Friday, January 29, 2010

So Long JD . . .

Yes, I'm of the Catcher in the Rye generation. I'm also of the generation of scholarship - tutelage more properly - where we learned not to implicate the author - the author's life - in our read of his writing (I can say "his" right, since one doesn't say "actress" anymore???). I actually learned about that indirectly from Cleanth Brooks, the man himself, central to the New Critics school. He told all sorts of stories about how William Faulkner was in real life. Is that ironic?

I'm of the generation of those taught by the generation invested in New Criticism. These were my elders, dying out and being replaced by other sorts of scientist wannabes. There is so much scholarship of which I must remain unaware, oh Academy, you gentle tyrant you. Making objects of my dreams. And changing the terms of my understanding, way faster than I can read.

But I cannot possibly be the only one to make a connection between salient facts in the obituary of JD Salinger, and a recent film just coming out on HBO [(and which I therefore won't ever see). Or maybe that's what NetFlix is really for? To bridge the gaps among TiVO, cinematic rentals, and pay-to-watch TV?] Whatever.

In any case, the film involves this autistic woman who's managed to extricate herself from the potential of institutional life to become a prominent consultant to the meat-packing industry. She's the one who engineers the processes leading up to slaughter. She's able, in other words, to translate what the livestock are feeling, into structures which will lull them into their final moment - just as we all should like for ours - without ever knowing what is coming.

This, of course, is a great boon to humanity, by which I mean the humane sort of humanity, not the bloodlusting inhumanity-to-man sort which seems to form most of our truth. With a capital T. To minimize the agony.

So this reclusive champion of our youth (sic) [I'm not talking about the slaughterhouse gal - back to Salinger] was remarkable in his [youth], for being able to score young women cruising the bars on Manhattan [who's cruising whom?].

Oh please, gentle reader, you must see this, right? He was very much like that autistic guide to the slaughter house. He could read the women that directly and, Bill Clinton-like, feel their pain. And he would know what to say and how to behave and where to touch, and there would be nothing that they wouldn't do in reader-response to his power.

We recoil now, ever so slightly, at what might have been his interactions among actual youth were he to release himself from his self-imposed exile. But clearly, readers all [I address you here], he had that same empathy with youth which made him not a literary lion. It put him more in company with the dumbest lambs to whom he gave actual voice. Us. As if acting like Holden Caufield ever got any of us any scores. Predators get the booty.

You know, I think Salinger was an honorable man. He knew what he didn't want to be, and how he could hurt those who might want to love him. His life reads like an Anne Tyler novel. Alone and content in the end. Though there's no way he should be. Either.

I guess his personal habits were as strange as those of James Joyce. And as out of bounds to critics, who run hot and cold on him in almost precisely the same way they do with Howard Zinn, [historian critics, I mean here] the other author I killed off yesterday while in the process of selling my soul back to the University. (If they listened carefully, they would know that I can't be trusted with their secrets.)

So this author, JD Salinger, did lead us all to the slaughterhouse, and wasn't really there to catch us going over that cliff. That was our job. It was us whose voice was granted. We've failed ourselves, for sure.

I read his stories with a kind of hightened interest because I once did head a school for the likes of those game-show geniuses in Salinger's projected family. And just yesterday, having lunch with some University administrator types very directly involved with the local school systems, by work or by parental proxy, I had a chance to remember some early facts of my own naivist (sic) youth.

Way back when we thought that giftedness was a kind of uni-dimensional quality, perhaps representable by a single IQ score (not me, I always knew better). I also had a leadership role in a school for dyslexic boys, which treated them as though that term were some kind of medical diagnosis. That they all needed the very same kind of phonic drilling, which, ironically enough now, really has been shown to bolster the white matter part of the brain which might have been somehow under-exercised. (With the amount of time kids now spend NOT reading, why is this not as epidemic as diabetes???? ADHD? Does anybody even read anymore?)

We know so much more now about Asperger's sydrome, savantism, and a whole array of subcategories which might cause trouble with reading. Trouble with school.  Trouble with schoolmates. We can work that much harder to embrace the differences among our charges, and allow them each to be, herself, empowered. While we sort them out and ever so gently, allow the dull ones to find their way to the various bottoms. The ones without the voice which might be granted to those lucky enough to attend the, well, um, private schools. No matter their native talents.

Cleanth Brooks was a Southern gentleman, and therefore contextually if not genetically disposed to respect and even work to preserve the right of man to present himself formally, and to allow that presentation to stand alone, for itself, whatever the reader might do. Sucks if you don't have that wherewithal!

Now, we exist in a kind of conspiracy theorist's nightmare of the general public inside out private pants. And, well, somehow A Catcher in the Rye (underline, sic) remains right there at the center.

Sure, you know, when your car gets totalled, like so many did yesterday on our Buffalo skyway whose recent improvement engineered a kind of plunging from clear thin air down into a snowy pit of potential death as the wind blows straight in from the Lake. To drift the road such that even if you are a good Buffalo driver, there will be nothing you can do to avoid the pilings up of cars stopped in and by the drifts beyond your incoming tsunami sightline. On the very anniversary of our great blizzard of '77. When I was dropping out on motorcycle, and thankfully away. You see, I want you in my pants. I can't keep myself out of this.

But I must thank you, old JD, for guiding me down that chute as well. Last night I was driving home through white-out myself, preferring the back roads to the Thruway where nutjobs in SUVs would thrill by at the fact of their speed and leave me in their blinding wake. Where semi-trailers with views from up above would envelope me in their fury. I'll take my voided white-out blank, thank you very much. No surprises. Nothing. I'm still here to talk about it. Write? (sic)

Discourse, urges David Foster Wallace, is a life or death matter. Get the signals wrong, and you may betray your tribe; you may be exiled, you may cause your own or someone else's death. It's no wonder, he writes - as one who was on the receiving end of schoolyard brawls - that these rules must be drilled in to classmates. It's no wonder that teachers must rehearse for their charges what they surely know about what it's like to be one [a charge, and not in charge]. I want you to read this book. It will tell you about me understanding you.

Or perhaps we can drop that book now from our canon? This freakish man whose projected youthful voice overshadows an entire generation? Writers can't get him out of their head, I hear, is all. But there's nothing crafted there. Is that it?

When your car gets totalled - should I say totalized? - you have some sort of absolute right to extract from the guy who caused it whatever it takes to set things straight. Sure, in the end, the car will never be quite the same, but if you'd like an entire plastic bumper to be replaced for just one scratch, then that is your perfect right.

If you have a chance to live, although you might be 80-something, although it might cost a literal million bucks which might be more than you have earned in your entire lifetime, then you have that perfect right to demand that it be paid on your behalf. So that you may be a proper gomer in the end? So that someone with diabetes which they never really earned can be deprived? Or better yet, the genetic pre-dispositions.

How hard it must be to relinquish those rights and to tell the one who hit you, hey, give me $25 bucks, and I'll just accept the scratch. You mine. Got yours. Back. Scratch.

Entire houses of cards would then come crashing down, right? The insurance adjuster who writes up, without flinching, the $300 bumper, and the autobody shop which expends the time to make that key-scratch disappear. I know some people who draw a key down the side of their new car just as soon as they acquire it. We should do the same with each other, maybe, so that the real bumps won't be so hard to take.

Instead, we tell the abused among us that they should and must be sorrowful for their losses. They might bury a stillborn child and name it and carry that grief forever. Failing to learn from the Ashanti in Ghana that you should never name a child before a week is up, before which they are only a visiting spirit, checking out the digs, maybe. The priests were instructed that it could do no lasting harm, their touch, right? Unless it results in conceived life . . .

Authenticity is phony! The laying on of hands depends very much upon intention.

You have the right, well, except if you are watching from some upper window, as your car gets bumped in the process of liberation from some parking space. Then, you're just plain out of luck. Or what if you're boxed in? Must you seek out the owner of that inconsiderate car?

What do you do with all that anger, if not mis-direct it against the world? Have a tea party??

What if you were on the outs when everyone else was getting Catcher in the Rye? Must you kill John Lennon? Or must you lay the claim, like Mel Gibson did in life and in his role, that you are the only one to read it right [correctly]? That sometimes paranoids have enemies too? That there is some truth that you just really know, and sometimes there's at least one to believe you? True love in the end?

Scouts honor, honest injun, the dream I awoke with this morning had me sliding off a snowy roof right along with GWB and his Chevy Chase-like sidekick, perhaps in the role of Dick Cheney. As we passed the corner where some sort of satellite dish should be, out into the void which somehow didn't bother me. Perhaps I knew that there would be soft snow to catch me. I looked at George, who knew me as his loyal adversary, me wanting always to bring him down for the sake of the people. I asked him, as he was hanging from the gutter, and I was flying by, wasn't that the thingamajob which kept us safe from terror. That thing which came off - I didn't do it, I swear! - or was already off as I sailed over the edge.

George turned to Dick and asked, "does that mean I won't get my secret porn?" And then he turned to me, and I was laughing almost to the verge of control, and then he started laughing. And I knew that if I could only keep him laughing that hard, everything would be alright. And I woke up. Where's the intentionality in that, I'd like to know?

Of course, I can't vouch for the word-for-word accuracy of my recalling. I give it a shape, right, to play in to recent world events? I invest myself in there too. Well, it was my dream. But I gotta tell you, I re-read the Catcher in the Rye some good long time ago now, and, um, I don't see it. I think I never did. I never could relate with Holden Caulfield. He was some kind of prepster. I was always just a wannabe. Confused and illiterate and never having a clue. But I never did get beat up, quite. And once I helped a nerd pick up his books after they got scattered in the snow by bullies. Once.

And I've died so many times in my life now that I'm pretty sure I'll take it in the end. Quietly. Without wanting to take it all with me. And all.

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