"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."
By Sam Yang - Get similar updates here
I picked up Catcher sometime in middle school. For a while, I used to read it once a year — now if you know anything about the book, you might also know it's the favorite of many famous crazies. I hope I am not one of them, but if by small chance I am, I most certainly am not one of the dangerous ones. (I swear.)
This book was banned, criticized, and feared — and I can't say I blame them. The book is antisocial, anti-authority, anti-convention, and disobedient. The kids loved it. Sure it made us a little crazy entering the mind of the main protagonist, Holden Caulfield, but that madness was what separated those who understood the book and those who didn't. I mean, you need a certain amount of intellectual insight to be mad, right? The genius and the madman both see what no one else sees, so it's a fine line, I suppose. But geniuses always suspect they are mad, and the mad think they are geniuses. So trust the person who believes they are fallible.
You will hear people say, "Oh, I think I read that book, isn't it about that boy Holden something?" This is how you know they didn't get the book. Now if they did, they would say, "I definitely read the book. It's about phonies." And now in the age of positive reinforcement, perhaps people view the book as "too judgmental." "It's about that kid who always judges everyone, right? He's too negative." And when books and movies about children and teens are all Hollywood-happy and Disneyfied, Holden is the resistance. For that very reason, Holden hates Hollywood (J.D. Salinger requested his book never be made into a movie), it doesn't give us what is there, it gives us what we want. And in that way, it warps our senses, makes us ill-prepared for adulthood, and sets us up for the fall in the rye.
Phony No Longer a Thing
In the 1950s, when The Catcher in the Rye was first published, calling people "phony" was all the rage. It was a derogatory term for people who put on a false air, those who were self-important, driven by materialism, intellectualism, influence, achievement, success, reputation, and winning. It was all so phony. We didn't like these people because they were jerks. Yet no one says "phony" anymore because now it more or less describes everyone. It's ubiquitous and lauded — we compete in phoniness. (Though I suspect it's what other animals and space aliens call us behind our backs.)
Now we call phonies "authentic" and give them reality shows and ask them to appear on TED. They host podcasts and appear on Oprah and NPR, they run companies or run for the highest public office. We pay to listen to them speak — we call them influencers and leaders (my personal favorite is "thought leader," what a title), we buy their books and add it to our queue of books we'll never read. (I know, I know, they also write blogs.)
"Authentic" influencers routinely tell us to "fake it 'til you make it." Smile, even when you aren't happy and you'll become happy. Act confident, and you become confident. And we do, we comply. This is not a dystopian future, this is present life. And we are sick of being around all these fakes. We have to talk to our therapists about how disingenuous we feel, where even eating feels inauthentic, and eating like ourselves is called a "cheat," and it comes with guilt and shame. And whenever we do act like ourselves, we are told there is something wrong with us because it doesn't conform. Who would have thought that individuality doesn't conform to uniformity? And there is a heavy emotional cost to this form of "authenticity." A life crisis is looming — actually several.
When our parents used to smile when they were unhappy, we called it unhealthy, that they were bottling their emotions and how backward people of the previous generation were. Yet when we do the same thing, we call it a productivity hack. It's different when we do it because we now defend it with sciency-sounding jargon and people at Apple do it. "Hey, our parents were forced to, we are choosing to." Willfully fake, as opposed to being fake against our will. Yeah, a lot better. Yet the same science says, yes, it helps us get more work done, and it also makes us less happy. But do leaders want us to be happy? Or fake being happy, so we keep working for their companies and keep consuming their products?
Here's a passage from Catcher where Holden has just watched a play with Sally Hayes, but like everything else in the book, it's his commentary on society that is most real and palpable:
Holden's viewpoint is funny because humor is observational. He could make a great stand-up comic if he didn't consider that a sell-out, phony profession that panders to the audience for approval. His older brother D.B. Caulfield is a successful screenwriter, which makes him a failure in Holden's book.
Holden continues his thoughts on George something from Andover:
That slice of life is life. The absurdity of life. The things we take as important are only important because we think they are important, not because they are necessary. None of it is necessary.
What Would Holden Caulfield Say about Contemporary Culture?
Sally says everything is "marvelous," which Holden makes it a point to mention. If everything is marvelous, then what is marvelous? If everything is special, then nothing is special. Then it's all meaningless. We are making life meaningless by pretending we are somehow elevating it and adding to its value with nothing other than excess. By that same logic, if one aspirin is great, twenty is even better. Originality doesn't actually mean being original; it means more of the same: artwork is original when it is twice as abstract as what came before it, not because it is different. If a little plastic surgery is good, then a lot must be better. If being thin is good, being rail thin is better. Says who? They say. Who is this they? I don't know but whatever we think they like, the more important it becomes to us. "They" don't even need to exist, the origins of the popularity doesn't matter, we can even know it's a sham, but if everyone else is buying into it, you don't want to be the only FOMO mofo that misses out. Even before anyone's doing it, "everyone's doing it," until everyone actually is doing it.
Maybe everyone knows it's all a sham, but we don't want to say, so we all keep pretending it isn't. It's like keeping up with the Joneses when the Joneses don't exist and never have existed. Kids know when they are playing make-believe, but adults keep claiming these figments are the "real world." We get PhDs in make-believe projections and predictions, still trying to see the future. That's the disappointment of Holden; he knows kids make things up as they go along, he didn't know that's what adults were doing, too. And even that he can accept; what he can't accept is that they pretend that what they are doing is something different. He can't take the arrogance and posturing.
Is a celebrity really popular? Or are they only popular because we think they are popular? Is a topic really a big topic or is it only a big topic because we thought it was always a big topic? The thing is, there is no way to know.
A fake Mona Lisa isn't fake, nor is the Mona Lisa's smile, but it is the Mona Lisa itself, the whole convention of it that is fake. It's valuable only because we think it's valuable, only because we think we are supposed to think it's valuable — because we think other people think it's valuable. The real Mona Lisa is always the one we give status to; a "fake" can become the genuine article once we all believe it is the genuine article. And that status we assign isn't a real thing, it's pretend and that makes the whole thing phony. But rather than be the only fool in the room who doesn't get it, we keep the whole charade going. The emperor always has clothes if we believe he has clothes. And if you were the only person to say he has no clothes, and especially if you were a child, in this version of reality, everyone would dismiss you. Too much is relying upon the status quo. It's all bougie-bougie nonsense; an aspiration to be in a higher class than we are. And if we are all pretending to be on a higher level, no one knows what level anyone really is. So why does it matter? That's what Holden calls "bourgeois," a want to always be higher in a system that can't be defined. It's abstract. Fighting for a better spot in a void. You won't be able to make sense of it.
"Construct" is the new academic-sounding word they are using in places like New York and San Francisco to describe what we used to call phony. Because "phony" sounds bad, it's not PC. "Construct" is more civilized, more bourgeois.
What Salinger illustrates in the above passage with Holden, Sally, and George is a type of conversation many of us have been a part of, where we stare into blank eyes and listen to empty words. Like a shallow pond, there isn't much below the surface — they can't tell the reflection from the water. It's all a silly meaningless game that adults keep trying to win. But there is no prize, and you can never define what winning is. But that doesn't stop them from trying. (At least kids know they are playing a game, and that is their innocence.) This type of talk is called "small" for a reason, because it is small. But if you're not good at it, you will probably be diagnosed with some social illness. My question is, why is anyone good at talk that is small?
I am reminded of an episode of The Simpsons, where someone is trying to explain something to Homer, and he stares at them deadpan, and then a gentle wind blows the three strands of hair on the top of his head. Desolation. No one is home. This is under the assumption that you are staring at someone like Homer, but if you are usually the Homer, you may have no idea what I am talking about. Then hopefully, you are still reading along because my arrangement of words is entertaining to you.
It's all so artificial, and that was bad. But now instead of calling people phony being all the rage, being artificial is all the rage. Artificial, superficial, less than authentic is the new authentic. The more artificial things you do, the better. It's a good thing! When people artificially alter themselves, we the public, regardless of truth, tell them they are now officially their real selves. Then what were they before? Fake? Are we born fake? Look at this fake baby? Should they get some work done now and pose naked for a magazine and embrace their realness? (This seems the norm, though the norm seems awfully odd.) Then what is real? And what is phony? There is nothing you could do to make you phony because all of it is authentic. Start from the outside in, pretend until it's true, stand tall until you become confident, act happy until you are happy. If not, here's a pill, here's surgery, here's an implant, here's hormones, here's gene editing, here's a combo pack, and some self-help books and seminars. And don't forget the behavior modifications. The new body-image acceptance: Accept your body, unless you feel your body isn't the real you, then reject your body and pay for a bunch of alterations. Fuck labels, unless you like labels, then tack on as many as you like. All of them just as authentic and none of them contradictory. And no matter how many you add, it all means better than average, rather than just another way to say human, and human naturally encompassing many traits.
Who wants real intelligence when you can have artificial ones: artificial interactions, artificial entertainment, and artificial love? Well, I guess I do, but quickly I am becoming the minority, an old curmudgeon. It used to be, you had to be at least sixty to be an old curmudgeon, but times are moving so fast, you only have to be thirty.
If it were a computer, we could just say we upgraded it, or modified it. But computers don't have feelings or cognitive dissonance. We were taught to accept ourselves as is, but to also not accept ourselves as is. So, our mental loophole has been to call it being more real, rather than what it really is, changing. This is somehow easier than dropping the pretense and just doing what we want because we can. But that is not praiseworthy.
Why can't we say the real version of us sucked, and we upgraded to a better version? Or more truthfully, a version we like better? (Better is subjective.) Isn't that more accurate? Why do we have to call the artificial, real? Whatever we see as an improvement, whether it really is an improvement or not, automatically is what is "real." Then better means real. Then what word do we have for realness that is independent of better or improvement? If something is bad, we can't say that is real, we have to say that is wrong, and we have to fix it until it is real. It's a religion, or an illness, perhaps it's interchangeable. Something that trickled down from the Ivy Leagues when they were religious schools (and still closed off to non-WASPs), a mixture of intellectualism, spirituality and magical thinking, a belief based on nothing — that inherently people and nature are good and happy and our lives are predetermined to be good and happy. The academics at the time thought this just sounded nice and was a nice way to live — societal design by people who knew better for the new workforce. So we believed them because we aspired to be like them. And whenever things are not good, and we are not happy, well then, things are unnatural and not how they were meant to be, and we must fix it. But then again, what the hell is real? And real being things as they are, not how we think they ought to be. Rather than adapting to what is, we cater what is to suit us. Reality itself must pander to us. Like the Queen of Hearts from Alice's Adventures in Wonderland, where reality is whatever the Queen says it is. If the world doesn't fit into our preconceived notions, rather than adapt, we will paint it red.
Here's the thing — not much is real anymore. Whether it is real, marvelous, new, special, authentic, zen, successful, hack, namaste, or money, it all means the same thing: better than you. Or if we cut through the bullshit, it probably means more fuckable than you and richer than you. Because being real isn't actually about things being better, it's only about things sounding better. Rather than "selling out," we are "buying in," (by constantly distracting ourselves with purchases) because that sounds nicer. Realness is about presentation, not how it really is. We are only pretending things are better when in actuality, we are dying inside. A pandering reality that gains in vanity but sacrifices wholeness.
Idealism Comes at a Price
This is probably the most popular and defining passage from the novel. It gets to the core of what drives Holden — that innocence is the only thing of value and saving the innocent is the only redeeming cause. He's telling this to his younger sister Phoebe, the one he wants to protect most:
You ask people what they want to do with their lives, they give you a job title. A job title? Think about that for a minute. How does a job title answer what the question is asking? Productivity is the new child abuse. Imagine if you never got to play, no leisure, no childhood, and every hour of your day scheduled so you could be the most employable adult ever? How is that not abuse? No other animal, no matter how cruel, would do this, rather than preparing it for life, to prepare it to work for another animal. Does that make us the cruelest? What if you got more time to be a dirty and playful child but got spanked every once in a while? Let's be real, to most kids that would be preferential than a life designed from birth for employment. But that's convention, we aren't really asking what people want to do with their lives, we are asking what ideal job they wish to hold. And they answer appropriately. What we mean and what we say are independent most of the time.
Holden, however, answers the life purpose question by describing the purpose of his life. What he actually wants to do, symbolically and physically. Now don't get me wrong, Holden is far from perfect and majorly flawed and troubled, but in his idealism, he cuts through so much red tape and confirms many of our suspicions.
It's Okay to Sometimes Think about Death, It's Good for You
Death is always on Holden's mind, and with that, the preciousness of life. (Holden tends to think about it too much.) He wants to save people from themselves, from living a meaningless life, because Holden doesn't pretend death isn't coming. He knows it's coming and he knows people may regret the life they lived. No one will complain at the end of their life that they didn't own enough cars, looked hot enough, or slept with enough people. Phoniness is relative to: if it were to all end tomorrow, how important was any of this? And if the way you live your life is not linked to that question, then you're just pretending because that is the only life-defining question.
Do you want your funeral to sound like a job interview, and your eulogy your resume? How you went to London for a summer internship so you could come back with a phony British accent (or even faker Mid-Atlantic accent) so you could get into the right college? To join the workfarce? And the total gross you made for your company? How many derivative conversations you had? How many McParties you went to, the McSpouses you married, and McHouses you owned? Well, that might sound impressive to the living, but to the person who is about to die, they may wish they really examined what it is to be alive. And not only that but what it means to be a unique individual that not only was a part of but also served a greater collective. Not just another McPerson having a McFuneral.
Dabbling in Moralism and Ethics When We Have No Clue What They Are
The character of Holden is complex, much like us. Perhaps we, too, were once like Holden, and then we forgot. Holden wants to save people, but you can't save everyone. "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." This is how alone Holden feels, he understands he's not an adult, but he puts a tremendous amount of pressure on himself. The adults aren't doing their jobs and when a child falls through the rye, he blames himself. It's what eventually drives Holden mad.
The world is absurd and full of hypocrites, but they aren't doing it intentionally. It's not even hypocrisy or absurdity until you begin to notice it, then it's all-encompassing.
Then there is this quote by Edmund Burke:
That combined with Catcher, and it really threw idealists off the cliff. Kids play and know it’s a game. Adults play but have their noses in the air, as if what they're doing — adult stuff — has more gravity. That it's not some silly game but "real life" stuff. And that's what makes it so silly and phony and what kids do more genuine. Holden wants to preserve that.
The way Holden defines innocence isn't how we would commonly define it, something more akin to naïveté. He uses innocence to mean being genuine and original — without air or expectations. Kids are innocent to the perceptions of others, they have no other choice but to be themselves without being self-conscious about it. Yet we don't call kids authentic, we call celebrities who pander to the camera "authentic," because they are popular on social media.
Struggling with Collectivism, Individualism, Altruism, and Moral Superiority
This has been the great struggle for many who contemplate and value innocence. But what I have come to realize is, from where my nose ends and yours begins is space. Where I end, you begin. Who am I to say you are a phony? Or to save someone I deem less than a phony? After all, I am an unreliable narrator just like everyone else. And some of the biggest phonies love this book. And according to Quote Investigator, Edmund Burke never said, "The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is that good men do nothing." That, too, is phony, though it is real because we keep quoting and believing Burke said it. Because in our reality, it's not always about how it happened, but how it ought to have happened. Burke didn't say it, but he should have. So we as a collective corrected it.
To hold subjective expectations of others is in a way, the same as thinking we have ownership over them. That they must somehow act in accordance with how we think they should act. (The same thing phonies do.) And in saving others, we believe they are ours to save. There has to be some level of balance and reason. Catcher is a cautionary tale of what happens when you don't find that balance. Holden is so idealistic, he lacks common sense. He knows the dangers of apathy, which is indifference. But he doesn't realize the dangers of extreme empathy, which can lead to hate. The fans of the book who committed violence did not understand that either. And in less severe ways, idealists can turn antisocial, realists can become cynics, and people who want a utopia are always disappointed and warn of the end of the world. This may sound cliché if it weren't true, but once a wise priest told me that my welfare is just as valuable as the welfare of those who I sought to help. Something you forget in the pursuit of a redeeming cause.
True Idealism Can Never Exist Because It Is Married to Privilege
You can't avoid phoniness; you must actively participate in it to get through school, make platonic friends, make romantic friends, make money, and survive — unless you want to live alone as a hermit in the woods somewhere. Which Holden toys with, but most likely he would be arrested for trespassing and hunting without a license. He may also die out in the elements with no proper training or provisions. To avoid that, he could live off of his parents, who would buy him a cabin in the woods and pay for his property tax and send him food, which he would hate. I know many wealthy people who did something similar, some becoming endless dream chasers and spiritualists. Like a cat, they pretend they are entirely independent when they are completely dependent on their keepers. Though strangely, they keep calling their parents, "the universe." "The universe sent me money this month." "I traveled around the world." Who paid for it? "The universe..." But why can't we be clear and accurate? Why the alternative to facts? And why the faux, ethereal, Eastern accent and appropriation of both Indian and Native American culture? Because we don't want people to just envy our lives, we want them to also envy being us. That we don't have any added advantages other than being better than them. If we were precise and accurate (and real) in how we were, people would say we have great lives. If we pretend, we think they will say, not only are our lives great, but we are great. It's not that we are afraid of being criticized for being privileged — we would be just as unhappy with criticism or without, because neither of them are praise. Even if we were alone on an island, we would think about "they" and whether they would praise us for the hut we built. We would probably chuckle to ourselves like a mad-person.
It's all phoniness, but some moderation of it is required, though you don't have to pretend with yourself or go overboard with it. Just enough to survive but not so much that you lose touch. That's just a suggestion, but ultimately it's your choice.
The world isn't as phony as Holden red-paints it to be. Holden saw the very worst of it; just as Salinger saw the worst of literary circles and New York social elites. If Holden had grown up working class or poor and gone to a public school, he might not have had the privilege even to notice it, just focusing on basic needs and survival. When all needs are met, all you have left is phoniness, the same as when a house is built, all that is left are decorations. It's all for show. Fluff. (Why you live is a luxury when you're still figuring out how to live.) We think there is some endless amount of steps up the social ladder, but there's only two, and once you go beyond needs, it's just endless accumulation of fluff. That's the expectation. Like George Jetson, your job is to push one button, you have no idea what that does, but that's the expectation, for you to push it forever (or until you die, whichever comes first). We pretend there's more to it and think perhaps eventually we will accumulate enough to reach nirvana, or all of our spinning in circles will eventually take us to enlightenment, (is that why we love spin class?) but it won't. That's an entirely different path that requires constant struggle with needs.
When You Take Life Apart, Make Sure You Know How to Put It Back Together Again
None of us can truly be authentic because none of us are truly independent. We are all dependent on each other. Either the world can turn into an altruistic desireless utopia tomorrow (don't hold your breath) or we learn to get on each other's good sides and be respectful to survive. We must commingle idealism with the practical. And being interdependent, relying on others and liking it, isn't all that bad. Neither is flirting with madness; how else do you know you have really lived?
(Camus didn't say this either, but memes think he should have.)
Throughout history, there have been books similar to Catcher, where eventually the protagonist meets a philosopher or teacher who guides him through his thoughts. I kept waiting for it, and it never happens. Holden partially examines his life and has done a good job deconstructing it, but putting it back together is the real challenge. That is the rest of the journey (and by rest, I mean building a coherent philosophy that doesn't drive you crazy), and that is up to you. Without the second part, it's only a meltdown.
The Ivy League spiritualists gave us one more con, rather than thinking through and working out the negative, we have been taught to avoid thinking about it. That thinking about it itself will cause more negativity. So rather than learning to manage life's obstacles, we have learned to avoid them. So we never think about death because it's unpleasant. And life becomes a means of distraction from death, which only leads us to regret. This is very unique, especially to America. The happiest country, Bhutan, thinks about death the most. They cultivate gratitude rather than taking things for granted. It is the cultivation of peace rather than escape. Since most of us have been indoctrinated early in avoidance thinking, meditating on death is foreign, many of can't imagine it. "How is life not sheer terror? Why wouldn't you kill yourself?" Yet suicides are highest when expectations are highest. That is mindfulness, the awareness of the life's impermanence.
If Holden did discover some philosophical truth, he would probably say:
Explaining what that means, finding that clarity, is how you put yourself back together. Otherwise you're lost in the dark forest of uncertainty.
You Cannot Give Comfort without Receiving It
The "catcher in the rye" analogy is a sweet childlike analogy. Holden in many ways is the most innocent character in the novel. He wishes he could have caught his brother, Allie, as he was falling. He wishes he could have kept him from dying. Though he sounds adult, Holden is still a teenager reeling from the loss of his younger brother. This event has dramatically shaped his impressionable worldview. Like a child, he somehow believes it is his fault that Allie died. His young mind still can't process the impermanence of life. It is why he wants to save his little sister, Phoebe. Yet, many times the roles are reversed, and it is Phoebe who acts as Holden's watchful protector. She's only ten, but in many ways, she is older than Holden, who has been emotionally stunted by the death of Allie. Holden believes "Coming thro' the Rye" is a children's song about protecting innocence. It is the backdrop for the whole novel and symbolizes everything that he is. Phoebe knows in actuality, it's an adult poem about the loss of innocence — that innocence is overrated. She knows Holden's quest is ultimately futile and the world he's built is based on a misunderstanding. Or perhaps it's an innocent understanding. Our own reality.
Phoebe gives him advice, gives him money, even keeps him dry in the rain. That's life. It isn't a one-way street. If we catch others, they, too, catch us.
Holden takes Phoebe to the park so she can ride the carousel. He tells her his plans to run away. It begins to rain:
The hat was Holden's gift to Phoebe, but she puts it on Holden so he wouldn't get wet while she rides the carousel. A motherly act. It is the idealist who is always the child.
Going around and around, not going anywhere. For most of the book, the absurdity of life, that we're going around in circles, never going anywhere, is pretty goddamn depressing. Yet, at this point in the book, Holden has a moment of Zen; that we're going around on this ride, but that's okay, and that's beautiful. So beautiful, he feels like crying. He loves his sister, she reminds him of life's compassion, she reminds him of Allie and Holden wishes Allie was there to see her. Phoebe is the metaphor for hope, that we all circle around innocence and loss of innocence. It's not as if once we grow up, we become complete assholes. We will have moments in our lives, in our day, where we'll circle back around. Children are the proof. Holden, like his namesake, is trying to "hold" on to time. But at this moment, he yields to it; he doesn't need to hold so tightly because innocence and hope always come back around.
Real Things of Value, Like Tenderness, Cannot Be Quantified
It's those deep connections, and all the moments that along come with them, that keeps life meaningful. They are what save us. Somewhere in Holden's mind, he knows this as well. Tenderness isn't showy or nice for the sake of manners, it's subtle and easy to miss. Yet they are acts of kindness that are unquestionably real. Holden never ends up running away. If feeling alone is despair, then knowing we aren't alone is relief.
This is the passage I find most haunting and deserving of attention. It gets to the heart of the human condition and laces it with hope:
We often feel lost and alone — perhaps drowning is the appropriate word. And that's when those connections come in, knowing there are people out there who care about us. Even when we can't see them. We think we are saving others when it is them constantly saving us. Holden wishes he could have saved his brother, but in reality it is Allie and Phoebe, his younger siblings, who are always catching Holden when he is unable to find a secure foothold in this world — on the edge of the cliff, about to fall "down, down, down" on his path to adulthood. Holden hates how "angel" is overused, just like when George Andover uses it. That word has special meaning to Holden, it is reserved for people like Allie and Phoebe, his guardian angels. Holden is still a wounded boy. Perhaps many of us are wounded, as innocent in our idealism as Holden — just falling through the rye.
It's okay to let go and be caught. The world isn't going anywhere.
Useful Companions (Improve Your Education and This Site by Buying a Book):
- The Catcher in the Rye - J.D. Salinger
- Alice's Adventures in Wonderland & Through the Looking-Glass – Lewis Carroll
- Hans Christian Andersen's Fairy Tales – Hans Christian Andersen
- The Myth of Sisyphus: And Other Essays – Albert Camus
- Against Empathy: The Case for Rational Compassion – Paul Bloom