On Media / Pop Culcha

Jewish World Review Feb. 16, 2000/ 11 Adar I, 5760

Robert Leiter

Heller's Legacy Poses a Catch-22

http://www.jewishworldreview.com -- THE RECENT DEATH of novelist Joseph Heller, author of the contemporary classic Catch-22, was the occasion for an outpouring of affection for the man and praise for his gifts as an artist. There was little dissent from the prevailing view that he had written at least one work of genius, his first -- his send-up of war and the military, that gave the language the term Catch-22.

So, it shouldn't be surprising that several months after Heller's demise, an alternate view has appeared from none other than Norman Podhoretz.

One forgets that the former editor-in-chief of Commentary magazine began his career as a literary critic -- that is, until you are immersed in one of his critical essays and recall how good he was, and still is, at it. Econophone(Examples of this early work are gathered in his first book, Doings and Undoings, which is still very much worth a look.) In fact, there are many people who wish Podhoretz had stayed in the literary arena and had never wandered into political commentary. But those people have an axe to grind.

As for his Heller piece, titled "Looking Back at Catch-22," it appears in the February 2000 issue of Commentary and makes it clear right from the start that in the bad old 1960s, when the counterculture had just begun to rear its ugly head, Podhoretz, who was then on the left, praised Heller's novel, with certain reservations, as an accurate portrait of the madness of American society in the mid-20th century.

He's changed his mind, of course, as anyone who has followed his political career since the 1960s might imagine. Where earlier he thought highly of the book, he now has reassessed his position. He still thinks the novel works as art, though even 40 years ago he never was convinced that its "greatness was beyond dispute" or that it "would live forever," as other critics had raved.

TrakdataWhat he worries about now is the effect the novel's philosophy has had on several generations of Americans. Podhoretz rarely agrees with E.L. Doctorow these days, but he has to admit that the popular novelist accurately summarized Catch-22's appeal.

"When Catch-22 came out," Doctorow noted in a tribute to Heller, "people were saying, ŚWell, World War II wasn't like this.' But when we got tangled up in Vietnam, it became a sort of text for the consciousness of that time. They say fiction can't change anything, but it can certainly organize a generation's consciousness."

Podhoretz agrees that Catch-22 as a work of art had the power to change people's minds, but what he wonders now is "whether the literary achievement was worth the harm -- the moral, spiritual and intellectual harm" the novel has done to the "consciousness" of several generations.

The influence of Heller's vision, according to Podhoretz, "lingers on in a gutted American military and in a culture that puts the avoidance of casualties above all other considerations. (How often have we been told that the only military engagements the American people will tolerate are those that do not result in the shipping-home of any body bags'?) Of course, Heller cannot be given all the credit' for this situation. [But] he did as much as anyone to resurrect the pacifist ideas that had become prevalent after World War I and had then been discredited by World War II: that war is simply a means by which cynical people commit legalized murder in pursuit of power and profits; that patriotism is a fraud; and that nothing is worth dying for (this last sentiment, according to Nietzsche, being a mark of the slave)."

JWR contributor Robert Leiter is Literary Editor of the Philadelphia Jewish Exponent. Let him know what you think by clicking here.

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© 2000 Robert Leiter