3 December 2008

Letter 4.39

"...And if any character tries, however ineffectually, to understand the real nature of his situation, it is not Yossarian but the chaplain. The chaplain (he was named Shipman in the hard-cover edition, but for some reason the name was changed in the paperback edition to Tappman -- not his only identity crisis), who has an open mind, is continually

'...wondering what everything was all about.

...There was no way of really knowing anything, he knew, not even that there was no way of really knowing anything. Was there a single true faith, or a life after death?

..These were the great, complex questions of ontology that tormented him. Yet they never seemed nearly as crucial to him as the question of kindness and good manners. He was pinched perspiringly in the epistenological dilemma of the skeptic, unable to accept solutions to problems he was unwilling to dismiss as unsolvable. He was never without misery and never without hope...' -- pp. 262-3

In the chaplain's tale the human dilemma is presented from a different point of view; it is not a question of sanity or insanity but, in Kafkaesque terms, one of guilt or innocence. Because it is the nature of beings that they are continually trying to establish an existence that continually eludes them[1]; their existence is perpetually in doubt, and they exist, if at all, in a state of guilt. This, it would seem, is the basic perception of Kafka's Trial: Joseph K. arrests himself by recognizing that his existence, being unjustifiable, is essentially guilty. And the chaplain (for whom the question 'Who am I?' becomes acute when he is formally charged with 'being Washington Irving' -- p. 378) is also in this situation.

And later the chap1ain's identity crisis and dilemma of existential guilt is expressed in the same terms that were used earlier to describe Catch-22:

'I offered it to Sergeant Whitcomb because I didn't want it.'

'Why'd you steal it from Colonel Cathcart if you didn't want it?'

'I didn't steal it from Colonel Cathcart!'

'Then why are you so guilty, if you didn't steal it?'

'I'm not guilty!'

'Then why would we be questioning you if you weren't guilty?' -- p. 377

Thus each of us faces the question of our basic unjustifiability in a purposeless world. Some, of course, flee from these questions and deny them (by indulging in sensuality, hatred, lethargy, agitation, and doubt); but the questions return for so long as their root, the conceit 'I am', exists, and the verdict is inevitable: Guilty.

'Chaplain,' he continued, looking up, 'we accuse you also of the commission of crimes and infractions we don't even know about yet. Guilty or innocent?'

'I don't know, sir. How can I say if you don't tell me what they are?'

'How can we tell you if we don't know?'

'Guilty,' decided the colonel.

'Sure he's guilty,' agreed the major. 'If they're his crimes and infractions he must have committed them.'

'Guilty it is, then,' chanted the officer without insignia... -- p. 379

And guilty it is for all of us, if the charge is the fundamental one of being possessors, or even of simply 'being': being what?

And thus Heller repeatedly and ingeniously offers us brilliant literary expressions of the dilemma of existence. The formulations are lucid and compelling and they fully take account of the circular and self-sustaining nature of the dilemma. For this we can praise Catch-22, and perhaps find it of use as a tool in keeping to the forefront of our awareness the nature of our problem. But it would be asking too much to expect the novel to offer the means of resolving that dilemma: for that we must turn to the Buddha's Teaching.

Sāmanera Bodhesako,
from The Buddha and Catch-22


[1] Thus the question 'Who am I?', whether or not it is answerable, is recognized at once to be vital and fundamental to the epistemological dilemma we each face; indeed, it is thus that there is the concept of such a dilemma at all.

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