A Musing: The Dharma Bums


Oh, Ti Jean. You once again broke my heart into a million pieces. I finished The Dharma Bums a few days ago as my first book for The Beats of Summer reading event and it hasn’t stopped rattling around in my head since. I thought this was my first time reading it, but as soon as I read a few pages I started to remember everything. I was absolutely sure after I read Ray say “Pretty girls make graves.” Of course. No self respecting Smiths freak could live with themselves if they haven’t read The Dharma Bums!

The book is ostensibly about Buddhism, perhaps about the different approaches to Buddhism practiced by Japhy Ryder (the Gary Snyder character) and Ray Smith (Kerouac).  It’s about creating a different way of life from the straight 1950s culture, and the players in that scene. But the part that really spoke to me was Ray’s struggle to find balance between being alone, creating, learning vs. being with others and of the world. Japhy and Ray both want the same thing — to be free of suffering and attain enlightenment — but they go about it in different ways. Japhy keeps saying “comparisons are odious” throughout the book, but Kerouac sets it up so the reader can’t help but juxtapose Japhy and Ray. Japhy hops along mountains and is the life of the party like it’s all a piece of cake, but the quest is much more of a struggle for Ray. He wore the weight of the world quite heavily:

Then I suddenly had the most tremendous feeling of the pitifulness of human beings, whatever they were, their faces, pained mouths, personalities, attempts to be gay, little petulances, feelings of loss, their dull and empty witticisms so soon forgotten: Ah, for what? … Suppose we suddenly wake up and see that what we thought was this and that, ain’t this and that at all?

I know, Ray. I know. I relate to and drown in Ray’s mind and heart. He tries to practice detachment — not wanting is the cure for suffering in Buddhism — but I feel that he chooses to ultimately remain attached, albeit it uncomfortably. Do all artists on some level struggle with this choice? Is wanting linked to creating? loving? Ray takes such pleasure in the taste of pea soup with bacon, the stars, good sturdy boots, music, his animal friends, and the “realer than life Japhy of my dreams” but experiences such disconnects with other, actual human beings and the culture at large. It’s no accident he drinks too much in those situations.

Near the end of the book, he states, “Ok world,” … “I’ll love ya” and comes down from the mountain he spent the summer on, alone, at peace, watching for fires in a little shack. This book is highly autobiographical, and we know that Kerouac drank himself to death a little over 10 years later. Ah, world. As Ray said in the book, and Kerouac lived out:

“Poor gentle flesh” … “there is no answer.”

(photograph of the first lines of The Dharma Bums at LAX Airport/Aviation Blvd. station from floppyphoto)



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    • jackiemania

      I don’t think I knew quite what to make of it the first time I read it — I did know it didn’t make me want to go on a “rucksack revolution” — I sensed the anguish, even i I didn’t have enough life experience under my belt to deeply understand it.

      I think I may read all Kerouac for The Beats of Summer now — I’ve got Desolation Angels up next and Big Sur in my bookcase…

      • Violet

        I’ve been on a bit of a Kerouac / Cassady / Beats thing on and off recently. Big Sur is my favourite of Kerouac’s books. It just pierces my heart. I like The Dharma Bums, but his flavour of Buddhism and mine aren’t quite the same. I wish he’d stayed up that mountain and practised for a long time and stuck with Buddhist teachings. I often wonder if he’d been really serious about Buddhism and stuck with it, would it have made a difference to how his life turned out? Desolation Angels made me feel really angry with him at times. I hope you like the remainder of your Beats reads.

        • jackiemania

          I wish he stayed on the mountain longer, too 😦 It seemed he didn’t yet have the inner resources to weather the hubbub On the Road caused (not only because it was popular, but I think most importantly because he felt it was misunderstood). I have Big Sur for my third book to read — I’ve read it before but I’m happy to read it again with some years and a visit to Big Sur under my belt 🙂 Thank you for your comment and visit!

  2. Leah

    I’ve been craving Kerouac lately, and this post really makes me want to re-read The Dharma Bums. Hopefully I can get to it soon. Beats of Summer seems like a great event!

    • jackiemania

      I completely changed my plans and am going to read all Kerouac for the event. Desolation Angels starts off around were The Dharma Bums ends — it feels right 🙂

  3. oldblue125

    ”It is not my fault that certain so-called bohemian elements have found in my writings something to hang their peculiar beatnik theories on.” Jack Kerouac

    always keep this in mind when reading kerouac. he’s not who you think you might want him to be

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  5. Stephanie Nikolopoulos

    Beautiful musings! I found your blog via the Beats of Summer series at Roof Beam Reader and am enjoying reading your perspective on Kerouac. I greatly appreciate your deeper understanding. I feel like so many people read him but don’t “get” him.

  6. Pingback: The Beats of Summer: The Dharma Bums by Jack Kerouac | Books Speak Volumes
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