Reading "Catcher in the Rye" has practically been a rite of passage for almost everyone who has attended an American high school in the last half century. It is the story of a day in the life of a "teenager from an upper-class background, who attends boarding schools in the northeastern United States" (p. xi) who, while in the midst of the throes of adolescence, might very well be going insane. This latest entry in Open Court's "Popular Culture and Philosophy" series tackles this American icon head-on, and, although far from perfect, it provides numerous philosophical insights into a number of aspects of Holden Caulfield's tortured existence. Overall, it is worth a read for anyone who really wants to get deeper into what "Catcher..." was really all about.
Clocking in at 215 pages, this entry leans toward the more recent shorter and quicker essay format that seems to be the current trend for these pop culture and philosophy books. One danger in relying on a shorter essay format is that the essays can become little more than glorified encyclopedia entries. Another danger is that, having less room to artfully weave together the chosen philosophical theme with the subject matter, these shorter, quicker essays will whet the appetite, but not satisfy it. In spite of this, enough of the sixteen essays were satisfying, with missteps occurring with those essays that either lacked a philosophical basis for their social commentary (chps. 5, 8, 13), were weak and rambling (chps. 6, 10), or had nothing whatsoever to do with philosophy (chp. 15 - psychiatry, and chp. 16 - literary criticism). Seven of the seventeen contributors were not philosophy PhDs or students. Co-editor Keith Dromm's solo essay (chp. 6) was weak and rambling, and the very last essay, co-authored by both Mr. Dromm and co-editor Heather Slater, although well-written and enjoyable, was focused on literary criticism, and not on philosophy. Dare I say it? The "curse of the book's editor" strikes again. Tsk tsk tsk...
The book's sixteen essays are grouped into four sections of four essays each. Section 1, "Lawyers and Other Phonies", covers morality, lying, self-knowledge, and Kierkegaard's view of irony. Section 2, "Holden's Rules for Crumby Stuff", covers the role of love, sexual ethics, moral responsibility, and personal moral principles. Section 3, "Where Do the Ducks Go?", covers time, the philosophy of disgust, phenomenology, and religious faith. Section 4, "Salinger's Trash and All", covers censorship, the role of literature, mental illness, and literary criticism.
The book begins with a self-test for the reader: "Are You a Phony"? "Yes" or "No" responses to each of twenty questions are tallied in order to determine how "phony" the reader is. (In the interest of full disclosure, I scored a 6 out of 20, making me "somewhat phony", although, I assure you, this review is absolutely not.) Co-editors Dromm and Slater then provide a solid introduction that sets the tone for this collection of essays by noting that the these essays are "principally concerned with the novel and the philosophical questions it provokes" (p. xv).
A few of the essays were standouts. Don Fallis' "The Most Terrific Liar You Ever Saw in Your Life" explores what it means to be a "phony" in Holden Caulfield's world. Mr. Fallis' area of expertise is lying and deception, and here he gives us the truth about phonies: being a phony involves insincerity and is consistent with "massive self-deception". Rick Mayock's "You Can't Teach Somebody How to Really Dance" applied Kierkegaard's view of irony to Holden Caulfield's adolescent angst. For Kierkegaard, irony relates to the transition phase between the aesthetic and ethical spheres of life, and for someone in the throes of adolescence, this exactly describes the situation one finds oneself in. The aesthetic stage is pre-ethical, amoral but not immoral, and Holden Caulfield's actions demonstrate that he is in the transition from this phase to an ethical one as he dreams of being a" catcher in the rye". Perhaps THE perfect topic, woven skillfully with the perfect philosophical theme.
Guy Pinku's "The Moral Call and the Moral Catch" invoked Emanuel Levinas' moral call to take responsibility for persons we encounter. Again, the "catcher in the rye" theme is addressed. Marcus Schulzke's "The Elderly Teenager" tries to understand Holden Caulfield's relationship to time by comparing pre-Socratic philosophers Heraclitus (all is change) and Parmenides (change is an illusion), and showing how Plato's theory of forms was an attempt at reconciling these two opposing philosophical viewpoints.
There were good essays that failed because they lacked any real philosophical basis. Jamie Carlin Watson's "Holden Onto What's Right" compared Holden's self-professed "rules" against what everyone else holds as the right way to behave. I enjoyed this essay. It defined the terms "phony", "bastard", "moron", and "madmen" in terms of social norms and moral norms, and held up the "catcher" as the moral ideal. However, it was social commentary, and, perhaps with the exception of mentioning "ought implies can", did not ground itself in philosophy. The very last essay, co-editors Keith Dromm and Heather Slater's "Calling Salinger Up", was a good essay that looked at three schools of literary criticism. What is the point of a novel? Perhaps nothing more than having an aesthetic experience. A point with which I agree. Too bad this essay wasn't on point with its mandate of pop culture and something something...
The worst essay was Michael Cundall's "Is Holden mentally Ill?" It was an essay about psychiatry and mental illness, not philosophy. To add insult to injury, this essay had more typographical errors in it than I think I have ever seen in an essay in this genre. ("Plus ca change", eh, Open Court?)
And there you have it. I may be a bastard in writing these book reviews, but at least I'm not a phony or a moron. Well... maybe just a little mad. Catch THAT, gentle reader! John V. Karavitis