Academic journal article Akroterion

Syracuse as Vietnam: The Classical Intertext of Joseph Heller's Picture This

Academic journal article Akroterion

Syracuse as Vietnam: The Classical Intertext of Joseph Heller's Picture This

Article excerpt

1 Introduction

This article explores the classical intertext of Joseph Heller's 1988 novel Picture This and its concern with ancient Greek and modern American wars. First, the challenges which the generic peculiarities of the work pose to its interpretation will be investigated. Next, Heller's postmodernist narrative devices and their effect will be evaluated. Since Picture This deals in large part with classical Athenian history and philosophy, (2) this article will also examine Heller's use of classical sources, including certain factual and terminological errata. The penultimate section argues that Heller's critical concern with wars and imperialism in classical Athens relates to his perception of the American involvement in the Vietnam War. Finally, I suggest that while Heller's novel can be read as a warning against the corruptive power of politics and war, he remains sceptical of mankind's ability to learn from history.

2 The author

American novelist Joseph Heller studied in both New York and Oxford. In 1961, his first and best-known work, Catch-22, was published. This darkly comic novel, based on Heller's experiences as a bombardier in the Mediterranean in World War II ( but also influenced by Homer's Iliad (Reilly & Heller 1998:508, 518), became a universal metaphor for the insanity of war. It became an American classic. Heller asserted that it was "far more factually descriptive of Vietnam than of World War Two" (Seed 1989:74). His own anti-war sentiments found further expression when he spent the 60's touring college campuses, speaking out against the war in Vietnam. In the next decades he wrote a further six novels, two quasimemoirs, short stories, and a few plays (, while never wavering in his exposure of the hypocrisy and greed of politicians, warmongers and corporate capitalists, as for instance in Good as Gold (1979) (Reilly & Heller 1998:508; Potts 1982:53). His Weltanschauung is that of "the liberal imagination", to borrow Lionel Trilling's phrase (Stern 1988:34); his rich humour, high satire and relentless experimentation have earned him professorships, (3) various honours and millions of readers (Reilly & Heller 1998:507). Joseph Heller died in 1999. The title of Picture This, published in 1988, alludes to the central role played in the novel by a Rembrandt painting.

3 Genre and structure

Picture This has been classified amongst Heller's novels, and for convenience's sake I adhere to this classification. In actual fact, however, this work is difficult to classify genetically, sharing, as it does, characteristics of a novel, historiography, a meditative essay and satire. (4) A fully-fledged novel it is not, for it lacks plot and character development (although it has a protagonist of sorts in the character Aristotle); its central "message" is far from clear. It could not even be called an historical novel or a documentary novel. As a compromise, it could simply be called "faction", i.e. a conflation of historical facts and fictional elements (Van Heerden 1994:5). (5) Linda Hutcheon (1988:5) has coined the term "historiographic metafiction" to refer to works that fictionalise actual historical events or figures: "[...] novels which are both intensely self-reflexive and yet paradoxically also lay claim to historical events and personages". (6)

As will become apparent, Heller's work of faction is not truly historiographic metafiction, for its fictionality is more limited and its historiographic aspect less integrated into a novelistic form than any of Hutcheon's examples. It is narrated by an omniscient narrator; the narrative voice is regarded by Craig (1997:187) as "impersonal--aside from its telling relationship to the opinions of Joseph Heller. (7) It resembles the narrating voice of a documentary film." It proceeds by accumulation, "with Heller marshalling detail after detail until the reader is numbed by them" (Craig 1997:186). …

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