Monday, February 18, 2008

Literature and Music

Fifty some years ago, "The Catcher in the Rye" was published. I was still living at home and got it out of the library. I loved it. It reminded me of a boy I had dated in college, and even though I was about to be married to John Burnell, I dashed off a letter to that boy to tell him how much Holden Caulfield reminded me of him. I never received a reply and none was expected. I have no idea what ever became of my Holden and I assume he joined the establishment like almost everyone in the 50s. At any rate this book caused a sensation and is now required reading for most high school students.
I recently decided to read it again, all these many years later. There had been a lot of discussion of the so-calles "obscenities" used by Holden. My father had picked the book up when I was reading it then and was outraged at the language and was shocked that I, his pure young daughter was actually reading such "filth". (He was the last of the Victorians, so I just laughed.) Reading it now I find it so innocent and sad/funny that I can't believe it was ever considered racy and profound. I have a book of essays, a collection of articles writtn by some of the most esteemed critcs of the day - Leslie Fiedler, Granville Hicks, Alfred Kazin, Arthur Mizener, John Updike - analyzing "Catcher" (as well as the Glass family stories) as if these are on the level of Shakepeare or Tolstoy. There's one essay in the book entitled "The Language of the Catcher in the Rye", written in the most absurdly academic lingo possible, exploring the use of "vulgarity and obscenity" in Holden's telling of his story. Other articles explain his language and actions in Freudian terms (Freud was big in the 50s). There was no such thing then as teenage angst, especially if one was a rich white kid living on Cenral Park West in New York City.
Holden's favorite and over used expletive is "goddam", which he uses t o describe people, things and feelings. He also uses the word "bastard", as in "I was sweating like a bastard." The only appearance of the F word (used as practically all parts of speech by most high school kids now) is when he sees it written on a wall and is horrified that it is out there where "little kids can see it." That's the extent of the obscenity in the "Catcher in the Rye" and it seems so naive and childish that it's hard to understand how it caused such a furor.
I have to wonder what today's high school students make of Holden Caulfield. He has no IPod, no cell phone, no computer, no Xbox - this kid is supposed to be rich? Most kids have a very limited frame of reference beyond a few months ago. They also probably think old Holden is nothing but a flit, as he would say.

Saturday I went to the opera, or at least a live high definition version at one of the local theaters. This is the second time I have gone to one of these and it is actally quite exciting and all. You are watching as the people in New York at the Met are watching, only you can see the goddam singers up close as the cameras move about the stage. There are interviews (by the gorgeous Renee Fleming) with the perfomers backstage while they are still sweating like bastards.
This one was "Manon Lescaut" by Puccini, based on the French custom of exiling "bad" women to America and all. The star was this amazing Finnish soprano Karita Matilla who sings like a bastard and also is a terrific actress and all. Unfortunately the tenor sounded like the goddam Cowardly Lion. The final scene is where they are taking a goddam hour to die while singing like bastards and all.


Suzan Oxenreider said...

I laughed out loud when I read your blog this morning. Thanks!

Nancy Near Philadelphia said...

Some would say your post is grand. But I hate that goddamn word.

n, np

Expat Hausfrau said...

I wonder if I can get my iPod-cell-phone toting 15 year old worldly cynical daughter to read this beloved book. I will try. Right now she's too busy poring over Go Ask Alice which I got her for Christmas. She can't understand why the narrator bothered to move back home after she was living such a fun and trippy life in San Francisco running a boutique with her galpal.

Unknown said...