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Individuality, warfare, and Catch-22

July 16, 2010

A few weeks ago I finished Catch-22, which I had somehow never gotten around to reading, and I absolutely loved it. I love literature that experiments with form and style, but I also love reading things that make me laugh. Catch-22 fulfilled both requirements solidly.

It was initially Catch-22, in fact, that got me interested in bombs at all. Back when I was perusing novels to settle on for my Spring JP, I waffled between Gravity’s Rainbow and Catch-22, and read about 50-100 pages of each. I chose the Pynchon for a variety of reasons, but it was Catch-22 that first got me thinking about how war, specifically World War II in both of the novels I was considering, is represented as an arbitrary conflict. Indeed, in Gravity’s Rainbow and Catch-22 alike, the stakes of the war are hardly mentioned. Catch-22 makes this clear from the outset:

…outside the hospital the war was still going on. Men went mad and were rewarded with medals. All over the world, boys on every side of the bomb line were laying down their lives for what they had been told was their country, and no one seemed to mind, least of all the boys who were laying down their young lives (16)

Similarly, in Gravity’s Rainbow Pynchon describes a ruined landscape that is

modified, precisely, deliberately by bombing that was never hostile, but part of a plan both sides – ‘sides?’ – had always agreed on… (606)

Each of these passages plays with the idea of the sides of war using the narrative quirks of the respective authors. In the Catch-22 passage, for example, the phrase “laying down their lives” is repeated word-for-word. Heller often uses such explicit repetition for emphasis, and also, I would argue, to evoke the painful bureaucracy central to the war effort. In this case, the repetition of “laying down their lives” begs the audience to sit through those words a second time, implicitly questioning why it should be such a natural decision for boys on “both sides.” In the Pynchon excerpt, the word “sides” is virtually quarantined by punctuation, including italics, scare quotes, a question, and dashes on each side. Unlike Heller’s tongue-in-cheek acceptance of the idea, Pynchon calls it out as ridiculous, flagging it as a foreign concept; indeed, the same is done later on the page with the phrase “—natürlich!—”, a German word meaning ‘naturally,’ which ironically drives the point home. What Pynchon and Heller have in common is a defamiliarized, incredulous look at the idea of ideological or even nominal distinctions between the different political bodies at war. The terms “Allied” and “Axis” might be used in the novels, but carry none of the symbolic or political weight that they typically do.

As I got deeper into Catch-22, I noticed that this ideological vacuum is replaced by Yossarian’s quest for individuality, or what one might call a “crisis of individuality.” This idea is evident quite early on in the novel, but perhaps I missed it because it is so funny:

‘They’re trying to kill me,’ Yossarian told him calmly.

‘No one’s trying to kill you,’ Clevinger cried.

‘Then why are they shooting at me?’ Yossarian asked.

‘They’re shooting at everyone,’ Clevinger answered. ‘They’re trying to kill everyone.’

‘And what difference does that make?’

[…]

Clevinger really thought he was right, but Yossarian had proof, because strangers he didn’t know shot at him with cannons every time he flew up into the air to drop bombs on them, and it wasn’t funny at all. And if that wasn’t funny, there were lots of things that weren’t even funnier. (17)

After re-reading this passage several times, I can’t help but think that it shouldn’t be as funny as I find it. I realize that I only find it humorous because I am so accustomed to the demands of modern warfare: you are one of many (despite the advertisements for the military that ran a few years ago that emphasizes rugged individualism). Modern war depends on a coordinated mass of soldiers making decisions and attacks as a unit. The ‘error’ we see Yossarian making here, mistaking cannon fire for a personalized attack, is as funny as it is unsettling, as Yossarian upends our expectations. But it is a theme that continues through the novel, as Yossarian constantly interprets his plight as an individual: everyone is trying to poison him (19), he attends an informational meeting about the war not to learn its ideological stakes, but to “find out why so many people were working so hard to kill him” (34) and he asks “What bombs?” (30) after completing a mission, more concerned with his present safety than having completed his mission at all. He receives much flak (both literally and figuratively) for his refusal to place stock in anything greater than himself, and he proudly refuses to risk his life for an ideology he either refuses or ignores. In short, he is opposite to an atomized soldier in a faceless army: he is a lazy individualist. He completely subverts the expectations of modern warfare, challenging our notions of individuality and our value systems that prioritize abstract ideals over individual lives.

For this reason I would consider Catch-22 a modernist novel, less in its narratological experimentation than in its ideological concern with individuality in the face of social atomization. The above quoted passage demonstrates how Heller can humorously create Yossarian’s crisis of individuality, but there are other passages, much more rare, that highlight these concerns in a stark manner:

Yossarian longed to sit on the floor in a huddled ball right on top of the escape hatch inside a sheltering igloo of extra flak suits that he would have been happy to carry along with him, his parachute already hooked up to his harness where it belonged, one fist clenching the red-handled rip cord, one fist gripping the emergency hatch release that would spill him earthward into air at the first dreadful squeal of destruction. That was where he wanted to be if he had to be there at all, instead of hung out there in front like some goddam cantilevered goldfish in some goddam cantilevered goldfish bowl while the goddam foul black tiers of flak were bursting and booming and billowing all around and above him in a climbing, cracking, staggered, banging, phantasmagorical, cosmological wickedness that jarred and tossed him and shivered, clattered and pierced, and threatened to annihilate them all in one splinter of a second in one vast flash of fire. (49)

This is Catch-22 at its most apocalyptic, and also at its most verbose. Heller’s active and detailed diction, coupled with his drawn-out sentence structure, builds suspense as it draws the audience into Yossarian’s plight. The “flash of fire” at the end is perhaps the closest reference to the Bomb that we have in the novel (here I am less concerned with technological particularities and more about literary representation). Much like Gravity’s Rainbow, Heller’s fantastically detailed language screams to a halt at the end of the sentence, threatened by the possibility of death in a bomb flash (yet Heller’s language, I might parenthetically add, also dazzles the audience in the face of such destruction, much like I noted in Gravity’s Rainbow). In any case, the fact that these serious passages are hidden among the dismissive sarcasm and befuddled bureaucracy that characterizes the remainder of Catch-22 makes them more powerful. Especially because the novel is so funny, it is easy to forget that it describes war that is messy and painful. Yossarian heralds individualism, at whatever moral cost, as the cure, and the reader can’t quite help but be drawn in by his logic.

I wonder whether the commentary Catch-22 offers on modern warfare is inextricably tied to the messy particularities of WWI and WWII, which were characterized by bombing and shooting, and has less to say about the Cold War and the threat of total nuclear apocalypse, which cannot be ‘cured’ by individualism. I need to think more about this, but my gut suspicion right now is that Catch-22 emblematizes the narratological influence of modern warfare as defined in the first two World Wars, whereas Gravity’s Rainbow, though a World War II novel in historical setting, is more of a Cold War novel in its reaction to the Bomb.

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