Masculinity in crisis: ‘The Catcher in the Rye’ and ‘Norman Fucking Rockwell!’

Trigger warning: this essay has mentions of suicide, self-harm, sexual harassment and sexual abuse.

From the cultural grapevine, I came to be aware of The Catcher in the Rye as both a young man’s coming-of-age-story and, through fraught and bitchy Twitter threads, that liking this novel, in particular men liking this novel, was a hallmark of being a ‘nice guy’ or possessing generally bad literary taste. I don’t take my cues from what my fellow literature graduates lounging about on Twitter say is good or worth reading, but I can honestly say that I did avoid The Catcher in the Rye until recently. I am a big fan of American Literature and writers: Maya Angelou, Kate Chopin, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Arthur Miller, Maggie Nelson, Nathaniel Hawthorne are big favourites,  and the length of Salinger’s novel is hardly anything to get stressed about. Yet, the novel does carry somewhat of a baggy reputation for centring on a privileged young man getting into scrapes in New York and being generally ‘rebellious’. Like Jessie Thompson, in an essay for Penguin, it didn’t necessarily feel like a priority for me to read it.[1] That was, until, my boyfriend told me it was one of his favourite books. In fact, the first time I had a conversation about The Catcher in the Rye was with a friend at university; he said that it was the sort of writing that made him want to write. How could it be that two men I knew well, trusted their opinions, could like a novel that was elsewhere reviled and pointed to poor cultural taste?

At the beginning of the summer, I read the novel for the first time. What I found was sardonically funny, obviously full of angst, but also a profoundly moving piece of writing. I read the story of a young man who feels at odds with the world around him, who sees education as pointless in a world of privilege and bullshit; who suffers from intense self-hatred, and finds his only solace in the company of his sister and some nuns. Although Salinger has Holden Caulfield compare himself, through negation, to David Copperfield, the nineteenth century figure he reads most as an iteration of, I would argue, is Raskolnikov from Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment. Of course, the plots of these novels are very different, but the same disillusionment seeps through both. Where, however, Raskolnikov fashions his antipathy, anger and resentment into murder, Caulfield directs his inward; as much as he hates the world and the people in it, famously using the moniker ‘phonies’ to describe people throughout the novel, he struggles with himself the most. So much so, he tends towards self-harm: having obsessive thoughts about being shot (‘what I’d do, I’d walk down a few floors- holding onto my guts, blood leaking all over the place’), purposefully winding people up so that they’ll hurt him (the fight with Stradlater on p.39 sees Caulfield provoke a violent response for two pages), and wandering around Central Park in the freezing cold having wet his head, thinking about his dead brother Allie, ‘pneumonia and dying’.[2]

Not only did this novel move me, but it became obvious that reading it was vital. I have long joked about ‘masculinity in crisis’ when I see or experience sexist behaviour, and I think it is as important to laugh at the likes of Donald Trump as much as to resist and protest him, his disgusting ideologies and all that he represents, with anger and derision. However, it is important that we do have serious, constructive conversations about masculinity and what it means to be an emotionally healthy man. In The Catcher in the Rye Caulfield is explicit about his depression, stating that ‘what I really felt like, though, was committing suicide. I felt like jumping out the window’. It could not be clearer that Caulfield does not see his life as worth living. Furthermore, towards the end of the novel, after hastily leaving his old teacher Mr Antolini’s apartment after an incident verging on sexual harassment, Caulfield reveals that ‘when something perverty 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’.[3] It is heavily suggested here that he has suffered sexual abuse and harassment as a child which, along with the trauma of losing his brother and seeing a fellow student kill himself, serves as an understandable and very deep root for his depression and disaffection. This novel is not the ramblings and larking about of a ‘rebellious’ teenager, even though it is at points dry and funny; it is about a young man struggling to cope with a plethora of horrifying events. It surprises me that the novel has been, by certain factions, culturally maligned; almost in tandem with the way in which men’s mental health has been diverted from and underplayed since time immemorial.

And yet, what is so beautiful about The Catcher in the Rye is that in spite of Caulfield’s trauma and his anger with his peers and the adults in his life, he evidently cares a great deal about his sister, Phoebe, and children in general. Phoebe is integral to Caulfield’s happiness, and he finds support and comfort in her: ‘Old Phoebe didn’t say anything, but she was listening. She always listens when you tell her something’.[4] Phoebe is presented as an old soul in spite of her youth, who will give him the space and time to talk and be heard. He refers to her repeatedly throughout the novel, even buying a record for her pre-emptively, before accidentally breaking it. He tells her that the only thing he ‘wants to be’ in life, is stood at the edge of a cliff:

‘What I have to do, I have to catch everybody if they start to go over the cliff – I mean if they’re running and they don’t look where they’re going I have to come out from somewhere and catch them. That’s all I’d do all day’.[5]

Caulfield effectively tells Phoebe that he wants to act as some kind of protector or safety net, preventing children from falling to their deaths whilst they are running around and having fun. In spite of all of the pain he carries around with him, Caulfield is ultimately someone who wants to help, who wants to be of service to others, in particular those who are young, innocent and temporarily free from the trappings and traumas of adulthood. It is a really noble aspiration. This cements the idea, for me, that this is a novel about a young man having serious difficulties orientating himself in a world that has made him suffer, full of people who do not acknowledge his and, most likely, their own pain.

*

When I first planned to write about The Catcher in the Rye, I thought a worthwhile comparison could be made with Sylvia Plath’s The Bell Jar, a novel with a challenging and dark insight into depression, trauma and recovery in a young woman. This novel shook me, scared me and deeply connected with me when I first read it in 2014. I think it is important that if we take the representation of mental illness seriously in The Bell Jar, the same gravity should be extended to The Catcher in the Rye; it should not be undermined because it focuses on the suffering a young, white man. When we are living in the middle of an epidemic of young men taking their lives, understanding the root cause of such terrible pain is essential.[6] As such, I am reluctant to draw the two into such a completely direct conversation here, because I do not think it is wise to compare and contrast the experiences of mental illness between men and women in the space of a blog post. The roots of both, I believe, lie, to an extent, in the way in which patriarchy and capitalism prioritise a rampant toxic hyper-masculinity that leaves no place for the more traditionally feminine realm of feelings and emotions. Compounded with trauma, loss and the myriads of emotional pain that a human being is able to experience, depression and anxiety abound. Of course, men and women experience all of this in different ways, and it is important to remember and honour that distinction. Luckily, something else came along only this week that offers a much keener opportunity for comparison of masculinity, whilst also, clearly acknowledging Plath and the experience of women.

NFR

On 30th August 2019, Lana Del Rey released her sixth studio album Norman Fucking Rockwell! It is brilliant in so many ways and whilst I’ve loved all of her work, her interplay of satire and authenticity in this album is at its most sophisticated. Upon listening to it, I noticed that the people and relationships she discussed were separated and mingling between several positions. We had Del Rey’s typical ‘golden bad boy’ and ‘a sad girl in a mess in a party dress’ dynamic; we also have a withering partner who half-lovingly mocks her ‘man-child’ partner who indulges and wallows in his own misery, blaming his bad poetry ‘on the news’.  But we also saw something more obviously serious. We have repeated references to a man struggling with his wellbeing and sense of self in ‘California’, a man who pretends to be stronger than he is, who wishes he was ‘doing better’. In the same breath Del Rey presents a woman who is a fixed point of strength and comfort, telling him ‘And honey, you don’t ever have to act cooler than you think you should / You’re brighter than the brightest stars’. She acknowledges the pressure that this man is under to appear and conduct himself in a certain way in the world, in particular as a strong, cool man who has no insecurities or worries. She is there to tell him, from a position of acceptance, that he is OK, just as he is.

Del Rey expands on this further, and gloriously, in ‘Mariners Apartment Complex’. She tells her partner ‘You lose your way, just take my hand / You’re lost at sea, then I’ll command your boat to me again / Don’t look too far, just where you are, that’s where I am / I’m your man’. This is such an important, playful line because she holds the position of a healthy, anchored woman in this relationship, and yet refers to herself as ‘your man’. It harks to the Leonard Cohen song ‘I’m Your Man’, where Cohen unpicks what it means to be a man in a romantic relationship, by effectively declaring to his partner that he’ll be anything she wants him to be: ‘If you want a driver, climb inside / Or if you want to take me for a ride / You know you can / I’m your man’. Of course, in a healthy relationship, such a degree of self-effacement is problematic, but Cohen’s play with what it means to be a man is nevertheless important. What both singers suggest is that what it means to be a healthy man is a lot more fluid, and maybe, perhaps, feminine, than a dominant patriarchal culture suggests. By feminine, I don’t mean necessarily a defined gender category, but something more archetypal: that which is nurturing, loving and spacious; as opposed to the masculine that is determined by boundaries, order and discipline. All of which, I might add, are absolutely fine and necessary. However, when what is masculine is privileged and prioritised culturally and societally, these morph into authoritarianism, perfectionism and aggression and their offsets: disdain for emotion of any kind, depression, isolation and alienation. In Norman Fucking Rockwell! Del Rey suggests that the conception of hyper-masculinity that her lovers struggle with can be deconstructed; similarly, she presents herself, in these songs at least, as an embodiment of both masculine and feminine, yin and yang; a grounded, integrated woman in a position to offer support, understanding, protection, love and hope. Again, I want to emphasise that this is not a limiting conception of what it means to be a woman or a man, but are archetypal facets that exist in and embody all human beings, no matter which gender you identify with.

As such, we can see that it is, perhaps, not an accident that Holden Caulfield turns to the comfort of his sister and some nuns during his deepening existential break down. As esteemed Jungian psychotherapist Marion Woodman suggests, over centuries we have culturally disavowed, repressed and persecuted the feminine; and yet, the feminine is what we need and yearn for to bring balance to the patriarchal shit show that continues to cause such violence and misery. It was so in the 1940s of The Catcher in the Rye as it is today, as explored in Norman Fucking Rockwell!. After meeting the nuns and giving them money, Caulfield says:

‘I couldn’t stop thinking about those two nuns. I kept thinking about that beat-up old straw basket they went around with when they weren’t teaching at school […] that’s what I liked about those nuns. You could tell, for one thing, that they never went anywhere swanky for lunch. It made me so damn sad when I thought about it, their never going anywhere swanky for lunch or anything. I knew it wasn’t too important, but it made me sad anyway’.[7]

He compares the nuns with other women he knows, his mother and his friend’s mother, who would not get involved with any charity work akin to the nuns’ collecting, if it meant standing out in the cold, being bored or not getting any recognition for giving up their time (or, as Caulfield describes it, ‘the only way she could go around with a basket collecting dough would be if everybody kissed her ass’). I would argue that Caulfield feels sad because the nuns, their charity, their kindness to him and their interest in literature (all displayed in the previous chapter) are marginalised and excluded from ‘swankiness’; the trappings of patriarchal capitalist society, with its expensive restaurants, and its hierarchies predicated on wealth and social class. Furthermore, on a deeper level here, I think he mourns the superficial incarnation of femininity in women that props up the hyper-masculine status quo that being ‘swanky’ represents. He feels sad that the simplicity, honesty and good faith of the nuns is not rewarded or as valuable as status.

Of course, Del Rey’s conversation about masculinity and femininity does not end with ‘Mariner’s Apartment Complex’: she pertinently turns her attention to the specific suffering and demons that women carry with them. In the album’s last searing and deceptively simple waltz ‘hope is a dangerous thing for a woman like me to have – but I have it’, she references The Bell Jar writer by name, as she has been ‘ tearing around in my fucking night gown /  24/7 Sylvia Plath’. Like The Bell Jar, which is full of the vague promises offered by fashion magazines, internships, graduate school and ski trips (the ‘swanky’ mentioned in The Catch in the Rye), in this song Del Rey references the vacuous but toxic draw of superficial perfection: the world of debutantes, pink dresses, bright smiles, yachts and all. She does not find belonging in that world, instead finding home on the stage. And yet, she softly sings that she is ‘A modern day woman with a weak constitution, ’cause I’ve got / Monsters still under my bed that I could never fight off /A gatekeeper carelessly dropping the keys on my nights off’. This suggests that in spite of the work she has done to represent everything that a modern woman should- success, renown, independence, sexual freedom and financial stability- she is still plagued late at night or when she feels emotionally and spiritually weak by the monsters under her bed. The insecurities, fears, shadows and darknesses of psyche that, to an extent, we can never fully get rid of. The song is a defiant ode to the womanhood that is so rejected in patriarchal culture, but also a tentative and terrified look into the malevolent eyes of the difficulties, restrictions and fears women live with and have learnt to internalise.

I believe that The Catcher in the Rye and Norman Fucking Rockwell! speak to each other well on this important issue of masculinity and male pain. I consider the two to be allies in this regard. I think it is important that both texts highlight the potential of the feminine to relieve suffering: if men and women are going to be free from both subtle and overtly blatant violence and injustices of patriarchy, a re-examination of what it is to be a man is essential, which involves re-integration of the much maligned feminine (think about every single time a boy has been told not do x ‘like a girl’). I think a cultural re-reading of The Catcher in the Rye would be extremely useful, so that we can collectively learn not to minimise men’s pain, reducing it to ‘rebelliousness’ or simply angst. Furthermore, I think it is important that Del Rey has made the effort to distinguish clearly between the different types of male and female pain, whilst presenting so many positions and perspectives on her album. She has been careful to not pit men and women against one another, weighing one type of pain or suffering as more important, which I think is a very mature and brilliantly-handled.

 

[1] https://www.penguin.co.uk/articles/2019/jun/i-thought-catcher-in-the-rye-was-just-for-obnoxious-teenage-boys.html

[2]The Catcher in the Rye, J.D Salinger, (London: Penguin, (1958) p.93; p.140

[3] Ibid., p.174.

[4] Ibid., p.151.

[5] Ibid., p.156.

[6] ‘Suicide is the single biggest killer of men aged under 45 in the UK. In 2015, 75% of all UK suicides were male’ https://www.thecalmzone.net/help/get-help/suicide/ [accessed 4th September 2019].

[7] Ibid, p.103.

Love Note: Skiing and Snowboarding

“I felt my lungs inflate with the onrush of scenery—air, mountains, trees, people. I thought, “This is what it is to be happy.”

I am fortunate enough to have spent many years learning how to ski and it is one of my favourite things on the planet. Esther Greenwood’s description of the sport in Sylvia Plath’s The Bell Jar (see above) is absolutely accurate and I couldn’t have put it better myself. I am aware that skiing is a leisure preserve of the middle class and is obscenely expensive; indeed I haven’t been on a skiing holiday in years because I can’t afford it. However, through skiing, I have had some life-changing experiences, met some amazing people and had a whole lot of fun:

Experiences like being five years old and falling off a drag lift and crying in despair (I thought I was lost forever). My instructor, Yannik, scooped me up, tucked me safely in front of him and got me safely up the mountain. There, he kneeled down next to me and pulled off his glove revealing that his right hand was missing. Seeing this shocked me into silence and he said warmly, ‘If I can ski with one hand, you can do anything’;

Bouncing through bumpy forest trails as part of a crocodile of squealing children, gasping with laughter, barely in control and skiing through the most magical wintry surroundings;

Having existential conversations with fellow ten year olds on chair lifts: kids I met and knew for a week, put the world to rights with and then never saw again. This included one British kid I met in Colorado who, after an extensive conversation about winning the lottery, turned out to be related to my P.E. teacher who had taken early retirement after winning the Lotto jackpot a mere two weeks before;

Battling my way down notorious slopes like ‘Sache’ in Val-D’Isère, ‘Shock’ in Breckenridge, ‘Creux Noir’ in Courchevel and ‘Ghengis Khan’ in Vail;

Experiencing the elements in a visceral way, whether it’s gliding around in brilliant sunshine and sparkling snow, or using your gloves as a makeshift mask when snow is hitting your face in sharp pellets;

Learning how to properly carve by an Australian called John who lived his best life teaching kids how to ski during the winter and working as a carpenter in the summer;

Witnessing and experiencing a multitude of mishaps and injuries, for example: falling off a chairlift due to a cacophony of communication errors; falling off a T-Bar with a friend due to a lot of bad luck (why am I always falling off things?!); watching my dad plough into a snow wall he couldn’t see because it was the same colour as the cloud we were skiing through (I almost wet myself laughing); chomping on my tongue during a fall and spitting blood for ten minutes; watching someone in my ski group snap a ligament in her leg and being tobogganed down the mountain; and, the worst, watching 18 year old Neal Valiton tumble to his death during the 2007 IFSA World Freeride Championship in Tignes.

Skiing is fun and some mistakes are unfortunate and unavoidable, but anyone who doesn’t take yours and their safety extremely seriously isn’t worth skiing with. The mountain is beautiful but it is not always your friend. In light of this, it can become an incredibly mindful sport: you plonk yourself on the side of a mountain and somehow you have to get down as safely as possible. For me, crazy as it sounds, what ensues is a very clear and concerted inner conversation with myself. I have to navigate my way through ice and moguls, through white outs with zero visibility and the chaos that are nursery slopes at the end of the day, deciding how big or short my turns have to be, how much speed I can afford to pick up and how the rest of my group are getting along. In the process I give myself pep talks, sometimes even sing to myself when I get a good rhythm, and the whole effect is ridiculously calming.

This was proved again last weekend when I had my first snowboarding lesson at the Tamworth Snow Dome. To begin with, it felt almost sacrilegious because I had abandoned skis and poles for extremely comfortable boots and a single plank with sharp edges. But, after a shaky start, which included screaming in the instructor’s face as he helped me to edge down the hill, I dropped down into that calm, mature inner place that doesn’t always make itself known on a day-to-day basis. It was clear and confident, and sounded like: ‘OK Harper, we’re here now, on a snowboard, slightly out of control, what are we going to do about it?’ I slowed down, becoming mindful of my body and it’s movements (including the limits of what I was currently able to do) and, in so doing, embraced this new and disorientating experience. I have realised that my work is to try and tap into this place a lot more often.

 

 

(Featured image is my photo of El Pas de la Casa resort in Andorra, 2015)