Saturday, January 30, 2010

J. D. Salinger Finally Says Goodbye to All the Phonies

On Thursday, the literary world lost the most recluse writer in America, J. D. Salinger, who wrote the now-classic novel of angry youth, The Catcher in the Rye. Salinger was 91 years old. The above photo accompanied various news reports of his death, which was obviously taken in the 1950s at the height of his fame. He hasn't been in the public eye for decades, though I've heard that fans of his novel made pilgrimages to where he lived in the hopes of having a rare sighting. Why was Salinger so reclusive? What was he hiding from? Very few people valued their privacy as much as he did. However, I think his novel is indicative of his personality. The character of Holden Caulfield is probably based a lot on himself as a young man.
Twenty years ago, in the fall of 1989, I had to read The Catcher in the Rye for my Literature class. I was a high school senior, 17 years old. I read this book in four days. I simply could not put it down, which was interesting because I thought Holden Caulfield was annoying. I was also bothered by his excessive use of "goddam", which prompted me to count the number of times it was used in the novel. I counted 117 times. However, it was rare that a book captured my attention enough to read through to the end of it. In fact, during my entire high school career, I think I only read two of the novels in their entirety (the other one was The Lord of the Flies).

Despite not knowing how I felt about Holden Caulfield (would I have been friends with a guy like him?), I kept turning pages and read as much as I could during my free moments. He was an intriguing and compelling character. One of my best friends at the time, Ben, also read the book all the way through and between the two of us, we dominated the class discussion on the book. The teacher had no problem explaining the point of the novel to students who had no idea about finding the theme, plot, or parallels to our own lives. Holden was in a war against people he deemed "phonies." The title of the novel comes from a passage within in which Holden tells of his dream to be a catcher of innocent children in a field of rye before they fall into the superficial phoniness of adulthood. This point could not be made any more clearer. Thus why I believe that the reason why J. D. Salinger became such a notorious recluse was because he did not like the superficial phoniness that many people are afflicted with.

As one who shares the same dislike of phony pretensions and superficial people, I understand all too well the discomfort of being around people who keep to the surface of things and aren't interested in having any kind of conversations of depth. I'm always in search of a great conversation with people, but since most people aren't into that, I find that I enjoy my own company more. It is truly uncomfortable being around shallow people. I learned this when I lived in D.C. a decade ago and one of my three roommates was extremely shallow. He and I got into it pretty early and spent the rest of the semester not speaking to one another. After our semester ended, roommate Jantzen drove him to the airport and when he returned, he asked me, "What did you do to him?" I asked him what he meant and Jantzen told me, "Elliott said that he couldn't wait to get out of the hostile apartment." That's how chilling I can be if I don't like you. If I don't like you, I won't speak to you at all. You don't exist. An extroverted person's worst nightmare is to be ignored, thus why Elliott felt like he was living in a hostile environment with my silent treatment of him. Its mean, but I really do not like shallow people and feel no obligation to acknowledge their presence. Someone else on the Washington Seminar program laughed when he overheard me tell Elliott, "Don't even talk to me until you show more depth than a kiddie pool."

When did I become Holden Caulfield? I guess if you're around enough phony and pretentious people, you just learn to ignore them. They really are unpleasant company to be around. I don't mind being a recluse, myself, though. My natural state of being is "monk mode" (a hypnotherapy session in 2003 revealled to me that I was supposedly a Catholic monk in Nantes, France during the medieval ages). Before you wonder if I would give you the cold shoulder, you ought to know that I generally talk to most people who talk to me. One has to give me a reason to ignore them and treat them as if they don't exist. Very few people have been given the chill treatment. Elliott was one of the unlucky ones, but he didn't lack for friends (though he also had a high burnout rate among friends).

One of the things I've done since out of college was to revisit a book I either read or was supposed to read in high school. This includes books like The Diary of Anne Frank, Animal Farm, 1984, The Lord of the Flies, The Catcher in the Rye, Beowulf, Canterbury Tales, The Divine Comedy, and The Grapes of Wrath. A few years ago, I decided to re-read The Catcher in the Rye. I made the mistake of reading it during my breaks at work (at my last job in Atlanta). One of the managers saw what I was reading and freaked out. I didn't understand why until I asked a literary knowledgeable co-worker. She laughed when I told her what happened, then explained to me that John Hinckley, Jr. was supposedly obsessed with that book. He's the guy who shot Ronald Reagan in 1981. Oh. I was not aware of that. In the movie Conspiracy Theory, Mel Gibson stars as a ranting paranoid who has multiple copies of The Catcher in the Rye. I guess to a clueless manager who never made a point to get to know me, judging me based on a book that has a bad reputation because of the psychos who love the book, might read a little too much into my choices of books. A reading list of all the novels I read in the past decade was featured in my blog earlier this month and one can see that my tastes are diverse and should not freak anyone out.

People are so stupid! I've worked around enough managers to know that most of them are fucking idiots to begin with. They are so conformist-minded that they have no truly intelligent or creative thought. They exist purely for the organization. Once in awhile, I'll come across a cool manager, but for the most part, I'm not impressed with them. Displaying a bit of a surprise because an employee is reading a classic during a break is what Holden Caulfield would call "phony!" Oh, and this guy was a big phony, too. I'll never forget the day in late 2005 when he pulled me into a meeting to explain the findings of the report on the office's fraudulent accounting of membership. He looked me in the eye and said that less than 5,000 youth were found to be fake. I could barely contain my smug smirk, because I had run a report earlier and saw that the membership numbers dropped by 30,000 names. And people wonder why I don't respect management. They have no qualms about lying to your face. So many have done it to me and I just sit there, knowing that I have facts to the contrary. Stuff like this only makes me subversive. I'm an honest guy who values honest dialogue...but when a person lies to me and thinks I'm too dumb to know the truth, I let them think that. The joke is on you, phony bastard! I'm much smarter than I let most people on. If management wants to think I'm dumb, they are idiots. I've probably seen more in our world than they could ever dream of seeing and I undoubtedly have had a more interesting life than they have. Holden Caulfield lives!

Above is a picture of an issue of Esquire in which a reporter tried to track down the reclusive writer. I was so intrigued by the story that I bought the magazine when it came out (sometime in the mid-1990s). It didn't amount to much, though. There's the debate about respecting a person's wishes for privacy versus the natural curiosity about a writer who wrote such a classic novel that teenagers are assigned to read in thousands of high schools across America for the past half century. On the privacy side, one could say that J. D. Salinger wrote a very personal book and maybe did not expect it to be the huge success it became. The problem with success is that it attracts superficial and phony people, the very type that Salinger hoped to avoid. Fame is like the light to a shallow person's moth. They chase after something without knowing why, probably having never even read the novel themselves.

I side with the right of a writer to have a private life. It would be different if Salinger was out there lecturing or in the public spotlight. But he hasn't published anything (I haven't read his other works, which some say is even better than his famous novel). Now that he's gone, it will be interesting to see if he left behind a treasure trove of unpublished stories and novels. Maybe even an autobiography (wouldn't that be a pleasant surprise?). What has he been doing all these years? He was rarely seen in public and the people in the town he lived in (I don't even know where that is) were protective of his need for privacy.

I hope that J. D. Salinger has finally found his eternal peace...away from the superficial phonies that so afflict our world. At least the spiritual realm is authentic and no one can hide behind a mask, as spiritual beings have nothing to hide from one another. I appreciate the impact Salinger's novel had on my impressionable mind during my amazing senior year in high school. It was one part of many events and ideas that made me who I am today and as an aspiring writer, I salute a fellow writer who waged the good fight against the phony pretensions of our world. May Holden Caulfield live forever in the hearts and minds of readers everywhere!