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The Catcher in the Rye: A Master Blaster of Superficiality in Society and the Book’s Tryst With Censors Through Decades

[avatar user=”Veewon” size=”thumbnail” align=”left” link=”file” target=”_blank”]VEEWON THOKCHOM[/avatar]

The Catcher in the Rye, the 1951 masterpiece by J. D. Salinger is one the most influential books of fiction ever written in the history of modern American literature, a magnificent work that has provided a new edge to my taste of reading books, fiction and non-fiction. I read the book aeons ago when I was 19 years old and in the succeeding years, the book saved me, in some way or the other, from a “terrible fall” that was looming over me in the following days of my graduation in Delhi University. Every time I was in a mess and hatred took over my being, I remembered the novel’s protagonist and took shelter beside him. For a year I would carry the book in my bag everywhere I went, and ask my friends every time I had a chance if they have also read the book.

The novel’s protagonist, Holden Caulfield, an anti-hero, is an epitome for teenage rebellion, an exemplary figure protesting against a social condition that reeked of unfairness and falsehood. Written in the post Second World War era, the book reflects Holden’s aspect and behavior towards the society he belongs to, a harsh world in which he no longer was able to locate his own identity.

The most accurate of teenage angst, of youth counter-culture, a conflict between teenage and adulthood, a search for truth and innocence, all in all, is the central theme of the book. Holden Caulfield, a paradigmatic pessimist teenager, is one of those grotesque guys whom I would love to hate, but one I would admire secretly for being the person he honestly is, for not being the “phonies” people usually are, for his apparent distaste for everything that has to do with society and its superficial moral code. If you could “call up on the phone whenever you felt like it” and have a banter with him, you would know that you are not alone drowned in frustration in this “phony” world, a world obsessed with “niceties.”

The crucial question right now is – why censor an exceptional work of human creativeness that, inexorably, is a courageous attempt at truth-telling by a youth faithless in the existing social norms and status quo?

Censorship is the suppression of speech, expression, image or other information which may be considered objectionable, harmful, sensitive, offensive etc. as determined by governments, media outlets, authorities or other groups or institutions, in short, by those that occupy the higher stratum in the hierarchy of power. It happens when certain groups succeed in imposing their political and morals values on others.  And when it comes to any form of artistic expression, be it in the form of a book or a work of art, or music or cinema, et al, censorship is that which stops the creator from his act of creating, an assassination of a human attempt to create new world meanings.

At its fundamental manifestation, censorship emerges within the family, where and when a child growing up is instructed and disciplined to follow certain set of norms as defined by the child’s parents or senior members of the family. Consequently, as the child grows he internalizes certain norms as “normal” and certain concepts as “unacceptable” and “abnormal.” This notion, when ingrained in the psyche, self-censors the individual, gradually taking its shapes and forms. Self-censorship is done covertly out of fear and punishment, or of deference to the sensibilities or preferences, which might be actual or perceived, of others and without any overt pressure from any group in particular or institution of authority.

When it comes to big corporate media, journalists often censor themselves on account of perceived threats against them or their interest from another party. In their book Manufacturing Consent (1988), Noam Chomsky and Edward Herman argue that corporate ownership of news media fervently encourages systematic self-censorship in conformity with the terms of market forces. And when it comes to writers, one very interesting occurrence is the censoring of the author’s name where they are asked by the publisher to use a pseudonym, as in the case of the famous British author J. K. Rowling, therefore invisibilizing Joanne Rowling. She was told by her publisher that her series would not be popular among boys if it was penned by a woman. And also the case of self-censoring of their names by the Bronte Sisters (Ellis, Acton, and Currer Bell) Emily, Anne and Charlotte respectively. Charlotte Bronte later explained that their decision was based on a desire to be taken seriously by the readers, as male authors would be more accepted, women authors subject to a degree of prejudice – the patriarchal nature of the world of literature.

The first recorded ban of The Catcher in the Rye was in 1960 in Tulsa, Oklahoma, after an 11th grade English teacher was fired for assigning the book to his students. Since then, more than 30 incidents have been recorded across the US of the book being banned/challenged.

Between 1966 and 1975 it was the most frequently banned book in schools. Teachers were fired for assigning the book to students and numerous boards debated the book’s presence in the classroom. In 1976, a legislative hearing in Oklahoma City involved a local censorship group seeking to prevent a bookseller from vending the book. The group went so far as to take vigilante action. Ultimately the bookseller dropped the book from his inventory to avoid further scandal. Ten years later, controversy emerged again in Pennsylvania when the book was assigned in a local literature class. Parents objected, and the school board voted to ban the book. Soon after, parents in New Jersey complained to their school board about the book’s “filthy and profane” language and its apparent promotion of premarital sex, homosexuality, and perversion. They also claimed that it was “explicitly pornographic” and, predictably, “immoral.” It is banned or challenged countless times for its profanity alone. The profanity varies from minor swearing to levels as high as the usage of the F word. In 1987 it was banned in high school in North Dakota for its sexual references, multiple scenes, and references to prostitution and premarital sex. In 1992 it was banned in Illinois for its alcohol abuse.

The very act of censoring the book in schools and libraries, interestingly, can be looked from the prism of Holden Caulfield’s desire to become the guardian of childhood innocence; the morality of the child that has to be guarded against any corruption of it by being exposed to the book, in the process, paradoxically, the censoring groups ending up becoming the very person whom they want their children not to become.

The book derives its title from a passage in which Holden Caulfield describes his vision of himself as a protector of innocence:

‘”Anyway, I keep picturing all these little kids playing some game in this big field of rye and all,” he says. ”Thousands of little kids, and nobody’s around – nobody big, I mean, except me. And, I’m standing on the edge of some crazy 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. I’d just be the catcher in the rye and all.”‘

The book is connected with some of the most infamous assassinations and attempts to life. Mysterious! In 1980, after fatally shooting John Lennon, Mark David Chapman was arrested with a copy of the book that he had purchased that same day, inside of which he had written: “To Holden Caulfield, From Holden Caulfield, This is my statement.” After John Hinckly Jr’s assassination attempt of Ronald Reagan in 1981, police found The Catcher in the Rye among half a dozen other books in his hotel room. Robert John Bardo, who murdered television actress Rebecca Schaeffer, was carrying the book when he visited Schaeffer’s apartment in Hollywood on July 18, 1989 and murdered her. Crime as a “protest against a badly organized social state of things” as Fyodor Dostoyevsky once put it; the protest by Holden Caulfield, a causative consequence of sheer disgust that one harbors deep in his heart?

Throughout history, countless publications have faced censorship for a variety of reasons, be they religious, political or in many cases, just plain ridiculous reason. To state a few – The Bible was banned in USSR from 1926 to 1956, The Communist Manifesto by Marx and Engels in Turkey from 1848 to 2013, Ulysses by James Joyce in U.K from 1922 to 1930s for excessive sexual explicit, Great New World by Aldous Huxley in Australia from 1932 to 1937, Animal Farm by George Orwell in many countries and even today in countries like Cuba, Kenya, China (censored) and in USSR from 1943 till 1980s.

Censorship, an exercise of power by certain group in possession of authority, be it the state or an institution or an organization, hinders the progressive capability of any society; it has been the hallmark of dictatorship in human history – and we don’t want to live under a nasty dictator, life would lose all its resonance and simply be reduced to a monotonous unsophisticatedness. It only proves a counter-productive exercise that disallows the censored subject from being discussed and debated. What can be more malevolent an act than the assumption of an absolute right to forbid any other side that disagrees with it?

Every form, censorship denies, of human expression and tolerated, should it be, only where they are “absolutely necessary” to prevent infliction of actual harm and not by mere speculation that certain expression of human thoughts and ideas will bring chaos and disorder into society, a society that, truth be told, is already engulfed in a chaotic disorder. But the essential question remains: who and what will decide the moral underpinning of what is “absolutely necessary?”

Decades after its publication, the book remains the inner voice of teenagers around the world, teenagers who don’t feel any belonging to authority like the school, the family, adult world or religion, and worst of all, friendship. And if we are disillusioned by the way things are, we can be the catcher in the rye in our own secret little world, in our own ways.

The greatest relief of all, any teenagers going through frustration, disgust and alienation in the “phonies” around him and finding his collar being grabbed, lifted and shaken by a loathsome and disgusting adult or an old guy would still have the right to say “sonuvabitch” on their faces, and Holden would still give comfort and warmth in the deepest of his dreams in the endless peaceful nights. Even when you are 43, just got sacked by your boss and your wife just left you taking away all the kids with her, you could still be Holden, your ten years old Phoebe-like beautiful and smart daughter being the only consistent source of happiness in your life; one day you would creep inside your ex-wife’s house to meet your daughter and teach her kungfu so that she can kick the hell out of all the “helluva” boys who irritated her in school.

One thing I was hesitant to say is the fact that I should be ashamed of myself that I am here already passed my mid-20s writing-bragging about a fiction of a teenage boy which I read when I had already crossed my teenage. But, would things be anyways different if I read the book in my high school? And again, has life become any better than it used to be when I was 19, or when I was in my teens and had my innocence subjected to a vicious trial when I encountered the breakup of the century with my girlfriend, and almost screwed in the higher secondary board exam, left the tediously lifeless science stream and decided to become a hopeless historian! Ah, historian! Sounds pretty impressive, though I might be just faking everything up to mask this stale and morbid life.

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