Wednesday, October 1, 2014

Catch-22

Catch 22: A paradoxical dilemma in which a condition inevitably intrinsic to a specific problem is simultaneously responsible for preventing the solution.

Now, what does that actually mean in real-life? Say, for instance, that your parents make you get a job but also mandate that you drive yourself there. You don’t have the funds to buy a car because you don’t have a job yet; you can’t get the job because you don’t have any way of getting there. It’s a lose-lose situation. My personal advice to this individual with asshole parents: move out of whatever shitty city you’re in that completely lacks public transportation.

The term “Catch-22” is now a broadly used colloquialism, so it might be easy to forget that Joseph Heller was its seminal author with the introduction of this novel. The logical conundrum appears for the first time when the main character’s desire to be relieved from combat duty is complicatedly thwarted (Heller, 40). Yossarian (our leading man) is told that you can be discharged if you are diagnosed as crazy; however, you can only be discharged if you apply. If you apply to be removed from a warzone where you can very easily be off-ed at any moment, you are utilizing rational faculties which prove that you are certainly not crazy. Basically, you’re screwed.

Like Yossarian, Heller himself served in the Air Force during World War II. Upon return, he pursued higher education to refine his writing skills. He began writing Catch-22* in 1953 and it was published in full eight years later. Presumably drawing from his own wartime experiences, Heller imbues the book with a cold-hearted satirical cynicism. Each character is presented more as a caricature in order to mockingly amplify the ridiculousness of war. As a result, there is not a whole lot of plot necessary to drive the novel; instead, he just throws a bunch of guys with nonsensical personalities into a military base and hilarity ensues. In order to coax out the core themes of the novel, here is a short list of takeaways embodied in a few of my favorite characters:

·         The arbitrariness of allegiance: Nately, an affluent, well-intentioned but naïve lieutenant firmly asserts that risking your life for your country is an honor-- especially a country as infallible as the United States (Heller, 245). To his surprise, an old man in the whorehouse where he so triumphantly declares this “fact” finds the comment contentious. The elderly gentleman thinks it is absurd that everyone should be so gung-ho to die for their particular country when a country is merely a lump of land with unnatural, arbitrary boundaries. Yossarian echoes this sentiment when he notes, “‘It doesn’t make a damned bit of difference who wins the war to someone who’s dead’” (Heller, 120).

·         The “dilemma of duty and damnation” (Heller, 134): The word “duty” is tossed about quite frequently, primarily by the authorities in charge who are never actually forced into combat. Men like Colonel Cathcart “believed that all men were created equal, and he therefore spurned all men outside Group Headquarters with equal fervor” (Heller, 53). Frankly, my dear lowly lieutenants, us higher-ups just don’t give a damn! Cathcart continues to raise the number of missions required to complete a tour of duty just as Yossarian is about to break free. In fact, Cathcart actually prefers more casualties and more difficult missions for his men so that he can appear favorable in the media. Yossarian is, naturally, taken aback by this warped line of thinking. When he is sent to therapy, the military psychologist ironically exclaims, “you have no respect for excessive authority or obsolete traditions. You’re dangerous and depraved!” (Heller, 300). Talk about bureaucratic nonsense.

Another authoritative figure known as ex-P.F.C. Wintergreen superciliously explains that everyone has their duty in the war effort. If his is to sit behind a desk and shuffle papers while Yossarian faces death on the front lines, so be it. He is even affronted by Yossarian’s non-masculine reluctance, stating, “if you’re destined to be killed over Bologna, then you’re going to be killed, so you might just as well go out and die like a man” (Heller, 119). How silly of Yossarian to not embrace fatalism.

And indeed, Yossarian does no such embracing. He defiantly maintains that “history did not demand [his] premature demise, justice could be satisfied without it, progress did not hinge upon it…that men would die was a matter of necessity; which men would die, though, was a matter of circumstance, and [he] was willing to be the victim of anything but circumstance” (Heller, 63). But you’ll get medals if you do some brave things, Yossarian! What a joke…to Yossarian, “all [trophies] signified was that the owner had done something of no benefit to anyone more capably than everyone else” (Heller, 67). Get em.

·         The murkiness of morality: Because Yossarian is surrounded by so much death and destruction, he isn’t exactly super fond of the big man upstairs. In an enraged tirade he rants, “What a colossal, immortal blunderer! When you consider the opportunity and power He had to really do a job, and then look at the stupid, ugly, little mess He made of it instead, His sheer incompetence is almost staggering. It’s obvious He never met a payroll” (Heller, 177). Lolol I love when Yossarian gets pissy. And understandably… morality in war is murky to say the least. I took a course in “Just War” at UVA and we had difficulty even defining the course name. During one of Yossarian’s several complaints to officials about the ever-rising number of missions, only one guy gives an unintentionally sagacious retort. Colonel Korn wonders aloud whether it would be any different if the men currently on duty were actually replaced with new ones like they legally should have been—either way, somebody is going to die (Heller, 389). Even the Chaplain acknowledges the fickle nature of morality when he discovers that you can pretty much rationalize any sin you commit (Heller, 364). You know you’ve hit a wall when the religious guy can’t give you an opinion on what’s moral and what’s not.

Towards the end of the novel, Yossarian frankly refuses to do any more missions. “The country was in peril; he was jeopardizing his traditional rights of freedom and independence by daring to exercise them” (Heller, 406). His insolence had to be dealt with swiftly so that the other men would not follow suit; therefore, the colonels offered him a deal that opened up a can of morality worms. He would be allowed to go home if he merely pretended that he and the colonels were “pals” and returned singing praises about his authorities for public relation purposes. He could either take the deal or be court-martialed; however, accepting the offer would mean abandoning his comrades and leaving them in the hands of suppressive powers. I won’t tell you what he decides :)

·         Sex and coercion: Women play a very interesting part in the novel. As a woman, I am pretty into that. The objectification of women is rampant and virtually every female character is either a prostitute by profession or employs sex for manipulative purposes. They are depicted as sexually voracious creatures that discriminate very little. In my opinion, these women, who are slaves to a vicious sexual cycle that is their only claim to fame, serve as a mirror for the men in combat who are slaves to an institution that allegedly gives them glory but in reality deadens their emotions and their hearts until they are in fact dead.

·         The fragility of man: Not only are these men entirely powerless in the face of women because of their lust, they also inevitably succumb to mortality. Yossarian realizes the hard away that men are fragile beings. When one of his friends dies, he macabrely relays, “it was easy to read the message in his entrails. Man was matter…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” (Heller, 442).

Overall, Heller is able to masterfully discuss these themes through characters who never leave you bored. He also happens to be absolutely hilarious. The novel is divided into chapters, each one concerned with a different character; therefore, it is not chronologically linear. Because of this, the jokes inter-loop and many of them are made funny through repetition. The style reminds me of one of my favorite shows—“Arrested Development”. It wasn’t necessarily funny the first time around when they did the chicken dance…when Michael couldn’t pronounce Anne’s name… when J. Walter Weathermen taught the kids a lesson (like why it’s always important to leave a note)…when George Michael showed off his Star Wars dance moves… or when anyone, anywhere says Annyong. But it sure as hell was funny the second time. Similarly, Catch-22 has its own set of ongoing jokes. Here’s a brief list for the amusement of those who have read the novel: Colonel Korn’s letters home to family/friends of the deceased, Milo Minderbinder’s chocolate covered cotton, Chief White Halfoat dying of pneumonia, Washington Irving/Irving Washington, and Nately’s crazy whore. 

Catch-22’s comicality is also fueled by Heller’s imaginative writing style which ensures that irrationally is pervasive in the novel. His dry humor coupled with exaggerated irony renders many of the statements and character descriptions ludicrous. Again, here is a list of a few examples:

-“‘I’m not saying that to be cruel and insulting’, he continued with cruel and insulting delight” (Heller, 303).
-“People who met him were always impressed with how unimpressive he was” (Heller, 78).
-“He was a self-made man who owed his lack of success to nobody” (Heller, 27).
-“‘Know what I mean? You scratch my back, I’ll scratch yours.’ Yossarian knew what he meant.  ‘That’s not what I meant,’ Doc Daneeka said as Yossarian began scratching his back” (Heller, 28).

And my personal favorite…
-“You have a morbid aversion to dying” (Heller, 304).

Because of Heller’s impressive ability to make me laugh AND think critically, I give this novel 5 out of 5 camel humps. I know that I’ll have to read the whole thing again at some point to truly appreciate all of the intricacies--and the fact that I enjoyed it so much the first time around is telling. Considering this book has emerged as a cult classic, I am certainly not the only one to feel this strongly. In fact, when Heller interviewed for the novel on the Today show, the host at the time revealed some underground stickers he had made saying: YOSSARIAN LIVES. I think these should be the next KONY 2012 stickers…except this time the originator hopefully won’t have a public breakdown in which he runs around naked, screaming and cursing.


*Heller, Joseph. Catch-22. New York: Bantam Doubleday Dell Publishing Group, Inc., 1955. Print.

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