For most of my life I have, in an off-again, on-again kind of way, been stuck between the noble tragedy of wanting to live for (what some would call) a “bad” reason and the absurdity of wanting to die for (what others would say is) no reason at all.
Much might be said of that, I guess. People have written entire books about it and, truth be told, I just more or less stole the idea from near the end of J.D. Salinger’s Catcher in the Rye, which I’ve just read.
I read it before, a long time ago; I think it was when I was actually studying English literature, i.e. literature written in the English language, not literature written by people who live in England, although I studied plenty of that, too. I don’t suppose anybody can study literature written in the English language without studying plenty of literature written by people who live in England.
I read Catcher in the Rye the first time because I wanted to know that about which all the fuss was. People had been saying that it’s a wonderful book: a classic, even. So, I read it a few decades ago and didn’t get it; whatever it was about the book that made people say it’s a classic (or a masterpiece, or something like that) was lost on me. I’d found it rather tedious: the completely self-absorbed wanderings of a nasty, spoiled young man named Holden Caulfield who haphazardly screwed up everything he did but always got another chance because his wealthy dad kept bailing him out. I have long thought that what Holden needed most of all was somebody to say, “Get over it, you jagged-edged, amateur malcontent. Your feelings aren’t all of reality. Go out in the world you indulgently condemn, work with the people you childishly find so reprehensible, and make your own way. If you make it, you make it, and if you don’t, you don’t, and that’s about all of it. Few people can care much about your ongoing tantrum, although you’ve made it the center of all of life and the whole world: the tedious conniption of a pampered youngster whose wealthy father has afforded him the unfortunate luxury of prolonging his outburst: his narcissistic, post-adolescent (and, as the story goes, apparently somewhat post-traumatic) rage.”
The worst thing that happened to Holden Caulfield, as far as I was concerned, was that his dad was rich. If his dad hadn’t been rich, Holden wouldn’t have had the luxury of melodramatically sublimating his painful but nonetheless run-of-the-mill problems into a burdensome, destructive passion play that goes on, and on, and on, long after its rightful end has come and gone, long after it has ceased to matter in the grand scheme, and long—about 150 pages—after it had ceased to matter to me.
Jeepers, kid. Life is difficult. Cowboy up and deal with it. If you can’t, then you can’t, and you’re certainly not all alone in that regard.
Some critics said that the book was written in the “subjective voice,” which is what Salinger intended. From that perspective, Salinger had accomplished exactly what he’d set out to accomplish, and I didn’t like it.
Maybe Salinger overdid the “subjective voice,” because—to me, anyway—the book wasn’t so much about “the world according to Holden Caulfield”—which would have been the “subjective voice”—but a world with only Holden Caulfield in it, and in which the only things that mattered were Holden Caulfield’s caustic feelings and observations. That is, after all, what the book was about.
So as you can see, I wasn’t all that thrilled with The Catcher in the Rye. But the title keeps coming up—a lot of people are really crazy about the book—so I decided to read it again, now, nigh on 35 years after I’d read it the first time, to find what I’d missed.
I figured I must’ve missed something. If everybody thinks The Catcher in the Rye is such a brilliant piece of literature and I don’t, I surely must’ve missed something when I read it. I’m not one to fall for the idea that I’m right—that The Catcher in the Rye is an okay story, but no “classic”—and everybody else—all these people who think it’s a masterpiece of American fiction—are wrong. (In other words, I am not Holden Caulfield.) After all, Catcher in the Rye has sold over 65 million copies, so it must have something going for it. Somebody must think it’s a one of the best books ever written. If I read the book again, I’d surely see why. I’d surely get it.
I just reread the book. I still don’t get it. It’s an okay story, but a “masterpiece”?
Maybe it’s a “masterpiece,” but not for the reasons people say it is.
I think The Outsiders—another “teen” novel, also written in the “subjective voice”—is a lot better: much more “human,” realistic, and quotable, beginning with its opening sentence.
But, truth be told, I’ve encountered a lot of “classic, masterpiece” literature in my time that I didn’t much like because, as it turns out, it had come out exactly as its authors had wanted it to. From this I learned that the beauty of this piece of literature or that one is very often in the eyes of the literary critics, and if even well-respected critics say a piece of literature is “a classic” or “a masterpiece” that doesn’t necessarily mean it is. It simply means that the critics liked it. “Beauty,” as it turns out, really is “in the eye of the beholder,” just as various astute observers of the human condition have long said.
I think part of the problem with The Catcher in the Rye is that it’s about a kid who lives in New York City, where most of the book’s characters also live, and where most of its plot occurs. This means, of course, that people in New York City will say it’s a wonderful book— a masterpiece—even if it’s not. I’ve been living in this country for over 59 years now, and I’ve found that this is true; people in New York City are fond of stories about—you guessed it—New York City and the people in it.
This isn’t a bad thing. The same is probably true about people everywhere, and people who have built their identities by believing they belong to this group of people, or that group of people (such as the people who belong to “the group of people in New York City”). People in this state or that one, or people from a specific geographical region, or from a specific country, or people of a specific skin color, or socio-economic group, or political party, or from one of the two (I believe we have only two) genders, or even fans of a specific sports team: we are all the same way. We believe that everything that comes out of the groups to which we belong is full of truth, and honesty (which aren’t the same thing), and the real meaning of life, and all that sort of thing. You take any group of people, even loosely defined, and you find that the people in that group believe that their group is special and better in every way than all other groups.
I can’t really fault people for being this way because it’s more or less simply the way people are. People form their identities by calling themselves members of this group or that one. Sometimes they “join” groups by choice, and other times they’re simply born into them. But in either case, people believe—and advance the belief—that their group is better and more somehow significant than all the other groups. The music to which their group listens, and the clothes their group wears, and the food their group eats, and the booze their group drinks, and the language their groups speaks and, most of all, the things their group believe, are all superior to those of other groups.
“Hurrah for our side,” Mr. Stills sang in Buffalo Springfield’s song, “For What it’s Worth.”
This only makes sense, when you think of it. That is to say, would people form their foundational identities by calling themselves members of groups that they believe are inferior to others? Some people might seem to do that; they might identify themselves as members of the group commonly (and erroneously, in my opinion) known as “the inferior losers,” or “the unworthy rejects,” or “the group of people most disliked by others and down upon whom most others look with disgust and contempt.”
That is to say, some people like belonging to “inferior” groups and are proud of it. But ironically enough, these people—who, seeking an identity, opt to join or, by “accident,” are born into so-called “inferior” groups—find large measures of nobility in their supposedly widely perceived down-and-out social status; and in fact, given the chance to abandon identities as members of these down-and-out groups, these people will refuse because they’re just getting too much doggone mileage out of seeing themselves as members of the group of inferior, unworthy, down-and-out losers and rejects.
(Slogan: “No one loves me but my mother, and she could be jivin’ too.” – B. B. King.)
Maybe being a member of the “rejected loser” club, or the “victim’s” club, isn’t so bad, seeing as so many people who could part ways with these groups—and with their attendant identities—choose not to do so; and some of these people, when offered passage to happier, more “respected” groups, will even get damned angry.
Even this is not such a bad thing. It seems crazy to embrace membership in a defeatist group. But upon analysis, it’s understandable. If a person forms his or her fundamental identity by belonging to this group or that one—even if it’s the group of spat-upon wretches—it’s kind of hard to just quit and move on because by quitting and moving on, he or she is kind of admitting that everything he or she supposedly believed about him- or herself, and about everybody in the world, and about life in general, and about the universe, was all a lot of bologna. Such a move can call a person’s entire integrity into question, in his or her own eyes, and in everybody else’s eyes, too. People who change their identities like that: as easily and frequently as they change a television’s channel . . .. Who can believe in them? How can they even believe in themselves?
“Today I belong to the group of people who are flaming atheists. Tomorrow I’ll join the group of people who are Archbishops. So it goes.”
So people everywhere form their fundamental identities by—willingly or unwillingly, formally or informally— “joining” this group or that one and, for the most part, they believe their groups are more special and full of meaning than other groups, and they cling to that, and all of that makes sense. Again: this is what human beings do.
But this entirely human and therefore tolerable and understandable phenomenon becomes burdensome when it comes to “the group of people in New York City” because so many literary critics and publishers belong to that group. They naturally believe that everything about their group is superior to everything about other groups. The Catcher in the Rye is about people in their group, so they love it; and they believe that their beliefs are superior to other groups’ beliefs, so it follows: they believe that if they say The Catcher in the Rye is wonderful, then it really is.
But here’s the thing: most of the major news and information broadcasting companies have long been based in New York City, so “The group of people in New York City” also controls communication. They can flood the entire country—maybe the entire world—with the news that The Catcher in the Rye is “a masterpiece.”
“The group of people in New York City” believe The Catcher in the Rye is “a masterpiece,” their critics tell everybody it’s true, and their publishers print and market millions of copies of the book and—bingo—we have this phenomenon: it seems like everybody believes that The Catcher in the Rye is a brilliant masterpiece, and it might be true, and might merely be largely a fairy tale from the collective imagination of “the group of people in New York City” who, like Holden Caulfield, believe that their feelings are everybody’s reality. However, unlike Holden Caulfield, “the group of people in New York City” have the wherewithal to carry the ruse to an extensive degree. They can create the aura of “masterpiece” around a piece of literature, and it might not even be real.
I think that’s the case with The Catcher in the Rye. I don’t think it’s a very good book. Even though it came out exactly as Salinger wanted—the subjective voice of a disturbed, neurotic and somewhat spoiled teenager—and even though a lot of critics, publishers and news broadcasters in “the group of people in New York City” have long said the book is “a masterpiece”—and even though they’ve now flooded with world with over 65 million copies of it—I’ve read The Catcher in the Rye twice now; and I’m bright and well-educated, and I don’t think the book is as good as advertised.
Not long ago—within the past year or so—I was reading these opinions—proffered, of course by people from New York City—and they gave me the entirely wrong idea about The Catcher in the Rye. Other people who were or who had once been like Holden Caulfield—upper- and upper-middle-class New York City (or thereabouts) kids who’d more or less always had every advantage and not really ever known genuine hardship—identified with Salinger’s spoiled, snotty, decidedly unrealistic protagonist. In one sitting I read two or three critics’ opinions about the book, and they contained almost the same words: “I was so thrilled to know that I wasn’t alone; that someone else felt the same way and saw the same things that I do.” People liked Holden Caulfield and believed they were like him. I’d never admit to that, but Holden was a member of the “The People in New York City” club; so, naturally, other members of that club identified with him.
Gee whiz. The character Holden Caulfield—at least for the few days of his life as described in Catcher in the Rye—is hateful, boring, tedious, burdensome and neurotically self-absorbed: the kind of terminally narcissistic kid who, when he changes a light bulb, holds the bulb in the socket and stands still, waiting for the whole world to revolve around him, knowing full well that he can indulge himelf again because his high-dollar dad will bail him out—again—when his grandiose delusions crash down around him . . . again.
If Salinger had written The Catcher in the Rye in 1970 instead of 1951, Holden Caulfield would surely have gone to the Woodstock concert, along with all the other upper-middle-class kids from New York City. He’d have believed he had copyrights on being stoned, and on having sex, and—of course—on reality as he alone saw it, and he’d have condemned everything that he, himself, hadn’t thought of, experienced, or seen; and because he lived in the city that controls communication, he’d have joined in erroneously identifying an entire generation—some 60 million people, 59.7 million of whom were not at Woodstock—as “the Woodstock Generation.”
As a “baby boomer,” I am supposedly also a de-facto member of “the Woodstock Generation.” Then again, no, I am not, nor do I want to be. I did not attend that concert, and to this day I believe that most of what happened at that concert, and most of the beliefs that seem to have come out of it, don’t amount to much.
I’ve had experiences like Holden Caulfield’s. I’ve screwed up and been kicked out of good situations, or lost my cool and walked away from great opportunities, all or most of which were, in one form or another, “gifts” to which I was in no way entitled. But even though my dad could’ve bailed me out, he didn’t. I always had to find my own way out of the problems I’d created and claw my own way out of the very deep holes I’d dug for myself. If I did something that I knew was bad and/or against my nature, I had to learn to live with the memory. If something bad happened to me—most often because of my own bad choices—I had to learn that it’s not just me; that bad things happen to everybody, and my misfortune isn’t worse than everybody else’s.
I had to learn that, after creating my own discomfort via my own bad choices, I can then grant myself the luxury of believing that the whole world and everybody in it is screwed up; but it’s neither true nor real, and I will pay for indulging my self-serving fantasies, and when I finally grow weary of paying that often high price, I will finally grow up and accept the reality of life on its own terms, which I cannot dictate.
For a short while, Caulfield dreamed of running away and getting a job pumping gas, but he didn’t actually do it. I did, and when my inability or unwillingness to get dialed in with the way things are came back around, and I lost the job pumping gas, or washing dishes, or cleaning bathrooms, I had to go out and find another because, unlike Caulfield, if I didn’t, I’d have died in a doorway, cold and hungry; and, yes, I’ve gone to bed in cheap, moldy rooms, broke, hungry and without any food or money for the next day. So I can relate with screwing up royally, like Caulfield, and making a king-sized mess of things, even at a very young age. But I can’t relate with not being accountable for my life and my behavior. I can’t relate with not having to the face the consequences of my unrealistic—or perhaps just plain bad—choices.
I can’t relate with believing that it doesn’t matter what I do—that I can be completely irresponsible, and condemn everybody and everything, and basically act like a complete horse’s ass—without worrying about the consequences. I surely have acted like an irresponsible horse’s ass, for sure: more times that I care to remember. (That’s the curse of growing older; you remember what you did and said when you were young and ignorant, i.e. a horse’s ass.) But when the inevitable consequences for my actions and beliefs came calling for their just due, I had to face them, and I took it directly on the chin in more ways than one: as often as Mr. Caulfield bailed his dumb kid out of trouble.
As I read The Catcher in the Rye this second time, I realized that, if the story Salinger wrote has “literary classic” or “masterpiece” merit, that’s it; it’s a spot-on portrait of the neurosis into which an entire population of people can sink when they’re allowed to depart permanently from reality and live in an imaginary world that’s devoid of genuine consequences and personal accountability and responsibility. It’s the story of what happens to entire populations of people whose lives are so stripped of any genuine necessity that they’re allowed to sublimate their self-centeredness to grandiose levels of deified omnipotence, completely divorced from and at odds with,the realities of life and the world around them. It’s the story of people who’ve never known genuine hardship and never had to admit that—wow—they just screwed up really, really badly, perhaps for the tenth of fifteenth time, and they screwed up because they’re thick-skulled, selfish and unrealistic, or because they won’t get over their problems, and they thereby brought greater problems on themselves and—wouldn’t you know it?—on other people, too.
It’s the story of people who—by insulating themselves via their own words, actions and beliefs—have never been forced to see who and what they really are. It’s the story of people who vociferously and caustically condemn everything and everybody around themselves when they, themselves, are the ones who are and who perpetrate that which they condemn. It’s the story of people who’ve always—usually via wealth—been shielded from the truth about themselves, from the consequences of their actions, and from taking responsibility for who and what they are and what they’ve done.
In other words, The Catcher in the Rye is the story of people who are financially well off, and who condemn mistreatment of and even look down on the poor, but who are unwilling to part with any significant amount of their own money to help others; who, for example, profit from their investments in companies that pay higher stock dividends by paying dirt wages to low-echelon workers. It’s the story of people who lament “global pollution” and who rail about “climate change,” but who are unwilling to give up their excessively energy-consumptive lifestyles. It’s the story of people who lie awake at night dreaming up ways to get more for themselves by making sure others have less (because it’s no fun having plenty unless most everybody else does not). It’s the story of people who live in falsehood, who do not see themselves realistically, and who transfer everything they cannot stomach about themselves onto imaginary demons: scapegoats they’ve created and use to prop up grandiose self-images.
Yes: in that respect, The Catcher in the Rye is a classic of American literature and, true to form, those who love the book—those who relate with Holden Caulfield—have no clue: the book is arguably an insult to the upper-middle and upper economic classes. It’s the portrait of an entire sub-population of people who are shielded from reality in an aggressively maintained bubble of opulence and privilege. Others have rescued them from destroying themselves for unworthy causes, so they’ve never really experienced the losses they’ve earned.
But they should have because those who haven’t experienced the losses they’ve wrought in zealous pursuit of unworthy causes cannot even imagine genuinely living, and humbling themselves, for noble ideals.
In simpler terms, they’ve never grown up.
Salinger’s character Mr. Antolini, who I’d say is The Catcher in the Rye’s “moral omniscience,” gave me this idea, somewhere around page 230-231.
My idea isn’t the same as Mr. Antolini’s. Mr. Antolini actually got his idea from something an Austrian physician and psychologist named Wilhelm Stekel said: “The mark of the immature man is that he wants to die nobly for a cause, while the mark of the mature man is that he wants to live humbly for one.” I read that, it got me to thinking, and I wrote this.