The Dharma Bums and the Revolution of American Freedom
The Dharma Bums, by Jack Kerouac, offers a counterargument to the age-old American dream of expansion and possession. This distorted American dream caused the obsessions with having “things,” popularity and prestige, and extravagances. During the 1950s, amid the post-World War II economic boom, conformity and compliance were at the forefront of Americans’’ minds. The threat of communist ties riddling the American institutions and populations promoted an emphasis on allegiances marked by common living practices, beliefs, and aspirations. America seemed on track to become a “middle-class nation” of financial stability and an adherence to the institutions set forth by the government, economy, and American people. From this aspiration of security, came a misattributed linking of American freedom to ownership. For example, technology, while geared at alleviating the time-based labors of the middle class, eventually imposed a dependence of the American population on the economic and security institutions set forth by this technological expansion. Kerouac’s awareness of the cyclical entrapment Americans faced (technology meant to provide freedom required money, which required a submission of the self into the Western economy, which heightened the desires for other technology, and so on and so on) drove his ambitions to redefine the externally proposed idea of American freedom and ambition and return freedom to an internal state, rather than an external ambition.
The framework for the distortion of freedom in America was a largely pre-established concept. For example, the story of America’s westward expansion in the 1800s simultaneously extoled the expansion as an expression of American courage and growth yet also condemned the infringement on the existing environmental and communities that existed there before—what began as a valent exploration of the world, easily slipped into a conquest driven by money and self-interested proprietary gains. A nation of selfish expansion shrouded by “good intentions” was an inherent quality of the freedom that Americans sought for and defended after.
Thus, Kerouac counters this with the image of a new ultimate American freedom: the freedom to redefine what American “freedom” is, what it looks like, what forms it presents itself in. In this way, Kerouac offers the ability to have ambitions other than prosperity, wealth, and consumption. Kerouac argues against the institutionalized economic freedom for one led by a “rucksack revolution.” Japhy Ryder, an icon of said “rucksack revolution” claims that to seek the archetypal American dream is to “subscribe to the general demand they consume production and therefore have to work for the privilege of consuming” (Kerouac 73). Dharma Bums creates the process by which a person can break out of that cyclical relationship of the pursuit of “Freedom” and submission to dependence and, instead, pursue a “truer” freedom. Kerouac finds the true American ideal to be one of introspection based on self-reliance, lonely individuality, and integration into the world outside of humankind. However, Kerouac complicates his encountering of a perfect freedom with the questioning of whether freedom is the most important American “good.”
As Kerouac seeks to elude the falsified American freedom of expansion and possession, he finds the duality in that pursuing a freedom is inherently sacrificing that freedom at the same time. He discovers the egotistical nature of freedom throughout Dharma Bums and reshapes his notion of freedom and his notion of ultimate good to be separate entities. He uses the distortion of American freedom from an internal obtainment to an external obtainment as a glimpse into the drawbacks of his quest for Buddhist freedom, eventually finding a more theistic notion of the universal self.
Within Dharma Bums, Kerouac explores the nature of an icon of American freedom as he creates in Japhy Ryder the semblance of the “American free man.” His cowboy-like self-reliance and lone hero-like freedom from social constructs of sexuality and materialism become Kerouac’s antithesis of 1950s American ambition. Because Ray, however, still finds flaw with Japhy and pursues his own nuanced Buddhism, Kerouac begins developing the concept of non-adherence as freedom and invokes the image of revolution to offer an intentionality to the act of redefining freedom.
Revolution is one of the values most central to American freedom and patriotism. The power to claim ownership over that which rules and invoke an institutional change based on individual values is the essence America itself was born from. Kerouac, powered by this most core freedom, invokes the image of a rucksack revolution: “thousands or even millions of young Americans wandering around with rucksacks, going up to mountains to pray, making children laugh and old men glad…and also by strange unexpected acts keep giving visions of eternal freedom…” (74). Kerouac imagines the unification of dissent, companionship in isolation Rebellion often alludes to a feeling of isolation because it is a countering to the masses and therefore a personal decision to become the smaller body. However, in cultivating an image of a bigger fight, rebellion becomes not about setting oneself apart, but about setting oneself apart into a group of enlightened people. This invokes Section III of The Diamond Sutra, “…no Bodhisattva who is a real Bodhisattva cherishes the idea of an ego-entity, a personality, a being, or a separated individuality” (Price 26). Kerouac’s revolution becomes about unity in individuality, the unique coming together to be the same in each’s inherent peculiarities, perhaps alluding to Kerouac’s later significance surrounding his relationships. Kerouac’s revolution becomes one of faith in egolessness of his own endeavor, and therefore allegiance becomes a layer of Kerouac’s redefined American freedom. Kerouac imagines a freedom in allegiance to a non-existent being rather than to the existent beings, the humans around us, that we have learned are the objects of our allegiances. However, within the schema of revolution, Kerouac thus creates the layering of potential freedoms. After Kerouac defines what it is these rucksack revolutionaries are working towards—this new community—he lays out how self-reliance, lonely individuality, and communication with the Universe allow a person to join the movement of new Freedom.
Japhy is the manifestation of Kerouac’s first step of new American freedom: self-reliance. Japhy teaches Ray Smith, Kerouac’s stand-in, the fundamentals of existing. Japhy teaches Smith how to use chopsticks, how to be a “Dharma Bum,” how to cook, how to hike. Japhy becomes a conduit of this freedom and Ray praises that in his testimony: “Japhy I’m glad I met you. I’m gonna learn all about how to pack rucksacks and what to do and hide in these mountains when I’m sick of civilization. In fact, I’m grateful I met you” (Kerouac 41). Self-reliance is part of Ray’s efforts to be uncompromised of the necessity to rely on others by comprising the self with a reliance on the same self. Ray speaks of “easy purity” and the re-aligning with the basic world, demonstrating Ray’s search to regain that self-reliance that is unaffected by exterior beings (Kerouac 91). He seeks to become someone who owns the self and is not dependent on America’s economic structure to experience self-security. Rather than being reliant on the American financial constructs of credit or social constructs of sexuality or even technology based food preservation and preparation, Kerouac offers a self-reliance of individual education, nomadic lifestyles, more fundamental food preparation.
While Japhy’s position as teacher is crucial to the cultivation of Ray’s self-reliance, it’s only the first step. Until Ray has the self-reliance to teach himself, he does not fully have this freedom. Ray finds this clarity descending from the Matterhorn climb: “while I followed his every step but then I learned it was better for me to just spontaneously pick my own boulders and make a ragged dance of my own” (Kerouac 48). In this way, Ray becomes the student of his own self. Yet, Kerouac complicates the notion by creating the structure of finding one’s own way by means of abandoning someone else’s. Because so much of the American dream is bottom up, the self-made man from the position of no authority who climbs his way to become a business owner or manager or so on, Kerouac’s assertion of just a “bum” capable of that position of self-leadership drives his counterargument to the American freedom. This is why Japhy does not become a romanticized icon of Kerouac’s American freedom. Kerouac essentially puts forth a concept of a manifestation of inner freedom in self-reliance. Kerouac, however, confounds this reliance by again submitting Ray to another teacher: the world itself. In Ray’s departure from Desolation Peak, he acknowledges the role of the mountain as mentor: “Desolation, Desolation, I owe so much to Desolation, thank you forever for guiding me to the place where I learned all” (Kerouac 186). Thus, Kerouac complicates his freedom of counterargument by creating the surrendering of the self and egolessness as a more Buddhist type of self-reliance. Self-reliance becomes not just about knowing what the self knows, but knowing what it doesn’t. And in the process of recognizing the lack of held knowledge, a certain amount of self-reliance comes from the cultivation of intellectual relations, as Kerouac shows in the dynamic between Japhy and Ray. Self-reliance then includes dependence
This freedom of self-reliance is partnered with another facet of Kerouac’s version of American freedom: the “lonely individuality” that Japhy originally proposes (17). Japhy is entangled in this freedom as his radical individuality sets him alone in his endeavors. Within the scene on Matterhorn, Japhy, with “lonely solemnity,” sets for the peak (Kerouac 62). Kerouac later makes it a point the individuality of the three hikers on the expedition: Japhy reaches the peak, Morley blissfully stays below, and Ray clings to the mountain a little ways from the peak. The celebration of this loneliness is one of the fundamental reconstructions of the American freedom Kerouac executes: the freedom to seek one’s own bliss. Loneliness, awareness of the void-like existence is a savory concept that he declares in absolution: “I had never had a happier moment in my life than those lonely moments coming down” (Kerouac 66). Kerouac expresses a notion of togetherness in knowing without the validation of explicit expression of what such universal knowledge is.
Part of what drives the loneliness Kerouac refers to is the loss of Ray’s ability to communicate in the conventional ways. A constant point of frustration is Ray’s lack of words to express his sentiments, and even more so, Japhy’s disinterest at Ray’s words, declaring, “I don’t wanta hear all your word descriptions of words words words you made up all winter, man I wanta be enlightened by actions” (Kerouac 128). Kerouac must realize the inessentially of such conventional communication. This especially targets the current American ideal of sharability—legitimacy comes from communication of ideas: science must be repeatable; no concept is legitimate until it can be made tangible on a paper. While this is a current rather than 1950s notion, the presence of the ideal is perhaps a consequential occurrence based on the lack of a “rucksack revolution,” according to Kerouac’s approach. In some ways, this is to cope with a lonely individuality that Americans are taught to flee from—in fear of the stigmas against the “loner.” Kerouac fights this by denying an attribution of strength to isolated language units. He highlights the power of Japhy’s yodel, or his “secret self-sigh,” or a “silent telepathy” (Kerouac 38, 46). In devaluing the power of a word, Kerouac’s Han-Shan like belief that meaning is leant by the heart of the self, therefore isolates every individual. Individuality is lonely, and embracing that lonesomeness is embracing the individuality (carefully different from embracing the individual), which is a unifying freedom itself and a freedom that drives Kerouac’s counterargument.
Least foundational to Kerouac’s ideal of American freedom, and therefore the most radical and epitomic and most fleeting term he asserts, is a knowing harmony with the world, a surrender of the self as a member of humankind and an absorption as to a unit of the world. Kerouac does so by creating communes between Ray and nature. Ray, in his isolation, finds the presence of relations with nature and therefore the inescapability of an expression of self, relative to the world around him. “The woods received [him] well;” the “pines talk;” Ray can “feel the cold sighing earth;” “the innumerable world in the milky way, words;” (Kerouac 103, 111, 129, 182). Kerouac calls for a redefinition of community, of inclusion of the world greater than the self, greater than the peer, in fact, irrelevant of the peer. In Dharma Bums, this culminates in his farewell to Desolation Peak.
“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. (Kerouac 187)
Perhaps the most significant of Kerouac’s statements on his dream of American freedom is this instability he conveys here. What this suggest is that he finds this ultimate truth of freedom, what appears to be a vacancy in his words, with respect to his sentiments, and the power in the unsaid seems to be the epitome of the void, of the Perfection of Wisdom, of a deafening silence Ray seemingly always hears. And yet, Ray simultaneously ends by admitting his immediate descent back to “this world.” Ray’s freedom, synonymous with Kerouac’s, provides a trope that redefines the American community and admits unity as being short-lasting. Nonetheless, this event serves as a culmination of his depictions of American freedom, it was a trip of self-reliance, of sitting with the self, communing with nature, being a lonely individual, and the glimpse of clarity he has in this moment is enough to fuel the rucksack revolution he dreams of.
Kerouac’s Dharma Bums is a call to arms for the rucksack revolution. It’s a novel of inspiration in which Kerouac creates Ray, an ultimate loner, but a loner who seeks compassion and kindness, lonely companionship, and happiness. Kerouac’s attempts to reconcile the two notions of allegiance in revolution and the loneliness of self-reliance and personal freedom. However, this seems like Kerouac’s attempt to work past how truly attached he is to a larger good, the good of love in his relationships with companions significant (Japhy) and relatively insignificant (the mouse he pities in Desolation Angels). Although, Ray is an unreliable and hypocritical narrator. He asserts his own Buddhahood, sainthood, and enlightenment; he thinks. Ray, therefore, becomes a character invoking sympathy. He complicates his message as he hides from things he should be working through. Ray Smith becomes smaller, less of a gleaning icon of redefining America, like the way Kerouac romanticizes Japhy to be “the great new hero of American culture” (23). Instead, it is in Ray’s lack of status as “icon,” that Kerouac becomes an avatar of individualism and freedom. Ray’s navigation of the world in which he does not romanticize the self, but instead sees icons of Freedom, such as Japhy or Morley around him, then opens his role as avatar of freedom. Ray becomes the freedom to be solely the self that he is and not strive for an idealistic existence.
Kerouac is a speck leading many specks. He gives strength and meaning to the loneliness and even further argues for that littleness of self, the realization of the insignificance of individual with the timelessness, perpetual, greater existence. While at first Kerouac’s new freedom seemed to be weak, he legitimizes it the most in Dharma Bums by ending on the idea of returning to where he began. So, while Ray Smith may speak of his complete and perfect sainthood and declare himself a “perfect Dharma Bum,” he ultimately admits to the nature of the quest for Buddhahood which is glimpses of clarity that are gone the second they are touched (Kerouac 2). Thus, Kerouac’s version of the American dream is an American dream of failure, of quitting, of exiting the system, and he then provides Ray Smith as an avatar of the new way: the rucksack revolution.
- Kerouac, Jack. The Dharma Bums. London: Penguin Book, 2006. Print.
- Price, A. F., and Wong Mou-Lam. The Diamond Sutra and the Sutra of Hui-Neng. Boston: Shambhala, 2005. Print.