Saturday, January 30, 2010

J.D. Salinger and Adolescence, Censorship and Fame

The following was originally a comment made to someone on an internet news site who disparaged the talents and influence of J.D. Salinger. This past week Mr. Salinger, author of Catcher in the Rye, died.

Beyond the point of defending a writer who was influential to my years of rebellion and transition to adulthood, it seems important to say that, in order to manage their trip through the potentially dangerous terrain of adolescence, children require vantage points of reflection that represent their experience in a way that is honest, nonjudgmental, and non-condescending. They need to see themselves in the world to enter it confidently and constructively.

The periodic collective ire that J.D. Salinger's Catcher in the Rye produces among those who wish to narrow the range of what our children can see and recognize about themselves as they grow into adulthood has always dismayed me, even though I understand it as inevitable in a world of adults whose own adolescences have often been restricted and narrowed by well-meaning but ultimately counter-productive social forces that create even more dangerous trends and collective actions than they hoped to prevent through censorship.

Regardless of whether you think Salinger's work is the product of genius or not, its worth perhaps can be measured by the very resistance that it produced in those whose ideas about adolescence is stunted and unrealistic.

And one more thing: Salinger spent much of his life resisting the trappings and recognition of fame and celebrity. All kinds of assumptions are made about this without his input. That in itself makes me doubt the veracity of those assumptions and put them down to the worst kind of rumor mongering and envy.

In my work I have met and been privy to the secrets and pain, as well as the joys and great accomplishments, of people from a wide, wide range of socio-economic backgrounds, family systems and levels of community recognition and fame. Beyond some very basic creature comfort issues that poverty creates, I have yet to meet anyone whose wealth and/or fame has had any real impact on the nature or the feelings of satisfaction and meaningfulness of their lives. Often great wealth and fame becomes a hindrance to people looking for connection and meaning in the world.

Salinger's characters, particularly in his post Catcher in the Rye writing, wrestled openly and deeply with these very issues... and for the most part they came to a very personal and workable set of standards for themselves in relationship to recognition and privacy. It is interesting that many of us automatically assume that those who actively reject the trappings of fame and recognition are automatically relegated to the slag heap of the irredeemably neurotic and/or misanthropic. As if the culture that worships and reveres the rare and often jaded lives of those whose every move is spied upon and extrapolated into absurdity has been able to set healthy standards related to who, how and why and when people should be lifted into celebrity and that those who reject those standards, even after watching someone like Michael Jackson be turned into a side-show freak, are somehow unstable and lack a healthy sense of self.

I beg to differ, and differ strongly: the strength and resolve and sense of inner cohesion that it takes to reject the superficial and ultimately narcissistic, seductive, pull of celebrity must be immense and in some ways spiritually transcendent. That Salinger, if we are to listen to and believe his children, was in some ways still a victim of a routine range of human foibles and quirks (and believe me, it doesn't take the absence or presence of fame and wealth to make people chock full of foibles and quirks) only makes him more like us, more a part of the irascible and infinitely individuated miracle of what is human, and how we are connected to the collective mind of what is called the divine.


Developmentally it is the job of adolescents to rebel. Their ability to differentiate themselves from their parents and elders is hugely integrated into how they are able to integrate the necessary individuation into their concurrent socialization as they enter adulthood... a process that generally takes until they have an adult brain at about age 25. As adults it is our job to guide them through this. To think we can protect them by censoring the literature about rebellion, a natural and normal developmental stage or at least an indicator of that stage, is about as effective as an abstinence only program to help them figure out what to do with the new and undeniable sexual urges they are subject to and that their brain development dictates cannot be ignored. In fact, that new sexuality is an inseparable part of that development and the rebellion it entails.

Anyway, for me Catcher in the Rye is the least important writing he did.

You might consider that censorship to an adolescent brain, informal from a parental angle or formal, is like trying to help them lose weight by eating cheesecake in front of them and telling them they can't have any.

As parents we probably will make choices all along, as we should, about what we are willing to let into our children's sphere of influence, but we should be careful about being too rigid about going forward in our efforts to shape their exposures by understanding that our "nos" can automatically increase the status and allure of what we are saying no about. Instead we might focus on being with them compassionately as they navigate this part of their lives, cultivating a relationship of trust so that we can know what they are choosing to read and see; help them integrate it into a healthy rebellion as opposed to one made more dangerous because it has to be done in secrecy and deceit, attributes that come quite naturally to the adolescent brain if attempts are made to squelch instead of guide the rebellion they must do.

This may, in fact, be a theme in Catcher in the Rye... it certainly is in Franny and Zooey although from an opposite angle... Franny and her world being something of an opposite perspective from Holden Caulfield’s in the processes of rebellion and the outcomes. Franny internalizes rebellion more and Holden externalizes. Franny's parents and family facilitate it in their own endearing if in some eyes “neurotic” way, while Holden's become more punitive.

And if it's the historical, potentially dated, aspect of the writing that puts you off, in that it seems to you to encourage rebellion without the kinds of consequences that the modern world seems to levy, I would think that kids would be even more gratified and relieved to know that these issues are universal and timeless to adolescents. It would be like dissing Oliver Twist and refusing to allow poor children and orphans to read it or refusing to read it to them because it is out of date. Why do you think shows like "Grease" and "By Bye Birdie" still get a significant amount of air time in high school drama and music departments (if they even HAVE music departments left)?

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