"The Holy Refusal": A Vedantic Interpretation of J.D. Salinger's Silence

By Pattanaik, Dipti R. | MELUS, Summer 1998 | Go to article overview

"The Holy Refusal": A Vedantic Interpretation of J.D. Salinger's Silence


Pattanaik, Dipti R., MELUS


The silence of J.D. Salinger continues to be an enigma. That a successful writer should cease to publish at the height of his glory not only defeats our everyday notions about success, it also baffles the serious students of Salinger's work and life. His controversial biographer, Ian Hamilton, articulates the confusion quite aptly:

   American intellectuals look with compassion on those eastern bloc writers
   who have been silenced by the state, but here, in their own culture, a
   greatly loved author had elected to silence himself. He had freedom of
   speech but what he had ended up wanting more than anything else, it seemed,
   was the freedom to be silent. And the power to silence--to silence anyone
   who wanted to find out why he had stopped speaking. (8)

Salinger's refusal to publish and shun public contact in life has encouraged adverse reactions from several critics. Warren French attributes his seclusion to "an inability to make the social adjustment expected of mature members of society" (33). James Lundquist is of the opinion that "his long silence as a writer and this insistence on personal privacy makes him a difficult writer to understand and to read with much sympathy" (31).

A more rigorous analysis of Salinger's refusal to publish his works and to make himself public can be found in Ihab Hassan's book, The Dismemberment of Orpheus. Here and in his article "Almost the Voice of Silence," Hassan seeks to find a place for Salinger in the literary tradition of silence which includes de Sade, the dadaists, the surrealists and authors like Hemingway, Kafka, Camus, and Beckett. Silence in these authors as Hassan avers is used as a metaphor for all kinds of negative stances--anti-literature, alienation from reason and nature and creation of anti-language.

   The writer behind Buddy, Salinger himself, gradually becomes as silent as
   an ideal reader. At first the silence is metaphoric, twisted and loving
   locutious digressions, language shattered in its efforts to free itself of
   kitsch and sentimentality. In the end Salinger ceases to publish. Is this
   some form of holy refusal? (Hassan 251)

Ihab Hassan and other sympathetic critics of Salinger seem to have found a philosophical basis for his silence. They try to establish that Salinger's silence is not merely an act of whimsy or a publicity stunt, but a conscious intellectual and spiritual stance worthy of sober critical attention. However, the silence of Salinger cannot be fully understood from the narrow perspective of Beckettian or Kafkaesque insubstantial imagination which believes in representing inauthentic consciousness through a cessation of language. Salinger's gesture of silence and withdrawal may be part of a larger effort to enact in life the values he hitherto problematized in art. Ultimately, in silence, his ideals of life and art coalesce.

Two of the most fundamental concerns of Salinger's career have been his search for "right living" as a human being and "right expression" as an artist. Moreover, he is one of the few modern writers whose art and life complement each other so well that one seems to be the extension of the other, Ian Hamilton records Leila Hadley remembering Salinger talking of Holden Caufield as a "real" person, his own Caulfieldian aversion to cliches and his measured speech habits and silence, like his own character Raymond Ford in "The Inverted Forest": "He did not speak much; he did not speak unless he had to speak" (Hamilton 126).

Right from the beginning, Salinger, like many of his fictional characters, had shown his disaffection for what David Reisman in The Lonely Crowd (1950) calls the "other-directed" life--the dominant competitive, egocentric, materialistic zeitgeist of twentieth century America. The pressure to conform to the success orientation and individualistic self-aggrandizement which formed the basis of the market society had driven him to the edge of sanity as it had done to the characters in his fiction. …

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