• Gail Wilson Kenna

After Heavy Rain… with Millipedes and Epictetus

I stopped counting this Sunday morning after another mass killing of millipedes in house and cottage. I had been calling them centipedes until I did some research. At an inch-long and black, they curl when touched, crunch when crushed, unless their innate reaction is quicker than my foot. In which case, they encircle death.

Then I must step on them again because they have the capacity for rebirth. Even when I use toilet paper to pick one up, a millipede leaves behind a rancid smell. In the past week I have eliminated hundreds. No exaggeration. One University site says: Harmless. Do not use pesticides. Okay, not to worry. What Ace Hardware suggested has had little effect.

What does this have to do with J.D. Salinger's Franny and Zooey?

At nineteen, the year before I took classical literature during junior year (see a former blog and my age error) I read Salinger's short story and novella, both packed in one small book. ("Franny" first appeared in a 1955 issue of The New Yorker.) In the fall of 1962, as a sophomore at USC, I knew nothing about a spiritual practice like Buddhism, had not heard of chakras, or so much else that emerged in the counter-culture late 1960s. As a life-long killer of unwanted spiders and bugs, I was already marked as a poor candidate for Buddhism. And Franny's existential crisis, trying on various spiritual practices, precipitated my repeated question: Why I am, Where I am, and Why I am Traveling at all? But I was not about to mediate on one word or begin reciting the Jesus prayer with every breath, as Franny tried to do. (Lord Have Mercy). Having lost an inherited Protestant faith, the hybrid, Calvinistic, Presbyterian church, I found nothing to replace it.

At one point in Zooey, the novella, Franny recounts to her brother that she had filled a classroom's blackboard with every quote from Epictetus she could remember. At nineteen when I was reading F & Z, I had not heard of Epictetus and did not trudge to USC's Doheny Library to identify him. But during senior year, I learned who E. was in The Roman World, a course taught by the brilliant Dr. Africa, which followed The Greek World with this professor. (It occurs to me that my blog about literature is also dedicated to teachers I've loved and appreciated!)

What did I learn about Epictetus? He was Greek by birth, a slave in Rome, made lame from torture his master had inflicted. But this former slave, influenced by Stoicism, became a teacher after gaining his freedom, and later he was recognized as an authority on Stoic morals, such as "reverencing the Voice of Reason in the soul." His oral sayings were eventually transcribed in history. Yet Franny Glass at her university had done what followers of Epictetus did: They memorized his sayings. But Franny admits to Zooey: "Epictetus would have absolutely hated me doing this" (writing on the blackboard, as if having lost her mind!). I only see the irony now, after re-reading F&Z.

This morning following another millipede 'scrupper', I sat in the cottage and read from a Harvard Classics on Epictetus. These lovely books on heavy paper have hardcovers in contrast to my .50 cent, used, F & Z, which measures 6 1/2 by 4 inches. The six-inch, thin wood bookmark I used for measurement was a gift. Why until just now, had I not noticed the words beneath a mysterious symbol indented in the smooth wood? " Happiness is a voyage, not a destination." (Tell that to Thomas Mann's Aschenbach!)

Okay, here is one from Epictetus for billboards all over the USA and the mirror in my bathroom. "The question at stake is no common one; it is this: Are we in our senses, or are we not?"

Next week: Why I am happy to have taken a second voyage with Franny and Zooey!

12 views0 comments

Recent Posts

See All