a big beautiful mess

Holden and Johnny and Me

So I just finished reading The Catcher in the Rye by JD Salinger last night. And then I woke up today and, because I can’t respond to anything anymore without responding to someone else’s response to it (which is maybe part of why I’m having trouble being the only American in Arkhangelsk), I went to the YouTubes and looked up John Green’s vlogbrothers videos about The Catcher in the Rye from back in 2008 (which, honestly, was a big part of why I chose to read The Catcher in the Rye in the first place, because John is always talking about it and I got tired of feeling left out). And John talks about things like Holden Caulfield’s desire to keep people innocent and the symbolism of his red hunting cap being the same color as his dead brother Allie’s hair and nothing ever changing in the Museum of Natural History, and so on. And if you know me at all, or if you’ve been reading my blog lately, you know that I loooove symbolism. But for some reason, John Green’s as always insightful and pointed commentary did not resonate with me this time.

I can tell you the exact moment that I began to believe in and value symbolism. Or, not the exact moment, precisely, but the exact symbol. It was in eighth grade English class, and we were reading Johnny Tremain with Mr. Kollar, and I was hating it. I thought it was a dumb book about the Revolutionary War, which was something I neither remembered nor cared about, and had already learned enough about in social studies, thank you, and also Johnny Tremain was a boring guy. Somewhere in the middle of the book, Johnny has a green apple and at the same time is thinking about his relationship with the girl character (whose name I don’t remember, go figure), and then he bites into the apple, and the apple is rotten inside. Mr. Kollar informed us that the apple, which looked tasty on the outside but was actually no good, represented Johnny’s relationship with Unmemorable Girl Character.

I was outraged. I understood the values that were supposed to be correlating to each other, and how they were related, but I firmly believed in the absence of a God who sends us concrete messages via fruit, and I was angry and frustrated that Mr. Kollar would expect us to believe that that bad apple was anything more than a coincidence. I was still reading literally. If I myself had been thinking about a relationship and then had bitten into a bad apple, it would never have occurred to me to think that the two were related, and it didn’t occur to Johnny either, so why on earth should it occur to us, unwilling readers?

And then, at some point between Christmastime eighth grade and the beginning of ninth grade, I got it. And went on to write my own book, which was really just a series of very complicated symbolic systems representing my own life. I never finished the book, because I was never able to make the symbolic systems come to satisfactory conclusions, because the symbolic system of my life, on which I was basing the book’s symbolic systems, kept changing, and the book couldn’t keep up. Also because I was lazy and I think I enjoyed planning the symbolic systems more than I enjoyed actually writing.

So it came as a surprise to me when I disagreed with John Green when, in another video, he dismisses JD Salinger’s epigraph to “an amateur reader… or anybody who just reads and runs.” John was speaking in support of the kind of thoughtful analysis that brings up the relationship between Holden’s red hat and his dead brother’s red hair. I really enjoyed The Catcher in the Rye, but not because of the symbolism. I loved it because of its relationship to symbolism.

The book accurately represents the adolescent insecurities and hyperbole and seeking of genuine meaning, without symbols, that I myself went through (am still going through?). Holden has all these questions, about the ducks in the pond and about girls and whatnot, and he feels that they are meaningful, but he doesn’t know why or how. And at the same time, he feels that everyone around him is not being genuine somehow, but again, he never gives a really concrete reason for any of that, just that their behavior, the things they talk about and how long they talk, don’t correspond with what he wants to talk about or what he thinks is important, which is a ridiculous thing to demand, because what he wants to talk about and do is constantly changing.

He’s trying to reconcile the fact that everyone is a phony (according to his system)  with the fact that he needs someone to talk to, someone to relate to. And he loves his little sister because she isn’t phony, she just comes right out with what she thinks, she does not dissimulate. I think that rather than a conflict between innocence and experience, as John claims, it’s a conflict between literal and symbolic living. Phoebe is living literally. When she wants something, she says it. The rest of the world is living symbolically. Even the very straightforward prostitute that Holden doesn’t sleep with keeps saying, “Let’s just do it already” instead of saying, “Let’s have sex already.” And what Holden wants is to live literally, and he also wants everyone else to live literally, but he wants them to be literally just like him. He recognizes that the rest of the world, the world grown-ups have to live in, is full of the symbolic, but he doesn’t see the value in it, just like I rejected the symbolic in Johnny Tremain. But the thing is that our literal desires and interests so often clash, that for us to not always be fighting with each other, we have to conceal them.

The other thing that I learned from writing my book in ninth grade is that we have to make our own symbolic systems. Nobody is going to look at your life after you die and think about what it means. And they’re certainly not going to get it right. You have to do that thinking about your own life. Why do I like Soviet block housing? What can I learn about myself from my own attraction to that kind of apartment building? And what about Russia? I didn’t just end up here. I decided to be here. I got myself here based on a whole long series of decisions, stretching back maybe to deciding to go to Spain with Dad back in fourth grade, which made me decide to take Spanish, which made me decide to study Comparative Literature and not just English, which made me decide to take a new language, which made me decide to study Russian, which made me decide to go to Moscow that first time… It was all very intentional, and symbolism is about attributing intent to coincidence.

I think maybe one of the hard things about being abroad is that I’ve decided to be here in Arkhangelsk; there’s great weight, great symbolic meaning in my being here, even if, like Holden, I’m not sure what exactly the meaning is. But the other people here have not decided to be here. They were born here and grew up here and if anything have decided to stay here. I’m making gross generalizations here, but my point is that I am intensely aware of my purposes and desires and interests, while many of the people I interact with maybe haven’t given it too much thought in a while, because this is what they’ve always done.

And I keep expecting Russia to drop meaning down onto me from on high, forgetting that, actually, a God who sends us concrete messages via countries does not exist, and I have to create the meaning myself. What are you doing to make yourself meaningful to yourself? I keep asking myself.


  1. Diana W Diana W
    24 January 2012    


  2. 25 January 2012    

    The last picture – its between Beskudnikovo and Lianozovo, right?

    • 25 January 2012    

      I’m not sure. I took it from the window of the Aeroexpress train on my way to Sheremetevo from the city.

  3. 25 January 2012    

    You must have some time on your hands. This kind of reflection takes a lot of time to have, and then much more to write. So, good — another good reason to have the Fulbright.

    • 25 January 2012    

      Well, I’ve been thinking about symbolic systems and how and why I make them for about eight years. And yes, I spent pretty much all day yesterday writing this.

  4. -randianna -randianna
    25 January 2012    

    i love this blog post, and it really demands a thought-out response, one my brain is not able to produce at the moment. but i want to talk about these things. also, I applaud you for reading and responding so thoroughly to this book, because I have gotten to some stage where I just whiz through books and don’t give myself enough time for reflection/am too lazy to think about them intellectually. sigh. but this has inspired me.

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