Sunday, December 4, 2011

Catch 22

I'm reading Catch 22 again for the fifth time. In the event that you're not into mid-twentieth century absurdist fiction, Catch 22 by Joseph Heller centers around the lives of a group of World War II fliers, whose job is to bomb targets in Italy. The man character, Yossarian, has decided early in the novel that he has had enough and wants to be grounded. The only problem is that, in order to be grounded, you have to be crazy. Yossarian, whose nerves are shot from the stress of warfare, seems to fit the bill, but there's a catch, of course -- Catch 22:

Yossarian...decided right then and there to go crazy.

"You're wasting your time," Doc Daneeka was forced to tell him.

"Can you ground someone who's crazy?"

"Oh, sure. I have to. There's a rule saying I have to ground anyone who's crazy."

"Then why don't you ground me? I'm crazy. Ask Clevinger."

"Clevinger? Where is Clevinger? You find Clevinger and I'll ask him."

"Then ask any of the others. They'll tell you how crazy I am."

"They're crazy."

"Then why don't you ground them?"

"Why don't they ask me to ground them?"

"Because they're crazy, that's why."

"Of course they're crazy," Doc Daneeka replied. "I just told you they're crazy, didn't I? And you can't let crazy people decide whether you're crazy or not, can you?"

Yossarian looked at him soberly and tried another approach. "Is Orr crazy?"

"He sure is," Doc Daneeka said.

"Can you ground him?"

"I sure can. But first he has to ask me to. That's part of the rule."

"Then why doesn't he ask you to?"

"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 then 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.

When I first read this book at the age of 20, of course I found it hysterically funny. But a 20 year old foolishly believes that he has ultimate control over his destiny, and this delusion prevented me from understanding just how damned profound this book actually is. Now that I'm a world-weary, middle-aged cynic, I realize that there are Catch 22s at work around me all the time.

For example:

1) You have to keep consuming to keep the economy alive. But if you keep consuming you won't have any savings. If you have no savings, this will mean that you have no disposable income to spend. And, if you have no disposable income to spend, this will seriously hurt the economy.

2) Republicans and Democrats are both responsible for the mess we are in and both parties have sold out to special interests. We should, therefore, vote for politicians running on some other party line to break up the monopoly that these parties have on the political process. But, if you "waste" your vote on a third-party candidate, you are all but ensuring that a candidate you really hate--who by coincidence will either be a Republican or a Democrat--is certain to get elected.

3) It is wrong for the Chinese to adopt a way of life that will cause harm to the planet. But the Chinese are simply adopting the American way of life that we continually argue should be the norm for every country. So every country should do what we do, but, if it did, the planet would die.

4) Of course, the members of Occupy Wall Street have the right to protest. This is America, after all, and Americans are guaranteed the right to freedom of speech and assembly by the United States Constitution. However, if protests are effective, then they create a public nuisance, and therefore must be stopped at all costs.

5) If faculty member X would just stop criticizing the administration and do his own thing, he would no longer be the object of retaliation. But, if faculty member X stops criticizing the administration and does his own thing, he can't be living up to his contractual obligations as a faculty member, and, therefore, has to be "corrected" (i.e., retaliated against)....Ok, this one is a bit personal, but it does seem to fit the theme, doesn't it?

What Joseph Heller understood is that capricious autocrats don't simply want compliance from those they seek to control. They have to break their wills as well. And the best way to do this is to increasingly remove any sort of freedom that individuals have -- especially the freedom to protest or dissent. If no matter what a person does the are going to suffer for it, eventually you have a situation in which people become so neurotic and insecure that simply in order to survive they turn into mindless cogs in the machinery of the bureaucracies in which they serve.

I've always known that Catch 22 was a wonderfully written novel, but only now do I grasp that it also provides a template for understanding the human condition in the 21st century. If you haven't read this book, I'd urge you to pick it up immediately. It may not help you to escape from the Catch 22s at work in your own life, but it will definitely make you realize that to be considered insane in a totally insane world is actually quite an amazing achievement.


  1. It's a fucking fabulous novel, and yr right--it says everything you need to know about human existence!!!

  2. Those are not the exact words that I'd use to describe Heller's book, but I agree with your sentiments totally. I'm glad to see that there are others out there who appreciate great works!