Saturday, February 6, 2010

Salinger, Alienation, Irony, and ?

This is almost a throw-away couple of paragraphs from Rick Salutin:

Catcher in the wry? What I found striking in the testimonials on How J.D. Salinger Changed My Life is the fact that most witnesses read The Catcher in the Rye for high- school or university classes. Novelist Andrew Pyper said his copy had “Grade 10D” scrawled inside. It was those “phony” adults in authority – i.e., teachers and profs – who glommed onto it and assigned it. What happens when the sense of alienation at the core of your authentic self results from being told to read a book that you're graded on? “Supervised alienation,” says a writer I know. Would they have even discovered the book left to their own devices? They'll never find out.

Back around the time that Holden Caulfield first appeared in print, the neo-Freudian Erik Erikson suggested that excessively early toilet training may have undermined the sense of control and autonomy among a generation of Americans, leading to paranoia about Communist subversives and alien invaders. What about the emergence of a pervasive ironic sense in a later age? Holden Caulfield wasn't ironic, he was desperately earnest. But could irony be the response of a generation that was prematurely alienated, as it were, from its own alienation?

This is almost amazingly good. Is it still true, as good old Frank magazine used to speculate, that Salutin is the highest-paid columnist at the Globe and Mail?

To greatly over-generalize: hippies teach Salinger's earnestness to the young--paradoxically, in a rigid classroom setting in which the hippies have secure government jobs, pension plans, the whole bourgeois works. This leaves a bit of a bad taste in the mouths of younger people, who react, one would say understandably, by trying to reject earnestness as such. Voila, irony.

Yglesias says people talk about Salinger more than other novelists because they read Salinger (really Catcher in the Rye) when they are impressionable and they actually read novels. Once you leave college/university, it is not easy to encounter people who actually read novels.

My thoughts: what books do bright young people discover on their own, with little or no prodding--maybe, even more deliciously, with some disapproval--from teachers? In my day, Ayn Rand, and possibly thanks to her, a little Nietzsche. Some of the Commie stuff would come and go, but it is notoriously heavy going. Maybe some C.S. Lewis.

More recently, I'm guessing Cormac McCarthy. I really have no intentions of reading him, but I guess it is kind of violence porn. As with Peckinpah in film, there is a debate: is this an attempt to go to such an extreme of violence that a sane audience must react by saying enough, we need law and order and decency? Or does it simply stimulate a thirst for still greater and more grotesque violence? Homer has plenty of gore, quite possibly as a crowd-pleaser, but ... I think he had other things on his mind as well, and the great question wasn't: can we still be basically nice people while we develop all this facility with guns, blades, etc.?

The Twilight series has surprised a lot of intellectuals. Harry Potter, of course, but what age group?

My son read lots of things in high school, both for class and not. He became quite absorbed in Michener's Space, and I think this helped inspire him to go into engineering. As well-meaning parents, one Christmas we got him some more Michener, but he wasn't interested. (I had a friend who knocked off several huge Michener novels, one after another). He got to know the whole Dune series quite well; I was absorbed with the first Dune when I was in high school.

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