Wednesday, September 05, 2007

"The Office" (Workstation series) 36 (Sal Paradise edition)

Still camera-less: multi-media Office blogging should resume on Friday (and by Monday it'll be "On the Road" blogging as I leave for Points East). But I couldn't let the day go by without recognizing this anniversary: Jack Kerouac's On the Road was released by Viking 50 years ago today and, as Jack's then-girlfriend said, and the great photo-essay Poets on the Peaks confirms "the night of September 4th was the last time in his life Jack Kerouac went to sleep in obscurity," because the Gilbert Milstein Times review of the book that appeared on this date made him instantly a literary star of a sort he was ill-equipped to handle.

Kerouac was a bundle of contradictions: working-class French-Canadian kid from Lowell Mass who starred in football in high school, but under the buff exterior a sensitive man, conflicted in his self-image, like Elvis (his spiritual step-son) appallingly fixated upon his mother (Memere, to use Jack's name for him, hated and feared his artist/poet/Bohemian/Buddhist/faggot friends, and late in Jack's alcoholic self-destruction, would intercept their letters and phone calls), haunted by the memory of his deceased brother Gerard (again like Elvis), a perpetual voyeur, physically courageous but emotionally tremendously timid. In my own flea-on-an-elephant perspective, he never wrote a great book--or at least, he never wrote the book he was capable of, had he been able to overcome his demons of drugs, drink, and Catholic guilt, a perspective confirmed by Gary Snyder, the greatest American poet of the past 50 years--but he was, as all his contemporaries agree, a great spirit, a great observer, and a great friend.

He sat on the stage at the legendary Six Gallery Reading in San Fran in '55, an event which marked the public introduction of the poetry of Gary Snyder, Philip Whalen, Michael McClure, Philip Lamantia, and Allen Ginsberg, hosted by Kenneth Rexroth; an event which cracked a seismic fault down the middle of the literary 20th century. It was the night that Allen Ginsberg read Howl, his angry paean gone and destroyed friends, and magnificently brave prophecy for the poetic future, for the first time, working himself into an Old-Testamentary poetic raging trance:

I saw the best minds of my generation destroyed by madness, starving
hysterical naked,
dragging themselves through the negro streets at dawn looking for an angry
angelheaded hipsters burning for the ancient heavenly connection to the
starry dynamo in the machinery of night..
Howl was a eulogy for the "angelheaded hipsters" who had fueled the post-war explosion of American modernist literature, and, in the "Moloch" section that Ginsberg subsequently added, a prescient description of the horror of technology, industry, and greed that would lead to My Lai, Kent State, the Killing Fields, and destruction of the American soul.

But it was also the night that Snyder, who had to follow Ginsberg, read The Berry Feast, which in its tribal, pan-species animism, in its acuity regarding and respect for the "old ways" which the original inhabitants of Turtle Island had manifested, predicted that the real battle in the second half of the century would be not only the human but the environmental costs of Moloch and the military-industrial complex which Dwight Eisenhower, of all unlikely prophets, had already predicted would be the great demon of American democracy.

As I've said before, in these pages and elsewhere, Gary Snyder is one of the great heroes--one of the revered Ancestors--in my personal pantheon: I aspire to be the teacher, the Buddhist, the activist, and the man that Snyder has been. Ginsberg, who in 1997 died of liver cancer while realizing a degree of detachment and compassion that confirms beyond doubt for me that he had become a great Bodhisattva, is another in the pantheon, though in terms of personality, attributes, personal style could not be more different. His was the bravery to stand naked before the world, secure in the Buddhist conviction that we are all connected, we are all flawed, and we are all beautiful. Ginsberg lived that out in his life and work.

Kerouac was simultaneously too intimidated, too repressed, and too suspicious to read at the Six. Instead, he and Bob Donlin (who 30 years later I played for, without ever knowing Bob's Beat lineage) went out and bought jug wine for the house, making sure that the overflow audience in the tiny room was well juiced for the Dionysian rite--the ancient ritual of poetry, identity, and mythic speech--that was enacted on the makeshift stage and, by some accounts, continued offstage and through the night.

Instead, Kerouac sat on the stage, back to the poets, swigging from the sweet wine that he would eventually disappear into, that would dissolve both his talent and his Buddhism, which would kill him at the age of 47 in the darkness and befuddlement of his mother's spare bedroom in Florida, a martyr to the task, too impossible for him, of realizing sainthood in Nixon's America. And as Ginsberg read, his voice rising to the chanting of the Hebrew prophets, metaphorically stripping himself naked (as he would later do for real in other readings), Kerouac began shouting, as at a '40s jazz jam session of the sort he mythologized in the exploits of Dean Moriarty/Neal Cassidy in On the Road,
Go! Go! GO! GO! GOO!!
And, at Howl's closing lines, as Ginsberg collapsed, spent, the room erupted into cheers, and tears. It was left to Gary, in his lumberjack jacket, worn jeans, and corked timber boots, to bring the house back to the Ground, the old Ground of the watershed, to the world of First Peoples, and the pre-First Peoples: Bear, Crow, Chipmunk. But it was Jack--too shy, too angry, too guilty, too suspicious to read himself--who had understood the delicate, delicate balance of transcendence, risk, and destruction which is the endless dance of Maya, the Universe. Jack had made that ritual happen. But, in the fashion of 2000 years of Catholic martyrs, he was able to love his Fellow Humans and fellow poets, and to seek their redemption. But, also like too many of those martyrs, he was unable to save himself.

That was Jack. He was a tortured Bodhisattva (his claim, upon first visiting Kenneth Rexroth's salon, to be a "great Buddhist scholar", was chastened by learning that everyone in the room except himself spoke at least one Oriental language), and late in his life--really, from the day, at the age of 35, he woke to find himself the most famous writer in America, the "voice of the Beat Generation"--he fell back into guilt, shame, fear, the bottle, and his mother's arms.

But "by their works shall he know them." Jack was a tortured genius, riddled with anger and resentment, and he could not sustain his genius in the toxic environment of Moloch's America, but by his works--On the Road, the masterful Mexico City Blues, and the book that fueled the "rucksack revolution" of the Sixties, his mythology of Gary The Dharma Bums--and by the testimony of his friends--to his genius, his generosity, his artistic courage--we should know him.

Kerouac was not the tortured drunk ranting about "Commies" at the end of the bar in Lowell or in St Petersburg, not the benzedrine-addled voyeur who wished he could be Neal Cassidy and had to settle for sleeping with him, or wished he had Ginsberg's public courage and wound up castigating Ginsberg's Sixties activism. None of those are the Kerouac that his friends knew, loved, and admired. That Jack is the one who wrote On the Road and The Dharma Bums as testimonies of love and admiration for his friends, of belief in their (shared greatness), who sat and watched Mexican farm-laborers and felt his Catholic heart break with love and sorrow for the fellaheen of the world, who wrote in a mad rush of words of the beauty and secular transcendence of America as exemplified in a swimsuit-clad blond in a convertible who gave him every road-rat's hitchhiking dream on US 101 in 1947, who sat on the edge of the Six Gallery stage and yelled Go! Go! Go! as the greatest poets of the post-War period chanted into being an alternate, more ancient, more loving consciousness, that would lead to Monterey Pop, Earth Day, Gay and Women's and Native American liberation, and reconnect us with the ancient wisdoms of Nature, the Body, and the Word aflame.

That's who Jack was. The Jack in this passage, besting Fitzgerald at his own game, and inhabiting a territory that only Ginsberg, Snyder, Whitman, Williams, and maybe Mark Twain have ever occupied:
so in America when the sun goes down and I sit on the old broken-down river pier watching the long, long skies over New Jersey and sense all that raw land that rolls in one unbelievable huge bulge over to the West Coast, and all that road going, all the people dreaming in the immensity of it, and in Iowa I know by now the children must be crying in the land where they let the children cry, and tonight the stars'll be out, and don't you know that God is Pooh Bear? the evening star must be drooping and shedding her sparkler dims on the prairie, which is just before the coming of complete night that blesses the earth, darkens all the rivers, cups the peaks and folds the final shore in, and nobody, nobody knows what's going to happen to anybody besides the forlorn rags of growing old, I think of Dean Moriarty, I even think of Old Dean Moriarty the father we never found, I think of Dean Moriarty, I think of Dean Moriarty.
[Hit this link to see Jack--always the greatest reader of his own work--present this passage, from about 3:47, on the Steve Allen Show]

That's the Jack of On the Road, the Jack he wished he could be, the "Sal Paradise" who loved "Dean Moriarty" and "Alvah Goldbook" and "Japhy Ryder," and over and over, again and again, for decades of scribbling and "no revisions" and shirt-pocket notebooks and benzedrine kicks and Tokay kicks and adrenaline kicks and polymorphous sexual kicks and freight-train kicks and instant-celebrity kicks and Steve Allen kicks and Oedipal kicks and old blowsy beer-bellied decayed Adonis kicks, told them so.

On the Road and The Dharma Bums are Jack Kerouac's love songs.

To all of us.

Thanks, Sal. God bless you, Jack.

May St Jude and all Bodhisattvas and Dharma Protectors in all the Thousand Realms guard you and keep you in Heaven.

Requiescat in pace.

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