Joseph Heller, T.S. Eliot
In his novel* "Catch-22", Joseph Heller tells the story of an American air force squadron fighting the Germans in Italy during World War II. The excerpt below shows how communications can break down: misunderstanding as the other side of talking to each other.
"It takes brains not to make money," Colonel Cargill wrote in one of the homiletic memoranda he regularly prepared for circulation over General Peckem's signature. "Any fool can make money these days and most of them do. But what about people with talent and brains? Name, for example, one poet who makes money."
"T. S. Eliot," ex-P. F. C. Wintergreen said in his mail-sorting cubicle at Twenty-seventh Air Force Headquarters and slammed down the telephone without identifying himself.
Colonel Cargill, in Rome, was perplexed.
"Who was it?" asked General Peckem.
"I don't know," Colonel Cargill replied.
"What did he want?"
"I don't know."
"Well, what did he say?"
" 'T. S. Eliot'," Colonel Cargill informed him.
"'T. S. Eliot'," Colonel Cargill repeated.
"Just 'T. S. -"'
"Yes, sir. That's all he said. Just 'T. S. Eliot'."
"I wonder what it means," General Peckem reflected. Colonel Cargill wondered, too.
"T. S. Eliot," General Peckem mused.
"T. S. Eliot," Colonel Cargill echoed with the same funereal puzzlement.
General Peckem roused himself after a moment with an unctuous and benignant smile. His expression was shrewd and sophisticated. His eyes gleamed maliciously. "Have someone get me General Dreedle," he requested Colonel Cargill. "Don't let him know who's calling." Colonel Cargill handed him the phone.
"T. S. Eliot," General Peckem said, and hung up.
"Who was it?" asked Colonel Moodus.
General Dreedle, in Corsica, did not reply. Colonel Moodus was General Dreedle's son-in- law, and General Dreedle, at the insistence of his wife and against his own better judgment, had taken him into the military business. General Dreedle gazed at Colonel Moodus with level hatred. He detested the very sight of his son-in-law, who was his aide and therefore in constant attendance upon him. He had opposed his daughter's marriage to Colonel Moodus because he disliked attending weddings. Wearing a menacing and pre-occupied scowl, General Dreedle moved to the full-length mirror in his office and stared at his stocky reflection. He had a grizzled, broad-browed head with iron-grey tufts over his eyes and a blunt and belligerent jaw. He brooded in ponderous speculation over the cryptic message he had just received. Slowly his face softened with an idea, and he curled his lips with wicked pleasure.
"Get Peckem," he told Colonel Moodus. "Don't let the bastard know who's calling."
"Who was it?" asked Colonel Cargill, back in Rome.
"That same person," General Peckem replied with a definite trace of alarm. "Now he's after me."
"What did he want?"
"I don't know."
"What did he say?"
"The same thing."
"Yes, 'T.S.Eliot'.? That's all he said." General Peckem had a hopeful thought. "Perhaps it's a new code or something, like the colors of the day. Why don't you have someone check with Communications and see if it's a new code or something or the colors of the day?"
Communications answered that T. S. Eliot was not a new code or the colors of the day.
Colonel Cargill had the next idea. "Maybe I ought to phone Twenty-seventh Air Force
Headquarters and see if they know anything about it. They have a clerk up there named
Wintergreen I'm pretty close to. He's the one who tipped me off that our prose was too prolix."
Ex-P. F. C. Wintergreen told Cargill that there was no record at Tweny-seventh Air Force Headquarters of a T. S. Eliot.
T. S. Eliot (1888-1965): well-known, highly successful American poet, adopted British citizenship in 1927
Colonel : Oberst
homiletic : Moral
memorandum (sing.), memoranda (pl.) [--'--]: note
P. F. C. (abbr.) =Private First Class: Obergefreiter
cubicle : separate part of a larger room
funereal : serious and sad
unctuous : oily
benignant: kind, well-meaning
shrewd : schlau
sophisticated : raffiniert <
pre-occupied scowl: geistesabwesender, finsterer Blick
stocky: short and strong (of body)
blunt: flat, not sharp
ponderous: (here) deep
colors:(here) military password changed every day
Communications: : Nachrichtenabteilung
tip sb. off: inform sb. (of sth.) discreetly
prolix : boringly long; wordy
Understanding the contents
1. What are the different stages Wintergreen's message goes through?
2. Describe how those receiving the message react at each of the stages.
3. Explain the different reasons why Wintergreen's message is misundderstood.
Analysing the text
4. From what point of view* is the story told?
5. a) Where does Heller make use of the different modes of presentation*?
b) What effect does this have on his treatment of time?
6. In what way does the memorandum mentioned obviously differ from the usual military communique?
7. Describe the officers from what is said about them in the excerpt.
8. What is the author's apparent intention in this text? Explain.
9. What techniques does Heller use to achieve the intended effects?
Working with the language
10. a) Start a list with four verbs from the text referring to the process of thinking.
b) Complete the list by looking up additional verbs in your German-English dictionary.
c) Add the proper prepositions to each of the verbs.
11. a) Study the dialogue and collect all the adjectives used to describe the characters* and their features. Arrange them in a table*, along with the nouns they modify, according to their connotations*: positive, negative or neutral.
b) Compare the tables of all the students in your class. Are there any differences? if so,
discuss the reasons for these differences.
c) In how many cases is one noun modified by both positive and negative adjectives?
What is the effect of such a technique?