Wednesday, 14 October 2015

Book Review: The Catcher in the Rye

Victor Frankl believes that in the human psyche, there is a higher quest than the desire to maximize pleasure (satisfying sexual desires according to Freud) and minimizing pain; the quest for meaning. I have always wondered why this quest exists in more intensified form in some individuals than in others. Why the meaningless small and phony talk is perfectly fine for some individuals but causes massive discontentment in others. That 'other' is a part of a very insignificant minority, so the world keeps wondering if there is something wrong in their orientation. This is the story of an individual belonging to that insignificant minority. And from that perspective, it is a harsh critic on the institutions and norms of the society.

The first institution that comes under bitter criticism by the protagonist Harold is the institution of Education and its extensions in the form of schools. Holden has already left three schools when he flunked Pencey, a great prep school he was enrolled in. The reasons he gives for having such an aversion from schools is the sort of alienation and meaninglessness he encounters there. A lot of things can be derived from this. The idea that schools in that era (or even this one) encouraged mechanical thinking and excluded out of the box and free thinking from their narratives. The example is given by the protagonist of an open expression class, where the students practiced impromptu speeches. A student got a D just because he digresses from an apparently meaningless topic such as his farm to something meaningful such as the intricate details of those whose lives belonged to that farm. Students who shouted 'Digression, Digression!' when that thing happened were given a higher grade, an incentive to out cast those who don't fit in the system.

The institutionalization of that mechanical thinking leads to a higher social status for those who have been certified in mastering it, such as Ivy League students as mentioned in the novel. The protagonist sees them as phonies of the highest order. However those who, because of their different way of thinking and living fail that system, are even denied the certainty of belonging to a home where they can go no matter what happens. Harold wastes his time and resources around in New York because he fears that he would not be welcomed home after flunking another school. Clearly no one is willing to understand him and clearly, what he thinks about himself is inferior than what the school authorities think about him in the eyes of his parents.

One of the reasons why we tell each other our experiences and notions is because when others approve of them and tell you that they feel the same thing, it gives you a sense of certainty, of not being alone. That is how we derive our identity and strengthen it. Harold searches for that sense of certainty and belonging through out this novel. He faces bitter isolation and estrangement and he tries to overcome that by asking 'if you feel the same thing' to everyone he encounters. But people are so identified with the commodities trending in the society; shows, cars, dresses etc that they fail or are not willing to engage in a dialogue that goes beyond that. That further isolates Harold. He pursues drugs in order to numb that isolation which is a recurring theme in the post modern era. For anyone reading the review, we need to get back to each other beyond commodities and beyond treating each other as means to an end. Else we will be treated by those very commodities and their manufacturers as a means to their end, which is maximizing profit.

Harold finds solace in his relation with his young sister Phoebes. Despite her immature age, she tries to consider whatever Harold has to say without being judgmental or becoming tired. Amidst trying out everything illegal for his age, he keeps thinking about that relationship and what her sister would say if he told her about his sense of estrangement. In the end, that is the one relation that pulls him back by the willingness to go the distance with him. (which I resent though :P) May be, that's what we need in the relationships of the post modern era; space, consideration and non-judgment.