My second Kerouac book was Dharma Bums. I liked the story lead-in: Ray snags a frosty ride on an open train gondola with the humbly intriguing "little bum." This appreciation of humanity, traveling the less traveled route, is what I really like about Kerouac. He shares his own meager bread and cheese and wine and notes:
"...at this time I was a perfect Dharma Bum myself and considered myself a religious wanderer. The little bum in the gondola solidified all my beliefs by warming up to the wine and talking and finally whipping out a tiny slip of paper which contained a prayer by Saint Teresa announcing that after her death she will return to the earth by showering it with roses from heaven, forever, for all living creatures.
'Where did you get this?' I asked.
'Oh, I cut it out of a reading-room magazine in Los Angeles couple of years ago. I always carry it with me.'
'And you squat in boxcars and read it?'
'Most every day.' He talked not much more than this, didn't amplify on the subject of Saint Teresa, and was very modest about his religion and told me little about his personal life. He is the kind of thin quiet little bum nobody pays much attention to even in Skid Row, let alone Main Street."
That is the kind of moment in life that I, myself, cherish. That moment when another human shares something of his soul with you. Something real. Special. A moment when it's impossible to hold any stereotypes in place about this person in front of you. You glimpse the Being behind all the social conditioning and masks. A moment of real sharing. Whenever that happens, I feel very privileged to be on that spot at that moment.
So, I was happy with Kerouac and his insight, enjoying the ride myself. But soon I felt less charmed. My first impression didn't continue too smoothly, in the first forty pages I reported crankily:
I'm reading Dharma Bums now, I'm feeling that familiar irritation ...Kerouac is 30-some years old in this book (1955) and still seems to be mired in adolescent fascinations ...mostly getting drunk on gut-rot wine and making girls, with interesting conversations thrown in between the puerile parts ...maybe my insight will develop further.
Later: Okay, so it wasn't immediate enchantment. And I got really worked up about some aspects of the story (see below). In fact, when I finished: I had to give it a rest, come back almost a year later, and read it all over again, to get to where I am now --which is... I really found something different and special this time around.
That difference came out of my being able to approach the book, in a new reading, with increased interest and hope. One of the reasons I found the book difficult the first time was my acquaintance with some of the tragic facts hovering behind the book's events: mainly "Rosie's" suicide and Kerouac's own eventual death (of complications of alcoholism) while still relatively young, and --for that matter--Neal Cassady's early death. These thoughts dogged me like a depressive shadow.
I also was accumulating more and more resentment about Jack's negative sexist attitudes toward women, although I realize that this is partially a product of his times. I seem to have to work through this irritation with almost all the male writers of the 50's and earlier (I have plenty of trouble with both Hemingway and Steinbeck, even though I love the writing). The comments I made after my initial reading were helpful in a cathartic way. But to come back to the book with more patience and acceptance took two other experiences.
One of these was my engendered curiosity about Gary Snyder, upon who the story's hero --Japhy Ryder --is based. Now whether Japhy is a very accurate picture of Snyder at that time, I can't say. It think it's a fair picture of Kerouac's vision of Snyder, but that's all that can be assumed. However, it was an intriguing description, and I decided this was one "Beat" I might find even more interesting than Jack. This proved accurate.
Suffice it to summarize that my reading of Snyder gave me a sense of a productive and inspiring life that I could take back to my reading of Dharma Bums. Now I knew that the future of all these characters wasn't going to be solely a vortex of impending melancholy and early death. That was helpful to my mood in re-reading it.
Secondly, I was fortunate to strike up a correspondence with another reader of Dharma Bums who was able to share his own --more positive --viewpoint of the book. When I asked about his own reaction to Dharma Bums, he had a very eloquent answer, from which I can only snip a bit here to use one of the phrases that made me re-think:
"I recall a prevailing feeling of friendship about the book."
That struck me as very true and sadly overlooked in my own reading. So, thank-you Ghunner Langner, for inspiring me to re-examine my own reactions and re-experience Dharma Bums in a whole new way. It was worth the re-read!
I also had come to realize that I wasn't connecting with any humor at all in the book. It seemed unlikely that there was none, so I concluded I must have not appreciated it. Humor is an odd thing, it's so easily mistaken in print for other feelings, so easily misinterpreted. I wondered if occasionally Kerouac was making a joke and I was taking him so seriously that I missed it and ended up angry. I resolved to take things more lightly; perhaps I would discover Jack's sense of humor.
Below is my original (highly negative) entry about Dharma Bums. However, I've created a new portion after that to address my changed perception on subsequent re-readings. Look for that further down, under "Dharma Bums Re-Examined." I actually have come to regard it as my favorite book by Kerouac.
I also wonder if some of the disjointed roughness of style is simply the evidence of cumulative cortical neuron death as the alcohol steeped years pass for Kerouac. I have to wonder if Kerouac simply finds it more difficult to focus and report as sharply as he once did ...if the mental edge is dulling. A sad thought.
So, on reflection, I think my early difficulties with the book stem from my reaction to what I consider Kerouac's self-immersion and immaturity that is so encompassing that I find his thoughts and behaviors damaging to others. I get impatient with things like his admiring description of young Japhy's ability to control one of his infatuated young girlfriends and have her perform yabyum as a "Holy concubine" (undress at Japhy's command and engage in group sex with Japhy and Ray (Jack) and Alvah). Ray admits to being conscience-striken about wanting to seduce the girl, Princess, previous to this because she was so young, but now everything is just fine because:
"...but when I heard her say "Bodhisattva" I realized she wanted to be a big Buddhist like Japhy and being a girl the only way she could express it was this way, which had its traditional roots in the yabyum ceremony of Tibetan Buddhism, so everything was fine."
WARNING: Rant of Righteous Indignation about to ensue in next paragraph:-)...
Oh gosh, now I see, everything was fine! Sounds just like the rationale behind gang membership rituals reported by some of the young teen girls I worked with: for a girl to be a gang member, she must first have sex with every male gang member. Sigh, something tells me this kind of male initiated ritual is as old as time. Excuse me if I don't jump on Kerouac's enthusiastic support of the "Zen Free Love Lunacy orgies" with young girls; I'm afraid I immediately start thinking that in this World of Illusion, how very nitty-gritty and intense are the Non-illusory experiences of pregnancy, childbirth, and illegitimacy in the 1950's, with no reliable contraceptive methods. Tell that to young girls seeking back-alley abortions. Tell that to the children raised in poverty long after their biologic fathers have wandered off in search of more "free" love... and ... and ...
Okay, okay ...I know that just about every young guy out there reading that portion of the story ...uh, and probably most all the males of ANY age ...were in total admiring empathy with Ray and Japhy. It's undoubtedly a wonderful masculine coup and makes a great fantasy:-) On that level, I find it amusing. On a real-life level ...that's another story.
I also ran into a similar problem when he related the story of Rosie, his friend Cody's girlfriend. Since Rosie really did exist as a troubled young girl, Natalie, who was involved in an affair with married Neal Cassady, I probably react more strongly to Kerouac's tale. As he describes his self-absorbed attempt to reason the girl out of her emotionally disturbed state, I am feeling more and more disgusted with him. He has on his hands someone who his friend has asked him to babysit since she was already cutting on herself (self-mutilating) earlier that day; as a means of "comfort" to the distraught Rosie, he offers:
"It's nothing but bullshit!" I yelled and suddenly I had the feeling I always got when I tried to explain the Dharma to people, Alvah, my mother, my relatives, girl friends, everybody, they never listened, they always wanted me to listen to them, they knew, I didn't know anything, I was just a dumb young kid and impractical fool who didn't understand the serious significance of this very important, very real world."
"...But you're getting these silly convictions and conceptions out of nowhere, don't you realize all this life is just a dream? Why don't you just relax and enjoy God? God is you, you fool!"
"Rosie" commits suicide before morning. I realize that it's my own real-life work with suicidal clients in a social service setting that makes me so impatient here. Maybe my own hard-won knowledge and skill is not a reason to judge Jack harshly, but I can't think of anything more useless and counterproductive than further invalidation of the poor girl's reality and Kerouac's self-pitying tantrums when she doesn't immediately shape up and agree with his world view. In fact, Kerouac's own reality is clearly pretty shakey and he describes becoming very fearful as her paranoia infects him and he stomps out of the apartment in a fit of anxiety-ridden petulance. Perhaps I'm too hard on poor Jack, just because he never grew up or competently addressed any responsibility in his life... but I was angry with him and had to work beyond that to sift out my own meaning from the remainder of the book.
Already knowing what happens to the true-life counterparts of the story's characters produced a feeling that I was riding an endless tide of deja-vu ...with tragedy constantly hovering nearby. Even Kerouac's epiphanies, where he rises up out of the drink and the despair and experiences a healing of Nature, are shadowed by sadness ...since I already know where the rest of his life is heading. I could wish that Japhy hadn't abandoned Ray to a show of fraternity ...a kind of --okay buddy, I tried to call you on your self-destructive drinking, but since it creates discomfort and I'm young and confused about where the lines are myself, we'll just call it fine and great...the kind of go-nowhere interaction that seems so common among the friendships of men, young men in particular.
But moving beyond, to experience Kerouac's brief glimpse at a kind of personal salvation, I really did love his backbacking adventures with Japhy and that watershed summer perched on Desolation Peak. I could only have wished that it had lasted for him.
(to be continued ...I need more perspective on this one, Summer '97)
Dharma Bums Re-examined
Well, I actually did discover Jack's sense of humor, it just took a lighter touch on my part. I think one
of my favorite little parts has to do with the spontaneous touch of conflict that Ray (Jack) and Japhy's
personality differences engender. Ray wants to sit around and dream, meditate, "goof." Japhy keeps busy and is
always working or doing something constructive when not actively meditating or partying. I was amused by
a bit of this:
"...I just sat around in the grass doing nothing, or writing haikus, or watching the old vulture circling the hill. 'Must be something dead around here,' I figured.
Japhy said 'Why do you sit on your ass all day?'
'I practice do-nothing.'
'What's the difference? Burn it, my Buddhism is activity,' said Japhy rushing off down the hill again. Then I could hear him sawing wood and whistling in the distance."
"He'd come barging into the shack with his saw and see me sitting there and say
'Why did you sit around all day?'
'I am the Buddha known as the Quitter.'
Then it would be when Japhy's face would crease up in the funny littleboy laugh of his, like a Chinese boy laughing, crow's tracks appearing on each side of his eyes and his long mouth cracking open. He was so pleased with me sometimes."
Perhaps one of the most interesting aspects of Kerouac's books is his creation of a Beat history in an intimate and folksy way, the spinning of tales that become the stuff of Mythos.
So, in Dharma Bums you get to experience a version of "It's the night of the poetry reading at Six Gallery in San Francisco, the night of the birth of the San Francisco Poetry Renaissance, and ...
(And all of you youngsters out there, born too late to sit through endless newsreel-like re-enactments of history lessons
--said in dramatic voice:
"It's Washington Crossing the Potomac! ...and YOU ...ARE ...THERE!!!"
"Mr. Washington, could we ask you a few questions?"
"Why, yes, of course...,"
--just experienced this whole little out-take as flying straight over your head.)
But as Kerouac says:
"Everyone was there. It was a mad night. And I was the one who got things jumping by going around collecting dimes and quarters from the rather stiff audience standing around in the gallery and coming back with three huge gallon jugs of California Burgundy and getting them all piffed so that by eleven o'clock when Alvah Goldbook was reading his, wailing his poem "Wail" drunk with arms outspread everybody was yelling 'Go! Go! Go!' (like a jam session) and old Rheinhold Cacoethes the father of the Frisco poetry scene was wiping his tears in gladness."
...and Japhy was there, with "fine poems about Coyote the God of the North American Plateau Indians (I think)...'Fuck you! sang Coyote, and ran away' read Japhy to the distinguished audience, making them all howl with joy, it was so pure, fuck being a dirty word that comes out clean" and also "tender lyrical lines ...and great mystery lines ..showing his knowledge of Oriental literature ...his sudden bar-room humor ...and anarchistic ideas about how Americans don't know how to live, with lines about commuters being trapped in living rooms that come from poor trees felled by chainsaws ...His voice was deep and resonant and somehow brave, like the voice of oldtime American heroes and orators. Something earnest and strong and humanly hopeful I liked about him..."
Another aspect that seems universally enjoyed (so far of those few surveyed by me:-) is the trip up Matterhorn. With the company of a highly idiosyncratic friend, Henry Morley, Ray and Japhy's adventure proceeds with mundane stops and starts, with Morley providing conversational counterpoint bordering on word-salad:
"'Sure,' says Morley wheeling the car around increasing curves, 'they're boarding reindeer greyhound specials for a pre-season heart-to-heart Happiness Conference deep in Sierra wilderness ten thousand five hundred and sixty yards from a primitive motel. It's newer than analysis and deceptively simple. If you lost the roundtrip ticket you can become a gnome, the outfits are cute and there's a rumor that Actors Equity conventions sop up the overflow bounced from the Legion. Either way, of course, Smith' (turning to me in the back) 'and in finding your way back to the emotional wilderness you're bound to get a present from ...someone. Will some maple syrup help you feel better?'When they're about a 1000 feet below the peak, Morley kicks back right there. Ray follows Japhy's double-time ascent, but starts to lose touch:
and that was Morley."
"What I didn't like about that peak-top was that the clouds of all the world were blowing right through it like fog."
..."I looked back and like Lot's wife that did it. 'This is too high!' I yelled."
Crouching on a ledge, Ray watches Japhy make it up to the peak:
"Suddenly I heard a beautiful broken yodel of a strange musical and mystical intensity in the wind, and looked up, and it was Japhy standing on top of California and in all that rushing fog. But I had to hand it to him, the guts, the endurance, the sweat, and now the crazy human singing: whipped cream on top of ice cream. I didn't have enough strength to answer his yodel. He ran around up there and went out of sight to investigate the little flat top of some kind (he said) that ran a few feet west and then dropped sheer back down maybe as far as I care to the sawdust floors of Virginia City. It was insane."
"Then suddenly everything was just like jazz: it happened in one insane second or so: I looked up and saw Japhy running down the mountain in huge twenty-foot leaps, running, leaping, landing with a great drive of his booted heels, bouncing five feet or so, running, then taking another long crazy yelling yodelaying sail down the sides of the world and in that flash I realized it's impossible to fall off mountains you fool and with a yodel of my own I suddenly got up and began running down the mountain after him doing exactly the same huge leaps, the same fantastic runs and jumps, ...leaping and yelling like mountain goats or I'd say like Chinese lunatics of a thousand years ago..."
The mountain-climbing story is beautiful in many ways, and I also felt like I had a chance to share the companionship between Ray and Japhy. It was so near, that vision of being on the mountain, the icy diamond water in hands and mouth, squatting by the fire as it reflected off the ancient rock face left behind in glacial time, pushing the body with energy bursts through the exhausting altitude, the wind tearing and buffeting, the world spreading out in dizzying expanse below, the soul in flight --being every thing, oneness and nothingness ...all at same instant of time.
That is a gift of story-telling.
So, I must take back my earlier comment that Dharma Bums lacks the story-telling quality of On the Road, it's simply a different story and a different style.
Only at the end would Ray go to his own experience of solitude on Desolation Mountain, following Japhy's cue. There he would have an appointment with a mountain, the one he faced every day awakening or suddenly wakened at night:
"Hozomeen, Hozomeen, the most mournful mountain I ever seen, and the most beautiful as soon as I got to know it and saw the Northern Lights behind it reflecting all the ice of the North Pole from the other side of the world."
But just as Ray feared the towering lithics of the Matterhorn plateau where he and Japhy camped --while Japhy saw them as perfect Buddhas and a place to seek solitude within Nature --I don't hear Ray ever really coming to terms with the price of the mountain. It's been my own experience, sometimes rapturous, sometimes too overwhelming that: to face vast expansive presence co-existent with great emptiness, is to face one's own soul.
Jack learned how to come down a mountain, but I don't think he ever really grasped the will to truly arrive there in the first place.
More of that in Desolation Angels.
So overall, I've come to my own place of peace, even of affection and appreciation, with the story of Dharma Bums. It's a story full of the silly and sometimes sad strivings and misunderstandings of humans, and even more, of the warm and wonderful things of being human ...the mysterious and the familiar. Like a friendship, it has its sweet strengths and some hurtful weaknesses: a piece of this world. It had many gifts to give me, and I thank it for each one. And for you, Jack Kerouac, troubling and exasperating and clumsily treading on my own blisters, still I thank-you.
At times, Jack takes himself to task for saying and writing too much, instead of just being. As anyone who's read to this point may concur --it's a failing of mine own:-> So with that in mind, here's Japhy to Ray:
"Just think, Ray, what it was like right here on this hill where our shack stands thirty thousand years ago in the time of the Neanderthal man. And do you realize that they say in the sutras there was a Buddha of that time, Dipankara?"
"The one who never said anything!"
"Can't you just see all those enlightened monkey men sitting around a roaring woodfire around their Buddha saying nothing and knowing everything?"
And later, on Desolation, Ray would say:
"I called Han Shan in the mountains: there was no answer. I called Han Shan in the morning fog: silence, it said. I called: Dipankara instructed me by saying nothing."
(Whoops, Susan's links seem to have disappeared. I'll go on Safari, but whether I'll recover the links is unknown...) Susan Burton's Dharma Bum interpretation: Uniform in Dharma Bums is definitely, uh ...well, a really different twist on things. Susan manages to line Dharma Bums up as the predecessor to Patagonia catalogs (?!!). Can't say that I'd call Dharma any sort of version of "The Marketing of the Wilderness" (see Susan's project) --not exactly riding high on a wave of materialism, but she has her view...and there's an interesting array of links.
Buddhism and the Beats