Conventional Morality: On the Road 4

Neal Cassady
Photograph by Ted Streshinksy/Corbis
From Jack Kerouac, On the Road:
“Where once Dean would have talked his way out, he now fell silent himself, but standing in front of everybody, ragged and broken and idiotic, right under the lightbulbs, his boney mad face covered with sweat and throbbing veins, saying, ‘yes, yes, yes,’ as though tremendous revelations were pouring into him all the time now, and I am convinced they were, and the others suspected as much and were frightened. He was BEAT – the root, the soul of Beatific. . . .

There was a strange sense of maternal satisfaction in the air, for the girls were really looking at Dean the way a mother looks at the dearest and most errant child, and he with his sad thumb and all his revelations knew it well, and that was why he was able, in tick-tocking silence, to walk out of the apartment without a word, to wait for us downstairs as soon as we’d made up our minds about time. This was what we sensed about the ghost on the sidewalk.

I looked out the window. He was alone in the doorway, digging the street. Bitterness, recriminations, advice, morality, sadness – everything was behind him, and ahead of him was the ragged and ecstatic joy of pure being.

‘Come on, Galatea, Marie, let’s go hit the jazz joints and forget it. Dean will be dead someday. Then what can you say to him?’

‘The sooner he’s dead the better,’ said Galatea, and she spoke officially for almost everyone in the room.

‘Very well, then,’ I said, ‘but now he’s alive, and I’ll bet you want to know what he does next, and that’s because he’s got the secret that we’re all busting to find.’”
Does Dean Moriarty (Neal Cassady) have the secret? Doesn’t he? Does he?

Ah, what is this life? And what are we supposed to do with it?

Neal/Dean is a heroic figure in that he attempts to live a life beyond the time-bound compromises most of us make with life. But he’s also a sad and tragic figure in that this very same uncompromising stance ultimately leaves him abandoned. At the end of On the Road, Sal drives off with friends leaving Dean alone in the cold.

Conventional morality says: Choose between living for yourself and caring about others. Or try somehow to hew a balance between these opposites. Conventional morality is surely wrong. Living for yourself and caring about others are not opposites.

The greatest gift that you can give this world is the gift of presenting to it who you truly are – your most real and authentic self, following no script, creatively present to each moment, ready to surprise and be surprised. And that very thing is also your own deepest desire. Dean Moriarty gives that gift – but is he able himself to receive the gift of who he is?

Impulses pour out of him, but is he even aware of them at any point before he is in the middle of what they compel him to do? He doesn’t so much have impulses as the impulses have him. Is that freedom?

You can flee from your fear into conventional morality. Or you can flee into excess. Either way, it’s running away from life.

I believe that your true self emerges from neither repressing nor indulging. Don’t push away the impulses, the mad, wild desires. But be selective about which ones to indulge. Pay attention to your impulses: they have something to teach you.

To follow no formula, but a creative and loving and spontaneous wisdom – this is the vague destination of my own life’s road trip, the "Further" to which I imagine my bus is headed, the damned good question I don’t understand.

We must be still and listening to what is going on in us. Yet this is what Dean Moriarty could never sit still long enough to do. Kerouac writes: “With frantic Dean I was rushing through the world without a chance to see it.”

Yeah, man.

Slow down.

Slow down and maybe then see what this life is and where this road we’re on is taking us.

* * *
This is part 4 of 4 of "On the Road"
Previous: Part 3: Contradictions
Beginning: Part 1: Damned Good Questions

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