What Jack Kerouac Can Teach Us About Life


I love Twilight Saga actress Kristen Stewart and I have loved the novel On the Road (Penguin Modern Classics) since I was a teenager, so I was biased in favour of this film before I even saw it. But when I watched it recently I noticed with new eyes that what Jack had taught me as a teenager and what he can teach me now are two completely different lessons.

The book is an exhilarating freedom-grabbing, lust-for-life, crazy journey about a passionate friendship, rattled out in lyrical prose that washes over you like jazz and whisky. As a teenager I was infatuated with Jack’s hedonistic enthusiasm, and so I planned to live life to the full and never to say no to anything exciting.

Lesson 1: Live a Life of Passion

Now that I’m a grown-up I notice that I’m already close to Jack’s age when he died. (A dead brother in childhood and an alcoholic father contributed to a tormented life of alcoholism for Jack.)

The story is a loosely disguised tale of the adventures Jack had on the road with Neal Cassady. He renames himself Sal Paradise and calls Neal, Dean Moriarty. Dean was “tremendously excited with life,” and constantly looking for “kicks”.

Jack (or ‘Sal’) writes;

“The only people that interest me are the mad ones. The ones who are mad to live. Mad to talk. Desirous of everything at the same time. The ones who never yawn or say a common place thing. But burn, burn, burn like roman candles across the night.”

As a teenager and all through my twenties I was also in love with people like this; the mad ones.

“Dean does not feel responsibility towards others. He does not know the concept. Then again he feels others have some mysterious obligation to support him. I find it unspeakably distasteful.”

Sal: “But Dean gives everyone a damn good time just being himself.”

“He gives the losers tricks!”

Sal: “Maybe that’s cause you’re not seeing what’s really holy about Dean.”

“Oh! So he’s a holy man now? A religious figure in your eyes? Oh Paradise. What I see in him is compulsive psychosis, dashed with a jigger of compulsive psychopathy and violence.”

It’s funny, but in my hazy memory of the charming and exciting Dean I didn’t remember him being so selfish, or abusive:

“Where’s Mary Lou?” (Dean’s 16 year old wife.)

“We got in a ruckus and she called the cops on me!”

Lesson 2: You Don’t Have to be Wasted to be Passionate

I know that sounds obvious but it took me many years to learn that one!

I love Jack Kerouac’s passionate, lyrical, poetic, rhythmic writing, his lust for life and his thoughtful spiritual musings.

“Who are we now? Are you gonna tell us Carl?”

“I know that I rely on my friends and my family for money. I know there’s no gold at the end of the rainbow. There’s just shit and piss. But to know that; that makes me free.”

Do you have to be a Kerouac fan to love the film? Probably. It’s about jazz, poetry and drugs on the road with the Beat Generation. It’s about a quest for meaning and belonging in life which very much appealed to the teenage me.

Now as an adult, having survived a decade of excessive partying in my twenties I made a note to myself: Don’t die like a Kerouac. (Mediate instead of drinking!) I spent a decade travelling the English canals in my thirties and began to write a ‘beatific’ account of my life ‘On the Cut.’ Jack wrote On the Road in three weeks, typing continuously on a teletype paper roll. I know now that writing is a healthier passion than alcohol, and I know that the way to write my own book is as one passionate, intensive, undistracted project.

Lesson 3: Growing Old is a Privilege

The book ends with Jack’s whimsical, lyrical musings…

“…and nobody, nobody knows what’s going to happen to anybody besides the forlorn rags of growing old, I think of Dean Moriarty, I even think of Old Dean Moriarty the father we never found, I think of Dean Moriarty.”

And here in Devon when the sun goes down and I watch the long, long skies over Dartmoor and sense the roads I haven’t yet travelled, and remember fondly the time my friend once said to me that my poems are a bit like Kerouac’s; and I think of all the people dreaming in the immensity of it; and the people that never grew old, the people I loved who died young, I think of Jack Kerouac. I wonder why his father drank and if his father drank before him, and I think of lives cut short by alcohol and dreams that never happened, and I know that I owe it to this world to write and write some more, just because my teenage self was once inspired by Jack Kerouac. Yes I think of Jack Kerouac…

What’s your passion?

What are you going to do with your brief time here on the planet? Pick something right now and tell me in the comments below!

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