When Kerouac Met Dostoyevsky

by Stephen J. Gertz

Jack Kerouac’s “Dostoyevsky Mad-Face” by Allen Ginsberg, 1953.

Sometime during March-April, 1949, John-not-yet-Jack Kerouac, 27 years old and living with his parents as “The Wizard of Ozone Park” (Queens, NYC), as his Beat friends referred to him, bought a cheap reprint edition of short stories by Fyodor Dostoyevsky. He annotated the book, and entered his ownership signature.

Dostoyevsky was an important influence on Kerouac; his novel, The Subterraneans, was consciously modeled on Dostoyevsky’s Notes from Underground, one of his favorite books, and there are many references to the Russian author in Kerouac’s novels and letters.
Dostoyevsky was something of a guiding literary and philosophical spirit to the Beats (and buddy – Kerouac affectionately called him “Dusty”), and Notes From the Underground, which Sartre considered to be a major forerunner of existentialism, a handbook of sorts for the Western Man isolated, apart from, and at odds with the culture in which he lives, alienated from the mainstream, an outsider creating and living life on his own terms. Notes from the Underground is the companion piece to Mezz Mezzrow‘s Really The Blues (1946), the gospel of hipster-jazz subculture that the Beats adopted as their book of revelations. The two books serve as the liturgy to Beat theology.

In 1949, the year that Kerouac bought this book, he had just completed the legendary road trips with Neal Cassady that began in July, 1947, wrote The Town and the City, was working on Dr. Sax, and crafting the first draft of On the Road (in its essential religiosity a sort of Brothers Karamazov in a car; Kerouac, a devout, though lapsed Catholic; a lonely, fallen altar-boy on an odyssey seeking enlightenment, redemption and communion with the Godhead, Brother Cassady his co-pilot and navigator riding shotgun no matter where he sat. On the Road is not about getting kicks on Route 66. Kerouac is an Irish-Catholic Siddartha). 1949 was a key year in Kerouac’s journey, and Dostoyevsky was heavily on his mind.

In a letter written to his friend Alan Harrington on April 23, 1949 Kerouac wrote: “I’ve just read ‘An Unfortunate [sic] Predicament,’ a long story by Dusty-what’s-his-name. I studied it carefully and found that he begins with ‘ideas’ and then demolishes them in the fury of what actually becomes the story. This letter is a similar venture. However, nothing detracts from the fact that this is a mad letter. ‘So be it! So be it!'”

Colton Harris-Moore documentary to be screened on Orcas

After working on this project Bodmer sees Harris-Moore not as a folk hero or a criminal but as a capitalist.

She describes him as wanting to be Bill Gates rather than a folk hero who is a champion for the poor, but he did accomplish remarkable things.

With what she calls an undeniable intelligence and a desire for near-suicidal escapism due to his stealing and flying of planes without any training, Bodmer sees Harris-Moore as an extremist with the demons of a rocky childhood propelling him farther into chaos.


Wittgenstein and Zen Buddhism: one practice, no dogma.

“My propositions are elucidatory in this way: he who understands me finally recognizes them as nonsensical, when he has climbed out through them, on them, over them. (He must so to speak throw away the ladder, after he has climbed up on it.) He must overcome these propositions…” {Wittgenstein, Tractatus 6.54}

“The most important point is to establish yourself in a true sense, without establishing yourself on delusion. And yet we cannot live or practice without delusion. Delusion is necessary, but delusion is not something on which you can establish yourself. It is like a stepladder. Without it you can’t climb up, but you don’t stay on the stepladder.” {Shunryu Suzuki, Not always so, p.41}


Chapter 4: Bad Faith and de Beauvoir’s Gendered Self

In The Second Sex, de Beauvoir acknowledges this conflict only briefly in terms of bad faith before breaking from Sartrean existentialism to find a more complete solution. Acknowledging her unequal status with regard to her union with Sartre in their relationship, I will argue, de Beauvoir gains an insight into the condition of women’s situation as one which restricts their project for authenticity and transcendence. With this emphasis on situation as a limiting factor for transcendence, de Beauvoir breaks from existentialism, which has proven inadequate in handling the conflict she and Sartre notice in their own relationship. Thus, I will show how it is in the understanding of her relationship and dialogue with Sartre that de Beauvoir finds both the need to rethink her conception of authenticity and a method with which to proceed in her own way.


From Solitude to Solidarity How Camus Left Nihilism Behind

Absurdity, he saw, was nothing more than a first step toward the truth. In his private journal, he wrote that the absurd “teaches nothing.” Instead of looking only at ourselves, as do Sisyphus or Nietzsche’s superman, we must look to others: We are condemned to live together in a precarious, unsettling world. “The misery and greatness of this world: it offers no truths, but only objects for love. Absurdity is king, but love saves us from it.”

Love saves us from absurdity. At this point, Camus shed Nietzsche: Commitment to others becomes primordial in a world streaked by the absurd. This is the subject of The Rebel, a book conceived during the occupation and published in 1952. The rebel, affirms Camus, rejects not just metaphysical, but also political absurdity: namely, a state’s insistence on giving meaning to the unjustifiable suffering it inflicts on its citizens. The rebel not only says “no” to an unspeaking universe, but also says “no” to an unjust ruler. The rebel “refuses to allow anyone to touch what he is. He is fighting for the integrity of one part of his being. He does not try, primarily, to conquer, but simply to impose”—to impose himself on a meaningless world, as well as on those who deny his humanity.

Most critically, however, the rebel seeks to impose a limit on his own self. Rebellion is an act of defense, not offense; it is equipoise, not a mad charge against an opponent. Ultimately, it requires an active watchfulness in regard to the humanity of others as well as oneself. Just as the absurd never authorizes despair, much less nihilism, a tyrant’s acts never authorize one to become tyrannical in turn. The rebel does not deny his master as a fellow human being, he denies him only as his master; and he resists the inevitable temptation to dehumanize his former oppressor.

For Camus, rebellion lives only as long as does the balance between daring and prudence. Hence Camus’s embrace of a profoundly un-Nietzschean “philosophy of limits.” Since we cannot know everything, this philosophy argues that we cannot do anything we please to others. Rebellion, unlike revolution, “aspires to the relative and can only promise an assured dignity coupled with relative justice. It supposes a limit at which the community of man is established.” Revolution comes easily, while rebellion “is nothing but pure tension.”

Ultimately, rebellion means unending self-vigilance: It is the art of active restraint. At the end of The Rebel, Camus declared that our task is to “serve justice so as not to add to the injustice of the human condition, to insist on plain language so as not to increase the universal falsehood, and to wager, in spite of human misery, for happiness.” His many critics dismissed this phrase as mere grandiloquence, a heroic glibness disguising an absence of deep thought. Yet the truth of the matter is that there is nothing glib or easy about Camus’s claim. Instead, it recognizes the difficulty, doubts, and desperation tied to true rebellion, and the realization we must live with provisional outcomes.


Autobiography of My Mother by Jamaica Kincaid

“Kincaid’s novels do indeed withhold happy endings and she adds the fine shading to the narrative of colonialism by creating characters who can never thrive, never love and never create precisely because colonialism has removed the context within which those things would make sense. In Autobiography of My Mother, for example, Kincaid provides her readers with a motherless protagonist who, in turn, does not want to be a mother, to reproduce under colonialism or to claim kinship with her colonized father. She opposes colonial rule precisely by refusing to accommodate herself to it or to be responsible for reproducing it in any way. Thus the autobiographical becomes an unwriting, an undoing, an unraveling of self. Kincaid concludes an interview about the book, which the reviewer has called “depressing” and “nihilistic” by saying: “I feel it’s my business to make everyone a little less happy.”

Jack/Judith Halberstam, The Anti-Social Turn in Queer Studies


A Conversation Between Alexei Penzin and Dmitry Vilensky From the Perspective of Hope

In our day, many radical leftists appeal, rather, to “desubjectivation”: “Become nobody, do nothing” (Tiqqun). We believe that despite its apparent tactical effectiveness in the contemporary society of the spectacle, this is a false path strategically.

Contemporary capitalism’s entire ideological apparatus is constructed on desubjectivation: by neutralizing subjectivity, capitalism generates the appearance that its own system is “objective.” We need, rather, to activate new mechanisms of subjectivation.


Zapatista Spring – Ramor Ryan

Eight volunteers converge to help campesinos build a water system in Chiapas—a strategy to bolster the Zapatista insurgency by helping locals to assert their autonomy. These outsiders come to question the movement they’ve traveled so far to support—and each other—when forced into a world so unlike the poetic communiqués of Subcomandante Marcos—a world of endemic rural poverty, parochialism, and shifting loyalties to the movement. The quiet dignity of the local compañeros and echoes of B. Traven, Conrad, and Camus, round out this epic yarn.


Sociology of the homeless man

In hard times when work is scarce and wages are low, voluntary quitting of jobs is much less than in good times. Hobos are easily piqued and they will “walk off” the job on the slightest pretext, even when they have the best jobs and living conditions are relatively good. Hobo philosophy is disposed to represent the man who is a long time on the job as a piker. He ought to leave a job once in a while simply to assert his independence and to learn something else about other jobs.


Toby Higbie – Crossing Class Boundaries Tramp Ethnographers and Narratives of Class in Progressive Era America

On a late winter day in the early years of this century, Alice Solenberger met an unemployed male laborer on a Chicago street. Solenberger worked for the city’s Bureau of Charities, and she recognized the “Irishman” as one of the many seasonal workers who had applied there for work during the past winter. Although the man had worked steadily from April to October on railroads and in the harvest, Solenberger recounted, he was “unusually extravagant” this particular winter and found himself broke by December. Not the type to beg, the Irishman had applied for work at the Bureau of Charities and finally found employment in the ice harvest. Surprised to see him back in the city only a few weeks later, Solenberger asked why he was not working in the ice fields. When the man replied that he did not need to work there, Solenberger assumed that he had another job and inquired about that. To this question the laborer replied, “No, I mean I’ve got money. I don’t need to work any more”

“Well, you are lucky. Is it a large sum?” inquired Solenberger. “Did some relative leave it to you? What are you going to do with it? Tell me all about it.” To which the laborer replied: “Relative! No, I ain’t that lucky. You don’t understand. I mean that I’ve got money that I worked for. I got a job that last day I was at the charity office and I worked nearly two months. Just stopped it here last Saturday. It was good pay and I’ve got a-plenty of it now. That’s why I ain’t working on the ice. I don’t need to.”

This was logic that Solenberger could not understand. She pressed her subject about saving for his old age or for sickness. The Irishman offered several alternative explanations focusing on his relative youth, his lack of family commitments, the fact that summer work would open soon enough, and even his dislike of working on the ice. When none of these satisfied Solenberger, he offered what she took as “the philosophy of a great many seasonal workers.” “I’m real sorry to disappoint you, Miss, since you seem so set on the idea of me working on the ice, but to tell the truth I really wouldn’t think it was right to do it. I’d just be taking the work away from some poor fellow who needs it, and it wouldn’t be right for a man to do that when he has plenty of money in his pocket.”