When I am asked what attracted me to Buddhism, one of my stock answers is a story about a community college course I was in and an instructor who told us that the first Noble Truth of Buddhism is that life is suffering. And my response, as an angry, confused, seventeen-year-old ne’er-do-well was, “Hell yeah.”
It was that sense of existential uncertainty, of pent-up frustration, that attracted me, like a lot of other young men and women for more than half a century, to J.D. Salinger’s Catcher in the Rye. And then, over the next decade or two, everything else he published that was still available in print or, in one case, at my university library in microfiche form.
J.D. Salinger passed away yesterday at the young age of 91, forty-five years after his last published short story and spending most of his life in “a little cabin somewhere” in New Hampshire, away from “any goddam stupid conversation with anybody.”
This news is hitting me profoundly at the moment. Perhaps it’s just my current mood. Perhaps had this news come to me on Tuesday (a spectacularly good day for me), I would have received it differently. Of course, had it come to me Tuesday, this post wouldn’t have been written. And, so far, I’m enjoying writing this post. It is cathartic.
Salinger’s work had a profound impact on my life. Long before I heard the Buddha’s First Noble Truth, I assumed that when I grew up I would be a writer. The idea of being a teacher, a scholar, an academic none of that crossed my mind. From roughly the time I was old enough to write until roughly 1998, I carried around a spiral notebook wherever I went in case the urge took me put thoughts to paper. Short bits of very bad prose, even worse verse, and the occasional long story were the ways that I managed to express myself. I didn’t go to college to learn how to be a better writer I’d been writing all my life, I arrogantly believed I went to learn about other things, to explore philosophical ideas and the world’s religions, which, in turn, formed the basis of my stories.
When my grandmother passed away in 1997, I wrote a 200-paged novel ostensibly about a fictional person who was, let’s be honest, myself. It was terrible. It was meandering, pretentious and bombastic, and in style it was a painful rip-off of Salinger’s later work about the Glass family. I have a copy of it, somewhere, collecting mold I hope. And let it be know that it should be burned on the event of my death.
I gave up writing shortly after college. Some mixture of good sense settling in along with an even stronger desire to teach came over me, and I decided to go to graduate school. Obviously, I’m still a writer. I’m writing now, and a not insignificant amount of my academic life revolves around writing. But self-indulgent, preachy short-stories are no longer my oeuvre.
Salinger certainly had an influence over me as a writer. But quite apart from that, he had an influence over my understanding of Buddhism. Or, perhaps to put it more accurately, my particular inroad into Buddhism. There’s a quote from John Updike in the Times’ obituary about Salinger’s open-ended, Zen-like prose. Like Karen Maezen Miller’s daughter, I find that line bogus, and I think Salinger would agree. Somewhere buried in one of his Glass-family stories (I believe it’s “Seymour: an Introduction”), there’s a line decrying the Beat-generation’s fascination with Zen and Eastern mysticism. Clearly, Salinger was not a fan of their particular genus of spirituality.
Which is all my way of saying that my inroad to Buddhism was not through On the Road or Dharma Bums but through Franny and Zooey. This is a blessing and a curse, of course. As much as I admire and love Salinger’s work, I recognize the pretentiousness of his protagonists (and by extension his own); they have the market cornered on real spirituality and everyone else is just a phony.
This cynical view on Americans’ fascination with all things “Oriental” is helpful; it allows one the luxury of not taking claims at bodhisattvahood at face value. (I’m lookin’ at you Kerouac.) On the other hand, it makes one often little more than a curmudgeon, shouting at the Zennies to get off my lawn.
It’s this mixed bag of emotions that are sitting with me and the news of Salinger’s death right now. I am immersed with a number of large projects, all of which will be over by mid-March. Following these projects, I had hoped to start up a couple of new writing projects. One of which takes me back to my grandmother, a project well outside the bounds of academia. At times when I am feeling particularly nostalgic (or tired of the academy), I fantasize about the writing life I gave up in pursuit of Buddhist studies. I miss that writer’s voice, that spiral notebook and ball point pen.
Of course, Salinger’s ghost haunts me still. I have been known to describe this blog as a “pretty shabby-looking blog” from time to time. It’s a self-effacing phrase I didn’t give much thought to, but, again reading the Times’ obituary, I was reminded of Salinger’s dedication to his editor in Franny and Zooey:
I urge my editor, mentor and (heaven help him) closest friend, William Shawn, genius domus of The New Yorker, lover of the long shot, protector of the unprolific, defender of the hopelessly flamboyant, most unreasonably modest of born great artist-editors, to accept this pretty skimpy-looking book.
I am forever in your debt, sir, for setting me on this path, rocky though it may be. And on your passing, what more can I do but to offer you this bouquet of early-blooming parentheses (((())))