In 1948, J.D. Salinger published the short story “A Perfect Day for Bananafish” in the New Yorker. This event was a major step in his literary career. First, it brought Salinger serious critical acclaim. Second, it established a working relationship between the author and The New Yorker. The magazine offered Salinger a right of first refusal contract, and he subsequently published his new work almost exclusively in the New Yorker. Third, it marks the first published appearance of Seymour Glass, the oldest sibling in the Glass family. Salinger would go on to chronicle the lives of the Glass family siblings in a series of short stories and novellas.
“Bananafish” is the only story in which Seymour appears in real time. In all the other stories he is either referred to, or described from a distance in time. Nevertheless, the spirit of Seymour pervades all of the stories, and is a constant presence in the thoughts of his younger brothers and sisters.
The "Bananafish" story (which became the opening story in Salinger's beloved collection Nine Stories) is a masterpiece of economy and style. Using mostly dialog to set the scene and give background on the main characters, Salinger presents the barest of facts, describes a series of events, and then lets the reader puzzle out the meaning and fill in his or her own perception of the characters. Salinger at this point in his life was a student of Zen Buddhism, and “Bananafish” is similar to a Zen koan, or riddle, in which a question is posed and the answer is found through meditation and self-examination.
Fifty years ago this September, in 1961, J.D. Salinger published a slim volume containing a short story and a short novel that had both appeared previously in The New Yorker. The book was Franny and Zooey. It appeared ten years after the publication of his best-seller The Catcher in the Rye.
Franny and Zooey is the first book-length treatment of the Glass family. Salinger had already introduced some of the family members in stories such as “A Perfect Day for Bananafish” and “Down at the Dinghy”. Now, the mythic Glass clan is fleshed out. The family history is revealed for the reader, and all the family members enumerated - the parents: Les and Bessie; and the seven children: Seymour, Buddy, Boo Boo, the twins Walt and Waker, Zooey and Franny.
Franny Glass is presented almost entirely in dialogue. The youngest of the Glass family, she's a student at an unnamed Eastern college. She is attending a football weekend at her boyfriend Lane Coutell’s school. It is the Yale game, so his school is of the Ivy League variety.
During lunch with Lane at a restaurant, Franny expresses her disenchantment with phony college intellectuals and the egotism that abounds in her school's Theatre department, which caused her to quit her involvement. She also reveals that she has been reading a book called The Way of a Pilgrim. It's a work by a simple Russian pilgrim that describes his spiritual quest, and how he learned to say the Jesus Prayer: “Lord Jesus Christ, have mercy on me”.
The Jesus prayer is to be repeated continuously until it becomes as much a part of the unconscious functioning of the body as the beating of the heart. After a period of time, the constant repetition of this prayer will lead to a form of spiritual illumination, similar to the meditation on “om” in Buddhism or Hinduism.
Franny suddenly becomes quite ill – it appears that she is in the throes of a complete nervous or spiritual breakdown. She is pale and perspiring, and at one point she goes into the bathroom and cries for about five minutes. Upon returning from the bathroom, she is okay for a while, but then faints. Lane Coutell takes her into the restaurant manager’s office, and then goes to fetch a cab. She is seen at the end of the story in the office, lying on the couch, silently repeating the Jesus prayer.
1. Isn't this a great book cover? Woolgathering is not a new Patti Smith book, and it shouldn't be mistaken for a sequel to her great Just Kids. In fact, I first bought this when it was a great little Hanuman book that looked like this:
The Hanuman book looked cool, but I think the newly republished New Directions version's cover art may be even better. Shepherd, tend thy flock.
2. Occupy St. Petersburg? Bill Ectric draws some connections between Nikolai Gogol's financial satire Dead Souls and more recent high finance scams.
3. Steve Silberman asks: What kind of Buddhist was Steve Jobs, really?
I often hear people complain about "dirty hippies". Well, cleanliness is a virtue. But I've never understood why anybody would hate hippies. Is it that their exuberance is embarrassing? I like hippies, and I also like several writers identified with the post-Beat/hippie literary tradition of the 1960s and 1970s, many of whom are still active (or being remembered) today.
1. Johnny Depp is the star of a new film based on Hunter S. Thompson's novel of sin and excitement in Puerto Rico, The Rum Diary. Haven't seen it yet, but early indications are encouraging.
2. The late-career writings of the once-acclaimed novelist Ken Kesey were scant and unimpressive, but I recently wondered if this only indicated that Kesey had lost interest in the book format, and if there might be more substance to Kesey's later collectivist theatrical experiments than is commonly thought. Mike Egan's new book Ken Kesey and Storytelling as Collaborative Ritual asks the same question, examining group works like the play Twister with a Jungian point of a view and a fresh eye.
3. Karen Lillis has written a memoir, Bagging the Beats at Midnight, about her years as a bookseller at the endangered St. Mark's Bookshop (which remains one of the best places in New York City, and I hope it will never go away). Bagging the Beats includes chapters with titles like "Susan Sontag Wants The Manager & Richard Hell Wants the Bathroom Key".
There once lived a giant of philosophy, a rock star of ethics, now almost completely forgotten, named Auguste Comte. Born in Montpelier in southern France amidst the tumult of the French Revolution, he made it his life's mission to integrate the Revolution's better ideas into a scientific structure, Positivism, that sought rational principles to guide our understanding of both the physical and the moral world.
His scientific writings would gain wide favor in the Darwinian era, but he challenged his readers to follow his arguments beyond science into the thorny arena of culture and politics. He is often cited as the founder of Sociology, and he invented the word "altruism" (in French, altruisme, based on the Latin root for "other"). With a deft perception that often eludes us today, Comte described altruism as a basic fact of human nature -- not an illusory by-product of selfish interests, but a primary, inviolable element of the soul.
Auguste Comte was vastly admired during the late 19th Century, not only by his peers and followers (philosopher John Stuart Mill, novelist George Eliot, theologian Richard Congreve) but also by the public at large. He was a rare intellectual celebrity of international proportions, and his fame grew even greater after his death in 1857. Basking in popularity towards the end of his life, he went so far as to found his own "religion", a scientific and philosophical "Church of Humanity" that would last for decades (one elegant church building is now a tourist attraction in Brazil). He and his followers were so sure that they had found the key to a happy and peaceful world society that they decided to invent a new calendar, the Positivist Calendar, with months and days named after great thinkers (today, according to this calendar, is the 15th of Shakespeare). The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy describes Auguste Comte's influence at its peak:
It difficult today to appreciate the interest Comte's thought enjoyed a century ago, for it has received almost no notice during the last five decades. Before the First World War, Comte's movement was active nearly everywhere in the world. The best known case is that of Latin America: Brazil, which owes the motto on its flag ‘Ordem e Progresso’ (Order and Progress) to Comte and Mexico are two prominent examples. The positivists, i.e., the followers of Comte, were equally active in England, the United States and India. And in the case of Turkey, its modern secular character can be traced to Comte's influence on the Young Turks.
I had a chance to check out Washington DC's new Martin Luther King memorial earlier this week. A big opening ceremony featuring President Barack Obama and other significant guests scheduled for this weekend has been postponed for an approaching hurricane, but the memorial is open to visitors, and I found a large and enthusiastic crowd on the day I dropped by.
I was surprised -- maybe I shouldn't have been? -- that nearly everybody besides me who came out to see the memorial was African-American. This points to a disappointing fact I've observed before: even though Martin Luther King has now been enshrined in American history as a legend, a hero and a cliche, his great universal message of activism through nonviolent resistance remains largely neglected and misunderstood in America and around the world. The King approach to solving problems feels every bit as startlingly innovative and unique today as it did in the 1960s. The miraculous fact that King's patient, compromise-based approach can actually succeed in solving "unsolvable" conflicts remains widely ignored, even though the problems we face today are as severe as the problems King faced so brilliantly and successfully in his time. Most people would rather gripe, whine and fight each other than take a risk on loving their neighbors and trying to truly understand and cope with variant points of view.
Martin Luther King never had an easy time getting his peaceful message across. It's well known today that he and his fellow activists had to endure vicious taunts and provocations by their opponents, but King also took a hard beating, often for different reasons, in the allegedly liberal mainstream media, and another hard beating from many of his fellow African-American activists. Like any leader who tries to compromise and rise above the pettiness of simple hatred, he took it from the left and the right, from black and white, from north and south. An early John Updike short story called "Marching Through Boston", published in the New Yorker in January 1966, delivers a refreshingly direct look at how Martin Luther King was seen in his own time.
I wouldn't make a very good creationist, since I believe completely in Darwin's theory of natural selection and human evolution. I know that the scientific evidence for evolution is overwhelmingly persuasive. I find most religious creation myths childish and inane, and I've been known to snicker about creationist museums in Kentucky or Miss USA Pageant candidates who find the question "should evolution be taught in school?" hilariously tough to answer.
However, I try to check myself before laughing too hard, or else I might commit my own fallacy and conclude too glibly that anyone who does not believe in Darwinism today must be mentally addled or badly miseducated. I might allow myself to feel intellectually superior to creationists, and this would be a dangerous overstep. As an elaborate scientific theory about the distant past, Darwin's great discovery will never have the same force of persuasion as any theory that can be simply proven with direct experimentation. The evidence for evolution requires explanation, assumption and interpretation; it is not directly and immediately obvious. If I forget this basic fact, I might commit the error of lumping the theory of evolution in with more urgent and alarming recent theories and reports about man-made climate change. I might conclude that conservative politicians are engaged in a "war on science", and draw a hard line: if you don't believe in both global warming and evolution, you are a liar and a fool.
When I talk with friends about the Buddhist position on desire -- that desire is illusion, that we must free ourselves from desire -- the conversation often becomes circular. How, someone may ask, can a person want to not want? And, if we free ourselves from desire in order to become happier, aren't we actually following our desire (the desire to be happy) by claiming to free ourselves from it?
These are the right questions to ask, and I'm not going to pretend to have the answers.
But I think we have much to be gained by reframing the question in a wider way, and placing this question at the very center of our philosophical thoughts. What is the object of our desire? Let's say I want a tray full of Taco Supremes from Taco Bell (this is a highly realistic scenario, since in fact I do want a tray full of Taco Supremes from Taco Bell). So, which of these sentences are true?
(This is the first guest post in the Philosophy Weekend series. James Berrettini is a friend and fellow software developer with whom I've conducted intensive private debates over difficult questions of philosophy and ethics for many years. He and I often disagree, but I know he shares my belief that these questions are keenly relevant to modern life. Here's James's introduction to a popular but misunderstood writer and thinker, C. S. Lewis. -- Levi)
Sarah Palin was mocked for telling Barbara Walters for saying that she turns to C. S. Lewis for "divine inspiration." Richard Wolffe, a commentator on Chris Matthews' show, thought this indicated a lack of seriousness, assuming that she was referring to "a series of kids' books." Defending Lewis, Matthews interrupted saying: "I wouldn’t put down C.S. Lewis." Wolfe continued: “I’m not putting him down. But, you know, 'divine inspiration'? There are things she could’ve said for 'divine inspiration.' Choosing C.S. Lewis is an interesting one."
C. S. Lewis was indeed an interesting writer, if not for the reasons that Wolffe believes. Like many people, he was unfamiliar with Lewis beyond knowing that he wrote the Chronicles of Narnia books, which we all "know" now, thanks to the good people at Walden Media, Walt Disney Pictures, and 20th Century Fox. Who was Lewis?
There's been an explosion of popular interest in the novelist/philosopher Ayn Rand lately, and not only because I wrote a book called Why Ayn Rand Is Wrong and Why It Matters (which, I'm happy to report, is selling quite well). Rand died nearly three decades ago, but her Objectivist philosophy has made headlines for two different reasons in the past couple of weeks.
She's been a sore point lately for Republican Congressman and House Budget Committee chairman Paul Ryan, an avowed admirer. Several Christian groups have been asking why a conservative politician with "family values" credentials would admire and follow the work of a stringent atheist with provocatively modern ideas. Ryan, a Catholic, claims not to be influenced by Rand's dislike of religion, but this answer does not seem to be satisfying his critics. A group called the American Values Network has begun targeting both Rand and Ryan in television commercials, and the Congressman was caught in a "gotcha" video dodging a persistent critic who tries to give him a Bible while asking "why did you choose to model your budget after the extreme ideology of Ayn Rand, rather than on the basis of economic justice and values in the Bible?" Time Magazine calls this Paul Ryan's Ayn Rand Problem.