Where’s an essay-eating dog when you need one?

I’ve been reading Catch-22 as part of NaNoReMo.   One of my virtual book club companions has complained, over at defective yeti, that the discussion to date has been a little shallow.   Quoth Anneke:

I’m enjoying the book on the surface, but I’ve never been part of a book discussion where participants simply report on whether they’ve read more or less than the leader.

Come on, Internet – help me understand why this book is important. What is the message? What was controversial about it at the time? Is there anything deeper or more meaningful than a plot that arrives late? I’m only picking up on the ‘war is bad and here’s a funny way to show it’ part.

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

mutely in a ponderous stultifying melancholy, waiting expectantly for Corporal Whitcomb to walk back in.  He was disappointed as he heard the peremptory crunch of Corporal Whitcomb’s footsteps recede into silence.  There was nothing he wanted to do next.  He decided to pass up lunch for a Milky Way and a Baby Ruth from his foot locker and a few swallows of lukewarm water from his canteen.  He felt himself surrounded by dense, overwhelming fogs of possibilities in which he could perceive no glimmer of light.  He dreaded what Colonel Cathcart would think when the news that he was suspected of being Washington Irving was brought to him, then fell to fretting over what Colonel Cathcart was already thinking about him for even having broached the subject of the sixty missions.  There was so much unhappiness in the world, he reflected, bowing his head dismally beneath the tragic thought, and there was nothing he could do about anybody’s least of all his own.

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.

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