Joseph Heller: The Absurdity of Politics

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In this episode of World of Ideas, the novelist who added the term “catch-22” to the American lexicon discusses the absurdity of politics and the seriousness of comedy.



BILL MOYERS: [on camera] Good evening, I’m Bill Moyers. The captain called it “The Glorious Loyalty Oath Crusade” and, as he told his squadron, people who really did owe allegiance to their country would be proud to pledge it as often as he forced them to. So every enlisted man was required to sing the “Star Spangled Banner” before using the ketchup in the mess hall, and each crew member had to sign an oath before picking up his parachute. The entire camp snarled into a knot of pledging and singing soldiers, and bombing missions were delayed for hours.

The Loyalty Oath Crusade was fiction, a story created nearly thirty years ago by one of America’s great masters of the absurd. But as he tells us tonight, sometimes you can’t tell the difference between absurdity and politics. Join me for a conversation with Joseph Heller.

Joseph Heller has some bad news and some good news. If you think the system is crazy, he says, well, you’re right. But at least you’re sane enough to tell. Since its publication in 1961, Heller’s black comedy about men at war made Catch-22 part of our language, and turned a soldier named Yossarian into one of the memorable anti-heroes of American literature, and the star of the movie based on the novel.

Heller followed Catch-22 with other novels about American culture and politics: Something Happened, God Knows, Good as Gold. This fall there is a new one, Picture This, as Joseph Heller looks at democracy in the time of Socrates. I talked with Joe Heller at his home in East Hampton, New York.

[interviewing] I did stay up until the wee hours, reading a second time your novel Good as Gold, which caused me to laugh out loud at 3:00 in the morning, leaning up on the couch. The White House assistant who runs around saying, “We’re going to tell the truth, even if we have to lie to do it.” A president who sits up his whole year, first year in office, writing a book about it, doing nothing but writing a book. The assistant who says, “We don’t want yes men in this administration, we want men of independent integrity who will then agree with everything we decide to do. ” Why is politics so funny to you?

JOSEPH HELLER:: Almost everything in Good as Gold about politics that is presented with the intention of making the reader laugh is drawn from things that were actually going on, and going on on almost a daily basis. American politics is funny. There are many, many things that one could say in criticism of it, and a few things one can say in praise, and one of the things you could say in both praise and criticism is that it is ludicrously funny.

What I say in Good as Gold, and I say it specifically, is that politics is important to someone like Bruce Gold not because of the power so much, but because of the social acceptance, the social prestige. You travel with a better class of people, and as Ralph Newsome says, you’ll meet pretty women, or guys. You get invited to big parties.

BILL MOYERS: Well, I guess it’s a good thing, then, that we look to politics for so much entertainment. I mean, entertainment now dominates the staging of politics, the public drama.

JOSEPH HELLER:: Well, it’s disgusting to realize that there are organizations and specialists who exist in grooming and advising a candidate for office, whether it’s a mayoral or gubernatorial election, or a federal election. They tell him what to wear, how to stand, where to sit, what to say. But isn’t it equally disgusting that we know about it, and we’re not revolted by that?

BILL MOYERS: It’s the soap opera, politics is the soap opera, and these are the people who are writing the scripts for the soap opera. And we know that we’re watching a soap opera, but we watch it and respond to it.

JOSEPH HELLER:: Well, politics for me has become a spectator sport, it has become less and less entertaining for me over the years, so I’m less and less interested in it. I have not voted for perhaps 20 or 25 years. But even as a spectator sport, as I say, like other sports, it’s less and less interesting to me, and I feel it’s-I’ve come to a rather cynical belief that has been held by a large number of American conservatives, beginning with the Constitutional Convention, and philosophers in Victorian England and in Athens; that there are many illusions incorporated in democratic philosophy. They tend to be very pleasing and satisfying, but they are misleading and they are fantasies. And one of them is that the democratic ideal is even possible, that there is such a thing as participatory democracy. I think one of the illusions we have, and it’s very comforting, is that by voting we are participating in government. I maintain that is a delusion, it is a ritual routine. The right to vote, I feel, is indispensable to our contentment; in application it is absolutely useless.

BILL MOYERS: You say it’s a ritualistic routine, but isn’t the ritual important to the notion of democracy?

JOSEPH HELLER:: That’s where the delusion is, that one’s vote matters at all — it doesn’t. That the election matters — it doesn’t. That the victorious party will be responsive to the wishes of those electing it — that is not true.

BILL MOYERS: I’ve seen elections where a change — John Kennedy’s election — the change of one vote in every precinct in America would have elected Richard Nixon.

JOSEPH HELLER:: We can’t guess, but I’m inclined to feel it is something of a sentimental daydream, to believe that things would have been significantly different if John Kennedy had not been assassinated or if Nixon had won, or if–

BILL MOYERS: That’s a very-it’s not cynical, it’s fatalistic. It’s as if our fate is sealed.

JOSEPH HELLER:: Well, after doing this novel, Picture This, where I studied history, I’ve come to the conclusion that men don’t make history. I think. history makes personalities. It’s only Shakespeare, “There is a tide in the affairs of men-”

BILL MOYERS: My senior paper in history at the University of Texas consisted of one question: Did Lincoln make his times, or did the times make Lincoln? And I started out by saying yes.

JOSEPH HELLER:: To which one?

BILL MOYERS: To both, I think it’s both. Why did you go back to ancient Greece? You’re
so fascinated by American life today, by politics-

JOSEPH HELLER:: Well, I went back to ancient Greece for this novel because I was interested in writing about American life today, and about Western civilization today. And in ancient Greece — centered on Athens but not Athens in isolation — in Athens in relation to the other cities of ancient Greece, I found striking parallels, striking parallels and grim parallels.


JOSEPH HELLER:: Oh, very grim, extremely grim. In the war between Sparta and Athens, I can see a-

BILL MOYERS: The Peloponnesian War?

JOSEPH HELLER:: Yes, I can see a prototype of the cold war between this country and Russia, from the beginning of the defeat over Hitler to the near-war between Russia and the U.S. I make — if it’s not there — I certainly make the correspondence between Athens and Sparta. In Picture This the subject is not war so much, although wars are continuous in the American history; one of the lines I like in Picture This is the one that I have where, following a series of statements that, “Peace on earth would mean the end of civilization as we know it.” But between Athens and now, war is continuous.

BILL MOYERS: Now, our notion, the popular notion of Greece today, is of a wise, humane, intelligent, moderate society. Is that what you found when you went back?

JOSEPH HELLER:: No, I didn’t find it at all. In fact, I found as democracy was instituted, it be-came more chaotic, more chaotic, more corrupt, more warlike. Another thing I learned from Athenian history and it’s corroborated by our own is, it is much easier for the leader of a country to make war than to administer to the domestic problems of that society.

BILL MOYERS: Well, my favorite passage in Picture This is a very short one: “The motion in the Athenian assembly” -the Congress of Greece -“The motion in the Athenian assembly to invade Syracuse was deceitful, corrupt, stupid, chauvinistic, irrational and suicidal. It passed by a huge majority.” What are you trying to say to us?

JOSEPH HELLER:: What I’m trying to say is that the emotions of people in a democratic society are no more rational than they are in any other type of society, that they are manipulated. It is the function of a leader of a democracy, if he wishes to be a leader and retain popular support, to manipulate the emotions and the ideas of the population, and in the case of the motion to invade Syracuse, which worked out in retrospect and even at the time the argument of the men opposing it was absolutely irrational, suicidal and point-less and romantic.

One of Plato’s biggest fears and one of his most severe criticisms of Athenian democracy was that  — I’m trying to quote the translation accurately — was that the people would set up a popular leader to champion a popular cause. Now, to us, we would assume that that is the function of a political leader, to give the people what they want. For Plato, that would mean a chaotic government. A government run by people responsive to the wishes of the people, he felt, would be a government administered by people who had no control over public affairs. Give the people what you want, and the leaders would not be controlling government, the people would be controlling the various acts of government and decisions of government.

I think if he were living today, he would see that those fears have been realized. What do we have in campaigns, in the primaries, what do we have in elections? I think I said it earlier, candidates making promises they know they can’t keep or would not want to keep, to people they feel gullible enough to believe them, for the sole purpose of getting elected.

BILL MOYERS: Or not making promises about what they know they have to do anyway. Saying we’re not going to raise taxes when they know either there are going to be more taxes or an ever-increasing deficit which will burden the future generations.

JOSEPH HELLER:: Exactly. That is one of the defects of popular government, that you find Aristotle, Plato, Socrates, being spoken of through Plato, you find McCauley saying it, H.L. Mencken, in his writing -now, he was a conservative Baltimorean — he has more scathing criticism of capitalistic America and its forms of government than anybody I can recall.

BILL MOYERS: What about Socrates? I’m struck by the fact that two men I admire very much as writers, you and I.F. Stone, have both written this year, published this’ year about Socrates. What makes Socrates such a fetching figure?

JOSEPH HELLER:: For me he’s appealing because, number one, he has no reality other than the idealization given him by Plato. Socrates, I was amused to learn, never wrote a word. He was too smart to be a philosopher. He’s one of these men that I believe exists in every advanced culture, about whom we never hear, and who are truly the wisest men in the society, because they have transcended the human vanity, the ambition to be noted for their wisdom. Socrates never wrote a word; we have Plato’s. Plato’s philosophy is — not in particular, but Plato’s four books dealing with the death of Socrates are famous, particularly the death of Socrates, and his last words, with which I begin the novel, and with which I end it. In a way he’s as fascinating as Hamlet, since he’s so vague you can see in him what you want.

BILL MOYERS: I like the description in your book of him, I find appealing what you say, “But he would not violate the law to save his life. He did not know if the law was good, but he knew what it was, and he would not flee Athens to avoid his trial or execution.” Something admirable in that.

JOSEPH HELLER:: Well, that’s why I idealize him, and that’s why the Apology of Plato-Plato’s Apology is one of the imperishable works of Western literature. That was Socrates.

BILL MOYERS: Did you learn anything about our society by looking back at Socrates’ time?

JOSEPH HELLER:: I did not — no. My opinion of this society did not change, and it’s not a wholly negative opinion. Again, it’s a-

BILL MOYERS: No, I didn’t mean that. It’s a paradoxical opinion.

JOSEPH HELLER:: Well, if you expect the democratic system of government to provide efficient government, you’re going to be disappointed. Again, Hamilton and Jefferson and Carlyle and others assumed that in an industrial society, the captains of industry would and should be the political leaders. They assumed that they would be men of intelligence, men of integrity, men of vision, and men who, having achieved wealth, would no longer have the accumulation of wealth as their goal and would be interested in the public good. That has not happened, as we know.

Let me say something else, too. If we’re going to talk about good government, I will confess that I don’t know what good government is or what good government should be, and I don’t believe anybody else knows, and I don’t know that we could reach agreement on it. In a general way we could say we would like a president who does not lie. He may keep secrets, he may say-we would prefer a president who does not lie, we would prefer an administration whose members do not use their position to accumulate more wealth for themselves or for their family or their friends; who are not cheats in one way or another.

BILL MOYERS: So the fact that democracy is absurd doesn’t make it undesirable.

JOSEPH HELLER:: Oh, there is no other form of government that I can envision or you can envision that we would prefer to it. We would prefer that we had a better class of public officials than we have, and if elected to office they were serious about their responsibility. they were more responsible to their office than they were to the people who financed their coming to office. that they did assume a public trust. that they did regard. instead of as — what Bruce Gold said in Good as Gold, that the only responsibility of office is to stay in office.

BILL MOYERS: The theme to me — and every reader finds his own theme in a novel — the theme of Catch-22 to me was the perverse nature of human intentions, that the regulations designed to save us wound up strangling us in the war. And I wonder if — and Yossarian stood up against those: He said his no — as you indicated — and rowed out to sea. If he came rowing up out here on the south shore of Long Island this afternoon, what do you think would be the theme of the novel you would now cast about him?

JOSEPH HELLER:: If he came rowing up. I would say to him: “Get out of here! Don’t destroy a good ending.” I certainly wouldn’t want him coming up here and being acclaimed a hero and taking part in the same social life I’m taking part in. You would have him on this program instead of me.

BILL MOYERS: That’s exactly right. He may be more interesting to us.

JOSEPH HELLER:: Well, you could say, “Where have you been all these years?” I do think that this exists in Catch-22. As Murray Kempton in a column pointed out, the morality in Catch-22 is orthodox morality. The ideology of democracy is a very good, perfect ideology. The faults come from the human application, they are human defects. There are people — there is greed, there is self-interest, there are what I would call parochial loyalties, there are people who — ambition and greed, who find ways, who find loopholes, to further their own ambitions, whatever they are, without evading the law or evading the law in safety. The fundamental ethics, I think, with the possible exception of the sexual, that permit medieval and traditional, still prevail. I believe we all know that a lie is a vice. We do know that greed is a vice. And all the other seven deadly sins. We know that patriotism is a virtue, provided we can define what patriotism is, and provided there’s a popular national cause which calls upon it. It is, I think, the defects of human nature. Let me give you a sentence: All societies we know of are governed by the selfish interests of the ruling class or classes. ” Can you think of many to whom that would not apply, many countries or societies?


JOSEPH HELLER:: That statement was made by Plato at about 380 B.C., in The Republic. “All societies we know of are governed by the selfish interests of the ruling class.” Can you think of many societies between Plato’s Athens and today to whom that would not apply in very large part?


JOSEPH HELLER:: We are living in more dangerous times than in the past, because our techniques of annihilation have improved. We have nuclear weapons now, we have nerve gases, but the nature of society — I’m sorry to say I discovered, in thinking about Picture This — doesn’t seem to change much for the better.

BILL MOYERS: There is a contrast in Catch-22 and Picture This I want to ask you about. In Catch-22 Yossarian becomes a hero after he decides that the system really is insane and he escapes it. He becomes a hero by escaping it. He leaves in that rowboat and is heading for Scandinavia, pulling himself away from the shore. But in Picture This, your new book, nobody escapes.

JOSEPH HELLER:: Well, in Catch-22 he doesn’t escape, he’s trying to escape, and he is put in a situation by me, which is manipulated for that, in which his choices are accepting corruption and benefit by it; join us, become one of the boys, we’ll give you a promotion and we’ll send you home a hero; or else going to prison for refusing to fly more missions; or fly more forever until eventually he will be killed; or asserting himself. And the only way he can assert himself without accepting any other alternative is to say no. Now, he knows he’s not going to get to Sweden, and it ends with him going out the door. And he is the major character and he does become — he is idealized, but he also becomes an idealist.
In Picture This there is no one character who is a strong hero. Socrates probably comes closer to it than anybody else. Aristotle is there as a presence. They’re different books; I don’t want to write the same book. There is an element of hope in Catch-22, it ends in a very positive nature. Picture This doesn’t. Picture This begins with — almost begins with a quotation of Henry Ford, and the quotation is repeated at the end: “History is bunk,” said Henry Ford -B-U-N-K, I have trouble pronouncing it. So what I’m trying to say is, don’t believe what you read. For a while I thought impishly of ending Picture This with the line, “Don’t believe anything you read.” But I did not want to undermine myself to that extent.

BILL MOYERS: Is your not voting a kind of identity with Yossarian’s saying no?

JOSEPH HELLER:: No, no, it isn’t.

BILL MOYERS: Just say no?

JOSEPH HELLER:: No, I don’t vote because I get no pleasure out of it, no satisfaction. I could no longer titillate myself with the feeling that I am participating in the results of an election, because I know my vote will not make a difference. I’ve been as disappointed in the Democrats as I’ve been in the Republicans; I’m never disappointed in the Republicans, because the only Republican I’ve ever voted for was Senator Keating in New York when Robert Kennedy ran against him. And at that time Senator Keating was speaking against the Vietnam war and Robert Kennedy was not.

BILL MOYERS: See, what you’re doing is assaulting a fundamental premise that’s been drilled into us in this country, which I think I still believe, that the individual matters, that the individual counts, that the cumulated effect of our joint expression is to be heard.

JOSEPH HELLER:: I agree with that, and one of the themes of Picture This that I deplore is that the individual does not count. It does not count in governments.

Governments are not normally concerned with the welfare of the people they govern. History is not concerned with them. I have again a very swift comparison in Picture This, where I mention a stream of what’s happening during Rembrandt’s life, that the potato was brought over from South America and cultivated successfully in Europe during the 30 Years’ War; then I say the cultivation of the potato was more important to more people than was Rembrandt’s painting of Aristotle or William Harvey’s discovery of the circulation of blood. The potato kept thousands, tens of thousands of people alive. You will not read about it. You read a history book, great events in civilization, European civilization, you will not read that the potato was brought there and cultivated. I do believe the individual’s important; it’s very strong in Catch-22, it’s strong in all my books.

BILL MOYERS: That’s true.

JOSEPH HELLER:: I feel it very strongly.

BILL MOYERS: Maybe good government is that government which assures the survival of the republic and honors the individual, even when it has to deny the individual his seeming gratification by refusing to flatter him. Maybe good government is that government which doesn’t flatter the demos, the mob, doesn’t give in to the passions of the people.

JOSEPH HELLER:: It would be fine, but then what would their objective be? Would it be to improve the living conditions of the population, or would it be to simply improve the gross national product? We tend to measure progress by profit, by manufacture, by dollars. It’s one way of looking at progress and looking at the well-being of the country, the economy. It’s not the only way, and in that type of environment — we’re living now where we have more instant multi-millionaires per year than possibly any nation ever had in its history; at the same time we do have more homeless, we have problems here.

I think you and I and all our listeners would agree and people of affairs truthfully, and even professional politicians, would agree that an efficient level of government is preferable to an inefficient level; an unselfish administration is preferable to a selfish administration; an intelligent one and an honest one is preferable to a stupid one, an ignorant one, and an ethically corrupt one. I think. all right-thinking persons would agree on those objectives. The problem we face is how to achieve it and-

BILL MOYERS: That’s the old dilemma-

JOSEPH HELLER:: Well, there’s no known way, you know, where-

BILL MOYERS: You didn’t find one in Athens, did you?

JOSEPH HELLER:: Didn’t find one in Athens. I think. at the same time that we are always complaining about the quality of government — and the complaints have existed since the government was founded — we delude ourselves and create a kind of pantheon of public officials, of past presidents. And I’m going to speak now a little presumptuously, precipitously, but from my own experience, my own judgment, I think with the exception of FOR in the first four years, I don’t think we’ve had an exceptional president. I think Thomas Jefferson and Madison had exceptional minds, I think Jimmy Carter is outstanding for his good character, but other than that — going back to the question about Lincoln — I don’t know if the presidential decisions have been that important. I think  there would have been a civil war, whether Lincoln — if Lincoln had not been elected, whichever Republican had been elected, the South was ready to secede at that time.

BILL MOYERS: Do you lay that at the step of democracy, or at the step of modern times?

JOSEPH HELLER:: No, I think that if you look at the history of monarchies, you would find the exceptional king, the accident of birth and circumstance was a blessing, but they appeared intermittently. There’s no system I can envision that would elevate to office the kind of people that we would like to see elevated.

This transcript was entered on March 25, 2015.

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