Culture in the Rye

Many years ago, I was told a story by a woman I knew whose son had been diagnosed with "ADD." She said that she finally had to take from her boy a book a therapist had given him about how an ADD child acts. The problem? Her son was imitating the behavior of the child in it!

Then I remember when someone I know well told me about her thirteen-year-old's reaction to being confronted about his misbehavior. He said something to the effect of, "Well, Mom, you know I'm at that age." But how did he know he was at "that age"?

There is also all the anxiety adolescents are supposed to feel over the "changes in their body," and we're told about how tough it is to be a teenager. I don't know, but I remember my teen years well, and I experienced no such thing. I knew I was moving toward manhood and was happy about it. And whenever the topic might have arisen, it was apparent that my friends were happy about it, too. Why wouldn't we have been? If you think it's tough becoming bigger, stronger, faster, and better each and every day, try the other side of that hill, when you have to trade in the Rollerblades for a Rascal scooter. 

This brings me to the book The Catcher in the Rye, which is in the news again after the death of its author, J.D. Salinger. Like so many others attending high school in the early 1980s, I had to read Catcher. Now, I guess I was "supposed" to relate to it, but I never did. I didn't experience teen "angst," and I didn't think everyone was a phony, either. Furthermore, if any of my friends related to the book, they certainly never said anything about it. Nor did any of my friends -- or the teens I would work with later in life -- exhibit angst or a preoccupation with the phoniness of others. In fact, I think the young are better epitomized by a starry-eyed idealism, where they expect some virtue, heroism, and idealism in others. For sure, the millions of youths who chanted "yes, we can!" in 2008 expected those things (although it's rumored that many have now become Holden Caulfield).

Now, mind you, I don't imply that Catcher tells us nothing about people in their adolescence. I simply say that its popularity -- just like the other social phenomena I mentioned -- tells us even more about a civilization in its twilight.    

For one thing, there was a time when telling kids how they were "supposed" to behave meant drawing from Sunday school or the Bible, not the Kinsey Institute or the DSM-IV. We taught the morals we expected, not the misbehavior to be expected (and, by inference, accepted). This makes sense, too, as morality needs to be taught. Problems just happen naturally.

Unfortunately, they can also be induced unnaturally. I believe that much (though not all) of the modern narrative about the problems of youth is the projection of adults. It doesn't reflect teens as a group because it reflects only certain former teens as individuals -- people who, though now grown, may sometimes just be repressed adolescents themselves. Even insofar as Catcher goes, who really made it popular? Do you think kids would be reading it today if educators hadn't made it a staple of curricula? Of course, in all fairness to Salinger, he did write the book for adults -- and those adults then made it popular among the kids.

Ironically, while Catcher was once the bane of traditionalists, it now finds a few foes even among the left. For example, Oberlin College English professor Anne Trubek is quoted as saying that the work is "not so contemporary anymore" and that "most American teenagers will find rather tame and sort of laughable the things that were once considered so controversial." She says that Holden Caulfield is not such a "universal voice for American teenagers" because he's an "upper-class white man." Then, echoing the last point I made, she opined that since all classics are man-made, there's "[no] reason why we couldn't do the same with some of the things that have been written in the last 10 years." Yeah, hey, why not get with the times? Or is the problem that we've long been getting with the times and away from the Truth?

If this sounds oh-so-absolutist, understand that for all our modern talk about letting kids spread their wings and not imposing values, we certainly do preach messages. We diagnose children with ADD and then tell them how ADD kids "should" act, or we tell adolescents how they "should" feel about their changing bodies. We say it is a given that they'll be rebellious and angst-ridden. We create a blockbuster movie with strong anti-corporate, anti-Western, and pro-feminist themes. And we preach messages for a very simple reason: It's almost impossible to do otherwise. Society and its art and literature will always project values, either explicitly or implicitly. The only question is, what should those values be?     

This brings us to an important point: Moderns have lost sight of the purpose of art and literature. And this is why, for instance, people will offer that tired old defense of rap music and say, "Hey, they're just tellin' you what's goin' on out there [in the streets]." Now, I could point out that this standard would justify the showing of porn and snuff films to kids, too; after all, sex and serial killing are "goin' on out there" also. But the point is this: If something is supposed to tell you what's going on out there, it's not called art.

It's called news.

And there is a reason why people complain about the news: It's not exactly uplifting. Yet one of the purposes of art is to do just that: uplift man, not degrade him. Is this disputable? Do we want our art to lower us morally?

Our lips will answer no, but our actions say otherwise. The art we create today seems not just like the fruits of Holden Caulfield, but of seventh-grade ne'er-do-wells who mock the straight-laced A-student until he crumbles or sinks to their level. G.K. Chesterton alluded to this with a quip that could be applied to all the arts, "Savages and modern artists are alike strangely driven to create something uglier than themselves. But the artists find it harder."

In point of fact, anything wholesome today is mocked as a goody-goody (G rating?) work and dismissed as simplistic. For instance, consider the remarks of an aging and quite liberal Stephen Talbot, the fellow who played tow-headed troublemaker Gilbert Bates on Leave it to Beaver. Obviously very embarrassed by his association with the show, he took pains to emphasize that it contained stereotypes and was completely unrealistic. Unrealistic? Perhaps, but what work is completely realistic? Is the current practice of consistently bucking stereotypes -- of portraying thoroughly anomalous characters (e.g., masculinized women) -- realistic? The point is that artistic license exists and should be used responsibly. This means to promote good, not evil -- to elevate, not degrade.

So realism is a poor excuse for degradation.  After all, in real life, we all must answer nature's call, but does this mean we must show television characters using the toilet? Yet we seem to believe that we must show them washing their dirty laundry. And the end result of this philosophy is that Hollywood is using the whole world as a toilet.

So what is the purpose of art?  To entertain?  That's fine, but its higher calling is to teach lessons about good and evil and to encourage virtue. It is supposed to reflect Truth.

Once this is understood, it becomes clear why moderns can benefit from reading millennia-old Greek classics, works about long-dead people written in antiquated ways. Truth transcends time, place, and people. And this brings us to our problems today.

Because the West has fallen victim to moral relativism, it no longer believes in transcendent Truth. Thus, stripped of the eternal yardstick that should govern art and curricula, we use emotion as the yardstick and try to provide what makes a given group "feel" good. This is why we hear about how something isn't relevant to most because it's about an "upper-class white man" or was penned by "dead white males." It's why we try to give each group its particular flavor, such as feminism for girls and afro-centrism for blacks. It's why we talk about the times and not Truth, saying that a work is no longer "contemporary." It's why education has degenerated to a point wherein all we can do is give everyone a lie that, supposedly, he can relate to. But this tragically misses the point: Everyone needs the same thing, and that is Truth. Thus should our goal be to relate it -- and help everyone to relate to it. 

Doing otherwise is pointless. After all, if morals are relative, how could it be wrong to not be contemporary or sensitive to feelings, or to be provincial? More significantly, though, if we accept the relativistic lie that all is taste and we each have our own flavor, we'll never be able to relate to the same things or, tragically, to each other. 

Thus does relativism yield division. If you want brotherhood, seek Truth.

Contact Selwyn Duke.