Tuesday, January 18, 2005

On the Road (Jack Kerouac)

This book is a wild, mad rollercoaster ride through the hearts and minds of a generation. Everything is so believably crazy and insane, one can't help but imagine it could happen to any one of us if we just let it. The themes of adventure, freedom, fearlessness, optimism, and acceptance are especially pronounced. A kind of Hero's Journey through the depths of ones mind and heart that vibrates and manifests on the material plane in regard to what's happening all around. The book takes you criss-crossing all over the United States lost in the adventures of circumspect Sal Paradise and crazy Dean Moriarty. Although I've never read Tom Sawyer or Huckleberry Finn, I've read of them, and my impression is here we have a great tribute to such enduring classics, though couched in the speak of a new generation. "Digging" everyone and seeing beauty everywhere even in the midst of paltry mediocrity, fostering a deep interest and curiosity of people and life.

The book continually reveals layers of people and culture with amazing clarity and insight. One is left with the impression that the work is based on the author's own personal experience, such is the depth of observation and attention to detail. The many adventures really brought home to me how paranoid we have all become in the West, how untrusting and fearful. Such a contrast with the people encountered in the later adventures in Mexico, a journey into the true unknown—"The New World." Also a symbol for the return to that childlike state we all find ourselves in at the beginning of our lives, a state of heightened perception and consciousness, where everything is so new, fresh, virgin, one profound discovery after another. That is, all until the machinery of conditioned society grabs hold of us, and forces upon us the monotony of our role as cogs moving forward it's wheels—all the while, being taught to pay relentless homage to the gods of unbridled greed, power, selfishness, and anything and everything lacking intrinsic value or meaning. Life stops flowing. Everything becomes planned to the finest detail. Our lives become mere shadows and pretenses of plastic experience concocted so we can lull ourselves into thinking we are genuinely partaking of life.

There are also some very philosophical sections hinting at getting TIME, about getting IT which I absolutely must quote. This seems to point markedly towards ideas in Eastern philosophy regarding the importance of moment to moment awareness. That the more present we are, the more IT manifests all around us. In a nutshell, stopping our continual reminiscing or regrets for the past, our compulsive planning or worrying for the future, and just being here, now. Letting all just unfold on it's own. Kind of Ram-Dassian, but then Jack Kerouac's followup book a year later was The Dharma Bums, so it all fits together.

In one extremely potent moment, as Sal wanders alone down the streets of San Francisco, desperately tired and hungry with no money in his pocket, picking butts from the street, passing by a fish-'n-chips shop on Market Street, and making eye contact with the proprietress:

[...] I walked on a few feet. It suddenly occurred to me this was my mother of about two hundred years ago in England, and that I was her footpad son, returning from gaol to haunt her honest labors in the hashery. I stopped, frozen with ecstasy on the sidewalk. I looked down Market Street. I didn't know whether it was that or Canal Street in New Orleans: it led to water, ambiguous, universal water, just as 42nd Street, New York, leads to water, and you never know where you are. I though of Ed Dunkel's ghost on Times Square. I was delirious. I wanted to go back and leer at my strange Dickensian mother in the hash joint. I tingled all over from head to foot. It seemed I had a whole host of memories leading back to 1750 in England and that I was in San Francisco now only in another life and in another body. [...] It made me think of the Big Pop vision in Graetna with Old Bull. And for just a moment I had reached the point of ecstasy that I always wanted to reach, which was the complete step across chronological time into timeless shadows, and wonderment in the bleakness of the mortal realm, and the sensation of death kicking at my heels to move on, with a phantom dogging its own heels, and myself hurrying to a plank where all the angels dove off and flew into the holy void of uncreated emptiness, the potent and inconceivable radiancies shining in bright Mind Essence, innumerable lotus-lands falling open in the magic mothswarm of heaven. I could hear an indescribable seething roar which wasn't in my ear but everywhere and had nothing to do with sounds. I realized that I had died and been reborn numberless times but just didn't remember especially because the transitions from life to death and back to life are so ghostly easy, a magical action for naught, like falling asleep and waking up again a million times, the utter casualness and deep ignorance of it. I realized it was only because of the stability of the intrinsic Mind that these ripples of birth and death took place, like the action of wind on a sheet of pure, serene, mirror-like water. I felt sweet, swinging bliss, like a big shot of heroin in the mainline vein; like a gulp of wine late in the afternoon and it makes you shudder; my feet tingled. I thought I was going to die the very next moment. But I didn't die, and walked four miles and picked up ten long butts and took them back to Marylou's hotel room and poured their tobacco in my old pipe and lit up. I was too young to know what had happened.

Wow. And again:

Now, man, that alto man last night had IT—he held it once he found it; I've never seen a guy who could hold so long... Here's a guy and everybody's there, right? Up to him to put down what's on everybody's mind. He starts the first chorus, then lines up his ideas, people, yeah, yeah, but get it, and then he rises to his fate and has to blow equal to it. All of a sudden somewhere in the middle of the chorus he gets it—everybody looks up and knows; they listen; he picks it up and carries. Time stops. He's filling empty space with the substance of our lives, confessions of his bellybottom strain, remembrance of ideas, rehashes of old blowing. He has to blow across bridges and come back and do it with such infinite feeling soul-exploratory for the tune of the moment that everybody knows it's not the tune that counts but IT...

And finally:

[...] the point being that we know what IT is and we know TIME and we know that everything is really FINE... Now you just dig them in front. They have worries, they're counting the miles, they're thinking about where to sleep tonight, how much money for gas, the weather, how they'll get there—and all the time they'll get there anyway, you see. But they need to worry and betray time with urgencies false and otherwise, purely anxious and whiny, their souls really won't be at peace unless they can latch on to an established facial expression to fit and go with it, which is you see, unhappiness, and all the time it all flies by them and they know it and that too worries them no end. Listen! Listen!

I wanted so much to be there with these crazy madmen as they traipsed across America and beyond in ultra-cool devil-may-care style. Wanted to let go, join them, lose myself, and become a little bit mad also.

The novel that defined a generation? Definitely—and inspired the next.


Anonymous said...

That last quote was amazing. I just read it in "On the Road" and wanted to type it up, but i figured it was so good somebody must have already typed it up and i could just copy it from Google. i was right. thanks


dalmazio said...

Yes, it's a great quote, and I'm glad there are others who can appreciate it. Jack Kerouac was among the best of the writers of his time. Gotta dig it.