Saturday, October 22, 2016

Catch-22 and degrees of evil

Yesterday when my American Novel class discussed the final section of Catch-22, a clever student wanted to know who is more evil, Aarfy or Milo. 

What a great question. That's the kind of question that reminds me why I love my job, because where else can intelligent adults conduct a rational discussion of degrees of evil without tearing out each other's throats?

We batted the question around for a while before another student chimed in thus: "Aarfy is micro-evil, but Milo is macro-evil."

Lightbulbs go off over heads all over class. It's a satisfying answer, as far as it goes: Aarfy, whose most memorable line is "I only raped her once," is personally responsible for an inexcusable act of evil, while Milo operates the syndicate that makes possible multiple acts of evil, a machine blithely grinding up human sacrifices while Milo stands with clean hands in the background denying responsibility. In fact, Milo's insistence that he is only doing his job and following orders echoes the defense commonly used by Nazi war criminals.

But then why is Milo so much more likable than Aarfy? Milo is certainly responsible for more pain and suffering than Aarfy is, but somehow he remains a compelling character. Charming, even. A charismatic leader whose ability to make a profit allows him to get away with all kinds of corrupt schemes. Milo is the embodiment of Catch-22: he has the right to do anything we can't stop him from doing. So does this make macro-evil more forgivable than micro-evil? Or does it suggest that macro-evil feeds on its ability to charm the rest of us into submission?

And then let's think about Aarfy: after he rapes a woman and pushes her out the window to her death, why doesn't he get arrested? Is it simply because he exists within the system created by Milo? Aarfy is a small but necessary cog in Milo's machine, which suggests that even an single act of micro-evil is dependent upon the existence of a larger system of macro-evil that turns a blind eye to individual peccadilloes.

In other words, it's complicated. There's enough evil oozing through the book to taint just about everyone to some degree. Which is why in the end the only way out is to jump.    


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