Tuesday, May 3, 2016

BIRTH: May 1–Joseph Heller (St Catz)

Joseph Heller (1923-1999) of St Catz, Oxford
This day was born in 1923 Joseph Heller, in Brooklyn, NY. The title of his best-known work, Catch-22 (1961), described a Kafkaesque vicious circle in which the choices offered are absurd.

Catch-22 is about an American World War II bombardier named John Yossarian, who tries to get out of the Army but finds out slowly that his options are all bad.

Heller himself enlisted in the U.S. Army at 19 and was sent to Italy as a bombardier during World II, where he flew more than 60 missions. He kept a detailed diary, in which he wrote that war was "fun in the beginning" because you feel "something glorious about it," but  endured several harrowing episodes that he used in Catch-22.

After his discharge, he became a lifelong activist against war. He attended Columbia and Oxford (St Catz) on the GI Bill. He worked as a copywriter at Time and wrote short stories that appeared in The Atlantic, Esquire, and Cosmopolitan.

He said that the opening lines of his novel just came into his head one day:
It was love at first sight. The first time he saw the chaplain, [Yossarian] fell madly in love with him. 
The book was originally titled Catch-18, but Heller's editor, Robert Gottlieb, discovered that Leon Uris also had a war book coming out the same month as Heller's, entitled Mila 18. Gottlieb and Heller brainstormed which numbers sounded funnier: 11 or 14. They settled on 22.

The book initially received mixed reviews. As the virtues of the book became established, it eventually sold 10 million copies. It is now widely considered a classic of post-war literature.  "Yossarian Lives" bumper stickers appeared on cars and students against the draft wore Army field jackets with John Yossarian name tags. Catch-22 was made into a film (1970) by Mike Nichols and starred Jon Voigt, Orson Welles, and Alan Arkin. Heller also worked as an uncredited scriptwriter for the James Bond film Casino Royale (1967).

Heller took 13 years to write his second novel, Something Happened (1974), which one critic summarized as, "Nothing happens."

When an acquaintance told him in his later writing he had never matched the greatness of Catch-22, he immortally answered:
Who has?
Heller died in 1999. In anticipation of this event, he said once:
Everyone else seems to get through it all right, so it couldn't be too difficult for me.

I met Heller  couple of times before he died in 1999. He was a centered person who seemed at peace with himself. Not someone you think of as a 50-mission bomber.

In Catch 22 he went beyond the older Hobson's Choice in which the seeming choice turns out to be nonexistent, and painted a picture of a choice that was horrible sentence. It's a world that moves from Kant to Kafka:

  • A Hobson's Choice is relatively benign. In one version the stabler offers you a choice of any horse in the stable, when there is only one left–one that everyone else has rejected. The choice is named after a Cambridge (naturally), England innkeeper. In another version of the Hobson's Choice story, the guest is instructed to take the horse "nearest the door".
  • In Catch-22 the choice that one would most like is impossible to get. The possible outcomes are all bad. Relative to a Hobson's Choice, think of a situation where one pays in advance for a choice of horse, but instead of finding a horse, at the stable one is kidnapped or robbed.

Catch-22 is a Kafkaesque world where things don't make sense. Hobson's Choice is a simpler problem – we have no choice, if we know what's good for us. In that way, Kant's attempt to derive a  moral imperative from logical premises instead of divine revelation was an attempt to give the human race two avenues to the same horse, i.e., God.

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