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Catch-22: Reanalyzing a Classic

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Will Beaudouin
Photo of Will Beaudouin by Abbey Becker

Will Beaudouin talks about the research paper for which he won the award for best oral presentation by an undergraduate student in the humanities at the 22nd annual Robyn Rafferty Mathias Student Research Conference on March 31, 2012.

Will Beaudouin, BA literature ’12, read Catch-22 by Joseph Heller in high school. But while many consider it an anti-war novel, he always thought there was something more. “Calling it an anti-war novel seems to be a simplification of what’s going on,” he says. “It’s doing a disservice to the text. It’s more about demystifying the way war really is.”

He wanted to explore absurdism, the philosophy that the efforts of humans to find meaning in life will ultimately fail, in his thesis for his senior literature seminar, and Catch-22 seemed like a natural choice of a place to start. “Heller is calling war awful, but not in a satirical way. Satire has an implication of change—mocking something because you want it to be different,” Beaudouin explains. “He uses more of an absurdist lens, the idea that there’s always going to be war, and it’s always going to be terrible.”

Beaudouin wasn’t going to be satisfied with simply taking Heller at his word; he wanted to figure out the justification for this theory. One of his professors recommended Sigmund Freud’s Beyond the Pleasure Principle, in which Freud talks about repetition compulsion, the repeating of a traumatic event over and over again to return to a state of nonexistence, where to die would be easier than to live, in the pursuit of the death drive. He found a natural connection between Freud’s theory and the absurdism he identified in Catch-22.

Beaudouin thesis, “Trauma: What’s the Catch?,” reframes Catch-22 using Freud’s psychoanalytic theory to explore how the bureaucracy of the military manipulates trauma to field a more effective fighting force. In the book, Yosarian, a bombardier in the army during World War II, witnesses the tragic death of one of his friends. While he hates flying and could easily desert, Yosarian continues to get in his plane and fly over and over again. “It’s because he has this desire to re-experience that trauma,” says Beaudouin. “In turn, the military bureaucracy increases the number of missions required to be completed before a solider is sent home, because they know that as terrible as it would be for morale, the soldiers will keep doing it. Trauma becomes, in a way, the motor for war.”

He wanted to look into why the generation represented in Catch-22—the people that fought in World War II and survived the Great Depression—seemed so untouchable. “There’s some perceived moral superiority to them that is lacking in other generations,” says Beaudouin. “So many war narratives from that time are very gung-ho in that sense, and there weren’t very many realistic portrayals of war like in Heller’s book.”

In Beaudouin’s opinion, it wasn’t until movies like Saving Private Ryan came out in the 1990s that war began to be rendered realistically. He suggests that the Hurt Locker provides a modern-day perspective of the death drive. “Why do soldiers continuously put themselves in positions of such great danger over and over again?” he asks. “I’m sure patriotism is a factor, but when it’s boiled down to the fact that they may no longer exist at one point, it can’t really be said that this empty ideology is driving someone to want to put themselves in such great danger.”