If a body catch a body

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.

16 responses to “If a body catch a body

  1. Hey Emily–do you mind if I share this post with a group of middle and high school writers at the writing studio I lead tomorrow morning? I’ve been thinking for some time that if I were to invite any “real writer” to chat with them, it would be you…..and if you’d ever like to do that, I’d love to set that up. But in the mean time, this post is a perfect conversation starter for a group of kids who are just beginning to define their purposes for doing what they do….let me know please.

  2. I enjoyed what I read of Salinger, but I don’t see him as fame’s victim. The piece below has a different theory as to why he chose to recede from the public.

    I also squirm a little when I think of him and the relationship he began with Joyce Maynard when he was 53 and she was 18. Genius, pressures of fame, whatever don’t make that any less creepy even if it was/is legal.

    http://www.nytimes.com/2010/01/30/opinion/30lodge.html?scp=1&sq=pre-post%20modernist&st=cse

  3. Fabulous post, Emily.

  4. i love this post. i have to say i was never to bothered by Salinger’s behavior. I always felt like he chose the life he wanted , this post made me think of the down side of it — of what he must have gone through to drive him to such extremes.

  5. Oh, Em. You have such a gift with imagery in your words.

  6. Oh no you di’int….I had heard that people were making this comparison, but I can’t believe you are one of them. There’s an enormous chasm between a genius who chooses isolation as his way of dealing with unwanted fame, and a lonely child molesting fame-seeker who descended into madness to deal with his. True artists don’t seek fame- they concern themselves solely with living- and being true to- their art.

  7. Well, then we may need to debate whether Mozart, Warhol, and Shakespeare were true artists.
    I think that it is important to remember that Jackson – for all his flaws – was a victim of childhood fame. We can lambast the man, but we should also consider the societal factors that led to who he was: a worship of fame and success as measured by career progress — many of the same factors that led to Salinger’s hermitage or Barnes’s… well, who the hell knows what with Barnes…

    • “Well, then we may need to debate whether Mozart, Warhol, and Shakespeare were true artists.”- why? Are they meant to be examples of recluses or spotlight-hogging weirdos?
      I agree that Jackson was a victim of childhood fame, but I’m not sure that absolves him from adult behavior. People are too quick to excuse psychopathy when there’s a multi-millionaire behind it.

  8. Deb,
    I fear I am in a different boat than you on this one. I’m not sure I see a real problem with an older man and younger woman. I like to think that 18 year old women ought to be accorded the respect we give all adults, including the opportunity to make their own mistakes. I surely see your point, but I don’t think an 18 year old is a child in need of protection. Of course, that may change when I have an 18 year old 🙂

  9. As I said, the relationship wasn’t illegal and I’m not suggesting she or other 18 yos needed any protection. But dating someone easily young enough to be your daughter- especially one so absolutely young- I’m sticking with creepy. And, frankly, lame, in much the same way it is when a professor dates an adoring/worshipping student.

  10. I’ll accept creepy and lame. That works for me.

  11. There’s always room in the middle…

    And your Warhol reference reminded me of a biopic PBS showed a few years ago about him. He seemed squarely in media-whore territory. Even better, he surrounded himself with extremely messed up people who worshipped the ground he walked on. If you could have heard some of what they were saying- “Andy is so good and pure”- while Warhol sat there blankly… repulsive. But he was totally an artist, and even a great one. I think the same is true of Bob Dylan and Peter, Paul and Mary, to name just a few whose public personas were constructed to evoke purity of intent.

  12. “Let’s be people first.”

    I think this is an excellent creed to live by. I think the natural extension of it is to treat OTHERS like people, too. So many of our problems could be avoided if we accorded each other the basic dignity of humanity.

  13. Along with asking what fame did to these men and women, we should ask what it does to us, the lemmings who jump off the “cult of celebrity” cliff. Why do we have such an addiction? Why has it only gotten worse? And why doesn’t it seem to matter whether the famous person is “normal,” weird, reclusive, repulsive, admirable, or not even really worthy of the pedestal?

  14. I couldn’t be more on board with this, Emily.

  15. The art vs. fame dilemma. That’s a hard one to call; so much of it is tangled in the same web.

    I’m reminded of the ignominious end of Zora Neale Hurston. You know: how’d that happen?