On the Road Essay: The Motif of Inadequacy of the Language

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The Motif of Inadequacy of the Language in On the Road

Henry Glass, a kid fresh out of a penitentiary in Indiana who takes a bus to Denver with Sal Paradise, tells him about his brush with the Bible in jail, and then explains the dangers of the phenomenon of signification (I firmly believe that Kerouac intended no deconstructionist subtext in the passage; nor is it likely to be an neo-Marxist attempt to explicate the class conflict between the signifiers and the signified):

Anybody that's leaving jail soon and starts talking about his release date is 'signifying' to the other fellas that have to stay. We will take him by the neck and say, 'Don't signify with me!' Bad thing, to signify--y'hear me? (256)

The use of the
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"No, no, no, your are talking absolute bullshit and Wolfean romantic posh" (Kerouac 49). A "real" intellectual having a nice way with words can be as devastatingly funny as a jailbird having none. It is not misuse of the language that makes these utterances hilarious, but rather the language mocking itself in its inadequacy as a medium of expression for Beat characters.

The motif of impotence of names is one of the things Beat movement owes to Zen Buddhism. The very style of Kerouac's writing with its spontaneity and directness can be viewed as drawing on the Zen concept that words are words and nothing more: he feels the inadequacy of language and tries to overcome it,conveying his experiences in their immediacy (Ashida 204). As D.T. Suzuki points out in his An Introduction to Zen Buddhism, Western way of thinking with its tyranny of subject-object logic and words tends to mistake the finger pointed at the moon for the thing itself; Zen, in its turn, deals with facts of life, not with their lame verbal representations (66). The goal of Zen is to come in contact with the central fact of life; satori, spiritual enlightenment, a new way to see things is the most important part of Zen experience. Satori cannot be verbally communicated, taught, or explained; D.T. Suzuki provides as an example of that a quote by an ancient Zen master: "...whatever I can tell you is my own and can never be yours" (Suzuki 95). Dean Moriarty's inexplicable "IT,"

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