January 27, 2013

The Sound of No Salinger

I looked up from the book, saw the Fat Lady, and found Enlightenment.

I was sitting in a warm café near Lincoln Park over bagels and coffee, bracing myself for the blizzard outside. It was January in Chicago and I was spending the month at the Field Museum to identify a batch of plant specimens from the Peruvian Amazon. No tropical flower could have suffered as much from the contrast in climate as I did. The Museum opened at 9 and closed at 6 and I had plenty of time to kill. For no particular reason, I decided to read all of J.D. Salinger’s books in roughly the order they were written. It doesn’t take long: he published remarkably little.

Isolated, focused, almost monastic, I spent those weeks moving between the luminous vault of the herbarium, the urban tundra of Chicago’s lakefront, and the dense world of Salinger’s fiction. That morning in the café I had just finished Franny and Zooey. In the final pages, Zooey Glass is on the phone with his sister Franny, remembering a conversation with their brilliant deceased brother, Seymour. 

In their youth, Zooey had complained about having to shine his shoes before performing with Seymour for a radio audience of “morons” he couldn’t even see, to which Seymour replied, “Shine them anyway…for the Fat Lady.” Zooey concludes his long, cathartic conversation with Franny, “Don’t you know who that Fat Lady really is?...Ah, buddy. Ah, buddy. It’s Christ Himself,” and Franny goes into a state of ecstasy. 

And, so—when I closed the book and looked up to find myself facing the Fat Lady—did I. 

She was sitting at the next table with manic hair, her bulk magnified by layers of dank clothes and surrounded by shopping bags full, not of purchases, but possessions: in short, a “bag lady.” And yet her sparkling eyes and bright smile gave her the air of a fairy godmother who had fallen on hard times in this disenchanted modern world. She had asked me a question, but absorbed in my reading I hadn’t heard. Surprised by the curious coincidence, and moved by a swell of compassion in the afterglow of Salinger’s art, I went to her table and struck up a long conversation and eventually paid for her coffee, though she didn’t ask me to.

Finally she was gone, and as I walked through the icy streets on my way to the museum, hardly feeling the sting of the wind, I was overcome by an indescribable feeling of grace and warmth and fulfillment that lasted most of the day. It was as if some key had turned in a lock deep in my soul. I felt whole, enveloped in truth and mystery: At One. The saint-like apparition of the Fat Lady had sparked the experience, but it was the intense, cloistered reading of Salinger that had primed me.

In the weeks that followed, I read more about Salinger's life and work searching for clues as to what quality of his art had inspired such a profound reaction in me. His avid involvement with Zen Buddhism and other religions is mentioned by most critics. Gerald Rosen, in Zen in the Art of J.D. Salinger[1], reads Franny and Zooey as a modern Zen tale. But I was disappointed to find that most commentators writing at the time, and even more so since his death, have focused less on his unique literary style and more on his reclusive life, cantankerous privacy lawsuits and a trail of broken relationships. In a culture obsessed with fame, Salinger was a finger in the eye of the literary establishment, and his silence was taken as a snub.

What I find most striking in Salinger’s writing is precisely his use of silence, or 'negative space'. He signals this aesthetic in the epigraph to the Nine Stories, a Zen koan about the sound of one hand clapping.[2] In most of these stories and subsequent work, the central events or characters are egregiously absent from the pages: Seymour’s suicide, only alluded to in “A Perfect Day for Bananafish”; Seymour himself, always just beyond the frame of the Glass family novellas; the unspeakable wartime experiences left unspoken in the epistolic conclusion to “For Esmé—With Love and Squalor”; Ramona’s invisible friend Jimmy Jimmerino in “Uncle Wiggily in Connecticut” and the parallel phantom of her mother’s lost wartime love; and the scandalously elliptical conclusion to the ninth story, "Teddy," in which a precocious, perhaps divinely gifted child may fall to his death as he himself appears to predict earlier in the story.

Much like the unmentioned abortion that lies at the center of Hemingway's “Hills Like White Elephants” (Salinger admired Hemingway and arranged to meet him while serving in Europe in WWII), Salinger’s characters obsessively skirt around the central facts of their lives, leaving a gaping chasm whose edges are sketched in but whose essence remains elusive, perhaps unknowable, and yet all the more powerful. Salinger’s ultimate application of this art to his own life was his complete withdrawal from the public eye between 1965, when his final published story appeared, and his death in 2010.

A prominent example of negative space in the visual arts is the optical illusion known as Rubin’s vase. The white vase is surrounded by a black background that suddenly morphs into a pair of black faces silhouetted against a white background where the vase used to be. The visual confusion caused by such 'figure-ground reversal' creates a disturbing oscillation as the eye alternately accepts and rejects two contradictory possibilities, forcing the viewer to step outside seeing and consider the paradox of sight itself.

Alan Watts describes a similar cognitive effect of Zen meditation: “The method of Zen is to baffle, excite puzzle and exhaust the intellect.”[3] In Salinger’s writing, a similar method is at work, a constant tension between the narrative 'field' and the unseen, unmentioned 'ground' that nonetheless impinges: the sound of one hand clapping.

I believe that this "baffling, exciting, exhausting" oscillation between seen and unseen, field and ground, presence and absence—which resolved itself in the cathartic finale to Franny and Zooey and in my own chance encounter in Chicago—took me briefly outside the bounded limits of self and opened me to a deeply fulfilling moment of aesthetic rapture.

I can’t claim to have attained lasting Enlightenment, but the singular experience of grace that pulsed through my being on that day remains precious in my memory fifteen years later.

In his last published novella, Seymour: An Introduction, Salinger writes, "All we do our whole lives is go from one little piece of Holy Ground to the next." Today, on the third anniversary of Jerome David Salinger’s death, I reflect on his unique body of work and express my gratitude for one little piece of Holy Ground that he and the Fat Lady gave me. 


[1] Rosen, Gerald (1977) Zen in the Art of J.D. Salinger. Berkeley: Creative Arts Book Co.
[2] One of the more ridiculous interpretations of this koan is related by Ron Rosenbaum, who in his jilted, indignant 1997 profile for Esquire claims to have stood at Salinger's driveway in New Hampshire waving one hand in front of his facelike Muriel drying her nails in the story "...Bananafish"as the elusive author drove past.
[3] Watts, Alan (1960) The Spirit of Zen. New York: Grove Press, p. 19.

Photos sources:  Esquire, The New Yorker, Wikipedia.