Posted by: M.C. | 30 January 2010

Using our blues

I’ve experienced an odd reaction to the recent death of J.D. Salinger: annoyance. Not, I mean with Salinger himself. I found The Catcher in the Rye a good and serious book, though clearly not the life-changing experience for me that it has been for so many others. No, it is with these many others that I find myself at odds. Something in the outpouring of fascination and parsing of Salinger’s life and work seems to me quite beyond the point.

I have experienced the loss of artistic and spiritual heroes during my life (when you get into your late 40s, you find yourself experiencing it disconcertingly often). I’m still mourning the death of people like Paul Newman and Fred Rogers. I think, though, that I miss their ongoing social action and energy. I don’t mourn the end of their art because their art hasn’t ended. Rogers’ music and shows and books, and Newman’s films remain as new and constant as ever. I loved Kurt Vonnegut’s writing, but his death didn’t make that writing disappear; when I want to hear his distinctive mixture or whimsy and irreverence and social commentary, I can pick up Slaughterhouse Five or Breakfast of Champions and he is with me again now as much as he ever was.

And this is my point. I feel sympathy for Salinger’s family and friends for the personal loss they have suffered, but I grow impatient with those who seem to feel that knowing the man’s work is the same as knowing the man, who seem to want to possess not just his art but his personal being. Since I didn’t know Salinger, I have no idea how he would have responded to this adulation, but his decision to retire from public life more than four decades ago gives me some sense that a cult of personality is not what he desired. And whatever creative work he wanted us to have he has either given to us or left to be presented eventually.

We seem to want to own our artists, to project ourselves and our lives and our struggles and triumphs onto them. But all I want is what the artist has chosen to reveal: his or her art. The rest I leave to the artist. Artists are generous enough and brave enough give us their art; I leave to them what belongs to them: their lives. Perhaps it is time for the rest of us to step more deeply into our own lives and create our own art from it. Perhaps his death should prompt us not to merely consume or feed off of, but to generate to write to paint to sing. If we feel that all those years ago Salinger wrote his book to us, perhaps it is time that we, at long last, stopped passively admiring, stopped lamenting, and wrote back.

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