Timid Thinkers: Death, Deconstruction, and Dogma in Franny and Zooey

By Dominic Robin

Warning: Quotes from Salinger’s Franny and Zooey include some explicit language.

Among philosophical pairings, few are as markedly disparate as that of Ernest Becker and G.K. Chesterton. The theories of Chesterton –a jovial theist, traditionalist, and pervasive optimist –and that of Becker –a, shall-we-say, less jovial cultural anthropologist with an interest in the pervasive power of man’s fear of death –seem in many ways paradoxical. And yet, in the spirit of Chesterton who once defined a paradox as “truth standing on her head to get attention,” (“Doctors”) I suggest that, contrary to expectation, the two modes of thinking are not entirely distinct. Becker himself noted this connection, quoting Chesterton twice in his seminal work The Denial of Death. It is in this meeting, this merging of two of the more influential theorist in the twentieth century, that I would like to pause, focusing specifically on Chesterton’s discourse on idealism and dogma and observing how they complement Becker’s own theories on the fundamental nature of explanatory narratives and the necessity of belief in “myths of heroic transcendence” (285). To demonstrate this connection, I will channel this discussion through J.D. Salinger’s perceptive insight on the human experience, “Zooey.” Through this work, I will demonstrate the profound consanguinity present between the two thinkers, illustrating how Zooey Glass’s destructive nature connects with his (and in a broader context, humanity’s) fear of death, an anxiety he attempts and fails to suppress through dogma-less idealism; extrapolating outward, this troubling trend extends to the modern state of the university led humanities, a discipline that has embraced a “Zooey-esque” ideology, adopting a fractured and deconstructive relationship with being that is ultimately destructive when ungrounded in a Chesterton-like concept of dogma.

Orders of Concern

Before moving into the crux of my argument, I must briefly expound upon three assumptions that will prove essential to my argument. The first of these is the premise that Zooey is an idealist and not a dogmatist. For clarity, it is important to examine Chesterton’s definitions of idealism and dogma and note the subtleties that sublimate his understanding of the words from their modern characterizations. In his essay “The Fallacy of the Young Nation,” Chesterton delves into the all-encompassing nature of ideology, stating that everyone falls in one of two categories, “the conscious idealists and unconscious idealists” (137). Idealism, then, is inescapable; it can be ignored, consciously suppressed even, but not avoided. Chesterton’s concept of idealism functions, in many ways, as a predecessor to Becker’s own theories on narrative, in which he argues that humankind remains locked in culturally created narratives of the world, what he calls a “necessary and basic dishonesty about oneself and one’s whole situation” (55). It is through these narratives, these forms of idealism, that the world becomes navigably manageable. As in Chesterton’s proposed paradigm, escape from these narratives is impossible. Idealism, Chesterton explains, must exist as “pseudo-scientific attempts to conceal from men the awful liberty of their lonely souls” (“Fallacy” 146). Dogma, on the other hand, corresponds more closely with Becker’s theory of divine transcendence, faith in something bigger and more powerful than oneself. Dogma, Chesterton argues, is the construction of a “definite philosophy of life” based in something other than self (“Concluding Remarks” 160). It is worth noting that Chesterton does not equate dogma and truth. Chesterton, in fact, offers to many of his intellectual rivals complements for “sanely and courageously offer themselves as dogmatist” (“Concluding Remarks” 160). The difference between their dogma and his, simply put, is this: “the obvious distinction [that] I am dogmatic and right, and [they] are dogmatic and wrong” (160). Zooey, then, by this definition, is an idealist only; his faith, while assertive, is willfully inconsistent and inwardly focused.

My second assumption concerns Zooey’s relation with his late brother Seymour Glass and illustrates the previously alluded to connection between dogma, transcendence, and the fear of death. This supposition unfolds as follows: that Seymour Glass once provided Zooey with a tangible version of Becker’s transcendent heroic figure; that, in placing his faith in Seymour and his philosophies, Zooey once was a dogmatist; and that, through his suicide, Seymour destroyed Zooey’s faith in dogma, enacting on a smaller concept Nietzsche’s death of God illustrated in Thus Spoke Zarathustra. Although he does not physically appear in “Zooey,” Seymour Glass’s presence, in the words of one critic, “haunts the family like a member of the undead” (Malcolm). Bastardized forms of his ideologies spill from Zooey continuously, and his religious influence persists, making it, in Zooey’s words, “impossible to even sit down to a goddam meal . . . . without first saying the Four Great Vows under my breath” (104). Zooey even names Seymour (and, in collusion, Buddy) as the culprit of his present condition, calling Seymour the “bastard” responsible for making him and Franny into “freaks” (103). Yet what makes Seymour such a compelling figure is that, while he was alive, he occupied a quasi-priest-like role as the spiritual leader. His influence reached near deific heights, and even after death, his presence lingers. For the family, he was a god, and thus, in putting his faith exclusively in Seymour, Zooey enacted simultaneously Chesterton’s idea of dogma and Becker’s of heroic transcendence. Seymour’s suicide, then, did far more than deprive the Glass family of a treasured family member: it destroyed the family’s grounding conceptions of reality. It is this subtle but encompassing anxiety that persists throughout the novel.

My third assertion stems from Ernest Becker’s perceptive insight into the human experience and is that Zooey’s mania finds roots in his fear of death. Zooey’s dread of death manifests itself in the form of his causa-sui project, a push towards self-sufficiency through heroism which, Becker argues, will often resort to violence when challenged;  Zooey’s caustic tendencies warrant little verification. Franny calls him “completely destructive,” and Zooey confirms this assessment saying, “there’s something I do to people’s morale downtown that I can’t stand to watch much longer” (189, 137). Zooey’s cult of self-worship underlies his fear of his own mortality; in order to achieve immortality, to rise above the base mortality of existence, others must fall. This, finally, is the hopeless terror of the causa-sui project, an undertaking that must leave behind dogma’s outward focus and turn inward, an attempt “to be father of oneself” (Becker 116). In order to transcend death, Zooey strives vainly for self-transcendence, parodying the biblical representations of original sin, humankind’s desire “be as gods,” and Lucifer’s yearning to be “like the most High” (Genesis 3:5 KJV; Isaiah 14:14 KJV). Zooey’s destructive tendencies hint at a more encompassing problem, an abject fear of death that subjugates his vision of the world.

Idealism Considered

This reading of Zooey as an idealist but not a dogmatist is complicated by the fact that Zooey seems, in the modern sense of the word, to be an insufferably dogmatic individual, especially during his closing speech which culminates in his soliloquy on the “Fat Lady.” Chesterton’s own definition of dogmas as an individual’s push towards ”more and more definite convictions,” in fact, sounds markedly similar to Zooey’s own words when, bewailing the failures of the education experience, he posits this thought:

“I don’t think it would have all got me quite so down if just once in a while –just once in a while –there was at least some polite little perfunctory implication the knowledge should lead to wisdom, and that if it doesn’t, it’s  just a disgusting waste of time! But there never is! You never even hear any hints dropped on a campus that wisdom is supposed to be the goal of knowledge (146).”

To Zooey, knowledge that does not lead to something tangible is vain; wisdom, Chesterton’s dogma, substantiates knowledge, transforming it from empty frivolity to substantive meaning.

Despite his verbal endorsement of dogma, Zooey fails to internalize his own statement’s dogma; while he exhibits a cognitive understanding of dogma and its significance, he neglects  to functionally apply this knowledge, thus inadvertently (and ironically) enacting for the reader a practical application of his “knowledge without wisdom” monologue. Readers can observe this failure in the consistently mercurial nature of his thoughts. Franny observes this tendency when, thinking she is on the phone with Buddy, she exclaim that “[Zooey] has forty definitions for everything” (190) and later questions his sanity, adding, “It’s like being in a lunatic asylum and having another patient all dressed up as a doctor come over to you and start taking your pulse or something” (191). Zooey, while claiming the value of dogma, resists it, a defiance readers observe in the inconsistent and volatile nature of his actions.

Zooey’s diagnosis as a dogma-less idealist becomes more fatal when readers realize that, although he professes wisdom verbally, he does not seem to even desire consistent thought. His goal is entirely deconstructive, lacking the courage to posit and consistently maintain an affirmative concept of reality. One characterization of this deliberate dissonance occurs in his contradictory assessments of the Jesus Prayer. When Bessie first questions him about the Jesus Prayer, he defends it, asserting that, at the outset, a person’s motive does not have to be perfect because “[e]nlightenment’s supposed to come with the prayer, not before it” (112). When confronting Franny, however, he flips this thought, arguing that Franny’s motives for doing the prayer are wrong and that if she does not fix them, she will “miss the whole point of the Jesus Prayer” (170). He demonstrates a similar cognitive contortion in his heart-felt analysis of soup, mocking the “Biblical slant” (86) Bessie places on the chicken soup when she expresses her concern that Franny will not eat but, when conversing with Franny, chastising Franny for not recognizing the “consecrated” quality of the meal. (155). In his willingness to flip positions so easily, Zooey demonstrates an important aspect of his personality: he is less concerned with presenting a single cohesive thought than he is with asserting intellectual dominance over others. When confronted with dogma in others –or even movement towards dogma –Zooey’s deconstructive impulse triggers. If he must suffer through debilitating fear of being, others around him must suffer too; the only thing worse than suffering is suffering alone. Through this process of questioning, of continuously fumbling among disparate ideals, Zooey enacts Chesterton’s vision of the “timid thinker” (Orthodoxy 102), the man who “drops one doctrine after another in a refined skepticism” (“Concluding Remarks” 160). Zooey has the courage to be an idealist, but everyone has the courage to be an idealist; what he lacks is what truly matters, the courage to be a dogmatist.

Idealism and ritualism, according to Chesterton, are irrevocably tied; “all men are either conscious or unconscious ritualists,” Chesterton writes, providing yet another connection between Zooey and idealism, for Zooey is, if nothing else, a ritualist (“Fallacy” 139). Zooey’s ritualism is most apparent in the extensive bathroom scene as he talks with his mother, Bessie Glass. Zooey imbues religious life into the room, referring to it as his “little chapel” and, although he probably intends it facetiously, as readers continue to observe him in the setting, the connection gains plausibility. As Zooey bathes, shaves, re-shaves, and combs his way through a third of the book’s pages, an inevitable question emerges: Why, of all places, does Salinger spend so much time in the bathroom? Mary McCarthy notes the religious nature of these sections, arguing that the bathroom functions as a center for self-worship. Her analysis is worth quoting at length:

“The use of the bathroom as stage set –sixty-eight pages of “Zooey” are laid there –is all too revealing as a metaphor. The bathroom is the holy-of-holies of family life, the seat of privacy, the center of the cult of self-worship. What methodical attention Salinger pays to Zooey’s routines of shaving and bathing and nail cleaning, as though these were rituals performed by a god on himself, priest and deity at the same time!” (131).

In her analysis, McCarthy unearths Zooey’s self-worship, an important aspect of the narrative. It is through this smoky haze that Zooey’s persona emerges. He is not, as he so confidently declares at the novel’s conclusion, a selfless and enlightened individual, the one who recognizes that all people deserve respect, no matter how “moronic” they seem to be.  Despite his brave words, his own self-centered idealism shines through his rituals. When looking into the mirror and preparing to shave, he focuses not on his lathering brush or even his face, but, in a particularly revealing image of Narcissus, he looks “directly into his own eyes” and so leaves dogma behind, for idealism can be found from within but not dogma (91). To be truly dogmatic in the Chestertonian sense, one must look outside of oneself; to embrace dogma, one must “have the courage to be an absolute nobody” (30). But that is courage indeed, for an absolute nobody must suffer the inescapable fate of all other nobodies; to escape his fear of death, Zooey must become a somebody, a pursuit his ritualistic self-worship points toward.

Idealism Failed

Through his dissatisfaction with his own idealism, Salinger highlights Zooey’s failure to escape from his fear of death through his idealistic causa-sui project. Salinger allows readers a glimpse of Zooey’s unconscious longing for something more than idealism through a quick, easily overlooked parenthesis in the text in which Zooey pauses to watch a young girl and a dog outside his window. In the scene, Zooey observes a young girl who, apparently desiring to trick her puppy, hides behind a tree. The dog, realizing that its master had disappeared, “scurr[ied] in frantic circles . . . . the anguish of separation . . . . scarcely bearable for him” and, upon finding his mistress behind the tree “gave a little yelp, then cringed forward, shimmying with ecstasy” (151). Through this quick aside, Salinger offers a brief glimpse of Becker’s immortal hero and, in extension, Chesterton’s dogma. To the dog, the mistress represents  transcendence; as long as she is near, he can exhibit perfect faith, relinquishing of “the colossal burden of a self-dominating, self-forming life, to relax one’s grip on one’s own center and [yielding] passively to a superordinate power and authority” (Becker 116). The dog has a childlike faith in its master, a faith that is so intense that a moment separation translates to “anguish.” This scene, though seemingly non-descript, captures Zooey so intensely that he momentarily contemplates raising the window to lean so that he can watch longer, and causes him –and this is clearly debatable –to utter what may amount to the only sensible thing he says in the entire novel:

“’God damn it,’ he said, “there are nice things in the world –and I mean nice things. We’re all such morons to get so sidetracked. Always, always, always referring every goddam thing that happens right back to our lousy little egos’” (151).

For one moment, Zooey realizes that, in order to escape from his self-destructive causa-sui project, he must, like the young dachshund, forsake his ego, giving himself over to something bigger, something transcendent. He must become a dogmatist. But this realization proves momentary; as he is articulating his thought, Franny blows her nose and Zooey reacts angrily, his revelation slipping prosaically into the past.

In his recognition and desire for dogma and his subsequent rejection of it, Zooey negates his own conclusion at the novel’s closing. As he preaches images of love and acceptance, readers would do well to think back to how he treated his mother, the “fat old Druid” who is “so stupid” (111, 107). While he claims that “[t]here isn’t anyone out there who isn’t Seymour’s Fat Lady,” visions of his treatment of Dick Hess, who Zooey claims he left “sitting there wishing he was dead,” materialize (200, 140). And as he explains that the Fat Lady is “[a]h buddy. Ah, buddy. . . . Christ Himself” his chastising message to Franny, illustrated as “freshly caught young cobra, with a ribbon tied in an awkward bow around its neck,” surfaces (171). Clearly, what Zooey says and what he does are two very different things. And so, beyond his words, his identity emerges, a young man who, upon losing his heroic figure, seeks desperately –and hopelessly –to escape from death by creating in himself his own transcendent hero, an idealist in the Chestertonian sense. Yet his desperate attempt fails, for idealism alone is not enough. In his rejection of dogma, Zooey links himself –to borrow from a momentarily valid cliché –to a sinking ship, shackled irrevocably to the knowledge of his own mortality and the destructive tendencies his fear of death engender. Modern audiences would do well to note the applicability of Salinger’s perceptive insight into the human experience. As humanity departments continuously reject truth in favor of passing ideals, they run the risk of spawning Zooeys, that deconstructive group idealist who lack, in Chesterton’s terminology, dogma: that is, the courage, sanity, and humility to stand by an affirmative and a positive conception of reality.

Works Cited

Becker, Ernest. The Denial of Death. New York: Free Press, 1973.

The Bible. Authorized King James Version, Oxford UP, 1998.

Chesterton, G.K. “Concluding Remarks on the Importance of Orthodoxy.” Heretics, Hendrickson

Publishers, 2007, pp. 159-169.

— “The Fallacy of the Young Nation.” Heretics, Hendrickson Publishers, 2007, pp. 137-147.

Orthodoxy Hendrickson Publishers, 2006.

— “When Doctors Agree” The Paradoxes of Mr. Pond Project Gutenberg, 2005. Accessed 7 October 2017

Malcolm, Janet “Justice to J.D. Salinger” The New York Review of Books, 2001. Accessed 2 October 2017

McCarthy, Mary. “J.D. Salinger’s Closed Circuit.” If You Really Want to Hear About It: Writers on J.D.

Salinger and His Work, edited by Catherine Crawford, Thunder’s Mouth Press, 2006, pp. 127-133.

Salinger, J.D. Franny and Zooey. 4th. ed., Little, Brown and Company, 1962

Dominic Robin is a graduate student of English at the University of North Florida. He specializes in 20th century American Literature and is currently completing his master’s thesis which focuses on the connection between disability research and Ernest Hemingway. Dominic also serves as a youth pastor at Terry Parker Baptist Church in Jacksonville, Florida.

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