Notes on Saving the World

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 to catch everybody if they start to go over the cliff – I mean if they’re running and they don’t look where they’re going I have to come out from somewhere and catch them. That’s all I 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.

We’re all familiar with Holden Caulfield’s strange interlude at the end of The Catcher in the Rye from which the book gets its title.

It reminds me of something Amity Bitzel says in her section of the “This American Life” broadcast called “Surrogates.”  She tells the story of how a 27-year-old man who was convicted of killing his parents comes to be adopted into her own abusive family:

As she narrates the story of her father’s abuse, she crystallizes the terror into moments in which her father’s rage results in his breaking all the furniture, hitting the girls with a belt, or strangling their mother.  This is the mother that she recalls was always a silent bystander.  She doesn’t know why it never occurred to her to call the cops and she makes reference to the responsible adults who never interceded: “The outside world was never coming to intervene, to save any of us.”

It doesn’t always hit us straightforward and sad.  Robert Hamburger’s REALUltimatePower is a testament to the sweetness of ninjas.  Written from the perspective of a 12-year-old boy,  the aforementioned Robert, the website is hilarious.  Robert is obsessed with ninjas and thinks you should be too.  After all, they fight all the time and they “totally flip out and kill people.”  The book that resulted from the website starts out just as funny, praising all ninjahood and even features his babysitter, a philosophy student, who provides “ontological proof of ninjas” in a footnote.  However, the humor ends abruptly once the reader realizes that Robert’s ninja craze is really about the fact that he lives in an abusive home in which he is unable to protect himself and so he has created the fantasy of ninjas as a way of summoning those who can intercede, if only in his imagination.  The appendix of the book features various documents that make the situation fairly clear. They are as hyperbolic as they are true:

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I had a Robert when I used to teach elementary school in France, but his name was Guillaume.  He would hit another student named Georges over the head with a dictionary and rant a string of sarcasms about how he did it because he’s a maniac. Or he would eat a crayon in a display of frenzy when the girls were watching.  Or he would start a fight at recess. He was always in trouble. One day I passed his desk and as I raised my hand as part of a gesture, he flinched.  But this was not part of his theatrics.

Lauren Berlant thinks a lot about what it is for people to be with other people. In her book Cruel Optimism (2011), she poses the question of: “Why do people stay attached to lives that don’t work?” Her question is relative to adults who have the option of choosing other lives but it helps us to think about what people might do when they don’t have the option of changing lives.  They create things to save them. “Cruel Optimism,” says Berlant, “tells some pretty difficult stories about how people maintain their footing in worlds that are not there for them.”  In my mind, the idea of living in a world that is not there for you means being forced to inhabit simultaneous worlds which are out of sync with one another although they remain intimately connected. There is the given world in which there is the presence of an order, especially that of a social order, its vulnerability being its most necessary quality, which we might say operates by way of Kant’s categorical imperative and the Golden Rule alike. And then there is the personal  world in which that order sometimes harmfully fails so that order becomes bare and arbitrary. Yet, one must go on doing as they would have done unto them, however that is supposed to mean in the disparate positions of these two worlds cleaved into one.

I entered graduate school thinking that if this gig doesn’t work out I’ll just go and teach elementary school, as my heart was split from the first in that decision.  I always wonder if this is the year that I will abandon my graduate studies and go off to teach kids about peregrine falcons and help them glue together those art projects that receive the unconditional, “oooooooh,” from a parent on whom this enormous gift is bestowed. Maybe this year I’ll walk away from these ridiculous academic struggles to go do that, that easier thing.

A friend was telling me the story the other day of how he spent a summer teaching summer camp.  All day he was with the kids, teaching them, giving them the care that goes along with giving them ideas. But at the end of the day, he knew he was sending some of them to be decimated again in those warzones of hostile homes. No matter what he might help them to see through their own better minds, they were still and always going home. He only taught there the one summer.

Holden’s craziness is often misread as part of Salinger’s style, twisting the plot into a sad surprise ending, like some literary grace that solves the problem of his disappointment in life and its systems, of his revelations of people as selfish or shallow by also revealing that he is in a mental institution. So we might consider taking this all with a grain of salt. So that’s the dismissable reading. But another reading is the more cynical one, perhaps, that Salinger writes Holden’s altruism as an insanity.  You really can’t save the world.  It’s crazy.

I think that my friend didn’t go back to that summer camp because it is hard with the little ones. Who can stand on the edge of the cliff running back and forth without going crazy? “I’ll see them when they get to college,” my friend told me. And in that moment I knew I was never going to teach elementary school.

“I’ll see them when they get to college,” I told myself, hoping they find their way here.  Doesn’t Virgil take Dante’s hand, leading him through purgatory, teaching him to make sense of it?

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