Franny and Zooey

Why haven’t I read this novel until now?  Why, oh why?  Why wasn’t it the first thing I picked up after Catcher in the Rye? I’m not sure.

WARNING: for those of you who have chosen, in life, not to surround yourself with bad language, then this is not the book, nor the post, for you.  So, please stop reading, and I’ll catch you later.  That is, if you’ll still read me.

Recently, I read a comment by John Cusack, concerning Franny and Zooey: “This book was my introduction to theology.”

Me: raised eyebrows.  Who knew a rail-thin classic could hold such a wealth of knowledge?

And now I’m on the other side of reading it.

I’m a fan.  Mainly because I didn’t expect much from it.  Mainly because I loved the last page.  Mainly because I could sense that Salinger himself may have been putting words into the mouths of his characters (it has that feel).

Franny is the youngest girl of the Glass family.  Right above her in the lineup is her brother Zooey.  The two of them have been “ruined” by the two eldest siblings (there are seven children in all), in that they’ve been indoctrinated and trained in a backwards fashion, as an experiment.  Franny and Zooey are much more emotional and intolerant than the others.  They’re aware of it, too, and still, they can’t help themselves.

Franny has just read The Way of a Pilgrim in which a man attempts to learn how to pray without ceasing, as encouraged by the Bible.  Franny is distraught over what she’s reading; she sees the futility of everything–her love of theater, her silly ego, the inaneness of those around her, the emptiness of it all–so she renounces her college schooling and her theater major, to the alarm of her family.

Here’s Zooey impatiently explaining the book to his mother, Bessie, who is seeking an explanation.

“‘All right, just don’t yak at me for a minute, then,’ Zooey said, and rested the small of his back against the edge of the washbowl.  He went on using the nail file.  ‘Both books are about a Russian peasant, around the turn of the century,’ he said, in what was, for his implacably matter-of-fact voice, a rather narrative tone.  ‘He’s a very simple, very sweet little guy with a withered arm.  Which, of course, makes him a natural for Franny, with that goddam Bide-a-Wee Home heart of hers.’  He pivoted around, picked up his cigarette from the frosted-glass ledge, dragged on it, then began to file his nails.  ‘In the beginning, the little peasant tells you, he had a wife and a farm.  But he had a looney mother who burned down the farm–and then, later, I think the wife just died.  Anyway, he starts on his pilgrimage.  And he has a problem.  He’s been reading the Bible all his life, and he wants to know what it means when it says, in Thessalonians, ‘Pray without ceasing.’  That one line keeps haunting him.’  Zooey reached for his cigarette again, dragged on it, and then said, ‘There’s another, similar line in Timothy–‘I will therefore that men pray everywhere.’  And Christ himself, as a matter of fact, says, ‘Men ought always to pray and not to faint.’  Zooey used his nail file in silence for a moment, his face singularly dour in expression.  ‘So, anyway, he begins his pilgrimage to find a teacher,’ he said.  ‘Someone who can teach him how to pray incessantly, and why.  He walks and he walks and he walks, from one church and shrine to another, talking to this priest and that.  Till finally he meets a simple old monk who apparently knows what it’s all about.  The old monk tells him that the one prayer acceptable to God at all times, and ‘desired’ by God, is the Jesus Prayer–’Lord Jesus Christ, have mercy on me.’  Actually, the whole prayer is ‘Lord Jesus Christ, have mercy on me, a miserable sinner,’ but none of the adepts in either of the Pilgrim books put any emphasis–thank God–on the miserable-sinner part.  Anyway, the old monk explains to him what will happen if the prayer is said incessantly.  He gives him some practice sessions with it and sends him home.  And–to make a long story short–after a while the little pilgrim becomes proficient with the prayer.  He masters it.  He’s overjoyed with his new spiritual life, and he goes on hiking all over Russia–through dense forests, through towns, villages, and so on–saying his prayer as he goes along and telling everyone he happens to meet how to say it, too.’”

He continues.  “‘The aim of both little books, if you’re interested,’ he said, ‘is supposedly to wake everybody up to the need and benefits of saying the Jesus Prayer incessantly.  First under the supervision of a qualified teacher–a sort of Christian guru–and then, after the person’s mastered it to some extent, he’s supposed to go on with it on his own.  And the main idea is that it’s not supposed to be just for pious bastards and breast-beaters.  You can be busy robbing the goddam poor box, but you’re to say the prayer while you rob it.  Enlightenment’s supposed to come with the prayer, not before it.’  Zooey frowned, but academically.  ‘The idea, really, is that sooner or later, completely on its own, the prayer moves from the lips and the head down to a center in the heart and becomes an automatic function in the person, right along with the heartbeat.  And then, after a time, once the prayer is automatic in the heart, the person is supposed to enter into the so-called reality of things.  The subject doesn’t really come up in either of the books, but, in Eastern terms, there are seven subtle centers in the body, called chakras, and the one most closely connected with the heart is called anahata, which is supposed to be sensitive and powerful as hell, and when it’s activated, it, in turn, activates another of these centers, between the eyebrows, called ajna–it’s the pineal gland, really, or, rather, an aura around the pineal gland–and then, bingo, there’s an opening of what mystics call the ‘third eye.’  It’s nothing new, for God’s sake.  It didn’t just start with the little pilgrim’s crowd, I mean.  In India, for God knows how many centuries, it’s been known as japam. Japam is just the repetition of any of the human names of God.  Or the names of his incarnations–his avatars, if you want to get technical.  The idea being that if you call out the name long enough and regularly enough and literally from the heart, sooner or later you’ll get an answer.  Not exactly an answer.  A response.’”

Zooey is frustrated, but more than that, he’s being judgmental, because he’s been where Franny has been, and it irritates him that she can’t move on (or at least it seems that way at first).  He confronts her in the living room.

“Zooey’s eyes were on her, and had been.  ‘I want to ask you something, Franny,’ he said abruptly.  He turned back to the writing-table surface again, frowned, and gave the snowman a shake.  ‘What do you think you’re doing with the Jesus Prayer?’ he asked.  ‘This is what I was trying to get at last night.  Before you told me to go chase myself.  You talk about piling up treasure–money, property, culture, knowledge, and so on and so on.  In going ahead with the Jesus Prayer–just let me finish, now, please–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 all the 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?  The one where thieves can’t break in, et cetera?  Is that what makes the difference?  Wait a second, now–just wait’ll I’m finished, please.’  He sat for a few seconds watching the little blizzard in the glass sphere.  Then: ‘There’s something about the way you’re going at this prayer that gives me the willies, if you want to know the truth.  You think I’m out to stop you from saying it.  I don’t know whether I am or not–that’s a goddam debatable point–but I would like you to clear up for me just what the hell your motives are for saying it.’  He hesitated, but not long enough to give Franny a chance to cut in on him.  ‘As a matter of simple logic, there’s no difference at all, that I can see, between the man who’s greedy for material treasure–or even intellectual treasure–and the man who’s greedy for spiritual treasure.  As you say, treasure’s treasure, God damn it, and it seems to me that ninety per cent of all the world-hating saints in history were just as acquisitive and unattractive, basically, as the rest of us are.’”

Franny explodes, admitting that she does understand this hypocrisy.  She just doesn’t know what to do about it.

Then Zooey takes issue with the persona of God Himself.  What exactly is Franny praying to? [Which is funny, since now he raves about Jesus!]

“‘God almighty, Franny,’ he said.  ‘If you’re going to say the Jesus Prayer, at least say it to Jesus, and not to St. Francis and Seymour [their older brother]and Heidi’s grandfather all wrapped up in one.  Keep him in mind if you say it, and him only, and him as he was and not as you’d like him to have been.  You don’t face any facts.  This same damned attitude of not facing facts is what got you into this messy state of mind in the first place, and it can’t possibly get you out of it.’

“Zooey abruptly placed his hands over his now quite damp face, left them there for an instant, then removed them.  He refolded them.  His voice picked up again, almost perfectly conversational in tone.  ‘The part that stumps me, really stumps me, is that I can’t see why anybody–unless he was a child, or an angel, or a lucky simpleton like the pilgrim–would even want to say the prayer to a Jesus who was the least bit different from the way he looks and sounds in the New Testament.  My God!  He’s only the most intelligent man in the Bible, that’s all!  Who isn’t he head and shoulders over?  Who? Both Testaments are full of pundits, prophets, disciples, favorite sons, Solomons, Isaiahs, Davids, Pauls–but, my God, who besides Jesus really knew which end was up?  Nobody. Not Moses.  Don’t tell me Moses.  He was a nice man, and he kept in beautiful touch with his God, and all that–but that’s exactly the point.  He had to keep in touch.  Jesus realized there is no separation from God.’  Zooey here clapped his hands together–only once, and not loud, and very probably in spite of himself.  His hands were refolded across his chest almost, as it were, before the clap was out.  ‘Oh, my God, what a mind!’ he said.  ‘Who else, for example, would have kept his mouth shut when Pilate asked for an explanation?  Not Solomon.  Don’t say Solomon.  Solomon would have had a few pithy words for the occasion.  I’m not sure Socrates wouldn’t have, for that matter.  Crito, or somebody, would have managed to pull him aside just long enough to get a couple of well-chosen words for the record.  But most of all, above everything else, who in the Bible besides Jesus knew–knew–that we’re carrying the Kingdom of Heaven around with us, inside, where we’re all too goddam stupid and sentimental and unimaginative to look?  You have to be a son of God to know that kind of stuff.  Why don’t you think of these things?  I mean it, Franny, I’m being serious.  When you don’t see Jesus for exactly what he was, you miss the while point of the Jesus Prayer.  If you don’t understand Jesus, you can’t understand his prayer–you don’t get the prayer at all, you just get some kind of organized cant.  Jesus was a supreme adept, but God, on a terribly important mission.  This was no St. Francis, with enough time to knock out a few canticles, or to preach to the birds, or to do any of the other endearing things so close to Franny Glass’s heart.  I’m being serious now, God damn it.  How can you miss seeing that?  If God had wanted somebody with St. Francis’s consistently winning personality for the job in the New Testament, he’d’ve picked him, you can be sure.  As it was, he picked the best, the smartest, the most loving, the least sentimental, the most unimitative master he could possibly have picked.  And when you miss seeing that, I swear to you, you’re missing the whole point of the Jesus Prayer.  The Jesus Prayer has one aim, and one aim only.  To endow the person who says it with Christ-Consciousness.  Not to set up some little cozy, holier-than-thou trysting place with some sticky, adorable divine personage who’ll take you in his arms and relieve you of all your duties and make all your nasty Weltschmerzen and Professor Tuppers [someone Franny loved to mock] go away and never come back.  And by God, if you have intelligence enough to see that–and you do–and yet you refuse to see it, then you’re misusing the prayer, you’re using it to ask for a world full of dolls and saints and no Professor Tuppers.’”

Then.  Finally.

Zooey lets Franny really have it, and this is the crux of the whole book, in my opinion.  [If you’re planning on reading the book, save this for afterward.]

“‘I’ll tell you one thing, Franny.  One thing I know.  And don’t get upset.  It isn’t anything bad.  But if it’s the religious life you want, you ought to know right now that you’re missing out on every single goddam religious action  that’s going on around this house.  You don’t even have sense enough to drink when somebody brings you a cup of consecrated chicken soup–which is the only kind of chicken soup Bessie [their mother] ever brings to anybody around this madhouse.  So just tell me, just tell me, buddy.  Even if you went out and searched the whole world for a master–some guru, some holy man–to tell you how to say your Jesus Prayer properly, what good would it do you?  How in hell are you going to recognize a legitimate holy man when you see one if you don’t even know a cup of consecrated chicken soup when it’s right in front of your nose?  Can you tell me that?’”

He tells her that he and their older brother, Buddy, came to see her in one of her performances.  Had she known they were there?

“‘No, I didn’t,’ she said.  ‘Nobody said one single–No, I didn’t.’

“Well, we were.  We were.  And I’ll tell you, buddy.  You were good.  And when I say good, I mean good. You held that goddam mess up.  Even all those sunburned lobsters in the audience knew it.  And now I hear you’re finished with the theatre forever–I hear things, I hear things.  And I remember the spiel you came back with when the season was over.  Oh, you irritate me, Franny!  I’m sorry, you do.  You’ve made the great startling goddam discovery that the acting professions’ loaded with mercenaries and butchers….You can say the Jesus Prayer from now till doomsday, but if you don’t realize that the only thing that counts in the religious life is detachment, I don’t see how you’ll ever even move an inch.  Detachment, buddy, and only detachment.  Desirelessness.  ‘Cessation from all hankerings….’  The only thing you can do now, the only religious thing you can do, is act. Act for God, if you want to–be God’s actress, if you want to….But the thing is, you raved and you bitched when you came home about the stupidity of audiences.  The goddam ‘unskilled laughter’ coming from the fifth row.  And that’s right, that’s right–God knows it’s depressing.  I’m not saying it isn’t.  But that’s none of your business, really.  That’s none of your business, Franny.  An artist’s only concern is to shoot for some kind of perfection, and on his own terms, not anyone else’s.  You have no right to think about those things, I swear to you.  Not in any real sense, anyway.  You know what I mean?’”

Zooey reminds Franny of what their older brother used to say when they were too bored to do anything, too sick of being in front of audiences: he had said to “do it for the Fat Lady.”  Whoever that was.

Ta-dum.  Here are Zooey’s parting words:

“‘I don’t care where an actor acts.  It can be in summer stock, it can be over a radio, it can be over television, it can be in a goddam Broadway theatre, complete with the most fashionable, most well-fed, most sunburned-looking audience you can imagine.  But I’ll tell you a terrible secret–Are you listening to me?  There isn’t anyone out there who isn’t Seymour’s Fat Lady. That includes your Professor Tupper, buddy.  And all his goddam cousins by the dozens.  There isn’t anyone anywhere that isn’t Seymour’s Fat Lady.  Don’t you know that?  Don’t you know that goddam secret yet?  And don’t you know–listen to me, now–don’t you know what that Fat Lady really is?…Ah, buddy.  Ah, buddy.  It’s Christ Himself.  Christ Himself, buddy.’”

Need I say more?

[Post image: Partial of Franny and Zooey cover]

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