I find myself revisiting William Blake’s Songs of Innocence and  of Experience tonight. Do you know this dual collection of poems? He is one of my favorite Romantic poets. Each of his poems in the “innocence” collection has a corresponding poem in the “experience” collection, and they were originally illustrated by Blake himself. In these poems he explores the condition of an innocent childhood, later lost to the awareness of harsh world and a fallen human nature.

Although part of me finds comfort in the study of neuroscience and behavioral biology, and although I love to ponder time and space and physics, when I am faced with events I fear I cannot handle or begin to process, I turn to my literature. I sometimes forget why I majored in English, and then I remember: When I am hurting and my mind starts to recede into the darkness, there in my favorite books and poems are the words of friends and thinkers, words that allow my own words to breathe. My essence suddenly finds an anchor in the expanse. Across time, I am connected with friends who felt what I feel: authors I will never meet, but who feel like intimates. Literature reminds us: we are never alone, never stranded in our feelings, our questions, our heartaches, or our joys.

My friend Erin gave me a gift last night of a passage from The Diary of Anne Frank. The content of the quote was immediately soothing unto itself; it was the method of delivery—a passage from a book—that had an even greater effect. Go into the words that have become part of your soul, I was reminded, and let them help work out your emotion. And so I did. I reread parts of Catcher in the Rye this afternoon, and cried thoroughly. (I understand Holden just a little too well, I fear. He would be, perhaps, one of the last characters some might assume I would identify with, and yet I have more in common with him than I do with many of my other literary friends).

Blake’s poetry, too, gives context to the journey my mind is on right now:

“Tyger, tyger, burning bright

In the forests of the night,

What immortal hand or eye

Dare frame thy fearful symmetry?


When the stars threw down their spears,

And watered heaven with their tears,

Did He smile His work to see?

Did He who made the lamb make thee?”

(From “The Tyger,” Songs of Experience)

Contrasted with its companion poem in Songs of Innocence, “The Lamb,” this poem reveals how complicated is the question of the presence of evil. How can such horror coexist with all the goodness that is also part of this universe? And how do we know for sure which is which?

Catcher in the Rye asks the same question, essentially.

Those who find this book unappealing usually don’t like Holden’s initial negativity or cussing, and some of the exposition can seem meandering. Holden positions himself as an unreliable narrator: “I am the most terrific liar you ever saw.” (Which, interestingly, is in direct opposition to Fitzgerald’s narrator Nick Carraway: “I am one of the few honest people I have ever known.” Oh how I love thinking about Catcher and Gatsby together—they are two sides of the same thematic coin: alientation, loss of innocence, loss of the ideal, etc). So we know Holden is unstable. To me, that gives nuance to the novel’s thematic lessons: Salinger, through Holden, draws our attention to the instability of creating personal or fictional narratives. Why should we, as audience or reader, trust the narratives of another?

The whole telos and mystery of the novel is this: why is Holden unstable? Why has he been kicked out of so many schools? Why does he feel “lousy” and “crumby?” Why does his head hurt so much?

We learn quickly enough that Holden’s little brother died in the recent past. That begins to explain some of Holden’s behaviors, but it doesn’t quite reveal Holden’s full psychology. Patient readers have to wait until the end to discover all of the layers about this character. I love that Salinger prolongs the revelation of crucial information. In the last few pages, we realize that Holden’s whole narrative has been given to us from a mental institution—that he has gone insane, by someone’s standards, although he insists that he is not crazy to feel the way he does about humanity.

Salinger’s brilliance is to put his readers in the role of psychoanalyst, and my first desire upon reaching the end was to re-read the book from start to finish again, now knowing what I knew about Holden’s location.

Is Holden crazy? Or is he more sane than all of us? He goes to meet his little sister, Phoebe, at her school, and when he does, he sees graffiti on the wall (omission of the full curse word is my notation):

“But while I was sitting down, I saw something that drove me crazy. Somebody’d written’F— you’ on the wall. It drove me damn near crazy. I thought how Phoebe and all the other little kids would see it, and how they’d wonder what the hell it meant, and then finally some dirty kid would tell them—all cockeyed, naturally—what it meant, and how they’d all think about it and maybe even worry about it for a couple of days…”

Holden goes on to say that he wishes he could punish the creep who wrote the slur or even rub it off with his own hand, but he finds himself gutless to do either—and this makes him feel, in his own words, depressed.

Shortly thereafter, he goes to a museum and has a similar experience:

“I was the only one left in the tomb then. I sort of liked it, in a way. It was so nice and peaceful. Then, all of a sudden, you’d never guess what I saw on the wall. Another ‘F— you.’ It was written with a red crayon or something…. That’s the whole trouble. You can’t ever find a place that’s nice and peaceful, because there isn’t any. You may think there is, but once you get there, when you’re not looking, somebody’ll sneak up and write ‘F— you.'”

So is Holden insane? Or is he right to feel depressed about human nature? He is probably the most pure character in the novel, and this is one reason why he suffers from alienation. We, being acculturated to the world around us, view Holden as extremely troubled in the beginning of the novel—but is Salinger making the point that, by expecting Holden to start fitting in a little more, we are the ones who are most troubled?

Phoebe asks Holden what he wants to be when he grows up. Holden misremembers a line from a Robert Burns poem:

“I thought it was ‘If a body catch a body,’ I said. Anyway, I keep picturing all these little kids playing some game in this big field of rye and all. 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 catch everybody if they start to go over the cliff….That’s all I’d do all day. I’d just be the catcher in the rye and all. I know it’s crazy, but that’s the only thing I’d really like to be. I know it’s crazy.”

Holden wishes he could spare children “the fall”—the loss of their innocence. He wants to preserve purity in the world, but he knows he cannot. He begins to think like the rest of us: that he is crazy. In a media driven culture that glorifies violence and heartache, maybe he is crazy. Or is he? Salinger criticizes the baseness of human nature very roundly here. We’re willing to lock Holden in a mental institution because he expects more of human nature than we can ever give him. He wants to save innocence from the intrusions of those who would seek to corrupt it, but like he discovers with being unable to rub out the graffiti on the wall, he is not powerful or courageous enough to do so. Society is too strong; the expectations of conformity weaken and condemn him.

So how do we fight against the loss of innocence? How do we catch ourselves before the fall? How do we gaze upon the “fearful symmetry” and still believe that everything will turn out for the good?

Tonight I am strong enough again to ask how. Yesterday I kept asking why. Why why why…despite having recently encouraged someone I love very dearly (who is having a hard time) to forgo asking why, as if the events that come to us can be negotiated, and to move toward the how: how can I meet these events with goodness, justness, and sense of what is pure and lovely?

Maybe here is a start:


“That’s all I’d do all day. I’d just be the catcher in the rye and all. I know it’s crazy, but that’s the only thing I’d really like to be. I know it’s crazy.”

With love,