It is somehow fitting that I write a certain kind of eulogy for two men I didn’t know, a week after the fact of their unrelated deaths, from Tokyo of all places. Nothing is as it was. Not that it ever was, but there is a seemingly palpable sense of hyper-reality lurking about these days, in the people and the places we haunt, that pervades life in modern society, so much we have forgotten that there was a time when it was normal to write by typewriter or talk into a phone connected to a series of cords and lines reaching all the way to the person on the other end. Talk about being in touch. No more. Which is fine, I guess. I’m not sure how I feel about it. I have not taken the time to sit down and write my thoughts out in cursive longhand about it, but the fact remains that before the typewriter and the telephone, predating the telegraph, people did something else, and what they did–whatever it was–was normal to them-be it growing tobacco, listening to rock and roll, or participating in peace protests- though it may have felt like a Mustang bucking out of control to their parents. The thing is, is that, that is normal, probably reaching all the way back to the Neanderthals who lived in caves and were scared of when the dark came. We still basically live in caves and are scared of the dark, although now we get, wirelessly mind you, 500 channels, 24-hour news and 3G service, so our caves are much cooler and aglow at all hours of the night. Wow, are we ever connected and well-lit, and it’s all done invisibly- what Arthur C. Clarke pointed out would have looked like magic to the people who inhabited similar towns and caves one hundred, or even fifty years ago. Has the magic benefitted us? Has it made life better in any way?
Eulogy for the Modern Era
I suppose it is convenient to be able to connect mobilely to a repair shop when a vehicle breaks down in a remote area, as opposed to having to set up camp, start a fire and keep watch out for hostile Indians, maybe even being forced to eventually eat your own family to survive. Yes, maybe the magic of technology has made life better, but has it made us more productive? As a writer of words– (ok, let’s back up here and describe exactly what I do). As an entrist of curved symbols (letters) with prescribed meanings into a glowing magic box (computer) invisibly connected to a vast system of other magic boxes, all of them full of these curved symbols ordered in such a way as to give them all specific meanings, I am able to intermingle my ideas within any system I have access to, from anywhere on the interconnected globe (called earth in the English system of language, but why isn’t earth capitalized?). So having been born in Long Beach, California today means little compared to what it meant one hundred years ago, when a denizen of that fine city would be more likely to have lived and worked within the confines of Los Angeles county, and going to Tokyo would be a major undertaking which would result in loss of employment, maybe nationality, and possibly being swept up into the tail end of the Russo–Japanese War. Allowing me to live and work in a place 16 hours ahead of where I was born, as well as avoiding war, so yes, I think this magic has made us more productive, at least somewhat. What about more honest?
While general benefit and productivity can be quantified by data, honesty, being a human trait, is trickier to pin down. If we define honesty as the act of being truthful, yet mustn’t we openly admit that truth for one person is likely to be different from the truth for another? Ok, for the sake of argument let’s agree on a kind of open-ended universal truth that applies to all people, places and things and consult an object called a history book in order to see if we as a species are any more honest than we were before we had magic in our lives, or if we are just generally a priori dishonest creatures. Wait, you are thinking, this must be a joke, because everybody knows that history books these days are full of misconceptions if not outright lies. Ok, that was a test, which good, you passed. Have you ever read the American historian Howard Zinn’s A People’s History of the United States? The runner up for the 1980 national Book Award is split into two parts: Columbus to the Robber Barons (containing eleven chapters) and The Twentieth Century (containing fourteen chapters), all told from the point of view of the working class: Native Americans, slaves, the poor, women, unions, rebels, or the people whom were most directly affected by the changes brought about during the metamorphosis of the United States into a country of the people and by the people but run by the government in a way that is favorable for corporations rather than for the people, a statement which the supreme court legitimized recently with its decision in the Citizens United v. the Federal Election Commission case to grant corporations equals rights as humans. Zinn died of a heart attack on January 27th, just days after the Supreme Court’s decision. Unconnected? As unlikely as any obituary running a photo of recently deceased author J.D. Salinger taken with a digital camera, or anytime within the development of digital, or maybe even color film, technology.
On the same day, presumably somewhere on the east coast, Jerome David Salinger, celebrated author of the Catcher in the Rye, the Glass Family Chronicles and likely a whole heap of hidden manuscripts no one will ever get a chance to read, died at the age of 91. Good. Most people thought he was dead anyway. I have always comforted myself with the thought that I was happy to have been simultaneously alive and walking and sharing the same air somewhere on earth. I think this about all former and future girlfriends (I’m currently single), writers I admire and the Dalai Lama. Regretfully the authors Thornton Wilder, Rod Serling, P.G. Wodehouse, some months before I was born, all died. I hate that. Hate it so much it has driven me to write to each of my favorite authors in order to verbally shake their hands and pat their backs, to praise and honor, to conspire and laud, and through overly verbose heave and ho, to show off a bit too much as opposed to just getting to the point of why I was writing, which I suppose even I didn’t really know at the time, if only to say I Am Here, Listening To You. Of all the authors I wrote to (Kurt Vonnegut Jr., Hunter S. Thompson, Tom Wolfe, Walt Whitman, Ernest Hemingway, Salinger) with number two pencils on yellow legal pads (pretentious I know), the only reply I received was from Salinger’s lawyers, which was quite surprising and went something like:
To Whom It May Concern,
It has come to our attention that you have been attempting to illegally sell copies of some of Mr. Salinger’s copyrighted short stories via EBay. Please cease and desist copyright infringement of the entitled 22 Stories immediately or we will be required to pursue this matter in a court of law. Thank you.
Harold Ober Associates, Incorporated.
The mystery surrounding the reclusiveness of the would be Bodhisattva Salinger had impacted upon me so fervently when I first read Franny and Zooey, rather than Catcher in the Rye, and I was even more enthralled with the Glass family in Raise High the Roof Beam, Carpenters and Seymour: An Introduction, that when I entered the University of California system I almost immediately took advantage of the Melvyl Article database search function to locate all of Salinger’s published short stories, as well as the interlibrary loan service to have them sent to my campus library if they happened to be locally unavailable. I then photocopied each yellowing page of all the twenty-two previously published, though uncollected and hard to find, stories I had found in old Cosmopolitan, Harper’s, Saturday Evening Post, and not a few New Yorkers, and bound all two hundred and fifty or so pages into a Kinko’s reader, copies of which turned out to be extremely popular on the new and wondrous technology called The Internet, a thing which had suddenly appeared on the world stage as possibly another interesting way to watch pornography, but certainly would never replace good old face to face interpersonal relationshipping as the preferred medium for meeting people and overall communication of any kind, or so I guessed.
It was, after all, 1995, and I had just gotten away with massive credit card fraud when the head of a major retail store’s security team was killed while trying to stop a large man under the influence of drugs from stealing a television and all the clothing he could carry and thusly could not testify against me, and now I was getting threatening letters from powerful incorporated associates. Worried about life in the new face recognition software paradigm, I realized I had more important things to spend my time doing than writing to dead or dying authors about the State of the World, like finding out where to, as Thompson put it when Nixon beat McGovern in ’72, “hunker down and ride out the storm” as these faddish new technologies hopefully went by the wayside or how Harold Ober got my address. Probably EBay had given it to him.
The only answer was to drop out of society. So after the spring quarter final exams, I withdrew all my money and canceled my bank account, filled my backpack with a few clothes and headed for Mexico. Well, Baja California, which most people will say isn’t really Mexico, but whatever man, look at a map. I was going to live on the beach, do a lot of drugs and write the great Baja Californian novel, or one of them anyway, but, well, two out of three isn’t bad. When fall quarter came around I was back enrolled in school and about to move in with my girlfriend. Life seemed bright and full of promise, like a perpetual Saturday afternoon at the beach. I was determined to finally get one of these electronic typing machines my professors were telling me I had to correctly format my papers with and a friend turned me on to Ramakrishna, Vivekananda and the more palatable Alan Watts, whose teachings told me that I didn’t need to travel to far off lands and sit beneath Bodhi trees in order to find enlightenment, but that I could find it without moving an inch.
Like Salinger I was completely content in not leaving my house: I had a used Mac G2, available sex and climate change was yet to be a real issue. But like Zinn I was restless and yearned for the truth and it was this part of me that won out. After breaking up with my girlfriend and donating my computer to goodwill I struck out into Europe and Asia, and have spent the better part of the 00s not so much trying to find enlightenment as perspective, a way of looking at things without which it becomes hard to know whence you come and how to get back. I bet if the three of us were sitting down over banana daquiris and Parcheesi we could agree that Tom Waits said it best: If you get far enough away, you’ll be on your way back home.
Thanks for the history lesson Howard and bon voyage J.D., hope it was a fun ride.
Howard Zinn’s memoir You Can’t Be Neutral on a Moving Train is also the name of the 2004 documentary directed by Deb Ellis and Denis Mueller.
Other stories by Salinger which allude to the Glass family:
A Young Girl in 1941 with No Waist at All (Mademoiselle, May 1947)
A Perfect Day for Bananafish (The New Yorker, January 1948)
Uncle Wiggily in Connecticut (The New Yorker, March 1948)
Down at the Dinghy (Harper’s, April 1949)
Teddy (The New Yorker, January 1953)
Hapworth 16, 1924 (The New Yorker, June 1965)