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Jack Kerouac On the Road



I mentioned before that I had notes towards a lecture.  Here they are.  I shall try to add to them before the summer, especially incorporating some musical illustrations.  Beware! These are very sketchy, since when I gave this as a lecture I remained true to the spirit and improvised a lot!


 Webpage still under construction.

Three main sections:


1        East on the Road to West / West on the Road to East



2        Road novel in which kinesis is both a secular and a spiritual journey



3        Not only a "Beat" classic, but also a post-modernist novel: Moby-Dick meets Be-bop.







Born 5.30 p.m. 12/3/22

Biography:   importance of French Canadian immigrant background & working class origins. In that respect comparable with his hero Neal Cassady, Dean Moriaty. The sense of unease at Columbia University, Ivy League rich friends, he there on football scholarship.


In 1947 Jack hitched to Denver, where Ginsberg and Cassady were at the time.




          The ten days Jack spent in Denverwere a turning-point, at which he switched allegiance from his bourgeois professional friends to the group he later called "beat", of which Allen and Neal were charter members. Seeing how Ed, Bob, and Temko scorned Neal, Jack must have realized how readily they would have scorned himtoo, had he lacked the charm and prestige of his writing, since his background was closer to Neal's than to theirs. Ginsberg was considered déclassébecause of his sexual inversion, yet like Jack, he was tentatively accepted in the fashionable group because his literary efforts were formidable. In Allen's view, he and Jack were both "nouveau riche," that is, their acceptance into nice society was too recent and too contingent on future accomplishments for either of them to ever feel comfortable there.


Nicosia 1986, p. 194.








a        East goes West



A mid 20th century version of Turner's Frontier thesis. A rapidly speeded up version of development of American cultural identity; when exhausted possibilities go south to Mexico. The symbolic geography is also literally lived. Contradictions between the "fellahin" and the American dream: the money the girl the fast car / paradise here and now without the snake / transformed into anti capitalist, anti system search for other ways of seeing and being.




He (Jack) was planning to visit Bill in Mexicoin the summer and eagerly looked forward to another sojourn in that magic country. He loved the music and the slow, easy-going lifestyle. To him it seemed to represent a Utopian existence without hassles, a timeless peace. He and Neal favored Spengler's word 'fallaheen' to describe the culture, but since to them the term meant a people who weren't going anywhere but had already been and were resting before the next creative cycle occurred, it sounded to me like the impossible dream for these two men who loved dashing about looking for 'kicks.'


Cassady 1991, 166



In OTR Sal Paradise crosses social boundaries as well, but Mexicoand the Mexican is othered, as part of the emotional adventure, Mexicois the ultimate high (p. 217). Not so much fallaheen as hot hipsters.




b        West goes East



On the road, not just the materialist technological journey of western industrial society where physical space can be travelled over much more rapidly than ever before, but also the Dao, the journey, the Way, to realizing the impermanence, the transience, the constant flowing of atoms which constitutes life, the nowness of cosmic consciousness, paradise is here or nowhere, this is IT, there is no other.




(Ginsberg and Kerouac on Buddhism - see Cassady 1991 215-6, refer to Tricycle.) A distinctly American version of Buddhism, emphasis on personal enlightenment, spiritual kicks.






II       It:



          Rarely is the experience (cosmic consciousness) described without metaphors that might be misleading if taken literally. But in reading Bernard Berenson's Sketch for a Self-Portrait I came across a passage which is one of the simplest and "cleanest" accounts of it I have ever seen.


It was a morning in early summer. A silver haze shimmered and trembled over the lime trees. The air was laden with their fragrance. the temperature was like a caress. I remember - I need not recall - that I climbed up a tree stump and felt suddenly immersed in Itness. I did not call it by that name. I had no need for words. It and I were one.


Just "It" - as when we use the word to denote the superlative, or the exact point, or intense reality, or what we were always looking for. Not the neuter sense of the mere object, but something still more alive and far wider than the personal, and for which we use this simplest of words because we have no word for it.


          Alan W. Watts, This is It: and other essays, New York: Collier-Macmillan, 1971 1st publ. 1960, pp. 23-4.




Also quotes from a case reported by William James:




"Among other things, I did not merely come to believe, but I saw that the universe is not composed of dead matter, but is, on the contrary, a living Presence: I became conscious in myself of eternal life. It was not a conviction that I would have eternal life, but a consciousness that I possessed eternal life then; I saw that all men are immortal; that the cosmic order is such that without any peradventure all things work together for the good of each and all; that the foundation principle of the world, of all the worlds, is what we call love, and that the happiness of each and all is in the long run absolutely certain. The vision lasted a few seconds and was gone; but the memory of it and the sense of the reality of what it taught has remained during the quarter of a century which has since elapsed."




Watts then comments:




Nevertheless, the "consciousness that I possessed eternal life then" corresponds to the Buddhist realization that "all things are in Nirvana from the very beginning," and that the enlightenment or awakening is not the creation of a new state of affairs but the recognition of what always is.


          Such experiences imply, then, that our normal perception and valuation of the world is a subjective but collective nightmare. They suggest that our ordinary sense of practical reality - of the world as seen on Monday morning - is a construct of socializedconditioning and repression, a system of selective inattention whereby we are taught to screen out aspects and relations within nature which do not accord with the rules of the game of civilized life. Yet the vision almost invariably includes the realization that this very restriction of consciousness is also part of the eternal fitness of things. (...) For in some way the vision seems to come about through accepting the rightness of the fact that one does not have it, through being willing to be as imperfect as one is - perfectly imperfect.


          ibid., pp. 25-7




And of his own experiences:




At the same time, the present seemed to become a kind of moving stillness, an eternal stream from which neither I nor anything could deviate. I saw that everything, just as it is now, is IT - is the whole point of there being life and a universe. I saw that when the Upanishadssaid, "That art thou!" or "All this world is Brahman," they meant just exactly what they said. Each thing, each event, each experience in its inescapable nowness and in all its own particular individuality was precisely what it should be, and so much so that it acquired a divine authority and originality.


          ibid., pp. 31-2






In a tradition which goes back at least to Ezra Pound and American Transcendentalism, and stretches forward to post-modernist thought, Wattscritiques Aristotle and Aristotelian logic as part of the malaise of Western civilization which the Beat generation hoped to subvert. (see ibid, p. 35 : "But, unlike the Aristotelian, the mystic does not claim to be logical. His sphere of experience is the unspeakable."




On the Road can be seen as a visionary text, which seeks to break out of Aristotle and logical categories, and also to break out of a repressed, confined, claustrophobic culture; to break open a post war mind set which could be viewed as a society suffering anxiety and paranoia on a global scale. At that moment the Cold War mentality was offering a perfect example of binary thinking in the Western Christian tradition; what is not with us is against us, what is not like us is not just different but inimical to us; what is not good is evil; what is not American is a red threat, etc. what is not conventional is not just radically creative but also politically dangerous; in short McCarthyism, the Eisenhower era, etc. In this text, the Catholicism mingles with Zen Buddhist philosophy, in a radical revising of what is meant by angelic, beatitude and paradise; in a radical rewriting of values systems and of socially defined and accepted categories. As the Norton Anthology puts it:




          Some of the poetry of this period was avowedly political, tending in the 1950s to general protest and in the 1960s to more specifically focused critiques. The Beats of the 1950s - with Howlas their manifesto - had no one particular object of protest. Their work envisioned freer life-styles and explored underground alternatives to life in a standardized or mechanized society. The pun on the word beat linked them on the one side to a downtrodden drifting underground community - drugs, homosexuality, political radicalism - and on the other, to a new "beatitude," made available by Eastern religious cults, that many members of this generation espoused.


          Norton, vol 2, p. 2378.




(A good example of objective, academic prose, which I sincerely hope none of you will emulate.)




OTR 105-6, 170 definitions of IT.






III     Post-modernist



Refusal to stay within neat conventional categories; is this classic American literature in the making or jazz scat recorded on the page; is the distinction a valid one anyway. Is this fiction or libellous auto/biography?




Neal Cassady to Jack Kerouac (Christmas 1947, January 7th, 1948):




          I have always held that when one writes, one should forget all rules, literary styles and other such pretensionsas large words, lordly clauses and other phrases as such - rolling the words around in the mouth as one would wine, and, proper or not, putting them down because they sound so good. Rather, I think one should write, as nearly as possible, as if he were the first person on earthand was humbly and sincerely putting on paper that which he saw and experienced and loved and lost; what his passing thoughts were and his sorrows and desires; and these things should be said with careful avoidance of common phrases, trite usage of hackneyed words and the like. One must combine Wolfe and Flaubert - and Dickens. Art is good when it springs from necessity. This kind of origin is the guarantee of its value; there is no other.


          Carolyn Cassady, Off the Road: twenty years with Cassady, Kerouac and Ginsberg, London: HarperCollins, 1991, pp. 49-50.




For white society, jazz, like ragtime before it, and rock 'n' roll later, was perceived by some as a threat to fundamental values. Jazz was the 'devil's music'. A headline in the Ladies Journal in 1921 asked 'Does Jazz put the Sin in Syncopation?' This association was partially reinforced by the introduction of Prohibition in 1920. Music - including jazz - formed part of the underground entertainment culture which arose in response to Prohibition, a world which also included night-clubs and illegal drinking places. The association between these and organized crime is well known and some of this association rubbed off on jazz which became linked to 'low life', and jazz musicians came to be perceived as outsiders. This was one of the attractions of the new music, particularly to the young, and it became part of a revolt against established values. Jazz was associated withmodernity, with youth and change, and the jazz musician became a symbolic figure of revolt.


(Mitchell & Maidment, 1994, p. 197)




Neal Cassady to Allen Ginsberg, re OTR:




Great news that Jack's finished OTR; I trust in his writing, but fear for it because the theme of On the Road is too trivial for him, as his dissatisfaction shows. he must either forget it or enlarge it into a mighty thing that merely uses what he's written as a Book 1, since what he's done doesn't lend itself to stuffing, he should create another and another work (like Proust) and then we'll have the great American Novel. I think he would profit by starting a Book 2 with the recollections of his early life as they were sent to me and then blend that into his prophetic Dr, Sax. Of course, I'm sure I don't know what I'm talking about, but I do worry for him and want him happy.


Cassady 1991, 145.




If Kerouac is claimed as author of the Great American Novel and equivalent to Proust, how do we evaluate the literary style?




IV      Further Commentary

a        On the Road definitions of IT:


Move from contemporary America, materialist culture, possessions, cars, etc to this other consciousness which is equated with Jazz.


Compare Kerouac's "Belief and Technique for Modern Prose"


with Ginsberg's account of Carlos Williams'teachings and his practice in "Father Death Blues".






b        Buddhism

Definitions of Dharma


Dharma means:


1        one ultimate reality


2        ultimate reality as interpreted in Buddha's teaching - "Truth"


3        a reflection of this in our actions, acting in accordance with it = righteousness


4        "dharmas" = our common sense view of the world is hopelessly distorted by ignorance & craving: what atoms are to the modern physicists, dharmas are to the Buddhists.




A "dharma" is an impersonal event, which belongs to no person or individual, but just goes along on its own objective way. It was regarded as a most praiseworthy achievement on the part of a Buddhist monk if he succeeded in accounting to himself for the contents of his mind with the help of these impersonal dharmas, of which tradition provided him with definite lists, without ever bringing in the nebulous and pernicious word "I".


Conze, p. 23

Cf.     Dharma Bums, p. 171


or Cf. Ginsberg's emphasis on "mindfulness", on concentration on the breath, and contemplation of his father's, his teacher's, his guru's and his own death.




c        Allusions to Jazz esp. Bebop



A jazz style which evolved in the early 1940’s, characterizedby asymmetrical phrases, ornate melodic lines with much solo improvisation, complex rhythmic patterns, and more novel and dissonant harmonies than those used in the swing style of the preceding decade.


F. Tirro, Jazz: a History, 1977




LeRoi Jones, Blues People: The Negro Experience in White America and the Music that Developed from It, 1963, suggests that white jazz musicians have a more melodic style (p.30 on Charlie Parker).








OTR, pp. 197-8


as aesthetic for spontaneous composition.


Also, Bebop revolted against big band swing, to emphasise individualism, melodic inversion, rhythmic complexity, asymmetrical phrases, dissonant harmonies. Kerouac favours saxophonists; the analogy of "blowing" to spontaneous composition which avoids the "ironbound" rules of the conventional English sentence.


The transition from big band Swing, through a middle period to Bebop coincided with the cultural alienation, disruption and hysteria caused by WW2. leads to Cold War mentality, based on political fear and cultural anxiety, or to quest for alternative, subversive counter culture solutions. Leads to Beat and hipsters, cf. Norman Mailer, "the White Negro". Although Mailer’s version is more violent, destructive, existentialist, and alienated.


Kerouac’sversion of beat is a combination of the mystic and visionary with the style of the hot hipster. This can be seen as contradictory, or as a type of cultural syncretism, the reconciliation of diverse cultural beliefs and practices. The beats as figures that bring about transition from Jazz as American negro cultural form to mainstreaming of African-American musical forms. Connects through to the Acid Tests, with Timothy O’Leary, Grateful Dead, and on to Kesey’s Merry Pranksters.




In Conclusion

Kerouac and the Beats in general can be seen as highly contradictory figures, critiquing post-war 1950s middle America, and its cold war conservative values, yet at the same time living in a parasitical relation to it. The search for kicks, the irresponsible attitude towards women and other people’scars, can be seen as making a statement about excessive materialism, or can be seen as immature and selfish pleasure seeking. The interest in spirituality and Buddhism can be seen as part of a spiritual quest and as seeking an alternative to main stream religions withall their hypocrisies, or as playing with spiritual practices and traditions that they really didn’t understand.


But rather than phrase this as we can defend or criticise their contradictions and hypocrisies and inconsistencies, and would like to suggest that what Kerouac and Ginsberg achieved above all else was a cultural syncretism; bring diverse cultural practices into American art, really trying to effect cross overs in all sorts of cultural dimensions. And this bringing of the principles of African-American jazz composition to the “Great American Novel” is a real technical achievement, more important than some of the details of character and plot we might find politically incorrect and distasteful in retrospect.










Kerouac Steve Allen Show 1959 clip