The Duty Dance With Fate English Literature Essay
War has become a pervasive aspect of humanity as the wars of the past have not only affected their time periods, but had repercussions all throughout history. Thus, inevitably, many authors are drawn toward this subject and its psychological impact on the people most affected by it. Two novels, Catch-22, by Joseph Heller, and Slaughterhouse Five, by Kurt Vonnegut, are examples of literary works in response to what can only be called the absurd creation known as war. They display numerous similarities and both are equally hard to categorize into a literary genre. These novels delve into the minds of two soldiers to explore the mental toll that war has left upon them and while the general anti-war message is clear within the novels, the messages they develop are each distinct as well since they show notable differences as seen by the characterization of the protagonists and the actions they choose to take in various situations. However, through scathing remarks about how absurd the world and war are, the authors deliver a similar message about what they view the military industrial complex to be through the limited and demented nature of communications, the non-linear chronological order of events, and an insight into the age old dilemma between free will and fate all united under the common anti-war and anti-bureaucratic themes present. Thus, the reader is able to witness the ironic and general sense of confusion representative of the authors’ views of the absurdity of war and the nature of the military through the discontinuity that pervades all aspects of life. Thus, this illustrates the profound psychological affect such a meaningless struggle against death has on the protagonists. Both novels essentially establish an absurd world in which the protagonists are given no set purpose or meaning to their daily actions or lives. In the face of futility that can only result in one’s eventual death and what can only be described as senseless and inane murder along both sides of the war, both John Yossarian and Billy Pilgrim come to see the absurdities of the war and are forced to contemplate whether free will exists, or whether their lives are products of fate and destiny. In either case, the novels stance on failures of the military and bureaucracy are clear calls for everyone to adopt moral responsibility in order to improve the realities that humanity faces and must overcome.
One of the major similarities in Catch-22 and Slaughterhouse Five is that both novels are difficult to characterize with a single genre. Joseph Heller’s and Kurt Vonnegut’s works show a level of complexity that cannot be effectively contained within the restrictive bounds of any sole literary categorization. However, recognizing the novels as postmodern works of literature comes closest to representing the messages they deliver. Although these novels are clearly postmodern in nature, defining exactly what this means remains nearly impossible. The central tenant of postmodernism is of the “continued deconstruction of any unified or unifying image: the ‘reality’ of postmodernity lies in its awareness of the constructed nature of ‘truth’” (Davis, Kurt Vonneget's Crusade 14). Essentially, postmodernism is the rejection of the modernistic belief in a single reality or truth. It embraces the idea that there is no singularity in terms of humanity for the truth is both fragmented and subjective. Ironically, this renders it impossible to form a singular definition of the term. This irony is reflected throughout the decentralized narrative style of both novels and how the “truth” varies from person to person. This is evident in how characters in Catch-22 “confuse the fatuous with the profound” (Pinsker 24) such as when Captain Black becomes indoctrinated with the belief that the Germans had invented a new weapon called the Lepage Glue Gun, capable of gluing planes together and fixates upon this idea despite its absurdity (Heller 135). This scene is at once meant to illustrate the effect of incompetency, but also to show that the truth is whatever the person of authority claims it to be. Therefore, the importance of true validity is replaced with the opinion of whoever holds the most power for those with power appear to define what the truth is. Similarly, in Slaughterhouse Five, Billy Pilgrim believes his abduction by the Tralfalmadores to be the truth and announces it in this way to the world. This further shows the subjectivity of the concept of truth. The absurdity of Pilgrim’s claim does not matter to him as he instead fixates upon his own created vision, turning it into truth in his eyes. Thus, Pilgrim’s delusion is taken for the truth within his mind as objectivity and validity again is of little importance. With so many different truths and reality’s present, the narrative becomes so fragmented and obfuscated that it is easy to come to the conclusion that “all discourse harbors bias, that there is no place where one can speak neutrally or innocently” (Davis, Kurt Vonnegut’s Crusade 18). Both authors utilize this decentralized and fragmented postmodern style to show the inane nature of both war and the bureaucracy in an effort to incite readers to take on a more moral standpoint and preserve what human dignity is left in such a meaningless world.
However, both novels extend beyond the scope of postmodern literature encompassing both scathing satire and elements of black humor in attempts to deliver messages through the use of comic futility. One of the clearest incidences of satire is shown through their critical standpoints of various human types (Ruderman 31). Some examples of these one-dimensional personas in Slaughterhouse-Five are Billy Pilgrim representing the naïve boys that are ill-prepared yet nonetheless thrust onto the battlefield to risk their lives, Lazzaro depicting the insanity present within humanity and how logic and reason are completely lost on some, and Roland Weary the at once incompetent yet conceded and cocky personalities that seems to make the world a worse place to live in. In Catch-22, some human types are represented by Lieutenant Scheisskopf (literally meaning shithead) who for all intents and purposes is a shithead of a general who understands nothing about war, General Peckman representing the banalities of the meaningless and manipulative bureaucratic system, Yossarian depicting the everyman who is trapped within the societal bounds of the military industrial complex and yearns only to survive and escape, and Or the alternative solution, the “or”, to the current condition of things and the ultimate escape that is possible when the power of authority is denied. Both novels also contain aspects of black humor using morbid, cruel, violent, gory, grotesque and tragic situations for comic purposes which allows audiences to face difficult realities, in this case the meaningless nature of existence and the absurdities and Catch-22’s of societal institutions such as the military industrial complex and bureaucracy, in a light-hearted manner. Yossarian and Pilgrim are constantly in hopeless and meaningless situations brought on by completely absurd circumstances that serve two purposes. One purpose is to infuriate the reader as he or she tries to grapple with the magnitude of the ridiculous actions that lead up to such an absurd outcome that is nothing short of pure idiocy. The other purpose is to allow the reader to recognize human failings through the extreme exaggeration and distortion of normal events that otherwise may not case the reader to ponder the effect of human failure. Through this combination of postmodern satire and black humor, a world devoid of meaning is established, setting the stage for the conflict between free will and fate. The characters in the worlds of the two novels are essentially given the choice of either accepting that the idiocy present in the world is a result of human incompetence and that responsibility and understanding lies of their shoulders to change to condition of things, or that fate dictates the world and regardless of their actions, the hopeless and distorted nature of the world around them can never be altered.
The nature of communications and language has also been distorted within both of these novels and illustration the prominence that language takes in the world. Without a meaningful means of communication, the world that Yossarian and Pilgrim reside in can only be seen as insane and absurd. Language maintains a significant controlling role in both novels and it directs the lives and actions that every character is the novels take. This is especially prominent in Catch-22 where through simple acts of censorship and forgery Yossarian is able to “[obliterate] whole homes and streets, annihilating entire metropolises with careless flicks of the wrists as though he were God” (Heller 16). Furthermore, Yossarians initial forgery of the name Washington Irving, have wide reaching effects that can be felt throughout the whole novel. Those who control communication essentially wield the power to run the military. For example, Wintergreen in Catch-22 throws away all messages that he thinks are too prolix, disregarding their content. Thus, bureaucracy is made un-proportionally powerful since it controls all communication rendering it “a more efficient killing machine than German bullets” (Pinsker 40). In this way, “language is power… language is what passes for reality” (Pinsker 12). This is interesting since language itself appears inherently meaningless for in such an insane world, the effect of logic is lost upon communications for language then essentially is “an arbitrary and self-sustaining system of signs” (Davis, The Language of Discontinuity 67) that is completely artificial and misleading. Thus, without inherent meanings, the characters in the novels are forced to attach their own importance to words. This “linguistic discontinuity” dissolves the importance behind language leaving only the paradoxical Catch-22 behind. In effect, this is a paradoxical practice that “makes one a victim of its provisions no matter what one does” (Pinsker 5) and since the military controls Catch-22, people become subject to the will of the corporate bureaucracy. Through such manipulation of language, normal situations become contorted beyond recognition as the world and the lives of the characters are forced into a realm of irrationalities controlled by the military and the language it uses. This discontinuity of language then comes to represent the discontinuity and meaningless nature of the world and war which explains how the acronyms SNAFU, TARFUR, and FUBAR arose within the military. Through the military industrial complex’s control over language in the novels, communications are seen as absolute, effectively turning lies into reality. Yet, life without language is impossible wince communication is an integral part of humanity. This poses a problem in the worlds of the novels in which the meaning of words are so hopelessly lost within the bureaucracy due to its misuse. Once one realizes that language has become the defining factor of what reality is and witnesses the dissonance between what is real and what is said, there are really only three paths that can be taken. The first is to revolt against the system and fight against the multitude of Catch-22’s. This is what Yossarian does, and as he finds out revolting against the system is bound to fail for in the midst of revolt, one is still residing within the power of the bureaucracy and its manipulation of language. Through revolt, one then confirms the existence of the system’s power over language and thus allows the system to define one leaving one struggling is a hopless net of inane and meaningless words and communications. The second path is to manipulate language just as the military does. Milo utilizes manipulation of language to insure that everyone gets a “share” of his syndicate and to justify all of his actions, including bombing his own troops for it is apparently for the greater good. Thus, the utter lack of coherence in language becomes one’s greatest asset in manipulating the system to obtain what one wants. However, this is still less than ideal for if one wants to manipulate the system, then one must first acknowledge its existence and subject oneself to its logical fallacies. Indeed the only way to truly escape the paradoxical Catch-22’s of the world is to completely reject its authority and power. With an ever-changing subjective truth, only when on denies the military industrial complex its power, can one escape it, just as Orr does.
Perhaps the most notable similarity between the two books in the disjoint style of narration that each author utilizes. The narrative does not follow a linear path and instead seems to fixate upon on defining event in the lives of the main characters, Snowden’s death in Catch-22 and Billy Pilgrim’s abduction in Slaughterhouse Five. This technique not only creates a sense of ambiguity that contributes to the overall confusion in the novel, but also seems to be allowing the reader to follow the paths that the characters take before they are finally able to confront their past (Harris). The cyclical style makes this more interesting for it appears that events in the present spark past memories for Yossarian and a sort of mental time travel for Billy Pilgrim. This appears to be representative of “a man’s inability to keep the horrible experiences of his past from invading the serenity of his present” (Edelstein 132) as both protagonists constantly become launched into the past the relive the horrors and atrocities they tried to forget. Yossarian gleams a lesson from his past and has devoted himself to what he sees as the moral responsibility to survive while Pilgrim cannot seem to deal with the physiologically and physical horrors of his past and instead keeps his memories and fears in check by “[withdrawing] from reality into a pleasant but neurotic fantasy” (Edelstein 132) of alien abduction and fatalism creating the illusion of a world that makes sense. Essentially, Pilgrim can no longer understand the world he lives in after witnessing the events of the war, a sense of emptiness as loneliness that becomes apparent as Pilgrim struggles with his existence to find some sort of inherent meaning in a meaningless world. For Yossarian, the cyclical narrative style revolves around the lesson he is only able to learn with Snowden dying in his arms when “he felt goose pimples clacking all over him as he gazed down despondently at the grim secret Snowden had spilled all over the messy floor. It was easy to read the message in his entrails. Man was matter, that was Snowden's secret. Drop him out a window and he'll fall. Set fire to him and he'll burn. Bury him and he'll rot, like other kinds of garbage. The spirit gone, man is garbage. That was Snowden's secret. Ripeness was all” (Heller 350). Confronted with such a scene, Yossarian finally begins to understand his own mortality and learns his lesson about the role of fate and free will within his life. Thus, the non-linear narrative style brings the reader into the inner thoughts of the protagonists as they flirt with their past, darting in and out of experiences that have profoundly shaped their understanding of both the meaningless nature of the world, and themselves. Time in these two novels can only be describe as instable and spastic, both of which reflect the series of events that each protagonist mad to go through in their lives.
The constant presence of death and suffering reinforces the idea of human mortality. The characters are caught between the trauma and memories of their past, and their desires to survive in a world filled with danger and uncertainty. All romanticism is stripped from warfare as the sole goal of fighting in the war, becomes a struggle to find safety and ultimately survive. Interestingly enough, faced with such mortality, John Yossarian and Billy Pilgrim choose to respond is starkly contrasting ways. In response to learning that “Man was matter” (Heller 350), Yossarian begins to understand that life is as simple as that. Humans live and die, there is no grand scheme of events to come, humans merely exist and craft for themselves their own self guided path. The romantic idealism of a duty or fate that each person lives for doesn’t exist for life itself is without meaning. Once Yossarian reaches this point, he becomes haunted by his mortality and his one goal is life is to survive. Faced with such a challenge, Yossarian sees hope through Orr, and through hope beings to grasp his own future and embrace free will. Thus, mortality and hope lead Yossarian to realize that no matter how much he struggles against the military industrial complex, the existence of Catch-22 would make the struggle impossible. Therefore, he sees that life has no inherent meaning, but that meaning can be created through one’s struggle against the futility of life. In this way, Heller and Yossarian both affirm that life is not dictated by fate, but that humans are able to control their own lives since free will exists.
Vonnegut’s message is the same as Heller’s in regards to free will, however, he delivers it in an extremely different way. Faced with this dissonance between his mental life and reality, Billy Pilgrim is only able to find reprieve and meaning within a world he creates. In his world, Pilgrim explains away the absurdities of human life and the meaningless nature of his own existence by adopting a fatalistic viewpoint and attributing whatever happens to fate. Nothing surprises him for everything he sees he believes that fate meant for it to be, a fatalistic attitude represented by the common phrase he uses : “So it goes” (Vonnegut 25). This effectively fills the emptiness that Pilgrim fills by giving his life inherent meaning through the lens of fate. However by giving in to fatalism, Pilgrim is taking the avoidance of moral responsibility to an extreme for instead of grappling with the futility of life and generating his own meaning, he crafts a world in which he trivializes the meaningless of life through fate. This world and his abduction by the Tralfamadorian race are completely fictional and each aspect of his fantasy has a root in reality. This alternative reality becomes the truth for Pilgrim and is his way of dealing with Dresden, his past, and his inevitable death by attributing it all to fate because “so it goes”. Billy completely regresses from the present for he cannot handle his own mortality and the meaningless destruction he witness in his past. The present reality has completely overwhelmed him further driving him to resign himself to fate and escape into his own version of the truth. Despite the rationality of death, Pilgrim can never seem to fully confront his inevitable death, all of which contributes to his mental breakdown. Ironically, Billy Pilgrim describes his experiences as becoming “unstuck in time” (Vonnegut 22) yet he appears to be stuck in the atrocities of the past, trapped in the meaningless world of destruction and death. In the end, Billy believes that “The most important thing [he] learned on Tralfamadore was that when a person dies he only appears to die. He is still very much alive in the past, so it is very silly for people to cry at his funeral. All moments, past, present and future, always have existed, always will exist. The Tralfamadorians can look at all the different moments just that way we can look at a stretch of the Rocky Mountains, for instance. They can see how permanent all the moments are and they can look at any moment that interests them. It is just an illusion we have here on Earth that one moment follows another one, like beads on a string, and that once a moment is gone it is gone forever” (Vonnegut 26-27). Thus, he views time not as a continuum, but as a stretch in which each moment replays forever in history. Thus, Billy reasons that no one ever truly dies for they will still be alive at another time period, explaining away the inevitability of his own mortality. Pilgrim then further shuns free will be viewing it as a rarity, having the Tralfamadorians say that “If I hadn’t spent so much time studying Earthlings, I wouldn’t have any idea what was meant by ‘free will.’ I’ve visited thirty-one inhabited planets in the universe, and I have studied reports on one hundred more. Only on Earth is there any talk of free will.” (Vonnegut 86). However, it becomes clear that Vonnegut does not actually agree with Billy Pilgrim’s conclusion about humanity’s fate for early on in the novel, Vonnegut makes it clear that he and Pilgrim are separate entities. For examples, in the sentence “He has seen his birth and death many times, he says, and pays random visits to all the events in between. He says” (Vonnegut 23), Vonnegut constantly distances himself from Pilgrim and emphasizes that they are not the same person and do not share the same beliefs by using “he says” three times to lend an air of disbelief and distance. Vonnegut’s message is shown through his satire of Pilgrim’s fatalistic mindset. Vonnegut instead believes that free will does exist for it is humanity’s goal to improve upon the current reality by taking moral responsibility for its actions. The satire can been seen through the fact that Billy had a mental breakdown and for all intents and purposes is insane and delusional, living in his own world by completely avoiding all moral responsibility toward improving his own world while remaining completely dependent upon others.
Thus, Vonnegut and Heller both preach for humanity to take a higher moral stance and not subject itself to destiny for fate is an illusion and the path each individual treads, determines his or her impact on the world and meaning in life. The satire and messages present within the novels are scathing cases of social commentary aimed at the morally derelict nature of humanity’s current existence through the numerous instances of senseless and absurd wars and destruction. Vonnegut aims his message more at society in general while Heller satirizes the military and the corporate nature of America along with its military-industrial complex. Albeit that their goals are highly idealized and unlikely to be achieved, the fact that they support that humanity has no sole truth and that reality can be continually redefined, lends to the credibility and hope they have for the future. Therefore, through the genre they write in, the demented and lacking nature of language, the non-linear narrative style employed, and their mutual support of the concept of free will, Kurt Vonnegut and Joseph Heller both take on existentialist standpoints and use comic futility to deliver something larger than simply an anti-war message. Their ultimate message is a highly idealized plea for moral responsibility through a call for common decency in an effort to preserve and restore a sense of human dignity that years of meaningless destruction has eroded.
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