Was J.D. Salinger Crazy?

Thoughts on his strange, reclusive life and the new biopic film, The Rebel in the Rye

As I exited the new Salinger biopic, The Rebel in the Rye, which explores Jerry Salinger’s rise from struggling student-writer to world-famous author of Catcher in the Rye, and had its world premier at the 2017 Sundance Film Festival, I overheard more than one viewer question Salinger’s sanity.

My reaction was the opposite: in a world gone mad, the only sane people are (some of) the “crazy” ones.

I hadn’t intended on seeing the film; I wasn’t aware it existed until the day before it screened. Indeed, while I’ve been to Sundance many times, this year, I hadn’t planned on attending; for entirely coincidental reasons, I found myself in Park City during the first week of the festival. Having some free time on Tuesday evening, and tickets procured by others, did I find myself stumbling into The Rebel in the Rye (starring Nicholas Hoult, Kevin Spacey, and Sarah Paulsen; written and directed by Danny Strong).

In a world gone mad, the only sane people are the “crazy” ones.

The Artist Isn’t Their Art

In truth, accidentally is the only way I could have seen it; normally, this is the sort of movie I avoid. I prefer not to read books or watch films about real-life writers, filmmakers, or visual artists. The more I appreciate their artistic work, the less I want to know about their personal lives or the hidden stories behind their achievements. Seldom does knowing more about the foibles and struggles of the artists enhance my experience of their creations.

One reason for this, of course, is that most artists — most people — are profoundly flawed human beings. It’s easy to bog down in the minutiae of their imperfections. I prefer to experience their work as a reflection of the highest and best parts of themselves: that (sometimes small) light within them reaching for transcendence. Their creative output, and its impact on me, should speak for, and be complete in, itself. (Of course, there are exceptions; there are always exceptions: situations when knowing something about the creator is of paramount importance.)

Salinger’s Journey to Hell—on Earth and Inside Himself

Which is to say: prior to viewing this movie, I knew little about J.D. Salinger’s life. Like most creatives, he was driven by a multitude of (sometimes conflicting) desires: to create, to earn a living, to become famous, to be loved. He was plagued by doubt, heartbreak, fear, and (what today we would call) posttraumatic stress disorder, the sad remnant of his time as a soldier during World War II, where he participated in combat during D-Day, the Battle of the Bulge, and the Battle of Hürtgen Forest.

Salinger began The Catcher in the Rye prior to combat but didn’t finish it until years after returning from the war. In between, he suffered severe writer’s block, for which he eventually stumbled into the counsel of Swami Nikhilananda, founder of the Ramakrishna-Vivekananda Center of New York and proponent of the Indian spiritual philosophy of Vedanta. Nikhilananda taught Salinger to meditate, find peace of mind, rediscover the source of his joy, and return to writing. It seems unlikely that The Catcher in the Rye — or any of his subsequent work — would have been finished without the Swami’s assistance. (Later, too, it’s worth noting that Salinger’s daughter, Margaret, says that Salinger and his wife, Claire, began practicing the Kriya Yoga of Paramhansa Yogananda, something I practice myself.)

In itself, this is only mildly interesting. The real revelation is how Salinger’s growing spiritual insight led him to the decision to cease publishing his work. To be clear: he didn’t stop writing, only publishing. According to the film, from the point in the early 60’s when he announced he no longer intended to publish until his death in 2010, Salinger continued to write almost every day. It’s incredible to imagine how he sustained this intensive literary effort for nearly fifty years; all without any interest in letting the world read his output. Supposedly, there is a trove of completed works — novels and short stories — that may or may not ever see the light of day.

So…Crazy, Right?

Twice, once during the credits (the film received a rare standing ovation), and once as we shuffled from the theater, I overheard conversations in which it was proffered that because Salinger stopped publishing at the peak of his fame, he was, obviously, crazy.

I understand their reasoning: Salinger was so sought after that his publishers would gladly have printed anything he submitted. Indeed, his two post-Catcher novels, neither of which was especially well received by critics, both shot to the top of the bestseller lists. There is no doubt that Jerry Salinger forfeited millions of dollars (when that was real money) and the concomitant opportunities to burnish his fame and bask in public adoration. What’s crazier than that?

A Different Perspective

I thought his decision made perfect sense.

Whatever other foibles and failings Salinger (undoubtedly) had, this was not one of them. If anything, this indicates that he was the embodiment of sanity, or at least, was reaching for it.

He wasn’t being capricious; behind the decision stood a profound realization: that his meaning and joy came from the creative process itself, and not the fruits of his labors. He understood that if he truly enjoyed writing then he didn’t need the accompanying recognition, (more) money, approval from strangers, or an audience of any sort. You might call it insane; I call it beautiful.

Which isn’t to say that what is right for him is right for everyone. For starters, on a practical level, Salinger could write without publishing in part because he had already achieved enormous success; the sort of rare attainment that frees one from all sorts of pressures: financial, the need to prove oneself, to make an impact. Still, let us not make light of the magnitude of his sacrifice: it’s often more difficult to surrender that which we have attained than to abandon what we never possessed.

In Salinger’s case, however, it was a reasonable step: he saw the limited value of money, fame, and approval precisely because he had experienced them enough to know their essential vacuousness.

An Internal Not External Model

Let’s get a few things clear. First, while I don’t think that Salinger was crazy for ceasing to publish his works, or turning his back on wealth and fame, that doesn’t mean he was a saint. By many accounts, he was an asshole to those around him, especially his romantic partners. And while not a pedophile, he certainly liked young women, even when he was an old man. Let’s face it, even though his sexual partners were all over eighteen years of age, that’s creepy; doubly so when you read the details of how he treated them.

Second, Salinger’s decision to turn his back on our usual pursuits was a personal choice, the one right him: his life, his goals, and his spiritual needs. The lesson isn’t that we should mimic Salinger’s outer actions; it’s to reflect on his inward decisions. Each of our lives has its unique characteristics and circumstances. It’s the consciousness behind his choices that are worthy of contemplation; how we apply the essential insight to our own lives is up to each of us to decide for ourselves.

The lesson isn’t that we should mimic Salinger’s outer actions; it’s to reflect on his inward decisions.

Albert Einstein (purportedly) said, “A question that sometimes drives me hazy: am I or are the others crazy?”

It’s an important query, one that everyone who strives for self-awareness should periodically ask. Salinger was an unusual man, and not merely quirky but obviously flawed in important ways. But imperfection isn’t insanity.

As I walked out of Rebel in the Rye, and heard people question his sanity, my only thought was, “We should all be so crazy.”

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