22 Going on 50

Catch-22 turns 50


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On November 11, 1961, readers of the New York Times were confronted with a huge advertisement for a novel, published the previous day, by a little-known writer named Joseph Heller. Running from the top to the bottom of the page and covering five of the paper’s eight columns, the ad showed an angular, panic-stricken figure, apparently in military uniform, in flight from some unspecified threat. “WHAT’S THE CATCH?” the caption screamed – a reference to the novel’s title, which, in itself, threw no light on the matter. Readers would have to buy the novel and work their way through 50-odd pages in order to find the answer to that question. I dare say it was worth the effort.

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.

No doubt Heller’s early readers experienced a similarly awed reaction on encountering the logical paradox, or sinister bureaucratic dodge, delineated in this wonderful passage. Indeed, it’s rather sad to think that for most of the novel’s subsequent readers, no such gratification was forthcoming, the element of surprise having been removed by the fact that the novel was so successful. Certainly we can all think of versions of the dilemma, even if we haven’t read the book. How many times do we hear of someone who cannot get a job because he has no address and cannot get an address because he has no job? Who has not heard of the trials by ordeal where death is the only firm proof of innocence? And is there not a whiff of Catch-22 about George W. Bush’s determination to protect American liberties by eroding them through the Patriot Act? With the possible exception of George Orwell’s “doublethink,” no concept so neatly describes these phenomena as the one first set out in Heller’s novel. Yes, that’s some catch, that Catch-22.

Though it seized the public imagination with a force that is rare in literary fiction, Catch-22 was not unanimously praised when it first appeared in 1961. Whitney Balliett, writing in the New Yorker, declared the novel a facetious mishmash: “Heller wallows in his own laughter and finally drowns in it. What remains is a debris of sour jokes, stage anger, dirty words, synthetic looniness, and the sort of antic behavior the children fall into when they know they are losing our attention.” Similarly, a reviewer in the New York Times described the novel as “an emotional hodgepodge” and declared that it “gasps for want of craft and sensibility.” Of course, these were just the initial reactions of those whose job it was (and is) to churn out short reviews on deadline, a discipline that doesn’t always favour the kind of high-end literary novel that reveals its riches gradually.

But even today there are many critics, some of them of no small reputation, who regard Catch-22 as grossly overrated. Of these, perhaps the most distinguished is the American critic Harold Bloom, who, in his preface to a collection of essays dedicated to Heller’s novel, wrote: “It is neither apocalyptic nor a masterpiece, but a tendentious burlesque, founded upon a peculiarly subjective view of historical reality.” (In a later edition of the same book, he added: “It will not last, and there’s an end on it.”) Nevertheless, Catch-22 has sold millions of copies and gained the endorsements of many fine critics. Why, then, does this remarkable novel elicit such divergent reactions?

The answer is partly literary and partly ideological, and is bound up inextricably with what we think Catch-22 is. Do we, for example, read it as a war novel or as a novel of political protest? As a satire on World War II or as a satire on the 1950s? As an ontological investigation or as a simple bureaucratic farce? For my part, I think the novel partakes of almost all of these descriptions and that it contains one fundamental flaw that no amount of subtle misreading or critical casuistry can ultimately disguise, though that hasn’t stopped some critics from trying. For all that it is a comic novel, Catch-22 has a serious intention, and that intention, it seems to me, is undermined by the novel’s setting, which entrains a failure of moral logic almost as conspicuous as the logical paradox on the book’s front cover. Heller’s novel is a breathtaking performance but the performance is rather let down by the conception. Or that, at least, is how it looks to me, 50 years after its publication.

But let us reacquaint ourselves with Heller’s topsy-turvy world, with its double binds and double vision, its ludicrous set pieces and verbal brilliance. This world is, to be sure, a zany place. Its presiding genius is John Yossarian, a U.S. bombardier of Assyrian extraction stationed on the island of Pianosa in Italy’s Tuscan archipelago toward the end of WWII. As a fighter in the Italian Campaign, it is Yossarian’s role to fly missions over Italy, a role he is ambitious not to fulfill on account of his “morbid aversion to dying.” When he takes to the air it is with profound reluctance. “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.” His mission, once down, is to avoid going up again. In this, he is generally unsuccessful, not least because of the bizarre provisions of the piece of bureaucratic sophistry from which the novel takes its title. His only hope is to fly enough missions in order to qualify for a military discharge. But Colonel Cathcart, the group commander of the Pianosa base, constantly raises the number of missions Yossarian must fly in an attempt to endear himself to top brass. Faking the symptoms of various diseases, Yossarian takes refuge in the Army hospital. When not in the hospital, and not flying missions or thinking up ways to avoid flying missions, he spends his time on leave in Rome sleeping with Italian prostitutes.

The novel’s structure is sedimentary. That’s to say that particular events are described repeatedly and from different angles and only slowly acquire solidity. The plot is notoriously difficult to follow. Heller’s narrative style is digressive, such that he will often begin by describing one event or character and then drift off and describe another. Moreover, it’s often quite difficult to know in what order key events take place, as the narrative jumps around in time. (As with Homer’s Iliad — a story to which Catch-22 constitutes a sort of comic parallel — the novel begins in media res.) This situation isn’t helped by the fact that there are no dates in the book (the only clue to the passing of time is the increasing number of combat missions the airmen are required to fly) or by the fact that many incidents and conversations echo one another (déjà vu is a key motif). Many of the early reviewers complained about the book’s repetitiveness, and one can certainly see their point, even if one doesn’t share their judgment. Catch-22 does sometimes read as a cross between Beckett and Abbott and Costello.

Such movement (as there is) is tonal and emotional. The early chapters are crammed to bursting with instances of linguistic lunacy, brought off with exquisite rhythm and poise. Heller’s language is a game of snakes and ladders in which the snakes and ladders are one and the same. Sentences unpick themselves; propositions are self-negating: “Nately had a bad start. He came from a good family … And if that wasn’t funny, there were lots of things that weren’t even funnier … People who met him were always impressed by how unimpressive he was …” These oxymoronic utterances mirror the almost Escher-like world in which Yossarian finds himself, a world where the safest place is the hospital (as long as nobody tries to cure you), where superiors refuse to see you if they’re in but are perfectly willing to see you if they’re out, and where a pilot cannot be grounded as insane unless he asks to be grounded as insane and cannot be deemed insane if he does so. In the back-to-front world of Catch-22, even grammar is complicit in the madness.

As the novel progresses, its humor darkens and the atmosphere of antic hilarity is joined, though never entirely supplanted, by a tone of sober desperation. Yossarian’s casual misanthropy gives way to flashes of fellow feeling, such that by the end of the book he begins to seem like a frustrated idealist. Certainly his fear of death is revealed as related to the deaths of his comrades, for which he feels some responsibility. On one mission, he fails to drop his bombload and decides to fly back over his target, a maneuver that costs one man his life. (In an attempt to cover up the debacle, Yossarian’s superiors give him a medal.) Then there is the case of Snowden, who is killed on a mission over Avignon, and whose death forms the emotional centre of the book. “Where are the Snowdens of yesteryear?” Yossarian asks the idealistic Clevinger toward the beginning of Catch-22, a question that elicits understandable puzzlement. Not long thereafter Snowden’s fate is revealed, though the details of the young man’s evisceration are vouchsafed to us very gradually. Only in the last few pages of the novel is the incident described in full. The following passage comes as Yossarian is treating Snowden for a wound in his leg:

But Snowden kept shaking his head and pointed at last, with just the barest movement of his chin, down toward his armpit. Yossarian bent forward to peer and saw a strangely colored stain seeping through the coveralls just above the armhole of Snowden’s flak suit. Yossarian felt his heart stop, then pound so violently he found it difficult to breathe. Snowden was wounded inside his flak suit. Yossarian ripped open 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. A chunk of flak more than three inches big had shot into his other side just underneath the arm and blasted all the way through, drawing whole 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.

This is the novel’s heart of darkness, but there are many other distressing passages. On the whole, prostitution is treated light-heartedly, though very occasionally the scene will darken to reveal the grim reality at its core. (“Vengeful neighbors had shaved her hair to the gleaming bone because she had slept with Germans.”) Then there is Yossarian’s walk through Rome toward the novel’s end — a scene of appalling squalor and cruelty that draws explicitly on Dostoevsky. Finally, there is the subtle way in which Catch-22 is redefined, or defined more widely, as the novel progresses — transformed, in fact, from an expedient dodge to an unchangeable law of human history. The vaudevillian back-and-forth of Yossarian’s attempt to have himself grounded becomes, eventually, an old woman’s assertion: “Catch-22 says they have a right to do anything we can’t stop them from doing.” Catch-22 is not just a rule; it is the hinge in Heller’s unhinged universe.

This darkening of tone in Catch-22, and the way in which Yossarian’s character is imbued with greater depth and subtlety, allows us to discount immediately one criticism that is sometimes made of the novel — namely that it is nihilistic. In fact, the novel is profoundly moral, though whether or not it is morally profound is a question we will touch on later. Nor is it an anti-war novel, though many are the readers who have assumed that it is, for perfectly understandable reasons (another problem we’ll touch on later). Heller has said on several occasions that he was not against WWII, in which he served as a bombardier, and also that he never had a bad officer. So what was Heller trying to say in this crazy epic — this Sillyad — and did he succeed in saying it?

At its simplest level, Catch-22 is a sort of existential satire, one in which war is employed as a metaphor for the struggle for meaning in a meaningless universe. Yossarian’s most important relationship is with R. O. Shipman, the base chaplain, who is present on the first and last pages of the book. Provoked in part by Yossarian’s example, the chaplain suffers a crisis of faith, the narrator’s thrilled description of which is an eloquent statement of one of the book’s themes: “Where the devil was heaven? Was it up? Down? There was no up or down in a finite but expanding universe in which even the vast, burning, dazzling, majestic sun was in a state of progressive decay that would eventually destroy the earth too.” This “progressive decay” is of particular concern to Yossarian’s hospital buddy, Dunbar, who is named, I suspect, for William Dunbar — the 15th-century Scottish poet whose “Lament for the Makars” employs the refrain Timor mortis conturbat me: “fear of death disturbs me.” Dunbar’s ambition is to prolong his life, a goal he pursues by “cultivating boredom.” (“Dunbar was working so hard at increasing his life span that Yossarian thought he was dead.”) “The spirit gone, man is garbage,” thinks Yossarian, as Snowden lies dying in the plane. The consciousness that man is alone in the universe suffuses the novel’s bleaker passages.

Such gods as exist in Heller’s world are more like the gods of Greek mythology — capricious, jealous, violent, competitive — and their part is taken by the colonels and generals who send the soldiers into battle. Thus we come to the principal target of Heller’s satire in Catch-22: the nature of power and conformity. It is the battle of the individual against society — or “the contemporary regimented business society” as the author termed it in a subsequent article — that Heller seeks to explore in the book, which is, again, no more anti-war than Moby-Dick is anti-whaling. Rather, it is intended as a satire on the age of affluence that succeeded the war, and of the kind of mind-set that went along with it — a mindset represented in the novel by the ludicrous Milo Minderbinder, the squadron cook who rises to become a renowned entrepreneur and racketeer and whose frankly Byzantine business practices are the source of much of the novel’s comedy. More generally, Heller wants to satirize the nature of bureaucracy, which he takes to be a dehumanizing influence. Two characters are crucial in this regard: Mudd, who is officially alive, and Doc Daneeka, who is officially dead. In fact, Mudd is dead and Daneeka alive, though the system is so inflexible that neither can escape his official designation. When, toward the end of the novel, the revolting Aarfy murders a prostitute, the police arrive and arrest Yossarian for failing to carry the proper papers. In Catch-22, the flesh-and-blood person has less reality than his official file.

Needless to say, these themes emerge from a specific political and social context. The book is peppered with anachronisms such as loyalty oaths, IBM machines, and agricultural subsidies. One obvious target is McCarthyism, the perverted moral logic of which — guilty until proven innocent — is immediately recognizable in the novel’s interrogation scenes, which, like much else in Catch-22, darken as the novel progresses. But if the book is relevant to what happened in the 1950s, it is equally relevant to what was about to happen in the ’60s. To a 1960s counter-culture predisposed to question all forms of authority and the U.S. war in Indochina, Catch-22 was a lucky dip of philosophical insight and political penetration, while Yossarian’s desertion, which occurs in the last chapter, seemed to grant a moral amnesty to those considering draft evasion. It is, I think, to this co-option of Catch-22 by the counter-culture that conservative critics such as Norman Podhoretz are really responding when they seek to dismiss it as an anti-military jeremiad. To be fair, the author did precious little to discourage this co-option himself, perhaps on the understandable assumption that to do so would be bad for business. But if the popularity of Catch-22 with the counter-culture was good for sales, it also served to throw its failings — and one failing in particular — into relief.

For the novel is not set in Vietnam, or indeed in corporate America. It is set in the Tyrrhenian Sea. More important, it is set in the midst of a conflict the moral justification for which, on the Allied side, should not be in doubt, though that is not to say that immoral things were not done in its name. (They certainly were, and I note in passing that Catch-22, like Slaughterhouse-Five, the novel with which it has most in common, deals with the bombing of civilian targets.) For the U.S. in particular, the notion that the Second World War was a “good” war is partly retrospective, but it is a judgment that most U.S. citizens (and non-U.S. citizens) would now accept as true. And herein sits the problem for Heller. If the Second World War saw the U.S. at its best, why would he choose to set his vision of the U.S. at its worst in the Second World War?

To say that this projection backwards unbalances the novel is to put it mildly. Despite the obvious artfulness of its plot, or the skill with which such plot as it has is revealed over nearly 600 pages, Catch-22 seems irrevocably split between two different visions of the world — a dislocation that no invocation of “tragicomedy” can quite disguise. Nor is this a question of characterization, of the juxtaposition of “flat” and “round” characters that occurs throughout Catch-22. This, in itself, is not a problem, though there is, I think, too great a gap between, say, the highly improbable Milo, who barely exists in two dimensions, and Yossarian, whom three can barely contain. The real problem is not with the way Heller chooses to describe his world but with the nature of the world described — a problem connected to the uneasy fit between his novel’s setting and its intention.

Let us stay with Milo for a moment. One crucial bit of ridiculousness emerges when the business-savvy cook bombs the base on Pianosa in order to fulfill a business contract (at this point he is fighting for both sides of the War). The action leads to many deaths. Milo is court-martialled but permitted to go free after invoking the logic of capitalism and revealing how much profit his actions have made for the “syndicate” in which “everyone has a share.” Not a subtle instance of satire, but not entirely out of key with the novel’s more absurdist passages. Now consider the following strophe, not devoid of physical comedy but certainly not subsumed by it, in which an underage flyer is cut in half by the wing propeller of a B-25 while fooling around on a raft in the water:

Even people who were not there remembered vividly exactly what happened next. There was the briefest, softest tsst! filtering audibly through the shattering, overwhelming howl of the plane’s engines, and then there were just Kid Sampson’s two pale, skinny legs, still joined by strings somehow at the bloody truncated hips, standing stock-still on the raft for what seemed like a minute or two before they toppled over backward into the water finally with a faint, echoing splash and turned completely upside down so that only the grotesque toes and plaster-white soles of Kid Sampson’s feet remained in view.

What follows is a scene of panic and mayhem. Bits of Kid Sampson rain down from the sky and the chapter ends with the fearless McWatt, the pilot of Yossarian’s plane and the man responsible for Sampson’s death (he was flying dangerously low over the coast), crashing his B-25 into a mountain in a fit of suicidal guilt. The scene is comic, but traumatically so, and in point not only of the things described but also of the men’s reactions to them (“Everyone on the beach was screaming and shouting”) broadly realistic in tone. To be sure, the chapter appears to exist in a different physical and moral universe to the one in which Milo bombs his own men (none of whose deaths is described at all) and contrives thereafter to beat the rap with some unlikely bluster about the American Way — a chapter that may strike us as a failure of decorum when set against the scenes involving the gruesome deaths of Kid Sampson and Snowden, with their heavy emotional toll on the men. What, then, is the source of this incongruity?

The answer lies, in my opinion, in Heller’s own experiences of the War, which, while indispensable to the novel, serve to some extent to unbalance it. Heller, like Yossarian, was a bombardier in the closing phases of the Italian Campaign. One only has to read the vertiginous passages in which the bombing missions are described — passages that, like the whaling scenes in Moby-Dick, bring the book alive – to sense just how clear those experiences were in Heller’s mind. (“With a grinding howl of engines, he flipped the plane over on one wing and wrung it around remorselessly in a screaming turn away from the twin spires of flak Yossarian had spied stabbing toward them.”) But there is one scene that comes straight from Heller’s experience, and it happens to be the key scene in the book. Here is Heller in 1967, in an article for Holiday Magazine:

On August 15, the day of the invasion of southern France, we flew to Avignon again. This time three planes went down, and no men got out. A gunner in my plane got a big wound in his thigh. I took care of him. I went to visit him in the hospital the next day. He looked fine. They had given him blood, and he was going to be all right. But I was in terrible shape; and I had 23 more missions to fly.

This, of course, is the source of the scene in which Snowden is killed by a chunk of flak. And while the real-life gunner was not fatally wounded, it’s clear that this incident had a huge effect on the author of Catch-22, who, for many years after the War, refused to fly in an airplane. Nor do I think it outlandish to suggest that this incident, which became the novel’s centerpiece, was not, in the end, amenable to or congruent with its satirical vision. It was an open psychological wound that would seep through the author’s satirical flak jacket.

Most novelists write from experience, and it is clear from his statements that Heller needed the experience as a bombardier to spur him into a serious and sustained creative effort. But the novel he wanted to write was a satire, to which that experience proved resistant. In Catch-22, in other words, the satire and the setting are fundamentally at odds: the playfulness of the scenes with Milo, which are really a kind of moral slapstick, does not sit well with the book’s darker passages. In a sense, its author is in a double bind, a victim of his own Catch-22: He wanted to write a novel protesting the moral chaos of the 1950s but the only experience vivid enough to carry such a novel forward was a time of (relative) moral clarity. The American critic Robert Merrill has written that Heller has done everything possible to dissociate his satire from the war against Hitler — an odd thing to argue when you consider that the novel is set in the midst of the war against Hitler! And while necessity is not nobility and many ignoble things were done by the Allied powers in the course of the war effort, you won’t find many people these days willing to argue that that effort was wasted. In his final chapters, Heller attempts to give Yossarian’s desire to desert — a desire on which he follows through, inspired as he is by the ingenious Orr, who has faked his own death and fled to Sweden — a dignity that the act itself does not warrant. Indeed, he even attempts to paint it as an act of solidarity. Suffice it to say, the effort doesn’t convince.

In Heller’s second novel, Something Happened, the absurdity and alienation of Catch-22 is relocated to corporate America. Its embodiment is the novel’s protagonist Bob Slocum, who is lost in a world of pointless bureaucracy. Like Heller, and like Yossarian, Slocum was a flyer in the Second World War — a bombardier in the Italian Campaign — and this experience is sharply at odds with the sense of existential drift that has overtaken him in subsequent years. (“It was after the war that the struggle began.”) It is tempting to conclude that the essential problem with Heller’s first and greatest novel is that it attempts to transfer this sense of alienation to the very time in the author’s life when no such sense of alienation existed. The result is a sort of ungainly crossbreed. Catch-22 is a magnificent novel, but an oddly disjointed work of art.

Nevertheless, it continues to resonate, and has resonated since it first hit the shelves in November 1961. When Nixon’s attorney told the Supreme Court that you cannot impeach a president without evidence, and that collecting such evidence is a Federal crime, one knew where to look for the appropriate analogues, just as one knows where to look today when politicians attempt to justify the curtailment of our civil liberties in the name of the struggle against intolerance. Catch-22 is a tool to think with, to press into service whenever the cause of political perspicuity demands it. Heller has given us a concept, and a language, with which to lampoon obfuscation. In that sense, the novel does hit its target and will go on hitting it for centuries to come. For if there’s one thing the powerful cannot abide, it’s the feeling that they are not taken seriously. • 20 July 2011


Richard King is a freelance writer based in Fremantle, Australia. He writes regularly for the Australian and the Sydney Morning Herald.