struggles on the edge of sanity

American literary criticism, to use Adorno’s term is a great machine, a cultural industry constantly in need of raw material. It is, in fact many machines; press the right button and off the assembly line rolls social consciousness, protest, dissent, psychology, neatly stamped out pedantry and, gratifyingly often, passion for literature. It is possible that in this vast enterprise, our to use Henry Jenkins phrase, “if it doesn’t spread its dead” environment, that J.D. Salinger’s importance has been overrated; or rather than overestimation, the voices of the anti-Salinger’s.

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“I think your prose is getting to be all the theater your characters can withstand,” Seymour writes to Buddy in response to one of his short stories in Seymour—An Introduction. But that’s just it—it’s theater: like Zooey’s relentless mockery of his mother, a performance at once painful and transfixing, like the quotations that fill Seymour and Buddy’s bedroom door, like the six page long letters the siblings send one another and read till the edges of the creases tear. Asceticism marks neither style nor theme in Salinger. “Zooey” is the story, after all, in which Franny has to learn to stop reciting the Jesus Prayer in order to uncover the quotidian spirituality that will nurture rather than narcotize her.

The real subject of these stories is not ego, or the renunciation of ego, but their paradoxical sameness. Suicide might be the ultimate enlightenment for Seymour, but it is also the ultimate act of selfishness. Similarly, the Glasses may be spiritually advanced (as Seymour claims they are), but they are first and foremost a family of intellectuals and performers. Franny and Zooey are actors, Seymour and Buddy writers, and they are all the children of vaudevillians. Franny’s breakdown takes the form of a spiritual crisis, but it is equally catalyzed by academic burnout. (Franny’s problem is that of all the Glass siblings—she is so brilliant that mere brilliance bores her.)Read More:

…Clearly, Salinger’s personal inaccessibility is central; if one resents the Glasses’ fictional withdrawal from the world, one is likely to resent their actual creator’s even more. If there was a club centering around the Glasses, there was an even more exclusive club centering around Salinger himself, one that was well nigh’ impossible to join. J.D. Salinger’s isolation from the world was a unique accomplishment in American life, and one he enjoyed with a grim determination, although he was hardly applauded for being the Greta Garbo of American letters. But there is little doubt that Salinger’s elusiveness added a special element to his fiction, which he played with and on it.

He worked unmistakable facts about himself into his stories, and likely grinned at the resulting confusion when in his jacket notes to Franny and Zooey, he referred to Buddy Glass as his “alter-ego and collaborator.” In short, he was something of a tease. It seemed incredible, but all the elaborate effort to withdraw never really allowed him to shut out the world. There is a spy-hole in this world of Salinger: he is not seen, but he lurks there. He sees.

But even the irritation caused by Salinger’s elaborate elusiveness does not begin to account for the critical attitudes towards him. Salinger touches something very deep in us. If some dwell a little too emphatically on Holden’s sainthood or Salinger’s knighthood, it ust be because we are so badly in need of saints and knights. If we grow a little shrill about the Glasses’ anti-social traits and the intellectual softness of their religion, it must be because we feel the need for a powerful community and strong clear ideas of which we are impatient in their delay in forthcoming, perhaps at root, some sort of messianic impulse.

Salinger’s extraordinary, even unrivaled popularity with the young at the time, almost cultish, is attributed to an articulation of language that in The Catcher in the Rye at least, expresses discontent like no other; a cadence and beat of language that out jives a Kerouac and Ginsberg while hitting at the heart of secular America through a distrust of utopias and withdrawal into a system of morality that is largely private and small scale. And at its heart is that hatred of the “phony” which Holden personifies and which has many layers of meaning embedded as it is at the heart of mythological, historical and religious processes incubated in the American psyche.


(see link at end)…Much of the richness of Holden’s character lies in the complexity of his response. Salinger is fascinated more by falseness than by the Christian concept of sin and his writings are organised less around the archetypal conflict between good and evil  than around the manifold ambivalences latent within the human personality. Holden is tormented by the ambivalence of his own response; he is spiritually
and physically nauseated by the grossness of society, yet he needs people as a basic, human requirement. Similarly, his adolescent sexuality encourages him to be a “sexy bastard ll like Stradlater, yet an intransigent idealism precludes him from compromising the value of the ultimate act of human communication. He cannot reconcile his notion of purity with the inclination of his body; Sally immediately awakens his sexual response: the funny part is, I felt like marrying her the minute I saw her. I’m crazy. I didn’t even like her much … ” . However, a
demonstration of Sally’s prowess in phony conversation and dissimulation produces an abrupt reversal of opinion,” I sort of hated old Sally by the time we got in the cab.”  But Holden keeps remembering a passage from a book, which described a woman’s body as being like a violin;
he feels he should obtain some practice in case he ever marries. Holden’s contradictory response further weakens his understanding of himself. An interesting paradox in Salinger’s fiction, bearing in mind his own reclusiveness, is his continued insistence that no individual can exist in
isolation. The dilemma becomes crucial: the Salinger hero cannot bear society, nor can he exist without it.

The expose of Holden’s psyche unfolds a complex mesh of tensions. Firstly, in rejecting phoniness in others, Holden struggles with the awareness that he can be an archphony himself.Read More:


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