I’m a big fan of J.D. Salinger, who passed away this week at 91, and of the Grammy Awards, which celebrated music in its stunning spectacle of creative performance on Sunday. Now, Holden Caulfield would likely take issue with the superficial celebrity culture of pop music. As you may recall, Holden, the narrator of Salinger’s classic novel Catcher in the Rye, detested “phonies” and gave voice to that part of us that resists conformity and the inauthentic compromises of growing up. I’m sure he would have been disgusted by the idolatry and image-consciousness of the Grammys.
In “Perfect,” Seymour Glass (who really is the central character of Salinger’s work, a zen-like genius whose New York family populates many of his stories) is explaining the “tragic life” of an imaginary species of “bananafish” to a young girl named Sybil as they look out onto the ocean. “They swim into a hole where there’s lots of bananas,” he says. “Once they get in, they behave like pigs…after that they’re so fat they can’t get out of the hole.” “What happens to them?” asks the unsuspecting Sybil. “They die,” Seymour replies. “They get banana fever. It’s a terrible disease.”
While the symbolic significance of banana fever may be debated forever, I take it like this: Holdenâ€”and many would-be creatorsâ€”take in and feel so much from life and relationships but can’t find a way out of their hole to express themselves. The love that Holden felt for the most authentic and uncorrupted people (Salinger the hermit tooâ€”sadly, he seemed to feel there were few left on earth) was so trapped inside him that he became more and more bloated. He suffered from the resentment, frustration and likely gastric reflux common to all of us who aren’t able to relieve the pressure by sharing our talents and creativity with the world.