Sunday, February 28, 2010

Visiting the Glass Family (again)

"Seymour once said that all we do our whole lives is go from one little piece of Holy Ground to the next. Is he never wrong?"

This is a (late) memorial/composite review of Nine Stories; Raise High the Roof Beams, Carpenters and Seymour: An Introduction; and Franny and Zooey. The other reviews offer a lot, I just wanted to add some more thoughts because Mr. Salinger's death motivated me to re-visit his works and because his writing has impacted my life more than any other single author it's appropriate that my first review of his works.

There's a tension in Salinger's work between "worldly" knowledge (phony-ness) and (proper)wisdom. Franny's crisis in F&Z is motivated by her frustration that college is about "knowledge" and not at all about wisdom. Salinger's characters are all critical of superficial knowledge and in love with deep, enlightened wisdom. If someone were going to try to generalize (a phony exercise to be sure; but let me be a little phony for second) Salinger's work, there's a progression from Holden (who is critical of everyone around them and their superificial-ness) to Franny and Zooey (who are ciritical of everyone around them, but are trying to find an "end" for which there criticism is a means) to Seymour (the paradigmatic enlightened one).

One thing that makes a good writer is their way to keep tension alive. For Salinger, this tension between the superficial and the enlightened is deeply embedded. The Glass's love notwithstanding, Seymour's purported enlightenment should be regarded with a grain of salt. If anyone viewed Seymour objectively, they would have to regard him as a crazy person: he throws a rock at Charlotte; he leaves Muriel waiting at the altar; finally he shoots himself. Is Seymour more enlightened than everyone else, or is the tension between detached wisdom and attached worldliness expressed more strongly in Seymour than any of Salinger's other characters?

Salinger dedicates Raise High the Roof Beam, Carpenters and Seymour: An Introduction by invoking the amateur reader (if there is one left in the world). I think Salinger probably regarded with disdain the professional reader. I think if I write anymore I run the risk of writing a review now amateur enough and too professional. Insofar as this review was too "professional", Mr. Salinger, I apologize.

"Against my better judgment I feel that somewhere very near here--the first house down the road, maybe--there's a good poet dying, but also somewhere very near here somebody's having a hilarious pint of pus taken from her lovely young body, and I can't be running back and forth forever between grief to high delight."


Christopher said...

But Buddy also depicts Seymour as extremely genial and kind. It's hard to blame Seymour for the things you've described because they seem to come from such a benign place. Plus, if Seymour has detached himself from the world, what do we make of Salinger, who did the exact same thing?

billy said...

huzzah! well done posting your ish

R.M.Fiedler said...


It's true that Buddy describes Seymour extremely lovingly, and I don't mean to blame Seymour for anything. I guess the reason I wrote about those things is that every previous time I've read these books I was in awe of Seymour, who seemed to understand some fundamental truth better than anyone else (a fundamental truth which Holden recognized in a small way, Franny and Zooey in a bigger way...). This time, when I read through the books, I couldn't help wondering if in all of Seymour's "enlightenment" he had failed to see something which was there (worldly things, worldy happiness as distinct from other-worldly things).

I'm not sure why I felt this way about Seymour this time around and not previous times. I suspect a partial explanation is that I've gotten more cynical over time; I also suspect that as time has passed I've come to question a wisdom which seems to require a disconnect from the realities of the world. On the one hand, I don't want to forgive Muriel for being Muriel; on the other hand, I don't want to forgive Seymour for marrying someone who appears to be so wrong for him. The fact that Seymour seems to romanicize the prospective marriage by seeing it as a spiritual experience related to child rearing does not change the fact that the spiritual experience needs to be grounded in reality; did Seymour make (or try to make) Muriel into someone she wasn't?

As for Salinger, I'm not sure what to make of the man. I was going to write my first review of the biography written by his daughter (I wouldn't recomend it. I only read the first chapter; I couldn't get into the thing at all, and the whole time I was reading it I felt like I was committing some literary crime against Salinger's other works). From what I did read, I gathered that his daughter had a great deal of resentment towards Salinger related to her childhood. When Salinger was focused on this world, he was a great father; when he was focused on his spiritual development, apparently he was inattentive and unloving.


As for you, Billy: you asked, I answered.

Christopher said...

I shall plug shamelessly my review of Raise High: