J.D. Salinger, z”l, in retrospect
By Rabbi Philip Graubart
LA JOLLA, California –If you grew up in circumstances similar to mine (American, suburban, public high school), and with a similar sensibility, then a few weeks ago you felt a sharp pang of loss, with the death of J.D. Salinger. Many of us (actually, millions of us) had our first experience finding ourselves in a work of literature while reading Salinger’s A Catcher in the Rye.
In the book, as I’m sure you recall, Holden Caulfield embodies adolescent alienation, wandering around New York, while dividing the world into two types: phonies (95% of the population), and saints, the pure, elect few – the people who “get it” – symbolized, for Holden, by his younger sister Phoebe, and his late brother. From a religious perspective, Holden is rejecting the coarse muck of the physical world, and embracing the pure, the good, the spiritual. Millions of teenagers devoured Holden’s adventures, while nodding along, understanding his feelings exactly. I certainly did.
That’s why I was astonished when I re-read the novel last week and discovered that Holden’s famous alienation doesn’t flow from his adolescence, it comes from his grief over just losing his older brother. Throughout the book, Holden is in mourning; he’s pining for his dead brother. And it’s the grieving which produces his unhealthy division of all humans into phonies and saints, and the entire Universe into physical and spiritual.
But, I realized, drawing on my own rabbinic experience, that’s precisely what acute loss does to us. For awhile, in the heat of mourning, it makes us divide our acquaintances into good guys and bad guys – the few good folks who “get it,” who sympathize with our grief and help us; and the great majority who inexplicably and crudely go on with their silly, striving, material lives, despite our immense loss. The Catcher in the Rye portrays Holden going through a stage of grief – the alienation stage. By the end of the book, though, he’s getting over it. He’s recovering. Salinger, in other words, isn’t recommending teenage alienation. On the contrary, he’s identifying it as pathology, something to treat, and then transcend.
But, why should I care? It’s been over thirty years since my teenage alienation, and despite some forays into literature, I’m a rabbi, not a critic. Well, for one thing, Salinger’s father was Jewish, and it’s interesting to wonder if Jewish ideas influenced him, or if, for that matter, we could claim him as a Jewish thinker and writer. And, in fact, Jewishness does pop up in a few of his stories (email me, and I’ll tell you where). But, to be honest, it’s never a serious theme. By then end of his writing life, Salinger seemed much more drawn to Buddhism and Christianity then Judaism.
And yet, there’s something Jewish about Holden Caulfield’s recovery from alienation, the way Salinger, in the novel, ultimately rejects dividing the world into phonies and saints. Unlike Buddhism and some forms of Christianity, Judaism doesn’t reject or disparage the material world. The Talmudic tradition – for me, the finest and most representative Jewish tradition – embraces the muck and the struggle of the material world, while injecting it with the light of Torah – of God’s light. So the world as we experience it is not purely physical or spiritual, it’s a harmonious combination of the two, an intertwining. People are neither pure phonies, nor saints, they are both, in combination, saints and phonies, angelic and bestial.
This, I believe, was Salinger’s view, and I’m not just relying on Cather in the Rye. I find further evidence of a kind of Jewish sensibility in his novella “Zooey,” part of the book Franny and Zooey. In the story. Franny, like Holden, a precocious adolescent, is withdrawing from the world and having a Holden-like breakdown. She drops out of college, sits in her room all day, and mumbles Christian prayers to herself. Her brother Zooey attempts to heal her, and reminds her that their late older brother Seymour used to encourage them to perform at their best (they were child radio performers) because of an imaginary, hypothetical “fat lady.” Franny responds yes, she remembers, she always tried hard for “the fat lady.” But Zooey adds this wisdom; he says that everyone is “the fat lady.” In fact, the fat lady is “Christ Himself.” This comment not only cures Franny of her malaise, it redeems the equally troubled Zooey.
It’s a fascinating moment, for two reasons. On the one hand, Franny clearly saw the “fat lady” as one of the elect few, a saint, not a phony, someone who “gets it,” who intuitively understood her performances. So Zooey reminds her that everyone has elements of sainthood, just as everyone has element of phoniness. At the same time, the term “fat lady,” makes us think of gross physicality. Franny even comments that she imagined her as a cancer patient with thick, veiny legs. So in claiming that everyone is the fat lady, Zooey – the spiritual hero of the story – reminds us that all humans are grossly physical, but nevertheless we should value them, and see in them the spark of God.
Despite Zooey’s Christ reference, Salinger’s parable of the fat lady reminds me of many Hasidic stories where unpleasant beggars turn out to be Elijah the prophet. The lesson in these stories seems to be the same as Salinger’s in “Zooey.” No one is too gross, or too good. We’re all beggars, we’re all the fat lady, just as we’re all phonies and saints. Interestingly, in his personal life, Salinger imitated the pre-cure Zooey and Holden; he retreated from the world, abandoning the hustle and bustle of publishing, and fled to Cornish, New Hampshire. But he left behind a body of work which urges us to engage the world, not flee. May his memory be a blessing.
Rabbi Graubart is spiritual leader of Congregation Beth El in La Jolla.