the Highway West, Baby
by Dana Wilde || Author's Links
Ultimate Journey: Retracing the Path of an Ancient Buddhist Monk Who Crossed Asia in Search of Enlightenment.
Riders on the Storm: My Life with Jim Morrison and the Doors.
During a few strange days this summer, I was reading Richard Bernstein's Ultimate Journey and John Densmore's Riders on the Storm at the same time. Honestly speaking it did not seem unusual that both books were on my living room table together. They're both autobiographies, after all, both about "journeys." Of sorts.
Ultimate Journey tells the story of Bernstein's 1998 trip on planes, trains and automobiles across China and India along the route traveled by the seventh-century Chinese monk Xuanzang (spelled in Ultimate Journey, old-style, as "Hsuan Tsang"). This is interesting material because Xuanzang is a pivotal figure in Chinese Buddhism and the spiritual life of China. He spent seventeen years journeying to the West to bring the scriptures from India, and then coordinated their translation into Chinese, a launching-point in Chinese religious history. His journey is legendary in China, and a twentieth-century tracing of it could be, well, enlightening.
Densmore, of course, tells the story of his ride on Jim Morrison's whirlwind from Venice Beach to Paris, a curiosity at least and either a cautionary or an inspirational tale, depending on your social or spiritual politics.
Ultimate Journey is much more polished than Riders on the Storm. Bernstein, a New York Times journalist and longtime foreign correspondent, understands how English grammar, diction and descriptive details work in ways that John Densmore, forever to be known as The Doors' drummer, was still learning when he wrote Riders in the late years of the Reagan-Bush cultural revolution. Bernstein has a much cleaner sense of rhetorical structure than Densmore, who really needed a better editor.
A better editor - although they both had fascinating material, which is why they were on my table together. Bernstein conveys historical facts with deftness, and there are a few superb descriptive moments in Ultimate Journey. His interweaving of details of Xuanzang's journey with his perceptions and impressions of China, Pakistan and India along the way is fluid, sometimes lucid. Densmore, too, interweaves rhetorical voices - journal entries addressed directly to the dead Jim Morrison, loose philosophical reflection, scenic and narrative retellings of legendary Doors events - that bump against each other like rock musicians experimenting with jazz.
Holding both books up at arm's length, you might imagine a finely woven, elegantly hued tapestry of China alongside a home-stitched psychedelic hanging from the American '60s. And rhetorically, that's what you get. But as Densmore says of the last Doors album, "We went for the feeling. Fuck the mistakes."
And there, the men separate from the boys.
The picture we get of Jim Morrison in all accounts is a tragic figure who self-destructed. His drive to open "the doors of perception" - as we're reminded by other biographers like Danny Sugerman and Gerry Hopkins, Ray Manzarek, David Dalton, and the eminent literary critic Wallace Fowlie - paralleled the drive of Arthur Rimbaud, the bad boy and visionary of French Symbolist poetry. Neither Rimbaud nor Morrison was a fluke or a fake. Morrison had expansive intentions and the creative powers and personal integrity to make a credible effort to break real psychic ground. Late twentieth-century Western culture, however, offered too many possibilities for cultivating Rimbaud's method of deranging the senses, and Morrison's unbelievable physical and psychic toughness got, predictably, overwhelmed.
Ray Manzarek, Robby Krieger and John Densmore watched it happen, and in fact participated in the "disorder, chaos and activity that has no meaning" that Morrison saw as elements of the way to spiritual breakthrough. Densmore's book explores - in an authentic sense of that word - the path he followed with Morrison. But the interest of Riders on the Storm lies not in the abundance of Doors anecdotes, but in Densmore's confrontation of the rough landscape of his own psyche.
The picture we get of Densmore in other accounts, like Sugerman and Hopkins' No One Here Gets Out Alive and Manzarek's almost unreadable Light My Fire, is of a cranky but enthusiastic soul constantly irritated by Jim Morrison's disruptiveness. In Riders, Densmore meets these aspects of himself head-on by talking directly and openly to the departed Morrison, and whether you believe in an afterlife or not, Densmore's words feel like sincere expressions of anger and love. These are the self-made regions of hell and heaven which cannot actually be evaded, and Densmore doesn't want to. He talks openly of his own naivete in the late '60s and '70s, of his varying struggles, using transcendental meditation, acting lessons, writing, marriage, and music, to find some sort of truth or at least navigable inner landscape for himself. It is not a polished written performance by the standards of our effete postmodern academic literati, but fuck the mistakes, it goes for the feeling and finds it in all its ungainly turbulence and uncertainty. To me, John Densmore's book was fascinating reading.
I was thinking Ultimate Journey would be fascinating too, given its material. But this book, despite its polish, is wishfully, hopelessly mistitled. There is nothing ultimate about Bernstein's journey. Nearly every step of the book is a slick evasion of reality. What's astonishing is that the author seems to know it.
One of the autobiographical threads twists around the question of whether he should marry and settle down with his Chinese girlfriend. He persistently reminds us that this is a post-adolescent dilemma coming, at the age of 55, alarmingly late in life. He has spent many years wandering in China and other countries, cultivating a comfortable middle-class existence of reviewing other people's writing and drinking cappuccino, and evading marriage and other pesky inconveniences to a meaningful existence. At the end we are instructed to believe that the vicissitudes of the journey have illuminated the spiritual necessity of marrying, at long last, the beautiful dancer Zhongmei. But the rhetorical gesture is, frankly, unbelievably hollow. Any careful reader can see from about page one that the guy's problem is not deep spiritual uncertainty, but simple loneliness and the fear that it might get worse in fast-approaching old age. There is nothing "ultimate" about this, and certainly no need to dress up an extended sightseeing trip as a spiritual journey that revealed it.
The dressing includes recurring passages in which Bernstein reflects on his religious sensibilities, summarizing (fairly lucidly) basic tenets of Buddhist philosophy as well as homespun recollections of the Judaism of his lost youth. The picture here is not - as Bernstein seems to hope - of an individual's august struggle with religious doubt, but instead, of the laxness of educated middle-America's approach to religious feeling. Time after time in Ultimate Journey, we are presented with succinct rehearsals of Buddhist beliefs together with expressions of the author's feelings of affinity for them, only to have the philosophy and the feeling together hammered into dust - sometimes with glib irony - by twentieth-century rationalist logic. Anyone who has authentically examined his or her religious feeling will read these passages with dismay, not because her own religious feeling is threatened by Bernstein's logic (it's not), but because of the unbelievable shallowness of the analysis, and ultimate rejection of Buddhism on grounds it is illogical. A basic fact known to people at any honest stage of religious feeling is that the feeling is illogical. And real.
A recurrent example of Bernstein's logical wheel-spinning occurs in his reflections on his Judaic background. Different sights and sounds in China and India spur remembrances of things past in him. He whisks us to moments in his boyhood and young adulthood (a region he never actually departed) which nowadays inform his affection for Jewish religious observances, such as the occasional service at the shul or a seder which he sometimes attends or even leads in memory of his dad. He is quick to assure us that he does not actually believe this religious hocus pocus, but that he does it because it makes him feel better, kind of homey, the home he has declined all his adult life to create in reality.
It's the ultimate American feel-good mentality, as we say. It is couched in intelligently constructed sentences, a pretense of deep logical thought on religious philosophy, and a literary vogue exaggerating the significance of personal memoir.
In these terms, Bernstein seems to hope we will read his trip along Xuanzang's seventh-century path as a crowning spiritual journey. But in every dismal Chinese noodle joint, on every sightseeing trip to ancient ruins, at each pre-planned pause for deep reflection, there is the sense that the traveler's ultimate goal is simply to go on to the next place, that where he is now is of less interest than where he's going to be tomorrow or later this afternoon - and there's a recurrent sense of self-deprecation that suggests he knows it. The whole trip feels like the latest and maybe most pompous in a lifetime of evasions of the present moment.
The end of Ultimate Journey is the most telling. He is sick of traveling, and (to his credit) says so. The last thirty pages feel rushed, irritable, exhausted, anticlimactic, almost defeated, and make oppressive reading. The descent into the caves of Dunhuang (the richest trove of Buddhist art in the world), which has loomed for many chapters as a coming peak experience in the journey, is given in a few short paragraphs that explicitly have trouble mustering enthusiasm. The sightseer is tired of trudging to the next dust-covered Chinese town, and the next, and he wants, simply, to go home. There is nothing unique about such a feeling, but we are subjected to page after page of it.
About three pages from the end comes the most honest sentence in the book, and the one that best summarizes the book's weight: "Finally, at the age of fifty-five, I was going to bring my stubborn extension of adolescence to an end."
Reading it is a great relief - a moment of uncomplicated clarity. But in the next graf appear sentences almost sickening in the feebleness of their attempt to attach meaning to it all.
I believe … that there is a limit to the extent to which you can mold the specifics of your life, that there is no escape, not into the manufacture of Shaker furniture nor into the excitement of travel. The Truth, Enlightenment, that Hsuan Tsang searched for in his seventeen years on the road was a philosophical quest. I had pondered it, and though the Truth that I arrived at in my journey of several months was more pedestrian than his, yet to me it was just as valuable. It was that you do have to go home, home in all senses of that word - to a job, to the dross of routine, to time-consuming responsibilities and obligations, to aches and pains, to the hell that other people make for you sometimes.
The hell other people make. But, you can tap the ruby slippers together three times and repeat wishfully, "There's no place like home, there's no place like home," and pop from colorful Oz back to gray Kansas, or New York City, where you hope Auntie Em, or Zhongmei, will be waiting with a plate of cookies, or the Sunday Times in which you read your friends' enthusiastic reviews of your new book about your journey to the Emerald Waste Land of your own carbuncular anxieties.
There may be a way to salvage Ultimate Journey in the mind. Reader-response style, you may approach it not as a book about China, or a "journey," but as a book exposing a common illness of the American psyche: This book unwittingly depicts the pain suffered by tens of millions of well-to-do Americans who never matured past the age of about 20.
Riders on the Storm is also about America. John Densmore, though, jumped not on a fantasized tornado to China, but on a full-scale hurricane across the actual landscape of the American spirit. He recognized that landscape as his own, identical with it; he never has to say so, however, or even be conscious of it. His understanding of it emerges through the mistakes - literal, figurative, rhetorical, personal - in his narrative, and gives us authentic glimpses of what Bernstein, presumably, wishes he too could see.
Creative writing instructors in MFA programs all across North America have lessons to learn from this.
In Oliver Stone's grossly over- and under-rated film The Doors, an inebriated Jim Morrison is depicted saying to a drinking buddy that people "want something sacred." This is a prophecy of Bernstein's loneliness, and gives evidence of a depth of Morrison's contact with spiritual reality. It represents one extent to which he understood America's profound inner illness, its stunted desperation. "You're all a bunch of fucking slaves," the film Morrison shouts at his audience, with chilling accuracy of both intellect and emotion.
John Densmore, to his credit, took this all seriously and grappled with demons both personal and cultural. If only the other radicals - the 1960s radicals of the social, the political and the personal - had persisted as Densmore has, instead of vacillating between adolescent wishes for spiritual enlightenment and the seductive cappuccino comforts of Reaganic materialism.
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