Murder and misreading
by Joe Palmer
[ opinion - march 08 ]
Brutus too must have read The Catcher in the Rye. - Kilgore Trout
Here is the urban legend: the miscreant shooter misinterprets The Catcher in the Rye. He makes a mistake. He does not get the point of the story (which is that the reader is not alone in his suffering).
"It's exactly the kind of novel that appeals to confused loners, to shooters at schools, to suicidal youths, and an America looking nervously around for the next Columbine to happen," Mark Mordue writes in the review 12gauge. Today's popular youth culture is what he calls 'The Holden Caulfield Syndrome', or 'the 9/11 teenage blues', which is not effectively different from the malaise of the McCarthy years or the Cold War Period.
The old malaise is still there, of course, the perennial malaise, a feeling that things are not right. It's not fair. Mysteriously malevolent forces call the shots. The New World Order is controlled by Skull & Bones, Illuminati, Council on Foreign Relations, Bilderberger Group, World Trade Organization, pharmaceutical giants, and the Trilateral Commission, among others that impose Free Trade. They are the enemy. The 'liberalization' of free markets, that is, globalization, makes the rich richer, and the poor poorer, according to the legend.
Last April, outside the Hyatt in Seoul, taxi driver Heo Seowook burnt himself to death with gasoline to protest the US-Korea Free Trade Agreement negotiations. According to workers' groups, your former freedom, dignity, identity, and status mean little these days, especially if you fight for protection through fair trade. You are a misfit, an outsider, an offbeat complainer, unless you do what you are programmed to do, which is your part in maintaining the new dispensation of the multinational corporations, the Holy Grail of Free Trade.
In their Communist Manifesto in 1848, the great Romantic theorists Marx and Engels predicted that Free Trade eventually would reduce every individual's personal worth to merely his exchange value, just like a slave on the block for sale to the highest bidder, until his wages disappear and he is left with nothing except his skin; but the fact of the matter is that we are all becoming equally well off, which is by any historical standard exceedingly rich, except the owners, of course, who are becoming filthily richer. Marx and Engels did not know that we would use electricity in transportation and communication to make more of everything for everyone. We flush and brush healthier and happier than ever before in history with our painless dentistry and indoor plumbing. Progress is a physical matter, of course. We are still cave men, but dressed in Armani.
Mark Chapman had a copy of The Catcher in the Rye with him when he killed John Lennon, right? They say the rogue youth who goes berserk and guns down fellow students, teachers, family members, colleagues, or a celebrity must have misread, that is, he must have misunderstood The Catcher in the Rye. That is what we want to believe. That is what the Devil and the CIA want us to believe, and it is probably true that reading a book about youthful alienation and confusion, watching a film like The Matrix, or playing a video game like Thrill Kill will make you want to put on a black trench coat and mow'em down. Films such as Conspiracy Theory in which the crackpot Jerry Fletcher (Mel Gibson) impulsively buys dozens of copies of The Catcher only strengthens the connection between the book and insane violence, when, however, the truth of the matter is that conspiracies really do get carried out, and 'they' sometimes present elaborate ruses to make people think that lone gunmen are on their own.
Literal interpretation, even of technical writing, can be fatal, as when NASA engineers mixed metric and English measures, causing the Mars Lander to miss its mark. You'll never leave if you obey the sign that says 'Keep Door Closed'. We have to take everything with a grain of salt, which statement does not mean what the words say. Never trust the written word. Imaginative language, figurative words and expressions, metaphors and allegories save us from literal meaning, the death of understanding.
A literal, discursive interpretation, a verbatim, precise reading of a fictional, poetic work of imagination and fantasy is dangerous to the reader and others. If the reader does not get an affirmation of life from a story, poem, or film, he is a step closer to despair in a childish grasp that intellectually immature people show when they tell a story they have read or seen. Instead of "He rides back to the ranch (in the story)..." they will say, "He rode back to the ranch..." telling the story as if it were a series of real events. They don't get it. On the other hand, a gestural, figurative, metaphorical, or allegorical interpretation, showing how the author does things with the words, turns a description and narrative into a personal set of moral and happy meanings.
Misreading a teen-age novel or getting turned on to violence by a dystopian movie is hardly sufficient to motivate a murderer, but blaming the media solves a lot of problems and answers a lot of questions; incorrectly, it seems, but what price truth? No one wants to hear that the CIA did not want to give John Lennon's peace a chance or to give Dr King's civil rights to minorities. The schoolkids in Dallas cheered when President Kennedy's shooting was announced. A neighbor asked me, "Did you hear that Martin Luther Coon got shot?" People are sheep with canine teeth.
Could it be that maintaining the status quo is a legitimate goal of the popular will and the government? Could peace, order, and good government be more important to more people than equality, life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness to a few? Perhaps so. Somebody has to run the show, even if they break a few laws. The Federal Bureau of Investigation, the Central Intelligence Agency, and the National Security Agency have to earn their pay.
The Devil made them do it, we want to think, even when they had political goals in mind. Old Satan must have got to Mark Chapman, Sirhan Sirhan, Lee Harvey Oswald, James Earl Ray, Jack Ruby, Gavrilo Princip, Charles Guiteau, Leon Czolgosz, and Brutus too, to name a few.
The assassination of a politically important individual is not like running amok and killing for the hell of it. Jack Kennedy, Lee Harvey Oswald, John Lennon, Bobby Kennedy, Martin Luther King, Jack Ruby, Archduke Ferdinand, James Garfield, William McKinley, and Julius Caesar were killed because others wanted them out of the way for very substantial reasons. How many Manchurian candidates were involved we shall never know, for that is the way conspiracies work.
Holden Caulfield of The Catcher in the Rye, a character you ought to get to know, looks just like me when I was 16, as far as I can remember. Holden and I are exactly the same age, 73. We were both 16 in 1951 when the book came out. "The only person who might ever have played Holden Caulfield [in a movie version] would have been JD Salinger," the author of the book, his friend Joyce Maynard declared when asked why there has been no movie made of the beloved story. I am told Salinger wanted to play the part of Holden, with Margaret O'Brien playing his little sister Phoebe. I too loved Margaret O'Brien when I was a kid. I still love Margaret O'Brien.
According to The Catcher we have to put up with everybody else, and not give in to despair. For everyone, living is absurd, painful, and sorrowful, ending in death. But living's not life. Life is health, happiness, beauty, and joy. In addition to our pain, life is what we have in common, and so it is one thing we must cherish and preserve in all its forms. We have to sieze the day, and have fun while we can, lest we wind up in the nuthouse.
Holden has heard a little boy misquoting Burns' poem 'Comin' Thro' the Rye', substituting "When a body catch a body, comin' thro' the rye" for "When a body meet a body, comin' thro' the rye", and he pictures himself running around in a rye field at the edge of a cliff saving kids from falling over it. He says, "What I have to do, I have to catch everybody if they start to go over the 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 them." He means he must save children from losing their innocence, perhaps. That does not sound like a vicious daydream to me. You too must be as a little child to enter the kingdom of Heaven.
I correctly misread The Catcher the first time I read the book, turning myself into Holden in my mind, but then I had been reading every day for 10 years, practicing imagination. I had always wanted to go to a fancy school like Pencey Prep and live the way I thought New Yorkers lived. Today I do not know exactly how anyone else understands the book, surely not just as I do, but close enough to take my point, as Holden explains:
"Among other things, you'll find that you're not the first person who was ever confused and frightened and even sickened by human behavior. You're by no means alone on that score, you'll be excited and stimulated to know. Many, many men have been just as troubled morally and spiritually as you are right now. Happily, some of them kept records of their troubles. You'll learn from them - if you want to. Just as someday, if you have something to offer, someone will learn something from you. It's a beautiful reciprocal arrangement. And it isn't education. It's history. It's poetry."
Holden feels "sorry as hell" for everybody, unlike a few characters in other widely-read books, for example, unlike the main character in Albert Camus' The Stranger, Meursault, who goes out and kills a guy just for the hell of it. Meursault's alienation is such that social conventions mean nothing to him. For Meursault pity is unnecessary because we are all going to die. We are born naked, wet and hungry. Then things get worse. Some readers might feel Holden's sort of immature pity and astonishment to be the same as Meursault's immoral, rational numbness and lack of love. It isn't. Holden's affection for suffering people comes from his seeing himself in them, a truly Christian response to misery. On the other hand, Camus' story means only that what will be will be; and so what?
The Catcher tells me the world is full of sufferers, and I am one too, a hypocrite and a coward, like HoldenoldenHoldenhhhhh. It is something I have to live with, like Holden, but I do it better because I can accept myself and others. I do not have to go to Rehab like Holden.
God must love us phonies, as Holden calls us, for he made so many of us sham humans. We are all specious, fraudulent, bogus imposters, and we are all the same. Because we are real people, we are fake fakes. So we have to live and let live, forgive and forget, and love our neighbors as ourselves, even the fat ladies in the radio audience, even Al-Qa'ida. You too are one of the shallow people, the fakes, and phony Jesuses, believe me.
Come on therefore, let us enjoy the good things that are present...
Let us fill ourselves with costly wine and ointments...
Let us crown ourselves with rosebuds...
Let none of us go without his part of our voluptuousness...
Let us leave tokens of joyfulness in every place
For this is our portion, and our lot is this.
Wisdom of Solomon