The following is the transcript of a sermon that poet and Jack Kerouac biographer Gerald Nicosia gave on Beat Spirituality at the First Unitarian Universalist Church in San Francisco on October 7th this year. The readings that Nicosia refers to during the sermon were given by poet and Charles Bukowski biographer Neeli Cherkovski. They were taken from “On The Road”, “Howl” and a “Cursed From Birth,” a new collection of the writings of William Burroughs Jr. from Soft Skull Press in New York. The first two texts are well known enough for Nicosia’s text to make sense without their inclusion, and the nature and purport of the Burroughs text is explained in some detail in the body of the sermon.
This is reprinted with the kind permission of Gerald Nicosia, with whom, naturally, the copyright remains.

Sermon October 7, 2006

First Unitarian Universalist Church of San Francisco

 

by Gerald Nicosia

 

You have listened to some heavy, perhaps disturbing passages today by three men, all of them now dead, all of them important American writers: Allen Ginsberg, Jack Kerouac, and Billy Burroughs, Jr. I knew two of those three men personally—Allen Ginsberg and Billy Burroughs. The third one, Jack Kerouac, is someone whose life I have studied in enormous detail.

And I can tell you for a fact something you have perhaps already guessed: that they were all deeply troubled individuals. Their greatness—like that of almost all the so-called Beat writers—lay, at least in part, in their ability to portray a post-World War II America—in which fear had replaced love, making money had replaced compassion, and the use of force had replaced tolerance and understanding, as guiding principles of daily life.

The Beats first attracted attention by their use of rough, vulgar language—and what at times seemed a preoccupation with sex, drugs, and sordid lifestyles—but in truth, they used harsh words to reflect a harsh reality; and it was the honesty of their expression in a world where lies are dressed up in fairytale prettiness, that first attracted, and still attracts, so many young people to their writings.

The media watchdogs—not to mention the actual enforcers of the law, including the FBI—immediately jumped upon the Beats as a major threat to society. They assumed young people read the Beats merely to get the vicarious thrill of what seemed like an endless, frenetic search for kicks. Indeed, that’s how the publishers marketed their books. Just at look at the covers of those early paperbacks—you’ll see girls in skimpy clothing, guys in dark glasses with a bottle or a joint in hand, beating on bongo drums, in dingy “pads” replete with the perfunctory mattress on the floor or seedy-looking jazz clubs, or hot rods racing down the street, scaring the ordinary citizens to death.

Those covers sold books, but they were not really what the books and poems were about. Listen to their words:

Ginsberg:

“cathedrals praying”

“tender Buddha”

“archangel of the soul”

“Pater Omnipotens Aeterna Deus”

“confessing out the soul”

“eli eli lamma lamma sabacthani”

(“Father, father, why have you forsaken me?”)

Kerouac:

“a queer saint”

“mad to be saved”

“I could hear a new call”

“there would be visions”

“the pearl would be handed to me”

Billy Burroughs, Jr.:

“Father”

“God’s mercy on you”

“I have borne the suffering for you”

“cursed-from-birth”

There can be no doubt, at all, that the “pearl” Kerouac alludes to is the same “pearl of great price” that Jesus spoke of—for which a man would be wise to trade all that he owns. Nor is there any doubt that young, dying Billy Burroughs is referring to Jesus Christ directly when he tells his father, “I have borne the suffering for you.”

Quite simply, Beat writing is filled with religious imagery from first to last. Thus it was no surprise that Kerouac spent years reading the Holy Scriptures and religious writers like Kierkegaard and St. John of the Cross, and that so many of the Beat writers studied or practiced Buddhism. These writers were always asking the big questions about human life and man’s place in the universe—that was what first attracted me to them. They are on a genuine spiritual quest, motivated by their own intense suffering, as most spiritual seekers are.

It was Kerouac’s great genius to frame the quest as the movement from beat to beatitude, from suffering to joy, from misery and “sin” to blessedness. Neal Cassady, who is the model for the character of Dean Moriarty in On the Road, was a womanizer, a car thief, and a substance abuser of prodigious proportions. Yet in On the Road, Jack Kerouac called him a “saint,” and this drove the critics—as well as the guardians of public morality—mad. “Is Kerouac sponsoring juvenile delinquency?” they asked.

The answer is no. Rather, Kerouac, like Ginsberg and so many of the other Beat writers, measures people by their heart and their capacity for empathy and kindness—”while you are not safe, I am not safe,” Ginsberg tells his friend Carl Solomon in the madhouse. He knows that we are all “in the total animal soup of time.” We are all vulnerable to the hurts and disasters that are part and parcel of this existence on earth. This is the same view of Jesus Christ when he said, “Do for others what you would like them to do for you.” But for the Beats, there was hope in the very fact that we can speak honestly of our hurts and wounds, because in that honesty lie the seeds of understanding and compassion, that can eventually help us to transcend suffering.

The Beats have often suffered from comparison with the existentialists—who were by and large an anti-religious lot. In most respects—except perhaps for their black clothing and predilection for cafes, berets, and free sex—the Beats were poles apart from the existentialists. The Beats found optimism, not pessimism, in pain and suffering. They sought, not existential despair, but something “good to eat a thousand years,” and they found it. For that, we owe them a debt of gratitude.

The Beats sought to live life to the fullest—to test the limits of human existence—and so to find out what it truly means to be human. In this they were not so far from that proto-Unitarian Henry David Thoreau, who said, “I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach; and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived.”

This brings me to the final reading—the letter by Billy Burroughs, Jr., to his father, the writer William S. Burroughs, notorious author of Naked Lunch and drug experimenter extraordinaire. Billy Burroughs, Jr., was drug-addicted in his mother’s womb—since she used vast amounts of Benzedrine, speed, while she was pregnant with him. His father shot and killed his mother in a game of William Tell when he was only four years old. He was raised by his paternal grandparents, and saw his father on brief visits maybe once a year. By the time Billy was sixteen, in the early 1960’s, he was living on the streets of the Lower East Side of New York City and beginning the severe damage he would eventually inflict on his liver by shooting Methedrine several times a day. He would later also become a very heavy alcoholic. At the age of 29, he had a liver transplant to save his life after massive esophageal bleeding, but he did not curb his alcoholism—and five years later, he died alone in Florida, a few months before his 34th birthday.When Billy wrote that letter—asking why his earthly father had forsaken him—he was still living near the elder Burroughs in Boulder, Colorado. He had written two powerful novels called Speed and Kentucky Ham, and was working on a third, but his literary career had fallen victim to his substance abuse and subsequent illness. His wife had left him, and he was desperately trying to get his career back in gear, to do something productive with the remainder of his life. By that time, his father was a world-renowned writer and at least modestly wealthy. Billy had asked his dad for $500 for a car—and his dad had said, “No,” taunting him, “Where are you going?”I do not mean to single out William S. Burroughs here for chastisement. Jack Kerouac saw his daughter Jan only twice in his life, and she also died alone after years of struggling with kidney failure, at the age of 44. Neal Cassady’s son John, who was with us here last night, spoke eloquently of his love for his father, but he would be the first to admit how much he and his sisters also suffered from their father’s neglect.

One of the last things the Beat poet Gregory Corso said to me, when we were talking about Jan Kerouac, was: “I wish I had taken better care of my own kids.”

Indeed, one could entitle a book about the Beat Generation: “The pearl, yes—but at what price?”

The Beat writers had some of the eternal answers, and that is why their writings will endure. They knew that honesty is one of the eternal answers, and so is openness to experience. But they did not have all the answers.

They refused to acknowledge limits. But one of our very real limits comes in the form of other human beings. Nor did the Beats acknowledge that there is often a heavy human price for testing limits. That price is frequently paid—in their stead—by the children of the limit-testers.

In the end, one has to ask, Can there be a true spirituality without the component of service to others? The Beats were true questers, but they left a large distance for us to follow after them. The Beat mountaintop is not the ultimate one, but it lets us see, as Kerouac wrote, “a new horizon.”

And as he also wrote, it takes both the “shining mind” and the “dark mind” to make a complete human being, to receive the full gift of life we are all waiting for.

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