Wednesday, December 28, 2011

Literary Interlude, Agnostic Edition


Colonel Cathcart went away from General Dreedle with a gulp and kicked...[C]haplain [Tappmann] out of the officers' club, and it was exactly the way it almost was two months later after the chaplain had tried to persuade Colonel Cathcart to rescind his order increasing the number of missions to sixty and had failed abysmally in that endeavor too, and the chaplain was ready now to capitulate to despair entirely but was restrained by the memory of his wife, whom he loved and missed so pathetically with such sensual and exalted ardor, and by the lifelong trust he had placed in the wisdom and justice of an immortal, omnipotent, omniscient, humane, universal, anthropomorphic, English-speaking, Anglo-saxon, pro-American God, which had begun to waver. So many things were testing his faith. There was the Bible, of course, but the Bible was a book, and so were Bleak House, Treasure Island, Ethan Frome and The Last of the Mohicans. Did it indeed seem probable, as he had once overheard Dunbar ask, that the answers to the riddles of creation would be supplied by people too ignorant to understand the mechanics of rainfall? Had Almighty God, in all His infinite wisdom, really been afraid that men six thousand years ago would succeed in building a tower to heaven? Where the devil was heaven? Was it up? Down There was no up or down in a finite but expanding universe in which even the vast, burning, dazzling, majestic sun was in a state of progressive decay that would eventually destroy the earth too. There were no miracles; prayers went unanswered, and misfortune trampled with equal brutality on the virtuous and the corrupt; and the chaplain, who had conscience and character, would have yielded to reason and relinquished his belief in the God of his fathers—would truly have resigned both his calling and his commission and taken his chances as a private in the infantry or field artillery, or even, perhaps, as a corporal in the paratroopers—had it not been for such successive mystic phenomena as the naked man in the tree at that poor sergeant's funeral weeks before and the cryptic, haunting, encouraging promise of the prophet Flume in the forest only that afternoon: Tell them I'll be back when winter comes.

—Joseph Heller, Catch-22 (1961)

Even amidst all the bits of scalding satire contained in Heller's classic American novel, there are moments that cut through pitch-black-comic surface and get at something emotionally and even philosophically real. Above is one particular passage that really got to me; it's as dead-on an encapsulation of the reasons behind my own agnosticism as any I've come across in a work of literature.  Granted, this comes in the context of a character—a naive army chaplain—who, rather than being an agnostic/atheist from the start, is a deeply religious man who experiences a crisis of faith as this particular war drags on. Still, the confusion Heller articulates, with near-unnerving directness, more or less aligns with the kind of confusion I feel whenever I get around to contemplating matters of religion and spirituality.

I'm still reading Catch-22, by the way (I'm almost finished with it), but so far I'm finding it about as brilliant as its reputation—a thorough savaging of the absurdities of life during wartime, by turns hilarious and infuriating. It's snarky and sometimes just plain insane, but at heart Heller's vision is deeply, bleakly humane—as passages like the one above attest.

No comments: