Monday, July 26, 2010

"There was only one catch and that was Catch-22."

A couple of years ago, Reba Place Fellowship, which is a longstanding Mennonite community out in Chicago, held a conference called "Cynicism and Hope." I wasn't able to go (I was taking the Lit GRE during that weekend, yuck), though some of my community-mates did. The interesting thing about this conference was that it wasn't focused on overcoming cynicism, but rather balancing the two, and realizing that you can't have one without the other. Unmitigated cynicism leads to destruction; unmitigated hope leads to a dangerous idealism. So on, so forth.

In many ways, I'm a cynical person. I believe people can do good things, but most of the time they'll choose not to. Our good things are often motivated by selfishness. I'm suspicious of authority. I believe that most people in power have lost their souls. In other words, as I once wrote, "Forgive my cynicism. It kicks my idealism's ass pretty thoroughly."

That's me on my worst day. On a better day, hope will temper that, and I'll remember that there are gardens even in Camden.

This is my very long-winded way of saying that I'm almost at the end of Catch-22. I've been reading it at work during my lunch breaks, so I get small chunks of it at a time. It's such a deeply cynical and satirical book, though, that I can only take small chunks at a time. And I think that's because it's unmitigated, unrelenting cynicism. There's not really much hope in the story.

There's a reason for that: it's a story about the absurdity of war. And you know, I agree with that premise: I think war is absurd. On a gut level, I don't understand war and violence (and frankly? When I hear gunshots outside of my house, I don't want to understand; I just want it to stop.)

Anyway. The book is funny, but funny in ways that make you laugh and then stop because what you're laughing at is ridiculous and heart-breaking and weird. There's Yossarian, of course, who's the main character and has a deep fear of death and thinks that everyone is out to kill him--which, in one sense, they are, as it's war. His superior officer, Colonel Cathcart, is obsessed with becoming a general and keeps upping the number of missions the men have to fly. Then there's a number of minor characters who populate the novel: Milo Minderbender, who makes a profit off of the war by contracting with both sides; the Anabaptist chaplain, who's meek and mild and gets tormented by his atheist assistant; Nately and his "whore," whom he saves and then falls in love with; Snowden, whose death is a catalyst for many of Yossarian's actions in the book; Doc Daneeka, who's pretty much out for himself....if I go on any further, I'll probably take all day, since there are so many characters.

But here's Catch-22, as explained by Doc Daneeka to Yossarian, who is desperately trying to finish his missions and go home: "'Sure there's a catch,'" Doc Daneeka replied. 'Catch-22. Anyone who wants to get out of combat duty isn't really crazy.'
"There was only one catch and that was Catch-22, which specified that a concern for one's safety in the face of dangers that were real and immediate was the process of a rational mind. Orr [one of the characters] 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. 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" (46).

Yossarian, too, is considered crazy (Orr is his tentmate and is considered the only person crazier than Yossarian). He's crazy because he doesn't want to fly missions, because he takes drastic measures to get out of them. And yet he's the sanest person in the whole damn novel.

War is absurd; war is insanity. Catch-22 was written in 1961--sixteen years out of World War II--and fifty years later, we still haven't learned, have we? (You can start singing "where have all the flowers gone?" now.)

On a good day, when I remember that there are, in fact, good people doing good things in the world, I also remember St. Julian of Norwich's "All shall be well, and all manner of thing shall be well"--and T.S. Eliot's re-visioning of it at the end of Little Gidding. (Eliot's version is interesting because the poem also evokes the Battle of Britain--another story, another time.) Julian's version actually starts out with "Sin is behovely," "because it brings us to self-knowledge—knowledge of our own fallibility—which in turn moves us to seek God" (her words, not sure where from). So: sin is necessary, but don't worry: all shall be well, even through the absurdity and insanity and utter mess that we humans make of this life. Well. Even when I'm not sure that I believe it, it gives me comfort.

[So this post? It was supposed to be all about Catch-22. Turns out, not so much. Ah well. I'll end up writing a real book review sooner or later. Sorry for the meandering.]


  1. Reviews are anywhere. (Well, not your reviews, which I look forward to.) Meandering is unique.

    So if sin leads us to recognise fallibility, which leads us toward God (which my atheist self would tend to read as 'enlightenment'), we've got some grand-scale fallibility-recognising to do as a species before we can do anything about war. I suspect it's closely related to the thing discussed on slacktivist: the deep human desire to never have been wrong.

    Also: gunshots? Good lord. With you on the 'make it stop'. Very glad to not be in that kind of neighbourhood anymore.

  2. I tend to meander a lot in conversation and in writing, so I'm glad it works here.

    I think we're seeing that "deep desire to never have been wrong" quite a lot these days--witness the Shirley Sherrod fiasco, to take a recent example, and the non-apology that that blogger gave her. And the US's stance on the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, which are, obviously, not going as well as was hoped.

    I like Julian's formulation about sin and fallibility, and while I'm no Calvinist (and Julian sure wasn't either), I think it's interesting to look at it in tandem with Fred's post on "pervasive depravity." We have a long way to go as a race/species in terms of being able to see ourselves clearly--as individuals and as a collective.

    And, yeah, gunshots. Not quite as common in my neighborhood as in others, but enough that I don't, say, wander around alone at night. I also think that this heat makes people crazy. Make it stop, indeed.

  3. So these ideas have refused to let go of my brain all week; I keep feeling like there's something immense and important still to be found. Not sure exactly what I expect to come up with. Possibly some kind of comprehensive argument that will end all wars and still be short enough to fit on a shirt. I keep trying to work Julian's formation backwards: if we want to get to 'no war', then what failing have we got to recognise, and what sin do people have to see in themselves to get there? I end up running around in circles and tautologies, which I will spare your fledging comments section, lest it go on strike.

    The best I've got so far is that encouraging future people away from war might mean trying to recharacterise war, not as the solution to a problem, but as a consequence of failing to solve other problems. WWII happened because people failed to get Germany out of its frenzy of resentment, which was able to start because it was left in such an atrocious mess after WWI, et cetera. History teachers would probably be great allies in that effort, since it necessarily means teaching history as cause & effect, rather than scattered names and dates.

    The other upside is that the war-as-consequence idea doesn't characterise soldiers as evil minions trying to oppress the world, but puts them more in the firefighter category: brave people sent into a catastrophe to try to minimise overall suffering. (Which is probably not true in plenty of cases - there are real Cathcarts and Minderbenders and all - but I'm sure some firefighters are jackasses too.)

    Good lord, but I go on.

  4. Hmm. If my little blogpost started your train of thought, I'm really happy about that. :)

    I wish that there were a comprehensive argument that could end all wars, but even if there were, I doubt that we'd convince everyone. Perhaps the failing that we need to recognize is not just one, but an amalgamation of them? Things like our willingness to solve problems with violence, our lust for power (the will to power, maybe), our reluctance to see others' sides? Etc, etc, etc.

    I did have good history teachers in high school who pushed us to see patterns and concepts and cause-and-effect. I'm not sure it really sunk into my brain until much later on, but they did try.

    I don't know if we can equate soldiers and firefighters. Hell, I have a hard time equating cops and firefighters, though that may be because Philly cops are assholes and I'm rather suspicious of them. Perhaps if soldiers were actually sent in to minimize the damage--or, say, stand between the little people of the world and the people who are making them suffer--rather than taking over, as we've done in Iraq, I'd be more amenable to the idea.

    I think that my reaction to violence, large-scale or small-scale, is in general to throw my hands in the air and say, "Oh for God's sake, can't we be more creative than this?" For all my cynical posturing, there's a part of me that believes that human beings are able to do better. I mean, really--we're able to figure out many of the universe's secrets, but we can't figure out a way to work out our problems? Boggles my mind that the world that produced Picasso and Shakespeare also produced Hitler and Stalin and Pol Pot and...well, you get my meaning.

    And I too go on. Oh, back to work.

  5. Well, yes, in reality there probably have to be as many thousands of varieties of counterarguments as there are varieties of excuses for resorting to violence. It's just always tempting to hope for a single incantation that will solve everything. (Being an aspiring writer, I adore TJ Dawe's hypothesis that the very idea of magic came about from the first storytellers, who could speak the right words in the right way and remake the world: make you think a new idea or remember something you forgot, make you want to kill or want to build or want to love.)

    I would agree that many soldiers right now, particularly in the high-profile parts of the world, really don't seem all that firefightery (they seem a lot more like jackass cops, or possibly mob goons) but I think it would make a good new ideal, to go along with war-as-consequence. I don't really get a sense right now that soldiers *have* a good ideal to live up to, because all of our famous soldiers tend to be warriors who managed to slaughter the enemy despite terrible odds, and that's really not the sort of situation they get put into anymore. (Nor was it a great ideal at the time, especially with the imperialist subtext.) I'd want to try it as a psychological tactic: tell someone they already are a thing, and see if they change their behaviour to live up to it.

    Also a major yes on the "Really, this is the best you can think up?" It's got something in common with the feeling when I hear people default to 'gay' as an insult - on top of the moral failure, I'm just deeply disappointed that they can't and won't spend the time to come up with anything more original. Plainly we need to encourage a culture that sees oratory, negotiation, and resolve as much cooler than suckerpunching. Gandhi for Tyrant.

  6. I love the idea of words being able to remake the world. It reminds me very much of one of my professors talking about the dangerousness of literature--that literature makes us see things differently and therefore allows us to change things.

    I may go with the "blame the patriarchy" tack with regards to the soldiers and violence thing. Talk and negotiation are often seen as feminine and are therefore bad. Suckerpunching your enemy is much more manly than loving him.

    There are a lot of good programs out there designed to catch kids young and teach them how to solve problems with talk rather than violence. They're mostly focused on urban kids, and they don't have a very far reach, but it's a good start. Now maybe if we could get our world leaders into those programs.

    Gandhi for tyrant indeed. With Dorothy Day as his right-hand woman and MLK Jr as his Secretary of Defense. And the Amish for homeland security, as my friends like to say.

  7. Okay, so, see, now I'm just going to spend the evening appointing historical figures to my All-Star Celestial Bureaucracy. I'm not familiar enough with the Amish to know exactly why they'd be ideal for Homeland Security, but it sounds good - some time will also be set aside to figure out what an 'Amish wiretap' would consist of. (I also have to resist the urge to appoint Genghis Khan as Secretary of Agriculture, but seriously, no one would litter in a national park again.)

    As for getting world leaders into those programs (fantastic mental image of GWB and Putin and many others being told "Use your words"), this is one area where I definitely am cynical, because I default to the notion of 'improve the kids, wait for the old people to die'. I doubt any world leader has ever embraced a change of position (on the kind of scale we want to see) while they held power. It's true that the enduring system will probably favour the people who are most like those who have left, but we can make that group smaller and smaller until we have no choice but to give meaningful power to people who aren't impressed by or invested in old mistakes.

  8. Oh, Amish for Homeland Security. It's kind of a running gag, but it comes from this:

    Genghis Khan as Secretary of Agriculture! Yes. No one would dare try to shut a national park down either.

    Frederick Douglass as head of world urban development?
    Virginia Woolf as Secretary of Education?

  9. So part of me thinks that I need to leave this alone so that you feel obligated to make another proper blog post.

    The majority vote, however, says that it is of the utmost importance that I figure out which historical figure would be most ideal for Minister of Foreign Affairs (which I think is roughly equivalent to the US Secretary of State). I'm trying to think of people who are legendary for their capacity to acknowledge the legitimacy of alternative viewpoints while still relentlessly defending their own. The field is pretty thin - the great leaders and visionaries who come to mind always seem to have an overdeveloped nationalist side, too. I think this may explain a lot about the long-term state of the world. How many jobs can we give to Douglass, anyway?

    I finally read the Amish article - while I'm not so sure about the 'go to his cave' bit, I do think that the vastly superior response within the US would have been a major campaign to embrace American muslims as part of the country. The surge of unity was probably the best thing to come out of that whole event, and when everyone's hugging in the streets and declaring their oneness as a people, it has got to suck to be the single group being implicitly (or explicitly) told "Except you guys."

  10. I think we should give Douglass as many jobs as he can juggle. Maybe William Penn as Minister of Foreign Affairs? Tolerance for all and stuff? Or Abe Lincoln? I'd also be tempted to give the job to someone like Oscar Wilde...wild enough (no pun intended) to distract everyone into living peacefully.

    Susan B. Anthony and Harriet Tubman as joint Secretaries/Ministers of Women's Affairs. I think we need that.

    I'm leaning heavily on American figures here. Oh! The guy who runs the Grameen Bank (Muhammed Yunus?) as Minister of Economics. Or whatever the title is. He's still alive, though.

  11. I thought about Lincoln, but yeah, I was somewhat concerned about American saturation. On the other hand, LINCOLN. I'm sure he's got a role somewhere.

    Yunus is great and brilliant in the area where he works, but so he's probably adept elsewhere, but the Grameen concept itself is based on cultural institutions - they don't necessarily transfer well to other regions, any more than Western Capitalist Decadence is the right solution for everywhere. On the other hand, since those institutions have to do with social cohesion and strong communities, he might be perfect for urban development.

    Upon deliberation, I think I favour the truly epic Nellie McClung for Foreign Affairs, on the conviction that with sufficient resources she probably could argue, badger, and win over every country in the world to some adequate human rights. (She's Canadian, so understandably-yet-tragically underappreciated in the world: )

    Definitely need more global representation, though. Research time.

  12. If we're allowed to nominate living people, I'd say Wangari Maathi for Minister/Secretary of Environmental Protection (she's the Nobel Prize winner who helped plant 20 million trees).

    Nellie McClung sounds fabulous. And if we put Yunus on urban development, that would free up Frederick Douglass for other things...