Soulcraft, stoves and giggling freaks

Something about this post has been bothering me: the impression that we can cleanly sort people into moral categories from a disinterested perspective. I completed Catch-22 yesterday, and find it has something to say on this.

The novel’s protagonist, bombardier and sometime refusenik Yossarian, shares a tent with a pilot named Orr. Orr has buck teeth and bulging eyes, spends his time grinning or “giggling like a crazy little freak”; he is an “unsuspecting simpleton” who delights in being seemingly unable to answer a simple question with anything approximating an answer. As Yossarian comments, “Orr hasn’t got brains enough to be unhappy.” Clearly, The Idiot fits nicely.

But there’s more to Orr. Thoughout the book he is obsessed with the maintenance of a gas-powered stove.

He worked without pause, taking the faucet apart, spreading all the tiny pieces out interminably, as though he had never seen anything remotely similar before, and then reassembling the whole apparatus, over and over and over again,with no loss of patience or interest, no sign of fatigue, no indication of ever concluding.“

This constant preoccupation grates on Yossarian, his tent-mate and possibly only friend. Late in the book Yossarian beseeches Orr for some peace:"Don’t start,” he begged in a threatening voice, both hands tightening around his beer bottle. “Don’t start working on your stove.”

Orr cackled quietly. “I’m almost finished.”
“No, you’re not., You’re about to begin.”
“Here’s the valve. See? It’s almost all together.”
“And you’re about to take it apart. I know what you’re doing, you bastard. I’ve seen you do it three hundred times.”

They go on, Orr asking for permission to continue:

“Once more?”
“When I’m not around. You’re a happy imbecile and you don’t know what it means to feel the way I do. Things happen to me when you work over small things that I can’t even begin to explain. I find out that I can’t stand you. I start to hate you, and I’m soon thinking seriously about busting this bottle down on your head or stabbing you in the neck with that hunting knife there. Do you understand?”
Orr nodded very intelligently. “I won’t take the valve apart now,” he said, and began taking it apart, working with slow, tireless, interminable precision, his rustic, ungainly face bent very close to the floor, picking painstakingly at the minute mechanism in his fingers with such limitless, plodding concentration that he seemed scarcely to be thinking of it at all.

We seem to have a textbook case of The Curious. Orr has all the attributes of the idiot and is happy to turn his narrow focus onto a manual activity. He has no appreciation of context, of the harm his obsession has on the people around him, even with it spelled out in plain terms.

The passage goes on to complicate this picture, however. Through Yossarian’s reflections, we get a wider picture of Orr: far from being a limited hobbyist, Orr possesses “a thousand valuable skills” – with soldering iron, drill, hammer and chisel, improvising constructions with excess bomb parts, mixing paint, meausring, building fires, bringing water. “He had an uncanny knowledge of wildlife and was not afraid of dogs or cats or beetles or moths, or of foods like scrod or tripe.”

Orr begins to feel like someone genuinely equipped to take on the world. But what about his insular focus? When Yossarian challenges Orr on the need to hurry on with the stove, he has an unexpected rationale.

“I’d like to get this all finished for you while there’s still time. You’ll have the best stove in the squadron when I’m through. It will burn all night with this feed control I’m fixing, and these metal plates will radiate the heat all over the tent. If you leave a helmet full of water on this thing when you go to sleep, you’ll have warm water to wash with all ready for you when you wake up. Won’t that be nice? If you want to cook eggs or soup, all you’ll have to do is set the pot down here and turn the fire up.”
“What do you mean, me?” Yossarian wanted to know. “Where are you going to be?”
Orr’s stunted torso shook suddenly with a muffled spasm of amusement. “I don’t know,” he exclaimed, and a weird, wavering giggle gushed out suddenly through his chattering buck teeth like an exploding jet of emotion. He was still laughing when he continued, and his voice was clogged with saliva. “If they keep on shooting me down this way, I don’t know where I’m going to be.”

The stove does end up keeping Yossarian in comfort when Orr’s words prove prophetic and he is shot down, not to be recovered. His actions prove to be extremely useful, and in the end, Yossarian realises, even visionary.

Catch-22 is a book that demands we open our eyes to “how many honest men were liars, brave men cowards, loyal men traitors” – and “how many wise guys were stupid”. To fully understand Orr, and all the rest, would require reading the book (and need it be said, it is magnificent). But from considering just these few excerpts I believe that using Crawford’s moral categories usefully means shifting our focus from the individual to the relational. It’s not just where they put their attention, but where we put our own. 

Yossarian is angry and closed off, understandably so, but this clouds his ability to see what is really going on and the gifts that Orr offers him. Orr isn’t an Idiot, or Idiotically Curious, except that Yossarian has made him so. The practical wisdom that Orr is offering becomes real only when its recipient recognises it as such.

In case this isn’t obvious, I’m also talking about improvisation.

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