Sunday, January 31, 2010

Holden Caulfield & J.D. Salinger

A popular exercise among psychologists is to "examine" popular literary figures as if they were patients. The most popular of these figures tends to be Hamlet, especially among psychoanalysts. American literature -- largely because it's such a relatively recent phenomenon -- has yet to provide the world with many characters as complicated or profound. There are really only a handful of "American" fictional figures that deserve to be spoken of in the same breathe as some of the towering fictional characters in world literature. Huck Finn is one. Captain Ahab is another. Maybe Jay Gatsby and Willy Loman.

But Holden Caulfield is definitely on that list.*

Caulfield is an endlessly fascinating kid who has been diagnosed with seemingly every psychiatric malady known to contemporary man. He has post-traumatic stress disorder. He's bipolar. He suffers from clinical depression. He's suicidal. He's antisocial. He lacks empathy ... he empathizes too much. He's detached from reality, and on and on and on ...

It's really hard to think of another character as complex as Holden Caufield since the publication of Catcher in 1951. This is largely due to the influence of post-modernism in contemporary American literature. Catcher is a very inward-looking Cartesian novel: Holden thinks and feels, therefore Catcher exists. The most significant novels written since the 1980s (or possibly the 60s, depending on how one looks at it) have been outward looking. They revolve around characters who are better described as beings-in-the-world, rather than Cartesian consciousnesses. Their struggles are primarily about finding their places in the world or how the world affects them as people.

Now, if you're thinking to yourself, "Well, isn't that the entire point of Catcher?" the answer is yes. Salinger helped to build a very important bridge between pre-war modernism and post-modernism, whether he intended to do so or not. As a consequence American Lit may not see another character like Caulfield again for a very long time.

*I'm intentionally leaving out the works of William Faulkner here; just too complicated to get into right now.


Anonymous said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Jb said...

Sorry, the spam above was removed.

Anonymous said...

hmm. i thought the point was that as unconnected that he was that he still gave a shit in spite of that, or maybe because of that. it's been a long time my memory may be faulty, and i dunno post-modernism from a carburetor, but that he took the title from that one passage seems to support that idea.
and I figure most writers don't have the stones to handle a character like that without being pretentious f-wads about it so nope, not too much of that will probably be written anymore

but a bridge to post-modernism huh? must be one of those Alaskan earmark thingies

Jb said...

"i thought the point was that as unconnected that he was that he still gave a shit in spite of that, or maybe because of that."

If the point of the book was "Life sucks, but I will persevere," then it could have been written by Horatio Alger. But there's more to it.

The great irony of Catcher is that despite Caulfield's animosity for growing up, it's fundamentally a coming-of-age tale. Holden is a different person after his trip to NYC than he is when he's getting kicked out of school at the beginning. Caulfield may still care about the world around him -- or some of it, at least -- but he ultimately feels alienated and detached from it.

I have no idea what "a character like that" means. Caulfield is himself very much a "pretentious f-wad." That's one of the sides to him that make him so intriguing.

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