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 by John Simon; reprinted by permission of Random House, Inc.), Random House, 1976, pp. 164-65.
[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 renouncing their humanity, becoming cogs in the machine.
With no logical explanation to make suffering and death meaningful and acceptable, people renounce their power to think and retreat to a simple-minded respect for law and accepted "truth." In Rome the M.P.'s exemplify the overly law-abiding person who obeys law with no regard for humanity. They arrest Yossarian who is AWOL, but ignore the murdered girl on the street. By acting with pure rationality, like computers programmed only to enforce army regulations, they have become mechanical men….
In the society which results when men fear thought so much that they merely accept what others tell them, the law becomes merely a facade covering humanity's basest instincts. Society becomes only an institution to perpetuate these instincts and to help the victims adapt to the order of Darwinian nature. The victims share responsibility with their tormentors for their debasement and suffering because they do not reject their tormentors or the system that perpetuates suffering. This conspiracy of suffering is demonstrated most effectively in the "Eternal City" episodes…. This picture of humankind preying upon one another with the blessings of every institution of society is consistently maintained in the novel. (p. 31)
That people should accept such a world depends upon their inability to question it and upon a fundamental despair which makes change seem impossible. People need insight and hope in order to revolt, but the desire to escape the horror of accepting responsibility in a meaningless and seemingly cruel universe has made them psychological cripples. In order to...
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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 which are most pleasurable and generative of life. Foremost among these, for Heller's puritans of capitalism, is, of course, sex. Although the sacrifice of human life on the altar of free enterprise is the most dramatic example and image of thanatos in Catch-22, the pervasiveness and profundity of the thanatotic impulse is nowhere so evident as in the repeated denial of the life force, eros. Examples of this denial are abundant. A group of officers resort to sadism in their treatment of a prostitute because it is the only way they know of getting a reaction, for them the act of sex is meaningful only when destructive, and the infliction of pain becomes the means of human contact. Similarly Aarfy, whose fraternity manners enshrine one of our pervasive myths of noble virility, cannot avoid thinking of sex as dirty and reprehensible…. Implicit in Aarfy's value system is the absolute incompatibility of money and sex, an incompatibility very much in keeping with the puritan view of the matter. Since Aarfy's world—which Heller presents as very much like ours—takes wealth as its highest good it must necessarily reject any healthy sexuality. In view of this it is outrageous but not surprising that Aarfy later rapes a servant girl and then murders her, because, as he says, "I couldn't very well let her go around saying bad things about us, could I?" (pp. 78-9)
This pervasive unwillingness to accept sex, and the erotic impulse, as healthy has its effects even on those whose sexual impulse is less corrupt…. Unashamed of sex and yet convinced that men marry only virgins, [Luciana] is caught in the double bind of a ruthless puritanism.
As if to suggest that a moral standard based on the denial of love cannot sustain life in particular, Heller allows only one of his characters—the chaplain—a successful marriage; and the chaplain is one of the novel's two moral protagonists who reject the accepted norms and attempt to discover new ones. (p. 79)
[Critics] have objected to the novel's emphasis on sex…. But Yossarian's sexuality is much more than mere indulgence in superficial sensuality. The significance of Yossarian's sexual urges is made very clear when Heller...
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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...
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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,...
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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,...
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