J.D. Salinger hit the jackpot in 1951. At age 32, he published The Catcher in the Rye, a novel about an alienated teenager named “Holden Caulfield,” and it became an immediate bestseller. He was a success.
But the novel met with considerable resistance from parents who thought it was subversive. Perhaps more cutting, the literature establishment didn’t take the work seriously and leveled pointed criticism at it. Salinger grew bitter at the criticism, so bitter that biographers say it drove him into his famed reclusion in Cornish, New Hampshire.
I’ve always found Salinger’s bitterness odd. It’s almost like, through the alienated character of Holden Caulfield, he scorned the offerings of modern culture, but then became disillusioned when success within that modern culture didn’t yield up happiness.
It was an illogical response given Holden Caulfield’s perspective on life. Holden wouldn’t have cared about the haughty literature establishment.
It was also the exact opposite of Albert Camus’ advice in his 1942 book, The Myth of Sisyphus.
Sisyphus was condemned by the gods to roll a huge rock up a hill, only to have it roll back down, for eternity. But Camus said Sisyphus is happy because he understands his fate and understands he can’t avoid it, so he ceases to expect that he’ll ever succeed in getting the rock over the top. In other words, he negates all hope. It’s frustrated hope that makes the punishment hard, Camus says, so if hope is negated, the torture ceases. It might be absurd, Camus said, but it’s our lot in life.
If Salinger was like Sisyphus, or even like Holden, he would have written the novels without regard to what people thought. He would have received the acclaim without self-congratulation. He would have received the criticism without disillusion.
When I was twenty years old, I started a reading streak. I read every “serious” thing I could: literature, economics, philosophy. I was determined to become learned and, more humorously, to get to the bottom of things and get real answers. I spent five years reading and reading. When I was around friends, we discussed and discussed.
But by age 25, no one cared to discuss such things. Everyone was seriously focused on his or her career and making money. When they weren’t engaged in work, they were spending that money on hobbies that they focused on with swollen seriousness.
They were, in short, leaving their youthful idealism that tended to believe answers to the bigger issues could be found, and were instead heading for the culture of pop banality — cars, golf, vacations, electronic gadgets.
Not me. I doubled down, intent on finding answers, getting up at 4:30 most mornings to read and study. Although I was also intent on making money to provide for my family, I sensed that the desire for wealth was hallow.
Holden Caulfield, after all, would have ridiculed it. Camus, too: the person who harbors that tendency isn’t conscious that the money-making effort is a Sisyphean attempt to roll the rock up the hill. He doesn’t know that the rock will always roll down — either through career setbacks, stock market crashes, illness, or death (and, failing those, in a life warped by worrying about such things).
But my alternative approach may have been worse.
When my peers abandoned their idealistic questioning, they stopped barking at the silent and indifferent oak tree universe and re-focused their efforts on other things: the banalities that modern life and our immense wealth make available.
Was their approach noble? No. Wise? Probably not.
But it was better than what I did. I barked louder at that indifferent tree, demanding that it yield answers.
I think Camus would say my peers’ approach to life and my approach to life weren’t substantively different. They were only different in degree. My peers pursued shallow banalities. I pursued deep banalities. All of us were fools for the same reason: we took our pursuits seriously.
Camus would have told us not to. He preached absurdist resignation. Recognize the absurdity and simply accept the ultimate nothingness that underlies us and then pursue whatever you want, as long as you have the Sisyphean attitude.
But that’s awfully pessimistic. Resignation is a good trait, but in Camus’ hands it becomes synonymous with hopelessness. Camus’ existentialist diagnosis is good, but I needed to turn to an older school, Zen, to start building existentialism into a cure. In this, I joined a small Zen craze that took hold in America after Alan Watts published his bestseller, The Way of Zen, in 1957 and the Beat Generation started preaching it.
Zen is a branch of Buddhism. Like all Buddhism, its ontology (i.e., its theory of what constitutes fundamental reality) is steeped in pantheistic monism. This means that the Buddhist believes all things are one. The same spirit (“Brahman”) occupies everything; there are no separate spirits or souls. You are Brahman, I am Brahman, that tree is Brahman, the screen is Brahman. If anything is viewed as distinct from another thing, the viewer is caught in an illusion (maya).
Zen enlightenment consists of seeing through and eliminating the distinction among things, including the distinction between oneself and the universe.
Zen seeks to attain to an awareness of pure being beyond subject and object, and relentlessly seeks to destroy all figments of the mind or imagination that pretend to convey meaning. This is the rationale behind a famous Zen exhortation: “If you meet the Buddha, kill him! In other words, if you see a separate thing, especially a separate thing that pretends to convey meaning like the image of the Buddha, you’re experiencing a mistake, so get rid of it.
In short, Zen just wants you to look: look out and experience, to see, to enjoy, without thinking about yourself (including your reputation, your knowledge, your wisdom, or the progress you’re making on the Zen path to enlightenment).
Zen wants you to just exist.
Zen v. Christianity
I think it’s helpful (even if a little misleading) to juxtapose Zen’s path to enlightenment with the path frequently taught by Christianity. With a few exceptions, Christian meditation has stressed gradual enlightenment, a gradual purifying of the self so it increasingly lets go of the soul, with the result that the earthly self dissolves and a pure self emerges. The pure self — in its intense placidity, pliability, and simplicity — is filled with God, Pure Being, to the point that it becomes so fused with God that it almost seems as though it does not separately exist.
Zen ultimately does the same thing, but in reverse. In a practice known as “sudden enlightenment,” Zen asks its disciples to grasp intuitively — suddenly — the irrelevancy (non-existence) of the self, then to work backwards through meditation to understand the ramifications of this truth, to see the illusion of distinctions, of subject-object, and come to dwell in the simple act of existence, without regard to oneself or surrounding things. Just looking.
Zen’s “just look” approach provides a response to Camus’ problem of the absurd. In Zen, there is no absurd, because there is no self — and its cries and whimpers and wants — for the universe to ignore, and there is no universe for the self to cry to. We just look out and see the oneness of all things. Our selves — and its ambitions and desires — fall silent because we have no separate selves, and the selves’ characteristics drop off the sides of our existence like shackles off a heavily-bound prisoner.
In effect, Zen looks past, or through, the absurd and says it’s crucial not to try to reflect beyond the act of “just looking.” If you ask “Look at what?” the Zen master replies, “Just look; the second you try to figure out what you’re looking at, you’re back into the world of subject-object, which lands you back into the absurd.”
And if you continue to do more than look, the Zen master slaps you — either physically with his hand or intellectually with a koan. A koan is a ridiculous expression or dialogue designed to get the listener past the subject-object perspective.
A layman, for instance, once asked a Zen master: “What is it that transcends everything in the universe?” The master said, “I will tell you after you have drunk up all the waters of the West River in one gulp.” The man replied, “I have already drunk up all the waters of the West River in one gulp.” The master responded, “Then I have already answered your question.”
In effect, through use of a koan, the Zen master throws you into the absurd, saying, “If you insist on answers, on sorting through distinctions that don’t exist, you are insisting on dwelling in the absurd, so I’ll play along and give you even more absurd.
In this, Zen is existentialist to the core. You could lay Albert Camus on top of a Zen master and get significant overlap because, even though they disagree on a fundamental issue, they reach highly similar results.
Camus emphasized the self and its cries and wants on one side and the silent universe on the other. The Zen master would say Camus was fundamentally wrong to point to a distinction between the person and the universe. If Camus had understood that each person is not distinct from the universe and that all things are one, he wouldn’t have thought much about the absurd. He would have looked past it.
But the end result is highly similar. Camus says “don’t appeal to the universe”; so does Zen. Camus said the appeal is useless and builds false hopes that will only be dashed. Zen says the appeal is steeped in maya, illusion, and therefore is steeped in a fundamental falsehood — and so will be dashed.
Zen and Camus also agree that the things that are so important to many people — their surroundings, their homes, their careers — are of secondary importance. Because all is maya, surroundings don’t matter in Zen. In the words of the monk Thomas Merton:
Zen masters frequently took their examples from the monastery latrine, just to make sure the student should know how to ‘accept’ every aspect of ordinary life and not be blocked by the mania of dividing things into holy and unholy, noble and ignoble, valuable and valueless.
Similarly, Camus was able to praise the lover, the conquer, and the artist equally. Love or fight? It doesn’t matter. Pleasure or austere self-denial? Tie game.
Now, we’re getting dangerously close to a phenomenon known as antinomianism, and that’s a good reason to distrust Camus and Zen, but that’s not important here. I enjoy Zen and Camus because they both reject, or toss into the pile of secondary reality, the pursuits and diversions of life, especially the banality of modern life.
Camus and Zen don’t reject the banality, so to speak, but their view of it is even more devastating to it: by relegating it to a glob of equally-meritorious endeavors, every such endeavor becomes pointless in itself.
Planting a garden or whoring around: Camus doesn’t care.
Or if you’re J.D. Salinger: Publishing quality literature that impresses the establishment or trash fiction that caters to the unwashed: The Zen master shrugs.