Commentary Magazine


Salinger: How to Love Without Love

Since I lived in outermost Paris during practically the whole of the 1950’s, I was very late in learning of what seems to have been one of the chief American diversions during that decade: J. D. Salinger’s Glass family. As matters appear to stand right now, I could, without stretching things too much, say that I didn’t learn about the Glasses until they had not only ceased to be a diversion but had evidently ceased to be at all. First news of them reached me in a letter from a Jewish girl I’d known in New York, who, oddly, or not so oddly, enough, later married an Irish-American. Apropos of nothing I can especially remember, she asked: “Aren’t you crazy for the Glass family? I am, especially for Seymour.” It didn’t occur to me that this had anything to do with Salinger—though I had some years earlier read “A Perfect Day for Bananafish”—and it was a year before I found out who the Glasses were.

I found out when I came to New York, where, needless to say, almost everyone was crazy for the Glass family and seemed to be on intimate terms with them. It made me feel very left out of things indeed, like the only man in town who hadn’t been invited to a party. When I finally got around to crashing, I could hardly believe I’d come to the right place, for I never succeeded in finding those marvelous and celebrated people who’d been talked about so heatedly in living rooms and magazines. If “Franny,” “Seymour,” “Zooey,” and “Raise High the Roof Beam, Carpenters” are really the right and only stories about the Glasses that appeared during the 50’s, then the reason I couldn’t find them is that they weren’t there. They did not, in the simplest and most usual sense of the phrase, ever come alive, and I suspect that the reasons they did for so many readers were largely external. There was first of all the reservoir of love built by Salinger with The Catcher in the Rye; there was the very contemporary New York type family itself—Jewish and Irish and Central Park and middle class—given flattering depth with a lot of religious paraphernalia; there was the family chronicling (rather in the form of a writer’s notes for a contemplated novel) that more and more pervaded each piece; and there was also the reader’s confidence that, since the stories were beginning to read like serial installments, if lifelikeness didn’t actually obtain among the Glasses, it would surely one day come—providing cancer, the atom bomb, or old age didn’t get there first. Life would arrive soon or Soon. Salinger could be trusted. Who else, since the war, had created such a host of lifelike and memorable characters?

The genius or, if you will, ingenuity, of Salinger’s earlier work lay not in his creation of individuals, but in his depiction of types. Nearly everyone in his stories and in his novel rang bells like mad. You could not have learned to know thyself better from reading his work, but you might have recognized some of your sillier traits, and you would definitely have recognized the people and the things around you in it. He was always putting his finger on just the right gesture, on the precise tone of voice, on the exact object or circumstance. And if one suspected that he was in scorn of the vanities and trivialities of the milieu he described, he made them nevertheless glamorous, or rather he did not subtract from metropolitan life any of its mythical and publicized glamor. From The Catcher one came away charmed by the very things that appalled Holden: the night club, the theater, the pretentious sophisticates, the stupid office girls, the prep school, everything. It was all so precisely depicted that it gave one the pleasure of the miniature. You couldn’t possibly be offended by it—even if you happened to be a stupid and pretentious night-club. The Catcher is, so far as I know, an unparalleled example of a writer’s having the best of both worlds, of getting both God and Mammon to work for him whole-heartedly. (I’m not trying to diminish the value of The Catcher which—though both it and I have grown twelve years staler—is still one of the freshest novels this country has produced since the war.) The life in The Catcher, like the life in some of the Nine Stories—since whose appearance I have grown ten years staler, while they have grown a generation staler—springs from the swift, immediate, authentic response of the characters to the world around them. And the intense charm of the books came from the fact that his characters were responding to our world which also happened to be theirs. Their world will go as soon as our world goes (and then, of course, the charm will disappear, as it already has from Esmé, from Teddy, from most of them) because it was never transmuted; it was merely depicted. What once was the most moving scene in The Catcher—when Holden tries to explain his anguish over American civilization to the absurd girl he’s with at Rockefeller Center—has now become flat and insufficient. The time for disgust over Cadillacs has passed and Holden’s suffering does not seem interesting or real enough, enough itself, to make us separate it from its object, thereby turning the object into symbol and the suffering into our own. All his lament makes us want to do is prod him gently, wake him up, and say. nobody cares about Cadillacs any more.

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That Salinger’s feelings did not run very deep in his early work is ultimately why what he hated could charm us and why, when the object of his feelings was made trivial by time, so were his feelings. Of all Salinger’s characters the one with the most staying power has proved to be Muriel Glass, Seymour the Suicide’s wife in “A Perfect Day for Bananafish.” It is still utterly delightful to see her polishing her nails and waving her hands around to dry the stuff, to listen to the inane things she says on the telephone, to watch her cross and uncross her legs, touch an ashtray, handle a cigarette, move the receiver. There is no doubt she never ceases to be a type, but it is Salinger’s problem, not ours, if we cannot see so lively and physical a type as a good reason for Seymour’s suicide. But Salinger, I suppose, wants us to think backward: if Seymour killed himself, he must have done it because—and the only because in the story is Muriel. So then we have to hate Muriel. It’s rather like the traditional Hollywood technique of letting the audience know how to feel about a situation by showing how an on-the-scene observer reacts to it.

In “Bananafish,” as in that Rockefeller Center scene from The Catcher, Salinger uses a device that he repeats elaborately and at great length in two of the Glass stories. It appears to be a simple contrasting: Seymour against Muriel, Holden against the girl, the individual against the type, intelligence against stupidity, real feeling against no feeling, what Salinger loves against what Salinger hates. The usual idea of contrast is to intensify white by putting it against black, and vice versa. But Salinger doesn’t play the game quite straight in “Bananafish,” for what he does is try to make us imagine white by putting void against black. As it happens, his trick backfires because the reader falls in love with Muriel the black, and Salinger is left holding an Act of Depth in search of a character. And Seymour? What is Seymour? Who is he? He is no one; he’s just an idea.

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So far as I know, no new story by Salinger appeared during the four years preceding 1955 when both “Franny” and “Raise High” were published in the New Yorker. I am convinced that those four silent years were spent by him on the road to Satori and in deepest spiritual anguish. How far along he got, and why he returned, seem like matters that shouldn’t be speculated about in public; yet since he obtrudes himself and his own spiritual interests with ever-lessening embarrassment into the Glass pieces, and since it is impossible to understand his stories without gauging the status of Salinger’s soul, I’ll tell you what I have measured from his work. There is an often quoted Zen saying which goes something like this: “When you are unenlightened, mountains are mountains and rivers are rivers. When you are approaching Enlightenment, mountains are not mountains and rivers are not rivers. When you have attained Enlightenment, mountains are mountains and rivers are rivers.” Well, I think Salinger got stuck about midway, where mountains and rivers aren’t mountains and rivers. He went far enough along to undo himself and then stopped, or was stopped, cold, or perhaps hot, or perhaps, as he might put it, hot and cold. And he started talking. (If he sometimes talks as Americans often seem to talk when they are having at you from Satori Boulevard—whether they’ve been traveling via Zen, Gurdjieff, mescalin, LSD or whatever—as if he were a public relations man for the Godhead, it would nonetheless be diabolical, not to say asinine, to attack him for the product he represents rather than for his manner of pushing it.)

Why did he not go on? Because he couldn’t, and you can often hear the wheels of his spirit spinning in the sand where they got caught. But qualities and textures, gestures and surfaces, the stuff of his early writings, were completely undone, peeled open; and Salinger fell to a level of feeling so deep, so complex, that his relationship to life no longer had any relevance to Cadillacs, nail polish, leg crossings, telephones, regional speech patterns, or American civilization. (With respect to the Zen quotation, one might also say: his relationship to life did not as yet have relevance to nail polish, etc.) But neither did it have relevance to Satori. Like Dante, he was chronologically nel mezzo del camin’, and like Dante he was in la selva oscura. Dante, of course, didn’t talk about it for a long time; he waited, my ignorant memory tries to recollect, between ten and twenty years. But Salinger was impulsive, and he chose, or was driven, to speak not only of the sands in which he was still stuck but of the starting place, which no longer meant anything to him, and of the destination, which he could not even imagine. Not having arrived at his destination, he had not become the agent of prophetic statements (except insofar as he publicizes, through marvelous quotations, the statements of others), and among the resources of his humanity there had never been, as there had been for Dante, a great poetic imagination and an already formulated religious design to tell him what the second half of the road was like. Dante need have gotten no closer to Paradise than Salinger has to Satori for the Comedy to have found its way. Whatever the literal background of his honeymoons with Virgil and Beatrice, in his art he was leading them; he knew exactly where to go and what salvation looked like. The Church and his own medieval genius told him, and they told him in sensual, communicable images.

I would guess that Salinger’s Glass stories are, or were intended to be, a religious allegory, with the seven Glass brothers and sisters representing the various stages toward Enlightenment, from Franny, the youngest, who is just entering the crisis, to Seymour, the oldest, who has made it, who is there, whose Bananafish suicide we are now told to see as his means of shooting himself out of this world—dying to life, as the expression goes—and into Satori. I would also guess that the allegory idea didn’t come to Salinger until after “Franny” (which is the first, best, most tender of the later pieces), and that since it posits Seymour as the Enlightenment, the project was doomed from the start, for Seymour’s enlightenment, which merits no capital “E,” is a kind of cherry-flavored innocence, much inferior to Holden Caulfield’s dream of catching children in the rye. Seymour is the captain of the God-ship lollipop.

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For the form of “Franny,” Salinger revisits “Bananafish” and Rockefeller Center. He sets up Franny and Lane Coutell as his White Queen and Black King, and it works beautifully. It works because, while Salinger thinks he is up to his old trick of materializing White by holding nothing up to Black, the emotion that is Franny is a real one, deeply felt. She is White. And what facility Salinger has lost in his dealings with the surfaces of things seems to be a gain, for it limits him, when talking of Franny the character (as opposed to Franny the Anguish), to flat unobtrusive descriptions:

Franny saw [Lane’s arm waving], and him, and waved extravagantly back. . . . She was wearing a sheared raccoon coat. . . . She threw her arms around him and kissed him. It was a station-platform kiss—spontaneous enough to begin with, but rather inhibited in the follow-through. . . . “Did you get my letter?” she asked and added, almost in the same breath, “You look almost frozen, you poor man. Why didn’t you wait inside?”

Just enough to get her on the page, to embody the emotion. The anguish of her crisis is all the rest of her, and it is so intense and so convincing that it doesn’t matter a bit that she is appalled by virtually the same things that appalled Holden—the phonies and the activities of their world.

Even the Black King is improved by the depth of the new Salinger. It has been observed that Salinger is “unfair” in his treatment of Lane Coutell, that he trims from the boy everything that might reveal him as something more than a snob, a prig, a creature of fashion. This of course is a wicked way to write in our democratic and liberal present, but when that observation has been made, we can also observe that Salinger has never been able to do so wicked a thing before. His contempt for Lane comes through very clearly, as it never did with any of his early characters. Salinger ridicules him. He ridicules Lane not only for his vanity but for his humanity. He makes Lane’s hunger ludicrous by having him gnaw at his meal while Franny is practically swooning with her suffering (and of course unable to touch the food on her plate); he makes Lane’s love ludicrous by having him remember “that once, in a borrowed car, after kissing Franny for a half hour or so, he had kissed her coat lapel, as though it were a perfectly desirable, organic extension of the person itself.” And because Salinger is honest and open—and without charm—in his hatred of Lane, his little game of setting his character up as a human being so that he can bowl him over with ridicule for being one makes Lane his single complete creation. At the end, having purged himself of his violent feelings, Salinger has a moment of tenderness toward Lane, gives up whipping him, and allows the boy to show himself as genuinely concerned and worried about Franny.

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Heaven only knows what happened to Salinger during those months between “Franny” and “Raise High,” a story that is fake from the word go. Salinger once again uses the “Bananafish” device of Black and White, but in a quite different way. There are a whole bunch of Blacks this time (pretentious guests from the bride’s side at Seymour’s wedding) who take up all but a score or so of the hundred-odd pages; and the White is just a few pages of excerpts from Seymour’s diary. (Seymour never appears; in fact he never ever makes an in-person appearance in these stories; and I think, if they continue, he never will; I think Buddy is his body, his worldly incarnation.) Shuttling between the Blacks and the White goes the narrator, Buddy the Body, second son of the Glasses, and though he is apparently very loyal to his older brother, he and Salinger make the mistake of printing verbatim the writings of Seymour the Soul. And what a mistake. All those “how sweets” and “so beautifuls” and “unbearably happys” and “overwhelmingly gratefuls” make a farce of Satori. Salinger has gotten out of his depth in his intentions and resorted to the fakest and most trivial kind of hagiography. Seymour is nothing but a mixture of cold blood and confectioner’s sugar.

To compensate, Salinger makes his Blacks blacker than ever and more pretentious than ever. Seymour should look real by comparison, but he doesn’t because the Blacks are stripped so entirely of virtues that they become merely grotesque, not Black. There is an unfortunate internal explosion as a result of all the shenanigans, and Salinger’s malice, rather than the Blacks, becomes contrasted with Seymour. What is “human-size,” however petty or vain, is beautiful to Seymour, but if Seymour is Salinger’s conception of Enlightenment, then by his mistreatment of his characters, Salinger places himself in a pretty backward position. Another result of these problems is that Salinger becomes desperate in his style. Seeming not to know what to do next, he sets off in wild pursuit of himself, of the old Salinger. The voice under the prose begins to sound as if it belongs to Mann’s Aschenbach, still dying his hair and powdering his face and chasing all over Venice for a glimpse of the boy. Since he can no longer reach the sensual world, Salinger must use a thousand abstract words to describe what once took ten concrete ones. For his lost charm, he substitutes archaisms, cutenesses, coynesses, leaden mannerisms. Listen to Buddy describing himself helping people into cars:

I was not only twenty-three but a conspicuously retarded twenty-three. I remember loading people into cars without any degree of competence whatever. On the contrary, I went about it with a certain disingenuous, cadetlike semblance of single-mindedness, of adherence to duty. After a few minutes, in fact, I became all too aware that I was catering to the needs of a predominantly older, shorter, fleshier generation, and my performance as an arm taker and door closer took on an even more thoroughly bogus puissance. I began to conduct myself like an exceptionally adroit, wholly engaging young giant with a cough.

Salinger also tries to get some feelings into the piece; there are none handily about, so he constructs them. Take a look at this Gigantic-Orchestration-Of-Feelings-Appropriate-to-Great-Themes Charade that Buddy plays out after reading Seymour’s diary while sitting on the edge of the bathtub:

I remember closing the diary—actually, slamming it shut—after the word “happy.” I then sat for several minutes with the diary under one arm, until I became conscious of a certain discomfort from having sat so long on the side of the bathtub. When I stood up, I found I was perspiring more profusely than I had all day, as though I had just got out of a tub, rather than just been sitting on the side of one. I went over to the laundry hamper, raised the lid, and, with an almost vicious wrist movement, literally threw Seymour’s diary into some sheets and pillowcases that were on the bottom of the hamper. Then, for want of a better, more constructive idea, I went back and sat down on the side of the bathtub again. I stared for a minute or two at Boo Boo’s message on the medicine-cabinet mirror, and then I left the bathroom, closing the door excessively hard after me, as though sheer force might lock up the place forever after.

Listen to all that Great Emotion banging like a broken piano in an old silent-movie house. What is Buddy’s violent reaction all about? Is it his response to having read that sopping fraud, his older brother, whom he adores? He carries on as if Seymour were a sudden revelation to him, and yet he has known him intimately and spiritually all his life. Buddy is there to feel for us as in the Hollywood movies, so that we will know that Seymour’s writings are Enormities, not Inanities. But Buddy himself isn’t feeling a thing. How could he, when he is just a pile of cold words? And when Seymour is just a pile?

By the time he is done with “Raise High,” Salinger is faced with a demented fraud playing Satori, a bunch of grotesques playing common humanity, and a clownish vacuum playing himself. He can’t look forward; he can’t look backward; and he can’t stay where he is because it is a loveless, unloving nowhere. What is he to do? Where is he to turn?

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“Zooey,” the longest of the four late pieces, was published in 1957, and though it appears to be a sequel to “Franny,” it is actually a sequel to its more immediate predecessor. It is an attempt by Salinger to rescue, first of all, his own spiritual status by offering a Way of Love to the world, and a way, indeed, of loving those very same people he himself hates. It is also an attempt to rescue Seymour by making him the ultimate inventor of the Way. To avoid putting Seymour to any further tests, he keeps him out of the story. And to avoid putting the Way of Love to a test, Salinger keeps from the story anyone who might possibly upset him. Thus, not a Black in sight anywhere. Everyone is White—Franny, Zooey, and their mother—and they are all locked in the White Castle, the Glasses’ Manhattan apartment. The action takes place a couple of days after “Franny,” and Franny is home, but still in anguish. Her worried mother has a long dialogue with her sixth son Zooey while he takes a bath. She pleads with him to help Franny, and though he tries, he cannot. However, he is a television actor and he has a great plan up his sleeve which involves an elaborate interplay of identities, so cumbersome and complicated that you can’t help tripping over a bunch of allegorical wires. (I don’t know what it all means.) He goes to Seymour’s and Buddy’s old room and, using Seymour’s telephone, which is on Buddy’s desk, he calls Franny on the family telephone and, using Buddy’s voice at first, but then later his own, and quoting Seymour, he cures Franny’s anguish by telling her that everyone is Jesus Christ and therefore they all merit love even if they stink. (By this he means the Blacks, like Lane Coutell and the wedding guests in “Raise High” and everyone else in the world who isn’t named Glass.) It is rather like the end of a Russian movie; the heartbroken girl unexpectedly hears a speech by a commissar and is made miraculously whole. Zooey-Buddy-Seymour’s Christianity sounds very sweet, and Franny buys it, but of course it is just garbage. All Zooey is saying is that if you close your eyes and pretend that the Blacks are Whites, then you can love them, especially when they’re not around, and especially when the particular “everyone” that Zooey is referring to is an imaginary fat lady that Seymour dreamed up to represent the non-Glasses.

Well, perhaps Salinger is fooling Franny and himself into feeling that Seymour, because he has provided the Way, is no fraud, and perhaps Salinger is enthralled by his spiritual status after having twisted out a syllogism that grants he loves the lower orders and yet permits him to avoid any soiling contact with them. However, that Salinger continues to loathe, has indeed increased his loathing of, things human is shown by the way he must sterilize the physical. When Zooey berates Franny for refusing Mama Glass’s chicken soup, he berates her because she doesn’t realize that it is “consecrated” chicken soup. And observe the way Salinger neutralizes Zooey’s beauty; Buddy is the narrator, though he doesn’t appear in the story:

Close up, either full-face or in profile, he was surpassingly handsome, even spectacularly so. His eldest sister . . . has asked me to describe him as looking like “the blue-eyed Jewish-Irish Mohican scout who died in your arms at the roulette table at Monte Carlo.” A more general and surely less parochial view was that he had just barely been saved from too-handsomeness, not to say gorgeous-ness, by virtue of one ear’s protruding slightly more than the other. I myself hold a very different opinion from either of these. I submit that Zooey’s face was close to being a wholly beautiful face. As such, it was of course vulnerable to the same variety of glibly undaunted and usually specious evaluations that any legitimate art object is.

Whatever flesh may have been on Zooey’s surpassingly handsome face at the beginning of that description is thoroughly ripped off by the time we get to “holy” (spelled “wholly”) beautiful. No, sir, you can’t lust after our Zooey. And to make sure lust never even stirs in the reader, Salinger prefaces the face with this: “From the rear—particularly where his vertebrae were visible—he might almost have passed for one of those needy metropolitan children who are sent out every summer to endowed camps to be fattened and sunned.” Where Zooey’s body is submerged in the bath, water has a “dehydrating effect on him.” Where his knees stick out, they are “dry islands.” Body is so utterly negated in Zooey—as it is indeed in all the other Glasses—that when he characterizes Franny’s statements that Lane Coutell is a nice boy as “just sex talking, buddy. I know that voice. Oh, do I know that voice!” the reader feels that if Zooey does know that voice, it must be from having heard it over the radio. (I imagine that Salinger’s justification for unsexing the Glasses is that he wants to attribute to them, though they are adults, the same innocence that belonged to the children he used to write about.)

“Zooey” is nearly as bad a story as “Raise High.” Salinger fails to gives his characters any degree of life, and he fails to give substance or reality to their whereabouts, despite the endless cataloguings of furniture and household items. Since most of the story is in dialogue, the characters must live through their voices. But their voices are never heard. Salinger individualizes and characterizes them with the dogtag method: Zooey is identifiable by mild oaths and the fact that he calls everyone “buddy”; Mrs. Glass is identifiable by oodles of italics; and Franny is identifiable by references to her crisis.

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Any number of Salinger’s readers—Alfred Kazin and John Updike among the most illustrious—have pointed out that he loves the Glasses too much and too exclusively. I think they are doing him the kindness of taking an attempt for an achievement, the protestation for the sentiment. Though he is trying very hard to act like it, I don’t for a minute believe Salinger loves the Glasses. I think he probably hates them because they have never been willing to live off themselves, because he has had to construct them into pseudo-life, and thus they must represent for him the lifelessness of the idea he asks them to embody. I would guess the Glasses came into existence as postulates of the second half of the Satori road only after Salinger had despaired of getting beyond the first. To keep them alive may be for him some way of keeping the road open. Yet, they have walled up what is probably Salinger’s only possible path to salvation : his art. Rebirth can come only after one gives up the idea of it; and paradoxically, Salinger’s death-to-life can perhaps come only after he dies to death-to-life.

The marvel of “Seymour: An Introduction,” which appeared in 1959, is that Salinger confronts himself. It is a chronicle of the confrontation between the writer and the saint, and he hardly bothers to pretend it is a fiction. How disingenuous it was of all those critics and reviewers to have spoken of the piece as though it were a story, and how heartless it was of them who had loved him so much to have rapped him on the knuckles because he, the emperor, was the first to point out that he was wearing no clothes, had in fact been naked for years. “Seymour” is a courageous act, a much more personal display than having photographs published or signing books in department stores or making public appearances. And having given himself totally to those who had been lusting after him ever since The Catcher, all they did was respond by crying, “Shame!”

Yes, of course, “Seymour” is mannered and self-conscious and boring, but so were the other Glass pieces—and they were in addition dishonest, except for “Franny”—even though Salinger managed to keep these things hidden from his readers, if not from himself. What he says in “Seymour” is that he cannot live without Seymour, that he cannot give up writing about Seymour even though he cannot write about Seymour, that there is no Seymour and he must construct him. piece by piece, feature by feature. And in the process of saying so, all the literary pretensions and affectations and mannerisms are knitted into a hair-shirt which he is going to wear because that is the Way he has chosen for himself.

“Seymour” makes me think again of Aschenbach, this time in the confessional. Despite his makeup and dyed hair, he is confessing with all his heart and repenting with all his heart. His contrition is complete. Yet when he steps out of the church, where is he to go? All the waters of Venice flow back to his love. All of Salinger’s roads lead back to Seymour, or to silence, or to both.

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