Sunday, January 31, 2010

Franny, Zooey, Being, and Nakedness

Before my sister became a committed Buddhist, she was an actress.  In fact, not unlike the eponymous heroine in J.D. Salinger's Franny and Zooey, she was an exceptionally gifted actress, who nonetheless, like Franny, felt a searing spiritual lack at the heart of her life and craft.  In Salinger's novel, Franny is dissuaded by the ministrations of her wised-up brother from "wandering off into some goddam desert with a burning cross in her hands"; Zooey convinces her that she need not integrate her heartbeat with hesychasm in order to live an authentic life, but will better serve God and her fellow man, in whom she is to see Christ Himself, by returning to college and her artistic discipline.  My sister, on the other hand, in her own painful search for authenticity, alighted on an austere Tibetan Buddhist practice, abandoned her profession because, she claimed, she had only entered it to "get attention," and began moving all over the country with the man she would marry and working in various jobs to support him while he "took time off" to meditate.  She now teaches meditation to beginning practitioners in her Buddhist sect (in this sect, one has to shell out a lot of money to receive the higher, apparently secret teachings that enable one to work as a meditation instructor), and has gained some attention for her articles on using the everyday frustrations of parenting as tools toward enlightenment.

Back when my sister was a struggling actress, there was a period during which she, along with many other actors I knew working Off-Off-Broadway, got a string of parts in plays that featured a guy getting totally naked.  Apparently there was some sort of trend in early-millenial theater theory that a guy getting naked onsage was a good way to further a play's dramatic action or to salvage a foundering plot.  I went to a number of diverse plays by various playwrights in which a guy got naked, and would sit in the darkened house in a strange state of conflicting emotions that included both admiration for the naked actors' courage and heartfelt, head-hanging empathy for all those who had to share the stage with them.

To one of these cringeworthy naked-guy spectacles I once brought a boyfriend of recent vintage, and after the show we went out to eat at a nearby diner with my sister and a childhood friend.  My sister, our friend W., and I were giddy in the rush that follows any performance, even an embarrassing one.  We all ordered grilled-cheese sandwiches.  When it came time for Stoner-Carpenter Guy to order, however, he handed the menu back to the waitress with an air of noble renunciation, and said loftily, "Nothing for me."  Knowing he was a vegetarian, I helpfully suggested dishes like quiche or salad that would not be cooked, as our grilled-cheese sandwiches would, on a grill tainted with runoff from bacon cheeseburgers.  But as Stoner-Carpenter's demurrals became more insistent and began to take on an air of condescension, it occurred to me that he regarded us grilled-cheese eaters as persons to be pitied.  We thought nothing of the ethical contamination of our foodstuffs; indeed, we were happily munching away on cheese -- made with rennet, the lining of a cow's stomach -- pressed between packaged slices of non-whole-grain bread, all cooked together in animal fat.  While Stoner-Carpenter sipped his water, I excused myself, went to the bathroom, and cried.  It seemed to me that Stoner-Carpenter saw through me to the deep, dark truth within:  I was morally deformed, a lesser human, a fraud.  I had lost his love through my unethical eating, and this loss, as well as the fiasco the night was turning into, was clearly my own fault.  Our relationship would go on like this for two more years.

I thought of these things today, while buying coffee at a gas station during a road trip with my husband.  The gas station-convenience store milieu suddenly called up from my memory another road trip, taken with Stoner-Carpenter Guy one winter long ago, during which, when we got out at a truck stop somewhere in Pennsylvania, he ordered soup to go and requested, to the bemusement of the cashier, that it be packaged in a soda cup rather than in a styrofoam bowl (styrofoam being, of course, lethally toxic).  And then, from these memories on to the essential questions:  How do we live?  How do we hew to, and honor, the truth?  How are we to be authentic?

The practice of hesychasm, though it suggests a gradual winnowing away of everything in the seeker that is false and not conformed to Christ, turned out not to be the appropriate path for Salinger's Franny; as to my sister, I have my doubts that an esoteric spiritual practice rooted in a foreign culture can possibly lead to the capital-T truth (and, of course, as a Catholic I believe Buddhism is, if not a false path, at least an incomplete one).  As for Stoner-Carpenter Guy, not long after the grilled-cheese incident I came upon him, for all his public show of eating only bread at a dinner party I was giving, surreptitiously wolfing down bowls of bouillabaisse in a corner of the kitchen.  But it's a tricky thing to make food your god, and especially so if you believe that eating confers moral status upon the eater, or, conversely, strips it from him (and that illicit drug-taking has no similar effect upon the user).

I remain filled with a kind of awed respect for all those actors who gamely got completely naked in those Off-Off-Broadway shows years ago.  If only it were as easy for the rest of us to humble ourselves right down to nothingness like that, to strip off all that is non-essential, and to open ourselves completely, in the terrifying vulnerability of our pitiful nakedness, to God.


Amy said...

This edges near to a post I've only ever written in my head. The one about how I'm sorry, but I like fashion - a sucker for pretty dresses. And also, I like going to see a movie here and there. The post about listening to other than classical music, or to whatever music is deemed morally aceptable or at least "not base" to the person observing me and judging the state of my spiritual life and even my intelligence on these things.

mrsdarwin said...

I remember vividly the irritation I felt after turning my family's eating habits upside down to accommodate a good friend who'd become a vegan, only to discover that she would eat other stuff when she felt like it, only she just didn't feel like it much. I'd treated her eating preferences with the solemnity of a religious dictate or a medical condition -- only to find out that it was just an inconvenient preference.

Food: a good servant but a bad master. Like anything but God.

Emily J. said...

I just unsurfaced my copy of Franny and Zooey to reread.. .
Thought-provoking post.

Pentimento said...

Joseph Bottum wrote in his blog at First Things that, today, Zooey's words to Franny at the end of the book would be considered a great witness:

"But I’ll tell you a terrible secret —- Are you listening to me? There isn’t anyone out there who isn’t Seymour’s Fat Lady. . . . There isn’t anyone anywhere that isn’t Seymour’s Fat Lady. Don’t you know that? Don’t you know that goddam secret yet? And don’t you know —- listen to me, now -— don’t you know who that Fat Lady really is? . . . Ah, buddy. Ah, buddy. It’s Christ Himself. Christ Himself, buddy."

I found a discard book at the library a few years ago, J.D. Salinger and the Critics, published in 1962, and read it while nursing my newborn. Franny and Zooey had been one of the formative texts of my childhood -- I've lost count of how many times I've read it, though the last time was years ago -- and so I was surprised to find "the Critics" (who included Alfred Kazin and Mary McCarthy) trashing it, Salinger, and his entire Glass family, who they saw as afflictingly precious and phony. In fact, Franny and Zooey's discussion about the "repellent Fat Lady," as one critic called her, was generally thought of as soundly condescending to all those Fat-Lady mortals not as gifted and beautiful as the Glasses. I suppose there was an anti-Salinger backlash at the height of his popularity.

The two stories, "Franny" and "Zooey," were originally published two years apart in the New Yorker. My father read Franny in that magazine in his high school library, and told me how terrific a story he thought it was, even then. His favorite Salinger story, however, is "The Laughing Man," in Nine Stories -- worth reading!