Thursday, January 17, 2013

Young narcissists

Anyway, I keep picturing all these little kids playing some game in this big field of rye and all. Thousands of little kids, and nobody's around - nobody big, I mean - except me. And I'm standing on the edge of some crazy cliff. What I have to do, I have to catch everybody if they start to go over the cliff - I mean if they're running and they don't look where they're going I have to come out from somewhere and catch them. That's all I do all day. I'd just be the catcher in the rye and all. I know it's crazy, but that's the only thing I'd really like to be.
This quote has been popping into my head the last few days. Not the exact words as I don't have the book, or even parts of it, memorized. I kept thinking of it because I keep reading arguments that sound like it. Obama's arguments in favour of gun control, for example.

Let me be clear: there are good arguments in favour of some gun control. (I live in Canada where we have quite a bit of gun control and, while I think we might have a tad too much in some cases, I like it this way.) This is not about taking sides in that debate; it's about the quality of the arguments being marshaled in that debate. And, I'm sorry if this offends anyone, but the President's arguments were really, really stupid and, quite frankly, childlike in a bad way.

Like Holden Caulfield above, he seems more concerned with the the feeling of doing good than actually doing good. And it's not just him. Every time I talk to kids in university these days about what they want to do with their lives, I hear a whole lot about how they want to feel about themselves and the work they expect to do, the job they, in fact feel entitled to, but nothing about other people who are actually out there and what they might need.

Caulfield is an extreme example. There is no field of rye on the edge of a cliff with thousands of kids running around in it. Kids don't need to play in fields of rye because actual adults (and you'll notice that Caulfield has conveniently fantasized these away) have built playgrounds for them to play in that aren't on the edges of a cliffs.

Playing in the rye (or the corn as we used to do when I was a kid) makes perfect sense. Kids who were privileged enough to grow up in the country love doing that. You don't have to walk far into a field of grain of any sort before you disappear. Even better, you walk into a tiny, enclosed world where everything else disappears. Which is the whole appeal.

I mention all that because it's important to grasp that Caulfield's fantasy doesn't take into account what actual kids find appealing  about a field of tall grass, grain or corn. Other people don't matter to him. The only thing that matters to him is that he deserves some role that will give him the feeling of doing good.

A friend of mine used to say that there are some books that teens love reading that are immensely compelling until they get insane. The Bell Jar was her favourite example. At some point in the book, you should realize that Plath was clinically depressed and stop taking her seriously.

The goes in spades for The Catcher in the Rye (for pretty much anything Salinger wrote actually). At some point it should sink in that Caulfield is a narcissist and that he, and not the world around him, is the problem. It seems to me that we have spent the last few decades training kids to do exactly the opposite. To try and become Caulfield rather than reject him. And now one of them is the president.

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