Sunday, April 25, 2010

Jack Kerouac's "Some of the Dharma": Book Review

If it wasn't him, we'd not be reading this. "In me there's a Buddha/ Impressing himself through this mold of darkness/ Morning will come & these writings/ will be revealed to the world for pity." (288) Kerouac, from 1953-6, filled ten notebooks with his reflections. Readers of "The Dharma Bums" & "Wake Up! A Life of the Buddha" (see my reviews also on Amazon for "Dharma Bums" and for "Wake Up!") may welcome these extended ruminations, but they're likely to weary those less enamored with the Beats or the Buddha.

Over four hundred pages try to offer a facsimile in their spacing and type of the spiral-bound notebooks from which Kerouac took elements for "Wake Up!" and "Dharma Bums." (See chapters 8-9-10, where the tone lightens up somewhat and the poetry "pops" break up the didactic prose.) At the start of 1955: "I dont really want to write systematic books of literature any more, just these private memorial notes..." (221) At 33, he sought enlightenment. He tried to live alone: "a man doesnt need a woman, or a cigarette, or a house"-- as he resolves to survive on one full meal a day, no intoxication, and detachment from his friends, to pattern his ascetic life as a "bhikku," what he renders a "dharma bum."

He witnesses fellow beings wrenched into shapes.
"All sentient life is tortured-- the bird, the March wind, the twisted branches, the wiggling gory-grackened-claw-pushing-into-Void leaves, the inconceivable anxiety of clouds changing the light on hills, the twit wrung out of the night bat's throat (night airmouse)...the wild outreach of the boy's kite like a Sage's false hopes----life sending out its agony into space and doesnt know what to do Agony of all living things The cold clay earth, its huge camp of solidity----the disturbable water with haggard bugs rushing out of the mud....The motion of wind...The revolvement of the spheres---But Compassionate Tathatagata mourns." (20)

He can be pithier. "Desire for learning is a ravening hound, wisdom is the kitten./ A Kitten eats, sleeps & purrs. This is Tao." (222) He can be relevant. Kerouac certainly predicts the counterculture he helped create as he responds to a story about
"Pay increases for prosecutors" as "tax-slash battles in Congress" consume taxpayer savings. He muses: "Soon the populace will be divided in three:-- 1. The Criminals in Prison/ 2. The Disabled Set Aside....both SPOON-FED/ and 3. The Adjusted at Work, .....SIPHON-FED/ Networks of roads, birth and death unending." (271)

This chain of karmic attachment leads him to bristle against women throughout this work. "Warm golden thighs produce cold black mornings." (292) "PRETTY GIRLS MAKE GRAVES F[---] you all." His women perpetuate ignorance by incarnation; Jack wants to love them simply, free of their "crocodile" instincts. In his early thirties, he's struggling to stay celibate, to separate from lust; this conflict may change your stereotype of him. He's an idealist, but he's still an egoist. His art's as complete as Mozart and Rembrandt's, he assures himself. He realizes what those in suburbs and cities don't. "Everybody is getting mad at me for knowing the truth now." (61)

Irritation, restlessness, sorrow, boasts mingle with hope on every page. He knows how vainly he fights against himself, but he must do so: he equates karma with fatalism, so he settles down even as he rears up. He rants to escape from his waking dream of ignorance, to calm the monkey that's his mind, to enter a blissful Nirvanic nothingness that his body and brain do not let him attain. Ultimately, he strives for a purer sense of being that incites him, as many Beats and hippies and urban refugees after him, to reject conformist greed for romanticized self-sufficiency.

he insists; "Buddhism is the gradual becoming-intelligent of the participants/ of the dream so that it may be eventually awakened from." (54-5) You may not leave this book convinced of this teaching unless you enter it converted, but for that subset of readers interested in Buddhism and Beats, here's his version of a lot of the dharma.

There's a poignancy within these often wearying, solipsistic excursions into Buddhist thought. You're trapped as he is within his own mind, battling for liberation. You enter his meditative, scribbling, manic mind, sharing his unease. And, his inspiration. I'm not an acolyte or avid admirer of Kerouac, so I waded through these reflections with more detachment, but I admit-- despite their chaotic state of maddening repetition-- that they allow us a valuable retreat into a writer's formation. You watch his soul's struggle.

Obviously, these verbose chronicles weren't meant for publication. A collator might have chopped this down to a quarter of its length, for better or worse. I can't fault Kerouac for these notes, but they could have been presented by their publisher with commentary, for those less learned. There's a brief introduction, but no editorial notes or glossary. It's crammed with vocabulary and references, naturally, to Buddhist philosophy that may turn anyone not an adept back to an easier work such as "Wake Up!" (with its lively introduction by Robert Thurman).

I felt almost voyeuristic, for you intrude on the intimacy of Kerouac's notes to himself. Again, if you lack an interest in Buddhism, their hectoring and fervent content may not be compelling enough for you to continue. It's a task best taken in small doses. If you are intrigued, you may study these accounts of him trying to reject the bottle with dread. knowing that after a decade and a half he'd drink himself to death after having drifted away from Buddhism back to his childhood Catholicism, that these earnest, relentless, and mystifying torrents of prose and poetry, quotes and sketches would dry up and leave him drained after a few years of instant, then unwanted, intrusive celebrity. "It doesnt matter whether I die/ drinking or imitate Buddha, it'll/ be the same ethereality---" (376). (Posted to Amazon US 4-25-10; cf. my take on the original scroll of "On the Road")

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