ALIENATION PRODUCES ECCENTRICS OR REVOLUTIONARIES
This particular artwork, part of the “truism” series by Jenny Holzer, was on 42nd Street next to Times Square, a Manhattan district Holden Caulfield of The Catcher in the Rye visited. For the centathlete, Holzer’s message calls into question that fictional teenager’s celebrated alienation and his ultimate significance as an eccentric or revolutionary. Her use of the marquee mixes cinema with the written word…
And therefore literature. Reciprocally, the literary hero Caulfield himself can’t escape references to cinema despite the fact, he tells us on page two, “If there’s one thing I hate, it’s the movies.” He elaborates on several later occasions, even while seeing a “putrid” film at Radio City. His sister Phoebe, conversely, loves The 39 Steps, and his brother D.B. is a successful screenwriter in Hollywood, which makes him a “prostitute.”
When Caulfield hires an actual prostitute, she says she comes from, of all places, Hollywood. She also tells him he resembles a young actor in a “Mel-vine Douglas” movie. One of the significant choices Caulfield makes in the narrative is to refuse to have sex with her. After his second reading of The Catcher in the Rye one year ago, the centathlete recalled the similar, ostensibly heroic refusal of Lester Burnham, the protagonist of the movie American Beauty, to have sex with Angela Hayes, the teenage temptress. Virginity plays a role in both decisions: Caulfield won’t lose his; Burnham won’t take hers.
Is Everyone Alienated?
Winner of many Oscars including Best Picture of 1999, American Beauty unabashedly concerns the transcendent search for an “authentic life in an inauthentic world,” as the screenwriter David Ball stated. This is a familiar theme for certain readers and scholars of myth such as Joseph Campbell, who argued that the inauthentic world is the “waste land” where people are spiritless because they don’t or can’t do what they really want. The knight must traverse the waste land in his quest for the grail, which symbolizes the fulfilled, enriched “authentic life.”
In an unnamed, leafy suburb the Burnhams dwell in a generic white house with a modest lawn. Lester is “an ordinary guy with nothing to lose.” Daughter Jane is “a pretty typical teenager” and we’re meant to see all the characters and the setting as ordinary and pretty typical.
How typical are they? Burnham negotiates a severance of one-year’s salary of $60,000. If his wife Carolyn, a real estate agent, makes, say $30,000 to be conservative, that means the Burnhams more than double the median household’s earnings in 1999, but hey, who’s counting? There’s no such pretense in The Catcher in the Rye: the “quite wealthy” Caulfields occupy a lofty socioeconomic perch, the top 1 %, we can safely assume. Holden’s father is a “corporation lawyer” who, on top of his other expenses such as his children’s tuition, liberally invests in doomed Broadway plays.
In American Beauty the waste land is Consumerist Suburbia. Lester Burnham is the knight combating the grind of his expendable job in media sales, his emotional estrangement from his wife, and his family’s drab, bitter communication at the dinner table. He feels “sedated.” He complains that “stuff is more important than living” and his “marriage is a commercial for how normal we are.”
Burnham is not alone in raging against the inauthentic—a synonym of phony. Wait, doesn’t Holden Caulfield own “phony?” He uses the word famously throughout his story to describe the grown-up world and many other kids, so much so that it becomes his emblem, along with his red hunter’s cap. Each character is alienated in the inauthentic/phony waste land.
Rebel or Revolutionary?
Each knight’s quest is a rebellion, a dropping-out involving the assumption of another role. Caulfield (who first appeared in a short story called "Slight Rebellion off Madison"’) takes a “little vacation” between school and home. “Quite loaded” with spending money in hand and armed with his Upper East Side savvy, he acts like an adult. He’s free to take a hotel room, dance with a “stupid” 30-year-old, listen to jazz, hang out in bars, and hire a hooker. Burnham, the adult, quits his sales job to work at a burger joint, swaps his sedan for a muscle car, and starts exercising. He acts like an adolescent.
Caulfield can’t have sex with the hooker as an adult would. He is compromised by his limited knowledge and fear of adulthood. Burnham can’t have sex with the nubile vamp as a teenager would. The sly portrayal of his shenanigans (and the youth of the girl he desires) compromises the legitimacy of his own vacation.
Both rebels fail on their own terms: they can’t fall all the way into the other life-stage. Caulfield’s failure is consistent and episodic; it’s as if he presses the Reset button after each chapter. Burnham’s climactic pulling away from Angela Hayes, on the other hand, is a trigger toward transcendence, as he rejects the rebellion he incorrectly thought was meaningful.
Traditional religion enters briefly into The Catcher in the Rye and American Beauty, contributing to the symbolic knighthood of each hero. The grail, after all, is known mostly as a Christian icon.
Caulfield, a self-described “atheist,” encounters two Catholic nuns and recalls a Catholic schoolmate. Although he is not formally indoctrinated, he does show compassion (for the cheapness of their suitcases), he can practice good works (he gives the nuns ten bucks, the equivalent of nearly $80 today), and he has a vague sense of the validity of orthodox spirituality even while he is suspicious of it. He deems the flashy, commercial production of a Christmas pageant invalid and considers how Jesus would want to be worshipped.
The Christian vocabulary in American Beauty is perhaps the only subtle aspect of the movie—Hollywood doesn’t attempt often to excel at Subtle, nor does it often espouse earnestly orthodox evangelism. Numerous candles at the dinner table confer an aura of desired domestic sanctity. Characters, especially Jane, appear through and against small-paned windows as if they are icons in a cathedral’s stained glass.
In one scene Burnham, after jogging, stands facing Ricky Fitts, with the garden hose extending serpentine between them, back to the house. Their position and the framing are held static as if we are looking at a medieval painting or a tarot card; these new friends of spirit are at the garden of good and evil. The apple of knowledge is…the pot Burnham asks Ricky to sell him. Faced with the iconic “Lovers,” Ricky’s father Frank, who is very conflicted about homosexuality, unsurprisingly becomes suspicious and jealous.
In another scene Ricky, after resolving to leave his home for good, stoops and kisses his catatonic mother—and holds the pose. The lighting fixture in the background becomes a perfect halo over his head. After enduring his father’s beatings and speaking truth to power (“You’re a sad, old man”), he is cinematically beatified.
Who is this saintly Ricky Fitts? He’s a loner who has spent time in a psychiatric facility, like Caulfield. He can look death in the face—a pigeon and ultimately the murdered Burnham—as Caulfield looked at the fallen James Castle. Most notably, he has seen the “entire life behind things” while filming a plastic bag dancing in the wind. His movie is what Campbell calls in his conclusion to Creative Mythology, “…the guide without, the image of beauty, the radiance of divinity…” Because Fitts has had this epiphany, he’s far closer to the grail than Burnham. All he lacks is a heightened connection, a realized union with Jane.
Burnham himself ultimately achieves the transcendence Campbell advocates:
“…the courage to let go the past, with its truths, its goals, its dogmas of 'meaning' and its gifts: to die to the world and to come to birth from within.”After rejecting Consumerist Suburbia, he rejects the temptress and the futile, illicit desire of recaptured adolescence—and therefore Consumerist Suburban Man’s false rebellion. Then he lovingly regards the photos, as if he hadn’t really seen them in years, of his family when they were happy and innocent.
He dies and is resurrected literally, as a disembodied, floating narrator who experiences Fitts’s identical plastic-bag epiphany, the beauty of the ordinary, as he tells us. Letting the beauty “flow through,” he is fulfilled and enriched; he has “gratitude for every single moment of my stupid little life,” and has tragically attained the grail.
Interestingly, two minor characters in American Beauty have reached the grail while they are alive and healthy: the two gay men named Jim, joined the way Ricky needs to be wedded with Jane, who embrace the ordinary suburban existence. The centathlete conjectures that, in overcoming societal prejudice against homosexuality (as demonstrated by Ricky Fitts’s father), and possibly coping in the past with inner turmoil over identity and conventionality, the Jims have quested already and are worthy knights in the eyes of the screenwriter and director.
Holden Caulfield also has visions that suggest he will transcend the phony and escape the waste land. His articulated view of himself as the catcher in the rye, the savior and protector of innocent children, is the first, the trigger. The second, culminating vision is of his sister and other children on the carrousel. Caulfield recognizes that he has to let go (like letting the beauty flow through), to let the kids reach for the gold ring and “…if they fall off, they fall off…”
But he doesn’t attain the grail. As an adolescent, he can’t make sense of his quest and his epiphany the way the adult Burnham can. Caulfield concludes: “The truth is, I don’t know what I think about it.” His breakdown is not as tragic and final as Burnham’s death. His prospects for a recovery are much better than they would be for most in his position, as his father will ensure that he gets treatment that the vast majority of Americans cannot afford. If all goes well in that facility near Hollywood, he can conform or he can rebel again.
Grail obsession aside for the moment, the symbolism of The Catcher in the Rye is well-established. The higher meanings of the book make it very popular in schools. The centathlete has discussed this canonization with two supremely competent, insightful teachers who firmly attest to its allegorical, educational value. They have earned this opinion through years of experience. The centathlete is not a teacher—he’s just a mouth and hasn’t earned his opinion. But he doesn’t feel right about the value in question. Do we all only fall from innocence or grace—don’t we climb too? With all the falling crammed down our throats in this book, where is the climbing?
(There is a recent novel about a teenage boy who “climbs” and “falls.” Black Swan Green presents Jason Taylor, a noble quester who is painfully aware of yet shuns the bad-boy pose. The narrative offers a complex—relative to The Catcher in the Rye—background of political and familial turmoil, as you might expect from a superb author like David Mitchell, who has written stunning novels about grown-ups as well.)
But the grail, the grail—what to make of these two rebellion-quests? A recent review of a new book by the art critic Robert Hughes (whose The Shock of the New was both entertaining and informative in book and TV form), includes this:
“Hughes is contemptuous of the cult of unbridled "self-revelation”… The template for this "secular parody" of the Catholic sacrament is provided by Rousseau's "Confessions," in which all the "morally vile" things the author had done were "somehow redeemed" by being admitted and described.”Burnham and Caulfield confess, though each stops short of the “morally vile” (the sexual consummation as the rebel each tried to be). Burnham is saved by opening his mind and tuning in. Is anything worthwhile in life, much less redemption, so easily achieved? All you have to do to appreciate divinely radiant beauty is…watch a movie? Can you snap your fingers and claim you’re a bona fide revolutionary rather than a cartoonish rebel? Absolutely, according to American Beauty.
Caulfield is not redeemed, although he might be in the fictional future as a self-styled rebel-savior if and when he matures. He is a failed knight, no rebel nor revolutionary, but he is not magically, disingenuously handed the grail, as is Burnham.
For the centathlete, American Beauty and The Catcher in the Rye are aptly described as secular parodies of the grail quest. With Hughes in mind, he dismisses the aesthetic and symbolic worth behind these works because the knights haven’t quested nobly through the waste land; they haven’t earned the grail.
How Does It Feel?
The centathlete initially saw American Beauty when it first came out and enjoyed it, with major qualifications. He was bothered by “Kevin Spacey” in his cubicle. The image instantly conveyed the insignificance of his job and made the viewer smirk—because he saw Spacey (by then a celebrity), not Lester Burnham, sitting back awkwardly on a cheap office chair with his headset on, in the exact manner of the centathlete and millions of other Americans. In its already announced context of “inauthenticity,” this scene insults rather than provokes the viewer as he looks at the “mirror” of his own life.
In contrast, we enjoy the long-running series of ESPN’s “This is SportsCenter” commercials with athletes pretending to work at the ESPN offices alongside the comparatively unknown announcers (ex. Maria Sharapova eating lunch in the cafeteria.) This is good, funny stuff because it’s meant to be only good, funny stuff —there’s no mirror, no moralizing context.
When famous actors play overtly “ordinary and unhappy to be so” characters, the filmmaker’s condescension can get thick. In the centathlete’s opinion, the most egregiously failed showcase of celebs-as-schmoes was Robert Altman’s Short Cuts. This cinematic medley of short stories by Raymond Carver featured a host of well-known actors and one musician (Lyle Lovett played a baker). Unfortunately, this casting subverted the central anonymity of Carver’s characters and thereby negated a crucial element of their appeal.
If you’re skeptical, read the heartbreaking story, “A Small, Good Thing.” There is no way, no way, a recognizable, quirky celebrity like Lyle Lovett, whom the centathlete reveres and has seen three times in concert, should play the baker. Altman’s disservice to the story, Carver’s aesthetic, and the reader is unforgivable. Furthermore, the abrupt jumps between plots and the fast pacing completely disagreed with Carver’s restraint.
Ah, the sensibility of Hollywood. There’s no mistaking American Beauty as “Hollywood”: it was produced by Dreamworks and filmed in LA—and then came all those Oscars. The centathlete, while walking out of the theater, equated Burnham with Bill Clinton (the Lewinsky scandal was still resonating at the time): likable, lecherous and heroic. Certainly Hollywood would have agreed and still would agree with that estimation.
In fact, the movie told us What Hollywood Thinks about many things besides Clinton. Let’s examine just a few:
Character/Activity: Frank Fitts
What Is Symbolized: The US Military
What Hollywood Thinks: Gay-hating yet gay-obsessed, manic, dangerously hasty
Character/Activity: Pot smoking
What is Symbolized: Recreational, non-violent drug use
What Hollywood Thinks: Okey-dokey, beneficial
Character/Activity: Buddy Kane, the Real Estate King
What is Symbolized: Successful entrepreneur, salesman
What Hollywood Thinks: Egomaniacal, shallow
When Hollywood shows us stereotypes, the centathlete gets squeamish whether or not he agrees with the judgments. Beware of big-budget features bearing generalizations and redemptive sermons…
To the book: the centathlete first read The Catcher in the Rye during the summer between his freshman and sophomore years of college (making him slightly older than the protagonist), coming off professorial introductions to class-consciousness. He primarily perceived snottiness amid privilege and despised it.
Growing up in a suburban township of more than 100,000, the centathlete never met one kid who attended a prep school (religious schools were the virtually exclusive alternative to the public system). At college, prep school alumni abounded.
There were young men whose closets included three or four blazers, chinos galore, cedar shoe trees for multiple pairs of loafers and bucks, and tie racks. (Caulfield has his hound’s-tooth coat, fountain pen and Mark Cross luggage, the last two accessories admired yet derided as “bourgeois” by his roommate Slagle.) These guys had been drinking Johnny Walker Black for years. They were long-accustomed to living away from home in style. They casually threw around cynicism and disdain at the education system, authority figures, the social cliques they so easily demarcated and traveled among if they so chose, and themselves. They listened to Jimmy Buffet; they wouldn’t be caught dead near an album by Van Halen (the centathlete owned three and played them loudly), which was identified with mall culture.
Speaking of music—let’s not forget that Comin’ Thro’ the Rye, the quasi-eponym of the book at hand, is a song— there is a tune about someone very much like Caulfield, born into yet innocent among privilege, who went to “the finest school” and was “bound to fall.” How does it feel, the song asks its female addressee over and over with glorious, sneering fascination, to fall from privilege and lose your way? We could ask Holden Caulfield the same question.
Immensely popular and critically lionized like The Catcher in the Rye, this song from 1965 is considered a revolutionary force in society by some, and the number one song by a certain magazine devoted to rock ‘n’ roll, the language of…rebellion. Thus a counterculture anthem about a dropping-out gone wrong has become the artistic epitome of a now dominant ethos, to be listened to and emulated for generations. The Catcher in the Rye has been similarly uplifted over time, as Louis Menand wrote in The New Yorker:
“The book keeps acquiring readers, in other words, not because kids keep discovering it but because grownups who read it when they were kids keep getting kids to read it. This seems crucial to making sense of its popularity. The Catcher in the Rye is a sympathetic portrait of a boy who refuses to be socialized which has become (among certain readers, anyway, for it is still occasionally banned in conservative school districts) a standard instrument of socialization.”Americans, the wealthiest people in the world, are continually enamored of rebels who reject American society—which presents the “selling out dilemma”:
“Rock musicians and fans have consistently struggled with the paradox of "selling out"—to be considered "authentic", rock music must keep a certain distance from the establishment and its constructs; however certain compromises must be made in order to become successful and to make music available to the public. This dilemma has created friction between musicians and fans, with some bands going to great lengths to avoid the appearance of "selling out" (while still finding ways to make a lucrative living).”So how does it feel for a rebel to make “certain compromises,” to struggle with authenticity and immense success? Kurt Cobain told us, in his suicide note:
“The worst crime I can think of would be to pull people off by faking it, pretending as if I'm having 100% fun. Sometimes I feel as though I should have a punch-in time clock before I walk out on-stage… I must be one of the narcissists who only appreciate things when they're alone. I'm too sensitive, I need to be slightly numb in order to regain the enthusiasm… But I still can't get out the frustration, the guilt, and the sympathy I have for everybody. There is good in all of us, and I simply love people too much. So much that it makes me feel too fucking sad.”The final sentiment sounds like Ricky Fitts while showing his movie: “There is so much beauty in the world, I feel like I can’t take it.” Overall, Cobain expressed what Caulfield couldn’t, but then he was an adult who climbed to the top from the bottom, not an adolescent who only fell from privilege and hangs suspended in his fictional narrative. Moreover, Cobain lived—the centathlete and the rest of us still live—in the American cyclotron knocking together ever-accelerating particles of rebellion, exaltation and emulation.
Back to the prepsters. Their humor was witty, often sarcastic and profane. Some were melancholy, in retrospect depressive, and some were sensitive, like other folks. The point here is that the centathlete had already encountered a robust subset of Holden Caulfields, although not one fully formed incarnation, when he opened the book. As a result the Pencey Prep chapters were unbearable and the protagonist, while alienated, did not seem eccentric.
For support, the centathlete turns to Jonathan Yardley, the book critic of The Washington Post, who attended schools similar to Pencey Prep and contributed this appraisal:
"Why is a book about a spoiled rich kid kicked out of a fancy prep school so widely read by ordinary Americans, the overwhelming majority of whom have limited means and attend, or attended, public schools? Why is Holden Caulfield nearly universally seen as ‘a symbol of purity and sensitivity’ (as The Oxford Companion to American Literature puts it) when he's merely self-regarding and callow?”America happily dismisses such questions. 250,000 copies of The Catcher in the Rye are sold every year. It’s the favorite book of actors like Johnny Depp, Winona Ryder and Sara Michelle Gellar, and musicians like Billie Joe Armstrong.
In thinking little of this book’s protagonist, the centathlete is clearly out of step with cultural norms, so he could call himself, along with Jonathan Yardley, an eccentric—but he won’t, because he isn’t one.
In wishing to overthrow this “standard instrument of socialization,” this very imperfect secular parody, this allegorical template etched with condescending elitism, the centathlete could call himself, along with Robert Hughes, a revolutionary—but he won’t, because he isn’t one.
And he isn’t alienated. He feels connected. To you. Right now.
Centathlon vs. Centathlon