Saturday, February 6, 2010

J. D. Salinger and Sherlock Holmes


When J.D. Salinger died last week I looked on the internet to see what I could read by him. His uncollected stories were posted on a couple of websites, those mysterious stories never republished after their original appearance in magazines. I went from Google to a site originating in Hungary, and there they were.

I was reading them a few each day, and then yesterday the pages disappeared from the site. I remembered reading something about lawyers of Salinger’s agent going after a website like this one more than a decade before, so I guessed they were in action again with their threats of prosecution. I went back to google, to the internet archive, to the Hungarian site a few years back and the pages reappeared. This time I copied them.

The most interesting of the stories is "Hapworth 16" (from 1965), the one last published. It is not much fun to read. But would you ask for fun from a rapid first reading of a code that has to be cracked?

Here is a story in which the narrator is a 7 year old who has perfect self knowledge and wisdom about the world, who’s done more reading than most of the readers of the story will do in their lifetimes, whose only failure is he loves too much, who has clairvoyant powers, and who, not the least, is immoderately ironic.

He values Sherlock Holmes more than Faust-authoring Goethe, real investigation more than imitative myth making. He says reading the vanity and ludicrousness of bad writers is educational for his younger brother, who however must be protected against biographies of Maupassant which make his life story a consequence of his intemperate sexuality.

Seymour, the 7 year old god of wisdom, self knowledge, and love, who in the story of his life in the world, a place of insincerity and seeking for prestige, knows about himself that he lacks the power of self control required to calmly practice what he knows - this creature of myth vetoes the myth of Maupassant.

The veto of the Maupassant myth is the first clue in unraveling the mystery.

In the last report I said that myths were special kinds of stories that relate a selected human desire to a typical, important regularity discovered in the world. In the money-making myth, the desire concerned was success at any cost, and the story was that without doing everything and anything for money you’ll never be a success.

If a god plays a role in the myth, it is because among the audience there are many different competing desires. A god is defined by his unchanging particular desire, what he wants for himself or what he wants from us. In the myth of money-making, the near unanimous, unchanging acknowledgment of the precedence of success in our society makes use of a god unnecessary to express this exclusiveness. But if a god were entered into the story, he would be a god of callous, narrow minded, tricky endeavoring, helping some and hindering others in their race to capture success.

If you wanted to tell an ironic version of this myth of money making you’d find yourself a god of affection, wisdom, honesty and playfulness. You’d place this god in the same world of money making. Like you might say with irony to a brutal man’s insults, "how kind of you to say so", you place in the money-making story a god of gentleness instead of the god of insensitivity.

“Hapworth 16” is something like this. It is an ironic myth.

Seymour’s use of irony is nearly continuous, yet he vehemently (and ironically!) attacks the use of irony. He has miraculous powers of clairvoyance, but says that Jesus’ miracles lost him many perfectly fine potential admirers. He says Maupassant’s irony is a slap in the reader’s face, that Maupassant should kill himself and destroy his magnificent writing instruments. Yet Seymour defends his brother’s wasteful disposal of notebooks having the undesirable feature of lined pages, for an artist must love his tools, and one of the things Seymour has seen ahead is that, even if he may not be poet enough to save himself, the art of writing will save his brother.

So we have 2 more clues. Myths are dangerous. And irony is destructive. When done right, intentionally or otherwise, irony destroys what ought to be destroyed, because a bad story is a bad teaching tool. Irony works by shocking the social urge to agreement, and every myth assumes agreement. But irony done wrong blocks the saving healing potential of writing, lays down lines on pages you were lucky enough to get unlined. You might as well die if that is the extent of your art.

But is an ironic myth acceptable? Seymour would keep false myth, seductive lies, out of reach of his brother's youthful susceptibility, though he is more than willing to let pass obvious bad art. Ironic myth, as an example of the safely telling of a bad story, is acceptable. And we have reached the solution of Hapworth's mystery.

Seymour is one of Salinger’s characters who have difficulty handling everything in the world they don’t love: the world tends to make them crazy. Unlike Salinger's other characters of this type, he knows perfectly well how he should respond, and sets himself the task of acting on his knowledge, but knows also full well he won’t much succeed. What succeeds in handling the ugly unloved parts of the world is art, but, again, Seymour has doubts about his abilities there.

Seymour is too attached to his family and to what he loves in the world to be a good artist. He says that second in value and rarity in life is originality, first is kindness. Though art may be necessary to save one’s life, as it is second in value life itself may have to be lost in giving precedence to tenderness. Right from the beginning of the story we are told, in his writer brother's introduction, that in 24 years Seymour will do as he says Maupassant should do, kill himself. His life is an ironic story better ended.

The story of Hapworth’s publication continues very strangely, almost mythically. In the mid 90's Salinger had arranged with a home-officed publisher to finally put out the story in book form. But, in different versions of the story, a library of congress filing, or an notice of coming availability caught the attention of newspapers and stories appeared in them of the impending publication. What did the journalists say? That the famously reclusive, secretive writer, was again about to feed the ravenous and already contemptuous appetites of readers, academics, collectors and investors. Bad myth, in other words. Salinger did what his character Seymour would have done: he canceled the publication. And that is the last public act we have from Salinger, excepting his death last week.

Further Reading:
Sick Of Art