By Matt Balasis
SAINT PAUL (Herald de Paris) – I’m suffering from adult onset Holden Caulfield Syndrome. For those of you who’ve never read J.D. Sallinger’s seminal novel, The Catcher in the Rye, Holden was the novel’s 1950’s teen protagonist who suffered a steady psychological decline culminating in a breakdown. Holden was experiencing some manner of post traumatic stress as he’d lost his younger brother years before and the experience appears to have at least helped shape his psychosis. The Catcher in the Rye, is of course a misinterpretation of the famous song lyrics – Holden envisions himself as some sort of shepherd guarding a field bordered on it’s edges by a cliff where numerous children are playing. His job, to make sure none of these children fall off.
We read the book in a High School honor’s English class. Our teacher made a point of letting us know it was one of the most widely banned books in educational circles. I don’t know why she said that, probably to spur our interest (it worked), but since that first reading I’ve often thought not just about the book’s message, but why it would be deemed so dangerous or subversive as to be banned. I’ve come to the conclusion that the book probably should not be read by young adults. Not because there’s sexual content or foul language, but because it offers the example of a precarious young man who is exposed to the insults of an adult world quite before his time, only rather than wrap the story up neatly with some sort of hopeful corrective resolution, in the end the story meanders in it’s own unanswered questions without a just rebalancing. We want it to not be true, we want to believe that adults are not all “phonies” and “pervs,” but in the end you get the sense that Holden was right, about pretty much everything, but that there’s really nothing anyone can do about it.
At first I didn’t get it, I wondered what all the fuss was about … kid with a tragic history has trouble getting along and ends up going off the deep end, so what? Well, this is why teenagers are probably too self absorbed to understand the subversive currents in The Catcher in The Rye. It wasn’t until I had children of my own that I reconnected with some of the themes in this book in a way that was both startling and disturbing.
What drove Holden mad, the thing that actually made him snap (a bit of profane graffiti at his sister’s school) is the ubiquitous assault on the innocent by dangers both physical and psychological that Holden perceives as endemic in the adult world around him. When I read it in High School I couldn’t figure out why that made him snap. I got the whole “trying to save the innocent” bit, but what’s the big deal? As an adult on the other hand, I wonder how more of us don’t succumb to the strain of having to stand idly by while children suffer a litany of horrors at the hands of the uncaring, the misguided, and the reprobate. As a society, I wonder, how we live with ourselves knowing what we know?
Holden was right.