By Brandon Bennett
First released online for BRAG Writers 09/09/2023
‘Something good will come out of all things yet – And it will be golden and eternal just like that.’ – Jack Kerouac, The Dharma Bums
The Dharma Bums follows Ray Smith as he sketches his experiences with contemporary east-coast writers and ‘Zen Lunatics’ as they climb mountains, practice yabbyum, and find the meaning behind it all in America’s great, vast, and varied wilderness.
Smith, a crudely masked Kerouac, is a self-proclaimed ‘Buddhist’ but certainly not ‘Zen’. He makes a point of this to Japhy, a poet and Zen Buddhist who is getting ready to leave America (possibly for good) and study in Japan. Smith studies Japhy, and it’s clear he is incredibly fond of this person who he considers a modern day sage. It’s always important to remember, however, that whatever you read of Kerouac’s is underpinned by his immovable Catholic background. After all, he once despaired in an interview, when asked about why he’d never overtly touched on the subject within his works: ‘Don’t you get it? It’s all been about Christ.’
In this sense you can feel the philosophical and religious strains that flow within and without the lines. Smith's attempts to find a better way of living, to merge two distinct cultures, is brave yet questionable. It echoes a much less intellectually refined Pirsig in The Art of Motorcycle Maintenance (this is not, of course, to say that Kerouac was anything less than a brilliant mind). Unlike when reading Pirsig, you feel what this is doing to Kerouac’s Smith in a much more personal way. Smith can’t quite become comfortable with what is going on around him, despite how desperate he is, Smith leaves his friends for the isolation of Desolation Peak without feeling much more than an emotionally attached observer. It is this religious and intellectual conflict that is at the heart of his novel.
In chapter five, after coming back down from a hike with Japhy, Smith finds relief in the very Buddhist idea that ‘I wasn’t an ‘I’ and I prayed that God, or Tathagata, would give me enough time and enough sense and strength to tell people what I knew’ and he even goes onto admit ‘I can’t even do [that] properly now’.
As in On the Road, the Kerouac of Dharma Bums is still looking for Nirvana, his Heaven on Earth, but he sure as shit ain’t any closer. His only hope seems to lie in that the answer is somehow already in ‘him’ or one of his friends.
The Dharma Bums was first published in 1958 but the ideas are lasting. As the 'west' becomes increasingly secular and interconnected, many of us are (rather ironically if you ask me) possessed by new-new-age pursuits of self-discovery that share convoluted, complicated, and often contradictory histories with philosophies from all over the globe. These invoke practices and feelings that Kerouac was having at the time he wrote this novel. As a believer in Christ that apparently accepted the teachings of the Buddha, Kerouac is unable to adopt any philosophy in its entirety and lives with the internal struggles that causes.
He lived a life that few great minds would be willing to brave in the 21st century and it took its toll. Jack Kerouac died October 21st 1969. It was an abdominal haemorrhage that took him, courtesy of a lifetime of heavy drinking. Nirvana, it seems, was never close enough. If his friends did find it, they never shared it with him (especially Japhy, whose real-life counterpart never did return from Japan, and who wasn't at all too fond of Kerouac's recording of events).
To quote the closing lines of Dharma Bums, a novel that deserves my ongoing attention: ‘There’s no need to say another word.’