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Literature

Catching the blind owl
J.D. Salinger’s "The Catcher in the Rye" and Sadegh Hedayat’s "The Blind Owl"

 


Mahnoosh Nik-Ahd
January 31, 2006
iranian.com

Paper submitted in a class taught by Abbas Milani last quarter at Stanford University called "Tradition and Modernity in Iranian literature." Dr. Milani is Director of the Iranian Studies Program at Stanford University and a visiting professor in the department of political science. He is also a research fellow and co-director of the Iran Democracy Project at Stanford's Hoover Institution. See another paper, Aaron P. Baca's "Listen to the reed how it tells a tale".

Stanford University now has, thanks to Hamid and Tina Moghadam who have endowed a Chair, an Iranian Studies Program. As part of the curriculum I have been developing for the program, in the fall quarter, 2005, I taught a course called Tradition and Modernity in Iranian literature. We read a number of works (in translation) by Iranian writers, as well as theoretical works, explicating the fluid and multi-faceted nature of modernity, the ways and whys of transition, and the contested content of Iranian tradition. The Blind Owl, My Uncle Napoleon, and Women without Men were amongst the books we read. We talked of the dominant paradigm, promoted by a wide arrays of artists and thinkers — from Max Weber to Milan Kundera-- that claims modernity to be, in essence, a Western phenomenon. And thus, according to this theory Iranians, from poets to politicians, must emulate the Western tropes and values of modernity, if they want to be modern. We also discussed the hypothesis I have offered in Lost Wisdom, where I have argued that the dominant paradigm needs to be reexamined. Early forays into such critical scrutiny has shown that there was, in Iran, between the tenth to twelfth century, the early signs of an indigenous modernity. From Beyhagi to Nezami, from Ibn Sina to Biruni, Iranian thinkers and writers were, according to this hypothesis, beginning to experiment with ideas we today called “modern” and “Western.”

The students were invited to write papers on any aspect of modernity that interested them. Two of the essays were, in my judgement, particularly brilliant and full of interesting insights. Aaron Bacca, an accomplished musician with intimate knowledge of Western musical theory and practice, tackled the issue of modernity in music. Over the last century, a fascinating debate, with luminaries like Colonel Vazir, and Saba at its center, has continued on the question of whether Persian music is capable of modernity, and if such transition is desired and needed, then what are the rudiments of musicial modernity for Iran. The second article, by Mahnoosh Nik-Ahd is a fascinating comparative discussion of two important works of twentieth century literature — Hedayat’s Blind Owl in Iran, and J.D. Salinger’s Catcher in the Rye in the US. Mahnoosh has cleverly unpacked the many similarities between the two novels, particularly between their two central narrators — the alienated “underground” men of modernity. While for generations of Iranians, Blind Owl has been, in form and content, a work of seminal influence, Catcher in the Rye has been uniquely influential, particularly in the US. Her clever insights point to the rich harvest of ideas we can expect if we can interest the new generation of Iranian-American youth in the Iranian part of their hybrid legacy.

Soon after reading the papers, I contacted Mr. Javid, the tireless editor of iranian.com, and asked whether he might be interested in publishing a sampling of these papers. He kindly agreed to publish them, and what you are about the read is the slightly revised version of two of these papers. We  hope to continue this cooperation and bring to the Iranians more essays  of this kind.

Abbas Milani
Director of Iranian Studies Program at Stanford University

***

The eminent psychiatrist and Holocaust survivor Viktor Frankl once said, “There is also purpose in life which is almost barren of both creation and enjoyment and which admits of but one possibility of high moral behavior: namely, in man's attitude to his existence, an existence restricted by external forces” (Frankl 106). 

We live in a world where suffering is a part of being human, and although we cannot always choose what happens to us, we can often choose our responses to the circumstances which try to restrict our existence.  Thus, existence is dependent on adaptation.  Both J.D. Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye and Sadegh Hedayat’s The Blind Owl describe human suffering through characters on the verge of mental breakdown.  In both novels, the protagonist is an uncentered individual who is tormented in large part because of his central failure to adapt to the world around him. 

There are two ways to adapt: we can adapt ourselves to the environment or adapt the environment to us.  In both The Blind Owl and The Catcher in the Rye, neither of the protagonists is in leadership positions or other positions of power to influence others and to create a social movement that changes society in order to adapt to the protagonists’ own specific perspective regarding life and how one should live.  They cannot adapt the environment to their needs, but they also fail to adapt themselves to the environment. 

Adaptation implies a sense of fluidity—a sense that we are able to be dynamic so that we can make adjustments to our being and our perspective in order to make ourselves fit into the world around us.  We need to be able to learn from the past, focus on the present—the here and now—and also look to the future. 

In both books, a significant portion of the characters’ suffering is rooted in their shifted time perspective.  The past is associated with the days of youth, the days of innocence.  And to live in the present—to adapt to the here and now—would mean to let go of that innocence and to see things for what they are today—to see people for what they are instead of what they want them to be.

In The Catcher in the Rye, Holden suffers in large part because he holds on, as his name implies.  He wants to stay in a world where things do not change, where he can count on the preservation of innocence.  In essence, Holden wants to be “the catcher in the rye.”  He says,

“Anyway, I keep picturing all these little kids playing some game in this big field of rye and all.  Thousands of little kids, and nobody’s around—nobody big, I mean—except me.  And I’m standing on the edge of some crazy cliff.  What I have to do, I have to catch everybody if they start to go over the cliff—I mean if they’re running and they don’t look where they’re going I have to come out from somewhere and catch them.  That’s all I’d do all day.  I’d just be the catcher in the rye and all.  I know it’s crazy, but that’s the only thing I’d really like to be.  I know it’s crazy.” (Salinger 173) 

Thus, Holden wants to guard all of the children around him in order to sustain their innocence and to keep their virtue from being tainted by the ruthless world that exists on the other side of the cliff.  He recognizes the impossibility of his ideal, but this is his focus—this is “the only thing [he’d] really like to be.”

In The Blind Owl, there are two protagonists.  In the first half of the book, the protagonist is a painter of pencase covers, residing in the city of Rey after the Mongol invasion of the thirteenth century (Bashiri 172).  The protagonist of the second half of the novel is a jar painter who is a resident of Rey before the Mongol invasion (Bashiri 173).  Both of these protagonists are akin to Holden in their desire to hold onto the past.  Both are painters, which is symbolic of their desire to capture the moment and to preserve it for eternity.

The first painter even paints the same scene over and over again.  On each pencase cover, he paints the same woman with the beautiful dark eyes and the Indian fakir squatting next to the cypress tree, with a little stream in between the two figures (Hedayat 6).  He says, “For some reason unknown to me the subject of my painting was from the very beginning one and the same ... somehow I felt this subject to be remote and, at the same time, curiously familiar to me” (Hedayat 6-7). 

Thus, by repeatedly painting this scene from his memory without distorting it in any way, the narrator is able to hold onto a reality he thinks is from his past but truthfully, no longer exists.  This picture is actually an illusion in the painter’s mind, but which he tries to secure into reality by painting it over and over again in the exact same form. 

Similarly, Plato describes the impossibility of attempting to catch the Form or the Idea of something and defines this as perfection (Wikipedia).  Yet, because life is dynamic and form is permanent, life can never reach perfection.  Therefore, the painter’s unrelenting desire to encapsulate this image from his mind’s eye by putting it onto paper is analogous to the Platonic notion of Form and the futile drive to reconcile perfection with reality. 

At the same time, Holden’s insistence on being “the catcher in the rye” is also a manifestation of his insufficient quest to shield a perfect entity, namely innocence, and thus, to bring to it stability and permanence by engraving it in reality.  Furthermore, it is in part because his dream to contain life through innocence, the purest of forms, is so “crazy” and so unattainable that Holden suffers. 

This desire to uphold virtue and to concentrate on a past uninhibited by the stains of the present and the reality it represents is also evident in the characters that provide the protagonists of each novel with the greatest source of support.  In The Blind Owl, Nanny is a constant force in the narrator’s life.  He says, “Although Nanny had changed outwardly, her ideas remained what they had always been.  The only difference was that she evinced a greater fondness for life and seemed afraid of death” (Hedayat 84). 

The other constant element in the narrator’s life and in his struggle is his shadow, and perhaps it is for this reason that he is writing for his shadow.  His shadow is what will remain of him even when he is gone.  Every object, whether animate or inanimate, has a shadow.  His shadow is also a source of comfort for the narrator, because he is so connected to it.  He says, “Only he was capable of understanding” (Hedayat 124). 

He also describes his shadow’s perceptive nature when he says, “This shadow surely understands better than I do.  It is only to him that I can talk properly ... Only he is capable of knowing me.  He surely understands” (Hedayat 47).  In this sense, Holden’s younger sister, Phoebe, is analogous to the shadow and to Nanny.  Holden says, “You should see her.  You never saw a little kid so pretty and smart in your whole life.  She’s really smart” (Salinger 67). 

Like the shadow, Phoebe possesses a certain awareness that allows her to understand Holden and to appreciate the complexities of his character, so that he can identify strongly with her.  He says, “You’d like her.  I mean if you tell old Phoebe something, she knows exactly what the hell you’re talking about.  I mean you can even take her anywhere with you.  If you take her to a lousy movie, for instance, she knows it’s a lousy movie.  If you take her to a pretty good movie, she knows it’s a pretty good movie” (Salinger 67).  Like Nanny and the shadow, Phoebe is persistently attentive to Holden and is always there.  Holden says,

“And when Allie and I were having some conversation about thing in general, old Phoebe’d be listening.  Sometimes you’d forget she was around, because she was such a little kid, but she’d let you know.  She’d interrupt you all the time.  She’d give Allie or I a push or something, and say, ‘Who?  Who said that?  Bobby or the lady?’  And we’d tell her who said it, and she’d say, ‘Oh,’ and go right on listening and all ... Anyway, she was somebody you always felt like talking to on the phone” (Salinger 68). 

Thus, Holden loves Phoebe and can relate to her well because she accepts him for who he is.  Her humor is spontaneous and therefore natural, genuine, and uncontrived. For instance, she writes books about Hazle Weatherfield, a girl detective who is an orphan but whose father keeps appearing.  And the father is always “a tall attractive gentleman about 20 years of age” (Salinger 68).

Just as the narrator in The Blind Owl has always been able to rely on Nanny to care for him, so, too, Holden knows that he can always count on Phoebe to be with him.  He says that she is different because she can dance.  “She can follow anything you do ... she stays right with you.  You can cross over, or do some corny dips ... and she stays right with you” (Salinger 175).  Therefore, like Nanny and the shadow, Phoebe follows Holden, no matter what tempo or rhythm she is swung by.

Another facet of the characters’ longing to seize a dimension of time and to shelter themselves in its constancy is seen through their choices of enclosure.  In The Blind Owl, the first protagonist says, “All my life has passed within four walls” (Hedayat 5).  This is suggestive of a tomb, which is also paralleled in The Catcher in the Rye.   Holden is almost obsessed with the Museum of Natural History, which is close to his home.  He adores that museum because of his memories of going there as a child, especially with Phoebe his now deceased brother, Allie.  He says,

“The best thing, though, in that museum was that everything always stayed right where it was.  Nobody’d move.  You could go there a hundred thousand times, and that Eskimo would still be just finished catching those two fish, the birds would still be on their way south, the deers would still be drinking out of that water hole, with their pretty antlers and their pretty, skinny legs, and that squaw with the naked bosom would still be weaving that same blanket.  Nobody’d be different.” (Salinger 121)

Thus, Holden’s love for the museum is founded on his ability to rely on its constancy.  No matter how tainted with “phoniness” the world around him continues to become, the Museum of Natural History will forever maintain its own nature, unadulterated by the changes that mark the passage of time and the loss of naiveté. 

Yet, Holden is also able to recognize that nothing in life is really static and that even he is constantly changing.  As he describes the museum, he goes on to say, “The only thing that would be different would be you” (Salinger 121).  Similarly, in The Blind Owl, the narrator contrasts the invariable nature of Nanny with his own struggle to maintain stability and says, “I on the other hand changed with every day and every minute” (Hedayat 84).  Yet, his change is one that leads him to crumble and ultimately decay.  This sense of perishing is also seen in Holden and his attachment to the Egyptian section of the museum and the Pharaoh’s tomb. 

Towards the end of the book, where his downward spiral is most clear and he has almost completely disintegrated psychologically, Holden actually climbs into the tomb.  He says, “I was the only one left in the tomb then, I sort of liked it, in a way.  It was a so nice and peaceful” (Salinger 204).  In The Blind Owl, the narrator also seeks peace in his enclosure.  He says, “If only I could have slept peacefully as I did in the days when I was an innocent child” (Hedayat 67).  Thus, both novels describe a certain sense of comfort found in the solitude produced by sleep and the protection offered by the tomb or bed that conceals them from the rest of the world.

In fact, hiding and the desire to escape from the deception and falsities associated with reality are also recurrent themes in both books.  In The Blind Owl, the narrator says, “I would live my life in the shadow of the columns of some lingam temple.  I would retire into some corner where the light of the sun would never strike my eyes and the words of men and the noise of life never grate upon my ears” (Hedayat 100). 

Thus, the narrator seeks to veil himself in the darkness and silence provided by a secluded place, where he is free from the realities that scrape at his soul.  He says, “I retired as deep as I could into the depths of my own being like an animal that hides itself in a cave in the wintertime” (Hedayat 100).  Hence, turning inward is another way for him to release himself from the torture brought on by the deception he sees in those around him.  Holden, too, seeks to escape from the real world that makes him “depressed as hell” (Salinger 133), because it is filled with “phonies” and hypocrisy.  He does not want to be a part of the world where he would go to college and afterwards, things would “be entirely different” (Salinger 133).  He describes his disillusionment with this reality when he says,

“We’d have to go downstairs in elevators with suitcases and stuff.  We’d have to phone up everybody and tell’em good-by and send’em post-cards from hotels and all.  And I’d be working in some office, making a lot of dough, and riding to work in cabs and Madison Avenue buses, and reading newspapers and playing bridge all the time, and going to the movies and seeing a lot of stupid shorts and coming attraction and newsreels.  Newsreels.  Christ almighty ... It wouldn’t be the same at all.” (Salinger 133) 

Instead, Holden tries to break free from this reality by leaving Pencey Prep and running

away to his home in New York.  Like Holden, the narrator of The Blind Owl is disgusted with the world in motion around him—a world where people play roles and disguise their true intentions and characteristics.  When he describes the butcher, the narrator says, “His movements which, seen from my own window, seemed heavy, deliberate and frightening, now struck me as helpless, even comical.  I felt that this man had no business to be a butcher at all and was only acting a part” (Hedayat 95).  He, too, is dismayed at the beguiling reality that encircles him.  He says, “Life as it proceeds reveals, coolly and dispassionately, what lies behind the mask that each man wears” (Hedayat 102).  And because he is so dissatisfied with the hollow world that bears little depth or authenticity, he chooses to reject reality and instead enter a realm of his own creation.  When he describes the mosque he would often visit, he says,

“My eyes would rest on the shining, patterned tiles on the wall and I would be transported into a delightful dream-world. Thereby I unconsciously provided myself with a way of escape.  During the prayers I would shut my eyes and cover my face with my hand and in this artificial night of my own making I would recite the prayers like the meaningless sounds uttered by someone who is dreaming.” (Hedayat 89)

Thus, the land of dreams allows him to transport himself to an alternative niche, where he is unconstrained and free of the pain created by the duplicity he sees in the reality that surrounds him. 

In addition, like Holden, the deceit and corruption the narrator of The Blind Owl associates with the present are the antithesis of the sincerity and joy he relates to the days of his past.  He says, “I often used to recall the days of my childhood in order to forget the present, in order to escape from myself ... I would have the sensation that I was still a child and that inside me there was a second self which felt sorry for this child who was about to die” (Hedayat 84).  His obsession with death provides another avenue of escape that also highlights his desire to loosen the ruthless grip with which reality holds onto him.  In his eyes, “only death does not lie ... we are the children of death and it is death that rescues us from the deceptions of life” (Hedayat 100). 

Consequently, he correlates death with truth and honesty.  Death is a constant force guaranteed to deliver him freedom from the misery he sees in the world.  He says, “What comforted me was the prospect of oblivion after death.  The thought of an after-life frightened and fatigued me.  I had never been able to adapt myself to the world in which I was now living.  Of what use would another world be to me?” (Hedayat 99). 

Thus, because he cannot adapt to the world in which he is forced to live, he would like to replace life with death because of the numbness offered by oblivion.  He says, “If I had to go through another life, then I hoped that my mind and senses would be numb” (Hedayat 99).  Holden aims to achieve a similar numbness, as “there wasn’t anything to do except smoke and drink” (Salinger 86).  Moreover, his yearning to depart from reality is underscored in his dazed state towards the end of the book, when his disillusionment with life culminates in his mental disintegration.  He describes the “spooky” thing that began happening to him when he says,

“Every time I came to the end of a block and stepped off the goddam curb, I had this feeling that I’d never get to the other side of the street.  I thought I’d just go down, down, down, and nobody’d ever see me again.  Boy, did it scare me ... Then I started doing something else.  Every time I’d get to the end of a block I’d make believe I was talking to my brother Allie.  I’d say to him, ‘Allie, don’t let me disappear.  Allie, don’t let me disappear.  Allie, don’t let me disappear.  Please Allie.’  And then when I’d reach the other side of the street without disappearing, I’d thank him.  Then it would start all over again as soon as I got to the next corner.” (Salinger 197-8)

Thus, while Holden strives to find relief from the pain he feels because of the insincerity that pervades the reality he sees, unlike the narrator in The Blind Owl, Holden does not wish to enter oblivion.  Rather, Holden seeks to escape to a life of simplicity.  He says, “I decided I’d go away.  I decided I’d never go home again and I’d never go away to another school again ... I’d start hitchhiking my way out West ... where it was very pretty and sunny” (Salinger 198).  There, he would pretend to be a “deaf-mute” so that he “wouldn’t have to have any goddam stupid useless conversations with anybody” (Salinger 198). 

Therefore, Holden wants to continue living, but he longs for a reality that provides him with light and peace from the artificiality inherent in daily life.  And while the narrator in The Blind Owl finds serenity in the void provided by the blackness of death, he, too, wishes “to be born again a world of light and peace” (Hedayat 93).  Like Holden, his frustration with reality propels him to want to enter “a world of which [he is] the sole creator and which [is] in perfect harmony with [his] vision of reality” (Hedayat 93).  Thus, in both novels, there is a clear inclination toward creating an alternative reality that conforms to the characters’ own ideals, rather than those dictated by society.

Furthermore, the sense of hopelessness and the desire to break free from reality for the protagonists in both books can also be largely attributed to the ruins which surround them.  In The Blind Owl, the first protagonist says, “I am fortunate in that the house where I live is situated beyond the edge of the city in a quiet district far from the noise and bustle of life.  It is completely isolated and around it lie ruins” (Hedayat 5). 

These ruins come not only in the form of buildings and other physical objects, but people as well.  For instance, the second protagonist’s wife, whom he refers to as “the bitch” (Hedayat 108) is a ruined woman who sleeps with innumerable men.  The “old odds and ends man” (Hedayat 108) facing the narrator’s window has “articles laid out before him” from which there “came a rusty smell as of dirty discarded objects which life had rejected.  Perhaps his aim was to show people the discarded things of life and to draw attention to them.  After all, was he not old and discarded himself?” (Hedayat 108). 

Thus, he, too, resembles the ruins which he sells.  In addition, the narrator is rejected by his wife and he says, “Ever since I have been confined to my bed people have paid little attention to me” (Hedayat 50).  He realizes that his “life has been slowly wasting away like a candle” (Hedayat 50).  He recognizes his own disintegration when he says “I was a crumbling, decomposing mass.  It seemed to me that this was what I had always been and always would be, a strange compound of incompatible elements” (Hedayat 71).  Thus, since the narrator cannot adapt to society, he, too, has been discarded and is merely another vestige of life.

Holden, too, is not only surrounded by ruins, but is also headed for ruin.  His teacher, Mr. Antolini, warns him that he is headed for a “special kind of fall, a horrible kind” (Salinger 187).  Furthermore, Holden’s classmate, James Castle, who Holden describes as being “a skinny little weak-looking guy, with wrists about as big as pencils” (Salinger 170), takes a similar kind of fall when he commits suicide by jumping out of a window.  Mr. Antolini also warns Holden that such falls are “designed for men who, at some time or other in their lives, were looking for something their own environment couldn’t supply them with.  Or they thought their own environment couldn’t supply them with.  So they gave up looking” (Salinger 187). 

Thus, when man fails to adapt to his environment or fails to continue trying to do so, he may end up discarding himself, as James Castle did.  Holden’s irritation with the “Fuck you” written on a wall next to him is also symbolic of his discontent with the defilement of innocence.  He says, “It drove me damn near crazy.  I thought how Phoebe and all the other little kids would see it, and how they’d wonder what the hell it meant, and then finally some dirty kid would tell them ... I kept wanting to kill whoever’d written it” (Salinger 201).  Hence, Holden is also haunted by the threat of the ruinations which are prevalent in his environment and which he could represent if his downward psychological spiral ends in death. 

Holden is also constantly reminded that “Life is a game.  Life is a game that one plays according to the rules” (Salinger 8).  When we fail to play according to these rules, when we fail to let go of the innocence of days long past, we are moving through the motions of life, but we are not really living because we are not adapting.  And failure to adapt results in disintegration and decay until, in the end, we are either discarded by society—we are put away in sanitariums or labeled and ostracized by society in some other way—or we discard ourselves.  We may self destruct as the narrator in The Blind Owl does or even commit suicide as Sadegh Hedayat himself did. 

Holden, however, is more fortunate and although he falls, he turns to psychotherapy and seeks treatment for his illness.  Therefore, both The Blind Owl and The Catcher in the Rye can be seen as tales of adaptation in a world where “existence is restricted by external forces,” as Frankl said, and holding onto nostalgia and memories of the past can only create “a sore which slowly erodes the mind in solitude like a kind of canker” (Hedayat 1).

COMMENT
For letters section
To Mahnoosh Nik-Ahd
To Abbas Milani

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