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Features

Kerouac’s Christ

James Clarke

'I'm a solitary crazy Catholic mystic,' claimed Jack Kerouac, who would have been 90 this year. James Clarke finds redemption and depth in the burned-out life of the archetypal Beat writer.

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Jack Kerouac died in 1969 from internal bleeding provoked by alcohol abuse, aged just 47. Yet his work continues to excite interest out of all proportion to his relatively short life. A 'lost' first novel The Sea is My Brother surfaced as recently as 2009, while the long-awaited movie adaptation of his famous 1957 novel, On The Road, is due for release in 2012. Meanwhile cyberspace resonates daily with echoes of his countercultural 'Beat' sensibility. But what exactly was this quality - and does it have any parallels with Christian experience?

Beat is by its very nature hard to distill. It rolled in like a wave, a powerful movement in post-war US culture, and then rolled back out again. In an interview conducted not so long before he died, Kerouac himself seemed to play it down: 'The Beat generation was just a phrase I used in the 1951 written manuscript of On The Road to describe guys like [Dean] Moriarty who run around the country in cars ... It was thereafter picked up by West Coast Leftist groups and turned into a meaning like "Beat mutiny" and "Beat insurrection" and all that nonsense, they wanted some youth movements to grab on to for their own political and social purposes.'1

STIRRING THE HEART
Yet the term remains something of an iconic word with two particularly interesting reference points for Kerouac and his compadres: the idea of being beaten down but also the notion of the beatific. Both conditions find an echo in the life and narrative of Jesus Christ, in whom Kerouac maintained an active interest from his Catholic childhood, right up to his death.

The contemporary US writer Rick Moody has described Beat writing as 'a language of praise'2 and the following excerpt from the Catechism of the Catholic Church seems oddly in keeping with what Kerouac was trying to achieve: 'To meditate on what we read helps us to make it our own by confronting it with ourselves. Here, another book is opened: the book of life. We pass from thoughts to reality. To the extent that we are humble and faithful, we discover in meditation the movements that stir the heart and we are able to discern them. It is a question of acting truthfully in order to come into the light: "Lord, what do you want me to do?"'3

Likewise, Kerouac's aim in writing was both to chart a specifically American experience but also to ally with it a sense of spiritual engagement. To create his first manuscript for On the Road, Kerouac taped sheets of Japanese paper (like tracing paper) together into a 120-foot-long roll, fed the end into his typewriter and began to fill the unbroken expanse with thought and feeling. He kept up this ritual, almost confessional process over a singular and sustained three week period, while his wife of the time, Joan Haverty, made coffee and soup to sustain him. Theirs was an intense if troubled relationship: symbolically the couple brought their bed next to Kerouac's desk, because he liked Joan near him while he worked. (One can only wonder how a word-processor might have altered the process!) For clues to the origins of this devotional mindset, we must scroll back to Kerouac's early life.

TWO LIVES
From a French-Canadian family, which made its home in Lowell, Massachusetts, Jack was one of three children, the others being Gabrielle and Gerard. It was a Catholic home, his mother devoted in her practice of faith, so Jack would have been alert to the concepts of suffering, sin and penance. When Jack was just four, his physically-frail elder brother, Gerard, died aged just nine, apparently after having a vision of the Virgin Mary - an episode which Jack would interpret in his adult work Visions of Gerard. Indeed, accounts suggest that Gerard's particular affinity for the faith, and his mother's idolisation of him, resulted in Jack feeling rather secondary.

Compounding these complications of the heart and mind, Jack's mother espoused a very strict, orthodox faith which certainly stated that there was to be no sex outside of marriage. It was in this powerful devotional mix of family and catechism that Jack's writing talent emerged - and significantly it was his local priest, Father Morrissette, who urged adolescent Jack to consider New York City as the place to pursue his literary ambitions.

Not surprisingly, perhaps, Kerouac lived something of a double identity throughout his 47 years: there was the 'security' of life at home with his wife and mother and then there was the lure of the Beat life, with its transcontinental questing. Leaving home for his 1947 trans-American odyssey, he was to meet  many of the experiences and people who populate On The Road. Alongside the poet Allen Ginsberg (who always championed Kerouac as a writer) he befriended Neil Cassady, a man he idolised, and who became Dean Moriarty in the novel.

But what permeated both lives - home and on the road - was Kerouac's religious sense of life as quest, as an engagement with the mysteries of existence.

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CRAVING SIMPLICITY
While maintaining his sensibility for his Catholic upbringing, Kerouac became increasingly influenced by eastern traditions. He gravitated particularly towards Buddhism in 1954 after reading Henry David Thoreau, at a desolate time when his love-life had imploded, compounded by the toll of drink and drugs. By 1968, in an interview with Paris Review magazine, he was claiming: 'My serious Buddhism, that of ancient India, has influenced that part in my writing that you might call religious, or fervent, or pious, almost as much as Catholicism has…'4

While his engagement with Buddhism was not as consistent and rigorous as that of contemporaries such as Gary Snyder and Allen Ginsberg, Kerouac had nevertheless found an arena in which to explore his understandings and uncertainties. In the novel Dharma Bums his hero Ray Smith, perennially awestruck, childlike and effectively Jack's avatar, undertakes a high country adventure of body and soul.

Later in the novel, watching Midnight Mass on television on Christmas Eve, Ray/Jack muses on 'bishops ministering, and doctrines glistening, and congregations, the priests in their lacy snowy vestments before great official altars not half as great as my straw matt beneath a little pine tree I figured.'5
The hierarchy of the high altar seems to compare unfavourably with the simple prayer mat here - but perhaps what he most wanted from both religions was something tangible with which to approach the mysteries and subtleties of being alive. When his Buddhist buddy Japhy Ryder (based on the writer Gary Snyder) stops to meditate, for example, Ray/Jack observes that 'I was amazed ... [he] should also suddenly whip out his pitiful beautiful wooden prayerbeads and solemnly pray there, like an old fashioned saint of the deserts, certainly.6

OPEN TO SUFFERING
Perhaps what most unites his Buddhist and Christian strands is what Allen Ginsberg called Jack's openness to 'the suffering of existence' that is 'so deep that it's joyful.7 One is reminded of the Spiritual Exercises in which St Ignatius of Loyola writes of shedding tears of both sorrow and of joy, and considers the feeling of desolation that comes from a sense of disconnection from a spiritual life.8 Kerouac's work was all about the light and the shadow of the spiritual life. 'A peaceful sorrow at home is the best I'll ever be able to offer the world,' he wrote in Desolation Angels.9 He lived with his third wife (Stella Sampas) and mother until the end of his life.

Jack Kerouac would have been 90 in March 2012. His body of work sang a mantra, a devotion, you might say, to the practice of elevating the ordinary and of pursuing a mystic vision in the mundane. He functions as a highly accessible crossroads of spiritual practice for a largely secular age in the west. For all his flaws, he seems to me almost Christlike in terms of being open to the sufferings of heart and mind in 'ordinary' life. Like JC, JK was an outsider whose status as such granted him an all-the-clearer vision of the world around him as he moved in and out of a wildneress, partly of his own making.
Being interviewed not too long at all before his death, Jack was asked why he hadn't written more about Jesus in his work. Jack's straight, simple reply was 'All I write about is Jesus.'10

1  Jack Kerouac interview with the Paris Review, 1968, reprinted in Beat Writers At Work, Harvill Press, 1999, p.x.
2  Rick Moody in Beat Writers at Work, Harvill Press, 1999, p. x.
3 Catechism of the Catholic Church, Chapter Three, The Life of Prayer (2706).
4  Jack Kerouac, Paris Review interview, 1968, reprinted in Beat Writers At Work, Harvill Press, 1999, p.122.
5  Jack Kerouac, Dharma Bums, Flamingo Press, 1994, p.8.
6  ibid., p.61.
7  Allen Ginsberg, quoted by Barry Miles in Jack Kerouac: King of the Beats, Virgin Books, 2009.
8  St Ignatius of Loyola, Spiritual Exercise No. 313 in Personal Writings, Penguin Classics, 2004,pp.348-349.
9  Jack Kerouac, Desolation Angel, Flamingo, 2001.
10   Jack Kerouac in interview with the Paris Review, 1968, reprinted in Beat Writers At Work, Harvill Press, 1999, p.123.