Thursday, 27 October 2011

The Grotesque in Catch-22

"Heller wallows in his own laughter and finaly drowns in it. What remains is a debris of sour jokes, stage anger, dirty words, synthetic looniness, and the sort of antic behaviour the children fall into when they know they are losing our attention" New Yorker Review (1961) by Whitney Balliett.

Joseph Heller’s Catch-22 has been a cult book and a bestseller since its publication fifty years ago in 1961.

It’s a difficult book to frame, define, or to catch in a critical net. For that reason it is appealing to those of us with a taste for the grotesque – a place were opposites collide and interconnect.

Catch-22 sits between the mechanistic worlds of the military-industrial complex of modernism, the bureaucratic nightmares of Kafka and the dead ends of postmodernism. It has become a cult book that rises above passing fashions because it appeals to our sense that there is something comic, absurd, and degenerate in human nature.

When I try to define the novel in formal terms, I recall Wolfgang Kayser’s description of an earlier protean novel of winding circularities, Laurence Sterne’s Tristram Shandy which was written two hundred years earlier:

“I emphatically subscribe to the classification of Sterne as a writer of the grotesque, for the categories of humour, satire and irony […] fail to do full justice to the form and content of Tristram Shandy.”

I’m also reminded of that other great writer, Jonathan Swift, and I suggest that there are manifest similarities to Catch-22 in (1) the playful metamorphosis of logic into grotesque absurdities (2) the collapse of spirit or reason into an obsession with the body and body functions (3) and interest in regimes of terror and discourses of containment. If you’ve read Gulliver’s Travels (1726) you will know what I mean.

There is a striking example of the grotesque on several levels in an early part of the novel.

“The soldier in white was encased from head to toe in plaster and gauze.

Sewn into the bandages over the insides of both elbows were zippered lips through which he was fed clear fluid from a clean jar. A silent zinc pipe rose from the cement on his groin and was coupled to a slim rubber hose that carried waste from his kidneys and dripped it efficiently into a clear, stoppered jar on the floor. When the jar on the floor was full, the jar feeding his elbow was empty, and the two were simply switched quickly so that the stuff could drip back into him.”

The notion of a soldier in white is the first clue to a hypocritical sanitization of the dirty business of war. Also, the grotesque typically has a focus on the liminal intersection between inside and outside (mouth/anus/genitals) that comes into play in this quotation. An additional level of the grotesque shifts between body/machine and the natural/artificial (the ‘zippered’ lips). The machine-like and the non-human are also picked up in the ‘silent’ and ‘efficiently’. In the filth of the recycled world excretion of urine is just another version of ingestion. It is an apt metaphor for the military-industrial complex as an input/output bureaucracy devoid of moral integrity or ethical standards.

If the human body has a grotesque logic so does the human mind. Here then is one version of the famous Catch-22

“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 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 were 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. Yossarian was moved very deeply by the absolute simplicity of this clause of Catch-22 and let out a respectful whistle.”

I mentioned Kafka (above) but one also thinks of the doublespeak and bureaucratic hypocrisies that George Orwell explored in 1984.

The ability of Catch-22 to sit between popular culture and the canonical (literary works) best explains its enduring appeal to a wide readership. This view is admirably summarised by Howard Jacobson in his introduction to the Vintage Classics edition (2004). For him the book is ‘positioned’

“between literature and literature's opposites – between Shakespeare and Rabelais and Dickens and Dostoevsky and Gogol and CĂ©line and the Absurdists and of course Kafka on the one hand, and on the other vaudeville and slapstick and Bilko and Abbott and Costello and Tom and Jerry and the Goons (if Heller had ever heard of the Goons).”

Further Reading

Meindl, Dieter.  American Fiction and the Metaphysics of the Grotesque. University of Missouri Press (1996)

“By synthesising Kayser's and Bakhtin's views of the grotesque and Heidegger's philosophy of "Being", this work demonstrates that American fiction has tried to convey the existentialist dimension: the pre-individual totality which defines itself against the mind and its linguistic capacity.”

McNeil, David. The Grotesque Depiction of War and the Military in Eighteenth-century English Fiction. University of Delaware Press; illustrated edition edition (1990)

“A discussion of the tradition of grotesque portrayals of war and the military, especially their proliferation in Restoration and eighteenth-century English literature. Swift's the Travels is examined in particular, as well as the novels of Smollett, Fielding, and Stern. Illustrations of graphic satire by Hogarth and others.”

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