Amsterdam, The Netherlands
2 June, 2003
I was just looking at HH Satsvarupa Maharaja's My Search Through Books. In Chapter 5 he reminisces about J. D. Salinger's Catcher in the Rye. If I am not mistaken, this book was first published in the year of my birth, 1950. Catcher in the Rye is a perennial favorite among American high school students. Satsvarupa Maharaja, writing about the main character, Holden Caulfield, states, "I would say that every devotee ought to aspire to be as honest and loving as Holden. We could use more Holdens in the world. I haven't renounced my affection for Catcher in the Rye. I think it is a wonderful book and J. D. Salinger must have received Krsna's mercy to write it. He must have been very sincere in his desires. " I never opened Catcher in the Rye before I became a devotee. The reason, I suppose, was that it was a book that every American kid read when they turned sixteen or seventeen. I didn't much care for doing the same thing all the other kids did. Perhaps in that way I was like Holden myself. About a year ago I picked up a Progress paperback edition of Catcher in the Rye. It might have been during a visit to Prague. Progress was a Soviet publishing house that printed literary works from around the world, in their original languages. It appears that Progress chose the works of Western authors that depicted the dark side of life in capitalist countries. Anyway, when I sat down with the Progress edition of Catcher in the Rye, it was the first time I'd ever read the book. It's a very engaging read. After a few pages I was hooked. I finished the whole book in just one day. But I got a rather different impression of Holden Caulfield than did Satsvarupa Maharaja. Holden seemed a very unhappy individual, alienated from the world around him to the point of borderline insanity. Indeed, at the end of the novel Holden is put into a mental institution. He's somewhat of a "beat" character. The Beats felt themselves beaten down by society; they didn't fit in, and they thought it was a "cool" inner adventure to be diagnosed insane and locked up in a psycho ward. A fledgling idealist, Holden sees no place in a materialistic society to spread his wings. But I wouldn't agree with Maharaja that he was very loving and very honest. To me he seemed selfish in a petty, juvenile way. It's true that many young people from a pampered middle-class background are in the same emotionally deprived boat. So Holden, though selfish, is not unsympathetic. You feel sorry for him. It is furthermore true that he does cherish a romantic notion to save others, especially other young people. But he can't even save himself. And that's the core of his dishonesty. To be honest with yourself you have to be a little clear as to your actual position in life. Perhaps it is too harsh to rate Holden as consciously dishonest; but he is certainly too confused to see where he is really at. No later than quarter of the way through the book, he should have realized he had drifted into psychological and emotional storm waters. But instead he just carries on following his increasingly ridiculous mental whims. Finally he cracks up. His "loving" nature? It seems to me whatever love he has is morbidly fixated on his younger sister Phoebe. Apart from that, my reading was that he really doesn't care much about anyone else. . . well, okay, maybe he cares about the ducks in the Central Park pond, about what happens to them in the winter. And there's some vague caring for unfortunate young folks like himself. But that's rather abstact. He certainly doesn't care for his friends at school. He doesn't care for his parents. And regarding his attachment for his sister, it is hard to say for sure, but there is a suggestion of something incestuous there. It does not seem normal. About half way through the novel Holden hires a good-looking prostitute his same age, 18 years old. But he's a virgin as well as an idealist, so it turns out he is captivated by the mere idea of being with her. He uses up his allotted time just trying to talk to her. That is more intimacy than she, bored and jaded as she is, is willing to give. But still he has to pay. In 1950, this scene with the tart might have been a bit of a shocker to some people: "A woman so young already doing that?" But eight years before, Philip Wylie wrote in Generation of Vipers about what American girls much younger than this one were up to as troops were mustered at military bases across the nation at the start of World War Two.
Police began to notice, also, a curious phenomenon; late at night, and on into the early hours of the morning, swarms of school girls, some as young as twelve, were seen skulking about the edges of public parks. It was soon found that these children were prostituting themselves in large numbers to the soldiers and sailors--for very small sums of money.
Reading Salinger and Wylie now, it's fascinating to realize that the moral
and psychological fiber of young people was not any better in the "good
old days" fifty, sixty years ago. The difference is that today, degredation
is more openly celebrated. If you're a young man who can somewhat articulate
his psychosis, you start a rock band. If you're a young woman who can find
nothing better to do with your life than to market your naked body, never mind
skulking around public parks risking AIDS. There's the Internet for you.
No, I'm not telling you, "Every devotee ought to aspire to be as honest
and loving as Holden. We could use more Holdens in the world. " My
plea would be, "Every Holden ought to aspire to be a devotee. We could
use more devotees in the world. " There are surely enough Holdens out
there: misguided idealists, maybe suicidal, maybe even murderous. The young
man who shot John Lennon did so in the name of Holden Caulfield. He was a great
"devotee" of Salinger's book, and he believed that were Holden alive
today, he would kill Lennon for being such a phoney.
The young Saudi Arabians who flew the airliners into New York's World Trade
Center probably never heard of Holden Caulfield. Yet they were nothing
else than frustrated-idealistic youth in an extremist Islamic
mold. Even in the West, from the Fifties through the Nineties, we saw alientated youth mutate from Beats to hippies to ecological revolutionaries, from New Left radicals who demonstrated with signs to violent anarchists who exploded bombs, from rowdy drunken skinheads to brutal neo-Nazis. The trend gets uglier as Kali-yuga gets worse. I pray that Srila Prabhupada's mercy may penetrate the hearts of all the world's confused youth.