See more articles, reviews, fiction and poetry, including more of my writings, at group blog PLUTO'S REALM.

Tuesday, November 22, 2005

Jack Kerouac, an American Crucifixion

I just watched a documentary made in 1986 called What Happened to Kerouac? and I realized, with no regard whatsoever to what his work inspired or motivated or reflected in the changing society of his time, how much influence he had on my life. The film consists mostly of interviews with people, mostly famous people, who knew Jack, interspersed with lengthy readings by Kerouac of his own work, either in the films of a live appearance somewhere or accompanied by montages of the world in which he lived. You can see and hear Jack in an appearance in which he reads from On the Road , beautifully and perfectly, while Steve Allen plays piano, intercut with an appearance with William F. Buckley in which Jack, in the last year of his life, is drunk, often confused and inappropriate. I can't even tell you if it's a good documentary, but what it did to me is remind me of things that made me who I am, some of which I'm ashamed to have abandoned or misplaced.

I think I may have read On the Road first as a teenager, but if so I wasn't ready to work that hard to understand a work of art. I was introduced, or re-introduced to Kerouac by a friend who was artistically inclined and intelligent but self-destructive in a way Jack, ironically, would never have approved. I remember Jimmy touting the Ann Charters book on Kerouac, I believe his first biography. I read the book and was drawn in, not by Jack's work with which I was mostly unfamilar, but by his life. Jack was born of French Canadian parents in Lowell, Massachussetts in 1922, the same year my father was born, hundreds of miles south. He played football in school, went to Horace Mann and Columbia, where he dropped out after meeting up with Allen Ginsberg, among others, and dedicated his life to his art. His first book, a Thomas Wolfe-style novel, was published in 1950, after which he spent years writing numerous novels and works, until On the Road was published in 1959. Please forgive me if my dates are slightly off; in Jack's honor I am trying to get closer to the spirit of spontaneous blogging. If you want to read all about Kerouac, go here:

On the Road received some rave reviews, but after the intial applause, the critical response to Kerouac consisted of attacks on the man he was perceived to be. Who he was, as I observe him now, was the most honest human being I have ever seen. Honest in the existential(?) sense of admitting that he did not know more than he knew. He was by all accounts awkward except through his art. He adopted Neal Casady as his brother and alter ego, in more than just his art. In truth, Jack was honestly fascinated by the music and lifestyles he extolled in the books he wrote in between On the Road and its publication. He was a true artist; he honestly did not write for money or fame, but because he was born a writer and he had to write to live. Fame and misunderstanding destroyed him. The alcohol and drugs he took to get "high" in the sense of "exalted" turned into the alcoholic defensive shield that ultimately ate his body and mind. He was mistaken for Dean Moriarty, the persona of Casady who was the protagonist of On the Road." He was the unwilling father of the beatnik movement, which morphed into the hippie movement. He was one of the first Buddhists in modern America, yet he was also a livelong Catholic who claimed to vote Republican and hate Communists and Jews, and who was famous for sending a generation on the road while he himself, in between the trips he wrote about, lived with his mother until he died. He was acutely self-aware and was paralyzed by it, but he never pretended to be anything other than what he was, even when that perpetual assertion of his own truth through living seemed to others to result in contradictions. He was a loving man who was afraid of people and fascinated by them. He was Christlike in a way that no standard Christian because he followed the truth of his own heart, unfailingly throughout his life until he was crucified for it by the mortification of his flesh and the crown of thorns imposed by false publicity. I wish I had one tenth of his integrity.

I came upon this clearer perception of Kerouac at a time when I have need of his unfailing devotion to who he was and to those he loved. In the film, Gary Snyder, the West Coast poet who went on to a lifetime of Buddhism, talks about how Kerouac was able to incorporate all the comprehension of the true teaching of the Buddha at a time when there were almost no Buddhist teachers or even translated texts in America. He talks about how Kerouac's Buddhism was big enough to embrace and include his Catholicism. Mexico City Blues, his most famous long poem, is as Buddhist as it is Catholic. I come across this at a time when I am again troubled by the constrictions of the Buddhist practice I have adopted, for which I am truely grateful.

My mission in this blog is not to lecture you on Kerouac, although yeah I would love it if you came to know him. First, if you consider yourself an informed person about modern America, and you don't know Kerouac, you don't know Jack. But more importantly I want to tell you that I, who don't believe in saints, have again seen a saint in Kerouac. No, we all don't have to die of alcoholism of our mother's homes, hemorraging to death on the toilet. I personally would prefer not. I just turned 48; I've just outlived Jack Kerouac, who died at 47 in 1969. But we all have to live own lives, and in fact have no choice. But paradoxically it's the attempt to do so that makes us perfect. This is the truth about Buddhism, at least in my life, and it is the truth about Jack Kerouac.

So unless I change my mind, my New Years resolution to this year is to be who I am and to do best not to care what other people think. Which doesn't mean I won't try not to hurt the people I love. There is a difference in withholding behaviors and speech to avoid hurting people, and lying to make people like you. Try to figure this out for yourself.

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