Antonomasia's Reviews > The Dharma Bums

The Dharma Bums by Jack Kerouac
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Jan 13, 2012

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bookshelves: divine-comedy-booklovers, decade-1950s, american, buddhism-yoga-meditation, outdoors-and-nature, 2015
Read from June 12 to 14, 2015

The cruellest thing you can do to Kerouac is reread him at thirty-eight. From The Buddha of Suburbia by Hanif Kureishi

Spotting the problematic - some people assume it's what you're meant to do with art now. Paraphrase from a comment by Wastrel in a recent Goodreads discussion.

I chose this because, in my tsundoku-reading, I'd recently read 3 short books on Buddhism, and it fit right in. Also, sort of like All Time Popular Goodreads Reviewer Karen and the seasonal avatars. Summer! Time for books set in hot places! Or with summery covers!

I've read way too many 1-2 star GR reviews of On The Road; once Kerouac he was a rebel, now he's one of the Dead White Males: the old 'European' dropped from that phrase as American hegemony became more obvious. I felt trapped in a very narrow way of looking at Kerouac, as if that 'problematic' must be acknowledged and/or argued with, so set out to look for a different spectrum of features in The Dharma Bums, and only briefly mention the social politics. But that's not always easy.

Kerouac is outstanding at describing scenery, travel, and solitary spiritual states. Quite a lot of the book is about these, in some beautiful areas of rural America I'd hardly read of before.

When other people hove into view, however, he can get embarrassing. More so because narrator Ray is supposed to be a nice guy, enlightened. If a narrator is meant to be an arsehole, then I don't expect much of their social attitudes. But because of Ray's and his mates' Buddhism, and, importantly, the contemporary popular image of Buddhism in the West and the effect of that on [my] perceptions, he's more disappointing than some criminal cad would be when he's being offhandedly rude about Mexicans, 'Negroes' or 'queers'. And it's possible Kerouac didn't really meet any women who were intellectually serious, or perhaps they soon figured he wasn't worth their time, but the women who are part of the Californian proto-hippie Buddhist community in The Dharma Bums are shown more or less as bimbos or housekeepers. Ray is celibate, and it's his mate and hero Japhy who's the pickup artist of the outfit, sometimes taking advantage of lore about Buddhist sex practices to pull girls. Ray's worship of Japhy gets cringeworthy. Yes, you've already told us how awesome you think your best mate is. (I've sometimes wanted to 'immortalise' 2 or 3 fascinating people I've known by writing about them, and reading this made me think it was a good thing I never really tried.)

Especially near the beginning of the book, the main characters are laughably conceited for dedicated Buddhists - they're like other young American guys who, in some Brooklyn-set equivalent of recent years, might think they're going to be star novelists. Only that would have a modicum of irony written in. And these guys, a bunch of poets calling each other Bodhisattvas, as another reviewer says, aren't as young as they sound: Kerouac was 36 when he wrote this, though, as several others have said, it feels like a stereotypical student/twentysomething book. Perhaps the crew are this way partly because of what they read: the tone of Juan Mascaró's translation of the Dhammapada I read last week has such potential for the practitioner bigging himself up (despite the occasional warning not to), that if other translations and texts are like that, it's easy to see where the Dharma Bums got their self-aggrandisement from.

Having spent little time around religious people, or reading about religion for a few years, I found I was initially a bit closed-minded to Ray's way of life. But is rarely working and dedicating his life to Buddhism really so different from those who do the same WRT uncommercial artistic enterprises? And he's very frugal about it. (Though physically fit, there's also a hint at one point that he might find standard work difficult for his mental health, and he's intermittently an alcoholic.) Besides, it's a very Protestant value, one of those on which the Reformation was founded, to expect 'good works' and to denigrate the life of prayer which he seeks (in between the odd party and hitching trip).

The first five or so chapters can be pretty irritating, but it's worth pushing through for all the scenery and travel later on - Ray spends a lot of time on the road or in the wilds, it's not all about his Californian crowd.

All the main Buddhist characters in The Dharma Bums are white Americans, and the book made me think about the spectrum of cultural appropriation vs cosmopolitanism. ("Cosmopolitanism" as a term for the opposite of the current fear and anger about appropriation and the idea that people should stick to their own inherited culture, and also relating to the interest in Asian, Native American and African cultures during the Western hippie era, I got from the book Consuming Race by Ben Pitcher.) It's not something to which I think there are easy answers in general. And many religions and belief systems like to propagate regardless of the background of new followers, and are a complex and potentially confounding type of case if the appropriation concept is applied rigidly. Although many might recognise specific 'westernised', or, more derogatory, 'bastardised', forms of Buddhism, yoga etc. Likewise, the character Japhy is a translator, and though some things he says might leave a bad taste under current mores about appropriation, he's also engaged in cross-cultural work that's still valued, allowing others to appreciate Chinese poetry.

I was never a full-on Buddhist, and I'm finding through reading a bunch of books about the subject I got in 2007, that it is less for me than I felt it was back then. However, The Dharma Bums has wonderful evocations of meditative states that instructive guides rarely contain: they answer the question 'why do this?' Especially if ignoring the guff Ray spouts about how enlightened he must have been to have experienced these: IME these things can occur sometimes in the manner of 'one swallow doesn't make a summer', and they sometimes create a sensitivity which makes it harder to deal with aspects of the world and other people, it's not an all-round superpower as the literature sometimes implies. Some of it can be an aid to being nicer to others and feeling more empathy, but other things help alongside it. And that idea of 'enlightenment' (and its hierarchies relating to afterlives I don't believe in) attached to meditative experiences can lead to more inner struggle with elitist attitudes than just finding the experience enjoyable or interesting. I figured, whilst reading these books recently, that I'm heretically in favour of meditation as an interesting sensory experience which can have useful side effects.

'Non-attachment' to the world - and the sensory - is something which people who are interested in Buddhism, but who aren't full-on Buddhists may consider goes too far. The Dharma Bums shows a few practical upsides and downsides to it. Ray probably ends up being less of a nuisance to women than does Japhy because of his zeal for non-attachment, and he has a less complicated emotional life. (The two friends' approaches to sex and relationships are at opposite extremes, neither of them particularly egalitarian. Approaches which - unlike some of the other dilemmas of the characters' practice - were not at all characteristic of people I met at 21st century Buddhist centres.) Ray seems to be sensitive to certain sights, like dead animals, and uses detachment, the illusion and/or impermanence of all things, as a way of dealing with that. Likewise it usefully means he's content with few material possessions. However, whilst this detachment may be useful emotionally to oneself, it can be employed at times to care less about others' experiences of the world, which both Ray and Japhy do from time to time. (Reminded me of a more extreme example, someone I briefly spoke to years ago, who appeared to have twisted Buddhism into a form of sociopathy. Creepy.) The characters have less to say about metta, which I've always found the nicest aspect of Buddhism. Whilst there's some practical illustration of Buddhism in the book, you have to look for it, and the characters are obviously imperfect - and I can see why someone might say too much bum, not enough Dharma (another GR review).

But regardless of the religious content, this book is worth a look if you love great writing about the outdoors (and can put up with the characters inbetween).
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Reading Progress

12/19/2014 marked as: to-read
05/09/2015 marked as: owned-and-unread
06/14/2015 marked as: read

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Antonomasia Somewhere to file this other great quote re. 'problematic': “I’m starting to have a real problem with the word ‘problematic’,” fumes [Mitch] Benn. “It’s starting to sound like ‘un-American’. (From )

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