2005-11-24

An Ancient Child

[guest blogger SR posts a recap of our last book club session]

The Pharos Book Club assembled again this past week to share perspectives on J.D. Salinger’s compelling novel The Catcher in the Rye. Like the contradictions alive in Holden Caulfield, the book’s central character, the existence of Catcher itself is a study in contrasts--a work first vilified in some circles but later viewed as the narrative voice of a generation.
At first glance, Catcher is the account of a few tortured days in the life of a confused, cynical, and feckless teen. But sixteen-year-old Holden is not simply embroiled in typical adolescent turmoil: He recounts the details of this brief but eventful period in his life as he convalesces in a mental hospital after becoming “pretty run-down”. He manages to avoid revealing the precise nature of the psychological trauma which felled him.

What pushed him over the edge? And why might the wording of the latter question not be clich├ęd? Consider one of the symbols we discussed, namely “the catcher in the rye”. This phrase comes from Holden’s misunderstanding of the Robert Burns ballad “Comin’ Thro’ the Rye”:

Gin a body meet a body
Comin thro' the rye,
Gin a body kiss a body,
Need a body cry?

The significance of Burns’ writing sparked some debate during our discussion (it wasn’t clear to us whether the ballad itself holds hidden meaning, or if Holden’s misinterpretation is revelatory). Holden remembers part of this verse as “if a body catch a body”, and imagines children playing in a field of rye on the edge of a cliff. He also imagines himself catching them if they venture too close to the edge of the cliff and start to fall. Is it possible that he wants to prevent them from falling from a carefree childhood into something more ominous? Into the adulthood which he appears to want to reject? If so, then one could also posit that Holden himself, with no one to catch him, has fallen over that cliff into an undesirable reality. The abrupt transition proves to be more than he can bear.
Exacerbating Holden’s existential malaise are his uneasy relationships, poisonous perceptions, and unmet expectations. Through these facets of his character, we uncover more themes as we witness Holden’s interactions with his social circle, society in a broader sense, and his family. Perhaps the most apparent theme is that of the difficulty of the transition from adolescence to adulthood, illustrated by Holden’s preoccupation with (or even fear of) change, contrasted with the reassurance he derives from states of permanence or predictability. We see evidence of this dichotomy in Holden’s musings on the Museum of Natural History:

“The best thing, though, in that museum was that everything always stayed right where it was. Nobody’d move. […] Nobody’d be different. The only thing that would be different would be you. […] Not that you’d be so much older or anything. […] You’d just be different, that’s all. […] –I can’t explain what I mean. And even if I could, I’m not sure I’d feel like it.”
Salinger also explores the concept of alienation or isolation. While Holden makes half-hearted attempts to socialize with his classmates, romance putative love interests, and engage people he meets in his wanderings, he seems happiest when he is alone. Alone, he doesn’t have to face the the hypocrisy, deception, and even cruelty of the real world. He can meditate on and try to preserve for himself its beauty and purity, safe in the delusion that he himself represents a sort of virtue or honesty (this despite his ready admission that “I’m the most terrific liar you ever saw in your life”). However, like all humans (and his opinions and actions aside), he needs human contact, and he needs the security that interpersonal relationships can bring. The struggle between his outward desire for isolation and inner yearning for friendship and love may be best demonstrated in his relationship with his sister Phoebe. He displays an almost aching tenderness towards her, and is nearly overwhelmed by her radiance and untainted simplicity, but still tries to tear himself away from her. In a less powerful but similarly telling encounter, he is lonely enough to ask Sally Hayes out for a date, but then pushes her away by insulting her to the point that she leaves.
Not unexpectedly, the superficiality of the real world is a recurring theme. Holden continually despairs over the unrelenting "phoniness" he observes in almost everyone he meets (with the obvious exceptions of his dead brother Allie and Phoebe). Of course, Holden practically invites disappointment by often choosing his companions poorly and contaminating his interactions with his own deceptive behavior. With each unsatisfactory exchange, he becomes more convinced that simplicity, beauty and honesty are slowly becoming unattainable. This flawed realization helps to drive him deeper into himself and irrationality.

What did Salinger intend by creating Holden Caulfield and writing Catcher? Did he want readers to accept that our world and society are really so toxic and unforgiving? Or did he want us to understand that beauty, purity, friendship and love can be had if only we take the time to recognize and appreciate these gifts when they are presented to us? If we contemplate the undisturbed snow, a half-frozen pond in Central Park, and the rare Phoebes of this world, we may come closer to an answer.

1 comment:

igm said...

That was a great read of the novel, SR. I hadn't considered that take on the 'catcher in the rye.' I had taken it more literally, as in Holden Caulfield preventing the deaths of children like those he already lost: his classmate and his brother Allie.

Since it's the Christmas season, I thought Holden's take on the Radio City Music Hall Christmas extravaganza merits a mention:

All these Angels start coming out of the boxes and everywhere, guys carrying crucifixes and stuff all over the place, and the whole bunch of them...singing "Come All Ye Faithful" like mad. Big deal. It's supposed to be religious as hell, I know...but I can't see anything religious or pretty, for God's sake, about a bunch of actors carrying crucifixes all over the stage...I said old Jesus probably would've puked if He could see it all.

Sometimes Holden had some insight after all. Makes you think twice about what passes for a celebration of Chirst's birth nowadays. To wit, Disney's adaptation of CS Lewis' The Chronicles of Narnia. Churches are actually fanning out guides to their clergy for movie tie-ins to promote their religion on the coattails of box office success. But that's fodder for another post.

Back to Catcher. Two things really spoke to me in the novel on this, my second reading. One was the passage about altruism, when Holden muses about becoming a life-saving lawyer: "Even if you did go around saving guys' lives and all, how would you know if you did it because you really wanted to save guys' lives, or because what you really wanted to do was to be a terrific lawyer, with everybody slapping you on the back congratulating you in court when the trial was over." It's the altruist's conundrum. And the faithful's. Do you believe in God out of some Pascalesque afterlife bet hedging or because you swallow your faith hook, line, and sinker?

I'd be lying if I said that all my good deeds are done without secondary gain. But most are done spontaneously, without forethought about any gain. Instead, they are done out of a genuine respect for the beneficiary. The back-slapping in the courtroom is superfluous, and frequently embarrassing.

The other bit that resonated on this reading but didn't even register on the last was a statement attributed to psychoanalyst Wilhelm Stekel: "The mark of the immature man is that he wants to die nobly for a cause, while the mark of a mature man is that he wants to live humbly for one." I have decided to live in a small city, supporting my wife and my four young boys, and seeking small gratifications rather than grand ones. I was 21 when I first read this book, lent to me by my then girlfriend and present wife. I wasn't intent on living humbly, and hadn't yet found a cause anyway. But now I've got five.

Though the story transpires over a few days, it remains a bildungsroman of sorts. [bildungsroman is a literary term meaning "novel of formation" or a coming of age story, a term frequently used if you are German or--as book club revealed--pretentious. I'm not German] Holden comes to fulfill his aspiration of protecting children from falling when he prevents his younger sister from leaving home. He abandons his decision to runaway when he acts on his paternal instincts, finally shifting his focus from self-gratification or self-abasement to the welfare of another.

While Holden does not necessarily endear himself to the reader, he definitely makes an impression. Like most of the classics we read in Pharos, Catcher is striking for the originality of its voice, protagonist, and subject matter when compared with its contemporaries. An important book, though perhaps not a great one.