Kendra Steiner Editions (Bill Shute)

February 6, 2019

thoughts on Jack Kerouac’s SOME OF THE DHARMA

Filed under: Uncategorized — kendrasteinereditions @ 1:38 pm

JACK KEROUAC, SOME OF THE DHARMA

composed 1953-1956, published 1997 by Viking

8″ x 11″, 420 pages, hardcover and paperback available

some

Although Jack Kerouac has always been an essential author to me, I’ve never taken him to be any kind of model, and he himself would be the last one to ever present himself as such. An EXAMPLE, yes–but not a model. Someone who blows the rent money at the racetrack can be an example that’s negative–someone who follows their own quixotic artistic quest can be an example of many things on many levels, some good, some bad, some mixed, and really the goodness or badness is in the eye of the beholder.

People who criticize the misogyny or the over-reliance on leaps of faith or the lapses into sentimentality in Kerouac’s fiction are missing the point–he presented the 1940’s/1950’s male psyche whole and unvarnished and unedited, with all the ugliness intact. He did not edit it out and spray the finished work with Airwick. He was not concerned about making the narrative persona admirable or hip or conforming to any socially-approved norm of the counter-culture. He presented the character in all its nakedness and with all its inconsistencies, biases, pockets of ugliness, non-rational clinging to blind faith and cliche. With each passing decade, such a glimpse into the bare-naked male psyche of the generation who came to maturity in the 1940’s is of even more value, and it becomes more crystal-clear the more distance we have from it. What Kerouac provides us is almost like a case-study, or the kind of psychological study of a human subject that Gertrude Stein might have done when she was studying under William James.

Speaking of Gertrude Stein, I’m not sure how much Stein Kerouac read, and which works of hers he was familiar with, but his works also often have the transcription-of-subvocal-mind-speech qualities we associate with Stein, though the results are quite different. This quality is strongest in the less commercial Kerouac pieces such as TRISTESSA or THE SUBTERRANEANS or VISIONS OF CODY, the ones I’ve always valued most.

That quality is front and center in the 400+ page SOME OF THE DHARMA. While the initial purpose of the work was to present to Allen Ginsberg as a kind of free-associational study guide to Buddhism 101, the end result is quite unique….400+ pages, each composed in the 8″ x 10″ format, using the page as a canvas, in the manner of open-field poetic composition. The content is essentially whatever crosses Kerouac’s mind during his study of and free-wheeling meditations on Buddhist study. It is meant to be an everything-but-the-kitchen-sink inventory of thoughts, associations, puns, self-reflection, reading notes, notes for future studies, notes to oneself, behavioral observations, reading lists, paraphrases of religious texts, etc. Nothing is excluded, nothing is checked for traditional concepts of “accuracy”— it’s a transcription of thought, of consciousness (hence the Gertrude Stein reference above).

It should also be emphasized that we are presented with 400+ separate compositions-for-the-page, 400 open-field (to a large extent) works within this book. To me at least, as an open-field poet myself, that in itself is an amazing thing. This is not a book to read from cover to cover. I dip into it and essentially dialogue with the page, one page at a time, and I’ve been doing that for 22 years since the book was first published in hardback. I have a copy at home and a copy at my office at work. With the publication of some of poet John Wieners’s poetic journals in forms that seek to replicate Wieners’s layout on the page, and the strong interest in those works (which I have also spent much time with), I’d think that SOME OF THE DHARMA would have commanded more attention from commentators/readers than it has. As with most non-traditional, long-form, book-length literary works, I wonder if people just don’t know what to do with this work. It falls into no recognizable genre. You can’t point to previous works which laid a path for it to step into.

Take for instance the review it received at Kirkus Reviews, a relatively staid and unimaginative service aimed at librarians. I’ll quote some lines from that, but interrupt  here and there with my own comments in all-caps:

” Kerouac is unable to keep his mind on track, resulting in a work that’s ultimately chaotic. His technique seems sound enough: He takes a classic Buddhist philosophical statement and then decodes it for his own use.”   YES, I CAN ACCEPT THAT. IT IS MEANT TO BE “CHAOTIC,” AS OUR MINDS TEND TO BE WHEN NOT SELF-CONSCIOUSLY INTENDING TO FOCUS.

“Unfortunately, his interpretations are usually far from the point, as Kerouac is unable to separate Hinduism, Taoism, and even Catholicism from Buddhism, with repeated incorrect assessments of how the Tao affects Buddhahood (it does not) or how Jesus was a Buddha-like figure (by most accounts he was not).”  THIS IS FAULTING THE BOOK FOR WHAT IT IS NOT SETTING OUT TO DO. IT’S ONE MAN’S EXPERIENCING OF THESE TEXTS, OF THIS TRADITION. HE BRINGS HIS OWN BIAS TO THE STUDY. WE ARE EXPERIENCING HIS EXPERIENCING OF THIS MATERIAL, FOLLOWING THE WANDERINGS OF HIS THOUGHT AND HIS ATTEMPTING TO CONNECT THE MATERIAL TO KNOWN ELEMENTS FROM HIS BACKGROUND, READINGS, AND UPBRINGING. KEROUAC IS NOT WRITING ANYTHING DOCTRINAIRE HERE–HE DID THAT IN HIS WAKE UP BOOK, WHICH WAS A DRY PARAPHRASING OF BUDDHIST SOURCES. SOME OF THE DHARMA IS MEANT TO BE CHAOTIC, SELF-CONTRADICTORY, GOING DOWN BLIND PATHWAYS AND MAYBE EVEN FINDING DEAD-ENDS AND TURNING AROUND AGAIN. THAT IS PART OF THE BEAUTY AND UNIQUENESS OF THIS WORK. ALSO, KEROUAC WAS ALWAYS TRYING TO RECONCILE DIFFERENT RELIGIOUS TRADITIONS. HE DID NOT DO THAT IN A SCHOLARLY WAY IN THE MANNER OF, SAY, A THOMAS MERTON OR AN ALAN WATTS. OF COURSE, TO DO THAT HE WOULD HAVE TO BLUR THINGS, FORCE SQUARE PEGS INTO ROUND HOLES, MISCONSTRUE DETAILS, ETC. HE’S A LAY PERSON, NOT A PROFESSOR OF COMPARATIVE RELIGIONS. SO WHAT IF KEROUAC IS DRINKING, BRINGS A DEEPLY ROOTED ROMAN CATHOLIC BIAS TO WHATEVER HE STUDIES, HAS MISOGYNISTIC ATTITUDES NOT UNTYPICAL OF MANY OF HIS HARD-DRINKING, SEMI-MACHO MALE FRIENDS OF THE 1940’s AND 1950’s. WHY NOT TREAT THE WHOLE WORK AS A PIECE OF FICTION WRITTEN BY AN UNRELIABLE FIRST-PERSON NARRATOR. THINK ABOUT THE QUALITIES THE NARRATOR/PERSONA POSSESSES, THE PROCESSES OF HIS MIND, THE BIASES AND ASSOCIATIONS HE BRINGS TO HIS STUDIES, THE CHARACTER THAT WE SEE REFLECTED IN THE CONSCIOUSNESS THAT HAS CREATED THESE PAGES. THAT LINE OF ANALYSIS CAN BE INFINITELY RICH….

“Furthermore, Kerouac, by his own admission, is unable to stay sober long enough to attain any real enlightenment. He sets forth the goals of not drinking, meditating regularly, and abstaining from sex, but he makes lame excuses for his falling off the wagon, and his rationalizations for avoiding sex devolve into plain misogyny.”  HEY, THAT’S KEROUAC. IF YOU ARE GIVEN 400+ PAGES OF HIS PERSONAL NOTES ON HIS RELIGIOUS STUDY, WOULDN’T THEY REFLECT THE FLAWS AND BIASES OF THE CREATOR? AS STATED ABOVE, THIS IS AN UNRELIABLE NARRATOR WHO IS NEVER PRESENTING HIMSELF AS AN EXPERT ON ANYTHING. WE ARE SIMPLY GOING ALONG FOR THE RIDE WITH HIM AS HE RUMINATES ON THIS MATERIAL AND FREE-ASSOCIATES ON IT.

For me, Kerouac is at his best when he is least tethered to any kind of “form.” He’s at his best when the form is ever-becoming, and that form is not visible until the work is complete. That’s the reason why I tend to value TRISTESSA, VISIONS OF CODY, and THE SUBTERRANEANS over ON THE ROAD. I am also a champion of the late-period work SATORI IN PARIS—in fact, a recent collection of my own poems is titled SATORI IN NATCHEZ in homage to Kerouac. SATORI IN PARIS is a work that many find maddening, and the usual negative remarks about Kerouac’s drinking and lack of concentrated attention and scattershot observations and supposed clouding by personal bias are trotted out when people write off SATORI IN PARIS. However, those qualities are in a way the essence of the work. I’m reminded of some of the negative critical analyses of Bob Dylan’s post-1990 work or live performances. Many times the negative reviews are more on-target than the uncritical hagiographical observations of super-fans. It’s just that the negative critics view the cup as half-full–they see and hear what Dylan is doing, they describe it in a way that’s not inaccurate in a factual sense (a half-full or half-empty 8 ounce cup has 4 ounces in it, all agree) , and they just don’t care for what he’s doing. And of course that’s fine; they don’t have to like it. I’ve never developed a taste for opera or K-Pop or the films of P.T. Anderson–however, they are surely of some value in the big picture, and you may find transcendence within those works. God bless you if you do!

Not everyone wants what Jack Kerouac at his purest and most uncompromising has to offer in a work such as SOME OF THE DHARMA (by the way, note the word SOME….). Not everyone wants what Gertrude Stein has to offer in STANZAS IN MEDIATION of TO DO: A BOOK OF ALPHABETS AND BIRTHDAYS. Not everyone wants what John Wieners has to offer in his poem-journals such as A NEW BOOK FROM ROME or STARS SEEN IN PERSON or 707 SCOTT STREET: THE JOURNAL OF JOHN WIENERS. Not everyone wants an 8-cd set of field recordings from a Zurich train station. Not everyone wants 100+ variations on a Shadows painting by Warhol. Not everyone wants 48 feature films from the Bowery Boys (not even mentioning the films from the Dead End Kids, The Little Tough Guys, and the East Side Kids). Not everyone wants to read all the novels of John Galsworthy or Anthony Trollope. That’s fine, and the multiplicity of options out there for us to experience is one of the things that make life worthwhile.

However, there is a small group of people (the few, the proud….) out there who upon encountering Jack Kerouac’s infinitely rich and contradictory and human (in both the good and bad senses of that word) work SOME OF THE DHARMA will proclaim, “where has this been all my life!” I am one of those. You may be too….probably if you’ve read this far, you know whether you are or not. As I write this (February 2019), used paperback copies can be had for as little as $2 plus postage and used hardback copies (which will last you a lifetime) can be had for as little as $6 plus postage via various online booksellers. I also see this at various Half Price Books stores in my travels for under $10.

A more sympathetic interpretation of the book can be found at Tricycle magazine, an American Buddhist publication that tends to be relatively open-minded and accepting:

https://tricycle.org/magazine/some-dharma/

some

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