What's All This Then?

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What's All This Then?

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Dharma Bums
by Jack Kerouac

Field-Tested by Risa Rice

in the Sierra Nevada Mountains

I just went to the Sierras and read this book for the second time in two decades. Upon opening up the book I remembered that Kerouac starts Dharma Bums in Santa Barbara and heads to the Sierras; I thought, “Wow, this will be great! I just left Santa Barbara and just got to the Sierras!”

And maybe 20 years ago when I was less judgmental about suburban white boys (and how the they believed every thought they had was a pure gold nugget the world could not possibly live without was a less offensive idea to me) I revered this book. But now the book split and became two stories for me:

1) The moments of Kerouac prose that bring every second of life alive, the musical inhaling of the world and exhaling rapturous prose in response to it.

2) The paranoid twaddle of a child-man who is uptight, uncertain about his place in the world, hung up on his mother, afraid to do the dirty work that having a soul requires, privileged without self-awareness of that fact, and espousing tons of Buddhist blather like a fountain that both stops up and gushes at incalculable intervals. While reading Dharma Bums I never knew for how long I could enjoy it before I’d get some man-child hives from it.

I still love Kerouac-the-writer for transcribing a life that is part Latin mass and beatnik mother-tongue but Kerouac-the-man tried to write about Buddhism and ended up revealing the sad posturing of an unformed masculine self who had a very minor understanding of Buddhism that bordered on posturing. It was sad that I had to sort of let go of my reverence for him that I have had for twenty years. But in his version of masculinity, where a western ideal of man gets a Buddhist monk lifestyle make-over, then stuck inside some Zen-Beatnik wrapper, Kerouac just outs his discomforts rather than breaks through it. Instead of becoming more comfortable in his skin, as his texts suggests he is becoming, we see his delusion-the half-developed Buddhist philosophy against the very real contradiction of his actual practice of living a self-aware life (or lack thereof). Kerouac is eternally hung up; Dharma Bums really isn’t about Dharma, the wheel of suffering, it’s about small men and big mountains.

I used the book to start my campfire every day. I was never so warm, so quickly.

Risa Rice was working-class born and Seven Sisters educated. A UX person by nature, an online advertising savant for a living, she was recently accepted to the Design Strategy MBA program at CCA to her delight and surprise. She loves bicycles, notebooks, writing letters, wandering in the Alps, zines, flaneuring in cities, and well-made cocktails enjoyed with a good book or better company. The rest is negotiable.

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