Life as it ain't

"I'm not really from outer space. I'm just mentally divergent."

Archive for June, 2011

“The little girl on the plane/Who turned her doll’s head around/To look at me.”

Posted by Ronak M Soni on June 14, 2011

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Undoubtedly the best Salinger I’ve read to date, Franny and Zooey reads like a more sophisticated rewrite of The Catcher in the Rye. The sour-mannered Holden is here replaced by the mild and diminutive Franny Glass and — in another shape — the somewhat peremptory Zooey Glass, the youngest two members of the family which Salinger came to in all his books except Catcher. The vituperative first-person narrative is replaced by a gentle and keenly observant quintessentially American sort of third person voice straining to break free of the chains created by the limitations of language. The rant about phoneys is replaced by a violent and touching discussion of the value of what one may call mystical philosophy*, a discussion whose majority I’m not in any significant manner qualified to understand except in a skimmy way wherein I surmise the concepts from what is said in the book but the rest of which provided a useful supplement to what I’ve read in S Radhakrishnan’s Indian Philosophy.

The first part, Franny, deals with an encounter between Franny and her boyfriend Lane. Lane definitely qualifies as a pompous arse as per last paragraph, and despite her almost frenetic attempts not to, she every so often goes at him fangs bared, and feels sorry about it every time. She’s surrounded by lessers constantly acting like her greaters, and she has resolved to not set the record straight, to be meek in front of these her nemeses. It’s little wonder then that she has a nervous breakdown.

This isn’t just an incoherent scream; there’s a definite catalyst involved, in the form of a pair of books about a farmer who wants to understand what it is to pray unceasingly. He learns that that’s exactly what it is: unceasingly saying to yourself, “Lord Jesus Christ, have Mercy on me.” till the rhythm becomes a part of your heartbeat and you don’t need to do it consciously any more and then you achieve much greater oneness (there’s probably an Alan Moore video or interview somewhere in which he compares this idea, which is actually a pretty common one — long tracts of the Vedas are just repetitions of God names, for example –, with the effect of art). The first part ends with Franny ruining Lane’s mood, then collapsing, coming to and starting the Jesus prayer.

The second part is called Zooey, and illuminates Zooey’s stand on these concerns as opposed to Franny’s. But first, a bit of history. It turns out that Seymour and Buddy, the eldest Glass siblings, already in their twenties during the infancy of these two, supplemented their reading with mystical philosophies. Because these two, on their philosophical odysseys, had bent more and more towards the mystical philosophers; they felt the need to unlearn the differences between things (Radhakrishnan names this as the goal of philosophy as opposed to science, and this is what I use to characterise “mystical philosophy”) and hope that if these ideas are fed into these two from early enough they won’t have as much trouble.

Zooey is a young actor, slightly bitter at Seymour and Buddy for turning him and Franny into freaks. And he says he’s been through what Franny’s going through. And he proceeds to convince Franny that her breakdown is wrong.

In my review of Catcher, I wrote about Holden, “it is in this rejection of what he believes to be half-human that he expresses his true love for humanity.” Here, at first glance, there is no love for humanity. There is relief at the existence of people not covered with the jaded secretions of American society, but that’s about it. And yet… a little bit more thought shows that the purpose of the Fat Lady is to illustrate that there, in fact, is; the hate is reserved for social interactions. (This in fact curiously mirrors and extends what I said in my Catcher review: “The real fact about these phonies is that we all prepare a face to meet the faces that we meet. Some people just prepare more elaborate ones than others, and they can’t always keep it up.” While I say that it’s vile when sometimes some people’s facades slip, Salinger says that facades are by their nature vile.)

Oh, and it’s magnificently important that both of these are actors by calling, and the final resolution is Seymour’s point that the Fat Lady is watching.

Now, while I’ve stressed on the philosophical aspects of the novel, there is another, equally important one, which Buddy desperately wants us to remember:

I know the difference between a mystical story and a love story. I say that my current offering isn’t a mystical story, or a religiously mystifying story, at all. I say it’s a compund, or multiple, love story, pure and complicated.

As I hope my piece has shed some light on, for Salinger, these two types of story are not all that different.He seems to be a man who felt intensely out of place with people, and always remembered that that was the reason he was compelled to pursue wisdom like a madman. If I had to bet either way, I would bet that he hated his endless thirst, that he envied the people around him who could live without this insane drive; that, in other words, he wished he were the Fat Lady, such is his discomfort with this wisdom.

*Though I refer to it as mystical philosophy, it is in no sense of the pulling rabbits out of hats by the grace of God sort. It is in fact a result of very deep consideration of the states of being. I’ll come to why exactly I call it mystical soon.
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