Joseph Heller Essay - Heller, Joseph (Vol. 1)

Heller, Joseph (Vol. 1)

Heller, Joseph 1923–

An American novelist and playwright, Heller is the author of Catch-22. (See also Contemporary Authors, Vols. 5-8, rev. ed.)

Though ostensibly about an air force squadron in the Second World War, Catch-22 is actually one of the bravest and most nearly successful attempts we have yet had to describe and make credible the incredible reality of American life in the middle of the 20th century. To describe and make credible; not, however, to understand: the secret of Mr. Heller's success lies precisely in his discovery that any effort to understand the incredible is bound to frustrate the attempt to describe it for what it really is. The way to portray insanity, in other words, is to show what insanity looks like, not to explain how it came about.

To be sure, Mr. Heller is a very good writer, with an exceptionally rich talent for comedy (both high and low) and a vitality of spirit that is nothing short of libidinal in its force. But I doubt whether even those virtues would have been enough to produce Catch-22; what was needed was the heroic power to resist all the temptations to understanding (or, if you like, sympathy) that must have arisen during the eight years it took to write this novel….

What is the war in Catch-22 all about? The only explanation anyone ever seems able to offer is that men are dying for their country and that it is a noble thing to give your life for your country. This idea Mr. Heller takes considerable pleasure in ridiculing…. The interesting thing is that there is scarcely a mention until the end of the novel of Nazism or fascism as an explanation of why the war may be worth fighting; if there were, Mr. Heller's point of view would have had a far greater degree of resistance to contend with than he actually allows it to encounter throughout most of the book…. [The] truth is that Mr. Heller is simply not prepared to go all the way with the idea that lies at the basis of his novel and that is the main tool he has used in making an incredible reality seem credible. He is simply not prepared to say that World War II was a fraud, having nothing whatever to do with ideals or values. I don't blame him for not being prepared to say that; it would not be a true thing to say. Yet for the purposes of this novel, it would have been better if he were prepared to say it, for in shrinking from the final ruthless implication of the premise on which Catch-22 is built—the idea that nothing on earth is worth dying for—he weakens the shock of the whole book.

Are we then to conclude that Mr. Heller doesn't really mean what Catch-22 so unmistakably seems to be communicating for most of its first four hundred pages? I think we must, for if he really meant it, it would not have been possible for him to end the book as he does, with Yossarian heroically refusing to seek his own advantage through cooperating with the Cathcarts and the Korns…. Nor, for that matter, would Mr. Heller have been capable of the gusto and exuberance which is Catch-22's most attractive quality: the morality of survival is more likely to breed a quiet and weary irony than the kind of joyful energy that explodes all over the pages of this book.

Norman Podhoretz, "The Best Catch There Is" (1962), in his Doings and Undoings (reprinted with the permission of Farrar, Straus & Giroux, Inc.; © 1953, 1954, 1955, 1956, 1957, 1958, 1959, 1963, 1964 by Norman Podhoretz), Farrar, Straus, 1964, pp. 228-35.

[A] novel like Catch-22, trailing recollections of Joyce, Nathanael West, and early "funny" Céline, speaks solidly to those who are disaffected, discontented, and disaffiliated, and yet who want to react to life positively. With its occasional affirmations couched in terms of pain and cynical laughter, it makes nihilism seem natural, ordinary, even appealing. The very zaniness of its vision constitutes its attraction even to those who have compromised with most of the absurdities it exposes….

What American novel of the last decade has spoken better to this type of individual—perhaps to all of us?—than Catch-22? Its surface extravagance masks a serious purpose: that in an impossible situation. one finally has to honor his own self; that in an absurd universe, the individual has the right to seek survival; that one's own substance is infinitely more precious than any cause, however right; that one must not be asked to give his life unless everybody is willing to give his….

A good deal of the humor of the novel derives from Yossarian's very openness in a society closed to authenticity and good faith. When an open character—responsive, sensitive, decent—throws himself upon a closed society—unresponsive, fixed, inflexible—very often the result can be tragic. What keeps Yossarian comic, however, is the fact that he never tried to change the society he scorns; he is quite willing to accept its absurdity if it will leave him alone. Never a revolutionary, rarely a rebel, unintentionally a hero, only occasionally a young Turk, Yossarian is more often a rank conformist. The only sanity he desires is his own, not the world's; the only joys he seeks are those he can himself generate; the only rewards he covets are the compensations, not of glory, but of full lips, breasts, and thighs. He is more Sancho than Don. The comedy of Yossarian is the comedy of a romantic, Rousseauistic natural man forced to do the dirty work of the world.

Frederick R. Karl, "Joseph Heller's Catch-22: Only Fools Walk in Darkness" (© 1964 by Southern Illinois University Press; reprinted by permission of Southern Illinois University Press), in Contemporary American Novelists, edited by Harry T. Moore, Southern Illinois University Press, 1964, pp. 134-42.

Satire on war in general is one thing, satire on World War Two is another. The horror of that war was the necessity of fighting it, and a special kind of doublethink is necessary to appreciate Joseph Heller's Catch-22…. His approach is not merely satirical: it is surrealistic, absurd, even lunatic, though the aim is serious enough—to show the mess of war, the victimization of the conscripts, the monstrous egotism of the top brass…. As in the British fiction of the first war, the enemy is here in camp, not across no-man's-land or a stretch of water. Inevitably, in Heller's book, an American airman bombs his own base on behalf of the Nazis, and then the mad satire turns sour.

Anthony Burgess, in his The Novel Now: A Guide to Contemporary Fiction (reprinted by permission of W.W. Norton & Co., Inc.; © 1967 by Anthony Burgess), Norton, 1967, p. 53.