There was only one catch and that was catch 22, which specified that a concern for one’s safety in the face of dangers that were real and immediate was the process of a rational mind. Orr was crazy and could be grounded. All he had to do was ask; and as soon as he did, he would no longer be crazy and would have to fly more missions. Orr would be crazy to fly more missions and sane if he didn’t, but if he was sane he had to fly them. If he flew them he was crazy and didn’t have to, but if he didn’t want to he was sane and had to.
Joseph Heller: Catch-22
Stepping Outside the Box with Catch 22
by kabadi February 20, 2003 10:57 pm
It was a dank, miserable San Francisco morning in December when I happened to stumble across a browbeaten copy of Catch-22 at my local library. Huh, I remember thinking, another war novel. I had recently, taken by Hollywood's rebirth in its infatuation with wars, read a slew of novels on that subject. For every "Saving Private Ryan" I watched, I read an All Quiet on the Western Front, for every "Thin Red Line", I picked up a copy of Hiroshima. So despite being aware of its reputation as a rather peculiar novel, I was reluctant to try another violent and gory story. Nevertheless, I gave it a shot. What the Hell, I decided, if any book promises to be vulgar, bitter, uproariously funny, and a masterpiece unlike the likes of which the literate public has ever seen, there might yet be a chance of it entertaining me. Two weeks later, I was still recovering from the shock of reading one the best books of my life (a compliment that I pay to only a few books, such as Toni Morrison's Song Of Solomon).
Catch-22 was one of those rare novels that I could immediately relate to. I madly fell in love with the character of Yossarian, the witty yet psychotic protagonist of the novel. Yossarian feels estranged from the society he lives in. He is alarmed to find out that the accepted norm of human behavior nowadays is to kill one another. He is even more alarmed to find out that he is the only one to find it alarming in the first place. Yossarian realizes that he is completely entangled in a web of 'oxymorons' and catch-22s. Furthermore, his life is in the hands of his superiors, a class of men so estranged from the minds of their subordinates that they may as well be considered the enemy. Yossarian epitomizes every insecurity one might feel. Through his actions, we get to experience every moment of enlightenment, moment of cowardice, moment of common sense, moment of victory, or moment of defeat one might have in life. In my mind, he is me. The only differences I see is that his society is that of a military base in Pianosa, while mine is that of a war-hungry and vengeful America, his superiors are military generals, while mine are government leaders, and his web is spun by the odd behavior of humans due to the lunacy of war. My tangled web is spun by the odd behavior of humans due to the lunacy of popular culture and belief.
Joseph Heller, the author of this bizarre novel, is no ordinary writer. As an avid reader and amateur writer, I often not only read the novel, but also analyze the writing style. What strikes me about Heller is that, unlike most writers, each chapter, page, or even word seems to resonate with his name. He doesn't follow the accepted norm of a story unfolding in coordination with the space-time continuum. Heller's chapters don't follow a timeline at all. One part of the book might be talking about a past experience that will be narrated in a later chapter. His panache is unmistakable, and, like it or not, with each passing page, the reader begins to grow more infatuated with his words. Don't get me wrong, Heller writes in a heavily stylized, repetitive way that becomes severely afflicted with mannerisms. Some might call his writing annoying (indeed, I was struck by a critic's comment that Catch-22" doesn't even seem to be written; instead, it gives the impression of having been shouted onto paper"). The novel is peppered with such a large amount of lame jokes and banal dialogues that it is very easy to look past the astute observations Heller makes about society. The biggest argument I can make defending Heller is that his writing style grows under your skin. Like Faulkner's stream-of-consciousness, Heller's writing is totally incomparable to others. Perhaps that makes him the best author out there, or perhaps that makes him the worst. Either way, Heller accomplishes what most egocentric writers (including myself) want to achieve. He is remembered.
Catch-22 has an overwhelmingly difficult task: in the measly span of 450 pages, it tries to ridicule all the idiosyncrasies of life. And, believe me, coming from someone who has spent 16 years trying to ridicule those very same principles, it is a hard job to tackle. The book is set in an Allied Air Force base during World War II, and it centers on the lives of several American pilots. Heller begins the serious and painstaking job of making fun of the world by bringing up the first of his many catch-22s. Yossarian, in a desperate attempt to stay grounded, goes to the doctor at the base, Doc Deneeka, and asks if there is anyway for him not do any more flights over enemy territory. The good doctor replies that the only way to be relieved from duty is to be certified insane. So certify me insane, I paraphrase Yossarian's plea. Nothing doing, smiles the doctor knowingly, for if someone tries to be certified insane, then he must be completely sane. In that case, the pilot must be told to fly. Yossarian, like me, is dumbfounded as to how to argue with logic like that.
Another instance where we see how living by the system is totally moronic is when Yossarian utilizes one of his prized assets, a liver condition, to receive extra amounts of fruit. When the mess officer, a completely deranged pilot with no morals named Milo whom I have the utmost respect for, asks if the condition is bad, Yossarian answers that it is just bad enough. In actuality, it couldn't be better. After more prodding, Yossarian admits that he doesn't actually have a disease, just symptoms. Garnett-Fleischaker symptoms to be exact. When Milo asks if he should be careful about what he eats, our favorite cynic responds: "Very careful indeed, a good Garnett-Fleischaker syndrome isn't easy to come by, and I don't want to ruin mine by eating fruit." Huh? This is just one example of the kinds of points Heller is trying to put forth in his novel. Most people think from inside the square, blindly following the norm and never straying from its path. An enlightened few, however, come to realize that the norm makes no sense at all. To those special few that think outside of the square, like Yossarian (actually, in Yossarian's case, the square is so far away that it is a point in the horizon), they begin to rebel from society's expectations. Yossarian comes to realize that if he follows the whims of his superiors and peers, the Germans will kill him. If he doesn't, then his superiors and peers will kill him.
One big reason that I related to Catch-22 with such gusto was that I managed to draw many parallels with my life and the message Heller puts forth. In a world contaminated with religious wars between Israel and Palestine, India and Pakistan, and USA and extremist Muslim groups, this novel offered a startling amount of clarity. Why is there so much hate and ignorance in the world? Why don't the world leaders realize what kind of reaction war has on the generation that has to experience it? Catch-22 offers some sort of insight into the minds of those against war and violence. By reading it, you may be able to understand how I think. This novel, of course, goes a lot deeper than being only against war. As a teenager growing up in San Francisco, I have become disillusioned by the empty and shallow culture that has been stuffed down my throat. I have gravitated towards friends that realize that appearances and popularity aren't all that matter. Most people who know me realize that, although fitting into the social category of being popular, I don't believe in living MTV's version of adolescence. Similarly, I refuse to live my life by following the accepted norm. I would much rather, just like Yossarian, live life outside the square. Hey, it may be cold out here, but at least we get to see what life may be like living inside some other geometrical shape.
The Buddha and Catch-22
It is now twenty-five years since the publication, in 1961, of Joseph Heller's astonishing novel, Catch-22 (New York: Simon and Schuster; London: Jonathan Cape Ltd.); yet so far, it seems, there has been no public comment on certain striking parallels between the Buddha's Teaching and some of the content of that novel. Perhaps it would be as well to discuss those affinities now, before another quarter century elapses.
The most immediately obvious (though hardly the most profound) similarity between the Teaching and the novel is that both are deeply concerned with man's mortality. "Old age, sickness, and death" is a phrase that occurs repeatedly in the Buddha's Teaching, as recorded in the Pali Suttas (and, indeed, throughout the later Sanskrit, Chinese, and Tibetan texts as well). A citation of even a small portion of such textual references would be far beyond the scope of this brief discussion: the fact of man's mortality -- a constant peril in an inconstant world -- is a perception absolutely fundamental to the perspective of life presented by the Buddha's Teaching.
And in Catch-22 the protagonist, Yossarian (a bombardier in World War II), is no less deeply concerned about old age, sickness, and death. The spectre of their imminence is his constant dread. As his friend Dunbar puts it,
"Do you know how long a year takes when it's going away? This long." He snapped his fingers. "A second ago you were stepping into college with your lungs full of fresh air. Today you're an old man."
"Old?" asked Clevinger with surprise. "What are you talking about?"
... "You're inches away from death every time you go on a mission. How much older can you be at your age?"
As for sickness:
Yossarian had so many ailments to be afraid of that he was sometimes tempted to turn himself in to the hospital for good and spend the rest of his life stretched out there inside an oxygen tent with a battery of specialists and nurses seated at one side of his bed twenty-four hours a day waiting for something to go wrong.... Aneurysms, for instance; how else could they ever defend him in time against an aneurysm of the aorta? ...He wondered often how he would ever recognize the first chill, flush, twinge, ache, belch, sneeze, stain, lethargy, vocal slip, lose of balance or lapse of memory that would signal the inevitable beginning of the inevitable end.
But even more than old age and sickness, it is the spectre of death itself that haunts both Yossarian and the novel: "At night when he was trying to sleep, Yossarian would call the roll of all the men, women and children he had ever known who were now dead. He tried to remember all the soldiers, and he resurrected images of all the elderly people he had known when a child...”. Yossarian is enmeshed in a killing war which is (as the novel's disclaimer makes clear) representative of a larger framework, a war to which "there was no end in sight. The only end in sight was Yossarian's own". Nevertheless, Yossarian "had decided to live forever or die in the attempt, and his only mission each time he went up was to come down alive". Yossarian feels death hovering about him -- indeed, even living with him, in the form of a dead man named Mudd, who was not easy to live with.
However, old age, sickness, and death are not apprehended merely as things, as objects in a world of objects, in themselves neutral. The fact of death changes Yossarian's world, as it does ours, radically, and Heller's insistence upon this point is the beginning of the novel's profundity.
In a world in which death is an unavoidable presence, "it made sense to cry out in pain every night". Indeed, the disorder that the awareness of death introduces into a world which, throughout our lives, we are forever trying to order, leaves us with neither simple order nor simple disorder, but rather with "a world boiling in chaos in which everything was in proper orders". Death, the great modifier, alters everything, so that for Yossarian "nothing warped seemed any more in his strange, distorted surroundings".
It is this strange distortion that is the keystone of the novel's humor -- not merely that of its many throwaway jokes but also of the tragicomic perception which circles round and round the death of Snowden ("Where are the Snowdens of yesteryear?": what a poignant joker), drawing ever closer, while at the same time mockingly inverting that trivial sensibility which ordinary men use to deny the disorder of death: "the Texan turned out to be good-natured, generous and likable. In three days no one could stand him"; "Nately had a bad start. He came from a good family”; "Yossarian couldn't be happy, even though the Texan didn't want him to be"; "strangers he didn't know shot at him with cannons every time he flew up into the air to drop bombs on them, and it wasn't funny at all. And if that wasn't funny, there were lots of things that weren't even funnier". But it is not merely the one-liners that are inversions of everyday logic: that everyday sensibility is twisted into various shapes, so that each character is seen to exist in his own uniquely topsy-turvy world, a world whose shape hovers somewhere between a wry smile and a teardrop.
And of all the characters who live in their separate worlds of twisted logic (and the names, often as twisted as the logic, seem nearly endless: Hungry Joe, Chief White Half-oat, Doc Daneeka, Major -- de Coverly, Milo Minderbinder, Major Major Major Major ...) perhaps the most logically insane character of all is the soldier in white, who "was encased from head to toe in plaster and gauze. He had two useless legs and two useless arms".
Sewn into the bandages over the insides of both elbows were zippered lips through which he was fed clear fluid from a clear jar. A silent zinc pipe rose from the cement on his groin and was coupled to a slim rubber hose that carried waste from his kidneys and dripped it efficiently into a clear, stoppered jar on the floor. When the jar on the floor was full, the jar feeding his elbow was empty and the two were simply switched quickly so that the stuff could drip back into him.
Changing the jars was no trouble to anyone but the men who watched them changed every hour or so and were baffled by the procedure.
"Why can't they hook the two jars up to each other and eliminate the middleman?"
The other patients in the ward ... shrank from him with a tenderhearted aversion from the moment they set eyes on him ... They gathered in the farthest recess of the ward and gossiped about him in malicious, offended undertones, rebelling against his presence as a ghastly imposition and resenting him malevolently for the nauseating truth of which he was a bright reminder.
Although Yossarian too is mystified by the soldier in white, yet he "would recognize him anywhere. He wondered who he was". And if we need an image of samsara we would have to look far to find a better one, or one more universal. The message of the soldier in white (who keeps turning up again) is as universal as that of the letters in black -- the letters which Yossarian, as bored censoring officer, blacks out completely or nearly so (and endorses them "Washington Irving" or, sometimes, "Irving Washington," thus unwittingly endangering the chaplain's life), "thereby leaving a message far more universal."
This tragicomic perception of man's condition (in which lots of things aren't even funnier) leads naturally to the question of the purpose of such a life, or of any life at all. (On the soldier in white: "It wasn't much of a life, but it was all the life he had ...") Dr. Stubbs, in conversation with Dunbar, raises this point but fails to answer it:
"I used to get a big kick out of saving people's lives. Now I wonder what the hell's the point, since they all have to die anyway."
... "The point is to keep them from dying for as long as you can."
"Yeah, but what's the point, since they all have to die anyway?"
"The trick is not to think about that."
"Never mind the trick. What the hell's the point?"
Dunbar pondered in silence for a few moments. "Who the hell knows?"
But if the point of life is not known, and if life is nevertheless perceived as both tragic and comic, then from another perspective it could as well be seen as both sane and insane: and this leads naturally to the novel's comic inversion of the notions of sanity and insanity, an inversion which is an underpinning of the book's logic (or, as some would have it, illogic). Continuing their conversation, Dr. Stubbs and Dunbar discuss Yossarian and the dreaded approach of a particularly dangerous mission:
"That crazy bastard."
"He's not so crazy," Dunbar said. "He swears he's not going to fly to Bologna."
"That's just what I mean," Dr. Stubbs answered. "That crazy bastard may be the only sane one left."
Indeed, in a world in which "men went mad and were rewarded with medals"-- who is sane, save he who would escape from that world? This is Yossarian's dilemma, the "vile, excruciating dilemma of duty and damnation": he doesn't want to be in the war. He doesn't want to die. "He thirsted for life". For Yossarian the enemy is not the Germans, or at least not only the Germans. "'The enemy,' retorted Yossarian with weighted precision, 'is anybody who's going to get you killed ...'" And because of this "morbid aversion to dying" -- men shrink from him and regard him as crazy. Clevinger is such a one. "You're crazy!" Clevinger shrieks at Yossarian on p. 16; but later we are told that the patriotic and idealistic Clevinger was a dope "who would rather be a corpse than bury one"; and finally: "Clevinger was dead. That was the basic flaw in his philosophy." And yet, by the very fact of being part of such a world one cannot be completely sane; and to be not completely sane is to be not sane at all. But if one tries to escape is that not then evidence of a spark of sanity? Perhaps so; but the problem is that when we try to escape we discover that we can't: every effort to free oneself from (in Buddhist terms) involvement with craving, aversion, and delusion or (in the novel's terms) the war -- every effort apparently brings one back to the same dilemma, and results only in making the problem more urgent (and perhaps also more evident), as will be recognized by anyone who has ever tried to extirpate the root of craving, and failed. Is it not madness, then, to try to escape?
And yet, if to do nothing is regarded as less insane, still that too does not lead to disengagement from a mad world. This is the very crux of Yossarian's dilemma, and ours as well: a dilemma illuminated in experience by the effort to practice the Buddha's Teaching and in fiction by Yossarian's effort to escape from the war. Heller puts it this way:
"Can't you ground someone who's crazy?" [Yossarian asks the flight surgeon, Doc Daneeka.]
"Oh, sure. I have to. There's a rule saying I have to ground anyone who's crazy. "
"Then why don't you ground me? I'm crazy ... Ask any of the others. They'll tell you how crazy I am."
"Then why don't you ground them?"
"Why don't they ask me to ground them?"
"Because they're crazy, that's why."
"Of course they're crazy," Doc Daneeka replied. "I just told you they're crazy, didn't I? And you can't let crazy people decide whether you're crazy or not, can you?"
Yossarian looked at him soberly and tried another approach. "Is Orr crazy?"
"He sure is," Doc Daneeka said ... "I can ground Orr. But first he has to ask me to."
"That's all he has to do to be grounded?"
"That's all. Let him ask me."
"And then you can ground him?" Yossarian asked.
"No. Then I can't ground him."
"You mean there's a catch?"
"Sure there's a catch," Doc Daneeka replied. "Catch-22. Anyone who wants to get out of combat duty isn't really crazy."
Thus Yossarian's efforts to establish a rational basis for being grounded must fail. Logic is an inadequate tool to deal with the human situation, for whenever we apply logic there is always a catch. This is not to sest that logic is not necessary, but rather that it is not adequate. In this computer age we could hardly manage without logic. Let alone computers, without logic we could make neither mathematics nor music nor marmalade. But whenever we try to deal with the fundamentals of existence, with the forever unanswerable question, "Who am I?" (or any other question concerned with "me"), we find that logic neither answers that question nor shows us the way to stop asking it. ("'Why me?' was his constant lament, and the question was a good one")
And the reason for this, the Buddha informs us, is because of avijja, or ignorance. But avijja is not a mere absence of information; it is a refusal to see what is at all times there to be seen. It is not failure to see one particular thing among other particular things, but a radical refusal to see the way all particular things are, and in this respect it is as great a modifier as death -- indeed, the two are (so the Buddha tells us) inseparable. The dependent arising formulation says, in summary, "With ignorance as condition, ageing and death, sorrow, lamentation, pain, grief, and despair come into being."
The deluded person, in refusing to see the nature of all things, refuses also to see the nature of his refusal to see (which is also a thing). That is, he refuses to see delusion. Thus, by denying itself delusion sustains itself. This is stated in the Suttas (e.g. Sammaditthi Sutta, M. 9) as follows:
Friends, that which is non-knowledge of suffering, non-knowledge of the arising of suffering, non-knowledge of the ceasing of suffering, non-knowledge of the way leading to the ceasing of suffering, this, friends, is called ignorance.
For after all, what is "the way leading to the ceasing of suffering"? It is (the Suttas tell us) the noble eightfold path. And what is the first factor of this path? Right view. Ignorance, then, involves non-knowledge of right view. And right view is knowledge of the arising of suffering; that is to say, knowledge of ignorance. Right view is knowledge of right view, and also knowledge of wrong view, whereas wrong view is non-knowledge of wrong view, and also non-knowledge of right view. And this structure of ignorance is, in fact, Catch-22 at its most fundamental level:
There was only one catch and that was Catch-22, which specified that a concern for one's own safety in the face of dangers that were real and immediate was the process of a rational mind. Orr was crazy and could be grounded. All he had to do was ask; and as soon as he did, he would no longer be crazy and would have to fly more missions. Orr would be crazy to fly more missions and sane if he didn't, but if he was sane he had to fly them. If he flew them he was crazy and didn't have to; but if he didn't want to he was sane and had to. Yossarian was moved very deeply by the absolute simplicity of this clause of Catch-22 and let out a respectful whistle.
"That's some catch, that Catch-22," he observed.
"It's the best there is," Doc Daneeka agreed.
Thus, with absolute simplicity, we are condemned to madness. And if this is not convincing, Heller presses his point home by telling us (on the same page) that Catch-22 is like the flies that Orr sees in Appleby's eyes.
"Oh, they're there, all right," Orr had assured [Yossarian] ... "although he probably doesn't even know it. That's why he can't see things as they really are."
"How come he doesn't know it?" inquired Yossarian.
"Because he's got flies in his eyes," Orr with exaggerated patience. "How can he see he's got flies in his eyes if he's got flies in his eyes?"
It made as much sense as anything else ...
Yathabhutam na pajanati: he does not see things as they really are: the phrase -- so typical a Sutta description of the puthujjana, the unenlightened commoner -- is used here by Heller to illuminate precisely the characteristic of being entrapped in a situation. Not only does the puthujjana have flies in his eyes, he does not see that he has them, and he does not see this because he has them. His dilemma is that though he must find a way to see, yet he cannot find that way precisely because he cannot see. Indeed, he cannot even see for himself that this is his problem. And this is the dilemma which, at its most fundamental level, is the specific concern of the Buddha's Teaching. The structure of avijja, the structure of Catch-22, the structure of "having flies in one's eyes": they are one and the same. Catch-22 is avijja. The title character in both the novel and in our lives never appears and yet is omnipresent.
All of this does not oblige us to conclude that Heller is enlightened, or that he is even a Buddhist. Describing something and seeing it directly are two different things; and even in direct perception there are different levels of profundity. "At the field a heavy silence prevailed, overpowering motion like a ruthless, insensate spell holding in thrall the only beings who might break it. The chaplain was in awe". This, it is clear enough, is of the same nature as having flies in one's eyes; and yet it is also clear enough that this sort of spell is of a much less fundamental grade. Not only can we on the outside see it, it is conceivable that the men at the field could be aware of the spell at the same time they were (for the time being) powerless to break it. Appleby, on the other hand, must be entirely unaware of the flies in his eyes.
On an even less fundamental level is the situation of the men while they await the dreaded mission to Bologna. The mission cannot be flown until the rain stops and the landing strips dry out. But the rain-forced delay in the mission only gives the men more time to be more terrified. "Their only hope was that it would never stop raining, and they had no hope because they all knew it would ... The more it rained, the worse they suffered. The worse they suffered, the more they prayed that it would continue raining". Again we have a situation of entrapment, but on a crude and manifest level of experience.
But though we would describe these various levels of Catch-22 as being only rough approximations to the subtle and pervasive deception of avijja, as expounded by the Buddha, we must also recognize Heller's achievement in seeing the central significance of this self-replicative structure in human existence and (though he doesn't know what to do about it) in describing it in a form which has struck a deeply responsive chord in so many. Although he may lack the wisdom to resolve the dilemma he describes, yet he has sufficient wisdom to not let go of that perception; nor should we, for by being manifest such occurrences can serve both to remind us of the subtle central dilemma which is the template upon which those coarser experiences depend and also to provide us with a model which, applied with proper attention, can indicate what action, or what sort of action, can bring that central dilemma to an end.
In the end, perhaps due to the exigencies of the novel's form, Heller does sest a solution to Yossarian's dilemma. Whether this solution works artistically is not of concern to us here. Rather, we need to understand why this sestion of a solution is incompatible with the Buddha's Teaching.
The Buddha's Teaching is concerned with letting go of what can be surrendered within the sphere of the unenlightened (namely, sensuality, hatred, lethargy, agitation, and doubt -- the five hindrances) in order to allow for the possibility of seeing what might be let go of beyond that sphere. This further perception can be indicated by one who has already seen for himself, and must be initially accepted by the practitioner as an act of faith, until he too comes to see it. At that point it is possible for there to be a further letting go, a giving up of what can be surrendered only outside the sphere of the unenlightened, namely, all beliefs concerned with selfhood (sakkayaditthi, attavada) and, eventually, the conceit "I am" (asmimana). Thus the Buddha's Teaching is a course of practice concerned fundamentally with renunciation. Without giving up the world to the limits of one's ability to do so one will never be able to extend those limits: one will instead remain entrapped within the world.
Heller considers this approach, but rejects it. Yossarian certainly sees the problem: he is "unable to adjust to the idea of war" -- and repeatedly flees the oppressiveness of the world by running to "the cloistered shelter of a hospital" -- with a supposititious liver ailment. That this flight is meant to be seen as (at least in a sense) religious is borne out by a doctor who tells Yossarian that the family of a just-deceased soldier have
"travelled all the way from New York to see a dying soldier, and you're the handiest one we've got."
"What are you talking about?" Yossarian asked suspiciously. "I'm not dying."
"Of course you're dying. We're all dying. Where the devil else do you think you're heading?"
"They didn't come to see me," Yossarian objected. "They came to see their son. "
"They'll have to take what they can get. As far as we're concerned, one dying boy is just as good as any other, or just as bad. To a scientist, all dying boys are equal ..."
Thus the doctors, the staff of that cloistered shelter, perform the essentially religious function of reminding Yossarian ("how could he have forgotten") of his mortality; and they also insist that he observe the celibacy normally associated with monastic institutions:
"How do you expect anyone to believe you have a liver condition if you keep squeezing the nurses' tits every time you get a chance? You're going to have to give up sex if you want to convince people you've got an ailing liver."
"That's a hell of a price to pay just to keep alive ..."
Precisely: giving up sensuality (to say nothing of hatred, lethargy, agitation, and doubt) is a price Yossarian is not prepared to pay. He wants the sybaritic salvation sought also by Hungry Joe, to whom women were "lovely, satisfying, maddening manifestations of the miraculous, instruments of pleasure" -- and he dreams of being interred for the duration of the war (i.e. for all eternity) in Sweden, an earthly (and earthy) paradise where he could keep himself busy siring dozens of illegitimate little Yossarians. Yossarian wants the world's pleasures without having to endure the world's drawbacks, and he fails to see the essence of the world's dangers. (Hungry Joe is more consistent than Yossarian on this point, for he goes to pieces each time he finishes flying the number of missions Headquarters requires, and recovers only when Headquarters raises the number of missions required, as it inevitably does, throwing him back on combat status.)
If any character in Catch-22 comes close to accepting the Buddha's advice it would be Dunbar, who tries to increase his lifespan by cultivating boredom, on the grounds that when you're bored time passes slower. His idea seems to be that if only he could achieve a state of total and absolute boredom he would be, for all intents, eternal. This sounds like a rough literary approximation to meditation (although we must remember that the Buddha, unlike many Eastern teachers, quite explicitly stated that meditation by itself is an insufficient condition for enlightenment).
Dunbar, given to cultivating boredom, to seeking eternity, lies motionless in bed: he goes so far in his efforts that at one point Yossarian, looking at him, wonders whether he is still alive. This will remind us of the story of the Ven. Sańjiva who, we are told, was seated immersed in the highest meditative attainment when some cowherds, shepherds, and ploughmen, passing by, saw him and thought, as did Yossarian of Dunbar, that he was dead. They collected grass, wood, and cowdung, heaped it up about the Ven. Sańjiva, set his pyre alight, and went on their way. The next morning Ven. Sańjiva emerged from his meditative attainment and went wandering for almsfood. His would-be cremators were astonished at seeing him alive and gave him the name by which he became known, Sańjiva, which means "with life." Dunbar seems to have lacked the Ven. Sańjiva's meditative abilities, but each sought to escape death (Ven. Sańjiva, the Sutta tells us, successfully), and each came thereby to be taken as dead.
It is common, of course, for beginning meditators to be assailed by boredom (as well as the other four hindrances); however, this does not justify equating boredom and meditation: on the contrary, boredom is an enemy of meditation. Despite the story of Ven. Sańjiva, then, we must regard any effort to equate meditation with the cultivation of boredom as tenuous, and as being further weakened by the episode in which Dunbar becomes a fortiori. However, we must also note that it is immediately after Dunbar becomes convinced, upon re-encountering the soldier in white, that "There's no one inside! ...He's hollow inside, like a chocolate soldier" -- thereby perhaps sesting something of the Buddha's teaching of anatta, of not-self -- that Dunbar is disappeared. We never learn the meaning of this cryptic event ("It doesn't make sense. It isn't even good grammar"), but if the parallel with meditation is accepted then the further parallel that would be sested here is with nibbana, extinction. After being disappeared Dunbar is described as being "nowhere to be found", which is exactly how the Suttas describe beings who have attained full enlightenment (arahatta).
Perhaps a literary parallel of an achievement that transcends literature (let alone literature, nibbana transcends bhava, being) could not be more closely described; but in any case we cannot allow that the parallel is more than a sestion, and (no doubt inevitably) an inaccurate one at that. And in any case to be disappeared sounds, from Heller's description of it, far less desirable than extinction, from the Buddha's description of that. (Still, it would be interesting to know how much acquaintance Heller actually had, if any, with any school of Buddhism during the seven years in which he was writing Catch-22.)
And if any character tries, however ineffectually, to understand the real nature of his situation, it is not Yossarian but the chaplain. The chaplain (he was named Shipman in the hard-cover edition, but for some reason the name was changed in the paperback edition to Tappman -- not his only identity crisis), who has an open mind, is continually
wondering what everything was all about. ... There was no way of really knowing anything, he knew, not even that there was no way of really knowing anything. Was there a single true faith, or a life after death? ... These were the great, complex questions of ontology that tormented him. Yet they never seemed nearly as crucial to him as the question of kindness and good manners. He was pinched perspiringly in the epistemological dilemma of the skeptic, unable to accept solutions to problems he was unwilling to dismiss as unsolvable. He was never without misery and never without hope.
In the chaplain's tale the human dilemma is presented from a different point of view: it is not a question of sanity or insanity but, in Kafkaesque terms, one of guilt or innocence. Because it is the nature of beings that they are continually trying to establish an existence that continually eludes them their existence is perpetually in doubt, and they exist, if at all, in a state of guilt. This, it would seem, is the basic perception of Kafka's Trial: Joseph K. arrests himself by recognizing that his existence, being unjustifiable, is essentially guilty. And the chaplain (for whom the question "Who am I?" becomes acute when he is formally charged with "being Washington Irving") is also in this situation:
"You've got nothing to be afraid of if you're not guilty. What are you so afraid of? You're not guilty, are you?"
"Sure he's guilty," said the colonel. "Guilty as hell."
"Guilty of what?" implored the chaplain, feeling more and more bewildered. ... "What did I do?"
And later the chaplain's identity crisis and dilemma of existential guilt is expressed in the same terms that were used earlier to describe Catch-22:
"I offered it to Sergeant Whitcomb because I didn't want it."
"Why'd you steal it from Colonel Cathcart if you didn't want it?"
"I didn't steal it from Colonel Cathcart!"
"Then why are you so guilty, if you didn't steal it?"
"I'm not guilty!"
"Then why would we be questioning you if you weren't guilty?"
Thus each of us faces the question of our basic unjustifiability in a purposeless world. Some, of course, flee from these questions and deny them (by indulging in sensuality, hatred, lethargy, agitation, and doubt); but the questions return for so long as their root, the conceit "I am", exists, and the verdict is inevitable: Guilty.
"Chaplain," he continued, looking up, "we accuse you also of the commission of crimes and infractions we don't even know about yet. Guilty or innocent?"
"I don't know, sir. How can I say if you don't tell me what they are?"
"How can we tell you if we don't know?"
"Guilty," decided the colonel.
"Sure he's guilty," agreed the major. "If they're his crimes and infractions, he must have committed them."
"Guilty it is, then," chanted the officer without insignia ...
And guilty it is for all of us, if the charge is the fundamental one of being possessors, or even of simply "being": being what?
And thus Heller repeatedly and ingeniously offers us brilliant literary expressions of the dilemma of existence. The formulations are lucid and compelling, and they fully take account of the circular and self-sustaining nature of the dilemma. For this we can praise Catch-22, and perhaps find it of use as a tool in keeping to the forefront of our awareness the nature of our problem. But it would be asking too much to expect the novel to offer the means of resolving that dilemma. For that we must turn to the Buddha's Teaching.
Review by FekketCantenel
"After 25% (I was reading it in ebook format), I deleted it from my Axim. This book is repetitive, over-long, repetitive, boring, and repetitive. It occasionally made me laugh, but each time only after wading through chapter upon chapter of copied-and-pasted, headache-inducing drivel. The dozens of cardboard cutout characters with similar names made it impossible to relate to or even remember any but a few. Yet another 'classic' that made me want to carve my forehead off with my fingernails"
message by Gala
message 1: by Gala
I started reading the book cuz it was much recommended. Im about a quarter way through, I see the "Catch 22" but still haven't gotten to the good part? Everyone says the end is the best, so I am just waiting for it, but its all a bit too confusing and choppy.
Is it worth finishing?
A Personal Introduction to Catch-22
by Loren Webster
in Ready Steady Book (http://www.readysteadybook.com/)
July 15, 2003
I first encountered Catch-22 while on duty in Vietnam. A college friend “without-a-clue” (actually probably my best friend in life though I haven’t seen him for several years) sent it to me because he found it both enlightening and funny. Unfortunately, I found it neither. Caught in the middle of my own catch-22, I had no desire to truly see my situation. After reading the first fifty pages, I discarded the book and turned to the schmaltzy writings of some Muslim mystic-poet long since forgotten. What I needed in Vietnam wasn’t a dose of reality but rather pure escapist literature that allowed me to avoid looking at the harsh reality of a badly-fought war fought for, at best, questionable reasons.
It wasn’t until years later that I again encountered this novel on the reading list for my Master’s Degree Program and, though it wasn’t covered in a course, it was required reading for the written and oral exams. Luckily I had put enough distance between Vietnam and myself that I could look at the novel with a new perspective, and it became one of my favorite 20th century novels. Later, I chose to teach it in my Honors American Studies class as representative of a “modern classic,” and as my sole attempt to deal with the effects Vietnam had had on our country.
That said, it’s obviously not an easy novel to read. Some people are put off by its lack of a straightforward, narrative. This lack of narrative structure isn’t made any easier by the misleading titles that sest each chapter is a devoted to a particular character, when in reality the character may not appear until the very end of the chapter and turn out to be merely a minor part of the chapter bearing their name, only to become a major character in a later chapter bearing the name of an entirely different character.
Anyone who has made it through Joyce or Faulkner, though, should find Heller’s novel relatively easy to follow. In fact, it seems to me that Hellers’ method of telling a story is probably more “realistic” than the common literary technique of merely retelling a person’s whole life directly. This, not straightforward narrative, is how we learn about people in real life, as bloggers well know. Most of us are introduced to people indirectly, either through comments made on a site visited by both or through references made on another site. Even when do read a blogger’s site we learn very little about them directly. Instead, we begin to understand them little by little as they reveal themselves through their commentary on other issues. Readers who are willing to trust this kind of self-revelation will find that Catch 22 is a very perceptive novel that isn’t all that difficult to follow.
Some readers may find its strange mixture of humor and harsh reality both confusing and repulsive. I must admit, that I found the movie version a bit more violent than I liked. That violence is also in the novel, but for those like myself who lack imagination, the violence is mitigated by the words themselves. It’s one thing to visually experience violence, something quite different to read about it. In this novel, words are a much-needed mitigating factor.
I suspect it also helps if you appreciate “military humor,” that dark, ironic sense of humor that makes it possible to get through the impossible. I found it embarassing to read the book while students read it because they were always startled when I would break out laughing. Unfortunately, they seldom laughed while reading it, though I did have a few break into tears while reading it. Those readers old enough to fondly remember the series Get Smart , or so lacking a life that they’ve followed it in re-runs, will appreciate the humor in this novel if they found lines like “Would you believe”" both funny and apt. This kind of humor makes it possible to laugh when you really want to cry out in rage or despair. This sense of humor is so ingrained in me that, as a hiking friend noted, I resort to such humor when I find myself in dire straights, facing undesirable alternatives.
I doubt that many patriotic supporters of the Great SUV-Wars will appreciate Heller’s humor, though. Heller is a true radical, one who sees with laser-like vision through the patently false patriotism that demands the ultimate sacrifice for some while generously rewarding those willing to cash in on other people’s idealism.
Reviewed by Christian Stretton
There is an appendix to my copy of Catch-22, in which Heller calls to mind his numerous good reviews at the time of publication, and then considers his bad reviews. It's a neat echo of the book's own warped logic that both of these diametrically opposing viewpoints are absolutely correct.
The good reviews rightly claim the book as one of the greatest comic novels. They praise the characterisation - particularly the protagonist, Yossarian. They salute the brave anti-war sentiment and enjoy the ambitious scale of it all. The bad reviews seem particularly vexed by the leaping, anecdotal, narrative voice. The New Yorker likened the author to an overexcited child, desperate for our attention. And he is - but that's funny. In a way, the whole novel is a series of comedy sketches - and these sketches are certainly what I am left with upon finishing the book. But the force at which these comic vignettes are hurled at the reader makes the book a really entertaining read (I laughed out loud a number of times). As Woody Allen said - "…comedy is an odd talent. Anyone can actually write a drama. It won't necessarily be a good one, but anyone can do it. But a comedy…you can't write a comedy if you don't have the knack. Where do you begin? How do you write a joke?" The bad reviews also claim the book to be over-long. I'd agree with this too.
Each chapter is titled with a character's name. Anecdotal tales are loosely told around the character, but then are often returned to, and embellished upon, later in the book. So the whole narrative is not really chronological, and has no real story arc, but does fit together into a satisfyingly cohesive whole. This narrative trickery could easily grate if from a less skilled writer. But here Heller really proves himself. Even when Heller attempts to bring some gravity to the tale, he succeeds. The chapter "the eternal city" is an acknowledged riff on Dostoevsky. The chapter where Snowden loses his innards is quite grotesque.
But the greatest anti-war book ever? Maybe. To be honest, as I read, I thought little of the atrocities of war. From my perspective, I found much in the whole ridiculousness of it to be a critique of capitalism, and office politics. Which, of course, is where his surviving characters end up, in the much later sequel Closing Time.
At the end of his appendix, Heller concludes that the bad reviews were plainly wrong, because history has proved Catch-22 to be one of the greatest novels of the twentieth century. Well, I can't refute that. The greatest pleasure to be had from this novel though, is the comfort it provides in recognising the absurdity of the world. And laughing at it.
posted by Literary Feline
"Every writer I know has trouble writing." - Joseph Heller
posted by Literary Feline @ 1/30/2007 07:41:00 PM
Rating: Very Good
First Sentence: It was love at first sight.
Where Book Came From: TBR Shelf (since 03/2005)
Reason for Reading: This is my third selection for the Winter Classics Challenge.
Synopsis From the Publisher: At the heart of Catch-22 resides the incomparable, malingering bombardier, Yossarian, a hero endlessly inventive in his schemes to save his skin from the horrible chances of war. His efforts are perfectly understandable because as he furiously scrambles, thousands of people he hasn't even met are trying to kill him. His problem is Colonel Cathcart, who keeps raising the number of missions the men must fly to complete their service. Yet if Yossarian makes any attempts to excuse himself from the perilous missions that he is committed to flying, he is trapped by the Great Loyalty Oath Crusade, the hilariously sinister bureaucratic rule from which the book takes its title: a man is considered insane if he willingly continues to fly dangerous combat missions, but if he makes the necessary formal request to be relieved of such missions, the very act of making the request proves that he is sane and therefore ineligible to be relieved.
Comments: Where to begin? Or better yet, what can I say to best sum up my thoughts about this quirky, hilarious, and yet disturbing novel? Heller presents a colorful cast of characters that at once touch the heart and yet at the same time make a person shake his or her head in dismay.
I never had the opportunity to read Catch-22 when I was in school, but for some reason decided it was a classic I needed to read at some point. The Winter Classics Challenge was the perfect excuse to give it a try. I admit that my enthusiasm for the book, despite my husband’s insistence that I would love it, waned when several fellow booklovers expressed their dislike over the book. And so, it was with a bit of reluctance that I stepped into the past, joining the U.S. Army Air Force in Mediterranean during World War II. The more I read, the more it became clear just how well my husband knows me—and my sense of humor.
It was impossible not to laugh at the circular arguments some of the characters got into, the dilemmas they created for themselves, and the off the wall antics of some of the eccentric characters. The names of T.S. Eliot and Washington Irving will have a place in my memory for a long time, no doubt. While the story and characters themselves were not exactly what I would call realistic, they did fit the story well.
The novel was not all laughs, however. There were many darker moments as well, especially the deeper into the novel I read: reminders of the hardships of war, the fear that grips a soldier’s heart with each new mission, the longing to go home, and the unavoidable causalities that will inevitably hit close to home. My heart ached for the injustice faced by several of the characters as well as the confusion and the fear that wouldn’t leave them.
There are many interpretations out there of the message behind Heller’s novel, whether it be about the military and the political establishment, bureaucratic operation and reasoning, patriotism and honor, or the spiritual debate. Regardless of what a reader takes away from the novel, it is a book that has stood the test of time because people can relate to it at varying levels. Absurd much of the time with over the top characters, Heller ‘s Catch-22 is satire at its finest.
Favorite Part: While my husband’s favorite character in the novel is Major Major, mine would probably be Orr. Orr was Yossarian’s roommate for much of the novel. Orr is a bomber and was very good with mechanical things. He liked to walk around with crab apples or horse chestnuts in his cheeks.
Least Favorite Part: The timeline in the novel flucuated and was a bit confusing at times. One minute I would be in the “present” and the next I would be in the past with no warning. It took a second or two for my brain to catch up when that happened.
Note about the Author: Joseph Heller’s novel is the basis for the commonly used phrase, catch-22. The novel originally was titled Catch-18, however it’s been said that the title was changed when Leon Uris’s novel Mila 18 was published, sharing a military theme but little else.
At Wednesday, January 31, 2007 10:07:00 AM,
I tried to read this last year and only made it 50 pages before tossing it aside. Just couldn't get a handle on the jerky time sequencing and the characters were hard to care about. My husband, ..., thinks it's a great book, but then he also loves Moby Dick (another I'll never finish, I'm afraid).
Book review: by Tom Vaughan
Wed, 05/30/2007 - 02:57
If this was adapted as a sitcom after its first printing in 1961, it would have become Hogan’s Heroes. Does all mainstream satire eventually become a joke about itself? Discuss.
A nice text effort skewing the title across the side of some metal-plated machine (presumably a bomber).
WWII bomber pilots try not to get blown to pieces over Italy, then try to keep their sanity on the ground between missions. Madcap hi-jinx, largely taking the form of violence, insanity and death, ensue.
The book may be a) nearly fifty years old, and b) grim as hell, really, but it’s still funny. Not only that, but the humour is yoked to the purpose, as Vonnegut’s usually is, and creates an atmosphere of insanity and chaos while feeling very grounded and human. The humour also serves, in a very unusual way, to compose the core theme of the book by retelling again and again and again variations of the One Big Joke, for which see title. The sheer number of flavours and facets Heller can get from this idea is quite astonishing. So what is it? Well, in case you still don’t know, Catch-22 is a (supposed) regulation explained by the doctor on the base: he is permitted to ground pilots for reason of insanity. The pilot must come to the doctor with this request. However, any pilot rational enough to attempt to avoid the insanity of combat is patently sane. Therefore, not eligible for grounding. Or, to put it more simply, as does an old Italian madam near the end of the book: “Catch-22 means they have the right to do anything to us that we can’t stop them from doing.”
This circular, self-defeating logic permeates every scene in the book, in a truly masterful fashion. I’ve heard it took Heller 5 years to write, and when you witness the craft at work here it’s believable; it’s the kind of book the word processor was invented for, written at a time when the second world war was still fresh, raw and bleeding in many people’s minds. The structure is truly a marvel—despite feeling loose and unhinged (and playing merry hell with chronography), Heller builds a truly intricate world, at least half of which exists solely inside the dinged-up skulls of the men (and they’re all men) for which every chapter is named.
Much of the satire of war is generated, not through any heavy-handed plot billboards, but through the thoughts and deeds of the characters themselves, and, aside from central-ish character Yossarian, none of them seem to realise they’re acting out of the ordinary. My favourite example has to be Milo Minderbinder, that zany war profiteer guy we’ve seen in a dozen war films from Sergeant Bilko to Buffalo Soldiers. Heller takes this archetype, and makes him human. Milo is, at first, one of Yossarian’s few allies, and the men love him because he brings in classy European food and drink for the mess halls by running a syndicate in which they all have a share. He crosses borders to bring home a profit, and if he occasionally borrows military resources to do so, well, it’s all in the interests of the syndicate, in which everybody has a share. Then Heller follows his behaviour to its logical conclusion, something which, of course, few free-market evangelists have the balls or inclination to do. Milo starts selling to both sides, then he starts working for both sides, then he starts selling the services of both sides TO both sides. He finally goes a bit far by purchasing a German mission to bomb his own base, for which he uses his own bomber squadron. Stiff reprimands are in order, questions to be asked, etcetera. On the other hand, Milo DID somehow make a large profit from this venture, large enough to remunerate the government for the death and destruction his profiteering has caused. Well, in theory. Because, after all, as Milo puts it:
“In a democracy, the government is the people,” Milo explained. “We’re people, aren’t we? So 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. If we pay the government everything we owe it, we’ll only be encouraging governmental control and discouraging other individuals from bombing their own men and planes. We’ll be taking away their incentive.”
This is a man who would have understood CIA planes with bellies full of blow and rockets passing each other mid-air between North and South America. Heck, I guarantee he could do a better job with Halliburton than Dick Cheney ever did—at least Milo makes a profit. And, obviously, when you get down to it, everyone has a share.
Look, I could write reams of this nonsense and come no closer to explaining why this is such an achievement. It’s regularly coarse, visceral and raw, yet always light-headed, if not hearted, in its manic devotion to seeing the ridiculous in every situation and motivation. The closer a scene teeters on the abyss, the more Heller finds to play with, and once you’ve adopted the Catch-22 mindset so will you—one begins to see things coming, not from the deja vu of a Hollywood blockbuster, but from the awful yawning inevitability of the social faux pas you’re halfway through committing, or the Darwin Award accident on YouTube.
Like a lot of contemporary satire, this is not going to be for everyone. Obviously those who think soldiery is a fine and upstanding business may not agree with the constantly reinforced futility of every aspect of war—and let’s not forget that this was a war which actually involved TWO armies fighting each other for a definite positive purpose, so what Heller would’ve made of Vietnam, and almost everything since, one can only imagine. (On the other hand, the only friend of mine ex-armed services quite enjoyed this... although he didn’t quite finish it. I think he felt as though he’d gotten The Joke.)
The one truly dated bit of the book is the attitudes toward women. They are, in essence, half a century old. This is a story about men who lived fifty years ago, though, and it makes sense for their dated attitudes and points of view to be taken into account.
In a slightly self-fellatory intro to the whatever-th anniversary print run, Heller takes time to gloat over a few negative reviews of the book on its release, including one where a reviewer says that it ultimately drowns in its own mocking laughter. I can see where the reviewer was coming from, I must admit. Although there is pathos and humanity to be found, Heller rarely lets either come before The Joke. There is a scene in hospital, for instance, where Yossarian wangles himself a nice cushy bed beside a dying man by mimicking the guy’s condition (which consists of occasionally screaming “I see TWO OF EVERYTHING!!”—cue much amusing “how many fingers?” gags from the doctors, etc.). The docs are intrigued but mystified, and by the time the poor chap’s relatives have arrived it’s too late—although they don’t know that yet. So the doctors swap Yossarian for the now-dead chap. (If you can guess what’s coming, you’re definitely in the right place for this book!) The relatives are brought in, and they can’t tell the difference between Yossarian and their son, and continue talking to him as normal, trying to be brave with varying success. This scene has a lot it wants to say about the isolation and democracy of death and what war does to people, and I’m not saying it doesn’t work, but Heller undoubtedly plays it in this order:
1. The Joke (for which see title)
3. emotional impact
Sometimes this approach has the effect of slipping a little knife into your heart when you least expect it, but usually it means you bounce along on craziness after craziness like a car on a corrugated road, feeling little. Which is sort of what the men do. Boy this is clever.
What I learnt
Don’t join the army.
Don’t join the navy.
Don’t join the air force.
The only thing harder than being funny all the way through a book is being funny all the way through a book ON TOPIC. Ooh, time for one last quote, Marjory? Really? That soon? Ber it, here’s one anyway—Yossarian is with the doctor:
“Hasn’t it ever occurred to you that in your promiscuous pursuit of women you are merely trying to assuage your subconscious fears of sexual impotence?”
“Yes, sir, it has.”
“Then why do you do it?”
“To assuage my subconscious fears of sexual impotence.”
Review by Garret Wilson
19 July 2001 6:30 p.m.
Joseph Heller's Catch-22 is an complicated, overly complex work that is so simplistic that it's boring. It is trite, long, confusing, short, funny, boring, and somewhat innovative.
Such a description is not atypical of the type of prose one finds in Catch-22, Joseph Heller's famous book set during World War II about being in the military. Heller's point is to make points about the world in general, about people, about life, about how nothing makes sense and we're really the cause of it — but there's nothing we can do about it. The execution leaves something to be desired, though, as Heller is not the most brilliant composer of prose to ever lift a pen.
That's not to say that Heller never makes any valid points — he in fact makes quite a few of them, some rather good ones, and even more that are actually quite funny. One particularly telling example:
"What would they do to me," he asked in confidential tones, "if I refused to fly them?"
"We'd probably shoot you," ex-P.F.C. Wintergreen replied.
"We?" Yossarian cried in surprise. "What do you mean, we? Since when are you on their side?"
If you're going to be shot, whose side do you expect me to be on?" ex-P.F.C. Wintergreen retorted (68).
Yossarian is the hero of the story, although we're really not sure why, unless it's because Yossarian doesn't get killed and sticks around to tell us what's going on. Yossarian is the narrator, the one who gets into all sorts of situations as a ploy to drag the reader along. Take for instance the time Yossarian is forced (Yossarian is forced to do everything) to pretend to be a hospitalized soldier for the benefit of his parents, who have just come to visit not knowing their son has just died. At times Yossarian, in the darkened room, gives up his mission (Yossarian always gives up his missions) and informs the family of who he really is. The dead soldier's younger brother is the only one who seems to notice:
"Ma, make him feel good," the brother urged. "Say something to cheer him up."
"It's not Giuseppe, Ma. It's Yossarian."
"What difference does it make?" the mother answered in the same mourning tone, without looking up. "He's dying" (195).
And so Heller brings us all sorts of really good thoughts, points, and witty Thing to Keep in Mind while Living. It reminds one of a Chris Rock movie, in which there are multitudes of small scenes each of which seems to have been perfect for a skit, but they're not in a skit, they're in a movie. Such is the excellent story of Captain Black's quest to make an outcast of Major Major by his Glorious Loyalty Oath Crusade, in which every soldier is required to sign an oath of loyalty (except, of course, Major Major who is not even allowed to sign the oath). As other officers followed suit with loyalty oaths of their own, Captain Black "would stand second to none to his devotion to country", and soon made everyone...
...sign two loyalty oaths, then three, then four; then he introduced the pledge of allegiance, and after than "The Star Spangled Banner," one chorus, two choruses, three choruses, four choruses. Each time Captain Black forged ahead of his competitors, he swung upon them scornfully for their failure to follow his example. Each time they followed his example, he retreated with concern and racked his brain for some new strategem that would enable him to turn upon them scornfully again (123).
What a brilliant anecdote, a wonderful skit. This example is priceless, fully of relevant points on so many levels. The problem, of course, is that the skits try to make a movie — or in this case, the anecdotes try to make a novel. For every good anecdote one has to wade through such prose as, "This sordid, vulturous, diabolical old man reminded Nately of his father because the two were nothing at all alike" (254).
Heller thrives on paradoxes, oxymorons, and anti-redundancies of all sorts. He sees contradictions throughout life, but in his assurance of his own wittiness he tries to create even more of them — as if there weren't enough already. Perhaps he at times thinks there's not even enough space in his book for them all, so he lines up the mutually exclusive adjectives in a row, separated by commas.
Heller thinks that in every case we'll recognize the truth of it, how both alternatives are at the same time true, how that reminds us of someone we know, that we'll nod our heads and recognize how silly we humans are. Sometimes we do. But we don't do so as often as Heller thinks.
And what is "Catch-22", anyway? Did this book, Catch 22, invent the phrase? If so, it wasn't developed nearly as well as it should have been to become an ingrained part of the English language.
In the preface to this special edition of Catch-22, Heller relates how that, for the first edition of the book, a reviewer in The New Yorker claimed that the work "doesn't even seem to have been written; instead, it gives the impression of having been shouted onto paper" (II). Maybe. There were certainly one or two guffaws included, too.
Copyright © 2001 Garret Wilson