Tuesday, September 17, 2013


Responding to the same article by Joyce Maynard that I quoted yesterday, a writer at Legal Insurrection doubts the claim that, "To many, he was a kind of god."
Really? Many? No doubt some; I know there were (and perhaps still are, even though the elusive Salinger himself is now gone and not just secluded) people who felt that way, who revered him in a manner that seemed both excessive and unhealthy, and who considered his self-imposed exile a tease and an invitation to pry into it. But “the human embodiment of purity”—rather than just a really famous guy who wrote a really famous book and who, like Garbo, wanted to be left alone? Surely these worshiping fans were a fringe group of near-lunatics?
Well, actually, I suspect there are very many of them. Catcher sells some 250,000 copies a year.

I remember falling under its spell myself in high school. I found a copy and read it obsessively, dropping all responsibilities, including being social to other human beings, until I finished it.
 As with On the Road, I was enthralled while reading it but really let down by the ending. It doesn't go anywhere. When I'm feeling charitable, I can almost convince myself that Salinger did this on purpose and that the reader is supposed to figure out that Holden Caulfield is the biggest phony in the book.

To not see that, you have to think the way Adam Gopnik does:
The ironies could not have eluded the author, since the one thing that a loner like Holden doesn’t want to be is the voice of a generation—his contemporaries being the very thing he has most contempt for.
Logically, that makes sense. But just as it would be crazy to actually argue solipsism even if you could do so logically, there is something crazy about writing a book like Catcher. Does the solipsist want to reach out to other solipsists? Unless Salinger's point is to show us what is wrong with Caulfield, he can't honestly claim to be dismayed that a lot of readers identify with Caulfield. And if Salinger himself seems as obsessed as his hero is with some sort of personal quest for purity, which he often expresses using religious language, it isn't surprising that a lot of people (many, in fact) came to see Salinger himself as a sort of guru.

The solution to this conundrum, as Mary McCarthy long ago noticed, is that Salinger was a narcissist. The key to understanding what is really happening in his fiction is to grasp that Salinger was morally unaware of other people except as bit players in his story. (You have to pity the poor guy who gets stuck on a date with Franny.) Other people could only be part of Salinger's life until they went too far; meaning they could hang around until their independent identity risked injuring Salinger's sense of who and what he was.

How did Salinger treat obsessive fans who sought him out? Here's Gopnik:
For what it’s worth, the movie suggests that Salinger responded to most of the stalkers with surprising generosity, trying to explain to them that he was a fiction writer, not a guru. It didn’t help him, either. 
We shouldn't deny Gopnik the several thousand grains of salt that he might be hiding in that "for what it's worth". (We might also wonder how one-way this seeking out was as there seems to be considerable evidence that Salinger went looking for these obsessive fans when he got lonely.) For my immediate purposes, however, I can't help but wonder how he treated those obsessive fans who were also teenage girls with hot bodies and the sort of adoring stare that just might lead a man to wonder what she would look like naked, on her knees and performing oral sex on him while looking up at him like that? Or, if you prefer not to be so crude, what if all he did was be a little less careful about this kind of girl and let her hang around a bit rather than sending her on her way and, well, things tended to happen? And he did this not just once but over and over again?

That this is morally blameable is beyond any doubt. But is it more than that? Or, to put it another way, what is Joyce Maynard trying to achieve by bad mouthing her ex?

Gopnik reminds that sometimes obsessive fans  will shoot the person they were obsessed about. We might wonder if some similar sort of bizarre contradictions also exist in the minds of girls who idolize older men. When they obsessive male fan pulls out the gun, his victim has, for all intents and purposes, stopped having any existence independent of killers narcissistic fantasies. The teenaged girls Salinger had sex with also had no independent identity as far as he was concerned but what about going the other way? What does it say that a young woman at Yale drops out of school to go live with a man thirty-five years older than her? Did he have any identity outside of her narcissistic fantasies?

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