The Imaginative Universal

Studies in Virtual Phenomenology -- @jamesashley

Death of the Laughing Man

January 31
by James Ashley 31. January 2010 06:32

9stories

I found out about the passing of J. D. Salinger through, of all places, an article in the Onion called “Bunch of Phonies Mourn J. D. Salinger” written in the style of Holden Caulfield – a brilliant, if overly subtle, homage.

I first read Salinger’s Catcher in the Rye sometime in middle school when it turned out to be the only book on an English class reading list that I could find on my dad’s bookshelf. After finishing it I immediately asked my dad for the remaining books in Salinger’s limited opus and quickly consumed Franny and Zooey, Raise High the Roof Beam Carpenters, and Nine Stories. I re-read these books over the following years up until my first year in college, at which point I discovered John Updike’s critical assessment of Salinger and decided that Salinger was “pretentious and puerile” – a phrase I repeated whenever Salinger’s name came up in my own pretentious and puerile conversations with classmates. 

Nevertheless I maintained a secret, embarrassing and abiding fondness for J. D. Salinger’s characters.  I would criticize myself over the years for sharing too much in common with Holden Caulfield while at the same time looking for other kindred spirits with Holden characteristics.  I made a furtive effort to trace The Laughing Man through literature, at one point, and even chose Magister Ludens as my tag when I first started posting on the Internet.  I have an ongoing crush on Zooey Deschanel in large part because she shares a first name with one of Mr. Salinger’s characters.

J. D. Salinger’s central theme, of course, was puerility: the youthful contempt for the falsity and compromises of the adult world.  Salinger’s approach to his theme, however, was always ironic.  He seemed to recognize – though it only became evident when I reread these books in my first year of college – that there is something naive and self-destructive about this attitude.  It is a stance that cannot abide, and one must eventually outgrow it.  Salinger, in effect, prepared his audience to outgrow him.

Having outgrown him, I nevertheless waited over the years for Salinger to write something new, to find out what comes after the romance of puerility.  His last published work, however, was in 1965, following which he became a recluse and never had another word printed for the public.  While waiting, pointlessly it turns out, I have learned the lessons of adulthood – I have learned how to play by the rules, how to reconcile my views to others’ opinions, how to self-promote, how to betray friends, how to get ahead.  I have gained experience and the sort of wisdom I know that Holden Caulfield would never understand or appreciate.

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Phenomenology of Spirit

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