Where’s an essay-eating dog when you need one?
I agree, and I want to learn about the literary merit of this book too.
Matthew wrote a little bit about the role of Yossarian as anti-hero; he pointed out that Yossarian’s self-serving behaviour is the same as that of the other characters in the book, all of whom are portrayed less sympathetically. The idea is that Yossarian’s selfishness is no more and no less rational than the selfishness of the other characters; what makes sense on an individual basis is behaviour that (when collectively engaged in) leads to utter chaos and insanity.
I’m going to take a bit of stab at adding to that notion just a little bit. Please remember that I slept a geat deal in the one English literature class I took at university, and be kind. Pointing is okay, I’ll even tolerate laughing, but please – no pointing and laughing.
It occurs to me that the book is in some way a reflection on the tension between the basic human need to make a connection with others, and the fundamental reality that we are ultimately unable to truly bridge that gap, unable to get outside of our own subjective reality. I think there is a connection between this theme about loneliness and the theme of self-directed behaviour that Matthew has identified.
Many of Heller’s characters are depicted as cravenly desiring the fellowship of their colleagues; often it is revealed that the others in fact detest and ridicule him. There is a passage at the end of Chapter 20 (“Corporal Whitcomb”) that makes the point kind of poignantly. Despite its title, the chapter is mainly about the chaplain; the chapter is written from his point of view and reveals his inner thoughts. A large portion of it details the abusive manner in which Corporal Whitcomb (who is the chaplain’s assistant) treats the chaplain. Whitcomb behaves intolerably and speaks rudely to Whitcomb, even as he describes how he has “helped” the chaplain by causing considerable trouble for him with the CID men. Nevertheless, when Whitcomb stomps out of the chaplain’s tent, the chaplain thinks of him as “[p]oor Whitcomb” and actually hopes that Whitcomb will come back in. The chaplain sits
So the chaplain (a) misses the guy who abuses him and gets him in trouble with CID; and (b) can’t stop thinking about how he may have disappointed the guy that doesn’t want him even eating in the same building because the chaplain makes him feel creepy. The chaplain identifies his (and presumably everybody’s) inability to alter the fundamentally unhappy nature of the world as a “tragic” thought; surely Heller means this in the classical sense – a trait or flaw that will bring about the character’s downfall.
It occurs to me that this kind of resignation to lonely, frustrated isolation in an unhappy world is exactly the type of mindset that would encourage an individual to abandon any concept of community or collective purpose and to surrender to purely selfish impulses. If I’m convinced that nothing I can do will make the world a better place, and furthermore that everyone hates me and will continue to hate me, I am much more likely to disregard the effects of my own actions on any other person.
Ugh. I think I just wrote about “man’s inhumanity to man”. But Joseph Heller started it.