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The Beat Goes On
The timeless appeal of "On The Road"
Last year saw the 50th anniversary of On The Road, Jack Kerouac's seminal novel of sex and jazz in the American bohemian underground, celebrated with a re-release of the book in its original form, complete with original names. Sal Paradise is named, as was intended, Jack; Dean Moriarty is given his original title of NealCassady ; and Carlo Marx reverts back to being plain old Allen Ginsberg. The writer was apparently pained to have to change the names in the first place, but with tales of homosexuality, communism and recreational drug use, his choice was obvious: change or be sued into oblivion.
On The Road is the epic novel often credited as igniting the counterculture revolution of the 1960's. It is a novel about hitch-hiking, drugs, personal discovery, freedom and jazz, endlessly lusting and enthusiastic, buzzing with the energy and sheer, simple-bodied joy of being alive. In the documentary No Direction Home, Bob Dylan reports that without Kerouac there "would have been no Bob Dylan."
What always strikes me is just how well the book has aged. Images of long-haired hippies in the EMI/Levis-sponsored 'Summer of Love'© look like they have been dropped from another planet. People dancing around in glorious nudity while proclaiming their connection with mother nature look desperate and naive to a 21st century audience. Harmless but laughable. On The Road continues to be passed around university dorms and colleges, inspiring the young and the searching all over the world. In fact, I am continually shocked at how many people from Generation Y name the book as one of their favorites of their collection. This leads me to ask the all important question: Just what is in this half century-old text that continues to inspire the youth of today?
Above all else, On The Road is a book about breaking new frontiers. Whether they are geographical (hitch-hiking or jumping a freight train around the states), political (subversive chats about Marx and communism), sexual (the infamous homosexual undertones of the characters), or personal (drug use and revolutionary lifestyle choices), new frontiers are forged throughout. Early on in On The Road Kerouac writes:
I was always half way across America, at the dividing line between the East of my youth and the West of my future, and maybe that's why it happened right there and then, that strange afternoon.
The passage beautifully illustrates the link between geographic freedom and the mental changes he was experiencing. The reader is left with little doubt that travelling and breaking down boundaries is paramount to personal development and discovery. Today, the frontiers are being pushed back with an even greater force than in Post-War America. Kids in the 50's hitch-hiked to California, but today they book cheap flights and gap year trips out to Ecuador or South East Asia. Once they sipped espresso in bars in New York; now they gulp down tea in India, revel in the sake bars of Tokyo, or watch the sun set in Bali.
Even so, a modern reader can still find the vigor and enthusiasm of On The Road inspirational, and use it to apply to their own travels and search for adventure and experience. More people than ever are taking carer gaps or year 'offs' in order to satisfy their more bohemian, wanderlust sides. Jack would have been proud.
The Internet is also very much a major new frontier in which to explore. The world has changed so much in the last 15 years that there are now almost unlimited opportunities for people to get out and discover or group together into communities. People can find like-minded contemporaries on websites and message boards, sharing ideas and forging bonds without having to leave the house. Just as in Kerouac's day, the major changes happen in a way that the old generation have difficulty following. We are witnessing a generation of Internet 'natives' while we will always remain migrants. The feeling that the world belongs to the young is displayed in this quote:
Then everybody began planning a tremendous trek into the mountains...Dean wouldn't even sit down. "I have a thousand things to do, in fact, hardly any time to take you downCarmargo, but let's go, man."
"Wait for my buddy Eddie."
Major found our hurrying troubles amusing. He'd come to Denver to write leisurely. He treated Dean with extreme difference. Dean paid no attention. Major talked to Dean like this: "Moriarty, what's this I hear about you sleeping with three girls at the same time?" And Dean shuffled on the rug and said, "Oh yes, oh yes, that's the way it goes."
Maybe that is the endearing quality of the book. The fact that at the right time in each person's life they truly believe that they are experiencing something that older people couldn't possibly understand. The great awakening that we all believe is so powerful that we must be the first people to go through it. Each generation will have its epiphany and that is why people still connect to On The Road fifty years on. It is not the manner of the breakthrough, but the epiphany itself that people relate to.
Just as Kerouac had the pressure of the Cold War, so we have our own dubious war on terror. In both cases the real day-to-day effect on the individual was not the treat of exterior enemies, but the threat that arose from the ideas of the people around them. It was no longer a war to be fought in trenches in distant lands, but a war of ideas that could begin at any stage in any place. McCarthyism in America (contemporaneous with the period of time chronicled in On The Road) asked citizens to spy on each other and report anyone suspected of turning "red" (as though a political belief could infect a person, take them over and completely change them like a disease); today we are asked to be on the look out for potential "radicalization." At what point we are supposed to think that the beliefs of a person on the bus becomes a danger to us is still unknown, but the perceived threat of ideas is still very much with us. The potential for doom is still all around us, and there is very much a feeling in the air that we need to somehow escape.
When describing having to punish people when he worked as a security guard, Kerouac wrote:
We went to the offending room, and Sledge opened the door and told everybody to file out. It was embarrassing. Every single one of us was blushing. This is the story of America.Everybody's doing what they think they're supposed to do.
People were in compliance, with a general fear of being somehow cast out, or offending the system. This was the system that Kerouac was rebelling against, a system of blind conformity people were willing to attach themselves to in order to fit into the seemingly rigid expectation of living a free life. On The Road
In reaction to the Cold War, the American government issued a number of laws which restricted the rights of the individual in the name of national interest. Today to "keep us safe" we are being asked to give up any number of civil liberties, including the right to freedom of speech, detention without charge, the right to privacy, etc.
Kerouac's writings were a direct reaction to similar impositions on his right to live as a free and happy person. He hated the control that the government (or at least society) could have on him, and flatly refused to give into their demands.
On The Road remains a record of living free and unrestrained. The lines
Yes it was agreed; we were going to do everything we had never done and been too silly to do in the past
Yesterday nothing happened, but today everything happened!
gloriously highlight the devil-may-care good-natured high spirits which made the Beats such appealing literary heroes. On The Road is a shining example of how a life could be lived if a person ignores the infringements imposed on society. The infringements enforced merely through the threat of not fitting in. It is a novel which questions wholeheartedly why people fall into line without first questioning the rationale behind the rules.
Just as Kerouac's book helped ignite a counterculture revolution in the 1950's, today it is being held up by a new generation of young people who feel that somehow everything is just, well, wrong. The feeling that we have lost our way and have become blinded with fear and conformity and have lost what was and could again be sacred. We are being sold a life of work and purchase, and it is one that ads will continue to tell us is good and right (but completely unattainable).
At the same time, there is a countervailing feeling in the air that this just will not suffice. On The Road highlighted the way out for a whole generation of young Americans, and half a century on seems to be relevant to a new generation of disenchanted youth.
put a feeling in the air that nobody really knew the rules anymore, or at very least nobody believed them to be all-encompassing and unquestioningly true.