ad astra per alia porci

the temptations of the road

I read Kerouac’s On the Road and Melville’s Moby Dick during my backpacking trips this year. It is no coincidence that I chose these two books specifically to bring along for my trip (books occupy space and adds weight to packs); On the Road is a chronicle of Kerouac’s gallivanting journey across America while Moby Dick is about Ahab’s quest to achieve his personal goal of slaying Moby Dick and exacting revenge for his lost leg. A common vein that went through both books is that of a journey, a quest that is imbued with great personal meaning, which I found particularly appropriate for a backpacking trip. The books provided much intellectual fodder to ponder upon as I roamed the countries and drew parallels and comparisons between what I construe from the books and my own experience.

On the Road does not rank high on my list in terms of artistic merit; it is not the most pretty novel I have read and there are not much literary acrobatics. Granted, Kerouac’s stream of consciousness style stands out but as Truman Capote puts it, it is “typing”, not writing. The most artistic aspect of the book to me is the occasional well-crafted, pretty phrase that punctuates the flowing prose and means so much and nothing at the same time (“It made me think that everything was about to arrive – the moment when you know all and everything is decided forever”, “the bottom of the world is gold and the world is upside down”).

The book is unabashedly a chronicle, with little pretensions of having any deep and profound observations to make about the human condition. It is personal, detailed and painfully mundane at times. Journeys are described, buses are taken and rides are hitchhiked. To a reader who craves a larger theme or significance to the actions of characters in novels like me, the description of mundane mechanistic bits and pieces of traveling minutia bores.

Perhaps the apparent lack of some larger theme is itself the meaning of the novel. Keeping in mind that Sal Paradise and his friends are on road trips, the physical journey is also a spiritual quest for a deeper personal meaning in life. The value is in the journey, not the destination, and the experiences that mould and shape a person while he is on the road. One might not find the ultimate meaning in life at the end of the road trip, but the vain attempt is itself valuable and results in personal growth.

Each person constructs his or her own concept of what is valuable and important in life, and it is not up to Kerouac to decide what is important for each person, hence the lack of a didactic quality in On the Road. This fits with the postmodern and existential concept of Man, where the individual is isolated and personal meaning is a construct which grants meaning to otherwise empty lives.

The more I read the book the more I believe that life itself is one long road trip. We move onwards and we meet and part all the time, never looking back. We might revisit places and people but the passage of time makes them different each time we see them again.

Being constantly on the move does not mean that we lose our inherent need to connect and have relationships. Sal’s friendship with Dean Moriarty is the consistent thread that binds Sal’s otherwise haphazard journey around America together; it is the only constant in a book where everyone is moving, meeting and parting. While fate draws people in different directions we try to preserve and maintain old connections and establish new connections with others.

I personally long for a larger meaning in life, and I believe that Sal and Moriarty were seeking something bigger in their travels too. I have a need to fit my actions to something with a larger significance; a life lived well is one lived with purpose and goals. Embarking on a road trip to unfamiliar lands is an attempt to discover a purpose in life previously hidden in the white noise and grind of normal routine.

If Sal indeed does not find his purpose, Ahab in Moby Dick has always known his purpose, which he pursues mono-maniacally to his own self-destruction. I felt a strong contrast between Ahab’s obsessive pursuit even at the cost of his own demise and my peripatetic and aimless wandering around the streets of the countries I visited as I flipped the pages of the book. I don’t know which one is better: the attainment of a goal or the journey? Perhaps there is really no better option since everything is personal. However I am usually wary of relativistic claims.

The unknowable machinations of fate and man’s smallness in the face of the infinite cosmos stands in opposition to the attaining of individual goals. We fight the world and carve a path to what we want. The sea in Moby Dick is a metaphor for the wild, natural world and how it remains essentially uncontrollable by man. We remain at the mercy of movements larger than us, and Ahab’s eventual death at the hands of the sea is a grim reminder of how the pursuit of purpose can be cruelly stopped by the random workings of fate. This concept of man’s helplessness is also the stuff of tragedy, and Dionysian philosophy. Maybe Kerouac is right; we should value the journey and abandon hopes of finding or achieving individual purposes. Perhaps, like Ahab and Gatsby in The Great Gatsby, the nobility of man shines not from the attainment of a goal but the struggle and effort invested in its pursuit.

Central to the concept of a journey is the idea of escape. Sal’s attraction to Dean, a carefree wild man, is partly due to his innate desire to break from the rigid confines of ordinary life, society and authority. Ishmael confesses that every once in a while when he gets bored with life on land he goes out to sea as a seaman. I travel to experience something new, to leave what I have grown to be used to at home and find something new.

Escapism is an intricate concept and there is a fine line between escaping from something and escaping to something. We travel to leave emotional baggage behind, and we travel also to find something new to bring back. I guess all journeys involve both forms of escape, and it is the mixture between the two that matters. There is a push and pull for every journey.

I wonder if a journey motivated almost entirely by the need to escape from home and present life is a healthy and desirable one. On the other hand is a journey where there is no need to escape from what is happening at home a real journey at all?

Looking back I struggle to formulate what exactly I am escaping from in my travel and what I seek to find. I guess it is a very complex mixture of things. The need to ponder upon possible directions to take regarding my relationship with a particular girl. The need to escape the dreariness of Singapore. The need to see something in my life (I am hopelessly undertraveled). The need to make up for lost time. The need to be with a few old friends. The need to meet new people. The need to test myself on the road. The need to build confidence.

The travel bug has bitten me. I am irrevocably going down the road of endless uncomfortable, even masochistic backpacking journeys, living off street food and bunking in crap accommodation. The will to death? Maybe. Self destruction or seeking absolution? Christopher McCandleness sought the latter, probably.

The isolation from society is also appealing to me. I understand what McCandleness wanted to escape from: the stifling confines of social expectations, the emptiness of social class, the superficiality of social graces and polite human interactions. Note that all of these stem from society, where humans interact. Sometimes I feel that I am selling myself to people who don’t really care, and the smiles I get are just throw-away hypocritical attempts to remind you that you exist in their hearts but actually you only occupy the back end of their minds. When you say thank you you don’t really mean it; when you ask how are you you take any response. A retreat to nature, or a new environment where nobody knows who you are is a retreat from the crap we get in normal social existence.

We live in a modern age where things come to us rapidly and easily, which skews our minds and make us, as Nick Caraway puts it, “careless people”. We use and throw, we have lost touch with what is real and the value of effort. McCandleness rejected his privileged upbringing for precisely this reason. It is artificial, and meaningless to get something for nothing. Absurd even. Retreating to the wilderness and the dangers of the road exposes us to the reality of nature, the normal way of things. Survival is hard, painstaking and good things only come with effort. It is this element of honest living that I crave so much.

I thirst for the challenge of the road. Backpacking is a test of who you are so that you know more about who you actually are. As John Krakauer notes perceptively, the roadtrip is a rite of passage for many, a test from which one emerges as a new, better person.

Even though the new school term has just started, I am already planning my next wandering trip. I don’t know where the road will take me next, but I am eager for it.


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