So soon after plumbing through the first volume of Marx’s Capital it’s hard not to take a sort of economic-historical analysis to everything else I think about, even the joyfully sensuous meanderings of young men who (like Kerouac) have no time for Western rational philosophies when there’s Buddhist simplicity and visceral experience to fill their days and hearts. The Dharma Bums – started months earlier and put on hold as I focused on Capital – was the first book I returned to after finishing Marx’s tome, and undeniable levity and enchantment overtook me where just before I had been taking in (or, better, acknowledging, opening up to) considerable heaviness and tension. Kerouac’s characters’ earnestness and palpable excitement, even where mercurial and ephemeral, irresistibly inspirits and encourages any reader prone to restlessness and unease, something arguably universal to all readers by definition of the act.
There’s something bittersweet about it, too, though, something to which I don’t think I was as attuned those years back when I read The Subterraneans, just after moving to San Francisco, where that novel and parts of Dharma Bums take place. It’s not just the characters’ (Japhy Ryder and Ray Smith) occasional mood swings in Dharma – a regular fixture of the psychological playground of introspectors and mind-prospectors, together with the obsession slides, the monkey-on-the-back bars and the dwindling-hourglass sandbox – that elicit an aesthetic melancholia, there’s something a little more extra-textual now in time and history to accentuate it.
Arguably trivial on the surface but nevertheless important below, the culture has digested and processed its components to the extent that three films portraying or adapting (which is also usually portraying) Jack Kerouac have received nationwide distribution within the last year of beginning this post and moreover and more chillingly that the advertisements likely preceding these and any number of recent films in theaters now trade almost exclusively in his imagery and idealism. Young, healthy, exuberant and (tastefully) scruffy men and (stylishly) unkempt women meditating or practicing yoga, soaking up the great outdoors, and throwing anarchic but artistic parties are now used to sell everything from high-end clothing and accessories to tourist vacations and sporty foreign automobiles. This isn’t to say that commercial enticement automatically leaches the objects or activities it glamorizes of their cultural or spiritual value – sex is still a magical thing no matter how many goods it sells – but to recognize the diminishing power of their resistance to a diseased world. Reading Kerouac fills one with a passionate romanticism now recognized as co-opted and standardized, suspiciously compatible with a new world still under the sway of mass culture’s cyclopean Eye.
Reading of the eventual fate of Kerouac, and having a number of encounters with unstable homeless men touting him, I can see some sad conclusions to what seemed to have been an ecstatic way of life that serve to puncture the balloon of vicariousness that the book inflates. The feeling of mental liberation from the constraints of society is more complex than it appears at first, for that society is unforgiving toward its transgressors, and even indifferent, despite everything they have to offer it. Hiking trips among friends, poetry readings and parties – still apparently subcultural in the context of the book – seem like nothing to the larger society that is likewise basically ignored by the main characters, but these are the things that color people’s lives, and by extension the places and cultures in which they live. San Francisco now trades on the Beat history these men fought for without the help of grants or social approval, meanwhile pricing out the very people who could continue to keep its cultural status alive into the future.
Even within the text itself, the image does not quite match the reality – or rather the freedom isn’t totally free – which its author clearly recognizes. Just as Ray’s brief but important stay at his family home on the East Coast suddenly introduces the privilege undergirding his picaresque life as a spirited transient, so too do so many of the author’s admirers retain a certain security in the world that contradicts the sense of making it on one’s own – whereas those who may have known nothing but struggle since childhood might ridicule the evangelism for life without stability, for a voluntary renunciation of convenience and comfort. Since the characters never interact with or even really think about these latter sorts of people, they lack the inclusivity that would really disseminate their insights to the greater world – it’s a bit of a boys’ club, and almost literally, in that women only seem to appear in the book in minor sexual roles.
But these are retrospectively intellectualized criticisms that do not detract from what is mostly an immediate, emotionally stirring read. The alternative picture of life shown here is after all a call to seize one’s time, to career (as down a mountainside, jubilantly) instead of lock oneself into one that steadily lifts one over the side of a cliff. To acknowledge the fleeting interests and follow them as they lead; to be loose with possessions and property (one may not have a choice); to be open and creative with friends and strangers, in words and in actions; to allow oneself to experience the pleasure and the pain and the continuum between the two, whether quotidian or outlandish.