Tuesday, June 5, 2007

Franny and Zooey

I’m reading Franny and Zooey for the umpteenth time this week. As you probably know, the story is (among other things) a roundabout examination of the meaning of life, the role of knowledge, our place in the cosmos, etc. But one important aspect of the book which has struck me this time around is the idea of spirituality and knowledge being tied to a kind of non-knowledge, or emptiness or something. In the ‘Franny’ section, just before she faints, Franny is telling boyfriend Lane Coutell about the book she’s carrying around in her purse. She says that in the book, called The Way of a Pilgrim, the main character is on a quest for self-knowledge. He learns that by repeating a prayer incessantly, something happens to him, and the prayer becomes a part of his physical being, and he attains a kind of harmonic one-ness with the universe. It doesn’t matter what the prayer is, she says. It can be “Lord Jesus Christ, have mercy on me” (the prayer of the Pilgrim,) or it can be “Namu Amida Butsu” (used by Buddhists) or “Om” (as she says, the prayer used in India).

"But the thing is, the marvellous thing is, when you first start doing it, you don’t even have to have faith in what you’re doing. I mean even if you’re terribly embarrassed about the whole thing, it’s perfectly all right. I mean you’re not insulting anybody or anything. In other words, nobody asks you to believe a single thing when you first start out. You don’t even have to think about what you’re saying, the starets said. All you have to have in the beginning is quantity. Then, later on, it becomes quality by itself. On its own power or something. He says that any name of God - any name at all - has this peculiar, self-active power of its own, and it starts working after you’ve sort of started it up.”

Later, in the Zooey section, the same thread is picked up again by a bathtub-ridden Zooey, who is reading an old letter from their brother, Buddy:

"Much, much more important, though, Seymour had already begun to believe (and I agreed with him, as far as I was able to see the point) that education by any name would smell as sweet, and maybe much sweeter, if it didn't begin with a quest for knowledge at all but with a quest, as Zen would put it, for no-knowledge. Dr. Suzuki says somewhere that to be in a state of pure consciousness--satori--is to be with God before he said, Let there be light. Seymour and I thought it might be a good thing to hold back this light from you and Franny (at least as far as we were able), and all the many lower, more fashionable lighting effects--the arts, sciences, classics, languages--till you were both able at least to conceive of a state of being where the mind knows the source of all light."

Presence and absence, knowledge and non-knowledge, physical and spiritual, individual and collective...was Salinger on to something, or was this nothing more than a diversion for him? I've never studied the writer at all and for the first time decided to look elsewhere for some kind of direction as to how he should be read. The first critical essay I find is by John Updike, written (as near as I can tell) in 1997:

"Few writers since Joyce would risk such a wealth of words upon events that are purely internal and deeds that are purely talk. We live in a world, however, where the decisive deed may invite the holocaust, and Salinger's conviction that our inner lives greatly matter peculiarly qualifies him to sing of an America where, for most of us, there seems little to do but to feel. Introversion, perhaps, has been forced upon history; an age of nuance, of ambiguous gestures and psychological jockeying on a national and private scale, is upon us, and Salinger's intense attention to gesture and intonation help make him, among his contemporaries, a uniquely relevant literary artist. As Hemingway sought the words for things in motion, Salinger seeks the words for things transmuted into human subjectivity. "

Interesting, but Updike continues in a different direction, describing Salinger's self-indulgence in continuing to write about the Glass family, a group he clearly loves and is proud of having given life to. "This seems to me the nub of the trouble: Salinger loves the Glasses more than God loves them. He loves them too exclusively. Their invention has become a hermitage for him. He loves them to the detriment of artistic moderation. "Zooey" is just too long; there are too many cigarettes, too many goddams, too much verbal ado about not quite enough." Yes, I have to agree. I DO see that, but I allow myself to overlook it in a kind of willing suspension of critical thought.

I want to know more about that introversion, that search for a way to reflect a shared inner life. I don't care if Salinger is self-obsessed, stroking and praising his creation for all the world to see. In the end it doesn't matter. This book never fails to make me weep, now more than ever. The interaction of the members of the family, the lost-ness of Franny, the death of Seymour (far in the past here, but still tangible)... It's sad in a way that I can't quite describe.

I also hate how I feel each time I realize the characters are nothing more than characters. I want them to be real.


Dr. Maldoror said...

Speaking of Updike: you've just summed up the feelings I cope with whenever I read/re-read/walk the night with The Witches of Eastwick. I want Alexandra, Jane and Sukie to be real live human ladies, and I want it painfully. Lexa in particular. As soon as she held that ripe sun-warm tomato, and likened it to "a giant lover's testicles", I wanted coffee and spice cake with her. Which leads me to Practical Magic, a mediocre creampuff of a chick-flick, but a fine book. Sort of Eastwick-Lite, mais ça fait du plaisir à lire, quand même. You've given me so many ideas for my shiny new book blog.

If you don't know who I am, check your Myspace messages!

Julie said...

Well, DUH!!! Who else knows beans about Maldoror? Plus, I've left YOU a shiny new comment!!

Paul said...

I'm just about to cozy up with Franny and Zooey and Nine Stories for the weekend and I came across your blog posting. I thought I'd respond even though your post is months old. God I love this book!

The Updike criticism was printed in the New York Times on September 17, 1961, soon after the original publication. not in 1997:


And here's a reply from an NY Times reader with Updike's rebuttal:


Julie said...

Paul, thanks so much for the page you linked in your comment. I find it interesting that the Scholes accuse Updike of being hostile. His criticism seems quite fair to me, even with the slightly negative slant he offers at times.

But while I do agree with Updike that there are many inconsistencies in the overall weave of the Glass story/ies, I have to say that for me, that's the beauty of the creation as a whole. As a collection of narratives from "different" sources, the overall story should have holes in it, otherwise it's too clean.

Enjoy your weekend read. I may have to go pull out my copy of "Nine Stories" too, and give it another go...again. Fabulous.