An uncontrollable pressure relief valve for the questionably sane.

Moriarty The Mystic

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                   “I had never dreamed Dean would become a mystic.”   – Jack Kerouac, On The Road

I think things started going downhill for me after I read that line.  It’s the best I can do to remember an exact moment, but reading that particular line in On The Road might just be my ground zero.  Everything after changed, took a new course.  I read the book first in high school, and honestly didn’t really understand what all the fuss was about.  I was fifteen and desperately trying to find and read “cool” books–all the books you know your average public school English teacher loves but isn’t allowed to teach.  The stuff they read in their free time.  Books with lots of sex and cussing.  Anything subversive, although I had no idea what “subversive” meant as a fourteen-year-old.  I barely had a grasp on the mainstream so there wasn’t much to feel subversive towards.  The Beats are where most of us start, the cultural watershed moments of the pre-sixties revolutions.  The anti-suburbanites.  They seemed free, poetic, and masculine in a way that challenged conventional masculinity.  They seemed like Americans with a hefty dash of American Indian.  Burroughs and Ginsberg were queer, and supposedly the glue holding the three founding Beats together was a quiet and competitive lusting over Kerouac.  Not exactly the quintessential macho American males of the 1940s.

I’m not trying to give a synopsis of Beat culture, you can do that on your own time, and if you’re anything like me you’ll get it all squeezed in soon enough and move on to other things, reflecting on them periodically as a modern genesis for American literature that colors outside the lines.  There are more intelligent people out there breaking them down into little, analyzable, pieces.  I’m merely trying to trace back my own weirdness, I’ve often wondered when it all started, and I’m pretty sure it was with that line.  I’ve read thousands of books since, but that one line has stamped on my memory.  I remember reading the book in my bed at home, 40-watt bulb glaring on the page as I lay in rapture with what I was certain was going to be a life changing event.  Everyone cool had read this book, and I was about to be initiated.  After finishing the book I remember not feeling any different.   Some dudes on a road trip?  Big deal I thought.  I was only fifteen but had had enough angsty teenage experience to avoid being overly impressed.  Despite my internal whatevers I had never shacked up with a migrant worker in California, or driven into Mexico, or New York.  My boundaries were pretty much Gwinnett County.  But I was infatuated with the idea that Dean Moriarty was a mystic.  What exactly was a mystic? And how did he get to be one?  Over the years I’ve  re-read the book a few times, and honestly my memory doesn’t seem to hang on to it the way it does with other literature.   I read it, enjoy it in the moment, put it down, and forget it.  Only the major details and maybe a few minor ones stick out.  Everything else is kind of a blurry back-splash,  like watching the world go by through a car window.

As a teenager I never spent much time figuring out what a mystic was.  At this point in my life I think I remembered the Mystics in The Dark Crystal, the old, dwarfy, meditating ape-lizards that raised the boy-gelfling-hero.  I believe they were basically Jim Henson’s take on Buddhist monks of some sort:  the good guys, the earth bound aescetics in pursuit of spiritual enlightenment.  And honestly, that’s about as sincere an image as was necessary.  Moriarity didn’t seem anything like a monk.  But there was some similarities if you compared the two:  unconventional, life-loving, spiritual, nomadic.  A good enough comparison for me at the time.  Retrospectively, much of my adult life has been spent casually researching different “spiritual” teachers.  No flakes please!

It was more the idea that there were Mystics somewhere in the world that affected me.  Where were they?  Certainly not anywhere near my middle-class subdivision, at least not that I could see.  Bringing this kind of stuff up only got a room full of rolling eyes from the adults I knew.  They knew I’d eventually grow up and get a job and stop thinking about all this fantastic garbage.  But I haven’t.  Not for a second.  I’ve met a lot of quacks, but mystics are few and far between.  It wasn’t until I was much older that I had any idea what Kerouac was talking about.  Dean wasn’t a monk, or a messiah, or a religious anything;  he was intoxicated on life.  And many, many other substances certainly, most notably benzedrine, which ultimately caused the real-life Moriarity, Neal Cassady, to die at forty-two while wandering on some railroad tracks in Mexico.  But drugs are not the issue here, they’re merely a small component of the larger idea.  Dean represented freedom, and the idea of individual liberty and the American road were forever merged.  The idea existed before, but popular (maybe “underground” would be more appropriate, but it’s mainstream now, right?)  culture now had an accessible anti-hero based on a real person.  All the names were changed in the book, and it was technically a work of fiction, but it was close enough to reality that it drastically affected the consciousness of the reading public.

So here was this dude, just this regular guy who was broke, unethical, jobless, and nomadic.  “Bum” comes to mind, but instead he’s labeled a  “mystic” by a successful writer.  He knew something, had something figured out, or maybe he just didn’t care.  And contemplating this throughout the course of my life has caused me a lot of heartache.  Never quite being able to figure out which circle I’m supposed to dance in.  One foot in, one foot out, trying to make a rythym between the two and failing miserably.  Knowing there are mystics out there but never being able to find them.  Or be them.  Maybe the mystic is in me. It’s certainly in there somewhere, but he’s all chained up and I lost the key. So how do I release him?


Written by billlobe

July 14, 2011 at 5:10 pm

One Response

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  1. Thanks for sharing, Bill. On the Road, what a truly epic dirty little piece of banged-out literary history. It resonated with me too. It does in new ways, every time I read it.

    Rather than write my own page-long narrative, I’ll make two comments and then move on.

    1) I think I’ll share my own favorite passage. I copied it down and tucked it under the glass on my desk at home years and years ago. Every time I read it, it soothes me, while lighting or stoking that fire deep within. Here it is: “They have worries, they’re counting the miles, they’re thinking about where to sleep tonight, how much money for gas, the weather, how they’ll get there–and all the time they’ll get there anyway, you see.” It’s the rock I keep returning to for so many reasons.

    2) And speaking of stoking fires in the belly, your closing lines echoed (what I interpreted as) a similar sentiment. That mystic deep within. That pursuit of ‘the spirit’ that flirts and draws you in before disappearing. It’s that feeling. The hunt for truths. How do you release the mystic? How do you tap into the source? How do you embody what is meaningful? It’s a constant struggle; at least for me. I keep going back to the well – the books or music or art or friendships that help nurture an environment that allows that mystic to reawaken. I sincerely hope we can get together soon and pursue this hunt together, my dear friend.

    On a weird side note, the copy of On the Road I have currently is yours. I think old Joe Heithaus and you recommended it to me back at DePauw. So you loaned me your copy. It has a note from your sister to you inside the front cover. Do you have a copy at home now? We should probably swap – you need to have the copy with the note from your sis. Let’s do this.

    Doctor Burns

    July 15, 2011 at 11:03 am

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