Compare and contrast the work of Owen and Heller in their treatment of war.

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                      Compare and contrast the work of Owen and Heller in their

                                                       treatment of war

The war poetry of Wilfrid Owen and the novel Catch 22 by Joseph Heller contain many creditable and individual features that have helped cement their reputation as two of the most illustrious ‘anti-war’ writers of the 20th century.

However, I feel in order for one to thoroughly acknowledge and appreciate the remarkable attributes that both works accommodate, one firstly needs to develop a clear understanding of their origin and how both context and persona have helped shape each piece.

In my opinion, if we were to conscientiously evaluate Owens statement in the Preface to his poetry ‘My subject is war and the pity of war; this will perhaps create a platform from which to locate the distinctions and analogies between the two writers. Owen’s Preface is catalytic, for its universality allows it to travel, providing one of the many alliances between both Owen himself and Joseph Heller.

However it must become clear to the reader that judgement lies in the progression of humanity, the impact of both cannot be dated and enclosed in the time-period of publication, as insisted on by Siegfired Sassoon who wrote of Owen ‘The importance of his contribution to the literature of war cannot be decided by those like myself, who admired him as a friend and a poet’. Significance lies in the dictation of the future. Both writers communication with humanity is in itself a struggle, but in this day and age we have the additional advantage of hindsight. Professor Malcolm Bradbury for example, wrote of how time has strengthened Catch 22, ‘The prevailing sense of futility of war that runs through the book wouldn’t have gone down well in 1945/6 but by the beginning of the 60’s it really worked. Owens preface impels us to challenge the definition of war, as paradoxically we witness how both writers exploit the repulsive deceitful elements associated with military warfare to impose their own definition on a much deeper, more extensive level.

Tony Tanner’s ‘City of words’ explores this sentiment, proclaiming Catch 22 is less about the tactical struggle of two armies than the struggle for the survival of the individual within his own society’.

This prompts us into perceiving war as nothing more than a mere by-product, an idle decrepit answer that foolishly bypasses the root cause embedded in society.

War is an intensifier and not a remedy, functioning as an amplifier for social turbulence and mankind’s problems. It was in fact Heller himself who remarked ‘If we could understand war, we should be on ‘Our way’ to understanding ourselves and our present predicament. Personally, I feel that these words supplied to us by Heller along with Owen’s Preface explain why both writers offer their works as ‘tools’. The involuntary poetry of Wilfrid Owen for example is an instrument used to echo and not safeguard and although poetic aptitude is certainly commendable within his work, this becomes trivialised unless we recognise his offer to humanity. Likewise with Heller, I feel his ‘masterpiece’ becomes futile unless we fully comprehend as Alistair Rycroft writes that Catch 22 is ‘not just a mere anti-war novel, but one that defines the insanity of business, of religion and of life itself’.

The advocacy of nationalism within war may prove both elevating and inspirational to many, yet as suggested within Owen’s poetry, its objective is to hold reality in confinement. Patriotism becomes an ambushed attack on the soldiers independence, an illusive barrier erected to mask the ‘gargling from the froth-corrupted lungs’ Owen so elegantly presents to us in Dulce Et Decorum Est.

In one way, nationalistic romanticism acts like a springboard for the pro-war beliefs, for as long as it is possible to rebound off attitudes alluded to Dulce Et Decorum Est, which claims it is sweet and noble to die for ones country, the false reassurance will always be embedded in the purpose of war.

Of course, Owen needn’t use ingenuity to counteract this exaltation of war, all that is required is the truth, a ‘tool’ that can be utilised to eradicate false pretence and narrow the gap between falsehood and reality. ‘Mental cases’ is just one of many notable examples, ‘Awful falseness of set-smiling corpses, pawing us who dealt them war and madness’.

Both writers illustration of the insanity that emanates from war can be minimilized into a binary opposite of satire vs. the purity of realism or ‘tragedy in comedy’ vs. ‘poetry in the pity’. Heller’s own belief was that ‘comedy doesn’t make me laugh, tragedy does’.

Heller’s attitude towards laughter elucidates as to why madness is given a free-role in Catch 22. Heller consciously allows it to drown his novel and introduces a character like Yossarian to survive this sea of fallacy, which of course, Heller metamorphoses into normality.

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Yet, insanity is merely a ramification of other by-products of war, paranoia for example generates madness.

Satire possesses this marvellous ability in being able to manipulate our response, It purposefully implements a truth in each laugh, operating like an injection almost, for the exerted force of comedy drives the exaltation of realism.

In the same way Wilfrid Owen uses an unprecedented shout to capture a race against time in Dulce Et Decorum Est ‘Gas, GAS, quick boys, an ecstasy of fumbling, fitting the clumsy helmets just in time’, Heller can portray madness using a similar backdrop ‘ I See ...

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