Although I didn’t originally intend to read Dharma Bums in preparation for this trip, after I finished On the Road, I needed more Kerouac. I felt that delving further into Kerouac’s tales of beatnik debauchery would put me more in touch with that 15-year-old me, vegetarian, trying to grow dreadlocks, embracing The Grateful Dead and The Big Lebowski, choosing every alternative to the straight and narrow.
Now, that’s not to say I was a bad kid. I was too afraid of punishment to commit felonies or fall into hard drugs. I went to school and got decent grades just to keep the attention off. But internally I resented authority and wanted to rebel. I held the beats, and the hippies, on a pedestal. I read Desolation Angels, where Kerouac sits alone on a mountaintop a couple seasons as a fire lookout, and copied his poetry, meditations, and incantations to notecards, thinking I’d put them to music.
Or maybe I just like the way Kerouac writes.
Any way, by the first few pages of Dharma Bums, I realized that Kerouac’s voice had changed from On the Road. Instead of Sal Paradise standing passive to the action, a voyeur accounting for details, this other Kerouac persona, Ray Smith, had become a vocal Buddhist, proclaiming enlightenment, projecting himself and his philosophy onto the people and occasions of his novel. Ray Smith considers his own brand of Buddhism the ideal path to nirvana, and claims that characters suffer negativity from not listening to him better. This Ray Smith character is that arrogant Kerouac academics always complain about.
Kerouac almost admits as much, writing early in the novel, “I was very devout in those days and was practicing my religious devotions almost to perfection. Since then I’ve become a little hypocritical about my lip-service and a little tired and cynical” (5). The critics would concur with Kerouac’s own claim of hypocrisy and cynicism, and add that he misunderstands the Buddhist philosophy altogether. That’s probably true—he was a professed Catholic—but I still find his meditations provocative. To Kerouac at the time of writing this novel (it took 10 days total to write), meditation in nature is a way to commune with universal wisdom and realize that even though the flowers and the fog and the mountains astound with their beauty, they are no more real than a breath or a thought or a dream. Whereas one reaches nirvana through the realization of the ubiquity of the void, mother Earth and wine and song and well-spun words are rungs in the ladder of transcendence.
Like On the Road, the novel contains a hero other than Kerouac himself. This time it’s Japhy Ryder, a pseudonym for Gary Snyder. When Alvah, who meditates naked with beautiful 20 year old women, says “wow, Japhy Ryder is a great new hero of American culture,” I think to myself, Where’ve we heard that before? But again, Dharma Bums works differently from On the Road. Ray Smith doesn’t submit to all of Japhy’s desires; the two disagree, each standing up for himself and attempting an understanding about each other and the essential nature of the world, whereas in OtR Kerouac’s character seemed subservient to that great American hero Dean.
Chapter 27 is an interesting snapshot of Kerouac’s new assertiveness. On their way to Buddhist lecture and discussion in Berkeley, Ray decides he wants to get drunk and Japhy pleads with him not to, because the Buddhists would be so disappointed. They bicker all day as they wander The City and eventually Ray says he’d rather sit at home and get shnockered instead. Japhy, self-righteous about the issue, stays sober, goes to the meeting, and ends up getting drunk on sake with the “crazy Japanese saints” (192). He later bursts through the door to tell Ray he was right all along. It’s as if Kerouac wants to pen new Buddhist fables with himself as the sagacious yogi.
But the most memorable part of the book is when Ray, Japhy, and their other friend Henry Morley attempt to climb Matterhorn Peak. Bearded Japhy, wearing only a jockstrap and hiking boots, treks up the mountain while Morley rambles on and Ray examines his thoughts in communion with the mountain, saying near the top, “The pinkness vanished and then it was all purple dusk and the roar of the silence was like a wash of diamond waves going through the liquid porches of our ears, enough to soothe a man a thousand years” (71). Whereas in On the Road Kerouac personifies the landscape as an amorphous presence—fellow traveler, mother, site of tension—in Dharma Bums the landscape is beatified, holy, eternal, the source of all wisdom.
Atop the mountain, Ray’s reflections again turn into moralizations. He doesn’t get to the very top for fear of falling of the mountain, but rather huddles in an alcove just below the peak. When he sees Japhy get to the top then bounce his way back down, he writes, “I had really learned that you can’t fall off a mountain. Whether you can fall off a mountain or not I don’t know, but I had learned that you can’t. That was the way it struck me” (87). We should all remember that: you can’t fall off a mountain.
Despite its moments of lucidity, the haste with which Kerouac wrote the novel comes through in jumpy transitions, reckless punctuation, and careless treatment of Buddhism.
So why do we still read Dharma Bums? Because it helped shift the fringes of American literature toward a new spirituality and set the stage for the novels of the 60s and 70s steeped in Eastern philosophies.
How does Dharma Bums enlighten and inform my trip? It lets me know I can draw on 15-year-old Paul when I need to muster disdain for authority, but gives me satisfaction to know I’ve grown past that point as well.
And, of course, the accretive sentence that takes off like a rocket ship lives on: “Japhy and I were kind of outlandish-looking on the campus in our old clothes in fact Japhy was considered an eccentric around the campus, which is the usual thing for campuses and college people to think whenever a real man appears of the scene—colleges being nothing but grooming schools for the middles-class non-identity which usually finds its perfect expression on the outskirts of the campus in rows of well-to-do houses with lawns and television sets in each living room with everybody looking at the same thing and thinking the same thing at the same time while the Japhies of the world go prowling in the wilderness to hear the voice crying the dark wilderness, to find the ecstasy of the stars, to find the dark mysterious secret of the origin of faceless wonderless crapulous civilization” (39). In which three commas and an M-dash seem decadent.
I think I’ll settle at the fringe of the college for now, using my punctuation with care, and sometimes slipping out into the night to carouse with genuine Japhy sleeping in the bushes.