5 November 2008

Letter 4.13

I‘m sure it's been a much more trying time for you than you say. I hope by now some of the emptiness has been worked through. Though, perhaps, it's never really, until or unless we see the source of it. As life goes mother had many good and full years; the end could have been longer and more painful than it was. You did all that could be done all these difficult years; at a not inconsiderable cost to your own well-being. Though I'm sure you don't see it that way; 'one does for one's own', as you say. Still, as you should accept the appreciation of your children, you should allow yourself some satisfaction in the knowledge that you gave what you could with such love and devotion. I wish I could say the same for myself so confidently. I hope, as time passes, you will tell me whatever is comfortable to tell. For my part, I am dealing with it by doing what I have been doing: trying to see the source of that emptiness. I believe there is nothing better I can do to honor my mother. Even from this great distance know that I share in all you are feeling.




...The most immediately obvious (though hardly the most profound) similarity between the Teaching and the novel is that both are deeply concerned with man's mortality. "Old age, sickness, and death" is a phrase that occurs repeatedly in the Buddha's Teaching, as recorded in the Pali Suttas (and, indeed, throughout the later Sanskrit, Chinese, and Tibetan texts as well). A citation of even a small portion of such textual references[1] would be far beyond the scope of this brief discussion: the fact of man's mortality -- a constant peril in an inconstant world -- is a perception absolutely fundamental to the perspective of life presented by the Buddha's Teaching.

And in Catch-22 the protagonist, Yossarian (a bombardier in World War II), is no less deeply concerned about old age, sickness, and death. The spectre of their imminence is his constant dread. As his friend Dunbar puts it,

"Do you know how long a year takes when it's going away? This long." He snapped his fingers. "A second ago you were stepping into college with your lungs full of fresh air. Today you're an old man."

"Old?" asked Clevinger with surprise. "What are you talking about?"

..."You're inches away from death every time you go on a mission. How much older can you be at your age?" -- pp. 38-9

As for sickness:

Yossarian had so many ailments to be afraid of that he was sometimes tempted to turn himself in to the hospital for good and spend the rest of his life stretched out there inside an oxygen tent with a battery of specialists and nurses seated at one side of his bed twenty-four hours a day waiting for something to go wrong.... Aneurisms, for instance; how else could they ever defend him in time against an aneurism of the aorta? ...He wondered often how he would ever recognise the first chill, flush, twinge, ache, belch, sneeze, stain, lethargy, vocal slip, lose of balance or lapse of memory that would signal the inevitable beginning of the inevitable end. -- pp. 171-2

But even more than old age and sickness, it is the spectre of death itself that haunts both Yossarian and the novel: "At night when he was trying to sleep, Yossarian would call the roll of all the men, women and children he had ever known who were now dead. He tried to remember all the soldiers, and he resurrected images of all the elderly people he had known when a child..." -- p. 339. Yossarian is enmeshed in a killing war which is (as the novel's disclaimer makes clear) representative of a larger framework,[2] a war to which "there was no end in sight. The only end in sight was Yossarian's own" -- p. 16. Nevertheless, Yossarian "had decided to live forever or die in the attempt, and his only mission each time he went up was to come down alive" -- p. 29. Yossarian feels death hovering about him -- indeed, even living with him, in the form of a dead man named Mudd, who was not easy to live with.

However, old age, sickness, and death are not apprehended merely as things, as objects in a world of objects, in themselves neutral. The fact of death changes Yossarian's world, as it does ours, radically, and Heller's insistence upon this point is the beginning of the novel's profundity.

In a world in which death is an unavoidable presence, "it made sense to cry out in pain every night" -- p. 54. Indeed, the disorder that the awareness of death introduces into a world which, throughout our lives, we are forever trying to order, leaves us with neither simple order nor simple disorder, but rather with "a world boiling in chaos in which everything was in proper orders" -- p. 143. Death, the great modifier, alters everything, so that for Yossarian "nothing warped seemed any more in his strange, distorted surroundings" -- p. 402.

It is this strange distortion that is the keystone of the novel's humour -- not merely that of its many throwaway jokes but also of the tragicomic perception which circles round and round the death of Snowden ("Where are the Snowdens of yesteryear?" -- p. 35: what a poignant joker), drawing ever closer, while at the same time mockingly inverting that trivial sensibility which ordinary men use to deny the disorder of death: "the Texan turned out to be good-natured, generous and likable. In three days no one could stand him" -- p. 9; "Nately had a bad start. He came from a good family" -- p. 12; "Yossarian couldn't be happy, even though the Texan didn't want him to be" -- p. 16; "strangers he didn't know shot at him with cannons every time he flew up into the air to drop bombs on them, and it wasn't funny at all. And if that wasn't funny, there were lots of things that weren't even funnier" -- p. 17. But it is not merely the one-liners that are inversions of everyday logic: that everyday sensibility is twisted into various shapes, so that each character is seen to exist in his own uniquely topsy-turvy world, a world whose shape hovers somewhere between a wry smile and a teardrop....

Sāmanera Bodhesako,
from The Buddha and the Catch-22

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