Catcher In The Rye: Authenticity, Urbanization and Meaningful Living

Updated: Nov 22, 2020

Another day of lockdown, another day of my old-man free trial. I’ve been doing a bunch of old man things like bird watching, taking walks in nature and reading old books. Its day WhoTheFuckKnows of quarantine and what else is there to do? So I finally got around to reading the pdf version of ‘Catcher In The Rye.’ I know, I’m a thousand years late, give me a break. Now that I’ve finished the book, I have this inexplicable urge to murder John Lennon.

On a serious note though, this is the hardest I’ve been impacted by a book in a while. This is the whiniest character I've experienced in literature, he's basically an older, more depressed, version of Greg from Diary of A Wimpy Kid. Which is why it sucks when you are able to see your own reflection in this character. Holdens humour, his dry sarcasm, his constant judgement of the world around him, everything about this character felt uncomfortably relatable.

One of Holdens Teachers said:

you're going to start getting closer and closer--that is, if you want to, and if you look for it and wait for it--to the kind of information that will be very, very dear to your heart. Among other things, you'll find that you're not the first person who was ever confused and frightened and even sickened by human behavior. You're by no means alone on that score, you'll be excited and stimulated to know. Many, many men have been just as troubled morally and spiritually as you are right now. Happily, some of them kept records of their troubles. You'll learn from them--if you want to. Just as someday, if you have something to offer, someone will learn something from you. It's a beautiful reciprocal arrangement. And it isn't education. It's history. It's poetry."

This is exactly the effect that his book has had on millions of people around the world, including myself. I’m 21 now so I’m a few years older than Holden, but the character lived a young adult life. The book is basically about this depressed preppy teenager that spends a weekend bumming it in New York City after he gets expelled from school for the third time.

Holden Caulfield was 16 and was worried about growing up, but he sprung himself into a grown up world full of drugs, prostitutes and perverts, all's I got was bills and piling credit card debt. I’m not giving you a whole summary about the book, if you wanna know more, go on Sparknotes like the rest of us. This character is able to depict the underlying fear that many teens and young adults feel about the concept of adulthood, and what exactly that entails.

The Catcher in The Rye contains themes of angst and alienation, and is a critique on the superficiality in urban adult society. Holden's frame of reference for what an adult should be comes directly from his parents, an upper-class family that attend country clubs. He’s afraid of turning into a phony like them and abandoning the aspects of him that he felt make him, real. As Holden found out through the passing of his brother, there’s guaranteed suffering in this life as you get older, but there’s also guaranteed responsibility. Holden might have suffered from mental illness, but the circumstances he went through are universal, and so are the experiences, judgements and lessons. In this urban world of responsibility and suffering, many people put on a front as they maneuver through life. It's this front that Holden judged as “phony.”

Holden put it precisely in the words I searched for throughout my teenage angst. There’s this underlying inauthenticity that pervades urban adult life, that feels almost like a mandatory prerequisite. The people that Holden deemed to be nice and genuine all lived as far away from urban life as possible. They were people like his classmate's mother he met on the train, who told him to visit her house in Massachusetts, or the Nuns that had just moved to the city to teach children. Holden wanted to move into the woods and never talk to anyone because of the superficial living in urban adult society.

There's this customer service personality full of consumerist small talk, that plagues this type of society. It's this type of convo that Holden called “giving the old bull.” This type of conversation was one of the main reasons why Holden mainly enjoyed speaking with those previously mentioned characters and his younger sister, who would actually listen and speak, authentically. When we’re kids, that level of inautheniticity doesn’t really exist. Holden went to a paid private school and attended country clubs, his whole life he has been a commodity and an investment to adults, just like the rest of us. Kids don’t really have a strong frame of reference for what's socially acceptable, so they just say what comes to their mind. Kids make friends simply based on the premise that everyone involved is the same size, and then they just talk about anything. Kids aren’t Machiavellian.

Holden wanted to escape the phoniness of upper-class life but he found the same connection barriers in the city. There’s a scene in the book when Holden innocently asks the cab driver where the ducks went in winter, or when he asked the prostitute to just talk with him. Both these characters became upset and wondered what scheme he was trying to run. These people are both service providers and Holden is the consumer, he tries to interact, during the transaction, with the human behind the job and they both become severely suspicious of him. Urban life makes us personified jobs and most of our interactions: transactions.

As you get older, and especially in an urban world, you start wanting to be perceived in a certain light by other people, so we curate our personalities in order to fit this social narrative. There’s a lot of social protocol and order that we must maintain that doesn’t really exist for kids. Kids say the meanest stuff because they think it, they say random things because they think it, the filter that exists from our brains to our mouths doesn’t really exist in the child realm. As we get older, we become more and more socialized, which has many positive benefits, but we also lose touch with that core, only accessing it when we’re around people we are extremely comfortable with, and keep it repressed. Until people get old and they suddenly don’t care again and are able to say what they wish.

Kids rarely fake a laugh if something is not funny. Fake laughing seems like an urban young adult prerequisite. Girls laugh at guys corny jokes on dates, everyone laughs at their boss’s corny jokes at work. A fake laugh is physiologically different and unnatural. Genuine laughter, real eruptions of joy, are generated by different neural pathways and musculature than fake laughter. There is also a big difference in how you feel after a genuine laugh. It produces a mild euphoria thanks to endorphins released into your system, which research indicates increases our tolerance to pain. Fake laughter doesn’t have the same feel-good result. In fact, you probably feel sort of drained from having to pretend. Recall any day with the most unfunny asshole manager that has forced you to fake laugh for 8 hours.

It's honestly draining, but it's only one example of the amount of posturing that exists within the urban adult world. There’s a lot of pretending and showing off that has been exacerbated by social media. Influencer culture has created a generation of inauthentic mini reality tv stars, that exploit all aspects of reality including family and friends, because they are forced to keep up a mirage for the camera.

Jean Paul Sartre once said “Hell is other people'' The line comes from a 1944 existentialist play by the French philosopher called No Exit. In the play, three people are trapped in Hell — which is a single room — and ultimately, while confessing their sins to one another, end up falling into a bizarre love triangle. The confinement of the characters extends beyond their physical holding room: they are trapped by the judgments of their cellmates. That's why one of the characters says, "Hell is other people" — because of how we are unable to escape the watchful gaze of everyone around us. "By there mere appearance of the Other," says Sartre in Being and Nothingness, "I am put in the position of passing judgment on myself as on an object, for it is as an object that I appear to the Other." If you’re in a park alone, then you are only the observer, the park presents itself to you with trees above your head and a chipmunk running around, but once another person enters the park, you are now an object, forced to react according to how you want to be perceived, which ultimately isn’t your completely authentic mode of being.

We’re all constantly in this double life, forced to hide parts of ourselves depending on where we are. This concept, known as code-switching, is a large part of urban life. Everyone in a city is proficient at knowing how to speak depending on who they are speaking with. Its a necessary skill that forces you to adapt, depending on the colloquial language, you won’t speak the same way to your manager that you would your friends.

Cities are libraries of human desire. Every street you go to has yet another shelve of unsatiated desire. Food, drink, drugs, sex, entertainment, everything you could ever want packed and packaged neatly around you. This type of environment, the advent of social media, alongside human nature creates a different type of person. Many of us have main character syndrome. It's difficult not to, our universe really is c