Shattering Glass Houses: Destroying the Self in J.D. Salinger

Time surges relentlessly, uncontrollably, and all too irrevocably for Buddy Glass in J.D. Salinger’s “Raise High the Roof Beam, Carpenters” and “Seymour: An Introduction.” Ever since his older brother Seymour’s death, Buddy has struggled to piece together the fragments of his existence, the diary entries, letters, and mirror notes scrawled in soap to create a perfect image of his lost hero’s life. Only, in the process, he comes to realize that his brother as a permanent, unchanging entity, never existed and that the idea of self or other is only an illusion. With Seymour’s words as guidance, Buddy begins to grasp the Zen concept of shinjin datsuraku, “mind and body dropped off” to destroy the illusion of the self that prevents him from letting go of his brother’s death.

Mahayana Buddhism, of which Zen is a school, endeavors to reveal the truth of reality, that all factors of life are empty of independent existence. All elements are mutually dependent, like fire and firewood or a begging bowl and the rice that it contains[1]. As Dogen, the founder of the Soto school of Zen, said, “The begging bowl has for its function eating rice, and the function of eating rice is the begging bowl”[2]. In different contexts, each element serves a different purpose. There is no intrinsic quality that makes firewood, firewood or the begging bowl, a begging bowl. As a result, because each element depends on another to give it purpose, it does not exist as such, as independent. By extension, the self and other are similarly nondual as external objects cannot exist without internal perception by another, and self can’t exist without an exterior object to perceive it. In the doctrine of Buddhism, the inability to realize the illusion of the self as an independent entity results in egocentric desire and hence suffering. Thus, to extinguish dukkha or misery, pain and anguish, one must dissipate the illusion of self[3]. Dogen’s “mind and body dropped off” expresses this state of emptiness or liberation from self-concern[4]. This truth can be obtained by focusing all of one’s energy away from the self[5]; through gujin or a complete oneness with the circumstances[6]; or by arousing the supreme though, the determination to follow the Bodhisattva Path and to liberate all others from suffering even as one still suffers[7]. Through these concepts, Seymour strives to have Buddy drop mind and body so he can cease his self-generated misery and find lasting happiness.

Without his brother’s words, Buddy cannot comprehend the state of “mind and body dropped off” because he clings to a selfish desire for a vanished past in which his brother is still alive. Like Holden Caufield in Salinger’s “Catcher in the Rye,” Buddy wishes for time to cease. As Holden said, regarding museums, “The best thing… was that everything always stayed right where it was… certain things should stay the way they are. You ought to be able to stick them in one of those big glass cases and just leave them alone”[8]. Buddy shares the same sentiments as he dreams of his family living in a “solid-glass house,”[9] preserved eternally from decay and as constant as the stuffed exhibits in a museum display. He thus sustains an illusion of dualities between his present and his past. As Francis Cook explained, “To be in the past or future mentally while we are physically in the present means that there is a dividedness in our lives, a lack of complete centeredness”[10]. In this way, Buddy fuels his despair as he devalues the present moment and refuses to accept it as good enough compared to the lost past, and he fails to see a solution to his misery other than through mentally escaping into an illusion. Only by embracing emptiness and dissolving the false notion of self, which generates his desires, can Buddy accept the totality of the present moment and smash the illusory glass cage of a frozen past that keeps him captive. Just as Hakuin described of his first enlightenment, “It was like the smashing of a layer of ice, or the pulling down of a crystal tower. As I suddenly awakened and came to my senses… [all] former doubts were fully dissolved like ice which melted away,”[11] Buddy too must pull down his glass house.

To shatter Buddy’s illusion of self, Seymour endeavored to show Buddy how to live in complete accord with his circumstances or gujin. Seymour Glass’s name even impels Buddy to see reality as empty. As Sybil Carpenter annunciated it, Buddy needs to “See more glass”[12]. Buddy needs to see the glass cage, he so desperately hopes for, as a product of his mind and hence that the only source of his suffering is himself. By destroying his idea of self and accepting a nondual relationship with the present moment, Buddy can free himself. As Cook described, in the “manifestation of the ultimate reality… you will no longer be trapped as in a basket or cage.”[13] In a game of curb marbles, Seymour showed Buddy this nondual relationship with the present moment or gujin. Seymour excelled at curb marbles, a game in which players shoot marbles from the curb and try to hit the previous player’s marble. But striking an opponent’s marble was “rarely done, since almost anything could deflect a marble from going straight to its mark: the unsmooth street itself, a bad bounce against the curb, a wad of chewing gum, any one of a hundred typical New York side-street droppings – not to mention just plain, everyday lousy aim”[14]. However, “Seymour was unbeatable”[15]. His advice to Buddy was to “try not aiming so much… [because] if you hit him when you aim, it’ll just be luck.” Buddy didn’t comprehend and asked, “How can it be luck if I aim?” and Seymour explained, “You’ll be glad if you hit his marble… won’t you? Won’t you be glad? And if you’re glad when you hit somebody’s marble, then you sort of secretly didn’t expect too much to do it. So there’d have to be come luck in it, there’d have to be slightly quite a lot of accident in it”[16]. Seymour’s advice is an embodiment “total realization,” “total understanding,” “total manifestation,” or “total exertion” with the circumstances[17]. In aiming at the marble, Buddy strives and desires and imbues the situation with his self-longing. To identify completely with the circumstance is to allow the situation to arise without impediment, without obstruction by the self. Hence, gujin is a manifestation of no-self. As Cook says, “What is not added to the circumstance is the self, with its discriminations and judgments”[18]. A monk once asked Zen master Tung-shun, “Where is this place where there is no heat or cold?” and Tung-shun answered, “When it is hot, the heat kills the monk; when it is cold, the cold kills the monk”[19]. By affirming entirely with the circumstances, one realizes the emptiness between the self and the situation and thus destroys the illusion of self. This does not mean one will not experience cold or heat or pain, but rather that one’s subjective thoughts will cease so that one will realize there is nothing inherently undesirable about the present situation. As Dogen wrote, “When you look at what is within, there is no more cold or heat than there is a drop of water in the ocean right in front of you”[20]. The drop of water is symbolic for the illusory self and the ocean is the circumstances that surround the self. That the drop is distinct from the ocean is but a fictive construction of the mind. By dissolving the self into the moment, one accepts the moment devoid of valuations. Seymour, after releasing a marble would be “all smiles when he heard a responsive click of glass striking glass”[21]. Seymour thus strove to make Buddy’s captive glass cage apparent and to move him in the direction to shatter it.

Seymour further endeavors to help Buddy disintegrate his notion of self by revealing the emptiness of reality. Dogen explains that all elements of existence are Buddha nature, which means all beings just as they are, are enlightened; however, they have forgotten their true nature through the “perceptual value system,” “logic” and “sense of self” that society has instilled within them[22]. Hence, one must practice to reaffirm the emptiness of each moment. Dogen transformed Master Ju-ching’s statement, “focus on wiping off dust from your mind” to “focus on dropping off body and mind,” because for Dogen, the mind doesn’t need to be polished; it is innately pure. Furthermore, body and mind must be dropped because focusing on solely the mind implies the existence of a concealed spiritual existence that must be uncovered separate from one’s physical embodiment, thus resulting in a false duality between body and mind[23]. Also, if all sentient beings are Buddha nature, then dust too is Buddha nature. As Dogen wrote, “Within a dust mote, an incalculable number of Buddhas dwell… If all things are the revelation of ultimate reality, then a single dust mote is the revelation of ultimate reality”[24]. In Mahayana, Buddha nature is a “pure luminosity”[25], but dust is not inherently impure. Only by discriminating dust against another ‘entity’ does it become comparatively sullied. However, fine particles of dust can be part of a larger ‘entity’; perhaps they are part of the cremated ash of a Buddha or the pulverized remains of ancient ruins. These larger ‘entities’ may be part of even larger ‘entities’ still; the now pulverized ruins were once stones, were once mountains. As Dogen wrote, “This is also like a jewel within a jewel. When it gleams, it illuminates others and it illuminates itself”[26]. By extrapolating outwards, we come to see that every element of existence is part of a larger element that is empty of its own existence until, expanded to include all elements, we realize they are part of one whole. Thus, as Dogen says, “The One Mind is all things, all things are the One Mind”[27]. Everything illuminates Buddha nature. Seymour portrays this nested image of expanding emptiness to Buddy in a letter asking him, “Is it so bad that we sometimes sound like each other? The membrane is so thin between us. Is it so important for us to keep in mind which is whose?”[28] In questioning “which is whose?” Seymour reveals the discriminations that language and logic creates. Their voices, considered as distinct entities by the use of ‘which’ are part of a larger ‘entity’ of themselves reflected in ‘whose.’ Their voices are the jewels within the jewels of themselves. Extrapolating further, they as separate entities only exist within the barriers of thought or language. Buddy as the younger brother only exists if Seymour does as the older. Ultimately, they are ‘entities’ only as skin and air separates them, but extending further outwards, they are only matter separated by matter or, in other words, truly un-separated. Seymour thus reveals again that dualities, that Buddy’s sense of existing apart from Seymour, are false creations of a mind since every element can be considered as a part of ever expanding whole that ultimately embraces everything. In considering this, Buddy beings to accept the loss of Seymour by realizing that Seymour as an entity distinct from himself is only a fabrication of his logical and language cultured mind.

Ultimately, Seymour destroys Buddy’s illusion of self by arousing within him the supreme thought: the desire to save others from suffering even before he himself is saved. Forgoing nirvana, or the escape from the samsaric suffering of life and rebirth, for the sake of liberating others is the ultimate selfless act. When Buddy was thirteen, his brothers Waker and Walt had been given “matching, beautiful, well-over-the-budget birthday presents – two red-and-white striped, double-barred twenty-six-inch bicycles, the very vehicles in the window of Davega’s Sports Stores”. But that afternoon “Waker had given his away”[29]. Although their parents could see Waker’s “very nice, generous intentions,” Buddy watched as they scolded Waker while he stood with tears streaming down his face. Then Seymour came in and, as Buddy watched in awe, “completely blundered his way to the heart of the matter so that, a few minutes later, the three belligerents actually kissed and made up”[30]. Buddy continues to say, “The point of the matter is… I’ve been waiting most of my life for even the faintest inclination, let alone the follow-through required, to give away a Davega bicycle”[31]. Arousing the thought of enlightenment instills gratitude, generosity and a selfless wish to “give to others whatever is within one’s power to give”[32]. As Dogen wrote, “One makes a stupa with a a blade of grass; one makes a sutra scroll with a rootless tree; one honors the Buddha with a grain of sand; one honors the Buddha with a bowl of water in which rice has been soaked. One gives a handful of food to a living being, or offers five flowers to the Tathagata. These are all forms of arousing the thought of enlightenment. Arousing the thought of enlightenment means following the encouragement of others, doing good even to the slight extent you are able, and bowing to the Buddha even while you are being annoyed by demons”[33]. Arousing the thought of enlightenment results in all actions directed away from the self, so that one gives everything, even that which one does not possess, unto others. In this way, the sense of self and the desire to embellish and enhance the ego evaporates.

As all things are Buddhas, Dogen’s forms of arousing the thought of enlightenment result in honoring, giving, making for all other beings so that all beings sustain each other. Buddy continues to say after writing for tireless days his unforgettable memories of Seymour, “What essentially struck me, incapacitated me, I think, was the sudden realization that Seymour is my Davega bicycle”[34]. Buddy realizes that Seymour is the ultimate selfless gift that he can give, the gift that he has been unable to relinquish for over twenty years, for just as the memories of his words were able to shatter his illusion of self, Buddy too can transfer Seymour’s wisdom of gujin, emptiness and arousing the supreme thought as methods to help realize “dropping mind and body,” by capturing his words in text. A college professor of Mahayana Buddhism, Buddy reveals in his last thoughts his new orientation of life: “I know… there is no single thing I do that is more important than going into that awful Room 307. There isn’t one girl in there, including the Terrible Miss Zabel, who is not as much my sister as Boo Boo or Franny. They may shine with the misinformation of the ages, but they shine. This thought manages to stun me: There’s no place I’d really rather go right now than into Room 307. Seymour once said that all we do our whole lives is go from one little piece of Holy Ground to the next. Is he never wrong?”[35] Buddy reveals the selfless transformation in his perception; when moments ago he had suffused his condition with egocentric judgments, when he had despised entering his “awful” classroom to face his “misinformed,” “terrible” students, he now embraces the present moment as whole, complete, and perfect in it of itself. Room 307 is the place of no heat or cold since there is “no place” he’d “rather go.” And in this place, he sees the Buddha nature of all entities. As a chant in Zen ceremony says, “The whole universe is an ocean of dazzling light, / And on it dance the waves of life and death”[36]. All things are Buddhas, each piece of Holy Ground, Miss Zabel, Boo Boo, Franny, Room 307. They all “shine” with luminosity and “dazzling light” despite their misinformation, despite their culturally pervaded logic and duality perceiving minds, and he realizes that this is the place to give his gift and his newfound enlightenment.

Through the memories of his brother, Buddy comes to embrace emptiness, gujin, and arousing the supreme thought to ultimately “drop mind and body” and shatter the illusion of self that prevented him from letting go. With his words, Buddy begins to see the self as a construction of a linguistically and culturally shaped mind and in seizing each moment as it comes and in commanding all his energy towards the salvation of others, Buddy dissolves the egocentric, obstructive, miserable force that once was himself. Much as Dogen said the “Sutra itself is the direct sound of the golden words; they are the Buddha’s whole body,” Buddy has reconstructed the body of his brother through his words, and in his final selfless act, gives him away to save others as he saved him.

Bibliography: Bernice Goldstein, Sanford Goldstein. “Zen and Nine Stories.” In H. Bloom’s Modern

Critical Reviews: J.D. Salinger. Chelsea House Publishers: 1987.

Cook, F.D. How to Raise an Ox. Wisdom Publications: 2002.

Mitchell, D.W. Buddhism: Introducing the Buddhist Experience. Oxford University Press: 2008.

Rosen, G. Zen in the Art of J.D. Salinger. Creative Arts Book Company: 1977.

Salinger, J.D. Nine Stories. Signet Books: 1948.

Salinger, J.D. Raise High the Roof Beam, Carpenters and Seymour and Introduction. Back Bay Books: 1955.

[1] Mitchell, D.W., Buddhism: Introducing the Buddhist Experience, Oxford University Press, 2008, page 105.

[2] Cook, F.D., How to Raise an Ox, Wisdom Publications, 2002, page 155.

[3] ibid., page 23.

[4] ibid., page 13.

[5] ibid., page 23.

[6] ibid., page 42.

[7] ibid., page 34.

[8] Rosen, G., Zen in the Art of J.D. Salinger, Creative Arts Book Company, 1977, page 23.

[9] Salinger, J.D., Raise High the Roof Beam, Carpenters and Seymour and Introduction, Back Bay Books, 1955, page 244.

[10] Cook, op. cit., page 56.

[11] Bernice Goldstein, Sanford Goldstein, “Zen and Nine Stories,” in H. Bloom’s Modern Critical Reviews: J.D. Salinger, Chelsea House Publishers, 1987, page 86.

[12] Salinger, J.D., Nine Stories, Signet Books, 1948, page 12.

[13] Cook, op. cit., page 66.

[14] Salinger, J.D., Raise High the Roof Beam, Carpenters and Seymour and Introduction, Back Bay Books, 1955, page 233.

[15] ibid., page 234.

[16] ibid., page 236.

[17] Cook, op. cit., page 42.

[18] ibid., page 44.

[19] ibid., page 43.

[20] ibid., page 133.

[21] Salinger, J.D., Raise High the Roof Beam, Carpenters and Seymour and Introduction, Back Bay Books, 1955, page 244.

[22] Rosen, op. cit., page 36.

[23] Mitchell, op. cit., page 300.

[24] Cook, op. cit., page 84.

[25] Mitchell, op. cit., page 105.

[26] Cook, op. cit., page 113.

[27] ibid., page 84.

[28] Salinger, J.D., Raise High the Roof Beam, Carpenters and Seymour and Introduction, Back Bay Books, 1955, page 183.

[29] ibid., page 239.

[30] ibid., page 240.

[31] ibid., page 238.

[32] Cook, op. cit., page 35.

[33] Cook, loc. cit.

[34] Salinger, op. cit., page 238.

[35] ibid., page 248.

[36] Cook, op. cit., page 45.

Disparity in Gender Roles in “Raise High the Roof Beam, Carpenters”: A Feminist Criticism

The core battle in the modern Feminist movement has been the battle against set gender roles. Women no longer feel that it is mandatory for them to be a mother and a housewife simply because they were born female, or that it is a man’s role to be a worker and a breadwinner simply because he was born male. Thus, it is common in feminist articles and literature to discuss the idea of “blending” gender roles. Through the character of Seymour Glass in “Raise High the Roof Beam, Carpenters,” J.D. Salinger successfully blurs conventional masculine and feminine roles, creating a persona that would, in any other situation, be an asset to feminist philosophy. However, by representing Seymour as quantifiably insane and suicidal, Salinger creates a tragically anti-feminist character who essentially reestablishes antiquated gender stereotypes.Buddy Glass, the narrator of “Raise High the Roof Beam, Carpenters” and “Seymour, an Introduction,” describes his brother as a typical boy. Seymour gets his hair cut at the barber, is the best marble player on the playground, and is “the Fastest Boy Runner in the World” (“Seymour” 162-211). Seymour is clearly expected to abide by the appropriate male gender roles. However, Buddy’s descriptions of Seymour in his elder years largely breaks free of gender role boundaries. According to openly anti-feminist scholar Stephen B. Clark, “[m]en bear primary responsibility for the larger community. Women bear primary responsibility for domestic management and rearing of young children” (Clark 36). However, Buddy consistently describes Seymour as a mother figure in “Raise High the Roof Beam, Carpenters.” Taking on traditionally feminine responsibilities, Seymour not only takes care of his younger siblings, but also expresses a deep, almost maternal nature. In his journal, Seymour describes several distinct moments of “mothering,” such as when he takes his younger brother Zooey to a movie: “He was about six or seven, and he went under the seat to avoid watching a scary scene. I put my hand on his head” (“Raise” 75). This tender action is rarely demonstrated in male characters, and thus must be categorized as a “feminine” trait. Seymour goes even further than comforting his siblings during horror films; Buddy describes him getting up in the middle of the night with a crying Franny and feeding her from a bottle (3). This is an unmistakably motherly image, highly unusual in a male character. In many ways, this is exactly the type of character that feminist theorists long for: one who breaks away from clear-cut gender-roles and can successfully shift their customary responsibilities. However, though Seymour in and of himself is an ideal feminist character, Salinger creates a number of problems that fundamentally contradict with this development. For example, the Maid of Honor constantly makes remarks that emasculate Seymour. She not only comments that Seymour is most likely “a latent homosexual” (36), but also complains that he does not “just tell [his fiancé], like a man” (24). Even though the reader is not meant to view the Maid of Honor as a reliable character, hers is the only opinion Salinger gives in association with Seymour’s masculinity and gender position. Therefore, whether she is entirely trustworthy or not, the judgment is clear: it is not “manly” to take part in the feminine sphere. In order to reconcile Seymour’s sex with his maternal instincts and sense of duty, he cannot be portrayed as wholly heterosexual. The message, essentially, is that he cannot be a “real” man and still take on a “woman’s role.” Still, the main blow against the feminist idea of gender-role blurring is Salinger’s option to make Seymour unstable and conceivably insane. By portraying Seymour in such a light, Salinger reinforces the anti-feminist argument that the act of gender blurring will cause, “[m]en and women [to] develop psychological instability…[and] that those groups in modern society most directly affected by the feminist movement [will be] plagued by psychological problems” (Clark 41). Salinger clearly shows that Seymour cannot live happily in a conventional marriage with his unconventional gender role. His marriage is, in effect, a failure-not only do he and his wife, Charlotte, produce no children in their six years of marriage, but Seymour goes so far as to “[commit] suicide in 1948, while he was in Florida with his wife” (“Raise” 5). This is the ultimate blow against gender blurring, as the collapse of the “traditional family” is the main argument that anti-feminists such as Clark rely on. A second feminist interpretation of “Raise High the Roof Beam, Carpenters” suggests that Salinger actually intended the story to be a commentary on the repressive nature of a society that does not allow gender blurring. Such a masculine-dominated society denies Seymour’s feminine side and thus drives him to suicide. This reading would be considerably more feminist, and would thus make Salinger’s short story an asset to the feminist philosophy rather than a hindrance. However, in order for this argument to be sound, one would have to disregard the emphasis on Seymour’s insanity. In the story, it is not simply the outside world that judges Seymour as insane, but also his brother, Buddy (76). Consequently, Seymour Glass is transformed from the poster boy for feminist gender role conversion into a tragic example of the failure of gender systems. In this way, Salinger develops Seymour into a strike against the feminist movement, thus illustrating that it is impossible for one to live a sane, content, and whole life outside of traditional gender roles. Works CitedClark, Stephen B. “The Universality of Sex Roles.” Sex & Gender: A Spectrum of Views. Ed. Philip Devine and Celia Wolf-Devine. Belmont: Wadsworth 2003.Salinger, J.D. “Raise High the Roof Beam, Carpenters.” Raise High the Roof Beam, Carpenters and Seymour, an Introduction. 1955. Boston: Little Brown. 1991.–, “Seymour, an Introduction.” Raise High the Roof Beam, Carpenters and Seymour, an Introduction. 1959. Boston: Little Brown. 1991.