June 11, 2009

Where Did The Title Come From?

I'm sure you've read The Catcher In The Rye.  Why is it called that?

And a few more that came to mind.

The Catcher In The Rye

Here's a little self-test for narcissism:

  • if you think Holden Caulfield "gets it" and sees through people's pretenses, you're a narcissist.  Unless you are under 25, in which case you are completely normal.
  • if you think Holden Caulfield is really just sad and alienated, but afraid to take the dangerous steps towards adulthood and meaningful connections with other people, then you are perceptive; unless you are under 25, in which case you are a perceptive girl.

"You know that song, 'if a body catch a body comin' through the rye?' I'd like to be--"

"It's 'if a body meet a body comin' through the rye!' " old Phoebe said.  "It's a poem.  By Robert Burns."

"...Anyway, I keep picturing all these kids playing some game in this big field of rye....and nobody's around-- nobody big, that is-- except me.  And I'm standing on the edge of some crazy cliff.  And what I have to do, I have to catch everybody if they start to go over the cliff...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."

Robert Burns also gave us Auld Lang Syne, which I have never once attempted to sing sober.  Partly a metaphor for how Holden Caulfield sees adulthood (the cliff) and saving kids from it; but also an escape from any responsibility towards progress.  He doesn't have to grow, or help kids grow, all he has to do is just be a little older and smarter.  That's enough.

His absorption with phoniness is the inner conflict of one who is discovering that the world doesn't bend to his wishes.

Narcissism is normal in 17 year old boys, especially the quasi-idealistic kind embodied by Holden.  They eventually grow up.   Hopefully, they then can remember what it was like so they don't destroy their kids when they're 17.

One day, a 17 year old will look at you and think you're a phony.  That will mean either you are old, and he's wrong; or you're old, and he's right.

Atlas Shrugged

The book that was once dismissed as high school level sophistry has suddenly become the second most prescient book in modern history.  The first is 1984. (#3 is Debt Of Honor.)

"If you saw Atlas, the giant who holds the world on his shoulders, if you saw that he stood, blood running down his chest, his knees buckling, his arms trembling but still trying to hold the world aloft with the last of his strength, and the greater the effort the heavier the world bore down upon his shoulders--what would you tell him to do?"

"I...don't know. What...could he do? What would you tell him?"

"To shrug."

Originally entitled The Strike, the book describes a future dictatorship where the dictators have created an artificial altruism: the productive are required to sacrifice themselves for others-- i.e. their output is taken from them and redistributed.  The book describes this altruism as a trick; the society has convinced people that "it's the right thing to do," that it is just.  It is a moral code and thus the productive members are coerced by guilt.

It could occur to Atlas that just because he is the strongest, it doesn't have to be his lot to hold up the world.  He could simply shrug it off.

NB: such state control through a moral code would not have been possible if the productive people were narcissists (as our current crop of Wall Streeters seem to have been)-- they don't feel guilt.  Only shame would have worked.  The government might want to consider psychology before it sets up the next round of oversight.

Notes from the Underground

Quick test: give this book to your girlfriend.  If she says, "it kind of sounds like you" then you're both in trouble.

There in its nasty, stinking, underground home our insulted, crushed and ridiculed mouse promptly becomes absorbed in old, malignant and, above all, everlasting spite.

A man who imagines himself an acutely conscious mouse, in a world of men who never bother with self-reflection, who seem all the happier, more capable because of it. 

And he'll think about these happy, stupid men, and all the misery that their happiness has caused him:

For forty years together it will remember its injury down to the smallest, most ignominious details, and every time will add, of itself, details still more ignominious, spitefully teasing and tormenting itself with its own imagination.  It will itself be ashamed of its imaginings, but yet it will recall it all, it will go over and over every detail, it will invent unheard of things against itself, pretending that those things might happen, and will forgive nothing.
But why do it to yourself?  Why stay underground and... fester in spite?

But it is just in that cold, abominable half despair... in that hell of unsatisfied desires turned inward... that the savour of that strange enjoyment of which I have spoken lies.

Enjoyment?  Better to consider it validation: in the suffering, in being the mouse, in being Underground is an identity, an individualism, a defining of the problem as you vs. them.  You are not-them, and so you are better.

This is narcissism; sometimes despair is the only pleasure you have.

The lesser read Part 2 describes his relationship with a prostitute.  He more than insults her; like a psychic he astutely identifies her inner dreams and external hardships, and then predicts the misery that is her future.  He later says he did it to have power over her, which is only partly true.   He does it because he wants her to see him as knowing.  The power over her was to get her to see him the way he wanted to be seen.

But she has a good soul, she's a woman, and she's a prostitute: she's three times more perceptive than he is.  He knows she'll eventually be able to see right through him-- to see him as he really is-- not even as a bad person, just not as he wants to be seen.  This is the worst thing that can happen.  To preempt this, he degrades her: to cause her to leave.

And of course, she does.

One of the best depictions of narcissism, ever.  Study it.

The Sound And The Fury

Wherefore was that cry?     
  Seyton:.  The queen, my lord, is dead.     
  Macbeth:  She should have died hereafter;     
There would have been a time for such a word.     
To-morrow, and to-morrow, and to-morrow,     
Creeps in this petty pace from day to day,     
To the last syllable of recorded time;     
And all our yesterdays have lighted fools     
The way to dusty death. Out, out, brief candle!     
Life's but a walking shadow, a poor player     
That struts and frets his hour upon the stage,     
And then is heard no more; it is a tale     
Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury,   
Signifying nothing.

Macbeth, Act V, Scene V

Life is absurd; time is an abstraction humanity applies to it to help make sense of it, but it's artificial nonetheless.  Quentin Compson goes to his suicide, Sartre once observed, not by passing through the present, but rather looking backwards, in retrospect, as if he is remembering his suicide in the past.  Make plans if you want; your death came already.  Six more thousand years of future people won't know or care about you.

A more modern interpretation, from the movie that ended a century:

Agent Smith has Neo ("Mr. Anderson") in a chokehold on the train tracks; the subway speeds towards them.  Agent Smith is-- satisfied. 

Hear that, Mr. Anderson?  That is the sound of inevitability.  It is the sound of your death.  Good bye, Mr. Anderson.

Agent Smith has it figured right:  Anderson's life, like all humans', was a pointless struggle even if it was a happy and successful one.  It always ends in failure, in death.

Faced with the absurdity and unintelligibility of life, but the inevitability of its end; lacking God or country or dynasty, there is only one answer that today's man-- the narcissist-- can give that makes his life meaningful, and he gives it:

My name is Neo.

The only solace is to define oneself, otherwise you become aware that your brief life is all just sound and fury, signifying nothing.

One Flew Over The Cuckoo's Nest

three geese inna flock, one flew east, one flew west, one flew over the cuckoo's nest... O-U-T spells out, goose swoops down and plucks you out.

Which (I think) comes from the Louis Untermeyer poem "Rainbow In The Sky" which begins, "Wire, briar, linder-lock..."

A story (that can be) as much about racism and the Soviet Union as it was about psychiatry, many of these themes are underdeveloped in the movie. 

The story's narrator is the Chief, whose grandmother used to sing the above nursery rhyme.
The Chief knows that the outside world is controlled by the Combine, and Big Nurse Ratched  is its inside agent.  Patient Randle McMurphy is her nemesis (or she his)-- she is control, he is freedom; she is conformity, he is a cowboy individualist who must become a  self-sacrificing hero.  He rips her uniform, exposing her breasts-- look, she's not a machine, she's just a person-- and he gets lobotomized.

Though it must be said: even a harsh, controlling, artificial world, like the Matrix or any good conspiracy theory, provides comfort because it says what every free floating individual wants to hear: you're powerless because someone else is controlling everything.  But at least someone else is controlling everything.

The Last Psychiatrist

...the time of the most despicable man is coming, the man who is not able to despise himself....