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 learned word by an eighteen year old jail-bird is truly funny. The comic effect here is based on the discrepancy between the standard meaning and contextual use of the word "to signify." There is a number of episodes in the novel with the same kind of humor: in the opening chapter of the novel, which describes his first visit to New York, Dean comes up with some absolutely moronic tirades. E.g., talking to Marilou, he mentions the necessity to "postpone all those leftover things concerning our personal lovethings and at once begin thinking of specific workplans. . ." (Kerouac 5). Or, when asked directly by Sal, whether he needed to con him for a place to stay, he starts talking about "Shopenhauer's dichotomy inwardly realized" (ibid.).
Dean's (mis)use of language can be somewhat redeemed by his intellectual virginity and his genuine desire to be like his high-browed friend; indeed, being earnest is important, and can excuse almost anything. But what should one think about the way Carlo Marx, allegedly a vintage intellectual, retorts to Sal's observation about the last thing which is never to be attained? "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...