The Greeks got it wrong: Jack Kerouac’s On the Road – I

On the Road. Kerouac’s great travel memoir. The book that came to define the Beat generation. Of hitch-hiking across the length and breadth of America without a plan, destination or money; of jazz, alcohol and sex-fueled nights, of weary, grey dawns hunting for the next meal in some decrepit old town, of never-ending car rides into blazing sunsets, of everlasting day-and-night long conversations about life, philosophy and nothing at all, behind the wheel of a car, by a railroad track, or in a dingy hotel room. Disjointed, fractured, almost incoherent at times – and yet, that is not all there is to On the Road.

The heart of the book, and indeed the key to understanding what Kerouac is trying to do with it, I think, lies in the following paragraph:

As in a dream, we were zooming back through sleeping Washington and back in the Virginia wilds, crossing the Appomattox River at daybreak, pulling up at my brother’s door at 8 AM. And all this time Dean was tremendously excited about everything he saw, everything he talked about, every detail of every moment that passed. He was out of his mind with real belief. ‘And of course now no one can tell us that there is no God. We’ve passed through all forms. You remember, Sal, when I first came to New York and I wanted Chad King to teach me about Nietzsche. You see how long ago? Everything is fine, God exists, we know time. Everything since the Greeks has been predicted wrong. You can’t make geometry and geometrical systems of thinking. It’s all this! He wrapped his finger in his fist; the car hugged the line straight and true.

This is a fascinating bit of writing, for a number of reasons, but I particularly want to focus on the emphasised lines. The reference to geometry is both intriguing and telling: ever since Pythagoras discovered that the intervals between musical notes can be expressed in numerical terms (ratios), geometry, art and beauty have been inextricably linked in Greek – and following upon them, the European – philosophical and aesthetic tradition. Harmony, balance, proportion, order – these, for Plato and Aristotle, were the fundamental determinants of beauty (Aristotle notoriously – and hilariously – said once that the male body was inherently more beautiful than the female, because it was more clearly differentiated into distinct parts, and therefore subject to the laws of proportion to a greater degree). And these ideas are seen predominantly in Greek sculpture, in the emphasis on metre in Greek lyric poetry, and of course in Greek music. The classical themes were taken up again in the Renaissance: for Leonardo da Vinci, for example – as seen here – the most ideally-proportioned, and thereby most beautiful human body (the “Vitruvian man”, taken from the Roman architect Vitruvius) was once that could – with arms and legs outstretched, fit precisely within a perfect circle and a perfect square. In other words, since the time of the Greeks, through the Enlightenment and beyond, beauty has come to be linked with a set of ideas rooted in geometry, ideas of balance, proportion and harmony.

And it is in this context that Kerouac’s comment about the Greeks becomes so meaningful. Everything since the Greeks has been predicted wrong, he says, because geometrical systems of thinking are fundamentally flawed. On the Road, then, is not just a travel memoir, a series of successive “kicks” from travel and all its accompaniments; it is Kerouac’s aesthetic manifesto that he sets up in opposition to the dominant idea of beauty-as-geometrical-harmony. This is why On the Road arrives out of nowhere and goes nowhere. That is why if you look for structure, for symmetry, for a narrative with a categorical beginning, a clear ending and internal consistency throughout, you will be disappointed. There is no method to the madness. And that is precisely the point. Beauty, Kerouac shows us, can spring out of confusion, chaos, disorder, discordance, dissonance. The kind of beauty that Kerouac is interested in is the one practiced and preached by Dean Moriarty and Carlo Marx, a fervid, fervent, wild and rarely – if ever – reflective journey of discovery that excludes nothing, has no predetermined end-point or goal, and makes itself up as it goes along.

They [Dean and Carlo] rushed down the street together, digging everything in the early way they had, which later became so much sadder and perceptive and blank. But then they danced down the streets like dingledodies, and I shambled after as I’ve been doing all my life after people who interest me, because the only people for me are the mad ones, the ones who are mad to live, mad to talk, mad to be saved, desirous of everything at the same time, the ones who never yawn or say a commonplace thing, but burn, burn, burn like fabulous yellow roman candles exploding like spiders across the stars and in the middle you see the blue centrelight pop and everybody goes ‘Awww!’ What did they call such young people in Goethe’s Germany?

The particularly interesting thing in this passage, I think, is the contrast set up at the beginning of the paragraph between Dean/Carlo then and now. They later became perceptive, he says. And what, indeed, is being perceptive but to be able to spot patterns and likenesses between seemingly disparate events, circumstances and people or, in other words, to be able to impose some scheme of order upon existence – and back we arrive upon the ideas of order, balance, harmony.

One of the important components of Kerouac’s aesthetic vision is repeated emphasis upon the absence of a goal, or a destination, a rejection of closure.

There were two young boys from Columbus, Ohio, high-school football players, chewing gum, winking, singing in the breeze, and they said they were hitch-hiking around the United States for the summer. ‘We’re going to L.A.!’ they yelled.

‘What are you going to do there?”

‘Hell, we don’t know. Who cares?’

And that, indeed, pervades the book. Much later, Dean almost echoes the sentiment word for word:

“‘Sal, we gotta go and never stop going till we get there.’

‘Where we going man?’

‘I don’t know, but we gotta go.

There is no point to Sal Paradise and Dean Moriarty’s frenzied dashes across all the thousands of miles of America – but paradoxically, perhaps that is the whole point; no defined place they’re getting to but right back where they started, and nothing really to show for it. All they’re doing is “crossing and recrossing the country every year, south in the winter and north in the summer, and only because [he] had no place he could stay in without getting tired of it, and because he had nowhere to go but everywhere, keep rolling under the stars…

Indeed, not only is this the state of affairs, it seems to be an essential state of affairs if one is to actually appreciate life and the world. Kerouac makes his strongest statement to that effect when he says, shortly and bluntly: “I was having a wonderful time, and the whole world opened up before me because I had no dreams.” Dreams – dreams of something, of getting something, again, an externally created imposition upon the fabric of the world, an obstacle and a hindrance to truly experiencing it.

But, as is often the case with Kerouac, the issue is far more complicated. Having established the ideal of aimless-wandering-because-you-just-cannot-sit-still (“we were all delighted, we all realized we were leaving confusion and nonsense behind and performing our one and noble function of the time, move. And we moved!), he proceeds to systematically undermine it throughout the book. Even in the Dean-Sal dialogue quoted above, it begins with Dean saying ‘till we get there.’ (but then, there exists a ‘there’) There is a slip, at one point, where Sal tells two of his traveling companions, “I hope you get to where you’re going, and find happiness there.” A bigger slip, later, when he tells Dean and Marylou that he’d like to find a girl he can marry and have his soul grow old with, because all the ‘franticness and jumping’ can’t go on forever, because ‘we’ve got to go someplace, find something.” But perhaps most interesting is his response to Carlo Marx’s question, “there’s one last thing I want to know“, Sal comes up with this striking response:

That last thing is what you can’t get, Carlo. Nobody can get to that last thing. We keep on living in the hopes of catching it once for all.

This is a familiar theme. It is Aeneas’ ever-receding shore that flees from him even as he struggles towards it so that he can find a home at last; it is Byron lamenting man’s ability to conceive of a perfection that he knows he can never achieve; it is Shelley’s vision, “forever sought, forever lost“. And in the context of On the Road, it suggests that there is, after all, some purpose, some reason behind all that wandering (other than the inability to sit still), something that Sal and his friends are seeking for, searching for through the wandering – yet not are they unable to even know what it is, what they do know is that they will never find it. It would be simplistic, I think, to label what they’re looking for as truth, perfection, beauty, or even some variant of gnothi seuton because it isn’t something that a word or a term can capture. And Kerouac is perhaps at his eloquent best when he does have a shot at describing – or not describing – this strange sense of longing:

“… and the whole thing was hopeless, besides which Lucille would never understand me because I like too many things and get all confused and hung-up running from one falling star to another till I drop. This is the night, what it does to you. I had nothing to offer anybody except my own confusion.

And this, I think, is the tension that lies at the heart of On the Road: there is the mad, unbounded, unreflexive exuberance of Dean Moriarty zipping his way through the roads of America that exists in itself and for itself, nothing more, that needs neither apology nor justification, that is, indeed, the only way to drink life to the lees; and yet, there is the realisation that something impels this mad dash, something that “our broken civilisation” cannot provide, which is why we take to the road in the first place – only to find that no matter how hard or long we chase, it remains as elusive and out of reach as it was before we set out.

(to be contd.)



Filed under Beat Generation, Jack Kerouac

6 responses to “The Greeks got it wrong: Jack Kerouac’s On the Road – I

  1. Irpinder

    Excellent. Thanks for this window on the people of “On The Move” . Immnesely enjoyed the writing as well as the quotes from the stars on
    walking to no purpose.


  2. Very thought provoking commentary. Neat the way that you related to Aeneas’s ever-receding shore.

    My take is that there are multiple paths to beauty and self fulfillment. Harmony and balance is one path, as Kerouac’s less organized choice is another.

  3. Pingback: Friday Links: Homer and Kerouac | Stephanie Nikolopoulos

  4. Pingback: 2013: The Year in Books | anenduringromantic

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