Sunday, July 26, 2015

Jack Kerouac's 'On the Road' - Discussion Questions

Jack Kerouac (1922 - 1969), on the right, with Neal Cassady (1926 - 1968), on the left

He was simply a youth tremendously excited with life, and though he was a con-man, he was only conning because he wanted so much to live and to get involved with people who would otherwise pay no attention to him.
Sal Paradise has an immensely tolerant, compassionate attitude to Dean Moriarty. To what extent, if any, is this attitude altered by the end of the novel?

…I shambled after as I’ve been doing all my life after people who interest me, because the only people for me are the mad ones, the ones who are mad to live, mad to talk, mad to be saved, desirous of everything at the same time, the ones who never yawn or say a commonplace thing, but burn, burn, burn like fabulous yellow roman candles exploding like spiders across the stars and in the middle you see the blue centerlight pop and everybody goes ‘Awww!’
In comparison with his circle of friends, Sal comes across as relatively less eccentric than many of them, and appears to have a more stable family life. But he’s generally welcomed wherever he goes. Discuss his fascination with his hipster acquaintances – the effect they have on him, and the effect he might have had on them.

All my other friends were ‘intellectuals’…his criminality was not something that sulked and sneered; it was a wild yea-saying overburst of American joy; it was Western, the west wind, and ode from the Plains, something new, long prophesied, long a-coming…
The ‘other friends’ Kerouac refers to were, many of them, fellow Beat writers and poets who appear in this book under various aliases. Some of them were Colombia students that Kerouac had met when he was studying there. They were the disaffected intelligentsia who had grown disillusioned with post-war America. Yet Dean, who was based on the real-life Neal Cassady, represented something unique even to this group. Kerouac’s tone when he speaks of Moriarty has a reverential accent to it. Would you also agree that Moriarty is an American archetype – in his unrestrained pursuit of life, liberty and happiness, no matter what the cost?

There was nothing clear about the things he said, but what he meant to say was somehow made pure and clear. He used the word ‘pure’ a great deal.
Many of the things Dean Moriarty utters seem incoherent. Yet Cassady’s wife, Carolyn Cassady (Camille in the book) says that Cassady was an intellectual match for Kerouac who could hold his end of the conversation. What do you think? Is Moriarty a slightly unhinged hobo, or an inspired poet/mystic?

…we all realized we were leaving confusion and nonsense behind and performing our one and noble function of the time, move. And we moved!
Why is being on the move so vitally important to Sal and Dean? What are they looking for? Do they ever succeed in leaving confusion and nonsense behind?

…for just a moment I had reached the point of ecstasy that I always wanted to reach, which was the complete step across chronological time…
At several points in the narrative, Dean speaks ecstatically of ‘knowing time’, and Sal appears to have some transcendental experiences of his own. In Walter Isaacson’s ‘Steve Jobs’, an ex-girlfriend refers to the complicated Jobs as ‘an enlightened being who is cruel’. We see both Dean and Sal indulging in substance abuse, petty theft, promiscuity, and all manner of irresponsible and hurtful behavior. Yet, there seems to be something genuine to their spiritual quest. Is morality necessary for spiritual growth? What do you think?

I wished I were Joe…wishing I could exchange worlds with the happy, true-hearted, ecstatic Negroes of America…There was excitement and the air was filled with the vibration of really joyous life that knows nothing of disappointment and ‘white sorrows’ and all that.
‘On the Road’ was published in 1957, prior to the Civil Rights movement. Seen in that light, what is your assessment of Sal’s view of the African American experience?

Kerouac frequently alludes to jazz music in this novel. What do you think was the allure of jazz for the Beat generation?

What’s your road, man? – holyboy road, madman road, rainbow road, guppy road, any road. It’s an anywhere road for anybody, anyhow…no matter where I live, my trunk’s always sticking out from under my bed, I’m ready to leave or get thrown out. I’ve decided to leave everything out of my hands…I’m cutting along in my life as it leads me.
Neal Cassady – the inspiration for the fictional Dean Moriarty - survived an unstable childhood with an alcoholic father; experienced frequent bouts of homelessness; was a juvenile delinquent who was sent to reformatory school where he was allegedly molested by an older mentor; and, was rumored to be bisexual. Does this background information explain the elusive Moriarty any better? Does it impact your impression of him in any way?

They had come down from the back mountains and higher places to hold forth their hands for something they thought civilization could offer, and they never dreamed the sadness and the broken delusion of it. They didn’t know that a bomb had come that could crack all our bridges and road and reduce them to jumbles, and we would be as poor as they someday, and stretching out our hands in the same, same way.
(i)                 Here, and elsewhere in the book, is Sal romanticizing the lives of the destitute and disenfranchised? Or, did the Beats, like the Hippies who came after them, see a deep-seated lack behind the material prosperity of Western civilization?
(ii)               The Beat Generation lived in the shadow of an imminent nuclear threat. Discuss how this fear of an apocalypse might have shaped their worldview, philosophy and literature.

…we know what IT is and we know TIME and we know that everything is really FINE…Now you just dig them in front. They have worries, they’re counting the miles…how they’ll get there – and all the time they’ll get there anyway, you see. But they’ll need to worry and betray time with urgencies false and otherwise…
Living life by the seat of your pants vs. the need for order and stability. Staying true to your individuality and personal joy vs. accommodating social and moral obligations. Spontaneity vs. rigidity. Experimentation vs. the straight and narrow.
One man’s notion of being true to himself is another man’s idea of narcissistic impulse-chasing - are joy, creativity and/or spirituality inherently antithetical to discipline and self-restraint? Is it possible to strike a balance?

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