It is at the very least interesting, if not fitting, that the death of J. D. Salinger occurred during the month and year that marks the 50th anniversary of the death of French author Albert Camus.
For the youth of America have embraced Mr. Salinger and his literary characters in a manner that has transcended the social changes of successive generations, just as the youth of a more distant and more threatened time embraced Mr. Camus and his heroes of resistance and rebellion.
Obviously, there is no question that Salinger has had profound influence on American literature, and on the American curiosity: For all of these secluded years, what has Salinger been up to? Is he another Howard Hughes? Or perhaps Greta Garbo-without the deep voice? The more mundane, and for fans, sobering, question is: Did Salinger say all he had to say? Perhaps we have not seen or heard much from Mr. Salinger for all these decades because, well, it has all been said. Is that all there is, indeed.
Salinger pointed out the "phonies" of the world, but in hindsight his characters seem awfully phony. We see the Glass family members dabbling in Zen Buddhism. But do they appreciate that some of us just don't have the time to meditate; or that if we close our eyes, that pickpocket will take the day's wages before we can get to the second "om"? Holden Caulfield is a rich kid, who blew an opportunity at a prep school; he seems a bit phony, a lot spoiled. And this novel has become required reading in high schools across the country; and those of us who read it fall into the trap set by the phonies.
Why has such a novel of purported rebellion become required reading, assigned by some of the most conservative individuals we encounter in our youths, the public high school teacher? We fall into the trap set by those assigning "The Catcher in the Rye": Students are being trumped, as whatever natural and original rebellion left in the high school student of today is being bypassed by a book telling impressionable minds how to rebel. The student is thus preemptively castrated, losing that part of the frontal lobe from which true and thoughtful rebellion comes. The final insult comes when the student identifies with Holden Caulfield, and memorializes this sense of empathy in the term paper, like a confession during the Cultural Revolution, just missing the dunce cap.
True rebellion echoes throughout the writing of Albert Camus. His characters struggle with existence, as a very real threat to that was seen daily, with Nazi flags flying over Paris. It would have been easier for Camus to continue sipping coffee with the intellectual left, enamored of the Soviet Union and the Arab liberation movement in Algeria. Camus condemned Stalin's trials and the totalitarianism in the Soviet Union, and he preferred to see a power-sharing arrangement between European and Arab in Algeria. So, Camus found himself ridiculed by the right and the left wings.
These attacks on Camus were vicious, and yet he refused to surrender to them. One can feel that pain upon reading "The Fall". The protagonist is proof that we are all guilty, and that we are thus unable to judge anything, at least without putting ourselves on the witness stand. (I can assure you the local high school teacher does not want that spotlight.) This sort of response only angered the intelligentsia more. Camus never retreated. There was no farmhouse in which to hide. He was willing to continue rolling that stone up the mountain. He died a passenger in a car, the victim of being in the wrong place with the wrong driver: Thanatos was not looking over his shoulder, although I am sure the more melodramatic among us would have preferred Camus behind the wheel as a more fitting ending to the story.
So, here is to literature and the pain of avoiding pain. It is really not so much. It is doing that hurts.