Monday, September 14, 2009

Why Franny Glass Lost Her Mind: More on Religion without Belief

Every misunderstood teenager loves J.D. Salinger, and most adults find themselves drifting further and further away from him as they get older—or at least from Catcher in the Rye. Since I never much liked Raise High the Roof Beam, Carpenters or Nine Stories, that leaves me only with Franny and Zooey, one of the few truly great American novels about spiritual crisis.

Franny and Zooey is really a collection of one short story (“Franny”) and one novella (“Zooey”), but the two are so intimately connected that there’s not much point in reading them in the abstract. They deal, like much of Raise High and Nine Stories, with the devastatingly clever and heartbreakingly unsuccessful Glass family, the obvious inspiration for Wes Anderson’s The Royal Tenenbaums. When the youngest sibling, 20-year-old Franny, has a nervous breakdown in a restaurant after committing herself to The Way of the Pilgrim, a 19th-century Russian theological volume, she returns home to the family’s New York apartment, where she is counseled, lectured, and ridiculed by her older brother Zooey.

The Way of the Pilgrim seeks to answer the question of how one prays without ceasing, one of the New Testament’s more difficult commands, and its answer is to repeat the so-called “Jesus Prayer” (“Lord Jesus Christ, have mercy on me [, a miserable sinner]” to oneself, mechanically at first, until one means it at the very depths of one’s soul. It is the act of following this advice that makes Franny faint in the restaurant and return home.

At first glance, Salinger seems like he would be a spiritual brother to James P. Carse, who recommends in his book that we divorce religion from belief and focus on the nondogmatic wonders of the universe. After all, Salinger is famously interested in nearly all religions, especially Christianity and Buddhism, and sees them all as streams leading to the same vast ocean. And indeed, according to Zooey, part of Franny’s problem is that she uses the Jesus Prayer to swap a consumerist dogma for a spiritual one:

You talk about piling up treasure—money, property, culture, knowledge, and so on and so on. In going ahead with the Jesus Prayer . . . aren’t you trying to lay up some kind of treasure? Something that’s every goddam bit as negotiable as all those other, more material things? Or does the fact that it’s a prayer make any difference? I mean by that, is there all the difference in the world, for you, in which side somebody lays up his treasure—this side, or the other?

In other words, Franny takes Jesus’ warning in Matthew 6:19-21 and makes it into an ugly and exclusionary dogma, one that she uses to separate herself from other people, putting herself inside the fold and others outside it—the very essence of belief, according to Carse. Further, Zooey prefers to remove the very notion of sin from the formulation, noting with satisfaction that “none of the adepts in either of the Pilgrim books puts any emphasis—thank God—on the miserable sinner part.” Religion becomes something malleable, something to change with the times—an orientation rather than a doctrine. Carse would be proud.

And yet the end result of the book is to suggest that Carse couldn’t be more wrong. One of the best-written parts of The Religious Case Against Belief is a long section where Carse presents us with dozens of Jesuses, that is to say, dozens of interpretations of Jesus. One can use the footnotes and play “name that Christ.” The point, though, is that, as Carse says about the results of the Protestant Reformation, “One Jesus is as authentic as the next.” He elaborates:

All of this gives the strong impression that the New Testament as we have it is a somewhat errant representation of a true text that hovers somewhere behind it, unseen, even unseeable—a precise and accurate account of what Jesus said and did. Apparently no one is granted the talent or privilege to state it exactly as it is. As a result, we remain necessarily ignorant of the “true” text. It is inconceivable that Christians will someday reach total agreement on what the text may be.
Thus, Rudolf Bultmann can give us “a mysterious Galilean preacher whose proclaimation to the world (or kerygma), although encased in mythic thinking we know now to be false, still causes us to confront our own inauthenticity” while George W. Bush gives us “a private voice guiding elected leaders responsible for America’s salvific mission to the democratic world,” and that is, to a large extent, just fine with Carse, since the “real Jesus” is undiscoverable.

Zooey disagrees. Sure, The Way of the Pilgrim has turned his sister into pious trash, into a sanctimonious twit—but that’s not her real problem:

I don’t think you understood Jesus when you were a child and I don’t think you understand him now. I think you’ve got him confused in your mind with about five or ten other religious personages, and I don’t see how you can go ahead with the Jesus Prayer till you know who’s who and what’s what.

Franny’s problem is that she’s tried to turn Jesus—who, fictional not, is a real person, at least according to Zooey—into St. Francis of Assissi or their brother Seymour or God knows what else. One Jesus is not, in other words, as good as another; it matters who you pray to, and if that’s not doctrine exactly, Christians have always known that doctrine flows from one’s conception of Christ—and that that conception can be more or less accurate, something Carse doesn’t seem to recognize.

None of this in any way disproves Carse’s book, of course—Franny and Zooey are fictional characters created by a man who’s so maladjusted that the only reason we’re still sure he’s alive is that he sued someone earlier this year. And in real life, true Christians seem to be far less well-adjusted than other people—and I think that’s actually how it’s supposed to be, if neurosis is the inability to create a cohesive self; after all, Christians are all but commanded to live in two worlds at once.

But it seems important to me that it’s the loss of doctrine—in the form of a biblically accurate portrait of Christ—that causes Franny to momentarily lose her mind. If Christianity recommends a certain loss of self, I think Carse recommends an even greater and more malicious one.

1 comment:

Rupert said...

nice post and blog. I'm working on a poem re all this. I saw Ken Kesey deliver a talk at Emory where he said F and Z was *the* spiritual warrior book.