The buzz over the new documentary, Salinger, directed by Shane Salerno, has been mixed, but what seems to be missing in all the talk is how thoroughly Salinger's spirituality infused his fiction. Everyone knows the highlights of his story, though the film apparently brings into greater relief the significance of the author's military service in Europe during World War II. His witness to the horrors of war and the Nazi death camps nearly broke him -- he checked himself in and out of a mental institution at one point -- but in the end his psychological struggles guided him toward God. (I see my own history in that timeline: my confrontation with the horrors of European political conflict and a subsequent near-breakdown leading to spiritual awakening.)
While most readers identify with Salinger's Holden Caulfield at one point or another in their lives, those who go on to read his other great work -- especially Franny and Zooey -- will recognize how extensively Salinger absorbed and internalized wisdom common to all the world's major religions. There is a dual theme that runs through the delicate, seemingly slight story-line of Franny and Zooey: the all-importance of compassion and forgiveness, and how both of these grow from a wisdom that sees through the illusory pull of worldly attachments. The novel could easily serve as a beginner's handbook for exploring how Judaism, Christianity, Hinduism, and Buddhism -- not to mention Taoism and Japanese Zen -- all offer a path toward an awakening that has nothing to do with book learning, college degrees, street-smarts or cleverness. They all point toward compassion, and it's the central "message" of this novel, if one can reduce fiction to a message.
All the drama takes place in a circumscribed world that could easily be reproduced realistically on an off-Broadway stage. Franny Glass comes home from college in a spiritual crisis. She's Holden Caulfield all over again, only female and possibly pregnant, but clearly at the end of her rope over the rampant egotism and self-centered assurance of nearly everyone she meets. She stretches out on the couch in her parents' Manhattan apartment, distraught. Her brother notices that she's continuously whispering the Jesus Prayer, something she picked up from a book her brothers introduced to her, The Way of the Pilgrim. It's a wonderful touch that unites a type of prayer from the Russian Orthodox Church, probably borrowed from the Hindu practice of changing a mantra, as a spiritual discipline. In that one little detail, Salinger leads the reader though an episode in the life of characters who have been raised by their older brother to study the core teaching within all the world's major religions as well as in a smattering of ancient philosophy. The reader, as well, gets snippets of wisdom from Jesus, the Upanishads, Shankara's commentaries, The Gospel of Sri Ramakrishna, the Buddhist sutras, Lao Tzu, Epictetus, and others. In a work of fiction, Salinger strings along his story various pearls from what Aldous Huxley called the Perennial Philosophy, the universal spiritual truths advocated around the world, across most major cultures. Her brother Zooey sees something more than sophomoric angst in his sister's revulsion with the world: he recognizes she may be on the verge of what a Japanese Buddhist would call kensho, a small breakthrough on a path toward a more enlightened state of awareness. She's struggling, in a way, with her own discriminatory, self-centered, ego-driven, knowledge-fueled consciousness. Page by page, the reader watches as Zooey psyches himself up to get her through it and then struggles to coax her toward a realization. As his resources begin to run out, he finally resorts to a phrase their eldest brother used to offer to his younger siblings. He told them to do things, such as shine their shoes, for the sake of The Fat Lady. He never specified who this was supposed to be. Franny has a distinct visual image for this mythological figure, sitting on her porch, in a wicker chair, listening to her radio. He says to her, "There isn't anyone out there who isn't Seymour's Fat Lady. Do you know who the Fat Lady really is? It's Christ Himself. Christ Himself, buddy." In other words, God's in all of us: so treat everyone accordingly.
Salinger's magic was in the observant way he used detail to make his characters come alive. On just a surface level, it never matters much what happens in a Salinger story, because it's such a pleasure simply of hanging around and listening to his people interact. But with this novel, as in all of his work, something more profound was going on. He sought to convey, through a reader's eyes and imagination, the wisdom of this compassion this Zooey summons up as a last ditch attempt to open his sister's eyes to the sad beauty of human life. John Updike once said, "Salinger seems to love his characters more than God loves them." He was wrong. He loved them exactly as God loves everyone: unconditionally. And in doing so, in his own way, he attempted to teach readers how to do the same -- with everyone we meet.
Peter Georgescu is the author of The Constant Choice.
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