Imagination – Six Degrees of Separation

Film:  Six Degrees of Separation
Year:  1993
Screenplay: John Guare
Role:  Paul
Actor:  Will Smith
Length: approx. 5 minutes minimum



A substitute teacher out on Long lsland was dropped from his job for fighting with a student. A few weeks later, he returned to the classroom, shot the student – unsuccessfully, held the class hostage, and then shot himself – successfully. This fact caught my eye. Last sentence,Times – ‘A neighbour described the teacher as a nice boy, always reading Catcher in the Rye.’

This nit-wit Chapman, who shot John Lennon, said he did it because he wanted to draw the attention of the world to Catcher in the Rye, and the reading of this book would be his defence.

Young Hinckley, the whiz kid who shot Reagan and his press secretary, said: ‘If you want my defence, all you have to do is read Catcher in the Rye.’

I borrowed a copy from a young friend of mine, because I wanted to see what she had underlined. And I read this book to find out why this touching, beautiful, sensitive story, published in July 1951, had turned into this manifesto of hate. I started reading. It’s exactly as I had remembered. Everybody’s a phoney. Page two – ‘My brother’s in Hollywood being a prostitute.’ Page three – “What a phoney slob his father was.’ Page nine – ‘People never notice anything.’ Then, on page 22, my hair stood up. Well. Remember Holden Caulfield, the definitive sensitive youth wearing his red hunter’s cap? A deer hunter’s cap? ‘Like hell it is. I sort of closed one eye like I was taking aim at it.’ ‘This is a people shooting hat. I shoot people in this hat.’

This book is preparing people for bigger moments in their lives than I had ever dreamed of. Then, on page 89, ‘I’d rather push a guy out the window or chop his head off with an axe than sock him in the jaw.’ ‘I hate fistfights. What scares me most is the other guy’s face.’ I finished the book. It’s a touching story.. and comic. The boy wants to do so much and can’t do anything. Hates all phoniness and only lies to others. Wants everyone to like him but is only hateful and is completely self involved. In other words, a pretty accurate picture of a male adolescent.

What alarms me about the book – not the book so much as the aura about it – is this. The book is primarily about paralysis. The boy can’t function. At the end, before he can run away and start a new life, it starts to rain. He folds. There’s nothing wrong in writing about emotional and intellectual paralysis. It may, thanks to Chekhov and Samuel Beckett, be the great modern theme. The extraordinary last lines of Waiting for Godot, ‘Let’s Go. Yes, Lets go.’ Stage directions: They do not move!

The aura around this book of Salinger’s – which, perhaps, should be read by everyone but young men – is this. It mirrors like a fun-house mirror, and amplifies like a distorted speaker one of the great tragedies of our times – the death of the imagination. Because what else is paralysis? The imagination has been so debased that imagination – being imaginative, rather than being the lynch pin of our existence, now stands as a synonym for something outside ourselves. Like science fiction. Or some new use for tangerine slices on raw pork chops – ‘What an imaginative summer recipe.’ And Star Wars – ‘so imaginative’. And Star Trek – ‘so imaginative’. And Lord of the Rings, all those dwarves – ‘so imaginative’.

The imagination has moved out of the realm of being our link, our most personal link, with our inner lives and the world outside that world, this world we share. What is schizophrenia but a horrifying state where what’s in here doesn’t match up with what’s out there?

Why has imagination become a synonym for style? I believe the imagination is the passport that we create to help take us into the real world. I believe the imagination is merely another phrase for what is most uniquely us. Jung says, ‘The greatest sin is to be unconscious.’ Our boy Holden says, ‘What scares me most is the other guy’s face.’ ‘It wouldn’t be so bad if you could both be blindfolded.’
Most of the time, the faces that we face are not the other guys’, but our own faces. And it is the worst kind of yellowness to be so scared of yourself that you put blindfolds on rather than deal with yourself. To face ourselves – that’s the hard thing. The imagination – that’s God’s gift. To make the act of self-examination bearable.