I once seriously considered cheating a library out of a book. Not actually cheating, but telling them that I lost the book and letting the library keep my deposit so that I can keep that book. I liked that book, a lot. It was not available anywhere else locally. I wanted to keep it with me and read it again – and again, and share it with as many of my friends as I could. It was a nice bound edition supplied cheaply to libraries by USIS. I really did not want to return that book. But, being the library dweller that I am, I couldn’t bring myself to do it. I returned the book along with a substantial fine to the Arundelpet branch of the Guntur Library. This was about 1977. The book was Joseph Heller’s Catch-22.
“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.
Yes, it’s the best there is, that Catch-22.
Catch-22 apparently began as Catch-18; for various reasons, the number kept changing, and eventually settled on 22. Catch-22 has now become a ubiquitous part of the English language describing circular (or elliptical reasoning) which leaves the victim in a double-bind.
I first heard about Catch-22 during a long bus ride that was returning us to Guntur after an inter-medical collegiate festival at Osmania Medical College. A junior of mine, Vani Ramarao, now a big shot in the medical establishment in the state of North Dakota, and a member of our English debating team, began talking rapturously about this book. I still remember her quoting the passage with which she introduced me to one of my favorite books, with childlike glee.
(Clevinger shouted), “You are crazy”
“They are trying to kill me,” Yossarian told him calmly.
“No one is trying to kill you,” Clevinger cried.
“Then why are they shooting at me?” Yossarian asked.
“They’re shooting at everyone,” Clevinger answered. “They are trying to kill everyone.”
“And what difference does that make?”
“Who’s they?” (Clevinger) wanted to know. “Who, specifically, do you think is trying to murder you?”
“Every one of them”. Yossarian told him calmly.
“Every one of whom?”
“Every one of whom do you think?”
“I haven’t any idea.”
“Then, how do you know they aren’t?”
“Because…” Clevinger sputtered, and turned speechless with frustration.
Clevinger really thought he was right, but Yossarian had proof, because strangers he didn’t know shot at him with cannons every time he flew up into the air to drop bombs on them, and it wasn’t funny at all.
This year marks the 50th anniversary of Catch-22. It was first published on November 10, 1961. It had a mixed reception during the first few months of the publication. Several prominent writers and critics praised the book. However, for every good review, there was a negative review. The book was not on any bestseller list. It won no prizes.
One critic noted that many in the early audience of Catch-22 ‘liked the book for just the reasons that caused others to hate it’.
It was a vile and muddy war – and Yossarian would have lived without it- lived forever perhaps… History did not demand Yossarian’s premature demise, justice could be satisfied without it, progress did not hinge upon it, victory did not depend on it. 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. But, that was war. The only thing that he could find in its favor was that it paid well and liberated children from the pernicious influence of their parents.
By the summer of 1962, Catch-22 was becoming the most talked about book. John Chancellor, of NBC Nightly News, was a
huge fan and had gotten privately printed stickers saying, Yossarian Lives. When, the paperback edition came out in September 1962 with 300,000 copies, it sold out within a matter of weeks. By the end of the year, the paperback edition went through five printings in US. It was a big success in Britain as well. It was eventually made into a play and a film.
>(Major Major Major Major was the only major in the US Armed Forces with four majors in his name; the first Major is his rank; the last his family name; the middle two were the first and middle names foisted upon him by his father. Because of this distinction, he could neither be promoted to a higher rank or busted down to a lower rank.)
Major Major has been born too late and too mediocre. Some men are born mediocre, some men achieve mediocrity, and some men have mediocrity thrust upon them. With Major Major, it had been all three. Even among men lacking all distinction he inevitably stood out as a man lacking more distinction than all the rest, and people who met him were always impressed how unimpressive he was.
Catch-22 is a war novel. Actually, it is not a war novel, but an anti-war novel. It may not even be an anti-war novel, but cleary is an anti-beaureaucracy novel. It is an anti-capitalism novel. It is an anti-establishment novel.
“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 government control and discouraging other men from bombing their own men and planes. We’ll be taking away their incentives.”
Catch-22 is one of the funniest books I read. It is also one of the most horrifying books I read. Therein lies the catch.
“Bribery is against the law, and you know it. But, it is not against the law to make a profit, is it? So it can’t be against the law for me to bribe someone in order to make a fair profit, can it? No, of course, not. But, how will I know who to bribe?”
“Oh, don’t worry about that. You make the bribe big enough and they’ll find you. Just make sure you do everything right out in the open. Let everyone know exactly what you want and how much you’re willing to pay for it. The first time you act guilty or act ashamed, you might get into trouble.”
Catch-22 was Joseph Heller’s first novel; Heller wrote the first chapter in 1953, and took eight years to complete it. Heller served in the US Army Air Corps between 1942 and 1945, and, just like his leading man, was a bombardier in Italy and flew 60 combat missions.
“From now on I’m thinking only of me”
“But, Yossarian, suppose everyone felt that way.”
“Then, I’d certainly be a damned fool to feel any other way, wouldn’t I?”
Catch-22 is the story of Captain John Yossarian, the Assyrian. He is a bombardier in the US Army Air Corps stationed in the island of Pianosa while the US Army is trying to take over Italy. He wants to be returned to the States; as do everybody else on his unit. He needed to fly about 40 missions to be able to sent back to the States. He has almost gotten those many missions. Except that there is this Colonel Cathcart who wants to be a general and keeps increasing the missions that one has to fly so that he can impress his superior General Deedle or General Peckem or both. First he raises them to forty five, then fifty, then fifty-five… Yossarian has an aversion to dying; he is willing to do whatever it takes to live.
“You are talking about winning the war, and I am talking about winning the war and keeping alive.”
“Exactly,” Clovinger snapped smugly. “And, which do you think is more important?”
“To whom?” Yossarian shot back. “Open your eyes, Clovinger. It doesn’t make a damned bit of difference who wins the war to someone who’s dead.”
Catch-22 is the story of Yossarian’s friends. What a cast of characters they are. There is Orr, his roommate, who used to keep crabapples in his cheeks – because he couldn’t get to put chestnuts in his cheeks. The meek and weak Chaplain intimidated by his superiors and inferiors to the extent that he is now beginning to doubt God and religion. Doc Daneeka whom the Air Corps declared dead while he is alive. Milo Minderbinder, the mess officer that masterminds a massive capitalist enterprise while running the mess hall, and takes a contract to bomb his own base. Nately, the sweet rich kid, that is in love with a whore in Rome. Chief White Halfoat who could not live anywhere because oil gets discovered wherever he goes. Clovinger, the patriotic intellectual. The old man in the whorehouse who posits that Italy is winning the war by losing it. Major Major Major Major… A hard bunch to ignore or forget.
“And this whole program is voluntary, don’t forget that. The men don’t have to sign Piltchard’s and Wren’s loyalty oath if they don’t want to. But, we need you to starve them to death if they don’t. It’s just like Catch-22. Don’t you get it? You’re not against Catch-22, are you?”
“What makes you so sure Major Major is a communist?”
“You never heard him deny it until we began accusing him, did you? And you don’t see him signing any of our loyalty oaths.”
“You aren’t letting him sign any.”
“Of course not,” Captain Black explained. ‘That would defeat the whole purpose of our crusade.”
Yossarian, it turns out, is not just a cynic looking after himself. He is a very moral person. He is tempted by neither the profits offered by Milo or the devious offers of freedom by Colonels Korn and Cathcart. He is a coward, but not a coward. He can stand up for his principles. He is not particularly against the war against the Nazis. However, he is angry at everybody that is exploiting him, by extension all the innocent soldiers that fight in the world’s armies.
“Between me and every ideal I always find Scheisskopfs, Peckems, Korns and Cathcarts. And that sort of changes the ideal
…When I look up (at the big picture), I see people cashing in. I don’t see heaven or saints or angels. I see people cahsing in on every decent impulse and every human tragedy.
… What does upset me, though, is that they think I am a sucker. They think that they’re smart, and that the rest of us are dumb.
In some respects, the novel itself is a brilliant exposition of the Catch-22 – in its theme, characters, organization, and language. Clovinger thinks Yossarian is crazy and Yossarian thinks Clovinger is crazy. Actually, every character in the book thinks that the others are crazy. Who is the sane one and who isn’t?
“There is nothing so absurd about risking your life for your country,” Nately declared.
“Isn’t there?” asked the old man. “What is a country? A country is a plot of land surrounded on all sides by boundaries, usually unnatural. Englishmen are dying for England, Americans are dying for America, Germans are dying for Germany, Russians are dying for Russia. There are now fifty or sixty countries fighting in this war. Surely, so many countries can’t all be worth dying for.”
“Anything worth living for,” said Nately, “is worth dying for.”
“And anything worth dying for,” answered the sacrilegious old man, is certainly worth living for”.
Catch-22 starts out as an unstructured, meandering novel with an unfathomable plot. Many characters appear suddenly and disappear as suddenly. Narration swings widely between different periods of time. Conversations occur with tenuous connection to the ongoing narrative. But as we read on, we discover that,this book is well thought out, highly structured, and multi-layered with all the loose ends tied up pretty well (neatly may not be the word to describe the tied up loose ends). Sentences that seem meaningless apparently alluding to something that happened in the past become clear much later. A remnant of a joke that appears in an early chapter may actually be told fully in a later chapter. The author had a clear and panaromic view of his entire story and he skilfully controls the unfolding of the narrative, keeping us hooked and drawing us ever so much deeper into his web.
The first chapter, where we meet Yossarian for the first time, is a brilliant farce that ensures that one has to keep reading the book
Yossarian was in the hospital with a pain in his liver that fell just short of being jaundice. The doctors were puzzled by the fact that it wasn’t quite jaundice. If it became jaundice, they could treat it. If it didn’t become jaundice and went away they could discharge him. But, this just being short of jaundice confused them
Heller sometimes creates an image and even before the reader has a chance to settle down comfortably with that image, he upends the whole thing to hilarious results. He employs words, phrases and short sentences in a skilful manner taking the reader on a wild and zany ride.. Sometimes he lulls us into thinking that we are on a smooth comic run and suddenly hits an absurd bump and doubles back with roaring laughter.
(All these examples are from the first chapter.)
The captain was a good chess player and the games were always interesting. Yossarian stopped playing chess with him because the games were so interesting they were foolish.
The Texan turned out to be generous, good natured and likable. In three days no one could stand him.
There was a urologist for his urine, a lymphologist for his lymph, an endocrinologist for his endocrines, a psychologist for his psyche, a dermatologist for his derma; there was a pathologist for his pathos, a cystologist for his cysts, and a bald and pedantic cetologist from the zoology department at Harvard who had been shanghaied ruthlessly into the Medical Corps by a faulty anode in an I.B.M. machine and spent his sessions with the dying colonel trying to discuss Moby Dick with him.
Sometimes an incident of enormous tragedy gets juxtaposed with one of absolute craziness (e.g.: Milo Minderbinder is trying to get a naked Yossarian to endorse his chocolate covered cotton, while both are sitting on a treeand looking the chaplain is conducting nearby the funeral of Snowden).
Then, there are the absolutely brilliant, morbidly fascinating later chapters. In one of those chapters, five whole pages elapse before the conclusion of a paragraph describing the horrific, brutal, graphically detailed night scene in Rome.
And then, there is this passage as Yossarian helplessly watches Snowden’s entrails spilled all over the messy floor of the bomber plane.
Man was matter, that was Snowden’s secret. Drop him out of a window and he’ll fall. Set fire to him and he will burn. Bury him and he’ll rot like other kinds of Ripeness was all.
There is a lot of silliness in this book; some absurd and anarchic comedy, brilliant wordplay at times worthy of a Groucho Marx, and the tautological precision worthy of the inventor of Catch-22. But, this book can be read and interpreted in many ways including as an exercise in existentialism. Sometimes, he is positively Orwellian in his logic.
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, every one knew sin was evil and that no good could come from evil. But, he did feel good. He felt absolutely marvelous. Consequently, it followed logically that telling lies and defecting from duty could not be sins. The chaplain has mastered, in a moment of divine intuition, the handy technique of protective rationalization. It was miraculous. It was almost no trick at all, he saw, to turn vice into virtue and slander into truth, plunder into philanthropy, thievery into honor, brutality into patriotism, and sadism into justice.
Anybody could do it; it required no brains at all.
It merely required no character.
There are many literary allusions in this book worthy of a classic mystic poem (in one hilarious passage, Yossarian asks Clovinger the unanswerable question, Where are the Snowdens of yesteryear?).
Joseph Heller wrote several novels after this one and many of them have been critically acclaimed. He wrote a sequel to Catch-22, Closing Time, describing the post-war foibles of Yossarian and his friends. Heller, who had a miraculous recovery from Guillian-Barre Syndrome in the 80s, finally passed away in 1999.
Catch-22 is now considered one of the topmost classic American novels. As the world continues to fight more wars, this book continues to be highly relevant.
Catch-22 did not exist, Yossarian was positive of that, but it made no difference. What did matter was that everyone thought that it did, and that was much worse, for there was no object or text to ridicule or refute, to accuse, criticize, attack, amend, hate, revile, spit at, rip to shreds, trample upon them or burn up.
First published 1961 by Simon & Schuster
A preface by the author added in 1994.