In an interview on The Diane Rehm Show, Kenneth Slawenski, author of the new biography J. D. Salinger: A Life, claims that he doesn't know what this line means. In the biography, he calls the ending of Catcher "ambiguous" and says that "Salinger has deliberately left it to readers to insert their own selves, their own doubts, aspirations, and dissatisfactions, in order to complete [Holden's] journey."
I've never felt any ambiguity in that line or the ending of The Catcher in the Rye. To me, it expresses the essence of the spiritual battle that Salinger and anyone who commits to self-awareness/God consciousness/Oneness (insert whatever phrase suits you) must face. If you connect—to yourself and to others—if you really share beauty, God, your essence, you will have acknowledged that everyone is God . . . and, so long as you can tolerate feeling this epiphany, you will feel a sweet missing. You will simultaneously hurt and feel unbearable sweetness. I believe this sweet missing is a God state. God misses God: Because God is lonely to see God, we fractured little God beings play this game to relearn who we are. Loneliness drives us to know our God selves. And when we do, we feel the sweet missing at the root of the craving. Or, as Holden says, "you start missing everybody."
In Slawenski's copiously researched and deeply respectful biography, we learn that J. D. Salinger considered his writing to be his spiritual practice, his meditation. In an amazing chapter about his experiences in combat during World War II—a time which may have ignited his spiritual quest—we learn that Salinger carried the first six chapters of The Catcher in the Rye on his person for comfort as he dodged bullets and hid in frigid, muddy foxholes.
As his characters did in his fiction, Salinger waged a lifelong battle against his own intolerance, judgments, and obsession with the fruits of his practice, which he strove to be detached from, according to his Zen Buddhist and Vedanta teachings. When betrayed, he cut off from people forever. He sought complete control of every aspect of his output and was livid when, in the early days, titles were changed without his approval or books appeared with gaudy covers. He lashed out at critics for "analyzing Catcher on an intellectual rather than spiritual level, therefore stripping the novel of its intrinsic beauty." He blamed reviewers "for their inability to feel the experience of The Catcher in the Rye . . ."
But he was caught in a vicious circle: "Since he viewed writing as a form of meditation, the perfecting [and increasing popularity of] his writing resulted in the very product that fed his ego." Unlike his characters, who cathartically dove into the almost intolerable sweet missing of realizing that everyone was God and that there was a perfection to our human imperfection, Salinger apparently isolated himself more and more. "'I feel closed off from all general or personal conversation these years and consort with almost no one,'" Slawenski quotes him as saying (in an exchange with his friend E. Michael Mitchell, Dec. 25, 1984). And the more he hid from public view, the more aggressive became the intrusions of people wanting to know and write about him.
I admit I wish I had known Salinger. I began reading J. D. Salinger: A Life with ambivalence, fearing that I was betraying my hero's privacy. But I finished it feeling as if selfless service has been done by Kenneth Slawenski, who devoted eight years to the research and writing and is so subservient to his subject as to be almost invisible. Like Salinger, who refused to allow his photograph on his book jackets, Slawenski remains almost anonymous, except for a five-line biography that identifies his website, DeadCaulfields.com.
I wish I could have had conversations with Salinger about the battle between connecting and isolation, accepting and intolerance, service and control. But ironically, just a year after his death, some of these battles are becoming almost obsolete. Connecting is unstoppable and has brought down the governments of Tunisia and Egypt. As fast as people think they can keep secrets, a WikiLeaks pops up to expose them. Anybody who wants total control over their book can simply self-publish and sell it through Amazon.com. There is such visibility that we are becoming increasingly invisible in the enormous blur of it all. Does this mean the end of the fight is near? Because there is nothing to fight about? Oh, how I'd love to phone Salinger and ask him what he thinks.