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)