Friday, October 2, 2009

Despair and Dread: The Precipice and the Field of Rye

I recently read a little Dostoyevsky primmer[1] that essentially said that FD’s novels are useful as a conduit of teen angst but that if you hadn’t outgrown them by your mid 20’s you simply hadn’t grown up. I could not disagree more. But I have heard very similar things said about Catcher in the Rye and was less sure of their accuracy. Catcher was my second favorite high school read[2] so, I was intrigued when my reading group decided to tackle it as a 3 week breather between City of God and NT Wrights 2000 page, 3 volume work on Christian Origins.

In high school we thought it was a book about authenticity. We resonated with Holden’s perspective that we were surrounded by unreflective phonies. It verified our self perception as unique or profound in our tired self-refuting insights. We identified with his disaffection and his systemic mistrusts. We saw Holden as a champion of nerdy angst and entirely missed Salinger’s clues that our narrator was neither consistent[3] nor well.[4] This, of course, reminded me of a recent xkcd comic:

As I aged I came to see it as a book about despair. I even came up with a catchy phrase to describe its thesis:

“The examined life is not worth living.”

I thought it was a book about the madness of reflection. In a sense an inversion of Pascal’s Pense:

“As men are not able to fight against death, misery, ignorance, they have taken it into their heads, in order to be happy, not to think of such things.”

It seemed to me that Salinger was saying, yes, ‘precisely.’ The Big questions are too big. Their weight will crush you if you live under them continually. The life of resigned coping is more experientially stable. The long stream of characters Holden encountered each seemed to have flawed apparatus to negotiate reality, but in the end, they were each more pragmatically livable than the protagonist's attempt at an authentic, reflective existence. In the end Holden’s world view, though more empirically valid than the others he encountered[5], proved psychologically unsustainable and wrecked him.

But upon a second reading, I don’t think that was right either. The resolving tone of the text is much too hopeful to support this reading. Instead of despair I have come to belive The Catcher in the Rye is about dread.

As is my practice with fiction, I underlined themes in my latest reading of CITR looking for repetition and reoccurrence as a clue to intention and authorial motivation.[6] But it wasn’t until nearly the end of the book that I realized I had missed the most important theme. The book is simply haunted by the ghost of Holden’s dead brother, Allie. This death begins as an incidental detail but becomes increasingly central and, I think, winds up the interpretive key of the book…to the point that I suggested to my reading group that I think ‘the book is actually about Allie.’ Let me cite three passages to build this argument.

The theme of Holden’s underlying dread really gained momentum in one of the most poignant passages, about midway through the book:

“Who wants flowers when you’re dead? Nobody. When the weather’s nice, my parents go out quite frequently and stick a bunch of flowers on old Allie’s grave. I went with them a couple of times, but I cut it out. In the first place, I certainly don’t enjoy seeing him in that crazy cemetery. Surrounded by dead guys and tomb stones and all. It wasn’t too bad when the sun was out, but twice – twice – we were there when it started to rain. It was awful. It rained on his lousy tombstone, it rained on the grass on his stomach. It rained all over the place. All the visitors that were visiting the cemetery started running like hell over to their cars. That’s what nearly drove me crazy. All the visitors could get in their cars and turn on their radios and all and then go someplace nice for dinner – everybody except Allie. I couldn’t stand it”
This idea, that all the visitors could get on with their trivial lives, but not Allie who just lay there with the rain falling on his belly emerges as the interpretive key of the text against which Holden evaluates nearly everything as trivial.[7] We search in vein for another trigger to his angst. His family seems loving and supportive. They seem to intentionally undermine Holden’s caricature of them. The minor interactions we get with his mother and DB are exceedingly positive.[8]

He walks through life under the weight of impending doom. Everyone seems phony, not because Holden is advanced or superior in his observations or insights, but because their daily actions seem absurd given the ever present reality of death. Whether it is Stradlater combing his hair or the army man he is introduced to by Sally…the whole theme of phoniness is really just a macrocosm of the line ‘Ally doesn’t get to go to lunch. He stays in the ground.’ By remaining in the fog of unresolved mourning[9] Holden interprets every action that does not explicitly connect with his dread at the brevity of life as banal or trivial.

Later, he visited the museum which he found soothing in a couple ways. He found it just as he left it. The unaltered life moment of the museum, brought him back to a time when his brother was alive. But he felt more at home among the mummies than he had with almost anyone alive that he had encountered in the book. It was peaceful. It was a place where death received its proper emphasis. It was a place where his internal haunting found an external validation. By stockpiling their goods to be buried with them these strange ancients had lived their lives with their death in view, which was what Holden so desperately wanted from those he interacted with…gravity born of dread.

But when we finally find out what Holden wants more than anything else…when we get to look past his coping mechanisms and his self preservation…when he tells his sister (the only moment where I get the sense he is actually being authentic) what he really wants to do, we get this strange but surprisingly vulnerable description that gives the book its title:

“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 – I mean if they’re running and they don’t look where they’re going I have to come out from somewhere and catch
[10] them. That’s what 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.”
The title comes from this vision he has of being able to overcome his helplessness. Of being able to save innocent kids playing without a care in a field of Rye, from falling off a precipice that they don’t know is there. What Holden wants more than anything else is to overcome the oppressive helplessness he feels in the wake of Ali’s death. It is the image of kids playing carelessly in a beautiful place, totally unaware of the horrific precipice that is just a few steps away. His life is dominated by his knowledge of the precipice. He is unable to forget its existence and enjoy the field. More than anything else he wants the power, not to alert the playing children to the existence of the precipice[11] but to steal its power and diffuse its dread.[12]

Honestly, I think my 10th grad English teacher missed the boat on this text. I recall being told that Holden went crazy in the end. But I don’t think that is how the book ends at all. I think it ends with healing and hope. Holden’s family rallies around him and get him help. He begins to mourn, and he begins to value human connection again. The book ends with:

Text Color
“I don’t know what I think about it. I’m sorry I told so many people about it. About all I know is I sort of miss everybody I told about. Even old Stradtler and Ackley, for instance. I think I even miss that g-d Maurice.[13] It’s funny. Don’t ever tell anybody anything. If you do you start missing everybody.”

We leave him on the verge of being able, again, to enjoy the field despite the precipice…or even to allow his knowledge of the precipice to enlarge his enjoyment of the field. This is the utility of dread, in an odd twist, for both the existentialist and the Christian.

This post was written while listening to Absolution by Muse
[1] A pitiful little book that, in my opinion, simply dismissed FD’s work because it came from a place of belief even if it was tortured belief.
[2] Behind The Stranger which I re-read to my great delight a few years ago…but which is dwarfed by the brilliance of The Plauge. Incedentally, I have heard similar accounts of Salinger – that some of his other work is better. This would be remarkable, because Catcher in the Rye is brilliant.
[3] My favorite clue that our narrator might be less than trustworthy is the fact that the title of the book - the central vision of what Holden wants out of life - is based on a misremembered line of poetry.
[4] After we finished to book Alex (a youth pastor) posed the question, “Is this a book that you think students should read in High School?” I think it is a great book for students to read with their parents and a horrible book to read with other high schoolers.
[5] I am contemplated a second post on religious themes in CITR. There is some hilarious stuff in there. But for now I will settle for my favorite passage on the topic: “Finally, though, I got undressed and got in bed. I tried to pray, but I couldn’t do it. I can’t always pray when I feel like it. In the first place, I’m sort of an atheist. I like Jeus and all, but don’t care too much for most of the other stuff in the Bible. Take the Disciples, for instance. They annoy the hell out of me, if you want to know the truth. They were all right after Jesus was dead and all, but while he was alive, they were about as much use to him as a hole in the ehad….If you want to know the truth, the guy I like best in the Bible next to Jesus, was that lunatic and all, that lived in the tombs and kept cutting himself with stones. I like him about ten times as much as the Disciples that poor bastard.
[6] I am neither inclined nor qualified to take on the issue of hermeneutics here, but, lets just say, I think Salinger’s intentions matter in answering the question ‘What does this art mean?’
[7] There are important exceptions to this. The guy who beat the drum just once in an entire performace was an important one with substantial existential overtones.
[8] Though there are the faintest allusions to possible prior sexual abuse - which would change things.
[9] Holden never got to go to Allie’s funeral. He was in the hospital from punching out the windows in his garage.
[10] Emphasis original.
[11] Which would be the metaphor for my previous interpretation of the book.
[12] I know it is trite to look for Christ figures in literature. But what Holden wants is to be able to say is: “Where o death is your victory? Where o death is your sting?”
[13] The pimp that beat him up.


Joel said...

I should probably reread "Catcher in the Rye", because I haven't touched it since high school and didn't like it then.

I always had the impression that Holden was kind of a whiner, and that all of the insights he thought were so profound were the same fallacies of youth shared by high schoolers everywhere, yearning to be "unique snowflakes" and doing their best to make sure everyone else knew how unique and special they are. Granted, this is shaped by my own high school experience, where it seemed to me that the best thing to be was conformist, not to stand out, because people who vary from the norm are taunted by their peers. The same people who embraced Holden's distaste for "phonies" would have mocked and ostracized him in real life, and because of that it always seemed to me that the response of high school students to the book was one of hypocrisy. They love the idea in theory, but hate it in practice.

As I said at the beginning, though, these are 20+ year old impressions viewed through a somewhat biased lens about a book that I never looked at or considered since. I'm intrigued by your entry, though, enough to go look for a copy at the library this week and see if my impression has changed.

Joel Wilcox said...

Interestingly, my class didn't interpret Holden as being a champion of authenticity so much as a phony himself. I hated the book when I read it in high school simply because I read it in a year when I hated everything (long story.)

I appreciate this post because I went back and read the book in college and got a lot more out of it. This post makes me want to read it yet again.