Sunday, January 16, 2011

On Kerouac

Little ditty ‘bout Jack and Dean ..

Over the course of a continuing lifetime I have taken many trips, across nations and continents, to the tops of mountains and through vast lowland swamps, traversing oceans and deserts, down back alleys of sprawling cities at night and gravel strewn country lanes into cloistered villages far removed from the hustle and bustle of the frantic and of course, with the initial guidance of teachers and shamans, into the deepest recesses of my own mind. Carlos Castaneda, Voltaire, the Odyssey and the Iliad, Johnny Quest, Sinbad and Dorothy have all been inspirational, but never have I sat more frequently with groups of friends around the world discussing the ramifications of a classic novel of adventure and discovery than that of ‘On The Road’ by the famous beat-generation writer Jack Kerouac.

The anticipation of the journey is often more exciting than the arrival. I have always felt most free and cognisant of spirit when ‘on the road’. Many of us are simply born with that desire to keep moving and exploring the world and our selves as active participants within it. As I wrote in a poem, with an obvious aside reference to Kerouac, ‘.. the memory of forgotten promises reminding me of Dharma bums and hobo days, it’s always easier for the one who goes than for the one who stays ..’

When Jack Kerouac published ‘On The Road’ it was said he began the “greening of America”. That is, he pulled the world that had been existing in black and white, a model of society defined and accepted by the majority, with its shades of grey disguising intention in a cinematic fusion of outward perception into an era where colour and the revelation of awareness of self could blossom into a new age of freedom and introspective purpose focused on locating the 'I'.

It was the first time ideas of self and collective consciousness of identity outside restrictive group norms had come into being on such a scale. Post World War Two America was searching and questioning and Jack opened the doors to perception through reinventing the classic quest story for the modern middle classes.

Unlike so many tales of adventure, the archetypal hunt for fortune or glory with good and evil outlined in caricature, the characters in Kerouac’s story in a morally vague period of liminal transition, are on an expedition to find themselves; not something without but something within. In this vision of America, as it existed then, there is greater wonder in learning who one is and in rejecting a past that has for all intents decayed along with the anachronistic opinions of ‘anyone over thirty’. The world, post war, has changed, and the old paradigm no longer addresses the concerns of contemporary youth.

Kerouac attempts to redefine culture beyond the familiar frontiers of geographic territory whilst utilising the physical trip across that seemingly endless country as a setting, for California now marks the edge of the map, toward a search for the meaning of personal existence in this new and complex age of information and its constantly shifting transient society of individuals. Our protagonist, a veiled Kerouac himself, voyages through time and space meeting others who reveal the secrets of life through their own narratives of the journey to realisation; a new consciousness for a new age.

During the account of this rambling and often hectic jaunt back and forth across America Kerouac introduces various characters, each struggling to reconcile their here and now with a troubled past that no longer holds a truth for the future. For those who have read ‘On The Road’ it becomes obvious that the most poignant and lasting of these often-tragic figures is his frequent companion, the ‘crazy’ Dean Moriarty.

Alas, poor Dean Moriarty. To be thought insane or sane would in and of itself as definition deny the revelation of the character who stood outside convention – for only through the yes of the non-insane is the determination of the state of mind by which we measure such things. Is insanity an arbitrary notion? I think not.

Schizophrenia is one of the culturally manifest mental illnesses that have been shown to have universally applicable criteria (manifests itself culturally but with recurring features cutting across lines of acceptable social interaction and recognised norms of believability), and Dean doesn’t exhibit those distinguishing attributes. Yes, that dividing line may be tenuous at times and run down the centre of the road as a median we hesitate to cross yet edge along running our wheels close to the fringe of the acceptable, however what separates those who would veer to the other side from those who resist the urge is the measure of sanity.

The line is a gauge of the fragmented self and as broken hearts and minds in a disjointed world we vacillate through the gaps as the need to conform presses against the desire to follow instinct.

Dean represents both the past and the inner child. At the end of the book he stands amongst his associates, bandaged thumb protruding as a mark of ugly challenge – the iconic symbol of the perpetual hitchhiker, in blatant refusal to grow up when Sal and his friends are ‘settling down’ and coming together as suburban couples with the ordinary dreams of jobs and homes. With his dirty t-shirt and cackling laughter he is an unsightly reminder of the pain and suffering each has endured ‘on the road’ to coming of age in the new world.

As friends and compatriats they have travelled this highway of grief and are ready to accept the conformity each successive generation has faced, while Dean has yet to leave the anguish behind and see the future as one of adult requirements to reshape society in an original vision of hopefulness. Much to their discomfort, Dean is still trapped in that boxcar of the dark chilly night bouncing through the endless prairie of that old and depressive dustbowl heartland.

The suggestion of distance as miles travelled and space as the distance between places are themselves fluid concepts and subject to interpretation, or with the intention of being more accurate here, distance becomes time. The Lakota Sioux, for example, measure distance as the time it takes to travel from one place to another, that is, one does not say ‘my house is 5 miles away’ but rather ‘my house is an hour from here’. However, we also perceive distance as the space between events in our lives (we’ve come a long way since then .. etc) and measure that by what we have learned or how we have grown from each experience, or perhaps even how we have become ‘distant’ from ourselves and others as we lived in a remembered past.

This harks back (so to speak) to Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland adventure, in that the protagonist finally returns to the upper world of manners and accountability after her hallucinatory experience filled with a new awareness of self, ready to meet those who dispute her progress in becoming a woman of her age (and/or time).

She recognises the need for change and lets go of childish desires while holding fast to imagination as a source of inspiration to her self, the creative play in her mind suggesting it is possible to have ‘sane’ thoughts beyond the norm and yet integrate them into personality that is still within the realm of acceptability – as “all the best people do”.

Dean, however, is not the fresh idea of change and integrated composite self, but rather the moribund form of the lost innocence of youth. Sal is touched, yes, by the sentiment of Dean’s entrance, but he is also saddened by the inability of Dean to reinvent the adventure – the quest must continually evolve, or that which we seek is no longer meaningful. By trying to stay the same, in continuing to live as he always had, Dean had lost the plot; for him the story was at an end.

Change is an essential aspect of the journey and Dean did not change with time, he didn’t grow and learn. This is Dean’s insanity, the inability to amalgamate his past with his present, his repetition without restructuring.

Constantly reliving his disappointments he was swallowed by the misery of his childhood and was forever sentenced to repeating the failures of his past. We observe in Dean the inability to grapple squarely with responsibility and mature resolution of parental flaws, and he remains the burden of truth and the image of regret for those who cannot move forward to realisation of the unified self.

The road beckons for all of us, for the road is itself a metaphor for life, with the point on the horizon where we finally arrive being that state of becoming a complex yet complete person for whom the adventure continues but the quest is variable.

Many times I have, along with friends, followed the whim of adventure; rolling along highways and back roads, discovering truths of existence and filling our heads with multicoloured dreams. I have journeyed near and far and I continue the quest today – still seeking resolution of freedom and independence with the security and comfort of knowledge of self.

However, I no longer seek me, as I am quite aware of who I am, rather I seek others – those like minded individuals who share the road as fellow travellers in life, and the exploration of space itself – the places I encounter as landmarks on the way. For where will our thoughts take us if not towards a union of spirit, the spirit of discovery – of the past and the future?

The present is a fleeting moment of existence, whereas who we have been and who we are becoming are the sincerest revelations of self. I find myself reflected in the eyes of others, on the road that forever winds and twists through the experiences of a spirited life into the heart of a new day.

I look within my own mind as the thoughts of those who have gone before are reconfigured to define my age and time for an empathetic world yet to be, and I know this path is for me the best of all possible roads.

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