How to Be in the World: J.D. Salinger and a Zen Koan for Authenticity
“What is the sound of one hand clapping?” J. D. Salinger inscribed in the opening pages of Nine Stories. An epigraph made in heaven: What on earth were his readers going to make of that? Whatever it was, coming from him it had to be good—precious, tender, not to be found in the phony world that stretched beyond the household of the Glass family. “A Zen Koan,” he added underneath.
Koans were still an exotic rarity in the early 1950s. The great apologist of Zen, D. T. Suzuki, had lectured and written on them passionately and widely earlier in the century. In the 1940s the first small wave of Western Zen pioneers had gone to Japan to taste the austerities of the masters of the void. R. H. Blyth’s Zen and Classics of English Literature had appeared. Alan Watts, himself an Anglican minister and at an early age a leader of Britain’s Buddhist Society, had already published The Spirit of Zen. Philip Kapleau’s Three Pillars of Zen would not appear for another decade, and the popularizing of Zen was even further away. Yet one of the very first American writers interested in Zen—before Ginsberg or Snyder, or even Kerouac—was Salinger. Zen was the first of various spiritual practices that caught his eye as he developed his own eclectic spirituality. Although he didn’t stick with it but went on to study Vedanta, as well as other spiritual traditions, Zen was one element that helped him to evolve his own idiosyncratic literary stance—which is surprisingly hard to pin down, even as it has seemed so palpable to the reader.
The cycle of stories about the Glass family is where this is most highly developed. If one were to reduce it, the fictional position might be that something is rotten in the state and, more importantly, the state probably does not contain the necessary remedy. This represents a shift from, say, Victorian fiction, where in the last resort humankind contains within itself the seed of its own redemption. Be true enough to yourself, and you can find peace and happiness. But Holden Caulfield’s problem, in The Catcher in the Rye, is that he is being true to himself, and no one else is (with the exception of the children, Phoebe his younger sister above all). The question the book presents is how to enter the adult world without losing oneself. This is Salinger’s restatement of the moral problem much great fiction grapples with: in short, how to be good. In Salinger, unlike much twentieth-century fiction of despair, there does seem to be an answer, but it’s unclear what it is, and it’s always just out of reach.
Salinger’s own spiritual explorations—Zen, the Orthodox Church, the Bhagavad Gita—infused and quietly informed his fiction, all the time addressing not just the question of how to live but the fundamental problem of life and death, the heart of the existential quest: Who am I, what does it mean that I will die? This question hangs over the Glass family like a sword poised in mid-fall, from the very first story of the Nine Stories, in which the intellectually and spiritually masterful Seymour, the golden child of the family, kills himself. Why? All the Glass family chronicles can perhaps be seen as a working out of this question. Seymour’s suicide isn’t a koan, yet there is something in its insistent irritancy, its motivating power, its infallible awkwardness that is somehow koan-like. Its effect on the reader may not be Mumon’s red-hot iron ball, but is surely a cousin to it.
Salinger’s work is famously addictive to adolescents. Around the time I discovered it—at thirteen or fourteen—I was obsessed with finding out if I was fully awake. I didn’t mean whether life was all a dream. It might or might not be. But either way, how could I know if I was simply as awake as I could be? Was there a maximum setting to wakefulness? If so, who knew what it was, and how could anyone ever get inside my mind and tell me if I was there? As I walked home from school, satchel strap digging in my shoulder, I might be kicking a stone along, or thinking about a friend or my homework, when suddenly I’d realize I had no idea how I’d gotten from one lamppost to the next. Had I been asleep on my feet? What had happened to me over the missing 50 yards? And even when I was there, did I know what I was doing, could I know it even more? Even at those times, was I in fact only partly awake?
Somehow that mysterious koan that opens Nine Stories, the sound of a single hand, seemed connected with my question. Both were equally impossible to answer and produced the same uncomfortable feeling, yet also held out a promise of brightness just round the corner. I remember the feeling that the epigraph roused in me when I first read it: a mixture of impatience and, somehow, hope. It was like being given a key, but you had to find out what to.
There was some kind of truth the koan seemed to know about, an honesty of a sort our culture perhaps had little of. It is said that koans are dark to the mind, yet radiant to the heart. The koan was somehow cognate with the frankness of Salinger’s work, with the battered integrity of his protagonists, their horror of phonies, their sense that so much of the world was bitter, cruel, wasteful. This strange question seemed to promise another way, perhaps the same way that Holden, Seymour, Franny and the others were struggling to find. It’s not that Salinger was particularly faithful to the spirit of Zen training. Still, the problem that motivates his work—how to integrate spiritual meaning into life, in the context of Western, urban, educated, postwar ennui—spoke loudly, if also elusively, to the spiritual hunger of his audience.
How to be in the World, by Henry Shukman, was first published in Tricycle Magazine, Winter 2010.
Image: Buildings-sky, by tpsdave, CC0 at Pixabay.com