August 11, 2012

Saturday Morning Essay: Reading The Dharma Bums again

Brought to you by Peet's Costa Rica blend.

It's one of life's interesting things to do to read the same book at different points in one's life.  An old and dear friend of mine, now long gone, once remarked that so much of what we glean from reading depends on "what we bring to the book."  I hear that.  That's what happened when I read Jack Kerouac's The Dharma Bums recently.  It was probably my third reading, I would say, but the first one in decades.  I always liked this Kerouac book more than On The Road, although the latter book, I appreciate, was the seminal work of the Beat Generation.

The Dharma Bums came out just after On The Road finally found a publisher.  Kerouac was living in a small cottage in Orlando, Florida and wrote Bums in about eleven days.  To avoid breaking his stream of consciousness while typing, Kerouac taped pages of teletype paper together so that he could feed a ten-foot length of paper into the typewriter (the Bancroft Library at Berkeley has the similarly written manuscript for On The Road).  When you consider how (and how fast) it was written, passages from The Dharma Bums seem all the more astonishing.  Such as: 

"Everything was fine with the Zen Lunatics, the nut wagon was too far away to hear us.  But there was a wisdom in it all, as you'll see if you take a walk some night on a suburban street and pass house after house on both sides of the street each with the lamplight of the  living room, shining golden, and inside the little blue square of the television, each living family riveting its attention on probably one show; nobody talking; silence in the yards; dogs barking as you pass on human feet instead of on wheels.  You'll see what I mean, when it begins to appear like everybody in the world is soon going to be thinking the same way and the Zen Lunatics have long joined dust, laughter on their dust lips."

It so happens that I grew up in a neighborhood that was absolutely perfect for just such a nighttime ramble.  As a kid, walking what I would guess was the mile from TJR's house to my own, at night under the street lamps, through the housing tract.  And there it was, "house after house," just as Kerouac wrote, the tableaux (Keroauc was of French-Canadian stock after all) of American nuclear families in their small living rooms watching the blue fire of television, internalizing the same stories, the same cheesy morality plays of the American sitcom, the grainy black-and-white globules of useless information we substituted for human community. 

Culture, even one as decadent as the American culture of Eisenhower and post-Eisenhower America, exerts such a powerful, deranging force on the personality that Kerouac remained defensive about his "bum" life, as you can discern from the above passage.  Shouldn't he have been inside one of those little houses watching television, with his life insurance current, his medical plan in place, his car payments up to date, his mortgage half-paid, the kids' orthodontia taken care of, the freezer packed, the two-week vacation planned, even the funeral plot purchased? 

My cousin the Santa Cruz writer, now no longer in the same corporeal form but returned to the star atoms from which he, and all of us, coalesced (and to which we shall all return), included among his aperçus (he was very good with the trenchant aperçu), that it is at the beginning of social trends that we often see the greatest, and most telling, rebellion, because the artists and other observers can most clearly see the trend for what it is.  So it was for the Beats.  American conformity of the Eisenhower Generation (and all that followed) wasn't a cool scene, man.  It was like nowhere. 

Like Vincent Van Gogh, Kerouac may have had too beautiful a soul for this world.  The pain was too intense.  As Gary Snyder (fictionalized as "Japhy Ryder" in Bums) remarks about him, Jack had a "great pity for the world and all the living things within it." Kerouac sought refuge wherever he could, in the nonsense of Zen Buddhism, in alcohol (he was an alcoholic Zen Buddhist, worthy of a koan in itself), but mostly in the physical beauty of the natural world, in moonlight, the Steep Ravine Trail over Mount Tamalpais, the eastern reaches of the Sierra Nevada, the Skagit Valley of Washington state.  He lived 47 years before his addicition killed him.  I doubt that he would have lasted as long in our day and age.