22 June 2019

Kerouac and the Fellahin Tribe of God's Children

On the Road is a literary phenomenon in a conservative post-war America in the late 1950s of such rippling effects that its author, Jack Kerouac, has been baptized by the media as the chief of a generation of revolutionary artists. According to Gilbert Millstein (1957), the first established reviewer to endorse the book, the three pillars of Kerouac's writing, thinking and vision constitutes an indispensable whole, and the dismissal of any element shall break down the entire architecture. Unfortunately, On the Road has been interpreted without much confirmation of the authorial intention and remained vulnerable to sectional analysis. In either criticisms or appraisals, most scholars have disassembled the novel into its language execution, structural composition and ideological validity.
The surgical approach prevalent in academic studies corresponds to the boldness of Kerouac's experiment with a spontaneous prose style highly influenced by jazz and poetry to textualize conversational taboos regarding genders, races, crimes and substances. Such an approach, while enriching discussions about the unconventional content and form of the book, might swivel around some prescribed focal points and limit an advantageous viewpoint of the bigger picture. I propose a fast-track portal to comprehensively appreciate both the book and the writer by looking at On the Road as the fieldnotes of an anthropological research whose findings can be summarized into one word–the Fellahin. A fine literary and ideological choice, this diction is the arch stone to resolve all internal conflicts within the main characters, suggesting his optimistic rendition of the original concept by Oswald Spengler and deliver Kerouac's Christian worldviews.

A minimalist summary of On the Road is the travels of the narrator, Sal Paradise, mostly with Dean Moriarty across the United States and to Mexico. Once aligned to an academic framework, it resembles a meticulous record of raw data to study a generic tribe of people by an anthropologist. The researcher, Sal, describes a "Paper America" of false promises, social gaps and institutional injustice as the context for his fieldworks. Dean ostensibly belongs to the dominant white male category, but his extreme exuberance of liveliness is a counterexample that worth an in-depth analysis. Thus, he becomes the main case study for Sal's research.

Sal's discovery of a Fellahin quality among a certain group of people, signified by the realization that "[Dean] had found people like himself" when they come into contact with the Mexican Indians, answers all of his research questions. It is to this generic Fellahin "tribe" that Dean’s mentality finds a whole sense of identification with, although their immediate physical traits force the dual into a fragmented identity among "self-important money bag Americans." Dean chases after a life force with his diasporic choreography, but his addiction to the unpredictable traps him in extreme states. Sal concludes that to feel "alive" without losing balance, one should share the Fellahin’s acknowledgement of the universal fate of birth and death and, as Dean does, embrace any unexpected occurrences in between these two points. The contrasting duality of rootedness and movement found in the Fellahin and Dean complements one another to sustain stability and liveliness simultaneously and resolute the identity crisis among citizens of the phantom American society.

Sal Paradise's concept of the Fellahin is Kerouac's re-appropriation of the original term from Spengler's seminal work The Decline of the West. Spengler original model proposes that all civilizations start from a group of nomadic peasants who wish to establish settlements. Along with their spacial expansion from villages to towns to cities, their communal cohabitation fosters the creation of intangible values that define a culture. Nevertheless, as the fellahin mass becomes marginalized by urbanization and its displaced culture, Spengler opined a fatalistic tendency of the downfall of all civilizations. In principles, Sal's reflection resonates deeply with Spengler’s conception. However, he also proposes a more optimistic trajectory. In Kerouac's presentation of Dean as the negative instance to his immediate genealogical stereotype of an American white male, the author suggests that by filling in the voidness felt by urban dwellers with the complementary duality of movement and stillness as found in Dean and the Fellahin, a civilization shall prosper by regaining its connection to the fixed and unfixed variables that textualizes life.

Kerouac specifically suggests Christian faith as the direct gateway to Sal’s realizations. According to Spengler, a culture takes root in some form of religious awareness, which is gradually rejected by rationalism during the process of civilization. The Fellahin are those that still preserve an organic mysticism of an invisible force that "bound us all together in this world." This journey of finding oneself in relation to a divine being is described in Sal's observation of the three stages of mystical development that Dean goes through during his adulthood. At the latter stages, Dean's mindfulness of the knowledge of IT, of TIME and of the fact that everything is FINE (as capitalized by Kerouac) represents the Trinity Doctrine of the Christian faith, whereby God exists in three forms of the same essence as The Father–The Son–The Holy Spirit. The knowledge of TIME anchors the Fellahin to a primordial existence of the Father and the Son as the source of all mankind. The knowledge of IT fuels the Beatific soul or the Holy Spirit whose temporal presence Sal witnesses in Dean, great musicians and people who are "mad to live." Kerouac proposes that for uprooted citizens from megatropolis, they shall need to enter what Spengler terms a second religiousness, which is ideally Christianity, to trace back their origins.

Kerouac confides that "[On the Road] was really a story about two Catholic buddies roaming the country in search of God. And we found him." By reading it as Sal's anthropological study of the Fellahin "tribe," readers shall be able to not only appreciate the literary and ideological craft but also peak through the keyhole to see the God in whom Dean and Sal has found the secrets of life.

[Nguyen Thu Trang graduated with a B.A. in Culture, Society and Media from Ritsumeikan Asia Pacific University in 2018.]

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