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Headless and Homeless: Zen Non-Thinking Awareness in American Countercultural Trip Narratives Post-WWI to the Vietnam War


This project surveys the appearance of a phenomenon that I will call "non-thinking awareness," something not exclusive to but usually identified with the practice of Zen Buddhism. I argue that the importation of Eastern religious and philosophical ideas introduced into American literature a mode of perception radically divergent from the dualistic Cartesian cogito upon which modern Western thought primarily owes its origins. Instead of identifying with one's thoughts, a person who practices non-thinking awareness sees his or her existence as a holistic embodiment rather than as an identity split between mind and body.

The four chapters of this project read texts that evince a trip narrative, stories that depict some sort of pilgrimage or journey toward a higher consciousness. More specifically, these trip narratives respond to American wars, starting from World War I and continuing through the Vietnam War. The protagonists featured, in some part affected directly by a given war or by the war's deleterious effect on his or her culture, radiate away from the urban or suburban social site that was their home and move to the fringes of society in pursuit of wholeness in the face of fragmentation. I correlate the movement away from society with a practice of relinquishing logocentric thought because language is a social tool. By leaving sites of the social, these characters are able to abandon identification with a linguistically mediated self.

This project focuses on work by Ernest Hemingway, D.H. Lawrence, Samuel Beckett, Elizabeth Bishop, Gregory Corso, Jack Kerouac, and Marco Vassi.

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