Yossarian's lesson

One of the most enjoyable books that I remember reading is Catch-22. I am sure that this book has featured amply in my musings on this blog over the years and I keep going back to it as the definitive example of an entire genre, as the most brilliant exposition of the reaction of a sane man to an insane world. This man, Yossarian, has in him the complete essence of such amazing contemporary thinkers as George Carlin and Bill Hicks. He shares with the latter both a sense of lost idealism and the resulting cynicism run amok. I think, however, that cynicism is the rational reaction of those who can think to this world. And I think Yossarian is a rationalist par excellence.

Yossarian is an American fighter pilot in the second world war and all he wants to achieve in the war is to get out of it alive. For this he is chastised by his fellow soldiers and his bosses and treated as a madman. The essential reason why this is so is the following: the bosses have invented a fiction for personal gain (the concept of patriotism) and the foot-soldiers believe in it because they are not very intelligent and cannot see through the charade. The bosses, therefore, are evil and manipulative and want to portray Yossarian as a madman because he confronts their narrative and puts their personal benefits at risk by doing so. The soldiers want to do the same to Yossarian because they really do think that there is something inherently worthy about being patriotic, not realizing its cynical roots. Yossarian then, despite appearances, is neither evil, nor manipulative, nor an enthusiastic trouble maker. He is merely an honest intelligent person caught among those who are stupid and honest and those who are smart and evil.

This is the essential quandary of this world and, therefore, the rational response of a reasonably intelligent person who is honest with himself is cynicism. In this world narratives are created for personal benefits by those who have authority (or by structures of authority) so as to perpetuate and solidify their own existence. These narratives are blindly assimilated by the vast majority who does not or can not see through the complex interconnections. Not only do they assimilate these narratives but through incessant repetition they start to ascribe to them qualities which are external to them. Qualities such as good, proper, honorable, desirable, and worthy. And by buying into these narratives people turn themselves into mere tools, mere robots at the beck and call of a machinery that is vastly more complex and interconnected than they can fathom. What are the examples of this machinery in action? A simple example is consumerism. There's no end to what people can want and it is up to the industrial machinery to make people want more at all times. To satisfy what people consider as their need but which is merely a cynically created want by external agencies, they need to work harder and harder and perpetuate the very industry which created the want in the first place. But to make the process work seamlessly society has to create its own justifications beyond setting up newer and ever changing standards of desire. It has to create ladders of success and it has to assign goodness and worth to those who are more willing to climb it. It has to discourage and stamp out any instinct which goes against the merciless rat race. In short, it has to label those who ask difficult questions as madmen and misfits. This is the story of Yossarian all over again.

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