Compare and contrast the work of Owen and Heller in their treatment of war
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The war poetry of Wilfrid Owen and the novel Catch 22 by Joseph Heller contain many creditable and individual features that have helped cement their reputation as two of the most illustrious ‘anti-war’ writers of the 20th century. However, I feel in order for one to thoroughly acknowledge and appreciate the remarkable attributes that both works accommodate, one firstly needs to develop a clear understanding of their origin and how both context and persona have helped shape each piece.
In my opinion, if we were to conscientiously evaluate Owens statement in the Preface to his poetry ‘My subject is war and the pity of war; this will perhaps create a platform from which to locate the distinctions and analogies between the two writers. Owen’s Preface is catalytic, for its universality allows it to travel, providing one of the many alliances between both Owen himself and Joseph Heller.
However it must become clear to the reader that judgement lies in the progression of humanity, the impact of both cannot be dated and enclosed in the time-period of publication, as insisted on by Siegfired Sassoon who wrote of Owen ‘The importance of his contribution to the literature of war cannot be decided by those like myself, who admired him as a friend and a poet’. Significance lies in the dictation of the future. Both writers communication with humanity is in itself a struggle, but in this day and age we have the additional advantage of hindsight.
Professor Malcolm Bradbury for example, wrote of how time has strengthened Catch 22, ‘The prevailing sense of futility of war that runs through the book wouldn’t have gone down well in 1945/6 but by the beginning of the 60’s it really worked. Owens preface impels us to challenge the definition of war, as paradoxically we witness how both writers exploit the repulsive deceitful elements associated with military warfare to impose their own definition on a much deeper, more extensive level.
Tony Tanner’s ‘City of words’ explores this sentiment, proclaiming Catch 22 is less about the tactical struggle of two armies than the struggle for the survival of the individual within his own society’. This prompts us into perceiving war as nothing more than a mere by-product, an idle decrepit answer that foolishly bypasses the root cause embedded in society. War is an intensifier and not a remedy, functioning as an amplifier for social turbulence and mankind’s problems.
It was in fact Heller himself who remarked ‘If we could understand war, we should be on ‘Our way’ to understanding ourselves and our present predicament. Personally, I feel that these words supplied to us by Heller along with Owen’s Preface explain why both writers offer their works as ‘tools’. The involuntary poetry of Wilfrid Owen for example is an instrument used to echo and not safeguard and although poetic aptitude is certainly commendable within his work, this becomes trivialised unless we recognise his offer to humanity.
Likewise with Heller, I feel his ‘masterpiece’ becomes futile unless we fully comprehend as Alistair Rycroft writes that Catch 22 is ‘not just a mere anti-war novel, but one that defines the insanity of business, of religion and of life itself’. The advocacy of nationalism within war may prove both elevating and inspirational to many, yet as suggested within Owen’s poetry, its objective is to hold reality in confinement. Patriotism becomes an ambushed attack on the soldiers independence, an illusive barrier erected to mask the ‘gargling from the froth-corrupted lungs’ Owen so elegantly presents to us in Dulce Et Decorum Est.
In one way, nationalistic romanticism acts like a springboard for the pro-war beliefs, for as long as it is possible to rebound off attitudes alluded to Dulce Et Decorum Est, which claims it is sweet and noble to die for ones country, the false reassurance will always be embedded in the purpose of war. Of course, Owen needn’t use ingenuity to counteract this exaltation of war, all that is required is the truth, a ‘tool’ that can be utilised to eradicate false pretence and narrow the gap between falsehood and reality.
Mental cases’ is just one of many notable examples, ‘Awful falseness of set-smiling corpses, pawing us who dealt them war and madness’. Both writers illustration of the insanity that emanates from war can be minimilized into a binary opposite of satire vs. the purity of realism or ‘tragedy in comedy’ vs. ‘poetry in the pity’. Heller’s own belief was that ‘comedy doesn’t make me laugh, tragedy does’. Heller’s attitude towards laughter elucidates as to why madness is given a free-role in Catch 22.
Heller consciously allows it to drown his novel and introduces a character like Yossarian to survive this sea of fallacy, which of course, Heller metamorphoses into normality. Yet, insanity is merely a ramification of other by-products of war, paranoia for example generates madness. Satire possesses this marvellous ability in being able to manipulate our response, It purposefully implements a truth in each laugh, operating like an injection almost, for the exerted force of comedy drives the exaltation of realism.
In the same way Wilfrid Owen uses an unprecedented shout to capture a race against time in Dulce Et Decorum Est ‘Gas, GAS, quick boys, an ecstasy of fumbling, fitting the clumsy helmets just in time’, Heller can portray madness using a similar backdrop ‘ I See everything twice! , A nurse screamed and an orderly fainted, Doctors came running up.. with needles, lights, tubes.. and oscillating metal lines.. there was not enough of the patient to go round’. The paradoxical co-existence of irregularity and regularity in Catch 22 gives aberrance this kind of inverted normality. Hungry Joe settled down into a normal state of terror with a smile of relief’.
‘It was good when Hungry Joe looked bad and terrible when he looked good’. Heller imprisons the identity of morality and re-instates it into functioning with decadence to become acceptable ‘A world boiling with chaos in which everything was in proper order’. Inversion is an element that dominates and connects both writers, whether it be in a despondent, rather dejected manner ‘carnage incomparable and human squander, rucked too thick for men’s extrication’, in Owen’s Mental cases, which focuses on war being the predominant killer.
Hope is visualised as a ‘lost future’. He uses the past to kill the future. Bathos and nostalgia crave our emotional sympathy towards these victims. The reality of war involuntarily forces us into disconnecting the potential world of ‘girls glanced lovelier as the air grew dim’ in the old days’ from the military world of’ before he threw his knees’. The past and future simultaneously work together to condense.
However to perhaps fully appreciate Owen’s depiction of how war savagely transmogrifies the soldiers’ thoughts into brutal combat, one only needs to compare this to the transpositions allocated in Catch 22 ‘That would contribute to the prestige of his position and increase his striking power in the war he declared against General Dreedle.. the future looked wonderful and General Peckem contemplated his bright new colonel enchantedly with an effulgent smile’. This forces us to value the importance of the purity of natural human sentiment against programmed human emotion.
The authority figures in Hellers novel become almost robotic. Analyse Milo’s behaviour at the funeral of Snowden for instance ‘ I can’t watch it’ he cried, ‘ I can’t sit and watch while those mess halls let MY syndicate die. The bureaucracy’s dependency on egotism and hierarchy becomes almost like that ‘injected drug for their bodies pains’ that Wilfrid Owen implies in Spring Offensive. Their natural opportunistic instinct clouds them, keeping them subconscious and unable to comprehend the reality of war. Colonel Korn defines their purpose ‘Everyone teaches us to aspire to higher things, a general is higher then a colonel’.
These words confirm the feeling of negligence shared amongst many authority figures, in a paradoxical way I suppose the bureaucracy are as keen to avoid war as Yossarian is ‘We all have jobs to do. My job is to unload these Zippo lighters’. Yossarian insists that ‘The enemy is anyone who is going to get you killed’. These words shatter convention. Their truth and universality gives them the freedom from the peripheries that this insane novel evokes but they could just as easily offer themselves as a ‘jigsaw piece’ to fit inside Wilfrid Owens Spring Offensive, for example and his attempts to attenuate the gap between falsehood and realism.
Yossarian’s absence of faith and reliance in his own squadron isolates him into believing ‘They are trying to kill me… everyone of them’. Heller purposeful lack of definition provides protracted scope to the answer. An answer that could lie within the words of Ex-PFC Wintergreen ‘If you’re going to get shot, whose side do u expect me to be on’ or within the paradoxical nature of time in Owens poetry. Times implications can exist as an appreciation just as much as a deteriorating tool that reduces the soldiers back to primitive mentality ‘We only know war lasts, rain soaks and clouds sag stormy’.
Owens trepidation emerges from the capricious nature of war. His inability to comprehend paradox is driving his inquisitiveness ‘Is that why we are dying? The paradoxical nature of war epitomizes the propagandist politicians who both stimulate and fill the soldiers with pride yet simultaneously allow them to fall having lured them in. Nature can be condensed to one of many ‘Binary opposites’ in the form of Benevolence vs. revenge. Its lack of definition becomes tantalizing, as its intricacy tortures Owen into emotional outcry ‘Surely we have perished sleeping’.
It governs war and is a blatant defiance to commitment, insulting the soldiers as it operates any way it wishes. Its inability to be punished evokes contempt. In Catch 22, nature infiltrates the novel discourteously. An intentional device used by Heller similar to his treatment of madness, Heller uses wind irresponsibly ‘Whistling up through the jagged gash… kept up the myriad bits of paper… contributed to a sensation of lacquered waterlogged unreality’. Nature’s lack of solemnity epitomizes the nature of the novel as a whole.
The reality of war is in itself under-estimated and inverted. It becomes a contradiction in the sense that instead of the soldiers complying to the cause, they question purpose ‘What are we doing here? In Exposure. General Dreedle is a character deliberately employed by Heller to illustrate how the exertion of authority becomes amplified to the extreme. Authority becomes so dependent on power it disregards reason, for example Dreedle’s infuriation in not being able to kill Danby stems more from the resistance shown towards his prerogative’ Why the hell can’t I?
Who the hell says I can’t? than the actual crime itself. Intellectually, Heller can force his reader into entrapment through equivocal means. Notably when the natural instinctive purpose of war to ‘fight for your country’ cannot over ride ‘give up your life for Cathcart and me, we are left with ‘You’re either for us or against your country’. Its as simple as that’. This provides a paradox, for one cannot argue against the soldier’s purpose and allegiance, yet the fallacy of the simplicity blurs the choice or the ‘reality’ that Korn offers.
In my opinion, if one where to use the tantalizing torture of the Titanic’s measured yet unavoidable demise under the depths of the Atlantic in 1912, this would provide a fitting metaphor for Heller’s treatment of religion in Catch 22. The actuality of war embodies the subtle and underestimated iceberg, testing the potency of religion, instilling the soldiers with a frightened yet confined recognition. ‘For the love of God seems dying’ In Wilfrid Owen’s Exposure for example. Still using this analogy, we witness how religion almost subconsciously ‘ forfeits’ itself to the corrupt authority.
Heller permits these people with the power to manipulate life and death. Lieutenant Scheiskopf’s wife for example, advises Yossarian ‘You’d better not talk that way about him, honey. He might punish you’ which perfectly compliments Colonel Cathcart’s earlier words ‘Maybe sixty missions were too many for the men to fly.. he ought to increase the number at once to seventy, eighty.. ‘ However, this metamorphosis becomes quite sophisticated. Rather subtlety, Heller obscures his answer through concealing it in the chaplain.
Religion enters the novel ‘Flound’ring’ like that ‘man in fire or lime’ that Owen introduces in D. E. D. E.. Although to Heller, parading religion’s inefficiency at war so distinctly would be too simple. Heller uses the journey of the chaplain from original morality to inversion ‘Tell him to pray to God, Chaplain’ to confirmation of his position as an interloper at war ‘What disgrace? I’m more in disgrace now’, ‘I’ve never told a lie before, isn’t it great? ‘ This impeccably explains why such characters like Yossarian and Dunbar who, we as readers may consider sane, argue that ‘there is no God’.