Friday, January 29, 2010

in memoriam: J.D. Salinger

I am still reeling a little from the death of J.D. Salinger, which was made public yesterday. Of course, Salinger's most famous book is Catcher in Rye, which really created a genre in English fiction. The book was controversial for its language, especially for its use of the F-word:

"But while I was sitting down, I saw something that drove me crazy. Somebody'd written 'Fuck you' on the wall. It drove me damn near crazy. I thought how Phoebe and all the other little kids would see it, and how they'd wonder what it meant, and then finally some dirty kid would tell them - all cockeyed, naturally, what it meant, and how they'd all think about it and maybe even worry about it for a couple of days..."

Salinger's well-played F-bomb put me in mind of a line by Spencer Tracy from Inherit the Wind: "I don't swear for the hell of it. Language is a poor enough means of communication. We've got to use all the words we've got. Besides, there are damn few words anybody understands." Hence, I see Salinger's obsession to maintain youthful innocence as misguided. It is misguided because it is more of an inevitability than a virtue, especially in a broken world that is our path to destiny. To paraphrase something Pope Benedict XVI said in one of his Christmas Urbi et Orbi addresses: we are not saved despite our humanity, but precisely through it.

With Salinger's passing, there are three deaths of artists over the past roughly year-and-a-half that have affected me deeply because their works touch my deeply, wound me with beauty, and show me what in means to be human in all of its awe/some/ful/ness.

My friend, Lisan offered a beautiful synthesis of how I feel today: "Apropos to say that deep feeling is beautiful like God's grace. When do childlike observations stop and blindness begin?" Indeed, Salinger saw growing up as being swamped by the world, having your I's eyes poked out, as it were. In his brilliant assessment of Salinger's work, David Skinner lights upon this as the primary concern of all of Salinger's fiction, which limitation is precisely what gives it meaning. Salinger's concern about this loss of innocence was not confined to fiction, but was the main preoccupation of his life. Loss of innocence is not a blinding, but seeing reality according to the totality of its factors, having your eyes opened. While what we see is not always pretty, it is reality and no amount of wishing will make it otherwise. In order to engage reality, I must first see it for what it is, which is certainly more than the two dimensions I observe, or even the third of which I am aware. This is why the power of positive thinking is foolishness and why a life without regrets is not a human life.

Towards the end of The Sentimental Misanthrope, Skinner writes:
"The reason for his silence is not found in [Salinger's] life, but in his fiction—the work that captured perfectly the adolescent who has discovered the world is corrupt. Salinger's compounding of misanthropy and sentimentality was always smart. He knew that the problem is not children but adults, just as he knew that the solution involves God somehow. That's why his late stories filled up with saints and seers and sages and holy fools. But he never quite figured out how it worked, and his stabs at second innocence kept falling back into first innocence. In raising his children too high—in making childhood not just innocent but wise—Salinger damned his adults forever and ever."
I am grateful that I have figured out, albeit to a very limited extent, how the solution involves God: the Incarnation, which is a solution akin to trying to light upon the repeating number in Pi if you relegate it to an intellectual problem to be solved instead of a life to be lived.

These days Catcher in the Rye, which provocatively appears on the Barnes & Noble banned book table at a certain time of the year, remains a cause célèbre because it features what Fr. John Montag, SJ says "is the best-placed F-bomb in all of literature." I think Skinner gets to the heart of what Salinger's writing is all about, which does not demean it, but gives it meaning. Besides, I grew up with and around foul language. So, it has never bothered me. To that end, I'll conclude by going all Holdin Caufield: What bothers me are people who bad language bothers and who make a big deal about it. I hope for their sakes that such people are better than I am, but the fact that they wouldn't say shit if they had a mouth full of it is not the basis of any supposed moral superiority.


  1. I have to say that I did enjoy this obit of Salinger:

  2. That Salinger is such a big target for the Onion is only proof my thesis. I loved their obit! Thanks!

  3. Excellent comments, Scott, thank you!