I WANTED TO KNOW WHAT 'IT' MEANT: JACK KEROUAC'S SEARCH FOR LIFE ON THE ROAD
“The writers of the first post-war period were writers of condemnation and of violence; the writers of this post-war period are born in a world that has already been denounced and sentenced to death, they try to put together the pieces of a splintered society: […] this is their purpose in life”. So Fernanda Pivano (384-85) defines the beat authors, writers and poets who emerged between the mid-40s and the mid-60s with a frantic writing often accompanied by an extreme lifestyle. One of the main spokesmen of the Beat Movement is undoubtedly Jack Kerouac, chosen by the younger generation as its main interpreter after the publication of On the Road, which sums up his years of restless wanderings through the United States and Mexico and depicts the way of living he chose. Kerouac’s breathless run towards a non-identifiable destination, entwined with alcohol, drugs and sexual promiscuity and recounted in On the Road has sometimes been seen as an escape or a self-contradictory way to avoid reality, but is in truth an authentic and spiritual search in life and for life.
Sal Paradise and Dean Moriarty, literary names for Jack Kerouac and Neal Cassady, embrace a restless life on the road to look for identity and authenticity. To accomplish this, they search the raw essence of reality where life can still keep its genuineness: among the people who have been marginalized from society, in hostile nature, in themselves. The physical road is idolized and transformed into the path that must be undertaken in the quest for truth and, for this reason, it has no set destination, as Dean points out throughout the book: “What’s your road, man? – holyboy road, madman road, rainbow road, guppy road, any road. It’s an anywhere road for anybody anyhow” (295). There is also something imperative and ineluctable in Sal and Dean’s quest: they have no other choice but to embrace it, embark on the road and never look back. This is maybe their most representative conversation: “‘Sal, we gotta go and never stop going till we get there.’ ‘Where we going, man?’ ‘I don’t know but we gotta go’” (279).
As Steve Wilson explains, to look for authenticity, Jack and Neal reject the accepted values of conformity and security craved by the shaken post-war American society because they believe them to be artificial (302-03). “The life of the outsider”, he argues, “was for them the last place where authenticity survived in the manufactured world of America” (303). Thus, Kerouac’s life interlaces with the lives of those who dwell beyond the borders of civilized society, including criminals, beggars and migrants as Terry, the Mexican cotton-field worker he has a relationship with. Kerouac does more than simply try to understand these people: he “[attempts] to become them for a time” (Wilson 303), as he does when he chooses to work for some months in a cotton field with Terry, experiencing the difficulties and harshness of her daily routine. On the other hand, it could be argued that the lifestyle that accompanies many beat authors during their search is indicative of a will to evade reality, as Cristina Felea does, stating that “activities such as sex, use of drugs and alcohol to more radical forms such as criminality” are “escape fantasies” (10). However, for the beat writers drugs and alcohol should be seen, rather than like means of escape, like means to stimulate their individuality and to free themselves from external influence and also from internal restraints. For these authors, the “derangement of the senses”, as defined by Kerouac in an article published in 1958 in the Esquire Magazine, often serves the purpose of achieving a wider insight and honesty with oneself, as some episodes recounted in On the Road illustrate. Examples of these attempts are Carlo and Dean’s drug-driven nights of talks, which aim at sincere and immediate expression, as Carlo explains: “We’re trying to communicate with absolute honesty and absolute completeness everything on our minds. We’ve had to take Benzedrine” (50).
Furthermore, Kerouac’s quest to find meaning and truth in life is mainly of a spiritual nature. In their wanderings, Sal and Dean look for “IT”, a moment of epiphany which allows them to live in the core of reality in an instant which goes beyond time’s linearity, defined by Steve Wilson as the “essence of human existence: to be in the moment and living without the need for what John Keats called ‘reaching irritably after facts and reason’ (831)” (306). To underline the mystic and almost religious nature of their search and lifestyle, then, throughout the story Kerouac compares Dean’s frantic and fervent figure to a holy man, or a man who is heading towards holiness, and even an angel: he is a “burning shuttering frightful Angel” (304), the “holy fool” and “BEAT – the root, the soul of Beatific” (226-27). It is also true that, as Paul Caddel argues, “in a supposed quest for spiritual fulfilment, [Sal and Dean] materially consume at every turn: […] Dean sleeps with as many women as he can; all characters consume alcohol and drugs in their quest for ‘IT’” (1-2). However, there is no real contradiction in this, as Kerouac and the beat authors have no set of pre-defined values that they violate: the material intertwines and mixes with the spiritual, serves its purpose. As Pivano states, their purpose can be identified in a secret rebirth of the human personality, a search to be filled with diverse experiences in an attempt to reach spiritual knowledge and wisdom (385). The room for contradiction is then integral to the nature of Sal and Dean’s search, which is free and non-limited as it begins with a tabula rasa.
In conclusion, Kerouac’s lifestyle and wanderings recounted in On the Road, although sometimes restlessly brought to the extreme, are the expression of a metaphysical search in life. The rejection of the values of the American post-war mainstream culture brought the beat authors to look for authenticity beyond the borders of what was considered to be civilized society and for deeper meaning and spiritual truth. Rather than ways to escape reality, then, their choices are devoted to a search of “IT”, the sense of existence, in a society that had been shattered by a second world war and in which, for the more sensitive, “the valueless abyss of modern life [was] unbearable”, as Clellon Holmes explains in an article published in 1952 in the New York Time Magazine. Kerouac’s answer to the journalist who asked him what the people of the so-defined beat generation were looking for should come then as no surprise: “God. I want God to show me his face” (Pivano 386).