What do Fred Moten and Stefano Harney call that act of “calling to order” performed by instructors each day in classrooms? What if I were to introduce into this act a degree of self-consciousness by discussing the theory with students? Perhaps it’s as simple as noticing things along the way. Refunctioning the space we hold together, structuring conversation differently. Freeing one another to speak. Perhaps it’s a matter of organizing improvised collective speech into story, as would a dungeon master, but with the dungeon reformed into a zendo. This is what Kerouac models for us in The Dharma Bums: space to be crazy and free in life and speech. Perhaps I can’t recreate that space in our classroom. Perhaps I need to advance further in my study of Buddhism. Perhaps a class is just a class, and it needn’t be a democracy. But then the same would be true of our lives. No, my sense is that the conversation is developing, people are finding one another as voices in the classroom. I prepare as they do: by coming to class having read and annotated the material, with questions for discussion.
The Ray Smith character in Kerouac’s The Dharma Bums uses his Beat Zen Buddhism as a cover, an intellectual veil behind which to hide a misogynistic fear of women and of post-WWII white heteronormative domesticity. What is the source of this fear? He seems torn throughout the novel between desire for solitude and desire for something like family or companionship or community. The novel’s great utopian figure for this desired community is the “floating zendo,” a network of mountaintop monasteries strung across the Americas to sustain the wandering bhikkus of the coming “rucksack revolution.”
The Dharma Bums at its very least furnishes its readers with new prayers, word-patterns one can recite and insert daily into consciousness. Modeled after Kerouac himself, the book’s narrator Ray Smith sings brief improvisations with words like “Raindrops are ecstasy, raindrops are not different from ecstasy” (105). The character invents these songs while sitting and meditating in the woods behind his mother’s home in North Carolina. There is no difference, he knows, between what we do and what happens to us. There is only tathata, or “suchness,” and comparisons are odious. And yet, as I re-read the novel for class, the quality of my life seems vastly improved when, after a day of laboring with cut-backs and ‘Marie Kondo’-style purgation, I run myself a bath.
Noting a shift in my sensitivity toward rhythm and percussion, I opt for music made by ecstatic ensembles that shake, ring, and sizzle. Thomas Meloncon warms things up with “Waiting On Your Mind,” before laying it straight with “Ain’t Gonna Wait Too Long.”
All of this turns out to be foreplay, however, for what I’ve been seeking: Elevation, a Pharoah Sanders LP from 1973. The theme is certainly in keeping with Jack Kerouac’s The Dharma Bums, a book I’m reading with students. Lighthouses, rivers, rainbows, meadows: over these I travel, dancing along, movement of a mind at play.