Sunday, January 31, 2010

Were most of your stars out?

Last week, J.D. Salinger died.

A writer who was as famous for being a "recluse" as he was for writing Catcher in the Rye, Salinger leaves behind an ambiguous legacy, at least in my mind. Contrary to popular opinion, he may not have been a complete hermit -- he was downright neighborly, according to some -- but the image many of us hold in our minds of Salinger, as a brilliant man who spent his life hiding from the consequences of his own brilliance (and thereby undoubtedly undermining his ability to write something as brave and resonant as his first novel ever again), is one I think would make old Holden Caulfield feel sorry as hell.

It makes me feel sorry as hell, too. But then, I tend to gravitate toward writers who are as wildly preoccupied with living as they are with writing about life, like Salinger's contemporary Jack Kerouac ("The only people for me are the mad ones, the ones who are mad to live, mad to talk, mad to be saved, desirous of everything at the same time, the ones who never yawn or say a commonplace thing, but burn, burn, burn like fabulous yellow roman candles exploding like spiders across the stars").

Or Anaïs Nin, who had as the thesis of her classic Delta of Venus the idea that truly titillating erotica "must be mixed with tears, laughter, words, promises, scenes, jealousy, envy, all the spices of fear, foreign travel, new faces, novels, stories, dreams, fantasies, music, dancing, opium, wine."

Or Elizabeth Gilbert of Eat, Pray, Love fame, who told an aspiring writer at a reading I recently attended that she "has to get out in life and roll around in it" to find inspiration.

Or Dave Eggers, most recently of "Where the Wild Things Are" fame, who once wrote an incredibly inspiring essay about why he thinks it's crucial to be "doing something, trying something, even when it's corny or stupid," even when it threatens to topple you from whatever pedestal you have been placed on by your adoring fans. Because "when you die, and it really could be this afternoon ... you will not be happy about having said no. You will be kicking your ass about all the no's you've said. No to that opportunity, or no to that trip to Nova Scotia or no to that night out, or no to that project or no to that person who wants to be naked with you but you worry about what your friends will say."

By contrast, many accounts portray Salinger as someone who purposefully turned his back on life, a writer whose life choices were wildly at odds with the openness and compassion Holden Caulfield displayed even in the face of fear and alienation, confusion and ennui. This is the Salinger I've always had in my head, and he still strikes a tragic figure.

However. Last week, my friend Jenna unearthed a passage of Salinger's that seems to suggest that my own personal Salinger might be a straw man, a literary boogeyman that serves to scare me into engaging with life even when it means facing criticism, unpredictability and "phonies." This passage -- from Seymour--An Introduction, a short story Salinger published in the New Yorker in 1959 -- suggests that Salinger might have more in common with me and my favorite writers than I thought. That in fact, he would have wanted to be remembered as we would like to be remembered when we die: as someone who did his best to live up to his potential as a writer -- and as a human being. (As Jenna puts it, "it's like he wrote his own epitaph.")
You wrote down that you were a writer by profession. It sounded to me like the loveliest euphemism I had ever heard. When was writing ever your profession? It’s never been anything but your religion. Never. I’m a little over-excited now. Since it is your religion, do you know what you will be asked when you die? But let me tell you first what you won’t be asked. You won’t be asked if you were working on a wonderful, moving piece of writing when you died. You won’t be asked if it was long or short, sad or funny, published or unpublished. You won’t be asked if you were in good or bad form while you were working on it. You won’t even be asked if it was the one piece of writing you would have been working on if you had know your time would be up when it was finished... I’m so sure you’ll get asked only two questions. Were most of your stars out? Were you busy writing your heart out? If only you knew how easy it would be for you to say yes to to both questions.”