Andy Seal’s recent post about intellectual history and the novel of ideas has been on my mind for a week, and I’m still thinking through the many questions it and the thread that followed it raised. Is the novel of ideas an under-explored realm for intellectual history? And what is a novel of ideas, anyway? Also inspired by Andy’s topic, Peter Kuryla chimed in. What is the intellectual content of a novel, apart from its aesthetic content? What do intellectual historians actually do with their readings of novels, as opposed to what literary studies scholars or what philosophers do?
I must say, I was a little puzzled by the prospect that intellectual historians have neglected novels of ideas. Maybe I see all novels as novels of ideas—or as sources of ideas, anyway–and so need a clearer definition. Christopher Lasch’s books The Culture of Narcissism and The Minimal Self were my introduction to what I later learned to call intellectual history. These books drew readily on both long- and short-form fiction as sources, along with memoirs and movies and other kinds of works I knew and enjoyed. For better or for worse, Woody Allen’s early collections of short comic writing had rewired my brain in high school, and although I wouldn’t have thought Without Feathers could be considered a source of anything other than sheer, gut-twisting hilarity, the fact that it was mentioned on page 18 of The Culture of Narcissism was likely one of reasons I kept turning the pages of Professor Lasch’s grim book.
This is all to say that the post got me thinking about my own practice. I’ve produced one book—I’m hardly representative. Still, novels, films, poems, and other works of expressive culture were important sources for me. The first scholarly work I did, and probably the inspiration for the book itself, was an interrogation of concepts found in four texts: Albert Camus’s articulation of the absurd in “The Myth of Sisyphus”; Reinhold Niebuhr’s reformulation of original sin in The Nature of Destiny of Man; Gregory Bateson’s double bind theory of schizophrenia; and Joseph Heller’s Catch-22. One text was philosophy, one theology, one an odd combination of behavioral science and natural history, and one a novel–a piece of literary fiction–but all were strikingly similar constructions of “impossible dilemma.” All were produced, too, within the same couple of decades. It was as if the concept these four constructions articulated had achieved a kind of critical mass and therefore merited historical attention.
This was my practice, then, to set these constructions next to each other, to compare and contrast them, to interrogate them, to conduct thought experiments upon them, to track down their connective threads.
Of the four, Bateson’s and Heller’s share the closest kinship. Some dictionaries even cross reference the two terms. Often described as “no-win situations” in which all available options are bad, both double binds and catch-22s are better understood as Mobius strips of internal refutation. When the Cretan says all Cretans are liars, he’s either lying about being honest or being honest about lying–back and forth, ad infinitum. Yossarian, the hero bombardier of Catch-22, is either crazy and his request to be grounded from flying missions should be granted, or he’s sane for not wanting to fly missions anymore and therefore must be re-assigned. It isn’t that each available option is bad but that each option traps one inside the conundrum of the other in a never-ending and inescapable oscillation. A catch-22 is a dialectic, if you will, that never reaches synthesis but keeps spinning faster and generating more systemic corrosion.
It was Gregory Bateson’s insight that logical paradoxes, double binds, catch-22s, and self-reinforcing feedback loops shared formal characteristics, and that rather than reacting to them in the predictable way, one might attend instead to the formal similarities.
This may have been Joseph Heller’s insight, too. Catch-22 is not a one-off joke in a comic novel but a structural theme which Heller plays again and again, varying tempo and orchestration. Mess officer Milo Minderbinder’s “syndicate” is a catch-22 fully elaborated. Starting with some absurd bureaucratic tick having to do with the camp kitchens, it grows by leaps into a global shadow market, more consequential than the war itself. When pressed by Yossarian to explain its purpose, Milo answers with a mind-bending claim that parodies both the Soviet and capitalist systems: “The syndicate benefits when I benefit because everybody has a share.” Elsewhere, Heller plays his theme faster and cleaner, like the chorus in a pop song: “Major Major never sees anyone in his office while he’s in his office.” With character names, Heller abstracts his melody, reducing its oscillations to tiny bits of binary nonsense: Yossarian the Assyrian, General Dreedle, Chaplain Chapman, Major Major.
Very little of this made it into my final draft. A detailed exploration of Catch-22 took me too far afield from what wound up being my main narrative—the throughline a prospective reader would be signing on for. This speaks to practice, too.
Is Catch-22 a novel of ideas, of the kind Andy and Peter and the other contributors to the thread were thinking of? It’s certainly a novel of idea. Heller’s greatest abstraction is the term itself, which has come to symbolize a complex and seemingly necessary concept. Could that have happened without the novel, the elaborated vehicle which delivered the concept to other minds? Will catch-22 continue to be understood beyond the time when Catch-22 is no longer read? I seem to remember a comment of Jonathan Franzen’s, that he used to assign Heller’s novel to his writing students until he began to be troubled by its treatment of women. I know what he means. I used to like Woody Allen.
In any case, now we’re back to the sort of questions that claimed a good deal of the attention in the aforementioned post and thread–questions of gender, of silencing and inclusion, of whether big heavy statues or thick masculine tomes should be removed, recontextualized, or left to sit like dead weight where they are. If I read Andy correctly, he was holding out hope that intellectual historians might deal with novels of ideas in a way that treats such concerns as critical and yet that isn’t bound up and pre-programed by them. Can we, in other words, do something unpredictable?