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"People pray and recite Om Mani Pahdme Hum."
am 30. November 2014
Jack Kerouac (1922-1969) would not achieve fame until the late 1950s, when a wave of interest in the Beat Movement installed him as "King of the Beats", a title, he was very uncomfortable with. Nevertheless, he rode the epic wave that started in the 1940s metropolis on the Hudson River and its epicenter Columbia. It was overwhelmed with Eastern religions, most notably Zen Buddhism and grew in the 1950s through interaction in San Francisco, carrying the counterculture's growing fascination to California. It is best described in Kerouac's own definition how the Beat Movement was a vision "of a generation of crazy, illuminated hipsters suddenly rising and roaming America, serious, bumming and hitchhiking everywhere, ragged, beatific, beautiful in an ugly graceful new way - a vision gleaned from the way we had heard the word `beat' spoken on streetcorners on Times Square and in the Village, in other cities in the downtown city night of postwar America... We'd stay up 24 hours drinking cup after cup of black coffee, playing record after record of Lester Young, Dexter Gordon, Willie Jackson, Lennie Tristano and all the rest, talking madly about that holy new feeling out there in the streets."
Dharma Bums was published in 1958, just about one year after the trail-blazing On the Road, Kerouac's quasi-autobiographical tale, had put the Beat movement on the literary map. Dharma Bums is a comparable novel but weighs in with more substance on truth or "dharma." The protagonists are two ebullient young men - the narrator Ray Smith, based on Kerouac, and Japhy Ryder, based on the poet and essayist Gary Snyder - are engaged in a passionate search for the elusive enlightenment through dharma - a search that involves them, together or separately, in a series of free-wheeling explorations, both sacred and profane. Their major adventure is the pursuit of the Zen way, "which takes them climbing into the high Sierras to seek the experience of solitude" Kerouac's account of the climb is a spectacular foray into nature writing and bull's eye prophecy - a forecast of the 1960s cultural revolution: "millions of young Americans wandering around...giving visions of eternal freedom to everybody..." The role he saw for himself as a dharma bum was derived from the Diamond Sutra, which held that "Great Being of Enlightenment, in teaching the Verity to others, should first free themselves from all exquisite of disgusting tastes." An experience that was hard to lecture in the pagan netherlands of San Francisco's Bohemia with its grandiose wine-drinking carnival, poetry jam sessions, experiments in Yab-Yum, and similar non-ascetic pastimes. But through it all the two young men remain devoted to their search as Truth Bums, and when we finally take leave of them, each has caught sight of his goal and is on the road to it.
Though Kerouac himself viewed Dharma Bums as hackwork, yet without reverting to traditional fictional technique, he succeeded in molding and shaping his material into a dramatic and coherent narrative that conveyed his themes with power and precision, yet retained his trademark stream of consciousness and jazzy, hopped-up rhythm. Those who regard Kerouac's style outdated should take into account that the New York Times wrote as late as 1998, they should not be surprised that he is once again in vogue among young readers. Kerouac's gallery of Beat prototypes, also included contemporary actors like Montgomery Clift, or Marlon Brando, also hard-boiled private eye types like Humphrey Bogart had an honored place, as did Peter Lorre.