Heller, Joseph (Vol. 11)
Heller, Joseph 1923–
Heller is an American novelist, playwright, and short story writer. He masterfully employs black humor and satire, effective for their recognizable groundings in contemporary culture. Since his best-selling Catch-22, Heller has suffered something of a creative lull, punctuated by a play and two novels. None of these subsequent works has received the critical acclaim given his early masterpiece. (See also CLC, Vols. 1, 3, 5, 8, and Contemporary Authors, Vols. 5-8, rev. ed.)
No salute is due Joseph Heller's rather self-indulgent anti-war and anti-universal indifference play, We Bombed in New Haven, a belated foray into Pirandellism covering ideological and technical ground that is already flyspecked with footprints. Actually, the play has flunked out of every school it attended. At the Pirandello Academy it failed to master the basic precept that there can be no easy answers: here, when Sergeant Henderson unmistakably dies before our eyes and Captain Starkey sends his own son (however expressionistically depicted) to perish as the logical consequence of having sent all the other young men entrusted to him to their deaths, all the suggestive ambiguity evaporates and we are left with simple, tearful preachment. At the Absurdist Institute it did not learn the first lesson: to create figures that transcend reality (usually downward); here, at best, we have bitterly funny naturalistic types who fall on their fannies when the rug of reality is pulled out from under them. At the Brecht Cram School it never absorbed that racy deviousness that makes all characters tangily complex. At the Pinterian Mysteries, it was never initiated into the power of the unspoken. We Bombed in New Haven is a well-intentioned universal dropout. (p. 164)
John Simon, "'We Bombed in New Haven'" (1968–69), in his Uneasy Stages: A Chronicle of the New York Theater, 1963–1973 (copyright © 1975...
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[The essence of Catch-22 is that though it is ostensibly about the 1941–1945 war, in which Heller served, it is] really about The Next War, and thus about a war which will be without limits and without meaning, a war that will end only when no one is alive to fight it. The theme of Catch-22 … is the total craziness of war, the craziness of all those who submit to it, and the struggle to survive by one man, Yossarian, who knows the difference between his sanity and the insanity of the system. But how can one construct fictional meaning, narrative progression, out of a system in which virtually everyone but the hero assents to madness, willingly falls into the role of the madman-who-pretends-to-be-sane? The answer is that Catch-22 is about the hypothesis of a totally rejectable world, a difficult subject, perhaps impossible so long as the "world" is undifferentiated, confused with man's angry heart itself—but expressive of the political uselessness many Americans have felt about themselves since World War II. So Heller, who combines the virtuousness of a total pacifist with the mocking pseudo-rationality of traditional Jewish humor, has to fetch up one sight gag after another…. The book moves by Yossarian's asking sensible, human, logical questions about war to which the answers are madly inconsequent. Heller himself is the straight man on this lunatic stage, Yossarian the one human being in this farcically antihuman setup....
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Catch-22 is a linguistic construct that requires people to do whatever their superiors wish. The novel is an examination of the destructive power of language when language is used for manipulation rather than communication. It is based on the existential premise that although the universe is irrational, people create rational systems. The linguistic expressions of these rational systems are cultural myths. People live by these myths whether or not they describe reality…. Catch-22, accordingly, points out the discrepancy between our myths and our realities and suggests that we would do better to stop creating rational systems and to start living in tune with an irrational universe. In doing so, it rejects abstract, rational language in favor of nonrational, metaphoric language.
To understand the causes and consequences of the debasement of American language, it is useful to see why Heller's characters accept myths as true which are in violent contradiction to their experience and to see who benefits from the acceptance of such myths. The characters in Catch-22 court comforting lies rather than [face] unpleasant truths. When Snowden's insides slither onto the floor, Yossarian realizes that "Man was matter, that was Snowden's secret."… (pp. 30-1)
But Yossarian can find no transcendental comfort to explain suffering and to make life meaningful. As Vance Ramsey explains, people react to meaninglessness by...
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Heller makes it clear that the real enemy, the source of the true danger, is that principle which can allow Milo so glibly to overlook Nazi crimes against human life. And that principle, as the text makes abundantly clear, is an economic one. For Milo contract, and the entire economic structure and ethical system that it embodies and represents, is more sacred than human life. (pp. 77-8)
The most important manifestation of this thanatotic American morality, important because it extends the responsibility from particular individuals or groups to American society at large, is Milo's bombing of his own troops as part of a deal with the Germans…. In Heller's America war is merely another way of making money and getting ahead…. It is an America in which the Protestant ethic has run wild, so it is hardly surprising that Yossarian, who believes in the paramount importance of the individual human life, must rebel.
The enemy within then—the villain of the piece—is not any of the individual characters, all of whom are more foolish than evil, but the Protestant ethic itself with its disregard for human life and its deification of the profit motive. (p. 78)
Like the puritan ethic from which it derives, the American ethic Heller portrays conceives of life as a means to an end, and therefore as expendable. Corollary to that conception is a distrust of, even a disdain for, those aspects of human existence...
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"Catch-22" is probably the finest novel published since World War II. "Catch-22" is the great representative document of our era, linking high and low culture, with its extraordinary double-helix form, its all-American G.I.-comedy characters, its echoes of Twain, Faulkner, Hemingway, Miller and Céline. Its only rival is Pynchon's gargantuan "Gravity's Rainbow"—much larger, more learned and intelligent, but top-heavy, and a colder, deadly work of art. (I should add that if "Catch-22" recalls Dickens in its comic fertility and complex form, then Heller's second novel, "Something Happened," seems an impressive if tortuous attempt to rewrite Henry James—to provide a counterpart to "The Portrait of a Lady," to chart the postwar civilian hell of narcissism.) (p. 37)
Richard Locke, in The New York Times Book Review (© 1977 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), May 15, 1977.
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[Good as Gold] is being touted by its publisher as doing for the White House what Catch-22 did for the military of World War II—that is, a demolition job on our more positive illusions. The method is certainly the same: Every cliched absurdity is played straight and at length; a lot of little jokes illumine the big joke, which is that everything is a bad joke. But the timing is off….
This inevitably blunts the effect of Heller's tardy absurdities and makes the bad joke seem merely old. To be shocking today, Good as Gold would have to accomplish the opposite of what it intends: It would have to offend our current cynicism by revealing the deep integrity, selfless dedication, and nobility of democratic spirit that guide our government. It might not sell, but it would be new.
Not that Good as Gold is without offensiveness. It does bore. It is also anti-Semitic. If Heller believes (and I'm willing to think he thinks he does) that everything is base and mean and rotten to the core, this goes double for the Jews….
The protagonist is Brooklyn-born, Columbia-graduated Bruce Gold. Now 48, Gold teaches college English … and writes reviews and articles for unread intellectual journals….
Gold is a schlub, a manipulator, a self-conscious hypocrite. His failing is in not making enough money. It's vaguely for this, and his general dullness—not his...
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In his diary Kafka asks, "What have I in common with Jews?" Immediately he answers, "I have hardly anything in common with myself and should stand very quietly in a corner, content that I can breathe." Thus, failure to identify with his people inspires a joke about failure to identify with himself. The same failure, and the same joke extremely elaborated, describes much of Joseph Heller's third novel, "Good as Gold."
As the title boasts, "Good as Gold" is a dazzling commodity. It is in fact another big book about Jews—literally about a Jewish professor, Bruce Gold, who has an idea for a book about the Jewish experience in America. He sells the idea to friends of his in publishing, two sleazy, conniving opportunists…. Both see the Jewish book as potentially lucrative, but while Lieberman wants it to be sensational, containing such things as what it feels like for a Jewish man to have sexual intercourse with "gentile girls," Pomoroy wants Gold to write a book "useful to colleges and libraries." In any case, Gold's idea for the Jewish book, which occupies him through the first chapter, is never realized because he does too many other things….
Though Gold never writes his book, we finally have the book he lives, "Good as Gold." It is indeed about Jews and a lot more, and it satisfies the requests of vulgar Lieberman and grimly serious Pomoroy, for it is both high and low in comic spirit. It contains much truth as...
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