Response to art is not immutable. It changes over time in response to the changing mental and environmental context of the viewer. Case in point, my reaction to Joseph Heller’s Catch-22.
When I was young, the shorthand for Yossarian was “too cool for school”, the wiseguy who saw through the flagwaving charade straight to the heart of the futility of war and the idiocy of military bureaucracy.
That framing works very well for the context of the Second World War and the Vietnam War, when the war effort pulled in draftees who perhaps were too skeptical or too maladjusted to buy the military message and instead became sand in the gears of the military machine.
Fast forward to the post-Vietnam volunteer army and a generation of young men and women who self-select to throw themselves into the military machine and lubricate it with their blood, sweat, and tears, add over a decade of nonstop US military action and millions of broken lives, and Yossarian and his dysfunction seem to hold a different significance.
Yossarian starts to look like he’s suffering from PTSD, his coping mechanisms progressively overwhelmed until a shaggy-dog last chapter offers him an unlikely escape.
Consider this passage, describing Yossarian’s reaction to his pilot’s low-altitude hijinks during a training flight:
“Yossarian was petrified. The new bombardier beside him sat demurely with a bewitched grin and kept whistling ‘Whee!’ and Yossarian wanted to reach out and crush his idiotic face with one hand…’Go up, go up, go up!’ he shouted frantically…Yossarian, blazing with rage and almost sobbing for revenge, hurled himself down the crawlway…to stand trembling behind…the pilot’s seat. He looked desperately about for a gun…There was no gun. There was no hunting knife, either, and no other weapon with which he could bludgeon or stab, and Yossarian …slid both hands around around [the pilot’s] bare throat and squeezed. …’Go up,’ Yossarian ordered unmistakably through his teeth in a low, menacing voice. ‘Or I’ll kill you’…[As the plane climbed [Yossarian] was not angry any more. He was ashamed. ‘Boy,’ [said the pilot], ‘you sure must be in pretty bad shape. You ought to go home.’ ‘They won’t let me,’ Yossarian answered with averted eyes, and crept away…hanging his head with guilt and remorse…” [pp 342-343 of the 1989 Special Edition].
Is Catch-22 simply a dark farce about a military bureaucracy designed to find a way to get around a puzzling conundrum—how to send to their deaths people who don’t want to die? Or is it more complicated and personal—and dark–description of the terrible things that war and fear can do to a person, but viewed through the distancing lens of farce?
Heller, in the best tradition of “greatest generation/good war” insouciance distanced himself from inferences that Yossarian’s experiences reflected any of his own psychological trauma.
He self-deprecatingly referred to his experience in a bomber wing based on Corsica as a bunch of “milk runs” and said that Catch-22 drew inspiration from his indignation at the rush to war in Korea and the stultifying conformity of 1950s America. Defending his book at the Air Force Academy in 1986, Heller said “”it’s been called an anti-war book, but it’s certainly not an anti-World War II book. The whole sensibility of the book is not about fighting in World War II but about the war between individuals and this inhuman, bureaucratic authority.”
I’m old school enough to give a lot of weight to authorial authority, but consider these nuggets gleaned from Tracy Daugherty’s 2011 Heller biography, Just One Catch(Daugherty’s page numbers in brackets).
After a traumatic mission, during which flak penetrated Heller’s plane, wounding the gunner, and three other bombers went down, “The war had changed for Heller…He wanted to go home.”
After he concluded his military service in Europe, Heller elected to take a ship home instead of fly. “I was so terrified on my last few missions, I made a vow that if I ever got out of [the] war alive, I would never go up in a plane again.”
Heller’s base pay at Goodfellow, a training wing in the US he joined after Europe, “would have been half again as high if he had agreed to the required four hours of flight time a month but…he told the military doctor that the memory of gasoline inside a plane was sickening to him. At the time, Heller believed he was merely lying to the doctor…but the more he talked to the medic, he said, the more he realized the lie ‘turned out to be true’. “
“[Heller] claimed he…was officially discharged…under the new point system [calculating elibigility for discharge]…At rough glance, the total appears to fall short of the required minimum…the base historian at Goodfellow Field expressed surprise that Heller was released before the end of the hostilities with Japan. This odd timing, combined with the fact that Heller came home without flying his required seventy missions overseas, logging no flying time [after returning to the United States], invited speculation that he received medical dispensation for an early release. He told a doctor…he couldn’t fly any more; at San Angelo [in Europe] he was clearly one of a number of men pegged as suffering from combat fatigue.” [101-2]
In 1956, as part of a job transition to McCall’s, Heller took a battery of psychological tests. “In the color-card tests, he pictured blood and amputated limbs. ‘[I was…catapulted into a state of confusion and silence,’ he recalled. In discussions with one of the professors, he mentioned he was working on a novel. Oh, what’s it about? The man asked. “That question still makes me squirm,” Joe wrote nearly forty years later. ‘[I]t was only then, in trying to talk about the novel coherently, that I realized…how extensively I was focusing on the grim details of human mortality, on disease, accidents, grotesque mutilations.’”
[In 1961, as Catch 22 prepped for publication and Heller still worked at McCall’s, he journeyed to the Bahamas by boat to give a presentation at the sales convention in Nassau] “Joe still didn’t fly.”
In 1962, with Catch-22 finally published: “Joe went to London. This was his first time in many years on a plane, and it took several drinks to calm him down.”
Daugherty perhaps thankfully refrains from putting Heller on the Procrustean psychoauthorial bed available to literary biographers, but I’ll conclude with his description of an off-putting Heller appearance before a group of students at Yale as he was prepping his play, “We Bombed in New Haven”.
“Joe…said little about the craft of writing, presenting himself instead as a ‘born promotion man.’…one student said ‘He comes on like a real Madison Avenue fat cat…’Either that guy is wearing a mask or he didn’t write that book,’ said another young undergrad. (When apprised of this comment, George Mandel [a close friend of Heller’s] said, ‘Of course he’s masked. He’d be an open wound otherwise.’)”
War is, as they say, hell. Maybe there’s a special hell for when you feel you’re supposed to be there, but you really don’t want to be there and don’t know how to leave.