Bruce Shlain. Ellipses were in original. Accessed on 3/3/2011. http://www.levity.com/aciddreams/docs/dearcoach.html
 Kerouac, J. Selected Letters, 1957-1969. p. 363. I added “Benzedrine” in brackets.
 Kerouac, J. Big Sur. p. 211.
 “Peyote.” Erowid. Accessed on 6/6/2011. http://www.erowid.org/plants/peyote/peyote.shtml
 Kerouac, Jack. Selected Letters, 1940-1956. Ed. by Ann Charters. 1995. New York: Penguin Books, 1996. p. 336.
 Kerouac, J. Selected Letters, 1940-1956. pp. 368-369.
 Charters, A. Ibid. pp. 139-140.
 Kerouac, J. Selected Letters, 1940-1956. p. 371. Long ellipses were in book; short ellipsis is mine.
 Kerouac, J. Big Sur. p. 156.
 Kerouac, J. Big Sur. p. 200.
 Kerouac, J. Big Sur. pp. 208-210.
 “Nausea.” Wikipedia. Accessed on 6/6/2011. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Nausea_%28novel%29
 Sartre, Jean-Paul. Nausea. 1938. New York: New Directions, 1964. p. 18-19.
 Pinchbeck, Daniel. Breaking Open the Head. New York: Broadway Books, 2002. p. 122.
 Allen-Mills, Tony. “Mescaline left Jean-Paul Sartre in the grip of lobster madness.” The Sunday Times of London. 11/22/2009. Ellipsis was in original. Accessed on 10/31/2010. http://www.timesonline.co.uk/tol/news/world/europe/article6926971.ece
 Huxley, Aldous. The Doors of Perception & Heaven and Hell. New York: Perennial, 2004. p. 41.
 Kerouac, Jack. On the Road: The Original Scroll. New York: Viking, 2007. p. 113.
 Kerouac, Jack. On the Road. 1957. New York: Penguin Books, 1991. pp. 5-6.
 Kerouac, J. Selected Letters, 1957-1969. p. 363. pp. 252-253.
 Kerouac, Jack. Essentials of Spontaneous Prose.” The Portable Beat Reader. Ed. by Ann Charters. New York: Viking, 1992. pp. 57-59. Italics were in original.
 Kerouac, J. Selected Letters, 1940-1956. From editor’s note by Charters. p. 49.
 Kerouac, J. Selected Letters, 1940-1956. p. 56. This citation also goes with “irregularity” quote below.
 Korn, Martin L. “Historical Roots of Schizophrenia.” Medscape. Undated. Accessed on 6/9/2011. http://www.medscape.org/viewarticle/418882_4
 Kerouac, J. Selected Letters, 1940-1956. pp. 61-63.
 “Schizoid personality disorder.” BehaveNet. Undated. Accessed on 6/9/2011. http://www.behavenet.com/capsules/disorders/schizoidpd.htm
 “Schizotypal personality disorder.” BehaveNet. Undated. Accessed on 6/9/2011. http://www.behavenet.com/capsules/disorders/schizotypalpd.htm
 Maher Jr., P. Ibid. pp. 18-20.
 Kerouac, J. Selected Letters, 1940-1956. pp. 246-263, 282.
 Kerouac, J. Selected Letters, 1940-1956. p. 261.
 Kerouac, J. Selected Letters, 1940-1956. pp. 267-268.
 Kerouac, J. Selected Letters, 1940-1956. p. 269.
 Kerouac, J. Selected Letters, 1940-1956. p. 259. Also, p. 87.
 Kerouac, J. Selected Letters, 1940-1956. p. 272.
 Kerouac, J. Selected Letters, 1957-1969. p. 252.
 Kerouac, J. Selected Letters, 1940-1956. p. 249. He writes, “Six years later…I looked about for the first time and realized I was in a world and not just myself.”
 Kerouac, J. Selected Letters, 1940-1956. p. 88.
 Kerouac, J. Selected Letters, 1940-1956. p. 258.
 Kerouac, J. Selected Letters, 1940-1956. p. 253.
 Motier, Donald. Gerard: The Influence of Jack Kerouac’s Brother on His Life and Writing. Harrisburg, PA: Beaulieu Street Press, 1991. pp. 4-5. Quoted from Kerouac: His Life and Work by Paul Maher, Jr. p. 19.
 Charters, A. Ibid. pp. 254-255.
 Kerouac, Jack. Visions of Gerard. 1963. New York: Penguin Books, 1991. pp. 51-55.
 Kerouac, J. Selected Letters, 1940-1956. p. 270
 Maher Jr., P. Ibid. pp. 22-24.
 Kerouac, J. Big Sur. pp. 204-206.
 Kerouac, J. Big Sur. pp. 155-159.
 Kerouac, J. Big Sur. p. 203.
 Kerouac, J. Selected Letters, 1957-1969. p. 363.
 Kerouac, J. “Dear Coach: Jack Kerouac to Timothy Leary.”
 Kerouac, J. Selected Letters, 1957-1969. p. 353.
 Kerouac, J. Selected Letters, 1957-1969. p. 299.
 Kerouac, Jack. The Subterraneans. 1958. New York: Grove Press, 1994. p. 47.
 Kerouac, J. Big Sur. p. 216.
 Kerouac, J. Selected Letters, 1957-1969. p. 358.