Portrait of An Artist as an Old Man
"A Creative Title for a Creative Essay on Creativity"

[(Essay date June 9th, 2012) In the following essay, M.A. examines the various external influences presented in Portrait of an Artist as an Old Man and the impediment they effectively form in finding a sense of personal creativity and writing]

In Joseph Heller’s Portrait of an Artist as an Old Man the struggles of an aging artist to write his final work are portrayed. Similar to the work from which this novel draws its name, this work presents a central character, or rather artist, named Pota around which a multitude of external influences are present. In doing so, Heller illuminates the burden that these influences create in the author’s sense of creativity and ultimately his ability to produce his writing.

Foremost, inherent in the very structure of the work, Pota’s loss of identity is manifest in his imitations of other authors. Infused into the writing of the novel, short passages consisting of the first few pages and brainstorming ideas of potential final books are included within the text. However, although numerous, none of these precursory ideas ever come to fruition as a novel. This largely is due to the external influences from which these ideas have originated. Barren of original material, Pota instead attempts to replicate the success of other author’s past works. Adaptations of Tom Sawyer, the Illiad, and various biblical stories all end with a sense of self contempt. A prime example of this comes the morning after Pota has completed the principle chapter of a new book, a satire about God and his wife. Upon originally starting the work Pota is ecstatic as “he had exuberantly flaunted his conviction that he was finally the master of a new wonderful concept” (Heller 69). However, this delight only lasts a short time, as soon Pota realizes that he is merely manipulating the ideas of another person, ideas that have existed for centuries. Pota yearns for the fulfillment of original creativity, yet he feels futile in doing so while influenced by existing works. With this state of mind, Pota now finds his work “stale” as he “found himself feeling tricked in some perverse fashion by something acridly cosmic” (70). As a result, this idea, once preserved as revolutionary and inventive, is nothing more than “bleak, barren, and flat” (70).

Furthermore, Pota’s contemporaries in the literary movement hold tremendous influence over him, not only through their work but through the pressure they place on him. In regards to their work, Pota becomes obsessed with what he calls the “Literature of Despair” or the overwhelming collection of works, both biographical and by the authors themselves, which depict the gradual waning of talent throughout the career of any author. As noted in the book “The singular fact about the creation of fiction is that it does turn more, not less, difficult with seasoning and accomplishment” (20). This notion of the forthcoming loss of ability looms over Pota’s thoughts, and places increasing stress on his thoughts. Like so many authors with momentary success, Pota later notes that the pressure to perform again at such a level mounts with age, as he reflects “He had perhaps, in a way perhaps paradoxically unlucky, lived too long and done too well… like others among his peers of comparative age he had earned, and suffered, the illustrious fate he had hungered for from the start, the station of finding himself prominent, acknowledged, accepted, assimilated, and … familiar. Taken for granted” (37). In this manner, those expectations placed on Pota become unreasonably high, earning him stricter critique and unreachable standards of creativity. For this reason Pota feels compelled to not only come up with new works, but ones with concepts conceivably beyond his capabilities. Unlike in his earlier career, Pota now feels that he must do something extraordinary to be noticed, observing bleakly that “a new talent is only discovered once. And astonish hardly more often than that” (37). This mindset is seen repeatedly in the small excerpts contained in the book, that are quickly scrapped as unoriginal, hindering severely any creative process that would take place. Exceedingly concerned about the extent of his creativity, Pota finds himself trapped in this cycle, unable to work past the most initial stages of planning his works. As Pota notes himself, he is surprised when he throws away an initial draft of a work as “A lifetime of experience has trained him never to toss away a page he had written” (11). Although earlier in his career these ideas may have been refined and cultivated into works, now with mounting anxiety from those influences in his life, Pota abandons his creative brainstorming.

Finally, pressured to create something desirable to the public Pota finds his creativity lead by public perception. The primary example of this comes in Pota’s desire to write a sex book. Never having dabbled in such a topic before, a book such as this comes as a foreign notion to Pota. However, after introducing the idea to a group of his friends he is assured that the book would be a success. Disregarding his personal misgivings about the idea, he intends to pursue it, only to find that he does not know what to write, joking “Maybe we could just publish the book jacket and issue the novel with blank pages” (63). In actuality, this is no joke. Pota has no desire to write a sex book, and doesn’t even know where to begin. The sole motivation for such a book is merely to put his name back into circulation among the literary community, to shock some and displease others, for “the extra publicity, the notoriety, would be a bold announcement to the world that Eugene Pota was still active, with a deft and questing talent” (49). Driven to gain this praise and satisfy those around him while lacking any personal desire to write such a book, Pota once again falls into a reliance on past authors’ works. One such line Pota utilizes by Julian Barnes reads “‘the first time I watched my wife committing adultery was at a large movie theatre” (56). In writing this line continually comes to mind for Pota, due to his strong fondness for it. However, soon Pota grows to detest this line as it “reappeared to haunt him, and he regretted each time as though in mourning that it had not been his own” (56). This feeling largely stems from Pota’s angst regarding his inability to originate such a line himself and the persisting impediments of public opinion that prevent his creativity. Ultimately Pota realizes that it is not the idea of a sex book that is of issue, but merely its ill fit for him personally, as only through an attempt to satisfy those around him did he ever conceive such an idea. As Pota reflects “A sex book, a subtly pornographic sex book, was, he supposed, eternally a good idea, but sadly definitely, not a good idea for him” (49).

Overall Portrait of an Artist as an Old Man portrays the struggle for creativity, as its main character Pota finds himself plagued by the various influences in his life. Whether it be the struggle to produce original material surrounded by thousands of past works or the attempt to escape the pressures and anxieties created by public perception and the impending loss of talent, these external influences all contribute to the hindrance of creativity and ultimately the ability to write.

M.A. 2012


Catch-22
"Keep Your Friends Close and Your Enemies Closer"
[(Essay date June 9th, 2012) In the following essay, M.A. examines the portrayal of comrades and leaders, not combatants, as the true enemies in times of war, and this perception among servicemen.]

“Keep your friends close and your enemies closer,” an antiquated adage adopted by the English language centuries ago, it is unlikely such a cliché would ever appear in a work such as Joseph Heller’s Catch-22. However, in analyzing this work, depicting the experiences of numerous WWII servicemen, in the same satirical frame of mind as the author, this phrase appear to accurately portray the situation present in the novel. This is, most notably, because the most significant enemies within the novel are those closest to the characters, their comrades, their leaders, and, in fact, their friends. In portraying this aspect of WWII the backwardness of war is placed on the internal conflict among the men, demonstrating the identification of the men’s true enemies as those fighting on their own side.

Foremost this backwardness is displayed in the role of military leadership and bureaucracy within the lives of each soldier. Most evidently, the pervading influence of these leaders can be seen in the depiction of each of the servicemen’s’ lives, from what food they eat, to which missions they take part in, to how long they must serve. On this last note, the book makes immediate note of the leaders’, in particular Colonel Cathcart’s, affinity for raising the number of missions each man should serve when they near fulfillment of their obligation. In the most basic of terms, the only reason many of these men still have to fight for their lives, is that the individuals they have trusted to lead them have refused to fulfill their promise to release them after their service has been completed. As one character Yosarian proclaims with great conviction “‘The enemy is anybody who’s going to get you killed, no matter which side he’s on and that includes Colonel Cathcart … the longer you remember that, the longer you might live” (154). This may appear as an over simplification of the matter, however, to those men serving, their leaders are trying to put them in situations that will kill them. This direct connection between these leaders and the death of their soldiers is further developed more directly in the leader’s own words. Upon being told that the mission count has been raised to fifty-five, Yosarian enquires about what would happen if he did not follow the order. The response to this is a simple one “‘We’d probably shoot you’” (Heller 73). Surprised by this answer Yosarian retorts “‘We? … Since when are you on their side?’” to which he is told “‘If you’re going to be shot, whose side do you expect me to be on?” (73). The frankness of the commander’s response quite blatantly illustrates the lack of any form of allegiance to the soldiers, as he forces the soldier to either risk his life or he will kill him himself, characteristic traits of enemies not of leaders.

As a result of such actions, an adversarial relationship is created between the military leaders and their men. In many cases this antagonism is completely blind, formulated solely for the punishment and control of the soldiers. A prime example of such comes in the creation of various loyalty oaths, simple pieces of paper with a promise to serve their country faithfully. Signing these loyalty oaths is a regular occurrence throughout the camp, that is, until the military leaders begin using them as a means of controlling and damaging their fellow servicemen. Refusing to allow some men to sign the loyalty oath one captain, Captain Black, declares “‘The men don’t have to sign Piltchard and Wren’s loyalty oath if they don’t want to. But we need you to starve them to death if they don’t’” (143). This same captain later describes his disdain for another major, who he has disallowed to sign the loyalty oaths, by saying “‘I’d like to turn his wife and kids out into the woods, too. But we can’t. He has no wife and kids” (144). These ruthless assaults on the servicemen are typical of the leaders described in the book. Without provocation, they appear natural in describing killing their men and in some cases even take pleasure in it. Captain Black is even described as responding “with a surge of joy” (140) upon hearing that another major had just been killed, knowing that he would then take his place. All of these events together help develop one of the most detailed portrayals of any major contained in the book, illuminating the lack of compassion and deliberate injury he wishes upon his men.

However, this animosity is not solely present in one major, such as the one described above. Another soldier, Clevinger, on trial for no crime in particular is found guilty and punished by his officers as “Clevinger was guilty, of course, or he would not have been accused” (100). Seeing the impropriety of his trial, Clevinger begins to realize that he need not be guilty to be found guilty, as those officers in the room had not a single care for him, determined to punish him regardless of his innocence. In this moment Clevinger once again finds that his officers are indeed his enemy “They had hated him before he came, hated him while he was there, hated him after he left… and not even among all the expert gunners of the crack Herman Goering Antiaircraft Division or among the grisly connivers in all the beer hills of Munich and everywhere else, were there men who hated him more” (100-101). Such hatred remains consistent throughout the leaders described in the book, further developing their identity in the minds of the servicemen as their enemies.

In regards to the “actual” enemies contained within the book, the servicemen have a far different perception. In contrast with the hatred they see from their officers, those fighting against them in war are viewed with empathy, knowing that many of them are in the same predicament as them. Just as they view their own actions, the servicemen see the fighting that they endure as impersonal, merely the follow through on orders from their hateful leaders. As for those they fight against, no singular enemy is ever seen or heard from in a combative manner. In the entire book only one German pilot is seen, and his actions are of little consequence or ill will. Reflecting on the nature of such adversaries Clevinger concludes that “‘No one’s trying to kill you… They’re shooting at everyone. They’re trying to kill everyone” (20). In this manner the soldiers understand that those they fight against hold no hatred for them or their comrades. Even the subconscious reactions of servicemen display their lack of fear or hatred in regards to those they fight against. Yosarian simply “no longer gave a damn whether he missed or not”(36) as a bombardier in battle. Even Hungry Joe, a serviceman plagued with terrible nightmares while in the camp, “settled down into a normal state of terror with a smile of relief” (67) when he was returned to combat duty. For these servicemen the most damaging and hate filled enemies they know and fear are on their own side, a point only amplified by the devaluing of their enemies in battle.

Most ironically, the only malevolent enemy encountered in book who works for the opposition in Germany, is in fact working alongside the US servicemen as well. An opportunistic capitalist and head of a food syndicate, Milo Minderbinder’s only concern throughout the war is profit. He often boasts proudly about his ability to purchase items for seven cents, sell them for five cents, and make a profit. This is, largely, because in his planning he is able to push every other ally store out of business and take them over for his own personal gain. This self-centered mentality is also applied by Milo to war. As he states his thesis on war himself “‘We might just as well keep the money and eliminate the middleman, Frankly, I’d like to see the government get out of war altogether and leave the whole field to private industry” (321). Milo embodies this ideal, by contracting for the German army, and effectively helping them kill his own comrades, first by informing the Germans of a surprise bombing that will take place, and secondly by helping organize a bombing of his very own barracks, while his comrades are still in the camp. A close friend of many of the men, including Yosarian, Milo, has heinously betrayed his own friends and attempted to kill them. Literally a close friend and comrade has become the enemy for the purpose of greed and personal gain. In order to reinforce this point the book describes Milo being put on trial for these crimes, only to be acquitted. Remarking on the trial it was perceived that “Milo was all washed up until he opened his books to the public and disclosed the tremendous profit he had made” (321). Once again, the officers who have thus far betrayed their men in ever sense continue this trend and protect someone who has directly led to the injury and death of their men, working in cahoots with the enemy.

Overall, the sense of antagonism directed toward the servicemen in Catch-22 permeates the entire work, demonstrating the true animosity from their leaders and comrades. This, in tandem with the diminished role of the enemies witnessed in battle, portrays comrades, leaders, and friends as the true enemies in war.

M.A. 2012