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.