The Spirituality Of Jack Kerouac & the Tragedy of Addiction
~Andrew William Smith, 30 January 2011, Backdoor Playhouse
“I want you to get out there & walk—better yet, run!—on the road God called you to travel. I don’t want any of you sitting around on your hands.” –Paul, early in Ephesians 4 (from The Message, itals mine)
“Don’t waste your time on useless work, mere busywork, the barren pursuits of darkness. Expose these things for the sham they are.” –Paul, Ephesians 5:11 (from The Message)
“He commissioned them to preach the news of God's kingdom and heal the sick. He said, "Don't load yourselves up with equipment. Keep it simple; you are the equipment. And no luxury inns—get a modest place and be content there until you leave. If you're not welcomed, leave town. Don't make a scene. Shrug your shoulders and move on." Commissioned, they left. They traveled from town to town telling the latest news of God, the Message, and curing people everywhere they went.” –Luke 9:1-6 (from The Message)
"Once in a while you get shown the light/In the strangest of places if you look at it right" –Grateful Dead, “Scarlet Begonias”
Since I was in my late teens, I’ve been drawn to the spiritual lessons of poems & novels & literary movements, especially the sizzling insights & buzzing beatitudes of the writers & thinkers known as the Beat Generation. Many writers have remarked on the importance of literary movements—what I’d call the magic of community & call to collaboration—&the Beats were deeply influential on our popular imaginations the way great groups are, in a properly mythic manner, too, like Robin Hood & his Merry Men, like King Arthur & the Knights of the Round Table, like Jesus and his 12 disciples.
Tonight, I’m deeply indebted to the 21st century insight, scholarship, & reflection of Nance M. Grace from the College of Wooster who shows us that the complete works of Kerouac—often called the “Duluoz Legend”—comprise a contemporary “wisdom literature,” sacred texts of a sympathetically American, broadly Buddhist, & distinctly Christian nature, embodying “the voice of the prophet, sage, teacher, & seer expressed as a classical pastiche of sermon, analogy, proverb, aphorism, song, parable, prayer, catechism, & confession to create a personal cosmology.”
In The Beat Face of God: The Beat Generation Writers as Spirit Guides, the Rev. Stephen D. Edington sees the collected Beat works as sacred literature as well, calling it “the gospel of an alternative spirituality and an alternative religion” where spiritual rebels or misfits seek after the “Life Force” or “Torch of Life,” occasionally getting too close to the light & burning up & flaming out too soon.
Grace & Edington nail with a deeper eloquence & precision what I intuitively imagined was always already going on with Kerouac & Ginsberg & their peers—it’s all about the adventure, the quest, the pilgrimage, the seeking after God. With the Beats, with Kerouac & Ginsberg especially, it’s always about God even when they pretend it’s not about God—either through nontheistic rants or a preoccupation with what’s in one’s pants.
The strictly dualistic & more fundamentalist among us might protest: how could it possibly be all about God when it so obviously was all about sin? Even when the harsh critics of the Beat Generation complained that it could never be about God because it was obviously about cars, sex, booze, weed, & anti-American communism—even and especially then, it was definitely about God, because it was about a deeply human yearning, a seemingly insatiable hunger & thirst—a hunger for thrills, kicks, & chills, yes, but also for salvation, righteousness, & revelation.
Studying Kerouac & Ginsberg through a distinctly spiritual lens at a grassroots Christian fellowship taps into & plays out one of the primary premises of Come ToGather’s mission—that’s it possible to follow Jesus as our friend, teacher, & savior & deepen our appreciation of the Jesus teachings as we travel down the road of life with an awareness of religious diversity & an honest questioning, which for some of us includes an interspiritual perspective. As we tentatively explore the spiritual Kerouac through a brief look at his life & his works, & the relationship of his Buddhism to his Christianity, we can be aware that mixing Christianity with other religions has a long legacy, a wide & vast worldwide history of holy hybrids, the many Christian syncretics who still claim Jesus as Lord.
From reading Nancy M. Grace’s excellent interpretation of how Kerouac’s Christianity & Buddhism interweave, it’s clear to me I’m not currently qualified or inclined to make an extended exposition on the many layers & intricacies of this particular American Buddhist Christianity. Put plainly though, my novice reading of nontheistic Buddhism reveals concepts entirely compatible with Christianity: egolessness & emptiness, acceptance of impermanence & suffering, freedom through humble & harmonic acts of simplicity & generosity, grounded in practicing daily meditation & finding mysticism & the marvelous in even the most mundane aspects of everyday life.
Grace describes this Kerouacian relationship between Buddha & Jesus affectionately & intimately, in terms of fusion & embrace, finally finding “a religion in which an individual values one’s own gifts & talents, believes in the inherent goodness of life, frees oneself from dogmatic dualism, seeks a better life, & retains faith in the words of the sage. As such, Kerouac’s Christian Buddhism is distinctly American, the human presence embodied in the words ‘Jesus’ & ‘Buddha’ rooting wisdom, progress, & divinity in the individual who resides in a New World where the vision of human goodness flourishes & seeds itself.”
Like Kerouac (& enhanced by Grace’s reading of Kerouac), I see the nondogmatic depth of Buddhist insight as a sympathetic supplement to my theistic side that seeks a compassion & forgiveness via a cosmic Creator & a personal Jesus. Put simply, Buddhism and Christianity can be experienced in a complementary manner, and for the Buddhist-Christian, a Buddhist practice like walking meditation does not contradict a faith rooted in a relationship with Jesus. I like the way Buddhist teacher Thich Nhat Hanh puts it: “When you are a truly happy Christian, you are also a Buddhist.”
Kerouac’s true classic, a coming-of-age & rite-of-passage breakout novel called On The Road has been called “the bible of the Beat Generation,” & I choose to read it mythopoetically with a sympathetic biblical lens. (If anyone is unversed in this kind of reading strategy, you might be more familiar how we do this all the time with films like Star Wars —or with films based on books like Harry Potter & Lord Of the Rings.)
Borrowing again from & adding to what I got from reading Nancy Grace’s Kerouac analysis, it’s possible to frame On The Road as Buddy “Bookmovie” meets Sacred American-Christian-Buddhist Vision Quest. On this adventure, where the protagonists go everywhere & noplace, it really is, as cliché as it sounds, more about the journey than it is about the destination. Many purposes, though, to this reckless partying & pathblazing emerge; it’s the universal human search of & after: A Social Consciousness of celebration & repudiation; Individualism of the maligned & self-reliant; Psychic Wholeness (vs. questions, alienation, emptiness); Spiritual Enlightenment.
The book portrays real-life pilgrims Jack Kerouac & Neal Cassady as Sal Paradise & Dean Moriarity. Although my lit-crit training teaches me not to do this, my reading of Kerouac’s life leads me to speak of the characters that inhabit the novels & the persons they represent rather interchangeably. With Sal as apprentice & Dean as Master, I conjure the notion of a cosmically commissioned but controversial bond not unlike Sam & Frodo, Anakin & Obi Wan, Judas & Jesus.
For Jack & the entire Beat Generation & for many of the hippies that would come after, Neal Cassady was the muse, the mythic man, the unofficial leader, the disrespected teacher, the priestly hedonist, the sensuous sage. On the opening page of On The Road, Kerouac notes that “Dean is the perfect guy for the road because he was actually born on the road.” His parents were passing through Salt Lake City like Mary & Joseph were passing through Bethlemen, & Sal will end up following Dean like disciples follow Jesus.
It’s as if the holy scripture simply said, “Blessed are the crazy fools. Blessed are the criminals on parole. Blessed are the pool sharks. Blessed are the people who spend their whole day in the public library.” Just as Cassady admires Kerouac the writer, Kerouac admires Cassady the man. The unschooled intellectual Kerouac wants to be the over-the-top outlaw intellectual Cassady with his perfect shining mind. When they hit the road, they become the prophets of horsepower, high priests of the gas pedal, pirates of the automobile era.
The Bible of the Beat Generation preaches “Drop Out & Follow Me,” renouncing the middle-class world of American post-war conformity, taking up the cross of pleasure-principled, counterculture rebellion, & spreading the news of a sentimental, romantic, sympathetic, nomadic, naturalistic, earthy American authenticity—the allure of which still teases, taunts, tempts, & attracts young people, especially those stuck on the nonstop trajectory from school-to-work without taking a moment’s pause to contemplate the meaning of life, see the world, & find themselves.
Rather than just serving & loving the least of these—which Kerouac as “everyman” so passionately & eloquently does—he becomes one of the least of these. One of my favorite sections in On The Road comes in skid row Detroit at an all-night movie theater, where Kerouac catalogs the dregs of Detroit as if they’d been dumped there to give Kerouac his litany of the modern-day “least of these”: “Beat Negroes who’d come up from Alabama to work in car factories on a rumor; old white bums; young longhaired hipsters who’d reached the end of the road & were drinking wine; whores, ordinary couples, & housewives with nothing to do, nowhere to go, nobody to believe in. If you sifted all Detroit in a wire basket the beater solid core of dregs couldn’t be better gathered.”
But On The Road isn’t all about the dowlow on the lowdown: its ecstasies & epiphanies are too many to name, but one worth mentioning is the tribute to the African-American music scene, to its new song, its new tune, its new way to “raise men’s souls to joy.” It’s in On The Road’s innocent & optimistic appraisal of American-open-endedness typified by the vastness of our landscape & the vision of our musicians —as in his writer’s teachings on the importance of spontaneity as “belief & technique”—that we see Kerouac’s best. His “List of Essentials” includes thirty jewels of aphorism & advice, such as
2. Submissive to everything, open, listening
4. Be in love with yr life
16. The jewel center of interest is the eye within the eye
19. Accept loss forever
20. Believe in the holy contour of life
23. Keep track of every day the date emblazoned in yr morning
29. You're a Genius all the time
30. Writer-Director of Earthly movies Sponsored & Angeled in Heaven
When looking at the complete Kerouac against the backdrop of his life, the problem of these problematic texts as prophetic-teaching texts is their “don’t-try-this-at-home-element,” their elements of slumming & bumming, of sexism & substance abuse.
In preaching the Beat gospel, Rev. Edington addresses both the blessings & excesses of the simultaneously divine & demonic Cassady Christ. First, in our Holy Goof, we can honor his be-here-now “mystical madness of the moment”; Edington explains it this way: “But for Neal the madness of the moment doesn’t need to lead anywhere. The madness of the moment yield timelessness, & that was the state Neal was reaching for.”
Kerouac celebrates Neal in biblical prosody, sainting him “Western Kinsmen of The Sun,” a lighthearted lover who learned his lessons from the lilies of the field, an embodied emissary of the wisdom teachings of Ecclesiastes who hungers for nothing more than bread & love.
But Cassady’s contagious beauty begs a dark side, too. Edington elaborates, “In this man’s life & way of being we see both the divine & the demonic, as well as the glorious & the desperate, dimensions of living in the Now.”
Sadly, history recounts what happens the Super Sage of On The Road. He leaves the wife & kids & joins the Merry Pranksters. For a while, he tutors—& is tutored by the likes of Timothy Leary, Ken Kesey, & The Grateful Dead—all true Professors of Profuse Insight & Indulgence, of Intense & Incessant 1960s Prodigality. Like many addicts, Neal Cassady bought suicide on the installment plan—imbibing & ingesting his way to the other side. In early February 1968, days shy of his 42nd birthday, the former railroad worker & living legend of the modern nomads Neal Cassady collapsed on some traintracks in Mexico, traveling by foot the night after a wedding party from one town to the next. He was found in a coma and taken to the hospital where he died. While the exact cause of Cassady’s death is unknown & much legend & speculation have accumulated around it, overdose from the combination of barbituates and alcohol is one of the many possibilities.
About a year before his death, Cassady apparently told a young friend “Don't do what I have done.” Edington accurately assesses the “awe & wonder on the one hand” & the “disgust & anger on the other” that society brings to its holy fools, concluding his remarks about Cassady with a tone of both reverence & warning: “In living the life that he did Neal Cassady made himself the target for both sets of reactions. He died for our fantasies as well as for our self-righteousness. We yearn to be like him & righteously thank God we’re not like him all in the same thought or sensation.”
For better and for worse, Cassady’s free spirit, immortalized in lyrics by the Grateful Dead a “child of countless trees” & a “child of boundless seas,” attains a mythic & messianic quality in relation to the hippy counterculture of the 1960s. To speak of Cassady the man in Christ-like terms is largely a poetic gesture of allegiance to the uncommon life-force that resonated from him. Because of his countless walks on the wild side, Neal Cassady learned of the historical Jesus Christ’s greatest gifts the hard way.
The book of letters he wrote while in prison in the late 1950s on a marijuana bust was published under the pithy & perfect title Grace Beats Karma. In her foreward to the published version of this book, Carolyn Cassidy comments at some length about Neal’s connection to Jesus “as the last in a long line of gurus to enlighten the planet” who brings us closer to the spirit & love available to all. Carolyn suggests that the spirit “cannot judge, condemn, punish, or play favorites,” suggesting that most of our misery is of our making. “Heaven & hell are within us,” she writes.
Sadly, Sal Paradise did not fare much better than Dean Moriarty. In On The Road, Kerouac already fears fame, writing “anonymity in the world of men is better than fame in heaven.” By the time On The Road makes Kerouac famous—the unofficial spokesman for the Beat Generation—he’s already tumbling quickly towards death as he drowns himself in alcohol. Facing the intersection of fame & full-blown alcoholism, his early 1960s book Big Sur is both beautiful & ugly, both hopeful & utterly heartbreaking.
Throughout Big Sur, Jesus & Buddha were always right there, somehow inside Kerouac but always out of reach. We know that a deep spirituality is one of the best known treatments for alcoholism, but Kerouac proves that spiritual inclinations alone are not enough to propel some to recovery. In Big Sur in particular but throughout the 1960s, Kerouac heads toward his final bottom but never gets there, living perpetually in Step Zero, the moment of clearly acknowledging a problem with drugs or alcohol but not taking that next leap into recovery.
Kerouac drank when he said he wouldn’t drink, when talking about not drinking was still talking about drinking: & the drinking thinking as thinking drinking permeated the art of his prose. In drinking, Kerouac drowned his desperation but also his mysticism, until drunk felt more real than not-drunk, where drunk obliterated & obviated the obvious truth that anything other than drunk ever existed. Kerouac drunk was morning drunk, evening drunk, always drunk, delicate drunk, manslut drunk.
At the beginning of Big Sur, Kerouac heads west to dry out but gets stuck in San Fran before finding his way to Ferlinghetti’s cabin at Big Sur. Although the book is filled with lapses into relief & possibility of a spiritual nature, the tender tone tells of defeat. The early pages of the novel describe an entirely desperate man:
“Wow, I’ve hit the end of the trail & cant even drag my body any more”;
“Drunken visitors puking in my study . . . Me drunk practically all the time” (& this is what he came to California to escape);
“There I am almost 40 years old, bored & jaded”;
“I wake up drunk, sick, disgusted, frightened, in fact terrified by that sad song. . .mingling with the . . . cries of a Salvation Army meeting. . . ‘Satan is the cause of your alcoholism’. . .”;
“ ‘One fast move or I’m, gone,’ I realize, gone the way of the last three years of drunken hopelessness which is a spiritual and metaphysical hopelessness you can’t learn in school . . .”
By the end of the 60s, Kerouac’s drinking caught up with him, & the disease finally killed him.
Many have argued that alcoholism is an occupational hazard of certain careers including rock stars & lawyers, but most definitely writers, spawning studies like Dr. Donald W. Goodwin’s Alcohol & the Writer.
In many ways, Jack Kerouac & Neal Cassady show us the light, but they also get burned by it. On The Road speaks of “a kind of holy lightning” that strikes Neal Cassady in his visions, but it also strikes us down in the consequences for what those visions might bring. Addiction arises from a spiritual hunger that goes back to Adam & Eve in the garden; no fruit, no matter how wise or succulent, can take the place of God in our lives.
Recovering addict and legendary rock star David Crosby, looking back on the late 1960s counterculture, reflects, “We were right about a lot of things: the war, the environment, civil rights & women’s issues. But we were wrong about the drugs.”
Kerouac & Cassady were right about living in the moment, about rejecting the ways of the world, about the complementary teachings of Jesus & Buddha, about the spirituality of everything & the everyman & everyday life, even & especially about the spiritual aspects of travel, of an itinerant lifestyle on the road. Jesus & Paul & many Disciples & Early Church Movement Folk certainly lived “on the road.” But Kerouac & Cassady were wrong about alcohol & drugs & how to treat women.
Jack Kerouac’s response to the madness of the world was to become one with “the mad ones, the ones who are mad to live, mad to talk, mad to be saved.” Like Kerouac, let our cups overflow with life, with conversation, with saving grace. But let’s not admire the least of these so much that we become prisoners of our own desires; let’s not get too close to light & burnout but rather hold our candles high, pointing to a light that only comes from God & that always already returns to God.