Touchstone: A Journal of Mere Christianity
“Three American Sophomores” first appeared in the October 2000 issue of Touchstone.
Three American Sophomores
The Restlessness of Thomas Merton, J. D. Salinger & Jack Kerouac
by Eric Scheske
A monk, a Hindu, and a beatnik. One preached orthodox Christianity, one brought Hinduism to America’s youth through the back door, and another testified to the religious joys of sex and drugs. Three young writers and their bestsellers—Thomas Merton (The Seven Storey Mountain, 1948), J. D. Salinger (The Catcher in the Rye, 1951), and Jack Kerouac (On the Road, 1957)—captured postwar America’s attention and helped shape the youth movements of the 1960s.
These men’s lives and greatest work seem to contrast with each other, but they stand together because they all preached the possibility of a better life, a life higher than the automaton-existence droned into people by the increasing mass-market consumerism of America after World War II. Specifically, they talked about the possibility of a life marked by the religious virtue of detachment. And for that reason they stand together as three American “wise men.” But because all three of them, to varying degrees, got the message wrong, they ended up contributing to the unrest that erupted in the 1960s. And for this reason they stand together as three foolish American “wise men.”The Seven Storey Merton
Thomas Merton first spoke to postwar America in The Seven Storey Mountain, his autobiography. Commencing with the spiritual sense instilled in him by the aestheticism of his artistic parents, he describes his unstable childhood, his wild teenage and young adult years, and his intellectual and writing pursuits at Ivy League Columbia. He explains how he emerged from this background to embrace mature spiritual growth and how it culminated in his conversion to Catholicism in his early twenties and his entrance into a Trappist Monastery in Gethsemani, Kentucky, a few years later. There, he wrote the book of his life, a celebration of Catholic spirituality, that would become The Seven Storey Mountain.
The book was hugely successful. The first hardcover edition sold 600,000 copies. At times in 1948, an unprecedented 10,000 orders came in a day.1
It sold for good reason. Merton, with kindness and sincerity, convincingly cut against the conventional thinking of the late 1940s and 1950s. His vow of poverty contrasted with the money-making desire that marked America’s booming free-market economy; the same-cloaked anonymity of the monks clashed with rugged America’s proud individualism; his monastery wall blocked out the fame celebrated in increasingly influential Hollywood; the still ways of the silence-loving Trappists muted the blaring jazz that was shaking the land.
In short, Merton’s book preached detachment—“the number one rule of religion”—from the world and its passions. Merton’s path to the monastery rejected and questioned the materialist pursuits that were bearing such a bountiful earthly harvest in the post-World War II era. Merton struck a chord with America that sang, “There is more to life than a house in the suburbs and a new car.”
Salinger Catches On
Three years after publication of The Seven Storey Mountain, J. D. Salinger spoke to America in The Catcher in the Rye, a book narrating events in the life of a restless youngster named Holden Caulfield, written by Holden from a psychiatric institution. This odd book is simply a descriptive parade of little things that occurred in two rebellious days of Holden’s teenage life and Holden’s odd opinions about them. On every page, Holden describes something that depresses him, disgusts him, bores him, or “kills” (i.e., amuses) him. He disdains the ballyhooed elite prep school he attends; he thinks little of money (repeatedly forgetting to take his change with him after paying for something); he is nauseated by the forms of entertainment that most people find enjoyable.
The book became a number-one bestseller, and Salinger became the voice of the restless young that was beginning to rumble in the mid-1950s (rumblings evidenced by the beloved movie personas of Marlon Brando and James Dean, personas that led editorialists to write about the coming “youthquake”). Significantly, the teenage revolution that started in 1954 gained speed at the same time The Catcher in the Rye gained momentum. By 1956, The Catcher was selling better than it did during its first year of publication, and Holden Caulfield’s attitude was becoming the guidebook for America’s restless youth: “On American campuses Salinger’s five-year-old novel had suddenly become the book all brooding adolescents had to buy, the indispensable manual from which cool styles of disaffection could be borrowed.”2
The Religious Underpinnings of The Catcher
Unlike The Seven Storey Mountain, there was little religion in The Catcher, but its theme coincided with the root of all religious experience: restlessness. Due to our separation from God that occurred in the Garden, all men intuitively sense that they are missing something, that they are radically incomplete.3 Aristotle had this incompleteness in mind when he opened Metaphysics with the statement, “All men by nature desire to know.” Due to our innate ignorance (our incompleteness), we instinctively desire knowledge in the hope that it will quell our sense of uneasiness, anxiety, and restlessness.
Because our radical ignorance is primordially ingrained in our souls, only a religion can properly answer its queries. Knowledge about baseball statistics will not quell the restlessness, nor will professional knowledge about medicine or the law. Only the science of existence—religion—provides the answers. Men, consequently, intuitively turn to religious-like pursuits to find the answers they desperately—existentially—seek.
When people do not receive answers at a time when life grants enough leisure time to permit them to sense their incompleteness, they will seek to quell their sense of restlessness. They will try to find pockets of holiness in the fabric of secular culture. Such was the climate of the 1950s, in a culture that experienced one of the greatest spurts of wealth and leisure in the history of America, but also provided few answers about existence due to the domination of shallow religious practices and thinkers (as evidenced, for instance, by the success of Norman Vincent Peale’s banal and wrongheaded religious message4).
Holden Caulfield’s narrative can be described as one young man’s quiet despair in an increasingly profane and shallow culture. But instead of quite despairing, Holden becomes “disaffected.” Nothing satisfies him; ordinary pleasures are beneath him; he finds his amusements in little things that others don’t even notice. His disaffection becomes clear at the end of the book, when Holden assures himself that he will move out West, work as a menial laborer, and shut himself off from everyone (possibly by posing as a deaf-mute, so people would have to write messages to him on pieces of paper, and then they would, in Holden’s words, “get bored as hell doing that after a while, and then I’d be through with having conversations for the rest of my life”). It’s the dreaming cry of every disaffected person, the fantasy flight in disgust from the everyday world in which the flier is not attached to anything or anyone. This restlessness-turned-to-disaffection was the religious underpinning of The Catcher, a theme that became explicit ten years later in 1961, when Salinger published Franny and Zooey and tried to pawn off Holden’s disaffection as the religious virtue of detachment.
Franny and Zooey and Hindu Detachment
In Franny and Zooey, an attractive coed named Franny Glass is suffering a nervous breakdown. Franny has a deep desire to be an actress, but her profound religious sense is throwing her off the scent. She’s disgusted with the ego and shallowness that saturate the theater. As her breakdown accelerates, she experiments with the Jesus Prayer, impressed with the story told in The Sincere Tales of a Pilgrim to His Spiritual Father, which first appeared in Russia in 1884 and is known to English readers as The Way of a Pilgrim. It tells the story of a Russian peasant who wandered through nineteenth-century Russia with the Jesus Prayer on his lips and in his heart. Franny’s brother, Zooey (Salinger’s sage), objects to her use of the Jesus Prayer, advising, “You can say the Jesus Prayer from now until 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.’” In these words, Salinger follows through with the religious catalyst of The Catcher and picks up the religious thread in Merton’s The Seven Storey Mountain.
Detachment, as Salinger knew, is a high religious virtue. It’s the pursuit of every monk and the accomplishment of every saint. When a person squelches his self, detachment sets in because he doesn’t know the constant self-concern that causes people to worry about reputation and money, and to grow angry when things don’t go right.
The rightly detached person is also loving. Detachment and love walk hand in hand. Because the detached person does not see things as refracted through a dense self—his ego—he sees things as they really are, and he discovers that all things are wonderfully lovable. This is unavoidable because all things are created by God, the Good and Most Beautiful, who created this earth for our enjoyment. When we see things as they really are, we love them. Then, in turn, as we love, our detachment increases as we find enjoyment in things outside ourselves. For this reason, detachment forms properly only as part and parcel with love. Any other type of detachment is a distorted form, at best an ugly stepsister of true detachment.
Salinger’s detachment was a distorted form that he hatched from the loveless metaphysics of Hinduism, his religion of choice.5 Hinduism teaches that all things are Brahman (the pure, unchangeable, and eternal). Because Brahman is all things, all things are one. The separateness of things that we perceive, then, is merely an illusion (maya) that deludes us and causes us to walk in confusion. We are saved from this deluded existence by recognizing the illusion of things, by ceasing to be distracted by them, and by ceasing to desire to live among them. (Salinger took the world’s illusory character seriously. At one time he contemptuously dismissed a friend’s plan to write a travel book, explaining that the separateness of things is an illusion, so why describe them?6) When we are no longer attracted to these illusions, we are ready for moksha, the absorption into Brahman, the Hindu’s salvation.
Hinduism teaches that, to eliminate our attraction to the illusory things of this world, a person must suffocate his will. The will—the desire to live, to act, to be in this illusory world—keeps us here and prevents us from attaining moksha. As a person suffocates his will, he becomes detached and begins the path to enlightenment. The first step on the road to detached enlightenment is to see the emptiness of the mundane things of everyday existence—the things loved and desired by the multitudes who never look for the higher things in life.
As restlessness grew during the 1950s and early 1960s and the underlying sense of discontent in America grew stronger, Salinger took his Hindu lesson of detachment to a generation of youngsters who sensed that there must be more to life than a home in the suburbs and the latest model car. But even among Hindus, the message of detachment is not considered proper for youngsters. Hinduism traditionally reserves pursuit of detachment to older persons who have first finished their worldly duties.7 By gearing his message to youngsters, Salinger, in imitation of those Catholics who are “more Catholic than the pope,” was more Hindu than a swami.
But more importantly, Salinger’s message lacked love and was triggered by an arrogant disgust with society. As a result, his detachment was nothing more than disaffection, which turned into resentment and then into rebelliousness—all sketched in the character of Holden Caulfield a decade earlier, and all coming together in Salinger’s own quarreling life—a life that he, in a bitter pseudo-suicide, terminated as far as anyone else was concerned over thirty years ago when he became a recluse in Cornish, New Hampshire, where he still lives, ensconced against a world he hates,8 all the while thinking he’s engaged in a high religious pursuit. In Salinger’s literature and life, the loving Russian Pilgrim of the Jesus Prayer becomes nothing more than Holden Caulfield’s deaf-mute—a person engaged in a disgusted flight from everyone and everything.
Kerouac & the Quest for “Kicks”
Detachment took another warped form when Jack Kerouac yelled at America in On the Road, a book based on his real-life meandering. He wrote the book in 1951 and carried the manuscript around with him for years in a rucksack as he journeyed across the nation, until it was finally accepted and published in 1957.
It quickly became a bestseller and brought the beatnik phenomenon onto America’s center stage (Kerouac himself would be written about in major magazines like Life, give numerous interviews, and be a guest on The Steve Allen Show). Fellow beatnik William Burroughs aptly described the sensation surrounding On the Road:
The lifestyle celebrated in On the Road is known as “Beat,” the aimless search for significant experience. The word Beat, according to Catholic-born Kerouac, is a religious word with a relation to the beatific vision.9 Though he never provided a complete or coherent explanation of the term, it is clear from the book’s protagonist, Sal Paradise, who longs for the road, his spasmodic friend Dean Moriarty (the “holy goof”), who zealously searches for “kicks,” and their intense fervor for novelties, that the Beat lifestyle required a religious-like devotion or practice.
To confirm his assertion that he was writing a religious book, Kerouac habitually sprinkled religious terms—like soul, holy, mystic, and immortal—throughout the book to describe the experiences of the road and provided short and grave sermons from the Beat’s high priest, Dean Moriarty (e.g., “‘I want you particularly to see the eyes of this little boy . . . and notice how he will come to manhood with his own particular soul bespeaking itself through the windows which are his eyes, and such lovely eyes surely do prophesy and indicate the loveliest of souls.’”10).
In their roaming, Sal and Dean thoroughly enjoy everything they encounter. They love the cars, the different airs of our country’s regions, and the girls. Many portions of the book relate nothing more than a list of things they see and how they “dig” them far more than any ordinary person would dig them.
Sal’s and Dean’s wanderings are exercises in detachment. The road detaches them from the binding conventionalities of normal society. As a result, they are able to enjoy everything and everyone, even the most disgusting, because they are able, in their unique way, to see God’s stamp of goodness on everything. At one point, for instance, they pick up an “incredibly filthy” hitchhiker at Dean’s insistence. The man is covered with scabs and is reading a muddy paperback he found in a culvert. They sit close to him and dig him the whole time, genuinely getting a kick out of talking to him, but without any hint of malice. They really like the guy and are totally absorbed by him. After dropping him off, Dean excitedly says about picking up the hitchhiker: “I told you it was kicks. Everybody’s kicks, man!”11 His attitude resembles St. Francis’s affection for lepers and Mother Teresa’s love for the diseased downtrodden in Calcutta. As all the saints realize, and as Sal and Dean experience, even the most filthy and diseased people are God’s creatures and therefore lovable—if only a person is sufficiently detached to see it.
On the Road also features holy men, men whose thorough detachment makes them willing outcasts of society. There’s the “wild, ecstatic” Rollo Greb, the Beat-saint Dean wants to imitate, a man who “didn’t give a damn about anything,” a “great scholar who goes reeling down the New York waterfront with original seventeenth-century musical manuscripts under his arm, shouting,” whose “excitement blew out of his eyes in stabs of fiendish light.” Dean admires him, telling Sal: “That Rollo Greb is the greatest, most wonderful of all . . . that’s what I want to be. I want to be like him. He’s never hung-up, he goes every direction, he lets it all out. . . . Man, he’s the end!” Then Dean alludes to the beatific vision Kerouac wanted to capture: “You see, if you go like him all the time you’ll finally get it.” Sal, puzzled, asks, “Get what?” Dean simply yells back: “IT! IT!”12 as though there is nothing else to add—a characteristic of mystics emerging from an intense round of meditation.
There’s also Bull Lee, the teacher of the Beat. To the Beats, he is the wise elder, a man who had read and done everything, a man who lived in the glorious pre-1914 days when narcotics were available over the counter. Bull Lee lives in an old shack in New Orleans with his wife (both Benzedrine addicts). He tinkers about the yard, reading Shakespeare and Kafka, hardly caring about anything (especially ignoring the cares of conventional society), and taking drug fixes to get him through the day (although Sal pities Bull Lee’s drug addiction, his pity resembles the novice’s pity for the abbot who has bad knees from too much kneeling).
Bull Lee’s drug use was not unique. The Beat life entailed heavy use of drugs. Kerouac in real life used Benzedrine, morphine, marijuana, hashish, LSD, opium, and massive quantities of alcohol. He was hospitalized in his twenties from excessive Benzedrine use and was a cadaver at age 47 from hemorrhaging of the esophagus, the drunkard’s classic death.
This is where Kerouac’s religion and pursuit of detachment fails—and fails hard. Taking drugs is one of the most self-centered actions possible. A person can find detachment from the use of drugs only during the high, and during this time his ability to reason—the ability that separates him from the animal, that makes him in God’s image—is faded. The drug user who is permanently detached—like Bull Lee—is merely a person who has permanently deprived himself of God’s image by melting his mind. For similar reasons, Kerouac’s religion also fails due to its celebration of carefree, constant, and perverted sex (including homosexual acts), risk-taking, and theft—all actions that are intensely self-centered and that tend to numb the mind.
Like Salinger’s religion of disaffection, the cornerstone of Kerouac’s religion was another warped form of detachment. Specifically, it was the paradoxical detachment of self-obsessed oblivion. The beatnik would get so wrapped up in his “kicks” that he would become oblivious to the people and things around him—oblivious to what they thought about him and oblivious to their conventionalities. With the help of drugs and repeated sexual experiences, he would make himself oblivious to everything. Then, having made himself unaware of other realities, he could become completely obsessed with—entertained by—anything. It was not the pure mind of the saint, but the small mind of a mental gnome.
Kerouac’s detachment ultimately failed for the same reason Salinger’s did: It stemmed from the metaphysical system of the Oriental religions rather than love.13 Kerouac embraced the detachment of Buddhism.14 Although he never completely deserted his native Roman Catholicism, Kerouac was infatuated with Buddhism. He saturated many of his books, like The Dharma Bums, with Buddhist themes. He practiced dhyana, Buddhist meditation. He at times took vows to lead a Buddhist life. In one vow, he promised to limit his sexual activity to masturbation (apparently his idea of austerity),15 another time he vowed to eat only one meal per day and to write about nothing but Buddhism.16 He at times exclaimed, “I am Buddha”17—a real possibility, given the metaphysics of Buddhism—and once asked D. T. Suzuki (a famous Zen master) if he could spend the rest of his life with him.18 It is no coincidence that Kerouac’s religion embraced sexual perversity similar to the perversity of Tantric Buddhism and its degenerative sexual rituals, for both spring from the same metaphysical corruption, the error known as “emptiness,” which teaches that all things are one and that perceived distinctions, including distinctions of good and bad, are mere illusions.19 In such a metaphysical corruption, even virtue can become degenerate—as illustrated in the degenerative twisting of the virtues of peace and love in the 1960s movements that Kerouac helped spawn.20
Kerouac’s contribution to the sixties movements of drugs and promiscuity will permanently be a black mark on his name—and it should be.21 But his book, On the Road, is valuable because it testifies to man’s irresistible religious search, and it is proof that the search, led improperly, can lead to the biggest troubles because it treads in the highest places. Kerouac’s antinomian behavior—and the antinomian behavior of the movements he helped spawn—shows that detachment must be the spouse of love or it will be the whore of the devil.
Restlessness & Rebellion
In his book, The Pursuit of the Millennium, Norman Cohn detailed the millennial movements that abounded in late medieval Europe. According to Cohn, at a time of restlessness, segments of the population splinter into apocalyptic movements that are full of odd religious notions, antinomian behavior, and a type of activism bent on making apocalyptic-like changes occur if they don’t happen fast enough on their own. In the late Middle Ages, the securities of medieval life were falling apart, resulting in restlessness and a large number of such movements.
Similarly, in the late 1950s and early 1960s, society was restless and the restlessness resulted in the rebellions of the 1960s that resembled the movements described in Cohn’s Pursuit. The youth craved the coming Age of Aquarius or boasted that we stood at the Eve of Destruction, all the time ready to catalyze the apocalypse through social activism. Antinomian behavior (“sex, drugs, rock ’n roll”) was embraced with religious fervor. Odd religious notions started rising to the surface as the first stages of the New Age movement got started through an increased interest in Buddhism and Hinduism.22
Thomas Merton was both an augur and a microcosm of all this. Merton in the 1950s and early 1960s portended the rebelliousness of the 1960s, and later participated in that rebelliousness with a passion and conviction starkly at odds with the detached obedience required of a monk.
Throughout his life, Merton was something of a rebel. He was a restless and, in a way, disturbed individual, having suffered a difficult childhood (his mother emotionally abandoned him when he was a toddler in favor of his younger brother, and died when Merton was only six; after her death, his father provided little stability as he carted Merton across the world, then died when Merton was 15). By entering the monastery, he hoped to leave his rebellious nature behind. But he did not, and in the late 1950s, after fifteen years in the monastery, his rebelliousness began to manifest itself.
Merton, like the youth of America in the period, was feeling increasingly restless and dissatisfied. He was critical of the monastery, finding faults with everything, from its numbers, to its methods of sustaining itself financially, to its abbot. He increasingly agitated for a hermitage, a space where he could live and write separated from the rest of the monastic community. He thought about moving out of Gethsemani altogether, possibly moving out West (as a Trappist under an oath of silence, this bears an interesting resemblance to Holden Caulfield’s dream of moving out West and posing as a deaf-mute).
His sense of dissatisfaction and restlessness gave him, in the words of Czeslaw Milosz in a letter to Merton in the early 1960s, “an itch for activity.” This “itch” led to his involvement in, or vocal sympathy for, the various 1960s social activist movements, such as the Vietnam War protests (including as a friend and confidant of the criminal Berrigan brothers), the nuclear disarmament movement, the civil rights movement (he apparently even toyed with the idea of taking pills to make himself look black, like John Howard Griffin), the early environmental movement triggered by Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring,23 the War on Poverty, the Catholic Church reform movements leading up to Vatican II, and even efforts to unionize the Catholic Church’s priests.24 Like many of the 1960s radicals, he was also anti-American, stating at one point that America “is a totalitarian society in which freedom is pure illusion,” teaching that white America was engaged in an oppressive war against all non-whites, and regretting that he had earlier become a naturalized citizen.
Like many of the sixties movements, his social activism may have been encouraged by his sense of the apocalyptic. Starting in 1957, he increasingly felt that the world was on the cusp of a new age. At times, this sense took an optimistic flavor, as in a vague expectation of a reunion of Eastern and Western Christendom. More often, it took a pessimistic turn, as in his heavy feeling that the world was headed toward a nuclear Armageddon. (In the words of biographer Michael Mott, Merton had a “sense of world crisis,” and it “seemed to Merton that some force was moving the world closer to nuclear battle between the superpowers which even the leaders might be powerless to prevent.”25)
Merton’s personal life during these years also displayed the antinomian tendencies of the 1960s. In general, he was caught up in the counterculture, seeing himself tied to the hippie movement by a bond of sympathy and understanding (a young correspondent aptly referred to Merton as the “Hippy Hermit”26). He was such a big fan of Bob Dylan’s that, when the elderly philosopher Jacques Maritain visited him at his hermitage, Merton, to Maritain’s exasperation, wasted precious time playing a Bob Dylan record in hopes that Maritain would agree that Dylan was a great artist.27 He abandoned the monastic community, a community of men living in loving obedience to God, in favor of the solitary life of a hermit. He became increasingly disobedient to his superior, even though his superior was a good and intelligent man. He acquired a girlfriend. He overindulged in alcohol.28
Merton’s immoral behavior during these years may have been nourished by the metaphysical errors of the Eastern religions, errors that permit antinomian behavior in the name of emptiness, as in the beatniks’ metaphysical system. Like Salinger and Kerouac, Merton welcomed, and contributed to, America’s growing interest in the Eastern religions, becoming enamored with the oriental religions and spending a large portion of time writing on Hinduism, Taoism, and Buddhism. He wrote many solid and excellent works on these religions and generally avoided the threat of syncretism that spoils many other Christians’ efforts to explain them. But his infatuation with the Eastern religions often took the form of apology.29 Most significantly, Merton, a well-educated monk who understood that the root of Christianity is love, insisted that the Eastern religions’ detachment was also wrapped in love. He insisted on the loving nature of the Eastern religions, all the while admitting that they reject any subject-object relationship. It’s difficult to understand how a loving relationship can exist without subject-object—God-man, husband-wife, mother-child, owner-pet—but this didn’t deter Merton.
In short, after initially telling America in The Seven Storey Mountain about the virtues of true religious detachment as found in the monastery, Merton, in his public and private life, ended up giving his spiritual imprimatur to the disaffected, drug-induced detachment taught by Salinger and Kerouac and carried out in the counterculture of the 1960s.
The Three Foolish “Wise Men” Today
It is not surprising that these three writers hit it big with books about detachment in the late 1940s through the early 1960s. Prior to these years, America had had plenty to occupy its attention: World War I, the Roaring Twenties, the Depression, and World War II. Now things were calming down. Compared to those earlier decades, life was getting boring. So restlessness grew, along with the general sense of dissatisfaction that goes with it. These three preached a type of detachment—”getting away from all the stuff”—and the message was eagerly received. Unfortunately, only Merton’s early message in The Seven Storey Mountain taught it accurately.
Today, we’re still restless. And we’re still not turning to the proper religious life. We are turning to other things instead—many little, ephemeral things, to be exact. We are turning to multiple forms of distractions—such as spectator sports, travel, golf, gambling, inane fads, juvenile hobbies—to keep our minds distracted from the existential questions that cause restlessness, in obedience to Blaise Pascal’s words about ennui:
Today’s banal pursuits are safe, non-radical ways to squelch the restlessness. But, as Pascal knew, they are fruitless and, in the long run, must show themselves to be as equally damaging as the radicalism of the 1960s.31
We are no longer tricking ourselves with the mental gymnastics of the warped forms of detachment preached by Kerouac and Salinger, and that is good. But we’ve adopted another problem instead: complete rejection of the idea that any lifestyle is good or bad, better or worse, so there can be no question whether each of us is wasting away in our two cars, three television sets, thirty rounds of golf every summer, and two vacations per year. Such questions are shoved aside.
And for this reason, it would be salubrious to reread Merton, Salinger, and Kerouac. For, whatever their shortcomings, they did raise an important issue: Some ways of living are better than others. Some activities are paltry and trivial. Some pursuits are higher and nobler than other pursuits. There are enlightening ways to spend time and banal ways to spend time.
However ridiculous, sinful, or unobtainable their answer, they at least questioned how to lead a better life, and they believed there was an answer. They knew the quality of existence couldn’t be measured by the materialistic Joneses. And they pointed out these things in terrific prose that surpasses today’s trashy fiction, fiction that passes for literature in today’s world only because literature has become merely one more method of distracting us from our existential rumblings—those spiritual murmurs we experience but refuse to acknowledge.
1. See Michael Mott, The Seven Mountains of Thomas Merton (Harcourt Brace & Company, 1993), p. 247.
2. Ian Hamilton, In Search of J. D. Salinger (Random House, 1988), p. 155.
3. In the words of historian Jeffrey Burton Russell, “Everyone has a sense of radical incompleteness . . . we sense that life has ultimate meaning and long to transcend [our] limitations so that we can know the truth.” Lucifer: The Devil in the Middle Ages (Cornell University Press, 1992), p. 284.
4. Peale’s most successful work, The Power of Positive Thinking, was published in 1952. It has sold 20 million copies. For those unacquainted with Peale’s work, it can, with only slight exaggeration, be summed up as: “Believe hard in God and you’ll make a lot of money.”
5. Given Hinduism’s loose organizational structure, it’s difficult to define individuals as Hindus, but Salinger’s life points to an infatuation with the religion. He was widely read in the Hindu masters, at one time urging a publisher to publish The Gospels of Sri Ramakrishna; he believed in the possibility of telepathy (a possibility made possible by the Hindu belief in the spiritual oneness of all things); he pursued Oriental medical techniques; starting with his story, “Teddy,” in the New Yorker in 1953, his stories were flush with Asian religious references; Salinger’s favorite and most enlightened character, Seymour Glass (who was probably Salinger’s literary persona), described Swami Vivikenanda as “one of the most exciting, original, and best equipped giants of this century” and said he would sacrifice ten years of his life merely to shake his hand.
6. Hamilton, op. cit., p. 127.
7. According to the great Indologist Heinrich Zimmer: “Not before but after one has accomplished the normal worldly aims of the individual career, after one’s duties have been served as a moral member and a supporter of the family and community, one turns to the tasks of the final human adventure [the pursuit of moksha].” Heinrich Zimmer, Philosophies of India (Princeton University Press, 1989), p. 44.
8. Very little is known about Salinger, since he refuses to talk to anyone, but, in fairness, it should be pointed out that he probably has at least a little contact with people in the outside world, such as his children, lawyers, and perhaps an occasional mistress. See excerpt from At Home in the World, Joyce Maynard, Vanity Fair, September 1998, pp. 302–304, 321–327.
9. According to Kerouac, he first realized this in the early 1950s when he saw a statue of the Virgin Mary turn its head in his hometown church’s basement. See Gerald Nicosia, Memory Babe: A Critical Biography of Jack Kerouac (Grove Press, 1983), p. 468.
10. See Jack Kerouac, On the Road (Penguin Books, 1991), pp. 285–286.
11. Ibid., p. 137.
12. Ibid., p. 127.
13. Many of the disaffected youth whom Salinger attracted were also attracted to Kerouac—a fact that disgusted Kerouac, because he saw the beatnik movement as a movement of enthusiasm and glee, not one of disgruntled whining. But the metaphysical errors were the same, so the congregations mixed.
14. Admittedly, as pointed out by Thomas Merton when defending Buddhism against the charge of negation in Zen and the Birds of Appetite, Buddhism prescribes universal benevolence, including almsgiving, pardoning injuries, non-resistance to the wicked. But this can be misleading, for, as pointed out by Jacques Maritain, Buddhism’s “motive [is] not love of one’s neighbor as such, . . . but to escape suffering to oneself by extinguishing all action and energy in a kind of humanitarian ecstasy.” Jacques Maritain, An Introduction to Philosophy (Christian Classics, 1991), p. 11.
15. Nicosia, op. cit., pp. 465–466.
16. Ibid., p. 470.
17. Ibid., p. 495.
18. Ibid., p. 579.
19. Buddhism’s emptiness metaphysics allowed the “sexual and magical practices” of Tantric Buddhism. See Robinson and Johnson, The Buddhist Religion: A Historical Introduction (Wadsworth Publishing Co., 1982), p. 95.
20. “Buddhism is, therefore, a proof that gentleness and pity, when they are not regulated by reason and dictated by love, can deform human nature as much as violence. . . .” Maritain, op. cit., p. 11.
21. It is common knowledge that the Beat lifestyle heavily influenced the hedonism of the 1960s. As a symbol of the influence, in 1964, the vanguard of sixties hedonism, the Merry Pranksters—drug advocates like Ken Kesey and Timothy Leary—careened around the country in a Day-Glo-painted bus while dropping acid (LSD), smoking marijuana, and eating the stimulant drug known as “speed.” The real-life Dean Moriarty, Neal Cassady (now in middle age), was the bus driver. See Todd Gitlin, The Sixties (Bantam, 1989), p. 207.
22. In the 1960s, other “religions were examined, especially those from the mystical East. The counterculture of the 1960s became the nursery for the New Age Movement of the mid-1970s and the 1980s.” Mitch Pacwa, Catholics and The New Age (Servant Publications, 1992), p. 19.
23. He even succeeded in having Silent Spring read aloud in the monastery dining hall (readings are normally reserved for Scripture and spiritual works). Mott, op. cit., p. 260.
24. Merton was against the efforts of his friend, Fr. William Du Bay, to unionize the priests, but on grounds that a loose association would prove more effective. Ibid., pp. 462–463.
25. Ibid., p. 368.
26. Ibid., pp. 484, 487.
27. Ibid., p. 461.
28. During these times, “Merton’s friends [in the secular world] had learned to arrive with a good deal of loose change in their pockets, a case of beer, and a bottle of bourbon.” Ibid., p. 446.
29. And he sometimes tripped over himself in his apologetic efforts. In the first essay of his otherwise excellent book, Mystics and Zen Masters, for instance, he states that “Zen is not a system of pantheistic monism. It is not a system of any kind. It refuses to make any statements at all about the metaphysical structure of being and existence.” This is true, but Zen’s roots are in pantheistic monism and he fails to mention this in his efforts to relieve Zen of that opprobrious label. Later on, however, he admits that Zen is “backed” by “Buddhist ontology.” At another point, he criticizes Westerners’ notion that nirvana is annihilation, but earlier in the book he quotes a Zen Buddhist text that counsels monks to save all things from “the despotism of birth and death.” See Thomas Merton, Mystics and Zen Masters (The Noonday Press, 1997), pp. 14, 224, 231, 237.
30. Pensées, No. 131. See 33 Great Books of the Western World, Pascal (Encyclopedia Brittanica, 1952), p. 195.
31. It should be emphasized that such enjoyments are not bad in themselves, but they are flimsy and ultimately can’t carry the pressures of existence any better than a footbridge can carry semi-trailer traffic.
Eric Scheske works as an attorney in Sturgis, Michigan, where he attends Holy Angels Catholic Church. In addition to Touchstone, his articles have appeared in New Oxford Review, Culture Wars, Lay Witness, The Catholic Faith, and Gilbert!
“Three American Sophomores” first appeared in the October 2000 issue of Touchstone. If you enjoyed this article, you'll find more of the same in every issue.
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