"It's a Wise Child:" A Levinasian Analysis of J. D. Salinger's Glass Family Stories

By Nivetha Nagarajan
2016, Vol. 8 No. 11 | pg. 1/3 |

J. D. Salinger is a household name in America, but relatively few people know of his Glass family characters. Seven impossibly bright and witty adult siblings and their parents populate his later work, from their first appearance in the short story “A Perfect Day for Bananafish” that appeared in The New Yorker in 1948, to their last in “Hapworth 16, 1924” in the same publication in 1965. The Glass siblings are unique in that they have an eccentric family culture centered around religion and philosophy. All seven of them were precocious geniuses as children and were featured on a quiz show called “It’s a Wise Child” while growing up.

The nature of wisdom is a theme that comes up often in the Glass family stories. Their conceptions of knowledge, wisdom, and education are different from mainstream definitions of the words. In this paper, I argue that the Glass family’s idea of wisdom closely resembles a model of wisdom as put forward by the philosopher Emmanuel Levinas. Both are founded on a code of ethics that hold the Self responsible for the Other, and declare love and the social relationship to be of paramount importance to any truly “wise” person.

The ethical relation between the Self and the Other is established through the face-to-face encounter described in Levinas and demonstrated in Salinger, and there are challenges inherent in attempting to honor such a relation, foremost among them being resisting a totalization of the Other. The texts also touch upon the construct of the Other as having religious value and equate it to God, as well as point out the importance of emotion and sensibility as significant paths to wisdom in opposition to mere logic and reason. There is much to be gained from examining the Glass family stories from a Levinasian perspective, and from placing the two writers in dialogue with one another.

I. “First Philosophy” or Knowledge as Opposed to Wisdom

“Much, much more important, though, Seymour had already begun to believe (and I agreed with him, as far as I was able to see the point) that education by any name would smell as sweet, and maybe much sweeter, if it didn’t begin with a quest for knowledge at all but with a quest, as Zen would put it, for no-knowledge.” - Salinger

On a rudimentary level, Franny and Zooey is about asking the questions, “What is real knowledge?,” “What are we trying to achieve by the accumulation of it?” and, maybe most importantly, “What makes an educated person?” Against a collegiate backdrop, the short story “Franny” sets the stage for the unpacking of these questions by centering around the youngest Glass sibling, Franny, and her boyfriend Lane, as they discuss and disagree on the state of their academic world.

Franny’s disillusionment about academia stems from her early education at the hands of her eldest brothers, Seymour and Buddy Glass. From a very young age, Franny and her brother Zooey were trained in both Western and Eastern philosophy and religion, and encouraged to explore ontological subjects before epistemological ones, i.e. the meaning of being in the world before the ways of being in the world. Her realization in college that most other people do not hold the same views on what constitutes an education and what the aim of accumulating knowledge is precipitates a breakdown:

I don't think it would have all got me quite so down if just once in a while – just once in a while – there was at least some polite little perfunctory implication that knowledge should lead to wisdom, and that if it doesn't, it's just a disgusting waste of time! But there never is! You never even hear any hints dropped on a campus that wisdom is supposed to be the goal of knowledge. You hardly ever even hear the word ‘wisdom’ mentioned! (Salinger, 1961/2010, p. 95).

It is evident from Franny’s lamentations that people receiving the normative arts and sciences education popular in schools and colleges worldwide do not fit the Glass family definition of “educated.” Franny’s injunction that knowledge must always lead to wisdom is reflective of an approach to the subject of education posited by the philosopher of ethics, Emmanuel Levinas. For Levinas, what we normally think of as knowledge, i.e. the consideration of things pertaining to the material world, is secondary to the knowledge of the process of thinking and consideration itself: “Thought as knowledge is already the labour of thought… The labour of thought wins out over the otherness of things and men” (Levinas, 1989, p. 77-78). Levinas describes this wisdom or knowledge of the state of being (what he calls “first philosophy”) within an ethical framework. His conception of wisdom and ethics is bound up with the relation of the self to the Other, to whom the self always has a responsibility.1 Being responsible for the Other before oneself is the foundation of Levinasian ethics, although what this responsibility entails is left open-ended.

Levinas (1989) asks, “whether thought understood as knowledge, since the ontology of the first philosophy, has exhausted the possible modes of meaning for thought, and whether, beyond knowledge and its hold on being, a more urgent form does not emerge, that of wisdom” (p. 78). This echoes Franny’s complaints about the lack of importance given to the attainment of wisdom in academia, and the lack of alternative conceptions of knowledge and education. However, unlike Levinas, Franny has not yet been able to fully integrate the ethical dimension into her idea of wisdom. She complains of the section men in her English department tearing down other writers and the lack of poets who “leave something beautiful” on the page (Salinger, 1961/2010, p. 13). Her major concern is with the ego of scholars and artists who do not share her notion of what “real” knowledge and “real” art is. On some level, she is conscious of the fact that she is being unethical by categorizing all the academics around her as pedantic, small-minded, and self-aggrandizing, but she has not yet made the connection that a large part of wisdom and living an ethical, religious life is carrying out one’s responsibility to the Other, or in other words, loving and respecting people simply because of their humanity, however egoistic and petty they may be.

Ethics as wisdom continues to be a central theme in the Glass family stories, pervading not only their content but their form as well. In his essay “Digression, Ethical Work, and Salinger’s Postmodern Turn,” Steven Belletto (2011) argues that the postmodern antiform and the constant digressions in Salinger’s later works (especially Seymour – An Introduction and Hapworth 16, 1924) encourage the reader to rethink their perceptions of the significance of each character or object, and thus undertake ethical work (p. 10). He points to the privileging of peripheries over a unified narrative in Buddy’s many parenthesized digressions in Seymour, and relates it to Seymour’s religious fascination with sidelined objects: he “look[ed] for God, and apparently with enormous success, in the queerest imaginable places—e.g., in radio announcers, in newspapers, in taxicabs with crooked meters, literally everywhere” (Salinger, 1963/1991, p.108). Belletto (2011) then posits that this “illustrates Seymour’s ethics: he is prepared to locate significance ‘everywhere,’ an act that positions him to better appreciate what ethicists of various stripes call the Other” (p. 14). Seymour’s status as the resident sage and wise man in the Glass family is here illustrated by his unwavering commitment to the Other as well as his elevation of the Other to God, and this aspect of Seymour’s identity is honored by Buddy’s digressive postmodern narrative. He uses the formal aspects of his work to mirror Seymour’s approach to life itself.

While many critics like Belletto have pointed out Salinger’s formlessness and the debt that later postmodern literature owes to him, a postmodern sensibility has an arguably greater effect on the discourse of knowledge versus wisdom as presented by first philosophy. Postmodernism now defines literary movements of the 1960s and 1970s, whereas the main body of Glass family works had been written in the 1950s. Postmodern modes of thought and writing are characterized by intertextuality, “the decentering of the subject, the rejection of ‘reason’ as universal or foundational, [and] the criticism of humanism” (Leitch, 2010, p. 22). These themes run through Salinger’s Glass family works so frequently that one could argue that the oppositional relation between the Glass siblings and the rest of society in each of the works recapitulates the opposition of postmodern versus modern thought.

Nowhere is this more evident than in Franny’s disillusioned critique of academia. Franny and her boyfriend Lane are embodiments of that dichotomy, in that Lane is satisfied overall with the current education system, and more importantly, his own place within it (Salinger, 1961/2010, p. 8-10). In contrast, Franny criticizes not what she studies, but the lack of discussion around the higher purpose of gaining knowledge (Salinger, 1961/2010, p. 95). In this sense, she echoes Levinas in his writing about ethics and wisdom within the current modes of thought: “Modernity will subsequently be distinguished by the attempt to develop from the identification and appropriation of being by knowledge toward the identification of being and knowledge” (Levinas, 1989, p. 77).

The appropriation of being by knowledge is a distinctly modernist mode of education, to which Franny stands in opposition. Since the Renaissance Enlightenment period, there has been an emphasis in education on rigid structure, logic and rationality, a one-way flow of knowledge from the teacher to the student, and a privileging of Western scientific styles of thought and reason. Being brought up on a Glass family educational diet of both Western and Eastern philosophy and religion, Franny understands that scientific rationality is only one method of approaching knowledge, not the be-all, end-all that American academia considered it to be in the 1950s. She also resents that the professors and section men who teach her are seemingly preoccupied with their own importance as disseminators of knowledge and that “if you get into an argument with them, all they do is get this terribly benign expression” on their faces, signifying condescension and an obvious lack of respect for the student who disagrees with them (Salinger, 1961/2010, p. 11). In addition, Franny’s fascination with religion as an alternative mode of knowledge is showcased by her excited treatise on the Jesus prayer and its equivalents in other world religions, sparked by The Way of the Pilgrim:

I just think it’s a terribly peculiar coincidence… that you keep running into that kind of advice – I mean, all these really advanced and absolutely unbogus religious persons that keep telling you if you repeat the name of God incessantly, something happens… So I mean you can’t just rationalize it away (Salinger, 1961/2010, p. 26).

This is met by a vague dismissal from Lane, who says only, “All that stuff… I don’t think you leave any margin for the most elementary psychology. I mean I think all those religious experiences have a very obvious psychological background – you know what I mean…” (Salinger, 1961/2010, p. 27). He thus brings her exploration of the ontological link between being and knowledge, firmly back to an epistemological being by knowledge, through which psychology is paradigmatic to Western science.

II. The Duality of Sensibility vs. Reason

“The Heart is an Autumn Wanderer,” she read, mused, aloud. “Unusual title.” The response from behind the shower curtain was a trifle delayed but delighted. “It’s a what? It’s a what kind of title?... You know what your heart is, Bessie? Would you like to know what your heart is? Your heart, Bessie, is an autumn garage.” – Salinger

The Glass siblings are an emotional bunch, their personal brand of wisdom being guided by sensibility and feeling just as much as reason. Their dialogue is peppered with whimsical jokes and terms of endearment, resulting in a strange kind of insider language showcasing the skills of the “several experienced verbal stunt pilots” (Salinger, 1961/2010, p. 125) that populate their family. The siblings will often express serious consideration of and/or high amusement at casual silly remarks made by one of the others, such as Franny’s audible delight at hearing her sister Boo Boo’s religious philosophy: “Boo Boo’s convinced Mr. Ashe made the world” (Salinger, 1961/2010, p. 100) and Boo Boo’s appreciation of young Franny’s insistence that she was able to fly: “The baby stood her ground like an angel. She said sheknewshe was able to fly because when she came down she always had dust on her fingers from touching the light bulbs” (Salinger, 1963/1991, p.9).

Buddy’s narration especially is heavily interspersed with seemingly nonsensical statements, almost riddle-like in their ambiguity. He writes in a way that often pulls the reader up short, amid confusion about what a certain phrase or funny aside means. For example, when writing about Seymour’s poems, Buddy says, “I wouldn’t unreservedly recommend the last thirty or thirty-five poems to any living soul who hasn’t died at least twice in his lifetime, preferably slowly” (Salinger, 1963/1991, p. 128). After introducing the topic of Seymour’s appearance with, “His hair jumping in the barbershop,” Buddy questions, “Jesus God, is that my opening line? Is this room going to fill up, slowly, slowly, with corn muffins and apple pie? It may. I don’t want to believe it, but it may” (Salinger, 1963/1991, p. 162). This constant return to nonsensical asides asserts this sensibility as a brand of wisdom in itself, one in which reason has no place.

These non-sequiturs echo the confusion created by the Zen koan quoted in the beginning of For Esme – With Love and Squalor: “We know the sound of two hands clapping. But what is the sound of one hand clapping?” (Salinger, 1953/2010, p.i). Zen koans are paradoxical statements or puzzles used by Buddhist disciples on which to meditate and to help them resist their dependence on reason in their pursuit of enlightenment. Buddy’s non-sequiturs can be thought of as his own version of Zen koans, ones that ask questions to which there are no immediate right answers; they are almost rhetorical, but with an intent to unsettle the logical reader and force him or her to just cope with ambiguity. In this sense, it is reminiscent of a sort of Keatsian negative capability, or the ability to be comfortable with uncertainty and mystery without instantly reaching for a factual, scientific explanation. This is in direct opposition to the strictures of New Criticism, the dominant school of literary thought in the 1950s, which prioritized a systematic, objective approach to literary analysis, aimed at coming to concrete, evidence-based conclusions on a text.

Seymour and Buddy are no doubt familiar with Keats and admire him, as is evidenced by Buddy’s inclusion of a tongue-in-cheek haiku about Keats in his Introduction (Salinger, 1963/1991, p. 124). Buddy consistently displays in his “koans” the sort of negative capability that Keats advocates, privileging beauty and sensibility over reason in his writing. We hear Buddy’s views on the matter in another koan-like statement, which Zooey describes to Franny:

Buddy once said something reasonably sensible to me a couple of years ago… He said that a man should be able to lie at the bottom of a hill with his throat cut, slowly bleeding to death, and if a pretty girl or an old woman should pass by with a beautiful jug balanced perfectly on the top of her head, he should be able to raise himself up on one arm and see the jug safely over the top of the hill (Salinger, 1961/2010, p. 99-100).

This kind of elevation of beauty and aestheticism over practicality and reason is in stark opposition to the modern system of knowledge that the Glass family finds themselves in. Particularly in Franny’s case, there is no doubt that she feels alienated by the New Critical educational environment of her college, one which does not seem to appreciate art for its own sake or exhibit negative capability: “I’m just so sick of pedants and conceited little tearer-downers I could scream” (Salinger, 1961/2010, p. 12).

On the subject of beauty in art, Franny says:

If you’re a poet, you do something beautiful. I mean you’re supposed to leave something beautiful after you get off the page and everything. The ones you’re talking about don’t leave a single, solitary thing beautiful. All that maybe the slightly better ones do is sort of get inside your head and leave something there, but just because they do, just because they know how to leave something, it doesn’t have to be a poem, for heaven’s sake. It may just be some kind of terribly fascinating, syntaxy droppings – excuse the expression” (Salinger, 1961/2010, p. 13).

Franny’s vague definition of what makes a real poet hinges on this idea of doing something “beautiful.” It is significant that Franny does not explain this idea of beauty further, that she does not rationalize it and describe what exactly makes a poem beautiful, or gives examples of beauty in poetry. She takes it as self-evident that one should recognize beauty in poetry when one sees it. This situation of beauty within insight and sensibility rather than in form, imagery, or any of the other literary devices, provides a foil to the traditional English-department method of appreciating art based on its adherence to an established list of objective qualities.

For Levinas, sensibility is closer to ethics and first philosophy than reason. Considering that one cannot make real contact with another person because one’s interaction with that person is merely one’s idea and perception of the interaction, and not the person himself, sensibility offers a more direct and ultimately more honest connection to the other than reason. The scholar Anthony F. Beavers says, “Sensibility, for Levinas, goes back to a point before thought originates, before the ordering of a world into a system or totality. Sensibility is passive, not active as thought is, and it is characterized primarily by enjoyment” (Beavers, 1995, p. 3). This enjoyment is the self’s way of making everything it comes into contact with part of itself, whether it is food, art, or some other pleasure. However, the other is the only thing that resists consumption by the self, and thus the other is higher than the self; it becomes absolutely Other.

In this sense, the Glass family siblings’ delighted appreciation of the whimsy and silliness that pervades much of their dialogue is part and parcel of their ethical relations to each other. These meaningless, effervescent asides are never examined, questioned, or even discussed further. Their value lies in the fact that they have no reasonable meaning and are intended to impact the reader on the level of sensibility. They resist analytical consumption in much the same way as the Other resists consumption by the self.

Suggested Reading from Inquiries Journal

J.D. Salinger’s “The Laughing Man” is a classic frame story which displays the parallels between a storyteller and his real life.  The narrator of the story, along with his friends, acts as the “readers” of this story and respond psychologically to it, just as a reader of Salinger’s story... MORE»
We often acquire knowledge about the world through the detailed process of description. We understand even more by describing and explaining to others—people often report that they only really understand a topic once... MORE»
In the earliest stages of education, children naturally start to interrogate their elders with the question “why?” This is not surprising and it would often even be concerning if a child did not show signs of curiosity early in life. This natural curiosity, the search for knowledge, follows necessarily from man&rsquo... MORE»
We are all witnesses. You see and are seen; you step in and step out. You brush your hair out of your face, out of the face of a friend, a lover. Sometimes, you feel that the lock of hair is something more than the strands... MORE»
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