Friday, June 9, 2023

Catcher in the Rye and Streetcar Named Desire


To Love Without Knowing

I always find it kind of amazing to find out how little I know.

I can go through life loving something, being attracted to something, recommending something to others, and then I realize that I really didn't understand it in the first place. I am saved only by the fact that others have been in the same state. We might have liked something, been attracted to something, been able to talk about it, but then something happens and I realize that we reallydidn't understand it, not really. In fact, the more I think about it, the more I think we like (or dislike) much more than we understand.

I'm thinking about books and movies, two pastimes, sometimes obsessions, and sometimes loves. When something grabs me, – that's the word, when something grabs me, I just grab it back. Eventually we let go of each other, but even then, the memory stays. Even if it was a youthful attraction – the Hardy Boys, say – and you realize you were an immature appreciator of a work aimed at the immature, still, the good feeling remains. Or even before that, A. A. Milne and Christopher Robin and Pooh. And then in my mid-teen years, when I felt so good about having become a good reader, and I reveled in being able to just go through books, I briefly read science fiction. Lester Del Ray – what a name! He had to have been born to write science fiction, Lester Del Ray. It was a brief infatuation, but the good feelings remain, and some of the memories – exploring around the place of your birth to discover you lived in a sphere in space that had been expelled from Earth. Can't forget that one.

But some books are loves that haunt, and stay, and you love, but maybe you don't really understand. Like that old trusty book now become a standard, so standard that current young people can say to my surprise, “I hated that book they made us read!” They made you read that book, the one my mother gave me, recommended to me, only five or six years after it was written, that was even somewhat subversive – my mother liked somewhat subversive books. Or at least intelligent books, which some people suspect of being subversive just because of that quality. Catcher in the Rye. I read it when it didn't have the disadvantage of having been recommended and assigned, so it had the air of discovery. It's not secret now, but when I first read it, I think I was the only one of my friends who did. My mother was responsible for so much of my discoveries of books. I myself discovered Word Power Made Easy, which I still love, but that's such a minor discovery compared to all the books my mother gave me to read.

Holden was haunting, who couldn't root for him, identify with him? I sided with his denouncing phonies even though when I read the book I had not yet met a real preppie. That came several years later, when I was a freshman at Harvard, and I guess I saw then what he was talking about. The accents, the attitudes, even the nice ones, John Erdman who was a nice boy my age but came from Hotchkiss Academy and affected a tweed jacket and, wait for it, a pipe. Eighteen years old in a tweed jacket and with a pipe. Ivan Light tried the same shit, a pipe. And John was taking advanced French literature as a freshman, he said with his deprecating and experienced voice, and he was only eighteen, and I was envious. He was nice, actually, he just had these affectations, which maybe affected him more than others. They said he was depressive, afterwards they said that, anyway, after we went to medical school together and he became a heart surgeon – why did you do that, John? – and I guess he was good enough to go to the Mass General but long after I had left Boston, while he was still in training, he was ready to fly on his own and he opened up a chest to do an operation but, for some reason that was only described to me as fear, he didn't follow through with doing the operation and he just closed the chest back up, without doing anything, and hooked himself up to an IV and lay down, I imagine on a gurney, and killed himself. He was a nice person, he was smart, although affected, but nice, somewhat less than average size, pursed lips it seemed, formal, preppie. I wouldn't have known he was Jewish if someone hadn't told me. I don't know if he had pimples, probably not, but I tend to think of him as having had pimples because that's the way Holden Caulfield described The Makeout King, I think it was, although John was nothing like The Makeout King. Phonies, Holden hated that. That's what I guess I thought the book was about, even though Holden wound up in a mental hospital at the end of the book, which I didn't understand, and his closest friend was probably his little sister Phoebe. That's an unusual name these days, but when you meet a Phoebe, or you hear of one, do you think of Holden's sister? I do, even when I don't consciously do it. It's a name I pay attention to.

But what I was saying before I got diverted, or at least I think I got diverted, was that you can love something and be influenced by it, or seduced by it for reasons you might not be able to describe, or even haunted by it, and not understand it, or maybe understand it and not know that you do, because you can't express it, or maybe it's an unconscious understanding, a non-verbal understanding of a purely verbal medium, books. So when Catcher in the Rye was fifty years old Louis Menand wrote in the New Yorker Holden at Fifty. The book is so famous you can just use the first name of the protagonist. Louis Menand is so very smart, he's one of those writers that if you see his name, just read it.

So I read the review and I realized, for all my love of the book, for the attention I had paid to it, even writing a tiresome paper about it in David Riesman's class at Harvard, I realized that I didn't understand the first thing about it. Because the first thing about it is his brother Allie died, and Holden just couldn't come to terms with it. “Come to terms.” That's quite an expression, isn't it? “Get over it.” “Wrap his arms around it.” Instead, he goes nuts. He tries to work it out with Phoebe, but he goes nuts, although he does emerge eventually. And where are the parents? Parents – they never get over a death of a child, do they? Or not nowadays, maybe. More kids died than survived originally, some societies didn't even name kids until they were two years old. Lincoln lost Willie, his favorite, right in the middle of the Civil War, and he was depressive to begin with, they say. And I couldn't even realize that, as Menand says, that's what it's all about. I just don't understand literature, I think. Although I did, for reasons that I never really understood, name my firstborn child Alexander, to be called Allie. Allie – why choose that? I always said that I named him after Holden Caulfield's older brother who died, and the Yankee righthander Allie Reynolds, although that must have just popped into my mind, because if anyone knows me, they know I'm a born and bred and nurtured Yankee hater, from Philadelphia. So Reynolds was just an afterthought. I think maybe I did understand more than I knew, because choosing that name is like repairing Holden's sanity. But what did I know?

I've also always loved my favorite playwright's best movie, Tennessee Williams's Streetcar Named Desire, which I watched the other night. I'm pretty sure I never really understood it, maybe don't understand it now. I'm pretty sure I've watched it more than I've read Catcher in the Rye. Movies are short, but so concentrated. It doesn't take long to describe an atmosphere, it just appears. You choose black and white sometimes even when color is available. Eddie Muller on TCM quotes someone who says, color is more realistic, but black and white is more truthful, or something like that. Black and white is so intense, especially when there are lots of shadows and streaks of sunlight, like a Tintoretto. Somehow black and white concentrates the feelings, I think.

I've always felt Streetcar was one of the very great movies, a true movie, even though it deals with so much invention and pretension. I think if you're not in a class and you don't have to think about it and talk about it, maybe you don't come to terms with it. So I guess I didn't. I liked Marlon Brando, I could sense all the tension, I heard people remark on his brutality, and everyone yells “Stella” when you start to talk about it. Why is that? It's so startling, is that it, striking? Or is it embarrassing, it's so stark. And you think about Blanche, played by Vivian Leigh, and her feeble pretensions and her sordid past about which she lies. And you think about Mitch, played by Karl Malden, his frustrations living with his mother, seeing a chance to break through his limits with Blanche, and then finding out about her lies. Finding out because Stanley (Brando) makes it his business to find out that she had turned to whoring, that she had seduced the wrong young man and had gotten thrown out of her town. I had to tell him, Stanley tells Stella, he was with me in the war! What was he going to do, sit on it? But why did he inquire, because he hated her, or because her seductiveness caused him so much confusion?

The quietest of the group, the one with the least screen time, the least demonstrative, is Stella herself, played by Kim Hunter. When I saw it this time, her dilemma is what hit me hardest for the first time. What would anyone do in her situation? You love your husband, you are having a baby for the first time, a huge event, and your older sister comes to visit, as a last resort in saving her life. Sisters can't turn each other away. Stella is caught in a vise. She can't deny her sister, she can't deny her husband, and she's having a baby. You see your household falling apart, but what can you do?

Stanley has been called a brute, but he's not. What is he going to do? He loves his wife, he needs his wife, and he can't stand her sister's invasion, he can't stand her, and she's there for months with no signs of leaving. He could let Mitch take her, but that would be craven – poor Mitch, how can he let that happen? His wife's crazy, lyhing seducetive sister. And Mitch is caught, too – why does the truth have to raise it's ugly head? If it didn't, he could solve his own problem, no woman and home with Mama. Can you imagine what would happen to Mitch with his friends if he ignored Blanche's lies?

And what is Blanche to do? She wound up at her last resort. She has run out of options. Her dilemma is that she can't do anything, she has to rely on others, and she must hope that they will be kind.

In Streetcar, everyone has impossible choices.

Sometimes the only solution is to bulldoze things through, and Stanley is the bulldozer. Don't ignore the truth, don't wait for “things to work themselves out,” don't wait for others to act, it takes a bull. But to be the solver, he will also be the heavy. To solve these problems, someone must suffer. Or maybe everyone will suffer, because that's what happens with dilemmas, especially with quadruple dilemmas. But then, everyone hates you for it. Mitch is left with his problem, Blanche has to go with all her pretensions. Stella has failed her sister and hates her husband for it. And Stanley is left hoping that he will be forgiven and his marriage will be restored. Because the central truth of the movie is the love between Stanley and Stella. It's why it's so appropriate that everyone remembers “Stella!” What is it about those cries, repeated throughout the movie? Brando's cries are a mixture of insistence and plea, with his aggression, yes, but with his insistent need. Mitch knows they love each other desperately – everyone knows. She says she'll never be with Stanley again, but whenever she says it, even at the end, you know it's not true, it can't be.

So in the end, faced with all the dilemmas, the brutal insistence of love puts itself forward. But you get the feeling, and this is Tennessee's genius, you can't imagine anyone doing anything else. It's all as insistent as a Greek play, the insistence of fate and destiny which lies in ourselves and where we come from and, if you'd like to believe it, the insistence of what the gods will. Are there some of us the gods will to be crazy? Insoluble dilemmas, not brain chemistry, were posited to be the core of schizophrenia, said R. D. Laing, back in the 1970's. Seems right for Blanche.

How much control do we have? Any? We all struggle through and do the best we can. People help us along the way. The kindness of strangers, the kindness of those we know and love, the best we can do.

The gods are cruel. Our dilemmas are often hopeless.

But, on the other hand, they are also kind. For instance, how come we have been granted to right to love something, or someone, and we don't even know what it is or who it is we are loving? Why do I love Catcher in the Rye and Streetcar? I really can't tell you. But I really do love them.

Budd Shenkin