Posted inHenry's Messages, Koans

How to Be in the World: Part 5 of 5

February 17, 2015

Koans, too, return us to our daily lives. This is surely why Salinger used one as the epigraph to one of his greatest books: It was in harmony with the thrust of his tender, farreaching morality.

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Click to read: Part 1, Part 2,  Part 3, and Part 4 of How to Be in the World.

Chekhov said all that is necessary for a writer is to present a problem as completely as possible. When later in life Tolstoy began producing his homilies and religious parables, he arguably abandoned the problem for the solution, and his art suffered. If Salinger’s works were situated any further into the spiritual arena, fiction couldn’t withstand it. The best fiction seems to operate at the outer edges of samsara, as it were, just where the spiritual life is coming into partial view. Characters may be seeking blindly, but they are seeking. They sense a greater truth than their society seems to operate by, and though they may make endless mistakes in their attempts to find it, those attempts are the engine of great narrative.

How to live right, in our modern, materialist, individualist culture: In one way or another, this is what Salinger’s characters struggle with. All his protagonists have intimations of some deeper truth than is apparent in the society around them; perhaps their charm comes from this. Anything that seems to express this truth they seize on, and love inordinately. Esmée, the English innocent, loved by the traumatized soldier; the little girl on the beach, Seymour’s last friend, hunting for bananafish; Holden delighted by Jane Gallagher’s back row of kings in her checkers game; Zooey with his intricate smoking rituals. All these small things are what his characters somehow know they must cherish.

In the closing epiphany from Franny and Zooey, Zooey tells Franny about how Seymour used to make Zooey shine his own shoes when he’d appear on the radio, even though no one could see, and Seymour would say to do it for the Fat Lady. Then it turns out he used to say the same thing to Franny as well. Seymour never explained who the Fat Lady was, but Zooey does: she is “Christ himself.” Salinger’s vision seems to be that we can actualize the Big Thing only through loving small things; loving small things, conversely, is the way of realizing the Big Thing. Seeing this, Franny finally is returned to herself and her world, the same yet transformed—delivered, if you will. We readers are returned to ourselves as well, by a resolution that is wise and loving and yet also enigmatic, for the source of this wisdom and this love is Seymour, Salinger’s most deeply troubled soul.

Koans, too, return us to our daily lives. This is surely why Salinger used one as the epigraph to one of his greatest books: It was in harmony with the thrust of his tender, farreaching morality.

“Help me, master. Who is the man who does not accompany the ten thousand dharmas?” Layman Pang asked Baso before his great enlightenment. Baso replied: “I won’t tell you until you have swallowed the West River with one gulp.” The literary mind could chew on this and get nowhere. But it’s not a statement to ponder. The master means it literally, concretely. Swallow the Hudson, the Thames. Whether or not Salinger had, or had heard the sound of one hand, he knew, and caused many millions of readers to intimate, that there was another kind of truth, other than the ones our socially constructed lives supported, and that there just might be a way of finding it. In the end, all his of works are surely a kind of koan too.

Click to read Part 1 of How to Be in the World
Click to read Part 2 of How to Be in the World
Click to read Part 3 of How to Be in the World
Click to read Part 4 of How to Be in the World

How to be in the World, by Henry Shukman, was first published in Tricycle Magazine, Winter 2010.

Image: Rose, by Imaresz, CC0 at Pixabay.com

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