Updated: Oct 15
Jack Kerouac novels appeal because these books are not really novels: these books are journals with the names changed. Luckily for Kerouac, the people he chronicled were too poor or too infamous to sue for libel; there is barely any mistake as to who they are. But people who sue for libel are usually guilty anyway; and are also, quite frankly, ghey, being the miserable type who actually want to spend their lives cloistered with lawyers—another miserable species—in earnest discussion about whether a comma changes a paragraph’s substantial meaning.
So Kerouac, a bit like Henry Miller, appeals because he keeps it mostly on a factual basis; and this puts his books more or less in the same league as other books for men, stories about the conquest of K2 or round-the-world single-handers—except that with Kerouac we also enjoy his emotional response to the world, and it is this response which, as we shall see, should be found suspect. Kerouac writes in a very simple and open style, so he has mass appeal; On the Road (1957) sold millions, and its influence should not be underestimated. To pick a recent event, when a young woman in her early twenties, Gabby Petito, was murdered the event took place in or near a van in which she and her boyfriend explored America; and this exploration, complete with video journals, would be inconceivable without Kerouac—even the macabre termination is in keeping with Kerouac’s quasi-criminal outlook. The road trip was invented by Kerouac: the idea that young people should take a long-distance, largely aimless drive as a small group. Millions upon millions of people must have taken this rite of passage since On the Road was published; and the results from general hoboing, such as the death of Christopher McCandless in Alaska in the 1990s, have often been fatal and spawned their own legends.
When I was a teenager in the early 2000s my contemporaries talked about “going travelling”; and the desire “to travel” remained constant all the way through my twenties. The proximate cause was the residual impact from Alex Garland’s novel The Beach (1996) about backpackers in Asia; and yet Garland echoed the hippies and the hippies echoed…Kerouac. So this vague idea that young people need to “travel” can be traced right back to one man’s view that travel could be a spiritual quest; for be in no doubt, Kerouac was a man with an intense religious sensibility—although he never found what he searched for, not really.
Kerouac was an intermediate man, by which I mean he was the type that never quite fits in his generation and so looks both forwards and backwards at the same time. When Kerouac hit the road it was the late 1940s; he finally finished up On the Road—his second novel, composed on a single vast scroll flitched from a news agency teleprinter—in the late 1950s. At a time when most people had settled down and full employment had arrived, Kerouac chose to lionise a way of life—the hobo on the tramp across America—that really applied to the previous generation, to the men who were forced to take to the rails to beat the Great Depression.
While his contemporaries settled down, Kerouac moved: what men in the 1930s did from necessity, he did by choice. Consequently, the travellers he encountered were really hardcore anti-social types; people who moved because they had always been that way and always would be. Yet Kerouac also looked forward, for On the Road would inspire the generation below him to become hippies and, in a new mould, “travellers”. This annoyed Kerouac in the end, for young people would dog him when he became famous under the impression that he was still the twenty-year-old punk depicted in On the Road and The Dharma Bums, always ready to jump in a car and tear across the continent with only a few dollars to hand. By the time he became securely stellar-famous Kerouac was in his late thirties and early forties; he lived with his mother, grew fat, and sunk into alcoholism—a condition intimately connected to his personality, as we shall see. He was in no mood to play with the kids he inspired, although he was still a big kid himself.
Whether he liked it or not, Kerouac was a bridge between two disrupted generations; he preserved a footloose outlook that vanished as the Western world settled down after the war—the war provided quite enough adventure, thank you. This makes Kerouac’s political contribution significant, for in the 1960s and after we saw everything about the 1940s and, in particular, the 1950s repudiated. When I was a child in the 1990s I saw the first wave of ironic greetings cards that took some idealised scene from a 1950s advertisement—mom and pop at home with the kids and the dawg, schucks—and inserted an ironic caption or speech bubble to spoil the wholesome scene. The 1950s had become, still is today, associated with demonic evil; and the left would have us believe that it was all depressed housewives, fathers who beat their children black and blue with their belts, and children raped by the family priest. The reason for all this is that the left in the 1960s comprehensively rejected the nuclear family, along with its habitat, the suburbs, so that even today leftists use “suburbia” as an insult. We are definitely meant to have progressed beyond the 1950s; and Kerouac’s decision to reject suburban stability seems to have influenced this outlook, the need to escape “the squares” or else die—you need to find yourself, on the road…
Yet Kerouac’s relation to this sensibility is complex; the ‘68ers would doubtless claim him as their own on the grounds that he kicked against middle-class conformism and expressed a strong kinship with minorities, of all kinds. Kerouac stalks San Francisco’s streets in On the Road and laments that he is white; the Negro, the Mexican, the drug addict—perhaps the queer, though Kerouac draws a gun on one in a restroom—all represent a warmer and more authentic world to which Kerouac would like to belong. The view was not Kerouac’s alone; at the same time Norman Mailer began to praise the Negro’s existential position—his provisional existence in a mechanical world pointed to freedom, albeit anti-social freedom. In Kerouac we see fully articulated the middle-class commonplace today, a sneer at the word “white”. “Oh, that’s a very white town—practically suburbia—if only it were more diverse.” It is hard not to attribute this view to Kerouac, but we should remember that he also praises Middle America—pretty girls in Iowa, farmers from Nebraska—very highly indeed; so we must not mistake his alienated racial comments for the fully articulated leftist anti-white politics we know today.
Indeed, politically Kerouac was a staunch Catholic reactionary. In a panel appearance on the William F. Buckley show shortly before his death, Kerouac—in a terrible condition due to his advanced alcoholism—said that he had always voted Republican and upheld the Catholic faith’s commitment to order, piety, and tenderness. He interlarded these comments with anti-Semitic observations directed at a fellow Jewish panellist, and generally maintained a position that could be characterised as “reactionary bore”. The interview is, in fact, painful to watch; for Kerouac, roaring drunk, slurs and spews incoherence about the studio—much to Buckley’s condescension and narcissistic disdain. The camera occasionally cuts to Allen Ginsberg, Kerouac’s fellow Beat and long-time friend, who sits in the audience and appears completely dismayed and distressed at his friend’s public humiliation and alcoholic self-destruction.
Nevertheless, despite his drunkenness in this penultimate appearance, Kerouac managed to convey his core outlook: he saw himself as a Catholic mystic on the road in search of God. Kerouac explains, as he had done many times before, that “Beat”—as in “the Beat Generation”, which he named—encapsulated three distinct ideas: firstly, to be “beat to your socks” (as in an impoverished hobo); secondly, the beat, as in a jazz beat; and thirdly, “beatitude”, as in the supreme blessedness. Kerouac’s Beat Generation included his close friends Allen Ginsberg and William S. Burroughs, but it expanded out to encompass an entire bohemian circle that would come to influence the hippies—and they in turn looked back to men such as Henry Miller, who, though primarily an erotic writer, was also a mystical Buddhist. So with the Beats we are in full mystical mode; and the left is generally very unsympathetic to mysticism, usually referred to in the same breath as “fascism”.
Even the book’s title suggests a spiritual direction: On the Road—on the path, or the way, to enlightenment. All mystics walk a path, the razor’s edge. “I just want to…be, man,” said Kerouac; shades of Heidegger there, even in his writing: live on red-dust American heels and tears in neon; life immediate, under sad sad trails. Knock out the verb “to be”, knock out the definite article, and draw attention back Being, jazz-style. Kerouac’s project: write spontaneous, like old Zen artist in Chinee story—or old German philosopher in Black Forest hut. Kerouac wanted to recover Being, the highway.
This is why Julius Evola—the monocled Sicilian baron who appears like some caricature of an “evil Nazi”, though usually without the cigarette in a long slender holder—looked to Kerouac with some hope. Evola, sometimes characterised as “the most right-wing man in the world”, saw in Kerouac a mystical outlook that fused Catholicism and Zen Buddhism. Evola detested America as a mechanical materialist democratic society that destroyed all spirituality and levelled everything down. In Kerouac, Evola saw a man in revolt against this society; not a Marxist revolutionary against the system, but rather a spiritual man—a man who tried to turn mechanical civilisation against itself to rediscover God; namely, by criss-crossing America in that quintessentially American mechanical contrivance, the automobile, in order to find God.
Evola asked his followers to “ride the tiger”, to find spiritual enlightenment through engagement with modernity and not a retreat into obscurantism; so to take an ultra-modern invention, the car—an invention that destroyed small rooted communities and families—and to turn it into a device for spiritual exploration was very much in line with Evola’s thought; we live in the Dark Age, but we can turn the devices used to torture us to our own advantage: ride the tiger, ride the Cadillac. Kerouac took up the mendicant Catholic tradition, laced it with the attitude of the Zen sage who walks across Tibet, and applied this approach to the American highway. His goal: to find the beat—the sacred heartbeat—in an ultra-Protestant country that valued machines, work, and profit.
Although Kerouac completed a novel that has come to be seen as American as Moby-Dick, I actually see Kerouac as not truly an American writer. His family came from French Canada, albeit a generation before; and they lived in the lumber town Lowell, Massachusetts—a community that retained French-Canadian language and culture. Kerouac learned French before he learned English. As a man with French blood, steeped in Catholicism, and for whom English was a second language he is really, to my mind, not American. His attitude to sex is not Anglo-Protestant; it is purely Continental. His warmth and mysticism is not really found in America, or England either. Kerouac’s dissatisfaction with materialist, mechanical, and Protestant America—along with its work ethic—recalls a French peasant who burns down his local McDonald’s restaurant.
On the road, Kerouac takes a Mexican lover and feels very at home with her; and I think this is really because he identified with her Latin blood and language—and her Catholicism. So in a way Kerouac is a reactionary relic in the New World, and this is probably why Evola was enthused by him; he recognised a man with an organic, mystical, and European outlook who was alienated from Anglo-American society. This context should also, I think, be kept in mind when Kerouac repudiates his “whiteness”; the French are still white, for sure—yet they are not WASPs, as with the Jews. Men like Kerouac were ambiguous in what was once a more homogeneous America; they were white, but different; and in Kerouac’s case more hot-blooded, more negroid.
Evola’s general read on Kerouac was correct; Kerouac was no proto-cultural Marxist—however his comments about white Americans were later read—he was a man, in his own mind at least, who searched for God. The Beats certainly influenced the hippies, but their social non-conformity is sometimes confused with leftism. So, for example, William S. Burroughs is celebrated by progressives as a homosexual and a transgressive, a heroin addict who shot his wife; and yet Burroughs—despite his outrageous behaviour—was not a leftist. He had read Spengler—introduced Spengler to his fellow Beats—and felt, as with all the Beats, that Spengler was right; they lived in the West’s twilight.
This rightist pessimism is evident in Kerouac; he even uses Spengler’s term for a moribund people, fellaheen, the Egyptian word for peasant, in On the Road. Just as Kerouac voted Republican, so Burroughs loathed bureaucracies and trade unions, believed in magic, and staunchly supported gun ownership—these positions are simply not compatible with a left-wing outlook on life. Kerouac represented Catholic mysticism in the New World; Burroughs represented the Old Republic that FDR destroyed—his ancestor being an inventor who spawned a colossus, the Burroughs adding-machine corporation; i.e. the Burroughs family was in the same ultra-American line as Franklin and Edison. Kerouac was not entirely antagonistic to WASP America: Burroughs was somewhat a mentor to him, being older; hence his pseudonym in Kerouac’s novels is “Old Bull Lee”—and, indeed, Burroughs did look like some wise Indian chief, transmogrified into settler stock.
All the Beats engaged in extreme bohemian behaviour—from drug abuse to murder—and yet their basic outlook was spiritual and rightist. The exception was the Jewish Beat, Ginsberg, who stayed true to his mother’s Marxist faith; and it is perhaps due to his influence as the publicist for the Beats—he was an ad man before he turned bohemian—that the Beats are seen as proto-cultural Marxists who rejected social norms to overthrow capitalism, patriarchy, and suburbia. On the contrary, the Beats were men who adopted anti-social activities to reconnect with the spiritual in a mechanical age—in Burroughs’s case, the left-hand path of the assassins. It must be fully granted that these men did not conform to normal and lawful behaviour; but it was not their intent or desire to “overthrow the system”—all their paths, however outrageous, were individual attempts to deal with an inorganic and unspiritual age through Rimbaud’s “derangement of the senses”.
This project was not so new, either. In the early 20th century, Teddy Roosevelt, still revered on the right today, warned that Western man had become flabby and comfortable; he needed to be “re-wilded”. This is a fairly standard right-wing sentiment: back to the roots, back to real hard work and real values. Roosevelt’s statement expressed a general sentiment at the time; and the Beats, as described above, could be seen as a continued response to Roosevelt’s appeal. Indeed, primitivism in art, Cubism, and “Modern Art” in general were largely conceived as a response to the West’s over-civilisation.
Therefore, there is a deep irony when so-called conservatives today—frankly often just plain ignorant people, such as Paul Joseph Watson—condemn Modern Art: “Oooh, call that a picture. My five-year-old could do that.” Modern Art was conceived, for the most part, as a response to the West’s decadence—contrary to Hitler’s view that it was decadence. The decision to adopt primitive and barbaric forms represented an intentional move away from fey refinement. Ezra Pound, a noted Modernist poet, stated: “Make it new!” In this, he appealed for new barbaric forms that looked back to the ancient, The Iliad and ancient China in his case, for rejuvenation—as did T.S. Eliot, a man lauded by ignorant “conservatives”, whose work is Modernist and made from cut-up bits and pieces; an Eliot poem is like a Picasso picture—although a “conservative” would sneer at the latter (painted by a Communist, bad) and laud the former (written by a self-proclaimed conservative, good). These people do not know what they are talking about; both artworks represent the same notion; it is just they do not know what the poem actually is, whereas the picture appears self-explanatory—actually, each is as fragmentary as the other.
This “new barbarism” included appreciation for blacks (as barbaric and uncivilised people filled with vital energy), for drugs (heroin and cannabis and LSD; new ways to see), for sensual derangement, for kaleidoscopic imagery, for mental illness (original and brutal), for violence for its own sake, for the criminal outsider and the maniac, for women (fundamentally irrational)—and so on. Although these interests superficially appear to support the left, the presuppositions are different. “Oh, you’re into black art too?” “Yes, I find the primitive and unsophisticated approach in black art, as if a violent child had been unleashed in the adult world, invigorates me.” “Oh.” Wrong answer, you see.
Looked at in this way, Kerouac represents a continued response to Teddy Roosevelt’s assertion that Western man, American man in particular, had gone soft and lost his spiritual core. After all, who is the real decadent: the man who settles down into a safe and comfy suburb, or the man who travels across America in farm trailers and rides the rails with hobos?
This is why it is a mistake to impose outdated forms on the contemporary world; the right often expresses a desire for what it sees as “realism”—often kitsch “cottagecore” imagery, or sickly 19th-century portraits. Art is the mirror of reality; it is only the left, notably Lenin, that speaks against this view; the leftist idea is that art must serve to improve people, purely as a didactic exercise. When supposedly right-wing people say that architecture needs to be imitation Georgian or paintings should be “proper paintings” (with shapes, and everything) they want to constrain and corral reality in order to moralise—a leftist notion. We do not live in Georgian England; we do not live in an age when nobody had cameras and so a painting was the only way to represent a person—no, all that is gone; and to act as if it is still here is to live in delusion.
Even the Futurists are no longer relevant—though the neo-fascists cling to them, as the conservatives cling to 19th-century paintings. Futurism represented the age of the machine; the Fiat factory and the novel aeroplane—fragmentation to represent speed. All gone, the aeroplane is mundane and commonplace now. There is no way back to that. Today we live in a cybernetic ecology, total global connection; everything flows today—and so architecture, art, poems, and so on should ooze from the screen; the stranger the geometry, the better. This is reality: a blob emerges from your screen and smothers your face—it forces its way down your throat and becomes symbiotic with your lymphatic system, in the process you are altered forever. This is the world we live in; this is the world that we should see represented in art—anything else is an attempt to constrain reality, and all such attempts will fail. If art is to be didactic, then let the message emerge from reality itself—all fairytales are highly moral, though only because reality has its own justice that is captured when it is represented in mythical shorthand.
So we have barbaric Kerouac, hopped up on Benzedrine and “tea” (cannabis; a slang term that has not survived), and on the road. Kerouac was a bridge between generations, but as with most artists he anticipated what was to come. In his journeys across America, he fully represented the country from the perspective of the moment’s predominate technology: the automobile. Kerouac took the entire country in from behind the wheel; his parents saw the first cars, he lived at a time when the highway infrastructure matured and the automobiles became smooth and reliable.
Cars are swapped with abandon throughout On the Road, the automobile was cheap and accessible. Further, Kerouac was the first man to fully relate artistically that the frontier—basically definitional for America from her inception—had run out; he ping-pongs across the continent, and he stops at the Pacific—he particularly notes that he has stopped at the Pacific. There is nowhere farther to go; and so Kerouac in his restlessness is the first man in America to come to grips with an enclosed continent. His adolescent boredom and anomie, on the look out for teenage kicks, represents a man who has paced and re-paced his cell; the new frontier, the space age, was yet to open when Kerouac crossed America—by the time On the Road was published the rockets were well and truly in flight.
Contra the hippies, Kerouac is not a laidback person; he is high on amphetamines, coffee, wine, and apple pie and ice cream—yes, he takes cannabis to unwind, but primarily this is a man on edge. His books were composed in intense marathon sessions that aimed to capture spontaneous, jazz-like beats; again, the idea is to become barbaric—as spontaneous as the Negro. He wanted to connect with primitive black culture, with jazz, and capture that beat for America; and there is no doubt that Kerouac fully captured jazz, the jazz beat is in his every sentence. So Kerouac’s achievement in On the Road is to capture two high points in American history: the automobile’s Golden Age and the final jazz moment—in the next decade pop and rock would replace jazz, but when Kerouac travelled America jazz was a ubiquitous musical backdrop; and he perfectly captured the moment before it receded.
In his spontaneous cross-country movements, Kerouac emulated the jazz beat and the automobile’s purr; and he also emulated the spontaneous style found in Zen. Spengler noted that a civilisation in decline experiences a “second mysticism”; in the springtime there is a healthy mysticism that eventually matures into rational religion (our Victorian Age) before it decays back to a confused syncretic second mysticism; so for Kerouac to mix Catholic mysticism with Zen Buddhism was consistent with this age; he was outside the Church—formal rational religion per St. Augustine and St. Aquinas being defunct due to science—but was still hungry for mystical communion with God, this communion being the only path available in a decayed age. In his syncretic approach, Kerouac presaged the upsurge in people in the West who would regard themselves as “spiritual, not religious”.
This leads to the ultimate question about Kerouac: if Kerouac was on a quest for the divine in a mass materialistic mechanical civilisation in decline, did he find God? Aside from his gnomic statement, “And don’t you know God is Pooh Bear?” at On the Road’s close—true American Zen, slightly mockable—the answer is that, unfortunately, Kerouac did not find what he was after.
His contemporaries twigged that Kerouac had failed in his quest. Alan Watts, a man who fused Anglicanism with Zen Buddhism in the same way Kerouac attempted to fuse Franco-American Catholicism with Zen, observed that Kerouac never managed to fully grasp what Zen enlightenment meant. Watts, whose lectures enjoy a continued posthumous popularity on YouTube, appears in Kerouac’s novels as “Arthur Whane”; he noticed that Kerouac did not go into his quest deeply enough; although the old Zen masters moved around, perhaps they preferred to travel by foot rather than zip by automobile—and perhaps that pace, against Evola’s cautious optimism for limited mysticism in a Dark Age, was the only path to enlightenment.
The problem with Kerouac—to return to a theme that I have harped on about for about a month—was that he was a narcissist; and this is not an uncommon trait for writers, since it is an occupation that involves mask creation. All too often there is not very much behind the mask; the mask serves to keep reality out, whereas the real mystic lets reality pour in so as to extinguish the ego. Kerouac’s narcissism is frequently apparent in On the Road, especially when his adventures lull and he is alone again; at this point, he enters what Watts described, in reference to the general human condition, as “poor little me, all alone in a world I never made” mode—a condition we are all familiar with at one time or another, but which with Kerouac was habitual. It comes about for narcissists because they wear a mask to enchant people, but the mask conceals what they really think and feel inside so as to keep the other person on the hook; if the mask is broken by reality or if the other person leaves, the narcissist is left with the emptiness behind the mask; and this is when the self-pity begins—and in Kerouac’s case this was when he would drink; eventually, he collapsed entirely into self-pity and drank himself to death.
The pattern is fairly familiar with drunks who are the life and soul of the party, but who sink into dismal despair—possibly anger—and then drink again to experience what Kerouac called “the ecstasy of the mind”; then they go out with a new jolly mask to seduce people—a jolly mask that will eventually crack or be broken when someone departs, so the hellish circle can begin again. Doubtless there are biological correlates for these phenomenological states as well. This was basically the world Kerouac lived in; the genuine mystic is meant to be intoxicated on reality, not booze—drunk on God, giddy with joy at creative play; he is not hidden behind a fragile mask.
Actually, Watts, despite his perceptive comments on Kerouac, was also an alcoholic; his excuse was that there was a tradition in Zen Buddhism of “drunken mystics”, just plain drunks—on God or not. Despite this imperfection, Watts remains, in my view, among the top three Western spiritual commentators in the 20th century; my triumvirate being: C.G. Jung, Alan Watts, and René Guénon—and of all these men it is Watts who understands the experiential, as opposed to intellectual, aspect to spirituality most perfectly; and it is he who most perfectly merged Anglicanism and Zen to create a “Zen Christianity”. If someone came to me in mental distress or in an existential crisis—if you can say such a thing without being too pretentious—I would direct him to Watts before Guénon or Jung; the latter two are too intellectual—though perhaps Jung would have matched Watts in person; however, since that is not possible, I think a lecture—basically a sermon, as he was trained to give by the Church of England—by Watts would provide immediate relief for the bereft. Whether Watts was fully enlightened is debatable given his alcoholism; but he was definitely further along the road than Kerouac, who for all his wandering never left home—he literally died at his mother’s house. In short, Watt’s assessment as regards Kerouac, despite his own difficulties, should be given credence.
Due to his narcissism, Kerouac’s works remain fundamentally adolescent; it is adolescents who are stuck behind assumed masks to win social approval—and, indeed, from the very first Kerouac’s novels were viewed as adolescent by critics. I would be slightly more generous and say these are books for young men, since they perfectly capture an indeterminate time that has always existed—though it has grown to ridiculous proportions in modernity—where young people seek for a career or a path in life, usually for a partner as well; and this involves what appears to be aimless wandering. As noted earlier, Kerouac managed, indirectly, to form this into a formal rite of passage or initiation, “the road trip”; and this is an impressive indirect achievement.
A great many people write and speak earnestly about how the West needs new rites of passage or initiations for youngsters; and yet the formal proposals often tend to be cringe-inducing or overly rational approaches that too consciously look into mythology for inspiration—nobody participates. Kerouac, as an artist, saw a general trend towards rootless young wanderers, such transitoriness always being inherent to America, and managed—quite organically—to give it a form, “the road trip”. Unfortunately for Kerouac, this was a stage—a stage he romanticised in mystical terms—that never ended; he remained filled with chaotic energy, not in the positive sense—the sense suggested by Henry Miller—where one never stops growing but rather in the sense that he remained a permanent teenager, complete with all the “existential” problems and melodrama that adolescents experience.
Consequently, to revisit Kerouac’s novels as an adult can induce winces or impatience; indeed, sometimes his adolescent seriousness is risible. Throughout On the Road he is “in love” with about every woman he sees or meets, from the blonde high school girls in Iowa to some Mexican scrubber he picks up on a bus to Los Angeles. Rather than, slightly more realistically, admit that he just wants to fuck these women and then abandon them in a few days or weeks, Kerouac is always “totally in love” and ready to settle down and pick cotton or start a job as a dishwasher to provide for them. You can see a father figure in the background who rolls his eyes and says, “And how long is this going to last?” (Not long).
Kerouac could get away with this romantic performance once, but when he is on about the third girl he is “totally in love with” and “totally bereft” about when she leaves you begin to laugh out loud because the situation shows a total lack of self-knowledge as to what his actual motivations are with these women. In this sense, I sympathise with those conservative critics who berated Kerouac when his novels first appeared, since real artistry should understand the depths of human motivations and Kerouac, as a narcissist, cannot do that because he is not fully honest about his own motivations even with himself—the minimum you should do.
Kerouac’s lack of self-knowledge is most apparent in the pseudonym he picked for himself, Sal Paradise—the protagonist in On the Road and his other novels. Put it this way: Kerouac literally calls himself “Mr. Paradise”. Kerouac’s effective message: “Hello, I’m Mr. Perfect.” This is somewhat understandable because Kerouac, though bohemian, was far from the grungy hippy that was to come after his generation—or even the sketchy intellectuals that existed in his own day. He was a school football star, attended Columbia on an athletic scholarship, and was very handsome—he was also obviously smart and verbally dexterous, in English and French.
So Kerouac had solid reasons to self-preen; he was born in modest circumstances, but in many ways he had hit the genetic jackpot: handsome, smart, athletic, disciplined, and poetic (in French, too!)—no wonder he was attractive to women, and men. Then again, with a shy streak, no wonder he would fall prey to narcissism—“I’m Mr. Paradise, Mr. Perfect…you just don’t know the real me. I want to rap authenticity with old Negro jazzmen.” “Jack, you’re totally unreal.” (Cue month-long sulk with whisky bottles to hand, “How could he say I’m unreal…Oh so, so sad world that we all bob upon like soap bubbles in bath foam).
This is why I say Kerouac’s books are basically for young people, since young people think like that; and that is fine, except you need to move beyond that stage—and this is why Watts said Kerouac did not get Zen; he had intellectual notions about spirituality, as many people do, but he struggled to get to realisation; and you already know why—spiritual realisation involves the confession that you are nothing, though not in that self-pitying blubbering into a beer glass way. I am nothing; and that is okay—I see the illusion. Yet for someone who mistakes a desire to fuck a pretty girl he passes on the street with oh so holy romance and love then this is a very hard point to arrive at; indeed, such a person will prefer to drink themselves to death than confess that they are nothing.
In On the Road, Kerouac-Paradise is obsessed with Dean Moriarty (Neal Cassady, in real life); now, while Paradise dances around criminality he usually stays more or less on the right side of the law (he borrows from his relatives, but pays them back), whereas Moriarty is an outright small-time hustler and basically just a bad person—in the sense that he is chronically irresponsible. That Kerouac should romanticise this person demonstrates a lack of knowledge about people that is equal to his own self-aggrandisement as “Mr. Paradise”; and, indeed, relates to the fact he did not know himself. Kerouac knew that Cassady was a criminal really; this is why he calls him “Moriarty”—he names him after the arch-villain in Sherlock Holmes. Yet throughout the book he lionises and romanticises Cassady as if he is a saint; just as his pseudonym reveals that Kerouac thought of himself as “Mr. Perfect”, so his name for the supposedly saint-like Moriarty reveals the truth—this guy is a huge crook, a fact Kerouac hides from himself.
This has all been in a critical vein, so I should jump back and say that Kerouac’s novels contain many very beautiful descriptions—though he is a bit variable and clunky, sometimes overly simplistic (“Not writing but typing,” observed Truman Capote). Further, Kerouac has an excellent eye for the America he traversed, as he was in tune—literally, rhythmically—with the country and time in which he lived. However, Kerouac’s basic self-alienation leads him to romanticise criminals, races, sexual activity, individuals, and behaviour in a way that has become a familiar feature in left-wing ideology over the past few decades; and this is because narcissism is intimately connected with a leftist outlook.
If a right-wing perspective is responsible and the left is irresponsible then it follows that someone who cannot be transparent about their own motivations cannot be responsible—or not very responsible, anyway. “Why did you steal all these Playstations?” “Well, I came up hard, you know, my dad left my mom when I was five—when I was five; and then there wasn’t much money, and…and, and, and…” Real answer: “I can’t be bothered to work for these things, so I just took them.” The narcissism is the false story—the story that flatters; even in a negative way, so to speak—that prevents a person from opacity as regards their actions. Yet conservatives tend to moralise—even though they do not really believe what they say deep down, i.e. we work cooperatively not because we are “good people” or “not selfish” but because it maximises our self-interest to cooperate. Actually, narcissists are often moralised—“Stop that self-pitying nonsense.”— in a conservative way but what they need to hear is something like: “Everyone is self-interested; the cover story is irrelevant, just cooperate with people.” Their problem is that they are over-moralised and have accepted the cover story as true—and this relates to fatherlessness.
So whatever Kerouac’s aspirations as regards a religious revival, he ended up in a mess; and his veneration for social rejects represents an early iteration in today’s full-blown narcissistic political cult around blacks, homosexuals, the disabled, women and so on. I do not exaggerate; I just listened to an advert for the dating app Bumble that told me, “Black love is joyous.” Frankly, this is not too far from a line in a Kerouac novel about warm Negroes in a San Francisco dive—and actually it is just another minstrel show, an entertainment that never really went away. “Gosh those Negroes seem so much more joyous in their love than us cold white people—such saintly people.”
It comes from the same place; people who do not know themselves tend to totally idealise (or demonise) other people—often, due to reaction formation, they will flat-out deny reality and say that people who are obviously wicked, such as Dean Moriarty, are admirable saints. Now the sentimental cult around the marginal is very old indeed, and perhaps goes back to Christianity or beyond (“The first shall be last.”), so this is not Kerouac’s fault; but he certainly managed to encapsulate this attitude in a very attractive form, a form that influenced millions of young people.
Put simply: the way you get real—authentic, as the Beats said—is to be as honest as possible with yourself and other people; and this will put you on a rocky road, not the narcissistic high (always followed by a low) that Kerouac experienced. The narcissistic position, by contrast, tries to get at authenticity in someone or something else; it is in the blacks, the Mexicans, the homosexuals, the heroin addicts—the more marginal, the more “authentic” the experience; perhaps if I travelled to Thailand I could be a really spiritual person…The problem is that such an attitude looks at an ordinary suburb and the banal lies that it sustains—the mindless television that Kerouac correctly noted had hypnotised Americans—and then says, “Oh, these people are all liars and hypocrites. The people they sneer at (insert racial group or criminal underclass) must be real and spiritual and authentic.”
Wrong. The marginalised are also full of shit; and often, especially with criminals and drug addicts, such people are more full of shit than the suburbanites, who at least hold down productive jobs and sometimes try to minimise their dishonesty. In other words, if you get honest—really honest—you will not endear yourself to hypocritical suburbanites, nor will you endear yourself to drug addicts and car thieves; they loathe it when someone says in a frank way that they are thieves, even the squares politely tell them they just have “issues”. The Beats, for the most part, looked at the squares and said, “Oh, we’ll just do the opposite; then we will get it.” But it was never out there; and this is the limitation with “the new barbarism” that was present in Roosevelt, in Modern Art, and in Kerouac—and is still with us today; rejuvenation and rebirth are internal processes, not essences locked in primitive groups or people outside the mainstream. To think the secret of eternal youth, so to speak, lies in external marginal groups is to engage in sentimentalism; and sentimentality is always cruel.
Kerouac’s crooked spiritual road came about due to an absent father, On the Road is as much about fatherlessness as it is about travel. Kerouac lost his father relatively early to stomach cancer and Cassady was abandoned by his improvident father—like father, like son. In part, Kerouac makes the novel about this quest for Cassady’s father, but it might as well also be about his own lost papa; as we have already established, Kerouac found it difficult to understand which emotions belonged to him and which belonged to other people.
Kerouac never found a father; he ended up back home with ma mère without even the smallest pretence that he enjoyed independence—contra Freud it was the homosexual Burroughs who castigated Kerouac for being under his mother’s thumb; she controlled his life down to the mail he received and the friends who visited—and did so into his forties. So we have in Kerouac the puer aeternus, mamma’s golden boy who never grows up and will remain young forever; but this is a terrible fate for Peter Pan.
Incidentally, Kerouac had a child, achieved financial success, and artistic fame—yet he remained a puer. This demonstrates that maturity cannot be attained through material milestones; to have a child or become a career success or to make yourself financially independent are all considered to mark maturity—but you can have all that and still remain the eternal child at home with mama. So if we want more mature people in the West it is not simply the case that we need to tell people to “pull their socks up”, save money, get married—Kerouac did all that, yet he was still a fourteen-year-old boy inside; he was still empty. Frankly, we are in many ways still led by fourteen-year-old boys (not an appeal for them to be replaced by women; for an adolescent is inherently feminine).
Since On the Road, fatherlessness has become a general condition—thanks to mass divorce and out-of-wedlock births—and not one solely reserved for those whose fathers died early or were constitutionally improvident. This has led to an increase in Cassadys and Kerouacs—many of whom, swamped by self-pity or inflated by self-importance, have turned into school shooters and other novel deviants; just as Kerouac ends chapters with “poor me, all alone in a world I never made” soliloquies, so Elliot Rodger, sometime mass shooter, made videos from his car (on the road, in his own way) about why girls refused to sleep with him—the commonality between him and Kerouac is a sentimentalised attitude towards sex, rather than a frank matter-of-fact assessment about a biological function that also leads to affection.
Narcissism comes about through fatherlessness because women regulate behaviour through moralising and shame; and this is why it is a mistake to tell a narcissist that they are full of self-pity or need to pull themselves together or “man up”—no matter how much you put a masculine or tough complexion on what you say you are still engaged in moralising, a feminine position, and the narcissist will take that and use it as fuel for his self-pity (“He’s right, I’m totally selfish. I’m useless.”) Doubtless Kerouac was, many times, nagged or chastised by his mother—perhaps subject to an hysterical outburst, as women often resort to when confronted with reality—after this he felt shame and then learned to “put on a good front”, since women are satisfied with appearances. This established the pattern for his alcoholism, because once alcohol was locked into the shame-pity-lie cycle it reinforced the cycle as it ravaged his body and mind: delusional lie—lie pierced, anger—shame—self-pity—drink—new ecstatic lie.
While divorce, feminism, social media, and single parents have all contributed to more narcissistic societies, the situation predates these social developments—as Kerouac, man of the square 1950s, shows. Western societies are chronically feminised; the feminine is massively overvalued and sentimentalised; and this is why people used to smugly say that J.K. Rowling’s books would “help boys read more”—what they meant was “help boys be more like girls”, the last thing they need. Men want to read, as observed, factual information; but our society says they need to “get in touch with their emotions”, by which it means “become narcissistic actors”. Even supposedly tough-minded men, such as Richard Dawkins, write cringe-inducing tributes to their wives as introductions to their books—as soppy and deluded as Kerouac romancing some Mexican tart on the last Greyhound to Los Angeles. So this outlook is very pervasive and extremely damaging; real masculinity is about responsibility, restraint, and engagement with reality—it is women who live in soap-opera world where everything is about “terrible secrets” that need to be found out or concealed, storylines to maintain.
While Kerouac managed to be factual and profound in the way he offered up his journal to the world, he was stymied because what he was after on the road was within not without—it was not in any slum or field or city. The hunger for experience—now integrated into consumer travel culture, with experiences marketed as being superior to tangible goods—reflects Kerouac’s itchy feet; the problem is that people in this mode are never satisfied—hence such an attitude aids consumerism.
Genuine mysticism expresses the masculine position: it seeks to be here now—it is not about moralism, it is about effective action in accord with reality. Narratives are neither here nor there, whether hard-luck stories for criminals or resentful spiels about “my self-sacrifice and hard work” popular with conservatives and suburbanites—forget your self-sacrifice, you did exactly what you wanted just like everybody else does! Now you want us to buy into your story that you are a “good person”; spare us that, and get real! The narrative is an illusion that must be pierced by engagement with reality, and pierced again and again. Sadly, this was what Kerouac never achieved; he recorded his adventures, but he was always left hungry for it—although it was already there, concealed by his own experiences. There is no need for a cover story with Dad: he knows what you have been up to—he did it himself—and he cannot be fooled; so drop the pretence and be real—that is paradise.