A Novel in the Hands of the Killers

Reagan assassination attempt. Public domain

Before getting to the killers let us be patient and consider the concept of literary improvisation. I know I am terribly boring but I promise a lot of blood blood blood in this post – plus the relationship between literature and social life being complex we’ll have to wander a bit before we finally dive into base butchery ;-) .

Literary improvisation is not far from musical improvisation, a topic we have talked about in a previous post. We will not define the concept, being it self-explanatory.

(Can James Joyce’s stream of consciousness be in some way related to what we have said above – literary improvisation, not base butchery, in case you don’t get it wrong ;-) ? Hard to say. I don’t believe it to be very far from it. It is to be noted though that writers at times cleverly build what seems spontaneous, and in literature what counts is the final result: things do work or they do not).

Connecting literary improvisation with digression we will mention again that nice passage by J. D. Salinger where Holden, the adolescent protagonist in The Catcher in the Rye, narrates how he had to undergo the oral expression lesson which consisted in letting a student speak of any topic, and each time the student didn’t stick to the point all the boys in class had to yell “Digression!!” at him (you can read this passage in a former post of ours). Holden instead liked speeches full of digressions and the novel itself, if not very similar in its structure to the above said stream of consciousness, is nonetheless so rich with digressions, facts within facts, ideas within ideas, that it creates an overall effect of chaotic freshness memorably depicting an adolescent mind definitely undisciplined and even disturbed (Holden is disturbed in some way) although so vivacious and sparkling.

(Here again everything seems spontaneous and improvised but I am sure Salinger’s text resulted from a good mixture of intuition and clever construction).

Salinger’s novel has been a classic not only of the American literature (and his language is present in most dictionaries of US slang) but it has inspired the beat generation as well as numerous drop-outs who joined the utopian movements of the 1960s up to the present day.

Personally I read it by mere chance when I was 18 (I had it in inheritance from a boy who was leaving an apartment we shared in Ireland) and I was deeply impressed by it. Coming just out of adolescence I probably recognized in there plenty of the insecurities I was living in those days. But young Holden went beyond, to the extent of almost hating all the surrounding world and it was a bit worrying for people (like me), who enjoyed the book so much, to read on newspapers that David Chapman, the person “who assassinated John Lennon, was carrying the book when he was arrested immediately after the murder and referred to it in his statement to police shortly thereafter.” Also “John Hinckley, Jr., who attempted to assassinate US President Ronald Reagan in 1981, was also reported to have been obsessed with the book.” (From Wikipedia: The Catcher in the Rye).

Lennon’s assassination announced. Fair use

Well, that doesn’t mean that the novel is murder inspiring though certainly by effectively describing the difficulties of a tormented adolescence it is not illogical that some disturbed individual identified himself with the Holden character, finding comfort and inspiration in it and thus feeding his vision against everything and everybody (and refusing to stick to the point naturally becomes a symbol of anarchic revolt against order and self-discipline).

However, also the non psychopath teenager identified himself/herself with Salinger’s character. So the novel became a classic for an entire generation, whether protesting against order and law or not, since adolescence is a more or less difficult period for everyone.

There is, we repeat, a subtle link between digression and the previously mentioned themes of utopia & musical improvisation. Digression as well, going against rationality, can in fact lead to inconclusiveness, i.e. to nowhere, thus unstructuring the logic of discourse – utopia is a Greek word made of ‘ou’(= no) and ‘τόπος’ (= place), so its meaning is actually ‘in no place’.

Summarizing, improvisation is the thin link among the present post and these earlier ones, Digression vs Sticking to the Point and Why Musical Improvisation is Utopian.

Improvisation has been a myth of the counterculture of my generation and of the generations who followed. The idea of improvisation in art (music, literature, theatre etc.) is somewhat connected to social behaviours appeared in the counterculture of the last 50 years. A relationship, in fact, between mental and social anarchy cannot in my view be denied (like I guess it cannot be denied that there is some relationship between the crystalline clarity of Julius Caesar’s writings and his rational conduct and self-control, of which you can read something in this post of ours as well).

It is simple, after all. Facts (and history) are created by people. And people have a mind. Thence there are connections between what we think, read, write and do, whether in our social environment or in art.

Flowers for John Lennon at Strawberry Fields in New Yorks Central Park. Fair use

[We are not anarchic and we do not belong to the counter-culture - although for a couple of years we sorta did, but that was a long time ago. As evidence of my words, we try in this blog to find inspiration from our ancient philosophies, which exalted wisdom, rationality and self control. Only ….

Things are not in black and white,
the hues of grey (and colours)
being infinite …

Forgive my horrible English poems, it's one of my manias].

Italian version

Other related posts:

Digression vs Sticking to the Point
Why Musical Improvisation is Utopian

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7 CommentsLeave a comment

  1. History does produce facts. Fiction can be more real than reality and can get goary.

  2. @Terry Finley
    Goary? Do not know this word and it seems I cannot find it anywhere lol. In any case, I agree that fiction can sometimes be more real than reality: sometimes fiction pre-viewed reality (take a lot of science-fiction, Verne, Wells etc.), or (in another sense) it had great effects on it etc. – the list could be long.
    Fiction is though a concept widely used in English-speaking countries while Latin countries prefer the term (and concept) of ‘literature’.
    Welcome, Terry

  3. Man of Roma – I think Terry made a typo – ‘goary’ should have been ‘gory’ – as in ‘blood and gore’.

    Now, to your thoughtful post. We are all, I feel, products of our environments. What we read can have an influence on how we see reality, or even what we consider to be reality. Indeed, at times some poor people cross a line and begin to find it difficult to discern what is fact from what is fiction.

    On other occasions, ‘fiction’ can influence fact, if that is, you accept the writings of Marx to be fiction. Then, there is the Bible…

    And finally, ‘literature’ for me means, in general ‘fiction’, however, the word really refers to any kind of written work, be it fiction or non-fiction.

    Regards,

    Alex

  4. @Alex
    I agree that fiction and literature are similar concepts, although I feel a difference I cannot discern now.

    We are all, I feel, products of our environments. What we read can have an influence on how we see reality, or even what we consider to be reality …

    Yes, we are products of our environment though, I am sure you agree, we are actively modifying it as well, in a two-way process.

    Expanding the topic a bit (not sticking to the point, Holden-like? ;-) ) one could say it is our brain that, computer-like, shapes our vision-connection with the environment. So, like software can modify computer processing, by modifying our mind-brain – via a book, the influence of a teacher, of a friend, a movie or blog post etc. – we change (a little or a lot) the way we see things, plus our behaviours and (re)actions upon the environment.

    On other occasions, ‘fiction’ can influence fact, if that is, you accept the writings of Marx to be fiction. Then, there is the Bible…

    Actually (and returning to the link literature & society) you have provided, Alex, two very good (and huge) examples – Marx and the Bible – of the effect of literature on human actions (philosophy and religion – for non believers – are literature, or fiction, as you prefer).

    We all know thousands of other influential texts that can be added: Hitler’ Mein Kampf, the works of Plato or the writings of Julius Caesar, which influenced the way of conceiving military actions etc.

    These and other works have in fact greatly shaped the world by shaping millions of human minds-brains, who thence saw the world differently, and produced new facts accordingly.

    All the best

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