abuse of authority, Andre Maurois, Animal Farm, Anthem, Anti-War Novel, body humor, Candide, Catch-22, Essay, Eugenics, Hitch-22, Humor, Individual Will, Joseph Heller, Language, Literature, masculinity, Novel, Political Satire, Politics, Satire, slavery, The White Man's Burden, Totalitarianism, Voltaire, War, World War II, Yossarian
Recently I’ve been reading Joseph Heller’s Catch-22, the novel which literally added a new word to the collected vocabulary of society. The novel remains to this day essential reading, however I note that the public education system seems hesitant to actually teach children this tricky text, though given the number of people I’ve met who are entering the field of education this doesn’t surprise me much; for every brilliant and passionate educator there is “that one” that somehow passes through the cracks, and if I must see one more person about to become an History or English teacher that doesn’t read….so help me. It is likely the text remains untaught and only recommended by teachers because the language escapes them. As it does many who approach it. I will admit myself there are moments where sections of the book where Heller’s language is working on a level that seems a bit above me, however this never lasts long, and I have noted to many of the people around me that the novel is one of the few texts that is accurately reviewed as humorous. The book exceeds humor to the point I have to stop to breath.
Heller’s language remains substantial because it pushes past the aesthetic effort to merely amuse his audience and instead, moves to the more rewarding and far more challenging goal of spoofing power and corruption. (As I read further and further into the text I begin to appreciate why Christopher Hitchens based the title of his Memoir, Hitch-22, on this essential book). The main body of the text follows plight of Yossarian, a bombardier pilot in the United States Air Force, who unfortunately seems to be the only sane man left in the war effort (for the record it’s World War II, not to mention one of the few art objects that takes an unflattering look at the usually romanticized “endeavor”). The book flashes back and forth between characters, each of them more and more ridiculous and uniquely believable than the last, as each man struggles to find some sort of self in this environment where lunacy seems to dominate and the rules and regulations that are put in place to ensure the basic rights of soldiers, are revealed to be nothing but twisted machinations to get more and more service out of the men. At the core of this despicable system lies the novel’s namesake policy:
“There was only one catch and that was Catch-22, which specified that a concern for one’s own safety in the face of dangers that were real and immediate was the process of a rational mind. Orr was crazy and could be grounded. All he has to do was ask; and as soon as he did, he would no longer be crazy and would have to fly more missions. Orr would be crazy to fly more missions and sane if he didn’t, but if he was san he had to fly them. If he flew them he was crazy and didn’t have to; but if he didn’t want to he was sane and had to. Yossarian was moved very deeply by the absolute simplicity of this clause of Catch-22 and he let out a respectful whistle.
“That’s some catch, that Catch-22,” He observed.
“It’s the best there is,” Doc Daneeka agreed.” (46)
I feel in some way I have done a great misdeed by denying many the opportunity to stumble upon this marvelous, for it is truly stunning prose and has yet to be truly mimicked by any great writer in our time, wrap-up, but my point relies upon it. Those who are willing to challenge totalitarianism must be sure to watch the language. I observed in a previous essay about the system of Ayn Rand’s short novella Anthem that the system manipulates individuals through the language they employ. Each man and woman refers to themselves as “we” and “us,” as opposed to “I” or “me” thus denying them the chance at ego development. In Animal Farm the pig Squealer effectively combines physical and emotional rhetoric in order to re-shape and manipulate the animals into perceiving changes in their reality as “always having been.” Heller’s Catch-22 is often classified as an anti-war novel ,and it certainly succeeds. War is often the time in which voices are hushed for being obnoxious or pretentious enough to speak the truth and reveal a great majority of behavior for what it is, evil. (One need only reflect on the career of Jeannette Rankin, the only representative to vote against the declaration of War in 1941, to recognize totalitarian sentiment was not limited to those spaces across the Pacific and Atlantic). Yossarian combats this evil constantly to no avail. Much like Equality 7-2521 or Winston Smith, the man’s bedrock of being is far too rooted in the lunacy of rhetoric that prevents any hope of escape from his current situation. This kind of domination can only succeed however, because of Heller’s ability as a writer.
Honestly stop and consider how you would explain a Catch-22.
Have you stopped and considered. Bloody balls difficult wouldn’t you say?
Yossarian’s “respectful whistle” is almost a salute to the mind that could develop such an efficient system. The Catch-22 is a combination of physical imperative and thought-crime; a working embodiment of authoritarian genius that captures every man in which it touches:
“He was polite to his elders, who disliked him. Whatever his elders told him to do, he did. They told him to look before he leaped, and he always looked before he leaped. They told him never to put off until the next day what he could do the day before, and he never did. He was told to honor his father and his mother, and he honored his father and his mother. He was told he should not kill, and he did not kill, until he got into the Army. Then he was told to kill, and he killed. […] Major Major’s elders disliked him because he was such a flagrant nonconformist.”
Moments like this resonate within the reader for it is impossible not to appreciate the craft and thought going in to the near constant irony and message. In this instance the character of Major Major Major Major, I shit you not though once the actual history of the name becomes known it becomes far less humorless I assure you, the system of governance demonstrates it’s virtue by despising the very dream of citizenship it hopes to craft. Dictatorship necessitates absolute control over mind and body, and in the instance of Major Major Major Major it has everything it should so desire. Why the hatred then? I do not mean to sound like an afterschool special, but the reason for this repugnance is because at its core, the totalitarian mindset is self loathing, or, as Mom said it best, “bully’s don’t like themselves very much is all.” And so, when an individual emerges who is meant to represent everything they hope for, he or she becomes a threat, for they embody too much of the idealism they preach and can never achieve themselves.
But language is the catch baby and in that we must remain on track. It seems best now to move onto Voltaire.
“Now is not the time for making new enemies.” Few last words provide such an excellent summation of legacy as well as moral fortitude of the speaker in question (although Manfred’s last line in Lord Byron’s spiritual play which bears the title of the sublime, in the romantic sense of the term, leading character does certainly come in a close fucking second to my mind). These last words can be attributed to François-Marie Arouet, though you may perhaps know him best by the moniker of Voltaire. This pseudonym takes on great weight as we consider the age that brought us not only the (refined) notion of democracy, but also many of the founding principles which government and social cohesion currently reside upon. The time of Voltaire was a calamitous period of civil unrest, philosophical brilliance, and constant warfare that makes the tawdry affairs of the twentieth century seem pale at times in comparison. Sometimes referred to as the Neoclassical Period (for those pursuing literary degrees, I assure you they still possess worth despite the naysayers) the writings of this period can perhaps best be described by my professor in the subject as, “The most boring period in literary history.” A quick glance can perhaps justify this bleak outlook for it includes the work of: Thomas Hobbes, Spinoza, Renee Descartes, Adam Smith, Sir Issac Newton, John Locke, Francis Bacon, David Hume, and Immanuel Kant among others. Many of the names included are merely the philosophers, and while the ideas these men presented have made lasting impressions upon our society and culture, studying their works can often become rather similar to root canal surgery. It’s a total snoozefest.
Yet in this company of solemn Reason-mongerers there appears a devilish imp. Since he was a young man, Voltaire appeared on the scene of Europe as a man blessed (though I use that word sparingly for his religious views were controversial and most likely the cause as to why few people may respond to his name today) with a sharp wit that has appeared yet only in the works of Wilde, Twain, and Heller (though Palahniuk is certainly pushing for his spot at the table). The line quoted above was the man’s response to a priest that begged him at the side of his deathbed whether he would recant his blasphemies and renounce Satan. Twain would later say something similar in quote I have employed once to a Christian proselytizer, “Got to heaven for the atmosphere, go to hell for the company” (to which I follow if Bon Scott and Christopher Hitchens are there that I am sure to enjoy myself). Voltaire produced volumes of work over the course of his life, however one of his most accessible works today is his short novel Candide, which tracks the progress of an “innocent” youth across Europe, South America, and finally a return to Europe as he comes to realize that this “best-of-all-possible-worlds” is plagued by harsh reality.
Like Heller, Voltaire seems plucky as he attacks and re-creates the fubar environment of reality. The real power of Voltaire’s language however is not in the long intervals of prose, but instead of the punchy snippets that hit the reader like wasp stings:
“I hope she’ll make you happy some day,” said Martin, “But I strongly doubt it.”
“You’re a bitter man,” said Candide.
“That’s because I’ve lived.”
“How could a gentle man like you, kill a Jew and a prelate within two minutes of each other?”
“Fairest lady,” said Candide, “when a man is in love, and whipped by the Inquisition, he no longer knows what he’s doing.”
“Dr. Pangloss was right when he told me that all is for the best in this world,” he said, “because your extreme generosity has moved me much more deeply than the harshness of that gentleman in the black coat and his wife.”
The next day, as he was taking a walk he met a beggar covered with sores; his eyes were lifeless, the tip of his nose had been eaten away, his mouth was twisted, his teeth were black, his voice was hoarse, he was racked by a violent cough, and he spat out a tooth with every spasm.
Much like Heller’s novel, Candide strikes the reader as a beautiful black comedy. Re-reading this text I found I frequently had to stop and gather more breath before I could continue. However, as the work moves on I found the laughter did not resume. Voltaire’s work was an effort to demonstrate real reason while attacking the optimist philosophies that dogged his age. It is through the perfectly timed arrangement of his words that Voltaire’s effort succeeds in my mind. I described his writing as punchy, and some part of me worries that this might make it appear that Voltaire was merely a stand-up comedian shooting off one liners. That is not my effort. Voltaire’s critique is merely an effort to accurately reflect his society and forewarn those afflicted with innocence that the power structure of society leaves little room for optimism. The most powerful moment of wit on Voltaire’s part is the often cited passage in which Candide and his servant Cacambo stumble upon a slave:
“Yes sir,” said the Negro, “it’s the custom. We’re given a pair of trousers twice a year as our only clothing. If we get a finger caught under the millstone while we’re working in the sugar mills, they cut off the whole hand; and if we try to run away they cut off one of our legs. I’ve been in both those situations. That’s the price of the sugar you eat in Europe.”
The institution of slavery was a debate even in Voltaire’s time, and fortunately the man was able to witness the farce for what it was. A monstrous evil that left black’s incapacitated socially and whites with far too much blood on their hands. Where’s the catch you may ask? The slave continues.
“However when my mother sold me on the guinea coast for Ten Patagons, she said to me, “My dear child, always glorify and worship the fetishes. They’ll make you live happily. You now have the honor of being a slave to our lords the white men, and in acquiring that honor you’ve made your parents fortune. […] The Dutch fetishes, who converted me, tell me every Sunday that we’re all children of Adam, black and white alike. I’m no genealogist, but if those preachers are telling the truth, we’re all cousins, and you must admit no one could treat his relatives more horribly.”
If you “respectfully whistled,” congrats. You got the catch. The institution of slavery was often coupled by the pseudo-science of Eugenics as well the cultural policy of imperialism often summoned by Kipling’s The White Man’s Burden, that great conflicted poem that I will save for a later essay. Slavery was coupled by the totalitarian network of religious domination that, as Hitchen’s said it best, poisons everything. Voltaire was not a fan of religion, or any form of superstition. The introduction to my copy of Candide by Andre Maurois says of the man’s tendency to end letters:
“Nearly all his letters ended with the same formula “Ecrasons l’infame—“We must crush the vile thing […] What was the vile thing? Religion? The Church? To be more exact it was superstition. He hounded it down because he had suffered from it, and because he believed that bigotry makes men more unhappy than they need to be.”
In the case of Voltaire he saw a world in which optimism was blinding the real issue, that men, despite this supposed Age of Reason, were still acting barbarically towards their fellow human beings. What was worse, the domination was being sold as a blessing on almost every level of society, and so innocence was impossibility. How does a man then begin attacking such despotism? The answer must be, carefully and with as much care to wit as possible. Voltaire, like Heller, are attacking totalitarianism in a way that direct confrontation rarely satisfy us, through humor. Humor requires an independent mind to recognize that “what we all know” is a sham and devise a means of informing the rest of society that will not out us as “outsiders.” My creative Writing teacher, in one of his (many) moments of brilliance said effectively, and quickly, that “vile men exist and we should mock them.” Laughter, though often a despicable weapon of the mob to break individual will, can also be effective tool to the dissenter and contrarian, for laughter eliminates power and assaults the ego. There is a reason why writers and thinkers are executed or exiled from their home countries where governments are characterized by grand dictatorship; they reveal those in power for what they are: fools.
I’ll let Heller wrap this one up:
“What did we bring you here for?
“To answer questions.”
“You’re goddamn right,” roared the colonel, “Now suppose you start answering some before I break your goddam head. Just what the hell did you mean, you bastard, when you said we couldn’t punish you?”
“I don’t think I ever made that statement, sir.”
“Will you speak up, please? I couldn’t hear you.”
“Yes, sir. I-“
“Will you speak up, please? He couldn’t hear you.”
“Yes, sir. I-“
“Didn’t I tell you to keep your stupid mouth shut?”
“Then keep your stupid mouth shut when I tell you to keep your stupid mouth shut. Do you understand? Will you speak up, please? I couldn’t hear you.