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Jack Kerouac on Kindness, the Self Illusion, and the “Golden Eternity”

“Practice kindness all day to everybody and you will realize you’re already in heaven now.”

In the mid-1950s, literary iconoclast and beat icon Jack Kerouac (March 12, 1922–October 21, 1969) became intensely interested in Buddhism, which began permeating his writing. It was the golden age of Eastern ideas drawing Western minds, from legendary composer John Cage to pioneering philosopher Alan Watts, credited with popularizing Zen thinking in mainstream Western society. Watts, in fact, at one point criticized Kerouac’s writing as being “always a shade too self-conscious, too subjective, and too strident to have the flavor of Zen.” But when stripped of his literary self-consciousness, as he was in his private letters, Kerouac had a special way of articulating the most beautiful and eternal concepts of Zen Buddhism with equal parts expansive awareness and crystalline precision.

Kerouac sent one such letter to his first wife, Edie Kerouac Parker, in late January of 1957, a decade after their marriage had been annulled. Found in The Portable Jack Kerouac (public library) — an altogether terrific treasure trove of his stories, poems, letters, and essays on Buddhism — the missive is nothing short of exquisite.

Portrait of Jack Kerouac by John Cohen

Kerouac writes:

I have lots of things to teach you now, in case we ever meet, concerning the message that was transmitted to me under a pine tree in North Carolina on a cold winter moonlit night. It said that Nothing Ever Happened, so don’t worry. It’s all like a dream. Everything is ecstasy, inside. We just don’t know it because of our thinking-minds. But in our true blissful essence of mind is known that everything is alright forever and forever and forever. Close your eyes, let your hands and nerve-ends drop, stop breathing for 3 seconds, listen to the silence inside the illusion of the world, and you will remember the lesson you forgot, which was taught in immense milky way soft cloud innumerable worlds long ago and not even at all. It is all one vast awakened thing. I call it the golden eternity. It is perfect.

Echoing Watts’s philosophy on death, Kerouac considers the illusion of the solid “self” as he contemplates the life and death of mountains:

We were never really born, we will never really die. It has nothing to do with the imaginary idea of a personal self, other selves, many selves everywhere: Self is only an idea, a mortal idea. That which passes into everything is one thing. It’s a dream already ended. There’s nothing to be afraid of and nothing to be glad about. I know this from staring at mountains months on end. They never show any expression, they are like empty space. Do you think the emptiness of space will ever crumble away? Mountains will crumble, but the emptiness of space, which is the one universal essence of mind, the vast awakenerhood, empty and awake, will never crumble away because it was never born.

He ends the letter with one of his free-flowing, uninhibited poems:

The world you see is just a movie in your mind.
Rocks dont see it.
Bless and sit down.
Forgive and forget.
Practice kindness all day to everybody
and you will realize you’re already
in heaven now.
That’s the story.
That’s the message.
Nobody understands it,
nobody listens, they’re
all running around like chickens with heads cut
off. I will try to teach it but it will
be in vain, s’why I’ll
end up in a shack
praying and being
cool and singing
by my woodstove
making pancakes.

More than half a century after Kerouac penned that beautiful letter, director Sergi Castella and filmmaker Hector Ferreño transformed the writer’s words into a magnificent cinematic adaptation for Dosnoventa Bikes, with a haunting, Johnny-Cashlike voiceover by James Phillips and beautifully curated music by Pink Floyd and Cash himself. As an intense lover of both bikes and literature, it makes my heart sing in multiple octaves.

The Portable Jack Kerouac offers a richer glimpse into one of modern history’s most extraordinary minds. Complement it with Kerouac’s beat tour of NYC’s nightlife and his 30 beliefs and techniques for prose and life.

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Jack Kerouac’s List of 30 Beliefs and Techniques for Writing and Life

“No fear or shame in the dignity of yr experience, language & knowledge.”

In the year of reading more and writing better, we’ve absorbed David Ogilvy’s 10 no-bullshit tips, Henry Miller’s 11 commandments, John Steinbeck’s 6 pointers, and various invaluable advice from other great writers. Now comes Jack Kerouac (March 12, 1922–October 21, 1969) — cultural icon, symbolism sage, exquisite idealist — with his 30-point list, entitled Belief and Technique for Modern Prose. With items like “No fear or shame in the dignity of yr experience, language & knowledge” and “Accept loss forever,” the list is as much a blueprint for writing as it is a meditation on life. It was eventually included in The Portable Jack Kerouac (public library) — the same treasure trove of stories, poems, letters, and essays on Buddhism that gave us Kerouac on kindness, the self illusion and the “Golden Eternity” and the crucial difference between genius and talent.

Jack Kerouac by Tom Palumbo, 1965
  1. Scribbled secret notebooks, and wild typewritten pages, for yr own joy
  2. Submissive to everything, open, listening
  3. Try never get drunk outside yr own house
  4. Be in love with yr life
  5. Something that you feel will find its own form
  6. Be crazy dumbsaint of the mind
  7. Blow as deep as you want to blow
  8. Write what you want bottomless from bottom of the mind
  9. The unspeakable visions of the individual
  10. No time for poetry but exactly what is
  11. Visionary tics shivering in the chest
  12. In tranced fixation dreaming upon object before you
  13. Remove literary, grammatical and syntactical inhibition
  14. Like Proust be an old teahead of time
  15. Telling the true story of the world in interior monolog
  16. The jewel center of interest is the eye within the eye
  17. Write in recollection and amazement for yourself
  18. Work from pithy middle eye out, swimming in language sea
  19. Accept loss forever
  20. Believe in the holy contour of life
  21. Struggle to sketch the flow that already exists intact in mind
  22. Dont think of words when you stop but to see picture better
  23. Keep track of every day the date emblazoned in yr morning
  24. No fear or shame in the dignity of yr experience, language & knowledge
  25. Write for the world to read and see yr exact pictures of it
  26. Bookmovie is the movie in words, the visual American form
  27. In praise of Character in the Bleak inhuman Loneliness
  28. Composing wild, undisciplined, pure, coming in from under, crazier the better
  29. You’re a Genius all the time
  30. Writer-Director of Earthly movies Sponsored & Angeled in Heaven

The list was allegedly tacked on the wall of Allen Ginsberg’s hotel room in North Beach a year before his iconic poem “Howl” was written — which is of little surprise, given Ginsberg readily admitted Kerouac’s influence and even noted in the dedication of Howl and Other Poems that he took the title from Kerouac.

As Charles Eames might say, “to be realistic one must always admit the influence of those who have gone before.”

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From Jack Kerouac to Ayn Rand: Iconic Writers on Symbolism, 1963

A Rorschach Test with a spine, or what the art of fluid writing has to do with salt.

In 1963 — long before Twitter, email, and even the Internet itself as we know it — a 16-year-old high school student by the name of Bruce McAllister set out to settle a dispute with his English teacher over whether symbolism existed as a conscious device authors employed in writing. So he devised a four-question mimeographed survey to probe the issue and mailed it to 150 of the era’s most notable writers, much like librarian Marguerite Hart did in the lovely Letters to the Children of Troy project. To McAllister’s surprise, he got 75 responses, ranging from the passionate to the reprimanding to the deeply philosophical. Here are some of the best. (And if the cultural demise of handwriting has rendered you incapable of reading cursive, enjoy the transcriptions in good ‘ol type.)

Symbolism arises out of action and functions best in fiction when it does so. Once a writer is conscious of the implicit symbolisms which arise in the course of a narrative, he may take advantage of them and manipulate them consciously as a further resource for his art. Symbols which are imposed upon fiction from the outside tend to leave the reader dissatisfied by making him aware that something extraneous is being added.” ~ Ralph Ellison

I never consciously place symbolism in my writing. That would be a self-conscious exercise and self-consciousness is defeating to any creative act. Better to get the subconscious to do the work for you, and get out of the way. The best symbolism is always unsuspected and natural. During a lifetime, one saves up information which collects itself around centers in the mind; these automatically become symbols on a subliminal level and need only be summoned in the heat of writing.” ~ Ray Bradbury

After all, each story is a Rorschach Test, isn’t it? and if people find beasties and bedbugs in my ink-splotches, I cannot prevent it, can I? They will insist on seeing them, anyway, and this is their privilege. Still, I wish people, quasi-intellectuals, did not try so hard to find the man under the old maid’s bed. More often than not, as we know, he simply isn’t there.” ~ Ray Bradbury

Playing around with symbols, even as a critic, can be a kind of kiddish parlor game. A little of it goes a long way. There are other things of greater value in any novel or story…humanity, character analysis, truth on other levels, etc., etc. Good symbolism should be as natural as breathing…and as unobtrusive.” ~ Ray Bradbury

This is not a ‘definition,’ it is not true — and, therefore, your questions do not make sense.” ~ Ayn Rand

Symbolism is alright in ‘Fiction’ but I tell true stories simply about what happened to people I know.” ~ Jack Kerouac

It would be better for you to do your own thinking on this sort of thing.” ~ John Updike

(Cue in Marian Bantjes’s brilliant recent advice to design students.)

Let me refer you to an article in the NYTimes book review called ‘Deep Readers of the World, Beware!’” ~ Saul Bellow

A pattern of shared sentiments begins to emerge — at its best, symbolism, like salt, is invisible and seamless; it’s organic rather than engineered; and it is, above all, the product of your own mind rather than a prescriptive recipe.

Sarah Funke Butler over at The Paris Review, who uncovered the letters, spoke with McAllister over the phone, some 48 years later — it’s worth a read.

But perhaps what this experiment bespeaks, most of all, is the timeless ambiguity of both the writer’s ego and altruism itself, a kind of binary bet — did these writers respond because they selflessly wanted to help an earnest student, or because they loved hearing themselves speak with authority about their craft, or a combination of the two? And what does our wager say about our own character’s place on the spectrum between cynicism and idealism?

via The Paris Review

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Writing Without Words: Visualizing Jack Kerouac’s On The Road

Literature as a canvas, a book as a living organism, and rhythm as a texture.

London-based artist Stefanie Posavec has a gift for words. Or for the lack thereof, to be exact. Her Writing Without Words project explores the literary world when its most important building blocks are removed by visually representing text.

The project uses Jack Kerouac’s iconic On The Road and takes a number of different approaches in dissecting its content visually. One examines “literary organism patterns” through simple tree structures that divide each of the book’s three parts into chapters, which divide into paragraphs, paragraphs into sentences, and sentences into words. All these elements are color-coded based on key themes in the book.

Another visualization technique looks at sentences, representing them by lines organized according to the number of words per sentence and color-coded to the theme.

Finally, there’s an exploration of rhythm textures — visualizing sentences by using their punctuation to create circular diagrams. Each line represents a word, with the thickness of the lines and the space between them representing the cadence, pauses and emphasis created by the punctuation.

So if you fancy yourself a fan of the written word and an advocate of visual literacy, now’s your chance to nail both — to your wall, that is: The work is available as on-demand posters here.

More about Stefanie and her work from NOTCOT.

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