Terri (Wheatamongtares via Retriever) doesn't understand why all the fuss about Catcher in the Rye. What is so profound about a teenage boy and his inner life as he careens around for a few days trying to get drunk and score with women and cement his image of himself?
I posted a comment at Retriever’s blog, but afterward decided to expand on it a bit more here, because this is such an interesting question. I must admit up front that it has been decades since I read Catcher in the Rye and, in my case, it did not leave a lasting impression. So my comments here are built on recollections that, I hope, reflect something of what I actually read many years ago.
The human mind is a Rube Goldberg contraption, well-adapted for survival, but highly vulnerable to error. You might say that the mind is a struggle between many competing internal forces in a state of ongoing compromise. Unconscious conflicts, biases and rules of thumb continuously yield compromised expression in our thoughts, feelings and actions.
As intellect develops during adolescence, more sensitive and perceptive kids are challenged by the growing awareness of the compromises intrinsic to the human fabric, not the least of which are the inevitable moral compromises. The possible paths through this challenge can be represented by a three-way psychological crossroad, with each road offering a different solution to the problem of infantile narcissism confronted by the discovery of compromised real life.
Down one road lies a cynicism that masks a deeper sense of chronic disappointment, triggered by the discovery that grownups are hopelessly far from the omnipotent, all-good beings the child believes in. Cynicism and the chronic underlying disappointment behind cynicism covertly preserves the hope that perfection is possible. If one has not preserved a sense of perfection at some deeper level, there would be no cynicism. Disillusioned idealism is still idealism. This is Holden Caulfield.
Down another road lies a brittle, defensive idealism that deals with the problem of human failing by denying the inescapability of the human condition. Identification with a powerfully superior group or adherence to some allegedly perfected ideology sets the believer free, restoring Eden, though it never really does restore Eden. This is the solution found in rabid religious, political and philosophical ideologies. This is John Galt’s (Ayn Rand’s) solution in Atlas Shrugged. Galt’s Gulch is the restoration of Eden lost.
On the surface, Holden Caulfield and John Galt may appear to be very different characters. They would probably despise one another, but they are alike in that neither of them can bear the inescapable limitations that come with membership in the deeply flawed human family. Both cling to the narcissistic perfection of childhood psychic life.
Growing up, for Caulfield, would mean giving up the hope of restoration to perfection. Ayn Rand’s ideal man is also a boy who can’t bear to grow up. He creates his own fantasy society, where he is omnipotent and compromise is prohibited--not all that different from the Catcher in Caulfield’s secret fantasy.
It’s easy to see why Holden Caulfield and John Galt can capture the imagination of a sensitive, intelligent adolescent struggling in the passage to adulthood. Some of these kids are doing their best to resist the awareness that they are deeply brokenhearted by the loss of an idealized world.
Novels like Catcher in the Rye and Atlas Shrugged affirm their experience of reality, while exploring narcissistic solutions to human shortcoming that resonate with the reader's own defensive style. The Catcher is a godlike figure who saves the children from evil humanity. Galt holds the secret to cheap, unlimited power, withholding it from the evil world he abandoned. Both the Catcher and Galt can feel deeply needed by a world they cannot bear to live in. While the escape into omnipotent fantasy provides relief from the position of powerless imperfection, it is just as important that these characters tell the brokenhearted that they are not alone—that they are understood.
There is, however, at least one other road on the way to adulthood. Heinz Kohut would say that idealism tempered by a tolerant, forgiving realism, and the ability to appreciate what is good while learning to bear disappointment with oneself and others, is the road beyond infantile narcissism. He would also say that the road taken is largely determined by everything that came before.