if I be not fool enough to make open confession
--Edgar Allen Poe, Necromancer (1988)
I’m just sick of ego, ego, ego.
My own and everybody else's
--Franny and Zooey
I hope to hell that when I do die somebody
has the sense to just dump me in the river or something.
Anything except sticking me in a goddamn cemetery
Friend and associate DM, Army vet and poet, recently contacted us about some distress he is facing; as a result he will no longer be publishing his poetry. This is our loss, and it got me thinking about the 1950 J.D. Salinger story, For Esmé — with Love and Squalor.
Esme is the story of a WWII soldier, Sergeant X, who suffers a nervous breakdown (presumably Salinger himself), and a 13-year-old English girl, Esme, whom he meets in a Devon tea room before the D-Day invasion. Esme is precocious, and asks X bluntly,
"Are you very deeply in love with your wife? Or am I being too personal?"
"I said that when she was, I'd speak up."
X does not answer that question alone among the others she had posed. Later, he quotes Dostoevsky who says hell is the "suffering of being unable to love." This presages a later indictment from a psychology major that he was probably "unstable all of his life." Certainly, he displays a measure of estrangement.
Salinger describes soldier X as bringing a "gas mask container full of books" from the Other Side (the U.S.), and synchronizing his wristwatch with one in the latrine before heading out for his chance meeting with Esme, who hopes for him that he returns from battle "intact". Later, we are told he did not make it through "with all his faculties intact." It is ambiguous as to whether he entered fully intact, or not.However, post invasion, X's break from society is complete. The now dirty-haired, face-twitching and hand-palsied veteran receives Esma's dead father's wristwatch as a "Lucky talisman," but the crystal is broken, symbolically calling into question his future and maybe indicating the deterioration of his ability to keep time (past, present and future) in perspective. With the lens cover removed, it is too easy to reach into the mechanism and smash time altogether.
The soldier's trauma is summarized here, and is as valid in 2010 as it was 60 years ago:
There are still professionals who believe PTSD is the refuge of parasites, or that it is an illusion or an affliction that only bites weak-minded people. These thoughts have been expressed to me, and I imagine it is a comfort to the person expressing them. It absolves them from responsibility for the soldier's lack of emotional range, and the thought that there might be some event so traumatic that it might reduce their own range of expression. By denying PTSD, society rids itself of culpability, placing the responsibility for defect onto the soldier's shoulders.
"Yeah. She's interested as hell in all that stuff. She's majoring in psychology." Clay stretched himself out on the bed, shoes included. "You know what she said? She says nobody gets a nervous breakdown just from the war and all. She says you probably were unstable like, your whole goddam life."
This is unfair, unfeeling and wrong since there is already too much on their shoulders which they never expected to experience. Unlike the broken watch glass, a soldier's psyche is much harder to see and repair. Replacement is not an option.
It is unclear whether soldier X arrived at battle with psychiatric troubles or not. He may have been troubled or somewhat dissociated, but his battle engagement severed his ability to wear the social mantle. Like the broken crystal, his shield is now cracked.
The post war period was rife with literature of trauma, but little was made of the fact. Salinger was always treated as an eccentric hermit, sometimes dirty and disheveled. This was construed as being the trappings of a bohemian artist, when it may have been the result of combat trauma.
Salinger's most famous character, Holden Caulfield -- anthematic for generations of alienated youth -- may stand as surrogate for the emotionally arrested young soldier who re-enters a society in which he feels himself to be an outsider. Soldier X changed following his conversation with a precocious pre-teen, whose directness touches him. She may sense his fragility by telling him she will initiate their written correspondence, so that he will not feel "compromised in any way."
Salinger's millieu was always that of the young adult, perhaps the stage in which he was frozen, the rebel who nonetheless feels his own insecurity, and perhaps for the last times feels a part of a recalcitrant society of one. In this rejection, the rebel-teen is wholly his own, even if rejected from membership in something larger. For the rest of his life, Salinger embraced the power of "No".
Salinger is now beyond the cares of this world, but we get it. We in the U.S. are now well-acquainted with squalor, and many of us are temporarily insane. At least, as with soldier X, we hope it's temporary.
--Lisa and Jim