Academic journal article Style

The Aestheticist Epiphanies of J. D. Salinger: Bright-Hued Circles, Spheres, and Patches; "Elemental" Joy and Pain

Academic journal article Style

The Aestheticist Epiphanies of J. D. Salinger: Bright-Hued Circles, Spheres, and Patches; "Elemental" Joy and Pain

Article excerpt

Strangely, no attempt has yet been made to find a pattern that can unite the epiphanies of characters in the works of J. D. Salinger. The books and articles about him that have appeared in the last thirty-five years include only a single item with "epiphany" in the title, and even there the word is used in a loose and general way. [1] Sources and parallels for Salinger's literary epiphanies have been sought in many religious traditions. Picking up the hints provided by the "recommended home reading" of "the Upanishads and the Diamond Sutra and Eckhart" that the two older Glass boys, Seymour and Buddy, urged on Franny and Zooey (Franny and Zocey 60 (FZ hereafter]), critics have looked for influences and analogues in Hinduism (Alsen), Taoism (Antonio), Zen (Goldstein and Goldstein, "Zen"), and Christianity (Panichas, Slabey). [2] But such references to other people's imaginings cannot reveal--may even distract from--what is distinctive about Salinger's own vision, the epiphanic pattern that underlies his chara cters' moments of revelation.

These moments are nonsectarian. "The thing with Franny is strictly nonsectarian," Zooey says at one point (FZ 95), and although there is an aura of the "seer" (Zooey's own self-characterization [FZ 140]) about all the Glass siblings and even about Holden Caulfield, the type of "seer" they all embody at privileged moments is the modern post-Wordsworthian, secularized, and exploratory kind. Salingeris a gifted maker of modern literary epiphanies that need to be investigated for the unique pattern they reveal. A useful beginning has been made in a few studies that focus, in rather isolated fashion, on certain favored objects: Holden's hat has been studied in terms of his psychological history (Vanderbilt, Roper), and Phoebe's carrousel has been compared to its partial source in Rilke (Stone, McCort). But only a comprehensive look at Salinger's epiphanic pattern can offer what the reader of such a skillful post-Wordsworthian inward quester would like to have: the portrait of a distinctive epiphanic sensibility.

In a recent book (Patterns of Epiphany), I worked out a method for studying the distinctive epiphany patterns of writers and applied it to a series of nineteenth-century authors. Here, I will apply the method to the epiphanies of Salinger. My guiding assumption is that the epiphanies produced by any given writer will manifest a pattern unique to that writer. I define an epiphany in general as a moment in a literary work that affects the reader as (1) intense, (2) expansive in meaning (that is, seeming to mean more than such a brief experience would have any right to mean), and (3) mysterious (its resonance or vibrancy exceeding any apparent explanation offered in the author's text). [3] In creating epiphanies, authors work with contents I have found discussed in the work of the French phenomenological theorist Gaston Bachelard. From Bachelard, I derive three basic components of epiphanic patterns: elements (in the ancient sense: earth, air, fire, water); patterns of motion (irrespective of whatever it is tha t moves); and shapes (most commonly, geometric), together with certain recurrent features that are occasionally linked to the above (thus, in one Salinger epiphany the color green is linked to earth in springtime, but patches of bright, pure color appear often, without requiring any "elemental" cause). Having identified in a writer these distinctive components, I next locate the author's "paradigm" epiphany. The paradigm is the one epiphany that manifests the author's recurrent pattern most completely and vividly. Thereafter, I study the pattern in its less elaborate variant forms and note, where appropriate, implications (psychoanalytical insights, for example) that the pattern may suggest.

In Salinger, epiphanies usually involve a combination of two or more elements, but one of these sometimes will be suggested only vaguely by a color-link (as the mention of a gold medallion may suggest the fiery sun). …

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