Home » 8th Season: 2020-2021 » 2020-2021 v.04 » Spiritual and Intellectual Challenges

Spiritual and Intellectual Challenges

By Daniella Pozo, V Form

Spiritual and Intellectual Challenges

In “Teddy,” J.D. Salinger provides the reader with an onslaught of observations and religious teachings in order to challenge even the most highly educated. Through Nicholson’s eyes, the audience feels hostility towards Teddy stemming from deeply ingrained American close-mindedness. How the reader experiences the ensuing conversations depends on one’s ability to welcome doubt. The core story is not meant to sway one’s spiritual beliefs in any direction but rather to make one aware of how susceptible or hostile they are. Themes of American elitism and consumerism seep into Nicholson’s everyday life and nearly keep him from considering any outside perspectives. Through the character of Nicholson, Salinger challenges the reader to focus on nuance and open consideration of ideas instead of focusing on the objective correctness or conclusion to spirituality. 

Nicholson is introduced as a young man with “a kind of poise about him” and wearing a jacket “properly aged in some of the more popular postgraduate seminars at Yale, or Harvard, or Princeton” (Salinger 76). The audience identifies with Nicholson because he seems to be respectable and highly educated. Among his circle, there exist two views: those who are premature to devalue radically different ideas and those that hail those ideas as pure genius. Teddy is a novelty to the Leidekker examining group who choose to play his tape at a party, a setting that trivializes Teddy’s insights and the research process. Nicholson does not approach Teddy out of good faith or love of research but rather because he wants to disprove Teddy for his own ego. He interrupts Teddy and disrespects his beliefs by calling them “mystical” (78). His voice and demeanor falsely suggest that he is above most Americans who do not want to engage with differing ideas. When Teddy decides to teach and ask him how he knows his arm is truly an arm, Nicholson is defensive. This reaction aligns with the resistant attitude American audiences may feel towards Teddy’s personality, insights, and spiritual beliefs. Unfortunately, Nicholson can not understand the merits or downfalls of Teddy’s arguments until he can genuinely engage with them first. Salinger is demanding the audience set aside any preconceived notions so they may understand “what [their] arm really is, if [they’re] interested” (79). In order to read Nicholson’s journey and draw conclusions, readers must balance their American socialization and academic nature. 

The two begin their conversation with their own strong convictions. Therefore, the only way for the story to progress is for one to take intellectual or spiritual superiority over the other. Nicholson is an academic who accumulates knowledge for the sake of it. Given how Teddy is marketed as a child genius by the academic world and his parents, Nicholson is more prone to internalize Teddy’s ideas than vice versa. In essence, Nicholson may be presented as an elite American but his thought process lacks spiritual depth. Academics like the professors and Nicholson do not understand the gravity of the very subjects they are teaching. During Teddy’s interview, “Professor Walton … said he really wished he knew when he was going to die, because then he’d know what work he should do and what work he shouldn’t do, and how to use his time to his best advantage, and all like that”(79). The professors accumulate knowledge about spirituality, but when presented with the opportunity to talk to Teddy, they want to know about the future in order to plan for it. Not only do they treat Teddy like a crystal ball, but they also emphasize American ideas about the supposed value of being efficient. Salinger presents the consumerist approach to knowledge as a spiritual detriment. During this conversation, Teddy explains that he advised Bob Peet to stop teaching “Only because he’s quite spiritual, and he’s teaching a lot of stuff right now that isn’t very good for him if he wants to make any real spiritual advancement. It stimulates him too much” (80). Similarly, the audience can see themselves reflected in Nicholson who is finally able to begin questioning how his own life is affected by American culture and education. Critically, the story does not present spirituality as a one size fits all because not everyone is at the same level of understanding. Unexpectedly, Teddy’s presence brings more questions than answers into Nicholson’s and the professors’ lives.

The ambiguous ending is a test of how much growth the reader and Nicholson have experienced. At the end, Nicholson does not oppose Teddy; he takes a second “[sitting] motionless for some few minutes” (82). It is far easier to become a hollow religious zealot than it is to quietly and independently ponder the nature of existence itself. Salinger’s goal is not to convert anyone but to demonstrate the value of introspection. Teddy can simultaneously employ logic to explain the merits of meditation and chastise Nicholson for “giving [him] a regular, intelligent answer” (79). Instead of using this contradiction as a point of criticism towards Teddy, the reader will get more value from entertaining multiple versions of reality. One interpretation of the ending is that Nicholson chooses to chase Teddy downstairs because he has been transformed into a follower. This idea coincides with the belief that Teddy predicts his own death at the hands of his sister, who then lets out an “all-piercing, sustained scream” (82). This interpretation draws a direct line from start to finish, which suggests that Nicholson (and thus, the audience) have blindly shifted from one American ideology to another belief system without ever having to think for themselves who are in the middle. 

Salinger argues that the act of engaging in intellectual challenges is more important and beneficial than reaching any conclusion. By using America’s intellectual elite, Salinger is making a point about how much work still needs to happen in order to overcome traditional American attitudes towards learning. Nicholson’s role in “Teddy” works alongside the titular character because his relation to the audience gives the story consequences outside of the page. Teddy is nothing without an audience and Nicholson’s background in education lays the groundwork for an open dialogue and interpretation of Teddy’s ideas. Salinger is introducing the reader to concepts of Eastern religion, but the true crux of the story lies in the recognition that no reality is completely knowable. Moreover, the American approach to spirituality is void of challenge and thus, opportunity. After Teddy has passed or his novelty wears off, all that will be left is how Nicholson chooses to incorporate Teddy’s questions into his own life and all of academia. Not by choosing one religion over the other but by rising to Salinger’s challenge of holding different religious ideas in one’s mind with a curious, analytical and illogical attitude. 

Daniella Pozo is a V Form student from the Bronx, New York. She enjoys reading, art, and learning about new ideas. 

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