Holden Caulfield, Guru

UPDATED (at end): Since the death of J.D. Salinger, there’s been scads of comment declaring his books as life-changers (or not) and plenty of speculation on what waits in his safe to be published or what might be made into a movie and even some of that personal, David Copperfield kind of crap. But there’s been precious little about why Salinger’s great achievement, The Catcher In the Rye, had the impact it had. How is it that the story of a post-World War II, New York prep-school kid spoke across class and generational divides to six decades of teens as well as adults? What is it that continues to speak to readers, not only in the competitive world of New York private schools, but to kids in Nebraska, California and Montana as well (this may be changing) ? Why do those of us who read it more years back than we’d like to remember and, picking it up again, still find plenty of laughs, poignancy  and situations to identify with?

Salinger’s Holden Caulfield does what all adolescents do:  struggle to define identity (see Erik Erikson, Identity: Youth and Crisis).  Holden’s struggle overwhelms him. What teenager can’t empathize with his alienation? The book is full of things that teenagers still hear:  “frequent warnings to start applying myself”  (“applying?”…what does that mean?), and “life being a game” ( “Game, my ass. Some game. If you get on the side where all the hot-shots are, then it’s a game all right–I’ll admit that. But if you get on the other side….”). Sexual identity adds confusion, lots of confusion: “Sex is something I just don’t understand. I swear to God I don’t” and, “In my mind, I’m probably the biggest sex maniac you ever saw.” Holden’s sensitivity leads him to find the importance attached to the innocuous discouraging. “If somebody, some girl in an awful looking hat, for instance, comes all the way to New York — from Seattle, Washington for God’s sake–and ends up getting up early to see the goddamn first show at Radio City Music Hall, it makes me so depressed I can’t stand it.” Then there’s hypocrisy. Remember Ossenburger, the Pencey graduate who made “a pot of dough in the undertaking business”? How in his address to the students,  “He said he talked to Jesus all the time. Even when he was driving his car. That killed me I can just see the big phony bastard shifting into first gear and asking Jesus to send him a few more stiffs”?

Phonies. They’re the bane of Holden’s existence. And who’s the biggest phony? “I’m the most terrific liar you ever saw in your life,” Holden says.  Remember him on the train home feeding manure to Ernie Morrow’s mother about how great her son was? (“Her son was doubtless the biggest bastard that ever went to Pencey, in the whole crumby history of the school.”) Somehow, we know we aren’t really who we think we are (Holden: “I’m quite illiterate, but I read alot.”), a realization that puts us in Caulfield-like crisis.   This is the “fidelity” stage of Erikson’s   personality theory. Society’s push to make us conform puts Holden in a quandary. Where do the ducks in Central Park go when the pond is frozen? Why does Holden wear his red hunting cap with his pajamas?

That the story is told with humor and a certain spoken rhythm adds to its authenticity. Salinger pioneered the irreverent, scatological humor so prevalent in movie comedies of the last several decades (“The only good part of the speech was right in the middle of it….all of a sudden this guy sitting in the row in front of me, Edgar Marsalla, laid this terrific fart. It was a very crude thing to do, in chapel and all…”). The swearing–still the bane of high school librarians everywhere–not only adds realism but a sense of the phoniness directed towards teens.  “I toleja about that. I don’t like that type of language,” says the woman that Holden dances with in his hotel’s lounge.  Holden’s relationship to adults–his parents, cab drivers, waiters,  elevator operator and prostitute–contrasted with that to his 10-year-old sister Phoebe seems too idealistic, as if children could never be mean or  phony. But it stands as a symbol of innocence and genuineness, a  nostalgic cry for our lost childhood.

The book’s central image, the catcher in the rye keeping children from going over the edge, speaks to this nostalgia. In my case, it led to a life dedicated to working with children, a result that was a slight misinterpretation of what Salinger probably intended. But right reading of the image or wrong, my life was changed. Salinger’s other books didn’t affect me as deeply, though I loved them well. The Nine Stories, Raise High the Roof Beam ,Carpenters and Seymour: an Introduction were lessons on the sometimes radical actions that come of identity confusion and the use of those actions as symbol for larger meaning. Franny and Zooey introduced us to a type of specific yet undefinable spirituality that has since been embraced by writers ranging from Isabelle Allende to Jim Harrison. As good as these books are, they seem footnotes in Salinger’s career. But Holden Caulfield? He’s our  guru.–Cabbage Rabbit

UPDATE: Adam Gopnik’s sparkling Salinger “Postscript” in the February 8th issue of The New Yorker sums up Salinger’s writing better than anything else we’ve read. He writes of Salinger’s ear for American dialogue, his “essential gift for joy” and, how “that amid the malice and falseness of social life, redemption rises from clear speech, and childlike enchantment, from all the forms of unselfconscious innocence that still surround us,” statements that explain Salinger’s fascination with children and his reluctance to paint them or their experience as perfect. “writing, real writing,” he says, ” is done not from some seat of fussy moral judgment but with the eye and ear and heart; no American writer will ever have a more alert ear, a more attentive eye, or a more ardent heart than his.”  Note to writers (including self): Forget that MFA, “high-hearted” moral posturing and all the other (to borrow Holden’s word ) crap and start paying closer attention to what you hear from those around you as well as your own heart.

Seeing Through Auster

What is it that’s “invisible” in Paul Auster’s latest novel? It’s not the truth. The truth is there… somewhere … though choosing it from all the various claims and denials batted around by three different narrators and one or two other characters might be an impossible task. Or maybe it’s not. Let’s settle on this: the truth is not apparently visible.

What’s invisible is Auster himself. In the past, Auster has inserted himself to various degrees in his writing (remember the detective Paul Auster in City of Glass?). And his work has often focused on identity; how it’s established and how it’s held. In Invisible, Auster explores how our identity is developed and perceived, by ourselves and others, through the stories we tell.  Here the stories are of  trust, love, murder and incest, made-up and otherwise. Just when we think we know one of the characters, and through his/her telling, the others, the point-of view changes and the new narrator destroys what we believed about them all. As we take more and more interest in the entwining tales, the author of them all goes transparent.

It’s 1967 and Adam Walker,  a student at Columbia and aspiring poet (as was Auster) is befriended by an excitable, mysterious older Frenchman, Rudolf Born, and his younger woman friend Margot. The two become entangled in Walker’s’ already tangled life. Born proposes generously funding a literary journal that Adam will edit. In Born’s absence, Margot and Adam begin sleeping together, apparently with Born’s blessing. All seems hope and promise until Adam and Born are accosted walking on Riverside Drive and Born reacts with surprising brutality. Or does he?

This first of four sections seems to fall into a literary model of the type represented by John Fowles’ The Magus. A young man, full of aspiration and desire, falls in with an unpredictable, Svengali-like mentor who, through sinister manipulation, seems intent on teaching his young protege  the cruel and trustless realities of life. But in part II we’re propelled forward some 30 years and given a new narrator, Adam’s Columbia-era friend Jim, who hasn’t heard from him all this time.  Adam is dying from leukemia and entrusts the story–so it was only a story?–of his relationship with Born and Margot to his old friend. Their correpsondence reveals much more of Adam’s story, including his deep, incestuous relationship with his sister. After the Riverside Drive incident, Adam breaks with Born and questions his own involvement. He travels to Paris where he again takes up with Margot. Then he runs into Born, who has become a cipher that marks the point Adam’s life lost all innocence (or was it that incestuous experience with his year-older sister when he was fourteen?).  The affair with Margot becomes less serious even as it’s announced that Born will marry an old acquaintance with a strangely desirable daughter. Adam, anxious to expose Born’s murderous behavior, hatches his own magus plot, one that can only end in emotional–and dangerous– disaster. The daughter, years later, tells her own story.  As Auster writes, “Compelling as those twists and turns might be, they amount to just one story among an infinity of stories, one film among a multitude of films…”

Auster has discussed the power of the stories we tell ourselves previously, notably in 2008’s Man In the Dark. Here, the theme isn’t as much about creating reality as defining it. Identity creates truth, circumstance defines identity and truth, real or perceived, influences circumstance.  Adam and his sister are drawn together by the death of their younger brother. That leads them to intimacy. Born, something of a double agent, defines himself as he sees fit, leaving others to their suspicions. In his pursuit of revenge, Adam seeks a new identity but becomes something entirely unexpected, by him and the reader.

Invisible cements Auster’s reputation as a mystery writer, one who pursues the various clues of meaning towards an ever-elusive answer. In this sense, his writing is as captivating as any detective fiction while vastly superior in psychic and existential puzzles. This writer-as-detective is a stand-in for all of us who have ever wondered who or what to believe. Believing ourselves could be a mistake. Fashioning our lives as stories may or may not help make sense of it all.–Cabbage Rabbit

Flat-Earth Theory

John Ashbery, now 82, has said that his goal is “to produce a poem that the critic can’t even talk about.” Planisphere proves that he keeps trying, even as the critics keep talking. Helen Vendler finds meaning in Planisphere‘s title. She notes that it comes from Marvell’s poem “The Definition of Love,” sees that the book is dedicated to Ashbery’s long-time partner, and claims that its two-dimensional suggestion somehow makes it so that “the distant poles at last can touch.” Call it Ashbery’s flat-earth theory, a bit of stretching that, we guess, would surely make Ashbery smile.

Stretching is what Ashbery’s poetry is all about. Never about one thing–though it’s been suggested that it’s about nothing–his poetry, crafted in many ways, is about many things. A single stanza can slip ideas, in the form of symbols stuffed with meaning, like a shoplifter past the checkout of the reader’s attention: “What are the flurries, faked orgasms,/the glass texture? The spa, corrupt,/dead like a geranium/in the crosshairs at the end of time…”

We don’t understand these 99, alphabetically ordered poems the way we usually understand poetry; no “aha” moments as Ashbery calls them. Instead, they resonate with something undefinable, their audible music supplanted by some form of abstraction that seeks an identity in what we can identify. Some of what we discover is familiar, phrases we’ve seen or heard. There’s parents “raising their voices,” “sticker shock” is suffered, “virtuous men…refusing to take sides” and times “Like old times”; the kinds of phraseology that would be damned as cliche used by other writers. But Ashbery puts platitude to unexpected use in unexpected places. Or he wrings something out of them, saying, for example, “There were two ways about it,” the missing “no” bringing “you and me” as well as sun and stars and hope and futility together. This is an old Ashbery trick, keeping his ear to the ground and hearing a stampede. He does the same thing with individual words, turning nouns into verbs, adjectives into nouns and pronouns into other pronouns.

What Ashbery’s done is invented a new use for language, a new way to communicate. Words sweat from working overtime. He pulls sound and symbol from them as well as layers of meaning, like  onion skins, at a pace to leave us crying. The audible music of his phrasing often calls up visual images. In “Semi-Detached” we hear, “when I pause at the door,/pretending to stalk someone through the potted/palms, fizzle or peter or poop out.” The visible fizzle of those palm fronds, stalk and all, have been tied to the previous “popular” and “‘poise'” and “pause,” their vowels ringing against “I’m outta here.”

All this turning and twisting and cleverness for the sake of obscurity has its reason. The poems, even at their least understandable, resonant like new music and free jazz with something we can’t quite put our intellect on. It’s common to hear fans of the avant garde say the more they hear, say Cecil Taylor or Evan Parker or Muhal Richards Abrams, the more they understand their music, what they’re trying to say. It’s a bit different with Ashbery. The more I read these poems, the more I enjoy them. But understand them? No.

So what’s his message? Generally, something like a country song written by Bad Blake, the Jeff Bridges character in the movie Crazy Heart: “Everything is screwed up.”  At end there’s futility, death and “trash.” In the meantime, there’s the musical “sweet communion of sun/and fun” and he’s not talking about a day at the beach… even though he is.

The second and last stanza of “Semi-Detached,” a poem in which he describes himself as “Sanctimonious fraud,” “Pharisee,” “mealymouth, poseur” and worse, seems to sum it up in typical Ashbery style:

When someone calls me by name it’s always

a case of mistaken identity, a ringer.

On the other hand would I have waited while

the contretemps was sorted out? Not likely.

So it’s off to the circus for us, you and me.

You’ll never be more agitated than you are now,

at this insurpassable moment. I, on the other hand

am cool for the time being. Such is my creed.

Where reviewer Vendler, probably correctly, sees a flat-earth theory in “Planisphere” where the opposite poles of Ashbery and his companion finally align, the title poem is about something more than love (but about love as well), a memoir of how the earth can move from something other than sex, how travel through one’s life can be interrupted. It’s set obscurely on a train in the Shinjuku section of Tokyo and recalls “that fatal day in 1861/when the walkways fell off the mountains…”What was launched from this, when “The land stretched away like jelly into a confused cleft” was something personal and larger, the rise of imperialistic Japan. In a personal sense, something else was flattened. But trying to make sense of it all is something like “herding fleas till the next shipment of analgesics arrived.” Ashbery might not stop us from talking. But he’s left us not knowing what to talk about.–Cabbage Rabbit

Denial Economics

One way we laymen understand economics and how it affects our times is to think of it in schools. The clash between these schools– between Keynesians and Freidmanites, Harvard and Chicago, fresh and saltwater, free markets and countervailing powers, Roosevelt and Reagan–often become heated and personal giving economics the same scandalous, slap-down fascination as the Leno-Conan conflict.  John Cassidy’s series of interviews with free market, libertarian Chicago School economists (online at The New Yorker), prompted by the defection of  judge, law professor and, as Cassidy puts it, “a leading figure in the conservative Chicago School of economics” Richard Posner  is particularly revealing. Posner’s book, A Failure of Capitalism: The Crisis of ’08 and the Descent into Depression, went against the pillars of Chicago economics by blaming the 2007-2008 slump on deregulation and questionable monetary policy. Most of  his Chicago colleagues have not approved.

The latest interview to go up, with Eugene Fama, father of the “efficient market hypothesis,” shows that the champions of financial deregulation are neither responsible or repentant about the chaos their ideology has wrought. Under Cassidy’s persistent questions, Fama defends his theories in light of the market slump, denies that “bubbles” (like the housing bubble) are a real phenomenon (“They have to be a predictable phenomenon,” he argues), and explains things away by saying that the recession caused the credit crisis and not the other way around.  In something of a backpedal, he even claims he suggested there was no such thing as bubbles. And he seems to take delight in trashing Paul Krugman who, of course, has done some trashing of him. He defends the evil Milton Friedman and dismisses Posner by saying, “He’s not an economist.”

This kind of  I-didn’t-do-it-and-you-can’t-prove-it argument from well-known economists enables certain politicians to stick to their ideologies and to keep the “government-bad” agenda in front of the public courtesy a gullible, privileged-class media, ensuring that little or nothing will be done to correct the problems that got us into this economic mess. What the world needs are more  thinkers like Posner who aren’t afraid to change, who aren’t threatened by what’s in front of their faces. Denial might not be a river in Egypt, but it certainly runs through Chicago.–Cabbage Rabbit

UPDATE: Casey B. Mulligan’s attack against the minimum wage increase in today’s “Economix” blog in The New York Times shows how Chicago School economists are not just in denial but continue to attack the working class in behalf of their pro-market ideology. Mulligan’s argument is based on a questionable relationship between  full-and-part time employment and the choice employers have regarding the benefits of sustained and increasing productivity vs. cost savings through lay offs (or choosing other ways to achieve them). No where is there an actual figuring in of how current recessionary trends might have affected the data, or– worse–the dreary state of survival workers face, especially those with families, at even a few dollars above the niggardly salary that’s called minimum wage. This kind of what’s-best-for-business-is-best-for -workers thinking has a bad historical track record.

Radiolarians: Third Time’s Charm

The implication of three, staggered releases in Medeski, Martin and Wood’s title-and-concept-sharing Radiolarians series is that the second will be an improvement on the first and that the third will be best of all. Of course, this assumption is false; no such claim is made or warranted. And the Radiolarians process–developing material first in performance and then taking it into the studio–guarantees a certain amount of familiarity and polish when the music is recorded. But will there be some kind of artistic progress?

To these furry ears, the answer seems to be yes. Radiolarians III is the most sophisticated, the most inventive and the most satisfying of the three recordings. As much as we loved Radiolarians IIIII offers more of the off-beat, more melding of influences, more sonic satisfaction. Sure, we have our favorite cuts from I and II. But III is consistently pleasing, without undo reliance on any one direction.

The disc opens in familiar, groove territory. But then, across a layered chorus, Medeski offers constrasting backdrop and melody before taking to acoustic piano and improvising in a style that recalls Gene Harris, Ahmad Jamal and finally Cecil Taylor. The second tune, “Satan Your Kingdom Must Come Down” is a traditional number that seems, in this incarnation, directed towards metal heads, a blend of hand-clapping piano and fuzzy, electric bass that at times seems to shout “hallelujah!” “Kota” is from the acoustic, new-music school, moving to exotic rhythms and Medeski’s oud-like electronics (we’re guessing here, maybe Chris Wood is overdubbing actual oud?).  “Undone” grooves with bass and drums out front and “Wonton” is a frantic, organ trio dance.

So it goes. Nothing here is completely new; MM&W are well known for combining an eclectic array of keyboard, bass and percussion sounds through a variety of styles and rhythmic influences. It’s that they’re doing more of it here and in more successful ways. Take “Broken Mirror,” a moody piece that seems designed as a soundtrack to a noir movie. It’s the intruding harpsichord chords, the synthesized electric guitar wash and the sultry bass that make the tune something not easily categorized.

There’s no doubt that the Radiolarians concept of developing music in performance before recording has brought something fresh to the trio which seemed to be stuck in, uh, a groove of late. There’s also no doubt that the threesome’s music would have continued to evolve without this concept. Or was it just a marketing ploy? One has to wonder who outside die-hard fans with coin ($89.99) will purchase the extravagant  Radiolarians: The Evolutionary Set with its bonus tracks, bonus discs, remixes, live recording and two-lp set…plus DVD! It might be the only way to say that it was worth all the trouble, but then again. Only die-hard fans with the coin –I wish I were one!–will go the distance.-Cabbage Rabbit

TinTin’s Century

Did the past century belong to Tintin? That’s the suggestion in Pierre Assouline’s new biography Herge: The Man Who Created Tintin when Assouline, using redundant hedges, writes, “some speak with some justification of a ‘Tintin century,’ signfying the 20th.” Writer and Vanity Fair editor Bruce Handy, writing in The New York Times Book Review begs to differ. “I wouldn’t even give him a decade,” Handy says, lumping him into year-or-two sensations “like Zonker Harris and the Fantastic Four.”

Handy admits that his is a typical Ameri-centric opinion (Handy like Mickey and Batman for the century- owning comic characters). Tintin’s  popularity in the U.S. has, to this point, barely registered. Indeed, my local library has a solid collection of the cow-licked reporter’s adventures from his U.S. publisher Little, Brown which seem little touched by my fellow comic enthusiasts, young and old alike. This will change when director  Steven Spielberg’s movie The Adventures of Tintin: The Secret of the Unicorn is released in time for Christmas, 2011.  Until then, Tintin must be content with whatever controversy the biography and the American release of his adventures brings.  Little, Brown pulled Tintin In the Congo after news of the 1931 publication’s re-release brought protests of racism…shades of Babar! Herge had long since cleaned-up the adventure after its initial publication as well as having removed some of the anti-Semitic representations in his drawing from The Shooting Star and others.

All this doesn’t mean that Tintin isn’t the perfect cartoon character for the French century.  Like the French themselves, Tintin has dealt with the demise of the French colonial empire, such as it was, as well as showing as much resignation as resistance to its occupation. Herge apparently fell more on the resignation side. During World War II, he worked for the pro-German paper Le Soir and after the war was arrested, but not convicted, for being a collaborator.

It’s this ability to survive even while maintaining a false of dignity that marks Herge’s life (Handy notes that Herge “shrugged off accusations of anti- Semitism by saying ‘That was the style then'”). Some of this carries over to the character he created who, like Batman and the Fantastic Four, was trying to do the right thing among the tenor of his country and its times. The innocence of this,  not yet lost even after years of  cultural and social change, can still be admired despite its flaws. Herge’s genius lies in his story-telling, his panel construction and plot sequencing, his articulate drawing and wit, even as the stereotypes and racial arrogance are called out. —Cabbage Rabbit

When Jazz Went Bad

The same old thing wasn’t going to cut it in the early 1970s. And just about anything recorded before Miles Davis’ Bitches Brew, in other words before 1969, was the same old thing. That wasn’t going to grab the ears of the hip new audience Miles had attracted with his magnum opus. And record companies wanted that audience…bad.

The music collected on Bridge Into the New Age, all of it (with the exception of one cut) recorded between 1971 and 1974 documents attempts to bring jazz into the age of Aquarius. There are reflections of the political, social and cultural trends that influenced the music, mirrored by peace-and-love themes and cries of “Free Angela!” as well as attempts to meld Afro-centric rhythms and soul–the “bad” sounds of James Brown, Sly Stone and Issac Hayes among others–to an art form which was popularly seen as  becoming to intellectual and formless  (though this wasn’t necessarily so).

As Bridge illustrates, there was much about this movement that was successful. The period (and earlier) produced some great music, not all of it by Davis. Any comprehensive selection of the era’s hits would have to include Miroslav Vitous’ Infinite Search, Herbie Hancock’s Mwandishi, Wayne Shorter’s Super Nova, Joe Zawinul’s Zawinul, Weather Report’s eponymous first album and a host of others. Bridge documents the Milestone/Prestige label’s attempts at staying current. That most of the music here is satisfying and timeless in its appeal speaks to the musicians on the label’s roster–Joe Henderson, McCoy Tyner, Idris Muhammad, Gary Bartz–and their ability to maintain their individuality even as their approach to music changed.

The music reflects trends of the era: spiritual and ethnic-consciousness themes, electric instrumentation, emphasis on vocals, percussive color, accessible beats that supported strong and sometimes free-form solos, attempts to include non-traditional instrumentation into the mix, movement towards larger ensembles. Here, those trends are represented by drummer Muhammad’s eight-piece ensemble playing “Peace,” with two additional percusionists (occasionally augmented by saxophonist Clarence Thomas on bells) joining the drummer in rhythmic layering.  Larry Willis attaches echoplex and ring modulator to his keyboard for Henderson’s “Tress-Cun-De-O-La” with the leader’s vocal and guitarist James “Blood” Ulmer providing dissonant elements.  Alice Coltrane brings harp to Henderson’s “Fire.” Todd Cochran, performing then as Bayete, balances clavinet against the horn section on one of “Free Angela”‘s three sections. Gary Bartz sing lyrics from Langston Hughes before cutting loose on alto.  None of the tunes would be identified (except by militant purists) as anything other than jazz. Yet they all sound different than earlier schools of swing, be-bop, post-bop. New.

It’s impossible to tell if (or how much) this direction resulted from label influence (as it did from the Columbia label) or if it came from the artists themselves.  And not everything here is music to our ears. Compare vocals from artist themselves (Henderson, Bartz, Cochran’s chorus) to Jean Carn’s strong and convincing voice on Azar Lawrence’s tune that gives the collection its title, or her work on  “Mother of the Future” from Norman Connors’ Slewfoot. The one piece that stands apart from the rest–Jack DeJonette’s “Brown, Warm and Wintry”–was recorded in 1968. Maybe something from the 1975 Prestige date Cosmic Chicken would have better fit the program (his excellent1970 recording Have You Heard? on Milestone may have been too far out or its trio too underpopulated to be included).

Needless to say, much of this music’s positive direction lost out as jazz recording moved on to jazz-rock and fusion. Too bad. But the Rabbit, who owned all but one of these recordings as a bunny, remembers the hopeful feeling this music gave him…and the conviction it gave that there indeed was something new under the sun. Dumb bunny.–Cabbage Rabbit