IBSA (ISKCON Bhaktivedanta Sadhana Asrama), Govardhana, India 23 January 2004
Chicken Soup (and frogs' legs, snails, and martinis) for the Soul
The reader may be aware that there's a New Age sort of book published not long ago with the title Chicken Soup for the Soul. Since then a string of sequels was put out by the same author. Well, here I'm not writing about that book. The review you're about to read in today's journal is about a book that was published in magazine form in the late 1950's and then in book form in 1961. Though nearly fifty years old, the book is remarkably New Age-y in a folksy American way. It even has something to say about the spiritual significance of chicken soup.
But if it's the religious life you want, you ought to know right now that you're missing out on every single [expletive deleted] religious action that's going on around this house. You don't even have sense enough to drink when somebody brings you a cup of consecrated chicken soup--which is the only kind of chicken soup [Mother] ever brings to anybody around this madhouse. . . How in hell are you going to recognize a legitimate holy man when you see one if you don't even know a cup of consecrated chicken soup when it's right in front of your nose?
The name of the book is Franny and Zooey. The author is J. D. Salinger, whose Catcher in the Rye I wrote about last summer in this journal. Somewhere, years ago, HH Satsvarupa dasa Gosvami discussed Franny and Zooey, but what I have to say does not refer to his remarks.
The title characters, Franny (for Francis) and Zooey (for Zachary) are sister and brother in a large New York family called Glass. The Glass family figures prominently in Salinger's fiction; in 1948, for instance, he published a short story, "A Perfect Day for Bananafish," in which Seymour Glass, Franny and Zooey's eldest brother, plays in the sea with a little girl and then goes back to his beachfront hotel to shoot himself in the head.
Anyway, for a book published nearly fifty years ago, the central theme of Franny and Zooey is quite interesting--yes, interesting even for Hare Krsna devotees. The Franny part of the book saw print in 1955 in The New Yorker magazine; thus ten years before Srila Prabhupada arrived in New York, people in that city were reading about Francis Glass, a modern American college girl who committed herself to chant the Jesus Prayer constantly. (For more about the Jesus Prayer, see In2-MeC of 24 December 2003. ) Franny's inspiration was a little book called The Way of a Pilgrim. Quite a number of Hare Krsna devotees have read this book too. If you've read it, you know it's about a Russian peasant who walks from holy place to holy place around Russia of the 1800s, taking only bread, salt and water for nourishment, while constantly chanting "Lord Jesus Christ, have mercy on me. "
The chanting of the Jesus Prayer is a practice most known in Eastern Orthodox Christianity, although Catholicism has a place for it too. The practice has its root in a New Testament injunction, "Pray without ceasing. " It is expounded upon in The Philokalia, a collection of quotations from early Fathers of the Church. Sample:
Those who meditate unceasingly upon this glorious and holy name in the depths of their hearts can sometimes see the light of their own intellect. For when the mind is closely concentrated upon this name, then we grow fully conscious that the name is burning up all the filth which covers the surface of the soul; for it is written: Our God is a consuming fire (Deut. 4:24). Then the Lord awakens in the soul a great love for His glory; for when the intellect with fervour of heart maintains persistently its remembrance of the precious name, then that name implants in us a constant love for its goodness, since there is nothing now that stands in the way.
The practice of chanting the Jesus Prayer is to be taken up under the instruction of a spiritual master. In The Way of a Pilgrim, the peasant begins his chanting with the blessings of a starets, an elderly religious teacher. Franny, speaking in a restaurant to her boyfriend Lane, explains:
. . . the starets tells the pilgrim that if you keep saying that prayer over and over again--you only have to just do it with your lips at first--then eventually what happens, the prayer becomes self-active. Something happens after a while. I don't know what, but something happens, and the words get synchronized with the person's heartbeats, and then you're actually praying without ceasing. Which has a really tremendous, mystical effct on your whole outlook. I mean that's the whole point of it, more or less. I mean you do it to purify your whole outlook and get an absolutely new conception of what everything's about.
A bit later Franny says:
I just think it's a terribly peculiar coincidence that you keep running into that kind of advice--I mean all these really advanced and absolutely unbogus religious persons that keep telling you if you repeat the name of God incessantly, something happens. Even in India. In India, they tell you to meditate on the 'Om,' which means the same thing, really, and the exact same result is supposed to happen.
It seems that Franny has reached a crisis in her life, much as Holden Caulfield came to a breaking point in Catcher in the Rye. But whereas Holden ends up in an institution for the psychologically disturbed, Franny takes up chanting the Jesus Prayer. About her frustrations with life around her, she says:
Everything everybody does is so--I don't know--not wrong, or even mean, or even stupid necessarily. But just so tiny and meaningless and--sad-making. And the worst part is, if you go bohemian or something crazy like that, you're conforming just as much as everybody else, only in a different way.
Lane is concerned. Not just by Fanny's babbling about how empty life is, nor that she's taken up the Jesus Prayer--but she's pale and moody. She has a headache and no appetite. She even faints in the middle of the restaurant. Later, when they're alone, he suggests her troubles are because they haven't had sex for a month. Which may be a hidden joke by Salinger, since--though it is never stated openly--some of Franny's symptoms indicate that she is pregnant. It's been said, "Motherhood is the cause of all the world's problems. " If Franny is becoming a mother, then it was sex with Lane that put her in that condition. Yet lusty Lane thinks having sex with him again will pull her out of her condition.
At lunch in the restaurant Franny drinks a martini. She orders a chicken sandwich but has no appetite to even take a bite. Lane has a martini too, and while she's preaching to him about the Jesus Prayer, he tucks into frogs' legs, snails, and salad.
I've read The Way of a Pilgrim, and I remember that the pilgrim was firm in his diet of renunciation--bread and water only. He even refused fish offered him by a pious Christian family. People my age remember when Catholics didn't eat meat on Fridays; but fish was a bona fide substitute. Yet even fish was too worldly for this pilgrim committed to unceasing prayer. Salinger doesn't develop this line of thought at all. Another thing is, he has all his characters smoking like chimneys from the novel's beginning to its end.
In "Zooey," the second part of the book, Franny's at home. Her slightly older brother Zooey comes to counsel her at the urgings of their mother Bessie. Franny won't eat. She took only two spoonfuls of Bessie's chicken soup for the soul. Her lips are constantly moving in prayer.
It's this talk Zooey has with Franny that I find annoying. From what I've read about him, Salinger was a home-made Buddhist, as were other 1950's American authors and poets like Jack Kerouac, Allen Ginsberg and Gary Snyder. Kerouac etc. were Beats, but Salinger didn't hang out with them; he was a recluse. Anyway, Zooey means to undermine Franny's new-found dedication to the Jesus Prayer, and there is a voidistic thrust to his arguments.
As a matter of simple logic, there's no difference at all, that I can see, between the man who's greedy for material treasure--or even intellectual treasure--and the man who's greedy for spiritual treasure. . . it seems to me that ninety per cent of all the world-hating saints in history were just as acquisitive and unattractive, basically, as the rest of us are.
Now, in the next quotation Salinger, through the mouth of Zooey, seems to be dabbling in that paradoxical line of thought found in Zen Buddhism: that the material world, when seen rightly without ego, is perfect.
. . . 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 [expletive deleted] thing right back to our lousy little egos.
In one of his hit songs of the 'sixties, pop star Donovan sang a line from Zen Buddhist philosophy: "First there is a mountain, then there is no mountain, then there is. " Which means before enlightenment one sees a mountain as everybody else sees it. Then at the moment of satori (the Zen state of peak insight), the mountain fades into nothingness. After satori, the mountain is seen once again--but not as the unenlightened egoist sees it. It has become, to use Zooey's words, a really nice thing of the world.
All right. At this point Pandit Quibblebrain might pipe up, "But devotees also see the material world differently in Krsna consciousness. Srila Prabhodananda Sarasvati writes, visvam purna-sukhayate, 'the whole world becomes bliss' for a devotee who's been blessed by Mahaprabhu's mercy. "
Yeah, but chicken soup? Consecrated chicken soup? Murgi-rasam prasad?
Franny wants to renounce. She was an aspiring actress, but now she's quit her college theater. What's more, she's decided to quit college altogether. She realizes she doesn't love Lane. Her mind is following the Russian pilgrim, and it seems her body will soon follow too. Zooey wants her to drink Bessie's consecrated chicken soup, get back into theater, continue her studies, get on with her life as it was. It comes down to this:
You can say the Jesus Prayer from now till doomsday, but if you don't realize that the only thing that counts in the religious life is detachment, I don't see how you'll ever move an inch. Detachment. . . and only detachment. Desirelessness. 'Cessation from all hankerings. ' It's this business of desiring, if you want to know the [expletive deleted] truth, that makes an actor in the first place. Why're you making me tell you things you already know? Somewhere along the line--in one damn incarnation or another, if you like--you not only had a hankering to be an actor or an actress but to be a good one. You're stuck with it now. You can't just walk out on the results of your own hankerings. Cause and effect. . . cause and effect. The only thing you can do now, the only religious thing you can do, is act. Act for God, if you want to--be God's actress, if you want to.
Pandit Quibblebrain is all excited. He's bursting to point out that similarly, Bhagavad-gita teaches us to be detached and engage our karma in the service of the Lord.
Indeed, Salinger has Zooey read the Bhagavad-gita to prepare himself for his onslaught on Franny's resolve to renounce everything and just chant.
You have the right to work, but for the work's sake only. You have no right to the fruits of work. Desire for the fruits of work must never be your motive in working. Never give way to laziness, either. Perform every action with your heart fixed on the Supreme Lord. . .
The Gita emphasizes acting in devotion to the Supreme Lord.
Still, there's a difference between what this passage of the Gita instructs and what Zooey says to Franny. The Gita emphasizes acting in devotion to the Supreme Lord. Zooey tells Franny that the main thing that counts is detachment and only detachment. "If she wants to" she can act for God. If she wants to. The main thing is to not act for herself and thus become one of those world-hating, unattractive saints greedy for spiritual treasure.
Zooey's final argument so annoys me I shall not quote it. I'll just give a summary. He urges her to act (in both senses of general activity and acting on stage), and to act well, not merely apathetically, by imagining a sickly fat lady out in the audience who is depending up Franny to lift her out of her depression. "Be funny for the Fat Lady. " It turns out that everybody in the world is that fat lady. In the end the fat lady is God. "And don't you know--listen to me, now--don't you know who that Fat Lady really is?" Zooey asks Franny urgently. ". . . It's Christ Himself. Christ Himself. . . "
Work is worship. The poor man in the street, the sickly fat lady sitting at home next to her radio, are God. God means a whole world full of poor daridra-narayanas in need of consecrated chicken soup.
Not this rascaldom, daridra-narayana. Just like one rascal has manufactured this daridra-narayana. The poor man has become Narayana, and the goat Narayana is killed for their feeding. Not this kind of sadhu. Suhrdam sarva-bhutanam. A sadhu will not allow any kind of killing. See in the Christian religion, it is first injunction is "Thou shalt not kill. " If you want to become religious. . . They are simply killing, and still, they are claiming "Christian. "
Shall I say more? I don't think it's worth it. Though I did like reading about self-activated chanting of the Lord's holy name, which is really our goal, isn't it?