During my college studies at Berkeley I remember stumbling upon a memorial for Allen Ginsberg in front of Sproul Hall and shortly thereafter I discovered Howl and City Lights Bookstore and I became enamored by the Beats. The works of Ginsberg, Snyder, Ferlenghetti, and Burroughs were all dear to me but none trumped my love for Jack Kerouac’s On the Road. That book inspired my spiritual philosophy, my acceptance of others, and my desire to simply see and do things for the sake of living. After reading it the third time I was inspired to take a summer internship traveling up and down the country working with a paleo-botanist even though I had no interest in paleo-botany; I simply took the internship for the free ride and opportunity to experience the life and people in parts of the country off the tourist path. I find it a wonder that in all my re-readings of On the Road I never read any other works by Kerouac, perhaps I was too aware that he’d further inspire me to totally give up on the culture of the consumer life and nostalgically aim for the bohemian way of living.
Perhaps that timidity is what left the The Dharma Bums on my shelf unread for the past 2 1/2 years after I bought a beautiful 50th anniversary edition. My denial of Kerouac couldn’t stand up to my current mission to read all my unread books and therefore, good old Kerouac was my first read of 2011. Reading The Dharma Bums brought back all sorts of nostalgia for who I was 12 years ago as I was reminded of all the poetry readings I used to attend and participate in and how I hungered to live simply with little want other than just to be. This reading has been successful in prompting me to re-learn the value of the simple beauties of life that I enjoy: nature, literature, and camaraderie of good soul-filled, good-meaning friends.
I find that The Dharma Bums is a tad more mature than On the Road, with Kerouac’s protagonist mindfully aware of the contradiction in his need for the dichotomous living of wild city parties and rural escapes as mirrors to the basic human needs for connection with mankind and soul-searching solitude. This mindfulness has much to do with the Buddhist philosophical theme that pervades the story’s motivation. Though I am not Buddhist, I do connect with the need for the peace of solitude and the scenes portraying nature are perfect in their simple descriptiveness and ignite my desire to get out of San Francisco and head for the hills and be under the stars. For example, this passage describes the peace that Ray Smith (the protagonist) receives as he goes to sleep in the desert night:
“The silence is so intense that you can hear your own blood roar in your ears but louder than that by far is the mysterious roar which I always identify with the diamond of wisdom, the mysterious roaring of silence itself, which is a great Shhhh reminding you of something you’ve seemed to have forgotten in the stress of your days since birth.” (119)
The something we have forgotten is something I have forgotten, and I’m thankful to Kerouac for reawakening thoughts of peace in my mind. During my reading I was inspired to climb a hill that overlooks my San Francisco neighborhood and take a moment to just sit and breathe in the cold winter air on a peak away from all the busyness of the city and the things I must do. This reading has reminded me that there is sadness in this life that all our wants are in wanting of what is only fleeting and passing, like the closing of good novel that ends to be placed on the shelf, no more.
“Are we all fallen angels who didn’t want to believe that nothing is nothing and so we are born to lose our loved ones and dear friends one by one and finally our own life, to see it proved? … where would it all lead to but some sweet golden eternity, to prove that we’ve all been wrong, to prove that proving itself was nil …” (183)