While the Great War soldiers marched off to the recruiting stations eagerly, World War II prompted a somewhat different reaction. Soldiers in the Second World War were less enthusiastic than their predecessors but resigned to the necessity of the endeavor, and most of them already understood that there is nothing glorious about war. Afterward, many of the authors who wrote about World War II were intent upon using the battlefield experience as a means of exploring issues of individuality and community in a modern mass culture. Their concern about such matters has its roots in the years between the wars, during which these soldiers and authors came to maturity. The years between the two world wars were marked by extremes, as evidenced by the popular appellations given to the two most frequently discussed periods of that span: the Roaring Twenties and the Great Depression. The political tone of the 1920s was conservative and pro-business. Calvin Coolidge stated the prevailing view succinctly when he said, "The business of America is business" (Shannon 39). The successive Republican administrations were clearly much more interested in the concerns of big business, of large corporations than the needs of individuals such as factory workers and farmers. The fabled exuberance of the era, despite Prohibition, was largely restricted to urbanites and only a fortunate few of those. Rural dwellers did not fare as well but, nonetheless, generally supported the Republican, conservative political tickets. At the same time, the prodigalities of the jazz age and the subsequent failures of capitalism that resulted in the 1929 stock market crash rendered socialistic ideas palatable to many intellectuals and workers alike. Yet, as Gerald W. Johnson points out, despite the depression Americans were not ready to give up on capitalism. Instead, in 1932 they opted for Franklin D. Roosevelt and his New Dealers, who offered an alternative to "jumping all the way into Socialism or Communism" (168).
Roosevelt's New Deal was never entirely successful, yet he never lost voter support. His candidacy was opposed by the majority of the press each time he ran (60 percent of the dailies opposed him in 1932, 63 percent in 1936, and 75 percent in 1940), but the people kept re-electing him (Shannon 211). Historian David A. Shannon maintains that Roosevelt "was willing to modify traditional relationships between government and privately owned economic enterprise in the interest of the general welfare, but he clearly was no opponent of capitalism as such" (150). Most historians consider that it took the Second World War to bring about the total rehabilitation of the American economy. Eventually, the rise of fascism in Germany and Italy and the excesses of Stalin in communist Russia served to fuel the fires of American nationalism and douse the fervor of socialist dreamers. Chester E. Eisinger holds that the 1939 Nazi-Soviet Pact "signaled the failure, nay the death, of Marxism in this country, a Marxism that had nourished social idealists of the non-Communist left as well as party members" (3).
By the time the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor occurred, Roosevelt and many Americans were already resigned to and saw the necessity of their country's ultimate involvement in World War II (Shannon 215). In September, 1940, in the midst of a Presidential election campaign, Roosevelt signed into law the first ever peacetime draft measure. Still, he was re-elected for a third term. The mechanized, powerfully destructive nature of warfare itself was well-known by that time and came as a surprise to no one, and thanks to the writers of the Great War, illusions of heroism and glory were virtually non-existent. Unlike the World War I combatants, the soldiers entering the second conflict did so with their eyes open and with a unity of purpose (Shannon 242). Clearly, the future of American democracy was hanging in the balance. According to Arthur A. Ekirch, Jr., the lack of any real opposition to the war accounts for "the improved record of the government in the matter of civil liberties as compared with World War I. . . . The sensational raids and vindictive prosecutions of World War I were avoided" (307). Of course, the notable exception to this was the internment of the west coast Japanese Americans. Nonetheless, governmental power over the individual was greatly expanded during the war, most notably through the draft, rationing, and price controls (Ekirch 309). When the fighting was over, Johnson observes, the "satisfaction" these soldiers took in their victory "was profound but, to one who can remember the delirium of 1918, remarkably sober. Joy, gratification, pride were all present, but not much exultation. The dominant emotion of the time was profound relief" (228).
No American of the forties could escape the war experience, whether on the front lines or the home front, and the three novelists I will discuss in this chapter--Norman Mailer, James Jones, and Joseph Heller--were all combatants. John W. Aldridge argues that the writers of the forties and fifties found that "modern life is still basically purposeless, that the typical condition of modern man is still doubt, confusion, and fear." These writers differ from the "Lost Generation" authors, though, in that they have always known life to be so; thus, "they can write of it from neither the perspective of protest nor that of disillusionment and loss" (After 90). Peter Aichinger points out that Americans participated in the Second World War with "a spirit of glum resignation." They saw it as a job that had to be done before they could return to their accustomed civilian lives. Aichinger writes, "If the attitude of the American soldier in World War I was informed with the classic American attribute of idealism, that of the World War II soldier was marked chiefly by the other familiar American characteristics of pragmatism and realism" (34). These soldiers and all Americans of their generation had grown up during the depression and news of strikes, riots, revolutions, and unrest--both foreign and domestic--had been their daily fare. The crusading spirit was not theirs.
Out of the chaos which is war came a great ordering of society. Necessarily, the military was supremely ordered and disciplined, but such order spilled over into civilian life. Even after the war it continued as the Cold War began and the threat of Communism moved the country as a whole to the right, "in the name of national survival" (Eisinger 7-8). Military budgets remained high, never returning to pre-war levels, and the political influence of the military flourished in the atmosphere of perpetual crisis (Ekirch 323-27). The American traditional ideal of individuality was greatly diminished by the war and post-war conditions. People began to feel anonymous, insignificant, and pressured to conform. Edmond L. Volpe contends that the works of writers such as Mailer and Jones were reactions, in different ways, to this threat to individuality (106-07). Donald Pizer argues that the "extermination camps, the atom bomb, the cold war in Europe and hot war in Korea, the McCarthy witch hunts . . . all contributed to a sense of malaise, of individual values and freedoms under immense pressure" (86). Even as America was entering the war in 1941, Erich Fromm was warning of the dangers to individuality and freedom that modern society presents. He maintains that modern industrial society produces personalities that feel "powerless and alone, anxious and insecure" and fosters the "tendency to conform" (240-41). Moreover, shortly after the war, in her analysis of modern mass society, The Origins of Totalitarianism, philosopher and political theorist Hannah Arendt argues that the very existence of totalitarianism requires "atomized, isolated individuals" (323).
In their novels, American authors approached the Second World War from many different angles. The Young Lions (1948), Irwin Shaw's allegorical depiction of the war, features a strong statement against anti-Semitism, while And Then We Heard the Thunder (1962, 1983) by John Oliver Killens focuses on the struggles of African American soldiers during World War II. Killens' novel stands as a call for black unity in the face of segregation, prejudice, and hate. The War Lover (1959) by John Hersey is a Freudian psychological novel which tries to understand the psyche of Buzz Marrow, a man who loves war. Set in occupied Italy in 1944, John Horne Burns's The Gallery (1947) contrasts Old World culture and values with the corrupt values of materialistic American culture. The novels I will discuss are some of the most notable novels that have come out of World War II. They were chosen because they all treat the war as an analogy for the world at large and address the threats to individuality posed by mass culture. The four that I will consider in this chapter were published from 1948 to 1962. Norman Mailer's The Naked and the Dead came first in 1948, followed by James Jones's From Here to Eternity in 1953. Joseph Heller's Catch-22 came out in 1961 and The Thin Red Line by Jones in 1962.
The Naked and the Dead was Mailer's first novel. In it we will find that he has depicted a completely naturalistic universe for his characters to inhabit. The critics are generally agreed that the men of Recon platoon and their officers live lives filled with futility and impotence, looking for self-knowledge and power but rarely finding them. Their lives are ruled by chance, and their characters are shaped by the forces of social determinism. I will argue that beset by ennui, horror, and dejection, the soldiers are still able to hope, and some even rise above themselves to serve another in need. Therefore, Mailer leaves readers with some small sense of redemption for the individual in an absurd universe. In the war novels of James Jones, we will see a bleaker outlook for the future of human beings than that found in Mailer's novel. The critics and I agree that Jones's novels are naturalistic and that the individual is ultimately depicted as completely insignificant. Some call the depiction of Prewitt in From Here to Eternity a romantic portrait. That seems substantially correct to me, but additionally, I will argue that Prewitt, in being true to himself, achieves a sort of existential good faith. Moreover, I will show that individual integrity is important to Jones in Eternity, but the achievement of it is rare and potentially fatal. Furthermore, I will contend that in The Thin Red Line self-assertion replaces self-knowledge as a goal, and nobody comes out a winner. Joseph Heller's Catch-22, on the other hand, offers a starkly contrasting vision. Critics, with good reason, have ranked Catch-22 with the literature of the absurd and have also referred to it as social surrealism and as a romance-parody. I will maintain that it is also an existential novel. Heller's world is filled with just as much evil and even more absurdity than the worlds of Mailer and Jones. But, in my opinion Heller holds out hope for the individual with an existential response to a dehumanizing world--a response that is an affirmation of the free individual and a call for responsible freedom.
Norman Mailer enlisted in the U.S. Army in 1944 after graduating from Harvard. His expressed intent was to garner the necessary experience to enable him to write the best American novel about World War II. He subsequently served in the Pacific theater and took part in the invasion of Luzon. The offspring of those military experiences is Mailer's first novel, The Naked and the Dead, and some critics feel that it is indeed the best of the Second World War novels. The Naked and the Dead is widely recognized as having been written in the naturalistic tradition, which is true, but I will argue that in the depictions of Goldstein and Ridges, Mailer leaves us with a sense that even in a meaningless world there is a place for positive values and positive action based on those values. Stanley T. Gutman asserts that "the antagonistic relationship between men and the natural world, a world Mailer consistently portrays as powerful, harsh, alien, and impenetrable," is invariably in the foreground in the novel (6). Gutman sees evidence of determinism in all Mailer's later novels, but insists that only his first "uses naturalism to emphasize social determinism" with "a continuing accretion of detail which builds to a realization of the ponderous and pervasive power of circumstance in affecting human character and destiny" (12). Robert Ehrlich concurs with this opinion, finding that the individual is "almost completely weighed down by the effects of his environment" (14)--so much so, that individuals have little, if any, hope of overcoming past influences that have shaped them (21). Furthermore, Randall H. Waldron believes that the final pages of the novel "leave the definite impression of man lost, helpless, passive in the grip of the anonymity and meaninglessness of modern life" (277). He sees the novel's central conflict as a struggle between "the will to individual integrity" and the depersonalizing, deterministic forces of modern life (273). Other critics, while acknowledging the naturalism of the novel, have noted intimations of movement toward the existential ideas that are evident in Mailer's later novels. Raymond J. Wilson III, for one, remarks the paradoxical combination in The Naked and the Dead of a "pessimistic naturalism" with an emergent existentialism "containing a strong element of hope" (164). The existential tendencies of the novel, referred to by Wilson and others, are well worth considering.
Laura Adams is typical of critics who identify the naturalism and incipient existentialism of The Naked and the Dead but overlook the ethical dimensions I will identify. Adams sees Lieutenant Hearn's death in the novel as naturalistic and describes him as one whose "youthful idealism" has turned to "naturalistic cynicism" in the war, as one who "hasn't quite become an existentialist" (38). She speaks of Mailer's existentialism as "rudimentary"(30), as "seeds" planted in a novel with a naturalistic tone. Adams argues that in his later work "Mailer's move from this uneasy naturalism to existentialism lies in his coming to believe that an individual must assume responsibility for his own destiny, and that God depends on the outcome of human action" (38). I will show that Mailer approaches this very belief in The Naked and the Dead in the persons of Goldstein and Ridges.
Other critics identify themes and stylistic elements in the novel that reflect typical existential viewpoints. Ihab Hassan finds that in the novel's portrayal of the war, "absurdity prevails" and "anxiety" is dramatized ( Encounter 93). Norman Podhoretz sees a power struggle between men "driven by a hunger for absolute freedom," for "spiritual independence" and the combined forces of nature and the army, both impersonal, powerful, and evil (180, 182). More recently, Robert Merrill calls this a struggle with "the 'other' which because it resists [man's] control must be molded to serve his will" (Mailer 37). But Merrill, in contrast to Podhoretz, argues that "for Mailer the movement of man through history is an ongoing struggle between the bestial and visionary forces in man himself" (Mailer 38), which, of course, echoes a Nietzschean point of view.(1) Donald Pizer sums up the novel, saying that The Naked and the Dead is "the human condition in all its absurdity as viewed by a 1950s existentialist" (92). Pizer contends that the various characters, Hearn, Valsen, Croft, Ridges, and Goldstein, in particular, are all seeking "self-knowledge," whether consciously or not (105-10). He concludes,
Croft in his journey into self had found a frustrating limit to his power; Ridges and Goldstein in their journey discover the emptiness and hopelessness of their struggle through life. But despite the devastating nature of this self-knowledge, it nevertheless is self-knowledge. Man can face the outer edges of experience and of himself and seek to strike through, in exhaustion and rage, to the truth about himself and life; he can attempt to be a seer. And if this knowledge reveals the existential truth of the amoral emptiness of life, it also affirms and endorses the existential morality of the honest and concrete testing of the limits of life and of self, whatever the cost. (110)Furthermore, Regis T. Sabol points out the existential nature of Ridges' and Goldstein's ordeal: "They carry Wilson because his burden defines their existence much as Sisyphus' burden defines his existence, much as the burden that all humankind must carry defines our existence" (91). This is true, and I will further maintain that their act is the redeeming element of the novel. Finally, Robert Solotaroff discloses a Nietzschean thread in the novel. General Cummings, he writes, "posits the will to power as the monism through whose thrustings all human activities can eventually be explained. . . . this is straight Nietzsche. . . . The general's conception of the highest expression of the will to power is the control of others" (16).
More specifically, the existential themes of power and control have often captured the critics' attention. Andrew Gordon says that power and control are used more often than any other words in the novel (61). Hassan sees the world of The Naked and the Dead as "a dying world" ruled by "power and fear" (Encounter 94). General Cummings and Sergeant Croft, of course, are the embodiment of the will to power in Mailer's tale, and Podhoretz has pointed out the dual powers, nature and the army, that the men struggle against (180). Pizer contends that the "major themes" of The Naked and the Dead are the "nature of power and the nature of the self in relation to power, with the first theme dominating 'Argil and Mold' and the second 'Plant and Phantom.'" (95). We have seen that World War I was widely viewed by post-war authors as a catastrophe and a breakdown of civilization. On the other hand, according to John M. Muste, "the important novelists of World War II (and this is one of their distinctions) have tended to see the [Second World War] as a natural outgrowth of modern civilization and culture, not as an aberration. This view is implicit in The Naked and the Dead" (Question 373). The war was recognized as purely a power struggle and a violent one at that. Muste argues that
Mailer's point is one which seems not to have occurred to the writers of the twenties: there is violence in man which civilization has not found the means to eradicate, and there is violence in American society which the genteel tradition in which Hemingway, Dos Passos, and Cummings had grown up tried to eliminate by pretending it did not exist. (Question 370)Gordon sums up The Naked and the Dead as a novel in which "the central psychological conflict . . . is the struggle for power and control over the self and over outside objects, an effort that is doomed again and again to humiliating failure" (70). In fact, he says, after power and control "the terms next highest in frequency" of use in the novel are "impotent rage and failure" (61-62).
Recognizing the same impotence and failure that Gordon notes, one of the earliest critics of the novel, John W. Aldridge, sets the tone for many to follow when he writes, Mailer's "'Time Machine' portraits show us merely that the lives of the men were more purposeless and futile before the war than they can possibly be made as a result of the war" (After 135-36). The overall effect of the contrast between the portraits from the past and the present wartime scenes is to intensify the novel's mood of anomie, hopelessness, and meaninglessness, showing that the futility that the men feel began long before the war and is characteristic of the culture as a whole, not just of men at war. Chester Eisinger adds that the "dominant view of experience here is that an over-all futility marks man's every effort" (37). David F. Burg discusses the soldiers' "fateful sense of life's emptiness" (398), and Jean Radford judges the journeys of the litter-bearers and of Croft's mountain-climbing party to be "objectively, futile" (14). The sense of futility in the novel is ubiquitous and Waldron, as we have already seen, observes that "the final scenes leave the definite impression of man lost, helpless" (277). Finally, Gordon argues that the "novel recreates in the reader the sense of impotent rage and helplessness of the child struggling for autonomy and failing" (71). Nonetheless, despite the pervasiveness of images of futility, impotence, and meaninglessness in the novel, some critics have detected elements of hope.
Aldridge feels that Mailer's soldiers, even before the war, "have no dignity, no hope of life" (After 136), which reflects the larger social concern of the novel, that modern industrial society is dehumanizing. Yet, Burg, while recognizing feelings of hopelessness in the men, detects a fundamental truth revealed by the novel--"that all things end as they began in an ever-recurring cycle" (398-99). Burg points out that the men "move beyond despair," deciding instead to laugh and sing "Roll me over in the clover." He concludes that "Life is simply a roundelay" (399-400). The realization that each end is a new beginning is the realization of hope, and the greatest failure is to not discover this truth. Burg writes,
Mt. Anaka, as Mailer told us, symbolizes fate, death, the creative urge. Its meaning is precisely the same as the meaning of Sisyphus' fate. . . . The meaning of Sisyphus' fate is not entirely dependent upon its repetitiveness. He knows eternity after his first climb and return. To learn the truth once is to know it for all time. Croft's greatest failure is unawareness. The truth evades him. (399)The discovery of such truth is part of the dawning self-knowledge that Pizer sees in some characters, such as Valsen and Goldstein (105, 110). Raymond J. Wilson III argues that The Naked and the Dead "presents a complex interaction of opposites: pessimistic naturalism forming the backdrop for the emergence of existential assumptions containing a strong element of hope." For Wilson, this hope rests in the ability of one to regain the freedom he or she has freely given up in the pursuit of the "unrealistic American myth of success" (164). I believe Wilson overstates the case somewhat when he says "strong element of hope"; the men sometimes evince hope, but dejection is a more common emotion. Mailer, like the Great War authors before him, uses the experiences of soldiers, all of whom have their moments of frustration, their feelings of futility and impotence, to explore the crisis of individuality in modern industrial society and to ponder the implications for the future. The question, then, is, which characters have lost their freedom and been overwhelmed by life and which have demonstrated some form of existential heroism or validation by arriving at the freedom of self-knowledge and a realization of hope through communal concern? Indeed, can any of the characters in The Naked and the Dead be said to have consummated a meaningful act or to have established his individuality?
General Cummings is, arguably, the most fully drawn character in Mailer's novel. In the General, we can see manifested Mailer's deepest concerns about the shape the future will take. Cummings is an arch-conservative, Eisinger calls him a "proto-Fascist" (35), with distinct ideas about the direction of history. He firmly believes that the future belongs to the reactionary right and that "the only morality of the future is a power morality" (323). Solotaroff, we have seen, identifies Nietzsche as the source for the General's ideas about power (16-17). Power is the love of his life, and individual human beings are no more than chess pieces to be manipulated in his quest to satisfy his need. He became aware of his hunger for power when he was a junior officer in World War I. As he witnessed, from the safety of the command bunker, his first battle unfold before his eyes, he was struck by the power of the commander, and thought, "There were things one could do" (415). Cummings conveys this conviction more completely when, in a fit of ecstasy, he contemplates the ramifications of firing an artillery piece one night.
He dwelt pleasurably in many-webbed layers of complexity. The troops out in the jungle were disposed from the patterns in his mind, and yet at this moment he was living on many levels at once; in firing the gun he was a part of himself. All the roaring complex of odors and sounds and sights, multiplied and remultiplied by all the guns of the division, was contained in a few cells of his head, the faintest crease of his brain. All of it, all the violence, the dark co-ordination had sprung from his mind. In the night, at that moment, he felt such power that it was beyond joy; he was calm and sober. (566-67)He revels in the belief that his mind is the seat of all power and control on the island. However, the opposing General, General Toyaku, has a good deal of power also, as does nature, which even Cummings cannot control.
Cummings feels a certain affinity with nature, in the form of Mount Anaka. Indulging a mystical mood, he thinks, "the mountain and he understood each other. Both of them, from necessity, were bleak and alone, commanding the heights" (563). Yet, in reality this affinity is nothing more than a human conceit, for we are early told that the naval "bombardment was insignificant before" the mountain (20), and that in the initial phases of the campaign, "the jungle was easily the General's worst opponent" (44). Furthermore, the General's efforts to tame nature by improving the headquarters' bivouac are all laid to waste in a matter of minutes by a sudden tropical storm (106). The implacability and power of nature confronts the reader throughout the novel as Mailer paints a stark contrast between its power and human striving for power and control. Still, the General's striving is unabated by nature's indifferent opposition.
In his quest to achieve his ends, the General dons different "personality garment[s]," as Lieutenant Hearn puts it. He assumes various poses to appear to be the man any particular audience expects him to be (81). The degree to which this is calculated or to which it is instinctive is unclear, but it is consistent with his notion of individualism, which is extremely self-centered and calculated. He says, "The trick is to make yourself an instrument of your own policy. Whether you like it or not, that's the highest effectiveness man has achieved" (82). For him, equality is a myth, for the "average man always sees himself in relation to other men as either inferior or superior" (322). He sees the Army as one vast "fear ladder" that "functions best when you're frightened of the man above you, and contemptuous of your subordinates" (176). But he does not stop there. The twentieth-century world is driven by "machine techniques," he says, and this requires "consolidation" and a civilian version of the "fear ladder" because most men must be "subservient to the machine, and it's not a business they instinctively enjoy" (177). Mailer, writing immediately after the war, can see the direction in which the United States is headed--and has been headed for some time, judging from the downtrodden people depicted in his "Time Machine" portraits. General Cummings, as the most outspoken representative of that direction in the novel, can be seen as a sort of cautionary tale. Cummings aspires to be a Nietzschean Superman, but despite Mailer's ostensible existentialism, Mailer does not appear to favor the Superman concept. He clearly shows the limits of the General's power, leaving readers of a more altruistic temperament some hope for the future.
As we have seen, the power of nature can overwhelm and ignore human pretensions to power. However, the General finds that nature is not the only source of his uneasiness nor the only thing thwarting his aims. Cummings believes in order in everything. In all aspects of life, he maintains that you can "always find a pattern if you looked for it" (401). His firm conviction is that "In the final analysis there was only necessity and one's own reactions to it" (402). However, for all his order and attempts at control, he finds his own troops becoming resistant to his command. "At night he would lie sleepless on his cot, suffering an almost unbearable frustration; there were times when he was burning with the impotence of his rage. . . . The division was going subtly and inevitably to pot, and he felt powerless to alter it" (300-01). His anger, though, never leads to a diminution of his desire for power or his belief that power is attainable and good. When faced with the revelation that the battle has been won by sheer accident, by a chance artillery shell landing on and destroying the majority of the Japanese stores, "Cummings was bothered by a suspicion, very faint, not quite stated, that he had no more to do with the success of the attack than a man who presses a button and waits for the elevator. It muddied the edges of his satisfaction, angered him subtly" (560). Such knowledge must be repressed by the man of power as it does not mesh with his Nietzschean concept of himself as "in transit between brute and God" (323). Cummings has to believe that control is possible, but Mailer clearly wants his readers to doubt any such conclusion. Mailer reiterates the point in the final pages of the novel.
For a moment he almost admitted that he had had very little or perhaps nothing at all to do with this victory, or indeed any victory--it had been accomplished by a random play of vulgar good luck larded into a causal net of factors too large, too vague, for him to comprehend. He allowed himself this thought, brought it almost to the point of words and then forced it back. But it caused him a deep depression. (716)The sense is that the purveyors of "power morality" and all the self-absorption that that implies are not to be satisfied because they remain unaware of their place in the human condition and, thus, mired in existential inauthenticity. The reader is left with the distinct impression that such people are constitutionally unable to come to know themselves and will, thus, continue their quests for power in the face of all contradiction.
Staff Sergeant Sam Croft has been described by many critics as the enlisted counterpart to General Cummings. He is the most violent of Mailer's soldiers. Mailer offers no definite explanation for Croft's nature; no one knows why he is the way he is (156). It is clear, though, that he is totally self-centered. Mailer closes the Sergeant's "Time Machine" portrait with an emphatic statement: "I HATE EVERYTHING WHICH IS NOT IN MYSELF" (164). He is a perfectionist who disdains lesser men. The closest thing he has to a friend is Sergeant Martinez, the platoon's expert scout, whose competence he appreciates. Like General Cummings, Croft believes in an ordered universe and in himself; he "had a deep unspoken belief that whatever made things happen was on his side" (9). He can't articulate his conviction that men are in transit to become gods like the General does (323), but he feels it to be true. When he predicts Hennessey's death to himself, he feels certain that it will happen but cannot help remembering his failed premonition about the previous night's card game. The memory confuses and disgusts him. "His disgust came because he felt he could not trust such emotions, rather than from any conviction that they had no meaning at all" (29). Croft trusts that life has meaning, but rarely can he get at it. The fulfillment of his premonition about Hennessey "opened to Croft vistas of such omnipotence that he was afraid to consider it directly. All day the fact hovered about his head, tantalizing him with odd dreams and portents of power" (40). He wants the same thing the General wants--power--but he is unable to form a conscious plan. His quest is instinctive, for "There was a crude unformed vision in his soul but he was rarely conscious of it" (157).
Croft's belief in meaning and order serves him well in the ordered society that is the military. He is driven to obey orders and feels that disobeying or even resenting an order is immoral (440). His morality, like the General's, is a "power morality." Therefore, he must repress and rationalize away his failure to strictly follow Lieutenant Hearn's orders, a failure that results in the lieutenant's death. He convinces himself that the platoon must climb Mount Anaka in order to fulfill their mission, or else "the thing he had done with Hearn was wrong, and he had been bucking the Army, simply disobeying an order" (643). His resort to rationalization is indicative of Croft's flaw. He is unaware, as Burg has argued. He never can quite conceive of, never can quite comprehend, the meaning he is convinced the world bears.
As Hassan points out, "the aspiration to omnipotence--in Croft, in Cummings . . . is merely shown to be futile" (Encounter 93). Like Cummings, Croft needs to be in control. Robert Merrill argues that the "mountain becomes for Croft what his troops are for Cummings: the 'other' which because it resists his control must be molded to serve his will. Like Cummings, however, Croft is unable to control the circuits of chance" (Mailer 37). I would add that the platoon also acts as an "other" that resists Croft's control, although not very successfully. Furthermore, neither Croft nor Cummings is able to understand his failures. Both are defeated but both fail to draw the necessary conclusions from the experience; both are left feeling frustrated. Pizer discerns various quests for self-knowledge in the novel. In Croft's case, he maintains that the patrol is a "journey into self" for the sergeant (105),
a journey into the primitive, animal, instinctive center of himself--a journey through a wild, unexplored, and difficult landscape to the "pure" and "austere" absolute center of his identity. Croft undertakes this journey under the pressure of a compulsive desire, but he is also fearful, since its successful completion will result in the nakedness of complete self-knowledge. (106)Croft grows increasingly anxious as he climbs because he senses that he has embarked upon an "internal contest" that will determine "which pole of his nature would be successful" (699). Mailer leaves it to the reader to decide what the contesting poles of Croft's nature are: will or instinct? human or animal? controller or controlled? The results of Croft's failure are somewhat ambiguous too. They are threefold. First, when the platoon finally returns to the beach to wait for their boat, Croft is troubled by the relief he feels deep within himself. "For that afternoon at least . . . Croft was rested by the unadmitted knowledge that he had found a limit to his hunger" (701). Secondly, on the landing craft as the platoon is returning to their bivouac, Croft comes to the realization that he needs the other men, that "he could not have gone without them. The empty hills would have eroded any man's courage" (709). Yet, finally, what Mailer leaves us with is Croft's failure. He has failed both as an existentialist and as a humanist, lacking both self-awareness and concern for others. The last we hear of him is that
Croft kept looking at the mountain. He had lost it, had missed some tantalizing revelation of himself.One suspects that Croft's hunger for power and control will soon be as strong as ever and that his acknowledgment of his need for others will be equally short-lived. I would argue that what he has "missed" is his humanity, his solidarity with the human condition. His ascent of the mountain is purely for his own gratification, despite his rationalization of it. He has the power to compel the platoon to accompany him, and he uses it, even to the point of threatening to kill any soldier who resists. In fact, Private Roth does die to satisfy Croft's ambition. Ironically, Croft believes life has meaning, yet he resists the one thing that most Americans raised in and influenced by our republican and biblical traditions believe can truly make it meaningful--care for others.
Of himself and much more. Of life.
Lieutenant Robert Hearn serves as a foil to both Cummings and Croft, although the General believes that deep down the lieutenant is just like himself. Mailer paints Hearn as an idealist who disdains others for not living up to his ideals--"He had said once, 'When I find the shoddy motive in them I'm bored. Then the only catch is how to say good-bye'" (79). Hearn values his "inviolate freedom" because he believes that it is what separates him from the herd of humanity and protects him from suffering "all the wants and sores that caught up everybody about him" (79). For Hearn, freedom is a matter of personal integrity. He holds that the only thing that is important is to "let no one in any ultimate issue ever violate your integrity" (326). Thus, after the General forces him to pick up a cigarette the General has tossed onto the floor, Hearn "lay face down on his cot, burning with shame and self-disgust and an impossible impotent anger" because he considers the test of wills with the General to have been "an ultimate issue" (326). It has been a display of pure power on Cummings' part, meant to deliberately humiliate Hearn, and he has failed to resist. Hearn feels that he has not stood up for his own values, for his belief in his own self-worth as an individual. The average reader might see this as an overreaction on Hearn's part, though; the issue seems more trivial than "ultimate," the price more severe than the point of honor warrants.
The General considers Hearn's ideals to be misguided, if not downright insincere. Hearn claims to be an egalitarian whose concern is that the enlisted men are treated fairly. When he realizes that the troops will hate him sooner or later despite what he does and that Croft is an effective leader because he is hated, he becomes depressed because the circumstances seem to prove the General's "fear ladder" perspective on life (506). Yet, when Hearn actually has the opportunity to exercise power, to lead his platoon, he discovers that he enjoys it, that "There was an emotion in it somewhere, as sweet as anything he had ever known" (513). And always, even before he enlisted, there had been the "other thing," the "yearning," the "stirrings of the deeper urge," the "primal satisfaction," the "power that leaped at you, invited you" (350-53).
Podhoretz contends that the "world of The Naked and the Dead is one in which a varied group of clearly defined individuals are pitted in a very direct and simple way against two allied enemies--the army and nature." What these two enemies have in common is their power to overwhelm the individual "driven by a hunger for absolute freedom" (180). Podhoretz overlooks the fact that not all the characters "hunger for absolute freedom," yet they all are overwhelmed by nature. Nature, we know, mocks human freedom. Hearn recognizes this when he contemplates Mount Anaka--"He was gloomy, and as he stared through the glasses the mountain troubled him, roused his awe and then his fear. It was too immense, too powerful" (497). The army, though, being a human construct, appears to me to be a little less daunting, although "absolute freedom" is out of the question. Along these lines, Podhoretz argues that "The army, then, is evil and the individual caught in its grip has only two basic choices: he can either submit without resistance (and eventually be led into identifying himself with his persecutors) or he can try to maintain at least a minimum of spiritual independence" (182). Hearn chooses the latter. He opts to exercise what little freedom he has, deciding that "When they finally got back to their bivouac, if they ever did, he could turn in his commission. That was the thing he could do, that would be honest, true to himself" (584). This seems to him to be his only recourse if he is to salvage his integrity. Yet, he is fully aware of the futility of the gesture. He thinks,
For whatever reason, you had to keep resisting. You had to do things like giving up a commission.Of course, Croft leads Hearn into a fatal ambush before Hearn can put his resolve into action. Therefore, it is difficult to see Hearn as an existential hero because no meaningful act was consummated. One is left to wonder just how meaningful it would have been anyway because, in the final analysis, it was a purely self-centered act that he contemplated. No "other" would directly benefit from him resigning his commission and only in the abstract can it be seen as anything more than a gesture of defiance towards "power morality."
Hearn and Quixote. Bourgeois liberals. (586)
Mailer seems to be pessimistic about the future, judging from Hearn's meditations about his own future. Hearn expects that resigning his commission will win him no friends among either the officers or the enlisted, and he does not expect to learn anything more than that he can "fit into a fear ladder as well as anyone else." He muses, "There was a saying, 'It is better to be the hunted than the hunter,' and that had a meaning for him now, a value" (584). Indeed, although he does not realize it, he is the hunted, and Croft is the hunter. Hearn's analysis of Cummings (and by extension, Croft) is that if you grant him the premise that man is "a sonofabitch," then all the rest of his ideas follow logically from that (585). Hearn is not willing to grant the premise, though, and imagines himself resisting the fascist mentality to the end, even to the point of becoming an anti-fascist terrorist, which act, if carried out, would indeed show he truly has concern for others. Yet, a few pages later, Mailer kills off Hearn through the machinations of Cummings' counterpart, Croft, which at that point in the novel seems to indicate that man is indeed a "sonofabitch" and that idealistic conceptions of human virtue are mere delusions. The novel does not end there, though, and further considerations will shed more light on Mailer's vision.
Just as critics see Croft as the enlisted counterpart of General Cummings, Lieutenant Hearn is frequently coupled with Private Red Valsen. One major difference between Hearn and Valsen is noticeable, though. Red is much more of a fatalist than the lieutenant. Hearn sees his resolved-upon action for the quixotic gesture that it would be, but he still believes that there is some efficacy in acting and some good in humankind. Red is a former Montana miner and hobo who lacks Hearn's formal education. His fatalism is summed up in his remark, "Aaah, you can only get killed once" (12). He is cynical, opining that to the Army "a man's no more important than a goddam cow" (199) and that there "damn sure ain't anything special about a man if he can smell as bad as he does when he's dead" (217). Yet, at heart Red is kind and considerate, but he holds his sympathy for his fellows in check because he "always curdled before emotion" (576). Mailer makes a point of Red's fatalism but undercuts it with repeated references to Hennessey's death. In that death Red finds himself detecting a subtle "pattern where there shouldn't be one" (39). This realization threatens to unhinge Red's outlook on life.
Until Hennessey had been killed, Red had accepted all the deaths of the men he knew as something large and devastating and meaningless. . . . It was merely something that happened to somebody he knew, and Red had always let it go at that. But Hennessey's death had opened a secret fear. It was so ironic, so obvious, when he remembered the things Hennessey had said, that he found himself at the edge of a bottomless dread. (123)Red takes refuge from the unknown dread in his fatalism, which protects him from the pain of caring. Nonetheless, even though he can say, "Aaah, everybody loses. . . . Nothing ever turns out the way you want it," Red still understands that human nature is optimistic. He sees that people tend to believe that everything will be "perfect in the end, they separated all the golden grains in the sand and looked at them, only at them--with a magnifying glass. He did it himself, and he had nothing to look forward to" (577). Mailer seems to reveal rays of hope for his characters from time to time, but they are eventually clouded over by depressing realities, human failures, and futility.
While Lieutenant Hearn can contemplate the nature of his power struggle with the General and can philosophically evaluate his situation, Red is much less capable of understanding his similar circumstance. He thinks, "A man had to take crap even if it was just by keeping his mouth shut. You don't last a month if you do everything you want, he told himself. And yet nothing was worth doing if you let yourself be pushed around. There was no way to figure that one out" (371). Red has no gesture that he can make. When he does take a stand in opposition to Croft to assert himself, he comes face to face with the barrel of a gun. It becomes literally a life or death choice for Red. This is a crucial incident in the novel. Red backs down, choosing life. However, Red is not the only one who is affected by the confrontation--"All of them felt a wretched embarrassment. Each man was trying to forget the way he had been tempted to shoot Croft and had failed" (696). Power, or perhaps the will to use power, wins again, just as it did in the showdown between Cummings and Hearn. Mailer seems genuinely concerned about the effect that succumbing to corrupt power has on people, individually or en masse. We can read Red's evaluation of the episode.
He was licked. That was all there was to it. At the base of his shame was an added guilt. He was glad it was over, glad the long contest with Croft was finished, and he could obey orders with submission, without feeling that he must resist. This was the extra humiliation, the crushing one. Could that be all, was that the end of all he had done in his life? Did it always come to laying down a load? (696)Submission to authority brings certain comforts, Mailer seems to say, but not without questions, too.
By way of contrast, earlier in the novel Mailer presents Private Toglio. Toglio is totally submissive, and he even believes that the face the General shows to the troops is his true face (104). To Toglio's way of thinking, Red is too independent. He thinks, "Where would you be if everybody was like him? You'd get nowhere. It took co-operation in everything. Something like this invasion was planned, it was efficient, down to a timetable. You couldn't run trains if the engineer took off when he felt like it" (27). The railroad reference appears to be reminiscent of fascist efficiency under Mussolini, who was often praised for getting the trains to run on time. Toglio's version of "co-operation" is simply submission to authority. People like Hearn and Valsen have a different definition of cooperation, though, one that is more democratic. Mailer appears to be sympathetic to the definition held by Red and the lieutenant, but he also seems to question whether or not such a conception will ever be realized. Clearly, an individual alone is powerless--Croft had a gun to back up his power and the General had the full weight of the military justice system behind him. Mailer seems to suggest that a certain heroism can be achieved if one can only find the will to act cooperatively. Red analyzes his situation and that of modern man.
You carried it alone as long as you could, and then you weren't strong enough to take it any longer. You kept fighting everything, and everything broke you down, until in the end you were just a little goddam bolt holding on and squealing when the machine went too fast.People, Mailer implies, are too devoted to self-interest to consider truly working together for the common good. American individualism lends itself to self-assertion and the quest for power more readily than to selflessness. Thus, "power morality" wins out. Those with power will use it to attain their own ends, and those without power will be forced to aid and abet the powerful or be crushed, perhaps both. However, I will argue that Mailer hedges on this conclusion, that he does hold out some hope to his readers in the persons of Privates Goldstein and Ridges.
He had to depend on other men, he needed other men now, and he didn't know how to go about it. Deep within him were the first nebulae of an idea, but he could not phrase it. If they all stuck together . . .
Aaah, fug. All they knew was to cut each other's throats. There were no answers, there wasn't even any pride a man could have at the end. (703-04)
Goldstein and Ridges seem to be minor characters throughout most of the novel. In fact, Ossie Ridges does not even rate his own "Time Machine" portrait. However, I believe they ultimately convey one of Mailer's central points. Ridges is an illiterate, hard-working, Bible-belt farm boy. Joey Goldstein is a high school and welding school graduate, a Brooklyn Jew with a wife, a son, and a dream of owning his own welding shop. Ridges is staunch, stoical, and dependable. Like everyone in the novel, his character was formed by his environment. Mailer reveals the essence of Ridges in the following passage.
"I'll tell you, Ossie," his father had said, "a man works and he toils, he puts in his good sweat tryin' to pull out a livin' from the land, and when all his work is done, if the good Lord sees it fitten, it's taken away in a storm." Perhaps that was the deepest truth in Ridges's nature. (97)While Ridges is an unquestioning, quiet man, Goldstein is much more gregarious, always ready to converse if the opportunity presents itself. Mailer describes Goldstein as possessing an "ingenuous nature," as a man who is "always trusting" and who "never became completely disheartened. Essentially he was an active man, a positive man" (448). But Goldstein is prone to occasional fits of despondency during which he becomes almost fatalistic, asking himself, "Oh, what does it all mean? What are we born for, why do we work? You're born and then you die, is that all there is to it? . . . You're born and then you die. The knowledge somehow made him feel superior" (473). Furthermore, he is constantly being disillusioned by men seeming friendly one day and snubbing him the next. He bemoans the fact that he always has "to be nicer than the next fellow" (633), but it comes naturally to him, as when he is the first to offer his own blanket to keep Wilson warm (544). Goldstein's grandfather told him that "Israel is the heart of all nations" (672), and by extension Goldstein can be seen as the heart, the conscience, the life of Mailer's novel. On a similar note, Ridges is described by Goldstein as the "salt of the earth" (704). There is something fundamental, something basic, about the role these two soldiers play in the novel.
Goldstein and Ridges remain minor characters until they are suddenly brought to the forefront when Wilson is wounded and they are assigned to the detail that will carry him back to the beach. They are coupled with Sergeant Brown and Corporal Stanley for the journey, but neither non-com is up to the task. Brown and Stanley both fall by the wayside with a good ten miles of hills and jungle still to be traversed. But Goldstein and Ridges stumble onward; beset by mind-numbing fatigue, they refuse to abandon Wilson. "Wilson was a burden they had to carry; it would go on and on and they could never let him go. They did not understand this, but comprehension was lurking behind their fatigue" (646). Wilson dies, though, before they reach the beach.
Still, they carry him, until nature intervenes and his body is torn from their grasp by treacherous rapids. They give chase down the river until, finally, the body is swept into a swamp and lost. Their ordeal is all but over at that juncture, and the effect is profound. All the ups and downs of their lives brought them to this point. For Ridges, this experience is the ultimate test of his exceedingly strong Christian faith.
Wilson would not have his burial, but somehow that was not important now. What counted was that he had carried this burden through such distances of space and time, and it had washed away in the end. All his life he had labored without repayment. . . . Ridges felt the beginning of a deep and unending bitterness. It was not fair. . . . What kind of God could there be who always tricked you in the end?And for Goldstein, the experience was equally religious.
The practical joker.
He wept out of bitterness and longing and despair; he wept from exhaustion and failure and the shattering naked conviction that nothing mattered. (681-82)
All the suffering of the Jews came to nothing. No sacrifices were paid, no lessons were learned. It was all thrown away, all statistics in the cruel wastes of history. All the ghettos, all the soul cripplings, all the massacres and pogroms, the gas chambers, lime kilns--all of it touched no one, all of it was lost. It was carried and carried and carried, and when it finally grew too heavy it was dropped. That was all there was to it. . . . There was nothing in him at the moment, nothing but a vague anger, a deep resentment, and the origins of a vast hopelessness. (682)But humans are resilient, Mailer seems to say. We do not hear much more about Goldstein and Ridges until all the men are in the landing craft on their way back to headquarters. Then we discover that Goldstein considers Ridges to be his buddy now, that there is "an understanding between Ridges and him." He calls Ridges a "good man" and sees something "enduring" in him (704), and the reader is inclined to say the same about Goldstein. One feels that the two have known the depth of despair but have been able to return to life and go on with it. They arrived at the point of despair as a result of their concern for Wilson, for an "other." This concern, which is rooted in their biblical traditions, constitutes the kernel of their natures; it is what motivates them to endure, to keep going, to keep living despite the absurdity of the whole experience. Goldstein and Ridges are the only two soldiers who are returning from the patrol feeling as though they have gained something. Everyone else is still carrying a burden of guilt, shame, embarrassment, or loss.
In The Naked and the Dead Mailer has created a naturalistic environment in which his characters, consciously or not, search for the meanings of their lives. Ehrlich has pointed out the overwhelming social determinism of Mailer's "Time Machine" passages, while almost all of Mailer's critics have identified the overall sense of futility and impotence that permeates the novel. On the island of Anopopei, chance is more likely to decide the outcome of human endeavors than any human planning. For example, the battle is won through the chance destruction of the main Japanese supply dump, and the platoon's ascent of Mount Anaka is thwarted by their chance encounter with a hornet's nest. Nonetheless, the very fact that the men keep going, do not give up and die, indicates the depths of hope available to the human spirit and the powerful influence on the men of their biblical and republican traditions. At novel's end, Mailer depicts the platoon as possessing conflicting emotions. There is the inevitable letdown and introspection that follows any great undertaking, and Mailer says that they all feel pretty much the same way.The patrol was over and yet they had so little to anticipate. The months and years ahead were very palpable to them. They were still on the treadmill; the misery, the ennui, the dislocated horror. . . . Things would happen and time would pass, but there was no hope, no anticipation. There would be nothing but the deep cloudy dejection that overcast everything. (702)
However, according to Burg, the men transform the dejection into an appreciation of the absurdity of life, and they begin to sing "Roll me over in the clover" (707). Burg argues that this song reveals Mailer's thesis. He writes, "The song, like the fate of Sisyphus, is the absurd truth. The repeated refrain with its repeated action is like the wave and its wake, like the ascent and descent of Mt. Anaka. Life is simply a roundelay" (399-400). Perhaps, but Sisyphus, at least in Albert Camus' version, possesses an awareness of his fate that is redemptive, validating. To credit any of the soldiers of Recon platoon with a true awareness of his condition is difficult. Camus contends that there is "no fate that cannot be surmounted by scorn" (121). Maybe Lieutenant Hearn possesses the proper awareness and scorn to be seen as existentially heroic, but he is never afforded the opportunity to act on his awareness, so it remains theoretical. Goldstein and Ridges achieve a sort of Judeo-Christian heroism with their self-sacrificing ordeal. They certainly experience the absurdity of life and feel it deeply, and they exhibit remarkable self-control, self-command in being able to persevere in carrying their burden. Their selflessness is unmatched by anyone else in the novel. Most notable, though, is their scorn for any thought of abandoning Wilson, of failing in their duty toward another human being. In this sense, I think it might be possible to call them existential heroes because they possess the power of will necessary to endure, a power that is intimately entwined with self-image and self-esteem. Ultimately, though, I must argue that even Goldstein and Ridges, in all their humanity, are merely acting out their social conditioning--one Jewish and the other Bible-belt Christian. There seems to be no real evidence that either of them has a true existential awareness of his place in the human condition or the ability to make free, fully conscious choices.
The war novels of James Jones differ from Mailer's work in that they present an even bleaker vision of the world. Whereas Mailer leaves readers with an inkling of hope, Jones, when all is said and done, leaves us feeling that the individual is totally insignificant. James Jones was born and raised in Robinson, Illinois. The son of an alcoholic father and a socially ambitious mother, his home life was tumultuous, which led him to become a rebellious loner (MacShane 8-9). Unable to afford college, he enlisted in the U.S. Army in 1939. He served at Schofield Barracks in Hawaii. While he was stationed there, his mother died of congestive heart failure, and his father committed suicide (MacShane 33, 41). Not long after, the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor and Schofield, an event Jones describes in From Here to Eternity. He subsequently shipped out with his unit and ended up fighting on Guadalcanal. He received minor wounds, but was eventually returned stateside as a result of an old ankle injury. Like Mailer, Jones drew upon his military experiences in his writing. Many people, myself included, consider Jones to be the premier novelist of World War II. His trilogy of war novels, From Here to Eternity, The Thin Red Line, and Whistle (some would include his short novel The Pistol and call it a quartet), have often been cited as his best work. He also wrote several short stories based on the war and authored the text of WWII, a collection of graphic art from the war.
This study will focus on From Here to Eternity and The Thin Red Line because they are Jones's most renowned works, and they are quite representative of his ideas about individuals in the modern world. From Here to Eternity was Jones's first novel, and it was wildly successful commercially, while generally receiving critical acclaim as well. John Lardner calls it a "slovenly, ferocious book" in his New Yorker review (117). Many critics took Jones to task for his "slovenly" grammar, particularly for his conceit of not using apostrophes, but most were able to see beyond that and applauded the power and uniqueness of the novel. Lardner, for example, writes, "the English language is capable of absorbing, and condoning, a good deal of abuse from a man who has something to say and wants very desperately to say it" (117). The book is unique in its portrait of the Regular Army--the army that existed before conscription and the war turned it into a civilian army. Leslie A. Fiedler finds that "its value as literature, slight, intermittent but undeniable, lies in its redeeming for the imagination aspects of regular army life never before exploited" (253). From Here to Eternity won the National Book Award for Jones in 1952. The Thin Red Line was published nine years later, and while not as commercially successful as Eternity, it was favorably reviewed by most critics. The Thin Red Line is the only novel of the trilogy that actually deals with combat, and it pulls no punches in its treatment. Both novels have been lauded for their realism while some scholars have also remarked elements of naturalism, romanticism, and existentialism in the works.
Lardner finds From Here to Eternity to be the "most realistic and forceful" novel he has read about the army (117). Jeffrey Walsh also comments on the novel's "realism," declaring that its "naturalistically rendered scenes of internal army violence are among the most brutal in Second World War fiction and are conveyed in a tone of genuine outrage" (142). The Thin Red Line is also realistic, both in its portrayal of the soldiers' lives and in the attitudes towards life of those soldiers. Novelist Saul Bellow contends that "In apprehending what is real, Jones' combat soldiers learn a bitter and leveling truth and in their realism revenge themselves on the slothful and easy civilian conception of the Self" (162). Although he later goes on to claim that he really does not like the word "realism" (54), Jones himself, in his Paris Review interview with Nelson W. Aldrich, Jr., proclaims his realistic intent. He says, "I don't think that combat has ever been written about truthfully; it has been described in terms of bravery and cowardice. I won't even accept these words as terms of human reference any more. And, anyway, hell, they don't even apply to what, in actual fact, modern warfare has become" (52).
Walsh is not the only one to see Jones's war novels as naturalistic. Speaking of Prewitt in Eternity, Peter G. Jones finds that he "retains in triumph over the naturalistic crush of events his invincible sense of human dignity" (44). This deterministic vein that runs through the novels is also mentioned by David L. Stevenson, who refers to the "meaningless world" and "senseless universe" in which the soldiers dwell without any real control over their own lives (206). Furthermore, John W. Aldridge remarks that in Jones's combat episodes, "questions of personal morality are shown to be meaningless. Courage and cowardice are wholly arbitrary responses dependent on chance and physical circumstances" (Last 31). Finally, Jones biographer George Garrett observes that in The Thin Red Line
there is no such thing as rational cause and effect, except insofar as individual characters, themselves mere fragments, insist on perceiving some kind of order in chaos. In fact, from an individual point of view, there is only accident, pure luck, good or bad. Men and women live by accident and die by accident. Nothing they plan or do really makes any difference at all. (136)Still other critics have noticed elements of romanticism and existentialism in Jones's work.
Many have commented on the romanticism that is evident in From Here to Eternity and is missing in The Thin Red Line. Peter G. Jones maintains that "Prewitt's astonishing intransigence is compounded of the tragic flaw, religious guilt, and a new element: he personifies the irrational romantic asserting himself against an increasingly monolithic technological society" (44). Richard P. Adams finds Jones to be a "thorough-going and reasonably sophisticated romantic writer" (206). He argues that Eternity depicts the "conflict between the mechanistic world view, based on the materialistic assumptions that dominate modern popular thinking, and the organic world view that characterizes romanticism in all its phases" (207). The romanticizing of Warden and Prewitt in Eternity came to be viewed as a flaw by Jones himself, according to Steven R. Carter. Carter argues that Jones had good reason to be bothered by this because "Such romanticizing likely does interfere with the theme of spiritual evolution, because it has led many people to view Prewitt as a tragic hero rather than a too-proud man needing to learn humility and compassion" (63).
Some commentators make existential comparisons and see a certain degree of the absurd in Jones's work. Peter G. Jones holds that Prewitt in Eternity is desperate to find some meaning, some order in life. Jones writes, "He is understandably troubled by the realization that he is trapped in a world he did not make, in a life for which he may be held responsible. Like Camus's Sisyphus, Prewitt's only choice is to be either inactive or inert" (35). Edmond L. Volpe goes so far, too far in my opinion, as to call The Thin Red Line "Jones's existential novel." According to Volpe, it
strips away all inherited concepts and all illusions, metaphysical or social, about man's inherent dignity and being. Atheistic or religious, brave or cowardly, these men are equally vulnerable to the indiscriminate governance of chance. Even those incalculable forces within man which make him a coward or a hero under fire are beyond the individual's control. . . . Circumstances create values, and a man's sense of himself comes from his actions in these circumstances. Each man contains within his being the potential for every human virtue or vice, heroism and cowardice, compassion and sadism. (111-12)Furthermore, Aldridge speaks to the issues I have been discussing when he points out that in The Thin Red Line "the individual disappears into the bureaucratic collective, and the issue becomes not honor but survival. . . . Men die in combat for no reason or for absurd reasons" (Last 31). Finally, David L. Stevenson seems to concur with Aldridge, commenting that "Jones's characters are totally involved in the impersonal sensuality of the pain and the mutilation of war where existence is viewed as a grotesque dance of death, taking place in a senseless universe" (206). Thus, we see that Jones's war novels have much in common with other twentieth-century war novels in that they explore the fate of the individual in the modern world--a meaningless, absurd world that is increasingly mechanical and inhuman and that can be described in both naturalistic and faintly existential terms.
The experiences of particular individuals in a military context have often been seen to have universal validity, to be applicable to and representative of the fate of all individuals in modern society. Jones biographer Frank MacShane holds that "For Jones, the battlefield was a microcosm of a world gone mad" (201). In a similar vein, Robie Macauley sees Eternity as a typical American novel of "social protest." "Substitute captains and colonels for unscrupulous employers, enlisted men for oppressed workers, the peculiarities of the U.S. Army for the peculiarities of an inhuman industrial machine and you have it" (526-27). Jerry H. Bryant agrees with Macauley and adds that "the oppressive quality of the military society is not confined to a unique and temporary situation such as war, but extends to the whole fabric of American life" (122). Leslie A. Fiedler, in discussing Jones's documentation of regular army life in Eternity, finds that the book makes "certain of those aspects (the stockade, for instance, our homegrown concentration camp) symbols of the human situation everywhere" (253). Similarly, Peter G. Jones says that "Prewitt in the army personifies man in the modern world." He goes on to laud Jones's "achievement," saying that its importance will grow as the years pass because "he expressed, almost a generation before it became a fact of American life, the crisis between the individual and the institutions that dominate society" (44). That "crisis" is what we are examining. We have seen that Norman Mailer's war novel left us with the image of an individual who was, by-and-large, thoroughly frustrated and impotent, albeit possessed of an indomitable spirit. Jones offers a slightly different picture in From Here to Eternity and then reprises and rethinks it in The Thin Red Line.
Jones's first novel is essentially the study of the struggle of the individual to maintain some semblance of individual integrity without being swallowed up by the system, in this case the army. In a deterministic universe the integrity of the individual, Jones seems to say, is achieved by making choices that are consistent with one's conception of self, even though one can see the absurdity and meaninglessness of the expected results. Robert E. Lee Prewitt and First Sergeant Milton Warden are the main characters through whom Jones explores his theme, but other characters, including the women, convey other facets of the problem. By the time Jones writes The Thin Red Line, though, his estimate of individuality seems to have regressed to the point at which the individual has become, for all intents and purposes, insignificant. Critics have often cited C-for-Charlie Company as the corporate main character of that novel. From Here to Eternity sets up the conflict in the first chapter. Prewitt has decided to transfer from the Bugle Corps to straight duty in an infantry company as a matter of principle when he, the best bugler, is passed over for the First Bugler's position in favor of an inferior bugler. To Prewitt the choice is a matter of "deciding right," that is, a matter of acting to maintain one's integrity. For Prew, "It was like with a virgin, one wrong decision was enough to do it; after one you were not ever the same again" (8). The irony is that once one decides "right," one must continually make decisions. There is no rest from deciding, as there would be if one were to simply conform (7). Sergeant Warden, on the other hand, has an equally strong sense of individual integrity. However, as Ellen Serlen Uffen points out, Warden "has survived because he recognizes there is no way to win. Instead, he has learned that to retain some amount of identity and self-respect, it is necessary to appear to adhere to the system" (143). Warden makes a game of outwitting the system, whereas Prewitt seems incapable of such subtleties.
Ironically, Prewitt acquired his strict code of personal integrity from the mass medium of the movies. He "had only been a green kid but he had learned from all those pictures to believe in fighting for the underdog, against the top dog. He had even made himself a philosophy of life out of it" (275). Anyone who has seen some key films of the 1930s will recognize the image of the lone individual struggling against powerful social forces or institutions aiming to mold the individualist--or break him in the process. Prew has embraced an idealism that is rare and exceedingly difficult to live up to and which leaves him with only two options: resist as an individual or conform as an automaton. He does show some awareness, though, of the solitariness of his position. Thinking of his new company, he realizes that "G Company was a single personality formed by many men, but he was not a part of it" (71). Jones's constant theme of social coercion is here demonstrated by the peer pressure that turns the company into a "single personality." Also, he recognizes his isolation as he sits on a porch listening to the family of his "shackjob" fixing supper; he feels, "again the indignation he had felt before, the sense of loss and the aloneness, the utter defenselessness that was each man's lot, sealed up in his bee cell from all the others in the world" (89). Jones uses the "bee" image again later when Prew is contemplating his budding relationship with the prostitute Lorene. He thinks,
in this world, any more, with things like they are, the hardest of all hard things was to know the real from the illusion, to meet one other human being breath to breath without the prefabricated sound-proofed walls of modern sanitation always in between and know in meeting that this was this human and not this human's momentary role; in this world that was the hardest, because in this world, he thought, each bee out of his own thorax makes the wax for his own cell, to protect his own private stock of honey, but I have broken through, just once, this one time only. Or, at least, . . . I think I have. (263)Before anything comes of that relationship, though, Prewitt has other problems to face back in the company.
Boxing and the jockstrap mentality of the company are Prewitt's downfall. He has decided "right" that he will not box, partly because he blinded a man and partly because he promised his mother on her deathbed that he would not hurt anyone without just cause. To overcome his resistance to boxing, the company begins giving Prewitt the "treatment," a form of harsh and overt harassment designed to pressure him into complying with their wishes. After initially thinking he can outlast them because he feels capable of taking all they can dish out, Prew comes to realize the futility of his situation. He analyzes it this way,
But this now is free will. Your own free will, thats doing this. Not them thats doing this. They are merely offering your free will a free choice. Kindly but logically, seriously but without malice, a free choice for your free will. . . .Still, it seems to me that Prewitt considers himself able to make free choices throughout the rest of the novel. He seems to view this choiceless choice as atypical, not the way of the world. Ultimately, he takes what can be called an existential stand, accomplishing an act of Sartrean good faith because his sense of fair play will not allow him even to accept an assignment as a cook that is offered to him and that would put him out of harm's way. Warden and the mess sergeant, Stark, see this as pure stubbornness, but to Prewitt, his actions are "right"; therefore, he will lose his integrity if he hides from the consequences of his decisions. Stark tells him,
Now if we reduce these fractions we have on the one hand, go out for boxing; and, on the other hand, we have go out for the Stockade. Since you are an artistic bugler (instead of an artistic fighter . . .) we can cancel out the first. So, reducing still further, we have 1) go out for the Stockade; or, 2) go out for the Stockade. The choice is up to you, a rather restricted choice but nevertheless a choice, presented to your free will. (274-75)
you're looking at it all bassackwards, you're going on the idea of the world as people say it is, instead of as it really is. In this world, no man really has any rights at all. Except what rights he can grab holt of and hang on to. And usually the only way he can get them is by taking them away from somebody else. (210)
Later, the question as to whether or not a man, a soldier has any rights at all is raised again. Prewitt believes that what he does when he is off-duty is his own business. His squad leader, Chief Choate, is not so sure. Prewitt and his buddy Maggio see the Chief's point and universalize it. Chief Choate says,
"It aint a question of right or wrong, it's a question of fack. But there is awys been a question if there is any outside duty hours for a soljer, whether the soljer has the right to be a man."Here we see Jones's characters using warfare and the military as a metaphor for the world at large, which is exactly what I am arguing that Jones himself is doing. Moreover, from this exchange we can perceive that Prewitt's idealism and "heroic" existential stand are not thoughtless or ignorant; he understands the modern world.
[Prewitt answers] "And its gettin more and more that way lately, in this world all over."
"And not ony in the Army," Maggio put in. (266)
Another discussion of individual rights in the novel centers around suicide. The subject arises because the newly-made sergeant Bloom puts his rifle in his mouth and blows off the top of his head. While contemplating the act, Bloom broods, "All his life he had tried to act, to do, to be strong and forceful enough to be able to point to something just once and say I did this, to just once commit one irrevocable act through his own willful motivation." He feels powerless, feeling that always "it was outside influences that governed him and he was blown by chance, by pure happenstance, coincidence, one way or the other, without having anything to say about it" (572). And so he makes the irrevocable decision of pulling the trigger, but in the last instant, Jones writes, Bloom tries to yell, "I take it back! I was ony kiddin!" (573). Of course, no one particularly misses Bloom, and the main reaction is disgust at the extra work he has caused. Bloom's self-pitying thoughts and ultimate indecision contrast sharply with the discussion of the event that occurs later in the stockade. While Prewitt and the other prisoners are having difficulty understanding why someone would kill himself, Jack Malloy puts the act in the context of rights and freedom. Malloy says,
Every man has the right to kill himself. . . . It's the only absolute inviolable right a man does have, the only act he can commit which nobody else has a sayso in, the one irrevocable deed he can execute without outside influence. The old Anglo-Saxon term of 'freedom' came from that: 'free' and 'doom,' with the idea that every man always had that last final resort that nobody could take away from him, if he wanted to avail himself of it. (585)Malloy maintains that suicide is the only right or freedom anyone has. Prewitt, though, says he does not want to believe that. Ultimately, although one could argue just how conscious the decision is, Prewitt does exercise his freedom to die rather than return to the stockade. He stops and turns to face the guns, instinctively it seems, rather than either surrendering or taking the chance of being shot in the back.
What view of Prewitt and his actions are readers supposed to take? To Ben W. Griffith, Jr., "Prewitt is the folk hero standing alone against the organized system, the individual vs. the advent of the Age of Regimentation" (46). I am sure many readers have indeed seen Prewitt in this light, and it would seem to reflect Prewitt's own conception of himself as the fighter for the underdog. However, at heart, Prew was a soldier, a thirty-year-man, and it is hard to see him as anti-regimentation, per se. Volpe refers to the "masculine life" depicted in the novel and speculates that the army might be the "final frontier of rugged individualism" threatened only by "the bureaucracy represented by the officer class, and women" (108). Similarly, Jeffrey Walsh finds that Jones's men "move stoically through a tough environment, and in the best of them, such as Prewitt or Maggio, according to Jones's narrator, survives the pioneer spirit, a disappearing element of the American tradition" (143). These astute perceptions seem to be founded in the American mythology of the rugged individual, the pioneer defying all odds and continually moving west to find the freedom to act without constraint. Walsh goes on to say,
The Stockade chapters stand out as among the most memorable in the whole of Second World War fiction, and are imaginatively intended as a vindication of Prewitt's rebellious attitude, since they show in its clearest form the oppression of the enlisted man by the discipline of fear. Here the novelist makes his most profound affirmation of human endurance and heroism in his portrayal of the men of Number Two Barracks, the élite who defy their punishment and emerge undefeated. (144)Yet, despite painting Prewitt and his friends in the stockade as heroic individuals, Walsh contends that Prewitt's "rebellion is . . . extreme, almost to the extent of being masochistic" (145). I have to disagree with that opinion, though. Prewitt's stand may seem extreme, but although rare, it is not unheard of for a person to take a firm stand on principle at great cost.
On the other hand, while James R. Giles refers to Prewitt as a "quixotic young man" (43), and Volpe speaks of his "quixotic struggle," Volpe does call Prewitt's story an "eloquent paean to a concept of individualism rapidly becoming anachronistic in an increasingly bureaucratic society," which sounds about right to me (109). Prewitt's choiceless choice is increasingly familiar to individuals engaged in a zero-sum game with modern mass culture, and fewer and fewer individuals faced with such a "choice" think the way Prewitt does, I believe. Furthermore, Ihab Hassan contends that Prewitt "stands as an emblem of antipower. Recalcitrance is the badge of his heroism--and his victimization" (Radical 86). Likewise, Peter G. Jones maintains that "Refusing to surrender his individual prerogatives, Prewitt retains in triumph over the naturalistic crush of events his invincible sense of human dignity. He remains to the end unconvinced that 'what a man is don't mean anything at all.'" (44). In my opinion, Prewitt is similar to the likes of Dos Passos's John Andrews and Hemingway's Frederic Henry in that he is true to himself. Nonetheless, in his story it is hard to see any real concern for or solidarity with an "other" or any real awareness of his place in the human condition. He is a good friend to Maggio, although he does not go to his aid when the MPs are beating him, and he does avenge Blues Berry's death. But these acts seem to have more to do with Prewitt's image of himself than they do with any existential concern. Clearly, something in Prewitt's tale strikes a chord in American hearts. We want to see Prewitt as a tragic hero, but it seems doubtful that such a conception was Jones's intent. His contrasting portrait of Sergeant Warden seems to me to be more in line with Jones's own attitudes, judging from his personal life and his other novels.
First of all, Jones clearly states Warden's opinion of Prewitt's idealism--"what was it to you [Milt Warden] if some damned son of a bitching stupid fool of an antediluvian got himself beheaded by a progressive world by going around in a dream world and trying to live up to a romantic, backward ideal of individual integrity?" (288). Warden himself has his own personal brand of integrity, "his own private, self-constructed line of equity" (82). This is evidenced in the way he assigns Prewitt to work details. Warden always assigns Prewitt the worst detail if he shows up in the duty formation in a particular spot but never if he is not in that place. Warden often plays little games with himself where he sets the rules and strictly abides by them. This is one way he manages to cope with the assault upon individuality that is the army. Another coping technique is his penchant for manipulating the company commander so that, in essence, Warden rules the company. Sometimes, as another little game, he tries to influence the captain's decisions just to see if he can (288-89). Unlike Prewitt, Warden never openly challenges the system; he always works within it or around it. He and Prewitt are very much alike in some ways, though. Both are thirty-year-men and excellent soldiers. Both are also acutely aware of the difficulties of communication with another person. Jones describes Warden comforting Karen Holmes, "'There,' he said helplessly. 'There. There,' feeling the absurdity, the oppressive impossibility of any human being trying to communicate with and understand another's mind in a life where nothing was ever what it seemed to be" (124).
Warden is aware also that the army is an assault on his individuality, but he devises ways to even the slate. When he decides to pay a visit to Captain Holmes's home to seduce the captain's wife, he does it
not as vengeance, or even retribution, but as an expression of himself, to regain the individuality that Holmes and all the rest of them, unknowing, had taken from him. And he understood suddenly why a man who has lived his whole life working for a corporation might commit suicide simply to express himself, would foolishly destroy himself because it was the only way to prove his own existence. (107)Much to his surprise, he falls in love with Karen Holmes, and this turns out to be a major test of his personal integrity. In order for her to leave her husband and marry Warden, Warden must become an officer because she refuses to move down in the world. Warden goes so far as to take the test and receive a commission before he tears it up, refusing to be an officer. He tells Karen, ". . . I looked at them, Ross and Culpepper and Cribbage and the rest of them, and I saw what they were--I couldn't do it" (824). To accept would have been a break with his own self-image; refusing the commission, though, was empowering. "From the day he turned down his commission Warden had had G Company wrapped and tied and stamped with the Indian sign the way he used to kid himself he had it under Holmes, but hadnt" (836).
Warden is a realist, to counter the romantic portrait of Prewitt, as is the mess sergeant, Stark, who worked the system to get his kitchen, which is his comfort zone. The two main female characters, Karen Holmes and Lorene (Alma Schmidt), are also more realistic than Prew. Karen will continue to manipulate her husband to get what she wants, while always remaining on the lookout for a better situation. Lorene will use her beauty and the position her earnings can buy to find a secure niche for herself. Both women, like Warden and Stark, will strive to work within the system and try to manipulate the system to work for them, which fact helps demonstrate the fundamental incompatibility between individual and community we have so often seen in this study. Prewitt, on the other hand, is uncompromising. Although correct in his assessment of the system, he accomplishes nothing by rigidly opposing it. Still, that readers and critics, myself included, are reluctant to criticize Prewitt too harshly is interesting, as there seems to be a certain heroism associated with sticking to one's principles that it is hard not to admire.
Whereas individuals are in the foreground in From Here to Eternity, the company itself, C-for-Charlie Company, is the focus of The Thin Red Line. Prewitt's company, Company G, is divided into jockstraps and non-jockstraps and is ruled, primarily, by the whims of its commander, Captain Holmes. Thus, all the noncoms are jockstraps. C-for-Charlie Company is in a combat situation, though, and such arbitrary methods of assigning rank are quickly supplanted by necessity and proven ability. Holmes tries to control Prewitt through fear, as advised by General Slater. Slater's philosophy is reminiscent of General Cummings' point of view in The Naked and the Dead. Essentially, Slater believes in the same "fear ladder" concept that Mailer's General espoused. According to Slater, "Modern armies, like every other brand of modern society, must be governed and controlled by fear. The lot of modern man has become what I call 'perpetual apprehension'" (342). He presents a vision of the future that is almost identical to that envisioned by Cummings--an extension of the fear principle by which the many are ruled and dominated by the few (340-47). In The Thin Red Line, First Sergeant Welsh, the counterpart of Eternity's Warden, echoes Slater's vision when he tells the mess sergeant, Storm, "There aint any choice. There's no choice left for anybody. And it aint only here, with us. It's everywhere. And it aint going to get any better. This war's just the start. You understand that" (79). James Jones makes it abundantly clear that what is just starting is the reduction of human beings to insignificant ciphers. He hints at such at the end of Eternity when Lieutenant Ross tells Warden that "One soldier more, or less, don't matter much. . . . Production is what wins wars" (806). Elsewhere, Jones writes that modern war is machine war and that the combatant with the best industry will win.
But men had to die or be maimed to prove it. Men had to die at the wheels or triggers of the machines.In The Thin Red Line Jones hammers away at this theme of the insignificance of man, time and again. However, his characters continually attempt to assert their individuality, even in the face of their own recognition of their condition.
It could even be worked out mathematically: n number of men had to be invested, and x number had to die, in order for objective y to be reached, and finale z achieved. That was the horrible, true meaning of anonymity to the soldier. (WWII 150)
Welsh says of his clerk that "Fife had not yet learned--if he ever would--that his life and himself, his He, didn't mean a goddamned thing to the world in general, and never would" (25). But Welsh is frequently wrong in his assessments of people. Fife, early in the novel, is observing the aerial attack on the transport ships that had delivered C-for-Charlie to Guadalcanal. He is smart enough to see that what is at play is a simple "mathematical equation" of cost and effect. That is, how many expensive planes are worth losing to sink an even more expensive ship? He is also smart enough to realize that the men in the machines are unimportant, and that "very idea itself, and what it implied, struck a cold blade of terror into Fife's essentially defenseless vitals, a terror both of unimportance, his unimportance, and of powerlessness: his powerlessness. He had no control or sayso in any of it" (40). Fife and Welsh are not the only ones intelligent enough to see the truth. Private, ultimately Lieutenant, Bell often muses about the war, and he realizes that industrial production is what wins wars. He also realizes that
Some men would survive, but no one individual man could survive. It was a discrepancy in methods of counting. The whole thing was too vast, too complicated, too technological for any one individual man to count in it. Only collections of men counted, only communities of men, only numbers of men. (230)Indeed, we see at the end of the novel that C-for-Charlie Company is embarking for New Georgia. The Company has survived to fight again--but not with the same faces. It now consists of a boatload of new recruits led by a handful of veterans. Nonetheless, all the historical accounts will speak of C-for-Charlie as one ongoing, continuous entity. Not only did the individual not count, but as Storm says, a man is no more than "a tool with its serial number of manufacture stamped right on it" (356). Even nature, in the form of the jungle, knows the insignificance of the individual--"Almost invisible in the rain, it loomed there, alien, supremely confident, making them aware of it even when they could not see it, a fact of nature like a mountain or an ocean and equally as ominous to the human ego" (52). Finally, the initial company commander, Captain Stein, contemplating his role, thinks,
It was a horrifying vision: all of them doing the same identical thing, all of them powerless to stop it, all of them devoutly and proudly believing themselves to be free individuals. It expanded to include the scores of nations, the millions of men, doing the same on thousands of hilltops across the world. And it didn't stop there. It went on. It was the concept--concept? the fact; the reality--of the modern State in action. (215)He hits on the irony of it all--all of them think they are "free individuals." Yet, clearly, the soldier, representative of the individual in modern industrial society, is at the mercy of both natural and social forces that threaten to overwhelm him.
Jones elects Bell to fully state the irony. Bell considers his fellows,
They thought they were men. They all thought they were real people. They really did. How funny. They thought they made decisions and ran their own lives, and proudly called themselves free individual human beings. The truth was they were here, and they were gonna stay here, until the state through some other automaton told them to go someplace else, and then they'd go. But they'd go freely, of their own free choice and will, because they were free individual human beings. Well, well. (267)One is reminded of Prewitt's "free choice" to go to the stockade or go to the stockade. Jones does insert one character who seems to act as a counterpoint to his theme of the insignificance of man. This is Private Witt, who is the counterpart to Prewitt, his new incarnation, so to speak. Yet, as Peter Aichinger argues, "in Witt the human elements have disappeared; he is practically an idiot, neither physically nor morally attractive." Aichinger contends that this signals Jones's repudiation of the romanticism of Prewitt because "Prewitt's individualism becomes Witt's perversity and Prewitt's loyalty to his private code of conduct becomes Witt's 'goddamed, stupid Kentucky code'" (86). Witt is unlike any other character because he is not officially a member of C-for-Charlie Company. He is a former member who has been transferred to Cannon Company but who dearly wants to return. Witt is able to come and go as he pleases, leaving his company at will to go to the front to fight with C-for-Charlie. Not being a member of C-for-Charlie, he can also depart from them at will. He is the joker in the deck, the wild card who seems to have real freedom. Indeed, Jones writes, "Witt . . . did think he was a man, and did believe he was a real person. As a matter of fact, the question had never entered his head. . . . he was a free individual as far as he was concerned. He was free, white and twenty-one and had never taken no shit off nobody and never would" (267). Still, at novel's end, Witt has returned to C-for-Charlie, has been made a sergeant, and is embarking with them for New Georgia. One wonders how free he will be now that he is in the company, but then, he has been busted before, so he may still be the exception to the "fear ladder" concept.
On the other hand, maybe Witt is not an exception at all. Despite the theories of the Generals, the fear of one's direct superior does not seem to be the primary motivation for any of the men of C-for-Charlie. Rather, the fear of being considered a coward by one's comrades in arms seems to be uppermost in the soldiers' minds. As Jones writes of the First Sergeant, "All Welsh knew was that he was scared shitless, and at the same time was afflicted with a choking gorge of anger that any social coercion existed in the world which could force him to be here" (134). What social coercion? Foremost is the call of simple patriotism and all the peer pressure it generates. A nation at war depends upon the love of country that its institutions instill in its citizens from an early age--a form of social coercion in itself. A byproduct of this love is to cultivate in each person a sense of duty to fight to protect the state when it is endangered. Consequently, all the citizens exert social pressure on one another to do their duty, and to refuse is virtually unthinkable because the self-esteem of the modern individual is so tightly bound to the opinions of others. Moreover, throughout their childhood and adolescence little boys are subject to social conditioning that tells them that being a man means being brave, even fearless in the face of any threatening presence. Being without fear is too much to ask, though, as everyone is afraid in combat in The Thin Red Line, with the possible exception of PFC Dale, and he seems more insane than brave. Fife also is aware of what is happening to him and the power of the forces arrayed against him.
Helplessness, that was what he felt; complete helplessness. He was as helpless as if agents of his government had bound him hand and foot and delivered him here and then gone back to wherever it was good agents went. . . . And here he lay, as bound and tied by his own mental processes and social indoctrination as if they were ropes. . . . He was reacting exactly as the smarter minds of his society had anticipated he would react. (191-92)Fife's "mental processes" are largely related to his concerns about what others think of him. Jones tells us that Fife's thoughts are typical--"somewhere in the back of each mind, like a fingernail picking uncontrollably at a scabby sore, was the small voice saying: but is it worth it? Is it really worth it to die, to be dead, just to prove to everybody that you're not a coward?" (68). Thus, we can discern an indication that Jones believes that resistance to social conditioning and peer pressure is normal but deeply repressed.
Jones delves a little deeper into the concept of the opinions of others in his characterizations of Doll and Big Queen. Doll believes he has it all figured out. As far as he can see, people "acted what they wanted you to think they were, just as if it was really what they really were." If one is honest and admits that he does not really know who he is, then he will not be popular and well thought of by others. "But when you made up your fiction story about yourself and what a great guy you were, and then pretended that that was really you, everybody accepted it and believed you" (14). Ironically, the more Doll acts like the person he wants people to think he is, the more he actually becomes that person. His self-image is a powerful force that drives him to volunteer for hazardous duty and makes him heroic in spite of himself. Likewise, Witt believes whole-heartedly that he is a free individual; therefore, he acts freely. Jones's depiction of Big Queen is another exploration of the same idea:
a myth had grown up around him in C-for-Charlie company. And once Queen discovered it (he was rather slow about certain things which concerned himself) he had--with a strange welcoming sense of having at last found his identity--done everything he could to live up to it. . . . Whatever its source, it was now established as fact rather than myth, and believed by nearly everybody including Queen, that Big Queen was invincible both in heart and physique. . . . Remembering how to act required a great deal of Queen's time and energy. He found himself having to think almost all the time. It tired him. (61)Living up to the expectations of others or one's conception of what others expect is indeed tiring and not at all liberating.
While leaving a little room for subjective perceptions of freedom, Jones mainly seems to see people as trapped by a social coercion that is detrimental to a true sense of personal identity and destructive of individuality. He expresses this in his description of Fife's nightmares:
the essential essence of which was a feeling of complete entrapment. Trapped in every direction no matter where he turned, trapped by patriotic doctors, trapped by longfaced crewcut infantry Colonels who demanded the willingness to die, trapped by Japanese colonial ambitions, trapped by chic grinning S-1 officers secure in their right to ask only after other officers, trapped by his own government and its faceless nameless administrators, trapped by Stein and his increasingly sad face, trapped by 1st/Sgt Mad Welsh who wanted only to laugh at him. (390-91)Trapped and imprisoned, Jones says. Not all prisoners are behind bars in jail cells. "Your government could just as easily imprison you on, say, a jungled island in the South Seas until you had done to its satisfaction what your government had sent you there to do" (345). And unlike the troops depicted in the movies the folks back home were watching, the concept of esprit de corps has given way to self-assertion in C-for-Charlie Company. As Jerry H. Bryant points out, the soldiers "get drunk after a battle and, on their hands and knees, bay like wolves at the moon, get into fights with each other, and stagger to the tent of their new company commander to tell him how much they hate him. There is no saintliness here, no brotherhood, no cooperative utopia--only debasement and degradation" (156). Instead, whether by insisting upon the freedom to get drunk or by growing a beard, we detect a desperate attempt by the soldiers to assert themselves as individuals. When, after the battle is won, the order comes down for the men to shave off their beards, they assert themselves by trying to see who can grow the most outlandish mustache, since there is no regulation banning mustaches (478-79). In Jones's meaningless and absurd universe the individual is reduced to experiencing only small interior moments of self-imposed meaning, which are generally expressed by little self-assertive acts that neither change nor accomplish anything.
All the self-assertion in the world cannot change the fact that the men are nothing more than government issue--GIs. Those who are able to find a way to get themselves evacuated do so, thus ensuring their survival, but nobody defeats the machine. Jones makes this clear in the final novel of the trilogy, Whistle. The main characters of that novel are, under new names, the counterparts of Fife, Welsh/Warden, Witt/Prewitt, and Storm/Stark, and there is no final redemption or existential validation for them. One goes mad, one gets himself killed in a bar fight, and the other two commit suicide. In the final analysis, there are no existential heroes in Jones's world. Prewitt's stand for principle can be seen as a demonstration of existential good faith, but with his demise, Jones puts to rest any further consideration of the idea. Furthermore, in any novel of the trilogy, the closest Jones gets to having a character show some concern for the "other"or to being self-sacrificing is the case of Sergeant Keck, who accidentally pulls the pin out of a grenade which remains stuck in his back pocket. Realizing what he has done, Keck backs up to a nearby dirt hummock so that the explosion of the grenade does not harm anyone but himself (231-32). Anyone looking for hope for the fate of the individual will not find it in Jones's war trilogy. As James R. Giles observes, in Jones's view "the postwar world would be dominated by an impersonal bureaucracy and technology. The day of the individualist was over" (195), which assumes, incorrectly I think, that there ever was such a "day," although many Americans do believe in the myth of the rugged individual. All in all, Volpe has it exactly right, concluding that Jones "has presented a frightening twentieth-century view of individual man's insignificance in society and in the universe" (112).
While Mailer and Jones suggest existential possibilities in their novels, Joseph Heller in Catch-22 presents a full-blown existential hero in his portrayal of Captain John Yossarian. Heller was born and raised in Brooklyn, New York, near Coney Island. He enlisted in the U.S. Army Air Corps in 1942 and was eventually sent to Italy, in 1944, to serve as a bombardier. He was commissioned a lieutenant and flew sixty combat missions. After the war, Heller took advantage of the G.I. Bill to earn undergraduate and graduate degrees in literature, then went to work in the advertising departments of various magazines. Like Mailer and Jones, he drew upon his wartime experiences in his writing, but it was a full fifteen years after the war before his war novel appeared. Heller's Catch-22 was not an immediate success like James Jones's From Here to Eternity. Its initial critical reception ranged from Nelson Algren's declaration that "it is the best American novel that has come out of anywhere in years" (358) to Roger H. Smith's judgement that the novel is "worthless" and "immoral" (155, 164). Many of the early reviews expressed consternation about the book's form, and indeed, the first critical articles that appeared attempted to make sense of its narrative structure. Still, the novel caught on and acquired a huge cult following among the disaffected youth of the turbulent late sixties who saw parallels between the book's absurdity and the absurd reality of the Vietnam war. The novel has endured and generally is considered an American classic. Over time, serious students of Catch-22 have come to realize that the book's apparently chaotic structure was carefully planned by Heller and that its effect on its readers is precisely as the author intended. Heller's basic strategy is to repeat incidents and to embellish them with more and more detail until, finally, the full import of the story is revealed to the reader. What seems so very hilarious early in the novel turns out to be quite horrific. Readers, then, are faced with the necessity of examining their own reactions and of realizing their own culpability in a society that dehumanizes.
Catch-22 is set in World War II; nonetheless, that the novel is not just about war is abundantly clear. The novels I have discussed previously have all been about war and its effect on the individual, to one extent or another, while at the same time lending themselves to the reading that war and the military machine are microcosms of society at large. Heller has consciously and forthrightly used war as a metaphor for modern industrial society--perhaps more so than anyone since Dos Passos. As he says in response to critics of the book, Catch-22 "is about the contemporary, regimented business society depicted against the background of universal sorrow and inevitable death that is the lot of all of us" (Replies 30). Aside from Heller's own testimony, there is sufficient evidence that Catch-22, is as Norman Podhoretz contends, "actually one of the bravest and most nearly successful attempts we have yet had to describe and make credible the incredible reality of American life in the middle of the 20th century" (229). One of the clearest indications that this is not a typical World War II novel in the tradition of Mailer and Jones is Heller's use of anachronisms. As he tells Sam Merrill, "I deliberately seeded the book with anachronisms like loyalty oaths, helicopters, IBM machines and agricultural subsidies to create the feeling of American society from the McCarthy period on" (150). Another indication is the novel's almost total lack of realism. The use of realism is reserved for the relatively few scenes in which the protagonist, Yossarian, is actually in combat, and even many of those tend toward the ironic and the surreal.
We have seen that Jones's From Here to Eternity contains elements of romanticism, particularly in its depiction of Prewitt. It is the exception in this respect among the novels we have considered. So far, the war novels that we have looked at, with the possible exception of Trumbo's Johnny Got His Gun, have relied upon heavy doses of realism to make their points about the inhumanity of war--and by extension of modern society. Catch-22 is a different type of novel altogether. Constance Denniston has labeled it a romance-parody, contrasting it to the many war romances that have idealized the soldier and combat. It has the complicated plot, the improbable events, the emphasis on ideals, the large number of characters generally depicted as either good or evil with no shades of grey in between, and the questing hero of the typical romance. Yet, through the use of satire and irony it parodies these elements. According to Denniston, "The entire structure of the book consists of the juxtaposition of two groups of characters and two plots. The ideals of the war romance are shown in reverse, and the comic element recedes into irony. . . . Catch-22 is typical of the romance-parody" (Nagel 69). Denniston concludes that the romantic ideals of patriotism and heroism are undermined by the realities of the commanders' motives. The hero, Yossarian, is reluctant and at times downright cowardly. And whereas order is typically restored at the end of a romance, the world depicted in Catch-22 is absurd and chaotic from beginning to end (Nagel 76).
Alternately, many critics have noticed a surrealistic element in the novel. The surreal is most evident in the chapter entitled "The Eternal City," in which the "tops of the sheer buildings slanted in weird, surrealistic perspective, and the street seemed tilted" (402). We have noted the social protest inherent in the realism of From Here to Eternity. In a similar vein, Jesse Ritter sees Catch-22 as a work of social surrealism. Ritter says, "Social surrealism in modern fiction is a rhetorical strategy forged to embrace and convey a sense of the Absurd, the grotesque disrelations, and the collective violence of our world" (83). The absurdity that both Denniston and Ritter remark is almost universally recognized by critics as the novel's defining characteristic. Furthermore, as we have noticed throughout this study, the battlefield experience is emblematic of absurdity. Thus, we must now turn to the literature of the absurd in order to get a better understanding of how Heller is telling his tale before we go on to examine what he is telling us.
I have pointed out elements of absurdity in many of the works previously discussed. Yet, Catch-22 is the first novel we have looked at that can actually be ranked among the works that make up what has been called the literature of the absurd, which draws upon expressionism and surrealism for its stylistic devices and upon existentialism for its philosophy. Brian Way will help us define this genre.
When the radical wrote naturalistic novels, he did so with positivist rationalist assumptions--that if, for example, he showed how a railroad was really operated, or what it was like to live and work in a fruit-picking camp, the reader, sharing in the common stock of human reason, would react with the indignation the writer desired. But the new writers do not have this rationalist faith: they see the objects of their attack as images of non-reason, and so they turn to the literature of non-reason, the literature of the absurd, for the appropriate means of exploration and criticism. (257)The literature of the absurd has its roots in existential philosophy and the view that humans are isolated, alienated, bewildered beings adrift in a meaningless universe. Way tells us that, in general, the shared "metaphysical assumptions" of these authors of the absurd "are that events occur in a manner which is arbitrary or contingent and that human experience far from presenting an orderly sense of continuity is dislocated--directed by a principle of irrelevance and non-reason, if by any principle at all" (258). As befits metaphors for the world at large, events in the war novels studied thus far undoubtedly fit this description, and following in their footsteps, Catch-22 likewise presents human experience as dislocated, jumbled, and chaotic. To realize just how meticulously Heller planned his novel in order to achieve this appearance of randomness and formlessness is indeed ironic.
The literature of the absurd also makes use of what Way calls "new patterns" of writing. According to Way, Kafka, considered by many to be the greatest practitioner of the literature of the absurd, "developed three of the most fertile new patterns," which Heller uses as the organizational foundation of Catch-22. Way goes on to delineate these patterns for us.
First, he [Kafka] evolved the image of the fruitless search--the figure of a man looking for something he can never find, for something which may not even exist. . . . Secondly, there is Kafka's systematic pursuit of irrelevance--the argument which settles nothing, or the rational exploration of a situation which is constantly changing and may, in any case, have no real existence. . . . Thirdly, Kafka . . . has given the twentieth century its imaginative sense of bureaucracy. He sees bureaucracy as the absurd institutionalized. (258-60)In Catch-22, Yossarian is certainly searching for survival. His search is fruitless, much like the search for the nature of his crime made by Joseph K. in Kafka's The Trial (Way 258). Fruitless indeed, until Yossarian discovers a way to provide his search with meaning by accepting responsibility. I'll discuss this in more detail later. As Way points out, similar to Kafka's "Investigations of a Dog," the "whole strategy and method" of Catch-22 is based on the "pursuit of irrelevance," (259-60). Circular reasoning abounds, as does utter nonsense--Appleby cannot see the flies in his eyes because he has flies in his eyes (46), and Clevinger must be guilty or he would not have been accused (79). And of course, bureaucratic absurdity like that depicted in Kafka's The Castle thwarts Yossarian at every turn, while the chaplain's interrogation is clearly reminiscent of The Trial (Way 260).
The absurdity of Catch-22 has been commented upon by many critics. John W. Hunt finds that the novel's "atmosphere" is such that readers tend to take its absurdity as obviously representative of their daily existence. Hunt credits Heller's comic structure for taking "the surprise out of absurdity. With absurdity established as a premise rather than a conclusion, Heller can probe its moral implications as adroitly as a Camus or a Sartre" (98). Robert Merrill draws a parallel between Catch-22 and some Great War novels. He says, "the fictional world of Catch-22 includes most of the absurdities first remarked by Hemingway, Dos Passos, and their contemporaries. And Heller's response is also very similar. . . . Catch-22 is closer in spirit to the war novels of the 1920s than to the novels of World War II" (Heller 15-16). This is due, I believe, to the fact that many authors of Great War novels were shocked by the realities of their war into a disenchantment that extended to society as a whole. Heller, their spiritual son, appropriates this dissatisfaction with society and makes it his central focus. A most obvious demonstration of this connection is Heller's use of the theme of desertion, of the separate peace that we have seen in Dos Passos, Hemingway, and others--a theme that is noticeably absent in the war novels of Mailer and Jones. Sanford Pinsker makes a similar connection when he writes that in Catch-22 the "loss of values suffered by the 'lost generation' now becomes a black-and-white faith that institutions are 'bad' and individualism is 'good'" (Protest 151). Pinsker may be understating the case somewhat. Individualism is not just good in the novel, but additionally, the individual is all alone, isolated, and at the mercy of the bureaucratic institutions and, thus, earns the empathy of readers who identify with the characters' situation. Furthermore, "good" individualism is qualified by Heller; it requires responsibility, as we shall see. Finally, Bijaya K. Nanda contends that Heller "has never viewed absurdity as an ontological facet of existence from which there is no escape. . . . Absurdity and Catch-22 . . . are pervasive . . . , but they are not necessarily universal" (128). There seems to be some merit to this view, since Yossarian is apparently running to something, not simply away from something. Nanda further observes that "For Camus, the absurdity of the universe inheres in its nature and in that of man. But for Heller, both man's attitudes and institutions are susceptible to alteration. His protagonist discovers that Catch-22 is not necessarily the way things have to be, that one can break out of the system because its rules are not absolute" (129-30). Indeed, I agree, and we will see later that Heller does hold out hope both for the individual and for human communities precisely by breaking out of the system. Let's now consider this "system" and Heller's portrayal of it more closely.
The system in Catch-22 is the military as an institution, which, as we have seen, is plainly a metaphor for modern industrial societies. Thomas Blues anticipates my argument when he finds war and the military establishment to be apt metaphors for the modern world "because they subordinate the value of human life to all other values, values that in Catch-22 have no relationship to the preservation of life, but which in fact are predicated on the reification of it" (Nagel 103). The reification of the individual is a theme we have seen in just about every war novel I have discussed. The image of the soldier as a cog in a huge machine is endlessly repeated. Victor J. Milne takes a theological perspective on this, contending that
the novel presents exploitation and submission to exploitation as the two great sins. Exploitation, however, need not involve the imposition of physical hardships; it is better defined in Erich Fromm's phrase as "the reification of man." . . . The political system, as much as the market place, encourages the process of reification. . . . Yossarian, then, in insisting upon the unique value of his individual life, constitutes a focal point of resistance to exploitation. (59-60)Thus, to allow oneself to be reified, to be used and abused as one would a machine is to deny one's own humanity, to deny what one is. In this sense submission to exploitation can indeed be seen as sinful, if we define sin in the Aristotelian sense of falling short of the mark, that is, not fulfilling one's human potential. Moreover, I will argue that Yossarian does more than simply insist upon "the unique value of his individual life," he actually creates that value by accepting responsibility and showing concern for others.
Curiously, at least one other character in the novel appears to be able to resist exploitation and reification. This is Milo Minderbinder, who, as Pinsker points out, has made himself so indispensable to M&M Enterprises that he is exempted from flying missions at all and seems to have a free rein to do whatever he wants whenever he wants (Understanding 36-37). This appearance is deceiving, though, I believe, because although Milo has freedom of movement and property, he lacks freedom of self. He is so caught up in his business dealings that he lacks any human concern for others. Leon F. Seltzer argues in a similar vein when he writes, "both Milo and his admirers are best understood as products of a system which has itself corrupted them. For it is the system that has somehow fostered their belief that as free citizens their birthright, indeed their very duty, is competitively to pursue individual interests at every opportunity" (82). And they pursue those interests without regard for others. Seltzer gets to the heart of the matter in his further analysis. He says,
Given any social, political, or economic system designed primarily to safeguard individualism and only secondarily to safeguard individuals, moral chaos must be the result. The horrible irony of this situation is that this humanly unaccountable law of opportunism was never intended as a law at all, was never meant by those who founded government, particularly our government, to become a national creed. (88)Seltzer's contention is certainly correct. The government of the United States, as we have discussed in Chapter One, was founded on the Lockean ideal of independence and equality, and one of Locke's prime tenets was that citizens should not do harm to one another. This principle is based upon and rooted in what Robert Bellah and his colleagues call our biblical and republican traditions that place the highest value on human life (Habits 333, 335). Now, to ensure that one does not harm one's neighbor requires that one be concerned about that neighbor, that one take the effect on that neighbor of one's actions into account before acting, a principle that the "law of opportunism" does not recognize.
Instead, in Milo and in Heller's Generals and Colonels what we find is a very Hobbesean view of life in which all people are basically at war with one another. Competition is the gospel of these characters. Peckem and Dreedle are in a constant state of one-up-manship, while Milo bombs his own squadron because to do so is profitable. I believe that Heller is right on the mark in his depiction of the system as calculated to foster individual acquisitiveness and self-interest, what Jerry H. Bryant calls "individualistic anarchy" (73), at the expense of human feeling and awareness of one's place in and solidarity with the human condition. David H. Richter concurs with this view in his appraisal of Milo and Aarfy, whom he calls "moral imbeciles, unconscious of any ethical dimension to their actions." He goes on to comment that they "represent in exaggerated form civilian attitudes typical of businessmen and young middle-class climbers" (150). Yossarian, on the other hand, eventually understands his complicity and acts. According to Robert Merrill, "When he deserts, Yossarian finally does something that will affect the system: he ceases to serve it. Heller's implication is that effective action is possible if we are prepared to accept responsibility for our acts" (Heller 51). The key word is "responsibility," and Yossarian's understanding of responsibility is an existential understanding based on a Sartrean concept of freedom with an accretion of traditional concern for others. We will now turn to an examination of the existential nature of the novel.
Catch-22 seems to be the most clearly existential novel we have examined up to this point. As John M. Muste puts it, Catch-22 is "part of a still small but growing [in 1962] body of fiction which has accepted the existentialist formulation of the absurd and decided that it is better to laugh at it than cry over it" (Better 27). When Clevinger answers Yossarian's concerns about people trying to kill him with "They're trying to kill everyone," Yossarian responds, "And what difference does that make?" (16). Muste sees this response as "the final anti-social question of the pure existentialist, for Yossarian is the reasonable man who has understood that for him nothing can have any reality unless he can manage to stay alive" (Better 26). That is part of it, certainly, but Heller does not stop at just existence; he is interested in conscious and satisfying existence. Considering Yossarian's expressed concerns about others at the end of the novel, it appears that Heller may be trying to give existentialism a social consciousness. Also, as Nanda comments, Heller "portrays the existential revolt in terms of action rather than thought" (129). To think existentially is not enough, one must act out of one's awareness to make it meaningful. Of course, some critics, such as Howard J. Stark, do not consider that Yossarian has acted properly. Stark argues that "Yossarian's jump . . . is no great symbolic leap in which the hero nobly opts out for existential identity and freedom. . . . Yossarian is an existential dupe who answers a call from afar and succumbs to a false message" (137). Stark feels that Yossarian should stay and persevere, like the chaplain does. But Yossarian is in the tradition of other fictional deserters--John Andrews and Frederic Henry come immediately to mind. Their desertions are not entirely self-serving, and Yossarian's is not either. Moreover, Walter R. McDonald goes so far as to maintain that Yossarian's departure is in the line of a great "American tradition--escaping, or trying to escape, in order to save himself from absurdity, compromise, or despair" (14). McDonald compares Yossarian to such fictional and real individuals as Huck Finn, Henry David Thoreau, Natty Bumpo, and Hester Prynne--all of whom fled society in order to retain their integrity and self-respect. Moreover, Yossarian, as we shall see, does not consider himself to be fleeing from, but rather fleeing to.
Similarly, Vance Ramsey points out that Heller has inverted another American literary tradition.
Paradoxically (in terms of an older literary tradition) disengagement in this novel is not immoral but moral. The literature of social criticism of the thirties [by authors such as Caldwell, Faulkner, and Steinbeck], for example, insisted that one finds himself only in social involvement. In Catch-22 such involvement is the way to lose oneself, as the case of Appleby and others shows. It is as Yossarian disengages himself that he finds himself" (113).He cannot accept the Colonels' "deal," he cannot fly any more missions for the personal aggrandizement of his superiors, and to go to prison would be a pointless, futile waste. So he chooses to run, despite the odds. He shows that he accepts responsibility and that he has concern for others by his stated intention to find and save Nately's whore's little sister and by setting a good example for the other aviators by refusing to compromise his integrity.
Many of the critics find that Yossarian's act is existentially valid and, apparently, that existentialism is morally sound when it results in responsible action, as Nanda and Ramsey have suggested. Stephen W. Potts believes that Yossarian "is rejecting against all odds the miserable ironies of human life upon which the novel has dwelt in favor of a Kierkegaardian leap of faith ('Yossarian jumped,' reads the text as Nately's whore appears again), believing for belief's own sake, like the chaplain, that there is something to hope for and live for after all" (18). Pinsker also obliquely refers to Kierkegaard in his assessment of the relationship between Yossarian and Orr. He writes, "Heller gives every indication that Yossarian and Orr comprise a sort of either/or relationship. Either one opposes the system (Yossarian) or one adapts to it (Orr)" (Protest 161). I, however, have to question the existential validity of Orr's act. Exactly how conscious he is of himself as a being in solidarity with the human condition is really not clear. That he always shows concern for his crew when he ditches his plane is true, but when he makes his exit, he goes alone. Furthermore, he invites Yossarian along, but he never explains to him why he should go or what he intends to do. On the other hand, Orr does give Yossarian plenty of hints, but Yossarian is just not aware enough at the time to understand them. I do believe Heller expects readers to ultimately see Orr in a positive light.
As for Yossarian, Frederick R. Karl contends that he "is the man who acts in good faith, to use Sartre's often-repeated phrase" (137). Daniel Walden says something similar, "Yossarian ultimately concludes that he will choose life over death, creation over destruction. Having been told that he'll never make it, he answers, 'I know, but I'll try.' A resolution of choice was demanded. His desertion . . . was an act of faith, an act of opposition to irrationality, a value-goal, an admirable attempt" (61). By way of contrast, Jerry H. Bryant analyzes Wintergreen and Clevinger and finds that both are "in bad faith" because they accept without examination the system's values and live the roles assigned to them by the system without objection. It seems to me that the system itself is inauthentic and immoral because its tendency to reify people runs counter to the biblical and republican tradition of valuing individual human lives. According to Bryant,
The principle of Catch-22 is a metaphor of the "world" of Husserl which must be bracketed, the "inauthenticity" of Heidegger, the "bad faith" of Sartre, the "false consciousness" of Mannheim, the refusal of the scientist to acknowledge all evidence. By deserting, Yossarian will scrape away all of those restrictions, prejudices, and preconceptions that confine him in a shell of reduced possibilities. Thus, Yossarian . . . seeks to preserve his authentic self against a suffocating system. (163)The question remains, how is this accomplished? How does one live in good faith? The answer is, by accepting responsibility. We now turn our attention to an examination of just what that means and of how Heller communicates that point in Catch-22.
Responsibility is the point of connection between an individual and his or her community. It arises from an awareness of one's individuality in the context of the human condition. This connection can only be made, though, when individuals exercise their freedom to choose. According to Jim Castelli, "Erich Fromm in Escape from Freedom tells us that the responsibility called for by freedom is too big a burden for many people, and it is their search for someone to tell them what to do that is the greatest invitation to fascism" (202). Fascism, or mass conformity, may give the illusion of community, but it is really nothing more than a mob of mindless automatons going through the motions by rote. There can be no real, satisfying community without concern for one another. Furthermore, concern implies freedom of choice. One cannot be commanded to care; concern comes from within the individual and is rooted in a concern for one's future, for what one is to become (cf. Bryant 60-61). One must have concern before one can accept responsibility.
In Yossarian's case, as Stephen L. Sniderman contends, "the structure of the novel places the fictional burden almost entirely on him. He can be held personally responsible for virtually everything in the book: 'In a way it was all Yossarian's fault'" (38). Sniderman's argument is persuasive, and he cites both obvious cases, like Kraft's death as a result of Yossarian taking the group in over Ferrara a second time or the chaplain being investigated because Yossarian forged his name on a letter he was censoring, and more abstruse cases, such as being responsible for getting Milo started on his enterprise by letting him use the letter from the doctor that allowed Yossarian all the fruit he wanted. When not directly responsible, Yossarian can be seen as morally responsible. As James J. Martine points out, "After the first time Nately's whore (who holds him responsible for Nately's death) tries to kill him, Yossarian recognizes and accepts his own responsibility. He now understands the meaning of responsibility--that everyone, including him, is responsible for all the voiceless misery in the world" (147). As Yossarian puts it, explaining why Nately's whore holds him responsible,
Why the hell shouldn't she? It was a man's world, and she and everyone younger had every right to blame him and everyone older for every unnatural tragedy that befell them; just as she, even in her grief, was to blame for every man-made misery that landed on her kid sister and on all other children behind her. Someone had to do something sometime. (396)We are all responsible, but not everyone accepts the responsibility. Yossarian, for most of the novel, has not accepted responsibility. What does it mean to accept responsibility?
First of all, it means to act. Martine helps make this point in relation to the Bologna episode in the novel, which he says "presents a fatalistic vision." Yossarian goes out of his way to avoid the Bologna mission, getting the cook to poison the men with soap in the food, moving the bomb line on the map, even ripping out his intercom wires and demanding that his plane return to base. All these ploys, ultimately, are fruitless. The mission he turns back from turns out to be a milk run, and when he goes on the return mission to Bologna the next day he encounters what he feared all along, extremely heavy antiaircraft fire. According to Martine, "The point seems to be that a man cannot avoid his fate. This apparently major motif is countered by the ending of the novel, which demonstrates that a man can, and must, do something" (146). Early in the novel Heller tells us that Yossarian "was willing to be the victim of anything but circumstance" (67). This explains Yossarian's actions in trying to avoid Bologna. But why were these acts unsuccessful? I believe they failed because they were selfish; they showed a lack of awareness of his place in and solidarity with the human condition. To know oneself as a free individual is to know oneself as not alone and free to choose. But, in my formulation, to choose to act selfishly is to deny solidarity with one's humanity and, thus, to throw oneself into inauthenticity, into bad faith by lacking self-aware acceptance of one's being. My notion is similar to Karl Jaspers' call for one not to withdraw from society but to find purpose and meaning in freely assumed social ties (Bryant 78). Yossarian's early actions were not an acceptance of responsibility but, rather, an avoidance of responsibility. This is the second part of the equation. One must act, must do something, but it must be done responsibly, with a full acceptance of one's responsibility to others, as well as to oneself. The question arises, then: is Yossarian's desertion a responsible act, or merely another case of avoidance?
In arguing for the morality of Yossarian's decision, Victor J. Milne writes,
Basically, we may say that responsibility [according to Dietrich Bonhoeffer] involves an acceptance of the need to relate all moral action to the concrete situation of mingled good and evil, and thus it is opposed to a Kantian affirmation of abstract ethical demands which are to be practiced universally without regard to the concrete situation. Yossarian recognizes that he must make his choice in the real situation which offers only relative good and relative evil. Any choice will involve sinning against some abstract ethical principle. (64)In other words, one's responsibility to others overrides considerations of personal innocence. That is, to be guilty and accept responsibility is better than to be innocent and refuse responsibility. Yossarian is in much the same situation that Jones's Prewitt is in. He can acquiesce to the demands of the system (honor his "deal" with the Colonels) and violate his own integrity, or he can go to prison on trumped up charges. Prewitt chooses prison (the stockade), but after his release he chooses desertion and eventually death over ever returning there. For Yossarian to choose prison would be for him to retain his innocence, but he would also be abdicating responsibility. Instead, Yossarian chooses desertion, making himself guilty of violating an abstract ethical principle but, at the same time, becoming a free and authentic individual aware of his place in the human condition. Heller seems to be saying that passive resistance to evil is not good enough. Still, one can ask just how efficacious Yossarian's action really is?
Robert Merrill points to the many ways that Yossarian protests the system throughout the novel, but he finds that these protests are merely "symbolic gestures," since Yossarian continues to fly missions and even to ferry Milo around to his various markets. Merrill only applauds Yossarian when he finally "ceases to serve" the system (Heller 51). Daniel Green, on the other hand, is not convinced. He sees even the desertion as a "gesture." "In the face of a world so wholly irredeemable, Yossarian's only alternative is to abandon it in a gesture of personal survival. He may have managed to get the last laugh, but it is a feeble one, and his apparent optimism about the possibilities of 'Sweden' make this reader feel the joke is still on him" (194). Green's position would seem to put Yossarian in the company of Dos Passos's John Andrews and Mailer's Lieutenant Hearn as a quixotic hero, at best. However, Yossarian concedes the difficulties of ever getting to Sweden and of finding Nately's whore's little sister, but he says, "at least I'll be trying" (442). His is a Sartrean view of freedom by which results do not matter, the freedom and good faith comes from choosing to try. Raymond M. Olderman also sees a "gesture," writing, "Heller's ending is like many other endings in the novel of the sixties; its affirmation is possible only through a symbolic gesture." He goes on to offer what I believe is an accurate summary of Heller's point: "What is important to Heller is that man need not be beaten--the choices may be extreme, and like Yossarian, man may always be plagued by Nately's Whore, something popping up everywhere to threaten life; but still, life is possible and man can always find some way to assert the human spirit" (113). Just such an assertion is crucial to making an individual an authentic human being.
Most recent critics approve of Yossarian's choice without romanticizing or idealizing it. As Leon F. Seltzer says, "although his impassioned effort to leave all the Milo's of the modern world behind him and locate an area where sane moral commitments prevail may indeed be futile, there is no denying its integrity and courage" (91). J. P. Stern concurs, "The condition of [Yossarian's] freedom is not barren detachment or alienation, but the sentience and essential integrity of the self in the onslaught of history" (214-15). And such integrity, I believe, is dependent upon both responsibility and concern. According to Vance Ramsey, "The process of disengaging himself from the institutions which threaten to victimize him leads to his total moral engagement with others. He accepts his guilt (as Camus says that each man must) in the form of being the target of Nately's whore" (114). This acceptance does allow Yossarian to avoid something, though. As David H. Richter puts it, Yossarian avoids "spiritual death through moral surrender" (159). And, of course, he avoids living his life in "bad faith." As Frederick R. Karl argues, Yossarian is a hero because
the true hero of our era is the man who can accept absolute responsibility. He must act alone, and his faith--not in God, but in himself--must be good, honest, pure. If, as Nietzsche said, all the gods are dead, then man must become mature enough to assume the role. Yossarian's decision that life must pre-empt all other considerations is precisely this moral act of responsibility. In choosing life, Yossarian shows himself to be reflective, conscious, indeed free. All others are slugs living in the swampy depths of self-deception; not bad men necessarily, they are simply unaware, and unaware they cannot be free. (137-38)
The community of men and women on Pianosa is clearly a false, unsatisfying community of individuals mired in bad faith. Like the post-war society envisioned by Mailer's General Cummings and Jones's General Slater, it is ordered from the top down. To exacerbate the situation, those at the top govern by principles of self-interest and opportunism. Yet, even those at the top are ruled by the chance bunglings of bureaucracy--Major Major Major Major is promoted by a computer, and General Scheisskopf, he who sees men as nothing more than marching machines, assumes command by clerical default. The powerless in this false community are symbolized by the mute, helpless soldier in white, who is "filed next to the Texan" in the hospital when we first encounter him (9-10). Heller drives home the image of individuals at the mercy of bureaucracy with the twin stories of Mudd and Doc Daneeka, both of whom only exist as long as the official records acknowledge their existence. One of Yossarian's most terrifying, most frustrating and futile moments occurs when he is trapped in the nose of the plane with Aarfy, who cannot or will not hear him (146-48). This is an image of a man trapped in a machine and isolated by the lack of communication--an apt image for the human individual in the false community that is modern industrial society.
On the other hand, Heller closes Catch-22 with a depiction of a small, burgeoning community that consists of Yossarian, Chaplain Tappman, and Major Danby. This community is founded upon communication--they discuss the situation and all its ramifications before any decision is made--and upon mutual concern. In his conclusion, Heller emphasizes the situational nature of existential choice by showing Yossarian and the chaplain as both accepting responsibility and displaying good faith. Although each makes a different choice, both choices are consistent with the individual's situation--Yossarian chooses to run rather than compromise or go to prison, while the chaplain, who is in no imminent danger, chooses to stay and persevere and fight. Danby can be seen as a ray of hope for all because he lacks courage but seems to be becoming increasingly more aware of the situation and his choices. Readers find themselves hoping that when his existential moment arrives, he will choose rightly, as Yossarian and the chaplain have done. Heller would have his readers become aware, as Yossarian has become aware through his experience with Snowden, that we are nothing but mortal matter--unless we "do something" to resist reification and dehumanization (396).
The battlefield experience in World War II novels is once again used as a metaphor for the world at large by the major novelists of that war. In doing so, they have modeled for us the tension between individuals and their communities that is an undoubted fact of twentieth-century existence. We have seen that the major novels of the Second World War that deal with the fate of the individual in modern industrial society offer three takes on meaninglessness. First, we have a deterministic view of the universe in which the individual is reified, coerced, and totally ruled by forces beyond his control. This nihilistic view is best represented by the novels of James Jones, particularly The Thin Red Line, in which the individual could hardly be more insignificant. Next, we have an existential view of the world in which the individual has the possibility of meaningful action if he can only become aware of his place in the human condition and embrace concern for his own future and the future of an "other." This view is represented by Joseph Heller's Catch-22, particularly in the person of Yossarian, who fights back, seizing his freedom and refusing to be a mindless cog in the machine. Finally, Mailer's The Naked and the Dead lies between these two poles, albeit closer to Jones's vision than to Heller's. Mailer's universe is certainly naturalistic, but his soldiers sense that hope and social action are possibilities, although, with the possible exception of Goldstein and Ridges, none achieve the necessary consciousness in the novel to be considered existentially validated. Furthermore, for the first time in any of the novels discussed up to this point, we see in Catch-22 the beginnings of a real, model community. The small group of individuals--Yossarian, Chaplain Tappman, and Major Danby--that closes out the novel appears to be truly concerned about one another, capable of actually communicating among themselves, and able to decide upon a course of action that is beneficial to all. By contrast, the traditional communities of men--the platoons and companies of soldiers--while generally effective in accomplishing their missions, are divided, dysfunctional, and uncommunicative, acting by decree from above, often arbitrary and self-serving, rather than by common consent.
We can now move on to consider what novels of the Vietnam War have to say about the individual. The Korean War intervened between World War II and Vietnam, of course. Only one major novel came out of that war, though, James Michener's The Bridges at Toko-Ri (1953), which seems to me to be basically a well-written propaganda piece for the Air Force, and its themes do not touch upon the concerns I have been examining. Therefore, we can turn to Vietnam War novels to close out this study. We will see that these novels have built upon the foundation established by the novels of the two world wars. Yet, they have made significant additions, both stylistically and thematically, to the tradition of the war novel in America. The Vietnam War was the most controversial war in America's history, and the times were turbulent. All of this is reflected in the literature from the war, and the various authors' conceptions of the fate of the individual in our modern technological society bear the stamp of the times.
1. Nietzsche asserts in Thus Spake Zarathustra that "Man is a rope stretched between the animal and the Superman--a rope over an abyss" (8). Return to text
Copyright © Patrick Paul Christle, 2001
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