Let me share with you one of my favorite moments from “The Catcher in the Rye.”
“Among other things, you’ll find that you’re not the first person who was ever confused and frightened and even sickened by human behavior. You’re by no means alone on that score, you’ll be excited and stimulated to know. Many, many men have been just as troubled morally and spiritually as you are right now. Happily, some of them kept records of their troubles. You’ll learn from them—if you want to. Just as someday, if you have something to offer, someone will learn something from you. It’s a beautiful reciprocal arrangement. And it isn’t education. It’s history. It’s poetry.” ― J.D. Salinger, The Catcher in the Rye
This moment from “Catcher in the Rye” comes when Holden Caulfield seeks out advice from a teacher he admires, Mr. Antolini. In this moment, it is as if J.D. Salinger himself is reaching through the character of Mr. Antolini and speaking to Holden directly. It’s a beautiful moment – a moment when the author tells us exactly what he’s trying to do.
What is he trying to do? Turn the sickness of human behavior into something beautiful, into poetry.
The Catcher in the Rye is part of a great literary river that deals with a loner type who struggles against the perversity of human behavior. Walden…The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn…Beloved….It isn’t education. It’s history. It’s poetry.
Occasionally, though, there is something that worries me about these stories. The protagonists, as noble as they suffer, survive, and occasionally thrive, seem meek in contrast to the sickness of human behavior. Only in comic books, fairy tales, and classical epics do we get the epic hero whose might can save us.
Literature will always be a place where those sickened by human behavior suffer together…and lament our own shortcomings as epic heroes.