>> Wednesday, December 31, 2008
Tomorrow on J. D. Salinger turns 90. Every American high schooler knows him as the author of Catcher in the Rye with its protagonist Holden Caulfield. Salinger has become a recluse celeb not having published or been photographed in decades. I have not read the book since high school so i did a little Internet surfing to refresh my remembrance with what others have written about the book. My lasting impression has always been the use of the "phony" label.
To me Holden labeled everything as phony because he was unable to accept the idea that things are more complicated than simple black and white. The image of an ideal is so often a pure abstraction. It is called an ideal simply because it is perfect, completed without flaw in a way that real life almost never is. I say almost because everyone has those rare times when everything is exactly how you imagined it without blemish. Most often though life is operated in shades of gray and brown. Something that fails to live up to perfection is not worthless or phony.
To be sure there are a great many things in life that are sometimes exceedingly phony. Politics chief among them. Away from cameras and recording devices its as gray and brown and black as the rest of life. Deals are made and policy written for the next election and not for the best possible results. What we see on TV and in the traditional media is a giant screen play put on for our entertainment, complete with narratives and messaging, characters and plot twists. We see ad gurus and $100,000 stylists all designed to sell the voters and the public on something using style and suave instead of substance and merit.
Still, it would be cynical of me to label the entire political world phony and leave it at that. Many elected officials are there to represent the people as best they can. Its not fair to take the Holden Caulfield line and declare every politician phony for dealing with the world as it is. You cant make a better world and society if you dont live in a reality based world. In my mind Holden's chief sin was always an inability to look deeper at issues and understand that they had other sides. It was such a surface treatment of life.
Life is deep and messy and complicated. I never liked Holden Caulfield simply because i was always frustrated with his analysis of life. By leaving out the gray he left out the area i spend most of my time thinking about.