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
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
'CATCH-22': CADETS HAIL A CHRONICLER OF THE ABSURD
Date: October 6, 1986, Monday, Late City Final Edition Section B; Page 10, Column 3; National Desk
Byline: By ANDREW H. MALCOLM, Special to the New York Times COLORADO SPRINGS, Oct. 4
It was love at first sight.
The first time the cadets at the Air Force Academy saw Joseph Heller walk into the cavernous auditorium. they fell madly in love with him. Nearly 900 future officers stood as one to applaud the white-haired author as he arrived to begin a weekend-long celebration.
The occasion was the 25th anniversary of the publication of ''Catch-22,'' the novel that captured the insanity of war and the human condition while adding a phrase to the English language.
The audience in blue uniforms rose again to applaud and cheer when the author introduced the movie based on his book. The cadets applauded during the movie credits, after the movie and after he thought he was finished answering questions.
Then they mobbed him down front with more questions, asked for autographs and followed him out to a waiting car for more talk about the evil Colonel Cathcart, who kept raising the number of bombing missions necessary for rotation home, Major Major, who would only see people in his office when he wasn't in, and Milo Minderbinder, the mess officer who could see a profit in almost anything. 'An Intoxicating Experience'
''For me,' said the 63-year-old author, ''this is an intoxicating experience unlike any other I've ever had. I don't want to take it in stride. I want to revel in it.''
As part of the celebration, there was a 25th birthday cake for Yossarian, the book's puzzled protagonist. There were academic papers presented on the theological, cultural and social significance of ''Catch-22.'' And there were big smiles on the faces of the Air Force Academy's English department, which sought to introduce the man who made fun of an insane military bureaucracy to future members of a military bureaucracy.
''We want these men and women to be a thinking part of a large military bureaucracy,'' said Col. Jack Shuttleworth, head of the English department, ''We don't want them to be victims of the Colonel Cathcarts of the world. To put it bluntly, you don't want dumb officers out there protecting your country.''
Since its publication, ''Catch-22'' has been an informal part of the military education of many soldiers. And it was occasionally used in some senior classes here. But in recent years it has become a staple taught by a self-confident staff of teachers whose military experiences included tours in Vietnam, where the historical distinctions between good guy and bad guy were fuzzed and, as Colonel Shuttleworth put it, ''The enemy was everywhere and nowhere.'' Mutual Admiration Builds
''We oversimplify our military,'' said Mr. Heller, who as a World War II bombardier lieutenant flew 60 missions in the Army Air Corps. ''We think they have one mind. But they are very educated today and they want their families and students to be well educated. The degree of acceptance here, maybe even love, for the book is very surprising, and gratifying.''
Likewise, the cadets learned that an Olympian author can also be accessible. ''He seems like a nice guy,'' said Corey Keppler, a sophomore from Smithtown, L.I., ''I read parts of the book in high school. Now I'm going to finish it.''
Mr. Heller also shared several confidences with his young admirers, none of whom was born when he wrote the book. They learned that the book was originally titled ''Catch-18,'' but the imminent publication of Leon Uris's ''Mila 18'' and the repetition of the number two in Mr. Heller's book sested the change.
The cadets also discovered that Milo's car in the movie really did belong to Mussolini. They laughed when the author told why he sold the movie rights: ''I wanted the money.'' A Catch That Defies Explanation
And the author tried once again to explain why he can never define catch-22. ''It doesn't exist,'' he said, ''That's the catch. If it existed in writing or something, we could change it.''
Then he sought to give an example. ''I understand the Air Force Academy has a catch-22,'' he said, ''To repair a uniform it must be freshly cleaned. But the cleaning staff has orders not to clean any uniform needing repairs.''
''That's some catch,'' says Yossarian in the movie.
''It's the best there is,'' replies the doctor.
There were, of course, serious moments in the celebration, which the academy advertised with a sketch of a naked Yossarian in a tree looking out over the Air Force school. In one paper presented, Stuart James of Denver University praised the book's ''narrative knots and sheer fantasy'' as ''a mirror image of the madhouse world of lonely psyches that we all inhabit.'' Joan Robertson of the academy's faculty analyzed the author's depiction of women in ''Catch-22'' as undemanding, compliant, often not even worthy of a proper name, and thus adding a needed gritty edge to his portrayal of men.
Frederick Kiley of the National Defense University even wrote another chapter to ''Catch-22'' in Mr. Heller's style about the brave young men who went off on the dangerous missions they did not have to fly but could not get out of. 'I'm Sure Milo Would'
The author himself said he was surprised by the lasting impact of Milo Minderbinder, a product of the capitalist system. ''I don't understand the merger mania sweeping American business,'' said Mr. Heller. ''But I'm sure Milo would.''
The author said he was not surprised, however, when catch-22's kept popping up in real life. In a speech tonight he quoted one United States Army briefing officer in Vietnam telling reporters, ''I'm happy to announce our casualties have increased greatly and are now on a level with those of our Marines.''
Mr. Heller said he was stunned with the strength of continuing interest in his book. He confided plans to cancel the Friday evening showing of the movie if only a few teachers attended. Instead, it was the largest crowd he has ever addressed.
All of which put the author in his own catch-22 - the more he enjoyed the weekend, the faster it went, and the less he could enjoy it.
''I'm as happy as a lark,'' said Mr. Heller, who expects to complete his next novel, ''Poetics,'' this winter. ''All my fantasies have been fulfilled. The sad part to me is that now I'll have to wait another 25 years to come back.''
DEADLY UNCONSCIOUS LOGICS IN JOSEPH HELLER’S CATCH-22
by Robert M. Young
Human Nature Review
Catch-22 is a black comedy novel about death, about what people do when faced with the daily likelihood of annihilation. For the most part what they do is try to survive in any way they can. The book begins, ‘The island of Pianosa lies in the Mediterranean Sea eight miles south of Elba.’ That is the geographical location of the action. Much of the emotional plot of the book turns on the question of who’s crazy, and I sest that it is illuminating to look at its world in Kleinian terms. The location of the story in the inner world is the claustrum — a space inside the psychic anus, at the bottom of the psychic digestive tract, where everyone lives perpetually in projective identification, and the only value is survival. If one is expelled from the claustrum, there are only two places to go: death or psychotic breakdown (Meltzer, 1992). What people do in these circumstances is to erect individual and institutional defences against the psychotic anxieties engendered by unconscious phantasies of the threat of annihilation. These defences are extreme, utterly selfish and survivalist.
In certain institutional settings they are erected against death itself and correspond to what Joan Riviere called in her essay ‘On the Genesis of Psychical Conflict in Early Infancy’ (1952), ‘the deepest source of anxiety in human beings’ (1952, p. 43). She sests ‘that such helplessness against destructive forces within is ubiquitous and constitutes the greatest psychical danger-situation known to the human organism...’ (ibid.). Isabel Menzies Lyth argues that these anxieties are re-evoked in the work of nurses, where death is present and imminent. ‘The objective situation confronting the nurse bears a striking resemblance to the phantasy situations that exist in every individual in the deepest and most primitive levels of the mind. The intensity and complexity of the nurse’s anxieties are to be attributed primarily to the peculiar capacity of the objective features of her work situation to stimulate afresh these early situations and their accompanying emotions’ (Lyth, 1959, pp. 46-7). There are such nurses in the perverse world of Catch 22. They tend the Man in White, in plaster from head to toe, arms and legs encased and extended. Those whose job it is to tend him routinely take the bottle of plasma going in and the bottle of urine going out and change them round: there is no difference between nourishment and waste, introjection and projection; fair is foul and foul is fair.
Bion describes the church and the army as exemplary organisations for embodying the pathology of group relations. Pianosa is an Army Air Corps base, run by mad, ambitious officers, reeking of arrogance and sycophancy, for whom success and failure are the only measures of worth (p. 262) and survival is always at risk. Their survival in career terms is maintained at the expense of the literal survival of the officers and enlisted men who lie below them in the military hierarchy. The hierarchy includes General Dreedle, who is astonished to learn that he cannot have anyone shot who irritates him (pp. 218, 279), General Peckem, head of Special Services, who cares only for bureaucratic power in the table of organisation and thinks it eminently rational that combat operations should come under his domain - What could be more special? Peckem outwits Dreedle; Dreedle torments his son-in-law, Colonel Moodus, by dangling a sexy Wac before him (p. 213). Colonel Scheisskopf outsmarts them all by getting promoted over their heads to Lt. General and is free to indulge his passion: parades, including precision marching to the point of tying the men’s arms so they won’t swing.
The men in the squadron are directly answerable to Colonel Cathcart, who divides his fortunes into split extremes of ‘‘Feathers in My Cap!!!!!’ and ‘Black Eyes!!!’ (p. 209; cf. p. 415) and whose sole preoccupation, after survival and sycophancy, is getting his picture into the Saturday Evening Post. His strategy is to raise the number of missions his men must fly before being released from combat — from forty-five to seventy to eighty in the course of the book, but he will gladly go on raising the number to 6000, if that’s what it takes to impress the generals (p. 211). What all those in the hierarchy do is to aspire. As Lt. Colonel Korn, Cathcart’s nemesis, puts it, ‘Everyone teaches us to aspire to higher things. A general is higher than a colonel, and a colonel is higher than a lieutenant colonel. So we’re both aspiring’ (p. 415).
The way to succeed is to humiliate, dominate and put down others, an approach exquisitely exemplified in Captain Black’s perpetual endeavours to get people to consume themselves with envy or, as he puts it, eat their livers (pp. 110, 395). Persecution is rampant, the more pointless the better, as are blackmail, intimidation, caprice and malice. The best persecution of all is, of course, to endanger people to the point of death by raising the number of missions. But, as Black shows, you can persecute people about anything. Take the Glorious Loyalty Oath Crusade. People had to swear allegiance and disclaim communism to get a knife, fork, spoon, food, but the main point was not to allow Major Major to sign, so he could be ostracised. Black’s bile was because Major Major had been made Squadron Commander when Black wanted to be. So everyone had to suffer continuous harassment to indulge Black’s spite. It took the fearsome authority of Major _____ de Coverly, a man whose one-eyed gaze frightened all, so much so that none could ask his Christian name, to put an end to the paranoid, frenzied excesses of the crusade (pp. 112-15).
Major Major only became a major because an IBM machine had ‘a sense of humor almost as keen as his father’s’ (p. 85), whose sadism had killed the boy’s mother and blighted his son’s life. Major Major Major was hated by all for his nonconformity, which consisted of being good, polite and honourable and following all the Christian virtues (p. 83). The effect of his experiences in the military was to lead him to sign the name Washington Irving on all censored letters, thus evoking an investigation by the CID which continues throughout the novel and finally lands on an innocent and incompetent chaplain, who is as undeserving of persecution as the major. Nevertheless, he is interrogated and found guilty in a chapter reminiscent of Kafka’s The Trial (ch. 36). Major Major also evolved the perfect strategy of command. He instructed his orderly that all visitors should be told that he is in when he was out and out when he was in. This approach almost always obviated administrative worries.
A commander who would not command was complemented by a doctor who responded to all patients’ complaints by telling them his troubles. Everyone who came to Doc Daneeka’s dispensary was dealt with by his orderlies, Gus and Wes, who painted their gums purple with gentian violet. Doc Daneeka was a decent man whose rise to financial security had been cruelly destroyed when he was drafted, and he never tired of complaining about his financial losses. He drew extra flight pay by getting himself signed onto the records when ever McWatt flew, but this killed him when McWatt flew into mountainside for a reason I’ll mention anon, and the inexorable paperwork declared him dead and it was just too complicated to unscramble, not to mention too profitable for his wife. So he became an un-person, one of a number who lived in the woods near the base and did not officially exist.
This theme of bureaucracy being more real than flesh and blood could have its compensations, as happened when the book’s hero, Yossarian, moved the line on the map which showed the forward point of the allied troops so as to make it unsafe to bomb Bologna, a notorious death trap because of flak. It took a long time for the higher-ups to figure out that they were suffering from the fallacy of misplaced concreteness: the line had been taken for the reality so literally that when it was mischievously moved, the reality was thought to have changed. Days of respite from the threat of death were gained.
The central moral conflict of the book lies in the relationship between the system and its rules and the humanity which pays the price for the defences of those in charge and the system they created and maintain at the expense of human decency. This is the point of the book’s title. Whenever you try to behave sensibly and look after yourself in a crazy world, there’s a catch, a catch which has entered the language as a result of Heller’s book. Catch-22 takes many forms, but the central one is that you don’t have to fly any more missions if you’re crazy, but you have to ask first, and anyone who wants to get out of combat duty isn’t crazy (p.46)
‘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 [Yossarian’s tent-mate and a pilot who kept crashing and of whom more anon] 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 (p. 46).
Catch-22 appears at intervals throughout the book (e.g., pp. 104,172-3), but it is revealed most clearly in two incidents, the first when an old Italian woman unpacks it to its essence when Yossarian asks her by what right the Military Police chased all the girls away from the airman’s favourite haunt: ‘Catch-22. Catch-22 says they have a right to do anything we can’t stop them from doing’. The women had done nothing wrong but were still chased away. When challenged the M.P.s kept saying ‘Catch-22’.
‘"They don’t have to show us Catch-22," the old woman answered.
‘"The law says they don’t have to."
‘"What law says they don’t have to?"
‘"Catch-22"’ (p. 398).
Yossarian strode away, ‘cursing Catch-22 vehemently as he descended the stairs, even though he knew there was no such thing. Catch-22 did not exist, he was positive of that, but it made no difference. What did matter was that everyone thought it existed, and that was much worse, for there was no object or text to ridicule or refute, to accuse, criticise, attack, amend, hate, revile, spit a, rip to shreds, trample upon or burn up’ (p. 400).
The final appearance of Catch-22 is when Yossarian finally refuses to fly any more missions. He is hauled up before Colonels Cathcart and Korn and told he will be court-martialled if he does not accept a deal they are proposing. It looks lovely. They are going to promote him, give him another medal and send him home as a hero to do morale-boosting campaigns and sell war bonds. He’ll get what he has always wanted - out. They begin by telling him that there’s a catch - Catch-22 - and go on for some time explaining what a despicable deal it is, how self-serving for them, how betraying of his comrades. But none of this is the essence. That’s the easiest part, they claim, but it’s the one thing which he eventually finds he cannot do. They want him to like them (p. 416).
At the heart of Catch-22 lies betrayal of decent values, the requirement that one sell one’s soul to survive. The book turns on the axis of hope and decency versus despair and cynicism. The logic of the system is what the chaplain rightly calls ‘immoral logic’ (p. 380). Everyone gives in to it at one point or another, except that the chaplain and Major Danby and Yossarian, along with the women, retain some ability to think and try to live out decent values. Yossarian puts it undramatically near the end: ‘I wouldn’t want to live without strong misgivings’ (p. 441).
Yossarian is sometimes hysterical, as when he screams at McWatt to take evasive action from German anti-aircraft flak after bombs away. He even strangles him at one point. He also has ideas of reference. Since the impersonal forms of persecution have such life-threatening effects, they might as well - better - be seen as vendetta rather than anonymous (p. 170-71). But for the most part he lives in the depressive position, for example, with compassion for insensitive, boisterous new flyers. ‘And it wasn’t their fault that they were courageous, confident and carefree. He would just have to be patient with them until one or two were killed and the rest wounded, and then they would all turn out okay’ (p. 343). He was also very clear about how very mixed his motives were for refusing to fly any more missions, and he could candidly admit that it didn’t make fully logical sense (p. 392). So, even though he managed to live in the depressive position more than the others, he lost it from time to time. Nevertheless, when they thought he was crazy he was usually nothing of the sort, as his interview with the psychiatrist hilariously shows (pp. 297-8). He admits to all the symptoms he is accused of having. He is unable to adjust to the idea of war, has a morbid aversion to dying, suffers from survival anxieties, is depressed by misery, humiliation, ignorance, slums, violence, greed, crime, corruption. The list of symptoms covers a page, and Yossarian - in touch with all this pathology - freely admits he is crazy in an these ways (pp. 297-8). He was even obsessed by death and dreamed and daydreamed about it (pp. 312, 339, 340). All of this is most ironic, since he was the squadron’s most admired hero, was awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross for going over Ferrera twice and destroying the target (p. 391), and many admired him clandestinely for his final stand (pp. 393-4).
But there is much more to say about this twenty-eight year old oddball bombardier, with a name that made Colonel Cathcart shudder and create malicious free associations to it. He was truly alien to the heritage of the Cathcarts, Peckems and Dreedles (p. 207). At various points it is made clear that he is Adam, Pilgrim, Everyman. Indeed, he appears naked in a tree, watching the burial of Snowden and says to the inquisitive Milo, ‘It’s the tree of life... and of knowledge of good and evil, too’ (p. 257), just as he appears nude on parade to receive his medal from General Dreedle, once again because of his horror over the fate of Snowden.
Milo Minderbinder and Snowden (whose Christian name, like those of most characters, we are never given) - are the other two main symbolic figures in the novel. Milo does everything; Snowden does one: he dies. Milo is pure opportunist, Snowden pure victim. Milo is the spirit of capitalism incarnate, as well as the embodiment of its false consciousness, its confidence tricks and its painted smiles. He sits beside Yossarian in the tree, o’erlooking Snowden’s burial without comprehending anything, with a perfect surface innocence, trying to persuade Yossarian of his patriotic duty to eat chocolate-covered cotton (seeds and all), because Milo has unwisely cornered the Egyptian cotton crop and has to get rid of it somehow. He is the exemplar of the logic of capital and its amorality. If the vicissitudes of the market dictate it, you remove the parachutes from your comrades’ planes, take the CO2 out of their life preservers, remove the morphine from their first aid kits (pp. 426, 428) and bomb and strafe your own airfield, causing heavy casualties (pp. 210, 252-4). The strafing was in the contract. He didn’t start the war, after all; he’s only trying to put it on a business-like basis. (p. 251). Noble mottoes are painted over, and the logo of his M&M Enterprises replaces them. It’s all okay, because the food is good and ‘everybody has a share’ (p. 228). I lost count of the commodity deals he made - exotic spiders, chick-peas, unripened red bananas, endive, mushrooms, artichokes, vanilla beans, cinnamon sticks, caraway seeds, tangerines, cocoa (e.g., 226-7, 231, 248, 273, 365). In the process he becomes Mayor of Palermo, Assistant Governor General of Malta, Vice-Shah of Oran and the Sheikh of Araby (pp. 229-30, 232, 239). His credo, of course, is the worship of supply and demand and ‘the right of free men to pay as much as they had to for the things they needed in order to survive’ (p. 362). He began as a Uriah Heep mess officer but became a huge dealer in everything, crossing all lines - including the German lines - in the name of business. (One is reminded of the role of the capitalists in ‘Oh, What a Lovely War!’) He was also a master of hypocrisy: ‘Milo’s eyes were liquid with integrity, and his artless and uncorrupted face was lustrous with a mixture of sweat and insect repellent’ (p. 251). Milo provides a perfect compliment to the unjust persecution of the chaplain in the immediately preceding chapter where he and the colonels devise a perfect rationalisation for his never having to fly combat missions, since his deals are so important to the war effort. The consequence, of course, is that someone else’s life will be put more at risk.
It is easy to recall Catch-22 (especially as refracted through the film version) largely as black humour and to forget what a profound morality it is. It could be said that the whole book is constructed around the languid unravelling of the agony of Snowden’s death over Avignon, the final description of which reminds one of the unbearable scene in the bomb crater in All Quiet on the Western Front, where one soldier watches another die. The story unfolds in small revelations throughout the text, and we are not really clear about it until the penultimate chapter. The quality of these passages is dream-like, and Snowden’s death is at the heart of Yossarian’s relationship to the war. In early chapters we learn that Yossarian takes the war very personally and insists that people are trying to kill him. This is an enduring feature of his world view. In the sequel, Closing Time, the narrator, reflecting on the events in Catch-22, recalls him as that crazy bombardier who used to say that ‘he would rather die than be killed... and had made up his mind to live forever, or at least die trying’ (Heller, 1993. p. 20). He also takes personally God’s creation of pain, phlegm, tooth decay, and the incontinence of the old (p. 178). This brings to mind a similar passage in The Brothers Karamazov, in which Ivan gives this sort of mundane, gratuitous personal suffering as part of his reason for turning in his ticket to God.
Indeed, this is one facet of ‘the secret Snowden had spilled to him on the mission to Avignon - they were out to get him; and Snowden had spilled it all over the back of the plane’ (pp. 170-71). In spite of his being wounded, Yossarian’s most intimate experience of death is Snowden’s demise on the way back from Avignon. At first it is thought that Yossarian has been hit and people call though the intercom to help the bombardier. Yossarian asks many questions about the war, but they all boil down to one ‘which had no answer’: ‘Where are the Snowdens of Yesteryear?’ (pp. 34-5). Snowden keeps saying he is cold, and Yossarian does all he can to help by making him comfortable and putting a tourniquet on the shrapnel wound in his leg. In one of the most touching passages in the book we are with Yossarian when he finally discovers that there is another wound. ‘Snowden was wounded inside his flak suit. Yossarian ripped opened the snaps of Snowden’s flak suit and heard himself scream wildly as Snowden’s insides slithered down to the floor in a soggy pile and just kept dripping out. Another chunk of flak more than three inches big had shot into his other side just underneath the arm and blasted all the way thorough, drawing mottled quarts of Snowden along with it through the gigantic hole in his ribs it made as it blasted out. Yossarian screamed a second time and squeezed both hands over his eyes His teeth were chattering in horror. He forced himself to look again. Here was God’s plenty all right, he thought bitterly as he stared - liver, lungs, kidneys, ribs, stomach and bits of the stewed tomatoes Snowden had eaten that day for lunch’ (429)
Snowden said again that he was cold, and Yossarian said again ‘There, there.’
‘Yossarian was cold, too, and shivering uncontrollably. He felt goose pimples clacking all over him as he gazed down despondently at the grim secret Snowden had spilled all over the messy floor. It was easy to read the message in his entrails. Man was matter, that was Snowden’s secret. Drop him out a window and he’ll fall. Set fire to him and he’ll burn. Bury him and he’ll rot, like other kinds of garbage. The spirit gone, man is garbage. That was Snowden’s secret. Ripeness was all’ (pp. 429-30).
There are two other passages written at this level of rhetorical power. One conveys great tenderness and is about Yossarian’s loving Nurse Duckett as they lie by the seaside. This flows into his reflections on people who die under water, his missing friends and his first sight of a corpse, and it ends with an account of the gratuitous death of Kid Sampson, as McWatt buzzes the swimming raft and makes a tiny miscalculation ‘which slices the boy half away’, followed by a sound, ‘tsst’, and the legs and hips toppled backwards, and then it rained Kid Sampson on all of them (pp. 331-2). This is but one of many deaths which take us completely by surprise. They appear in the middle of a paragraph, sometimes in a subordinate clause, almost by the way, and convey an awful contingency, a callousness of God, nature and human depravity. Two of the most amusing minor characters - Nately and Hungry Joe - die in this off-hand way. Similarly, the frat-man Aarfy rapes a woman and throws her out a window, blandly, and gets away with it in the teeth of Yossarian’s shouting that it is wrong, and he will be punished (p.409).
This comes at the end of a sustained walk through the streets of Rome, where he sees tableau after tableau of cruelty, rape, gang rape, beating of children and a dog (which reminds him of the beating of the horse in Raskolnikov’s dream (p. 405), thus evoking the ubiquity of the theme of pointless suffering and murder. There is a long passage on hypocrisy and the perverse inversion of values: ‘What a lousy earth! ...How many winners were losers, successes failures, rich men poor men? How many wise guys were stupid? How many happy endings were unhappy endings? How many honest men were liars, brave men cowards, loyal men traitors, how many sainted men were corrupt, how many people in positions of trust had sold their souls to blackguards for petty cash, how many had never had souls? How many straight-and-narrow paths were crooked paths? How many best families were worst families and how many good people were bad people? When you added them all up and then subtracted, you might be left with only the children, and perhaps with Albert Einstein and an old violinist or sculptor somewhere’ (p. 403). He is here at the brink of cynicism, experiencing life as a nightmare, and is sorely in need of redemption: ‘The night was filled with horrors, and he thought he knew how Christ might have felt as he walked through the world, like a psychiatrist through a ward full of nuts, like a victim through a prison full of thieves. What a welcome sight a leper must have been!’ (p. 405).
I have, of course, had in mind contemporary events as I have written this essay. I have, that is, returned to Catch-22, because present events in the world have revived the sense that wanton destructiveness lies very near the surface of human nature and can break through at any time in any place. In recent public discussions, the author has been heard to say that now is a good time to be old, since it is so hard to maintain hope in the face of the current manifestations of cruelty and the moral maze of the times. For his generation the axis of good and evil had - or was thought to have - a single fulcrum. Now the debate among competing goods and evils is bewildering and easily leads to despair. This novel - one of the century’s greatest and one whose subtleties I have only begun to convey - turns on what happens at the intersection of character and the institutionalised reifications and cruelties of debased societies and societies at war, internally and with nominally external enemies. There is a fine line, a thin veneer, represented in the book by Yossarian and the chaplain, Captain R. O. Shipman, one an Assyrian, the other an Anabaptist. I take this to mean that Joseph Heller believes that insofar as decency is being husbanded and cultured, it is not in the mainstream of the society. This was undoubtedly true in the period when he was a young man in the 1930s and 1940s, as he recalled in a recent television interview: the left was marginalised but had morality on its side.
The line between integrity and selling out and entering the morass of moral relativism is easily crossed. When they had the chaplain cornered, he dreamed up a disease for himself. He lied. ‘The chaplain had sinned, and it was good. Common sense told him that telling lies and defecting from duty were sins. On the other hand, everyone knew that sin was evil and that no good could come from evil. But he did feel good; he felt positively marvellous. Consequently, it followed logically that telling lies and defecting from duty could not be sins. The chaplain had mastered, in a moment of divine intuition, the handy technique of protective rationalization, and he was exhilarated by his discovery. It was miraculous. It was almost no trick at all, he saw, to turn vice into virtue and slander into truth, impotence into abstinence, arrogance into humility, plunder into philanthropy, thievery into honor, blasphemy into wisdom, brutality into patriotism, and sadism into justice. Anybody could do it; it required no brains at all. It merely required no character’ (p. 356). Hannah Arendt has essayed soberly on the most alarming point about this in her study of Eichmann in Jerusalem, subtitled A Report on the Banality of Evil (1963). I wonder how she would have responded to the Kleinian psychoanalytic notions of the ubiquity of psychotic anxieties and the idea of the inhumanity of groups and bureaucracies as an institutional defence against them (Bion, 1961; Jaques, 1955; Lyth, 1959; Young, 1992, in press).
Yossarian bears it all, contains it all and lives a life ruled by psychotic anxieties, and in defence against the terror of disintegration, all the rules make group relations sense, i.e., they are mad. He and his tentmate Orr survive - he through psychical distress and insight and knowing when to stand and when to run (p. 440), Orr through rigorous training in physical hardship, won through repeated crashes, the cunning point of which Yossarian only grasps at the very end when Orr turns out to have rowed all the way to Sweden and freedom. Unlike my other two favourite anti-authoritarian hard cases - Randle McMurtry of One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest and Cool Hand Luke - Yossarian stops short of provoking the system into destroying him. He knows when to take off on his own path to redemption - ‘to split’ in the depressive sense.
It is ultimately a book about ideals, about the paranoid-schizoid and depressive positions and about how hard it is for people to behave well, especially in groups and institutions under duress. ‘That’s my trouble, you know,’ Yossarian mused sympathetically, folding his arms. ‘Between me and every ideal I always find Scheisskopfs, Peckems, Korns and Cathcarts. And that sort of changes the ideal.’
‘You must try not to think of them,’ Major Danby advised affirmatively, ‘And you must never let them change your values. Ideals are good, but people are sometimes not so good. You must try to look up at the big picture.’
Yossarian rejected the advice with a sceptical shake of his head. ‘When I look up, I see people cashing in. I don’t see heaven or saints or angels. I see people cashing in on every decent impulse and every human tragedy.’ (435)
...‘From now on I’m thinking only of me.’
‘But Yossarian, suppose everyone felt that way.’
‘Then I’d be a damned fool to feel any other way, wouldn’t I?’ (p. 436, cf. pp. 58, 102)
Paper presented to seventh annual conference on Psychoanalysis and the Public Sphere: ‘Losing and Finding Values’, University of East London, November 1993.
review by Russ Allbery
There aren't many books, particularly written as recently as 1961, that have contributed a phrase so thoroughly to the English language as this one. Describing inherently paradoxical traps as a catch-22 is now common slang; this is where it started.
"Because he's crazy," Doc Daneeka said. "He has to be crazy to keep flying combat missions after all the close calls he's had. Sure, 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."
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.
Catch-22 is a novel about the absurdity and self-perpetuating insanity of bureaucracies, particularly military bureaucracies. It's a comedic attack on the rules that such organizations make and self-centered people who make them. It's also a surprisingly poignant and powerful anti-war novel, one that questions the foundations of patriotism and obedience that lead soldiers to fight. It does this set, not in Korea or another unpopular war, but in the heart of World War II.
Yossarian is a bombadier based in Italy in the closing days of the war, the (mostly) sane touchpoint for the reader in a squadron of bizarre and often humorous characters. There is, for instance, Major Major Major Major who simply can't have any other rank and who therefore got command of a squadron because otherwise the military structure would have an extraneous major, but who is so terrified of his men that he spends the war trying to hide from them. There's a hypochondriac doctor who spends the book avoiding flying and pointing out how he has it worse than anyone who's complaining to him. Orr, as mentioned above, attracts disaster; every mission he flies, he gets shot down, suffers mechanical trouble, or nearly crashes. The mess officer turns into a biting satire of a war profiteer, at one point being paid to both attack and defend a city at the same time and another time bombing their own camp to get out of debt. And, of course, there's Colonel Cathcart, the one who waits until enough pilots have finished their required missions and concluded their tour that he's having a hard time staffing missions and then raises the required number of missions before their transfer orders arrive.
Grounding fliers for insanity isn't the only application of catch-22. It shows up throughout the book, as do many other paradoxes. Most of Heller's humor comes from logic circles, impossible juxtapositions, and cognitive dissonance. He takes situations that make no inherent sense, or characters who are too outlandish to possibly be real, and then plays them straight and explores their implications until you can almost believe in them and understand how the war drove them to that attitude. On one hand, the cast is a slapstick group of distorted characters, entertaining the reader with pratfalls, ridiculous stories, and clashes over impossible trivia. On the other hand, the war is always lurking just under the cover of every comic scene; their antics betray a frantic desire to escape, ignore, cope with, or make unreal the ever-present threat of death. Catch-22 doesn't overwhelm the reader with constant vivid descriptions of the reality of war; instead, Heller shows a constantly unreal and apparently light-hearted comedy that casts the rare moment of terror or horrible death in even sharper relief.
The war acts in this book like a force of nature. Nearly everyone just accepts that it's happening and tries to ignore it, or revels in fighting it, without really thinking about it. It's only Yossarian, normally trying to maintain a long-suffering sarcasm, who occasionally can't help but tell the blunt truth.
Yossarian says, "You're talking about winning the war, and I am talking about winning the war and keeping alive."
"Exactly," Clevinger snapped smugly. "And which do you think is more important?"
"To whom?" Yossarian shot back. "It doesn't make a damn bit of difference who wins the war to someone who's dead."
"I can't think of another attitude that could be depended upon to give greater comfort to the enemy."
"The enemy," retorted Yossarian with weighted precision, "is anybody who's going to get you killed, no matter which side he's on."
This book isn't without its frustrations. Due in part to the way that Heller stresses paradoxes and insoluable conflict, the writing can be quite repetitive and a bit circular. The same jokes repeat to the point where Catch-22 feels like it only has a few notes. Often when I'd started getting bored, one of the passages like the ones quoted above would show up without warning and knock me over, but while that makes the book well worth reading for the gems, it doesn't make the monotonous stretches any less monotonous. Also not helping is Heller's circling non-linear ordering of the story, which requires that the reader pay close attention to maintain the order of events that spawn flashbacks and reorient chronologically with very little notice. Heller provides as a clue the linearly increasing number of missions the airmen had to fly before theoretically being allowed to rotate home, but ordering can still be frustrating. It does lead to an effective juxtaposition at the climax of the book, but for most of the story the indirection feels unnecessary.
Catch-22 didn't entirely succeed for me as a comedy. The huge ensemble cast was mostly too unbelievable and exaggerated for me to find funny, and some of the scenes (particularly around the love lives of the soldiers) were more painful and sordid than amusing. Some readers find the book hilarious; I found it worthy of a laugh in places, but not compelling enough to read solely for humor. Catch-22 worked for me when the frustration and rage at the petty vicious nonsense of the world shines through, where the humor suddenly crashes into real evil hiding behind and enabled by paradoxical nonsense. This is a war novel in which the supposed enemy never appears on camera, where none of the combat is taken particularly seriously, where the reader is not given maps or objectives, and with a cast that's patently unbelievable; but in those moments where reality sharply intrudes, the exhausted, helpless frustration of the characters feels as realistic as anything I've read.
This novel is frequently included in lists of the best novels of all time, and despite the problems I had with the writing and tone in places, I'll agree with that. It's important not just because of the word it added to the English language or its satire of bureaucracy but also because it takes dead aim at several of the basic principles of war. Despite being written before the heart of the Vietnam era, those passages feel just as powerful and pointed today. I wish the bits between those passages held my interest more, but if that's the background Heller needed to make a few passages this effective, I'll take the whole package.
Followed many years later by Closing Time, but Catch-22 is self-contained and doesn't rely on the sequel.
Rating: 7 out of 10
Déjŕ Vu: On Rereading Catch-22
The Quarterly Conversation
Essay by Elizabeth Wadell
Like most children, I was always rereading. By the time I was six or eight years old, I had identified all of my favorite authors. Whether it was a book we owned or one from the branch library, the actual, physical book was familiar. I always checked out the same copies from the library. I recognized the stains, the warped pages where my sister had dropped it while reading in the bathtub. Books weren’t just for reading, they were things.
When I went away to college, I packed my favorite books, but a strange thing happened. I stopped rereading. As a child I had endless time; I could know every book in my house and the library if I wanted. Suddenly there were so many books out there to read–how could I waste time reading the same thing twice? I still hoarded them, wrote my name inside, rearranged them on the shelves, but I rarely read one through a second time unless it was assigned for class. But I sometimes wonder if in my urgency to read everything I lose the familiarity, the re-viewing, the change that comes from rereading. Rereading warps time: it is the re-experiencing of all previous readings, yet there is still a small shock that something you thought you knew can feel so new. Equally strange are the recognition that you are still the same person and the realization that you have somehow changed.
I’ve read Joseph Heller’s Catch-22 three times. The first was in English class my senior year of high school, the second around the year I finished college and finally had time to go back and reread things. The last time was this fall. I was rooting through a used-book store in Mexico, searching for anything in English, and there was Catch-22. The blue cloth cover was a little stained, the title rubbing off the spine. Inside, was the price from some previous used-book store: $5.95 in American dollars. The bookshop owner sold it to me for ten pesos–a buck. “No one wants that,” he shred. I went right home, turned the thick pages with their edges stained and started to read. Again.
Originally published in 1961, Catch-22 is about Captain Yossarian and the rest of the 256th Air Force Squadron stationed on the Mediterranean Island of Pianosa near the end of World War II. Yossarian desperately wants to be sent home before he is killed, but the squadron commander keeps raising the number of bombing missions the men must fly before they can be discharged. The concept of a Catch-22 is first introduced by the squadron’s doctor, Doc Daneeka, when Yossarian asks if he could be grounded from flying any more missions for reasons of insanity. Doc Daneeka agrees that he would have to ground anyone who was crazy. However, he can’t ground Yossarian or even his roommate Orr (whom the doctor admits must certainly be insane).
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. . . . 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.
This is the logic of a Catch-22, and also of Catch-22. The novel cycles and re-cycles through a series of incidents: the battle over Bologna, the mission to Avignon, the time Milo bombed the camp, the forging of Washington Irving’s name. Events are endlessly discussed, revisited, relived, both by the characters and by the narrative itself. Reading it the first time, one is already rereading. Although the book does move forward in the narrative present, we do not seem to progress. It is a mobius strip, constantly turning in on itself. We think we have grasped something, gone forward, only to find ourselves back at the beginning. And for Yossarian and his fellow bombardiers, life itself is a mobius strip.
Of course, a Catch-22 is itself a mobius strip: the logic very neatly twists, turns, and leads you straight back to where you started. For the powerless like Yossarian and the other officers and enlisted men, any attempt to escape the logic somehow drops you right back at the beginning. As Robert Burnstein wrote in The New Republic on the book’s release, “Like all superlative works of comedy–and I am ready to argue that this is one of the most bitterly funny works in the language–Catch-22 is based on an unconventional but utterly convincing internal logic.” And logic is built of language: bureaucracy manages to disguise and justify itself through the sentence-level logic. Time and again we are told that if A equals B, and B equals C, then A must equal C. Forget about worrying what exactly makes A, B, and C the same.
We see this neat turnaround countless times during the book, buried in seeming throw-away quips. Told he cannot schedule parades in the combat zone, a new general gets the plum job of postponing nonexistent parades. His jealous bureaucratic rival gets revenge by claiming responsibility for sending out memos about the U.S.O. shows that will not be visiting each squadron that week. Brilliant, their commanding officer believes. It has “thrown open a whole new area of operation”: the number of U.S.O. shows not coming is potentially infinite.
In a more sinister scene, a send up of McCarthyism, the 256th Squadron’s Chaplain is caught in a Kafka-esque trial over allegedly “forging” Washington Irving’s name to official documents. In order to prove his guilt, he is asked to sign his name–it doesn’t match the signature of Washington Irving, so therefore the only solution is that he must have been forging his own handwriting.
In the end, the Chaplain is not only found guilty of “being Washington Irving,” but is also accused of committing “crimes and infractions we don’t even know about yet” and asked to plead guilty or innocent.”
“I don’t known 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. . . . If they’re his crimes and infractions, he must have committed them.”
The logic that condemns the Chaplain is perfect, and perfectly senseless: once his guilt is named it becomes true, because how could something have a name if it did not exist? Those with the power of naming can control and create any truth they want. For the first time we see how Catch-22s enable binaries of guilt/innocence that will later haunt Yossarian.
Of course, language is not the exclusive prerogative of the powerful. The belief in the logic of words is so strong that Yossarian can use it against the bureaucracy. In an attempt to stay safe from combat by remaining in the hospital, he convinces his doctors that he is seeing everything twice. The lead doctor holds up one finger in front of him and demands:
“How many fingers do you see?”
“Two,” said Yossarian.
“How many fingers do you see now?” asked the doctor, holding up two.
“Two,” said Yossarian.
“And how many now?” asked the doctor, holding up none.
“Two,” said Yossarian.
The doctor’s face wreathed with a smile. “By Jove, he’s right,” he declared jubilantly. “He does see everything twice.”
As Burnstein wrote in The New Republic, this contrast between the strict logic of words and its clear illogic in any context of reality is very funny. Here, Yossarian shows the failure of logic; elsewhere he tries show the illogic of the soldiers’ reality by using words out of context. One day, he announces that people are trying to kill him. At this classic expression of paranoia, his companion Clevinger shouts that he is crazy and continues:
“No one’s trying to kill you,” Clevinger cried.
“Then why are they shooting at me?” Yossarian asked.
“They’re shooting at everyone,” Clevinger answered. “They’re trying to kill everyone.”
“And what difference does that make?”
It is a Catch-22: Yossarian is afraid because people are trying to kill Yossarian. But it is a war, so they are trying to kill everyone, and that means that people are trying to kill Yossarian and he should be afraid. For the readers, this contains the pleasure of an optical illusion–we can see both viewpoints at once. Clevinger insists that the impersonal logic of war changes the meaning of killing, and it is paranoid to act as if this were just any ordinary killing. Yossarian hews to a personal logic that tells him that no matter what the circumstance, if he is killed, he dies.
Yossarian’s partner in exploring the deeper logic behind the superficial logic of words is Milo Minderbinder, the mess officer cum-transnational capitalist. Perhaps the book’s most rational character, Milo does indeed prove that the underpinnings of war, nationalism, and loyalty hide the true nature of things.
“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.”
Thus, he contracts with the Americans to bomb a German-held bridge, and with the Germans to defend it against his own attack. When Yossarian blames him for the death of a man killed during the mission, Milo defends himself:
The Germans have the bridge, and we were going to bomb, whether I stepped into the picture or not. I just saw a wonderful opportunity to make some profit out of the mission, and I took it. What’s so terrible about that? . . . Look, I didn’t start this war . . . I’m just trying to put it on a businesslike basis. . . . Germans are not our enemies. . . . Oh, I know what you’re going to say. Sure, we’re at war with them. . . . Maybe they did start the war and maybe they are killing millions of people, but they pay their bills a lot more promptly than some allies of ours I could name.
Milo’s viewpoint is in many ways similar to Yossarian’s. War does in most cases benefit–and justify–private industry, not patriotic ideals. Both men confront the superficial logic of “war,” “killing,” and even “seeing everything twice,” but the conclusions they reach are opposite. Milo’s logic, stripped bare of emotions, justifies the world as it is. Yossarian meanwhile seeks to shock his companions, thus awakening their emotions and making them recognize that the world should be changed.
As readers, we believe we are merely watching the characters wind around their arbitrary mobius strips of logic. We find humor in the book because we are not caught in the trap of language. Or are we? After all we are completely reliant on Heller’s words for our experience. The very title of the book is a taunt: as readers, we are caught in our own, repetitive Catch-22 of language.
If Catch-22 was simply showing how language is warped to justify power, there would not be much to gain from rereading it–we need only open a newspaper to get the same message.
Fortunately, in addition to logical Catch-22s, Heller shows us a second kind of repetition that is potentially more redeeming: déjŕ vu. By opening themselves to emotional understanding, Catch-22’s characters–and readers–can transform the trap of logic into déjŕ vu, a chance to truly feel, process, re-examine, and re-experience certain events. And through this déjŕ vu, the characters not only understand the past, they understand it in a way outside of logic where the “truth” of an experience is never fully contained within the words that describe it. Whereas Yossarian tried to use a Catch-22 to startle his companions into seeing the world for what it was, it is not until he opens himself to déjŕ vu that he can move out of his own trap and realize the possibilities in his life.
The Chaplain, a kind of spiritual voice for the novel, is the first character to experience déjŕ vu. As Heller narrates the incident, we learn:
For a few precarious seconds, the Chaplain tingled with a weird, occult sensation of having experienced the identical situation before, in some prior time or existence. He endeavored to trap and nourish the impression in order to predict, and perhaps even control, what incident would occur next, but the afflatus melted away unproductively, as he knew beforehand it would. Déjŕ vu.
So far, we have only read about repetition as a trap, but here it is a mystery leading the Chaplain yearningly towards some meaning just beyond reach. Perhaps it is a liberation. He knows the events, but he does not know the meaning that animates them. His most persistent déjŕ vu is the belief that he had met Yossarian before he actually did. He tries to share his experience with Yossarian:
“Have you ever . . . been in a situation which you felt you had been in before, even though you knew you were experiencing it for the first time?” [ . . . Yossarian nodded.] The chaplain’s breath quickened in anticipation as he made ready to join his will power with Yossarian’s in a prodigious effort to rip away at last the voluminous black folds shrouding the eternal mysteries of existence. “Do you have that feeling now?”
Yossarian dismisses the Chaplain’s question, insisting that déjŕ vu is merely the effect of a lag in nerve cells, but the Chaplain is not convinced because he has experienced something even more remarkable.
Before he ever met Yossarian, he had presided over the funeral of Snowden, a young radio gunner who passed away in while Yossarian held his dying body during a bombing run. During the funeral, the Chaplain looked up and saw a naked man in a tree. “Was it a ghost, then? The dead man’s soul? An angel from heaven or a minion from hell? Or was the whole fantastic episode merely the figment of a diseased imagination . . . ?” In reality, this was neither a vision of heaven and hell nor neurons misfiring. There really was man in the tree, and that man was Yossarian, who had torn off his bloodied clothes in shock after Snowden’s death. It was because of this scene that the Chaplain felt he had met Yossarian before; if he had merely confided in Yossarian he would have learned the truth.
Or would he? While the fallacy of his belief is obvious to the reader, the logical explanation cannot begin to encompass the truth, the experience holds for the Chaplain. The Chaplain himself assigned the incident a spiritual meaning which no amount of debunking could change. In a book where everything has seemingly been reduced to logic, the Chaplain shows how a transcendent, spiritual experience above and beyond language contains a power that logic cannot approach.
The novel’s endless recycling of narratives suddenly seems less malign. Instead of bringing us back to where we began, perhaps the many repetitions in Catch-22 allow the book’s tragedy and randomness to become a real experience for the reader. Heller implies this via Yossarian’s recurring memories of Snowden’s death. Although Yossarian only knew Snowden as a “vaguely familiar kid,” Snowden’s death haunts Yossarian more than that of his closest friends. It was a turning point for Yossarian, the moment he “realized the fantastic pickle he was in,” how much could go wrong, and for the first time “lost his nerve” for war. The death is a pivotal moment, but it actually happened before the narrative commences. For most of the novel we only tangentially touch on Snowden’s death, yet it has an undeniable emotional power and is key to understanding the book.
The reader must piece together this story from snippets hidden within other narratives. We learn that on a mission to Avignon, the copilot of Yossarian’s plane went “berserk in midair,” and sent them into freefall directly into masses of antiaircraft fire. After a hit, Yossarian found Snowden laying in the rear of the plane with a “yawning, raw, melon-shaped hole as big as a football on the outside of his thigh, the unsevered, blood-soaked muscle fibers inside pulsating weirdly like blind things with lives of their own.” Nauseated, Yossarian started to treat the wound, but missed the real problem. We learn that Snowden had “frozen to death after spilling his secret to Yossarian in the back of the plane.”
The flashbacks come at moments of particular disgust or fear: when the number of missions is raised, when the dreaded Bologna run is discussed, when one pilot accidentally decapitates another soldier, then commits suicide. With each repetition we lick at the edges of the horror, but are held back from fully experiencing Snowden’s secret. The memories and story seem doomed to repeat–in both Catch-22 and Yossarian’s mind–until Yossarian can actually face that memory. In other words, until he can summon the courage to reread his own life.
A circular, pitch-black tale
December 13, 1999
(CNN) -- Published in 1961 to mixed reviews, "Catch-22" became a cult favorite before it was recognized as an American classic. A circular, pitch-black tale that sested a devious collaboration between Twain and Kafka, it was the literary equivalent of Stanley Kubrick's "Dr. Strangelove," a vivid document of the system's poker-faced insanity.
The Logic of Survival in a Lunatic World
A Review by Robert Brustein
"The man who declares that survival at all costs is the end of existence is morally dead, because he's prepared to sacrifice all other values which give life its meaning." - Sidney Hook
"...It's better to die on one's feet than live on one's knees," Nately retorted with triumphant and lofty conviction. "I guess you've heard that saying before." "Yes, I certainly have," mused the treacherous old man, smiling again. "But I'm afraid you have it backward. It is better to live on one's feet than die on one's knees. That is the way the saying goes." - Catch-22
Like all superlative works of comedy - and I am ready to argue that this is one of the most bitterly funny works in the language - Catch-22 is based on an unconventional but utterly convincing internal logic. In the very opening pages, when we come upon a number of Air Force officers malingering in a hospital - one censoring all the modifiers out of enlisted men's letters and signing the censor's name "Washington Irving," another pursuing tedious conversations with boring Texans in order to increase his life span by making time pass slowly, still another storing horse chestnuts in his cheeks to give himself a look of innocence - it seems obvious that an inordinate number of Joseph Heller's characters are, by all conventional standards, mad. It is a triumph of Mr. Heller's skill that he is so quickly able to persuade us 1) that the most lunatic are the most logical, and 2) that it is our conventional standards which lack any logical consistency. The sanest looney of them all is the apparently harebrained central character, an American bombardier of Syrian extraction named Captain John Yossarian, who is based on a mythical Italian island (Pianosa) during World War II. For while many of his fellow officers seem indifferent to their own survival, and most of his superior officers are overtly hostile to his, Yossarian is animated solely by a desperate determination to stay alive:
"It was a vile and muddy war, and Yossarian could have lived without it - lived forever, perhaps. Only a fraction of his countrymen would give up their lives to win it, and it was not his ambition to be among them.... That men would die was a matter of necessity; which men would die, though, was a matter of circumstance, and Yossarian was willing to be the victim of anything but circumstance."
The single narrative thread in this crazy patchwork of anecdotes, episodes, and character portraits traces Yossarian's herculean efforts - through caution, cowardice, defiance, subterfuge, strategem, and subversion, through feigning illness, goofing of, and poisoning the company's food with laundry soap - to avoid being victimized by circumstance, a force represented in the book as Catch-22. For Catch-22 is the unwritten law which empowers the authorities to revoke your rights whenever it suits their cruel whims; it is, in short, the principle of absolute evil in a malevolent, mechanical, and incompetent world. Because of Catch-22, justice is mocked, the innocent are victimized, and Yossarian's squadron is forced to fly more than double the number of missions prescribed by Air Force code. Dogged by Catch-22, Yossarian becomes the anguished witness to the ghoulish slaughter of his crew members and the destruction of all his closest friends, until finally his fear of death becomes so intense that he refuses to wear a uniform, after his own has been besplattered with the guts of his dying gunner, and receives a medal standing naked in formation. From this point on, Yossarian's logic becomes so pure that everyone thinks him mad, for it is the logic of sheer survival, dedicated to keeping him alive in a world noisily clamoring for his annihilation.
According to this logic, Yossarian is surrounded on all sides by hostile forces: his enemies are distinguished less by their nationality than by their ability to get him killed. Thus, Yossarian feels a blind, electric rage against the Germans whenever they hurl flak at his easily penetrated plane; but he feels an equally profound hatred for those of his own countrymen who exercise an arbitrary power over his life and well-being. Heller's huge cast of characters, therefore, is dominated by a large number of comic malignities, genus Americanus, drawn with a grotesqueness so audacious that they somehow transcend caricature entirely and become vividly authentic. These include: Colonel Cathcart, Yossarian's commanding officer, whose consuming ambition to get his picture in the Saturday Evening Post motivates him to volunteer his command for every dangerous command, and to initiate prayers during briefing sessions ("I don't want any of this Kingdom of God or Valley of Death stuff. That's all too negative.... Couldn't we pray for a tighter bomb pattern?"), an idea he abandons only when he learns enlisted men pray to the same God; General Peckem, head of Special Services, whose strategic ojbective is to replace General Dreedle, the wing commander, capturing every bomber group in the US Air Force ("If dropping bombs on the enemy isn't a special service, I wonder what in the world is"); Captain Black, the squadron intelligence officer, who inaugurates the Glorious Loyalty Oath Crusade in order to discomfort a rival, forcing all officers (except the rival, who is thereupon declared a Communist) to sign a new oath whenever they get their flak suits, their pay checks, or their haircuts; Lieutenant Scheisskopf, paragon of the parade ground, whose admiration for efficient formations makes him scheme to screw nickel-alloy swivels into every cadet's back for perfect nienty degree turns; and cadres of sadistic officers, club-happy MPs, and muddleheaded agents of the CID, two of whom, popping in and out of rooms like farcical private eyes, look for Washington Irving throughout the action, finally pinning the rap on the innocent chaplain.
These are Yossarian's antagonists, all of them reduced to a single exaggerated humor, and all identified by their totally mechanical attitude towards human life. Heller has a proufound hatred for this kind of miltary mind, further anatomized in a wacky scene before the Action Board which displays his (and their) animosity in a manner both hilarious and scarifying. But Heller, at war with much larger forces than the army, has provided his book with much wider implications than a war novel. For the author (apparently sharing the Italian belief that vengenace is a dish which tastes best cold) has been nourishing his grudges for so long that they have expanded to include the post-war American world. Through the agency of grotesque comedy, Heller has found a way to confront the humbug, hypocrisy, cruelty, and sheer stupidity of our mass society - qualities which have made the few other Americans who care almost speechless with baffled rage - and through some miracle of prestidigitation, Pianosa has become a satirical microcosm for for many of the macrocosmic idioicies of our time. Thus, the author flourishes his Juvenalian scourge at government-subsidized agriculture (and farmers, one of whom "spent every penny he didn't earn on new land to increase the amount of alfalfa he did not grow"); at the exploitation of American Indians, evicted from their oil-rich land; at smug psychiatrists; at bureaucrats and patriots; at acquisitive war widows; at high-spirited American boys; and especially, and most vindictively, at war profiteers.
This last satirical flourish, aimed at the whole mystique of corporation capitalism, is embodied in the fantastic adventures of Milo Minderbinder, the company mess officer, and a paradigm of good-natured Jonsonian cupidity. Anxious to put the war on a businesslike basis, Milo has formed a syndicate designed to corner the world market on all avalilable foodstuffs, which he then sells to army messhalls at huge proits. Heady with success (his deals have made him Mayor of every town in Sicily, Vice-Shah of Oran, Caliph of Baghdad, Imam of Damascus, and the Sheik of Araby), Milo soon expands his activities, forming a private army which he hires out to the highest bidder. The climax of Milo's career comes when he fulfills a contract with the Germans to bomb and strafe his own outfit, directing his planes from the Pianosa control tower and justifying the action with the stirring war cry: "What's good for the syndicate is good for the country." Milo has almost succeeded in his ambition to preempt the field of war for private enterprise when he makes a fatal mistake: he has cornered the entire Egyptian cotton market and is unable to unload it anywhere. Having failed to pass it off to his own messhall in the form of chocolate-covered cotton, Milo is finally persuaded by Yossarian to bribe the American government to take it off his hands: "If you run into trouble, just tell everybody that the security of the country requires a strong domestic Egyptian cotton speculating industry." The Minderbinder sections - in showing the basic incompatibility of idealism and economics by satirizing the patriotic cant which usually accompanies American greed - illustrate the procedure of the entire book: the ruthless ridicule of hypocrisy through a technique of farce-fantasy, beneath which the demon of satire lurks, prodding fat behinds with a red-hot pitchfork.
It should be abundantly clear, then, that Catch-22, despite some of the most outrageous sequences since A Night at the Opera, is an intensely serious work. Heller has certain technical similarities to the Marx Brothers, Max Schulman, Kingsley Amis, Al Capp, and S.J. Perelman, but his mordant intelligence, closer to that of Nathanael West, penetrates the surface of the merely funny to expose a world of ruthless self-advancement, gruesome cruelty, and flagrant disregard for human life - a world, in short, very much like our own as seen through a magnifying glass, distorted for more perfect accuracy. Considering his indifference to surface reality, it is absurd to judge Heller by standards of psychological realism (or, for that matter, by conventional artistic standards at all, since his book is as formless as any picaresque epic). He is concerned entirely with that thin boundary of the surreal, the borderline between hilarity and horror, which, much like the apparent formlessness of the unconscious, has its own special integrity and coherence. Thus, Heller will never use comedy for its own sake; each joke has a wider significance in the intricate pattern, so that laughter becomes a prologue for some grotesque revelation. This gives the reader an effect of surrealistic dislocation, intensified by a weird, rather flat, impersonal style, full of complicated reversals, swift transitions, abrupt shifts in chronological time, and manipulated identities (e.g. if a private named Major Major Major is promoted to Major by a faulty IBM machine, or if a malingerer, sitting out a doomed mission, is declared dead through a bureaucratic error, then this remains their permanent fate), as if all mankind was determined by a mad and merciless mechanism.
Thus, Heller often manages to heighten the macabre obscenity of total war much more effectivly through its gruesome comic aspects than if he had written realistic descriptions. And thus, the most delicate pressure is enough to send us over the line from farce into phantasmagoria. In the climactic chapter, in fact, the book leaves comedy altogether and becomes an eerie nightmare of terror. Here, Yossarian, walking through the streets of Rome as though through an Inferno, observes soldiers molesting drunken women, fathers beating ragged children, policemen clubbing innocent bystanders until the whole world seems swallowed up in the maw of evil:
The night was filled with horrors, and he thought he knew how Christ must have felt as he walked through the world, like a psychiatrist through a ward of nuts, like a victim through a prison of thieves.... Mobs. . . mobs of policemen.... Mobs with clubs were in control everywhere.
Here, as the book leaves the war behind, it is finally apparent that Heller's comedy is his artistic response to his vision of transcendent evil, as if the escape route of laughter were the only recourse from a malignant world.
It is this world, which cannot be divided into boundaries or ideologies, that Yossarian has determined to resist. And so when his fear and disgust have reached the breaking point, he simply refuses to fly another mission. Asked by a superior what would happen if everybody felt the same way, Yossarian exercises his definitive logic, and answers, "Then I'd be a damned fool to feel any other way." Having concluded a separate peace, Yossarian maintains it in the face of derision, ostracism, psychological pressure, and the threat of court martial. When he is finally permitted to go home if he will only agree to a shabby deal whitewashing Colonel Cathcart, however, he finds himself impaled on two impossible alternatives. But his unique logic, helped along by the precedent of an even more logical friend, makes him conclude that desertion is the better part of valor; and so (after an inspirational sequence which is the weakest thing in the book) he takes off for neutral Sweden - the only place left in the world, outside of England, where "mobs with clubs" are not in control.
Yossarian's expedient is not very flattering to our national ideals, being defeatist, selfish, cowardly, and unheroic. On the other hand, it is one of those sublime epxressions of anarchic individualism without which all national ideals are pretty hollow anyway. Since the mass State, whether totalitarian or democratic, has grown increasingly hostile to Falstaffian irresponsibility, Yossarian's anti-heroism is, in fact, a kind of inverted heroism which we would do well to ponder. For, contrary to the armchair pronouncements of patriotic ideologues, Yossarian's obsessive concern for survival makes him not only not morally dead, but one of the most morally vibrant figures in recent literature - and a giant of the will beside those wary, wise, and wistful prodigals in contemporary novels who always accommodate sadly to American life. I believe that Joseph Heller is one of the most extraordinary talents now among us. He has Mailer's combustible radicalism without his passion for violence and self-glorification; he has Bellow's gusto with his compulsion to affirm the unaffirmable; and he has Saligner's wit without his coquettish self-consciousness. Finding his absolutes in the freedom to be, in a world dominated by cruelty, carnage, inhumanity, and a rage to destroy itself, Heller has come upon a new morality based on an old ideal, the morality of refusal. Perhaps - now that Catch-22 has found its most deadly nuclear form - we have reached the point where even the logic of survival is unworkable. But at least we can still contemplate the influence of its liberating honesty on a free, rebellious spirit in this explosive, bitter, subversive, brilliant book.
October 22, 1961
The New York Times
Review by RICHARD G. STERN
"Catch-22" has much passion, comic and fervent, but it gasps for want of craft and sensibility. A portrait gallery, a collection of anecdotes, some of them wonderful, a parade of scenes, some of them finely assembled, a series of descriptions, yes, but the book is no novel. One can say that it is much too long because its material--the cavortings and miseries of an American bomber squadron stationed in late World War II Italy--is repetitive and monotonous. Or one can say that it is too short because none of its many interesting characters and actions is given enough play to become a controlling interest Its author, Joseph Heller, is like a brilliant painter who decides to throw all the ideas in his sketchbooks onto one canvas, relying on their charm and shock to compensate for the lack of design.
If "Catch-22" were intended as a commentary novel, such sideswiping of character and action might be taken care of by thematic control. It fails here because half its incidents are farcical and fantastic. The book is an emotional hodgepodge; no mood is sustained long enough to register for more than a chapter.
As satire "Catch-22" makes too many formal concessions to the standard novels of our day. There is a certain amount of progress: the decent get killed off, the self-seekers prosper, and there is even a last minute turnabout as the war draws to an end. One feels the author should have gone all the way and burlesqued not only the passions and incidents of war, but the traditions of representing them as well. It might have saved him from some of the emotional pretzels which twist the sharpness of his talent.
Good Soldier Yossarian
TIME Magazine, Oct. 27, 1961
Horror & Hilarity. This kind of magnificent illogic whips like a mistral all through the novel, blowing both sequence and motivation into a rubble of farcical shocks and grisly surprises. Catch-22 is held together only by the inescapable fact that Joseph Heller is a superb describer of people and things. Take his portrait of a character called Hungry Joe: "A jumpy, emaciated wretch with a fleshless face of dingy skin and bone and twitching veins squirming subcutaneously in the blackened hollows behind his eyes like severed sections of snake. Hungry Joe ate voraciously, gnawed incessantly at the tips of his fingers, stammered, choked, itched, sweated, salivated and sprang from spot to spot fanatically with an intricate black camera with which he was always trying to take pictures of naked girls." And Heller can fill one page with yammering, visceral horror, can make the next prance with fleecy hilarity. He can, in short, write with a fire not often found in today's muted mood-piece novels.
Heller's Yossarian might have been the creature of a benign Kafka—engagingly bedeviled, drolly pathetic. By feigning madness in ways that only a madman could invent (standing naked in formation to receive a Distinguished Flying Cross, marching backward in parades), Yossarian proclaims his withdrawal from the whole business of the war itself.
Bogs & Abundance. Heller's talent is impressive, but it also is undisciplined, sometimes luring him into bogs of boring repetition. Nearly every episode in Catch-22 is told and retold. With each telling, some new detail, some further revelation is dangled like a carrot for the reader who reads on and on until he feels like "The Soldier Who Saw Everything Twice" (the ironic title of one chapter). Heller fights a nip-and-tuck battle with the twin temptations of redundance and abundance, succumbs shamelessly to blatant gag writing until much of his dialogue resembles an old Smith & Dale vaudeville sketch ("Why can't you marry me?" "Because you're crazy." "Why am I crazy?" "Because you want to marry me"). But an overdose of comic non sequitur and an almost experimental formlessness are not enough to extinguish the real fire of Catch-22.
review by Orville Prescott
October 23, 1961
Books of The Times
By ORVILLE PRESCOTT
By Joseph Heller.
“Catch-22," by Joseph Heller, is not an entirely successful novel. It is not even a good novel. It is not even a good novel by conventional standards. But there can be no doubt that it is the strangest novel yet written about the United States Air Force in World War II. Wildly original, brilliantly comic, brutally gruesome, it is a dazzling performance that will probably outrage nearly as many readers as it delights. In any case, it is one of the most startling first novels of the year and it may make its author famous. Mr. Heller, who spent eight years writing "Catch-22," is a former student at three universities--New York, Columbia and Oxford--and a former teacher at Pennsylvania State College. Today he is a promotion man busily engaged in the circulation wars of women's magazines. From 1942 to 1945 he served as a combat bombardier in the Twelfth Air Force and was stationed on the Island of Corsica. That experience provided only the jumping-off place for this novel.
"Catch-22" is realistic in its powerful accounts of bombing missions with men screaming and dying and planes crashing. But most of Mr. Heller's story rises above mere realism and soars into the stratosphere of satire, grotesque exaggeration, fantasy, farce and sheer lunacy. Those who are interested may be reminded of the Voltaire who wrote "Candide" and of the Kafka who wrote "The Trial."
Multiplicity of Targets
"Catch-22" is a funny book--vulgarly, bitterly, savagely funny. Its humor, I think, is essentially masculine. Few women are likely to enjoy it. And perhaps "enjoy" is not quite the right word for anyone's reaction to Mr Heller's imaginative inventions. "Relish" might be more accurate. One can relish his delirious dialogue and his ludicrous situations while recognizing that they reflect a basic range and disgust.
Joseph Heller's key sentence is this: "Men went mad and were rewarded with medals." His story is a satirical denunciation of war and of mankind that glorifies war and wages war cruelly, stupidly, selfishly. So Mr. Heller satirizes among other matters: militarism, red tape, bureaucracy, nationalism, patriotism, discipline, ambition, loyalty, medicine, psychiatry, money, big business, high finance, sex, religion, mankind and God.
To cover so much territory Mr. Heller has contrived a simple formula: His hero, Captain Yossarian, an Assyrian bombardier, is intimately acquainted with many officers and men and with numerous Roman prostitutes. Yossarian's predicaments and disasters at his squadron's base upon the Island of Pianosa and his amorous diversions in Rome provide the principal narrative.
Yossarian was brave once. But he had cracked up and couldn't face any more bombing missions: "He had decided to live forever or die in the attempt, and his only mission each time he went up was to come down alive." Unfortunately, the colonel, who wanted to be a general, kept raising the number of compulsory missions. By the time they reached ninety everybody had cracked up and insanity prevailed.
More than a score of Yossarian's friends and enemies play prominent parts in his story and each gets one or more chapters to himself. Each is a marvel of fear, cupidity, lust, ambition, dishonesty, stupidity or incompetence. The war effort--defeating Hitler, supporting the infantry--meant nothing to anybody. Blatant self-interest was the only motive on the strange Island of Pianosa.
Array of Devious Figures
A brief introduction to some of Yossarian's acquaintances can give only an inadequate conception of their bizarre variety: Major Major, "who looked a little bit like Henry Fonda in distress" and was so ineffectual he finally hid from even his own sergeant. Milo Minderbinder, the mess sergeant, the supreme champion of the profit motive and free enterprise, who knew how to buy eggs for 7 cents and to sell them at a profit for 5 cents; who combed his own airfield when the Germans made him a reasonable offer: cost plus 6 per cent.
Clevinger, who knew everything, "one of those people with lots of intelligence but no brains."
Captain Block, whose "Glorious Loyalty Oath Crusade of Continuous Reaffirmation" required a new signing before each meal and the singing of "The Star Spangled Banner" before the use of the salt and pepper.
Corporal Snark, who put laundry soap in the sweet potatoes.
Chief White Halfoat, who decided it would be nice to die of pneumonia and did.
Major de Coverley, whose duties as squadron executive officer consisted of "pitching horseshoes, kidnapping Italian laborers, and renting apartments for the enlisted men and officers to use on rest leave."
Such people and others even more spectacularly unhinged make certain that "Catch-22" will not be forgotten by those who can take it.