It seems fitting on the day that Pope Benedict XVI dedicated the beautifully bizarre La Sagrada Familia church in Barcelona, to write something more about Jack Kerouac, especially given that we are still only a week into November. La Sagrada Familia is the realization of the unique vision given to Antoni Gaudí, a vision, as the Holy Father pointed out, "inspired by the ardour of his Christian faith."
Not all beautiful visions are fully realized, however. Perhaps many unrealized visions are the result of the visionary being so intent on satiating desire that he crashes into the inherent limits of our fallen and contingent world. The limitations that, when recognized, lead to humility and, if we're honest, some disappointment, are summed well in a psalm: "LORD, my heart is not proud; nor are my eyes haughty. I do not busy myself with great matters, with things too sublime for me. Rather, I have stilled my soul, hushed it like a weaned child. Like a weaned child on its mother's lap, so is my soul within me" (Psalm 131).
The insatiable visionary wants to suckle the breast of God until it runs dry. The problem, therefore, becomes the classic case of trying, like the Chinese brother, to drink, not only the ocean, but all the oceans, attempting to pour infinity into a one gallon pitcher.
Once again, for anyone struck by Kerouac's overheated vision, I cannot recommend too highly John Leland's book Why Kerouac Matters: The Lessons of On the Road (They're Not What You Think). Leland cites something Kerouac wrote in his journal, namely that he was looking for "a purpose in eternity, something to decide on from which I'll never deviate now in whatever dark existence follows... Why should I want this?- Because there isn't enough here on earth to want, or that is, not a single thing here exists that I do want... [R]eason and the body of facts, science and truth, do not make me feel, and do not bridge eternity, and in fact choke me like stale, close air."
Yesterday, watching and listening to Fr. Carrón's Beginning Day Assembly, I was tremendously struck by his affirmation of the unity of reason and affectivity. Citing Don Giussani, he said that reason and affection are what constitute our hearts. And only the heart can claim the victory over relativism, over the ephemeral, over the constant temptation to reduce signs to mere appearances, which empties existence of meaning and reduces our humanity, thus giving rise to ideology, even among the so-called religious. If your faith is most noticeable by your political commitments, then you are reducing the signs to appearances and so reducing your humanity and that of others because you have reduced faith to morality. By reducing faith to morality you give God's grace, which is but a name we give to God's wild unpredictability, no space, no time.
Indeed, it seems to me that Kerouac's project was to overcome the so-what?ness of earthly/earthbound existence. While this insight may sound banal, it is not. Too often we are victims of a false dilemma. As beautiful and unified a vision as Kierkegaard presented us with, he was quite wrong to articulate as an axiom either/or. Jack Kerouac never reduced the sign to a mere appearance! But, as Leland brilliantly shows, Kerouac, at least in the character of Sal Paradise, comes away from each vision, each encounter, "not enlightened but broken... [t]he vision's vagueness gives him nothing to hang on to." But if, as Carrón insisted in his Beginning Day remarks, "honesty constitutes the morality of a person," then Kerouac was very moral because he remained intensely loyal to his experience, even mortally so.
I remember watching a documentary on Kerouac many years ago, shortly after reading On the Road for the first time. The documentary was more of a hagiographic piece, meaning very anti-thetical to Jack's way of being. His parish priest from Lowell, MA, who was interviewed towards the end, said that he was a saint. I am inclined to think not. Nonetheless, it is undeniable that there is something discernibly saintly about Kerouac's acute grasp of the fact that we exist between being and nothingness, what might best be summed up as the crisis of being, which is the source of our existential angst, which provokes us to think again when we think we have it all doped out.