I find myself thinking about J.D. Salinger. Aren’t we all thinking of him this week? What makes a man of such extraordinary talent first seek the world’s recognition and then run to hide in a fierce hermitage?
People have picked apart Salinger’s work over the years, seeking an answer to the mystery of the man. Yet, perhaps the answer can be seen someplace else, in someone else. Another man who has recently died, leaving the world shaking its head at his mystifying life.
I understand Salinger through the lens of Michael Jackson. The cult of celebrity tore Jackson apart. His genius was too much for us and for him to bear, so we turned him into a spectacle that destroyed the man and the genius. I wonder if Salinger ran away and hid because he feared that he and his talent could not withstand that kind of pressure.
In both cases, the person was a tragic, tragic innocent bystander to both his own talent and the celebrity that it caused. We put so much value on production that we turn talent into a commodity. Nothing beautiful can stand up under that weight. And, sadly, the human being who was, by-the-by, the storehouse of that talent becomes a casualty of society’s mastication of all things lovely.
And so, today I stand up and holler, “Let’s be people first.”
Let’s be people before we are writers or bakers or cocktail waitresses or customers or cops or longshoremen or richmenpoormenbeggarmenthieves. Let’s put our talents in service to our humanity, not the other way around. Let’s honor the person behind the ability, rather than bowing before the gifts, and perhaps we will have fewer people like Tiger Woods breezily believing their talents protect them from being human.
While I think of Salinger and Jackson and Woods, I remember the most Djuna Barnes, a woman tormented by the war between her gifts and her humanity. She holed herself up in an apartment to live out the end of her life long before J.D. Salinger even thought of Holden Caulfield. She became a hermit because the world has no place where talent can exist comfortably as simply a part of a person, and so her gift became dark and sharp and tore her mind apart.
It’s a sad state of affairs when our most gifted artists become either freaks, guests on talk shows, or wisps of human beings, hidden behind the portieres in the living room.