God Is Dead in Walter Salles' On the Road

FILE - This undated publicity film image released by IFC Films shows, from left, Sam Riley, Kristen Stewart, and Garrett Hedl
FILE - This undated publicity film image released by IFC Films shows, from left, Sam Riley, Kristen Stewart, and Garrett Hedlund in a scene from "On the Road." (AP Photo/IFC Films, Gregory Smith, File)

In Why Kerouac Matters, John Leland reveals that when Jack Kerouac, a self-described "solitary crazy Catholic mystic," came down from Desolation Peak in 1956, he was wearing a silver crucifix around his neck, a gift from poet Gregory Corso. Yet with the exception of the New York Times, magazines regularly removed this symbol from pictures of him because it didn't fit with the stereotypical image of the wild, atheistic beat.

Walter Salles' film adaptation of On the Road performs a similar editing job by removing the spiritual and religious dimensions of the novel (Jay Atkinson makes a similar argument here). Jack Kerouac consistently resisted interpretations of the novel as a celebration of decadence, insisting instead that life on the road represented a quest for beatitude or blessedness, exclaiming that On the Road:

...was really a story about two Catholic buddies roaming the country in search of God. And we found him. I found him in the sky, in Market Street San Francisco (those 2 visions), and Dean (Neal) had God sweating out of his forehead all the way. THERE IS NO OTHER WAY OUT FOR THE HOLY MAN: HE MUST SWEAT FOR GOD. And once he has found Him, the Godhood of God is forever Established and really must not be spoken about.

In place of the strange and exhilarating blend of Catholicism and Buddhism which infuses Kerouac's work, the film beautifully memorializes the novel's most obvious moments: Dean Moriarty's reckless driving and careful parking, wild parties, sex, drugs and be-bop jazz.

These moments are important and memorable parts of the novel, yet they exist in tension with other, quieter moments through which Kerouac attempts to impart ethical lessons to readers. As Leland points out, "Beneath its wild yea-saying, On the Road is a book about how to live your life." Unfortunately the only thing I learned from the film is how to crack open a Benzedrine inhaler.

Throughout the novel, Sal Paradise struggles with the realization that the romantic myth of America he carries around in his head is just that -- a myth. The frontier imaginary that summons him to the road has in reality been supplanted by a Wild West Show. The cowboy hero as exemplified by Dean Moriarty has turned into a destructive Angel.

Tension between Sal and Dean permeates the novel because Sal evolves, or tries to evolve, whereas Dean appears fully formed. Sal's silent observations of life on the road contrast sharply with Dean's ecstatic vocalizations. When Dean shows Sal a photograph of Camille, Sal solemnly reflects:

... these were all the snapshots which our children would look at someday with wonder, thinking their parents had lived smooth, well-ordered, stabilized-within-the-photo lives and got up in the morning to walk proudly on the sidewalks of life, never dreaming the raggedy madness and riot of our actual lives, our actual night, the hell of it, the senseless nightmare of the road. All of it inside endless and beginningless emptiness. Pitiful forms of ignorance.

For Sal Paradise, the road isn't an escape, but a trial, a path toward salvation and redemption. Suffering on the road is a means to enlightenment. This passage reveals a subtle interweaving of Catholic and Buddhist imagery that complicates the will to sensual excess with which the beat generation is typically associated. The film privileges the latter over the former, resulting in a spiritual emptiness and flatness to Sal that many critics have fixated on.

Of course there are references to sex and drugs in the novel, but they are relatively minimal and mostly off-stage. In Kerouac's work, the drama of who is screwing who is much less interesting than Sal's gentlemanly, beat reflections on sex:

Boys and girls in America have such a sad time together; sophistication demands that they submit to sex immediately without proper preliminary talk. Not courting talk -- real straight talk about souls, for life is holy and every moment is precious.

When On the Road crashed into Cold War America, depictions of sex and drugs were a meaningful challenge to the status quo. Yet at this point in time, given the ubiquity of pornography and the legalization of marijuana, cinematic depictions of these exploits come across as gratuitous and banal.

The film concludes with Sal and Dean's frantic trip to Mexico, where they smoke weed with some teenagers and get freaky in a brothel. But in the novel, the trip to Mexico also contains some of Sal's most intense meditations on the relationship between humans and nature:

Then a bright idea came to me: I jumped up on the steel roof of the car and stretched out flat on my back. Still there was no breeze, but the steel had an element of coolness in it and dried my back of sweat, clotting up thousands of dead bugs into cakes on my skin, and I realized the jungle takes you over and you become it. Lying on the roof of the car with my face to the black sky was like lying in a closed trunk on a summer night. For the first time in my life the weather was not something that touched me, that caressed me, froze or sweated me, but became me. The atmosphere and I became the same. Soft infinitesimal showers of microscopic bugs fanned down on my face as I slept, and they were extremely pleasant and soothing.

These lines locate On the Road in a tradition that extends back to the transcendentalist movement of Thoreau and Emerson in the 19th century, and forward to the environmental movement of the 1960s. Given the ecological violence being caused by climate change, pollution and war, passages like this are much more relevant, and potentially challenging to the American Moloch of greed, overdevelopment and militarization, than images of threesomes and blunts.

In the "endless poem" of America, it is the spaces in between that matter for Kerouac. Unfortunately, this film adaptation travels from one cliché to the next, skipping over many of the small moments that give the novel holy substance.

Salles' work should be considered a success, though, if it inspires a new generation to read, and older generations to reread the novel. What they find will most likely be very different from what they expect or remember.

Three books that highlight the religious/spiritual dimensions of On the Road:

Isaac Gewirtz, Beatific Souls: Jack Kerouac's On the Road (Scala, 2007).

John Leland, Why Kerouac Matters (Viking, 2007).

Rob Sean Wilson, Beat Attitudes (New Pacific Press 2010).