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 centered around us. It's the same reason why ancient civilizations believed that the sun and planets rotate around the Earth and locked Galileo up. This syndrome made them blame acts of nature on acts of God's wrath and go on to sacrifice thousands of people they viewed as peripheral, in order to appease their Gods. Main character syndrome is the same reason why little kids tend to blame themselves if their parents are fighting. As humans, we have a hard time looking past our individuality.
We associate and relate with other people but we are ourselves, with ourselves, all the time. Like Holden, we’re constantly listening to our own thoughts and making decisions for ourselves, we exist within our own narrative and everyone outside plays a peripheral role in our movie. We walk through life narrating and casting judgements as we go along our journeys.
This generation has allowed us the ability to document our path in this life, and to give other people a view into our subjective reality. Being able to express yourself is healthy. More people expressing themselves and being in someone else's shoes can lead to a safer, more beautiful and harmonious world. Yet our world incentivizes people into exploiting each other.
We’re all ends to someone's means, that is guaranteed. Its either our boss, banks, businesses, bills, bus drivers. If you walk into a store and the cashier is nice to you, she has to be. If you’re in front of the mall and the tiny Chinese lady comes up to you and acts flirty, it's because she wants you to sign some petition about something you don’t understand. If a random guy is being nice to you, he’ll either tell you to buy his mixtape or he’s trying to sell you some drugs. Cities breed a fast paced, individualistic culture, focused on fulfilling our desires, and in that sense we treat almost everyone as a means to an end. This is why societies and religions have days where you go to a holy place to gather and have a sense of community, but we're all Godless heathens so instead we continue to fill that hole in our souls with hedonistic indulgence.
Most interactions in a city are transactions. We’re in a constant competition to try and maneuver through the maze of urban culture. The crisis of urban life is inauthentic living. It's a life lived in apathy. The superficiality that pervades urban life, that 'Catcher in The Rye' depicted, is that of the apathetic social guidelines we operate under. There’s a habitual culture to every social gathering that we’re all aware of. There’s also our need to impress others for validation. Wanting to impress others and be validated can be completely positive depending on the means. If you want to impress someone and it makes you get your shit together to become a more decent person, go for it.
Many people are pulled into selling their soul for this goal. I mean that in a very literal sense. Many men live lives of apathy and desperation because they fell into the traps of posturing as the goal. There might be people that sell hard drugs out of a systematically induced necessity for survival, but there’s also very many people that sell dangerous drugs, and commit a wide variety of other criminal and inhumane acts, in order to posture and garner power and influence. A lot of the time one of the main reasons is to have the nice car, the nice house, the nice chain and the clothes. There are kids my age right now, in gangs, selling hard drugs to their own communities, ready to kill or be killed, living constantly paranoid while avoiding checkmate at all turns, to try and make it up these illusory ranks. These are literal kids, they’ve been adults 3 whole years, but to try and make it up these ladders they put on personas to try and achieve facades.
I’m not talking down on it, I understand it, completely. This isn’t a finger wag, it's an analysis. I’ve been and am broke, I completely get the appeal. It sucks to be broke. It sucks to be at a McDonalds and not have enough for a combo, so you get a Mcdouble and Jr. Chicken and a water cup to fill with coke. It sucks to be around good looking girls and your debit card gets declined, it fucking sucks. I’ve been in rooms with drug dealers and thought, hmm….maybe it's real nigga season. But I cower out, because I know real people that have died because of real shit, every move actually becomes life and death. Knowing that I'm not built for that harsh reality, I decided, I’d rather look like a bum and stay alive enjoying this life thing.
Yet that same drive that made the drug dealer start, is the one that forced me into doing meaningless jobs that take up the most valuable hours of my life and are killing my spirit. It's that same need to posture that kept me in a cycle of bullshit and soul-killing jobs while fulfilling meaningless desires. It's that same need that makes us post our highlights and posture on our social resumes so we can get likes. Many of us know what we want to do, but we end up taking an apathetic, easier and safer route, and ultimately miss out on meaning in favour of perceived financial security.
This pandemic is definitely far from the ideal situation, but one thing I’m glad it did is give meaning and perspective to everything. Every moment I spend with my family makes me grateful, every sunset I see makes me happy. I have family members that have fought and beat covid and the awareness that our time together is finite reminded me of the genuine love I have for them. Being able to write and practice a creative task, riding my bike and listening to music, these are the most meaningful things. I love my friends more when I reminisce on the times we had and understand that our relationship, despite seeming like small moments, are extremely meaningful parts in shaping who I am in this life. It's never been about the stuff. Beauty, interpersonal relationships, love, those are the most essential things in life.
People, particularly in cities, like Holden, are often moved by external factors such as reward systems, grades, evaluations, or the opinions they fear others might have of them. Yet, just as frequently, people are motivated from within, by interests, curiosity, care or abiding values. These intrinsic motivations are not necessarily externally rewarded or supported, but nonetheless they can sustain passions, creativity, and sustained efforts.
The interplay between the extrinsic forces acting on a person and the intrinsic motives and needs inherent in human nature is the territory of Self-Determination Theory. The theory states that conditions supporting the individual’s experience of autonomy, competence, and relatedness are argued to foster the most high quality forms of motivation and engagement for activities, including enhanced performance, persistence, and creativity.
Holden Caulfield was rich, he did everything one can do in a city, and he still felt terrible. He pursued every extrinsic hedonistic indulgence that a city makes available, and he still wasn’t fulfilled. All Caulfield could do was think about anyone who meant anything to him. We are social beings that need genuine connection to function, we need autonomy and we need competence. All Holden wanted was some semblance of real connection and intrinsic value, he couldn’t find it in the urban world, until he went to the zoo with his sister and watched her ride the carousel. At that moment Holden felt happy and understood that what he was looking for existed in that moment. He was finally able to be competent and take care of someone else, he was able to hang around his favourite person and he was able to truly be in the moment and experience it immersively instead of transactionally.
As corny as this sounds, many people don’t find that intrinsic value because they are always searching for what they don't have. There’s not much material that can replace genuine moments of love, again, as corny as it sounds. Money is necessary and all, I'm not being stupid, but we also have to remember that there's actually a whole bunch of stuff outside of it, that are more important, that money truly can't buy. There's no amount of money that I'll give up being creative, being around my family and seeing sunsets for.
We often hear about this simplicity, and we often won't take anyone's word for it, so we kinda have to seek that meaning before we come out of the other side, but the problem is, many perish before they can come out of it. Before the pandemic, this concept was a cliché talking point that was really hard to believe. The fact that the most essential aspects of life are the mundane regularities is a cliché as old as time, but the truth in it is why it remains a pervasive school of thought. Through the pandemic it’s become objectively true. A vaccine is coming, and pretty soon everything might go back to “normal.” But I want us to remember this sense of camaraderie, community and meaningful, authentic living.
I see meaningful art, a strengthened sense of community, a genuine care between neighbours, that's what the protests around the world have been about. Across the street from my home in Toronto, there are George Floyd and Breonna Taylor posters. There have been protests for Iran, Nigeria and the United States around the world, because people care about other people. We need to maintain that and avoid treating each other exclusively as transactions. We’re not each other's competition or means for individual ends, we’re each other's company through life. Anyway, any time I try to spread positivity I feel like a corny motivational speaker, but I’m being honest and authentic, and that's all I ever want to be.
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