Salinger Documentary (2013)

A bevy of blockbuster movies are premiering, but I recommend an under the radar mindbuster. Salinger is an intriguing meditation on literary genius, fame, privacy, and mental illness.

About midway through the lengthy documentary, I became convinced that Salinger was mentally ill. The filmmakers convincingly argue that his WWII military service had an indelible impact on his psyche and his writing. If he knew what the first 48 hours on the ground would have been like, June 6-7, 1944, I wonder if he would have volunteered. He was fortunate to survive the first two days. 

Salinger’s was not a dangerous or violent mental illness. The truth be told, no one is “normal”, most of us suffer from mental abnormalities or quirks of some sort. Salinger’s imaginary characters and families took precedence over his living, breathing family and friends. He only harmed people who competed with his imaginary characters for his attention. When they interfered too much, he banished them from his life.

One form our mental illness takes is thinking accomplished artists or athletes owe us more than their art or public performances. Oddly, more and more people are following public figures on Twitter. Receiving tweets directly from celebrities seemingly deludes people into thinking they’re in some sort of relationship with them. After reading The Catcher in the Rye, many people so identified with Holden Caulfied they felt entitled to know everything possible about his creator. Sometimes to the point where they’d drive to rural New Hampshire and knock on Salinger’s door.

Maybe because people are so desperate for notoriety, they’re offended when someone like Salinger consciously rejects fame. Salinger practiced Zen Buddhism for many years and became an adherent of religious teacher Sri Ramakrishna and Vedanta Hinduism. Fame was another intolerable distraction from the imaginary, literary world he greatly preferred.

How should we live with present and future Salingers, single-minded geniuses whose work isn’t just the most important thing in their life, but the only thing? By leaving them mostly alone to write, to compose music, to draw, to sculpt, to fulfill their specific life purpose.

One additional thought. It was fortunate that Salinger never needed to teach writing at a University because he never could have controlled his affinity for women decades younger than him. He would have kept a few university attorneys employed all by himself.

One True Religion?

Indulge me while I paint with a broad brush. Most people are either religious or non-religious. Among the religious, quite a few believe their religion is the one true religion. Consequently, those outside their tradition are unsaved or infidels and doomed to eternal damnation.

This “zero-sum, sheeps and goats” line of religious thinking might make a modicum of sense if there was a genuine free-market of religious ideas from which each adult chose once they had considered a wide-ranging smorgasbord. A grand religious meritocracy if you will where the most enlightened, hopeful, helpful religions would probably hold claim to the most adherents.

But that’s not even close to how religious people “choose their religion”. People’s religious choices are mostly the result of where they’re born. And I don’t know about you, but I had no control over where I was born (shout out to my faithful following in Boise, ID). Born in Northern Nigeria, one’s almost certainly a Moslem; Southern Nigeria, a Christian; central India, a Hindu; Israel, a Jew; Alabama, a Southern Baptist: Utah, a Mormon. In fact, do people choose their religion or does their family’s religion or the predominant religion where they grow up tend to choose them?

If religious identities are rooted in geography and culture, “zero-sum, sheep and goat, mine is the one true religion” belief only makes sense if some countries and cultures are special, divinely created, better than the rest. And why trust anyone who believes they won the birthplace lottery of life about religion or anything else?

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