Wednesday, October 05, 2016

Hollow men, hollow words, and the walking wounded on the syllabus

Thanks to a harmonic convergence of syllabi, I'm currently teaching Cold Mountain in one class while teaching Catch-22 in another, bobbling back and forth between Charles Frazier's elegant but gruesome portrayal of the horrors of the Civil War and Joseph Heller's comic evisceration of mindless bureaucracy set during World War II (but written in the Cold War era). Some days I don't know whether to laugh or cry.

Different as they are in tone, the two novels share more characteristics than you might think. Both include hollow men--in fact, T.S. Eliot's name makes a brief appearance in Catch-22, which also features a wounded soldier totally encased in bandages, a man reduced to a hollow shell. In Cold Mountain, Inman fears that the brutalities of war have reamed him out: 
[H]is spirit, it seemed, had been about burned out of him but he was yet walking. Feeling empty, however, as the core of a big black-gum tree....It seemed a poor swap to find that the only way one might keep from fearing death was to act numb and set apart as if dead already, with nothing much left of yourself but a hut of bones.
Yossarian feels similarly reamed out after the death of Snowden, an event that sends him into the world naked and defenseless--literally. His nakedness sets him apart from the human community just as Inman fears his inner emptiness dooms him to eternal exile.

In addition to hollow men, both novels deal with hollow words. Frazier offers a bloody reality check to the jingoistic rhetoric of characters like Mrs. McKennet, who "found the fighting glorious and tragic and heroic. Noble beyond all her powers of expression," and on the Quixotic dreams of Solomon Veasey, whose belief in his ability to pursue impossible dreams endangers everyone he encounters and cannot survive the realities of war.

While Frazier subtly undermines empty rhetoric, Heller attacks language directly, starting in the opening chapter when Yossarian, tasked with censoring enlisted men's letters home, assuages his boredom by declaring war first on modifiers then on articles then on meaning itself. Catch-22 could serve as a manual of logical fallacies, repeatedly featuring messages that devolve into tautology and circular reasoning, such as when Colonel Cargill says, "You're all American officers. The officers of no other army in the world can make that statement,"  or when General Dreedle declares that "[s]hooting skeet eight hours a month was excellent training for them. It trained them to shoot skeet."

The premier example of the self-consuming circularity of language, however, occurs in Doc Daneeka's explanation of the greatest catch of all, catch-22: "Anyone who wants to get out of combat duty isn't really crazy." In other words, "Orr would be crazy to fly more missions and sane if he didn't, but if he was sane he had to fly them. If he flew them he was crazy and didn't have to; but if he didn't want to he was sane and had to." Here as elsewhere, circular language ties characters up in knots, offering no way out except an escape from rationality.

I laugh every day while preparing to teach Catch-22, but it's a bitter laugh teetering on the edge of despair. I sometimes laugh at Cold Mountain too--at Veasey's ridiculous vision of himself as a Texas cattle baron, for example, or at Ruby's remarkable creation story involving a woman being raped by a great blue heron--but those brief comic moments offer rare contrast to the elegiac tone of the novel, its scenes of bodies being disassembled in the most cruel and vicious ways.

But I love both novels beyond reason. I don't love war or despair or meaninglessness or brutality, but I love the way these novels push readers to the edge of the abyss and make us peer down at the depths to which humanity can fall--but the novels don't leave us dangling over the abyss. Instead, they build a bridge to the other side.    

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