Monday, January 5, 2009

A Kerouac favorite word: fellaheen

I haven't counted how many times Jack uses the word "fellaheen" in his novels, but it's often enough to trigger my curiosity and, maybe, yours.

First of all, what does it mean?

Here's my favorite definition and one that I think Jack would like (from CD Baby about this musician's CD): "the great mass of peasants who adapt and survive from one civilization to the next without becoming part of any, thus remaining separate from the great movements of history."

The Free Dictionary defines it as "a peasant or agricultural laborer in an Arab country, such as Syria or Egypt."

Although the word definitely has Arabic origins, Jack uses it a number of times in his references to Mexico.

Indeed, Chapter 2 of Lonesome Traveler (which I recently finished) is titled, "Mexico Fellaheen." The chapter contains this passage:

...but you can find it, this feeling, this fellaheen feeling about life, that timeless gayety of people not involved in great cultural and civilization issues (p. 22).


Part of Jack's ethos involved keenly observing but not becoming involved in great cultural issues. As indicated in a previous post, he didn't appreciate the way the media propped him up as the cultural hero of the "beatnik" culture. And in later years he distanced himself from Ginsberg because of the latter's anti-war activities. He just wanted to be a writer.

We may not be peasants but we can adopt a "fellaheen" attitude. It seems like an Eastern philosophy, in particular Buddhist, involving presence, awareness, and nonattachment.

It's being in the "world" but not being part of its unconscious, conditioned foolishness. Rather, when you are brushing your teeth, eating, showering, talking, driving, gardening, or reading, or what-have-you, your entire attention is on that one thing. That one ultimately important thing. Which is everything.

As opposed to suffering over who won the football game yesterday. Or whether your clothes are "stylish." Or you listen to "popular" music. Or your car sports the "correct" bumper stickers. Or you give to the "proper" charities. Or worship the appropriate god. Or went to the "right" school. Or married "well." Or have a "good" job.

FELLAHEEN!

3 comments:

Anonymous said...

Kerouac got the word 'fellaheen' from Spengler's 'Decline of the West', which was a big influence on the original Beats.

Anonymous said...

it doesn't matter from whence it came, just that it is there, it sums it up, like a well timed jazz note

David said...

It's funny that your blog pops up on the first page for a simple search for the word "fellaheen," Rick. I was researching an essay on Allen Ginsberg and wanted an exact definition, and it brought me here.

The first anonymous comment is correct. Kerouac was profoundly influenced by the book Burroughs gave him, and it gave him the concept of fellaheen, which you sometimes come upon Burroughs or Ginsberg using.