81. Thoughts On The Death Of Salinger

81. Thoughts on the Death of Salinger

News of the death of the reclusive novelist J. D. Salinger took me back to the time in the 1940s-50s when I was active as a scholar-writer and deeply concerned with how Asian culture was being received and popularized, especially in the U.S. In a previous Reminiscence (no. 79) I wrote about my relationship with Nancy Wilson Ross, author of popular books on Zen Buddhism and Asian religions, and about how I was “just then confronting what I saw as an attempted take-over by ‘the Zen people’ of all they liked best in Chinese and Japanese culture: spontaneity, humor, aesthetic subtlety, etc.” I was trying to act, in my necessarily very limited way, as some kind of counter-foil to the influence of Coomaraswamy and his “Asia is one” doctrine, or Joseph Campbell’s pronouncement that in order to really understand Asian culture we must all study yoga. Much of my energies in that period were devoted, in different ways, to de-mystifying Chinese and Japanese art, at least the secular painting that was my main area of scholarship and writing. I joined Donald Keene and others in trying to expose the shallowness of the writings of the most revered authority on Zen, Daisetsu Teitaro Suzuki. And I observed and commented on the foreign Zen community in Kyoto (offering a cigarette to one of them, getting the response “No thank you, I don’t need them.”) These included Ruth Fuller Sasaki, who had played a large part in introducing Zen to the U.S. and whom I knew there—I had read her “Cat’s Yawn” collection. It was not that I was in any way belittling Zen Buddhism, or other Asian creeds and beliefs—I was myself reading seriously in the accessible Zen literature, along with texts of Daoism and other Chinese systems of belief. But I was most deeply engaged, together with a great team of sinologists, in the series of conferences and publications on Neo-Confucian thought. (For these,  see Reminiscence no. 75, on Joseph Levenson.)

Much later, composing a patter-song to be sung in the 1960s by an aging hippie who has followed the leading intellectual fads over the decades,  I had him sing about being a Greenwich Village radical in the 1930s, and then: (from Dan Destry’s Dilemma, in my CYCTIE p. 27):

We turned away from the God that Failed
To expand our powers mental;
We were existentialists, and then
Went off to Japan to study Zen,
Vedanta and Yoga and nine or ten
Other doctrines transcendental—
We sought enlightenment earnestly
With metaphysical sorties—
It was, you see, the way to be,
The only conceivable way to be
In the mystical nineteen-forties.

What does all this have to do with Salinger? A great deal: his writing of this period, besides its literary brilliance, was deeply imbued with just this kind of transplanted Asian wisdom, full of references to it. He became a Zen enthusiast in the late 40s, and met D. T. Suzuki; he added Vedanta (joining such distinguished co-believers as Aldous Huxley and W. H. Auden) in the early 50s, and after his withdrawal to the New Hampshire retreat in 1953, continued to study and practice yoga and other Asian systems, one after another. And all of his writings, at least those after Catcher in the Rye (conceived and written in the late 40s, published in1951), are charged with references to these Asian systems. Seymour Glass is a Zen enthusiast and practitioner, and even as a seven-year-old boy (as revealed in the letter he writes from camp to his mother Minnie, in Hapsworth 16, 1924, the novel published in The New Yorker in 1965) he was already pursuing Asian wisdom: he asks her to send him, in addition to writings on Vedanta, “anything in English written by the tolerable Cheng brothers or anybody else passably gifted and heartrendingly ambitious who had the disagreeable luck to do any religious writing in China after the two, towering, incomparable geniuses of Lao-tse and Chuang-tse, not to mention Gautama Buddha!” This is Salinger showing off, not quite convincingly, his own mastery of these matters; by “the tolerable Cheng brothers” he must have meant the two 11th-century philosophers Cheng Hao and Cheng Yi, usually included among the major figures of Neo-Confucianism rather than religion—and it is hard to imagine what writings of theirs Minnie Glass could have found to send to her son in 1924. (They would then have been the Ch’eng brothers—Salinger has anachronistically made Seymour use the newer pinyin spelling.) The curious adjectives—“tolerable” Cheng brothers, “heartrendingly ambitious” others—are intended to convince us of Seymour’s precocious transcendence of ordinary intellectual thought, his penetration of esoteric doctrines already as a child.

In Seymour, An Introduction, we learn from Buddy that Seymour from an early age read Chinese and Japanese poetry in the original, and composed poetry partly inspired by it. Here, too, Salinger sets out to impress us with his (and their) erudition by introducing esoteric allusions to translators of Asian verse (Witter Bynner, Lionel Giles, R. H. Blyth), along with references to Chinese poets hard or impossible to identify (where could he have found them?), as though the truly knowledgeable reader should recognize them immediately:  “the great commoner, bastard, and poet Lao Ti-kao,” “Tang-li [who] divulges, when he is ninety-three. . .,” “Ko-huang” and “P'ang, the wonder of the eleventh century.” (No, they were not deliberately made up, fictional by intent: his references to translators, doctrines and the rest are real, and these are meant to be. Did he miscopy?) Buddy confides that his and Seymour’s “roots in Eastern philosophy” are “planted in the New and Old Testaments, Advaita Vedanta, and classical Taoism.” Zen is here relegated to secondary importance, as it may have been in Salinger’s life by this time.

In all this, Salinger was venturing out onto very unfirm ground, implying depths of understanding that he was still way short of reaching himself, attributing to his super-brilliant Glass children levels of enlightenment he could only distantly imagine. Seymour, An Introduction and Hapsworth are both, among other things, attempts to overcome or circumvent this obstacle, and both are in that respect failures. Salinger tries to cover his flanks by writing both in the persona of people who could not have fathomed totally the mature Seymour’s enlightenment: his brother Buddy and Seymour himself at age seven. But Salinger was no more able to fathom it than they were: the mind of the fictional Seymour of Bananafish is inaccessible to any of them. And must remain so, since it was only a dream of its creator.

My point, I hope, begins to emerge. For some years now, since he first became a recluse,  I have been offering the opinion, in conversations and informal writings, that Salinger had written himself into a corner, a dead-end, from which he could find no way out. The people he created, Holden Caulfield and the Glass children, are all very conscious of their superiority to those around them, and for the Glasses, especially for Seymour, that superiority is deeply bound up with the study of Zen and Vedanta and the rest. But the ultimate truths of Zen are by their very nature ineffable, beyond expression in words. D.T. Suzuki wrote book after book seeming always to promise that he was about to reveal the real content of Zen enlightenment, without ever doing it. Salinger must have been deeply and uncomfortably conscious of the expectations of his readers and critics, already hinted at in reviews and sure to become demands, that he must go beyond glancing allusions into some more substantial revelations that would support the implicit claims he was making for his characters and (as their creator) for himself. Put up or shut up. And he must have been conscious also of his own ultimate inability to do that. Least of all people could the creator of Holden Caulfield tolerate even an accusation of “faking it.”

For such a superlative writer—his dazzlingly innovative prose, his near-perfect capturing of conversational speech—this was a tragedy. If only he could have somehow changed direction, used his rare gifts for prose writings of other kinds, we would be better off—there is no pleasure in watching a writer of this stature turn silent. I join others in hoping that when his safe is opened, some marvelous late-period manuscripts will be found, writings that will show how he transcended this dead-end predicament. As a longtime Salinger admirer, I hope that will be true. But it will surprise me.

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