A   G R E A T   P H I L O S O P H Y


(see also on this site: about ' On The Road - the film' + my 'review' + The BEATS)




My intention a long time ago was to discuss the work of Jack Kerouac - a big favourite of mine. As yet I've written nothing about his life and work, though I've read most of his books and several biographies - ages ago too. Kerouac embraced implicitly those same elements of revolt: slave versus master, poor versus rich - though for Man versus creation he did so with explicit fervour. He also embraced the joys of youth as Camus did, though in rather different tones and circumstances. The frenzied, eventful to-ing and fro-ing across America, the wild antics and adventures he and other prominent-to-be individuals enjoyed, should be an inspiration to us all - just as Camus's Algerian sun and sea should. Most notably there was Burroughs, Ginsberg, and above all the amazing restive prankster Neal Cassady - each outstanding in their way. With fantastic letters flying between them when geographically separated, hilarious frantic jaunts when together, life to them was one vast nomadic poem to be exploited for all it had, drenching them in the whole milieu of splendour and dissipation alike, the deep philosophic meanderings, endless lurching from one hectic stunt to the next. Kerouac frequently alludes to death in his work too, and finally ended his days in drunken oblivion. One intoxicated episode is vividly described in his 'Big Sur' - a location I well remember on the Californian coast south of San Francisco.

. . .. . . .. ......Neal Cassady & Jack Kerouac

But Kerouac's most outstanding and famous literary achievement was 'On The Road'. This essentially autobiographical extravaganza became, and perhaps still is, seen by some as a kind of bible which sets the scene and introduces some well known identifiable characters. 'The Dharma Bums', which is more 'on the path' than 'on the road' is another great work, but one of the most penetrating, I think, is 'Desolation Angels'. In Part One he describes the several months he spent alone as a Fire-Watcher on Desolation Peak (in the north-east corner of North Cascades National Park, Washington State). It is a gripping tale. But in Part Two, called 'Passing Through' he's back on the road once more. He is older now, a little weary. The melancholy that previously seemed to hang subtly between the lines (especially in his later work and regardless of the raucous high-spirits) now predominates. And with increased poignancy the prose becomes more poetic too. Here's a brief extract:

'I simply walked away with my rucksack on my back, to the station, got on the bus and fell asleep, with the pack by the driver's well. When I woke up in Roanoke Rapids at dawn it was gone. Somebody had taken it off at Richmond. I let my head fall on the seat in that harsh glare nowhere worse in the world than in America with a stupid guilty hangover. A whole new novel (Angels of Desolation), a whole book of poems, and the finishing chapters of another novel (about Tristessa), together with all the paintings not to mention the only gear I had in the world (sleepingbag, poncho, sweater of holy favor, perfect simple equipments the result of years' thinking), gone, all gone. I started to cry. And I looked up and saw the bleak pines by the bleak mills of Roanoke Rapids with one final despair, like the despair of a man who has nothing left to do but leave the earth forever. Soldiers waited for the bus smoking. Fat old North Carolinians watched hands aback clasped. Sunday morning, I empty of my little tricks to make life liveable. An empty orphan sitting nowhere, sick and crying. Like dying I saw all the years flash by, all the efforts my father had made to make living something to be interested about but only ending in death, blank death in the glare of automobile day, automobile cemeteries, whole parking lots of cemeteries everywhere. I saw the glum faces of my mother, of Irwin, of Julien, of Ruth, all trying to make it go on believing without hope. College students in the back of the bus making me even sicker to think of their purple plans all in time to end blind in an automobile cemetery insurance office for nothing… Where's yonder old mule buried in those piny barrens or did the buzzard just eat? Caca, all the world caca. I remembered the enormous despair of when I was 24 sitting in my mother's house all day while she worked in the shoe factory, in fact sitting in my father's death chair, staring like a bust of Goethe at nothing. Getting up once in a while to plunk sonatas on the piano, sonatas of my own spontaneous invention, then falling on the bed crying. Looking out the window at the glare of automobiles on Crossbay Boulevard. Bending my head over my first novel too sick to go on. Wondering about Goldsmith and Johnson how they burped sorrow by their firesides in a life that was too long. That's what my father told me the night before he died, 'Life is too long.' '

(Luckily, the driver had moved his rucksack to the luggage hold.)

Kerouac led a hard yet glorious life. Regardless of whether conditions were favourable, he drained what he could from it - the maximum, if you discount longevity. His work, shortly before he died so prematurely at 47 (about the same age as Camus when the car he was in hit a tree), has the tone one might expect of an old soldier, containing the cynical reflections of a burnt-out hero. I read in one of the many biographies, that he left $85 (or some such miniscule amount). Now his estate is worth $millions. A few years ago radio 4 transmitted 'On The Road' read masterfully by Toby Stevens. I recorded this 2 hour reading and frequently listen to it when driving between here and Cambridgeshire to visit my mother. I never tire of it: the spontaneous prose, the constant light-hearted yet intense analyses of life, the mad unrelenting zestful pursuit of adventure, the quest to 'dig' (appreciate, enjoy, understand) everything, to discover what IT is all about, what IT means. To think that he originally typed this novel in just a few rushed days on a single roll of paper; to think, when completed he threw it unravelling across his publisher's office; to think this 'short-sighted' publisher rejected it and told him to go home and type it properly… Well, that was several years before it finally and belatedly reached publication.

The whole point I'm trying to make here, and in most of what I put on this site, is that I think people should ask themselves what they are alive for and what they should be doing with their lives. These, of course, are the questions that most of the philosophers and writers I mention were addressing in their own special way. Einstein said: 'The most beautiful thing we can experience is the mysterious. It is the true source of all art and science.' And then he set out to destroy as much as he could of it - knowing, of course, that for every mystery solved several more would spring up to replace it - like the multi-headed mythological hydra: cut off one head and two more grow in its place. So instead of creating mystery where none really exists, wouldn't we do better to seek only clarity and truth as Camus did?

In a letter written shortly before he died (prematurely from a chance infection), Kazantzakis (author of 'Zorba the Greek') wrote:

'What purpose? What do we care? Don't ask, fight on! Let us set ourselves a purpose… We must conquer the last, the greatest of temptations - that of hope… We sing even though we know that no ear exists to hear us; we toil though there is no employer to pay the wages when night falls. We are despairing, serene and free. This is true heroism…'

Compare this with Sisyphus who famously, over and over, spends eternity pushing a rock to the top of a hill only to see it roll down again - and whose predicament, which can be seen to parallel our own, Camus examined in detail. Any mention of Zorba, incidentally, reminds me of his announcement: 'Life is like chamomile tea. But you've got to drink rum!' Is it possible to slack and 'Drink rum'? Kerouac seemed to manage it, both literally and figuratively - neither, perhaps wisely (yes, wisely), in moderation.

But even at the advanced age of 54, I can still experience to an extent those delights Camus describes so lucidly: of days spent diving in the sea, listening to the kiss of the waves, communing with the 'melody of the world'. I last swam in the sea, twice it was so warm, on 11th October, less than a week ago. (I’m writing this in 2004).That was the day of the torchlight parade here at Hastings, and the burning of effigies - Tory Bliar should have been the candidate; the real thing, in my view, after the horrendous unjustified invasion and massacre of 40,000 good people (who should be alive and idling contentedly like me). And this week, immersed in the radiance of sun, wind and sea, walking the promenade, the wild beach beyond the town, the cliffs and woods... the same sensations - diminished by age, I know, but reinforced by memory. Dostoyevsky:

"You are told a lot about your education, but some beautiful, sacred memory, preserved since childhood, is perhaps the best education of all. If a man carries many such memories into life with him, he is saved for the rest of his days. And even if only one good memory is left in our hearts, it may also be the instrument of our salvation one day."

(This resonates well with my theory of the supreme importance of nostalgia). A childhood that gleans firm memories of the sights and scents of nature is invaluable, priceless: Where else this life affirming nostalgia? For me, though, this 'pseudo wanderer's' life is compromised by a ridiculous addiction to home comforts - (how much more free and happy I was in the antipodes with nothing in the world but a small rucksack). But how superior is even this to the endless commuting and daily grind that so many of us choose - or are forced to endure by circumstances we have unwittingly created or have had shoved down our throats.

A few days ago, in a little book of short stories, I found this - taken from 'The Barber's Uncle' by William Saroyan:

'It was a warm winter day and the world was sleeping. It was very still everywhere in the world. Nobody was rushing round in an automobile and the only thing you could hear was the warm and cool, happy and sad silence of reality. The world. Ah, it was good to be alive somewhere. It was splendid to have a small house in the world. Rooms and tables and chairs and beds. Pictures on the walls. It was strange and wonderful to be somewhere in the world. Alive, able to move through time and space, morning, noon, and night: to breathe and eat and laugh and talk and sleep and grow. To see and hear and touch. To walk through the places of the world under the sun. To be in the world. I was glad the world was there, so I could be there too. I was alone, so I was sad about everything, but I was glad too. I was so glad about everything that I was sad. I wanted to dream about it: the places I had never seen. The wonderful cities of the world: New York, London, Paris, Berlin, Vienna, Constantinople, Rome, Cairo. The streets, the houses, the people alive. The doors and windows everywhere. And the trains at night, and at night the ships at sea. The dark sad sea. And the bright moments of all the dead years, the cities buried under time, the places rotted and ended. Ah, in 1919 I dreamed a dream one day: I dreamed the living lived for ever. I dreamed the end of change and decay and death.'

That last sentence has appalling implications unless one is aware that it reflects an innocent moment for an 11 year old kid. But here Saroyan begins to touch the core of what it means to be alive. It's not easy. Like Hesse, he comes within a whisker of mawkishness. This is a great skill. It looks so simple - assisted here by the occasional brush of juvenile semantics. It's like looking at a great painting where a few deft rough-looking brushstrokes reveal and tell all.

In an article on writing, Kurt Vonnegut said:

'The great masters wrote sentences which were almost childlike when their subjects were most profound: "To be or not to be?" asks Shakespeare's Hamlet… It may be that you too are capable of making necklaces for Cleopatra, so to speak. But your eloquence should be the servant of the ideas in your head… Our audience requires us to be sympathetic… ever willing to clarify - whereas we would rather soar high above the crowd, singing like nightingales.'

There is nothing here of trying to hoodwink the reader. Quite the contrary. It is about expressing as closely and as accurately as possible, precisely the sensations the writer feels and strives above all to convey. With the inevitable limitations of the written word, writing as art usually requires some talent and much effort. Attempting to aspire to this end presents an awesome challenge to a novice like me - and is probably a pointless quest anyway (which is why I don't even try - when I have, I've always ended-up with mushy drivel). But as with all art, dedication to practice - and perhaps some innate ability too - can produce the most durable and rewarding results. For every Dostoyevsky, J.M.W. Turner or Mozart, there must be millions who, regardless of any audience, discover huge pleasure in creating for its own sake. Some achieve recognition, some - who, me? - achieve nothing. It matters not; creating is its own reward.

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