|This is the one I recall reading c. 1962 or 63; the cover illustration and blurb are simply silly|
Jack Kerouac wrote "The Dharma Bums" in 1957 and published it in 1958 after the wild success of his first published novel, "On the Road," which became a defining work of the Beat Generation. Most of the incidents described in "The Dharma Bums" apparently take place in California in 1955 and '56 with excursions to the South and Southwest and finally to the Northwest Desolation Wilderness where the novel's ending is set.
The key characters are novelized versions of Jack Kerouac himself (as Ray Smith) and Gary Snyder (as Japhy Ryder.) Ray is in his thirties, getting close to middle age, while Japhy is still in his mid twenties, or at least, those were the ages of Kerouac and Snyder during the period of the novel.
Japhy's on the Dharma Path and he lives in a shack out behind a big house on a hill while he goes to classes at UC Berkeley, drinks tea, meditates, contemplates Nature, expostulates and has wild parties and orgies and stuff.
Ray's on a Dharma Path as well, but in the telling of the tale, he's just a bum who drinks and writes and meditates and travels around with his rucksack meeting people, Bodhisattvas and Buddhas all, along the way.
Japhy has a purpose and will wind up going to Japan on a fellowship to study under Zen Mountains and Masters and become one himself. Ray just is. And you sort of know that like Kerouac, he will eventually drink himself to death just as the Rucksack Revolution that Japhy predicts and prefigures is about to climax and thence to peter out.
We know, because we've lived, what happens to these people.
Gary Snyder is now an old man, but he's still going strong they say, living a not-so-primitive life, surrounded by acolytes and devotees, probably none of whom remember him from back when, but that hardly matters as his diamond life has been one of constant becoming. There may or may not be a handful who have stayed with him since those Dharma Bum days, but most I would venture have long since, like Jack Kerouac, died off. Snyder is an honored elder in other words; the others are mostly long gone.
I read "The Dharma Bums" when I was maybe 14, I don't know exactly. It was a period during which I devoured everything I could get my hands on of Kerouac's work, and it continued pretty much consistently until I was 18 or so, when my attentions were focused elsewhere. I think I read "The Dharma Bums" first, then "On the Road," then "Desolation Angels" but the sequence could have been different as my memory has faded over the years and I can't even be sure that I'm remembering events and not imagining them. So much of my life has been an adventure, you might say, and I haven't kept good records.
When I was 14, of course, I could not and did not understand a lot of the references to Buddhism in "The Dharma Bums," and in re-reading it recently, I find some references are still a bit obscure, though most are easily digested now. I didn't really understand the point of the novel either. A travelogue, yes, but obviously something more as well, but I had no idea what. In re-reading it, of course, it is much clearer, and the point -- such as it is -- is obvious. It was probably not meant for a 14 year old to understand in any case.
The writing is as strikingly visual now as it was when I was merely a lad, and re-reading it is a powerful reminder of how penetrating those visuals were and are; the descriptions of place are so strong and I have been to so many of those very places or places like them or near them, that I feel I'm living the novel as I'm reading it. I recall some passages in re-reading that had a powerful present impact when I first read them, but much more often, it's simply words and phrases that pop out at me, not whole passages, and they trigger memories or just their presence within. Clearly, although I didn't understand much of the book, I internalized many of its elements.
That may well have happened to many others who read it around the same time and later, they would read the book and internalize its elements without necessarily understanding them or needing to. The book is a travelogue of sorts (as was, of course, "On the Road") but it's also a meditation on the meaning and discovery of existence and its illusory nature. The Dharma Path is the Buddha Path, and the wanderers in "The Dharma Bums" see themselves as Zen Lunatics sent out to bring joy and find enlightenment and to discover the illusion of their own existence and that of every other.
It's all an illusion, you see?
Practically everybody Ray-Jack encounters on his adventures as a Dharma Bum is a Buddha-Bodhisattva, which is something you discover when you're on that path, but it is a path not many are on at any given time, and while Ray-Jack discovers he can't fall off a mountain, he does fall off the path (it seems to me) more often than he realizes. That's part of the journey. If you're going to be a Zen Lunatic, you cannot always be what you think you are, nor can you always stick to the path you think you're on. As a Zen Lunatic, you are bound to diversions. Many and frequent. And so it is for Ray-Jack and for Japhy-Gary (who is at one point, just one time, called "Gary" in the novel).
|Ray-Jack Writing-sleeping, posed for the photographer no doubt.|
|Gary Snyder having tea in his Dharma Shack, c. 1955?|
They had editors then. I'm trying to imagine how his editor approached something like "On the Road." I can't quite grasp and the story -- which I'm sure has been told somewhere -- probably isn't all that interesting. You do what you do. But I've seen a posed picture of Kerouac transferring the text of "The Dharma Bums" from scroll to typed pages in standard format. In other words, he didn't just turn in a scroll of teletype paper to Viking or whoever his publisher was; he sat down and typed the whole thing all over again on pages of 8 1/2 x 11 typing paper like any other author and turned in the manuscript for publication just like anybody else looking to be published at the time. It's interesting to me, that part of the process, because the vision I've had is not that. It's a vision of Kerouac defiantly submitting his scroll(s) for publication and daring anybody to do anything about it.
The standard form manuscript of "The Dharma Bums" has been sent around to various literary events and memorials and museums and such, and I think I posted an image of the first page of it previously. The scroll has disappeared. It was sold, apparently, at auction and the buyer was "undisclosed." Wherever it is, and whoever has it, may it be enjoyed.
|Jack Kerouac's notebook wherein he declares "The Dharma Bums" complete (clickage will embiggen)|
Kerouac says he wrote and finished "The Dharma Bums" in 12 days; it reads very much like that's the case, and I'd say -- but for a purposeful delay to finish reading it -- it took me just about as long to read the novel this time. I have no idea how long it took me to read it when I was a kid, and I suspect, because many parts of it didn't ring a bell this time around and seemed to be all new to me, that I skipped through it back then. That could be my failing memory, too. But I suspect I didn't read it closely in any case, and even this time around, in re-paging through it for this essay and other things, there are whole passages I know I read that I don't remember.
I did delay reading the last two chapters this time around. Purposefully. I knew the story had to end but I didn't want it to end, and so I slowed then stopped reading it. Set the book aside and tried to take in the bloody horrors going on in so many places this horrible summer. The contrast between the vision, Kerouac's vision, I was reading and the reality outside it could not have been stronger. I have some idea what was going on in the country and the world in 1955 and 56 when the novel is set, and neither the world nor the nation were at peace.
Yet somebody on a Dharma path at that time would not have been numbed by the abundance of bloodshed along the way, at least I don't think so. There would have been terrible things, yes (Emmett Till, anyone?) and Kerouac himself mentions passing by Alamogordo and having a vision relating to the Bomb:
From that desert in Arizona he roared on up to New Mexico, took the cut through Las Cruces up to Alamogordo where the atom bomb was first blasted and where I had a strange vision as we drove along seeing in the clouds above the Alamogordo mountains the words as if imprinted in the sky: "This Is the Impossibility of the Existence of Anything" (which was a strange place for that strange true vision) and then he batted on through the beautiful Atascadero Indian country in the uphills of New Mexico beautiful green valleys and pines and New England-like rolling meadows and then down to Oklahoma (at outside Bowie Arizona we'd had a short nap at dawn, he in the truck, me in my bag in the cold red clay with just stars blazing silence overhead and a distant coyote)...Breathtaking. Of course, I quibble. "Atascadero" is a place in California. A well-known place at that. Atascadero is not the name of the Indians who live in the beautiful uphills of New Mexico; he must have been thinking of "Mescalero" -- but does it matter? Even more interesting, this was pre-Interstate Highway, and so I'm wondering the route his truckdriver benefactor Bodhisattva took him through New Mexico on his way to North Carolina because it seems he bypassed Albuquerque. Which was certainly possible to do...
He saw the words as if imprinted on the sky: This Is the Impossibility of the Existence of Anything as he passed near the site of the Trinity blast, which he declared a "strange vision" yet it's perfectly apropos it seems to me.
As I've reported, I've been to Trinity Site itself a couple of times, last April most recently, and I was nearly struck dumb by the stunning display in the skies that day, the clouds dancing and the slashes of virga in many places and the wind blasts, the shafts of sunlight on the sere ground, the subtle illuminations on the mountains. I'd never seen anything like it, I imagined anything like it. The visual image was even more intense than a painting, than a movie, than any description I could try to give. And I was in the midst of it, in the midst of a crowd, and I wondered if any of them could see what I was seeing, and if they could, whether it had the same impact or any impact for that matter.
The blast site itself is on a kind of upslope ledge against and below the mountains, and from this ledge there is the possibility of a sweeping view into the Jornado de los Muertos, the plain below where many are said to have died due to the lack of water for people and animals passing through. There is the possibility of a view because sometimes there will be too much dust or cloud or other stuff in the air to see much of anything below except maybe the mountains in the distance. So you might go out there and feel enclosed rather than exposed to something grander.
But in April, the view was grand. And yes, I digress, but so what?
|Desolation Peak Lookout, Mt. Hozomeen in the background.|
I delayed finishing "The Dharma Bums" because I knew it was coming to an end and I didn't want it to end. It had been an extraordinary journey to that point, and I had a heart-wrenching notion of how it might conclude though I knew -- because Kerouac had already told us -- that Ray-Jack would leave the mountain lookout on Desolation Peak and go back into "the world." That's what a Dharma Bum does, even after being on the mountaintop for 60 days or however long he was there.
He goes back into the world.
The last few chapters of "The Dharma Bums" are pure poetry, practically decorative yet highly evocative, and as is the case with everything else in the book, exceedingly visual. You are there. I was there. To wit:
(The initial passage of Chapter 34)
August finally came in with a blast that shook my house and augured little augusticity. I made raspberry Jello the color of rubies in the setting sun. Mad raging sunsets poured in seafoams of cloud through unimaginable crags, with every rose tint of hope beyond, I felt just like it, brilliant and bleak beyond words. Everywhere awful ice fields and snow straws; one blade of grass jiggling in the winds of infinity, anchored to a rock. To the east, it was gray; to the north, awful; to the west, raging mad, hard iron fools wrestling in the groomian gloom; to the south, my father's mist. Jack Mountain, his thousand-foot rock hat overlooked a hundred football fields of snow. Cinnamon Creek was an eyrie of Scottish fog. Shull lost itself in the Golden Horn of Bleak. My oil lamp burned in infinity. "Poor gentle flesh," I realized, "there is no answer." I didn't know anything any more, I didn't care, and it didn't matter, and suddenly I felt really free. Then would come really freezing mornings, cracking fire, I'd chop wood with my hat on (earmuff cap), and would feel lazy and wonderful indoors, fogged in by icy clouds. Rain, thunder in the mountains, but in front of the stove I read my Western magazines. Everywhere snowy air and woodsmoke. Finally the snow came, in a whirling shroud from Hozomeen by Canada, it came surling my way sending radiant white heralds through which I saw the angel of light peep, and the wind rose, dark low clouds rushed up as out of a forge, Canada was a sea of meaningless mist; it came in a general fanning attack advertised by the sing in my stovepipe; it rammed it, to absorb my old blue sky view which had been all thoughtful clouds of gold; far, the rum dum dum of Canadian thunder; and to the south another vaster darker storm closing in like a pincer; but Hozomeen mountain stood there returning the attack with a surl of silence. And nothing could induce the gay golden horizons far northeast where there was no storm, to change places with Desolation. Suddenly a green and rose rainbow shafted right down into Starvation Ridge not three hundred yards away from my door, like a bolt, like a pillar: it came among steaming clouds and orange sun turmoiling.
Is it any wonder I didn't want it to end?What is a rainbow, Lord?A hoopFor the lowly.
But it had to, for "The Dharma Bums" is only a novel, no? It had to come to an end, and it the end, though I shed a tear or two, the ending seemed perfect:
"Japhy," I said out loud, "I don't know when we'll meet again or what'll happen in the future, but Desolation, Desolation, I owe so much to Desolation, thank you forever for guiding me to the place where I learned all. Now comes the sadness of coming back to cities and I've grown two months older and there's all that humanity of bars and burlesque shows and gritty love, all upsidedown in the void God bless them, but Japhy you and me forever we know, O ever youthful, O ever weeping." Down on the lake rosy reflections of celestial vapor appeared, and I said "God, I love you" and looked up to the sky and really meant it. "I have fallen in love with you, God. Take care of us all, one way or the other."
To the children and the innocent it's all the same.
Yah. How many times have I... ?And in keeping with Japhy's habit of always getting down on one knee and delivering a little prayer to the camp we left, to the one in the Sierra, and the others in Marin, and the little prayer of gratitude he had delivered to Sean's shack the day he sailed away, as I was hiking down the mountain with my pack I turned and knelt on the trail and said "Thank you, shack."
Then I added "Blah," with a little grin, because I knew that shack and that mountain would understand what that meant, and turned and went on down the trail back to this world.The Rucksack Revolution was yet to come. "The Dharma Bums" is a pre-figuring journey through time and space and spirit that blazed the path, though many at the time -- like me -- had no idea it would be so. It was a novel, a Beat novel, like jazz and dancing down a mountain, not meant to do anything at all, just to be.
And so it was.
Kerouac said "The Dharma Bums" was better than "On the Road"
SUNDAY, DEC 8, 1957 -- Quiet Sunday, my work done -- I think DHARMA BUMS is not as dramatic as On the Road but it's a better book (more important) -- technically almost just as good in any case -- If Viking doesn't want to publish it, they'll be mistaken & sorry later on --
Wrote Dharma Bums from Nov. 26 to Dec. 7 -- 12 days
THE DHARMA BUMS, for me, is better than ON THE ROAD.... in the end... because what Neal was, a mad holy hepcat, wasn't as great as what the dharma bums were, religious heroes of America, preaching kindness and mindfulness (that's what Neal could have been)-- oh well, it probably stinks--------------
"The Dharma Bums" is so pure and clear by comparison to either "On the Road" or "Desolation Angels." And yet... there is a sadness to it. That's part of the Dharma too.