Experiencing the absurd in body and mind: Joseph Heller’s Catch-22

Olivier Couder

Research output: Chapter in Book/Report/Conference proceedingMeeting abstract (Book)


In his seminal study The Theatre of the Absurd (1961) Martin Esslin writes that absurdist drama cannot be qualified as a unified literary movement. Nevertheless, he asserts that the work of certain playwrights shares a set of characteristics which express the senselessness of the human existence. Esslin's focus, however, was exclusively on drama. Since then, literary scholars such as Neil Cornwell (The Absurd in Literature 2006) and Joanna Gavins have taken on the challenge of examining the absurd in prose fiction. In Reading the Absurd (2013), Gavins uses the analytical tools that Cognitive Poetics offers to examine the linguistic features of the absurd. What most of the existing studies of the absurd in prose fiction have in common, however, is that they tend to ignore the impact of the act of reading itself on the interpretation of a text as absurd. I believe this to be an important oversight as the reading experience of absurdist literature is crucial to its interpretation as such. I therefore propose to use schema-theory, another of Cognitive Poetics analytical instruments, as means of describing the significance of the reading experience. This will allow me to reconceptualise and possibly redefine the literary absurd in terms of the reader-text interaction by looking at how absurd texts activate familiar schemata in the minds of readers only to subsequently subvert or frustrate their successful realisation. This, in turn, will enhance our understanding of how the interpretation of literature as absurd is realised.
Original languageEnglish
Title of host publicationCognitive Futures in the Humanities, Durham University, Durham, 24/04/2014
Publication statusPublished - 24 Apr 2014
Event2nd Conference on Cognitive Futures in the Humanities - Durham, United Kingdom
Duration: 13 Apr 201515 Apr 2015


Conference2nd Conference on Cognitive Futures in the Humanities
Country/TerritoryUnited Kingdom


  • Heller
  • Joseph
  • Catch-22
  • Cognitive Literary Theory
  • Absurd Literature


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