Jack Kerouac’s The Dharma Bums (1958) and Sean Penn’s Into the Wild (2007) – the latter, a movie based on the book by the same name, authored by Jon Krakauer (1996) – seam through each other at several crucial narrative moments. Kerouac’s biographical text, narrated through the protagonist Ray Smith has essentially to do with renunciation and unburdening of the self and spirit from material and worldly distraction. In fact, the axis of the book delves into the heart of Zen in practice: a form of Buddhism with its cult and rituals with which Smith immerses himself, in search of a transcendence of sorts.
Personally, the “transcendence” The Dharma Bums is in propagation of is not palpable to me; perhaps, because I am a non-believer and an alien with the unburdening that is sustained through the travels and experiences of Ray Smith. But, as a response formed and fashioned in the metropolitan cultural space of production in the post-world war II generation – and contextualized within Kerouac’s larger corpus (of which I am insufficiently familiar) – the physical and spiritual “breakaway” as championed by the text makes sense and carries weight. Kerouac’s immersion into Zen Buddhist rituals is primarily a form of “escape” and an alternation that is meant to off set the metropolitan cultural practice. This is too obviously promoted through the duality which is consistent throughout the text: the synthesis of the mutually opposed trajectories of “renunciation” and “metropolitanism”.
The descriptions of hardcore “city life”, punctuated by long drawn parties – of which Smith and Japhy Ryder are prominently featured – and in and out movements from typically metropolitan scenes form a neat juxtaposition with sublime descriptions of nature, musings on recluse semi-isolated movement and of cult rituals drawn from the Zen. However, the further the book unfolds the trajectory of withdrawal becomes more centralized and pivotal. Smith’s occupation as a fire lookout in a distant and desolate peak, at one level, gives a sense of “stability” and “firmness”, as opposed to constant movement we find in the opening sections of the book. Then, again, the same occupation gives a sense of structure and spatiality to the “reclusion” which the spirit is in search of.
The withdrawal to the mountain, once again, resonates unmistakable echoes of East Asian and South Asian spiritual forms, where the soul in search of salvation makes a symbolic retreat to the mountains. For instance, in the Hindutva tradition, one’s life span is identified in four “ashrams”, of which two are dedicated to domestic life and materialism. Then, at one point of life, the individual is expected to prepare himself for the inevitable climacteric drive. The “Vaanaprastha” and “Sanyaasi” ashrams are oriented at unburdening the self of commitment and indulgence. The third ashram often contextualizes a symbolic withdrawal from homely and domestic life. The same can be found in Japanese and Chinese traditions. Many are the folk tales and legends in these traditions where recluse and withdrawal of the discussed form are presented as an integral part of folk spirituality.
Sean Penn’s Into the Wild narrates the story of Christopher McCandless who, in rejection of the upper middle class life to which he has been conformed from a young age by his typically class and career-minded parents, withdraws into a life of isolation and nature, where he eventually perishes on his own. The story builds up from Christopher leaving his University without leaving any definite word, even as he is en route to a successful academic career, as reflected by his high school grades.
Christopher’s parents, we learn, are hardworking professionals living the crass “middle class” dreams by which their satisfactions and antipathies are governed. The non-linear narrative takes us through a tormented and uncertain child and young adulthood, where Chris and his sister Karen are consistently the witnesses of domestic abuse and discord. Chris’ leaving the family, therefore, has a strong protestant vibe, but underneath is a rupture which he effects in upsetting the “upper middle class” normative and set play.
The storyline is set where Chris fends for himself – either by taking up odd jobs while on the move – or, in the worst cases, by living off the earth and by shooting wild game. He arrives at Alaska, where he hopes to camp, and settles down in an abandoned bus, which he baptizes as “the magic bus”. Chris keeps records and notes of his experiences and feelings – the ultimate sourcebook which is found after his death, caused by poisonous roots which he consumes without being aware.
Chris’ meeting with Ron is a crucial passage in the story. Ron is an old leather worker with whom Chris stays for a while before proceeding to Alaska – his fatal trek. Here, in Ron’s company, Chris learns the trade and they form a mutual bonding which results in Ron expressing his desire to adopt Chris as a grandchild. In Ron we meet the “father figure” of whom Chris’ life is in want of. In fact, the chief catalyst of Chris’ depressive connection with his home, as shown, is his own biological father. His withdrawal from “home” in search of a more stimulating harmony is triggered by the fractured domestic state, which is offset by passages of play that introduce Ron (as well as, I must include, Chris’ stay with Raney and Jan) and his comforting facility. Ron himself had lost his family in a car accident and the classic “father-meets-son” motif is played out with much warmth and emotion.
Unlike Kerouac’s Ray Smith, in Christopher McCandless there is a deep resentment and dejection that draws him to a life in seclusion. Or rather, the way Into the Wild unfolds there is emphasis of a more “holistic” picture on renunciation: its causes and effects; its precedents and results. Kerouac’s narrative style and principles doesn’t uphold the same patterns as entertained in Penn’s cinematography. However, the film ends with a note of despair and disillusionment, as Christopher – in his dire moments – backtracks on his earlier convictions of extreme isolation. In fact, he tries to “return to civilization”, as it were, but fails to do so, as nature’s force itself stands in his way. This didactic and “revelatory” ending, I felt, was an anti-climax of a sort; specially, at the tail end of a rich and memorably woven text. This sense was heightened by the fact that, unlike Kerouac’s protagonists, Christopher – throughout the narrative – is both agendaless and uncompromising in his withdrawal to nature: a breakaway that is no self-conscious or tentative “escapism”, but an act where the means and the end coincide.
Note: My gratitude and sincere thanks to Mr. Samodh Pterodactylus for introducing me to Kerouac’s The Dharma Bums.