The Caulfield Boy
Copyright © by Max Raskin, 5/15/07
For many a misunderstood introvert, seeing “fuck” and “phony” for the first time in print is a remarkably heady experience; not surprisingly, The Catcher in the Rye is an extremely popular novel among teens. The novel is so admired that it has bred a class of young Holden Caulfield sycophants, desperately trying to emulate this demigod of malcontent. This reverence is misplaced. When first reading Catcher it might appear that Caulfield’s carping has some validity, but if carefully analyzed, his claims not only fall apart, but his persona becomes a legitimate target for annihilation. As Caulfield’s immaturity is revealed, he becomes less an object of veneration, and more an example of how not to live.
Caulfield basically argues that because he is so unique and with it, no one can understand him. Bright kids whom the public school system is often unable to deal with think the same way—by accepting society’s conventions, they are shortchanging their talents. They feel normalcy is below them. Like Caulfield, their truancy and drug use help cultivate an aura of coolness. Yet, fundamentally, approval is all they want—they need people to know how little they need them.
Caulfield is supposed to be a stoic with no emotional attachment, but he is continually reaching out to people, like his ex-girlfriend, Sally Hayes. He needs her to know the deep acetic he can be. During their date, she is battered with a callow diatribe against phonies, materialism, and society. Real original.
Caulfield thinks that he is allowed to make these brash judgments because he alone gets it. This attitude is summed up when he decries the applause of others, proclaiming that, “People always clap for the wrong things.” So, exalted Holden, what are the objective standards of truth and reason? Do you deign to impart your aesthetic wisdom on us mere mortals? His arrogance is immaturity. It causes him to polarize the world. He does not understand that life is nuanced.
While there are certainly some objective criteria for judging art, philosophy, and history, outsider opinions mean little without cogent thoughts to back them up. Unfortunately for Caulfield, thinking is not part of his repertoire. It is fine that the loner wants to pass judgment on others; he just shouldn’t try to pass off intellectual nihilism as anything more than intellectual nihilism.
Being smart is the ability to communicate with others. Creativity is not enough; being smart is working hard. Even jokesters like Hunter S. Thompson spent hours refining his prose. No, Caulfield is wrong. Commas are important! The absence of a vigorous pursuit of meaning and truth is not deep; it is lazy.
This misdirected misanthropy leads to Caulfield’s downfall. Here is the key to the story: In rejecting both Professor Spencer and Mr. Antolini’s with his smug irreverence, he commits the grievous sin of intellectual hubris.
This would be fine if he was…intellectual. Yet his inability to get even a single quote right—a Robert Burn’s quote from which he bases his entire worldview—shows his true immaturity. It is no surprise that by the end of the novel, he doesn’t know for sure if he has learned anything. He did nothing to investigate his life outside of self-absorbed whining.
Antolini’s message could have taught him much. Antolini warns, “I
have a feeling that you’re riding for some kind of terrible, terrible
fall…The whole arrangement’s designed for men who, at some time or other in
their lives, were looking for something their own environment couldn’t supply
them with…So they gave up looking.”
But what is Antolini saying here?
He’s saying that the problems and frustrations people go through are
universal. Caulfield’s generation was not the first one to grow up. Writers
and thinkers from different eras have grappled with these universal problems;
this is something for Caulfield to take solace in. We can and should learn from the successes and mistakes of others. If he really
wanted to express his cynical grousing, he could read Mencken and see how a true
critic does his lampooning—with erudition and an agonizing obsession with the
English language. But this kid would never dream of actually pursuing his
interests. Working to refine one’s writing and explore the works of others is
not as easy as tapping out.
He was too timid to run away and live as his ideal hermit in the woods.
He was too sniveling to pursue the conclusions he had reached and too conceited
to recognize his non-uniqueness.
That people have to work to be understood is a lesson everyone could
benefit from. In each pursuing our own interest, we find meaning.
For each person it is different; a philosopher cannot prescribe a
one-size-fits-all meaning to life. Instead, a person must go out an actively
seek ideas, activities, or people who interest him. We don’t find meaning by
criticizing on others for being either too stupid, like Stradlater, or too
intellectual, like Carl Luce. It’s always enjoyable to make fun of
pseudo-intellectuals and Neanderthals, but only because we know that there is a
happy medium we each need to find.
Caulfield should have read Sartre’s Nausea and understood that he was not the only person to feel revulsion with existence. Maybe he could have gone to Paris to become an existential writer. He might have had passion and meaning. Or, if ultimately deciding against the absurd world, he would have at least been in a more suicidal milieu.
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