Dean Moriarty, Jack Kerouac’s fictional manifestation of his friend Neal Cassady, is a repulsive and alluring character. Repulsive because he embodies the very vices we’re (I’m projecting my conditioned perspective unto everyone) taught to deplore and avoid; alluring because in this “rebellion” he breaks through the repressive structures that confine us to such petty, ill-considered judgment. We wish we had the reckless audacity to do what he does, but precisely because we can’t do what he does, and because we ought not to do what he does, we are free to loathe him. At the very same time, we yearn to be him.
We are paralyzed by the initial repression, but we are paralyzed even more (if that’s even possible) by the ambivalent, paradoxical stance we take toward the likes of Dean, whereby Dean represents an idealistic projection of ourselves in our greatest ambitions of liberty and joy (pleasure? a difference?).
He was simply a youth tremendously excited with life, and though he was a con-man, he was only conning because he wanted so much to live and to get involved with people who would otherwise pay no attention to him.
Sal Paradise, the wonderboy narrator of On the Road and the fictional counterpart to Kerouac himself, is constantly seeking ways to justify Dean. Because Dean’s existence is antithetical to the norms of his time, an accounting is due, and Sal eagerly provides it. To him, and so hopefully to us (because any author would want his audience to support his worldview and thus confirm the validity of his interpretation, right?), Dean is everything we truly ought to be: raw, uninhibited, curious, active, with “a wild yea-saying overburst of American joy” that is stupidly mistaken for “criminality” (9). He faces the inauthenticity of the American way of life and understands that he may only operate within that clearing of Being, but he forges his own authenticity anyway, despite its possible insignificance, despite his own doubts and pervasive anxiety, and despite the world’s paradigm structured decidedly against everything he is, which is everything he does, and “there was nowhere to go but everywhere” (25).
And so we race with Dean. We struggle to keep up with him, to keep up with the full thrust of life, always urging forward, never pausing to reflect too much, for too busy we are in-the-midst of everything. We are too busy being-there, as Heidegger might say, which means we are right in line with our Dasein (and we won’t get into the misleading signification of ownership with “our” here). Dean is Daseining the entire novel. He is his way of being-in-the-world; Sal and the reader are trying to join him in this essential being and becoming. This stance is what makes Dean “a new kind of American saint” (35).
He is America in all its hoped-for and espoused freedom. He is always every possibility, fluidly moving in and out of situations, never stopping to think or get in his own way (or rather, to get in the way of his Dasein), which, if we take the traditional philosophical view that “the unexamined life is not worth living,” seems a road to emptiness. And there are times in the novel where Dean and Sal question what they’ve done, what they’re doing, and what they’re going to do; they even frequently declare that now is the time to settle things and project a future, but this short-lived, societally acceptable and encouraged planning is just as quickly dismissed to make room for the next unsettled adventure.
This unsettledness is authentic being. It is our primary state (again, we won’t pause to parse language here; we’re haphazardly weaving in and out Heideggerian thinking), one which we frequently ignore in favor of joining the comfort of “the one” (or “the They,” depending on the translator). The one’s way of living is the normal way of living, and Dean is anything but normal relative to repressive American culture of the time. The normal way of living allows any individual to evade the disclosure of our fundamental unsettledness. Anxiety is a standard product of this recognition, that I don’t matter. Yet if we accept this anxiety and our unsettledness, we are free to flow with our own authenticity and matter so we long as we’re alive. This seems to be what Dean does (and so is). It is also what Sal can’t quite let himself be, despite constant efforts. Indeed, by the end of the novel, he can only think of Dean. Stuck in reflection and retrospective analysis, enamored with the world’s darkness and only intermittently able to thrive within and light up that fundamental reality, Sal is ultimately unable to achieve his own namesake with any lasting success.
Paradise is often presented to us as the reward, or the destination, at the end of the road that we call life. And yet it is only on the road, it is only in life, it is only in Dean’s active pursuit of an everything that may or may not ultimately be nothing, that paradise is possible.
Note: If this post doesn’t make it clear, I just read On the Road for the first time, and I’m also in the middle of reading Hubert Dreyfus’ commentary on Martin Heidegger’s Being and Time. Hence the convoluted intellectual smoothie here.