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 [Book Reviews]


Desolation Angels

Jack Kerouac

This is a really worth-while read for anyone actually putting into practice what he has learned about the science of Awakening. It is simultaneously a public psychoanalysis and Don Juan style recapitulation.

Kerouac has by the beginning of this work already made a study of Buddhism as it was available to him at the time.[1] He had actually read some Rhys Davids and Buddhism in Translations. His knowledge is a mixed bag with a lot of nonsense in it due to a lack of distinction in his mind between the doctrines of the various schools. He has, however, already evolved from the beginner's assumption that he is already an arahant[2] to where he has given up claiming to be a Buddhist in the sense, I believe, that he is no longer a book practitioner, but is looking for his truths in his actual experiences. At this point he has no trouble seeing Pain, he is capable of seeing past lives, God, gods, and evil ones, he has a little skill seeing kamma, and he has a degree of ability to detach even from his worst funks. As this story opens he has decided to spend a summer in virtually complete isolation as a lookout on Desolation Peak — a remote mountain top in Washington State.

With the exception of the need to use false names for the characters (a necessity imposed on him by his publishers), the story can be taken as a truthful recounting. It is in a style unique to Kerouac at the time but derivative of James Joyce and Proust. Stream-of-consciousness, but without editing and with fantastic detail. Precisely psychoanalysis and Recapitulation.

There is a gold mine of material for reflection here. For the practicing Buddhist, however there is one overridingly important lesson: There is a period from the discovery that the Buddha is not kidding when he speaks of the world as the experience of Pain, to the point where one is in fact detached, that the world seems very depressing indeed. That is the period described in this book. And the lesson is that this is not the end of the story. This story ends before that point, so we need to be aware that there is more to be done.

A lessor lesson to be learn't from this work is that the reader, from his armchair, can see that Kerouac is continually fighting his experience. He spends the whole of his summer wishing he were somewhere else. When he gets to where he had wished he was when he was on the mountain, he wishes he was back on the mountain. Throughout the story! He is half-way aware of this. This too is something that will be experienced by many who put their knowledge into practice. The real lesson is that we are all out of synch: Kerouac is in fact getting into synch. This story catches him at a point where synch and out of synch are both visible to the reader if not to Kerouac himself at the time. Kerouac is a course-setter here for us with regard to actual experience. The reader should be able to recognize the problem when it comes up in himself from having studied this work. Hopefully save some time.

There is much else to be taken from this work, but one last thing I believe is very important to point out. At the end of the book there is a chapter on Kerouac's mother and his relationship with her. This is no two ways about it a very moving story which anyone in family life could benefit from contemplating.


[1] In the Introduction it says around 1954. I don't know the real story about the publication and distribution of the Pali Text Society translations, but when I started my studies around 1964 in New York the books could only be found in three used book stores and I assumed the PTS was long gone. My view is that as new books, they only became widely available and known-of after the mini Buddhist revival begun by the coming of the Internet and discussion groups. Early on you read about the directors being delighted that the first printing of 1000 copies of one or another of the books has finally sold out! For a long time I believe (judging from the subscription lists) I was one of only a half-dozen individuals in the US that had the complete set ... and I had one of the early subscriber's copies.

[2] In early letters exchanged between himself and Alan Ginsberg, virtually after first reading in the subject, he assumes he understands it all and is an Arahant.

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