So this is a rambling little essay that came out of reading Catch-22 in my Satire English IV class at the end of senior year. I expect that Catch-22 isn’t entirely to blame, though, and quite a few fingers should be pointed at the oodles of self-reflection one is forced to go through when one graduates from somewhere. It eats into your brain and suddenly you’re analyzing every decision you’ve made since you were born and, what’s more, you’re raring to talk about it. You’ll shout it from hilltops if that’s what it’ll take for someone to listen to you. I think we can all agree that, in comparison, a little essay like this is mostly harmless, can we not? (I hope someone sees what I did there.)
In Defense of Idealism
When I was very little, probably no more than five or six, I wrote a story about a little boy who sat in his treehouse all day dreaming about knights and castles and fair ladies and—most importantly—dragons. He spent his time imagining himself at the epicenter of a world of easily resolvable troubles (not that he saw it that way of course; vanquishing the dragon and bringing peace to the kingdom is hard work), where, at the end of the day, everyone (except perhaps the dragon) was happy and nothing was amiss. That little boy was me (an even better version of me, actually, because he had a treehouse) and I was at the age where everything is possible, but all the grown-ups are just beginning to tell you otherwise, which seems quite unfair when all the books are telling you about all the wonderful things that could happen if only you were a bit older and had three other siblings and lived in England during a war. I was very young and I was very much concerned with how the world could be (or as I saw it, how it should be) and not at all with how the world actually was. Here, I think, was the birth of my idealism.
But one can’t stay a would-be character in an E. Nesbit book forever and so I began to grow up. I think the sea-change came in sixth grade, when I read A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court and suddenly every chivalric ideal I’d ever dreamt of was turned on its head and, somehow, I liked it. And from then on, I stopped reading the more charming, idealistic stories I’d grown up idolizing and started in on darker, more cynical stuff. There was a period where Lord of the Flies was my favorite book. I developed a liking for sharp, dark humor and a generally bleak outlook on life and its ridiculousness. The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy was my Bible in Freshman year, Douglas Adams my hero. The Picture of Dorian Gray, Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?, The Stranger, 1984, The Master and Margarita, A Single Man, The Great Gatsby, Catcher in the Rye, A Handful of Dust. . . I adored them all and used them to create a second-self, a self enamored of cynicism who believed in nothing but believing in nothing, thrived on paradox, and liked nothing more than to point out that, really, everything is absurd. It was cool. It is cool. Nihilism, absurdism, positivism, they’re all absolutely fascinating and because I was so completely intrigued by these bleak ideas, I decided to believe them because I thought it was far more interesting. After all, where’s the fun in believing in the fundamental good of the world when you can just as easily believe that it’s all completely nuts? And besides, idealism seemed a mite too close to religion for comfort, and I had decided long ago that I was an atheist.*
Such was my outlook when I was sixteen. The world was crazy—as were all the people in it—and I should probably be honored for having recognized the situation for what it was. But none of this was completely true. I was trying so hard to become some kind of independent cynic, that I’d come to believe it myself, even while I was still practically reduced to tears by each reading of Peter Pan. And at some point, I started to realize that however cool I found cynicism and however uncool idealism, I wasn’t a cynic at heart. No matter how much I didn’t want to have faith in boring and silly ideals, I did.
Like much else in my life, this counter-realization and resultant maturity came as the result of literature. About half way through junior year, I began rereading the books I’d loved as a kid: the Swallows and Amazons books, The Railway Children, The Enchanted Castle, Half Magic, Knight’s Castle, The Young Detectives. And then I buried myself in fairytales and legends, rediscovering Andrew Lang’s fairy books and Howard Pyle’s Robin Hood and King Arthur and Men of Iron. And I began to realize that I was allowed to be fascinated by skepticism and dark humor without trying to mould myself into the sort of philosophies they entailed. I didn’t have to become an absurdist to appreciate Camus and dystopian science fiction works just as well if you read it with a steadfast faith in humanity.
This realization, though, hasn’t come about quickly. I still don’t really think it’s very cool or interesting to be an idealist. I still kind of wish that I didn’t have a belief in man’s basic goodness and that I didn’t firmly believe in the sorts of platitudes spouted by the government on the Fourth of July. And so, I think, reading Catch-22 has been very good for me in a way far beyond the benefit of its literary merit. The novel is, quite obviously, not idealistic at all. It’s fantastically and attractively cynical, darkly humorous, satirizing and condemning of all sorts of ridiculous and romantic convictions and firmly disapproving of mankind and his foibles in general. Unsurprisingly, I loved it. I love it. But, unlike reading Eugene Onegin or The Restaurant at the End of the Universe I didn’t love it because I was screaming “Yes! Yes! This is exactly what I think!” in my head the whole time. It wasn’t exactly what I thought, just like all those other books hadn’t been, I was merely self-aware enough now to realize that I loved them for their ideas, for their expression, for their innovation, if not necessarily because I entirely believed them.
Catch-22 was, I think, the perfect book for me to reach this conclusion with because, not only did it have the elements of all that which I find fascinating, it had the other side too in Nately. Poor, young, idealistic Nately who can’t help but argue with an old Italian man who insults his country because he has such a firm faith in his own ideals. The more I read of Nately, the more I realized that this was who I was: not some crazy, challenging, independent Yossarian, but a devoutly patriotic Nately, firmly convinced in the fundamental good of the world, humanity, and America, despite all evidence to the contrary. Nately, for goodness’ sake, is in the middle of the bloodiest war in human history. And yet he is still able to spout practically meaningless platitudes such as “Anything worth living for. . . is worth dying for” and “it’s better to die on on’s feet than live on one’s knee” (247) when confronted with a world-weary old opportunist cynic like the old man. The rest of the characters in the novel make fun of Nately, even patronize him a bit, for his idealism. But despite Heller’s larger message regarding the ridiculousness of war and bureaucracy and the futility of ideals, I don’t think Catch-22 is at all a condemnation of idealism, no matter how futile. Nately, though patronized, is universally well-liked and his death has perhaps one of the greatest effects upon Yossarian, second only to Snowden’s. In the novel, Nately dies right on the cusp of the shift in tone which eventually leads to Chapter 39’s “The Eternal City” and Yossarian’s eventual decision. With Nately, die all the ideals that he stood for. His is the death of innocence, of hope, of America, of principles. It’s no mistake that his is the death that haunts Yossarian the most, through the very physical manifestation of Nately’s whore, who spends the rest of the book attempting to murder Yossarian for she believes he (and by extension all other dissolute cynics) is responsible for Nately’s death. And, as Yossarian admits, she has a point. Nately’s death is the beginning of the end, for when ideals die completely what is there left? Heller answers that question in Chapter 39 with Yossarian’s hellish trip through Rome: when ideals die, the world is left at the mercy of Catch-22.
So whatever Heller’s other complicated messages and condemnations, I think there is a little sliver of space left for, perhaps grudging, admiration of Nately and his ability to maintain his ideals as he does even in the face of such horrific war and ridiculous bureaucracy. Yes, Nately is a bit silly. Yes, he’s almost cute in his flustered and shallow defense of America. Yes, everything he says is utterly ridiculous from a logical standpoint. But, look at what happens when he and his ideals are gone. When no one is there to believe in humanity or America or even in goodness. However silly and empty his ideals are, they are admirable and necessary, even. And I think some part of Heller wants his reader to recognize that. If he hadn’t, Nately would have been made completely ridiculous and the reader would not have been able to like him as much as the reader does.
In reading the novel, I realized all this. I realized how much I admired Nately, no matter his naïveté and silliness, for maintaining his ideals. And I realized how essential I think ideals are. And perhaps most importantly, that thinking all of these things is okay, is who I am. I love America, even though I’m not always quite sure why I do. I would never in a million years dodge a draft or desert. I’ll never be persuaded to give up my faith in humanity, even if we are nearly five hundred million years younger than the frog. And that’s okay. I’m a romantic. I’m an idealist. I think about how the world could be and hope that we might someday get there. I dream of dragons and quests and knights and all the charm of the ideal. That’s who I am. But that doesn’t mean that I can’t still prefer Han Solo to Luke Skywalker.
*This is another issue for another day and something that is now not nearly so black and white as it was in ninth grade. In fact, it’s rather like the idealism. Just go read some Powys, maybe you’ll get it.