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Title: Heller's Catch-22 Author(s): Steven J. Doloff Source: The Explicator. 65.3 (Spring 2007): p180.

Document Type: Article Full Text: Numerous scholars agree that the climactic epiphany of Joseph Heller's hilarious and horrifying World War II novel Catch-22 (1961) is the protagonist Yossarian's discovery near the end of the book of "Snowden's secret." (1) Returning with his B-25 squadron from a bombing run over Avignon, Yossarian, an American bombardier, futilely tends to a mortally wounded gunner on his plane:
Yossarian ripped open the snaps of Snowden's flak suit and heard himself scream wildly as Snowden's insides slithered down to the floor in a soggy pile and just kept dripping out .... 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. (429-30)

The critics may perceive the Snowden incident as definitive of the novel's frighteningly naturalistic vision of human mortality, but they may have missed in it a striking literary irony underscoring that dour vision. In a much earlier chapter (the novel is famously achronological), Heller makes an overt literary pun out of Snowden's name when Yossarian, at a semweekly "education session" for army aviators, repeatedly asks about the dead airman, "Where are the Snowdens of yesteryear?" (35). To comically reinforce this reference to the fifteenth-century Parisian poet Francois Villon's well-known refrain, "Mais ou sont les neige d'antan?" ("Ballade [des dames du temps jadis]" [Villon 38]), Yossarian even repeats the pun in French, "Ou sont les Neigedens d'antan?" (35). Although this undisguised name play in connection to Villon's lament on the mystery of time and death appropriately anticipates the Snowden revelation to come, a second, apparently overlooked and wonderfully ironic contradictory homophonic allusion accompanies it in the word "Snowden." (2) In one of the most renowned poems in the English language, William Wordworth's The Prelude (1850), the work's climactic vision occurs atop Mt. Snowdon in Northern Wales, the highest point in England and Wales. (3) There, the narrator, looking down from the mountain, experiences a "peace / Which passeth understanding" (14.126-27) and a "Faith in life endless, the sustaining thought / Of human being, Eternity, and God" (14.204-05) among a sweeping host of similarly exalting feelings. (4) Could Heller have joined a more contrasting association with the somber Villon allusion, or, more to the point, with Snowden's grave "secret," than Wordsworth's vision of life everlasting? As a grand example of the author's stylistic signature of coupling contradictory perspectives,

Snowden's name simultaneously evokes intimations of immortality and mortality--the former glaringly repudiated by the novel, the latter grotesquely confirmed. Thus, one could also argue, "Snowden's secret" allusively contains its own abstract of Heller's titular cosmic paradigm of human frustration itself, "Catch-22": the prospect of happiness absurdly wed to the assurance of its denial. --STEVEN J. DOLOFF, Pratt Institute, Brooklyn, New York Copyright [c] 2007 Heldref Publications KEYWORDS Catch-22, Joseph Heller, literary pun, mortality, The Prelude, Snowden, Villon, William Wordsworth NOTES 1. Alfred Kazin declares it the novel's "primal scene" (490). David M. Craig states that, "[...] out of Snowden's viscera, the genetic coding for all of Heller's fiction emerges [...]. In this cosmological moment, all of Heller's novels begin and end" (235). To Sanford Pinsker, "The much hinted at, long postponed, absolutely crucial confrontation with Snowden [...] may be the book's 'deep image,' the dark figure in its wacky, comic carpet" (28). Stephen W. Pohs believes the Snowden episode "caps the serious message of the novel" (107). And Robert Merrill concludes, "Snowden truly dies throughout Catch-22, as Heller once said, and therefore seems to sum up what the novel is about" (46). 2. Heller's frequent use in Catch-22 of literary allusions and, for comic effect, just plain literary name-dropping has been noted (see Woodson 106-07). No doubt Heller's bachelor's degree in English from New York University, master's degree from Columbia University, Fulbright scholarship year in English literature at Oxford University, and early stint at college English teaching all helped provide him with the source material. 3. It is hard to overstate the reputation of this work. Stephen Gill has called The Prelude "The greatest Romantic poem [...] which serves to define English Romanticism" (4), and M. H. Abrams sees it as "the greatest and most original long poem since Milton's Paradise Lost" (Norton Anthology 230). Abrams also identifies the Mt. Snowdon episode as "the climactic stage ... of the imaginative journey which is the poem itself [... in] the ascent of a mountain, the traditional place for definitive visions since Moses had climbed Mt. Sinai" ("The Design of The Prelude" 593). 4. Very much like the construction of Catch-22, that of The Prelude is "drastically achronological [...] Wordsworth proceeds by sometimes bewildering ellipses, fusions, and as he says, 'motions retrograde' in time (IX, 8)" (Abrams, "The Design of The Prelude," 587-88). It is, perhaps, therefore merely coincidental, although interesting, that Wordsworth's Snowdon vision in the last book of the poem, like Heller's delayed Snowden epiphany, is presented out of order in the overall narrative and offers up an earlier event as the work's defining "emblem" or image.

WORKS CITED Abrams, M. H., gen. and Romantic period ed. The Norton Anthology of English Literature. Vol. 2. 4th ed. New York: Norton. 1979. ______. "The Design of The Prelude: Wordsworth's Long Journey Home." William Wordsworth: The Prelude 1799, 1805, 1850 Authoritative Texts, Context and Reception, Recent Critical Essays. Ed. Jonathan Wordsworth, M. H. Abrams, and Stephen Gill. New York: Norton, 1979. Craig, David M. Tilting at Mortality: Narrative Strategies in Joseph Heller's Fiction. Detroit: Wayne State UP, 1997. Gill, Stephen. William Wordsworth: The Prelude. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1991. Heller, Joseph. Catch-22. New York: Simon, 1961. Kazin, Alfred. "The War Novel: From Mailer to Vonnegut." Joseph Heller's Catch-22: A Critical Edition. Ed. Robert M. Scotto. New York: Dell, 1973. Merrill, Robert. Joseph Heller. Boston: Twayne, 1987. Pinsker, Sanford. Understanding Joseph Heller. Columbia: U of South Carolina P, 1991. Pohs, Stephen W. Catch-22: Antiheroic Antinovel. Boston: Twayne, 1989. Villon, Francois. The Complete Works of Francois Villon. Trans. Anthony Bonner. New York: McKay, 1960. Woodson, Jon. A Study of Joseph Heller's Catch-22: Going around Twice. New York: Lang, 2001. Wordsworth, William. William Wordsworth: The Prelude 1799, 1805, 1850 Authoritative Texts, Context and Reception, Recent Critical Essays. Ed. Jonathan Wordsworth, M. H. Abrams, and Stephen Gill. New York: Norton, 1979. Doloff, Steven J. Source Citation Doloff, Steven J. "Heller's Catch-22." The Explicator 65.3 (2007): 180+. Academic OneFile. Web. 20 Nov. 2011. Document URL p=AONE&sw=w

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