The Beautiful Burden: Kerouac's Spirituality
Love. Work. Suffer. Jack Kerouac claimed these three words as his family's motto, the maxim propelling the "King of the Beats" as he waded through the beautiful muck of life that provided both hope and discontent for his soul. Recounting in Desolation Angels his summer of solitude as a fire lookout in North Cascade National Park, Kerouac's fictional embodiment Jack Duluoz sits alone atop the mountain contemplating the vast expanse of darkness spreading out beneath his cabin, saying, "Every night I still ask the Lord, 'Why? And haven't heard a decent answer yet" (39). Atop the mountain peaks and on the roads of life Kerouac searched for the answer, superimposing the ingrained Catholicism of his childhood with the possibilities uncovered through his adulthood experience, his studies of Buddhism and the works of German historian Oswald Spengler. Catholicism, at the foundation of his spiritual essence, formed within him a deep belief in God and Jesus that he carried into his Buddhist practice. Gary Snyder observed, "Catholicism is a devotional religion and Jack Kerouac's Buddhism had the flavor of a devotional Buddhism" (Carolan 1). Time moves forward and suffering continues as the soul's rebirth offers the hope of compassion and love and the ultimate enlightenment of nirvana. Struggling to reach this heightened state, Kerouac found the possibility in his romantic vision of the fellaheen and his mythic view of brother Gerard and friend Neal Cassady.
Through such religious and philosophical amalgamation Kerouac's quest formed an individual vision he hoped would apply to the universal struggle for truth and understanding. In a letter he expressed the desire "to work in revelations, not just spin silly tales for money. I want to fish as deep as possible into my own subconscious in the belief that once that far down, everyone will understand because they are the same that far down," thus forming "a great world religion based on the hopes and images of childhood and made into the form in the rational vigor of adulthood" (qtd. in Lardas 165). He finds the hopes of childhood lingering within him, revealed by those who have not lost such spiritual essence. He discovers in his lost brother Gerard and friend Neal Cassady the same purity that attracts him to the fellaheen, the realization of an honest compassion enveloping the suffering of life.
Kerouac's spiritual search focuses on an escape from this inevitable suffering and death brought on by time. Through his various religious ideologies he constructs hope by stepping outside a linear chronology of existence, concentrating on the Buddhist cycle of regeneration, the hope of past reincarnations and future rebirths leading to freedom from the pain of the present and the enlightenment of nirvana. Integrating Spengler's philosophy in this cycle, he viewed his generation as on the cusp of a new culture forming from the decline of the old. In The Town and the City, Peter Martin's friend Alexander Panos states "We're on the threshold of a new age, and God knows what it's going to be-in any case, hugely important to mankind!" (210). According to Lardas, the Beats' collective interpretation of Spengler "impressed an apocalyptic mentality upon each of them. Consequently, their lives and literature focused on the future as well as the perceived corruption of the present" (12). As with each rebirth, the coming of a new age offers the hope of moving closer to enlightenment through the realization of the present condition.
Time however drives on, making such realization difficult. In Desolation Angels Kerouac confronts time and his own inability to recognize its force stating, "The days go-/ They cant stay- /I dont realize" (44). Unable to realize the illusion of time's passing, he cannot break the cycle of suffering. To find spiritual enlightenment he must grasp the elusive it of comprehension, the realization of time's illusion. In Visions of Cody, however, he avoids linear narrative, escaping time and embracing the natural and authentic spontaneity of his prose. Jack acknowledges time's force through Cody's revelation.
I suddenly looked from myself to this strange angel from the other side (this is all like bop, we're getting to it indirectly and too late but completely from every angel except the angle we all don't know) of Time-which he kept talking about all the time. Cody now says 'Time-goes-by-fast!!-you don't realize or notice or come to tell how fast-time-flies!!' Beware, he is saying, time is flying; he's not saying later than you think, or Life begins, or the hour is struck, he just says that time is passing us all by this very minute. (296)
Cody realizes the force of time but refuses the torment of inevitable death, instead devouring the moment in a whirlwind of life and experience, moving from sensation to sensation rather than minute to minute. Time remains an illusion that dissolves with enlightenment. In On the Road Dean [Cody] explains this breakthrough with the example of a jazz musician they hear the night before: "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 " (194). Through his improvisation the musician stops time and finds the depths of meaning life holds. Natural spontaneity reveals spiritual truth just as "'Getting it' in jazz meant escape from linear constructions of time and exploring the rhythmic interface between self and world" (Lardas 156). Giamo further explains, "to know time is to escape its structure through improvisation, then the secret note is hit and the moment enlivened" (35). Dean gets it when Sal cannot. Time continues to push upon Kerouac the inevitable finality of death, exemplified in the 129th chorus of Mexico City Blues.
We are all in for it
And our time
Time is life, which results in the linear finality of death. Kerouac cannot fully realize the truth he senses underneath the suffering reminder of time, but refuses to end his quest.
Through his religious exploration Kerouac attempted to remove himself from the lingering reminder of the penalty of time and instead find Cody's holy exuberance for life. Ben Giamo, in his book Kerouac, the Word and the Way, explains, "the overriding appeal of Buddhism to Kerouac was that it offered him a fruitful illusion that alleviated the unbearable 'burden of time' and the discord bred of time, which haunted and dogged him throughout his life" (90). Through Buddhism Kerouac attempted to grasp the illusion of reality established by the chronological structure of time and the spiritual peace of death as part of the cyclical regeneration of the soul toward nirvana.
Buddhism's emphasis on the recognition of suffering attracted Kerouac, leading him to delve into minority cultures, dubbed "the fellaheen," and embrace their existence outside false social conformity. The fellaheen embodied an authentic suffering, freeing them from present societal corruption and the influence of linear time. Lardas explains Kerouac "understood Mexican Indians, like the nomadic shepherds of Arabia from whom Spengler derived the term [fellaheen], as a people without history, possessing neither past nor future but only the immediacy of the present. These people, by virtue of the cosmic potency of their blood, embodied the source and ground of all life" (181). The pain of time removed, faced only with the immediacy of the present, the fellaheen reflect a pure suffering unhindered by falsely constructed beliefs, thereby bringing them nearer to nirvana. Kerouac associates the fellaheen with the collective beat spiritual quest that he describes in his 1959 essay "The Origins of the Beat Generation."
One of them, Huncke, came up to me and said 'Man, I'm beat.' I knew right away what he meant somehow [T]he hipsters, whose music was bop, they looked like criminals but they kept talking about the same things I liked, long outlines of personal experience and vision, night-long confessions full of hope that had become illicit and repressed by War, stirrings, rumblings of a new soul (that same old human soul). And so Huncke appeared to us and said 'I'm beat' with radiant light shining out of his despairing eyes. (qtd. in Fisher 219)
Kerouac and the beats shared the rejuvenation of a new soul sprung from the old, spiritually rejuvenated through the cycle of rebirth, a step closer to enlightenment.
Struggling to grasp these revelations Kerouac turns to his spiritual model, the mythic image of Gerard, the brother he lost. Dying at age nine, when Jack was only four, he embodies the pure soul that Kerouac strives for but cannot attain. In Visions of Gerard Kerouac reflects, "He left me his heart but not his tender countenance and sorrowful patience and kindly lights-" (49). Bound by the same spiritual ideals, Gerard realizes the qualities Jack cannot. Through his brother's mythic construction Kerouac offers the epitome of the spiritual essence formed by his own Catholic and Buddhist beliefs.
The optics Kerouac trains on his brother add a certain solidity and depth to the virtues associated with Buddhism (karuna: wisdom and compassion) and Christianity (agape: love and justice). Through Kerouac's remembrance and construction, Gerard's 'sainthood' integrates the worldviews of east and west, bringing home to both Ti Jean and Jack the lessons of idealism, love of God, compassionate kindness towards all sentient beings, and the holiness of all life. (Giamo 116)
Gerard maintains this spiritual perfection by realizing the impermanence of suffering the pains of life and maintaining his ideals. Kerouac states, "it's still the same truth: none of it is even there, it's a mind movie, believe this if you will and you'll be saved in the solvent solution of salvation and Gerard knew it well" (57). What others, including Jack, could not realize Gerard reveals: "-don't be afraid my good sister, we're all in Heaven-but we don't know it!"-'Oh,' he laughs, 'we don't know it!'" (54). By realizing the illusion of reality, Gerard attains a higher level of spirituality. Watching his brother's agony, young Ti Jean sees that "Unceasing compassion flows from Gerard to the world even while he moans in the very middle of his extremity" (70). He maintains this spiritual essence by remaining eternally in the purity of youth, so much so as to inspire a Unitarian sermon drawing comparisons upon his mythic stature and that of Jesus Christ. Stephen D. Edington notes in his April 2001 sermon "The Gerard of Visions of Gerard represents the idealism, the innocence, the goodness, the promises and the dreams that are universally associated with young children because he is the child forever frozen in time as a nine year old. He also represents the holiness and sacredness of life itself" (4). Gerard accepts his suffering and illness while revealing to young Ti Jean the purity of compassion and love necessary for enlightenment. Kerouac recounts such a revelation in Gerard's scolding of the family cat after it devours a wounded mouse the boy had cared for.
Mechante! Bad girl! Dont you understand what you've done? When will you understand? We dont disturb little animals and little things! We leave them alone! We'll never go to heaven if we go on eating each other and destroying each other like that all the time!-without thinking, without knowing!-wake up, foolish girl!-realize what yo've done!-Be ashamed! shame! crazy face! Stop wiggling your ears! Understand what I'm tellin you! It's got to stop some fine day! There wont always be time!-Bad girl! Go on Go in your corner! Think it over well! (11)
The mythic Gerard, the ideal youth Kerouac so fondly recollects, endures the pain of life while realizing compassion and holiness and the impermanence of time. Death for young Gerard merely marks his transcendence, his enlightenment and envisioning of the truth breaking the suffering of time. Gerard refuses his father's statement, "We eat now, later on the worms eat us," and when asked what he will do otherwise Kerouac explains, "he'll go to heaven, that's what; enough of this beastliness and compromising gluttony and compensating muck-Life, another word for mud" (15). For Kerouac Gerard's death "means the passing away and salvation of a spiritual hero, a child and youth who embodied humility, kindness, and patient suffering-a pure soul destined to be an angel of heaven" (Giamo 114). Gerard dies but his death reflects a triumph of compassion, the ascension to something greater than worldly suffering. Gerard leads the way and unlocks the answers necessary to reach the spiritual heights Jack searches for. Until he realizes his spiritual quest and frees himself from the pain and suffering of the muck of life, he must remain burdened by suffering. But, behind that suffering remains the love and compassion that might lead the way.
Always looking for a spiritual guide, Kerouac carries his mythic vision of Gerard into the image of Neal Cassady, constructed in the character Cody Pomeray. Like Gerard, Cody understands life as Jack cannot, standing as a vision of purity just out of reach but forever close to his heart. Jack views the two in the same light: "Cody is the brother I lost Yes, Cody is the brother I lost--he could very well have been my brother instead of the actual one I had who died" (VOC 318).
Cody exults life with exuberance and passion for being. In reference to Cody Jack states, "life is so holy for him theres no need to do anything but live it," (BS 141). While Jack contemplates the depths of suffering, the sadness of death and pain, Cody embraces life for living. Jack sits across from Cody saying, "Whenever I realize that I'm going to die, I no longer can understand the meaning of life," to which Cody remains unresponsive, instead offering a recount of life, walking through the streets of Detroit and sitting in the grass (VOC 373). He remains in the childlike state of wonder, refusing the contemplation of death and time. Cody's immersion in life maintains his status as an "American saint" because he "remains spiritually vital and uncorrupted as a Christ figure whose destiny extends beyond his immediate environment onto the universal plane. Cassady [Cody] embodies the religious faith and compassion of Jesus, but his divinity is not based on other-worldly origins" (Lardas 207). He lives in the world, embracing the muck of life to rise above it. He lives not in the presence of time and death but existence itself as "godlike-ly aware of every single little thing trembling like a drop of dew in the world " (VOC 298). In his pure passion Cody reveals life's essence.
Atop Desolation Peak Kerouac views this essence of life and the spiritual truth he seeks. He states, "Hold still, man, regain your love of life and go down from this mountain and simply be-be-be the infinite fertilities of the one mind of infinity just flow, flow, be you all, be you what it is, it is only what it always is So shut up, live, travel, adventure, bless and dont be sorry" (DA 6). He sees it, uncovered by Gerard and Cody, yet it still remains ungraspable to Jack. Despite his pronouncement he cannot escape the lingering remains of haunting death and time's end. On the mountain he states, "I will come face to face with god or Tathagata and find out once and for all what is the meaning instead I'd come face to face with myself face to face with ole Hateful Duluoz Me" (4). He finds compassion and love crucial to his spiritual ascension, but remains unable to fully grasp it, able only to return to the muck he finds in himself.
Mixed with this suffering thought exists a glimpse of love and hope. In The Town and the City Kerouac describes Peter and George Martin's silent realization of life's beauty beyond suffering.
Peter and his father, by just looking painfully at one another, seemed to understand that to question the uncertainties and pains of life and work was to question life itself. They did that everyday, yet they did not hate life, they loved it. They saw that life was like a kind of work, a poor miserable disconnected fragment of something better, far greater, just a fragmentary isolated frightened sweating over a moment in the dripping faucet-time of the world, a tattered impurity leading from moment to moment towards the great pure forge-fires of workaday life and loving human comprehension. (472)
Beyond suffering lies something greater, compassion and love propelling the soul through earthly muck toward enlightenment waiting where the road disappears into the horizon.
Carolan, Trevor. "The Wild Mind of Gary Snyder." Shambhala Sun May 1996. 15 Dec. 2002. http://www.shambhalasun.com/Archives/Features/1996/May96/Snyder.htm.
Edington, Stephen D. The Pre-and Post-Easter Jesus. 8 Apr. 2001. 11 Nov. 2002. http://www.uunashua.org/sermons/palmsunday.shtml.
Fisher, James Terence. The Catholic Counterculture in America, 1933-1962. Chapel Hill: U of North Carolina P, 1989.
Giamo, Ben. Kerouac, the Word, and the Way. Carbondale: Southern Illinois UP, 2000.
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---. Visions of Gerard. New York: Penguin, 1991.
Lardas, John. The Bop Apocalypse: The Religious Visions of Kerouac, Ginsberg, and Burroughs. Urbana: U of Illinois P, 2001.