Thursday, July 28, 2005

Impressions from On The Road, part 1

I mentioned in a previous post that I would share some of my thoughts after I recently completed reading Jack Kerouac's classic novel, On The Road. This was not a book that I just put down after finishing it; it has lingered in my thoughts, the stories and images coming back, refining my own impressions to increasing clarity. Perhaps that is the true test of a classic work of art, be it a novel, symphony, or painting; it's not the initial experience of reading/seeing/hearing it, but the thought it inspires. This novel has certainly stayed with me more than anything I've read recently.

Kerouac's use of language is as vivid and rhythmic as anything; I am there, in the smoky jazz clubs of San Francisco, in the steamy bayou night of New Orleans, riding across the high plains of Nebraska in a flatbed truck. I am brought back to the cross country trips I have taken, to the excitement and mystery of the road. I am also taken to the depths of despair, at getting to the end of the continent, my destination, and still feeling empty somehow, beat, alone with myself.

The passage that had the most impact on me was this:
I took up a conversation with a gorgeous country girl...she was dull. She spoke of evenings in the country making popcorn on the porch. ONce this would have gladdened my heart but because her heart was not glad when she said it I knew there was nothing in it but the idea of what one should do. "And what else do you do for fun?" I tried to bring up boy friends and sex. Her great dark eyes surveyed me with emptiness and a kind of chagrin that reached back generations and generations in her blood from not having done what was crying to be done--whatever it was, and everybody knows what it was. "What do you want out of life?" I wanted to take her and wring it out of her. She didn't have the slightest idea what she wanted..."What are we aching to do? What do we want?" She didn't know. She yawned. She was sleepy. It was too much. Nobody could tell. Nobody would ever tell. It was all over. She was eighteen, and most lovely, and lost.

I realized: That is my heritage! My whole family tree is full of people who know nothing, practice nothing but the idea of what one should do! I'm afraid there aren't even any interesting black sheep or skeletons in the closet! I grew up with this incredible naivety, not even knowing where to begin to ask questions, not knowing how to experience anything other than what one should do. I wrote poems, they were good ones, but they were only supposed to be good and happy and the way they ought to be; that bored me eventually but I did not know why, yet I did not know how to understand or appreciate poetry that strayed from these constraints. So I quit writing poetry.

Fortunately I must have had some kind of vision, to see beyond that protective shell. I am still shaking myself free from it. On The Road is helping me to crystallize the longings, the feelings of what I really want in life, and how depressing and constraining the modern, industrial-commercial model of the world is. We are beat.


pablo said...

On the Road is now on my list of books to read.

Dan Trabue said...

We are beat.

Is that a royal reflection of tiredness or a more esoteric contemplation on life and state of mind?

the dharma bum said...

deb, thanks for some great thoughts on a favorite book. you really seem to have "gotten" the point. the passage you selected is a favorite of mine too, and has always stuck in my head. makes me think about people today, about myself today, and that dropping out of the mainstream isn't something you do by "not" participating, but by Living (yes, with that capital L) your own life your own way. which is what I love about reading your blog.

i want to respond at greater length, but this week has been way too busy. maybe i can recollect my thoughts this evening and post a bit more.

dan, your question is a question for the ages. even kerouac would have said "both." and more. he coined "beat" as an allusion to Catholic beautitude, to a sort of enlightenment that comes from being worn down by society, and by the jumping beats of jazz... and more. it all seems to apply just as soundly today.

the Contrary Goddess said...

Well, dharma himself is here but I will say, as much as I loved On The Road, The Dharma Bums I loved and was more deeply touched by. "You can't fall off a mountain"

lené said...

Interesting post -- quite a surprise from what I expected. The last time I was out blogging, we were talking about detergents and vinegar. :) I've had this book for years, but I've never read it. Maybe it's time.

the dharma bum said...

Well, dharma himself is here but I will say, as much as I loved On The Road, The Dharma Bums I loved and was more deeply touched by. "You can't fall off a mountain"

CG, Thanks for saying that. With my nickname, I would have felt kinda silly suggesting the book, but it needed to be said.

"The Dharma Bums" is wonderful. Then, if you really dig what he hints at in that book, read "Desolation Angels."

Deb said...

"The Dharma Bums" is next on my list of things to read, but unfortunately my otherwise excellent regional library system does not have it! I guess I'll have to break down and buy it.

The word "beat", as Kerouac uses it, is fascinating and genius. Such a simple word, yet filled with so many facets of meaning.