As a used bookseller I am often met with requests from young people for Jack Kerouac’s On the Road. Usually I don’t have it. I would estimate that I hear four or five requests for every copy that I might get in.
[. . .] the only people for me are the mad ones, the ones who are mad to live, mad to talk, mad to be saved, desirous of everything at the same time, the ones who never yawn or say a commonplace thing, but burn, burn, burn like fabulous yellow roman candles exploding like spiders across the stars and in the middle you see the blue centerlight pop and everybody goes ‘Awww!’ What did they call such young people in Goethe’s Germany?
Here is the famous passage telling what still appeals to these young people written sixty years ago in a three-week bout of spontaneous confessional prose, the final draft of which was done in twenty days on a continuous roll of paper 120 feet long fed through a typewriter, constant bowls of pea soup and cups of coffee being supplied by Kerouac’s wife, Joan, to keep him there pounding at the keys. He was 29 when he completed On the Road in April of 1951. The book, in large part autobiographical, relates his road-trip adventures across the United States and Mexico with Neal Cassady in the late-1940s. It describes also his relationships with other Beat writers and friends.
Today, the 21st day of October, is the anniversary of his death. He died in 1969 a forty-seven- year old alcoholic.
“I like too many things and get all confused and hung-up running from one falling star to another till I drop,” writes Kerouac in Part Two, Chapter 4. “This is the night, what it does to you. I had nothing to offer anybody except my own confusion.”
My own confusion. Is this the tie that binds the most famous of Beat writers to so many of our present generation of twenty-somethings? His own confusion? And is this confusion of Kerouac’s in some strange way made clearer by his abhorrence of being even referred to as a Beat writer? Because, according to his biographer, Douglas Brinkley, professor of history at Rice University and editor of Windblown World: The Journals of Jack Kerouac, 1947-1954, Kerouac did not see his book as an account of a road trip about two guys looking for one thrill on top of another. Through Brinkley we discover that, according to Kerouac himself, On the Road “was really a story about two Catholic buddies roaming the country in search of God. And we found him. I found him in the sky, in Market Street San Francisco (those 2 visions), and Dean (Neal) had God sweating out of his forehead all the way. THERE IS NO OTHER WAY OUT FOR THE HOLY MAN: HE MUST SWEAT FOR GOD. And once he has found Him, the Godhood of God is forever Established and really must not be spoken about.”
Brinkley thinks that the most important thing to understand about Kerouac is that he was an American Catholic author. Just consider, for instance, that virtually every page of his diary bore a sketch of a crucifix, a prayer, or an appeal to Christ to be forgiven.
The nature of his confusion is perhaps best exemplified in this single passage in Part 1, Chapter 12: “A pain stabbed my heart, as it did every time I saw a girl I loved who was going the opposite direction in this too-big world.” Really? A fine passage of course, and there will be many a young man (and many maybe not so young) who will identify with this passion no doubt. But those of us who know well the anonymously written Meditations on the Tarot: A Journey into Christian Hermeticism might immediately be reminded of Letter VI, “The Lover”, the central theme of which is the practice of the vow of chastity. The Letter is preceded by three quotes from the Bible:
LETTER VI THE LOVER
She seizes him and kisses him,
And with impudent face she says to him:
I had to offer sacrifices,
And today I have paid my vows.
So now I have come out to meet you,
To seek you eagerly, and I have found you.
(Proverbs vii, 13-15)
I, Wisdom, dwell in prudence,
And I possess knowledge and discretion . . .
I love those who love me,
And those who seek me find me.
(Proverbs viii, 12, 17)
Set me as seal upon your heart,
As a ring upon your arm;
For love is strong as death . . .
Its flashes are flashes of fire,
A flame of the Eternal.
(Song of Songs viii, 6-7)
Here the whole composition of the sixth card is translated from the visual language of the Tarot into that of the poetry of Solomon. For there is a dark-haired woman with an impudent face clad in a red robe who seizes the shoulder of the young man whilst another, with fair hair and dressed in a blue mantle, makes appeal to his heart with a chaste gesture of her left hand. At the same time, above, a winged infant archer, standing out against a white sphere emitting red, yellow and blue flames, is about to let fly an arrow directed at the other shoulder of the young man. Does one not hear, in contemplating the sixth Card of the Tarot, a voice which says: “I have found you”, and another which says: “Those who seek me find me”? Does one not recognize the voice of sensuality and the voice of the heart, and likewise the flashes of fire from above of which King Solomon speaks?
The central theme of the sixth Arcanum is therefore that of the practice of the vow of chastity, just as the fifth Arcanum had poverty as its theme and the fourth obedience. The sixth Arcanum is at the same time the summary of the two preceding Arcana – chastity being the fruit of obedience and poverty. It summarizes the three vows or methods of spiritual discipline in contrasting them with the three trials or temptations opposed to these vows. The choice before which the young man finds himself placed is of greater significance than that between vice and virtue. It is a matter here of choice between on the one hand the way of obedience, poverty and chastity and the other hand the way of power, richness and debauchery. The practical teaching of the Arcanum “The Lover” is to do with the three vows and the three corresponding temptations . . .
The three vows are, in essence, memories of paradise, where man was united with God (obedience), where he possessed everything at once (poverty), and where his companion was at one and the same time his wife, his friend, his sister, and his mother (chastity). For the real presence of God necessarily entails the action of prostrating oneself in the face of Him “who is more myself than I am” – and here lies the root and source of the vow of obedience; the vision of the forces, substances and essences of the world in the guise of the “garden of divine symbols” (garden of Eden) signifies the possession of everything without choosing, without laying hold of, or without appropriating any particular thing isolated from the whole – and here lies the root and source of the vow of poverty; lastly, total communion between two, between one and another, which comprises the entire range of all possible relationships of spirit, soul and body between two polarized beings necessarily constitutes the absolute wholeness of spiritual, psychic and physical being, in love – and here lies the root and source of the vow of chastity.
One is chaste only when one loves with the totality of one’s being. Chastity is not wholeness of being in indifference, but rather in the love which is “strong as death and whose flashes are flashes of fire, the flame of the Eternal”. It is living unity. . . .
Loving with the totality of one’s being. “My fault, my failure,” Kerouac once said to Neal Cassady, “is not in the passions I have, but in my lack of control of them.”
Ay, there’s the rub. Although the passions I have may be very well not my fault or failure, yet my lack of control of them may be less a fault than the greater fault of my failing to grasp that they must find transformation, i.e., the lower passions must one day transmute into higher passions, not simply be left as they are and kept under control, however important that is. This, I think, is what John Keats sensed when he wrote “On Seeing the Elgin Marbles”:
My spirit is too weak — mortality
Weighs heavily on me like unwilling sleep,
And each imagin’d pinnacle and steep
Of godlike hardship tells me I must die
Like a sick Eagle looking at the sky.
What is this godlike hardship if not the alchemic work of transmuting the passions? Was Kerouac’s spirit “like a sick eagle looking at the sky”, too weak for “each imagined pinnacle and steep of godlike hardship” rising before him? And if it was like a sick eagle looking at the sky, did Kerouac – like Keats – actually know that it was?
From Kerouac to Keats, we come to this in the Gospel of Luke (12: 49-50):
I came to bring fire to the earth, and how I wish it were already kindled! I have baptism with which to be baptized, and what stress I am under until it is completed!
Fire from above to bring to the earth, fire from above to be baptized with. What greater stress for the spirit to imagine? There are the passions and then there is the Passion, the fire of sacrificial love that will take the soul to the fartherest reach of sacrifice so that the same fire may come into the hearts of all.
“Our passions are, in truth, like the phoenix,” said Goethe. “When the old one burns away, the new one rises out of its ashes at once.”
And so it may be on the road we travel.
“What’s your road, man?” writes Kerouac in Part 4, Chapter 1. “Holyboy road, madman road, guppy road, any road. It’s an anywhere road for anybody anyhow.”
What’s my road? My road, for me the only road, is a straight and narrow road, a unique road only for me to find and to follow — not, to be sure, “an anywhere road for anybody anyhow”. If there are few that find their road, may I be one of those few, that I would come to my true passion, to that fire I too might one day bring down from heaven. From Prometheus to the living Christ, let that fire come in my heart. Bound to a rock, nailed to a cross, there is a passion that wants farthest reach of sacrifice: love strong as death, its flashes the very flashes of fire in that heart, holy flame of the Eternal.
What was Kerouac’s stab in the heart really, if not a sad yearning for that fire? Every sketch of a crucifix, every prayer, every appeal to Christ to be forgiven on the pages of his diary testifies to that yearning. Each time he saw a girl he “loved who was going the opposite direction in this too-big world”, who was that girl really if not sadly Wisdom Herself slipping away? Yet was it really She who was going in the opposite direction? Was it not rather actually he? “I love those who love me, and those who seek me find me,” Wisdom promises all who would set Her as a seal upon the heart.
On May 17, 1928, when he was six years old and saying the rosary, Kerouac heard words telling him that his soul was good, that though he “would suffer in life and die in pain and horror, he would in the end find salvation”. It was his brother Gerard, dying when he was nine years old, however, who had a vision of the Virgin Mary, convincing the nuns around him that he was a saint.
In Visions of Gerard, published in 1963, Kerouac gives a vivid picture of his dying nine-year old brother as precisely that – a saint: a saint teaching him, a four-year old, to love all creatures on the earth. It was a doctrine Kerouac believed in, a docrine he tried to follow throughout his life, except that other loves constantly interfered and distracted.
“Love is chief among the passions of the soul,” writes Francis de Sales in The Devout Life. “It is king of all the heart’s impulses; it draws all things to itself, and makes us like to what we love.”
It is for the very reason that love “makes us like to what we love” that we need to learn early to seek Wisdom, to set Her as a seal upon our heart, as a ring upon our arm, so that we may wish to take up the vow of chastity. We will otherwise fall all too easily in love with the wrong things — drugs and alcohol for instance — and although error can certainly be an indirect means through its consequences of pain and suffering to our eventually deciding to seek out Wisdom, clearly the shorter way, the way far more helpful to ourselves and far more helpful to others, would be to grow to love Wisdom, to learn to rise early in search of Her.
“Learn where is wisdom,” it says in Baruch (3:14), “where is strength, where is understanding; that thou mayest know also where is length of days, and life, where is the light of the eyes, and peace.”
Pax et bonum,