Sunday, September 5, 2010

The Dharma Bums

I just finished reading Jack Kerouac's "The Dharma Bums" and really enjoyed it. The story, told in Kerouac's wandering linear style, follows a faux-sage poet, Ray Smith, through California's urban artist jungles as he pursues ultimate "enlightenment". I throw enlightenment in quotes because throughout the entire piece Smith dedicates his being to Buddhism and the principles associated with it, but really does a half-hearted job. His crowd of reformed "Buddhists" remind me of today's hipsters, putting forth this huge intellectual front to hide inner confusions and societal doubts. I think Kerouac realizes this as well because he has Smith follow this path to enlightenment which really resembles a path to self-discovery and understanding. Once you start treating the heavy Buddhist tangents as organizing vehicles for the final self-discoveries of Ray Smith, the book becomes a much simpler and a lot more meaningful in my mind.
Enough with the thick textual analysis though. What really made this book an awesome experience was Smith finding his enlightenment in a place far above the chaos and bustle of urbanity: the mountains. Perhaps this is why I enjoyed it so much, and maybe I have no clue what constitutes "good literature", but I really connected with Smith (a character based off of Kerouac). I've always had a thing for the mountains and never really been able to describe it to others that don't share my views or have yet to experience it for themselves, but I think Kerouac does the best job summing it up textually as I've ever seen. The euphoria Smith feels climbing the Sierra Nevada's Matterhorn made me feel the exhilaration of the outdoors all over again, like I was really there in the alpine meadows making my way up the final ridge towards a summit. Hiking a mountain is not always an Everest-like ordeal, and "The Dharma Bums" definitely understands that, making it relate-able to an audience. If I had to describe climbing I'd have to say it has a very tangible reward (reaching the summit), but the intangibles associated with that reward are the real reason people do it. The exhilaration and adrenaline that kick in when you realize there's no higher to go, you are the top, the highest point of the mountain that just beat you down for hours, is an immeasurable thing. It's one of the simplest joys in the world, yet it's sensually unreal. Kerouac balances these two extremes with his Buddhist-hipster Smith, as Buddhism in itself is all about simplicity, yet Smith the poet, the romanticist points out every last sensory detail in his experiences. Admittedly, I tend to be a romanticist when it comes to this kind of wild, nature, adventure stuff, but I think the book does a great job grounding a very airy, whimsical, and often fickle character with a simple love for the outdoors.
The best part of Smith's entire realization is that he understands he lives in two worlds. He doesn't try and impose his passion for climbing on the friends he has in the city, but rather enjoys them as they are and always have been. He knows that tucked into his back pocket is that love for escaping to the mountains, something that will always be with him wherever he goes. Smith still functions in his little hipster Buddhist society and doesn't separate himself after his discovery of "enlightenment". I think this is a very worthwhile approach to life. Not everyone is going to share the same passions, but that shouldn't get in the way of you having relationships with these people, on any level. If someone is interested in that same passion by all means share it openly, but don't be discouraged if they don't, they aren't taking it away from you. Smith matures in this way over the course of the book, and truly understands it after coming down from Desolation Peak. He may have his head in the clouds for much of the book, but by the end he definitely attains wisdom from the peaks above them.

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