One of the keys to a happy, fulfilling life seems to be to recognize claustrophobia when it sets in and then to take the time to seek out the contours of that too-close-for-comfort feeling.
Perhaps this key gets minimized in places that are not DC, but here — here sometimes things get so monolithic that it becomes important to remember that it’s not you, but them who are crazy. And they are most certainly crazy.
That’s the thing about an inherently temporary town. We’re all here to suck the marrow, to learn and grow until we’re ready to leave. All that crazy begs analysis, demands that you try to understand what’s up.
Because the alternative is to internalize it, to give up on rules and boundaries and ride the wave “just for a little while,” until one day you look in the mirror and wonder: How the hell did I get to this?
All that is to say: Today I stumbled fortuitously on a short JD Salinger bio and was touched, as always, by how rendering Salinger’s stuff is. Catcher in the Rye is a good book, but Salinger’s soul shines through his shorter stories. You read them and can feel how tormented he is, grasping at straws and conflicted by the taint he associates with success.
He was claustrophobic. Salinger felt that ego tainted everything, that publishing his thoughts was a sort of symptom of phoniness. Read here from Franny and Zooey:
You take a look around your college campus, and the world, and politics, and one season of summer stock, and you listen to the conversation of a bunch of nitwit college students, and you decide that everything’s ego, ego, ego, and the only intelligent thing for a girl to do is to lie around and shave her head and say the Jesus prayer and beg God for little mystical experience that’ll maker her nice and happy.
That serendipitous article ended with the idea that “for a performer to remain true to his art, he can never perform.”
One of the first and most durable lessons DC has to offer is that narcissism — performance — gets rewarded. The rabid self-promotion that runs this town is at once abhorrent and fascinating. This is a transient town, after all; our grandmothers aren’t here to do our boasting for us.
“Nasty little egos.” It’s obvious that Salinger was claustrophobic in his own ego. Is it safe, though, to spend your professional life trying to escape the narcissistic pull entirely? It’s a bit like a dog running away from his own tail.
Try to find a better way to frame ego claustrophobia than this:
It’s everybody, I mean. Everything everybody does is so–I don’t know–not wrong, or even mean, or even stupid, necessarily. But just so tiny and meaningless–and sad-making. And the worst part is, if you go bohemian or something crazy like that, you’re conforming just as much as everybody else, only in a different way.
It’s a fine line. A huge part of why I prefer urban life is that we all admit we’re solipsists up front, so there’s no bullshit. There are no false offers to help, no pretense. When someone’s kind it’s real, it’s solid, there’s no need to second-guess motives.
We in DC saw the compassionate lining to narcissism during February’s snowpocalypse, when neighbors suddenly showed up for one another, as though for the first time. There’s something refreshing about knowing that when no one is beholden to anyone, those who stick around are genuinely interested in engaging in that same egotistical sphere, up to and including yourself, toi meme.
All the same I came away from that tormented Salinger obit similarly deeply conflicted. Is this honest? Am I being straight with myself? Is this the life I choose? And: If the I’s have it anyway, why resist?
The contour of that claustrophobia, it seems — viz: the way to avoid being an ass — is to embrace that existential truth that nothing is really unique. We’re all busy, overwhelmed, underslept. One more from Zooey’s boyfriend Seymour to keep it all in perspective:
Let’s just try to have a marvelous time this weekend. I mean not try to analyze everything to death for once, if possible.
Especially me. I love you.
Right. So the key is: If you “let it ride” first, then try to understand, it’s miserable-making. If you try to understand, then let it ride — analyze only down to a point — that’s the key to a nonphony life, to keep everything in perspective.