Saturday, February 6, 2010

J.D. Salinger: The Catcher in the Rye (1951)

I reread The Catcher in the Rye this week, for obvious reasons. I read it first in ninth grade, I think; I doubt I could have been much older than that. It changed my life. I was never obsessive about it - I never read it again until this week, and never read any other Salinger until my late 20s - but I was definitely one of those readers who identified intensely with Holden Caulfield.

I'm not ashamed of that. Reading some of the retrospectives that have been pushing up like daisies in the last couple of weeks I gather it's no longer quite fashionable to identify with Caulfield. At best it marks you as an immature whiner, at worst it seems to set off alarm bells with some people. Well, so be it. I've always been (or tried to be) on the side of the maladjusted and misunderstood, the outcast and disillusioned. Holden Caulfield seemed normal to me when I was fifteen. It was people who weren't bothered by the cruelty, hypocrisy, stupidity, and cupidity of the world that I couldn't understand.

Which isn't to say I, um, condone all the things that people have done in Holden Caulfield's name. I hate that I even have to say that: hate the psychos, hate the straights who think all nonconformists are potential psychos.

Rereading it now, I first of all have to ask myself why I never read it again in all those intervening years, if I (as is plain to see) never lost my ability to identify with Salinger's protagonist. Partly it's that I seldom reread books, even ones I love. There are too many I haven't read - I always want to move on. And that's it: I moved on. If you'd asked me at 15, at 20, at 25, I don't think I would have said I could ever quite move on from the intense alienation that made me love Catcher in the Rye. I'm nothing if not a wallower. And yet, I must have.

Because this time around I felt something else for Holden, besides the recognition of my adolescent self (at 15 it was a shock of recognition; now, of course, it wasn't a shock). I felt pity.

It wasn't the pity of those who psychoanalyze Holden - that seems to be a school of interpretation, too, reading his alienation and other narratorial traits as symptoms of sexual abuse or unresolved grief or some other psychopathology. I don't think that's where it's at. Certainly Salinger hints at special traumas in Holden's experience, but I don't think Catcher in the Rye is a mystery. We're not supposed to "solve" Holden, dismissing his quirks as symptoms of any malady other than adolescence itself, at least in postwar modernity.

I felt pity not because I saw Holden as being a freak, but because I still saw him as being so normal. Of course he's immature and a whiner, of course he's alienated and confused about sex and excitable and directionless and full of hatred that's really frustrated love: he's sixteen, for Chrissake. I mean, come on: the world really is full of phonies. At some point in adolescence you realize this, and it freaks you out. If you're lucky, as you grow up you learn to deal with it, and if you're really lucky, you start to have compassion on the phonies, because you realize you're them and they're you, and struggling for authenticity is just as much a part of the human condition as is learning to live with the things you don't like. Maybe at forty you find, if not peace, then at least some survival strategies. But who has this at sixteen?

Is this the same pity Holden himself feels toward Phoebe and all the other kids he wants to save in the reverie that gives the book its title? Maybe. Not if you read that passage as meaning that Holden wants to save kids from having to grow up - but maybe the feeling behind that impulse is the same. I mean, if I'm now feeling what Salinger meant me to feel (yeah, authorial intent is thin ice, but who can resist the urge to skate on it?), then it's the feeling of an adult (Salinger was, what, thirty-two or so when this was published?) looking back on adolescence, recreating it with the immediacy of adolescence but hints of the perspective of maturity, pitying his subject. Knowing that it's possible to get through this, but that at the time there's no way to see that. Wishing you could help, knowing you can't. (Or that the only way you can is by proving you understand. By writing a book. I mean, it was a poem - a misremembered poem [the creativity of the anxiety of influence?] that inspired Holden's vision, right?)

1 comment:

Cat said...

I also wonder if there's an element of nostalgia in that pity. I always feel it (in my love of teen shows, for example, from Buffy to Freaks and Geeks). Certainly, remembering teen angst allows us to pity our teen selves and their rawness. Maybe conversely, it also makes us miss the time when we were so blown away by the idea that people could be phony and so insistent on the possibility of living authentically. Maybe we miss the intensity of that reaction, as coated (and coded!) as it is in the blasé pretenses of adolescence. Maybe it's our way (and I know I shouldn't first person plural this; I should probably own it myself with a first person singular) of getting back to that unabashed feeling of betrayal and that complete commitment to the possibility of adulthood without compromise.