The Way to Profit in Superlatively Phony Times

“I’d have this rule that nobody could do anything phony when they visited me. If anybody tried to do anything phony, they couldn’t stay.”

J. D. Salinger, Catcher in the Rye (1951)

God hates phonies at least as much as Holden Caulfield hated phonies, and those who propose to call on him had best beware that he strictly observes Caulfield’s rule.  He admits no phonies to his house, and the minute you try to do anything phony he is going to show you the door.

We have this word phony from the Irish word fannie, a finger ring.  A finger ring that had been made to look like gold, but was in fact brass, was called a fawney, and the name quickly passed to all sorts of fraudulent jewelry, and to fraudulence generally.  A phony therefore appears to be very fine, when it is, in reality, much less fine, if not downright bad.

“Whited sepulcher” is one of many Gospel synonyms for phony.  The Gospel contains so many synonyms for phony that I take a Holden-Caulfield-like hatred for phoniness to be one of its central themes.  Jesus may possibly have come into the world to free us from sin, but he absolutely, positively came into the world to free us from phonies.

Most especially from that big phony each of us sees the mirror.

I do not have a Manichean view of phoniness.  That is Holden Caulfield’s error, or at least the error of most young people who identify with Caulfield when they read Catcher in their tenth grade English class.  That is when I read it, and that was my error.  I knew that I was surrounded by phonies, but I did not yet know that I fit right in with that crowd.

I now understand phoniness to be something like body odor.  Every man and woman is always tending to it, but can keep the pong in check by periodic baths of repentance for our pompous, bloviating impostures on the world.  Like the periodic baths with which we keep our body odor in check, these baths of repentance should be taken in private.  Otherwise they are phony baths.

When I say that these baths of repentance should be taken in private, I do not mean that we should take them when no one is watching, for we should do this, as we should do everything else, under the eye of God.  You will recall that Jesus said of the Scribes and Pharisees, “all their works they do for to be seen by men.”  They were, in other words, conscious of acting in the eyes of the world, and unconscious of acting in the eyes of God.  And the reason God has a Holden-Caulfield-like hatred for phoniness is that men who are conscious of acting in the eyes of the world become actors in the bad sense of “hypocrites.”

We should never forget that the word “act” has two meanings, one denoting something that is noble, the other denoting something that is base.  In its noble sense, the word “act” implies thought and volition, in contrast to mindless, habitual and involuntary “behavior.”  To “act” in this sense is therefore the glory of men and women, and the power to “act” in this sense is what separates them from the animals and gives them the “image of God.”

In its base sense, the word “act” implies illusion and deception.  When Jesus says of Satan that “there is no truth in him,” he means that Satan is an actor in this second sense.  Satan is a phony–the first phony–and the “father” of all subsequent phonies and phoniness.  To act in this base sense is therefore the ruin of men and women because they separate themselves from the animals by adopting the image of their father in Hell.

These are times in which baths of repentance are rare, but phony and much publicized baths of repentance (such as “taking a knee” in the Capitol rotunda) are the talk of the town.  These are time when the richest corporations on earth pander to the hypocrisy of men and women who seemingly do all their works “for to be seen by men.”  (Facebook, anyone?)  These are times in which the old proverb, “all that glitters is not gold,” has been replaced with the new proverb “there’s gold in that there glitter.”

These are, in short, superlatively phony times.

But our response should not be phony indignation.  Indignation, yes, for imposture is offensive.  But not phony indignation, for the phylactery of indignation can be widened as well as any other.  That was Holden Caulfield’s mistake.  It was my mistake when, at the age of fourteen, reading Catcher in the Rye, I swelled and puffed and bloated with a hypocritical horror of hypocrisy.  Here is what our response should be.

Don’t buy any brass rings but worry most about that phony in the mirror.

The way to profit in these superlatively phony times is to take all its glittering fool’s gold as a reminder that God is of precisely the same opinion as Holden Caulfield when Holden Caulfield says:

“I’d have this rule that nobody could do anything phony when they visited me. If anybody tried to do anything phony, they couldn’t stay.”

8 thoughts on “The Way to Profit in Superlatively Phony Times

  1. I instinctively knew, in the ninth grade, that all those little goody-goods reading Catcher in the Rye on the bus, on the way to and from Malibu Park Junior High, were phonies. (I could name names.) Mrs. Farmer, the English teacher, was a phony, too. (And I have named her.) As a matter of fact, almost every part of my education from grade-school to graduate school, from Salinger to Derrida, was phony.

    If Holden Caulfield were unreal, what then would be real? I can tell you. Conan and John Carter of Mars are real. I knew this, too, instinctively, in the ninth grade, especially after Mrs. Kaminsky, the science teacher, told me that John Carter couldn’t exist because Mars was a waterless, frozen desert where life could never arise.

    I can offer an alternate etymology for “phony.” It’s the Scandinavian adjective fånigt (neuter) or fånig (common). Fånigt* means something that is obviously unreal or deceptive, as when someone badly impersonates an office he does not hold. Did I say Biden? Of course, the Norse were in Ireland as well as England. And maybe they passed it along in both places. So there you have it.

    *With a long o, as in oats.

    • My English teacher that year was a Mr. Frisbee. He did not invent the plastic disk it was so fashionable to toss in those day, but I daresay he tossed a few. Looking back, I think mandatory reading of Catcherwas a CIA plot to produce a generation of narcissistic and disaffected youth. None of my children read Catcher, since by that time the CIA plot was to produce a generation of guilt-ridden SJW’s.

  2. Pingback: The Way to Profit in Superlatively Phony Times | Reaction Times

  3. I must say I enjoyed this post, particularly when you got to the mirror and the universality of phoniness.

    I think one reason I keep drifting back here is that it is a place where I feel like less of a phony. That’s the glory of a pseudonym, it frees you from the prison of identity, the prime source of phoniness. There is nobody here I am trying to impress, no reputation I need to protect. It’s refreshing!

    A couple of stray thoughts:

    – Postmodernism/deconstruction (Foucault especially) is the Holden Caulfield of intellectual life — it’s all about puncturing what it sees as the various phoninesses of Western Civilization. Of course it has been around long enough to acquire its own layers of phoniness, as I’m sure I don’t have to tell anyone here.

    – The literary descendent of Holden Caulfield is Hal Incandenza, the protagonist (more or less) of the quintessential postmodern novel Infinite Jest There, the need to question authenticity has grown into a culturally pervasive irony and basically destroyed any ability to communicate whatsoever.

    In a normal context I would be reluctant to bring up that work, since it’s a favorite citation of pretentious phonies. But here, I don’t care! I’m free!

    • Great minds think alike once in a while. At their best, philosophy and religion both have a cynical abhorrence for phoniness, but the irony is that philosophy and religion are themselves uniquely prone to phoniness. I suppose this is because it is possible in both cases to deal in empty signifiers, which is like writing bad checks on a bank to which no one knows the address. You are absolutely right that irony eventually cuts both ways, which is why postmodernism so often ends in horror. When it doesn’t, I presume I’m dealing with a phony postmodernist.


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