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Posts Tagged ‘psychology’

06 SEPTEMBER, 2013

Conspicuous Outrage: Quentin Bell, Virginia Woolf’s Nephew, on Sartorial Morality, the Art of Fashion, and the Futility of War

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“In sociological studies fashion plays the role which has been allotted to Drosophila, the fruit fly, in the science of genetics.”

In 1923, Virginia Woolf collaborated with her young nephew, Quentin Bell, on their charming illustrated family newspaper, which also precipitated Woolf’s little-known children’s book. But little Quentin, the son of Woolf’s talented sister, the Bloomsbury artist Vanessa Bell, grew up to be a man of letters and a formidable mind in his own right — an author, historian, and his aunt’s official biographer.

In 1947, when he was thirty-seven, Bell published On Human Finery (public library) — a brilliant meditation on the psychology, sociology, and history of fashion, exploring how the art of dress both bespeaks our greatest human aspiration and betrays our deepest contradictions.

In the opening chapter, titled “Sartorial Morality,” Bell writes:

The study of fashion does not quite lie within [the economists’] province. It is a borderline science, important to the historian in that it exhibits in a pure form the changing impulse of social behavior; to the artist in that here, if anywhere, we can trace a direct relationship between economics and aesthetics.

The charm of the study lies precisely in the ephemeral nature of the subject; in sociological studies fashion plays the role which has been allotted to Drosophila, the fruit fly, in the science of genetics. Here at a glance we can perceive phenomena so mobile in their response to varying effects, so rapid in their mutation that the deceptive force of inertia which overlays and obscures most other manifestations of human activity is reduced to a minimum.

The evidence is moreover abundant, not only without but within, for we have all experienced in our own persons the pains and pleasures of attire. … In obeying fashion we undergo discomforts and distress which are, from a strictly economic point of view, needless and futile. We do so for the sake of something which transcends our own immediate interests.

There exists, Bell argues, a relationship between social morality and sartorial morality, one reflected in the very language with which we describe attributes of clothes and attributes of character — something cognitive scientists have since shed light on in explaining the evolution of metaphors. Bell observes:

Our clothes are too much a part of ourselves for us ever to be entirely indifferent to their condition; the feeling of being perfectly dressed imparts a buoyant confidence to the wearer, and it impresses the beholder as though the fabric were indeed a natural extension of the man. … So strong is the impulse of sartorial morality that it is difficult in praising clothes not to use such adjectives as “right,” “good,” “correct,” “unimpeachable,” or “faultless,” which belong properly to the discussion of conduct, while in discussing moral shortcomings we tend very naturally to fall into the language of dress and speak of a person’s behavior as being shabby, shoddy, threadbare, down at heel, botched, or slipshod.

In many ways, he contends, fashion is a mechanism for exorcising our inner contradictions, that eternal tension between rational needs and irrational wants:

A conflict must always exist between the utilitarian needs of the individual and what we can only call the futile demands of sartorial morality.

In that regard, the history of fashion shares a great deal with the history of sexuality, both riddled with legislative attempts to control human desire and mould it to socially constructed standards of acceptability:

Attempts were made, first to restrain the consumer, and later, when that proved ineffectual, to regulate production. … Nothing was spared in the effort to curb the fashion. But the history of sumptuary laws is the history of dead letters.

The spectacle presented by the history of dress in Europe is therefore one of conflict between two inimical forces existing not only within the same societies but within the same persons (the legislators were frequently among the worst offenders). In that conflict the written sumptuary law and the unwritten laws of public opinion have usually been based upon all that we usually hold most precious in our civilization: our religious and moral standards, our sense of decency and dignity, our concern for public health, our desire to see the lower orders keep in their proper place, our common sense, and our humanity. Nevertheless both public opinion and formal regulations are invariably set at naught; while Fashion, whose laws are imposed without formal sanctions, is obeyed with wonderful docility, and this despite the fact that her demands are unreasonable, arbitrary, and not infrequently cruel.

In the following chapter, Bell goes on to examine precisely what sumptuosity is, proposing that the history of fashion is defined by two forms of context: those aforementioned questions of morality, and matters of specialization, where period and occasion dictate the style of dress. He frames this with a central definition:

Sumptuous Dress [is] that which, whether fashionable, unfashionable, or out of fashion, has in one way or another provoked the respect and admiration of mankind.

He then expands on legendary economist and sociologist Thorstein Veblen’s famous theory of fashion, which divided the modes of pecuniary taste into Conspicuous Consumption, Conspicuous Leisure, and Conspicuous Waste, by adding a fourth category: Conspicuous Outrage. He then outlines the defining features of each mode:

Conspicuous Consumption — The simplest and most obvious manner of displaying wealth is to take the greatest possible number of valuable objects and attach them to the wearer’s person… [T]his method of displaying wealth is comparable to the large-scale advertisements that are set upon hoardings; the intention is to astonish and to impress the world at large. … Conspicuous Consumption persists in the ceremonies of the older Churches, on the music-hall stage, the cinema, and in military evolutions of a very public character.

[…]

Conspicuous Leisure — The mere demonstration of purchasing power is the simplest device of sumptuosity; much more important is … the demonstration of an honorably futile existence, one that is so far removed from menial necessities that clothes can be worn which impede physical labor. Dress of this kind marks the wearer at once as member of the Leisure Class, one who can exist without working and who is, therefore, demonstrably in receipt of a certain income. We admire such clothes almost instinctively, feeling them to be elegant and dignified, belonging, as it were, to a world in which the wolf has been kept far from the door.

Bell offers some particularly stark examples of attire representing the category:

Collars … have frequently been devised so as to give the wearer an elegant appearance of being strangled. The ruff of the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries is one example, the epicene choker collar of the early twentieth century another.

[…]

The constriction of the waist, which has at various periods included a substantial deformation of the thorax and the hips, is clearly not only a substantial impediment to useful work but to the health upon which such work depends. Corsets, at their most violent, crush in the ribs, constrict the vitals, deform the spine, and by interfering with the digestive processes, induce that eminently genteel disorder, the vapors.

[…]

In themselves, when extended to the ground, skirts provide an excellent guarantee of immobility; but their effect is increased by the train, a peculiar symbol of dignity, by lateral extension as a further impediment to free movement, and by constriction as in the hobble, which binds the legs together.

Perhaps the most effectual guarantee of social standing is obtained by means of unpractical footwear.

And yet, Bell argues, fashion necessitates a baseline amount of discomfort in order to establish its hold — but its true grace is in the elegant mastery with which one bears this discomfort and restrains it from excess:

Clothes must always be a graceful encumbrance; to exhibit awkwardness argues an inability to deal with the paraphernalia of polite existence suggestive of a plebeian lack of experience. … A train two yards long is impressive, a train forty yards long is grotesque.

He then moves on to Veblen’s third category:

Conspicuous Waste — A further mitigation of the law of conspicuous leisure is obtained by the existence of certain diversions and occupations which are socially acceptable, which brings us to the consideration of Conspicuous Waste. [It] is in truth a refinement of Conspicuous Leisure. … as it were, the overflow of energy from the simpler forms of sumptuous display; it is not a characteristic of dress, but an important determinant in their fashioning.

Bell gives the example of elaborate funerals, a notable item of expenditure even among the very poor, observing:

The charm of expensive mourning is that it is money thrown away, no return can be expected, it is one of the most conspicuous forms of waste.

But while the rituals of mourning are only a morbid special occasion, similar forms of Conspicuous Waste permeate the everyday fabric of society. Here, Bell makes a remarkable observation about the futility of war beyond its moral and political perils:

For those whose lives are entirely or largely divorced from productive labor much more is required. They must contrive to kill time in occupations which, however active, are patently futile. Economically their lives must be a perpetual burial thereof and their clothes a decent mourning. Thus we have the noble occupations, those which are completely non-profit-making and, from the point of view of the well-being of the community, wholly futile. Of these the chief, and to the historian of fashion the most important, are war and sport.

[…]

The importance of war and sport to the student of dress lies in the fact that these occupations have at various times been the chief and almost the only active employment for an entire caste or class, and that they have the double advantage of being not only largely unprofitable but also very expensive. No pains have been spared to make them more so, and although some of the items of expense are of course utilitarian, in the sense of being intended to promote the more efficient prosecution of the campaign or chase, others are purely futile and exist only “that the thing may be done in style.” … It can hardly be denied that in many armies sartorial and ceremonial observances, the practical utility of which have long been forgotten, have been accounted of greater moment than the quality of food or weapons, so that one is at times led to doubt whether the primary object of armies be not to provide a magnificent setting for conspicuous waste rather than to implement the policies of nations.

Bell summarizes Veblen’s trifecta:

Conspicuous consumption is but the putting of wealth upon the person, conspicuous leisure the demonstration of a wealthy ease, and conspicuous waste of wealthy activity.

He then turns to Conspicuous Outrage, his own addition to Veblen’s categories:

Conspicuous Outrage — … It is the aim of fashionable people in certain social conditions to show their indifference, not only to vulgar needs, but also to vulgar ideas. It is a thing that we recognize more easily in manners, language, and morals of the fashionable world than in its dress. We may discern two elements therein: (1) the esoteric, (2) the defiant. The esoteric element is commonly expressed in the form of a special jargon, slang, or pronunciation, as for instance in the use of “pink,” “scarlet,” “brush,” “hounds,” etc., in the hunting field, in the use of French or the dead languages in conversation, of Christian names or diminutives for socially reputable people,and of certain methods of pronunciation in such proper names as Derby, Bertram, Leveson-Gower, etc. The defiant note is struck by the use of obscene language, by the abandonment of refinements of speech which have been vulgarized, by the affected cynicism or piety, and by the rejection of vulgar standards of morality, particularly in matters of sexual behavior.

In clothes conspicuous outrage usually takes the form of an affront to prudery. … Clothes, in so far as they are an instrument of modesty and not of climatic protection, would seem to have originated as a banner or advertisement of the pudenda. … Clothes generalize the shape of the body, reduce it to a more geometrical form and suggest a classical perfection of outline which is rare in nature, and thus is eminently a property of many forms of sumptuous dress.

The relationship between vulgarity and elegance, much like in design, is what defines this aspect of fashion:

Fashionable exposure begins by shocking the vulgar, but it ends by establishing itself as a custom and thus ceasing to shock; its failure is implicit in its success. But so long as there is a development of the mode the quality of outrage is maintained.

Though, sadly, long out-of-print, On Human Finery is very much worth the used-book scavenger hunt or trip to the library.

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06 SEPTEMBER, 2013

What Is Creativity? Cultural Icons on What Ideation Is and How It Works

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Bradbury, Eames, Angelou, Gladwell, Einstein, Byrne, Duchamp, Close, Sendak, and more.

“Creativity” is one of those grab-bag terms, like “happiness” and “love,” that can mean so many things it runs the risk of meaning nothing at all. And yet some of history’s greatest minds have attempted to capture, explain, describe, itemize, and dissect the nature of creativity. After similar omnibi of cultural icons’ most beautiful and articulate definitions of art, of science, and of love, here comes one of creativity.

For Ray Bradbury, creativity was the art of muting the rational mind:

The intellect is a great danger to creativity … because you begin to rationalize and make up reasons for things, instead of staying with your own basic truth — who you are, what you are, what you want to be. I’ve had a sign over my typewriter for over 25 years now, which reads “Don’t think!” You must never think at the typewriter — you must feel. Your intellect is always buried in that feeling anyway. … The worst thing you do when you think is lie — you can make up reasons that are not true for the things that you did, and what you’re trying to do as a creative person is surprise yourself — find out who you really are, and try not to lie, try to tell the truth all the time. And the only way to do this is by being very active and very emotional, and get it out of yourself — making things that you hate and things that you love, you write about these then, intensely.

Long before he became the artist we know and love, a young Maurice Sendak full of self-doubt wrote in a letter to his editor, the remarkable Ursula Nordstrom:

Knowledge is the driving force that puts creative passion to work.

In writing back, Nordstrom responded with her signature blend of wisdom and assurance:

That is the creative artist — a penalty of the creative artist — wanting to make order out of chaos.

Portrait by Lisa Congdon for our Reconstructionists project. Click image for details.

Bill Moyers is credited with having offered a sort of mirror-image definition that does away with order and seeks, instead, magical chaos:

Creativity is piercing the mundane to find the marvelous.

For Albert Einstein, its defining characteristic was what he called “combinatory play.” In a letter to a French mathematician, included in Einstein’s Ideas and Opinions (public library), he writes:

The words or the language, as they are written or spoken, do not seem to play any role in my mechanism of thought. The psychical entities which seem to serve as elements in thought are certain signs and more or less clear images which can be “voluntarily” reproduced and combined.

There is, of course, a certain connection between those elements and relevant logical concepts. It is also clear that the desire to arrive finally at logically connected concepts is the emotional basis of this rather vague play with the above-mentioned elements. But taken from a psychological viewpoint, this combinatory play seems to be the essential feature in productive thought — before there is any connection with logical construction in words or other kinds of signs which can be communicated to others.

Portrait by Lisa Congdon for our Reconstructionists project. Click image for details.

For Maya Angelou, a modern-day sage of the finest kind, the mystery and miracle of creativity is in its self-regenerating nature. In the excellent collection Conversations with Maya Angelou (public library), which also gave us her poignant exchange with Bill Moyers, Angelou says:

Creativity or talent, like electricity, is something I don’t understand but something I’m able to harness and use. While electricity remains a mystery, I know I can plug into it and light up a cathedral or a synagogue or an operating room and use it to help save a life. Or I can use it to electrocute someone. Like electricity, creativity makes no judgment. I can use it productively or destructively. The important thing is to use it. You can’t use up creativity. The more you use it, the more you have.

Tom Bissell, writing in Magic Hours: Essays on Creators and Creation, also celebrates this magical quality of creativity:

To create anything … is to believe, if only momentarily, you are capable of magic. … That magic … is sometimes perilous, sometimes infectious, sometimes fragile, sometimes failed, sometimes infuriating, sometimes triumphant, and sometimes tragic.

But there might be something more precise and less mystical about the creative process. In Uncommon Genius: How Great Ideas Are Born (public library), the fantastic collection of interviews with MacArthur “genius” grantees by Denise Shekerjian, she recapitulates her findings:

The trick to creativity, if there is a single useful thing to say about it, is to identify your own peculiar talent and then to settle down to work with it for a good long time.

Shekerjian interviews the late Stephen Jay Gould, arguably the best science writer of all time, who describes his own approach to creativity as the art of making connections, which Shekerjian synthesizes:

Gould’s special talent, that rare gift for seeing the connections between seemingly unrelated things, zinged to the heart of the matter. Without meaning to, he had zeroed in on the most popular of the manifold definitions of creativity: the idea of connecting two unrelated things in an efficient way. The surprise we experience at such a linkage brings us up short and causes us to think, Now that’s creative.

This notion, of course, is not new. In his timelessly insightful 1939 treatise A Technique for Producing Ideas (public library), outlining the five stages of ideation, James Webb Young asserts:

An idea is nothing more nor less than a new combination of old elements [and] the capacity to bring old elements into new combinations depends largely on the ability to see relationships. The habit of mind which leads to a search for relationships between facts becomes of the highest importance in the production of ideas.

Three years later, in 1942, Rosamund Harding added another dimension of stressing the importance of cross-disciplinary combinations in wonderful out-of-print tome An Anatomy of Inspiration:

Originality depends on new and striking combinations of ideas. It is obvious therefore that the more a man knows the greater scope he has for arriving at striking combinations. And not only the more he knows about his own subject but the more he knows beyond it of other subjects. It is a fact that has not yet been sufficiently stressed that those persons who have risen to eminence in arts, letters or sciences have frequently possessed considerable knowledge of subjects outside their own sphere of activity.

Seven decades later, Phil Beadle echoes this concept in his wonderful blueprint field guide to creativity, Dancing About Architecture: A Little Book of Creativity (public library):

It is the ability to spot the potential in the product of connecting things that don’t ordinarily go together that marks out the person who is truly creative.

Steve Jobs famously articulated this notion and took it a step further, emphasizing the importance of building a rich personal library of experiences and ideas to connect:

Creativity is just connecting things. When you ask creative people how they did something, they feel a little guilty because they didn’t really do it, they just saw something. It seemed obvious to them after a while. That’s because they were able to connect experiences they’ve had and synthesize new things. And the reason they were able to do that was that they’ve had more experiences or they have thought more about their experiences than other people. Unfortunately, that’s too rare a commodity. A lot of people in our industry haven’t had very diverse experiences. So they don’t have enough dots to connect, and they end up with very linear solutions without a broad perspective on the problem. The broader one’s understanding of the human experience, the better design we will have.

Musician Amanda Palmer puts this even more poetically in her meditation on dot-connecting and creativity:

We can only connect the dots that we collect, which makes everything you write about you. … Your connections are the thread that you weave into the cloth that becomes the story that only you can tell.

Beloved graphic designer Paula Scher has a different metaphor for the same concept. In Debbie Millman’s How to Think Like a Great Graphic Designer (UK; public library), Scher likens creativity to a slot machine:

There’s a certain amount of intuitive thinking that goes into everything. It’s so hard to describe how things happen intuitively. I can describe it as a computer and a slot machine. I have a pile of stuff in my brain, a pile of stuff from all the books I’ve read and all the movies I’ve seen. Every piece of artwork I’ve ever looked at. Every conversation that’s inspired me, every piece of street art I’ve seen along the way. Anything I’ve purchased, rejected, loved, hated. It’s all in there. It’s all on one side of the brain.

And on the other side of the brain is a specific brief that comes from my understanding of the project and says, okay, this solution is made up of A, B, C, and D. And if you pull the handle on the slot machine, they sort of run around in a circle, and what you hope is that those three cherries line up, and the cash comes out.

But Arthur Koestler, in his seminal 1964 anatomy of creativity, The Act Of Creation (public library), argues that besides connection, the creative act necessitates contrast, or what he termed “bisociation”:

The pattern underlying [the creative act] is the perceiving of a situation or idea in two self-consistent but habitually incompatible frames of references. The event, in which the two intersect, is made to vibrate simultaneously on two different wavelengths, as it were. While this unusual situation lasts, [the event] is not merely linked to one associative context, but bisociated with two.

I have coined the term ‘bisociation’ in order to make a distinction between the routine skills of thinking on a single ‘plane,’ as it were, and the creative act, which … always operates on more than one plane. The former can be called single-minded, the latter double-minded, transitory state of unstable equilibrium where the balance of both emotion and thought is disturbed.

He differentiated between cognitive habit, or merely associative thought, and originality, or bisociative ideation, thusly:

Twenty years later, creative icon and original Mad Man George Lois echoed Koestler in his influential tome The Art of Advertising: George Lois on Mass Communication (public library):

Creativity can solve almost any problem. The creative act, the defeat of habit by originality, overcomes everything.

For Gretchen Rubin, however, habit isn’t the enemy of creativity but its engine. In Manage Your Day-to-Day: Build Your Routine, Find Your Focus, and Sharpen Your Creative Mind, she writes:

Anthony Trollope, the nineteenth-century writer who managed to be a prolific novelist while also revolutionizing the British postal system, observed, “A small daily task, if it be really daily, will beat the labours of a spasmodic Hercules.” Over the long run, the unglamorous habit of frequency fosters both productivity and creativity.

[…]

You’re much more likely to spot surprising relationships and to see fresh connections among ideas, if your mind is constantly humming with issues related to your work. … By contrast, working sporadically makes it hard to keep your focus. It’s easy to become blocked, confused, or distracted, or to forget what you were aiming to accomplish.

[…]

Creativity arises from a constant churn of ideas, and one of the easiest ways to encourage that fertile froth is to keep your mind engaged with your project. When you work regularly, inspiration strikes regularly.

In 1926, English social psychologist and London School of Economics co-founder Graham Wallas penned The Art of Thought, laying out his theory for how creativity works. Its gist, preserved in the altogether indispensable The Creativity Question (public library), identifies the four stages of the creative process — preparation, incubation, illumination, and verification — and their essential interplay:

In the daily stream of thought these four different stages constantly overlap each other as we explore different problems. An economist reading a Blue Book, a physiologist watching an experiment, or a business man going through his morning’s letters, may at the same time be “incubating” on a problem which he proposed to himself a few days ago, be accumulating knowledge in “preparation” for a second problem, and be “verifying” his conclusions on a third problem. Even in exploring the same problem, the mind may be unconsciously incubating on one aspect of it, while it is consciously employed in preparing for or verifying another aspect. And it must always be remembered that much very important thinking, done for instance by a poet exploring his own memories, or by a man trying to see clearly his emotional relation to his country or his party, resembles musical composition in that the stages leading to success are not very easily fitted into a “problem and solution” scheme. Yet, even when success in thought means the creation of something felt to be beautiful and true rather than the solution of a prescribed problem, the four stages of Preparation, Incubation, Illumination, and the Verification of the final result can generally be distinguished from each other.

But Malcolm Gladwell, in reflecting on the legacy of legendary economist Albert O. Hirscham in his review of Worldly Philosopher: The Odyssey of Albert O. Hirschman, doesn’t think the creative process is so deliberate:

Creativity always comes as a surprise to us; therefore we can never count on it and we dare not believe in it until it has happened. In other words, we would not consciously engage upon tasks whose success clearly requires that creativity be forthcoming. Hence, the only way in which we can bring our creative resources fully into play is by misjudging the nature of the task, by presenting it to ourselves as more routine, simple, undemanding of genuine creativity than it will turn out to be.

But David Byrne is skeptical of this romantic notion that creativity is a purely subconscious muse that dances to its own mystical drum. In How Music Works (public library), one of the best music books of 2012, he writes:

I had an extremely slow-dawning insight about creation. That insight is that context largely determines what is written, painted, sculpted, sung, or performed. That doesn’t sound like much of an insight, but it’s actually the opposite of conventional wisdom, which maintains that creation emerges out of some interior emotion, from an upwelling of passion or feeling, and that the creative urge will brook no accommodation, that it simply must find an outlet to be heard, read, or seen. The accepted narrative suggests that a classical composer gets a strange look in his or her eye and begins furiously scribbling a fully realized composition that couldn’t exist in any other form. Or that the rock-and-roll singer is driven by desires and demons, and out bursts this amazing, perfectly shaped song that had to be three minutes and twelve seconds — nothing more, nothing less. This is the romantic notion of how creative work comes to be, but I think the path of creation is almost 180º from this model. I believe that we unconsciously and instinctively make work to fit preexisting formats.

Of course, passion can still be present. Just because the form that one’s work will take is predetermined and opportunistic (meaning one makes something because the opportunity is there), it doesn’t mean that creation must be cold, mechanical, and heartless. Dark and emotional materials usually find a way in, and the tailoring process — form being tailored to fit a given context — is largely unconscious, instinctive. We usually don’t even notice it. Opportunity and availability are often the mother of invention.

For John Cleese, creativity is neither a conscious plan of attack nor an unconscious mystery, but a mode of being. In his superb 1991 talk on the five factors of creativity, he asserts in his characteristic manner of laconic wisdom:

Creativity is not a talent. It is a way of operating.

In Inside the Painter’s Studio (public library), celebrated artist Chuck Close is even more exacting in his take on this “way of operating,” equating creativity with work ethic:

Inspiration is for amateurs — the rest of us just show up and get to work.

In his short 1957 paper The Creative Act, French surrealist icon Marcel Duchamp considers the work of creativity a participatory project involving both creator and spectator:

The creative act is not performed by the artist alone; the spectator brings the work in contact with the external world by deciphering and interpreting its inner qualifications and thus adds his contribution to the creative act. This becomes even more obvious when posterity gives a final verdict and sometimes rehabilitates forgotten artists.

Meanwhile, artist Austin Kleon, author of the wonderful Steal Like an Artist, celebrates the negative space of the creative act in his Newspaper Blackout masterpiece:

But perhaps, after all, we should heed Charles Eames’s admonition:

Recent years have shown a growing preoccupation with the circumstances surrounding the creative act and a search for the ingredients that promote creativity. This preoccupation in itself suggests that we are in a special kind of trouble — and indeed we are.

Complement with Kierkegaard on creativity and anxiety and French polymath Henri Poincaré on how creativity works, then revisit these five fantastic reads on fear and the creative process.

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05 SEPTEMBER, 2013

Salinger and the Architecture of Personal Mythology

By:

How “a broken soldier and a wounded soul transformed himself, through his art, into an icon of the twentieth century and then, through his religion, destroyed that art.”

In 1951, The Catcher in the Rye catapulted J. D. Salinger into instant literary celebrity and the 65 million copies sold to date have stirred generations of dejected adolescents. Despite having spent his entire adult life aspiring to become a successful author, Salinger found himself unprepared for the avalanche of attention with which the novel swarmed him. He withdrew into himself, publishing new work less and less frequently, until in 1965, without warning or explanation, Salinger silently disappeared. But he kept writing every single day for the remaining forty-five years of his life.

What happened? Where did he go and why? What filled those private pages, and how did he fill his days?

That’s precisely what writer David Shields and screenwriter, producer, and director Shane Salerno investigate in Salinger: The Private War of J.D. Salinger (public library) — a masterwork of inquiry into the literary legend’s inner world, nearly a decade in the making, straddling Salinger’s death with five years on one side and three on the other.

J. D. Salinger spent ten years writing The Catcher in the Rye and the rest of his life regretting it.

Before the book was published, he was a World War II veteran with Post-traumatic Stress Disorder; after the war, he was perpetually in search of a spiritual cure for his damaged psyche. In the wake of the enormous success of the novel about the “prep school boy,” a myth emerged: Salinger, like Holden, was too sensitive to be touched, too good for this world. He would spend the rest of his life trying and failing to reconcile these completely contradictory versions of himself: the myth and the reality.

[…]

The critical and popular game over the past half-century has been to read the man through his works because the man would not speak. Salinger’s success in epic self-creation, his obsession with privacy, and his meticulously maintained vault — containing a large cache of writing that he refused to publish — combined to form an impermeable legend.

Landing at Utah Beach on D-Day, June 6, 1944.

But the legend, it turns out, was composed largely of fanciful half-truths — half-truths deliberately and systematically architected by Salinger himself who, like Freud and unlike Joyce, engineered his own myth:

Salinger was an extraordinarily complex, deeply contradictory human being. He was not — as we’ve been told — a recluse for the final fifty-five years of his life; he traveled extensively, had many affairs and lifelong friendships, consumed copious amounts of popular culture, and often embodied many of the things he criticized in his fiction. Far from being a recluse, he was constantly in conversation with the world in order to reinforce its notion of his reclusion. … Much has been made of how difficult it must have been for Salinger to live and work under the umbrella of the myth, which is undeniably true; we show the degree to which he was also invested in perpetuating it.

Shields and Salerno’s claim to difference is that, unlike previous biographies — which they divide into the distinct trifecta of inferior categories: “academic exegeses; necessarily highly subjective memoirs; and either overly reverential or overly resentful biographies that, thwarted by lack of access to the principals, settle for perpetuating the agreed-upon narrative” — this one turns to nearly half a century’s worth of never-before-seen letters to and from Salinger’s friends, lovers, wartime brothers-in-arms, spiritual teachers, and other previously untapped sources from his inner circle, many of whom had refused to speak with biographers until after Salinger’s death.

Salinger at McBurney Prep School.

This biography’s quest, Shields and Salerno note, is three-fold: To understand why Salinger stopped publishing at the height of his success, why he disappeared, and what he spent the last forty-five years of his life writing. That understanding is anchored to two turning points in the author’s life, at once conflicting and osmotic — the brutality he witnessed during World War II and his submergence into the Vedanta religion branching out of Hindu philosophy — presenting a poetic, if heartbreaking symmetry to Salinger’s own inner contradictions. They write:

This is the story of a soldier and writer who escaped death during World War II but never wholly embraced survival, a half-Jew from Park Avenue who discovered at war’s end what it meant to be Jewish. This is an investigation into the process by which a broken soldier and a wounded soul transformed himself, through his art, into an icon of the twentieth century and then, through his religion, destroyed that art.

'The Four Musketeers': (L–R) J. D. Salinger, Jack Altaras, John Keenan, Paul Fitzgerald.

Paul Fitzgerald and J. D. Salinger with their beloved dogs.

And yet, without diminishing the remarkably rigorous research involved, it’s hard not to wonder whether Shields and Salerno, while sneering at the myth-weaving of previous biographies, are simply weaving a myth of their own — a story that is undeniably different from the commonly perpetuated mythology of Salinger’s life, but one that remains a story nonetheless, one driven by that ineffable yet palpably toxic desire to be right rather than to understand, to paint rather than to penetrate, to reduce the complexity and richness of a human being to a cultural currency of possibly shocking facts. As if to know one in life weren’t hard enough, to know one in death seems especially presumptuous. There’s an ever-so-slightly objectionable omniscience with which Shields and Salerno approach Salinger — not of his circumstances, but of his self; not of his biography, but of his being — to a point where he himself begins to read like a character:

Profoundly damaged (not only by the war), he became numb; numb, he yearned to see and feel the unity of all things but settled for detachment toward everyone’s pain except his own, which first overwhelmed and then overtook him. During his second marriage, he steadily distanced himself from his family, spending weeks at a time in his detached bunker, telling his wife, Claire, and children, Matthew and Margaret, “Do not disturb me unless the house is burning down.” Toward Margaret, who dared to embody the rebellious traits his fiction canonizes, he was startlingly remote. His characters Franny, Zooey, and Seymour Glass, despite or because of their many suicidal madnesses, had immeasurably more claim on his heart than his flesh-and-blood family.

Compounding those twinges of dramatization for effect, rather than inquiry for truth, is the fact that the biography accompanies the release of a documentary directed by Salerno, billing itself as “the motion picture event of the year,” complete with a Hollywood suspense-score and a thespian trailer:

And yet, though the trailer promises to reveal “the biggest secret of [Salinger’s] lifetime,” the book admits that there isn’t one — at least not in that dramatic, box-office-ready way:

Salinger’s vault, which we open in the final chapter, contains character- and career-defining revelations, but there is no “ultimate secret” whose unveiling explains the man. Instead, his life contained a series of interlocking events — ranging from anatomy to romance to war to fame to religion — that we disclose, track, and connect.

Creating a private world in which he could control everything, Salinger wrenched immaculate, immortal art from the anguish of World War II. And then, when he couldn’t control everything — when the accumulation of all the suffering was too much for a human as delicately constructed as he to withstand — he gave himself over wholly to Vedanta, turning the last half of his life into a dance with ghosts. He had nothing anymore to say to anyone else.

This begs a question about the direction of cultural debt: When someone swells into celebrity, does he owe the world the innermost contents of his life and private self as the price of public acclaim, or does the public owe him the right of privacy and integrity of self to which every human being is entitled?

That, perhaps, is the most valuable takeaway from Salinger, which, questions of motive aside, remains an exquisitely researched and beautifully engineered piece of storytelling about one of modern history’s most enigmatic personas. What Shields and Salerno give us, above all, is an unprecedented look at the elaborate blueprint of a masterful architect of personal mythology.

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