Boredom makes you live longer: Dunbar, Catch-22

17 Mar

(Foil of Yossarian’s and somehow endearing, for saying barely a sentence per fifty pages)

I’ve realized in the last few months that I have the uncanny ability to spot the supporting characters in a novel for whom that grim reaper called an author always manages to get right when I think the coast is clear.  I’m like a divining rod for fictional death.  (Lone exception: Percy Weasley)

I haven’t finished Catch-22 yet, but with this macabre talent in mind I’m beginning to get worried for Dunbar, the laconic officer who doesn’t appear often but has managed to win enough of my affection to merit a response paper for a U of A satire seminar, which I’ve included for the sake of anyone who wants to read about a foil of Yossarian’s in the first half of the book:

When the reader meets Yossarian, he’s befuddling doctors with a medical condition that both is and is not jaundice—and the absurdity only grows from there.  In line with the nature of the title military regulation, almost every event and conversation Yossarian and company (squadron, actually) have in Joseph Heller’s Catch-22 abounds in contradiction and tautology.  At one point or another, after all, nearly every character accuses someone else of being crazy.

Second only to Yossarian in alleged insanity—in the opinion of Clevinger, at least, supposed voice of reason—is Dunbar, who also happens to be second only to Yossarian as a character introduced in the novel.  His companion from the hospital and the only man the bombardier doesn’t include among “the people Yossarian wanted to machine-gun” (18) in the officers’ club, Dunbar and Yossarian share a crucial trait: they don’t want to die.

Finishing each others’ sentences in the hospital, playing off of each other while tormenting the irritating Texan, the two officers’ characters appear as close as their infirmary beds.  “Outside the hospital there was nothing funny going on,” Heller notes; “The only thing going on was a war, and no one seemed to notice but Yossarian and Dunbar” (16). Among brothers-in-arms like Clevinger, Haverly, and McWatt—“the craziest combat man of them all probably, because he was perfectly sane and still did not mind the war” (60)—their desperate love for life seems, ironically, unrequited by most.

But while similar in this respect, Dunbar also serves as a foil for Yossarian in the first half of the novel: his fatalism and passivity highlighting more vividly the proudly-proclaimed coward—“‘I’m not ashamed, Yossarian said. ‘I’m just afraid.’” (102)—in his anger, desperation, and active attempts to outwit, outplay, and outlast all his fellows as a survivor in war.

Dunbar, unlike Yossarian, accepts the fact that death comes for everyone, and has committed himself to a somewhat unorthodox theory and practice of life extension: the cultivation of boredom.  The men Yossarian despises and heaps imaginary violence upon, such as Clevinger with his accusations of “antisocial aggressions” (19), are welcomed by his laconic friend.  “Dunbar loved shooting skeet because he hated every minute of it” (38), Heller explains, and “Dunbar liked Clevinger because Clevinger annoyed him and made the time go slow” (19)—activities that he insist literally count eleven-times-seventeen years to the hour.

Though a different tactic than Yossarian’s flying tackle employed on Major Major (Major Major) for the sake of information on how to get grounded, Dunbar’s ideas are, like Yossarian’s, less absurd than they seem at first read.  When Dunbar defends himself to Clevinger with the observation that “You’re inches away from death every time on a mission.  How much older can you be at your age?” (39), it may be the sanest sentence in the book so far.

An atheist, Dunbar’s simple, matter-of-fact assertions that “There is no God” (126) may be less colorful than Yossarian’s comparison of the Supreme Being as an incompetent bungler with a “warped, evil, scatological mind” partial to tooth decay (179)—nevertheless, disbelief in an afterlife makes survival, for the sake of whatever life, paramount:

“Be furious you’re going to die” (179), Yossarian says—”What else is there?” his friend asks.

9 Responses to “Boredom makes you live longer: Dunbar, Catch-22

  1. Andrew November 16, 2010 at 6:39 pm #

    One: it’s a great book
    Two: Dunbar is not often enough appreciated
    Three: The corollary of Dunbar’s position is that if you were never bored your life would be instantaneous, unperceived, non-existent.

  2. Phil January 27, 2011 at 5:37 pm #

    I met Heller in 1973. He was still writing Something Happened at the time and read from it. He signed my copy of Catch-22. It was a high point of my undergraduate days. Some of us had the chance to eat breakfast with him. It was 7:30 in the morning and he professed to be appalled that some of the women present could smile so early in the morning. He was a mensch.

    • Isabela Morales January 27, 2011 at 5:49 pm #

      That’s amazing–I’m so jealous I can barely type!

  3. John May 13, 2011 at 9:06 am #

    I’ve always had a soft spot in my heart for Dunbar. I’ve read Catch-22 several times over and still have the dogeared paperback I bought back when I was 17 (now 50).
    Dunbar’s pursuit of boredom and trying to make time stop so he’ll live longer by performing dull and inane activities, even skeet shooting are outrageous though admirable.

  4. anonymous May 9, 2012 at 6:05 pm #

    Despite this article being ancient, the following bothers me and so i’ll comment here. I hope you have relaxed your prose by now, but I’m not going to put myself out verifying.

    “second only to Yossarian as a character introduced in the book” – this is annoying. Stop trying to sound pretentious when you simply mean “the second character introduced in the book.”

    It doesn’t work and is appalling. Had several complaints leading up to this point, but after this sentence I stopped reading.

    That being said, it’s your prerogative to write as you will. You simply come off brutish in your faux intellectualism.

    Cheers

Trackbacks/Pingbacks

  1. You’re Crazy! — Dunbar and Catch-22, again « The Scattering - March 28, 2010

    […] I said, I can pick out the ones who die. Possibly related posts: (automatically generated)Boredom makes you live longer: Dunbar, Catch-22That’s some catch, that […]

  2. In Defense of Well-Read Internet Trolls* « the Scattering - May 10, 2012

    […] we discussed that semester was Catch-22, the bleakly funny (anti-)war novel by Joseph Heller.  The short essay I posted from class was my comparison of leading man Yossarian and his glum number two, Dunbar.  I flatter myself that […]

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