Tuesday 12 March 2002

Visions of Japhy

I’ve been learning about American literature at In a Dark Time: The Eye Begins to See. Loren’s conclusion, after a weeklong discussion of Kerouac’s On the Road with Diane McCormick, drew attention to another of Kerouac’s novels:

I started out this week hoping that On the Road would become one of my favorite novels of the 20th Century. It hasn’t. In fact, I found that I prefer Dharma Bums, the only other book I’ve read by Kerouac, to On the Road. The two works are written in a very similar style, and both focus on the narrator’s relationship to another person. In my opinion, Japhy is more interesting than Moriarity, and that makes the difference between the two books.

I read On the Road once and The Dharma Bums a half-dozen times, in my twenties. Loren’s discussion of the latter brought back a rush of memories, forcing me to accept that my passion for Japan and the Japanese language started with Kerouac, or rather with Japhy Ryder (the character based on poet Gary Snyder).

I’ve answered the question How did you become interested in Japan? so many times that it’s a shock to discover I’ve been giving the wrong answer all these years. I became interested in Zen Buddhism, I would explain, and I saw Kurosawa’s Seven Samurai, and my interest grew from there.

That’s not how it happened.

I read The Dharma Bums, identified with Japhy Ryder, read Gary Snyder’s poems and Alan Watts’ The Way of Zen, and saw Seven Samurai. Snyder, Watts, and Kurosawa were my entry points into Japanese culture—but Snyder came first. (Strange to see him looking professorial, in a collar and tie, and contented too.)

Gary Snyder still holds a place on my bookshelf, though I haven’t visited in a long time. The photograph opposite the title page of Riprap & Cold Mountain Poems shows him leaning in the doorway of the cabin on Sourdough Mountain Lookout in the summer of 1953.

Gary Snyder: Cold MountainPoems

His poem Migration of Birds, written in 1956, contains these lines:

Jack Kerouac outside, behind my back
Reads the Diamond Sutra in the sun.

In the final section of The Dharma Bums, Ray Smith (Kerouac’s alter-ego) spends a season as a fire lookout in the Cascade Mountains, almost certainly in a similar hut. Earlier in the story Smith has told us:

I reminded myself of the line in the Diamond Sutra that says, Practice charity without holding in mind any conceptions about charity, for charity after all is just a word.” I was very devout in those days and was practicing my religious devotions almost to perfection.

I was very devout in those days too, until I bought a camera. Then I found less and less time for Buddhism as I devoted my life to perfecting my skill as a photographer. Every few years I’d take a Japanese class but, before long, photography would lure me back. Only when my passion for picture-making withered did I return to Japan, one of two first loves. The other’s name was Lindy. Still when I read Gary Snyder’s Four Poems for Robin, it’s as if I’ve tumbled into my own autobiography. The last poem in the sequence is titled December at Yase:

You said, that October,
In the tall dry grass by the orchard
When you chose to be free,
“Again someday, maybe ten years.”

After college I saw you
One time. You were strange.
And I was obsessed with a plan.

Now ten years and more have
Gone by: I’ve always known
             where you were—
I might have gone to you
Hoping to win your love back.
You still are single.

I didn’t.
I thought I must make it alone. I
Have done that.

Only in dream, like this dawn,
Does the grave, awed intensity
Of our young love
Return to my mind, to my flesh.

We had what the others
All crave and seek for;
We left it behind at nineteen.

I feel ancient, as though I had
Lived many lives.

And may never now know
If I am a fool
Or have done what my
          karma demands.

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Comments

Check back into the november archives of "In A Dark Time" & you will find wonderful reflections & images of "Dharma Bums" & Gary Snyder . . . your reflections sent me back to my own bookshelf . . . to the "Old Ways" . . . thanks . . .

Posted by Raymon on 12 March 2002 (Comment Permalink)

Thanks, Jonathan. I was always more at home with *Dharma Bums* too, and could never put a finger on what so excited readers of *On the Road*. Perhaps it's related to having read AB first--but I think that Japhy and Ray Smith work better as characters, fully human characters than Dean Moriarty and Sal Paradise. Again, thanks. On too long a reading list, *Dharma Bums* elbows its way forward.

Posted by AKMA on 12 March 2002 (Comment Permalink)

A beautiful piece, Jonathon, and in remembering my reading of The Dharma Bums, I too was taken back to memories of love lost during a time of immense passion and feeling. Yet, it was while reading that book, sitting at a fire next to a river out in the mountains of the Western Cape (we lived our own Buddha and Zen dreams) that I met my wife. It was one of Kerouac's most articulate, dense, driven works. I've still got my old Kerouacs - I eventually had to tape the covers of a couple to hold them together. No matter how Kerouac and Corso come to be viewed as the decades roll on, they had a profound, lasting effect on me. Jeff Ward pointed out recently that, yes, they helped shape our forward path but ultimately belong back in our twenties. I do agree with him but, shit, they were beautiful times, accompanied by exquisite writing. On The Road never did grab me. I ranked Lonesome Traveller, Desolation Angels, Big Sur and The Subterraneans (why, I don't know) ahead of the likes of Visons of Cody, Vanity of Duluoz, Sartori in Paris and others. A great piece to close off the night. Thanks.

Posted by Mike Golby on 13 March 2002 (Comment Permalink)

Username: snglbny I just happened upon this poem tonight in abook of mine and wonder what "Yase" is. Do you know? Let me know if you do, I really like this poem, it is exactly how I feel about my 1st love.

Posted by Snglbny on 10 April 2002 (Comment Permalink)

This discussion is now closed. My thanks to everyone who contributed.

© Copyright 2007 Jonathon Delacour