Is Life About the Journey or the Destination?

By Eugene C. Scott

Jack Kerouac

Is life about the journey or the destination?

According to Jack Kerouac, neither.

At least that’s what I read into Kerouac’s novelOn the Road. Published in 1957 On the Road is a fictionalized account of Kerouac, “Sal Paridise,” and “mad” beat generation buddy Neal Cassidy,  “Dean Moriarty,” criss-crossing the U.S.A. in the years following WWII.

On the Road was hailed as “an authentic work of art” by the “New York Times” and brought Kerouac instant fame. It has since been named a classic that created a movement and influenced Bob Dylan, Jim Morrison, Hunter S. Thompson, and many others.

Thus I picked up the fifty-five year-old literary classic expecting a story spilling over with insights and observations of a people and nation just lifting itself out of the morass of the second war to end all wars.

What I discovered instead is a crazy, stream-of-consciousness (what Kerouac called “spontaneous prose”) story that was at times well-written, inventive, funny, shocking, and beautiful but at other times corny, dated, repetitive, shallow, immoral, and non-sensical. In the end, On the Road is not a narrative of a journey across America or even how that journey ended at a physical or even meta-physical destination but rather how the road from New York City to Denver to San Francisco and back impacted Kerouac’s jazz and drug addled search for not even he knew what.

Each of Kerouac’s five trips across the country is progressively more frenetic and yet interior. In his first trip, hitchhiking, he describes the country and characters in rich detail. Early in the book I reveled in his description of Denver, my home town, in the late ‘40s.

But soon Kerouac seems to only describe people and places based on what they do–or don’t do–for Sal and Dean. The road becomes a strip they race over to get here or there.  But even the here or there don’t really matter.

Hitchhikers they pick up only provide much needed gas money, and–if Sal and Dean are lucky–drugs, sex, and a place to stay. Women are there to cook or provide sex. Kerouac spends pages deftly describing the sounds of jazz bands who have “it.” But “it” is never defined beyond how “it” makes Sal and Dean feel right then and there. Dean drags Sal into a tighter and tighter narcissistic spiral. Each time Kerouac hints at something deeper such as how a once innocent country is changing, the discussion fizzles in a rush of alcohol or Dean saying something senseless like, “Yaas, yaas, yaas.”

Yes, On the Road defined, even invented, the “beat generation” and fathered the hippie movement. Both of which were vaunted for their supposed philosophical depth and questioning of the meaning of life.

But it seems to me that an extremely narcissistic Kerouac also gave what later became the “me generation” its voice.On the Road elevated narcissism to an art. Is it possible that Kerouac unwittingly played a big part in granting an entire generation permission to ask nothing more than what’s in it for me?

I suppose every generation has struggled with living for something bigger than itself. And that is why our best stories–the true classics, works of art–usually contain a narrative describing both a journey and a destination that is about both the hero and the world he or she traverses. While stories such as Kerouac’s may be well-written, novel, artistic and even groundbreaking, they do little to challenge us to see beyond our own puny lives. They give us and our short-comings comfort. Unlike the Odyssey of Ulysses or the quest of Frodo or the pilgrimage of Harry Potter or the ultimate journey of Jesus to the cross to save us all, stories about neither journey nor destination may entertain but they fail to challenge, fail to call us, as C. S. Lewis writes in The Last Battle, “Further up and further in.”

Is life about the journey or the destination? Both! But according to On the Road that much asked much debated question doesn’t even seem to dawn on Kerouac. Too bad.


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5 responses to “Is Life About the Journey or the Destination?

  1. Georgie-ann

    Having lived in those times as an emerging young person, with a very stable Southern-influenced upbringing — despite certain tragedies and somewhat “modern thinking” parents — I can tell you that from the get-go, it all smelled “like hell” to me. As weird and disorienting as many of the pervasive claims and “suggestions” were that were entering our society at that time, it nonetheless had a very strange “magnetism” that said, “Pay attention to me!” “These are things you NEED to know!” “Get on board — the times they are “a-changing” — don’t miss out — join with the ‘cool ones’ NOW, or forever be left behind, a miserable stick stuck in the mud!” The spaced-out/wasted “fruit” of these “beat” and “hip” lifestyles was hardly a recommendation for what they promoted, and I think the “altering of consciousness” via the intake of drugs was probably a real necessity to “get into” where they were, or were coming from. The music became very compelling also.

    But most disconcerting and destabilizing for me, mentally and spiritually, was the absolute “great interest” and inferred “stamp of approval” being given to this “stuff” (ideas and practices) by the “mainstream media,” metropolitan museums, colleges and universities. Blessed (in this case) by a temperament that “observes” for a long time before coming to conclusions or “getting on board,” and by the good fortune of attending a college that was at least “10 years behind the times” in these matters, I missed being dragged into very much of the contemporary “avant-garde” practices and extremes personally, — (I tend/(like) to think that “God had His hand on His girl!”,…and thank you very much, by the way!) — but it was definitely a hyped-up and highly charged atmosphere all around us that you could not miss, challenging the authority of just about anything “traditional” that we would have taken as “givens” about life.

    Coming out of the severe fears (nuclear threats) and international hostilities of the “Cold War” with the USSR, suffering with the Viet Nam War problems, we were not as “happy-go-lucky campers” inside as you might have been led to believe. Perhaps our society was “escaping” more than just the “straight-jackets and inhibitions and limitations” of tradition. There was a heavy and fearful side to life, even though “things were looking up” since WWII, and “progress” was busy making lots of promises.

    “What is the meaning of life?” — however — was a great question!!! Even though many may have been misled by cheesy substitutes and worse, there were also many very serious “seekers” who would not stop with surface-y platitudes and conventions, and who rose to the challenge of a deep search to find the answers.

    Catholics are familiar with the story of a vision by one of the Popes in the late 1800s, in which satan was “seen/overheard” challenging God to “give him a century” in which to exert his “unlimited power and influence” over mankind, to prove that he could cause men to fall away from God in unbelief, skepticism, disobedience, etc.,…and this challenge/request was supposedly granted. Many catholics see the 20th century as being a result of this demand, with its many horrors and dissipations of such unprecedented and grandiose proportions, and as evidence to confirm such a challenge.

    Well, in this case, the “good news” would be that the century would be over, or almost over, and along with Biblical prophetic interpretations, this would/could be pointing to a time of relief, or other “end time” possibilities. With or without Jack Kerouack and other (satanically inspired) false prophets of his ilk, how can we not say that life with God is surely an adventure?!

  2. Georgie-ann



    the very intimidating USSR

  3. Georgie-ann

    Well, we’re “conditioned”/formed/patterned by the external situations “of the day” in which we find ourselves. Our acquired mind-sets are rarely something totally “original” or authentic — “copy cat”/imitation/programmed is much closer to the truth! But the trouble is, we BELIEVE IN and become strongly “identified with,” and follow, a lot of the common attitudes, behaviors and practices, and thought patterns of the day — even if they’re ill-advised and terribly dysfunctional!!!

    Perhaps some are blessed to have “a still, small voice” speaking to them from within, that calls some of the going patterns and hype into question, or perhaps a pre-occupying emotional burden of loss or problems helps to keep them off the fastest moving (and potentially dangerous) “runways” of life. My Southern upbringing and experiences contributed to that “still, small voice” effect, once my family had moved to the very different regions of the Northeastern culture, and I also carried a childhood “loss” very close to my heart. Much of this is more clear to me now in retrospect, than when I was going and growing through it — I certainly faced plenty of confusion and questioning, hopes and disappointments along the way.

    As a college graduate in the position of “newly” finding God for myself, I felt that I was “in Kindergarten” relative to the lifelong Christians attending church each week! But studying the Bible, the Word of God, certainly began to clarify A LOT of things, and put a lot of the cultural pandemonium in proper perspective! “Who knew” that so much of what was being pandered to us was just outright unbiblical lies and distortions of God’s plan for us?!

    Without the Word of God as a guide, the cultural imprinting of “life’s ways” can be misleading at best, as opposed to the commonly accepted “pride” of being a groundbreaking and “discovery” oriented process!

    “There is nothing new under the sun” (Ecclesiastes 1:9). The “tried and true” IS God’s Way! Actually, there is now almost nothing more counter-cultural than becoming a sincere disciple of God!

    My chemistry teacher, Mr. Demir Barker, would always chide us (in his Arabic accent) about the “novel and foolish” ways we were going about trying to solve the problems on his tests, when we obviously had “no clue” how to do them — (as if we could fake him out)! “They’ve already invented the wheel!!” he would say. “Why do you keep trying to be Nobel Prize Winners and re-invent the wheel?? If you would do it the right way, it would easy!!”

    And he was right, of course! I learned more from him that was useful and practical and lasting, than I ever did from a thousand “wannabes” and “magical thinkers!”

  4. Georgie-ann

    In a nutshell:

    It appears that the “default setting” for life, culture, humanity, and “human nature” — (without accepting the influence and guidance of God’s Word; the Loving, Saving Grace of Salvation and prayer; and true respect for God as the Father and Creator of all) — is an almost irresistible fascination, attraction to, and identification with the earthly realm of our senses. Infused with heavy seductive suggestions and urgings — (whispered to us, as if they were our own personal discoveries, rights, needs, and ideas, by the ever-hungering demonic realm that lies in close connection to us) — humans become truly blinded by a very ignorant type of self-satisfied pride and compelling energy to invest ourselves in, and connect ourselves to, what we deem to be familiar, hip and “like ourselves,” our culture,… and very often with a degree of fear and contempt for all that which is different.

    Without reference to God, we are serving, blinded by and “stuck” in and onto a world that is always spinning, yet actually going nowhere fast. Amazingly, our very active minds fail to see this “chained reality” for what it is. Centrifugal and centripetal forces compel us one way and then another. We rationalize. We justify. If it does “all come out in the wash” and we survive, we could consider ourselves to be “very lucky (blessed).” Satan’s plan is to “wring us out and suck us dry.” God desires to become our anchor, stabilizer and frame of reference to navigate the ride. Some things appear to be automatic, but with God it doesn’t have to be that way. God gives us the freedom and ability to choose. And He says, “Choose life.”

    Deuteronomy 30:19 “I call heaven and earth as witnesses today against you, that I have set before you life and death, blessing and cursing; therefore choose life, that both you and your descendants may live.”

    May we pray to have “eyes to see” and hearts to understand.

    Ezekiel 12: “Son of man, you dwell in the midst of a rebellious house, which has eyes to see but does not see, and ears to hear but does not hear; for they are a rebellious house.”

    Mark 8:18 “Having eyes, do you not see? And having ears, do you not hear? And do you not remember?”

    Matthew 13:16 “But blessed are your eyes for they see, and your ears for they hear.”

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