The other day I was reading some particularly funny passages from Catch-22 for the umpteenth time when my mind wandered off into many different useless directions, finally settling on to a point which I thought was quite interesting and worth elaborating upon. Yossarian, it seemed to me, was a particularly notable hero in the pantheon of fictional heroes, quite on par with the majestic dude from the venerable movie the big Lebowski. Catch-22 is not the greatest book ever written and the big Lebowski is not the greatest movie ever made but Yossarian and the dude are, in my opinion, the greatest heroes which were ever created. For those unfortunate souls who have not yet read the book, Yossarian is a fighter pilot in the second world war whose sole aim is to survive the war at whatever cost it may require. And for those who haven't seen the movie, the dude is an utter slacker whose concern revolves around a rug that was soiled by some vandals as he is dealt one blow after another throughout the movie. Not exactly the kinds of characters that one has come to associate with the word hero but then the characteristics that one does associate with the word hero are heavily clouded by the surreal logic of the tragicomic world that we live in.
We associate the qualities of courage, self-sacrifice, honorable conduct etc. with the word hero but it is not hard to see how these only apply to a rather limited worldview and become absurd when one asks some difficult questions. As an example courage, as evidenced in wars, is the easiest to bring down from its high and noble pedestal and I'd quote a few lines from the book to draw home the point:
What is a country? A country is a piece of land surrounded on all sides by boundaries, usually unnatural. Englishmen are dying for England, Americans are dying for America, Germans are dying for Germany, Russians are dying for Russia. There are now fifty or sixty countries fighting in this war. Surely so many countries can't all be worth dying for.
Courage, if it exists at all in the form that we instinctively think of, must be denounced on purely rational grounds as it only serves to extend conflicts. In other words, if everybody was a coward, perhaps there wouldn't be so many wars and conflicts. But we unfortunately do not live in a world where people are cowards. We live in a world where intelligent people make less intelligent people believe how great it is to be courageous so that the latter can fight and die to preserve what is essentially the private property and influence of the former. Nationalistic songs are written where the motherland is praised, religious sermons are given which egg people on, paintings glorifying wars and conquests are commissioned and immense sculptures are created in national capitals. Many people take all this very seriously and buy bumper stickers which say how they support their soldiers which of course I find extremely amusing. Sometimes I see beneath the veneer of equanimity on the faces of reasonable people, a tinge of self-righteousness in matters of historical and contemporary conflict; as if these conflicts were really anything more than a struggle for survival between arbitrary entities. If courage is to be assessed under a rational light then it must be praised only to the extent that it helps us prevail over them but there is neither morality nor sentimentality in this view. In this view courage is a very useful quality which I'd like others to have and I'd like for them to exercise it when the time comes. This is essentially what the expectation from the word is in our world but it is rarely expressed like that because it runs so counter to some of our most cherished ideals. Yossarian gets it and has too much intelligence and honesty to pretend otherwise. What he cannot understand is how others don't seem to see his point. He is caught in this arbitrary war between arbitrary entities and all he is trying to accomplish is the one thing that nature intended him to do, survive. He understands that the structure which is erected to prevent him from doing so must necessarily be self serving and deceitful. Others, however, do not see the incredible deceit and buy into the stories that they have cumulatively told each other. They are operating in a world of mirages where the ideals which drive these essentially good and honest and hardworking people are nothing but useful characteristics which a system much bigger than them demands of them. The system needs to survive and it is unsympathetic and it doesn't care. Yossarian is the true hero to me because he is the only one who operates in the world of reality. He is the only sane man among the madmen around him. Dude, obviously, is the other guy who gets it but I'll leave him for some other time.