SEPTEMBER 5, 2013
POSTED BY ADAM GOPNIK
Sometime in late 1968, Charles Manson was listening to “The Beatles,” to use the proper name of what’s most often called the White Album, and decided that “Helter Skelter,” an upbeat rocker about a roller coaster at an English amusement park, was a call to black insurrection in America, to be set off by the brutal murders of an actress, a hairdresser, a coffee heiress, and several other innocents. The question that this horrible incident has always provoked was not just: How could anyone have thought anything so murderously insane? It was also: Why was Charles Manson listening with such hallucinative intensity to an album whose other highlights were John Lennon’s delicate bossa-nova ballad to his mother Julia, Paul McCartney’s lyrical invocation of Noël Coward, and George Harrison’s mystical celebration of the varieties in a box of English chocolates—not to mention a nine-minute-long tribute to concrete music? Why did he pay such close attention to something so inherently unsympathetic to his, ahem, sensibility?
The simple, sad answer is: because everyone did. There are certain artists, and some art, that become so popular that everyone peers into them, finding whatever they will, however they will. All the usual tests of sympathy, natural feeling, and do-I-really-respond-to-this? are lost in the gravitational pull of ubiquity. Not surprisingly, the artists who are, briefly, the beneficiaries and thereafter the victims of this kind of attention get totally freaked out by the intensity of it all: not too long after, Bob Dylan, another of the tribe, recorded his notorious “Self Portrait,” just back out in a new version, trying to demonstrate to his admirers the simple truth that he was an American singer, with a broad taste for American songs, not some kind of guru or mystic or oracle, please go away. It didn’t help.
These questions come to mind in reading David Shields and Shane Salerno’s heavily hyped biography “Salinger” (Simon & Schuster), not least because, in one of the most bizarre sections of a bizarre book, they themselves raise the issue of murder-by-bad-reading, in connection with the murder (fearful symmetry!) of the Beatles’ John Lennon by Mark Chapman, who happened to have hallucinated a motive within “The Catcher in the Rye.” Shields and Salerno’s own peculiar view of Salinger forces them to insist that Chapman was not just a crazy hallucinant, but in his own misguided way an insightful reader, responding to the “huge amount of psychic violence in the book.” Now, there is a section in “Catcher” in which Holden fantasizes about shooting the pimp who has set him up with a prostitute, but it is exactly a bit of extended irony about the movies and their effect on everyone’s imagination: a defusing of vengeance fantasies. In Salerno’s “acclaimed documentary film” (as the book’s jacket calls it), meanwhile, a witness points out that the word “kills” occurs with ominous regularity in the text—failing to acknowledge that this is Holden’s slang for the best things that happen to him. “She kills me” is what Holden says about his beloved little sister Phoebe. There’s no more “violence” implicit in the usage than there is sublimated religiosity in Holden’s New York cabbies saying “Jesus Christ!” It’s just an American idiom, lovingly preserved by a master of them.
That Chapman’s reading strikes the authors as logical, if unfortunate, is just one demonstration, in a strange chop-shop biography, that they are no more interested in Salinger the writer or artist than the people who go through Dylan’s garbage cans are really interested in Dylan. In both book and bad movie, a simple theory is flogged: that Salinger was a victim of P.T.S.D., screwed up by a brutal combat experience in the Second World War. It’s a truth that, as far as it goes, Salinger himself dramatized at beautiful length in his story “For Esmé—with Love And Squalor,” and then left behind. (Holden is far too young to be a veteran, and Seymour Glass, so far as a close reader can tell, was in the armed forces, like most of his generation, but never in combat: the proximate cause of his suicide is a bad marriage, not a bad war.)
In any case, Salinger’s work emphatically editorializes its moral point, which is about as far from celebrating or even sublimating violence as any writing can be. No writer could ever have had his moral pluses and minuses so neatly, so columnarly, arranged and segregated off from each other. Phoebe, the Fat Lady, Esmé, innocence, and small domestic epiphanies are good. Violence, the military, cruelty are all bad. To make this view somehow its opposite is to refuse to read what’s there on the page, in search of something that might sit better on Page Six. That Salinger was wounded, like many of a generation, by combat is obvious; that it “explains” everything he wrote after is the kind of five-cent psychiatry that gives a bad name to nickels. (In any case, as the authors admit, Salinger already had six or so chapters of the book finished before he set foot in France, while the Holdenish sensibility—if not Holden’s sweetness and essential helplessness—was shared by hundreds of artists of the period, most of whom had never held a rifle.)
Read on here.
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