Literature needs better friends
Every five to six months, a new argument about The Catcher in the Rye breaks out online. Despite the often unhinged and ill-informed tenor of these debates, this is evidence of the novel’s canonicity. It is the only American book from the 1950s that still seems to produce such passionate disputes with regularity. In fact, one erupted just this past week, right on time. The less than two-minute long Youtube “essay” attacking Holden Caulfield is not worth watching, but it inspired a debate that deserves analysis.
Typically, attacks on Catcher take the form of a critic pelting the book’s protagonist with now stale buzzwords: “toxic white male,” “incel,” and, this time around, “colonizer.” These claims, divorced as they are from any specific examples or quotations in the book, do not deserve rebuttal. Yet, I noticed something peculiar when looking even at the Twitter defenses of the book. Catcher’s defenders are certainly moved by a worthy spirit, but often their defense took the form of its own set of buzzwords. Whereas the ideological attack on the book relied on the lingo of identity politics, the defenders relied on medicalized and therapeutic language. Holden Caulfield has “PTSD,” is recovering from trauma, and is, in fact, a sexual assault survivor.
This last one initially puzzled me, before I realized that it is a reference to the episode in which Holden falls asleep on his teacher’s couch and wakes to find his drunken teacher patting his head. Salinger intentionally leaves it ambiguous as to whether this was truly lecherous or merely an inebriated and childless man’s moment of wrongheaded sentimentality. Very few people defended the book or the character as literature, using the language of literature. Their terms were borrowed from politicized and medicalized ways of discussing human behavior.
This tracks closely with what teachers tell me is increasingly common in high school classrooms. Students today tend to diagnose characters. They will note that Hamlet is suffering from anxiety disorder or clinical depression, or find Iago to be a sociopath. Whether such designations are true or not is beside the point. (Iago probably is a sociopath, but that hardly exhausts analysis of his terrifying and mysteriously empty sense of self.) Nonetheless, it indicates the impoverishment of our language and the impoverishment of our own sense of ourselves.
I couldn’t imagine a sillier and more aggressively wrong prescription
Our literary mandarins are not helping: I remember hearing the writer Colson Whitehead, the author of The Underground Railroad, offer his own medicalized analysis of Catcher, stating that Holden Caulfield should’ve “just been given some Prozac or an X-Box and it would’ve been a much shorter book and a much better book.” I couldn’t imagine a sillier and more aggressively wrong prescription, delivered with a smugly knowing tone and profoundly untethered from the book itself.
In the same way that people are learning to see characters as medicalized subjects, entirely formed by specific mental health disorders and traumas, they are learning to see themselves that way as well. One need only spend an hour or two on Tik Tok to get the idea. Younger people have conceived that to be interesting means to select an interesting category from a list of pre-given identity and medical categories. You can choose from the allegedly boring categories (white, male, cis, straight, not in therapy) or the supposedly more interesting categories (genderqueer, indigenous, two spirit, autistic, traumatized, etc.). And this is without even strolling through the mind-warping corridors of dissociative identity disorder Tik Tok, which allow you to customize new personalities with multiple sets of identities.
This signals a total break with what prior generations thought of as an interesting person. We should not be interested in Holden Caulfield because he checks specific boxes on a list of identities or disorders. We should be interested in Holden because he is interested. The book is filled with his pointed and funny observations of the people around him, his continual attempts to make sense of them. Despite the charge that he is whiny and narcissistic, Holden thinks about other people more frequently than he thinks about himself. The richness of his observations reveal the compelling character of his own mind.
This gets to the meaning of the title of the book. At one point, Holden hears a little boy singing a Robert Burns’ song, but with altered lyrics: “If a body meet a body, coming through the rye,” becomes “If a body catch a body, coming through the rye.” This reflects Holden’s own consciousness. He is moved not only to meet the people he encounters, but wishes to catch and save them, and thereby be saved. The famous image of Holden as catcher, protecting the children who play in the field of rye, distills the poignancy of the book.
Most of the online arguing this past week focused on the episode where Holden purchases the services of a prostitute only to get cold feet and try to make conversation. He has a moment of reflection: “I took her dress over to the closet and hung it up for her. It was funny. It made me feel sort of sad when I hung it up. I thought of her going in a store and buying it, and nobody in the store knowing she was a prostitute and all. The salesman probably just thought she was a regular girl when she bought it. It made me feel sad as hell — I don’t know why exactly.”
Now, I can imagine the usual ideological shrieking: “Holden presumes to pity sex workers, he unconsciously puts himself above them,” or whatever. But, faced with the plain actuality of the text, isn’t Holden making an imaginative and empathetic effort that few dare to make today? Not only do fewer and fewer people imagine their way into each other’s lives, but our online modes of existence directly act against the attempt, enswathing us within our narcissistic cocoons. While true to some extent, “You could never understand my experience,” is mostly just the perennial cry of the self-involved.
On a recent episode of Red Scare, Anna Khachiyan said that Zoomers don’t seem to ask questions. I’m not sure if this is specific to Zoomers, as incuriosity and thick mental slumber are probably human constants. I am not sure teenagers have ever been much more curious or empathetic than anyone else. But, if there is a deficit in curiosity and interest in the lives of others, the blame lies not with Zoomers but with the preceding generations. Technocratic procedures, hyper-medicalization, and managerial habits of thought have been casually adopted and inculcated by the Boomers, Gen X, and the Millennials. The cards are stacked against anyone who tries to break out of what C.S. Lewis called “the slumber of cold vulgarity.” If a Youtube essayist is unable to understand basic points of character and fiction, the fault is not only personal but generational.
This massive failure of education should be easy to rectify. The antidote is in every library, besides being freely available on the internet. Joseph Conrad said that the purpose of fiction is “to make you see,” and books like Catcher, when they are freed from the stultifying classroom and become a part of life, still fulfill this vital role. Yes, our managerial society is breeding technicians, trying to create generations who categorize themselves by checking off boxes on iPads and clipboards. But the great books make it possible to awaken to the intense reality of the people around you and share in that same intensity. The technicians stand a chance of making their way out of the rye.
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