Tom Berrigan (Paris Review): “How come you never write about Jesus?”
Jack Kerouac: “I never write about Jesus? All I write about is Jesus.”
“We cannot transform our lives, unless we allow them to be transformed by that stroke of grace. It happens; or it does not happen. And it certainly does not happen if we try to force it on ourselves, just as it shall not happen so long as we think, in our self-complacency, we have no need of it. Grace strikes us when we are in great pain and restlessness. It strikes us when we walk through the dark valley of a meaningless and empty life.” Paul Tillich
As I have grown older and seen my views on grace and sin change, I’ve always maintained a pretty low anthropology. I still live with Tillch’s teaching on sin being a state before it is a thing, I filter human nature through the Fall, I realize life is muck filled, and I think on myself as only a redeemed sinner. Even if I do go the route of thinking on the particulars, I know because of my state I will not avoid sin let alone the occasions to do so. Desire is adultery and hate is murder. The bar is set pretty high. When I hear we are to “sin boldly,” it makes sense for no one is anything but a sinner, and “imaginary sinners” have no place in the history of salvation. I will not go into why “sin boldly” is rhetoric and not a license to sin, but if you are unfamiliar with the phrase, do know it is not about getting a free pass in life, but being opened up to a radical grace that is received in spite of oneself.
Because we are sinners and live in a state of sin, grace is all the more remarkable. This is especially the case as sin, being a state, is not only our own condition, but the “human condition.” This whole messed up world of ours would seem to suggest that grace is no more than non-sense. And yet “where sin abounds, grace abounds more still.” Enter my recently completed reading of On the Road, Jack Kerouac’s look at the reality of sin and need for grace on the American road.
Sal, who provides the voice of On the Road, is an urban dweller. Cities say something of law and gospel which means by extension sin and grace. Being enslaved to our sinful nature, society has created the constraint of the law which is especially apparent in the cities. The city may have ample diversions to commit particular sins, but it is really a place about the earthly kingdom with its rule of law. The police are always around to keep your particular sins in check and when you do fall down, there is always a sanctuary where you can confess. This is the world in which Kerouac’s character Sal revolts as he sets out on the open highway.
I will not go into why Sal’s New York is a place of law and constraint but when Sal takes to the road, New York represents everything that keeps him in check. The same will be true of Denver and San Francisco though to a lesser extent. Feeling the indictment of the law and unable to see grace, Sal flees New York and goes into the West. He sets out to throw off the shackles of the law and to engage in what can only be called a corrupted view of grace. As On The Road progresses you get to know that run as you will from the law, you cannot run from your sinful self. Your indictment is as apparent on the Plains as in great urban centers and that indictment becomes manifest in human suffering.
Sal and those he meets suffer and they do so tremendously on account of their sins. Early in my reading I went the route of saying, “you don’t want to suffer then stop toking up and sleeping around.” In other words, I concentrated on the sins. When I met characters that had suffering thrust on them then I realized it was not particular sins, but sin as a state that brought this suffering. Even if casual sex, petty crimes, and drug use were not present in On The Road, there would still be the underlying racism and misogyny from which Sal and his companions never really revolt to make his characters no less sin filled. As there are no laws regarding the degradation of people, you can keep the law and yet not have the gospel.
What is at play is Sal and his friends, particularly his buddy Dean, want a world free of the law. They also want grace and trying to achieve it, they seek to force it in the worse ways. Being in bondage to sin however, grace cannot be willed into existence. “It will happen or it won’t.” Try as hard as they may, the likes of Sal, Dean, and their ilk rarely have a grace filled experience while “on the road.”
Unable to force grace or break free of the bondage of sin, the chief characters in this book take on incredible pathos apparent in their childlike behavior and need for gratification. When grace is seen, it is among those Sal meets only briefly….two men going to meet their women and a migrant worker with the love of family to sustain her in times of hardship among others. These ancillary characters never seek to force grace; they only allow it to happen.
Worse than forcing grace is not allowing for it. This is evident among the book’s beatniks. They eschew family life, refuse to listen to women, dismiss their children, and reduce African-Americans and the working class to their music and quaint traditions. In each case, Sal and the beats ignore the larger stories with their potential for grace turning people into things that are merely to be used for one’s own happiness. As long as a woman is reduced to sex and a black man to blowing a horn, there may be no affront to the law, though there is the willful fleeing from grace.
Yet in all of this messiness of broken people and stream of consciousness wording, On the Road affirms our need for grace. It shows us grace as something we try to run to and yet run from and though its’ moments of grace are rare, it is a theme not far removed from the surface of book’s content. It breaks through in beautiful geography and among people who we quickly meet and leave. All the while, it is also a book filled with particular sins and the state of sin from which we cannot flee. If On the Road were written with an understanding of being a “bold sinner” rather than the tepid justification for breaking the law and if grace was welcomed in the moments it was to be had, who knows what we would have ended up with. It would be a less marketable book, but one that would have been a better road map showing us routes to arrive at the gospel rather than places where we seek to run from the law. That is not what the book is. However that may have been the book Jack Kerouac wanted to write if only his life would have given him the experiences to have made it possible.
Image : Jack Kerouac by Tom Palumbo, 1956