This year I’ve been making a concerted effort to read more classics. And the other week, I happened, quite unintentionally, to read J.D. Salinger’s much loved-and-loathed The Catcher in the Rye (1951) and Albert Camus’ existentialist classic The Fall (published in French in 1956 as La Chute, and published in English translation the following year) back-to-back. I was immediately struck by the thematic similarities between the two novels, and thought I should do some writing on it to clear my head about it.
The main character and narrator of The Catcher in the Rye is the infamous Holden Caulfield, whose disaffected teenager persona has become a modern archetype. He finds himself kicked out of school, not for the first time, because he refuses to play the game that school — and society writ large — expects. He comes across as smug and superior and, in a word, insufferable. But yet, the things he’s railing against are indicative of genuine problems: for example, the exclusion of unpopular kids from the school’s clubs and the bullying of a classmate that led to his apparent suicide both reveal either the impotence or hypocrisy of institutions that claim to be ‘molding men of good character.’ Likewise, he’s lost respect for his older brother for abandoning his literary career to write silly screenplays in Hollywood, and struggles to choose a career for himself because he knows he’ll face similar compromises along the way: even something he finds laudable, like being a defense attorney, he rejects because he knows he’d likely end up being praised for winning rather than for ensuring justice is served. So, while Holden Caulfield is insufferable, he’s not wrong. The world praises the wrong things, and rewards bland uniformity (what he calls ‘phony’) over authenticity. To adjust oneself to the world means taking one of three paths: being oblivious to the problems of the world, being willing to play the game as it is, or, what is undoutbtedly the hardest path, finding a tentative way forward within it. The book ends with him putting his plans to flee New York and hitchhike to the West (a move which has interesting connections with Kerouac’s On the Road, which takes place roughly the same time) on hold for the sake of his little sister. It’s not a resolution or an epiphany, but it’s a turning out from himself and towards love, a move he’d been hesitantly moving towards for some time — for example, in missing classmates he generally didn’t like, or his acceptance his kindly former teacher who may or may not have made a pass at him.
The Fall‘s narrator, Jean-Baptiste Clamence, is an interesting juxtaposition to Caulfield. He’s also insufferable, but in a more pompous and self-satisfied way. He too sees the big problems at the root of society, but unlike Caulfield, he has played the game and played it well: a successful lawyer who advocated for the poor and needy and who easily had his way with women; and he went to a prison camp rather than collaborate with the Germans. But playing the game eventually caught up to him. As he relates his story, he reveals a life marked by cowardice. This is dramatically symbolized by an encounter with a woman on a bridge who he could tell was about to jump into the Seine; rather than stopping to offer assistance, he walks past, not wanting to risk his own safety, and he becomes haunted by the sound of her scream and splash as she hits the water. And, while he did not collaborate with the Germans, neither could he convince himself to join the Resistance, much as his principles suggested he should. With his own weakness and hypocrisy revealed, thereby revealing the weakness and hypocrisy of the whole system, he leaves his life behind, settling in Amsterdam where he spends his time convincing strangers that they too are guilty.
So the narrators of both books find themselves confronted by the simple, twin reality that the world sucks and that it’s really hard not to become complicit in the ways that it sucks. This is really nothing other than the reality of what Christians call ‘sin’. (It’s interesting that Camus’s existentialist philosophy ends where Christianity begins.) But the two men are confronted by this truth at two very different places in life and psychological development. Caulfield recognizes it when he’s on the cusp of having to become complicit in it. He’s disillusioned before he has ever been illusioned by it. His is a classic case of the alienated ego: He sees the world for what it is and wants no part of it. He’s looking for a way out but struggles to find one, so he’s drowning in his disillusionment. For his part, Clamence doesn’t realize the problems with the world until well into his adulthood; he’s been a master player at the game of life. So his story takes the form of a Fall (as the novel’s name indicates); he’s had an inflated ego popped by his new awareness. So now he too is alienated from the world. But, rather than looking for a way out of it, he treats his fall as though it were a revelation. He becomes a prophet of disillusionment, seeing it as his vocation to pop the inflated egos of everyone he meets.
While I enjoyed The Fall more as a piece of literature (I cannot say enough how unpleasant Caulfield is as a narrative voice!), I can’t help but think that between the two characters, it’s Caulfield that is in a better place. He didn’t need to play the game before seeing that it’s rigged and phony, and by the end of the book, he’s at least pointing towards something of a way out of disillusionment and its accompanying existential dread: namely, accepting and loving the world and everything that’s in it as they are. It’s a move that reminds me of Paul Ricoeur’s idea of the ‘second naivete’ — an intentional and careful re-illusionment after disillusion, forgiving the known problems and disappointments of the world while remaining aware and vigilant of them. By contrast, Clamence, having had his illusions of himself and the world burst, seems committed to wallowing in the mud of his disillusionment, and dragging everyone he can into the mud with him.
And so, I think, on this one count at least, Salinger, the famed social recluse, in the end has a better understanding of the existential dilemma than did the existentialist philosopher, Camus.
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