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.
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 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.
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.