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.]