On pathological society: A clinical review of The Catcher in the Rye

By Arnold De Graaff

The_Catcher_MIn an article which appeared in the anniversary volume for Prof. Dr. H. Dooyeweerd, Philosophy and Christianity, Dr. W.K. Van Dijk describes a neurosis as “a disharmony in the act-structure, a lack of optimal integration originating in a pathological and excessive defence against instinctive impulses and emotions”.

Although I do not consider this description – one-sidedly reflecting psychoanalytical insight – adequate, nevertheless it points out an important aspect of neurotic reactions. The least we can say is that in many instances “a pathological and excessive defence against instinctive impulses and emotions” plays an important role. Fundamental organic impulses and feelings often become a threat and a source of anxiety against which a person must constantly defend himself.

In order to find his way out of such neurotic tendencies a person must learn to accept and esteem himself as he (or she) is, also in his physical appearance, his organic functions, and in his sexual impulses and feelings. Without full acceptance and integration of these ‘lower’ functions and feelings there can be no self-esteem and emotional self-reliance, and, consequently, no inner freedom or emotional health.

There are many factors in our society that make the integration of these basic feelings very difficult if not impossible for many young people. It is to this situation that I want to call your attention in this article. Many anthropologists, sociologists, and psychologists (Mead, Fromm, Riesman, Horney, Van den Berg, etc.) have dealt with different aspects of this problem. To get somewhat of a picture within a short period of time of the social and cultural context within which the primary feelings of young people must develop today, I can think of no better way than to consider the scene pictured by J.D. Salinger in The Catcher in the Rye – a book which reflects not only the experiences and feelings of millions of teenagers, but also offers important insights into a range of deeper social issues.

The main character, Holden Caulfield, is 17 years old. He is not doing so terribly well in school, because he neglects his studies. He is smart enough, but he is just not interested in school. Socially he has no trouble maintaining himself among his peers. His remarks are always to the point. But in spite of his social acceptance, it is clear that he experiences the uncomfortable feeling that he doesn’t belong amongst his friends. Holden sees through people. He sees the emptiness of their lives. He realises that they are phony. As a result, Holden cannot identify himself with them – he would much rather be himself, without pretense.

As is well know, the story starts when Holden has just dropped out of school. He does not want to go home until his parents have found out from the school what has happened. Holden has no real contact with his parents. He cannot talk with them. For this reason, before Holden leaves the school he visits a well-intentioned teacher, but instead of being helped he comes away feeling sorry for the teacher. Holden has no one else he can talk to. He can’t talk to his friends because they are merely buddies. Thus the picture we get is that Holden is terribly isolated: all real communication has been broken. And so he just roams the city for a few days.

As we read, Holden has only one real ideal in life and that is to be a catcher in the rye. He has no untapped reservoir of kindness, of pity, of wanting to protect and care for people.

I keep picturing all these little kids playing some game in this big field of rye and all. Thousands of little kids, and nobody’s around, nobody big, I mean – except me. And I’m standing on the edge of some crazy cliff. What I have to do, I have to catch everybody if they start to go over the cliff – I mean if they are running and they don’t look where they are going I have to come out from somewhere and catch them. That’s all I’d do all day. I’d just be the catcher in the rye and all. I know it’s crazy, but that is the only thing I’d really like to be. I know it is crazy.

This big child of seventeen, who must maintain himself among his buddies, not friends, who always has a ready answer, who dislikes using his fists, daily has to suppress his desire to be human, to show his affection and warmth, to be tender and kind. All he would like to do is to be the catcher in the rye, to save all those kids from falling down that crazy cliff. That is all he would like to do. But that is the one thing his surroundings do not expect from him.

Everybody expects him to act tough, to pretend that he is a real he-man. And he tries, but Holden is just not very good at it. He is no fighter. In fact, he hates fights. Holden hates this world of the he-man and the tough guy – all these people that pretend to be so big, while deep down in their heart they are just as scared and lonely and in need of love as everyone else. Holden clearly expresses an inner desire or want to respect and admire people instead of showing his superiority and strength.

But we also read how Holden holds a lot of frustrated tenderness, which then projects outward in different ways. Slowly, the background of his feelings becomes plain. He had a little brother once who passed away. His mother never managed to overcome this loss. Holden cannot forget him either. But the only one who understands this is his younger sister. As a result all Holden’s tenderness and love is now directed toward his sister, and his little brother who still lives on in his memory. When Holden cannot stand to be alone any longer, he turns in desperation to his old teacher. The teacher is what some people might describe as somewhat of a queer person. Holden thinks that he may be homosexual. Yet he knows that this is the only person with whom he can talk.

While he is at his teacher’s place, Holden becomes sick. So the teacher helps him to sleep on the couch. In the middle of the night, however, something strange happens. All of a sudden Holden wakes up because there is a hand on his forehand. This scares him deeply. Holden then panics and runs away, out into the night.

Boy, I was shaking like a madman. I was sweating, too. When something pervertly like that happens, I start sweating like a bastard. That kind of stuff’s happened to me about twenty times since I was a kid. I can’t stand it.

But when Holden calms down a bit and his anxious fear is gone or has dissipated, he starts to wonder about something very significant: did anything really happen, or had he just imagined things?

What worries me was the part about how I’d woke up and found him patting me on the head and all. I mean I wondered if just maybe I was wrong about thinking he was making a flitty pass at me. I wondered if maybe he just liked to pat guys on the head when they’re asleep. I mean how can you tell about stuff for sure? You can’t.

So what can we learn from this episode? It is clear throughout that Holden is confused. His relationships to other men in particular are very strained and as soon as something happens, imagined or real, such relationships immediately become suspect. In this respect, there is an overanxiousness or hyper-sensitivity about the abnormal, about manliness in North-American society. Friendships between men and fellows are dangerous. As a result, Holden reveals to us, how there is a cultural overemphasis upon heterosexual relationships and upon proving one’s manliness – in other words, to live up to a certain (false) objective image of a man.

Holden, too, feels as though he must constantly prove himself, especially by being tough with the other boys and by making out and sexualising the other girls. But in both areas he is an utter failure, and the confusion and tension in Holden is at a climax in such moments when he reflects:

…but I’d feel I ought to sock the guy in the jaw or something – his damn jaw. Only, I wouldn’t have the guts to do it. I’d just stand there, trying to look tough /… I’d probably go down to the can and sneak a cigarette and watch myself getting tough in the mirror. What you should be is not yellow at all. If you’re supposed to sock somebody in the jaw, and you sort of feel like doing it, you should do it. I’m just no good at it, though. I’d rather push a guy out the window or chop his head off with an ax than sock him in the jaw. I hate fist fights. I don’t mind getting his so much – although I am not crazy about it, naturally – but what scares me most in a fist fight is the guy’s face. I can’t stand looking at the other guy’s face, that’s my trouble.

What Holden is revealing here is that he has trouble in fist fights and in particular looking at the other guy’s face, because he sees another human being – a person that can get hurt. The other man no longer exists as an object to be punished – that is as an object of the rival to be beaten, of the enemy to be dominated.

The same tension, as a result of the ‘objective’ paradigm, exists between Holden and girls as well:

The thing is, most of the time when you’re coming pretty close to doing it with a girl – a girl that isn’t a prostitute or anything, I mean – she keeps telling you to stop. The trouble with me is, I stop. Most guys don’t. I can’t help it. They tell me to stop, so I stop. I always wish I hadn’t after I take them home, but I keep doing it anyway.

This tension that Holden reveals is quite simple and, in some sense, rooted in a similar internal conflict that he experiences when it comes to fist fights.

To make out with a girl in such a way means that one has to treat her like a thing, an object, a prostitute, and Holden can’t do that. There is enough sensitivity in Holden, there is still enough of him which has not been desensitised or ‘closed-off’ that in moments he experiences a break in the spell of ‘objectivity’ and perceives and engages the other person as a human being.

Culturally speaking, Holden is a complete failure, both with respect to the boys – not tough enough – and with respect to the girls – never goes far enough. Therefore, he never really belongs. He has nothing to boast about according to the greater social context in which he finds himself.

When Holden eventually flunks out of school, he tries to save a little bit of his self-esteem by inviting a prostitute to his hotel room:

But I sure felt queer when she stood up and pulled her dress over her head. I certainly felt peculiar when she did that. I mean she did it so sudden and all. I know you are supposed to feel pretty sexy when somebody gets up and pulls their dress over their head, but I didn’t. Sexy was about the last thing I was feeling. I felt more depressed than sexy.

Holden tells the prostitute to leave and as a result he feels as though he can’t prove his manliness with his fists, with his dates, and not even with a prostitute. The one (culturally defined) area in which Holden seems to save some self-respect is in the neutral area of drinking, where he comments that: ‘One thing I have, it’s a terrific capacity. I can drink all night and not even show it, if I’m in the mood.’

In this terrific book, we witness a wonderful cultural examination that in many ways remains accurate even as we progress into the 21st Century. But while the author remains very open, the one thing that he doesn’t shed a lot of light on has to do with Holden’s feelings about his own body. It is significant that J.D. Salinger, who is frank about everything else, says nothing about masturbation. According to all the reports, however, pre-occupation with one’s own body – masturbation – continues to play an important role within the social class that Holden comes from. Holden’s confessions, therefore, are probably very in-complete insofar that behind his anxiety about manliness, one suspects an equal fear about his own sexual functioning and feelings.

The result of all these anxieties – about men, about boys, about girls, and about oneself – is that all relationships having something forced about them. Holden may not show his softness and tenderness to anybody, not even to himself. Anxiety about manliness (i.e., the cultural perception of ‘what is a man’) results in forced relationships towards oneself, and others, both men and women. And that is not surprising because these feelings are interrelated. The way a person feels about himself (or herself) reflects in his (or her) feelings toward others. Consequently, nowhere do we find an account in this book of casual, relaxed, ordinary relationships. The slightest thing that happens, imagine or real, makes the relationship perverse. And always does one have to prove oneself.

What should worry us in this account of a teenager, with whom millions of young people can identify themselves, is the anxious, uncertain attitude of this boy. All personal sympathy and interest, all tenderness, all the original feelings are threatened and cannot come to expression. In such a socially construed or at least fostered environment, there is very little room for deep and lasting relationships as well as other kinds of social relationships.

There is no opportunity to come to know these primary feelings and to give them their rightful place in one’s dealings with oneself, one’s friends, and with members of the opposite sex. People must immediately prove themselves, make out, or be on their guard. The result of such forced relationships, in which the most fundamental feelings cannot come to expression, can only be disastrous. For if these feelings cannot find adequate expression during adolescence, how shall they develop later on? How shall such young people learn about love, sympathy, affection, tenderness, or respect – all basic requirements for healthy partnership and for raising children? And how shall such adolescents learn to love their neighbour as themselves? They won’t. And as we witness time and again, many people today see out their lives unsure of what it means to find adequate expression of their core feelings – such a basic dimension of human existence.

In modern society, homosexuality has become something of the original sin and masturbation is something many people feel they cannot talk about. Soldiers are openly encouraged to put pin-up girls in their barracks. Young people have buddies, not friends. Grown-ups have acquaintances and much social life, but very few deep and lasting relationships.

Any trip to the modern city discloses how there is so much available information, while at the same time there is a serious lack of communication. For this reason, images of the lonely and isolated individual in modern film emerge as a true representation of the modern individual. Life, as a result, is becoming increasingly superficial and empty – instrumentalised to the point where almost all meaning is exhausted. While love and meaning are therefore become rare, whatever relationships there are seem forced and strained.

Teenagers today may not act out their frustrations in the same way as Holden and his buddies do, but the end-result is the same. We simply repress our primary feelings altogether, because we consider them in modern society to be dangerous. They embarrass us or challenge others.

Sex, on the other hand, is something that one has to control and deal with rationally. To make sure everybody ‘turns out alright’, society today encourages adolescents to date early: twirpweek for our 15 year olds and birthday parties with kissing games, often a direct expression of the anxiety of having to define sex roles and of young people feeling pressured to prove themselves.

But in the present-day social paradigm, superficial and forced relationships seem to be defined as healthy in an age of increasing isolation and (pseudo-)individualism. It is fostered from an early age. As a result, it becomes increasingly difficult for anyone to be him or her self and to be open and sensitive to one’s own feelings. In general, we have become unable, because the genesis of self has been closed down. To then integrate sexual feelings in the whole of life and to give feelings of love, tenderness, and affection their rightful place in normal, everyday human relationships is exceedingly rare or uncommon.

I recall reading many years ago Michael Novak describe the modern situation in an article entitled “Flirtation without flesh,” in the magazine Motive:

Madness! Americans can’t touch one another, men and women, casually, to comfort and caress. The sense of touch has been electrified like a prison wall with helpless humans locked inside.

Why don’t males ever cry? Are there emotions that are now illegitimate to feel? What do men do with them then? (They fight.) Right; perhaps that accounts for the American way of violence! If a man wants to tell someone that he is lonely, that he aches, that he simply wants to talk to someone seriously, must he shoot someone to attract attention? Doesn’t anyone around here listen to human beings? If the Martians ever get here, they’ll discover Americans built this country for machines. Serious discourse is the humming of air conditioners, clocks and factories. Husbands and wives speak together, on the average, seventeen minutes a day. To solve political or social problems, the only thing we know is to pour in money, [act violently] or call out the National Guard. No one knows how to talk to other human beings in other neighbourhoods. (What would we say? What would we think?).

Americans try to live without their bodies and hence without affections. Much worse, human beings have forgotten how to talk and to love, and many have never known community.

Today,  many young people indeed know a lot about sexuality. As one high-school student said to me when he heard that I was going to give a talk on sex, love and friendship: “What does he want to know about it?” Young people today often know everything there is to know about the subject, but they also grow-up knowing very little about true love. As one teenager said: “I know everything there is to know about sex, but I am afraid I know it all wrong.” Our youth may have broad sexual knowledge – (objective) sexualisation has never been more explicit in contemporary culture – but very few know what to do with their inner-most fundamental feelings and how to give expression to them.

Somehow, within this society, with this tradition and ever rigidifying culture, we must teach our children and our young people about sex and love. Somehow, we must show or guide them to give expression to their most fundamental feelings of which the sexual feeling and longing are an integral part. Somehow, we must break the spell that drives objectification and teach our youth about real love and affection. Somehow, we must teach them to be comfortable with their own bodies as opposed to the consumer/capitalist (cultural) ideal of a man or woman. We must teach them to give their bodily functions a rightful place.

Fundamental social change is not just political or economic. On the contrary, it is also rooted in deeper epistemological, anthropological and cosmological categories. Fundamental, systemic change also has a certain existential, psychological and indeed social quality. Moving forward, our image of change should be concrete in how we organise ourselves and our communities – in developing communities within our homes, our churches, our schools, within which core feelings can come to expression, basic needs of a person can be met, and where people can simply be themselves, without pretense, without strain.

Just as Occupy put a lot of weight on non-hierarchical social organisation, we must continue to develop ways to maintain open communities. Such as with those communities we find in certain alternative education environments (for example, Summerhill or the Alpha project), our goal should be to establish social environments where boys can be friends, where men can relate to each other casually, genuinely, without having to prove themselves, where woman are not objectified or reduced to sexual objects, where girls can feel secure with their own bodies, and where boys and girls can be relaxed in one another’s presence as equals.

Perhaps this is a lesson we can take from The Catcher in the Rye in the 21st Century. If fundamental change is, indeed, to be fundamental, we must engage with it as a multidimensional question, including the development of a social context that fosters openness with our emotions and general psychological well-being, as well as challenge what we read in Holden’s struggle: namely, the rigidifying, hardening and ultimately repressive cultural expectations that surround us.

The original version of this article first appeared in 1970 in response to The Catcher in the Rye being banned by certain communities. Its most recent version has been updated and slightly modified, maintaining the same significance as when originally published.

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Arnold De Graaff

Arnold De Graaff

Arnold De Graaff writes mainly in the fields of Psychotherapy, Education, Theology and Existential-Phenomenology, dealing with such issues as educational alternatives, radical psychology, integrated psychotherapy and the meaning of faith. Having originally studied in Philosophy, Sociology, English Literature and Greek, Arnold switched his focus to both psychology and education at the Free University in Amsterdam. In 1966 he received his doctoral degree in Practical Theology. For the next fourteen years Arnold taught psychology and education at the undergraduate and graduate levels in Chicago and Toronto. During that time he taught summer courses for teachers and started the Curriculum Development Centre in Toronto, of which he was the director for four years. Arnold was also advisor to an alternative high school in Toronto and for three years the coordinator of an Outdoor Learning Project near Orangeville, Ontario. Wanting to work more practically, Arnold enrolled in an intensive psychotherapy training program in 1974. Since 1980 he has been a full-time therapist both in Toronto and Orangeville, Canada developing what is known as a more integrated form of psychotherapy, which takes into account both the integral unity of the person and the person’s social context. He has written a number of papers on psychology (Psychology: Sensitive Openness and Appropriate Reactions); on education (Backwards into the Future); and psychotherapy (A Critical Essay: An Evaluation of James H. Olthuis’ The Beautiful Risk: A New Psychology of Loving and Being Loved); as well as many others. The last number of years Arnold has been working on a timely manuscript dealing with a radical, alternative approach to theology and the question of faith, and the role people’s deepest convictions play in the course of their lives.