Wednesday, November 26, 2008

"Deep-Seated Survival Anxieties"

When Catch-22 was published in 1961, World War II was celebrated as the "good fight." Popular memory held it as a noble stand against the Axis onslaught and a glorious victory for democracy, as opposed to the more recent Korean War, a somewhat muddled thing with no rousing cause beyond vague theories of "containment." Needless to say, many found the irreverence and dark humor of Joseph Heller's WWII novel Catch-22 somewhat disturbing. Its hero, Yossarian, spends the story trying frantically to be sent home and not fly any more missions, while the United States military is depicted as an inanely irrational bureaucracy. The multifaceted Catch-22 tells many tales, including a contemporarily relevant account of rhetoric gone wrong and the wiles of words used justify a variety of dubious causes in ways that make nonsensical sense. The flailing helplessness of Yossarian and his fellow soldiers in the face of an absurdly apathetic command structure illustrates the triviality of life in the labyrinth of a toweringly meaningless administration.

Catch-22 has often been described as the insanity of modern life as seen from the perspective of someone who is perhaps too sane. Yossarian is perturbed by the very logical fact that thousands of people whom he does not know nor has ever even met are trying desperately to kill him. Common sense would indicate that it is best to remove oneself from such a situation, especially given the basic biological instinct for survival found in all animals. However, such is the incongruous nature of war, here only heightened by the fantastically illogical organizations running it. In order for Yossarian to be properly discharged from service, he must be proven mentally unfit for combat. Unfortunately, the very act of self-preservation is indicative of a sound man. That, as Doc Daneeka explains, is the principle of Catch-22. Although he admits it has a "spinning reasonableness" and an "elliptical precision about its perfect pairs and parts that was graceful and shocking," Yossarian remains steadfastly bound to the primordial value of life. It is later revealed that he came into his dangerously good sense after the gory death of his comrade Snowden in an air battle, thereby launching his contumacious quest to not fly any more missions. Alas, Colonel Cathcart, constantly trying to please his superiors so he can be promoted to general, persists in raising the number required. In essence, "Catch-22 . . . says you've always got to do what your commanding officer tells you to."

Colonel Cathcart's casual disregard for the lives of Yossarian and his peers – including Orr, Dunbar, Hungry Joe, Dobbs, and Nately – is made possible by the shamelessly warped procedure and protocol under which they all live, as well as the questionable mental and moral fortitude of those operating on top of its hierarchy. Language, for example, in the hands of authority, becomes a heap of blank words to be manipulated to suit any agenda or occasion. Therefore, concrete definitions are irrelevant. No word can be taken at its face value. When Colonel Cargill demands the name of "one poet who makes money," ex-P.F.C. Wintergreen naturally identifies T.S. Eliot, which inadvertently causes a panic at Group Headquarters when the generals become convinced "T.S. Eliot" is some sort of codeword.

The futility of language is at its most sinister during the interrogation of Chaplain Tappman by a skinny major, a fat colonel, and a sinister figure with no insignia. The chaplain has committed no crime, yet his mysterious questioners are able to bend his protests of innocence into bizarrely logical admissions of guilt. When the major has the chaplain sign his name, he accuses him of using someone else's handwriting: "That's just it . . . I saw you write it. You can't deny that you did write it. A person who'll lie about his own handwriting will lie about just anything." The colonel finds the chaplain's Anabaptism suspicious precisely because "I don't know anything about it. You'll have to admit that, won't you? Doesn't that make it seem pretty suspicious?" He then points out the honest fact that, in Latin, the name "Anabapist" means "not a Baptist"; if the chaplain is not a Baptist, he could be anybody. The whole surreal affair ends when the chaplain is informed that he is guilty of crimes his interrogators do not yet know about.

Meanwhile, "Courage, Might, Justice, Truth, Liberty, Love, Honor, and Patriotism" become bitterly ironic catchphrases when mess hall officer and amoral ├╝ber-capitalist Milo Minderbender paints them on the sides of his cargo planes, which he will eventually use to bomb his fellow Americans as part of a complex scheme to protect his syndicate M&M Enterprises from ruin. He will be exonerated when everyone is astonished at the sheer amount of profit he has made. "Frankly, I'd like to see the government get out of war altogether and leave the whole field to private industry [...] what's good for the syndicate is good for the country, because that's what makes Sammy run," Milo asserts. He makes a deal with the Americans to bomb a bridge and another deal with the Germans to protect the bridge. They may be mass murderers, but the Germans are fine business partners of the syndicate and it is Milo's duty to protect their rights as well. Plus, "[t]he consummation of these deals presented a victory for private enterprise, [Milo] pointed out, since the armies of both countries were socialized institutions." Accordingly, when Heller was writing Catch-22 in the late 1950s, capitalism was revered as the ultimate expression of American freedom and the absolute antithesis to the evils of Communism. The absurdity of M&M Enterprises is perhaps superseded by the Great Kitchen Debate of 1959. At the American National Exhibition in Moscow, Vice President Richard Nixon and Soviet Premier Nikita Krushchev used a model suburban ranch home as context in which debate the American versus Soviet politico-economic systems; the innate superiority of each, it seemed, could be ascertained from kitchen appliances and housewifery.

Language distortion and doublespeak, then, go hand in hand with the ruse of appearance. Of course, the threat of global annihilation is a particularly disturbing concept. Nevertheless, just as the specter of death hung over Yossarian and his peers until it became comfortable background noise, so did the menace of nuclear bombs, followed by hydrogen bombs, come to unify America in the fifties, emboldening the citizenry to collectively oppose the conceptually real danger of the Soviet Union. Shared peril, however horrifying, can either provide a positive framework for communal accord or scatter the masses into a terrified chaos with each man looking out for himself. Rhetoric, properly used, can amplify (or create) timeworn and honored ideals (or illusions), patriotism being a common one, to stand as a bulwark against the pending calamity. Without the threat to which they answer, however, these soothing fortifications are unstable or even meaningless; in the process, then, the very threat that demanded them becomes a part of them until the passing of danger leaves a troubling vacancy to be precluded. Thus, when Hungry Joe has completed the number of missions required to be sent home, that is when the screaming nightmares begin. The bond between Hungry Joe, Yossarian, and their comrades are the hazards of battle; when they are present, the men have something binding them together. Yossarian, however, refuses to believe that this is all there is and proves willing to sacrifice the lives of his friends to save his own.

Still, as Immanuel Kant once noted, the "prejudices" of "tutelage" are ultimately independent, unmanageable entities that spiral out of the hands of their authors to take stubborn root in the people. The McCarthy Era, and Heller's fictional satire of it, are two such examples. Loyalty oaths, an aspect of Heller's reality that made its way into Catch-22, became a mechanism, generated by the fear of lurking Soviet-Communist subversives, to enforce the ultra-patriotism whipped up by politicians, government, and private associations (i.e. the media) during the height of the Cold War. To a populace acclimatized to the notion of an abstract army of principle, the idea of a loyalty oath, and other patriotically-themed ventures, is perfectly natural and necessary. However, both Senator Joe McCarthy and the fictional Colonel Black demonstrate the very real, and indeed inevitable, potential for abuse. Pure ambition, not patriotism, was at the heart of their respective crusades. McCarthy, a junior senator from Wisconsin, had grown impatient with the seniority system that dominated Congress, which he sought to circumvent by almost singlehandedly unleashing a Red Scare across the nation. The result was such a panicked ruckus that the slightest potential connection to Communism was enough to ruin one's life before McCarthy finally went in over his head trying to go after the Army.

Similarly, in Catch-22, Colonel Black's righteous indignation at having been passed over for promotion in favor of Major Major Major culminates in a "Glorious Loyalty Oath Crusade." Besides spreading the wholly unfounded rumor that the now-Major Major Major Major is a Communist, Colonel Black embarks on a campaign to implement loyalty oaths at every twist and turn. To get their map cases from the intelligence tents, to receive their parachutes and flak jackets, collect their paychecks, have a haircut, eat in the mess hall – all of these activities, vital to the life of a soldier, require the signing of a loyalty oath. It gets to the point where:
Without realizing it, the combat men in the squadron discovered themselves dominated by the administrators appointed to serve them. They were bullied, insulted, harassed, and shoved about all day long by one after the other. When the voiced objection, Colonel Black replied that people who were loyal would not mind signing all the loyalty oaths they had to.
In using the Glorious Loyalty Oath Crusade to impress his superiors into making him a major, Colonel Black is relying entirely on pretense and appearance easily validated by the proverbial nationalist wartime rhetoric. Like McCarthy and his "era", not only is Colonel Black taking advantage of the political climate to further his own selfish ends, but both their efforts eventually took on lives of their own. Colonel Black is annoyed to find himself competing with other commanding officers in employing loyalty oaths and resolves to "stand second to none in his devotion to his country." The patriotic justifications mouthed by Colonel Black and his supporters sound ludicrous to the objective ear, but mirror the explanations given for the actions of McCarthy and other like-minded "patriots."

If the sacredly empty ramparts of nation, duty, and valor have a physical form, it is the Major – de Coverley, a "splendid, awe-inspiring, grave old man with a massive leonine head and an angry shock of wild white hair that raged like a blizzard around his stern, patriarchal face." Major – de Coverley is so revered by the soldiers that no one dares to even ask his first name. Riding boldly into an urban warzone on the back of a jeep as bullets and shells rip haphazardly about his splendid person, he is the vision of tough military masculinity, the romantic dream of the gloriously hardened old soldier. His renown and veneration has prompted investigations by German intelligence that have come up blank. Just what does Major – de Coverley do exactly? The "sheer force of his solemn, domineering visage and the peremptory gestures of his wrinkled finger" are enough to spur his underlings into aiding him in his critical mission of finding apartments for the officers and enlisted men in newly occupied cities. He also plays horseshoes.

None of this is any help to Yossarian. In fact, the benign facade masking malevolence, enabled by the anesthetized effect of perpetual danger, the remedy entangled with the malady – all these work with a bureaucracy gone awry to thwart Yossarian's struggle to hold onto the only thing that is real: his life. Yossarian's plight is perhaps that the individual must always work to oppose the domineering "vested interests" of business, government, and the military. Though vital to modern world, these establishments are often forced to rely on unscrupulous means to safeguard themselves against a populace rightfully dissatisfied with them. Given their innate necessity – the developed world of the twentieth century cannot run without its institutions – to oppose them becomes treacherous or even insane. According to the military psychiatrist, Yossarian is undeniably crazy:
"You have a morbid aversion to dying. You probably resent the fact that you're at war and might get your head blown off any second.

. . .You have deep-seated survival anxieties. And you don't like bigots, bullies, snobs, or hypocrites. Subconsciously, there are many people you hate.

. . .You're antagonistic to the idea of being robbed, exploited, degraded, humiliated, or deceived. Misery depresses you. Ignorance depresses you. Persecution depresses you. Violence depresses you. Slums depress you. Greed depresses you. Crime depresses you. Corruption depresses you. You know, it wouldn't surprise if you're a manic-depressive!"

Also, note the use of twisted logic to manipulate words into a suspect line of reasoning, similar to what has been seen throughout the book. The core definition of Catch-22, according an old woman, is that "they have the right to do anything we can't stop them from doing." Of course, so that they cannot be stopped, they will resort to unscrupulous stratagems, including the psychological power of "unbounded elegance – of words – of burning noble words." Yossarian's goal must be to prevent those in the military command from continuing to utilize him like a tool for their own ends.

Yet the individual can never entirely escape the officious, overbearing, yet coldly and impersonally distant bureaucracies of contemporary society. To do so would be to violate the shifting facades of principle upon which they rest. There is too little to be certain of. When the chaplain, who has been steadily losing his religious faith throughout the novel, finally figures this out, it is "as though a veil had been rent." The chaplain sees around him callous ambition, blind procedure, insatiable lust, vacant belief. He recognizes, as Yossarian already has, the men willing to bend circumstance and system to suit them.
The chaplain had sinned, and it was good. Common sense told him that telling lies and defecting from duty were sins. . . [N]o good can come from evil. But he did feel good; he felt positively marvelous. Consequently, it followed that telling lies and defecting from duty could not be sins. The chaplain had mastered, in a moment of divine intuition, the hardy technique of protective rationalization, and he was exhilarated by his discovery. It was miraculous. It was no trick at all, he saw, to turn vice into virtue and slander into truth . . .arrogance into humility . . . thievery into honor . . . brutality into patriotism, and sadism into justice. Anyone could do it; it required no brains at all. It merely required no character.
Yet there remains the old declaration of skeptical philosophy: "I think, therefore I am," as Descartes once phrased it. When the world takes on an air of unreality, when there is doubt of the very ground upon which one stands, there persists that one eternal verity: conscious life. Who wants a life, one character asks, if it is nothing but "a series of unfortunate events"? The response is another question: "What else is there?"

When it was fist published in 1961, Catch-22 received mixed reviews and moderate success. As the sixties continued on, however, Joseph Heller's novel took on a new significance. An entire generation was coming to question the authority under which they lived, as well as its rhetoric of black and white, good versus evil. Granted, there is little to have loved about the Communist dictatorship of the Soviet Union, although some American leftists came to believe that there was, but nor could the actions of the United States be seen as wholly in the right. President Lyndon B. Johnson subsequently found that he could not talk the public into supporting the Vietnam War with fuzzy affirmations of "Courage, Might, Justice, Truth, Liberty, Love, Honor, and Patriotism" backed by geopolitical jargon about the importance of the Third World in the liberty-or-death struggle against global Communism. In Catch-22, Yossarian finally decides to flee to Sweden: since the war is almost over, he would be risking his life for nothing but Colonel Cathcart's clamoring to be general. Meanwhile, in the real world, "Yossarian Lives!" would become a popular anti-Vietnam slogan. Escape was not an option for millions of young Americans in the late sixties who began to take Catch-22 seriously and help make it into the classic it is today.


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