Detail from the cover of the Penguin Classics Deluxe Edition, 2006, illustrated by Jason

When I was asked to think of a book that might help or inspire us to detox in the social media age, the unlikely author who sprang to mind was that icon of the Beat Generation: Jack Kerouac.

A friend recommended Kerouac’s The Dharma Bums during my honours year in University, because I was restless, searching, and interested in Buddhism.

I emphatically don’t recommend it to you now, in fact I wouldn’t remember the book at all myself if not for one poignant scene mid-way through.

Kerouac’s semi-autobiographical accounts of his Bohemian lifestyle are thoroughly depressing. His character Ray Smith comes across as a disingenuously passive if not naïve observer-participant in the decadence and intoxication around him, in stark contrast to his professed spiritual quest and belief in “the reality of charity and kindness and humility and zeal and neutral tranquillity and wisdom and ecstasy.”

The Dharma Bums is like a severely debauched version of Thomas Merton’s Seven Story Mountain, if Merton had been a mentally ill alcoholic embedded in a chaotically self-indulgent counter-culture.

What does it have to do with social media, let alone detoxing?

DharmaBums.JPGThere’s a scene in the book where Smith is taken mountain-climbing up Matterhorn Peak in the Sierra Nevada ranges. It’s this scene that’s stuck in my mind for years as all the rest faded away.

The rest of the book is intensely voyeuristic. It provides an insight into the “fast living” of the Beat Generation and the early counter-culture, yet the superficial and pointlessly chaotic people and events are wearying and dismal. Smith’s spiritual intentions might seem sincere, but belied by his actions, they feel more like self-talk or posturing.

Nonetheless, climbing the mountain is very much a spiritual ascent for Kerouac’s character, and if the jargon and overt references are packed full of cheesy self-conscious Buddhism, his French-Canadian Catholicism is deeper, like when he and his guide Japhy dunk their heads in a “tremendous cataracting stream” as they begin their ascent of the mountain, an unwitting symbolic act of purification.

On the mountain there is silence, solemnity, awe…but also exertion, effort, and learning new skills and an intimate knowledge of nature; for Smith the climb is a kind of rebirth.

“I had absolutely not a jot of appetite for alcohol, I'd forgotten all about it, the altitude was too high, the exercise too heavy, the air too brisk…  I woke up and just lay flat back with my eyes to the stars and thanked God I'd come on this mountain climb. My legs felt better, my whole body felt strong… and I promised myself that I would begin a new life.”

His friend Japhy concurs: “There's nothing wrong with you Ray, your only trouble is you never learned to get out to spots like this, you've let the world drown you in its horseshit and you've been vexed.”

Taking on Japhy’s passion for nature as his own ideal, Smith sets out on his own:

“I realized I had indeed learned from Japhy how to cast off the evils of the world and the city and find my true pure soul, just as long as I had a decent pack on my back. I got back to my camp and spread the sleeping bag and thanked the Lord for all He was giving me.”

Kerouac’s rebirth didn’t stick. The wholesome camaraderie, the awe, and almost holy fear he experienced on the mountain cut through the endless vain cameos of the city and Smith’s own self-destructive behaviour, but only briefly.

As tragic as it is, the book nonetheless proves an apt analogue to the wearying onslaught of empty words, vain appearances and sheer pointless light and sound that is social media.

And the remedy is the same: if the mountain could give temporary relief and awe and real adventure and purification to the likes of Kerouac, a fortiori the mountains will replenish our jaded sensibilities from the superficial monotony of social media.

First Edition Cover image by Source, Fair use, Link

Zac Alstin is associate editor of MercatorNet.

Zac Alstin is a writer, editor and stay-at-home dad to three marvellous children, in Adelaide, South Australia. His hobbies include martial arts, making things at home, and contemplating the underlying...

20 replies on “Books for the social media age II: An unlikely choice from the Beat Generation”

  1. + Thank you, Michael, for putting this terribly sad scandal into some perspective; through many tears, it is a matter for many prayers for the souls of the dead! Jean Vanier’s life witnessed merely to self-serving narcissism and a Jekyll-and-Hyde manifestation of worldly ambition. The worst of it is the revelation that Jean plotted the abuse in cold blood and perfected a grooming technique for seducing vulnerable women, who had turned to him for guidance. We are warned throughout scripture against idolatry and to be on guard! Despite the Enlightenment’s praise of human achievement and self-sufficient virtue, nobody is able to overcome evil alone. We are freed to love only by the One who conquered sin and death by his own death, and thereby gave us our dignity as human beings. Whatever his unchecked dark motivations, Jean spoke well about the goodness which he chose not to live out in his own life. Sad.

  2. This was devastating news to hear for those of us who admired Jean Vanier. Further proof that the mystery of iniquity dwells deeply in humanity and is beyond reason to comprehend. As St. John Paul II said, “It is not possible to grasp the evil of sin in all its sad reality, without searching the depths of God.” This article was well balanced. Jean accomplished tremendous things for those living with intellectual disabilities. Their lives will always be better because of him. How sad to have to acknowledge his failings and the trauma he inflicted on his victims. A man of light in whom dwelled the power of darkness. May God have mercy on him.

  3. Despite the fact that the Church has many canon laws to deal with such, unfortunately they are applied after the fact and big damages (McCarrick, etc..). It is paramount to have an accountabilit, including regular audit, process to verify such people.

  4. This is appalling. While I am thankful that Vanier did not prey on intellectually disabled women under his care, and while his model communities provide a noble legacy of support for the intellectually disabled, nevertheless these revelations remind us all about the need for robust and transparent oversight and accountability procedures within our organisations. It is prudent to compare this to the Harvey Weinstein verdict- both men were predators, acting out of a position of trust and responsibility and damaged womens lives. While Vanier’s death leaves us bereft of accountability for his crimes, we need to be vigilant and prudent in this context and not engage in kneejerk denial just because someone accused is ideologically compatible with ourselves.

  5. It seems to me this nearly all wrong. It does not take into account all the contributors to this tragedy: seductive women, colleagues that should have warned him, pastors that didn’t get to know him well enough to understand his struggles, his idolizing public that suspected but allowed the halo effect to overcome their suspicions, editors who forgot that real prophets are found in the wilderness. There is also the chance that the supporting theology is fundamentally misunderstood. Apostle Paul writes, “Now I will speak to the rest of you, though I do not have a direct command from the Lord”.(Cor. 7:12 ) “Because of the present crisis…and the time remains very short”…(Jesus is soon coming again which was a common misunderstanding of what Jesus said) “The person who marries does well and the person who doesn’t marry does even better” (I Cor. 7:38) There is also the wrong thinking about ministry. We (men, women and children) are witnesses (not witnessers) all the time whatever we are doing by our conduct that speaks louder than works. Moreover Jesus meant it when he condemned lust as much as adultery. And since God marries people (makes them one flesh. Matt. 19) many good Christians are practicing polygamy. There are many planks in condemning eyes.

  6. I am sure I am not alone in feeling deceived. So sad for L’Arche, hopefully they recover. I was going to start a community but I will not do that now. As for all of his books and videos, I think we should burn them. If there was something valid there, let someone else take on the good where he left off.

  7. ‘Martin Luther King Jr was an even more revered figure who, we now know, was guilty of
    ”compulsive sexual athleticism” and perhaps even rape. Unfortunately, his hypocrisy has tainted that legacy. It makes him vulnerable to mockery by racists.’

    Why does it make him vulnerable only to the mockery of racists? His bad behavior makes him vulnerable to any decent man’s mockery. Don’t bend over so far backwards that you’re going in the wrong direction.

  8. I think we would benefit from some anthropological perspective here. Mystification of sexual practices in religion is more usual than unusual phenomenon. Most non Judeo-Christian religions have that in one form or another. This is a bio-psychological tendency in humans. We havea problem here only because Christian sexual ethics is different from the rest (most/many) of religions. The emergence of the sectarian “network” of cult-like sexual mysticism among charismatic Catholic leadership is a failure at a level of Catholic spiritual guidance and supervision. They simply deviated towards non-Christian interpretations and practices which are quite common among non Christian religions. Overall this is a failure of unsupervised spiritual guidance and personal mysticism. Catholic church have always knew the dangers of celibate man/woman working together. Back then there were very strict rules like, never staying in a room with a woman behind closed doors or hearing confessions only in cabins with separating wall between the two persons. Today it looks a bit neurotic but then we do not like where we end up when these practices have been abandoned either. So, overall a) sexuality is a frequent agent in human religious experiences, especially those individual and personally mystic; b) Christian sexual ethics differs from most religions; c) It is only natural that deviation from Christian authenticity acquires sexual expression because thats what pre-Christian religious sensibilities, especially those mystic (may have) looked like; e) I think the Catholic church have to learn that it favoured internal closed systems and often operate internally as such a system all too long. Pope Francis (just like two previous popes) is a hope here.
    Most of Charismatic leaderships are inclined to creation of closed-circuit social systems. Such closed systems a prone to internal inadequacies of power balances. A good example of the closed system opening itself up is Dalay Lama stepping down as a leader from theocracy to elective leadership.
    So again it is a crisis of religious charismatic leadership secretly deviating from Christian moral ethics on a personal-mystic level; it is also a crisis of closed religious systems; and it is a crisis of spiritual guidance liberalised boundaries and ethics.

  9. Why do Catholics insist on criticising behaviors that are the direct result of human nature, pure and simple?
    Following Catholic Church directions on sexual matters is extremely hard (and, according to multiple studies, quite damaging both physically and psychologically) simply because humans are not wired like this. The constraints to be endured for a lifetime and the discipline required to navigate this successfully are far beyond what most people can muster without extensive suffering.
    I don’t hear anyone repudiating our dear Rodrigo Borja, a Valencia born guy who moved to Rome in the 15th century, changed his last name to Borgia and reigned as Pope Alexander VI….
    Compared to him Jean Vanier was a saint!

  10. “Christian sexual morality is possible. The lives of countless Christians, young and old, married and unmarried, are a bright witness to this incontestable fact.” I’m certain this would have been said about Vanier in the past. Are you certain this is an ‘incontestable fact’ or are you basing this on people who simply haven’t had their sins drawn in the sand yet?

  11. Thank you very much Michael for a very thoughtful presentation of a very sad story. Being a Canadian myself adds an extra dimension to my sorrow. Jean Vanier becomes a sad legacy to his wonderful parents, Georges and Pauline Vanier. They were an exemplary Catholic couple and well-respected as public figures in Canadian life (

  12. And yet his work for the broken stands regardless-maybe his work was partly the product of his own tearing struggles on these matters? And the women- are they answerable too-or are they pathetically unaccountable? What else is there? Are we flawed in selecting those we must shun and those we still laud who may be guilty of even worse eg Bob Hawke and the allegations by his own daughter? How many millions of persons are hiding these and worse sins? What if we just said ; Oh yes he was flawed,like the rest of us,the Bible is right afterall in its assessment of human fallenness? Isnt it more staggering that a flawed person can do such good?

  13. It is being said that the six women didn’t know about each other. There was more than sexual manipulation going on there. Presumably these women believed they were privileged to support this holy man, behind the scenes in great humility, in the holy man’s great works for God. The evil here runs very deep.

  14. No wonder Our Lady of Fatima said that most souls go to Hell because of the sins of the flesh, and sometimes for those sins alone. Even when humans find out about the sexual conduct of a person admired for his charity, this failing alone invalidates all his good works.

  15. I never met Vanier, nor had anything to do with L’Arche, but have known people who have, and who made me profoundly uncomfortable with the quasi-messianic regard in which they held him and it. I don’t think it is adequate simply to regard him as just another sinner. While he certainly was a sinner, people who abuse from a position of pastoral authority are in a particular category, yet bizzarely – but perhaps I am naive – have people queuing up to downplay their behaviour when it is exposed.

  16. While we pray for the L’Arche community and for the healing of the known and possibly unknown victims of the actions of its Founder and his mentor, I think it is important to note the following with respect to good works especially in our era of heightened social justice awareness:

    1. From a Catholic perspective, every good (work) we do ultimately has it source in God. We are merely instruments who cooperate with God’s grace and may thereby share in the reward he promises his faithful servants. Hence the saints have always tended to practice extreme discretion with respect to the good works they have done. They are very conscious that without God’s constant assistance, they can achieve nothing. Hence their humility, candor and love for the sacrament of Confession. They would rather let go of a cherished project than offend God by pursuing it. They do not self identify with the good works that they have been instrumental in creating and realize that that their defects should not be hidden for the sake of apparently protecting the good name of the work they do.

    2. Being called by God to carry out an exceptional task as may have been the case with Jean Vanier carries with it the special risk of suffering diabolical temptations that either make or mar a person’s spiritual trajectory. Our Lord himself suffered it after his forty days fast and so did many saintly founders of various institutions in the Catholic Church. A special calling by God to do something great is not a guaranty of personal sanctity. Rather, it is often a snare because person is more exposed to temptations and may even suffer more diabolical temptations aimed at discrediting the work he or she is doing. Hence the importance of the personal struggle to be truly holy! It bears repeating to a largely ignorant public that charismatics gifts are given by God for the benefit of the entire Church and not the recipient. Neither are they a guaranty nor proof of personal sanctity. Our Lord reminded us of this when he said he would reject even those who had worked miracles in his name from entering the kingdom of heaven.

    3. We do not know what happened at the very last moment of the lives of Jean and his spiritual mentor. As Catholics we pray God have mercy on their souls and indeed the souls of all the faithful departed.

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