Thursday, July 22, 2010

What I learned from Holden Caulfield

Holden Caulfield.  His name is one of the most recognizable of 20th century American literature.  The protagonist, anti-hero and every-man (or every-teen as the case may be) of J.D. Salinger's pièce de résistance, Caulfield remains one of the most controversial and universal creations by an American writer.  I was a junior in high school the first time I read The Catcher in the Rye. Upon Salinger's death in January, I undertook to re-read the novel.  

No longer an angst ridden teenager, I wondered how I would connect to Holden Caulfield as an adult.  As I read the final pages of the book, the words resonated poignantly: "Don't ever tell anybody anything. If you do, you'll start missing everybody."  Reflecting upon the statement, the book and the author's life, it struck me that I would always connect with Holden Caulfield.  You see, Salinger's genius was in his creation of a literary character that would come to encapsulate what I believe to be, ironically enough, the unifying theme of the 20th century - alienation.  

I cannot claim this idea for my own. In the 19th century, Karl Marx wrote in his Manuscripts of 1844 that alienation is the systematic result of capitalism.  And it was the encompassing strength of capitalism that marked the 20th century.  I do not suggest that alienation should carry with it an entirely pejorative connotation.  In his essay on the architecture of Shantaram, Gregory David Roberts describes the necessity of mankind's alienation from long-held ideas that had constrained the progress of humanity for centuries if not millennia: ideas such as the "manifest destiny" of empires and the propriety of waging "just" wars.  Indeed, alienation from such dangerous notions certainly suggests the progress of the human race.  

During the first half of the 20th century, we experienced two world wars, wide-scale genocide and nuclear proliferation.  Culturally, philosophically and psychologically speaking, the first half of the century brought mankind face to face with never before experienced existential threats. As the century progressed the world witnessed an unprecedented global increase in knowledge.  With breakthroughs in every known scientific field and many previously unexplored realms, science and technology marched ever forward. The coming years were filled with the ever mounting tension between communism and capitalism in the form of the cold-war and a global race towards nuclear dominance. The planet became too small, and man ventured to the moon.  Communism fell when a wall tumbled.  We entered the age of computers and the internet.  And as the century closed, we sequenced the human genome.  Each step began to feel more like a leap.  With each leap, we made exponential gains in understanding the frailty of human existence.  

By the end of the century, technological revolution in terms of travel, communication and economics entrenched us in a period of globalization. Barriers between nations and cultures began to fall. Lines blurred and ideas of pluralism gained philosophical and religious ground; we became increasingly alienated from many ideas we once held to be true. From the catalysts of innovation and understanding such as relativity and genetic theory to dissociation from individual understanding such as the freudian subconscious, the marks of alienation have been painted across the landscape of the 20th Century.  As I look back, I can't help but think of Holden Caulfield standing in that too big world missing everyone.            

-- swm            

1 comment:

  1. Good post- lots to think about! I find this line especially intriguing:

    "With each leap, we made exponential gains in understanding the frailty of human existence."

    In the little that I've studied the first two Great Awakenings in America, I've come to see how frail the human existence was to them. It's interesting that you see the understanding of the frailty of human existence through all the (scientific/technological) progress that's been made in the latter half of the 20th century.