Sunday, May 27, 2007

The Most Overrated Novel of the Twentieth Century

You may remember a rap hit of 2005, “My Humps,” (see also here) by a group calling themselves Blackeyed Peas. One thing that distinguished this thing from all the other obvious candidates for the the office of Worst Song Ever was that it managed to be both artistically and morally bad. It was offensive in about every way it could be. I have been thinking about “My Humps,” because I have been reading a book that achieves something of this negative sort of greatness, but in the realm of literature rather than music.

This is Joseph Heller’s Catch-22. A student in my course on philosophical ideas in literature wanted to write his term paper on it, though I had not read it myself. I figured, what the heck, I really ought to read it – students keep bringing it up as an example of a work that offers a challenging critique of war and the military ethos. So I’ll read it. I am still staggering from the shock of its amazing badness.

Here are some of the things that I think are bad about it:

1. It is a one-trick pony. This is by intention a humorous book, a work of social satire. But it consists of basically the same joke over and over again: military people are evil and stupid. They are also stupid and evil. (Did I mention that they are evil? Also stupid?) I found this pretty clever and amusing for about the first twenty pages. But by that time I still had about 450 pages more to go, and the rest of it wasn’t any fun at all.

2. It's a bad argument. Satire always has an intellectual point. The point here seems to be that war is a bad thing. The book makes that point by depicting the people who make war as stupid and evil. It does so by presenting all the characters who are regarded as sane by the standards of the military world as doing things that are actually insane, while the one character who is actually sane is regarded by everyone else as being crazy. But why should we expect military people to be insane, stupid, and evil? The book gives no reason. Now, you might think: “So what? Literature can’t give you reasons, unless it preaches at you. Short of that, it can only present conclusions.” This isn’t true.

For instance, a fiction writer could make Heller’s sort of point by showing characters, who in themselves are no worse than other people, interacting with a social environment that brings out the worst in them, with the result that decent people are trapped in a Hellish situation in which they are doing indecent things, while only people who are inherently evil rise to the top and flourish. This is what Ayn Rand does in her first novel, We the Living (1936). There she shows us a group of young people interacting with the Communist system, an environment based on the idea that the individual exists for the sake of the state. Some of the sympathetic characters idealistically believe in the system, while others just as idealistically hate it. All are damaged by it, because what such a system means, must mean, in practice, is that some individuals must be sacrificed, and for no higher or nobler end than to serve the interests of other individuals. The only characters who do well in this environment are the ones who are glad to step in and collect the benefits of the sacrifices of others. In the process, the empty rhetoric that enables the idealistic supporters of the system to conceal from themselves the real nature of the environment they have created breaks down. It would be hard to go into more detail about how this narrative makes this point without looking at the details of Rand’s text, but suffice it to say that it is genuinely enlightening, and that it enlightens by argument-like means. But this is not easy to do. It requires the philosophical acumen as well as literary imagination. It requires that one be able to think in conceptual terms as well as narrative terms. It also requires that you show characters as undergoing a development as a result of their dynamic interaction with their environment. But these are capacities that Joseph Heller either didn’t have or couldn’t be bothered to use in writing Catch-22.

3. The tone is wrong. The events he describes in this book are great moral evils. The tone of voice in which he describes them is one of arch irony and smug sneering. Such a tone is simply inappropriate to the subject matter. The wrinkled lip is not the gesture of moral indignation. It leaves the reader with the impression that the author, who is so ready to find other people evil and stupid, is actually some sort of moral moron himself. At one point in the book, one of the unsympathetic characters tells the narrator about a fun prank he and his fraternity brothers used to pull in college. They would lure high school girls into the frat house, and then they would gang rape them all night long. Then they would steal the pennies out of their pockets. Finally they would blackmail them by threatening to tell their parents that they had consensual sex with them, and let them go. Does Heller realize how evil this sort of behavior is? I doubt it. If he did, he wouldn’t expect us to chuckle about it. This is why I found reading this book such an emotionally punishing experience. Over and over, it presents me with a picture of pure evil, but in such a way that I am prevented from having the appropriate emotional reaction. It felt like I was trapped inside the mind of someone whose mind I don’t want to be in at all.

4. There is less than meets the eye. Some works of literature present themselves to you as pure entertainment and, once you are pulled into them, expand your mind with interesting and challenging ideas. There is more in them than initially meets the eye. Catch-22 proceeds in the opposite direction. It presents itself as dealing with great issues – and has nothing interesting to say about them. Take the title for instance. Bomber pilots have a a good reason to not want to fly any more missions – after all, the people you are trying to kill are shooting at you! And you don’t have to fly any more missions if it so happens that the pressures of combat have destroyed your sanity. However, if you ask to be excused from flying more missions on the grounds that you are insane, this exception does not apply to you, because not wanting to fly more missions is evidence of sanity. That’s the “catch.” Pretty clever, huh? Really tells you something about the twisted workings of the military mind, doesn’t it? Well, no, it doesn’t. All it means is that the judgement of whether you are sane is not left up to you. Isn’t that obvious in the first place? After all, these people are forcing you to do something that no one wants to do. If they let you decide whether you are fit to do it, you just won’t do it. So the decision of whether you are sane or not has to be up to your superior officers. But Heller doesn’t pursue this matter even to this pitifully low level of abstraction. He leaves it at the pretty clever, huh? level, leaving careless readers with an impression that there is something clever and deep here, whereas in fact there isn’t. I don't deny that people can learn things by thinking about what the author is saying, but that is true of any book, however bad it is. Any insights you get this way are ones that you came up with. They are not in the book.

5. It is ignoble. I'm sure there are any number of reasons to dislike war. It is a moral horror. In my own view, the main reason is that it inevitably kills, injures, and destroys the property of innocent people. Surely the most ignoble, morally lowest reason to hate war is that you hate military people. But that is the reason that this book offers, as its main argument.

Anyway, this book is so bad that the only real question it raises is, how did it ever get to have the reputation it has? Why is it on every "greatest novels of the twentieth century" list?* What the Hell? I guess the answer is probably pretty simple. It came out just before the Vietnam War (1961), when a lot of people would soon start thinking that war is a very bad thing, and that the military consists mostly of vicious idiots. In other words, Heller got a free ride because he was telling a lot of people something they already believed and already wanted to hear. But this of course does not speak in his favor, nor does it reflect well on the many readers who admired the book for that particular reason (especially the learned fools who compile "greatest novels" lists).
* By the way, this might be the only book (other than To Kill a Mockingbird -- a genuinely good novel) that regularly shows up on both critic-generated lists and reader-generated lists. Overrating this book is a disease that seems to infect humans of all classes, races, and creeds.
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