Books

J.D. Salinger’s Seymour, a Eulogy

Seymour is the presence you are sure you encountered before the door shut and he was gone; in this way, Seymour (not Holden) becomes the emblem for Salinger himself.

Fugitive Moments of Bliss

Fugitive Moments of Bliss

Seymour experiences happiness far too readily and is therefore wary of its effects.
Let’s take things out of order. Let us begin with the diary entries excerpted in “Raise High the Roof Beam”. Buddy finds Seymour’s diary after Seymour seems to have ditched his bride at the altar. Within it, Buddy finds a passage wherein Seymour relates what he considers to be a dermatological problem. “I have scars on my hands from touching certain people”, he writes.

Book: Raise High the Roofbeam, Carpenters, and Seymour: An Introduction

Author: J.D. Salinger

Publisher: Little, Brown & Company

Publication date: 1991-05

Length: 224 pages

Format: Paperback

Image: http://images.popmatters.com/features_art/j/jenkins-raisehigh-cover.jpgReferring to a former love, Seymour declares, “Charlotte once ran away from me . . . and I grabbed her dress to stop her, to keep her near me. A yellow cotton dress I loved because it was too long for her. I still have a lemon-yellow mark on the palm of my right hand. Oh, God, if I’m anything by a clinical name, I’m a kind of paranoiac in reverse. I suspect people of plotting to make me happy.”

The word “happy” was too much to bear for Buddy, and he slammed the diary shut. It is too much for me, as well, but I always read on. We might be tempted to assume that Seymour has no understanding of happiness and therefore destroys any possibility of his experiencing it. I cannot help but believe that the converse is true.

He experiences happiness far too readily and is therefore wary of its effects. His moments of happiness stain his very body. His epidermis bears witness to those fugitive moments of bliss. Indeed, the stains are necessary inasmuch as the moments themselves dissipate so rapidly that they threaten to give the lie to their own existence.

This is the answer, of course, that Buddy tries to give to justify the fact that as a child Seymour threw a rock at Charlotte (a girl with whom he was enamored) as she pet his sister’s cat, leading to multiple stitches and a permanent scar. Buddy tries to explain that Seymour had to throw the rock because he found the scene so beautiful.

Perhaps I should be ashamed to say so, but I can understand this sentiment. Furthermore, the very notion of having to freeze those fugacious moments of bliss through an outlandish act of casual violence strikes me as sadly poetic. They pass so quickly, don’t they? There are so many of them, when you think of it. The traumatic gets remembered whether it ought to or not. Transforming some element of the beautiful into the traumatic guarantees its survival in our memories. Or maybe that is not it at all.

It is the very nature of the impossibility of deciding; it is the very essence of such second-guessing that Seymour represents. This is demonstrated most clearly in “Seymour: An Introduction”. As the ostensible narrator, Buddy Glass, attempts to describe seemingly mundane aspects of Seymour’s physical appearance, the narration continually breaks down. The halting character of the narration splits apart, succumbs to digression, loses track of its subject.

Yet, every seeming digression, every ludicrous aside concerning the perils of description, reveals something concerning Seymour that simply could not be flatly stated. This is the magic of the book. By annoying its readers, by seemingly wasting their time, the narration unmasks the elusive aspects of Seymour’s essence. More to the point, the narration constructs that essence.

This might seem to be a contradiction in terms but it is far from it. There is no essence to character (anyone’s character) without narration. The tree falling alone in the forest truly makes no sound here. Seymour might not have been the sage his brother made him out to be but for his brother, and therefore for us, he was nothing but a sage.

So we are brought to his suicide as it is related in “A Perfect Day for Bananafish”. Most English professors will fret over the trivial nature of Muriel, Seymour’s wife. They blame her for his death. They are wrong. I do not believe this to be a mere matter of interpretation. They are wrong.

Seymour chose her in the same way he chose Charlotte, and in the same way (counterintuitive as it may seem) he chose the members of his family. To disparage Muriel is to decide that Seymour is a false prophet. He cannot be a false prophet. He is no prophet at all. Moreover, Muriel seems to be good for Seymour inasmuch as anyone can be.

I have read scholars who claim that the blame for the suicide rests upon the little girl he takes into the water in search of bananafish. She played along; she certainly didn’t play Seymour false. He kisses her foot when she imagines she saw a bananafish. This is hardly the act (at least for Seymour) of disappointment, but then he returns to his hotel. He is in the elevator and berates another guest for staring at his feet when she almost certainly is merely staring at the floor as all of us do.

This always struck me as a rather un-Seymourian thing to do. He dares her to stare at his feet but insists she not be so sneaky about it. Why the sudden outburst? Why the uncharacteristic cruelty? And why at that point and only at that point does Seymour (who in this fictional world has been fated to die from the first) put a bullet through his temple while his wife sleeps in the other bed?

I can’t answer the question. I have been thinking about it (on and off) for nearly two decades but I have no clear answer. I am certainly not satisfied with any answer I have seen proposed by the various experts. I suppose, ultimately, that this is the point: Seymour as limit case; Seymour as the incommensurable; Seymour as the constant enigma. This is why Seymour becomes the emblem of storytelling itself within Salinger’s universe: one can never say enough; all evidence demands further exploration, more supposition, more speculation. Seymour is narrative itself with all its propensity to spin itself out into eternity.

Yet Seymour is simultaneously more and less than that. Seymour is the presence you are sure you encountered before the door was shut and you saw him no more. In this way, Seymour (not Holden) becomes the emblem for Salinger himself. After all, what more can we say about the man than that he appeared for a moment before us and then was seen no more, only to leave us with a lasting impression that we continue to consider, that we continue to question, that we continue to hold in misprision? I only hope that Seymour Glass and J.D. Salinger may rest in peace, but I am quite sure that neither of them will allow me to do so until I follow them into eternity.

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