‘Holden Caulfield’ is a name that’s strewn about in literary analysis with as much frequency as there are blades of grass in a field. He's the teenage narrator and protagonist of J.D. Salinger’s infamous The Catcher in the Rye, a novel that everyone either loves or loves to hate.
There's no shortage of literary study guides deconstructing what exactly it means to be Holden Caulfield. Most characterizations are synonymous with nightmarish adolescent angst, including buzzwords like alienated, cynical, and moody. This portrayal undoubtedly contributed to the novel's success among teenagers. However, public reactions to The Catcher in the Rye have always existed in stark polarities—ranging from critics raving about the brilliance of Holden’s character to people condemning the book after John Lennon's shooter, Mark Chapman, adopted it as his manifesto.
The novel's popularity is inseparable from its sociocultural context. In 1951, the McCarthy period was in full swing while the Cold War continued to play at a fever pitch. Investigations of supposed communist infiltrations occurred with alarming frequency, condemning political figures. Character assassinations became a public spectacle. In short, the country was embroiled in a Hitchcock–esque paranoia.
Art historian Moira Roth says that two protagonists set the parameters of national feeling in this particular period: Holden Caulfield and Mike Hammer, from the novel One Lonely Night. The latter is best portrayed in the following line: “I shot them in cold blood and enjoyed every minute of it. … They were Commies, Lee. They were red sons–of–bitches who should have died long ago.”
Roth argues that these two polarizing attitudes of “embittered passivity" and "bigoted conviction” were crucial products of McCarthyism. While right–wing anti–communists pursued their goals with an ardent zeal, “others of a more liberal and self–critical persuasion found themselves paralyzed when called upon to act on their convictions.”
This psychological ambivalence is coined by Roth as the “Aesthetic of Indifference.” She uses it to describe a group of artists in the 1950s, including Marcel Duchampand John Cage. As a general rule, these artists viewed politics with "distance and irony." In an interview with Pierre Cabanne, Duchamp refers to politics as "a stupid activity, which leads to nothing. Whether it leads to communism, to monarchy, to a democratic republic, it's the same thing, as far as I'm concerned." Duchamp's quote clarifies that his indifference, despite seeming callous, stems from a disillusionment with the system.
The term "Aesthetic of Indifference" refers to a cult of intellectuals from the past. But its definition of passivity has extensive implications for our future.
This moniker encapsulates a theme persisting far beyond the Cold War era: passivity in the face of social turmoil. This sense of neutrality or inaction isn't characterized by laziness or ignorance. Instead, it's the same emotion that came with Holden Caulfield's every move: a complete and total disillusionment with society, accompanied by a fear that there's nothing you can do to change it.
Teenagers today face a unique set of challenges. In the United States alone, students are processing the outcome of one of history's most divisive elections, alongside police brutality and civil inaction. Increasing COVID–19 rates continue to wreak havoc on both lives and livelihoods.
So, what does it mean to be a modern–day Holden Caulfield?
A survey conducted in the wake of the 2016 election found that teens are as "politically disillusioned and pessimistic about the nation’s divisions as their parents." A similar study concluded that young adults reported significant emotional stress as a direct result of the political climate. Meanwhile, teenage depression and anxiety rates continue to skyrocket.
Today, the "Aesthetic of Indifference" doesn't refer to a teenage boy, fiddling with his cigarette, in the solitude of his New York hotel room. It more likely describes the teenager in their latest month of lockdown, watching the evening news with their family, overwhelmed with a feeling of abject horror.
We are bombarded with a score of Instagram stories, colorful infographics, and Facebook rants prescribing different ways to act. @soyouwanttotalkabout and @shityoushouldcareabout have become a staple of our daily news intake. The names attached to these accounts sneer at passivity. We should want to talk about these things. We should care.
Conversely, another dialectic encourages turning the news off—even if incrementally. Media outlets capitalize on the "negativity bias," a psychological phenomenon where the human brain disproportionately focuses on the negative. Sometimes, these sources argue, ignorance really is bliss. Especially when ignorance is self–care, not inaction.
Yet, as many rightly argue, in a sociopolitical context, ignorance or apathy is a privilege that many can't afford.
There seems to be a growing recognition of the "Aesthetic of Indifference" as a fundamentally inequitable concept. The New York Times interviewed several high school teachers who addressed this in the context of The Catcher in the Rye: "Holden’s passivity is especially galling and perplexing to many present–day students,” says Julie Johnson. "Today’s pop culture heroes, it seems, are the nerds who conquer the world like Harry [Potter], not the beautiful losers who reject it."
Given the events of the recent year, it seems more important than ever to acknowledge the circumstances of apathy. The "Aesthetic of Indifference" seems to be just that—a projection of detachment that doesn't encompass its causes. More often than not, passivity is rooted in cynicism and sadness and privilege.
To discourage indifference, we must contextualize it. We must understand the psyche that gives rise to cynicism. Then, we must stop belittling it. Perhaps only then we can fix what's left of our apathetic youth.
Holden Caulfield may not be the protagonist in our modern narrative. For many, a rich white male lamenting the cruelties of society may even be the villain.
But the only way we can defeat this villain is to first try to understand them.