Happiness, Salinger, and Popular Religion.

Rav Soloveitchik in his famous footnote number four in Halakhic Man spends over  two pages decrying the seeking of happiness and solace through religion. For him, true religion is about psychic upheavals, pangs, and torments from anxiety, anguish and tension. He claims that those who seek the stillness of peace and tranquility are non-Orthodox Jews and are “Typical of this attitudes the Christian Science movement.”  Leaving aside the empiricism of this statement, he would not be sanguine about the current Orthodox emphasis on instant happiness through Torah, outreach by promising happiness, or the goal of producing studies to show the happiness quotient of Orthodoxy.

In today’s NYT, there is a review of recent literature that critiques happiness. The quotes speak for themselves on the happiness industry as silly. There are five basic principles of a benign happiness that would apply to the followers of any denomination or Church. And that true happiness is a fleeting emotion related to the peaks of the transient not to a warm bed, friends, and a job.

Smart people often talk trash about happiness, and worse than trash about books on happiness, and they have been doing so for centuries — just as long as other people have been pursuing happiness and writing books about it. The fashion is to bemoan happiness studies and positive psychology as being the work not of the Devil (the Devil is kind of cool), but of morons. “

In “Bright-Sided,” Barbara Ehrenreich recently looked with dismay at what she views as the industry of happiness, a culture bludgeoned by insistent — even aggressive — good cheer.

We could canvass Gore, Rubin, Gilbert, the Dalai Lama and the many authors on the happier.com Web site and produce the Fundamentally Sound, Sure-Fire Top Five Components of Happiness: (1) Be in possession of the basics — food, shelter, good health, safety. (2) Get enough sleep. (3) Have relationships that matter to you. (4) Take compassionate care of others and of yourself. (5) Have work or an interest that engages you.

The real problem with happiness is neither its pursuers nor their books; it’s happiness itself. Happiness is like beauty: part of its glory lies in its transience. It is deep but often brief (as Frost would have it), and much great prose and poetry make note of this. Frank Kermode wrote, “It seems there is a sort of calamity built into the texture of life.” To hold happiness is to hold the understanding that the world passes away from us, that the petals fall and the beloved dies.

In honor of Salinger’s death, many tributes have been placed on the web. (I am still waiting for an Abrahm Sutzkever tribute with content.) Fifty years ago, a theologically oriented literary critic noted that the success of J. D. Salinger was to offer us the torments of hell that we can enjoy. Salinger’s characters rejected the cant of society including its petty views of happiness for a more exquisite torment of those who truly hope.

The literary critic Donald Barr wrote “Saints, Pilgrims and Artists” for Commonweal more than fifty years ago, in 1957, but its analysis remains sharp and insightful

Most of Salinger’s work, therefore, is about those who think they are in hell, a place where the soul suffers according to its qualities, and without escape.

Ordinarily, we all are interested in hell. Ten people have read and enjoyed the Inferno for every one who has read the Purgatorio or the Paradiso. It is fun; like looking at real estate, it gives us a sense of our own possibilities. But Salinger’s hell is different. It is hell for the good, who can feel pain, who really love or hope to love. On the gate of this hell we do not read the words, “Lasciate ogni speranza, voi ch’entrate.” Hope is not abandoned here—hope is the implement of torture, hope deferred. We identify ourselves both with the victims and the devils. And it is not strange real estate. It is home.

Salinger wrote in the 1950’s. Hudnut-Beumler in his Looking for God in the Suburbs: The Religion of the American Dream and Its Critics. 1945-1965 points out the role of solace and happiness in 1950’s religion and the importance of the jeremiads against it by the intellectuals.

In 1946 Rabbi Joshua Liebman, a leading Reform rabbi promised happiness through organized religion in his best seller Peace of Mind, which reached #1 on the NYT charts.  In the 1950’s, many Churches took his advice. As did most modern Orthodox rabbis  in the RCA who wrote definitive books on the Jewish Way in Love and Marriage or in Death and Mourning. Happiness and psychological well-being was promised as the immediate reward of the rituals.

We have just lived through a period similar to the 1950’s, with simple answers and projected resolutions of all problems through organized religion. Barbara Ehrenreich and Amy Bloom now and Salinger and Rav Soloveitchik in the 1950’s, remind us that there is more to religion than simplistic quotients of happiness.

One response to “Happiness, Salinger, and Popular Religion.

  1. : “I am still waiting for an Abrahm Sutzkever tribute with content.”

    http://www.tabletmag.com/scroll/25256/the-last-great-yiddish-poet/

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