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Debunking the Caricature of Jack Kerouac the Nihilist

Hard to be a Saint in the City: The Spiritual Vision of the Beats  [1]by Robert Inchausti, Shambhala (January 30, 2018), 208 pages

Catholic mystic poet Jean-Louise Kérouac, better known to the American public as “Jack,” was destined to be misunderstood. The spiritually inverted radicals of the Sixties who sacralized their politics and secularized their spirituality—blame Reich and Marcuse—read Kerouac with blinders on. They only saw what they wanted to see, and what they wanted to see was a celebration of the “freedoms” of hedonism. The rootlessness. The veils of marijuana smoke drifting through jazz clubs. The anonymous, sweaty encounters in bohemian apartment buildings decorated with abstract art. Kicks for the sake of kicks. The very definition of nihilism.

The real tragedy of Kerouac’s reception was that the people who should have known better took the en vogue hedonist reading at face value, writing him off as a word-vomiting miscreant. But that’s a caricature of Kerouac that over-emphasizes the most obvious personal flaws of an intensely spiritual writer. It’s an oversimplification by way of calling someone a simpleton. The truth is more complex and so much more interesting: Kerouac was one of the most humble and devoted American religious writers of the 20th century. Robert Inchausti’s recently published Hard to be a Saint in the City: The Spiritual Vision of the Beats makes an attempt at recognizing the heterodox spiritual focus of the entire Beat oeuvre, but it only points the reader in the right direction. Its simple and hodgepodge construction suggests the vast amount of analysis, particularly of Kerouac’s work, which remains to be done in order to change his reputation in the popular imagination.

The charge of mindless hedonism dogs Kerouac despite his wearing his spirituality on his sleeve. In most of his less famous books, such as Visions of Gerard, Dr. Sax, and Tristessa, you can read his influences like a palimpsest. The Romantics, especially Shelley and Keats, are there. The Transcendentalism of Thoreau looms large. But there’s also a deep dedication to the Buddhist vision of the Void and escape from the spinning wheel of Samsara, which was cultivated long before Buddhism became a lifestyle trend among certain American crowds.

Underlying all of this as Kerouac’s spiritual bedrock was his Catholic upbringing in Lowell, Massachusetts among working-class French Canadian immigrants. Kerouac described himself as a “strange solitary Catholic mystic” whose ecstatic vision of life was the direct result of an eschatology of the end of time. What he longed for was contact with the heavenly eternity overlaying and occasionally penetrating our anodyne perceptions of time. “Life is a dream already over,” he said. It was the furthest thing from an existential claim of the primacy of death and absurdity. It was life reinvigorated by recognition of a transcendent reality.

Kerouac wasn’t a hedonist and he wasn’t an Epicurean. However questionable his methods and his theology, he believed that his life had a spiritual purpose. Benedict Giamo explains in Kerouac, the Word and the Way: Prose Artist as Spiritual Quester“As a modernist mystic, Kerouac believed that direct knowledge of God, spiritual truth, and ultimate reality could be attained through subjective experienced (conceived as intuition or insight). This was both his wager and means for being intoxicated—drunk with life—(helped along, as always, by alcohol and/or drugs). His aim, however, was not to get smashed; rather it was to get a higher purchase on the ecstasy of being in order forge a mystical bond with the divine or ultimate.”

This spiritual focus is what Inchausti tries to emphasize for Kerouac and other Beat writers in Hard to be a Saint in the City, which is a compendium of quotes organized and edited by Inchausti that also includes a very brief introductory essay by Inchausti explaining the project. The thing is a hard sell. For one, as is apparent even from a collection of quotes organized thematically, the Beats were wildly diverse. To even lump them into a single literary or generational movement was, from the beginning, a bit of a marketing ploy. Allen Ginsberg was a Marxist-turned Buddhist anti-nuke gay liberationist poet. William Burroughs had more in common with the Dadaist who preceded him and the punk movement that followed than his fellow Beats. Eco-poet Gary Snyder longs (he’s still alive) for some kind of Native American-Buddhist synthesis. Amiri Baraka was a homophobic Marxist-Leninist.

But even allowing for the amorphousness of the category, some of the choices Inchausti makes are confusing. Including Leonard Cohen suggests a continuity with Sixties pop culture that books like this should do their best to refute or at least complicate. And not including seminal figures like Kenneth Rexroth gives the false impression that the Beats sprang fully formed from Eisenhower’s shadow rather than the messier truth that they represent various strains of American thought and art that have existed since the founding.

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The collection of quotes, varying in length and pithiness, are fascinating. Hard to be a Saint reads like a courtroom transcript of The Establishment vs. The Artist, providing expert witness testimony on behalf of the defense. But structured as it is, the book raises questions that it can’t answer. The quotes are mostly taken from interviews, letters, and editorials. But the people being quoted are poets and novelists. Their spirituality is primarily embedded in their art. In order to understand the depth of their spiritual engagement, we need to read their poems and novels. And in order to understand their art in new and different ways, we need the kind of analysis that Inchausti provides in his brief section on Kerouac in 2005’s Subversive Orthodoxy, interpretation which is mostly absent from the present volume.

The most interesting part of Inchausti’s too-brief introductory essay is his mention of Oswald Spengler, the German historian whose cyclical vision of history is probably the only significant common influence between the major figures of the Beat Generation. Inchausti writes:

At the heart of this re-visioning of American letters resides Oswald Spengler’s eccentric, magisterial opus The Decline of the West—a book that greatly influenced both Kerouac and Burroughs and provided the vocabulary and conceptual framework for the very idea of a Beat Generation. Central to Spengler’s thesis is the notion that all cultures begin as “cults”—spiritual enterprises designed to convert that “zoological struggle for survival” into a pursuit of various high ideals…As cultures ag, Spengler observed, they inevitably decline into “civilizations”, which means that the mechanical operation of their institutions come to replace the idealistic zeal that fueled their collective endeavors in the first place.

The decline that Spengler theorized can last a long time, “hundreds and hundreds” of years according to Inchausti, during which underground movements of nascent religious rebirth imbue old symbols with new vitality. “Spengler called these idealistic culture-bearers fellaheen,” Inchausti writes, using a word that originally referred to itinerant Egyptians living on the edges of the Roman Empire, but which a few of the Beats used to describe their own spiritual predicament as artists in an increasingly secular world. Inchausti explains that “Literature was always to be something more than literature, something more akin to scripture” for the contemporary fellaheen.

Of course, for Ginsberg, being fellaheen meant embracing a blend of Whitmanesque sex-worship and a strange Buddhist Utopianism. For Burroughs, it meant a kind of transhumanism in which we leave our species behind and prepare to live in space. Kerouac’s response was different. For him, Spengler’s eschatology was just a secular parallel to his own idiosyncratic (and heterodox) but definitely Christian mysticism. His sensitivity to time and loss and his hunger for eternity moved him to write things such as “All is well, practice kindness, heaven is nigh” in Visions of Gerard and “Practice kindness all day to everybody and you will realize you’re already in heaven now” in his collected letters. And from his novel Tristessa: “I know everything’s alright but I want proof and the Buddhas and the Virgin Marys are there reminding me of the solemn pledge of faith in this harsh and stupid earth where we rage our so-called lives in a sea of worry, meat for Chicagos of Graves—right this minute my very father and my very brother lie side by side in mud in the North and I’m supposed to be smarter than they are—being quick I am dead.”

It’s probably not the best literature you’ll ever read, but that’s because it works differently. Kerouac didn’t want to be Philip Roth. He wanted to be a mid-century jazz version of Sor Juana Ines de la Cruz. His unique spiritual vision demands more than what amounts to a coffee table book of quotes can provide. Hard to be a Saint in the City might make an interesting introduction for someone completely unfamiliar with the Beats individually and as a group, but by presenting what could be a rich spiritual and artistic resource completely denuded of context, the book undermines its own premise. It makes the Beats look exactly like what both the longhairs and hardhats took them to be: pioneers of an embarrassingly shallow, self-involved hedonism.

Scott Beauchamp’s work has appeared in the Paris ReviewBookforum, and Public Discourse, among other places. His book Did You Kill Anyone? is forthcoming from Zero Books. He lives in Maine.

31 Comments (Open | Close)

31 Comments To "Debunking the Caricature of Jack Kerouac the Nihilist"

#1 Comment By Fran Macadam On February 13, 2018 @ 8:29 am

On the Road still has me crisscrossing America, Dean Moriarty-like, all these years later post Venice, California, with a touch of Kesey’s “Furthur” thrown in.

#2 Comment By Jon On February 13, 2018 @ 11:30 am

Pure fantasy, that’s all. What is relevant about the Beats are their celebration of irrelevance — a salute to the emptiness of modern life. Essentially nihilist in their denigration of symbolic representations of the possibility of the impossible which has saturated our religious orders for centuries, they remain an empty testament to our emptiness.

Yes, one of these contenders to the Twentieth Century Beatitudes (aka the Beats) may have extolled these markers seeking to give homage to them, but in life contradict their shared vision of generation of the faithful every step of the way.

It is but from a distance that Kerouac extolled these iconic markers which reflected his Catholic upbringing and through an alcoholic haze at that. But actions must conform to the quest for the holy. When one professes a wish for the transcendent bitterly lamenting over the passage of time staring down at the bottom of an empty whisky bottle, one is no closer to even catching a glimpse of eternity and its possibilities. One remains closed off by one’s actions whose walls have built his or her purgatory.

Yes, reading the Beats’ literature is important but for only one solitary reason: And, that is as an epitaph to our deadened civilization which convulsed twice in an orgy of violence shattering any hope for redeeming what generations have cherished in their hearts for about two millennia. What remains is a remnant that idly sits up on the uppermost balcony watching with disdain and with despair this tragic play as it unfolds of society denying its own cultural and spiritual death.

If we can ever muster the strength that lies within each one’s heart to reject the message of the Beats, turn aside from their toxicity, shut the pages of their poems and stories, and commence with the herculean and heroic task of rebuilding our civilization that would be our calling in these troubled times.

Can we restore the glory of the Renaissance? Perhaps that is but a dream — gleam within the eye of those who are inclined towards Romanticism. But it is a worthy cause.

#3 Comment By Wiggles On February 13, 2018 @ 1:47 pm

So, caricaturing the 60’s is your solution to caricaturing the Beats? And yet the 60’s also saw the last great popular fascination with religion and the quest for God as well, in the form of a fusion of East and West, Romantic and modernist. Half the most influential musical and artistic figures of the time were openly God-obsessed. Anyone who remembers the youth culture of the 60’s as *simply* absorbed in hedonism and narcissism clearly isn’t old enough to remember them at all.

#4 Comment By DRZ On February 13, 2018 @ 2:39 pm

Good review: I’ve read Inchausti’s Subversive Orthodoxy, which I found to be interesting. Leaving out Rexroth is odd, given that, early on, he referred to the Beats (and San Francisco-based poets like Robert Duncan, Michael McClure, William Everson/Brother Antoninus etc.) as heralding a religious movement, with deeper roots than Time and Life magazine were able to perceive. Too bad he missed an opportunity to go that route.

#5 Comment By Jeeves On February 13, 2018 @ 3:05 pm

It’s been many years since I read “On the Road” and “Dharma Bums” but whatever Kerouac’s pretensions to literature, Truman Capote’s barb pretty much sums it up for me: “That’s not writing; that’s typing.”

#6 Comment By Thrice A Viking On February 13, 2018 @ 4:30 pm

I don’t believe it was mentioned in the article, but it seems that Jack Kerouac was good friends with William F. Buckley, a fact that seems to indicate a less-than-radical core to the author, at least politically.

#7 Comment By Hexexis On February 13, 2018 @ 9:29 pm

After my brief bout w/ Kerouac as a college sophomore (Desolation Angels, Dharma Bums et al.), the only peripherally Beat I can still read is Corso—“werewolf bathtubs and forked clarinets”; fine imagery for guy imagining his girlfriend’s parents think of him as a vampire.

Nascent religious rebirth, indeed!

#8 Comment By Max On February 13, 2018 @ 10:27 pm

Truman Capote – the thinking sychophants sychophant. Kerouac wrote what he did because he could. And millions of humans love it.

#9 Comment By Mick Sherman On February 14, 2018 @ 2:12 am

‘Most beat literature is bad where it is not godawful.’

#10 Comment By Nancy Grace On February 14, 2018 @ 8:48 am

I have no idea why anyone would think Kerouac is a nihilist. Even when On the Road first came out, the book clearly presented a beatific image of America, despite her flaws–which is why it has influenced so many people around the globe: that’s what good literature can do. And all of the tons of criticism on Kerouac for decades has presented him as everything but a nihilist. Of course, the derogatory “beatnik” label has nothing to do with Kerouac.

#11 Comment By MattTarngo On February 14, 2018 @ 1:22 pm

To Jeeves:

Truman Capote was a fat little liar. Who attempted to portray a monster as misunderstood. And did considerably more damage to writing and the culture than Kerouac did. Like all good little liberal’s aspire to.

Me, I’d rather read Jack over Truman. Even though like Truman, he died from too much booze and pills, more than he did from answered prayers.

#12 Comment By BMerker On February 14, 2018 @ 3:38 pm

“Kerouac described himself as a “strange solitary Catholic mystic” whose ecstatic vision of life was the direct result of an eschatology of the end of time. What he longed for was contact with the heavenly eternity overlaying and occasionally penetrating our anodyne perceptions of time.”

Too bad, then, that it is to others than Kerouac himself (Scott Beauchamp among them) that we must listen to “get” the scope and depth of that purported spirituality!

Coffe-shop Buddhism was legion in those days. I myself was caught up in it, prowling the North Beach beat haunts back in 1960 with “On the Road” and Camus’ “The Rebel” in my coat pocket on alternate days. It was all part of the juvenile confusion and refusal to grow up that was the life breath of the so called beat generation.

Kerouac’s Buddhism was no deeper than that he gave it up after his book Dharma Bums was panned by critics who actually knew Buddhism (Alan Watts among them).

#13 Comment By DSM On February 14, 2018 @ 8:01 pm

Alcoholics, and drug-addicts, and wife-killers, and….

Artists.

Being dead now, The Beats are whatever we *say* they are.

They only exist is our *heads*.

Like Hemingway, catching a big fish or catching a load of buckshot. It’s up to *you*.

We make them what we want.

#14 Comment By DSM On February 14, 2018 @ 8:04 pm

Alcoholics, and drug-addicts, and wife-killers, and….

Artists.

Being dead now, The Beats are whatever we *say* they are.

They only exist in our *heads*.

Like Hemingway, catching a big fish or catching a load of buckshot. It’s up to *you*.

We make them what we want.

(edited — thanks)

#15 Comment By George S Johnston On February 14, 2018 @ 8:56 pm

Ginsberg’s ‘Howl’ is a great–or near great–poem, despite a number of over-the-top transgressive lines.

#16 Comment By Tim Corrigan On February 15, 2018 @ 12:32 am

Jeeves, you seem only familiar with his “popular” works. Take on “Visions of Cody”, his wild masterpiece, then get back to me about “typing”.

#17 Comment By Jan Sand On February 15, 2018 @ 5:19 am

Although I lived through the era of the Beat Generation and delighted in some of the dazzling graphics and music, I never participated in the full social blast against what society had become. It was a coruscated protest in all sorts of fantastic ways against the stainless steel prison of the economics that has driven much of the world and especially US culture from the beginning and like any example of social fireworks its beauty faded in the light of the morning after. What is notable is the total lack of this type of social splendor today where that stainless steel confinement, like some scene in a horror film where the walls move in to crush, there is almost no public reaction to the well publicized impending dooms from several sources. Governments and leaders are openly trashing any possibilities of hopes for some way out and populations remain frozen in horror and unreacting to the mounting inevitabilities of final disasters.

#18 Comment By Lyra On February 15, 2018 @ 10:30 am

Kerouac’s Catholicism is old news for many people. Many conservatives like to claim him as one of “our guys” because he was Catholic, so I’ve already heard about this a whole bunch of times. On the other side, like using his Catholicism to bash him.

More importantly, just because Kerouac considered himself to be Catholic doesn’t mean he was orthodox. Richard Wagner considered himself to be a Christian, and he didn’t believe in the Old Testament. William Blake considered himself to be a Christian, and he only believed in Christ, not the Trinity.

#19 Comment By Paradoctor On February 15, 2018 @ 12:15 pm

Speaking of nihilism:
NRA = Nihilism Runners Association.
What part of “Well-Regulated Militia” do they not understand?

#20 Comment By Lies Awake On February 15, 2018 @ 12:15 pm

This piece is really a stretch. Juana Ines de la Cruz is almost the only name mentioned here worthy of one’s time. Virtually none of the beats are, except maybe, maybe Corso. Howl, is a howl.

#21 Comment By lescaret On February 15, 2018 @ 12:30 pm

Wow, so much to unpack here between the misconceptions and mis-characterizations in both the article and the comments.

Per the article – writing off Allen Ginsberg as a ” Marxist-turned Buddhist anti-nuke gay liberationist poet” and dismissing Amiri Baraka (who really shouldn’t be included as he was not considered a Beat) as a “a homophobic Marxist-Leninist” is simply lazy. What points the author tries to make are cheapened by this. Why should readers take the reviewer seriously after these whoppers?

Comment-wise, hey Thrice-a-Viking, JK was never “good friends” with William F. Buckley. That’s just false.

Jeeves, repeating that stupid Capote quote shows a distinct lack of creativity. It wasn’t even particularly appropriate when it was first uttered; it’s a snarky, pretentious, cocktail party aside and by now, half a century or more later, it deserves to fall out of the dialog.

And to George S Johnston, bravo for heralding “Howl”, a landmark and lasting work from the Beat era. However, just what lines are you referring to when you say that the poem has “a number of over-the-top transgressive lines”. Which ones, the ones that make you uncomfortable?

#22 Comment By Stephen Hartwell On February 15, 2018 @ 12:46 pm

Kerouac always maintained he was a Catholic. See the infamous 1968 interview with Buckley on Firing Line. Kerouac was, in many ways, a Canuk from Lowell who fell in with a boho crowd in NYC while at Columbia and never got over it. His literature is, however, always revolutionary in its absolute and uncompromising sincerity. There is absolutely no artifice with Kerouac.

#23 Comment By Dieter Kief On February 15, 2018 @ 3:26 pm

Mr, Beauchamp, I think you are right.

Two traces of Kerouac, which are really shining: A short story of T. C. Boyle about the late, drunk, dying (if I remeber right) Jack Kerouac, and an almost perfect (perfect would be bad, you know – therefor almost is what really matters – because of the crack, the crack in everything – where the light gets in…) – that’s the beat in m e , writing this litle annotation)) – – ok: Robert Crumb, drawing the late Jack Kerouac, too, is so real, that I almost forgot, that there is a Kerouac outside of Crumb’s art, while reading (enjoying) it.

#24 Comment By jean-claude On February 15, 2018 @ 8:06 pm

jean-louis NOT jean-louise!

#25 Comment By G. D. Barnes On February 15, 2018 @ 9:45 pm

If you think Kerouac’s Buddhism superficial, you will want to read “The Scripture of the Golden Eternity”, which he wrote in 1960 or so.It is lovely, brilliant in both execution and thought, and profoundly Buddhist. I think it will change your mind, and more importantly, change your mind. Despite the fame of Ginsberg’s often simple-minded (good guys v. bad guys) and stylistically imitative work, Kerouac’s poetry is the original and true thing. It inspired AG to imitation, and outpaced AG in profundity.

#26 Comment By John Riley On February 15, 2018 @ 9:53 pm

Kerouac moved to Florida with his mother to drink himself to death. His alcoholism can’t be bypassed in any discussion of his spirituality and to insist on claiming it as Catholic only is not correct. He was never a hippy and spoke often of rejecting the hippy world but his spirituality was open to influence. He was a seeker. Simple enough. Alcohol took Corso out too. He and Kerouac were the two spiritual writers of the group. I always had the impression Ginsberg didn’t actually understand the Buddhism he claimed to adhere to when he lived in Boulder, which is where I met him.The Beats were corrupted by money and fame, like everything else in the United States.

#27 Comment By connecticut farmer On February 16, 2018 @ 10:10 am

@Thrice a Viking

Kerouac didn’t think much of The Sixties crowd as I understand it.

#28 Comment By Blackstorme On February 18, 2018 @ 2:03 am

[2]

#29 Comment By John Miller On February 18, 2018 @ 12:33 pm

There is no mention of Gary Snyder, a major character in Dharma Bums and Buddhist. The previous comments all seem to have a personal point of view.
Most of which, with the exception of Jean-Claude, don’t seem to advance our understanding. Kerouac’s best writing all present a spiritual aspect. On the Road, the early short stories are all searching for god. Clearer sight. Don’t think he ever found it.

#30 Comment By Dr Ketzer On February 19, 2018 @ 6:12 pm

Interesting, that Kerouac considered St. Francis and Buddha the greatest men who ever lived. One would expect “Jesus and St. Francis”, or “Jesus and Buddha”.

#31 Comment By J Barone On March 2, 2018 @ 4:10 pm

In my later years I am beginning to read Kerouac, The Viking Portable Kerouac. I find him to be a fine writer afflicted with the disease of alcoholism. I have known alcoholics both in recovery and out. One has to separate the disease form the talent. As a first generation American, like Kerouac, I see the same mixture of anger, patriotism, and religious feeling in myself and my fellow Italian Americans as I see in this Franco American son of the working class. We don’t fit in that easily either Left or Right.