(Listen to the audio below)
‘The Catcher in the Rye’ sets itself up in opposition to “The goddam movies” as Holden Caufield says. Now I am a fan of the movies. I grew up on a diet of film; it is to our generation’s first language after all, and yet, I can see why Salinger would want to set himself up in opposition to this image-driven world.
Since the rise of ISIL last year there have been countless killings. But none so horrifying as the dozen beheadings, each of which has been filmed and put on line, each of which has been viewed millions of times. Or take the atrocities in Paris a few weeks ago – within one day the BBC had shown us the carnage at a Rock concert, and footage of a woman clinging on to a windowsill desperately trying to escape her killers.
Fetishised images of carnage frame the debate, emotive images which trigger our most instinctual fight or flight response. Of course there is nothing new in this morbid fascination with death and brutality. As long as there has been judicial violence to be observed, there have been spectators filing into our coliseums. The difference is today such images are readily available in our technosociety; we are all offered anonymous front row seats, and as such, images like these today are more powerful than ever before.
Snapshots of this kind appear to offer us the reality of the situation. Pictures and film of what’s “really happening” stream into our homes twenty-four hours a day. And yet, this hyper-reality, not situated and not contextualized, ever plays into a false narrative which perpetually keeps us sedated in an illusion of the unreal. An illusion which we ourselves often willingly buy into, as we orientate ourselves in favor or against pre-defined, narrowly defined, narratives of convenience, a narrative of good vs evil. But when we strip away these illusions of allegiance, which we so often define ourselves by, the sheer weight of our isolated aloneness becomes all the more apparent.
This seeking after genuine human connection, and resisting the trite or cliché or phony, is what ‘The Catcher in the Rye’ is all about. Not a great deal actually happens in the book. Holden Caufield, a seventeen year old boy, is expelled from school and travels into New York where he just drifts about for a few days, trying to connect with an adult somebody, which he pretty much fails to do. The cruel and phony world of adults doesn’t just treat people like Holden Caufield poorly; it kills them (metaphorically speaking).
How Caufield musters some semblance of integrity to operate in the adult world, is the destination which the book is arching towards. Though he never explicitly arrives at that point in the course of the narrative, he achieved it none the less in making a connection not with any particular character, but with us. We empathize with Holden Caufield, we see his pain, and his loneliness, and in this way Caufield makes a true and meaningful human connection.
Take for example, the extract I read out, in which Caufield enters a phone booth to call someone. He spends ages thinking about who he might call, and eventually concludes the answer is that there is no one he can call. The time Caufield is writing about is a time in which all he knew was the pain of isolation, but the Caufield recounting that pain is the one connecting with us.
Genuine human connection is very difficult. We so often fall back into trite speech patterns, or meaningless pleasantries; to really hear the other is a lifelong endeavor. Hence the value of silence, and being still in the company of one another.
The author J. D. Salinger himself was an individual who struggled deeply with human connection. He experienced firsthand the atrocities of WWII, fighting on D-Day, the battle of the Bulge, and being one of the first to enter the Nazi extermination camps. But unlike many of his literary contemporaries, who experienced these atrocities and then wrote about war, Salinger wrote about a boy trying to connect with others.
Ultimately Salinger retreated from the lime-light, and in a Henry David Thoreau fashion lived out the rest of his life in a log cabin up until his death in 2010. It has been rumored that in this period of isolation he wrote a number of books which have never seen the light of day, and it has also been rumored that the Salinger estate will publish these books in the coming years.
‘The Catcher in the Rye’ should open our eyes to all that meaningless stuff which seems to occupy so much of our time, and help us put it all into perspective. But also, and more importantly, it should illuminate the reality of the quiet lives of desperation the mass of people are enduring, and help us recognize our shared paining – and motivate us to reach out to the other before it is too late. Especially at this time as we make our way to Christmas.
For this book has a sinister reputation; there have been those who have empathized with the plight of Holden, and like Holden have failed to make meaningful human connections themselves, and in desperation have lashed out against those that they have perceived to be ‘phony’. This was Mark Chapman’s murderous motive in killing John Lennon in 1980 – thirty-five years ago this Tuesday. At the crime scene he left a copy of ‘The Catcher in the Rye’, in which he wrote “This is my statement”.
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 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.