Time for the Salinger Estate to Come Clean

Scrutinizing culture.
June 27 2013 7:32 AM

Salinger, the Swamis, and the Secrets

New letters shed light on J.D. Salinger’s spiritual life—and reinforce the need for his estate to come clean about what, if any, works remain locked in the vault.

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This is one of the saddest things I’ve read. What this suggests is that all his labor-intensive spiritual practice—the meditating, the yoga, the homeopathy, reading the Bhagavad-Gita every morning—didn’t make him happy, didn’t fill him with the bliss and joy in existence and feelings of love for his fellow humans, for the “fat lady” as the supposedly great revelation from Seymour at the end of “Zooey” had it.

So what did he find in this building, in Vedanta; what did he take away? What did he leave?

I think it's important to be specific here, now that we have located Salinger on the spectrum of Eastern spirituality, just what beliefs that location entails. Because there has been so much random, ungrounded speculation based on the wide array of quotes from Eastern wisdom to be found in the later fiction that the actual Ground of Being of the writer has been obscured. And so here is the way the Ramakrishna Center defines the version of Vedanta Salinger’s Swami (Nikhilananda) inculcated: “Vedanta is the philosophy that has evolved from the teachings of the Vedas, which are a collection of ancient Indian scriptures—the world’s oldest religious writings. According to the Vedas ultimate reality is all-pervading, uncreated, self-luminous eternal spirit, the final cause of the universe, the power behind all tangible forces, the consciousness that animates all conscious beings.” This has a kind of purity and dignity, in effect portrays the universe itself as Ultimate Author of All, which may have posed a problem for an author seeking to believe in his own fictions.

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I had my own problem standing on the sidewalk in front of the Ramakrishna Center townhouse as the worship service was about to begin: a sense of déjà vu. The long and winding road that led me to this door had, some years ago, led me to another liminal verge—the property line at the bottom of Salinger’s driveway in his semi-secret Fortress of Solitude I’d tracked down on a windy hill overlooking Cornish, N.H.

I had come there not to trespass but to celebrate that boundary, that invisible Wall that Salinger had erected to separate himself from the “publicity industrial complex.” To pay tribute to his silent reproof to the demands of celebrity culture as a kind of unwritten work of art in itself. Only to be rewarded by the roar of Salinger’s car as it backed down the driveway toward me, splattering me with inky sludge as it raced off down the rural route.

Would it be a similar symbolic trespass to cross into the realm of Vedanta that was his true secret hideout, into his spiritual Fortress of Solitude in the townhouse? I felt I had a reason this time: The inky sludge of Salinger’s late work made me want to cross the line. Made me want to experience something akin to what drew Salinger to the swamis, a lifelong relationship that began during his recovery from a post-war nervous breakdown that seems from our modern vantage point to be PTSD-related. (He checked himself into a hospital in Nuremberg, Germany, after going through the bloody grind that took him from Normandy to the battle of Hürtgen Forest in Germany.)

In “A Perfect Day for Bananafish” we learn that Seymour had a nervous breakdown after his wartime experience, a prelude to his suicide. And then there’s “Sergeant X” in “For Esme With Love and Squalor,” seen suffering PTSD symptoms after fighting his way through the Hürtgen Forest.

Whatever it was Salinger found inside the swamis’ townhouse may have eased his suffering, but his late work, it seems to me, suffered from it all. His late work might well be regarded as a casualty of war, literary PTSD. Let me make this clear, I don’t blame the swamis—they may have saved him from Seymour’s fate. I blame whatever happened to this brave and gifted man on account of Hitler. I would, wouldn’t I—I wrote a book called Explaining Hitler. But I think one cannot begin to explain Salinger, solve the enigma of the Silent Years without reference to what happened to him in sacrificing himself to defeat Hitler.

The spiritual self-medication he chose to stay alive in the aftermath may have been just enough to save his sanity. But in the end it sentenced his fiction to a fate of being bogged down in a swamp of mysticism that spelled the death of the sophisticated literary voice he had developed. (Not that sophistication is the ultimate value——but neither is didactic Seymourism.)

I’m not always one to find the solution to literary enigmas in biography—my Shakespeare book did not concern itself with who the Dark Lady of the Sonnets was. But Salinger’s late fiction—from Franny and Zooey (actually from “Zooey”—I think the dividing line comes after the almost perfect “Franny”) to Seymour: An Introduction and the almost unbearable “Hapworth 6, 1924”—begs for some biographical explanation. For the way the beautiful lucidity of his early work disintegrates into a compulsively digressive stylistic dog’s breakfast. Yes, I know Janet Malcolm, whom I revere even when I disagree with her, called “Zooey” “a masterpiece” in an essay reprinted in her new collection (though she diplomatically refrains from much of an attempt to defend the later Seymour stories). But I would ask the reader to pick up Franny and Zooey—the two stories published together in book form—and tell me “Zooey” is a masterpiece.

It is tempting to avoid this judgment of the later fiction’s apparent earnestness by giving it an ironic reading, making it cumulatively an ironic account of the damage that Eastern mysticism wrought upon Salinger’s Upper West Side Glass family, with their misguided reverence for the insufferable mystical windbag, Seymour. This is where biographical inquiry has a delicate role to play. I was trained by the Yale English department to avoid “the intentional fallacy”—seeking to discern something about a work’s meaning by reference to the writer’s usually irretrievable intention for how it should be read. But there are exceptions. Hamlet is so difficult to parse in part because we cannot know for sure Shakespeare’s attitude toward the Catholic vision of Purgatory (whence came the Ghost) since belief in Purgatory was regarded as a heresy punishable by death in the Elizabethan secret police theocracy of Protestant England at the time. So the question of whether Shakespeare harbored secret Catholic sentiments, as some have recently argued, is not irrelevant.

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