Tuesday, June 23, 2009
The Burning Carousel and the Carnivalesque: Subversion and Transcendence at the Close of ‘The Catcher in the Rye’
Beyond the controversy that has surrounded The Catcher in the Rye since it first appeared, and beyond contemporary assessments of the novel's political/cultural relevance, J. D. Salinger's Catcher merits ongoing consideration because of the subversion it conducts, a revolt against all fixed values. Ironically, the comment of one editor who rejected Catcher for publication is suggestive of the nature of this revolt: "Is Holden Caulfield supposed to be crazy?" (Hamilton 114). It is the sense of madness, often expressed in the novel through Holden's characteristic humor, that-as Mikhail Bakhtin observes in regard to carnival-"makes men look at the world with different eyes, not dimmed by `normal,' that is by commonplace ideas and judgments" (Rabelais 39). This carnivalesque aspect of Catcher has yet to be explored fully, but it is fundamental to the novel's import and value.
In addition to madness and laughter, Bakhtin identifies other principles of the carnivalesque that offer liberation from conventional values, principles that illuminate the essential concerns of Catcher. These include a "peculiar festive character without any piousness, [and] complete liberation from seriousness" (Rabelais 254); "free and familiar contact among people"; "behavior, gesture, and discourse . . . freed from the authority of all hierarchical positions (social estate, rank, age, property)" (Dostoevsky's Poetics 123); and "disguise-that is, carnivalistic shifts of clothing and of positions and destinies in life" (125). In the spirit of the carnivalesque, Holden's story is set in the festive Christmas season, yet it is far from pious. Holden himself delights in and encourages the "liberation" of a classmate who farts under his headmaster's watchful eye during the speech of a respected alumnus. During Holden's two day stay in New York, he enjoys "free and familiar contact" with diverse people, regardless of "social estate, rank, age, [and] property"; these people range from a nine-year-old girl (his sister Phoebe's friend) to a married society woman in her forties (his classmate's mother), and from a prostitute to a pair of nuns. Finally, "shifts of clothing" are a recurring motif for Holden and those around him, with lendings and borrowings of his hound's-tooth jacket, his turtleneck sweater, and his famous hunting hat. How these exchanges of clothing signify shifts of "positions and destinies" shall be considered at greater length below. It is worth noting first, however, that the received values that the novel aims to subvert encompass not merely prevailing social conventions but also fundamental binary oppositions, including self/other, body/mind, father/mother, heaven/hell, life/death, writer/reader, and notably, savior/saved.
This subversion of binary oppositions takes center stage at the novel's ending, the ambiguity of which has long divided Catcher's critics. During the final carousel scene, Holden has the following thought in reference to the children on the carousel: "If they fall off, they fall off, but it's bad if you say anything to them" (274). Holden's willingness to let his beloved sister fall has perplexed many readers because it seems to contradict his dream of becoming a "catcher in the rye"-one who saves children from falling (224). Some critics have failed even to appreciate the ambiguity resulting from this contradiction. Warren French, for instance, maintains that "Holden no longer sees himself as a catcher in the rye" (121) at the novel's conclusion. Sanford Pinsker argues that "one thing is clear-Holden, the narrator, no longer clings to the same desperate scenarios that defined him as a participant in his story" (96). Underpinning such views of the novel's ending is the notion that to catch and not to catch are opposing, irreconcilable actions that cannot be taken (or aspired to) simultaneously.
Other critics have regarded the final carousel scene as less clear-cut, but have viewed its ambiguity as cause for complaint. Carl Strauch calls the novel's conclusion a "blunted, ambiguous ending" (29), and Maxwell Geismar derides it as belonging to "the New Yorker school of ambiguous finality" (198). Gerald Rosen likewise concludes that "ultimately, the problems faced by Holden . . . have no 'answer' that we can hold on to" (561).
Such readings fail to appreciate that the ambiguity of the novel's ending itself provides a kind of "answer" in its blurring of the binary oppositions through which we come to understand Holden. Critics sensitive to this quality of blurring have found insight into Catcher in the perspective of Zen Buddhism, which according to Zen master Daisetz Suzuki, "takes us to an absolute realm wherein there are no antitheses of any sort" (68). In their pioneering study "Zen and Salinger," Bernice and Sanford Goldstein observe Holden's Zen-like identification with the very people he criticizes, as well as the underlying unity ("wherein there are no antitheses") reflected in the catcher Holden's being caught by both Phoebe and his deceased younger brother Allie (322). Dennis McCort extends this perspective by considering the specific influence of Suzuki on Salinger, maintaining that in the carousel scene, Holden transcends the "contradiction between permanence and change" (266). In the readings of these critics, Zen Buddhism affords substantial insight into the ambivalence of Catcher's conclusion. Yet the Zen approach to Catcher is less successful in explaining the novel's blasphemous, carnivalesque aspect. In concluding that Holden "is caught by love" (322), for instance, the Goldsteins privilege a static principle (love/hate) that, in a larger sense, Catcher overturns a typical reversal of binary oppositions upon which Bakhtin, perhaps, casts a clearer light than Zen.
However, both Eastern and Western thought inform the novel's ultimate ambiguity, and a third perspective-that of Carl Jung-offers an initial vantage from which Zen and Bakhtinian readings resolve to be complementary.4 Through Jung, a Zen-informed Bakhtinian perspectives affords a reassessment of Holden's ideal of becoming a catcher in the rye. More specifically, Jung and Bakhtin-neither of whom have figured prominently in previous studies of Salinger-afford a deepening of the Zen understanding of why Holden, in the end, accepts falling (death). Finally, these critical perspectives expose seemingly negative values, such as phoniness, as essential to the process of "catching," or salvation, leading us (as Catcher's readers) toward the goal of "all legitimate religious study," as Seymour Glass put it in Salinger's "Zooey": "unlearning the differences, the illusory differences, between boys and girls, animals and stones, day and night, heat and cold" (67).
The Identity Between the Hunter and His Prey
Salinger's catcher-related imagery is paradoxical: Holden is both savior and saved; Holden's younger siblings Phoebe and Allie, as shall be shown, represent the caught even as they act to catch Holden. The image of Jesus Christ that Jung develops in Aion embodies a similar paradox, and will prove helpful to a discussion of the identity between the savior and the saved in Catcher.
Jung considers Christ as being both fisherman and fish, remarking that "the Christian Ichthys is a fisher of men par excellence" (Aion 112). Jung observes that as "Christ wants to make Peter and Andrew `fishers of men,'" and as a "miraculous draught of fishes (Luke 5:10) is used by Christ . . . as a paradigm for Peter's missionary activity" (89), Jesus is himself a fisher of men. Yet as Jung notes, the fish has become a universal symbol of Jesus Christ because "Ichthys" or "Ichthus," an abbreviation of "Iesous CHristos THeou Uios Soter" (Greek for "Jesus Christ Son of God Savior"), means "fish" ("Fish"). Jung's conception of the "identity between the hunter and his prey" (112) thus poses a challenge to conventional notions of the hunter (savior) and the prey (saved) as existing in an overdetermined hierarchical relationship.
Salinger explores a similar conception of the hunter (savior)/prey (saved) relationship through similar imagery. In his later story, "Seymour: An Introduction," narrator Buddy Glass refers to the unity of fisherman and fish directly:
The hazards of fishing in general were themselves a favorite subject of Seymour's. Our younger brother Walt was a great bent-pin fisherman as a small boy, and for his ninth or tenth birthday he received a poem from Seymour-one of the major delights of his life, I believe-about a little rich boy who catches a lafayette in the Hudson River, experiences a fierce pain in his own lower lip on reeling him in, then dismisses the matter from his mind, only to discover when he is home and the still-alive fish has been given the run of the bathtub that he, the fish, is wearing a blue serge cap with the same school insignia over the peak as the boy's own; the boy finds his own name-tape sewn inside the tiny wet cap. (143-44)
Clearly, the fisher boy has caught himself as prey. Considering the fish as a symbol of Jesus Christ, the two identical caps in Seymour's poem not only suggest the identity of savior and saved, but also bring to mind the case of Holden Caulfield in particular, who as savior/catcher, wears a hat-the red hunting cap that he both gives to and has returned by Phoebe (exchanges to be considered in detail below).
In light of the cap in Seymour's poem, the significance of Holden's calling his cap "a people shooting hat" is clear. If the hat were "a deer shooting hat," as Holden's dormitory neighbor Ackley suggests, it would represent the conventional binary opposition of hunter and prey. However, Holden firmly states that "[t]his is a people shooting hat . . . I shoot people in this hat" (30), an assertion that resonates with the Jungian identity of hunter (savior)/prey (saved). Furthermore, although Holden's cap confers a hunter identity, Holden often imagines himself as a wounded, suffering gunshot victim (135, 195). Holden is thus at once the shooter and the shot, an ambivalent hunter akin to Jung's fisherman, Jesus.
The nature of "catching" in the novel lends nuance to its representation of "the identity between the hunter and his prey." Imagining a catcher in the rye, Holden dreams of preventing children from falling off a cliff, a notion of catching that presupposes the conventional binary opposition of life and death, in which life is preferable to death. But Holden's dream (like this conventional notion of the life/death opposition) is informed by the many acts of picking up the fallen-as opposed to catching the falling-that occur throughout the novel.
A particularly resonant instance of picking up concerns a phonograph record that Holden buys as a present for Phoebe but drops and breaks before giving to her. The fictional song on this record, "Little Shirley Beans," concerns a girl who has lost two of her front teeth. Considered in light of Catcher's Christmas setting, this song is surely patterned on the 1949 hit "All I Want For Christmas (Is My Two Front Teeth)," sung by Spike Jones and His City Slickers. This real song tells us how the little girl lost her teeth: she "slid down the banister just as fast as . . . [she] could" (Jones), and was injured. Like the fictional fallen record, the girl in the real song falls and is not caught. Given this parallel, it follows that the broken pieces of the record can be understood to represent the fallen. Significantly, Holden picks up these broken pieces and gives them to Phoebe despite their condition. Phoebe responds, "I'm saving them" (212, emphasis added); the fallen girl can be understood to merit the same treatment: to be picked up and saved.
Another fallen figure, James Castle, is also picked up after having hit the ground.' James falls to his death after an incident of bullying, and as Holden recalls, his body is picked up by Holden's former teacher Mr. Antolini:
He was the one that finally picked up that boy that jumped out the window I told you about, James Castle. Old Mr. Antolini felt his pulse and all, and then he took off his coat and put it over James Castle and carried him all the way over to the infirmary. He didn't even give a damn if his coat got all bloody. (226-27, emphasis added)
In Holden's eyes, Mr. Antolini's heroism in this scene qualifies him as "the best teacher . . . [he] ever had" (226), and even after Antolini attempts to seduce him, Holden retains his respect for his teacher because of Antolini's treatment of James: "I mean I started thinking that even if he [Antolini] was a flit he certainly'd been very nice to me. I thought . . . how he was the only guy that'd even gone near that boy James Castle I told you about when he was dead" (253). Given Holden's reaction to Antolini's advances-and his casual use of the epithet "flit"-Holden clearly ascribes conventional notions of corruption to Antolini, yet nonetheless Holden views him as a savior. Finally, it bears mentioning that another James, the oldest half-brother of Jesus Christ, was martyred (and thus saved) by being thrown down "from the pinnacle of the temple" (Eusebius 125). James Castle's suicide (221-22) thus deeply informs the development of the theme of falling in Catcher, and indeed, Holden conceives of his ideal of the catcher in the rye almost immediately after relating this episode (224-25).
Considering how falling (death, corruption, and betrayal) thus fuse into the process of salvation, it is significant that at the time of his fall, James is wearing Holden's sweater as if he were disguised, in a sense, as Holden. Because of this sweater, many readers have identified James with Holden, seeking psychological and other similarities between the two characters but the greater significance of the sweater lies in the differences between the characters' positions. That is, the fallen (James) and the catcher (Holden) are unified through the sweater, which thus represents a Bakhtinian disguise in that it transposes the characters' "positions and destinies in life." Bakhtin's view that "[b]firth is fraught with death, and death with new birth" (Dostoevsky's Poetics 125) provides further insight into the fusion of James's death and Holden's salvation: death gives rise to its opposite, life or birth, and indeed the two principles interpenetrate.
Aspects of salvation or new being can also be discerned in falls that Holden himself experiences later in the novel. During his visit to Mr. Antolini, whom Holden has presumably sought out in the hope of being caught, Antolini tells Holden that he may soon experience a fall: "This fall I think you're riding for-it's a special kind of fall, a horrible kind. The man falling isn't permitted to feel or hear himself hit bottom. He just keeps falling and falling" (243). As Holden wanders about town the following day, he feels like he is "just go[ing] down, down, down" (256). At this point, a fall is indeed something horrible for Holden, as Antolini foresaw. Soon after, however, falling takes on a positive aspect when Holden faints and falls to the floor in the museum lavatory. Although Holden narrates, "I could've killed myself when I hit the floor," he is physically restored by the fall, thinking, "I felt better after I passed out. I really did" (265).
Bakhtin offers further insight into this particular fall, insofar as Holden has diarrhea immediately before collapsing. Bakhtin regards images of feces as "presenting at the same time the death of the old and the birth of the new world" (Rabelais 149), and that "feces and urine are ambivalent. . . . [T]hey debase, destroy, regenerate, and renew simultaneously. They are blessing and humiliating at the same time" (151). From this perspective, the proximity of feces to this moment of falling allows us to view the episode as prefiguring the subversion of positions in the subsequent scene, in which a debased Holden moves from being a catcher of children (savior) to one of the fallen in need of being saved.
In this, the novel's climactic scene, Holden's savior (catcher) is herself a child-Holden's sister Phoebe-a reversal that reflects a subversion of values best appreciated in view of the scene's setting: the carousel in Central Park. This fictional carousel offered Salinger a fitting locale for consummating his exploration of the ambivalence of life and death because it is based upon a real carousel that itself fell-in a fire on November 8, 1950, eight months before Catcher's publication ("Carrousel Burns"). In a manner of speaking, the carousel experienced death, or in the novel's chronology (the novel is set in 1948 or 1949), faced imminent death. Salinger, born in 1919 and brought up in New York, surely rode on the Central Park carousel, which went into service in 1922. News of its destruction saddened many New Yorkers ("A Day of Disappointment"), no doubt including Salinger. However, by rendering the carousel within his novel as the site of the great joy that Holden finds while watching his sister (275), Salinger locates renewal and rebirth within destruction, changing the news from sad to happy.
Significantly, Salinger represents the fusion of binary opposites in this scene, as in others, through a pairing of elements of the novel with elements that have foundations in the real world. As the fallen phonograph record in the novel is paired with the fallen girl of the real song on which it is based, and as the fallen James Castle of the novel is paired with the fallen martyr of the Bible, this scene pairs Phoebe's imminent potential fall from the fictional carousel with the actual fall of the real burnt carousel. Coming at the ending of a novel in which falling figures so prominently, the happiness that befalls Holden in this scene must be seen to suggest that to fall-in general, and contrary to conventional notions-is indeed a blessing.
The Caulfield Quaternity
In accord with Bakhtin, Jung too recognizes the coincidence of such binary opposites as death and life, maintaining that "the corruption of one is the generation of the other, an indication that this death is an interim stage to be followed by a new life" (Psychology 95). Let us now consider how death and rebirth mediate between catcher and caught (and/or fallen) in the relationships of Holden and his siblings, the central characters in both Holden and the novel's figurative pantheons. By overturning the static relationship of savior and saved, these relationships reveal the birth of a new savior to be a process that subverts and transcends conventional oppositions.
The family member with the greatest need of being caught, arguably, is Allie Caulfield (because of his fatal leukemia), and Allie must be seen as the primary inspiration for Holden's dream of becoming a catcher in the rye. However, Holden takes on so many of Allies characteristics that he emerges as possessing a desire to become Allie (the fallen) which infuses and redefines his desire to be a catcher in the rye.
For instance, we learn that on the night that Allie died, Holden broke all the windows of his family's garage with his fist, permanently injuring his right hand (50). This act of grief and anger is associated with Allies left-- handedness; Holden may have ruined his chances of becoming "a goddam surgeon or a violinist" (51), but the impairment of his right hand has entitled him to Allies "left-handed fielder's mitt" (49), the baseball glove that equipped Allie as a catcher.
Baseball and other games played on fields also link Allie and Holden through Holden's red hunting hat, which Holden often wears in the style of a baseball catcher (with the peak at the back). In explaining "what kind of red hair he [Allie] had" (50), Holden invokes a childhood memory of seeing Allie sitting outside the fence surrounding a golf course on which Holden was playing. Later, when Holden elaborates to Phoebe his ideal of becoming a catcher in the rye, the catcher he describes stands watch over children playing "some game in this big field of rye" (224), much as Allie watches Holden playing golf. The catcher, moreover, is "standing on the edge of some crazy cliff' (224), an image that intensifies the sense of boundary produced by the "fence that went all around the course" (50) that separated Allie from Holden in Holden's childhood memory. In view of these connections, Holden's prized red hunting hat suggests the identity of the catcher Holden and the redhaired Allie, serving much like the fish's cap in Seymour's poem to embody the oneness of catcher and caught.
There are, furthermore, strong suggestions that Holden desires to reenact Allies fall (death) himself. As described above, Holden is identified with James Castle, the classmate who leapt from a window to his death. Holden earlier toys with the idea of jumping out of a window (136), and another suicide fantasy of Holden's resonates specifically with Allies cause of death: "Anyway, I'm sort of glad they've got the atomic bomb invented. If there's ever another war, I'm going to sit right the hell on top of it. I'll volunteer for it, I swear to God I will" (183). Leukemia, the cause of Allies death, is widely understood to be a common fatal consequence of atomic bomb fallout.
Holden eventually succeeds in joining his brother, not in death, but through the rain at the close of the novel's climactic carousel scene. As Holden watches Phoebe riding the carousel from a nearby bench, a drenching rain suddenly pours down. Everyone standing nearby dashes for shelter, but Holden stays out in the rain and gets completely soaked (275). With this sudden downpour, the carousel scene becomes paired with the scene that Holden described earlier in which he makes a visit with his family to Allies grave (201-02). As in the carousel scene, rain falls suddenly during this family visit, and in both scenes everyone flees except for one person who gets soaked: Holden in the carousel scene, and Allie in the gravesite visit. Given this parallel structure, the rain of the carousel scene can be understood as identifying Holden with his deceased brother Allie-they are both dead men in the rain.
Jonathan Baumbach characterizes the "purifying rain" of the carousel scene as "a manifestation of Allies blessed and blessing spirit" (472), a description that points to the salvation inherent in transcending binary oppositions. When Holden takes the place of the deceased Allie in the rain, he realizes his dream of becoming the catcher even as he becomes one with the fallen/caught (i.e., Allie), and this is the reason for his great joy. To put it another way, the catcher (savior) is saved (blessed) by identifying himself with the caught/fallen (saved). Death brings about birth through the rain; as Jung put it in a similar context, "the water is that which kills and vivifies" (Psychology 80).
The saved must experience a fall (death) in the process of salvation, and thus Holden in this scene bears witness to Phoebe's imminent potential fall from the carousel, even as we bear witness to the fall of the real Central Park carousel immanent in the fictional carousel upon which Phoebe rides. Phoebe, like Allie, is instrumental to these reversals of life and death (and of catcher and caught) in the carousel scene, as closer consideration of her relationship to Holden will illustrate.
First, it is suggestive that Phoebe-a child like the children in the rye field over whom Holden's catcher watches-bears the name of the Greek goddess of the hunt ("Artemis"); Holden, with his hunting hat, views himself as a hunter of people ("I shoot people in this hat"), yet it is Phoebe who catches Holden at key junctures of the novel. Exchanges of the hunter/prey roles between the two are signaled, appropriately enough, by exchanges of Holden's red hunting hat. After telling Phoebe his dream of being a catcher, Holden narrates, "I took my hunting hat out of my coat pocket and gave it to her" (233). This moment marks their exchange of roles: Holden, the catcher, becomes the caught/fallen, while Phoebe, in possession of the hat, soon comes to catch, or rather pick up, Holden. As shown earlier, Holden's fall gains momentum during his visit to Mr. Antolini in the subsequent scene, and hits bottom with his literal collapse on the lavatory floor at the museum. It is Phoebe, in the role of catcher-indeed, transformed by the hat into the former Holden-who comes to Holden's rescue: Finally, I saw her. I saw her through the glass part of the door. The reason I saw her, she had my crazy hunting hat on-you could see that hat about ten miles away.
I went out the doors and started down these stone stairs to meet her. The thing I couldn't understand, she had this big suitcase with her. She was just coming across Fifth Avenue, and she was dragging this goddam big suitcase with her. She could hardly drag it. When I got up closer, I saw it was my old suitcase, the one I used to use when I was at Whooton. I couldn't figure out what the hell she was doing with it. "Hi," she said when she got up close. She was all out of breath from that crazy suitcase. (266, emphases added)
Phoebe wears Holden's hat, drags Holden's suitcase, is out of breath as Holden often is, and during the ensuing scene refuses to return to school (269) as Holden himself has decided to refuse.
Yet their reversed relationship is again reversed when Phoebe returns the hat to Holden: "All she did was, she took off my red hunting hat-the one I gave her-and practically chucked it right in my face" (269). Salinger here again uses clothing as a formal device signaling an exchange of position: once more in possession of the hat, Holden again assumes the catcher/hunter role and pursues Phoebe as prey. However, although this time Holden tries to catch Phoebe literally, his prey eludes him.
Playing the role of prey but still acting in accord with her identity as goddess of the hunt, Phoebe teaches Holden a new technique for catching people; this paradoxical way of catching-catching by way of not catching-- is dramatized by the dynamic of their hunter/prey relationship in this scene. Holden narrates, "I sort of tried to get hold of her old hand, but she wouldn't let me" (268), and goes on to make numerous similar attempts to reconnect with her physically (268-71). However, Phoebe rebuffs Holden definitively when he becomes too forceful: "I took a hold of the belt at the back of her coat, just for the hell of it, but she wouldn't let me. She said, `Keep your hands to yourself, if you don't mind"' (271-72, emphases added). If one tries to hunt the prey by catching it, one fails in hunting. Not only do the roles of hunter and prey resolve to be interchangeable, but the very act of catching resolves to be its opposite: not catching. This ambivalent way of catching, akin to Zen archery, 9 dissolves the binary opposition of catching/not catching, and only by adopting it does Holden become a real people hunter embodying the identity between his prey and himself.
Having mastered this lesson, Holden narrates, "Then what she did-it damn near killed me-she reached in my coat pocket and took out my red hunting hat and put it on my head" (274). Beyond signifying the exchange of roles in the Holden-Phoebe relationship, the red hunting hat has been performing what Bakhtin calls "[c]rowning/decrowning . . . a dualistic ambivalent ritual, expressing the inevitability and at the same time the creative power of the shift-and-renewal" (Dostoevsky's Poetics 124). The shifts of the hunting hat signal not merely exchanges of fixed hunter/catcher-prey/ caught roles, but also rebirth through these role changes, as well as the underlying identity of the roles themselves. This "dualistic ambivalent ritual" recognizes no difference between the catcher and the caught, between catching and not catching, or even between life and death. Watching Phoebe and other children as they face an imminent fall (from a carousel informed by an immanent fall), Holden thinks, "If they fall off, they fall off" (274). It is indeed through a fall (death) that new life is born-in this case, a new catcher who embodies the oneness of Phoebe, Allie, and Holden, joined by the carousel and the rain.
Only D. B., eldest of the four Caulfield children, remains to be saved after the carousel ride and the rain. We first encounter D. B. in the novel's opening paragraph, in which Holden introduces him as having once been "a regular writer" but having since become a "prostitute" Hollywood scriptwriter, and thus fallen (4). Holden furthermore reveals that his favorite book is D. B.'s The Secret Goldfish; from the outset, his relationship with D. B. is defined as that of reader and writer.
D. B.'s salvation is set in motion at the novel's beginning when he and Holden-like Holden and Allie, and Holden and Phoebe-exchange roles. That is, although D. B. is a writer, it is Holden who tells his story to D. B., the story of The Catcher in the Rye: "I'll just tell you about this madman stuff that happened to me. . . . I mean that's all I told D. B. about, and he's my brother and all”. Holden thus assumes the role of writer and D. B. that of reader, even as Holden identifies himself as a reader of D. B.'s story.
Recalling that the story by D. B. that Holden admires is "The Secret Goldfish," it is reasonable therefore to consider how Holden, in his authorial role as narrator of Catcher, undertakes to tell his own fish story. From this perspective, the novel can be viewed simply as the story of Holden as Ichthys. However, like the ambivalent fish symbolism that Salinger employs in "Seymour: An Introduction," fish in Catcher portray a far from orthodox vision of Christian salvation, as Holden's encounter with the taxi driver Horwitz reveals.
Horwitz explains how fish survive the winter to Holden as follows:
"Their bodies, for Chrissake. . . . They got their pores open the whole time. That's their nature, for Chrissake . . . Listen," he said. "If you was a fish, Mother Nature' d take care ofyou, wouldn't she? Right? You don't think them fish just die when it gets to be winter, do ya?"
In this explanation of fish-the only one that Holden is to receive-"bodies" rather than the spirit are emphasized, as is "Mother Nature" rather than the Holy Father, and "hell" rather than heaven (Holden observes that Horwitz drives "off like a bat out of hell". These emphases undermine the primacy assigned to spirit, Father, and heaven in Christian orthodoxy, rendering equivocal their values vis-a-vis body, Mother, and hell, much as death and the caught are to fuse into birth and the catcher as the novel progresses. Thus, Ichthys in Holden's Christmas story represents not a traditional Christ but rather a Jungian version of an ambivalent Christ.
That D. B. visits Holden in the hospital suggests his desire to help-to save, in a sense-his younger brother, but in receiving Holden's Ichthys story, it is D. B. who is saved. Since it was his own fish story, "The Secret Goldfish," that conferred D. B.'s status as a "regular" writer initially, Holden's gift of a fish story may be seen as restoring that status. Once again in possession of a fish story, D. B. is no longer a "prostitute" at the novel's close. Thus D. B. experiences a rebirth like that of Mary Magdalene, the penitent prostitute who bore first witness to the resurrected Savior.
D. B.'s birthday present to Holden of a book by Ring Lardner lends further significance to the brothers' exchange of roles. As noted above, the Lardner book contains the story "There Are Smiles," which culminates with a death in the rain. The story that Holden offers to revive D. B.-the narrative of Catcher-also depicts a death (i.e., rebirth) in the rain, and thus comprises a fitting gift for D. B.'s (re)birthday at the end of the novel. By becoming both giver and receiver of stories, D. B. is restored to the status from which he fell.
Finally, by appearing in both the first and final chapters of Catcher, D. B. provides the novel with a circular structure through which its own birth (beginning) and death (end) are connected. In this regard, it seems likely that the initials D. B. are an abbreviation of Death and Birth. It is noteworthy that these initi,ls reverse the conventional order of these words; death precedes birth as falling precedes salvation. The character of D. B. may be understood to embody the flux between and ultimate oneness of these binary opposites.
Despite the contrasts between Holden and his three siblings, they have merged by the end of the novel in such perfect harmony through their exchanges (and fusions) of roles that we come to recognize the fundamental unity of this quaternity of siblings. Their identity--the identity of savior and saved, life and death, and other binary oppositions-finds clear expression in the novel's final rain, the circular movement of the carousel, and Holden's closure of his story to his brother. Furthermore, in the devices by which Salinger connects the novel to the real world-the phonograph record, James Castle, and the carousel itself21-we recognize the creative principle implicit in the underlying unity of opposites. Thus as we witness the carousel in the novel, we are conscious of its Phoenix-like rebirth from the burnt carousel that was its precursor in reality. We may also find fire, the agent of its rebirth, to be informed by the "deeply ambivalent" image of fire in carnival, the fire that-as Bakhtin remarks-"simultaneously destroys and renews the world" (Dostoevsky's Poetics 126).
The Identity Between the Novel and Its Reader
Beyond the binary oppositions considered above, Catcher explores the dynamics and underlying unity of a range of oppositions worthy of further study: mind/body, father/mother, man/woman, nun/prostitute, sun/moon, fiction/fact, and of course real/phony. On the topic of sexuality alone, for instance, the novel repeatedly undermines conventional fixed values. Although Holden seemingly accepts his society's conventional prejudices against homosexuality, the only two people that Holden respects other than family members are Antolini and Carl Luce, the novel's gay or bisexual characters. As if to reflect the blurred relationship of sexual innocence and guilt, to take another example, Holden ends his meetings with the prostitute and the nuns by giving the same amount of money, ten dollars, to each. Catcher offers fertile ground for further readings that look to such subversions of conventional oppositions.
Studies of Salinger would benefit, too, from a broadened theoretical perspective. Although Salinger has long been considered in terms of the influence of Zen Buddhism, the perspective of Western mysticism has been largely neglected, despite its relevance to Salinger's struggle against the hierarchical binary oppositions that constitute central principles of Western thought. As yet largely unconsidered vis-a-vis Salinger, Jung, in particular, promises further insight in this regard, not only into the problem of sexuality, but also the relations of heaven and hell, mind and body, and other binary oppositions beyond the scope of this essay. Finally, this essay's concern with Bakhtin represents an initial approach to the postmodern point of view on Salinger, yet this perspective, too, remains to be fully developed.
But it must be noted that, regardless of theoretical perspective, any analytic reading that focuses upon the dissolution of binary oppositions cannot evade the risk of self-betrayal. Analysis necessarily divides the analyst and the analyzed, introducing a binary opposition of the very sort it aims to interrogate. To conclude, therefore, let us apply our reading of the identity between catcher and caught to ourselves, the analysts, in our experience of reading the novel.
First, the notion of the underlying identity of binary opposites developed thus far suggests that as readers of Catcher, we cannot "catch" the novel unless we are "caught" by the novel. That is, to stand outside of the novel scrutinizing it is to miss the point; rather, the novel must be experienced, because only experience affords the possibility of self-evidential knowledge beyond analysis. In exploring such a possibility, John T. Irwin quotes Wittgenstein's remark that "[t]here are, indeed, things that cannot be put into words". Words-doubts, questions, even explanations-are predicated upon the separation of subject from experience. What is anterior to this separation literally cannot be said. It can only be shown.
A more analytical Holden might share this view, for Holden's experience at the end of Catcher is to witness the self-evident: that which lies beyond language or analysis. Thus Holden, bearing witness to Phoebe on the carousel, narrates, "I don't know why. It was just that she looked so damn nice, the way she kept going around and around, in her blue coat and all"; Holden shares with us his own deed not by explaining it, but by showing us what he witnesses even as we read (witness) the novel.
It furthermore bears mention that as a reader (of D. B.'s stories, The Great Gatsby, and other literary works), Holden himself does not analyze literary experience so much as he lives it-as a Gatsby-like, blessed dead man in the rain, for example, and as a mystical Ichthys like D. B.'s secret goldfish; Holden's reading experience is manifested thus in his own life rather than in his thoughts or beliefs. As readers of Holden's story, we, in turn, must live and experience Holden's story, for its essential fusions of binary oppositions lie in the realm, not of analysis, but rather of "what cannot be said." Holden, verging on tears, reveals this to us directly as he shares his happiness at watching his sister on the carousel: "God, I wish you could've been there". Holden simply cannot explain the truth he witnesses in words, but his longing to share it with us is its own fulfillment. Addressed directly by Holden's words, we step inside the novel to experience it by his side. With the collapse of this final boundary-the boundary between novel and reader-- the Catcher's subversion of binary oppositions is completed; the boundaries dividing Holden-Allie, savior-saved, life-death, Gatsby's fictional world-- Holden's real world (book-reader), and finally writer-reader dissolve in the rain.
This moment is one deeply informed by the sensibility of carnival, a chief value of which is the elision of the boundary between performer and spectator. As Bakhtin remarks, "Carnival is a pageant . . . without a division into performers and spectators. . . . [E]veryone is an active participant" (Dostoevsky's Poetics 122). In keeping with this sensibility, Salinger has orchestrated this conclusive moment around a structure much akin to a central feature of carnival, what Bakhtin describes as "a special structure (usually a vehicle adorned with all possible sorts of gaudy carnival trash) called `hell.' . . . [Alt the close of carnival this 'hell' . . . [is] triumphantly set on fire" (Dostoevsky's Poetics 126). Joining Holden by the carousel in the rain, we as readers share Holden's triumphal realization, witnessing it in the nimbus of fire surrounding the original carousel that links it to reality.
Salinger, J. D. The Catcher in the Rye. Boston: Little, Brown, 1951. READ MORE!
Sunday, June 7, 2009
Although J. D. Salinger's The Catcher in the Rye deserves the affection and accolades it has received since its publication in 1951, whether it has been praised for the right reasons is debatable. Most critics have tended to accept Holden's evaluation of the world as phony, when in fact his attitudes are symptomatic of a serious psychological problem.
Thus instead of treating the novel as a commentary by an innocent young man rebelling against an insensitive world or as a study of a youth's moral growth, I propose to read Catcher in the Rye as the chronicle of a four-year period in the life of an adolescent whose rebelliousness is his only means of dealing with his inability to come to terms with the death of his brother. Holden Caulfield has to wrestle not only with the usual difficult adjustments of the adolescent years, in sexual, familial and peer relationships; he has also to bury Allie before he can make the transition into adulthood.
Life stopped for Holden on July 18, 1946, the day his brother died of leukemia. Holden was then thirteen, and four years later--the time of the narrative--he is emotionally still at the same age, although he has matured into a gangly six-foot adolescent. "I was sixteen then," he observes concerning his expulsion from Pencey Prep at Christmas time in 1949, "and I'm seventeen now, and sometimes I act like I'm about thirteen."
On several occasions Holden comments that his mother has never gotten over Allie's death, which may or may not be an accurate appraisal of Mrs. Caulfield, since the first-person narrative makes it difficult to judge. What we can deduce, though, is that it is an accurate appraisal of Holden's inability to accept loss, and that in his eyes his mother is so preoccupied with Allie that she continues to neglect Holden, as presumably she did when Allie was dying.
The night after Allie's death Holden slept in the garage and broke "all the goddam windows with my fist, just for the hell of it. I even tried to break all the windows on the station wagon we had that summer, but my hand was already broken and everything by the time, and I couldn't do it. It was a very stupid thing to do, I'll admit, but I hardly didn't even know I was doing it, and you didn't know Allie." The act may have been "stupid"--which is one of his pet words to denigrate himself as well as others--but it also reflects his uncontrollable anger, at himself for wishing Allie dead and at his brother for leaving him alone and burdened with feelings of guilt.
Similarly, the attack on the station wagon may be seen as his way of getting even with a father who was powerless either to save Allie or to understand Holden. Because he was hospitalized, he was unable to attend the funeral, to witness the completion of the life process, but by injuring himself he received the attention and sympathy which were denied him during Allie's illness. His actions here as elsewhere are inconsistent and ambivalent, but always comprehensible in terms of his reaction to the loss of Allie.
So too is Holden's vocabulary an index to his disturbed emotional state--for all that it might seem to reflect the influence of the movies or his attempts to imitate the diction of his older brother, D. B. At least fifty times, something or somebody depresses him--an emotion which he frequently equates with a sense of isolation: "It makes you feel so lonesome and depressed."
Although the reiteration of the word reveals the true nature of his state, no one in the novel recognizes the signal, perceiving the boy as a kind of adolescent clown rather than as a seriously troubled youth. As his depression deepens to the point of nervous breakdown, furthermore, Holden--who at some level of awareness realizes that he is falling apart--seeks to obscure the recognition by referring to everything as "crazy" and by facetiously likening himself to a "madman."
"Crap," another word he uses repeatedly, is similarly self-reflexive. Although it is his ultimate term of reductionism for describing the world, like "crazy" it serves to identify another of his projections. He feels dirty and worthless, and so makes the world a reflection of his self-image. Similarly, if he continually asserts, almost screams, that the phony world makes him want to "puke," it is because Holden's world itself has turned to vomit. In his troubled, almost suicidal state he can incorporate nothing, and, worse, he believes there is nothing for him to incorporate. In turn, the significance of his repeated use of variations on the phrase "that killed me" becomes almost self-evident: reflecting his obsession with death, it tells the unsuspecting world that he wishes himself dead, punished and then reunited with Allie.
Although his consistently negative and hostile language thus reflects Holden's despair and is his way of informing the world of his plight, if no one listens it is primarily his own fault. For with the usual fumbling of the hurt he has chosen a means which serves his purposes poorly. While his language may serve to satisfy his need to act out his anger, at the same time it serves to isolate and to punish him further. If in his hostile phrases he is calling for help, he makes certain that he does not receive it. Ashamed of his need--a sixteen-year old crying for emotional support--and unable to accept kindness since in his guilt he feels he does not deserve it, Holden is locked into his grief and locked out of family and society.
In this respect, the first paragraph of Catcher in the Rye is one of the most deceptively revealing possible. Although Holden, the would-be sophisticate, relegates his familial background to "David Copperfield kind of crap," he talks about little else except his "lousy childhood." Arguing that he will not divulge family secrets so as not to cause pain, and pretending to respect the feelings of his parents, he verbally mutilates them, and in an ugly way; but if he is to suffer, so must they. He retaliates in kind, not in kindness. Yet the aggressive, assertive tone masks a pitiful, agonized call for emotional support and love.
Equally revealing of Holden's problem is his observation, as he stands alone on a hill that cold December, his last day at Pencey Prep, looking down at the football field where his classmates are participating collectively in one of the rites of adolescence: "it was cold as a witch's teat, especially on top of that stupid hill." What he wants is the good mother's breast. And why he needs this maternal comfort so much is implicitly suggested when he descends the hill to say good-by to his history teacher, who cannot understand why in answering a question about Egyptian history on an examination Holden should have begun and ended with a description of the preservation of mummies.
The teacher cannot know that Holden has no interest in the Egyptians, only in what happened to Allie, and that he cannot focus on ancient history until he has come to terms with his own past. Nor can he know that Holden has misinterpreted as rejection his father's concern for his future, that the boy wants to be at home, and that to accomplish his goal he has failed in four different schools.
But lest one think that this insensitivity is a fault of the older generation, Salinger next portrays the response of one of Holden's peers to the first of a number of roles he will play in his desperate attempt to disguise his obsession with Allie's death, on the one hand, and his need for parental comfort, on the other.
Thus when Holden pulls his red hunting cap over his eyes and says histrionically, "I think I'm going blind. ... Mother darling, everything's getting so dark in here. ... Mother darling, give me your hand," the response of his classmate is: "You're nuts. ... For Chrisake, grow up." Ackley cannot know that Holden assumes Allie's red hair when he puts on the red cap, that the simulated blindness is descriptive of Holden's state, or that he uses the script as a (futile) means of asking for the maternal hand that he believes has been denied to him.
If Ackley does not appreciate the extent to which the death of Holden's red-haired brother informs his posturing, even less is his room-mate Stradlater aware of the chain of associations that he sets off when he asks Holden to write a composition for him. Unable to write about a "room or a house" Holden writes about Allie's baseball mitt--an object which is a complex version of a child's security blanket, a sacred relic of the living dead, at the same time that it reminds Holden of betrayal. And thus as he writes about the mitt, we learn directly for the first time of Allie's death and of Holden's self-punishing rage.
By coincidence, Stradlater has a date that evening with Jane Gallagher, the girl to whom Holden had shown the glove in a combined attempt to sympathize with her for her unhappy childhood and to solicit her sympathy for himself. Worried that Stradlater will make "time" with an attractive girl with whom Holden plays checkers--the only kind of play of which the self-styled sex maniac is capable--Holden presses to know what has happened on the date.
And when Stradlater implies that he got what he wanted, Holden lashes out with the hand he injured on the day of Allie's death. Subsequently pinned to the floor until he promises to stop his ridiculing insults, as soon as he is released, Holden shouts, "You're a dirty stupid sonuvabitch of a moron," and then he receives the blow that subconsciously he wants. "You asked for it, God damn it," Stradlater says, and he is right for reasons he does not understand.
And so on his last day at Pencey Prep Holden makes a clean sweep of it: he writes off the school, his chums, and even Jane. There is no Tom Sawyer to rescue him when he eventually quotes Huck Finn: "I felt so lonesome, all of a sudden. I almost wished I was dead." Suddenly Holden decides to leave late that evening even though his family is not expecting him until the following Wednesday. His Mark Cross luggage packed, he is "sort of crying. I don't know why. I put my red hunting hat on, and turned the peak around to the back, the way I liked it, and then I yelled at the top of my goddam voice, 'Sleep tight, ya morons!'" Thus, in his usual hostile fashion, Holden makes sure that he will be rejected. Protected only by the red hat, which he now wears like a baseball catcher as he evokes Allie's favorite sport, he stumbles down the stairs and "damn near broke my crazy neck."
On the train to New York he strikes up a conversation with a Mrs. Morrow, who turns out to be the mother of one of his former classmates. He lies through his teeth praising her son who is "about as sensitive as a goddam toilet seat." But "Mothers are all slightly insane. The thing is, though, I liked old Morrow's mother," who happens to be proud of her moronic son. When she wonders whether Holden is leaving school before the beginning of vacation "because of illness in the family," he casually informs her, "I have this tiny little tumor on the brain." The fib achieves the expected result, Mrs. Morrow's genuine sympathy for an ill "son."
Though Holden plans to spend the next few days in a hotel, he is "so damn absent-minded" that he gives the cab driver his home address. After he realizes his "mistake," they drive through Central Park, and Holden asks the driver whether he knows what happens to the ducks in the pond during the winter. The "madman" replies angrily, "What're ya tryna do, bud? ... Kid me?" Worried that he has antagonized the man, Holden invites him for a drink. When the driver refuses, Holden, "depressed," retaliates against "father": "He was one of those bald guys that comb all their hair over from the side to cover up the baldness."
In the hotel he is bored but "feeling pretty horny," as a sixteen-year old is supposed to feel, and he calls up a whore but lets her put him off ("I really fouled that up.") Then he thinks of telephoning his sister Phoebe, who "has this sort of red hair, a little bit like Allie's was," but he is afraid his mother will answer. He goes to the bar in the hotel and dances with some older women from Seattle who are in New York to see the celebrities, not to provide Holden with entertainment or solace. He punishes them for neglecting him when he fibs that Gary Cooper has just left the room.
On the way to a bar frequented by his older brother D. B., who is now, according to Holden, prostituting himself in Hollywood, he asks a cabby named Horwitz about the ducks in the lagoon in Central Park. Horwitz gets "sore" and counters in a typical New York taxi discussion that "The fish don't go no place." Desperate for companionship, Holden invites Horwitz for a drink. The driver refuses and has the last word: "If you was a fish, Mother Nature'd take care of you, wouldn't she? Right? You don't think them fish just die, when it gets to be winter, do ya?" Holden does not comment, but Horwitz unwittingly summarizes the boy's dilemma.
Later, in D. B.'s nightclub Holden glosses over his loneliness by observing the behavior of the phonies in the club, and then rejects the invitation of one of D. B.'s girl friends as others have rejected him. When Holden returns to his hotel, an elevator operator named Maurice sets him up with a call girl, but when "Sunny" arrives, he is "more depressed than sexy," and asks her to stay and talk. He pays her $5.00 and then "depressed" begins "talking, sort of out loud, to Allie."
Maurice returns with Sunny and demands another $5.00 for services not rendered. Holden tries to defend his rights but begins to cry. Sunny wants to leave quietly after she takes money from Holden's wallet, but Maurice "snapped his finger very hard on my pajamas. I won't tell you where he snapped it, but it hurt like hell." (The sudden self-protective chastity is an amusing and effective detail.) When Holden calls Maurice "a stupid chiseling moron," for the second time that evening he is smacked, with a "terrific punch" in his stomach. Hardly able to breathe, fearing he is drowning, he stumbles toward the bathroom.
"Crazy," he acts out a scenario: with a bullet in his gut, he goes down the stairs and puts six shots into Maurice's "fat hairy belly," and then throws the gun down the elevator shaft. He calls up Jane, who comes over and bandages his wound: "I pictured her holding a cigarette for me to smoke while I was bleeding and all." Finally he goes to sleep "What I really felt like, though, was committing suicide I felt like jumping out the window. I probably would've done it too"--except for the "stupid rubbernecks."
Holden's protestations to the contrary, the associations in this scene are only superficially from the "goddam movies." Maurice threatens Holden with castration, even though he has not had sex with Sunny, and then pummels him in the stomach. In retaliation Holden commits parricide. In his fantasy he summons Jane, who is associated with Allie through her knowledge of the baseball mitt, and has her play the role of mother.
When Holden thinks of jumping out the window, he is recalling an event which the reader does not learn about until later. A few years earlier Jimmy Castle, a classmate, was so tortured and brutalized, presumably genitally, by a bunch of students that he leaped from a window, wearing Holden's turtleneck sweater. As though Holden is not sufficiently burdened with his unresolved grief for Allie, he has had to cope with this tie to an unfortunate classmate. Sunny, the prostitute, anticipates the appearance of Phoebe, who is both the kid sister and by mythic association the sun goddess. Sunny offers Holden sex, Phoebe will offer him love. Unable to handle sex, Holden wants Sunny to be a confidante, a role which she is unable to handle. Yet she tries unsuccessfully to protect him from Maurice's aggression, which may be Holden's construction of his mother's ineffectual role in the Caulfield household.
At breakfast on the following morning he meets two nun school teachers, and begins a conversation which shortly turns to Romeo and Juliet. If the scene with Sunny reveals that Holden is not ready for sexual relationships--he is a "sex maniac" only in his head--his comments on the tragedy solely in terms of Romeo's culpability in Mercutio's death confirm the arrestment. He is attracted to the nuns, or mothers, who remind him of "old Ernest Morrow's mother," but they also remind him that his father was a Catholic until he "married my mother."
This leads him to recall some unpleasant associations with Catholics, and when he says good-by to the nuns, "by mistake I blew some smoke in their faces. I didn't mean to, but I did it." In atonement for his unkindness Holden makes a symbolic apology to the nuns when he imagines them standing in front of a department store raising money for charity. He tries "to picture my mother or somebody, or my aunt, or Sally Hayes's crazy mother, standing outside some department store and collecting dough for poor people in a beat-up old straw hat. It was hard to picture." Since his "picture" of his mother is too harsh, and anxiety-producing, he guiltily corrects it: "Not so much my mother, but those other two."
Walking along the street, he sees a family coming from church--"a father, a mother, and a little kid about six years old." Holden "sees" the family, but only in terms of his own situation. Without evidence he initially assumes that the parents are neglecting the boy who walks along the curb singing to himself. "If a body catch a body coming through the rye"--or so Holden imagines. For it is doubtful that the six-year-old, if he knows the poem in the first place, duplicates Holden's misreading of the famous lines. What Holden "hears" anticipates the grandiose fantasy he will later relate to Phoebe in which he catches and saves children. For a moment he is charmed with his fantasy of a self-contained kid whose parents are at hand to protect him: "It made me feel not so depressed any more."
In the afternoon Holden escorts Sally Hayes to a Broadway show and goes ice skating at Rockefeller Center. Then they sit down for a chat--about Holden. He pours out his anger at the phony world, and when Sally tries to be sensible, he almost screams at her, "I don't get hardly anything out of anything. I'm in bad shape. I'm in lousy shape." Sally can hardly be expected to understand how empty he feels, or know how to respond to his cry for sympathy. Then he proposes what he knows she cannot agree to, that they run off together to New England. When she objects to the scheme, he verbally assaults her but not without self-pity: "she was depressing the hell out of me."
After this rejection, which in his usual fashion he makes inevitable, he tries to lift the depression by evoking earlier, happier days when the Caulfield family was intact. He goes to Radio City Music Hall, where, with the parents in another part of the theater, Allie and he had sat by themselves watching a favorite drummer. But pleasant memories of Allie cannot rescue him, and he goes to a bar to meet a former classmate named Luce. Although Holden wants Luce's companionship and assistance, he subjects him to an offensive, crude interrogation about his sex life.
Twice Luce asks, repeating the question put earlier by Ackley, "When are you going to grow up?" After Holden confesses that his sex life "stinks," Luce reminds him that once before he had advised him to see an analyst. At once Holden asks for more information and comes as close as his pride permits to begging for the kind of aid which Luce of course cannot provide. When Luce gets ready to leave for his date, Holden implores, "Have just one more drink. Please, I'm lonesome as hell."
Now "really drunk" and wounded, because Luce like the others betrays him, he replays the scenario of "that stupid business with the bullet in my guts again. I was the only guy at the bar with a bullet in their guts. I kept putting my hand under my jacket, on my stomach and all, to keep the blood from dripping all over the place. I didn't want anybody to know I was even wounded. I was concealing the fact that I was a wounded sonuvabitch." Even in fantasy his self-pity turns into self-disparagement: he hates himself as he screams for attention.
He decides to call up Jane Gallagher, but by "mistake"--it is almost a comedy of errors--he dials Sally Hayes and makes up for his insults. Then he goes to the men's room, dunks his head in a washbowl, and sits on a radiator to dry himself. When the pianist, a "flitty-looking guy," enters, Holden asks him to arrange a date with the singer at the club. The pianist tells him to go home.
"You oughta go on the radio," I said, "Handsome chap like you. All those goddam golden locks. Ya need a manager?"
"Go home, Mac, like a good guy. Go home and hit the sack."
"No home to go to. No kidding--you need a manager?"
Holden, who needs "a manager," is crying as he goes for his coat. When the middle-aged attendant gives him his coat even though he has lost his check, he returns the kindness by asking her for a date. She laughs, but not derisively, and, intuiting the role he wants her to play, makes him put on his red hunting hat. His teeth chattering, Holden goes to Central Park to "see what the hell the ducks were doing." On the way, one "accident" following another, he drops the phonograph record he has bought for Phoebe. If, as he believes, nothing has been given to him, he cannot give even to his favorite sister and must punish her as he has been punished. When he finds the pond he nearly falls in. "Still shivering like a bastard," he imagines that he has pneumonia and dies.
In this fantasy he acts out his anger against his parents and inflicts upon them the ultimate punishment, his death. His funeral is mobbed and everybody cries: "They all came when Allie died, the whole goddam stupid bunch of them." He feels "sorry as hell for my mother and father. Especially my mother, because she still isn't over my brother Allie yet." In this reenactment of Allie's funeral he displaces his brother and enjoys exclusively the love of his mother. But not for long, since his "picture" cannot lift his guilt, dissolve his rage, or make over reality. People will not mourn him long, no longer than they mourned Allie, and life in the phony world will go on without him. Like Allie he will lie in the cemetery exposed to the elements.
To take his "mind off getting pneumonia and all," he skips "the quarters and the nickel" across the lagoon. "I don't know why I did it, but I did it." Perhaps he imitates a game Allie and he played together, but when he throws away his money, there is only one place he can go--home. Which he does, although he disguises the desire by preserving his fantasy: he goes there to see Phoebe "in case I died and all." In the foyer of the Caulfield apartment he recognizes "a funny smell that doesn't smell like any place else," and he finds Phoebe asleep in D. B.'s bed: "I felt swell for a change." Safe and protected, he begins to relax and no longer worries "whether they'd catch me home or not."
What he does not say is that he would like to be caught. At first Phoebe is "very affectionate" until she guesses that he has been kicked out of Pencey Prep. Then, hurt and angry, a reaction which he cannot understand, she beats him with her fists and says over and over, "Daddy'll kill you!" At last Holden tellingly replies, "No, he won't. The worst he'll do, he'll give me hell again, and then he'll send me to that goddam military school. That's all he'll do."
In this climactic scene Phoebe plays a double role. About Allie's age when he died, she is the sister disappointed in the failures of her idealized brother, but she is also an underaged, undersized mother figure. Firmly but affectionately Phoebe presses Holden to explain why he has been expelled. He pours forth all his phony rationalizations, most of which begin and end with something or somebody "depressing" him. When Phoebe suggests that the fault may be his--"You don't like anything that's happening"--he is "even more depressed." She insists, now perhaps not unlike the lawyer father, that he name some things he likes. Unable to "concentrate" on her disturbing questions, Holden thinks of the two nuns and of Jimmy Castle's suicide--kind mothers and a dead son. Relentlessly but not without a concession, Phoebe asks him to tell her "one thing" he likes.
"I like Allie," I said. "And I like doing what I'm doing right now. Sitting here with you, and talking, and thinking about stuff, and--"
"Allie's dead--You always say that! If somebody's dead and everything, and in Heaven, then it isn't really--"
"I know he's dead! Don't you think I know that? I can still like him, though, can't I? Just because somebody's dead, you don't just stop liking them, for God's sake--especially if they were about a thousand times nicer than the people you know that're alive and all."
Phoebe is silent. Holden believes that "she can't think of anything to say." More perceptive than her older brother, she gives him time to recognize the significance of what he has said: that Allie is dead. Then, like the parents and the teachers, but with an affection that dilutes his anger, she tries to direct Holden to a consideration of a future which--as she tactfully does not say--must be lived without Allie. When she suggests that he may want to be a lawyer, Holden is unable to reply precisely, not merely because he is trapped in his negations, but also because, in spite of his anger, he can only attack the father by indirection. "Lawyers are all right, I guess," he replies, with wayward antecedents, "but it does not appeal to me."
He draws a picture of lawyers "saving innocent guys' lives"--which is another rescue fantasy and a disguised self-reference. When he discusses, from his hurt viewpoint, the role of the corporation lawyer, he deflects the indictment of his father through use of the second-person pronoun: "All you do is make a lot of dough and play golf and play bridge and buy cars and drink Martinis and look like a hot-shot." Ironically, Holden emulates his father's behavior, from his Mark Cross luggage to his drinking and "hot-shot" attacks on phonies.
Soon Holden confides his most heroic fantasy, undeterred when Phoebe corrects the misquotation of Burns's poem on which it is based.
"I thought it was 'If a body catch a body," I said. "Anyway, I keep picturing all these little kids playing some game in this big field of rye and all. Thousands of little kids, and nobody's around--nobody big, I mean--except me. And I'm standing on the edge of some crazy cliff. What I have to do, I have to catch everybody if they start to go over the cliff--I mean if they're running and they don't look where they're going I have to come out from somewhere and catch them. That's all I'd do all day. I'd just be the catcher in the rye and all. I know it's crazy, but that's the only thing I'd really like to be. I know it's crazy."
This is the most complex of all the rescue fantasies. Holden has the "crazy" idea that he should have saved Allie, and that in the future he will save children abused by adults. If he is savior, he is also victim. For he himself is at "the edge of some crazy cliff" and feels himself, as he puts it later, going "down, down, down." He acts out the role he wants the adult world, particularly his father, to play: that of rescuer.
When a moment later Phoebe and Holden horse around and dance about the bedroom, the youth's delight illuminates his desire for a childhood where there are no fears, only joy and protection. The idyll ends abruptly when the parents come home, and Holden, fearing rejection, hides in a closet. Before he leaves, he borrows Phoebe's Christmas money. For the fourth time he begins to cry: "I couldn't help it. I did it so nobody could hear me, but I did it."
For the first time he achieves what he has cried for from the beginning: Phoebe, now the mother, not the little sister, "put her old arm around my neck, and I put my arm around her, too, but I still couldn't stop for a long time." Before he goes, he almost tells the truth about himself as well as about the catcher-in-the-rye fantasy. "I didn't give much of a damn any more if they caught me. I really didn't. I figured if they caught me, they caught me. I almost wished they did, in a way."
Holden leaves to spend the night with a former teacher at a preparatory school, now an English professor at New York University. Antolini has been a role model, a good father, for Holden: he carried the body of Jimmy Castle to the infirmary after his suicide, and he banters in the witty style of D. B. Holden is disappointed when Antolini informs him that he has had lunch with Mr. Caulfield and shares the father's concern that "you're riding for some kind of a terrible, terrible fall."
The professor tries intellectually to check the boy's self-destructive tendencies, as Phoebe does in her quite different way. Antolini puts the boy to bed on a couch in the living room, and says "Good night, handsome." Later Holden wakens to find "something on my head, some guy's hand." "Shaking like a madman," he concocts an excuse to leave and spends the rest of the night sleeping on a bench in Grand Central Station. "I think," he writes, "I was more depressed than I ever was in my whole life."
Although initially Holden interprets Antolini's caress as a sexual advance, in the morning he has doubts, "I mean I wondered if just maybe I was wrong about thinking he was making a flitty pass at me." Whatever his intentions, sexual or paternal, Antolini sets off the not unusual homosexual panic of adolescents. But Holden's problem is not primarily sexual. He cannot connect with anyone in any way until the burden of Allie's death is lifted.
Alone, depressed, he walks up Fifth Avenue in the morning looking for the two nuns--looking for mother--when something "very spooky" happens. "Every time I came to the end of a block and stepped off the goddam curb, I had this feeling that I'd never get to the other side of the street. I thought I'd just go down, down, and nobody'd ever see me again." Once more he is at the cliff, and there is no one to catch him, to keep him from going "down, down, down"--except Allie. He cries out, "Allie, don't let me disappear."
Holden has at last touched bottom, although he is not to be spared further indignities, some of his own making. Never again will he summon Allie, which means that he begins to turn from the past and death and to move into the present and toward the living. The inevitable fantasy that he creates in moments of crisis subtly changes. He plans to go "out West, where it was very pretty and sunny and where nobody'd know me." When Holden proposes to Sally that they run off to Vermont or Massachusetts, the flight is in the direction of Maine, where Allie died. In going west he moves toward the living, for D. B. is in Hollywood.
Still damaged and still hungering for security, he pictures himself as a deaf mute working at a filling station and--most important--married to another deaf mute. "If we had any children," he declares, with obvious reference to his own lot, "we'd hide them somewhere. We could buy them a lot of books and teach them how to read and write by ourselves." At last Holden's locked world is opening up.
He goes to Phoebe's school to say good-by and to return her Christmas money. He is upset to find "Fuck you" scrawled on a wall, no doubt more upset than the kids who share neither his naive ideas of purity, despite his verbal profanities, nor his fears of sexuality. While he waits for Phoebe at the museum, two boys ask the way to the mummies.
As Holden leads them to the Egyptian room, he begins to repeat the information given in his history examination at Pencey Prep about the process of preservation, and frightens the lads who do not share his obsession with death. Instead of a savior or a catcher, Holden turns out to be a bogey man--as unfeeling as the unfeeling adults who have never understood him. Alone in the tomb, he is mocked again by the ugly epithet of sexual assault which he finds on the walls. Typically he overreacts and at the same time punishes himself as he pictures his tombstone: Holden Caulfield--"Fuck you."
If this debasement is not enough, he suddenly has diarrhea, and passes out on the floor of a toilet. It is as though he must experience an elemental purging--get all the "crap" out of his distorted picture of life and of himself. Compulsively he creates still another fantasy of flight. This time he is a thirty-five-year-old man living by himself: "I even started picturing how it would be when I came back. I knew my mother'd get nervous as hell and start to cry and beg me to stay home and not go back to my cabin, but I'd go anyway." If he is still punishing his mother--and himself--at least he pictures himself alive and at the middle of the journey.
When Phoebe comes to the museum with her luggage because she plans to go west too, once again she reaches out to her brother. The act of love is almost too much for Holden. "I got sort of dizzy and I thought I was going to pass out or something again." But he does not fall nor pass out. Instead like the loved-hated parents or like a protective older brother--in short like all the other adults--he automatically advances all the sensible reasons why Phoebe's plans are "crazy." When he begins genuinely to think of someone else's lot, he assumes responsibility. He is no longer the kid who needs and demands everybody's attention.
When Phoebe proves stubborn, he returns her gift of love with another gift. He escorts her to Central Park, not to the duck pond--with its associations with death--but to the carrousel. "When she was a tiny little kid, and Allie and D. B. and I used to go to the park with her, she was mad about the carrousel."
In the bedroom Holden and Phoebe had danced together like two kids, but at the carrousel Holden refuses to ride with her and watches her reach for the gold ring. In turn, when he promises to go home with Phoebe, he delights her and at the same time achieves the goal hinted at on the first page of his narrative: "I felt so damn happy all of a sudden, the way old Phoebe kept going around and around. I was damn near bawling. I felt so damn happy."
In the epilogue, Chapter 26, Holden writes of himself at age seventeen in an institution near Hollywood, not far from D. B. After a period of rest and therapy there has been no fabulous transformation, although there has been change. His language is no longer negative, nor is his attitude. He is not sure that he is going to apply himself when he returns to school in September: "I think I am, but how do I know? I swear it's a stupid question." Although he has to put up token resistance--after all, he is Holden Caulfield--he is ready to go "around and around" in the game of life and no longer needs Allie's mitt or hat to protect him. Nor must he picture himself as the victim of insensitive adults; the psychoanalyst's advice is not "bull."
When D. B. asks him about "all the stuff I just finished telling you about," he replies truthfully, without a defensive wisecrack. "About all I know is, I sort of miss everybody I told about." At last he cuts through his "crap," his evasions and hostile defenses. He wants, as he has always wanted, to establish connections, and he is well on his way to doing just that, for in his narrative he has at least established connections with readers.
"Don't ever tell anybody anything," he writes at the conclusion; "if you do, you start missing everybody." But telling is precisely what he has been doing and in the process Holden has finished mourning. Allie now rests in peace.
Source: Mosaic, Vol. XV, No. 1, Winter, 1982, pp. 129-40.
Saturday, June 6, 2009
“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”.
I first read these lines about Holden's recollections in anxiety long before I could have identified the allusion to Wordsworth, long before I fell half in love with easeful death and Keats's "Ode on a Grecian Urn," long before I would scrawl "stasis" on the blackboard when lecturing about The Catcher in the Rye. And even though I hadn't the foggiest idea about which subway line takes one to the Museum of Natural History, I understood, at sixteen, what Holden was talking about.
In short, there was a time when books--or at least some books--used to matter. One wonders if the same excitements, the same confusions, the same affections persist. Or have formative books gone the way of penny candy and unorganized baseball games? Perhaps our age is too restless, too sophisticated to suspend its disbelief, much less to sit still long enough to read a book. What follows, then, is an attempt, admittedly autobiographical, to talk about certain connections between reading and culture--not as a "reader-response" theorist, not as a statistics-and-graph sociologist, but rather as one who fell in love with The Catcher in the Rye early, and who has been trying to figure out what that has meant ever since.
About some underlying things I am fairly certain: the public indicators that presumably separate one generation in its youth from another (e.g., hairstyling, popular music) are finally less important than the conditions they share. "So much of adolescence," the poet Theodore Roethke once wrote, "is an ill-defined dying, ... A longing for another time and place, / another condition." Roethke may have been wrong about the death wish that I, for one, didn't have, but he was dead right about my ill-defined longings. Like Holden, I yearned for a world more attractive, and less mutable, than the one in which we live and are forced to compete. As Holden puts it, with a sadness he does not fully comprehend:
That's the whole trouble. You can't ever find a place that's nice and peaceful, because there isn't any. You may think there is, but once you get there, when you're not looking, somebody'll sneak up and write "Fuck you" right under your nose. Try it sometime. I think, even, if I ever die, and they stick me in a cemetery, and I have a tombstone and all, it'll say "Holden Caulfield" on it, and then what year I was born and what year I died, and then right under that it'll say "Fuck you." I'm positive, in fact.
That Holden renders a diffuse, universal condition in vivid particulars and that he gives eloquent expression to what I could not have articulated myself are both ways of saying that The Catcher in the Rye was, for me, a formative book. Others, no doubt, have candidates of their own: Mother Goose, Treasure Island, The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes--whatever books they remember as making the imagination's power immanent. But I would argue that our most important formative books are those which lead double lives as cultural statements, fastened as firmly to the here and now as they are to fiction's universals.
One wrestles with genuinely formative books, often in ways that are as divided as they are paradoxical. Recalling his own experiences with such books, Lionel Trilling put the matter this way: "The great books taught me, they never made me dream. The bad books made me dream and hurt me; I was right when 4 years ago I said that the best rule-of-thumb for judgment of a good novel or play was--Do you want to be the hero? If you do, the work is bad."
One could claim, and with some justification, that The Catcher in the Rye encourages precisely the sort of dreaming and heroic identification that Trilling stands four-square against. Indeed, if moral complexity were the sole issue, one would need look no further than Trilling's The Middle of the Journey (1949), an extraordinary novel published a scant two years before The Catcher in the Rye. But that said, who would be comfortable in claiming The Middle of the Journey as a formative book? To be sure, accessibility is part of the formula, but timing is equally important. A formative book catches its reader at a point when options loom larger than certainties, when an admonition to "change your life" can still have teeth.
For those who grew up in the 1950's, The Catcher in the Rye was the formative book. My own case, as I struggle to reconstruct it, was one of sharply divided loyalties, of as many repulsions as attractions. A part of me--the part that was reading a book called On the Road by an author whose name no one in my literary crowd could even pronounce--wanted, more than anything in the world, to be a beatnik.
There were, clearly, no beatniks--at least none in the Kerouac mold--at a cushy joint like Holden's Pencey Prep. My dilemma, I hasten to add, was hardly unusual: formative books come in bunches and, more often than not, send contradictory messages about exactly how one goes about changing one's life. To make matters even more confusing, I kept testing what I read against the life I was actually living. When, for example, ol' Phoebe keeps repeating "Daddy'll kill you," I knew, even at sixteen, that this was so much Oedipal bluster. On the other hand, my father really would have leveled me--that is, if I had pissed away even half the money Holden did, or lugged home a single C, much less a fistful of F's.
It was Holden's voice, rather than his circumstances, that hooked me. Long before the book appeared in its now-familiar bright red, plainly lettered, paperback cover--a dead giveaway that the novel has become a "classic" and can move off the shelf on its own power--I kept faith with a well-thumbed copy sporting a picture of an apple-cheeked, perplexed Holden (wearing his reversed hunting cap) gazing on the debauchery that was, presumably, New York City.
Apparently, the cover designer sought to blend brows high and low, the lurid (soft porn à la 1955) with the literary (Daisy Buchanan eyeballing Manhattan on the dust jacket of The Great Gatsby). Anyway--as Holden might put it--it was the voice that got me each time I turned to the first page; to get the voice going--or, if you will, talking--all you had to do was sit back and read:
If you really want to hear about it, the first thing you'll probably want to know is where I was born, and what my lousy childhood was like, and how my parents were occupied and all before they had me, and all that David Copperfield kind of crap, but I don't feel like going into it, if you want to know the truth.
To call a Dickens novel crap--and in the same sentence that heaves in a "lousy" no less!--was to yank literature away from those who pronounced it "lit-er-ah-tour." Huckleberry Finn warms up to his task by telling us that Mark Twain "told the truth, mainly," but Holden really does it, without an apology or so much as a "by your leave."
At least that was the way I read the book when I was sixteen and itching to pull down a few vanities myself. In those days Holden was my "secret sharer," the part of me that knew, down deep, that whatever Life was, it was decidedly not a game: "Game, my ass [Holden thinks as Spencer hectors him about yet another poor academic performance]. Some game. If you get on the side where all the hot-shots are, then it's a game all right--I'll admit that. But if you get on the other side, where there aren't any hot-shots, then what's a game about it? Nothing. No game."
To be sure, what Holden said in bald print I dared only whisper sotto voce. That I could live with. It was having to share my secret sharer with others that gave me the gripes. Holden was fast becoming a doppelganger-in-residence for an entire generation, including those who pointed to the obligatory fart-in-the-chapel scene and guffawed. What right have any of you, I wanted to shout, to think of Holden as a fellow traveler? Holden would expose you as a "secret slob," as a Joe Flit, as a phony.
It took some years before I realized the painful truth--namely, that Holden would probably say the same or worse about me. As Holden would have it, you can count the nonphonies on the fingers of one hand: Allie, his dead brother; Phoebe, his little sister, and of course Holden himself. Everybody else stands either suspect or convicted.
I took a measure of comfort from those passages in which even Holden wonders if he hasn't pulled the self-righteous trigger too quickly. Mr. Antolini, for example, might--or might not--have been a "pervert." What seemed clear enough when Holden was sleeping on Antolini's couch turns complicated when he hits the Manhattan street: "... What did worry me was the part about how I'd woke up and found him patting me on the head and all. I mean I wondered if just maybe I was wrong about thinking he was making a flitty pass at me. I wondered if maybe he just liked to pat guys on the head when they're asleep. I mean how can you tell about that stuff for sure?"
By this time I was in college: a place where I acquired for the first time that phenomenon known as a roommate, a place where novels like The Catcher in the Rye were dissected and placed under critical microscopes. It had taken the New Criticism two decades to trickle down to the small liberal-arts college I attended, but we soon learned to sniff out a paradox or an ambiguity with the best of them. If Salinger hadn't written The Catcher in the Rye, one of my professors certainly would have. At least that was the way it seemed, so unerring were they on those quirky Salinger touches we enjoyed without quite knowing how to talk, or write, about them: the kings Jane Gallagher kept in the back row; the question Holden keeps asking about the ducks of Central Park; the whole business of being a "catcher in the rye."
A few years later, while browsing through back issues of Modern Fiction Studies, I heard snippets of their dazzling lectures once again, but this time the insights were attached to names I kept bumping into in graduate school: Arthur Mizener, Leslie Fiedler, Alfred Kazin, James E. Miller, Jr., Frederick L. Gwynn, Joseph L. Blotner--none of whom, I hardly need add, taught at my college. No wonder my professors had wowed the pants off the undergraduates in the third row! Everything they said was safely tucked away in the MLA Bibliography--more critical articles on Salinger than on Hemingway or Fitzgerald or Faulkner. What had started out as an effort to give critical respectability (the Academy's Seal of Approval) to a wildly popular book had turned into a gusher of ink.
In short, the burgeoning Salinger industry did its best, but The Catcher in the Rye held up, and together, better than most similarly "saturated" books. After such knowledge, there was--in my case at least--forgiveness. So what if the intimations that would become Holden Caulfield could be unearthed in the wanderings of Odysseus, in the legends surrounding the Grail knights, in Huck Finn's adventures among con men and scalawags, in Quentin Compson's obsession with his sister? So what if my undergraduate professors took in the best that had been thought and printed about Holden's world and then modified it into their own lectures? Salinger's book was more or less the same book it had always been, and Salinger was, of course, still Salinger.
The truth is, however, that our formative books survive not only subsequent readings but also ourselves. In the case of The Catcher in the Rye, it even managed to survive what I would not then have believed possible--a time when I no longer counted myself among the Holden-lovers. The well-meaning but ineffectual Mr. Antolini came to strike me as a better model--despite his bows to Wilhelm Steckel and his penchant for stump speeches about the Great Tradition:
... you'll find [he tells a shaken Holden] that you're not the first person who was ever confused and frightened and even sickened by human behavior. You're by no means alone on that score, you'll be excited and stimulated to know. Many, many men have been just as troubled morally and spiritually as you are right now. Happily, some of them kept records of their troubles. You'll learn from them--if you want to. Just as someday, if you have something to offer, someone will learn something from you. It's beautiful, reciprocal arrangement. And it isn't education. It's history. It's poetry.
Indeed, there will probably come that dreaded day when a bathrobed, bumpy-chested avatar of Mr. Spencer will stare back at me from the mirror. And no doubt I will find him a good deal more sympathetically drawn than I did when I first encountered him reeking of Vicks Nose Drops and made to carry the symbolic role of Sickness Personified.
Teaching Holden's saga in Belgium (under the auspices of a Fulbright grant), I was struck by ironies better than I could have concocted myself, ironies that surely would have made even a Salinger smile. For example, in a university where Fuck You's are scrawled on nearly every bathroom wall (graffiti, apparently, requires plain-talking, Anglo-Saxon words; in Belgium, neither French nor Flemish would suffice), my students--reading The Catcher in the Rye in the expurgated Penguin edition--had trouble figuring out what the dash in "--You" stood for. Nonetheless, they fell in love with Holden at first sight. Our most American books--everything from Adventures of Huckleberry Finn to Invisible Man--are as portable as they are powerful. To be sure, my Belgian students had some difficulty understanding the easy arithmetic we make between the American West and the American Dream. When, for example, Holden imagines lighting out for the West, we read the passage with Huck Finn and Frederick Turner firmly in mind:
Finally, what I decided I'd do, I decided I'd go away. I decided I'd never go home again and I'd never go away to another school again. ... What I'd do, I figured, I'd go down to the Holland Tunnel and bum a ride, and then I'd bum another one, and another one, and another one, and in a few days I'd be somewhere out West where it was very pretty and sunny and where nobody'd know me and I'd get a job.
My Belgian students knew about the American West by watching Dallas and Dynasty, but they also knew that riding westward--to, say, Ghent--is at best only a two-hour drive from the German border. In short, they found it hard to make the translation, to feel--as well as to "know"--just how big, how sprawling, America is.
On the other hand, the things that made Holden "fed up"--the competitive and the materialistic, as well as, of course, the phony--struck an easy, sympathetic chord, even in those who found themselves attracted by his description of life among the corporate lawyers: "All you do is make a lot of dough and play golf and play bridge and buy cars and drink Martinis and look like a hot-shot." At this point the line between my Belgian students and the American students with whom I'm more familiar began to blur. In roughly the same way that the well-heeled students at my college in Pennsylvania cheer when the film series shows "Breaking Away," Belgian students have no trouble empathizing with Holden while simultaneously keeping their eyes on the main chance. Which is simply to say that The Catcher in the Rye has always had more appeal to rebels under the skin than to those who actually lugged their failing transcripts from one prep school to another.
What did not change in my development, however, was my abiding sense of a formative book's continuing power. Granted, I may have accounted for the power in language that changed with the decades, I may have shifted this allegiance, altered that loyalty, to its characters, but the plain truth is that Salinger's death-haunted tale of spiritual yearning, of youthful angst, of dream and nightmare, has much to do with the how-and-why I plug away at teaching literature to a generation willing to settle for a safe job and a three-piece suit. I say this not as Mr. Antolini, much less as Holden; not as Spencer, much less as Salinger. Each of them has become a part of me in the way that Hester and Huckleberry, together with Madame Bovary and Leopold Bloom--from other formative books--also share in the making of my sensibility.
Indeed, the very plurality of formative books is worth speculating about. There was a time, of course, when the Zeitgeist defined itself by a single book: the Bible. In our age, however, one might argue that the itch for the formative book has been replaced by a series of one-night stands: the I Ching, the est Reader, the Beverley Hills Diet Book. To update Thoreau, the mass of men, and women, now lead lives of noisy desperation--either screaming "I'm ter-rrr-if-ic" at an Amway sales rally or shelling out two-hundred bucks to learn the secrets of Greenspring. In this sense, formative books still abound. People stick them in your face with a missionary zeal not unlike those who waved copies of The Sayings of Chairman Mao during the Cultural Revolution. To be sure, the American equivalents are more diversified, more concerned with the pursuit of happiness (defined as everything from "inner harmony" to outer appearance) than with ideological purity, but they share the general belief that a single book can change things utterly.
Intellectuals, presumably, know better. In the late 1930's Bernard Smith proposed a series of essays in which specialists would choose a work of nonfiction and then show how it had helped to shape the contemporary American mind. After all, as far back as Franklin, we have been makers of lists and lovers of the opinion poll. The New Republic warmed to the idea instantly and conducted a lively symposium in its pages.
The result is a curious volume entitled Books That Changed Our Minds, edited by Malcolm Cowley and Bernard Smith. I say curious not because the choices or the discussion about them is odd (e.g., Charles A. Beard on Turner's The Frontier in American History or David Daiches on I. A. Richards' The Principles of Literary Criticism), but, rather, because the book was published in 1939, even as the world tottered on the brink of a war that would call these academic assessments of culture into deep question. (E. L. Doctorow's recent novel World's Fair makes a similar point about the celebrated exposition held in New York during the same ominously foreshadowing and pivotal year.)
That the disillusionments of World War I gave birth to the roaring jazz-age twenties, that the stock market's crash ushered us into the Great Depression, that Hitler's invasion of Poland plunged us into the nightmare of World War II, that Eisenhower's benign, smiling face represented the fifties in bold relief--these become the convenient shorthand we use to mark the passing of one decade to another. And in large measure, literature seemed to cooperate--the jazz-age flappers of Fitzgerald giving way to the tight-lipped Hemingway heroes of the 1930's, the anxious, world-weary protagonists of World War II fiction giving way to the spiritually questing beatniks of the 1950's.
History, of course, does not always cooperate--as we discovered when, for example, President Kennedy had the doubly bad fortune to be assassinated in 1963, a year that teetered uneasily between whatever was left of the somnambulant fifties and what was yet to be born as the militant sixties. Shaped by the art and lives that mattered--in the twenties by The Waste Land, by Ulysses, by In Our Time, by The Great Gatsby; in the thirties by Faulkner, by Steinbeck, by Dos Passos; in the forties by a series of brilliant debuts (Bellow, Mailer, Ellison)--successive generations of critics held faith with the belief that their decade would also revolve around a handful of Great Books.
That it has, alas, not been so--not in the counterculture's grip on the 1960's, not during the nondescript 1970's, not as we pass the midpoint of the 1980's--has come as something of a rude, perplexing shock. Indeed, some literary critics began to make much ado about the death of fiction: literature (or, as it came to be fashionably called, "print media in the linear mode") could no longer compete with film, with television, with the dizzying speed and sheer power of popular culture. As my students used to put it in the late sixties: "Literature just ain't where it's at." Now they tell me it's not "cost effective."
All of which brings me back to The Catcher in the Rye and the Holden Caulfield who roamed Manhattan's unsympathetic streets. When the novel first appeared in 1951, Holden was seventeen years old. To imagine him now in his early fifties is rather like playing one of those Victorian parlor games that encouraged speculation about Ophelia's childhood or about the life Pip and Estella might lead beyond the final page of Great Expectations. The difference, of course, is that American culture takes its blurrings of Art & Life quite seriously. Those who find some measure of solace in Jerry Rubin's turnabout from a Yippie member of the Chicago Seven to a Yuppie wheeler-dealer on the stock exchange are precisely those likely to be cheered by the thought of Holden getting his comeuppance in a New Yorker cartoon.
Mr. Antolini, we remember, had some thoughts about how a moral uncompromiser like Holden might end up:
"I have a feeling that you're riding for some kind of a terrible, terrible fall. ... It may be the kind where, at the age of thirty, you sit in some bar hating everybody who comes in looking as if he might have played football in college. Then again, you may pick up just enough education to hate people who say, 'It's a secret between he and I.' Or you may end up in some business office, throwing paper clips at the nearest stenographer. I just don't know. ..."
To be sure, Mr. Antolini has difficulty imagining Holden beyond thirty, but in that regard he is in good American company. Long before the counterculture turned it into the stuff of slogan, Henry David Thoreau made it abundantly clear that he had "lived some thirty years on this planet, and [had] yet to hear the first syllable of valuable or even earnest advice from my seniors." Graybeards--that is, those over thirty--were simply not to be trusted. And in our century, it was F. Scott Fitzgerald, more than any other writer of stature, who equated life in one's thirties with the loss of all that was once held dear: youth, good looks, romance, infinite possibility. As Dexter Green, the protagonist of "Winter Dreams," puts it:
The dream was gone. Something had been taken from him. ... He wanted to care, and he could not care. For he had gone away and he could never go back any more. The gates were closed, the sun was gone down, and there was no beauty but the gray beauty of steel that withstands all time. Even the grief he could have borne was left behind in the country of illusion, of youth, of the richness of life, where his winter dreams had flourished.
"Long ago," he said, "long ago there was something in me, but now that thing is gone. Now that thing is gone, that thing is gone. I cannot cry. I cannot care. That thing will come back no more."
No other American writer gave himself so completely to our capacity for Dream, and no writer was better equipped than Fitzgerald to write its Romantic elegy. The wags in Hollywood insisted that he was a "failure at failure," but they were dead wrong. Failure was Fitzgerald's subject, just as it is Holden's, just as it is at the center of every sensitive adolescent's complaint. In Theodore Roethke's notebooks--where he did not mince words, where he did not have to curry favor or cover his flanks--he wrote Fitzgerald down in a single, telling sentence: "He was born, and died, a Princeton sophomore."
Holden, of course, remains frozen in his adolescence--in a novel dominated by images of stasis, of freezing (the snowballs he lovingly packs but refuses to throw at cars or fire hydrants because they, too, look "nice and white"; the icy lake of Central Park; the unmoving, Keatsian figures at the museum). And despite our knowing better, we hope against hope that Salinger will also remain the same pipe-smoking, tweed sports-coated, "sensitive" young author who appears on the dust jacket of The Catcher in the Rye's first edition. After all, didn't Salinger himself say, in a contributor's note he wrote for Harper's in 1946, "I almost always write about very young people"? And as the Glass family saga unfolded through the 1960's, Salinger kept faith with his manifesto. He wrote of the young and for the young, so it seemed only fair that the work should continue to be written by the young as well. No matter that the mind knows Salinger is now old enough to collect social security; the heart insists that he remain, like his characters, forever fixed, red hunting cap pulled over his ears, the broken pieces of "Little Shirley Beans" in his pockets.
This insistence takes a bizarre, fabulist turn, in W. P. Kinsella's recent Shoeless Joe, a novel in which a cast of improbable characters (e.g., Shoeless Joe Jackson, Moonlight Graham, and J. D. Salinger himself) are assembled at a baseball stadium the protagonist has built in, of all places, Iowa City. Baseball is the stuff that American Dreams are made of. When an announcer's "voice" tells Ray Kinsella "If you build it, he will come," Ray turns his bulldozer on the cornfield and--voila!--Shoeless Joe Jackson appears. And when the voice tells him to "Ease his pain," Kinsella sets off for Salinger's New Hampshire retreat, fully prepared to kidnap him, to drive him across country to Iowa, to "ease his pain."
The rub, of course, is that Salinger's major pain is being pestered by the adoring, the curious, and the downright crazy. As Salinger, the character, puts it:
Serenity is a very elusive quality. I've been trying all my life to find it. I'm very ordinary. I've never been able to understand why people are so interested in me. Writers are very dull. It's people like you who keep me from achieving what I'm after. You feel that I must be unhappy. A neurotic, guilt-torn artist. I'm not unhappy. And I have no wisdom to impart to you. I have no pain for you, unless ... you and your family were to be plagued with strangers lurking in your bushes, trampling your flower beds, looking in your windows. ... Once someone stole the valve caps off my jeep. I suppose he sold them or displays them under glass in his library. I don't deserve that!
One could argue that he doesn't deserve a fate as "character" either. After all, a public writer like Norman Mailer leads with a cocked right fist; that he is dragged, kicking and screaming, into Alan Lelchuck's novel, American Mischief, has a measure of poetic justice about it. By contrast, Salinger has been eloquent about his "silence." Unfortunately, any public figure appears to be fair game in an age that takes a special delight in blurring the distinctions between what we used to know as fiction and what we have learned to call "the new journalism."
Part of Salinger's problem, of course, is that he represents a time when literature formed literature, when allusions to Romeo and Juliet and Return of the Native, to The Great Gatsby and A Farewell to Arms, could be incorporated into the fabric of a novel like The Catcher in the Rye. No doubt the deconstructionists would give Holden poor marks, but he is a critic of sorts, nonetheless:
The book I was reading was this book I took out of the library by mistake. They gave me the wrong book, and I didn't notice it till I got back to my room. They gave me Out of Africa, by Isak Dinesen. I thought it was going to stink, but it didn't. It was a very good book. I'm quite illiterate, but I read a lot. ... What I like best is a book that's at least funny once in a while. I read a lot of classical books, like The Return of the Native and all, and I like them, and I read a lot of war books and mysteries and all, but they don't knock me out too much. What really knocks me out is a book that, when you're all done reading it, you wish the author that wrote it was a terrific friend of yours and you could call him up on the phone whenever you felt like it.
One has the sinking feeling these days that Holden's counterparts at, say, Yale or Johns Hopkins would prefer to shoot the theoretical breeze with imaginative critics rather than with imaginative writers.
Small wonder, then, that most discussions about Salinger's work begin and, all too often, end in nostalgia. As John Romano would have it:
... those who were young and literate in the Eisenhower and Kennedy years can be said to have received such pictures [e.g., Zooey's blue eyes, which were "a day's work to look into"; Franny muttering the Jesus prayer under her breath; Phoebe, in her blue coat, going around and around on the carrousel] with utter credulity and in a state of mind resembling awe. Some of us founded not only our literary taste but also a portion of our identity on Holden Caulfield and Franny Glass: we were smart kids in a dumb world or sensitive kids in a "phony" one, and Salinger was playing our song.
Now it is Ann Beattie who plays somebody else's song in the pages of The New Yorker, but the tunes that blare out of her characters' radios sound unfamiliar, and the characters themselves strike us as inarticulate. Allusions shrink to last season's TV schedule, a movie, a "hot" rock album. To be sure, people in New Yorker stories still suffer angst, but if technique is still style, theirs is a threadbare version.
In this sense, Jay McInerney's recent Bright Lights, Big City is also a book about the glitz, the fashion, the tempora et mores of Manhattan's faster lanes. As Holden's saga is simultaneously a satiric attack and a cautionary tale, so too is McInerney's. Moreover, behind Bright Lights, Big City's smart talk about Bolivian Marching Powder (i.e., cocaine) and its quick studies in SoHo eccentricity lies a long history of American writers who equated the City with infinite possibilities, and who surrendered themselves to its Dream: the Hawthorne of "My Kinsman, Major Molineux," the Whitman of Leaves of Grass, the Dos Passos of Manhattan Transfer, and of course the Fitzgerald of The Great Gatsby.
Bright Lights, Big City has its Salingeresque connections--in the way, for example, that its protagonist describes one woman as having "cheek-bones to break your heart" or another as having a voice "like the New Jersey State Anthem played through an electric shaver"--and, more important, in the way it has apparently been adopted by many as an etiquette book for the eighties. But the real connections, the shivery ones, are to F. Scott Fitzgerald. Jay McInerney is News--whether the "news" be about the $200,000 he received to turn Bright Lights, Big City into a Hollywood screenplay or his accounts of "partying" with Mick Jagger. He is sleek, handsome, barely past thirty, and an "established author" on the strength of one book. In short, McInerney is a secret sharer with the Fitzgerald who rocketed to stardom, literary and otherwise, by way of This Side of Paradise.
But this is also a case in which history repeats itself with a difference. If Fitzgerald's account of "parlor snakes" and "petting parties," of Princeton undergrads who got "boiled" at dances and vamps who had been kissed by "dozens of boys," was both a sensation and a Victorian shocker, McInerney's guided tour of Manhattan night life will, no doubt, strike even the most permissive parent as an updated, and upsetting, equivalent:
You are not the kind of guy who would be at a place like this at this time of morning. But here you are, and you cannot say that the terrain is entirely unfamiliar, although the details are fuzzy. You are at a nightclub talking to a girl with a shaved head. The club is either Heartbreak or the Lizard Lounge. ... Somewhere back there you could have cut your losses, but you rode past that moment on a comet trail of white powder and now you are trying to hang on to the rush.
Shimmering surface details are, of course, only a small part of what make Fitzgerald and McInerney such fascinating doppelgängers. At a deeper, more significant level, what they share is a vision about failure, about breakdown, about crack up. With an i dotted here, a t crossed there, this passage from Big Lights, Big City might have been lifted from the Old Master:
You started on the Upper East Side with champagne and unlimited prospects, strictly observing the Allagash rule of perpetual motion: one drink per stop. Tad's mission in life is to have more fun than anyone else in New York City, and this involves a lot of moving around, since there is always the likelihood that where you aren't is more fun than where you are. You are awed by his strict refusal to acknowledge any goal higher than the pursuit of pleasure. You want to be like that. You also think he is spoiled and dangerous. His friends are all rich and spoiled. ...
This is the sort of world my students can "relate" to, the sort of world they hope to discover themselves after graduation. That most of them are not yet reading the book McInerney has written is a matter we will take up--with mixed results, I suspect--when Bright Lights, Big City elbows its way into the syllabus for English 263: Contemporary American Novel. Then I will tell them that, in Holden Caulfield's day, the Joe Flits wore tatters all vests and gray suiting; now they deck themselves out in designer jeans and Reeboks. What doesn't change, however, is the single word required to write both down: phony.
No doubt my students will shake off what I say about their current favorite, and perhaps they should. After all, when those in the know about postmodernist fiction wag their fingers at The Catcher in the Rye and call it "counterfeit," I continue to listen to the voices that mattered, and that still matter--namely those in Salinger's novel. Given the choice of being "suckered in" by fiction or by a critic of fiction, I know where to take my stand. And I hope that my students do too.
What worries me, however, is not so much that a hot book like Bright Lights, Big City may or may not weather the storms of time (few novels do), but that the notion of formative books per se may be sunk. Our culture moves with a speed as blinding as it is fickle. Mark Twain once quipped that few humorists last forever, and then went on to define "forever" as thirty years. "Forever," I would submit, has grown considerably shorter in our own time, and if we have not quite reached Andy Warhol's dream of everyone in America being famous for fifteen minutes, we are coming dangerously close. Even the most "with-it" of my students would squirm if they had to read yellowing copies of People magazine or sit through reruns on MTV. That, they would argue, is so much history, which Henry Ford, in another time and place, called so much bunk.
Rather than formative experiences, contemporary culture demands new ones--slicker, trendier, and (most important of all) disposable. Bright Lights, Big City--sandwiched uneasily between a film like St. Elmo's Fire and the current Land's End catalogue--is simply the latest, most interesting example of "This is how the world goes. ..." I take some consolation in reminding myself that this, too, shall pass--and no doubt with deliberate speed--but I take a larger measure of satisfaction from my certain knowledge that, despite everything, and at 50+, Holden Caulfield still has an honored place in the minds of what might well be the last generation to have formed its imagination, its sense of who we were, from the pages of a formative book.
Source: Georgia Review, Vol. XL, No. 4, Winter, 1986, pp. 953-67.READ MORE!