The Snowdens of Yesteryear

by Michael Potemra

That the political celebrity du jour is named Snowden reminds me of one of the good passages in Joseph Heller’s comic novel Catch-22. I haven’t read it in years and I didn’t like it quite as much as everyone else did (I thought it was, among other things, overlong); I suspect it hasn’t aged especially well either; but the scene in which Yossarian comforts the dying airman Snowden is powerful and moving. I do not need to endorse some of the opinions the passage has been used to advance — it doesn’t, e.g., prove that World War II was wrong — but it undeniably evokes the tragic human cost of war. (Warning: The scene is extremely graphic and not for anyone who lacks a strong stomach. The excerpt can be found here.) I am especially grateful for Heller’s stressing — in a time when scientistic/philosophical materialism was already on the rise — that the human spirit is what is distinctive about human beings. In Aristotelian language, soul is “the form” of man  that which makes him man, as opposed to some other substance. I would object, from my religion’s perspective, to part of Heller’s phrasing, when he writes, “The spirit gone, man is garbage.” I believe that all of creation  not just the spiritual part  has dignity because it is the object of God’s creative purpose; so it’s not strictly speaking “garbage.” But Heller’s overstatement has value nonetheless, in stressing something that is these days too often denied. (Or, as Flannery O’Connor said: When you’re talking to the hard-of-hearing it’s okay to shout.)

PS. The title of the post comes from another scene in Catch-22, in which Yossarian invokes the famous François Villon poem.

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