I wrote a character named Cassady for the game Where the Water Tastes Like Wine. Other than the notion that Cassady is a Beat poet with an intellectual bent (and who is of course named after Neal Cassady), I wasn’t given any other specific direction on him. I had free rein to imagine who he was and how best to reflect his unique movement in American culture.
It was easy enough to start with the Beats. In the usual telling, the Beats were a small but influential artistic movement that flowered in San Francisco in the 50s. The Beats could sense the small-mindedness of the mainstream culture around them and craved something more, something spiritual— it’s said the term “Beat” came not from a musical beat but Catholic beatification. They were attracted to the margins of society and spent long periods of time wandering the country, “hobo” style, sleeping on the beach, hopping rides on freezing freight train cars, scooping out canned beans with their fingers, searching for the genuine. Their poetry and prose was unafraid to wallow in the dirt and mud while shouting at the heavens.
The Beats were not without shortcomings for which they’ve been roundly criticized. The celebrated members of the group were all men and their work and thought includes an unexamined misogyny not so different from their non-Beat contemporaries, the midcentury novelists David Foster Wallace once called the Great Male Narcissists. Like all the renowned male artists of this time they seemed wrapped up in themselves to the exclusion of anything else, arguably setting the stage for decades of self-centeredness to follow.
Another well-known aspect of the Beats was their interest in Eastern religions and spirituality, Zen Buddhism in particular. As a larger, wider counterculture coalesced in the 60s drawing inspiration from the Beats, works like Jack Kerouac’s The Dharma Bums led many hippies to study, or at least entertain, the ideas of Zen. Two examples of that wave of young men were Steve Jobs and my father.
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How typical was it to be a young man in the Bay Area in the 70s and make a study of Zen? Was it simply something you did if you were there at the time? Or was there something particular that drew you to it, like a museum-goer impelled toward a specific painting, a specific sculpture, a work that seems to speak to directly to you?
Steve Jobs’ study with Zen priest Kōbun Chino is as strange to ponder as it is well-known. In his professional and personal life, Jobs was notoriously prone to outbursts of raw emotion, sometimes quite ugly, and his popular image is synonymous with the Apple keynotes where he whipped audiences into consumerist frenzies over his company’s latest products— in direct opposition to the anti-materialist philosophy of Zen. He was a billionaire who spent the last years of his life obsessing over a high-tech luxury yacht he was building to compete with a rival billionaire. Where did the Zen go?
Walter Isaacson’s 650-page biography of Jobs dedicates only a few short paragraphs to this fundamental irony. He writes: “In the end Jobs’ pride in the objects he made overcame his sensibility that people should eschew being attached to such possessions.” It’s a shame Isaacson treats this choice as a minor side note, because it’s really the backbone of the whole story: Pride and ambition winning out over composure and tranquility. Jobs may have genuinely desired the peace that Zen promises. But he wanted to be the guy who made the iPhone even more.
My father, though not materially successful, resembled Jobs in the way his own eight-year study of Zen (of the Chinese Chan school) in a San Francisco monastery seemed to have little effect on his subsequent behavior. The photographs I have of him from this time of his life with his shaved head, saffron monk’s robes, folded hands and downward-cast eyes embody a near-total cognitive dissonance with the father I remember, who was was quick to anger, petulant, and moody. He slammed phones on callers, revved his car at other drivers, sulked when nobody gave token laughs for his jokes. I feared the way he would explode with rage at the tiniest infractions; sometimes we would eat as a family in knife-edged silence.
Why do the people who seek out Zen seem to be the worst at embodying its ideals in their lives? Jobs, my father, and even the Beats probably started with the right idea. They knew something was off, that there was more to life than what society tells us. But along the way they got lost— seduced by the battles of capitalism, distracted by petty righteousness, in love with the song of the self. Despite their genuine interest in knowing something profound, profane concerns won out. Despite an attraction to the teachings, the tempest within would ultimately go untamed.
A popular understanding of Zen speaks of “attachments” as the cause of suffering: All of the ways you want life to be and all of the ways it isn’t. It teaches that only by “cutting off” these attachments, understanding and accepting life and the world for what it is, that we can end the torment of existence. It’s a fine theory, but who can actually do this? Isn’t it ridiculous to expect a living being to experience no desire? Isn’t someone who has no wants or needs functionally dead? Real Zen is impossible. There is a vast, near-infinite gulf between its high ideals— the beautiful polished mirror, the “no-mind”— and the emotional, needy, self-obsessed people who hope it will give them something. But maybe that’s the whole point, that gulf. I couldn’t say.
So when I wrote Cassady I thought of the Beats, and I thought of Steve Jobs and my father, and in the end the character became someone so self-regarding he defines himself by an existential heartbreak and dooms himself to wander the country alone. Despite his talents, his erudition, and his awareness of Zen, he is still utterly unable to control the raging storm inside. That’s his American story.