Sunday, April 30, 2023

The Curious Case of J. D. Salinger: A Writer’s Dream and Nightmare

Black and white photo of young author of Catcher in the Rye
Salinger burst onto the literary scene with the astounding and breathtaking little novel The Catcher in the Rye, and then, despite stories published here and there, he pretty much vanished and disappeared from the world of literature as well as the general public. He became a famous recluse, and little was known about him, and he revealed little about himself. And yet, so much of himself and his struggles are reflected within his work but even more so in the particular approach that he took towards his work.

Writing became his dharma. It saved his life and kept his sanity more or less intact, a balancing act that was perturbed for life after experiencing up-close and first-hand the many horrors, tragedies, and cruelties of World War II. Although before the war, his dream was to have his stories published in the New Yorker, it was the experience of war that gave form and shaped his most important work, his famous and infamous novel that included the sensitive but struggling and volatile Holden Caulfield, his most memorable character.  

In fact, Salinger had drafts of the novel on him as they were waging war and, in many ways, he credits this book to have saved his life from the madness and atrocities, which had become his reality for a substantial period of time. Holden has been not only shaped by the alienating experiences of growing up in a society that seemed to be solely obsessed with consumerism while purposely or unconsciously ignoring all the other much more important aspects of life and living, but he also had the scars and burning marks of war indelibly imprinted on his flesh and psyche.

Later on, the stories of war seeped into Salinger's short stories as exemplified in his brilliant collection of Nine Stories, which included a few alter egos that did not manage to return with all their f-a-c-u-l-t-i-e-s intact and one of whom committed suicide on a perfect day for bananafish.

It was not merely a matter of blending and fitting in with a society that was out of whack and filled with phonies and conformists, a difficult task in itself that Holden would try to leverage alongside his own personal troubles and a deep longing for belonging but also to do so after glimpsing and witnessing the darkest soul of humanity. Add to that, a society that tends to overlook, be unaware or ignore much of this while demonstrating a lack of respect and recognition toward those who sacrifice their lives, bodies, and sanity for our collective peace and well-being: the many veterans of this world.

As a result, writing became Salinger's dharma and his mitzvah. It helped him express his deepest pain, torments, and longing but at the same time, it exceeded the mere drive for fame and recognition. We often hear and inherently believe and abide by the oft-repeated phrases of “publish or perish” and the desire and pride to see and have your name in print. A writer is not considered a serious writer unless they have significant and influential publications under their belt while we still frown upon the recent trend of self-publishing or even blogs such as this one!

As a matter of fact, many of the writer’s dilemmas are accentuated in Salinger. First, the drive to write authentic and honest stories, not just to entertain and make people smile, laugh, and cry but to delve much deeper into the human experience and psyche. To create a piece of work that not only is unique but that lasts and stands the test of time.

And like many artists who embrace and believe in their calling, he is not ready to compromise when it comes to his work. Although some of his stories got published in the New Yorker, they rejected Catcher because they either did not think that it would sell, or they just did not like it, at least as it stood. Yet Salinger would be famously hesitant and suspicious of any notes, changes, or suggestions and would offer his work as as-is and without any ifs and buts. Not only would he not change character traits or endings, but he would also be furious if they added a single comma to his work, something that indeed ended a friendship he had with an editor.

The uncompromising writers are either self-important and inflated with a sense of pride and self-satisfaction or they are geniuses, or perhaps a bit of both. This attitude of “my way or the highway” has been the trademark of many talented and gifted artists, writers, and filmmakers who wished and demanded to stay true to their unique vision regardless of what editors, producers, film critics, or audiences thought of their work or style.

And yet, a certain amount of give and take is sometimes necessary if you want to become published. Notes are there to improve the work and they are generally provided by experts who know the field and market as opposed to a new budding writer. And in many cases, this may be true, but without taking risks and chances and without thinking outside of the box, we would always tread the same ground and not be innovative or groundbreaking.

As such, a small publisher decided to publish the little novel that become a big worldwide hit! Many readers not only resonated with it but identified with the main character and his struggles for authenticity in a fake and superficial world. It has inspired many to do good but in this particular case to do bad too. Three assassinations were said to have been influenced by this novel, making it ipso facto a dangerous piece of literature. Mark David Chapman had not only read the book, but he had it on him the day he shot and killed the universally beloved and admired John Lennon.

The same book that saved its author’s life was allegedly responsible for the slaughter of an innocent person. Although no one would blame Salinger for it, he must have felt guilty and slightly responsible, especially because other attempts were also blamed on this same book. And yet, at the same time, many people felt such a close affinity with the main character that they started to look for and even harass its author. In a world where we need superstars and leaders for supposed guidance and to pin our hopes on, Salinger seemed an unlikely one but his words equally inspired and infected. Notwithstanding, as he himself would say, he was just a writer of fiction, nothing more, nothing less.

The first time I read his novel, I was thoroughly impressed. I was a literary undergrad and it had come under my radar but without the usual fanfare and excitement, and outside of academia. My knowledge of modern literature was (intentionally) limited at the time as my focus was on the 19th century. Many works including popular movies of North America were outside of the realm of my orbit and experience as I had grown up in Germany and was more familiar with Goethe and Schiller and much less so with an American writer by the name of J. D. Salinger.

That helped me to read it with fresh eyes and without preconceived notions. At the time, I was not aware that the book was the purported symbolic assassin of one of my favorite musicians. But I was thoroughly impressed with the book and loved its playful sense of humor in the background and context of a soul-searching identity crisis and the pains of growing up.

It continues to have and count on my admiration. Only recently, I decided to find out more about this reclusive writer and realized that his retreat from literary circles and the world at large was a monk-like insistence on focus and meditation. Salinger was influenced by Zen and Vedantic philosophy and surprisingly enough continued writing to his dying day but vehemently and adamantly refused to publish any of his work.

It was a significant shift from a writer who wants to publish and receive acclaim for their work to someone who wrote for the mere sake of writing. It was a ritual, a form of meditation and exploration of his soul and his life’s purpose. It came at the expense of his personal life as marriages and relationships would evidently suffer and fall apart from this one-track almost blind obsession and dedication of his.

The question that may be posed to a budding writer might go something like this: If you were told that you would never be published, or famous and that you would not make any money from it, would you still continue writing? Most of us would not continue doing so unless it is the expression of who we are.

And yet, we mostly undertake things not for their own sake but for what we expect from them in return. For instance, meditation is done to calm the mind, to look for oneself, for personal development, to grow spiritually, or even to become enlightened. But would you do so if it did not have any purported or tangible benefits?

There are certain things that remain, however. We dance not because we want to enter competitions or look good in front of a crowd or our friends (though some do) but rather for the enjoyment of it. Unlike running, it is not a matter of faster and longer being better nor is it related to covering a distance and getting from point A to point B. It is something that we enjoy doing with others or alone. It is something that we do with a kind of unconditional love, which is so rare in our world and sphere. Replace dancing with listening to music, taking walks, reading, painting, and sculpting and you may catch my drift.

All in all, Salinger is the embodiment of the writer as an artist. He creates not for but just because. Writing is his religion and his psychotherapy. Writing is his escape from the world. Writing is what he (thinks he) does best. Writing is done for himself and his own eyes only and no one else’s. Writing is his obsession and compulsion. It is a dream and a nightmare. It is also what makes his life worth living and enhances the beauty of it all.

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