Jack Kerouac’s The Dharma Bums: Orientalism, Consumerism and Meditation

Jack Kerouac’s The Dharma Bums is the third of his novels I’ve read so far. The first two were On the Road and The Sea is My Brother.

While removed from the chaotic, heady rush I remember as On the Road, The Dharma Bums retains Kerouac’s signature and beautiful poetry-as-prose, stream-of-consciousness musicality.

The novel opens in media res: protagonist Ray Smith (Kerouac) hops a freight out of Los Angeles, where he meets a “little bum of Saint Teresa”, who has spent years wandering around America homeless. Then Smith jumps off again at Santa Barbara, spending the night on a beach, cooking hotdogs and beans on a wood fire at the foot of a cliff. Before he nods off to sleep, he muses that there is no difference between reality and illusion. In a dreamlike prose, the introductory chapter sets the tone for the rest of the book. It introduces Smith/Kerouac as the esoteric protagonist—postured as a wide-eyed learner of the world. He is removed from society’s usual cares and responsibilities, yet is rooted to the physical earth in all its elements and to the metaphysical realm.

Orientalism vs Consumerism

The Dharma Bums introduces Kerouac’s life in California— his adventures with Japhy Ryder (Gary Snyder), who coins the phrase “Dharma Bums”, the birth of the San Francisco Poetry Renaissance (and the world’s introduction to Allen Ginsberg’s Howl) and the rose-covered cottage he shares with Allen Ginsberg (Alvah Goldbook) in the backyard of a bigger house on Milvia Street. In short, the novel is an absolute treat for fans of Beat literature.

The Personification of a Value: Japhy Ryder/ Dean Moriarty

Like On The Road, in which Dean Moriarty symbolises the road and the wild, ragged, rugged West, Japhy Ryder personifies Dharma and countercultural Orientalist Buddhism.

Japhy takes Orientalist Buddhism to the extreme. He is an obsessive minimalist—his tiny shack consists of straw mats, a few pillows and a bit of food. Hiking up a mountain, he brings but a small amount of dried goods. Towards the end of the novel, he leaves for a monastery in Japan and knowing his propensity for Oriental eccentricity, the others don’t expect him to return at all: “Maybe he’ll leave that monastery and just disappear and we’ll never see him again, and he’ll be the Han Shan ghost of the Orient mountains and even the Chinese’ll be afraid of him he’ll be so raggedy and beat”.

Orientalism vs Consumerism

Throughout the text, Orientalism, as embodied by Japhy, is postured as a juxtaposition to American uniformity and consumerism (the failure of the American dream): “Japhy was considered an eccentric around the campus, which is the usual thing for campuses and college people to think whenever a real man appears on the scene— colleges being nothing but grooming schools for the middle-class non-identity which usually finds its perfect expression on the outskirts of the campus own rows of well-to-do houses with lawns and television sets in each living room with everybody looking at the same thing and thinking the same thing at the same time while the Japhies of the world go prowling in the wilderness to hear the voice crying in the wilderness, to find the ecstasy of the stars, to find the dark mysterious secret of the origin of faceless wonder less crapulous civilisation”. Throughout the book, Kerouac consciously models his life after Japhy, living out of a rucksack, making eccentric choices just for the supposed dharma-esque quality of it, such as hitchhiking on the wrong side of the road, and always sleeping outdoors or in a sleeping bag instead of in a proper bed indoors. Kerouac’s Oriental characterisation of Japhy as the mystical response to consumerism becomes increasingly specific to that of a Chinese Oriental—specifically, Kerouac portrays him as a Chinese bum/ a Chinese hobo. Kerouac’s cultural appropriation grows looser as the novel reaches its closing swansong in the Northwestern Mountains. As if desperate to draw Japhy into his surroundings, he begins to use “Chinese” and Buddhism, as an adjective or a synonym for the unknowable, grand and ungraspable, for example, in “a Chinese fog” and in “… the clouds were distant and frilly and like ancient remote cities of Buddhaland splendour”.

In the text’s final scenes, before Kerouac descends from his solitary summer on Desolation Peak (where he worked as a fire watcher), Japhy becomes truly symbolic and metaphysical: “And suddenly it seemed I saw that unimaginable little Chinese bum standing there, in the fog, with that expressionless humour on his steamed face. It wasn’t the real-life Japhy of rucksacks and Buddhism studies and big mad parties at Corte Madera, it was the realer-than-life Japhy of my dreams”. Like On the Road, the text ends with a nostalgic amalgam of the main value it espouses with the character embodying it.

Simultaneously and somewhat ironically, Japhy is also presented as the embodiment of the quintessential pure American culture: “he’s the big hero of the West Coast… Besides all the background he has, in Oriental scholarship, Pound, taking peyote and seeing visions, his mountain-climbing and bhikkuing, wow, Japhy Ryder is a great new hero of American culture”. Kerouac does not reject American culture as a whole, only the consumerism associated with it and the mindlessness (as opposed to mindfulness) it leads to. He posits Buddhism and minimalism as not only a juxtaposition to the American culture, but as a remedy for it.

The Consumption of Oriental Culture

As much as I adore Kerouac and The Dharma Bums, I would have to be completely blind if I were to ignore the blatant Orientalism à la Edward Said permeating the text—the erroneous Western view of Eastern culture as exotic and primitive, as well as Kerouac’s classism and lack of self-awareness about it. The characters do recognise their misguided views on Eastern culture: once, Kerouac admits that “actual Orientals over there are reading surrealism and Charles Darwin and mad about western business suits”—in short, Easterners are educated and very much into Western scientific and industrial thought. Nevertheless, he and Japhy continue to ignore this truth, persisting in their Orientalism and misappropriation. Japhy completely blows over the implications of what Kerouac says, responding: “East’ll meet West anyway. Think what a great world revolution will take place when East meets West finally, and it’ll be guys like us that can start the thing. Think of the millions of guys all over the world with rucksacks on their backs tramping around the back country and hitchhiking and bringing the world down to everybody”. He first appears to admit that the East has absorbed Western culture. Yet, in the next breath, he reverts to his view of Easterners as primitive and hillbilly.

Furthermore, despite the characters’ rejection of consumerism, their obsession with oriental culture reeks of consumerism—of the way they reduce Eastern culture to a consumable commodity. Kerouac himself is clearly and comfortably middle class: his family lives in a respectable house in North Carolina. He spends the winter with them, deliberately sleeping in a sleeping bag on the porch and spending his days and nights meditating in the crystal clear winter woods instead of participating in family activities. His minimalism is therefore a lifestyle choice, not an unfortunate circumstance of poverty. This is seen again when he travels back to California after the winter ends: taking a series of unfortunate turns, he ends up in a working class neighbourhood, “a kind of forge where coloured men were all black and sweaty and covered with coal and [he] cried, ‘I’m suddenly in hell again!’ as [he] felt the blast of heat”. Ironically, for someone who preaches the benevolence and egalitarianism of Buddhism, he fails to realise his own blatant classism—likening his privileged winter woods and meditative practices to enlightenment and the discovery of benevolent love, while comparing the working class condition to “hell”. Shortly after, he runs into multiple strange drivers he does not want to deal with and ends up taking the bus back West. He has no issues simply going to the nearest bus station and buying a ticket, attesting to his actual financial capabilities. Ergo, his esoteric lifestyle choices are clearly a middle class privilege and his Orientalism a commodification of a grossly misrepresented and misappropriated culture.

Form and Meditation

The form of the text itself follows that of a meditation practice. Beyond the many depictions of Kerouac actually meditating, the entire text mimics a meditation journey as he consistently strives to reach a “Japhy-like” state of enlightenment. Taking Japhy as his “guru”, the text first takes on a meditative, stream-of-consciousness writing style when Kerouac, Japhy and Morley hike up Mount Matterhorn. Mirroring an actual meditation process, Morley symbolises the unquiet mind, the default mode network: “From the very first moment we’d met Morley he’d kept emitting sudden yodels in keeping with our venture. This was a simple ‘Yodelayhee’ but it came at the oddest moments and in oddest circumstances”. Like the human mind’s constant thinking, Morley is constantly invasive and irritating, but relatively benign. It is only when Morley leaves them for a while is Kerouac able to absorb as much as he can from Japhy: “I suddenly realised it was a kind of blessing in disguise Morley had forgotten to drain the crankcase, otherwise Japhy wouldn’t have got a word in edgewise all the blessed day and now I had the chance to hear his ideas”. From them on, the prose follows a peaceful stream-of-consciousness style form that mimics the mindfulness meditation can offer once the practitioner manages to quiet their mind. The sentences get longer; dreamier and more poetic: “Jumping from boulder to boulder and never falling, with a heavy pack, is easier than it sounds; you just can’t fall when you get into the rhythm of the dance.”; “Here now the earth was a splendorous thing—snow on the ground, in melting patches in the grass, and gurgling creeks, and the huge silent rock mountains on both sides, and a wind blowing, and the smell of heather”.

And like meditation, these increasingly immersive thoughts occasionally give way to an enlightened comment: “—’twere good enough to have been born just to die, as we all are. Something will come out of it in the Milky Ways of eternity stretching in front of all our phantom unjaundiced eyes, friends… silence is the golden mountain”.

As Kerouac refines his meditation practice, Morley’s presence in the text also decreases accordingly—the last we see of him is when he attends Japhy’s going-away party for a short while before leaving.

On a personal note

I enjoyed The Dharma Bums immensely. It is rare to find a soul so in love with the Earth, so attentive to every detail of the spectacle that is nature. The text reads slowly, yet left me with a feeling of deep satisfaction every time I put it down, reminding me of how meditation feels at times.

Tucked right at the end of the book, Kerouac’s stint on Desolation Peak is an incredible gem, should the reader persist (almost as a gift to those who love intimate descriptions of nature and discourse on enlightenment enough to persist till the end). Kerouac spends an entire summer alone on Desolation Peak in Washington State. The natural scenery here is breathtaking: pitch black jagged peaks, lakes of clouds, deer and bears, the Aurora Borealis’ nightly displays. Before he heads back to civilisation: “to the sadness of coming back to cities… all that humanity of bars and burlesque shows and gritty love”, he comes into his own enlightened revelations: that everything is hanging upside down in the void of space, and that of an incredible gratefulness, for God and for the simplest things.

Despite all its faults which I’ve engaged with critically, I personally find The Dharma Bums to be an absolute literary masterpiece. Like On the Road and all of Kerouac’s other written material that I’ve come across, reading it has left me doused in a blaze of nostalgia, longing and wonder rare in the everyday humdrum. He captures that same unutterable feeling I have when I spend an entire thirty minutes watching a sunset till its dying embers flicker away, long after everyone else has gone back inside. He puts into words the speechlessness I experienced the first time I beheld the Grand Canyon, and every time I am at the side of a lake, or before a mountain range. Through the book’s pages, you can feel Kerouac’s incredible sadness (I personally think he was severely depressed), but also his retained and incredible childlike innocence and wonder at the smallest thing— the whiff of a mint leaf, the surface of the lake, the warmth of a wood fire. Like the voice crying out in the wilderness, he leads me into the ecstasy of the stars, of the solid earth beneath my feet.

May you rest in peace forever, Jean-louis Lebris de Kerouac. May God bless your beautiful, bright burning coal of a soul.

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