Monday, June 10, 2013

Why Snowden's Name Sounded So Familiar

As soon as I heard Edward Snowden's name revealed yesterday as the source of the most recent revelations about NSA domestic spying, I knew the name sounded familiar. I went traipsing through the smoke rings of my mind and, sure enough, in the file labelled 'Best (American) Novel Since 1945," I found the answer.

In Joseph Heller's Catch-22, Snowden was the tail-gunner in Yossarian's plane who gets killed in Yossarian's arms while on a bombing run over the French city Avignon. One could argue that Snowden's death marks a crucial turning point in the events of the novel and in Yossarian's state of mind (or lack thereof, as the case may be).

I've copied one relevant portion of Catch-22. Wouldn't you know it, the snippet also has a major intelligence (used with all the ironic suggestions Heller would have seen in the word) twist to it:

'Why me?' was his [Doc Daneeka's ]constant lament, and the question was a good one.
Yossarian knew it was a good one because Yossarian was a collector of good questions and had used them to disrupt the educational sessions Clevinger had once conducted two nights a week in Captain Black's intelligence tent with the corporal in eyeglasses who everybody knew was probably a subversive. Captain Black knew he was a subversive because he wore eyeglasses and used words like panacea and utopia, and because he disapproved of Adolf Hitler, who had done such a great job
of combating un-American activities in Germany. Yossarian attended the educational sessions because he wanted to find out why so many people were working so hard to kill him. A handful of other men were also interested, and the questions were many and good when Clevmger and the subversive corporal finished and made the mistake of asking if there were any.
'Who is Spain?'
'Why is Hitler?'
'When is right?'
'Where was that stooped and mealy-colored old man I used to call Poppa when the merry-go-round
broke down?'
'How was trump at Munich?'
'Ho-ho beriberi.'
all rang out in rapid succession, and then there was Yossarian with the question that had no answer:
'Where are the Snowdens of yesteryear?'
The question upset them, because Snowden had been killed over Avignon when Dobbs went crazy in mid-air and seized the controls away from Huple.
The corporal played it dumb. 'What?' he asked.
'Where are the Snowdens of yesteryear?'
'I'm afraid I don't understand.'
'O— sont les Neigedens d'antan?' Yossarian said to make it easier for him.
'Parlez en anglais, for Christ's sake,' said the corporal. 'Je ne parle pas fran‡ais.'
'Neither do I,' answered Yossarian, who was ready to pursue him through all the words in the world to wring the knowledge from him if he could, but Clevinger intervened, pale, thin, and laboring for breath, a humid coating of tears already glistening in his undernourished eyes.
Group Headquarters was alarmed, for there was no telling what people might find out once they felt free to ask whatever questions they wanted to. Colonel Cathcart sent Colonel Korn to stop it, and Colonel Korn succeeded with a rule governing the asking of questions. Colonel Korn's rule was a stroke of genius, Colonel Korn explained in his report to Colonel Cathcart. Under Colonel Korn's rule, the only people permitted to ask questions were those who never did. Soon the only people attending were those who never asked questions, and the sessions were discontinued altogether, since Clevinger, the corporal and Colonel Korn agreed that it was neither possible nor necessary to educate people who never questioned anything (Emphasis Added)
A couple notes: The question: "Where are the Snowdens of yesteryear?" alludes to the medieval French poet Francois Villon's 1462 poem "Ballade (Des Dames du Temps Jadis)" where the question "But where are the snows of yesteryear?" ("Mais ou sont les neiges d'anton?") forms a refrain that ends each stanza. That sets up Yossarian's hilarious-tragic attempt at franglais: "Ou sont les Neigedens d'antan?"
 I found myself thinking that all one really needs to do is substitute the names of a few current players (Colornel Cathcart might be current DNI General James Clapper, for example) and this passage would read like contemporary journalism.

What is the moral of this post? That advanced degrees in English aren't much good for anything, maybe. Oh, yeah, and maybe that we should hope that the fate of the fictional Snowden does not befall his real-life counterpart. For now, at least, Yossarian's question has finally got an answer. Snowden lives.

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