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Déjà Vu: On Rereading Catch-22

The Quarterly Conversation
Spring 2007

Essay by Elizabeth Wadell

I.
Like most children, I was always rereading. By the time I was six or eight years old, I had identified all of my favorite authors. Whether it was a book we owned or one from the branch library, the actual, physical book was familiar. I always checked out the same copies from the library. I recognized the stains, the warped pages where my sister had dropped it while reading in the bathtub. Books weren’t just for reading, they were things.

When I went away to college, I packed my favorite books, but a strange thing happened. I stopped rereading. As a child I had endless time; I could know every book in my house and the library if I wanted. Suddenly there were so many books out there to read–how could I waste time reading the same thing twice? I still hoarded them, wrote my name inside, rearranged them on the shelves, but I rarely read one through a second time unless it was assigned for class. But I sometimes wonder if in my urgency to read everything I lose the familiarity, the re-viewing, the change that comes from rereading. Rereading warps time: it is the re-experiencing of all previous readings, yet there is still a small shock that something you thought you knew can feel so new. Equally strange are the recognition that you are still the same person and the realization that you have somehow changed.

I’ve read Joseph Heller’s Catch-22 three times. The first was in English class my senior year of high school, the second around the year I finished college and finally had time to go back and reread things. The last time was this fall. I was rooting through a used-book store in Mexico, searching for anything in English, and there was Catch-22. The blue cloth cover was a little stained, the title rubbing off the spine. Inside, was the price from some previous used-book store: $5.95 in American dollars. The bookshop owner sold it to me for ten pesos–a buck. “No one wants that,” he shrugged. I went right home, turned the thick pages with their edges stained and started to read. Again.

Originally published in 1961, Catch-22 is about Captain Yossarian and the rest of the 256th Air Force Squadron stationed on the Mediterranean Island of Pianosa near the end of World War II. Yossarian desperately wants to be sent home before he is killed, but the squadron commander keeps raising the number of bombing missions the men must fly before they can be discharged. The concept of a Catch-22 is first introduced by the squadron’s doctor, Doc Daneeka, when Yossarian asks if he could be grounded from flying any more missions for reasons of insanity. Doc Daneeka agrees that he would have to ground anyone who was crazy. However, he can’t ground Yossarian or even his roommate Orr (whom the doctor admits must certainly be insane).

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 had 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 sane he had to fly them. . . . Yossarian was moved very deeply by the absolute simplicity of this clause of Catch-22 and let out a respectful whistle.
“That’s some catch, that Catch-22,” he observed.


This is the logic of a Catch-22, and also of Catch-22. The novel cycles and re-cycles through a series of incidents: the battle over Bologna, the mission to Avignon, the time Milo bombed the camp, the forging of Washington Irving’s name. Events are endlessly discussed, revisited, relived, both by the characters and by the narrative itself. Reading it the first time, one is already rereading. Although the book does move forward in the narrative present, we do not seem to progress. It is a mobius strip, constantly turning in on itself. We think we have grasped something, gone forward, only to find ourselves back at the beginning. And for Yossarian and his fellow bombardiers, life itself is a mobius strip.

Of course, a Catch-22 is itself a mobius strip: the logic very neatly twists, turns, and leads you straight back to where you started. For the powerless like Yossarian and the other officers and enlisted men, any attempt to escape the logic somehow drops you right back at the beginning. As Robert Burnstein wrote in The New Republic on the book’s release, “Like all superlative works of comedy–and I am ready to argue that this is one of the most bitterly funny works in the language–Catch-22 is based on an unconventional but utterly convincing internal logic.” And logic is built of language: bureaucracy manages to disguise and justify itself through the sentence-level logic. Time and again we are told that if A equals B, and B equals C, then A must equal C. Forget about worrying what exactly makes A, B, and C the same.

We see this neat turnaround countless times during the book, buried in seeming throw-away quips. Told he cannot schedule parades in the combat zone, a new general gets the plum job of postponing nonexistent parades. His jealous bureaucratic rival gets revenge by claiming responsibility for sending out memos about the U.S.O. shows that will not be visiting each squadron that week. Brilliant, their commanding officer believes. It has “thrown open a whole new area of operation”: the number of U.S.O. shows not coming is potentially infinite.

In a more sinister scene, a send up of McCarthyism, the 256th Squadron’s Chaplain is caught in a Kafka-esque trial over allegedly “forging” Washington Irving’s name to official documents. In order to prove his guilt, he is asked to sign his name–it doesn’t match the signature of Washington Irving, so therefore the only solution is that he must have been forging his own handwriting.

In the end, the Chaplain is not only found guilty of “being Washington Irving,” but is also accused of committing “crimes and infractions we don’t even know about yet” and asked to plead guilty or innocent.”

“I don’t known sir. How can I say if you don’t tell me what they are?”
“How can we tell you if we don’t know?”
“Guilty. . . . If they’re his crimes and infractions, he must have committed them.”


The logic that condemns the Chaplain is perfect, and perfectly senseless: once his guilt is named it becomes true, because how could something have a name if it did not exist? Those with the power of naming can control and create any truth they want. For the first time we see how Catch-22s enable binaries of guilt/innocence that will later haunt Yossarian.

Of course, language is not the exclusive prerogative of the powerful. The belief in the logic of words is so strong that Yossarian can use it against the bureaucracy. In an attempt to stay safe from combat by remaining in the hospital, he convinces his doctors that he is seeing everything twice. The lead doctor holds up one finger in front of him and demands:

“How many fingers do you see?”
“Two,” said Yossarian.
“How many fingers do you see now?” asked the doctor, holding up two.
“Two,” said Yossarian.
“And how many now?” asked the doctor, holding up none.
“Two,” said Yossarian.
The doctor’s face wreathed with a smile. “By Jove, he’s right,” he declared jubilantly. “He does see everything twice.”


II.
As Burnstein wrote in The New Republic, this contrast between the strict logic of words and its clear illogic in any context of reality is very funny. Here, Yossarian shows the failure of logic; elsewhere he tries show the illogic of the soldiers’ reality by using words out of context. One day, he announces that people are trying to kill him. At this classic expression of paranoia, his companion Clevinger shouts that he is crazy and continues:

“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?”


It is a Catch-22: Yossarian is afraid because people are trying to kill Yossarian. But it is a war, so they are trying to kill everyone, and that means that people are trying to kill Yossarian and he should be afraid. For the readers, this contains the pleasure of an optical illusion–we can see both viewpoints at once. Clevinger insists that the impersonal logic of war changes the meaning of killing, and it is paranoid to act as if this were just any ordinary killing. Yossarian hews to a personal logic that tells him that no matter what the circumstance, if he is killed, he dies.

Yossarian’s partner in exploring the deeper logic behind the superficial logic of words is Milo Minderbinder, the mess officer cum-transnational capitalist. Perhaps the book’s most rational character, Milo does indeed prove that the underpinnings of war, nationalism, and loyalty hide the true nature of things.

“In a democracy, the government is the people,” Milo explained. “We’re people, aren’t we? So we might just as well keep the money and eliminate the middleman. Frankly, I’d like to see the government get out of war altogether and leave the whole field to private industry.”

Thus, he contracts with the Americans to bomb a German-held bridge, and with the Germans to defend it against his own attack. When Yossarian blames him for the death of a man killed during the mission, Milo defends himself:

The Germans have the bridge, and we were going to bomb, whether I stepped into the picture or not. I just saw a wonderful opportunity to make some profit out of the mission, and I took it. What’s so terrible about that? . . . Look, I didn’t start this war . . . I’m just trying to put it on a businesslike basis. . . . Germans are not our enemies. . . . Oh, I know what you’re going to say. Sure, we’re at war with them. . . . Maybe they did start the war and maybe they are killing millions of people, but they pay their bills a lot more promptly than some allies of ours I could name.

Milo’s viewpoint is in many ways similar to Yossarian’s. War does in most cases benefit–and justify–private industry, not patriotic ideals. Both men confront the superficial logic of “war,” “killing,” and even “seeing everything twice,” but the conclusions they reach are opposite. Milo’s logic, stripped bare of emotions, justifies the world as it is. Yossarian meanwhile seeks to shock his companions, thus awakening their emotions and making them recognize that the world should be changed.

III.
As readers, we believe we are merely watching the characters wind around their arbitrary mobius strips of logic. We find humor in the book because we are not caught in the trap of language. Or are we? After all we are completely reliant on Heller’s words for our experience. The very title of the book is a taunt: as readers, we are caught in our own, repetitive Catch-22 of language.

If Catch-22 was simply showing how language is warped to justify power, there would not be much to gain from rereading it–we need only open a newspaper to get the same message.

Fortunately, in addition to logical Catch-22s, Heller shows us a second kind of repetition that is potentially more redeeming: déjà vu. By opening themselves to emotional understanding, Catch-22’s characters–and readers–can transform the trap of logic into déjà vu, a chance to truly feel, process, re-examine, and re-experience certain events. And through this déjà vu, the characters not only understand the past, they understand it in a way outside of logic where the “truth” of an experience is never fully contained within the words that describe it. Whereas Yossarian tried to use a Catch-22 to startle his companions into seeing the world for what it was, it is not until he opens himself to déjà vu that he can move out of his own trap and realize the possibilities in his life.

The Chaplain, a kind of spiritual voice for the novel, is the first character to experience déjà vu. As Heller narrates the incident, we learn:

For a few precarious seconds, the Chaplain tingled with a weird, occult sensation of having experienced the identical situation before, in some prior time or existence. He endeavored to trap and nourish the impression in order to predict, and perhaps even control, what incident would occur next, but the afflatus melted away unproductively, as he knew beforehand it would. Déjà vu.


So far, we have only read about repetition as a trap, but here it is a mystery leading the Chaplain yearningly towards some meaning just beyond reach. Perhaps it is a liberation. He knows the events, but he does not know the meaning that animates them. His most persistent déjà vu is the belief that he had met Yossarian before he actually did. He tries to share his experience with Yossarian:

“Have you ever . . . been in a situation which you felt you had been in before, even though you knew you were experiencing it for the first time?” [ . . . Yossarian nodded.] The chaplain’s breath quickened in anticipation as he made ready to join his will power with Yossarian’s in a prodigious effort to rip away at last the voluminous black folds shrouding the eternal mysteries of existence. “Do you have that feeling now?”

Yossarian dismisses the Chaplain’s question, insisting that déjà vu is merely the effect of a lag in nerve cells, but the Chaplain is not convinced because he has experienced something even more remarkable.

Before he ever met Yossarian, he had presided over the funeral of Snowden, a young radio gunner who passed away in while Yossarian held his dying body during a bombing run. During the funeral, the Chaplain looked up and saw a naked man in a tree. “Was it a ghost, then? The dead man’s soul? An angel from heaven or a minion from hell? Or was the whole fantastic episode merely the figment of a diseased imagination . . . ?” In reality, this was neither a vision of heaven and hell nor neurons misfiring. There really was man in the tree, and that man was Yossarian, who had torn off his bloodied clothes in shock after Snowden’s death. It was because of this scene that the Chaplain felt he had met Yossarian before; if he had merely confided in Yossarian he would have learned the truth.

Or would he? While the fallacy of his belief is obvious to the reader, the logical explanation cannot begin to encompass the truth, the experience holds for the Chaplain. The Chaplain himself assigned the incident a spiritual meaning which no amount of debunking could change. In a book where everything has seemingly been reduced to logic, the Chaplain shows how a transcendent, spiritual experience above and beyond language contains a power that logic cannot approach.

The novel’s endless recycling of narratives suddenly seems less malign. Instead of bringing us back to where we began, perhaps the many repetitions in Catch-22 allow the book’s tragedy and randomness to become a real experience for the reader. Heller implies this via Yossarian’s recurring memories of Snowden’s death. Although Yossarian only knew Snowden as a “vaguely familiar kid,” Snowden’s death haunts Yossarian more than that of his closest friends. It was a turning point for Yossarian, the moment he “realized the fantastic pickle he was in,” how much could go wrong, and for the first time “lost his nerve” for war. The death is a pivotal moment, but it actually happened before the narrative commences. For most of the novel we only tangentially touch on Snowden’s death, yet it has an undeniable emotional power and is key to understanding the book.
The reader must piece together this story from snippets hidden within other narratives. We learn that on a mission to Avignon, the copilot of Yossarian’s plane went “berserk in midair,” and sent them into freefall directly into masses of antiaircraft fire. After a hit, Yossarian found Snowden laying in the rear of the plane with a “yawning, raw, melon-shaped hole as big as a football on the outside of his thigh, the unsevered, blood-soaked muscle fibers inside pulsating weirdly like blind things with lives of their own.” Nauseated, Yossarian started to treat the wound, but missed the real problem. We learn that Snowden had “frozen to death after spilling his secret to Yossarian in the back of the plane.”
The flashbacks come at moments of particular disgust or fear: when the number of missions is raised, when the dreaded Bologna run is discussed, when one pilot accidentally decapitates another soldier, then commits suicide. With each repetition we lick at the edges of the horror, but are held back from fully experiencing Snowden’s secret. The memories and story seem doomed to repeat–in both Catch-22 and Yossarian’s mind–until Yossarian can actually face that memory. In other words, until he can summon the courage to reread his own life.


Post je objavljen 25.08.2008. u 20:42 sati.