Zen lunatics, the Beat generation

In my last dissertation excerpt I discussed the importance of Kerouac’s On The Road as image lead writing, the acerbic vitality of his prose that translates Robert Frank’s iconic photographs into prose so effortlessly. This time I’m going to look at the spirituality of Beat writing (again, mainly Kerouac’s). Much is said about the Buddhism, or rather phony Buddhism that Kerouac, Ginsberg and Snyder were into, yet it is all too easy to dismiss their spirituality lead work as grounded on weak understanding of religion and philosophy.

John Clellon Holmes asserts that what made the Beat generation different, ‘what made them beat’, was ‘Kerouac’s insistence that actually they were on a quest, and the specific object of their quest was spiritual.’ The Beat Generation, according to Kerouac, was essentially a ‘religious generation ’.

‘Like pilgrims to Lourdes or Mecca, the beats were liminal figures who expressed their cultural marginality by living spontaneously, dressing like bums, sharing their property, celebrating nakedness and sexuality, seeking mystical awareness through drugs and meditation, acting like ‘Zen lunatics’ or holy fools, and perhaps above all stressing the chaotic sacrality of human interrelatedness or communitas over the pragmatic functionality of social structure. ’ – Stephen Prothero

Yet there is no Lourdes or Mecca for the Beats , no definite place to go to, suggesting that the act of travel is a permanent condition in itself, with no place of rest ever able to satisfy. Kerouac’s road, the American bop night, Times Square back alleys, the Chevy and the gas station are the Beats’ sacred shrines once they reject American established religious practises and spiritual norms.

Yet one religious tradition managed to attract and inspire the Beats: Buddhism, particularly Zen. Burroughs objected to Buddhism being used as ‘psychic junk’, or a ‘final fix’ in itself (preferring to search for a narcotic fix), but urged Ginsberg and Kerouac to ‘dig’ Tibetan Buddhism. This interest inspired many works, most notably Kerouac’s collection of Buddhist poems, Mexico City Blues and his novel, The Dharma Bums, whose protagonist is Japhy Ryder, a fictionalised version of Beat poet Gary Snyder. Kerouac promotes Snyder as the Beat movement’s spiritual guide. Snyder’s Zen values and way of life in the West Coast mountains set the tone for the hippie movement of the 1960s, and The Dharma Bums outlines these romanticised Zen Buddhist ideas.

‘I see a vision of a great rucksack revolution thousands or even millions of young Americans wandering around with rucksacks, going up to mountains to pray, making children laugh and old men glad, making young girls happy and old girls happier, all of ‘em Zen Lunatics who go about writing poems that happen to appear in their heads for no reason and also by being kind and also by strange unexpected acts keep giving visions of eternal freedom to everybody and to all living creatures ,’ -Dharma Bums

Ryder, the narrator, here dreams of an American youth revolutionised by poetry and spirituality, not subscribing to ‘all that crap they didn’t really want anyway such as refrigerators, TV sets, cars, at least new fancy cars, certain hair oils, and deodorants and general junk you finally always see a week later in the garbage anyway, all of them imprisoned in a system of work, produce, consume, work, produce, consume,’ (p.83) in favour of something higher and more truthful. Aside from the drug-induced wild, sexual bohemian hedonism Cassady and On The Road became famous for, the search for truth, or Dharma, seems the Beat writers’ biggest preoccupation.

This perhaps derives from the religious eclecticism offered by the three major Beat writers: Jack Kerouac, a French-Canadian Catholic from Lowell, Massachusetts; Allen Ginsberg, a Russian-American Jew from New Jersey; William Burroughs, an Anglo-American Protestant from St. Louis . Their collective dissatisfaction with the orthodox religions they had grown up with leads to a yearning for an alternative, more relevant religious meaning.

Kerouac’s epic poem Mexico City Blues, consisting of 242 choruses, approaches Buddhist ideas of Sunyata and Dharma with the familiar bop flow found in On The Road. He notes at the beginning of the poem: ‘I want to be considered a jazz poet blowing a long blues in an afternoon jam session on Sunday. I take 242 choruses; my ideas vary and sometimes roll from chorus to chorus or from halfway through a chorus into the next. ’ Kerouac wanted his ideas to convey the ‘structure of his passing thoughts ’ with the Jazz based techniques he had evolved with his prose, whilst preaching a particular religious message.

The idea of sunyata, to realise enlightenment through emptiness and freedom from unsatisfactory attachment seems to be Kerouac’s primary religious doctrine. He notes in the 7th Chorus that the greatest is ‘He Who is Free From Arbitrary Conceptions of Being or Non-Being’ (p.7), and in the 183rd Chorus that to accept truth, one must ‘awake to Universal Mind, accept everything, see everything, it is empty’ (p.183). Kerouac’s understanding of Buddhism directly opposes the middle-class consumer values of 1950s America.

‘Love not of Loved Object
Cause no object exists,
Love of Objectlessness,
When nothing exists’ (p.157)

We see here a spiritualism founded on discarding objects and unnecessary things to achieve enlightenment or dharma through nothingness, deliberately set against the norms of American materialism. These principle beliefs flowered in the 1960s with the hippie movement discarding material objects and seeking a new path of freedom from societal constraints and restrictions. Yet Kerouac shows anxiety about his religious message being misunderstood – ‘How solid our ignorance – how empty our substance’ (p.128) He also questions the legitimacy of his own Catholic upbringing with an illuminating aside – ‘A sinner may go to Heaven by serving God as a sinner’ (p.236).

Mexico City Blues however does end positively with the 239th Chorus introducing ‘Charlie Parker’, who is worshipped over three choruses. We see Kerouac embrace a new spiritual direction shaped by Buddhism over these 242 choruses, whilst ‘retaining the spiritual structure of the quest despite his questioning of traditional religious values ’ When he returns to his beloved Jazz we see a celebratory Kerouac, championing Parker as the chief influence on his writing. He states that Parker ‘Was as calm, beautiful, and profound/ As the image of the Buddha’, ‘A great musician and a great creator of forms’ (Chorus 239, p.241) and ‘Musically as important as Beethoven.’ (Chorus 240, p.242) There is a sense that whatever Kerouac’s ultimate religious or spiritual view was, he found it, or rather heard it, most clearly through Parker, the saxophonist and ‘perfect musician’ (Chorus 239, p.241). So Kerouac wasn’t a Buddhist preacher urging America to discard unimportant objects in favour of a higher understanding of being, he was a beatific devotee to 1950s America, to the road, the American bop-night and Parker, Cassady, sexual hedonism and ultimately, to freedom. In its essence, his teaching was ‘Be in love with yr life. ’

Unfortunately Kerouac was not able to love the life he’d so ardently documented throughout his literary career and grew increasingly perturbed by people’s perception of him and his literary vision. The angel headed hipster, champion of the Beat generation, showed a ‘critique of America and its values’, yet offered a resolution with his spontaneous bop prosody and poetics and yearning for dharma, a ‘romantic potential achieved in art. ’ His love for America and a particular way of life was clear, yet as a man he still struggled with the loss of his brother Gerard, and his newfound celebrity status, brought by On The Road. The footnote to his ninth novel Big Sur (1962) reveals his wish to reach old age and ‘die happy ’. However, Kerouac returned to his mother’s home in Lowell and died an alcoholic’s death of cirrhosis of the liver in 1969. Neal Cassady also met a premature end in 1968, collapsing on a railroad track after a party in Mexico. The fortunes of Kerouac and Cassady differ greatly to Ginsberg and Burroughs. The latter became critically revered for his later works such as the Cut-Up trilogy, and was hailed by J.G Ballard as ‘the most important writer in the English language…since the Second World War ’. Burroughs’ initial search for the ‘final fix’ may have been a wrong turn in his search for a higher truth, yet ironically Naked Lunch reveals its author growing with sanity, clarity and mastery over his work, where Kerouac by contrast grew mad with depression. Kerouac and the Beats were responsible for revolutionary advances in literature, spiritual and religious understanding and popular youth culture. ‘Like Thoreau, they insisted on the sanctity of everyday life and the sainthood of the non-conformist, ’ and their intelligent and committed recording of the 1950s not only deserves a canonical place in literature, but in religious study also.


One thought on “Zen lunatics, the Beat generation

  1. Your writing improves by leaps and bounds and you're developing an impressive ability to revise your own work. This is crisp, fluent and throws original light on a well-treated subject. Thank you for sharing. T

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