That myoclonic jerk…

….as J.D. Salinger’s Holden Caulfield didn’t say.

Otherwise known as a hypnic jerk, it’s one form of the involuntary muscle twitches called myoclonus. It can occur when a person is beginning to fall asleep, often causing the person to jump and awaken suddenly for a moment. It resembles the “jump” experienced by a person when startled, and is sometimes accompanied by a falling sensation.

The term comes to my mind in the context of “The Catcher In the Rye”, not just because “jerk” is part of Holden Caulfield’s impoverished vocabulary, but also because falling is a central motif in Salinger’s novel.

Jerome David Salinger was born in Manhattan, New York, on January 1, 1919. His paternal grandfather, of Lithuanian Jewish descent, had been a rabbi, and Jerome’s father, Sol, traded in kosher cheese. His wife Miriam, Jerome’s mother, was born Marie and was of German, Irish, and Scottish descent. Just after Jerome celebrated his bar mitzvah, he learned that his mother was not of Jewish ancestry.

In 1939, Salinger attended the Columbia University School of General Studies in Manhattan, where he studied writing under Whit Burnett. Burnett observed that Salinger did not distinguish himself until a few weeks before the end of the second semester, when “he suddenly came to life” and completed three stories.

In December 1941, The New Yorker accepted Salinger’s “Slight Rebellion off Madison,” a Manhattan-set story about a disaffected teenager named Holden Caulfield with “pre-war jitters”. Before it could be published, Japan carried out the attack on Pearl Harbor, and, to Salinger’s dismay, the story was held back. (The story would appear in The New Yorker in 1946.)

In the spring of 1942, several months after the U.S. entered World War II, Salinger was drafted into the army, serving with the 12th Infantry Regiment, 4th Infantry Division. He was present at Utah Beach on D-Day, in the Battle of the Bulge, and the Battle of Hürtgen Forest.

During the Normandy campaign, Salinger arranged to meet Ernest Hemingway in Paris, where Hemingway was working as a war correspondent. Salinger wrote to Hemingway in July 1946 that their talks were among his few positive memories of the war. He added that he was working on a play about Holden Caulfield and hoped to play the part himself.

Salinger was assigned to a counter-intelligence unit; owing to his proficiency in French and German, his role was to interrogate prisoners of war. In April 1945 he entered Kaufering IV concentration camp, a subcamp of Dachau. Salinger earned the rank of Staff Sergeant and served in five campaigns. Following the Allied victory, Salinger spent several weeks in hospital with combat stress reaction.

“The Catcher In the Rye” was partially published in serial form in 1945–1946 and as a novel in 1951.

In Salinger’s story, Holden Caulfield shares a fantasy based on a mishearing of Robert Burns’s Comin’ Through the Rye, in which he imagines himself making a job of saving children running through a field of rye, by catching them before they fall off a nearby cliff (a “catcher in the rye”). Holden misremembers the line of the poem as “if a body catch a body” rather than “if a body meet a body”.

Even the “cleaner” version of the Burns lyrics is quite bawdy, and it is this one, or an “Anglized” version of it, that is most commonly “covered”. Alma Gluck, name at birth Reba Feinsohn (May 11, 1884 – October 27, 1938) was a Romanian-born American soprano. (Wikipedia)

Arguably, a large part of the controversy that has been associated with this iconic novel for adults arises from its popularity with adolescents. While the adult can write from all their experience since childhood and adolescence, the adolescent has a partially formed idea of how much they have yet to experience.

The journalist Lauren Collins (who started as an editorial assistant at Vogue) referred in The New Yorker of January 2019 to the marketing tagline, “Salinger for the Snapchat generation,” applied to the celebrated writing of Sally Rooney. At the time, Rooney was still in her twenties; at which age Salinger was developing an identity for Holden Caulfield in the crucible of war. (Snapchat’s own tagline is “The fastest way to share a moment!”.)

The babe in arms is utterly dependent for survival on being held in safety. Hence the remark by paediatrician Donald Woods Winnicott in a 1965 work: “I once said: ‘there is no such thing as an infant’ meaning, of course, that wherever one finds an infant one finds maternal care, and without maternal care there would be no infant.”

Jeffry J. Andresen, M.D., Professor of Psychiatry, wrote in 1985: “Falling carries the meaning of loss of the mother for three patients studied psychoanalytically. Falling carries the same implication in various tropes, myths and biblical imagery. This convergence of evidence supports the thesis that falling is a symbol of maternal loss.”

No wonder that in “Catcher” Salinger was preoccupied by the theme of falling. We fall asleep; we fall in love; sometimes the artist is compelled to depict falling apart.

Thomas Earl Petty (October 20, 1950 – October 2, 2017) was an American singer, songwriter, musician, record producer, and actor. He was the lead vocalist and guitarist of Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers, formed in 1976. He previously led the band Mudcrutch, and was also a member of the late 1980s supergroup the Traveling Wilburys. (Wikipedia)

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