Tuesday, 14 April 2015

JD Salinger - a genius who was sadly typical of Westerners who embrace Eastern religions


I have recently found a worthwhile - albeit over-long, unfocused and rather distorted - biopic of JD Salinger (above) - worthwhile especially for some new details and discoveries, and a great mass of photographic documentation.

I have a tremendous love of several of Salinger's works - Esme, Zooey, Raise High the Roofbeam, Seymour - and have been reading (selectively) biographies on him for over thirty years (the best is Kenneth Slawenski's excellent A Life Raised High of 2010) - so I was very pleased to discover the above documentary from 2013.


Salinger was a very religious man, and devoutly practised Vedanta Hinduism (indeed, this documentary claims that a posthumous 'manual' of Vedanta by Salinger is in the publishing pipeline); and it is striking how little difference this seemed to make to Salinger's two great personal flaws (of which I know): i.e. his relationships with women; and his tendency to abrupt, consuming and lasting hatred and resentment directed against any people who (apparently) let him down.

The main thing I took away from this film was a clearer sense of my condemnation of Salinger's 'sex life' - which for decades followed a stereotypical pattern of shallow, self-centred, selfishness; a series of relationships with teenage or teen-looking, gamine-pretty, precocious girls whom he would abruptly and coldly reject at the first suspicion of them behaving like grown-up women or real people.

For example, this documentary reveals that Salinger (against regulations) fell in love with and married a (presumed) ex-Nazi young women while he working in the de-Nazification branch of military intelligence in 1946 - a girl with whom he said he felt a literally telepathic communication, brought his new wife back to the USA, and then the marriage broke-up after a few weeks and was annulled.

An interviewee describes how, later, Salinger had courted her from the age of fourteen but ditched her five years later, suddenly and permanently, immediately after they had sex for the first time.

And his ludicrous and foolish and bilaterally-destructive shenanigans with the preppie freshman Joyce Maynard when Salinger was in his mid fifties, has been made the subject of a memoir.


I have a theory that most seriously-religious modern (twentieth century) Westerners who embrace Eastern religions - such as Hinduism or Buddhism - often do so in order to be religious but also 'take advantage' of the modern sexual revolution, in a way that would not be possible for a similarly-devout Christian or Jew (Salinger's Father was Jewish).

From the Western perspective, Eastern religion offers a meaningful, aesthetic mysticism that downplays or altogether leaves-out the Jewish-Christian requirement for sexual virtue  (i.e. sex only in the context of a monogamous and permanent marriage).

Furthermore, from a Christian perspective, the Eastern religions leave-out sin; which sounds-like a liberation but actually is not; because they also leave-out repentance, and the possibility of being 'washed clean' from sin.

So the Western convert to Eastern religion (apparently) feels no need to confess his sins or feel limited by conventional (traditional) morality - a situation which he presumably likes.

But neither can he repent his wrong-doings and make a fresh start - which makes change difficult (and futile); and potentially leads the seriously religious person to a helpless conviction of accumulating 'bad Karma', or passively being punished for the wickedness of previous existences.

The Christian sin of Pride tends to be amplified - since pride becomes the primary motivation, the one thing that keeps an otherwise despairing person/ artist/ writer active and purposeful. And pride often leads to hatred, resentment, a sense of superiority and despising of others as inferior - and the rest of it.


In Salinger I do not detect evidence of repentance. Regret, yes - but not repentance - which is what he so greatly needed (as do we all). Indeed, it does not look as if he resisted - but instead actively prosecuted for several decades -  the pathological and hurtful, and also both futile and self-destructive, cyclical pattern of his relationships with women. He does not seem to have recognized that his hair-trigger states of boiling anger, his abrupt and lasting rejections of friends who erred were primarily faults in himself.

(Even if he could not prevent himself doing these things and feeling these ways, it ought to have been straightforward for him to acknowledge the faults in himself, perhaps even to apologise.)


The reason that I have come so late to these recognitions about Salinger is partly the perfectionism of his writing. A novella such as the (brilliant, wonderful) Zooey was multiply revised and edited literally a word at a time, over an extensive period (by Salinger in collaboration with the New Yorker editor William Shawn).

Such a process of revision and editing has the result of putting a tight barrier between the author and the reader - the author's 'real' self may be excluded, and an impenetrable authorial persona constructed.

Yet (paradoxically) the astonishing detail and internal-consistency of the writing creates the impression that we readers have a window into Salinger's mind; and are actually perceiving his thoughts as they arise, one at a time - we seem to 'know' the author better than we have ever known anybody in real-life!

And so there is this mismatch, this gulf between a Salinger the man; who in real life seems to have been shallow, immature, vindictive, fickle, and self-righteous; and the constructed literary persona who is wise, deep, compassionate, sensitive: a sage - indeed a spiritual master.


Previous postings on JD Salinger:



Anonymous said...

A lot of what passes for Christianity these days seems to come from Eastern religion. The unconditional forgiveness of unrepentant sin seems to me the most obvious example.

Bruce Charlton said...

@dl - That is certainly a feature of modern fake Christianity, but I don't know whether it comes from Eastern religions - to me it seems to come from secular Leftism.

A further problem is the unclarity of sin and repentance - it has taken me a good while to sort them out (assuming I have sorted them out). My understanding is that repentance is mostly about (self) acknowledgment of the wrongness of wrongdoing. It is necessary because failure to repent is the denial of reality; including the reality of resurrection, eternal life and Heaven.

Sean Cory said...

"Eastern religion" does not exist as a stand alone institution or philosophy. There are thousands of sects and they vary widely in their beliefs. The Vedas are THE authoritative writings but they are interpreted to support everything from monism to idolatry to atheism. Vedanta, when pursued seriously and with earnestness, is demanding and requires a high degree of self discipline and study. It most certainly does not endorse fornication or sexual immorality.

Jesus Christ is, at best, regarded as one of many avatars of god by the sects in India (which is the cradle of "eastern religion") and thus His teachings would be given credence but not His claim to be the Only Begotten Son and His atonement would not be accepted. That said it is certainly not the case that sin is brushed off or approved by any of the sects of which I am aware. They teach that sin certainly exists, that to sin is to cut oneself off from salvation and suffer negative consequences and that it is possible to reverse course through the practice of virtue and right action. Many of the sects teach of the need for grace.

I suspect that Salinger is a typical western dilettante when it comes to vedanta. Westerners tend to gravitate to these eastern sects because they carry a sense of serious spiritual endeavor but without the rules that impede all the fun. This is a fantasy (see above) as vedanta has plenty of rules. See the writings of Vivekananda on the yogas as an example of what a genuine devotee would be expected to strive for. Because there is no one authoritative voice and because there is a lot of borrowing and blending (not exactly unknown among the Christian sects) it is not difficult to pick and choose what is most agreeable. This practice is simply idolatry with a veneer of whatever the primary sect claimed happens to be to lend it "gravitas". It is easy to get away with this because so few know anything about actual "eastern religion" and so it can be pretty much whatever the individual says it is. I have been acquainted with a few "Buddhists" whose ideas about their religion would be utterly unrecognizable to Gautama.

Bruce Charlton said...

@SC - I don't think Salinger could be described as a dilettante - he was serious and knowledgeable, Nonetheless, when a religion is detached from its cultural context, this *may* severely distort it and render it incomplete. Some religions *have* successfully spread through many cultures (or brought the necessary cultures with them) - but there are plenty which have not.

David said...

@ Bruce:

Thought this may be of interest:


Bruce Charlton said...

Thanks, David.