Saturday, March 27, 2004


I can't imagine writing a line that so infiltrates the nation's consciousness that everyone knows what it means, even if they never read or saw the referent.

I'm talking about when Yossarian the bombardier wants the doctor to excuse him from flying more World War II missions. His defense? They're awful. They kill people. He's terrified. And besides, everyone agrees that he's crazy. The doctor won't do it, though. He can't, because according to Army regulations, anyone who would ask not to fly more missions by definition couldn't be crazy. It's a Catch-22.

“That's some catch," says Yossarian. "It's the best there is," agrees the doctor.

This movie, based on Joseph Heller's 1961 novel, uses the humorous techniques of irony and reductio ad absurdum to demonstrate the foolishness of war. One early scene is a perfect example. Minderbinder is pitching his idea of the trading syndicate, M & M Enterprises, to Colonel Cathcart, explaining how he will trade surplus items on hand with other military units for profit. So rapt are the two in conversation that as they drive away from the airbase down the runway, they completely ignore a plane that flies right past them and crashes and burns on landing. It's ironic because of course we expect these two human beings to react to this certain death with grief and concern; instead they react with the opposite, utter disregard. I found myself -- in this scene and many others -- gasping with disbelief that the characters could act the way they did.

The larger purpose of the humor, though, most certainly involves what Gerald Mast talks about in his discussion of film theory: reductio ad absurdum, in which a social question is magnified and brought to the absurd both for humorous results and of course to raise the larger social question. Here the question is disregard for human life in war. Heller and Mike Nichols, the director, point out this futility of human life by using repetition. The whole M & M Enterprises subplot, I believe, exists to demonstrate just how little human life matters in the face of the machine of war and profit. Several times we hear Minderbinder say, "What's good for M & M Enterprises will be good for the country." Minderbinder creates his business by trading silk, silk that he harvests by stealing the parachutes from all the flyers, who don't find out until they're on a bombing mission that the parachutes are gone and replaced with a single share of M & M Enterprises stock. A little later, when we see Yossarian trying to comfort Snowdon after the airplane has been shot at, Yossarian tries to administer a dose of morphine from the first aid kit only to discover it, too, is gone, replaced by a share of stock. These scenes are so absurd, they're both funny and disturbing.

Of course Heller meant them to be disturbing. What disturbed me still more was trying to predict student reactions to the film when I teach a class. Will they be as disturbed as I was? I fear that they will not. The genesis of dark or black comedy, set sometime in the 1960s, coincided with the horror of the realization that we all could, at any moment, blow ourselves up thousands of times over with nuclear bombs. In my childhood, this scenario was presented as a likelihood. Most theorists I've read, particularly Wes Gehring, assign a cause-effect relationship between the supposed likelihood of a nuclear holocaust and the genesis of dark humor. This kind of humor had to come about because of the mind's perception of a sort of Catch-22. We can't go on living in the face of an almost certain death, but we do. What other choice do we have but to develop a very sick sense of humor?

To many of my students, this stuff is old news, though. The threat of nuclear holocaust has, in theory, passed. I am not sure I believe that, but at least grade school kids aren't prepared for the inevitable death and, at least as I understand it, high school students don't any longer discuss being within the bull's eye that will turn to dust around the Nation's Capital. Things are maybe even more absurd in the face of this crazy terrorism and suicide bombing and the like. Somehow, though, perhaps with the advent of twenty-four hour news/entertainment television, the seriousness of the situation has lost its frightening edge and instead it's taken on a kind of circus atmosphere, replacing what was once horror with a feeling of strange entertainment. The result is that I don't think anyone is horrified anymore, even though the threat exists. Maybe it's impossible to sustain horror for very long at anything, even if the horror persists. I remember the people I knew in Georgia who lived downwind from a paper plant. If you know anything about paper plants, you know that they emit the most noxious smell, sort of like sewage. At the height of summer, it's absolutely the worst. The folks downwind from the plant, though, just got sort of used to it and forgot about it, even in August. One's smell preceptors, it seems, become overloaded and blocked eventually.

So anyway, I fear that my students' horror preceptors are overloaded and blocked and the significance of Catch-22 will sail right past them.