Saturday, March 1, 2008

Readings: Last Thoughts on The Road

In her introduction to Jack Kerouac’s On the Road: the Original Scroll, entitled Rewriting America – Kerouac’s Nation of “Underground Monsters”, author Penny Vlagopoulos notes that, “Kerouac felt too deeply the gaps between what life was supposed to be and how people actually lived it.” And, “Kerouac felt a profound sense of loneliness; this stemmed partly from a spiritual understanding of human suffering that was so embedded in his Catholic upbringing, and partly from his artist’s interiority, which heightened the sense of his difference even as it produced solidarity between him and people who were “mad to live, mad to talk, mad to be saved.”

It must always be remembered, in reading Kerouac, that—as he said of the character, Dean Moriarty [Neal Cassady]—“He was BEAT—the root, the soul of Beatific.On the Road, beneath the surface level of drugs, sex, and endless “kicks”, is a spiritual work.

The “road” in On the Road, is perhaps not exactly the road taken by Christian in The Pilgrim’s Progress, or the road taken by the pilgrims of Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales; but it is, in a very real way, related to both. Or, perhaps, On the Road is better understood as the record of a quest; if not for the Grail, then for life Itself—life in the Now.

All of this is most evident in the passages below. At the end of Kerouac’s stint behind the wheel, concerning which I posted below, the whole mad crew ends up, blasted on weed, in a Mexican whorehouse. Kerouac here confesses that,

I was trying to break loose [from “another gal…who clung to my neck like a leech”] to get at a 16 year old colored girl who sat gloomily inspecting her navel through an opening in her flimsy dress” [p.387]

As he continues to observe, At one point the mother of the little colored girl—not colored but dark—came in to hold a brief and mournful convocation with her daughter. When I saw that I was too ashamed to try for the one I really wanted. [p.388]

Kerouac’s meditation on the girl ends with this:

I couldn’t take my eyes off the little dark girl…and the way, like a Queen, she walked around and was even reduced by the sullen bartender to menial tasks such as bringing us drinks. Of all the girls in there she needed the money most; maybe her mother had come to get money from her for her little infant sisters and brothers. It never, never occurred to me to just approach her and give her some money. I have a feeling she would have taken it with a degree of scorn and scorn from the likes of her made me flinch. …Strange that Neal and Frank also failed to approach her; her unimpeachable dignity was the thing that made her poor in a wild old whorehouse, and think of that. At one point I saw Neal leaning like a statue toward her, ready to fly, and befuddlement cross his face as she glanced coolly and imperiously his way and he stopped rubbing his belly and gaped and finally bowed his head. For she was the queen.

This is the key: …her unimpeachable dignity was the thing that made her poor in a wild old whorehouse, and think of that.

And think of that, indeed. Think of it in terms of Kerouac’s deeply ingrained Christian sentiment. This dark girl, whom he loves--in the midst of what can only be understood as a hellish scene--without being able to approach, is worthy of such respect and devotion because she is able to be in the whorehouse without being of the whorehouse.

May I, through the gloom of my personal whorehouse, be granted the grace to see--as did Kerouac--that beautiful child as an exemplar.