Friday, January 29, 2010

Those Surprising Influences

I didn't plan on writing about the death of J.D. Salinger. Sure, I read Catcher in the Rye in high school, loved that rascal Holden for a few years precisely because he catered to my own sense of youthful angst and disbelief in the "adult" version of the world. But Salinger's disappearance from the world, and game playing when it came to interviews, always struck me as a bit odd, and pointless. And Holden himself became more of an answer to a trivia question, or the punchline to a joke, as I've grown older. Holden would probably say "You've given in, buddy!," to which I'd reply "If I kept living like you, I would have died a long time ago."

So, I wasn't going to write about the recluse and his little gang of smart mouthed characters, that is, until I stumbled upon the following post by Scott over at the buddha is my dj:

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 funny. I went through a Kerouac phase. In fact, Dharma Bums is still, in my opinion, the most complete thing he ever wrote. It may even been an influence on me in terms of my initial interest in Buddhism, although I'd probably say Thich Nhat Hanh, D.T. Suzuki, and an adjunct college professor who lasted a single year at my undergraduate institution are all higher on the list than Kerouac ever had been.

However, I appreciate Scott's seemingly backdoor entrance through Salinger's seeming dismissal of all things "Eastern spirituality." It reminds me, for some reason, of a co-worker of mine, who feels bad that I'm frustrated with things at work, and often struggle to be positive and upbeat around there. I've told her a few times: "You gotta take the bad with the good," or something along those lines. She's always saying things like "I want everything good for you," to me, and others around there. It's nice to have someone sending out kindness to you, but it's tinged with a desire to avoid that which, at least in appearance, seems "bad." She's said so herself. And yet, you never know what will influence you. In fact, you probably don't know what it is that you actually need to influence you in any given part of your life. It's often later on, long after the fact, that you reflect on how some hated teacher, or cranky neighbor, dysfunctional parent, or even the landscape you live in and maybe despise part of the year (for me, Minnesota in January would be that) - that one or more of these was the influence you needed to turn in the direction that you have turned.

In some ways, when I reflect back, I had a similar kind of spiritual influence that Scott had in Salinger. Mine was St. Augustine. I remember reading the Confessions for the first time and thinking, "Man, what an uptight dude! I don't believe a word he says about "sin" or much of anything else." I never had been interested in going to church, and neither of my parents were either. But I still found myself reading the Bible at times and being fascinated by church architecture. Yet, I've never heard a sermon that didn't spark a riot of boredom within me - no matter what church I found myself in (Catholic, Presbyterian, Lutheran, etc.). What's interesting to me is that even though I never once felt like I wanted to be a Christian, it wasn't until reading Augustine that I understood why the whole thing didn't work for me.

Having found myself going back to Augustine once in awhile since then, I have seen how powerful his words are, and why he had such an impact on future church doctrines and understandings. The Confessions narrative is compelling in both it's soap opera quality stories, and also in it's narrative of redemption. Some have argued that Augustine was the influential Christian writer of all time, and when you see his influence, it's hard to completely disagree with such statements.

In this way, I kind of love that overly repentant old coot. He wrote a powerful narrative that spoke to me completely, giving me clarity on just why I found myself nodding off or getting ticked off whenever I landed in a church pew. "You've got to take the good with the bad," precisely because there's no way, really, to separate them.

1 comment:

Jomon said...

Great post -- I think The Onion has the best obituary of JD Salinger yet: