So I’m halfway through On the Road, or a little more than halfway, and have some scattered observations about it. It’s a beautiful book, the writing really is a joy to read, much more free-spirited than I remember, yet beautifully composed at the same time. The writing style is ever evident. I love the crackle of the words, and the sheer pace of the thing. It moves across continents in the blink of an eye, as if Sal is on a phantasmagorical journey, a death flight, ever westwards, where he finds nothing but sorrow.
Kerouac described himself not as Beat, but as a ‘strange solitary crazy Catholic mystic’. Religious undertones are strewn everywhere throughout the text; Sal Paradise equates his journeys back and forth across the ‘groaning continent’ of America in purely holy terms, a search for God, or at least for some sign of God. It’s funny to see Kerouac’s infatuation with mysticism here, not yet fully formed as it would become in The Dharma Bums, which is concerned with Kerouac’s interest in Buddhism, the duality of self and universe. Comparing this from page 112 of On the Road with a section from The Dharma Bums, you can see the same preoccupations; it seems like Kerouac couldn’t fully express himself in On the Road as he may have wanted to, for all its fierce clarity:
From On The Road
“Naturally now I look back on it, this is only death: death will overtake us before heaven. The one thing that we yearn for in our living days, that makes us sigh and groan and undergo sweet nauseas of all kinds, is the remembrance of some lost bliss that was probably experienced in the womb and can only be reproduced (though we hate to admit it) in death. But who wants to die? I told it to Dean, and he instantly recognised it as the mere simple longing for pure death: and because we’re all of us never in life again, he, rightly, would have nothing to do with it, and I agreed with him then.”
From The Dharma Bums:
“Then I suddenly had the most tremendous feeling of the pitifulness of human beings, whatever they were, their faces, pained mouths, personalities, attempts to be gay, little petulances, feelings of loss, their dull and empty witticisms so soon forgotten: Ah, for what? I knew that the sound of silence was everywhere and therefore everything everywhere was silence. Suppose we suddenly wake up and see that what we thought to be this and that, ain’t this and that at all? I staggered up the hill, greeted by birds, and looked at all the huddled sleeping figures on the floor. Who were all these strange ghosts rooted to the silly little adventure of earth with me? And who was I?”
Furthermore, Dean is the ultimate mystic, but a worldly mystic, a conman priest, taking what he can from the earth, rather than revering it as holy or precious, as Kerouac explains on page 109:
“God exists without qualms, said Dean. ‘As we roll along this way I am positive beyond doubt that everything will be taken care of for us – the thing will go along of itself…Furthermore, we know America, we’re home; we can go anywhere in America and get what we want, because it’s the same in every corner, I know the people, I know what they do.’ But there was nothing clear about the things he said, somehow what he meant to say was made pure and clear. He used the word ‘pure’ a great deal. I had never dreamed Dean would become a mystic. These were the first days of his mysticism, which would lead to the strange ragged saintliness of his later days…”
These two visions of holiness, both searching for ‘It’ and neither knowing what ‘It’ is comprises much of the central concern of the novel.
Moving on from this is an observation about Sal Paradise, Kerouac himself, when compared to Dean; throughout the novel, Kerouac moves onwards, ever onwards, never staying on one place for too long, heading for the road, with the ‘straight white line down its middle’. It could be argued that Sal’s place is the road, the only place he feels content; he seems to find his central being in motion, ever-kinetic motion, like Dean but somehow quieter, examining and absorbing everything around him, letting it seep into his flesh. Yet, throughout the book, he also finds places that speak to him, places that he can call home, if only for a moment, an hour, a day; he sets down roots, feels the hum and kiss of the earth, in a true religious way.
The first of these is the flatbed truck with Mississippi Gene, driving out across the plains and staring up at the stars. The next is the cotton-picking compound, and more accurately, the personage of Terry, the young Mexican girl; you feel he could have stayed with her, in her arms, been a father to her son, picked cotton all day long (‘it was beautiful kneeling and hiding in that earth. If I felt like resting I did with my face on the pillow of brown moist earth. Birds sang, I thought I had found my life’s work‘). And then we think that he could also stay, harmoniously, with Old Bull Lee, the crazed heroin addict (William Burroughs, more on that later), shooting, throwing knives, smoking tea. Everywhere, to Sal, is a kind of home. He is calm, gentle, absorbs himself into the scenery and the places in which he finds himself; yet there is also a great melancholy, a feeling that he cannot stay in a place. The book, through Sal’s eyes, is a melancholy vision of failing to belong, failing to find a place, that one beautiful place, to lay down; he tries and fails, over and over, yet is changed, altered by his travels, his experiences.
Compare this to Dean, who is always in wild flight, disrupts everything around him and seeks to conquer landscapes, people, situations, women. Dean looks to bend everything to his will, be the power at the centre of the universe, a dominating force. He talks, he creates situations, he forges his own path, his own road, instead of allowing the road to take him. The novel is the story of Sal Paradise becoming more like Dean, slowly, irrevocably like Dean Moriarty, and coming to the certain realisation that to be like Dean is a form of heat-death, a closing ceremony, a longing for pure death, even though it might seem like the purest form of life. In the first Part, he journeys alone, feeling the great expanse of America in his bones; the later Parts are concerned with wild adventures with Dean, wild and growing wilder, his life disrupted continually. As one girlfriend says to him, at a New Years Eve party: ‘I don’t like you when you’re with them.’
And yet Cassady is Kerouac’s great muse; to him he embodies Beat, he embodies what he wanted to write about, in every sense. Dean’s attempted conquest of America, as opposed to Sal’s odyssey, he spiritual pilgrimage, is central to the novel’s ideas of death, life, and deep religious feelings; there is a dichotomy, a contradiction, at the heart of their love for one another. Sal cannot state plainly that Dean is doomed, doomed to live, doomed to die, he can’t come out and say it, just as he can’t say that the Old Bull, shooting up in the bathroom with his arm ‘filled with a thousand pin holes’ is doomed, fucked, too far gone, probably, to know. He can’t bring himself to say it about any of the Beats.
And it’s the Old Bull who states it plainly about Dean, as Sal cannot:
“He seems to be headed for his ideal fate, which is compulsive psychosis, dashed with a jigger of psychopathic irresponsibility and violence. If you go to California with this man, you’ll never make it.”
It is interesting that Cassady, later in his life, famous as the father of Beat, the pure living embodiment of Beat, came to regret many of the things he did earlier in his life, including those documented in On the Road. He apparently told Walter Cox in Mexico, a year before his death, that he lamented how he had treated his women, his children: “Twenty years of fast living—there’s just not much left, and my kids are all screwed up. Don’t do what I have done.”
See you next time.