By Minjae (Izzy) Kim, V Form
America: A Country of Apple Eaters (Salinger’s “Teddy”)
A seven-year-old child is in a math class learning simple addition and subtraction of single digit numbers. To logically approach this mathematical concept, the instructor employs the analogy of cookies; she asks, “If your mom left four cookies on the table, but your sister took two of the cookies, how many cookies can you eat?” A smart and logical child raises his hand and says, “I can eat two cookies!” and the teacher rewards him with a lollipop for correctly answering the question. However, according to Salinger, that child does not deserve a lollipop because he only answered the question logically, not spiritually. Although logic is the primary approach people take to solve most problems, in “Teddy” from Nine Stories, Salinger highlights the conflict between spirituality and logic and uses this dichotomy to guide the readers in interpreting the enigmatic epigraph. To accomplish this, Salinger kills Teddy at the end of the story to verify Teddy’s esoteric wisdom of spirituality, condemn the American view on spirituality, and usher the readers to interpret things spiritually rather than logically.
First, Teddy’s death at the end of the book serves to validate Teddy’s extensive wisdom of spirituality. Compared to the young, immature, unworldly, and helpless protagonists of Salinger’s other stories, Teddy seems to excel in terms of philosophical wisdom. Unlike how the adults turn to the young characters in other stories to pursue youth idyll, in “Teddy,” the adults turn to Teddy to find wisdom, which is something that is often associated with grown-ups. Because he is attributed with a quality that is more often found in adults, it is inevitable for the readers to initially assume that he is only a pretentious kid who tries to feign that he has experienced the coming of age. Due to this skepticism that arises from Teddy’s un-childlike character, it is easy for the audience to pay no heed to Teddy’s statements such as, “[My death] will either happen today or February 14, 1958 when I am sixteen. It is ridiculous to mention even” (182). However, the readers soon realize that Teddy is more credible than they might have assumed. As he predicted, Teddy dies at the end, suggesting that the audience should not have neglected nor doubted Teddy’s wisdom. Moreover, Teddy is characterized as a potent foreseer as he accurately foreshadows how his death will unfold when he says, “My sister might come up and sort of push me in [to the empty pool]. I could fracture my skull and die instantaneously” (193). This description aligns with how his death is depicted at the end: “He was little more than halfway down the staircase when he heard an all-piercing, sustained scream–clearly coming from a small, female child. It was highly acoustical, as though it were reverberating within four tiled walls” (198). Although Salinger never explicitly mentions who dies and how that person dies, one can reasonably deduce that Booper had pushed Teddy into the pool: The “reverberating” walls suggest that the pool was most likely empty, making it possible for Teddy to “fracture [his] skull”, and the “highly acoustical” scream came from Booper because she was terrified to realize that she had unintentionally killed Teddy. Therefore, Teddy’s demise ultimately proves to the readers that he was able to predict his death due to his profound spiritual wisdom.
Furthermore, Salinger kills Teddy to condemn the American view on spirituality. Teddy expresses his discontent at how the systematic school education in America only revolves around logic. He mentions that meditating, which seems to derive from the idea of logic, makes it hard for him to “meditate and live a spiritual life in America [because] people think you’re a freak if you try to” (188). In fact, he believes that the reason he was “incarnated in an American body” is because he failed to be spiritual enough in his previous life because he was distracted by a woman. Here, Salinger criticizes the way Americans get distracted by trivial things such as “love” and fail to explore their spirituality. To make Americans feel ashamed of their overreliance on logic, Salinger portrays being born as an American as a punishment for failing to be spiritual and religious. Thus, the author censures America’s shallow practice of spiritual enlightenment and the inanity of using logic to solve everything by killing Teddy at the end.
Moreover, Teddy’s death acts as Salinger’s call for America to shift from a logical to a spiritual approach when solving problems. Teddy baffles Nicholson when he asks him to raise his hand and tell Teddy what he is raising. When Nicholson replies that he is raising his “arm”, Teddy says: “You know it’s called an arm, but how do you know it is one? Do you have any proof that it’s an arm?” (190). Nicholson logical response to this question irritates Teddy, so he says, “logic’s the first thing you have to get rid of” to go beyond the “finite dimensions” (190). In addition, Teddy mentions that even those who teach religion or philosophy are “afraid to die” even though death is just a gateway for a new birth. The discrepancy in Teddy’s attitude toward death in contrast to the general public’s fear of death further suggests how Teddy can be less perturbed by death because he does not focus on the logicality of death, but on the posthumous spiritual development that comes with a new life. This call for action goes beyond the scope of the story as it connects with the Koan that is introduced in the epigraph. Throughout the book, it is probable that the readers would have tried to answer “what is the sound of one hand clapping?” by tediously analyzing the text. However, the closest that the audience can get to answering the question is when they reach “Teddy”, the last story of Salinger’s Nine Stories. The readers realize that they cannot know what the sound of one hand clapping is unless they try to approach the question from a spiritual point of view. All of Teddy’s aforementioned claims serve to convey the idea that logic cannot be used to answer all questions. Salinger intentionally challenges the readers with a cryptic epigraph at the beginning of the novel, believing that the readers, just like Nicholson, will try to find the answer to the question by logically analyzing the stories. However, with his stories, Salinger guides the readers to realize that people should empty their mind and rather approach this kind of a question spiritually. Hence, with Teddy’s death, Salinger delivers his belief that Americans should use a on spiritual approach to questions and problems.
Teddy’s death acts as a confirmation of Teddy’s spiritual wisdom, vilification of America’s superficial spirituality, and persuasion that increased practice of spirituality is needed in the American society. It is not a coincidence that Salinger places “Teddy” as the last story of his short story collection; “Teddy” elucidates that Salinger’s stories were not meant to be taken logically and that the whole collection was a Koan in itself. Guided by the broader question of “What is the sound of one hand clapping?”, the collection suggests that knowledge and logic is meaningless because it does not solve questions that require spiritual contemplation.
Minjae (Izzy) Kim is a V Form boarding student from Seoul, South Korea. She is a member of SAC, is an avid coder, and is interested in the study and preservation of sacred places.