Wednesday, March 18, 2009

Jack Kerouac - The Dharma Bums (a return)

I haven't been here for a while, as writing about music proved a lot easier and I guess more immediately and communally satisfying. However, now that I've further developed my Hardcore for Nerds output into Tumblr, it seems a good time to come back to this my original blog - which was meant to be my internet niche.

[Of course, I've still been reading, though I have to say it's too often much easier to flip open a laptop and check my blog list than it is to sit down with a paper, non-interactive, Web 0.0 book - though I know that the latter still ultimately provides the greater pleasure. Currently I'm reading Don DeLillo's first novel, Americana (1971), and wondering why it's so uncannily similar to Mad Men; while dipping in and out of the Big Book of Zen, aka Classics of Buddhism and Zen: The Collected Translations of Thomas Cleary, (Vol. 4); and I'm stalled out on Henry James's Portrait of a Lady (really really good book for a mental transatlanticist such as myself, but 19th century novels aren't cut out to compete with 21st century distractions) and Alex Ross's thick The Rest is Noise: Listening to the Twentieth Century (I need to proxy my way into Spotify so I can actually listen to what he's talking about). Plus I'm still reading and essay-writing about a variety of historical and political academic topics.]

Today's posting on Tumblr focused on a short-lived, early 1990s hardcore punk band from California called Han Shan, whose sole output, an eight-song woodblock-printed 7", was incidentally the very first post on the Hardcore for Nerds blog. As a commenter on that post said:

"...This band also got me into the poetry of Han Shan, who I recommend. English translations by Gary Snyder and Burton Watson are pretty good. The fact that a punk band fused their aesthetic with ancient Chinese poetry changed my perception of the possibilities of hardcore."

That translation by Gary Snyder (as 'Japhy Ryder') is part of a key scene of The Dharma Bums, where Kerouac first visits his informal mentor in Berkely:

A peacefuller scene I never saw than when, in that rather nippy late red afternoon, I simply opened his little door and looked in and saw him at the end of the little shack, sitting cross-legged on a Paisley pillow on a straw mat, with his spectacles on, making him look old and scholarly and wise, with book on lap and the little tin teapot and porcelain cup steaming at his side. He looked up very peacefully, saw who it was, said, ‘Ray, come in,’ and bent his eyes again to the script.

‘What you doing?’

‘Translating Han Shan’s great poem called “Cold Mountain” written a thousand years ago some of it scribbled on the sides of cliffs hundreds of miles away from any other living beings.’


'When you come into this house though you've got to take your shoes off, see those straw mats, you can ruin 'em with shoes.' So I took my softsoled blue cloth shoes off and laid them dutifully by the door and he threw me a pillow and I sat crosslegged along the little wooden board wall and he offered me a cup of hot tea. 'Did you ever read the Book of Tea?' said he.

'No, what's that?'

'It's a scholarly treatise on how to make tea utilizing all the knowledge of two thousand years about tea-brewing. Some of the descriptions of the effect of the first sip of tea, and the second, and the third, are really wild and ecstatic.'

'Those guys got high on nothing, hey?'

'Sip your tea and you'll see; this is good green tea.' It was good and I immediately felt calm and warm. 'Want me to tell you about Han Shan?'


'Han Shan you see was a Chinese Scholar who got sick of the big city and took off to hide in the mountains.'

'Say, that sounds like you.'

'In those days you could really do that. He stayed in caves not far from a Buddhist monastery in the T'ang Hsing district of T'ien Tai and his only human friend was the funny Zen Lunatic Shih-te who had a job sweeping out the monastery with a straw broom. Shih-te was a poet too but he never wrote much down. Every now and then Han Shan would come down from Cold Mountain in his bark clothing and come into the warm kitchen and wait for food, but none of the monks would ever feed him because he didn't want to join the order and answer the meditation bell three times a day. You see why in some of his utterances, like - listen and I'll look here and read from the Chinese,' and I bent over his shoulder and watched him read from big wild crowtracks of Chinese signs: 'Climbing up Cold Mountain path, Cold Mountain path goes on and on, long gorge choked with scree and boulders, wide creek and mist-blurred grass, moss is slippery though there's been no rain, pine sings but there's no wind, who can leap the world's ties and sit with me among white clouds?'


'Course that's my own translation into English, you see there are five signs for each line and I have to put it in Western prepositions and articles and such.'

'Why don't you just translate it as it is, five signs, five words? What's those first five signs?'

'Sign for climbing, sign for up, sign for cold, sign for mountain, sign for path'

'Well then, translate it "Climbing up Cold Mountain path"'.

'Yeah, but what do you do with the sign for long, sign for gorge, sign for choke, sign for avalanche, sign for boulders?'

'Where's that?'

'That's the third line, would have to read "Long gorge choke avalanche boulders"'

'Well that's even better!'

'Well yeah, I thought of that, but I have to have this pass the approval of Chinese scholars here at the university and have it clear in English'

'Boy what a great thing this is,' I said looking around at the little shack, 'and you sitting here so very quietly at this very quiet hour studying all alone with you glasses...'

'Ray what you got to do is climb a mountain with me soon. How would you like to climb Matterhorn?'

'Great! Where's that?'

'Up in the High Sierras. We can go there with Henry Morley in his car and bring our packs and take off from the lake. I could carry all the food and stuff we need in my rucksack and you could borrow Alvin's small knapsack and carry extra socks and shoes and stuff.'

'What's these signs mean/'

'These signs mean that Han Shan came down from the mountain after many years roaming around up there, to see his folks in town, says, 'Till recently I stayed at Cold Mountain, et cetera, yesterday I called on friends and family, more than half had gone to Yellow Springs," that means death, the Yellow Springs, "now morning I face my lone shadow, I can't study with both eyes full of tears."

'That's like you too, Japhy, studying with eyes full of tears.'

'My eyes aren't full of tears.'

'Aren't they going to be after a long time?'

'They certainly will, Ray ... and look here, "In the mountains it's cold, it's always been cold not just this year," see, he's real high, maybe twelve thousand or thirteen thousand feet or more, way up there, and says, "Jagged scarps always snowed in, woods in the dark ravines spitting mist, grass is till sprouting in the end of June, leaves begin to fall in early August, and here I am high as a junkey-"'

'As a junkey!'

'That's my own translation, he actually says here am I as high as the sensualist in the city below, but I made it modern and high translation.'

'Great. I wondered why Han Shan was Japhy’s hero.

‘Because,’ said he, ‘he was a poet, a mountain man, a Buddhist dedicated to the principle of meditation on the essence of things, a vegetarian too by the way though I haven’t got on that kick from figuring maybe in this modern world to be a vegetarian is to split hairs a little since all sentient beings eat what they can. And he was a man of solitude who could take off by himself and live purely and true to himself.’


joseph said...

Great cover for 'Dharma Bums'

I'd recently read Cormac McCarthy's 'The Road' and that got me interested in more modern authors (prior I was only seeking out "classic literature"), eventually leading me to DeLillo who I remembered you commenting about in my Lenny Bruce post and also possibly in a Hardcore for Nerds post. I'm going to read your post on 'Underworld' right now, but is that where you'd recommend starting with DeLillo?

tad said...

Welcome back. I'm still reading yr back pgs. Nice review of Bukowski's stories.
& did U already review ON THE ROAD & I missed it somehow?

gabbagabbahey said...

tad - no, I haven't done On The Road yet. But I'm going to get round to it!

joseph - I can only talk about the ones I've read so far, but I'd say Underworld or Cosmopolis - Underworld is really long, but amazing, while Cosmopolis (which was the first one I read) is quite short and still pretty good by comparison. Since he's been writing for three decades, though, you can take your pick as to where to start - Libra (about Oswald and the Kennedy assassination, which had the Bruce bit - I think - in it) is very good, or Falling Man about 9/11 which isn't necessarily his best-written book but still quite powerful.

tad said...

PS -- I should probly let U know that I ... uh ... reviewed yr blog in an Ntry I posted a few days back. My site ( bn down quite a bit lately w/ Issues, but the next time it's up U'll find yr review under the Ntry "Great Blogs!" Hope this doesn't Mbarrass U 2 much -- I raved about yr site cos it Cms like there R SO FEW GOOD book-review websites/blogs out there. In fact, yr's is the 1st good 1 I've found. (I also mentioned "Hardcore for Nerds.")
Don't know if more than 4 people in the world R reading me, but mayB if they R they'll swing by & read U 2. Hope this is OK or at least that U won't shoot me.
Now if the site'd just stay up 4 a day or 2 at a time....
All D Best,
-- TAD.

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