Posts Tagged ‘literature’
Posted on April 18, 2010 - by David
A few weeks ago, the New York Times published an article on the “Next Big Thing” in English, discussing the growing movement of scholars looking to incorporate science, or more specifically, theories of evolutionary psychology, into the study of literature:
Jonathan Gottschall, who has written extensively about using evolutionary theory to explain fiction, said “it’s a new moment of hope” in an era when everyone is talking about “the death of the humanities.” To Mr. Gottschall a scientific approach can rescue literature departments from the malaise that has embraced them over the last decade and a half. Zealous enthusiasm for the politically charged and frequently arcane theories that energized departments in the 1970s, ’80s and early ’90s — Marxism, structuralism, psychoanalysis — has faded.
A student of literature myself, I was required on more than one occasion to read these ridiculous works of criticism and reference them in my own critical essays, so I can certainly feel Mr. Gottschall’s pain. But does rejecting the useless modes of interpretation that were popularized over the last few decades mean that Darwin becomes the authority on the modern novel?
At about 5 and half minutes in to this video, part 3 in a series of 6 interviewing scholars “on literature and science,” listening to Gottschall made it clear to me that some people in the humanities are pretty much fed up and ashamed of the failure of literary study to provide the kind of objective, enduring knowledge that science has been able to give us, and they feel it’s high time to start sharing in science’s success.
…the ideas of one generation of literary scholars can rarely survive the critique of the next generation of literary scholars, and it’s a very different model than what you find in the sciences, where again, in the sciences, they’re mostly wrong too, but there is also this slow accretion of information, knowledge, concepts, that most reasonable people have to admit are probably true, and so my hope is that we can retain the best aspects of our traditional modes and supplement them with new tools from the sciences.
Soon after the initial article was published, a debate titled ‘Can ‘Neuro Lit Crit’ Save the Humanities’ appeared on the New York Times website, with a number of authors and English professors contributing their opinions. There was nothing resembling unanimous agreement about the value of this new approach, but there was a general consensus that the humanities are suffering from a serious lack of funding and lack of interest. Without even considering the interaction of various social and institutional forces leading to this state of crisis in the humanities, I can say from experience that most people who don’t study literature (and plenty of us who do) are very skeptical about its usefulness. I remember this embarrassed, can’t-look-you-in-the-eyes-or-speak-clearly feeling that would wash over when someone asked me what I was studying and I had to admit that I was an English major. The response to my confession was usually, “so what do you wanna do, you wanna, like, be an English teacher?” and I would mumble something about wanting to write. What I wrote were poems, and a lot of my marginal work (i.e poems scribbled in the margins of the notebooks I was supposed to be filling with pertinent information from class) was dedicated to the frustration and disillusionment of studying literature.
So I can understand the element of personal crisis that leads a literary scholar to look for a more solid foundation to stand on. In last few minutes of the video posted above, Joseph Carroll describes how his frustration with the condition of literary scholarship drove him to a kind of intellectual breaking point:
“I need something more wholesome, more adequate, more coherent, closer to the truth, and then I went and read Darwin and I had a sort of cleansing vision of deep time, humans emerging out of millions of years of evolution, it just cut through all of the… intellectual confusion at superficial levels that prevailed in literary study, so I set about trying to reconstruct literary study… working from the ground up…using an evolutionary vision of human nature as the basis for reconstructing all the concepts that we need to understand literature”
So what does this kind of work actually look like?
One example is The Literary Animal: Evolution and the Nature of Narrative, a collection of essays from the evolutionary perspective published in 2005, with contributions from Gottschall and Carroll as well as several of the other authorities. I think this review, by Travis Landry of the University of Washington, published in Evolutionary Psychology, (an obviously friendly audience), is telling:
On the heels of these dueling forewords [by E.O. Wilson and Frederick Crews] comes the editors’ anecdotal introduction, highlighted by a rather unremarkable recounting of the misunderstood Darwinian graduate student, Jonathan Gottschall (“Jon’s Story”), who finally meets his open-minded, maverick mentor, David Sloan Wilson (“David’s Story”). They state the collection’s three guiding questions: What is literature about? What is literature for? What does it mean to apply a scientific perspective like evolutionary theory to a non-scientific subject like literary studies? An attempt to resolve these queries begins with part one, “Evolution and Literary Theory.” This section aims “to grapple with some of the problems and opportunities presented by the collapse of the constructivist foundations of contemporary literary theory” (4). Perhaps someone should tell the constructivists (apparently all literary critics who are not naturalists) about this “collapse.” In any event, the editors are quick to qualify: “a more restrained version of social constructivism is fully compatible with the emerging evolutionary models of human nature” (4). Such disclaimers, grounded in the reassurance that “the nature-nurture dichotomy is a false one” (4), represent a recurrent strategy used throughout The Literary Animal to ease imagined misgivings about takeover, but they do little to temper an all too often pedantic tone and the unmistakable, unapologetic imbalance of power, evident each time it boils down to which side holds the knowledge key.
While Landry does find some things to praise in The Literary Animal, he’s clearly turned off by the air of superiority running throughout the work, and he restates this criticism in the final paragraph of his review:
There is little doubt that this text contains enough quality ideas to merit an attentive read, and its intended public, both in the humanities and the sciences, should take advantage of this resource in order to become better informed about a legitimate discourse that does not seem likely to fade away anytime soon. Nonetheless, one repeatedly gets the sense that these naturalist critics would be better served without their ‘us against the world’ mentality. The empirical chest thumping and emblazoned rhetoric that permeate this work quickly wear thin and may ultimately alienate the very literary critics these scholars hope to convert. In the final analysis, greater humility and a more respectful voice are certain to be more persuasive and will ultimately allow the interpretive fruits of this evolutionary enterprise, which is strong enough to stand on its own, to do the talking.
Landry, I’m afraid, misses the point. All the talk about an evolutionary perspective complementing existing approaches, about taking both culture, (whatever they mean when they use that word), and biology into account seems to amount to little more than a strategy of temporary appeasement before the final takeover. If that sounds paranoid or harsh, consider what Joseph Carroll has to say about the brand new journal, the Evolutionary Review, of which he is a founding member and co-editor:
…the aim of the journal is to give evidence that evolutionary perspective, “this view of life,” one of Darwin’s phrases, is adequate to encompass every aspect of human concern…
…the idea is that the evolutionary perspective is an ultimate, encompassing, final, absolute, total perspective… this is what makes people most nervous outside the field… you start talking about thousand year reich, you know, and you think “well you’ve got global, imperialist ambitions intellectually,” and it’s true [chuckles], it’s absolutely true… there’s a wager, the wager is that the evolutionary perspective is adequate… as the central linking conceptual framework that forms a genuine scientifically established foundation of knowledge for everything in the social sciences and the humanities, we think that’s true…
This attitude renders empty all their talk about “consilience” and “emergent properties” (see pt. 4 of the “on literature and science” series). In short, culture is seen as determined rather than constrained by biology. It’s difficult for me to understand how the theory of evolution and ideas about the behavior of stone-age man are adequate for understanding the humanities, which Joseph Carroll himself calls “the highest level of emerging complexity.”
William Deresiewicz, in an essay called ‘Adaptation: on Literary Darwinism’ published in The Nation last year, gives a strong critique of this movement, providing good background on the history and nature of its goals, and summarizes the dismal state of affairs which allowed the evolutionary perspective to enter the discussion. By touching on the work of a number of the prominent figures in this emerging field, Deresiewicz is able to address some of the most glaring problems with the evolutionary psychological approach. It’s definitely worth reading; I can say that he states some of my own criticisms in more detail and in better context than I am able to do here. Towards the end of the essay, he gets to what is, as far as literary scholarship is concerned, perhaps the most important point:
Seeking to displace Theory, literary Darwinism may end by becoming it. Each is reductive. Each leads in outlandish directions that make sense only to initiates. Each has a penchant for hero worship. (For Dutton, the father of natural selection is not “Darwin,” but “Darwin himself.” Carroll makes a trinity of Darwin, Wilson and Pinker.) Each is predictable. If Marxist criticism is always about the rise of the bourgeoisie, literary Darwinism is always about mate selection or status competition. Each looks to literature only for confirmation of its beliefs. Shakespeare, it turns out, agrees with Darwin, as he once agreed with Freud and Frye. (Though if science is the exclusive standard of truth for the Darwinists, it’s not clear why it matters whom Shakespeare agrees with.) Authors who won’t get with the program–who don’t deal with mate selection or status competition, or refuse to solicit our attention in evolutionarily correct ways–are demoted in rank. (Darwinian aesthetics exhibits a strong antimodernist animus, as if it were unnatural to prefer Conrad to Kipling, or Rothko to Rockwell.) That so many of the greatest works of literary art–the Iliad, the Aeneid, the Divine Comedy, Don Quixote, Hamlet, King Lear, Paradise Lost, Faust, Moby-Dick, the novels of Dostoyevsky, Joyce, Woolf and Coetzee–are ultimately concerned not with mate selection or status competition, however seriously they might consider such matters, but with the human place in the cosmos; that such a commitment is precisely what begins to distinguish these works from the kinds of things that are better studied with polling data and cheek swabs; that the finest books demand a criticism that attends to what makes them unique, not what makes them typical: these are not possibilities that literary Darwinism envisions.
From what I can see, evolutionary psychology used in the study of literature functions in essentially the same way as the theories which Carroll and Gottschall are so critical of. It is just another game for clever people to play, but the authority of the name ‘Darwin’ and the use of buzz-words like “selection” “adaptation” and “fitness” create the illusion that this is somehow a more empirical, ‘scientific’ approach.
In part 2 of the series, Philip Kitcher, philosophy professor from Columbia, criticizes the general and haphazard way in which a few pieces of evolutionary theory get applied to humans:
“It always amazes me the ease with which people who have spent years of their lives as it might be working on some other organism, social insects for example, very well studied, E.O Wilson has an amazingly deep and detailed knowledge of the behavior of social insects, people think “well you know I’ve done social insects and now it’s just a matter of applying the same principles to human beings,” but you know we aren’t actually that similar to the social insects, there are quite a lot of differences and those need to be taken into account…”
I’m obviously very skeptical not only of this approach to literature, but of evolutionary psychology in general. If biology studies life, and physics studies the laws governing the physical world, what does evolutionary psychology study? It can’t study so-called “evolutionary man,” because he’s not around for us to talk to, nor has he left records by which we can know him. Furthermore, the assumption that the human mind is a product of evolution over millions, or at least hundreds of thousands of years means that historical comparison over the past few thousand years probably won’t tell us much. What emerges then is a universalistic view of the mind which looks at the complex, diverse, symbolic behavior of human individuals and societies and tries to pinpoint the more basic, animalistic drives that are working underneath to determine the behavior. Under the multitude of dramatically different cultures, they find a set of motives/traits common to all man, destroying the possibility of a culture possessing its own internal logic that may not have developed towards “evolutionary fitness.”
As I said earlier, the occasional reassurances that they are not trying to replace or override discussion of culture, but to complement it, seem pretty hollow. When they use the word culture, they are talking about the shared practices of a particular society, not the general symbolic process of culture, Culture with a capital C, if you will. If there is no accounting for the appearance of particular cultures other than as products of biological evolution, as adaptations to specific physical environments (i.e no theory of culture as an emergent phenomenon, something more than biology) then obviously Culture as such is reduced to evolution/genetics/the functioning of the brain, and with such a view, there is in fact no reason that evolutionary psychology should defer to, or even consider, any other approach to the humanities.
My own approach to literature changed when I began to study with Liah Greenfeld in 2004, as a sophomore English major at Boston University. Those of you who have been reading this blog are hopefully becoming acquainted with her work. The following is a very brief summary of some of the fundamental principles of her view which lead me to reject the position of evolutionary psychology.
- Humans lack a genetically given order necessary for survival
- We derive this order from society
- Society is structured symbolically, on the basis of culture– the process of symbolic transmission of human ways of life across generations .
- This symbolic process occurs simultaneously on the individual and collective levels, with individual human minds as the only the active elements of culture.
- Culture is an emergent phenomenon and a reality sui generis. As Greenfeld writes, “the neural processes by means of which the cultural process occurs serve only as boundary conditions outside of which it cannot occur, but are powerless to shape the nature and direction of the cultural process.”
True ‘consilience’ would take full account of the emergent nature of culture. As the characteristic which distinguishes humanity from all other forms of life, culture is the proper subject for the empirical study of humanity in all its aspects, and it is precisely such a science that Greenfeld is attempting to establish. Up until now, her published work has dealt most directly with modern culture, but her forthcoming book seeks to establish the theoretical groundwork and philosophical justification for the empirical study of humanity, while examining a particular phenomenon which she believes is culturally caused, (mental illness).
I think it’s evident to anyone who watches those videos that there is a highly personal aspect to the work these people are doing. Like myself, I bet they entered college with a passion for literature and a notion that they were embarking on a quest for deep truths – that they would, in fact, learn something about human nature. But the humanities, as an institution, could not live up to our hopes. So, Carroll and Gottschall and the rest of them turned to science, and it’s easy enough to see why. Science enjoys a privileged place in modern society, and though part of this can be explained culturally and historically, (Greenfeld has written extensively about the emergence of science as a social institution in 17th century England), the fact remains that science has given as more objective knowledge of reality than any other method of inquiry. In ‘Literature and Science as Social Institutions,’ Greenfeld writes, “However indirect and imperfectly systematic and effective, science, one has to conclude in all fairness, is the most direct, systematic, and effective way to objective, valid empirical knowledge available to mankind.” The thing is, evolutionary psychology is not science. It is a set of theories (and not a particularly coherent one) that some people are using to understand the world around them, in effect, to provide the mental order that nature neglected to encode in our genes. For me, it is not a satisfying view of the world. It does not help me understand the society I live in, it does not explain why I think the way I do, it does not ring true with my experience. Science, at its most basic, is a method, and when a particular science is developed and equipped to study specific aspect of empirical reality, valid and valuable knowledge can be gained. Because culture does not constitute merely a more complex level of a biologically given nature, but a qualitatively distinct layer of reality, a new science is called for. With the construction of the ‘New Humanities,’ these scholars literally want to take us back to the Stone Age. My goal is to help build the alternative.
These thoughts are being developed into a longer piece comparing evolutionary psychology to mentalism – the name given to the theory Liah Greenfeld has developed, to be presented at a student conference at Boston University on May 1, 2010. Details will be posted soon.
Posted on March 12, 2010 - by David
A few weeks ago, I attended a ‘Socratic Conversation’ at Boston University with Karen Siegemund, where we discussed her PhD dissertation, ‘At Least they Read,’ a detailed examination of the trends in the rapidly-expanding category of young adult literature.
Siegemund’s academic and professional expertise is extremely broad. Currently a lecturer in the Math Department at UMass Dartmouth, she also spent six years teaching middle school, and before that, worked for 18 years a scientist in the defense industry, logging over 200 days at sea aboard U.S and foreign civilian and navy vessels doing research and testing on underwater acoustics. She holds a BA in Applied Mathematics, a MA in International Relations, and a PhD in Education and American Culture. But perhaps most importantly for this subject, she is the mother of two teenage daughters.
You Are What You Read
In her introduction to the topic, Siegemund spoke of her own childhood, emphasizing the empowering message she received from her parents – that she was capable of accomplishing anything that she set her mind to. She also reflected on the importance of reading in constructing her identity. As a teenager, she read many of the modern staples- Dostoyevski, Dickens, Austen, the Brontes, through the twentieth century to Hemingway and Fitzgerald – but she also adored Nancy Drew. The characters became her friends and their trials became roadmaps for navigating an increasingly complicated and sometimes frightening world. Plus, it was fun. Looking back at the years following high school, she is able to say with pride that she fought hard to achieve success, and in a scientific niche that was pretty much closed to women for a long time. Now, she tries to share the same message she was given as a child with her daughters, as well as foster a love of reading. But in the process of trying to find new books for her daughters to read, she was disturbed not only by what is being published, but what librarians and bookstores are recommending. While the Nancy Drew series may not represent the pinnacle of literary achievement, Siegemund points out that these books at least give young girls a strong heroine to look up to – (the wikipedia entry has a pretty impressive list of women who cite Nancy as a major influence in their lives). But today’s most popular books, she worries, are offering models of behavior and identity that range from mediocre to horrendous.
Siegemund sees a conflict between the idea of reading as merely a necessary skill and the idea that the content of a book contributes to the content of one’s mind. She sums up her own position with the simple phrase, “you are what you read.” It seems that for a long time, this view was considered commonsense. She included this quote from T.S Eliot’s ‘Religion and Literature’ in her presentation:
The author of a work of imagination is trying to affect us wholly, as human beings, whether he knows it or not; and we are affected by it, as human beings, whether we intend to be or not. I suppose that everything we eat has some other effect upon us than merely the pleasure of taste and mastication; it affects us during the process of assimilation and digestion; and I believe that exactly the same is true of anything we read.
Vanity, Vapidity, and Victimization
Probably the most visible example of this new young adult literature is the “Gossip Girl” series, which was adapted for TV in 2007 and is currently in its third season. “Gossip Girl” was the first of several series like it to document the lives of ridiculously wealthy teenagers as they jockey for social position in their prep schools, and, well, have sex with each other. In a 2006 New York Times article, Naomi Wolfe took three of these series (“Gossip Girl” “A-List” and “Clique”) to task. Though she’s obviously critical of the pornographic element in these books, it’s not her biggest qualm:
And while the tacky sex scenes in them are annoying, they aren’t really the problem. The problem is a value system in which meanness rules, parents check out, conformity is everything and stressed-out adult values are presumed to be meaningful to teenagers.
In Karen Siegemund’s talk, the loss of the heroine of earlier modern fiction, who defied norms, persevered, and overcame adversity, emerges as one of young adult literature’s biggest faults. Naomi Wolfe, in her analysis of one of the “Clique” novels, makes a similar observation:
In the classic tradition of young adult fiction, Massie would be the villain, and Claire, the newcomer who first appears as an L.B.R., or “Loser Beyond Repair,” would be the heroine: she is the one girl with spunk, curiosity and age-appropriate preoccupations. Claire and her family live in the guesthouse of the wealthy Block family; Claire’s mother is friends with Massie’s mother, but her father seems to be employed by Massie’s father in an uneasily dependent relationship. In Jane Austen or Charlotte Brontë, that economic dependency on the “great house” would signal that the heroine stands in opposition to the values of that mansion. Yet Claire’s whole journey, in class terms, is to gravitate into the mansion. She abandons her world of innocence and integrity — in which children respect parents, are honest and like candy — to embrace her eventual success as one of the school’s elite, lying to and manipulating parents, having contempt for teachers and humiliating social rivals.
Of course, there are other young adult novels which attempt to treat issues more seriously, but even in these, the ideal female has the same body as the spoiled heroines of “Gossip Girl.” In an article titled ‘ “Meant to Be Huge”: Obesity and Body Image in Young Adult Novels,’ Catherine Quick applauds the fact that obesity is now visible in many young adult novels (apparently it wasn’t a decade ago), but complains that “thin is still represented as the absolute ideal for body image, and the fat person, although willing to accept fat as integral to identity, undoubtedly prefers thin. Fat is still viewed as a decidedly negative body type.” Quick looks at several novels, and finds that only a few offer examples of true self-acceptance:
A truly positive self-image, however, means embracing the so-called negative qualities wholeheartedly, seeing them not as a negative to be accepted and dealt with, but as a positive asset, the essence of an identity. While the other protagonists simply accept their abnormality and move on, Myrtle and Troy embrace it. They come to see their bodies as a legitimate form of beauty, perhaps an “alternative body style” that should be recognized more readily in the thin-obsessed world.
But even Catherine Quick’s message of “true self-acceptance” keeps the body as the source of identity. In other words, embracing one’s body is equivalent to embracing one’s true self. In reality, embracing a body-image that society disapproves of will probably be extremely difficult for most girls. Perhaps changing the message about what kind of body is ideal is less important than shifting the focus away from the body and on to other ways in which girls can define themselves.
Another trend Siegemund noticed in her reading was how commonly females are cast in the role of the helpless victim. Many of today’s young adult novels deal with sensitive issues like rape and abuse which were off-limits not too long ago. It’s not the depiction of these things that bothers her, but the fact that we don’t see any of the victims “rising up”; they don’t take action themselves but saved through the intervention of an outsider. The question becomes, what good is a story that puts a difficult subject on display if there is no message of empowerment for the reader to find?
At Least They Read
Siegemund is not so much concerned that these books are being written and published, but that they are being endorsed by many librarians and teachers. She recognizes that teens will probably always gravitate towards literature they see as “forbidden fruit,” and doesn’t believe this exploration is necessarily damaging. But when this formerly forbidden material receives an official stamp of approval, it sends a much different message.
One school librarian, Philip Charles Crawford, wrote an article in the Horn Book Magazine two years ago, advocating for whatever gets kids to read. “For me, it doesn’t really matter what they are reading. I don’t measure success by the types of books kids choose, only by the growing number of my students who actively choose to read. And high-appeal books like Gossip Girl have the potential to captivate resistant readers … and, possibly, help transform them into lifelong readers.”
In an article on ‘Racy Reading’ from 2005, Pam Spencer Holley, former president of the Young Adult Library Services Association, sounded off as another member of the “At Least They Read” club:
“Unless you read stuff that’s perhaps not the most literary, you’ll never understand what good works are,” says Holley. “But when you get them hooked on reading, then you can lead them so many other places, as far as books go.”
There’s obviously an awareness that reading today has to compete with TV, internet, and video games as entertainment, and it’s logical to want to make the literature as relevant and accessible as possible. But Holley’s argument is kind of a sad one. What about showing them a world that isn’t quite theirs historically and culturally, but where the characters still deal with many of the same concerns: love, ambition, loss, discrimination, etc. Won’t this make them more subtle and sophisticated readers and people? Is there anything to demonstrate that young readers of YAL do move on to other stuff? If kids aren’t convinced early on that it’s worth it to put a little work into reading, will they ever read anything that is remotely difficult?
While listening to Karen talk, I thought back to the reading I did in high school (1999-2003), and found that off the top of my head, I couldn’t name a single book I was assigned to read that had a female protagonist. With a little concentration, I was able to recall reading To Kill a Mockingbird, and I’m sure there were others with important female characters, but I can say with confidence that the majority of the books we read were centered around the lives of male protagonists. This led me to pose a question: did this burgeoning genre of young adult literature fill some vacuum that young female readers felt when they read stories focused on the opposite sex? I mean, I had Catcher in the Rye’s Holden Caulfield and The Great Gatsby’s Nick Carraway, and even separated by thousands of miles and a century and a half, I could still connect to Raskolnikov. Who did the girls have? The response surprised me a little. Siegemund and the other women in the room (mostly in their mid-twenties) told me they had connected to many of the same male characters that I had. The thought that only a female protagonist could teach them about their place in the world seems to have never crossed their minds. I told my sister, (an avid reader since childhood who is currently working on her Master’s at Columbia), about this experience, and she said she had never felt that the gender of the protagonist was an obstacle for her either. Now I obviously haven’t conducted an extensive survey, and my sample was small and hardly representative; all of my impromptu subjects were well educated and came from environments in which childhood reading was encouraged. But, if these few women, each successful in her own right, have all made lasting connections to characters of both genders, from various nations and historical periods, maybe this can teach us something about the flaws of the current trends. Perhaps by calling more attention to “gender issues” and creating a special body of literature primarily for girls, we are actually taking a step backwards from where feminists were originally trying to go. I’m not saying that girls and boys face exactly the same challenges, or that young adult literature shouldn’t deal with controversial subject matter. But if females are defined first and foremost by their bodies, if their identity crises are usually played out in sexual dramas, if they are shown to be catty, untrustworthy, and uncooperative, or as helpless victims, if their success is measured by the man or the handbag on their arm, if we focus on the fundamental differences between the genders, how will that help us arrive at the goal of real equality? How will that help girls develop true confidence and self-respect?
Posted on January 29, 2010 - by David
Not sure what to say, other than that he wrote probably the most culturally significant story of adolescent identity crisis and isolation in 20th century American literature. The following is a paper I wrote in 2005 for my Modern American Novel class as a junior at Boston University. It reads like, well, like a college paper I guess. Hopefully it’s not too long or boring.
What “Happened” to Holden and What Should He Do?
When Holden tries to talk to one of his cabbies about what happens to the ducks during the winter, the cabby points to the fish. “If you was a fish, Mother Nature’d take care of you, wouldn’t she? Right? You don’t think them fish just die when it gets to be winter, do ya?” (83) But Holden is not a fish, and the mother that nature happened to provide him with is still mourning his little brother, who did “just die.” His basic needs are provided for, but his deeper emotional needs, many of which are tied to Allie’s death, are left in his own hands. He is expected to figure out what he wants to do with his life, but all his possible role models, from his own father to his teachers and classmates, fall short, each seeming in some way “phony.” Of course, the hormones in his brain only complicate the situation. This combination of elements leads finally to his mental collapse, which is still not severe enough to protect his mind from the question of what he is going to do. This question that the book leaves the reader with is, in Holden’s opinion, stupid. “I mean, how do you know what you’re going to do till you do it? The answer is you don’t” (213). This is the way he seems to live his life, unaware and uncertain of each move until it is already made – a disorienting sensation that teens today can still identify with.
Holden’s view of himself as a somewhat passive actor is made subtly apparent in the book’s first paragraph when he says he’s going to tell the reader about “this madman stuff that happened to me around last Christmas just before I got pretty run down and had to come out here and take it easy” (1). Using the word “happened” doesn’t seem to be an excuse for anything he did, but since he often acts on impulses he can’t explain or understand, and his mind is in such turbulence, the sensation he has is not of doing things, but of things happening. He doesn’t sense his thoughts or feelings until they are almost full-blown and they slam into his mind “all of a sudden.” After talking to Stradlater for a bit about his upcoming date with Jane Gallagher, and already displaying plenty of nervous and excited behavior, Holden says, “I was getting sort of nervous, all of a sudden” (34). Later that night, he goes into Ackley’s room, obviously looking for some company. Still, he says, “I felt so lonesome, all of a sudden. I almost wished I was dead” (48). The reader sees the feelings starting to develop before Holden takes notice of them, so when he finally becomes aware of himself, he feels things hit him “all of a sudden.”
While describing things in this way may downplay his own role as an actor, there are other things that really do “happen” to him that have a great effect on his life. The most important that “happens,” the death of his brother Allie, occurs when he is only 13. The mark this has left on Holden’s mind is clear, and he remembers his reaction every time he tries to make a fist out of his once-broken hand. Referring to smashing windows when Allie died, Holden says, “I hardly didn’t even know I was doing it.” The reader sees how highly Allie figures into Holden’s psychological issues when “all of a sudden, something spooky started happening” on his way up 5th Avenue (197). As he crosses the seemingly endless vacuum of the street, he calls out to his brother, saying “Allie, don’t let me disappear.” Allie’s death, an incomprehensible tragedy, seems to have established in Holden the distinct sense of lacking control.
Jane, one of the few bright spots in Holden’s life, comes along only by chance, when her dog “relieved himself” on the Caulfield’s lawn and the happen to become friends. He “happens” to be around one afternoon when she lets a tear drop and he is able to console her. While he never even “necked her,” he cherished holding her hand, and recalls her touching the back of his neck more fondly than any experience with another girl. Her importance is solidified when Holden tells the reader, “she was the only one, outside my family, who I ever showed Allie’s baseball mitt to, the one with the poems written on it” (77).
Unfortunately for Holden’s mental stability, Stradlater, of all people, happens to get a date with her. Even though Holden says he knows Jane would never even let Stradlater get to first base, the mere thought of the two of them in the back of Ed Banky’s car is too much. While the two are out, Holden writes his essay about Allie’s baseball mitt, and when Stradlater returns, he looks at it and criticizes Holden for doing things “backasswards.” In a way Stradlater threatens to profane both Jane and Allie, and Holden reacts. In his first observable outburst, Holden swings at Stradlater, aiming for the toothbrush in his mouth “so it would split his goddam throat open” (43). For Holden, the whole Stradlater-Jane issue is a major crisis because of what Stradlater represents. Stradlater is older, more athletic, and one of the few guys Holden knows who has actually had sex. While Holden may envy him for some of this, he also hates him for it. Stradlater is a reminder of what he lacks, while remaining the kind of phony person Holden doesn’t want to be.
Obviously, underlying the whole issue is Holden’s anxiety about sex. He is a normal 16 year-old male with an ever increasing sex drive he can barely comprehend. “In my mind,” Holden says, “I’m probably the biggest sex maniac you ever saw,” but he finally confesses that he is actually still a virgin (62). “I’ve had quite a few opportunities to lose my virgininty and all, but I’ve never got around to it yet. Something always happens” (92). The only thing that “happens” is that Holden keeps stopping when he’s told. “I don’t know. They tell me to stop, so I stop” (92). Holden sees this stopping, which could be seen as an emblem of his respectful sensitivity, as his real problem. Why is it a problem? Because “most guys don’t” (92). Here, both social expectations and his sex drive are in conflict with his sensitivity, so he condemns himself for his good manners.
With all this weighing on his mind, it’s no wonder that Holden bolts from Pencey in the middle of the night. “All of a sudden, I decided what I’d really do, I’d get the hell out of Pencey – right that same night and all” (51). He needs a vacation, he says, because “my nerves were shot. They really were”(51). He may be running away from the ‘phonies’ at Pencey and the thought of Stradlater with Jane, but he’s also running from the fact that he has again let his parents down by failing out of another school because he didn’t apply himself. Clearly, there are expectations that he will at least try hard to do well in school, but what he is supposed to do after that isn’t so clear. What does Holden want to do? Well, he doesn’t want to be a phony, and most of the men he could possibly look up to seem to be phony in varying degree.
Mr. Spencer, who seems more like a relic than a phony, points out Holden’s academic failures and criticizes his lack of ambition. Trying to draw out some kind of thoughtful response, and perhaps trying to make him feel guilty, Spencer asks Holden, “Do you feel absolutely no concern for your future, boy?” (14) But right in front of Holden is Mr. Spencer, in “his sad old bathrobe with his chest showing, and that grippy smell of Vicks Nose Drops all over the place,” which is hardly an encouraging picture of the future (15). Whatever concern Mr. Spencer may have had for his own future, he, like everyone, is unable to prevent his own physical deterioration.
The next possible role model Holden encounters is Carl Luce, his former student advisor who Holden primarily remembers for presiding over “sex talks” and causing flit-paranoia. Luce is supposed to be an intellectual, but he refuses to give Holden advice or have any kind of serious conversation. Then when Holden reverts to sex talk, Luce protests the “typical Caulfield conversation,” which he, as Holden’s primary sex-educator, is largely responsible for. Holden asks about one of Luce’s girls, and Luce says he has no clue, she might as well be “the whore of New Hampshire.” Holden, in contrast defends the girls honor a bit. Luce talks about maturity and Holden’s lack of it, while hypocritically displaying some of the very attitudes he criticizes Holden for. The trouble is, Holden already had the general feeling that Luce was “ a fat-assed phony,” but he still looks to the phony for guidance because he has nowhere else to turn (137).
Perhaps the most obvious person for Holden to look up to, his father, is almost completely absent from the story. On the first page he reveals that his father is touchy so he won’t be saying a lot of personal stuff. The only real mention comes when Phoebe finds out that Holden failed out again and she tells him repeatedly, “Daddy’s going to kill you” (172). She tries to get him to say something he’d like to do, and suggests, “a lawyer – like Daddy and all” (172). He shows his distaste for the idea of his father’s profession, and his words suggests he doesn’t even know his father well enough to say if he is a decent guy or a giant phony. He describes the life of a lawyer saying, “all you do is make a lot of dough and play golf and play bridge and buy cars and drink martinis and look like a hot-shot” (172). Holden sees that even a lawyer who is “saving guys’ lives” might be doing the right thing for the wrong reasons. But more important than his skepticism about his father’s profession is the lack of emotional bond between them. When Phoebe first says “Daddy’ll kill you,” Holden doesn’t seem too concerned. “The worst he’ll do, he’ll give me hell again and then he’ll send me to that goddam military school” (166). The fact that he says ‘give me hell again’ shows that they’ve been through this before. We see his father’s expectations, but not love for his son. The threat of military school feels empty to Holden because his father has in a way already relegated his duty to numerous boarding schools.
The last person Holden has to turn to is Mr. Antolini. He’s set apart from the other male figures Holden has encountered because “you could tell he was interested” in what’s going on with Holden (183). Antolini seems particularly perceptive, describing several possible versions of a “terrible fall” he sees Holden heading towards. He explains this kind of fall as happening to:
Men, who at some time or other in their lives, were looking for something their own environment couldn’t supply them with. Or they thought their own environment couldn’t supply them with. So they gave up looking. They gave it up before they ever really even got started (187).
He tells Holden he needs to find out what he wants to do. “You can’t afford to lose a minute. Not you” (188). He says that once Holden learns to apply himself and get past the Mr. Vinson’s, he will find “the kind of information that will be very, very dear to your heart,” and he’ll see he is “not the first person ever confused or frightened or even sickened by human behavior” (189).
While this sounds like good advice, if the reader pays attention to context, much of the value seems to be taken out of Mr. Antolini’s words. It’s so urgent that Holden start going somewhere, yet where has Antolini gone? He sits on the couch drunk in his bathrobe and slippers downing highball after highball, forcing the reader to question what use academic knowledge has actually served in his life since it appears he needs to drink to get by. Of course, Mr. Antolini is a teacher, and he is also drunk, so it makes sense that he is ranting about the importance of education, but what Holden really needs at this moment in the story is not an inspiring lecture but some sleep, and Antolini is so involved in his own that it takes him a while to realize this.
Obviously, both the reader and Holden are startled when he awakens to find Mr. Antolini looking down on him and patting his head, and Holden hurries out of there. He debates what this display of affection may have meant, thinking, “even if he was a flit, he certainly’d been very nice to me” (195) Between his relationship with his wife and his interaction with Holden, there is evidence to suspect that Antolini may be a homosexual. Even if this makes him a ‘phony’ for trying to cover up part of his identity, he is kind and seems well-intentioned, overzealous as he might be. This is perhaps Holden’s chance to realize that he lives in a world where growing up may mean becoming phonier. Essentially, children imitate and follow after adults into adolescence, until they choose a role for themselves and then play it out, like the phony actors he says he hates so much. If he is to survive, he must recognize this reality, as well as realize his own phoniness which can be seen in the lies he tells and his attempts to appear older than he is. He must seem that some degree of phoniness is inevitable in social interaction.
It’s tough to say whether this book carries any redemptive message. The fact that Holden misses the people and places he leaves behind – even people like Ackley, Stradlater, and Maurice the pimp – suggests that he may be learning to simply value life for what it is. Still, the overall picture of adulthood in modern American society is a rather bleak one. It seems that he may be able to embrace life in the near future, but there still looms the possibility of a more severe mental collapse, or perhaps even worse, the life-long struggle to find that indefinable thing he thinks he’s looking for. What Holden and his young readers need to figure out is not “What am I going to do?” but “How should I deal with what has happened?” What the reader should hope for Holden is not that he applies himself next fall, or that he one day accomplishes something great, but that he just learns how to survive without such mental anguish and without having to isolate himself. Holden’s story may not provide much helpful advice, but as long as there are adolescents who feel pressured to fulfill some yet undefined roles, to go somewhere and be somebody while also feeling like they’re barely controlling what goes on in their bodies, minds, and lives, then this story will resonate with its readers. Perhaps, like Mr. Antolini said, the record of someone else’s troubles is enough to keep one from feeling completely alone.