Celebrating Jack Kerouac‘s birthday today on the Allen Ginsberg Project.
Today, we thought to celebrate via transcription of a hitherto untranscribed panel at the 1982 Jack Kerouac On The Road Conference. The focus was Kerouac’s Catholicism and Buddhism.
Allen introduces the proceedings:
AG: Fellow celebrants, fellow poets, fellow sentient beings. Welcome to the discussion of Kerouac, Catholicism and Buddhism, and we have an all-star cast lined up – a terrific scene actually, so, I’ll introduce the people that are a sangha on stage. On the extreme left, poetus magus, Gregory Corso (poeta magus), John Clellon Holmes(prose writer extraordinary,and friend of Kerouac). In the center, Gerald Nicosia (who’s been investigating Kerouac’s writings, symbols and life, friends, and gossip, indefatigably for the last eight years, and will have information on Kerouac as Catholic), Jose Arguelles(meditator, teacher, Buddhist, author of works on Buddhist iconography and psychological mandala, from Boulder). On my left, Osel Tendzin, the Regent, otherwise known as dharma heir of Chogyam Trungpa, the President of Naropa Institute, who opened the entire Kerouac Conference, I asked Ozel Tenzing, being Regent, to come and represent Buddhism from a professional point of view, since he’s an old pro’ (a meditator, an actual pro’) so it would be the equivalent then of having a meditation master commenting on our perceptions and insights. So we have a full house that way.
(And) we decided to have Gerald Nicosia open up because he has specific information on Kerouac’s Catholic background and interests
AG: And we’re all going to be brief
GN: Hello..testing.. I’m going to be reading a few pages from my book, Memory Babe. Most of what I’m going to be reading takes place in 1959, 1960, and my source of information is a man named Victor GiosciaG-I-O-S-C-I-A who at the time was a sociology professor at Fordham Universityand he was Jesuit and he and Jack lived together in Northport, I mean very close together, and were very close friends for a number of years, but to start off, I want to read just a couple of brief passages from Jack’s …which is material which came from Jack’s On The Road diary, which is in the University of Texas, which dates from the years 1948 to…
AG: Gerry – you’re getting an echo.. just a little distance from the microphone..about three inches….
GN: How’s this..testing, testing,,nothing now. Hello?… Can you hear?… Okay…
[At approximately three-and-a-half minutes in, Gerald Nicosia begins]
GN: ..because, from his On The Road journal, 1948-1949, he discusses what his religious outlook was then, (and this is just a couple of paragraphs I’m going to read before I read about his relationship with Victor Gioscia in (19)58)
“In 1948 Jack was writing intensely religious poems in his journal. In one poem he dealt with the powerful conflict between his desire to serve God and his desire to “see the world, which was the City of God” (and that’s his quote – which is from (St.) Augustine, of course). On the one hand, he felt he should stay home where God had “appointed him to write” (and that’s another quote). On the other hand, he knew that it was only on the “streets” of God that he would find the things he wanted to write about . In this poem, he resolves to see, “what I will never see again “, even though the result be God’s anger.
Despite his assuming the persona of Lucifer, the poem ends with Jack lying in a pool of light in his own room, having passed through death to live again, a resurrected Christ.
In the first few months of 1949 his journal grew increasingly philosophical and religious, preoccupied as always with the problem of will, he concluded that man’s free will existed in his ignorance of God’s fore-ordained plan. He hypothesized the origin of language in man’s complaint to God over human misery. Though such complaint was both ignorant and fruitless, he felt, it often produced a songof great beauty. To the psychoanalytic charge that his love of God was a death-instinct (evidently, somebody had been bugging him with that charge then), Jack responded that neurosis theory was itself a manifestation of anxiety. He felt that man could know no absolute truth only degrees of light. At present Jack himself had to make do with a few “tapers building in my wilderness”. The source of light he said was the eye of God towards which he was irresistibly drawn. To him the very existence of Man seemed a journey from darkness into light. Although he drew courage from the idea that he was approaching “direct feelings with God”, his personal life was then growing desperate. He was seeking a lovely girl who could “understand his understanding ofeternity” (that’s another quote). He said that happily-married, he could go on to write Doctor Sax, and so on. As for getting a living, he supposed he could “steal fruit” from someone else’s garden. But the mask of Satan (which again he’s using) was always just a bluff with him. He continued to worry about his mother having to work all day, Ahead he saw death for both of them, which for him was – quote “the jump to spaces?” unquote – and though he claimed to find comfort in the thought of melting into the universe, he feared to find not an Easter resurrection or paradise but only”wrathful lights”
Okay, so now I’m shifting to 1958 and to his…which really amounted to a certain flirtation with returning to the Catholic Church – “In October 1958 Jack took mescaline and had an immensely reassuring vision of the world as “One Flower”, with everybody united peacefully in a constellation of saints, whose flashing dance it was his duty to report. And he did report it, in a five-thousand word journal entry. Jealous of Anais Nin’s LSD experience, he had importuned her for some as if she were a pusher (she got a little upset about that). He was even more anxious to try the hallucinogen, LSD after Allen’s initiation into its use at Stanford in June. Since his second experience of “the Golden Eternity” in the fall of 1958, his religious visions were coming more often, and whether or not drug-induced, were taking on a hallucinatory character, He saw an image of Cardinal Giovanni Montini wearing papal dress and painted him thus, four years before Montini became Pope Paul VI. Jack always made clear however that his visions were secondary to those of Gerard.
To his friend, who was a sociologist, Frank Feminella, meeting Jack was like meeting the Pope.. He was introduced to Jack through his fellow sociologist Victor Gioscia, a close friend of Jack’s who lived in Northport. Feminella had travelled extensively and met many great men, including many Presidents, but no one had impressed him with “a sense of reality and of history” as much as Jack. They got into a discussion of the Gregorian chant, which Jack called “a “jazz Mass”. Jack explained that since the chant is unharmonized and unmeasured, you sing it as you feel it and that you have to be actually praying to get the rhythm right. When Feminella described Jack to his friend Father Joe Scheuer, a warm and unassuming Passionist priest, Scheuer asked to meet Kerouac himself. After Vic and Frank introduced the priest to Jack, Jack whipped out some Zen prayers he’d written. When those failed to rock the priest, Jack launched into an attack against institutionalized religion, asserting that the Catholic Church was not interested in spirituality but merely in organization, Scheuer agreed with everything he said. As soon as Jack saw that Scheuer wasn’t going to try to reconvert him, it was as if Jack had lost twenty years and was again an embarrassed teenager at the rectory of St Jean Baptiste,a fact all the stranger since Scheuer wasn’t wearing any priestly garb. Sensing in Jack, the little boy awestruck at his own talent, full of adolescent petulance towards the world that would infringe on its development, Scheuer relaxed Jack by drinking wine with him and showing his eagerness to learn from him. Gradually Jack became the man of letters again, and they talked of America and later of Bach.The evening ended on the front porch with them identifying the stars and speculating about life after death. On the way home Father Scheuer said, “We visited a very holy man tonight”.
A professor at Fordham University, Gioscia was just beginning to break out of his own strictly Catholic background. Vic and Jack had met through the bookstore owner in Northport, and Vic with his Volkswagen quickly became Jack’s wheelman. Although Vic towered above Jack in height, he was like a lamb among lions in the company of Jack’s New York City friends and Jack was exceptionally kind and protective in helping Vic adapt to this new world. That is not to say that Jack in any sense corrupted him, but rather that Jack helped enlarge Vic’s world to accommodate not only St.John of the Cross and Brother Antoninus (which were both favorites of Kerouac as well) – but also the hipsters and beaten people . A man like (Herbert) Huncke, for example, always knew “what was going down”. To survive on the street, his moves had to be as fast as the flashes of truth by which a mystic becomes one with God. Both the beat and the beatific get their revelations from intuition. Both are pushed beyond the limits of the physical and the rational by the horrors of suffering and death. In the case of the Beats, the urgency of vision was poignant with their sense that America had lost its soul. Their homeland was being sold to the colossus of industrial materialism. The holiness in America had been beaten down and covered over. It could be ransomed, Jack believed – (and this is what he told to Gioscia) – only by people who’d learned to speak not of themselves but fromthemselves, who had learned to tap those deep sources that are the font of all religion. This was why he wrote as he did, in the very same manner that St John of the Cross had written for the salvation of his fellow men.”When God speaks”, Jack told Gioscia,”just take it down” – (It’s not always that easy!)
Jack’s mysticism was earthy and full of contradictions. He loved the story about St.Teresawalking through a thunderstorm and being struck by a vision just as she stumbled into a mud puddle. After quivering helplessly for several minutes she got up and shook her fists at the heavens, crying, “Lord, if this is how you treat your friends, it’s no wonder you have so few!” That sensibility was very close to Jack’s own, for he too railed against God. It was clear to him that life was sacred and not his to take, and yet he wanted to be free of his immense passion. The root meaning of passion is to suffer and he suffered in both senses – to be with things on their own terms, without judgment, and to be hurting. He was in constant pain not only about the condition of America but also of humankind and all life. As he wrote on a napkin for Gioscia, ”Every little fishy in the sea worries me like the Children’s Crusade”.
To deal with the world’s inexplicable wrongs, Jack felt that he had to live in a monastery and so he made his house a monastery with his mother, the Reverend Mother. Like disciples of St. Francis– (and these were things he really described himself) – they would carry baskets of cubed stale bread into the back yard to feed the birds and they fed their cats lamb kidneys and liver pate that both of them spent hours chopping up by hand. With Gioscia, Jack was equally gentle. When Jack talked about his visions with Vic he avoided using Catholic terms, knowing that Vic’s bitter quarrels with the Church would create a needless barrier to the experience. By the same token, when Jack shared his knowledge of Buddhism with Vic it was never as a guru attempting to change the direction of his life but always as a friend giving him new peaceful space to grow in . Furthermore, Jack related Buddhism to the Western idealism in Plato, Meister Eckhart and (Ralph Waldo) Emerson with which Vic was familiar. Jack helped hin see that there was but one experience of enlightenment, translatable into “dialects” as dissimilar as Catholicism and Zen. Jack’s point was that words make no difference, because enlightenment exists solely as an experience adding dimension to the human spirit. Curiously what Jack got from Vic was a way back into the traditional structures from which he’d been banished. Jack was always deeply aware of his responsibility to teach, in the sense that it is beholden on one to whom God’s grace has been given to share it. For one thing he believed that his experiences had genuine religious value and it pained him that he could not communicate them to the Church, having been cut off on a number of counts, and irrevocably so because of his divorce from his second wife, Joan. Part of Jack’s friendship with Vic was a flirtation with the Church, the tacit expression of a wish to be accepted back into the bosom. When Gioscia invited Jack to be interviewed on the Fordhamradio show, Dialogue, Jack seized the opportunity to confront a Jesuit campus with his heresy. Vic knew the chances he was taking. Jack was liable to expound about the Jesuits, whom he considered wise men who had been corrupted by civilization, or come out with one of his quips like, ”If Jesus ever started walking across the United States, he’d be arrested outside of Altoona, Pennsylvania!”. As it turned out, Jack’s broadcast turned out to be even more “offensive”. He discoursed to the effect that life was gentle and God was good and that people should relax and take it easy and that he was weary with suffering and hoped everyone loved everyone. He also talked a little of Buddhism and said there was no point in trying to distinguish between religions because once you attained a sense of the beyond the way you got there was irrelevant.
Angry phone calls poured in. Both Gioscia and the priest who managed the show received sanctions. From His Eminence Francis Cardinal Spellmancame word that it was forbidden on Fordham radio to say that it didn’t matter whether one was a Buddhist or a Catholic.
AG: Thank you (Gerry). Next Jose Arguelles
[At approximately fifteen-and-three-quarter minutes in, Jose Arguelles speaks]
JA: Okay Is this proper sound? – Okay – I’m here in the spirit of great humility to invoke Jack Kerouac, the visionary and the prophet, and, as befits my name, Jose Arguelles, I’m using as my scriptural text, the Mexico City Blues, which seems to have come naturally to me, and when I say I’m here to invoke Jack Kerouac the prophet and the visionary, I’d like to just weave a few, a few thoughts that have come to me, plus,as they come, a few verses from the scriptures, the Mexico City Blues.
To begin, we are here, all of us, obviously, brought together by the singular presence of one human being, and we – even though he is no longer here – we are here, and we are here all together, as co-creators of the Beat and of the beatific vision, and I think it’s, particularly this afternoon, why we’re drawn here, is the beatific vision (as Gerry was saying, whether it’s in Catholicism or Buddhism, that quality of that vision is global, and what Jack struggled with, at a personal level (what he worked with at a personal level with the Catholicism and the Buddhism is also a planetary reality of East and West. He was, of course, the prophet, born in the year of the Bomb, in the Atomic Age, and here we are, thirty-seven war-awful years after Hiroshima still struggling for that fruition of that vision of that global fusion of the beatific vision.
He wrote in “Number 132″ – “Innumeral infinite songs,/Great suffering of the atomic/in verse/Which may or may not be/controlled/By a consciousness/Of what you & the /ripples of the waves/are a part/That’s a Buddhism/That’s a Universal Mind/ Pan Cosmodicy…” – So it’s like in the spirit of “Pan Cosmodicy” that we’re continuing. Does everybody know what “Pan Cosmodicy” is? – It’s a good one. I’m not sure (I do) either. I love it tho’ – Pan? – Pan-Cosmodicy? – sounds like it’s all cosmic, – and idiocy, to boot –”Pan Cosmodicy” – So what I’m doing here with all of you is invoking the vision and the prophecy of Kerouac as the visionary of the Immediate Eternal Reality of the Supreme Mind, of the Eternal Present, which he often spoke of, the great One Void Mind – and also of the Prophet of the Future, (of the awful-to-come, as well as the fusion).He wrote in (his) “119th Chorus” – “Self be your lantern/Self be your guide – Thus Spake Tathagata/Warning of radios/That would come/Some day/And make people/Listen to automatic/Words of others/ and the general flash of noises,/ forgetting self, not self -/ Forgetting the secret” – That was Kerouac the prophet of the ..what I call the “awful-to-come”, and also of the way to healing in which he sees the fusion of the East and the West- “And far over the Atlantic” – (he sings, in the “112th Chorus”) –“Where red Amida is Shining/you’ll hear the Call Trumpet/of East is Alright with the West/In the Orb of the Womb/of Tathagata/so round/so empty/so unbelievably/ false living/empty of parsimony” – “Persimmony” – like in persimmons? – and, also ..”Whichever..” – (in “148th (Chorus)”) -” Instrucciones/Precaucion/ Whichever way you look/you’re looking East/ Same with West/ Whichever etc. way you look/you’re looking West/ Thus Spake Tathagata”
– So there’s that whole vision of where we are with that need to tie ourselves together in terms of realizing what our responsibility is, not just to a country or a continent, but to the planet itself. And the legacy of this vision of Kerouac is real simple, it’s that, that the way for us to achieve this is through..Art, through recognition of the Spirit, and through Love. This is the legacy that art, really, finally, is the only substitute there is to politics, art is the only alternative to atom-bomb-ic death-squads, even if our art looks political, or our art looks like a political action, that, if it still springs from art as the primal expression of spirit (or what in Buddhism is called dharma) that that is what is going to fulfill what Jack saw, that the only way to salvage the planet is through art understood as non-aggressive action, that is to say, art is understood as the action of awakened Love. He wrote..there was one place where he describes the problem that we’re dealing with, right, dealing with the situation here. He says this – (in (the) “156th Chorus”), he says “This tree just told me/ See eternity/ Is the other side/ Of the other part/ Of your mind/ That you ignore/Because you want to” – (You know it’s) basic ignorance that we have to overcome, and then he answers that (in “the 157th Chorus”, right following that – and I said that Art and the Spirit of Art and the Spirit of Love and the Spirit of Awakened Action -)
He says, in “the 157th Chorus” – “The Art of Kindness/Is a dream/That was foretold by prophets/Of Old, wd. be continuous/With no broken lines/Buddha after Buddha/Crashing in from Heavens/Farther than expressioning/Bringing the Single Teaching/Love Everywhere/ Being on the single teaching/It’s all indeed in Love;/’Love not of Loved Object/Cause no object exists/Love of Objectlessness/When nothing exists/Save yourself and your not-self/Hung in a Moon/Of perfect O Canopy/Sorrowing Starborrowing/ Happiness Parade”– That’s the vision of the…prophecy of Kerouac that we see, the seeds of it that I mentioned in the beginning, in terms of his own personal struggle with Catholicism and Buddhism, or how he was perceiving that in his own being, that brings us here and we’re here to feel that quality of love and awakened action, art, as our responsibility today
I wrote a few other words with which I’d like to conclude my brief invocation, presentation, whatever you wish to call this (with) – I wrote “Kerouac, ancient one, rousing , mystic planet tribe (that’s who we all are here) Kerouac, ancient one, rousing , mystic planet tribe to artful action, art and power and beauty, spirit beyond the banks and universities of Moloch materialist atomic bombing blindness more than anti-nuke beatific vision – how to make planet earth a work of art (can we make planet earth a work of art? We are the RTA’s?? of Planet Earth – R-T-A – Resident Terrestrial Agents. We are the bees of beauty making of earth a honey-hive of infinite compassion and this is our responsibility and this is the legacy of the prophecy of Jack Kerouac who brought us all here together.
[At approximately twenty-five-and-a-half minutes in, Gregory Corso speaks]
GC (re microphone) Alright does that work? – yeah – On this picture I’ve been asked many times on the crucifix. Jack was posing for Madamoiselle, with Allen, myself, Philip Whalen, Peter Orlovsky, I don’t remember who else. A woman had given me this beautiful silver cross, and Jack and I had lots in common with talks on Catholicism , about Catholicism. The first shot I did to make him Beat was his hair. His hair was always well-combed back. Before they took the photograph, I mussed up his hair. That’s what I did. Then I gave him the crucifix. I came on like a John the Baptist, in a sense, to this man. I said “here, put this on”, and he put it on, and he so loved that cross. And the big deal about it, of course, is that it was wiped out many times in newspapers and what-not, (but not the hair, the hair remained)
Alright, that ends it all. I think that answers that one there.
Second one was, in his household, I was invited, with my first wife, before my eighteen-year-old daughter (I had here, who left here today), was born. And I was allowed to sleep in the bed with my wife because I was married to her. No one else if they went to that house and weren’t married could sleep together in that house. Mother had it so.
And, I don’t know if my daughter was conceived while I was there or not, but it’s a good shot. Over the bed was a crucifix. [turns to Allen] – do you remember that bedroom, Al? – the bed with the crucifix over it? in Northport? you remember?</
GC: Well..okay..so..I don’t know if my daughter was conceived then, that night. So those are the only two shots that I think I’d be here to mention – the clarification of that, the addition of the hair being mussed up, and the invitation to his home (when I left I received a nice postcard from him saying thank you for blessing our home).
AG: (to John Clellon Holmes): Well, you were going to comment on us, John.
John Clellon Holmes: Well, that’s true.
to be continued tomorrow
[Audio for the above can be heard here, beginning at the start of the tape and concluding approximately twenty-seven-and-three-quarter minutes in]
[Some versions of some of these transcriptions can be found in Coffee House Press’ s volume, Beats and Naropa – An Anthology, edited by Anne Waldman and Laura Wright, 2009]