It’s All Real

Jerry Brito is off to Walt Disney World:

That said I have to admit that Disney World would not be my first choice of vacation destination. The reason, I tell myself, is that I don’t care for artificial experiences. At Disney World, “cast members” are never allowed to frown, for example. The smell of fresh-baked cookies is pumped into the air around “Main Street.” In fact, the very idea of a long lost American main street is fake.

But then I think, isn’t immersing ourselves in fantasy exactly what we do when we go to the theatre or read a book? Disney World is just intensely more immersive, that’s all. Why not just enjoy the ride?

Exactly. That Disney World is “artificial” is a common criticism but there’s no such thing as an artificial experience. That assumes some experiences are more valid than others. Everything one experiences is real. No one would argue that going to Paris is artificial. Yet is it less “real” than going to a war-zone like Afghanistan? The only way Disney could be described as “artificial” is if you somehow truly believed Paris is just like the France pavilion in EPCOT and equated the two. But of course nobody does that.

Experiences certainly have different weights; the death of a parent has greater reverberations than buying a Slurpee at 7-11 — but again, everything is actually happening. People who distinguish between “real” and “artificial” experiences disassociate themselves from their own lives. It’s what Sartre would call being-for-others. They imagine themselves at Disney from an exterior, third-person point of view and feel as if they have to justify their actions to that faceless observer. It’s anti-individualist.

When people say an experience is “fake” or “artificial,” what they mean to say is that it’s not to their liking. Another friend recently returned from Costa Rica. He reports “the whole place was just a little too commercialized and globalized for my tastes.” Translation: the natives wore shoes. A place is what it is. If he wants something more ethnic and impoverished (which is what the friend really means), there are other places he can go. I don’t travel to deserts because I don’t like deserts. I’d rather go to the beach.

In other words, I think perhaps Jerry didn’t want to go to Disney because, as a 30-something dude without kids, riding the Dumbo carousel doesn’t get his heart pumping. Which, as much as I love WDW, is a sentiment I can understand.

The Stranger in the Rye

The more I read about J.D. Salinger, the more I realize he was Holden Caulfield. I read The Catcher in the Rye twice in high school: the first time because it absorbed me, the second for senior English. It’s a love-it-or-hate-it book (Mrs. Kuhl hates it) but for me, Holden’s revulsion of phonies was my first encounter with Sartrean inauthenticity, the first time I read an explicit expression of the pressure on children to graduate school and live a cheap, plastic life of work and consumerism and paying taxes so politicians can eat tenderloin and Predator drones can be built. For some, their introduction to existentialism is The Stranger. For me, it was Catcher.

The obits make much of Salinger’s reclusiveness but he was not a hermit; he had friends and family; he was engaged with the world, just a much smaller one than others thought befitting his stature. Reading about Salinger, I don’t see a man “hightailing it for the woods of New Hampshire to lose himself in a mental ward of his own making,” as one hack put it. I see a man unwilling to be compromised, unwilling to explain or defend himself to interviewers — a man defining the parameters of his life. Why is that so odd or frightening?