Tuesday, May 21

The unreliable catcher

No one knows what inspires people towards violence, so why are so many people pretending they do?

“The Catcher in the Rye”, the 1951 novel by J.D. Salinger was at once the most taught, and banned, book in America. 

The novel details two days in the life of sensitive 16-year-old, Holden Caulfield who returns to New York to break the news of his recent school expulsion to his parents. 

Disillusioned with the falseness of the adult world he keeps the fateful meeting at bay with a series of encounters around the city and finally finds a reason to smile in his young sister, Phoebe with whom he spends some time at a Zoo, cementing the books’ theme of lost innocence. 

The book ends with Caulfield, also our narrator, admitting that he may have had a breakdown over the past few days, and will return to a new school in the fall.  

“The Catcher in The Rye” has an undeniable power. It is a remarkably accurate portrait of a uniquely teenage pessimism. And yet, nothing really happens in the story that leaps out and demands it be banned. 

However, conservative voices who sought to suppress the novel may have been onto something and would not have to wait too long for several world-shaking incidents to make their case. 

President Ronald Regan’s would-be killer, John Hinckley Jr, was influenced by the book. As was Robert John Bardo, the murderer of 21-year-old TV actress Rebecca Schaeffer. 

John Lennon’s killer, Mark David Chapman, was arrested with a copy of the book that he had purchased that same day, inside of which he had written: “To Holden Caulfield, From Holden Caulfield, This is my statement”. 

Something unsettling clearly stirs within its pages. 

None of these killers read a direct, nor indirect command to kill in Salinger’s text. What they found was a lost, alienated child/man. They stumbled upon a mirror, that reflected their own disenchantment back at them.

Now we know the book is deadly, why do we suffer it on library shelves? Sure, time has muted Caulfield’s story somewhat, but what solid ground did censors ever have to stand on?  Its unrelenting cynicism? If so, how many of the great works of art would survive? The best art contains at least a streak of cynicism. This is what made 70’s cinema so great, and classic film noir the most watchable offering of ‘Old Hollywood’. 

The book’s danger is in how it explains the alienated to themselves – its uncanny articulation of the storm brewing within them. But this is always arts ultimate aspiration, surely? To introduce our true selves to ourselves? And would denying them this mirror make us any safer? Gazing into this very same pond may have forced an awareness that subdued a murderous urge. What can radicalise one, is precisely what could moderate another. 

An antisemite who recently called me a “Jewish pederast” on Twitter was sharing precisely the type of speech a hate speech law may be activated against. But how many converts is this account creating with its charming contributions? Meanwhile, we have the anti-Zionism movement, patient, yet constant, that has already made it respectable to paint Israel as an irredeemably sinful state, and an example of what happens when Jews are ‘allowed’ power. No hate speech law would hoover this stuff up. I wouldn’t censor either of my examples, but if you think the answer as to which speech is inciting more discrimination is clear-cut, I’d be fascinated to hear how you arrived at your conclusion.  

State censorship, in the form of the projects like our now failed reform of hate speech laws, imagines that the most overt, vile, and bombastic expressions of hate catch are what causes societies to catch fire, yet the open, bombastic racist is a poor recruiter. What we should fear most, yet can never predict, is a ‘radical loser’s’ chance encounter with themselves, in a song, in a book, in a film. 

It is impossible to predict what will truly spark the revolution within a soul. Our focus should shift from words, to what makes a ‘Caulfield’ in the first place.