“How are you?”
So many people describe their lives like that . . . Do you?
We live in a multi-tasking, 24/7, always connected, always available, world – we feel dragged this way and that by so many competing and compelling calls on our attention.
This makes it hard to find time for the personal reflections that enable us to keep developing as people.
If we are not careful, our busy lifestyles will turn us into puppets.
It is easy to fall into the trap of thinking that what we are going through is new.
Sure, much of the technology we use is new, but the way we experience our lives is not new – just read literature from 100 or 2,000 years ago and you will be surprised to notice that they felt about their lives in much the same way as we do today. Like us, people in the past had to deal with issues such as busyness, rapid change, massive change, war, famine, chronic stress, economic depression, conflict, love, relationships, family conflict . . . the list goes on.
We can learn a lot from the past by studying History, but we don’t get a personal perspective on life by reading History textbooks! To be able to learn from the past we need to supplement our non-fiction reading with fiction such as novels, plays and poetry – otherwise we are destined to repeat the mistakes of the past.
The High Performance Learning Literary Club has just finished an extensive study of Joseph Heller’s classic 1961 novel ‘Catch-22’, and the excellent 1970 movie of the same name, over 10 meetings. It was amazing to notice how relevant it was to many of the issues we are facing today. By the end of our study we were all delighted by how much more we got out of the novel by such deep reading.
Reading the novel collaboratively added an extra dimension to the reading process – that is why it is so important to share the books you read so you can discuss them with other people – the power of collaborative reading makes it so much easier to unearth the gems in a novel.
Heller set ‘Catch-22’ in a US bomber squadron based in Italy in World War II – the plot parallels Heller’s own experiences of the war. He wrote the book in the 1950s, during the early stages of the Cold War between the USSR and the US, and he witnessed the McCarthy era where writers, artists and journalists could be accused of being communists and were found guilty if they couldn’t prove they were not communists – could you prove you are not a communist? Do you even know exactly what a communist is? He also witnessed the escalating arms race with nuclear weapons of mass destruction.
Relating the Novel ‘Catch-22’ to Life Today
As an example of how reading fiction can help us understand our own times, here are some of the issues raised by Heller which have relevance to our lives today:
Theme 1: The Experience of War
More American soldiers have committed suicide after serving in wars such as Vietnam, Iraq and Afghanistan than died in combat during those wars. Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) is now considered a real thing. In World War I it was called ‘shell shock’. Before then it was not considered a disorder – the people concerned were blamed for not coping.
Heller gives us a first-hand experience of PTSD – most people get really unsettled reading the book as a result. Heller forces us to live in a soldier’s mind and so makes it easier for us to empathise with soldiers we send overseas to fight on our behalf – so we don’t forget that they are people who are doing our dirty work for us.
Theme 2: Terrorism and Weapons of Mass Destruction
Terrorism is not new. The US used the terrorism of dropping two nuclear bombs on non-military targets in Japan at a time when Japan was about to surrender anyway. Earlier, both sides in the war had bombed many civilian targets. Similarly, weapons of mass destruction are not new – most countries in the world spend billions of dollars on new technology to make better weapons. Historically such weapons have included machine guns, tanks, nuclear missiles, chemical weapons, biological weapons, or malicious software attacks.
You can get an idea of the escalation of weaponry that Heller was witnessing while writing ‘Catch-22’ from these videos:
MOAB – The Mother Of All Bombs – one of the largest non-nuclear bombs -11 tons of pure explosive power. Watch this and compare it to the Hiroshima bomb which was about 13,000 ton yield.
National Geographic:-24 Hours After Hiroshima – To view this video you need to go to https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=v-MkyG7BhQ8&list=PLcJpLR4E-ICLyq7fa4Mjkh5ZiFv03lRai&index=1
Castle Bravo was the code name of the first test by the United States, of a dry fuel thermonuclear hydrogen bomb in 1954, on Nam Island in the Bikini Atoll in the Marshall Islands. Expected to yield 5,000 tons, the device yielded 15,000 tons at detonation, causing accidental widespread radioactive contamination. It also led to military personnel, islanders, and the crew of a Japanese fishing boat, being rained on, and exposed to radioactive fallout from the dust plume which even reached Australia. Castle Bravo is the worst radiological disaster in US history. To view this video you need to go to https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=uFY5k_3BInk
The Deadly Miscalculation at Castle Bravo: A short documentary describing the miscalcuation at hydrogen bomb test Castle Bravo that led to the largest radiological accident in U.S. history. To view this video you need to go to https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=b5tmkna-k-U
First Soviet hydrogen bomb test (1953) – To view this video you need to go to https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=eQo2tncyn58
There are no nuclear weapons in Catch-22, but Heller was obviously horrified by the dropping of the bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and the subsequent testing and arms build up after the war that he fought what was meant to end major wars. After risking his life countless times following patriotic ideals, he was confronted after the war with hidden aspects of war that he brings out in so many different ways in the novel. As a bombardier in WWII, Heller understood the devastation caused by the sixty bombing missions he flew. ‘Catch-22’ chronicles the impact of such mass destruction on civilians, both physically and psychologically. We see senseless bombing of non-military targets, and we see Italian women forced into sex-work by the dislocation within their society caused by the US and German invasions. This is very confronting to us – the readers – a purely historical account of such events sounds much more sanitised than the personal contact we have with individuals in the novel.
Theme 3: Surveillance
Countries have always had secret police and spies. In the 21st Century however, surveillance has been extended to constant monitoring of phone calls, emails, web-use, credit card transactions etc. by governments and big business. Most public areas are now monitored by close circuit TV, and members of the public are videoing many things with their phones. The extent of the monitoring has been kept secret but whistleblowers such as Bradley Manning and Edward Snowden have risked their lives to bring it to our attention.
Here are some articles you might like to read:
Surveillance is mentioned many times during the novel – from monitoring of personal mail to secret investigations, interrogations and kidnapping of ‘trouble makers’ in the army. Heller was well aware of the various intelligence organisations in the US after WWII and their part in the McCarthy witch hunts for people who dissented about the US Cold War policies and has put many oblique references to them in his book. Other fiction writers of the time such as Ray Bradbury, Aldous Huxley and George Orwell addressed the theme of surveillance in their novels.
‘In 1984, George Orwell imagined a world in which surveillance technology was used only by dictators. What he didn’t anticipate was society’s willing integration of private information with commerce,’
writes Peter Marks – read more here.
Theme 4: Whistleblowing
Australian Brendan Jones, a military software engineer and Defence Department whistleblower says,
‘The only thing worse than a corrupt society is one that harms the only people brave enough to report it.’
Yossarian, the main character of ‘Catch-22’ is Heller’s whistleblower. To draw attention to the corrupt leadership and bureaucracy, as well as the commercialisation of the war by business interests, Yossarian eventually refuses to wear his uniform and go around nude in the Air Force base. In a particularly surreal twist, his commanding officers ignore his nudity and attempt to buy him off by sending him home – provided he agrees to give the officers good publicity when he gets there.
Theme 5: The Power of Language and the Language of Power
The word and concept ‘Catch-22’ was invented by Joseph Heller. The concept has had such an impact on our society that it is now in the dictionary and in common use in English and other languages. As Professor Alex Cummings writes, before being elected, President Obama
‘promised to roll back the worst abuses of the Bush administration, including the use of “enhanced interrogation” (ie: torture), indefinite detention, and the expansion of surveillance under the PATRIOT Act. Obama’s campaign promised the “most transparent” administration in American history. Little did progressives realise that they would get a president who went beyond Bush in trampling on civil and human rights. The signs, however, were there. Shortly after clinching the Democratic nomination in the summer of 2008, Obama embraced a legislative compromise that let major telecom companies like AT&T off the hook for violating consumers’ privacy when they co-operated with the Bush administration in vast, warrantless surveillance. At the time, political observers believed that Obama was simply being pragmatic, tacking to the centre in order to win the White House.’
This sounds like a case of Catch-22? Read more here.
The novel ‘Catch-22’ is Joseph Heller’s attempt to use fiction to raise issues like the themes discussed above so that people will engage with these issues more deeply. At the start of the novel, the word ‘Catch-22’ is the rule about madness and military service:
If you ask to get out of the war on the grounds of madness then you can’t be sent home because you can’t possibly be mad – it would be mad not to ask to go home. If you don’t ask however, you won’t be sent home.
As the novel progresses we are confronted with many such paradoxes – by the end of the book Heller clarifies how the paradoxes work –
those with the most power make the rules to suit themselves.
Fail to understand this truth at your own peril.
Deep Comprehension – Taking the Time to Think
Reading without good comprehension is not reading!
As you can see from the above examination of Joseph Heller’s ‘Catch-22’, just reading the novel for the ‘story’ misses the point. The story is carrying a lot of indirect information which can be unearthed by conversations with others as well as wider non-fiction reading – to help us understand the issues being raised more deeply.
Studying English Literature in Senior High School is an ideal place to get started with this approach to deep reading. Then join a book club, or discuss the novels you read with your friends.
Most importantly, give reading and discussing fiction a high priority in your lifestyle – never say you are too busy to read novels. And take the time to research the author and some of the issues being raised more widely before, during and after reading the novel – Wikipedia is a great starting point for doing this.
High Performance Learning
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