Friday, January 29, 2010

Picking My Nose in the Absolute Flesh

As a teenager I dutifully read Catcher in the Rye, Franny and Zooey, and Raise High the Roof Beam, Carpenter, with intense attention, and tried to absorb the great lessons therein; I naturally attributed not finding any such lessons to my own incapacity. It's not Salinger's fault that he was made an inevitable part of the high school English syllabus, like that other wildly overvalued writer of the same period, Hemingway. But I still resent the fact that I piddled away that intensity of attention, for years, on mediocre recent American novels, when the whole wealth of English literature was to hand. I was in college before anyone ever assigned me a book genuinely worth reading. I was sixteen, and going to Lane Community College in Eugene, Oregon: and I took a survey of world literature. Almost every one of those books exploded under my feet and sent me flying. Lao Tzu. The Bhagavad-Gita. Homer. Hamlet. Blake. Twain. Books that were revelations, that took me to new countries. Books that celebrated courage and loyalty, compassion and generosity.

It was decades before I had the self-confidence to take those elegant Salinger paperbacks off to the used bookstore and sell them back, to decide that the reason I got nothing from them but petulance and itching egotism was probably that they contained nothing but petulance and itching egotism. They were such beautiful books: so very upper class and restrained and austere. They looked like literature. The cover of Franny and Zooey was off-white, almost completely blank, with a double horizontal green line under the high-placed title. Oh, I wanted to be someone who read books that looked like that! It was surely my fault that, after repeated readings, I could not tell you what happened in any of those stories, or recall a single character from them. One scene only remained with me, as it does to this day: Holden Caulfield watching his principal in disgust as the man surreptitiously picks his nose. It distressed me at the time because I surreptitiously picked my nose, in exactly that way: and I understood that Salinger's contempt was as much for me as for anyone. I wasn't really the kind of person who read those elegant off-white books. I was a gross, fleshy sensualist, full of ideals that he couldn't live up to, just like that disgusting principal.

And I remain that. I hope without the bland self-righteousness and insensitivity: but I am going to pick my nose until I die, Mr Salinger, and ask no forgiveness, from you or anyone else. I am going to waddle through this world in the absolute flesh, falling in love and gaping in admiration, no matter how silly I look. I hope that won't prevent you from resting in peace, Mr Salinger: but if it does, I can't help that.

No comments: