Study Guide

Big Sur Spirituality

By Jack Kerouac

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Marvelous opening moment in fact of the first afternoon I'm left alone in the cabin and I make my first meal, wash my first dishes, nap, and wake up to hear the rapturous ring of silence or Heaven even within and throughout the gurgle of the creek -- When you say AM ALONE and the cabin is suddenly home only because you made one meal and washed your firstmeal dishes -- Then nightfall, the religious vestal lighting of the beautiful kerosene lamp after careful washing of the mantle in the creek and carefuldrying with toilet paper, which spoils it by specking it so you again wash it in the creek this time just let the mantle drip dry in the sun. (5.4)

Jack imbues even the smallest of actions in Big Sur with spiritual significance. His time in Monsanto's cabin is as much a spiritual retreat as anything else.

With my mind even and upright and abiding nowhere, as Hui Neng would say, I go dancing off like a fool from my sweet retreat, rucksack on back, after only three weeks and really after only three or four days of boredom, and go hankering back for the city -- "You go out in joy and in sadness you return, " says Thomas a Kempis talking about all the fools who go forth for pleasure like high schoolboys on Saturday night. (10.1)

Hui Neng was a Chinese monastic; Kempis was a Catholic monk. It's interesting that Kerouac so easily mixes such different religions. Raised a Catholic, yet a serious student of Buddhism, Kerouac seems to have no trouble incorporating these different kinds of spirituality into his writing.

My feet are ruined and burned, it develops now into a day of complete torture, from nine o'clock in the morning till four in the afternoon I negotiate those nine or so miles when I finally have to stop and sit down and wipe the blood off my feet -- And then when I fix the feet and put the shoes on again, to hike on, I can only do it mincingly with little twinkletoe steps like Babe Ruth, twisting footsteps every way I can think of not to press too hard on any particular blister (10.4)

Jack's journey takes on the weight of a spiritual quest.

If someone's to ask him "Let's drive to New York" he'd jump right for it without a word -- On a sort of a pilgrimage, see, with all that youth, us old f***s oughta take a lesson from him, in faith too, he has faith, I can see it in his eyes, he has faith in any direction he may take with anyone just like Christ I guess. " (14.3)

Jack finds God in the strangest of places – from the sacred mule to the pool shark teenager.

My old thoughts about the silt of a billion years covering all this and all cities and generations eventually is just a dumb old thought, "Only a silly sober fool could think it, imagine gloating over such nonsense" (because in one sense the drinker learns wisdom, in the words of Goethe or Blake or whichever it was "The pathway to wisdom lies through excess') – But in this condition you can only say "Wisdom is just another way to make people sick" (21.15)

Until the novel's climax, Jack's delirium tremens convince him that his spiritual and literary pursuits have been fruitless. He must discover something in the final fit at Big Sur that leads to his conclusion that "there's no need to say another word."

And by God their little sweet five year old girl who is such a pleasant sight to see as she goes jongling and jiggling through the fields to look for flowers, everything to her is perfectly new beautiful primordial Garden of Eden morning here in this tortured human canyon (23.1)

Even in his delirious despair, Jack can still find beauty – and spirituality (hence the Garden of Eden reference) in the innocence of a little girl. This is consistent with Sal and Dean's behavior in On the Road; remember the little Indian girl in Mexico?

But Cody's oldfashioned family tiptoe sneak carries that strange apocalyptic burst of gold he somehow always manages to produce, like I said elsewhere the time in Mexico he drove an old car over a rutted road very slowly as we were all high on tea and I saw golden Heaven, or the other times he's always seemed so golden like as I say in a davenport of some sort in Heaven in the golden top of Heaven. (23.4)

Jack seems to only experience joy when he's around other people. Big Sur may calm him, but it never shows him "heaven" the way Cody does.

I feel good because I've had my sleep but mainly I feel good because somehow old Ben (my age) has blessed me by sitting over my sleep all day and now with these few silly words (30.3)

Again, Jack finds God only in other men. According to Jack, guys like Ben or Cody or even Monsanto embody the height of spirituality.

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