I didn’t know until just recently that Pretty Girls Make Graves were a female-fronted band - and a pretty good one at that; “post-punk” in a manner quite similar to Q and Not U. I always thought, out of complete ignorance and assumption, that they were a ‘emo’ band more along the lines of My Chemical Romance or some other group with a name that imbues romantic relationships with apocalyptic significance. I did know it was a Kerouac quote (or alternatively a Smiths song, but I reckon it’s a safe bet that Morrissey borrowed it from the Beat author). Thus the original meaning of the phrase - that “lust was the direct cause of birth which was the direct cause of suffering and death” in Kerouac’s Buddhist theology - is not perhaps as esoteric as I first thought.
"For many of these women, the reading experience begins from a place of seething rage. Take Sara Marcus’ initial impression of Jack Kerouac: “I remember putting On the Road down the first time a woman was mentioned. I was just like: ‘Fuck. You.’ I was probably 15 or 16. And over the coming years I realized that it was this canonical work, so I tried to return to it, but every time I was just like, ‘Fuck you.’”
(Incidentally, I was probably the same age when I first read On The Road, and then - as I was the only one who had gone and bought it - passed it around my group of male school friends until it came back with its spine broken)
Then’s there the valid point that “there’s no female equivalent of Jack Kerouac because nobody would take a woman who lived like that seriously”; or, as the Beat writer Gregory Corso put it, “There were women, they were there, I knew them, their families put them in institutions, they were given electric shock”.
I’m inclined not to defend On the Road too strongly - it’s not so much that it’s overrated, to my mind, as it is over-exposed and over-mythologised outside the messy context of Kerouac’s other writing - although I did think it was a strength of the recent film adaptation that it showed the ill-treatment of the female characters in a perhaps more powerful way than the prose did. My argument is that Kerouac’s novels are just as much about bleak tragedy as they are about youthful exuberance; and more importantly, the former proceeds from the latter. That its ‘sadness’ is invariably seen from a male, introverted perspective is true - and thus shouldn’t perhaps be taken as such a generation-defining voice - but the whole point of reading literature is usually to access that inner perspective, male or female. So while I can be sympathetic to the alienation that female readers might experience while reading his books, and be sensitive to the misogyny woven into their historical, cultural and personal fabric, I still have more to get out of Kerouac’s work - even if it (rightly) makes me uncomfortable at times.
Part of that is confronting the context of its misogyny (alone with its more mundane contradictions). It’s appropriate that the quote comes from The Dharma Bums, my favourite of his novels, ahead of On The Road, and the one with I think the most highs and lows of experience (or at least the most crammed together in one relatively concise book) and the most Buddhist theology/philosophy. Again, one drives the other, and it’s a novel as much about the failure to realise wild expectations as it is about transcending suffering. The immediate context of the quote is about celibacy, or more pertinently Kerouac’s abandoning of it to join in ‘yabyum’ with Japhy Ryder and his girlfriend. It’s one of the sillier parts of the book really, and also dispiriting both to reader and author. It’s not good that it ignores and elides the female experience. But considered reflectively, it does point to something - albeit from a narrow male perspective - about the morass of gender and social rules about sexuality. Likewise, the other well-known phrase, from On The Road, ‘boys and girls in America have such a sad time together’ (made even more famous by the Hold Steady) has its own background.
The theology of ‘pretty girls make graves’ is fairly sound in Buddhist terms, although as Sallie Tisdale points out in Women of the Way, why is it that of all the sensory distractions that Buddhist monks are meant to overcome, lust is the one that necessitates excluding 50% of the population? It’s a question about responsibility, and exercising it in a way that shows compassion towards others rather than blaming them for one’s own failures.
Yesterday I read another short e-book, this time The Art of Mindfulness by Thich Nhat Hanh. I’d normally avoid that kind of [insert derogatory term for popular literature on esoteric topics] preferring to get my simplifications and reductions from a more fun kind of literature (like Kerouac) but I was interested in him because he is mentioned an awful lot by an Irish author, Tony Bates, who writes very well on depression and mental health, and because he is from a Zen tradition. My scepticism about mindfulness as a therapy is not about its effectiveness per se (it’s probably much better than the alternatives offered) but an issue of subsidiarity: ‘mindfulness’ alone doesn’t address the existential question, and cut off from its Buddhist roots it becomes I think a rather shallow philosophy. Of course, that’s most of its appeal, and to be fair the book - a condensation of a condensation - had some quite inspiring passages at the start. What I didn’t like was when it took a rather conservative turn in describing the ‘Five Mindfulness Trainings’ (which, despite the lack of any explicit reference to Buddhist tradition, clearly show their influence in their form), which include:
"I am determined not to engage in sexual relations without love and a long-term commitment"
Now, that’s a perfectly valid stance for anyone to take in relation to their own life, but is it necessarily an aspect of mindfulness? Later it’s expanded upon and justified by saying “Respect for the body is at the same time respect for the mind”, and while it is (or ought to be) true that “there is no true love without respect”, it’s not necessarily the same the other way round (or, rather, that the ‘love’ needed is the same one as goes with long-term commitment). Then it goes on to discuss “sacred zones” in our body for which “we have lost our respect”. This is basically just the sex-positive v. sex-negative debate; on the one hand, it ought to be a choice (a negative liberty with regards to sexuality, including the paramount freedom to refuse) but both sides of the choice should be seen positively. The alternative position is moralistic conservatism.
This ‘Third Mindfulness Training’ (I have issues with the others, but not perhaps quite as sharply) derives from the traditional Buddhist injunction against ‘sexual misconduct’ (which is mentioned explicitly). “Aware of the suffering caused by sexual misconduct…” is basically the updated version of “pretty girls make graves”, but the emphasis is more conservative than ascetic. The original Buddhist 'precept' - akin to the vow of a monk, but in this case aimed at the laity as well - is a step or two short of celibacy, and of course much depends on what ‘sexual misconduct’ is understood as referring to. It’s a conservative tradition which can be interpreted more or less sensibly depending on cultural demands; but more importantly:
"They’re not commandments; they’re commitments made by individuals after having meditated on suffering and its causes. This is a practice. It is determination born from our own insight."
On the first part, when is a commandment not a commandment? If something is merely a voluntary commitment, yet it is made clear that it is a necessary step towards the achievement of ‘mindfulness’ or is otherwise ‘correct’, then how does that effectively differ from the moral force of a commandment, especially in a society where religious proscriptions are already so widely devalued? On the second part, if it genuinely emerges from our own meditation and insight, then we must be free to come to our own conclusions (within reason). Yet to admit that would rather undo the neatness of the argument - and its appeal to existing attitudes:
"The Five Mindfulness Trainings have a universal nature. Practicing them, you become a better friend of the Buddha, a better friend of Jesus […] If you are from a different spiritual tradition, when you read your scriptures, you can identify the elements of the Five Mindfulness Trainings in your own traditions. They can help you better understand your tradition. You can’t be happy if you’ve lost your roots."
But if you come from (or have adopted) a humanist and sceptical tradition, by reading you can also question what traditions mean. So that’s why I prefer the muddle of Kerouac to the easy certitude that there’s one right way to be.