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Monday, September 12, 2022

September 12, 2022: War is Hella Funny: Catch-22

[50 years ago this coming weekend, the pilot episode of M*A*S*H aired. So in honor of that ground-breaking sitcom, this week I’ll AmericanStudy wartime comedies in various media, leading up to a special post on M*A*S*H!]

On one success and one failure in Joseph Heller’s famous wartime satire.

First, a little blog inside baseball that is most definitely relevant for approaching (and responding to) this post: I’ve read Catch-22 (1961)—not just the novel as a whole, but even any excerpts or sections—precisely once, as a junior in high school (for pleasure, ‘cause I was just that AmericanStudies nerdy). I enjoyed it, and even laughed out loud a few times (which is very rare for me as a reader). But I don’t remember many specific things about it from that reading experience (that is, I certainly know plenty of particular lines and moments, including the famous definition of the titular phrase, from general popular consciousness, but have very few memories derived from my own engagement with the novel). I say that to make clear that, as is always the case but doubly so for a post like this, I greatly welcome disagreements or challenges to my ideas here (which you can share in comments below; if you’ve read Heller’s Something Happened [1974] you’ll understand why I’m being so parentheses-happy in this post).

Heller was far from the first satirist to engage with war as his subject—in American literary history Ambrose Bierce stands out as an ancestor to be sure—but I would say his focus on World War II in particular makes his book quite surprising and groundbreaking nonetheless. As I argued in both this post on the film The Best Years of Our Lives (1946) and this one on the Dresden firebombing, there’s long (if not always) been a sacredness to the way we approach and remember World War II, a sense that this truly was a “good war” that can’t be challenged or critiqued in the same ways that most such conflicts can and should. But the vital truth is that, whatever the more noble sides to the war (and I’m not for a second disputing their presence), it also featured all of the horrors and, perhaps even more tellingly, all of the absurdities that are inevitably part of such historical events and periods. I can’t help but think that it was precisely this multi-layered and somewhat contradictory reality which caused Heller to take so long to complete his World War II satire—he apparently began writing it in 1953 and didn’t publish until eight years later—but we’re all eternally lucky that he was eventually able to do so.

No cultural work is perfect, of course, and thus none is above criticism (concepts with which I’m quite sure Heller would agree). In this case, I would say that the portrayal of women in Catch-22 is ultimately unsuccessful, and perhaps even troubling. Of course the soldiers who form the book’s main characters are all male, as was the historical reality of the US armed forces in that era. But does Heller does bring in a female character in a crucial role—the Italian maid Michaela, whom main character “Aarfy” Aardvark rapes and murders while on leave in Rome. This isn’t Aarfy’s first such sexual violence, either, as he has earlier in the novel told a story of raping two young girls at his college fraternity house. Rape and sexual violence are certainly part of war, and including them does represent another way in which Heller complicates the “good war” iconography. But to my mind (and again, I welcome challenges!), Heller uses Michaela entirely as a device for plot and symbolism, to both reveal things about Aarfy and establish additional absurdities (such as Aarfy’s famous line, “But I only raped her once!” when Yossarian notes that he will be arrested for his crimes). Too often wartime storytelling has featured women in only flat and problematic ways, and I don’t think Heller’s brilliant book escapes that pitfall.

Next wartime comedy tomorrow,


PS. What do you think? Other wartime comedies you’d highlight?

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