Who Am I to Judge?

As David Gates seems to have been forced to note in last week’s Newsweek, Jack Kerouac‘s On the Road was published fifty years ago, and that has engendered a fair amount of activity from the book’s original publisher, Viking. Despite the apparent involuntary nature of his effort, David has done an admirable job of sorting out all of the ideas and attitudes that surround the book, separating them to the extent possible from the book itself, and evaluating the books that Viking and others will be offering in the next few weeks. Having read the article, I’m inspired to go back to Kerouac and see what I may have missed, an inspiration that has been forming for a few months.

I read On the Road for the first time well into my thirties, which is probably far past the age at which one is most susceptible to its charms. Just as when I read The Catcher in the Rye in my mid-twenties and The Stranger a decade or so later, when I read On the Road, I was disappointed aesthetically, philosophically, and any other way one can be disappointed in a book, and I lamented what it said about our culture that this book was not only taken seriously, but often revered. The writing seemed to be simultaneously mannered and sloppy. It betrayed, I thought, a labored carelessness. But more than anything else, I resented following him through page after page of disappointment and misery, relieved only by the occasional episode of joy that, by its nature, couldn’t be adequately conveyed, all the while his interactions with others apparently governed solely by what he could get from them. The narrator, and presumably the author, wasn’t simply self-absorbed, he was virulent.

It would be easy for me to wrap this up with a little lecture about how all of our suffering is caused by this impulse to comfort ourselves to the detriment of others, along with whom we just end up suffering anyway, and until a few months ago I would have done just that. I would have spoken of the insight behind the Bodhisattva Vow that the only rational response to our own suffering is to use it as a tool to understand the suffering of others and thereby seek to free us all together from the beginningless and endless cycle of that suffering. And that would have been correct, as far as it went, but it wouldn’t have been the truth behind my reaction.

My reaction was more primal and more emotional. I was raised by parents whose dealings with others, even their own children, had a bit too much in common with those of Sal Paradise and Dean Moriarty, leaving my brother and me to clean up the mess toward which our lives tended. The impulse toward personal happiness that young children I’ve met since seem to display naturally isn’t one I can ever remember having myself. From a remarkably early age (five? three?), I had to worry about the consequences of my actions because I couldn’t rely on anyone else consistently doing so on my behalf. And that’s what the adults around me came to value more than anything else, that I didn’t require any effort on their part. So I found On the Road less glamorous or exciting and more sad or pointless.

But then, some time ago, my meditation instructor lent me Kerouac’s The Scripture of the Golden Eternity. I regarded it with a great deal of suspicion, but eventually started reading it, and I was shocked. It was lucid and profound in all of the ways that On the Road was irksome. And so I learned once again that all judgments, if not simply useless, must be provisional. We can divide the world into good and bad on any basis we wish, and we can even justify those distinctions with great intelligence and authority, but ultimately, those distinctions are distortions. And as I’ve had to forgive my parents to get on with my life as it unfolds in the present, I’ve begun revisiting Jack Kerouac. I just read Satori in Paris, in which I found this:

My manners, abominable at times, can be sweet. As I grew older I became a drunk. Why? Because I like ecstasy of the mind.

I’m a Wretch.

But I love love.

Kerouac wrote as clearly and as truly about the experience of humanity from the inside as anyone. That so many of his readers choose to read his work as normative rather than descriptive is a testament both to the conviction of his portrayal and to the depth of our need for guidance. But he doesn’t mean to assume a position of superior understanding to tell his readers how to live. He just wants to show, really show what it’s like to be him, to be human. And that clarity can be the basis for the wisdom of The Scripture of the Golden Eternity and for the life and premature death of a drunk.

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