Saturday 9 December 2023

Why Zooey (by JD Salinger) made such an impact

Zooey, depicted by David Richardson - catches the character nicely, although Zooey is meant to be a handsome actor and juvenile leading man on TV

I have written before about JD Salinger's novella Zooey; and how it has fascinated me, off and on, ever since I encountered it in the summer of 1981. Well, I have again been dipping into it, and as usual it has triggered some associations and notions. 

Zooey struck me as a deep book, when I first read it - as if it might contain the "secret of life" somewhere embedded. It probably had this effect because this was the first time in my life that I had met with "spiritual stuff" that really interested and excited me. 

I was very taken by the way that some of the characters talked about spiritual and religious matters; in a personal and engaged way; this was obviously the most important thing for them (and implicitly the author). 

Maybe this was the first sense I got of the possibility of a personal and inwardly-driven spiritual/ religious quest for people of my broad type, people with whom I could identify. 

The Glass family did plenty of quoting and name-dropping, true; but clearly they were not just repeating what "other people" had said. 

And also, they were trying to use these insights in living their lives: giving it their Best Shot. 

My reaction was, I now perceive, a kind of recapitulation of the way in which, from the late-1800s and with the emergence of Theosophy; many Western people were attracted to the esoteric spirituality and religions of the East - mainly philosophical Hinduism and Zen Buddhism. 

(Mainstream Christianity was largely irrelevant to this quest - it simply did not address the driving motivations of such people.) 

And the way, also, that this Eastern perspective was then brought-back and applied to "Christianity" -  because Zooey (and the short story Franny that precedes it) is focused on the Jesus Prayer, and the Russian Orthodox book "The way of a pilgrim" - which is about the use of this prayer as the centre of a religious life. 

Zooey is permeated-by, and culminates-in, what I found at the time to be an appealing positive presentation of Jesus Christ - and that was something I had seldom encountered before.

(As a child and adolescent I had always found the character Jesus to be uninteresting, alien and irrelevant to my problems and concerns.)  

I can nowadays see that the version of Jesus Christ, the Jesus Prayer and "Christianity" that are featured in Zooey are primarily Hindu/ Buddhist/ Eastern. For instance; the Jesus Prayer is presented as a mantra, pure and simple; and Salinger's Jesus is a very different and almost opposite phenomenon from that of what I now regard as real Christianity. 

Salinger's Jesus is indeed much more like Buddha than the Jesus of the IV Gospel; and Salinger's Jesus's concerns and aims are in-line with Oneness spirituality; rather than being focused upon life after death, salvation, resurrection - and Heaven. 

But this understanding of mine is all retrospective. At the time of reading, my concerns and demands were much like those of the Glass family children. 

What, then, were these demands and concerns?

The big problem for the Glass children is that this mortal life on earth cannot live up to the aspirations and perceived possibilities of youth

This afflicts all the children we encounter in the main Glass stories: Franny, Zooey, Seymour, and Buddy (the author's persona) - and, implicitly the others too. They all seem to have a yearned-for ideal of what life could and should be - but later discover that whatever they do (and, between them, the children try a range of strategies)...

Whatever they try: life just doesn't match up with these intense hopes. 

Therefore, there is an underlying pessimism about the Glass family saga; even when the specific stories end in an upbeat fashion - upon what seems like an epiphany, an insight, an answer (as do both Zooey and Raise high the roof beam, carpenters) - the reader senses that it will be a very temporary and partial triumph.

This pessimism comes across primarily because the oldest child, Seymour, committed suicide; shot himself with a gun (in A perfect day for bananafish). 

Yet Seymour was (at least to his family) a spiritual genius, the best of the children - a man we are told was both far-advanced and deeply-into the actual practice of Eastern spirituality. 

Therefore, despite that Seymour, like Salinger himself, suffered from Combat Fatigue (true PTSD, not the watered-down modern usage) as a consequence of prolonged front-line participation in the World War II invasion of Europe - we feel that Seymour should, nonetheless - as a kind of saint, have been able to overcome whatever horrors life threw at him. 

The background - and deeply-sad - implication and conclusion; is that there is no answer to the problem of that between life-as-it-might-be and life-as-it is; because not even Seymour could find one. Seymor's failure in this mortal life casts across all the Glass stories a shadow of the inevitability of failure.  

The young Glasses may not grasp this, when they are still growing-up, extraverted, when life is apparently opening-out - and they have the delusional confidence that they will be the first to find this answer. 

But this will always fail; and will lead either to an abandonment of the spiritual quest (as with sister "Boo-Boo" - a socially-integrated housewife and family woman; or else to a frustration and dismay that increases with age (Seymour, and Buddy).

Then there is Waker, who is described as having become a Carthusian monk, vowed to silence for much of the time. It may be that we are supposed to infer that Waker has candidly acknowledged to himself the insufficiency of this mortal life; and looks therefore to the life beyond. 

My interpretation of Waker is that Salinger saw him more as an Eastern monk than a Christian. One who regards this life as suffering and an illusion, from-which we should seek to detach ourselves - awaiting a kind of re-absorption into universal and impersonal divinity. 

In other words; (IMO) Salinger had neither an understanding-of, nor belief-in, the Christian idea (well, some Christians believe it) that this mortal life and our death are real, necessary steps en route to a state of post-mortal divinity that is personal.  

So, I agree with Salinger that this mortal life is inevitably insufficient; and I agree with his implicit conclusion that there is no answer to this problem within the scope of Eastern religion.

(Since; to regard this mortal life as a tragedy of suffering and attachment is not a solution; and to cure our sense of tragic insufficiency with annihilation of "the self" and consciousness is to avoid, but not to solve, the problem.) 

In conclusion, I continue to regard Zooey as a valuable and honest - as well as interesting and exciting - "spiritual story" - but I no longer believe it contains "the answer" to this mortal life!

Rather, Zooey and the other Glass stories show us what are Not the answers... 

But more than just "showing"; through participation in these stories, we potentially live-out putative answers, and experience for ourselves their (noble!) failures; and they leave us to continue the quest for ourselves and in different directions. 

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