Friday, June 1, 2012

What hath Kerouac to do with Mack?

From 80 Court Square, Harrisonburg, VA 22802, USA
Jack Kerouac
About ten years ago, in my early 20s, I read Jack Kerouac's On the Road, and it made a pretty big impression on me. The gestalt of the book really resonated, and it was a mostly gut-response. In the intervening decade, I haven't thought much about its impression on me, informally or academically.

But I think someone may have just done the hard work for me, expressing why I think Kerouac's work hit me like it did, and why it may have a continuing influence on my thinking. Over at the Englewood Review of Books, R. Dean Hudgens has an excellent review of the book, The Philosophy of the Beats, wherein he states that:
in [the Beats'] restlessness with the American Dream, their cynicism about mainstream society, their hunger for spontaneous expression, and the desire to be at home in their own bodies and with the bodies of others, there is a recurring call that many still find difficult to ignore. I don’t look to the Beats for all the answers, but I sure do find them giving voice to some of the most fascinating questions about embodiment, desire, imagination, poetics, vulnerability, and emotional intensity. These are not topics alien to Christian life but they are topics often foreign to Christian thought and reflection. (emphasis mine)

This about nails it for me, and perhaps there's something about my being raised in a denomination whose traditional influences are Anabaptism and Radical Pietism. There's a critical, dissenting edge to both streams that I certainly embody. Indeed, much of my writing carries a persistent critique of the American Dream. And the Pietism tradition opens up the aesthetic possibilities to "imagination, poetics...and emotional intensity." Finally, both Anabaptism and Radical Pietism, each in their own ways, had a sensibility that Christian faith must be embodied in substantive ways that are probably going to put you at odds with mainstream societies. Spotting this "echo" between my Christian traditions and the Beats is somewhat of a novel realization just now.

But there are cautions. Hudgens also makes the interesting assertion that the Beats' are America's first group to be "spiritual but not religious." As the subtitle to a new book by religious studies scholar, David Webster (who is not Christian), points out, "Contemporary Spirituality Makes Us Stupid, Selfish and Unhappy." (Here's a great interview w/ Webster at Religion Dispatches.) So while I'm grateful for having experienced the liberative, expressive qualities of Kerouac's work (he's the Beat I dig most), I also recognize that these are - if you dig just below the surface - incommensurable traditions. If you trace the line of the Beats from the 1950s to their progeny, the Hippies of the 1960s, you'll see the tragic logical consequences of the Beat lifestyle and ethos. Peoples' lives were destroyed by such reckless abandonment. Tom Wolfe's Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test bears witness to the "morning after" of the euphoric Beat moment. Despite "the road"/quest motif that connects them, Kerouac's America is expansive, ever unfolding, where Kesey's America is cashed out, depressing, terrifying even.

So what hath Kerouac to do with Mack? In my undergrad, I recall reading a bit of dialogue from a character in Hanif Kureishi's Buddha of Suburbia, who says that one can't read Kerouac after the age of 32. Well, I'm 33 now and there's the long-awaited film adaptation of On the Road coming out this summer. Perhaps I'll have to twist the rules and give the book one more read, then go see the movie. Soak in that a bit and see what kind of critical possibilities arise...

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