Epic of extreme absurdity
Catch-22 n. a difficult situation from which there is no escape because it involves conditions which conflict with each other. Origin, the title of a novel by Joseph Heller
Compact Oxford Reference Dictionary
SO, once again war looms. But when you come to think of it, war is a subject that is continuous in human history; in fact, the history of the world, in a sense, is a history of war. Because of its constant refrain and also because the novel became more and more concerned with the inward psychological development to explore "human nature" that was revealed under extreme conditions of war, a fairly large corpus of war literature drawn from personal experiences has been built up between the two world wars. And all the books have one quality in common: each is the witness of a single, separate consciousness, one tense young man in the whirl and muddle of war. The stories they tell are small-scale a man doesn't see much looking down a gun barrel and the reality they render is particular and physical. They have nothing to say about strategy or about why men fight, only about how they fight, and where, and how they die. They make war vivid, but they don't make it familiar; indeed their motive for writing seems to be to record how unfamiliar war is, how grotesque and absurd its ordinary scenes are.
If Ernest Hemingway's A Farewell to Arms and Erich Remarque's All Quiet on the Western Front were the decisive novels to emerge from the First World War, it was Joseph Heller's Catch-22 that captured for its generation the ironic and bitter implications of World War II. Drawing on his experiences as a bombardier during the War, the novel is set among flyers on the Italian front. It is an epic of extreme absurdity; the military machine is shown up as a system of illogical orders as is the disaster that is being created for humanity. Basically, it is a work of black humour, a great modern comic classic that could be applied to contemporary America as it developed ever more absurd systems of human management and new forms of Cold War fever.
But Catch-22 is not a war book in the ordinary sense of the word.
A Farewell to Arms and All Quiet on the Western Front confined their horrors to the physical, to the terror of the trenches so that it was even possible to think of such physical terrors as an escape for some time from the burden of thought and mental pain. Heller turned the screw. In Catch-22 there is no escape from the private life, the absurdity of it all. The story, or stories, is told by the main protagonist, Yossarian and several others in the hard-boiled mode who are "crazy", had seen and experienced enough, and wanted "to get the hell out", or simply to "get grounded." But that isn't that simple as this key passage tells you about how rules are framed and interpreted:
"... .but Doc Daneeka didn't laugh until Yossarian came to him one mission later and pleaded again, without any expectation of success, to be grounded. Doc Daneeka snickered once and was soon immersed in problems of his own which included Chief White Halfoat who had been challenging him all that morning to Indian wrestle, and Yossarian, who decided right then and there to go crazy.
"You are wasting your time," Doc Daneeka was forced to tell him.
"Can't 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? Whare is Clevinger? You find Clevinger and I'll ask him."
"Then ask any of the others. They'll tell you how crazy I am."
"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 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 replied.
"Can you ground him?"
"I sure can. But first he has to ask me. 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."
"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 to 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 the 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.
What does this all mean? The mind trying to catch its own tail? Or a parody of Kafka's Trial where "someone must have been telling lies about Joseph K., for without having done anything wrong he was arrested one fine morning?" Or simply that war is crazy and every one playing stupid war games, sooner or later, go crazy themselves? Quite obviously, war isn't a picnic party. It is a world turned upside down where foul is fair and fair is foul. Look at the Italians who are at the receiving end of all the bombardment. They are not too perturbed and don't put much stock in winning wars.
"The real trick lies in losing wars, in knowing which wars can be lost.
Italy has been losing wars for centuries, and just see how splendidly we've done nonetheless. France wins wars and is in a continual state of crisis. Germany loses and prospers. Look at our recent history. Italy won a war in Ethiopia and promptly stumbled into serious trouble.
Victory gave us such insane delusions of grandeur that we helped start a world war we hadn't a chance of winning. But now that we are losing again, everything has taken a turn for the better and we will certainly come out on top again if we succeed in being defeated.
Nately gaped at him in undisguised befuddlement. "Now I really don't understand what you're saying. You talk like a madman."
"But I live like a sane one. I was a fascist when Mussolini was on top, and I am anti-fascist now that he has been deposed. I was fanatically pro-German when the Germans were here to protect us against the Americans, and now that the Americans are here to protect us against the Germans I am fanatically pro-American... .When the Germans marched into the city, I danced in the streets like a ballerina and shouted `Heil Hitler!'... When the Germans left the city, I rushed out to welcome the Americans with a bottle of excellent brandy and a basket of flowers. The brandy was for myself, of course, and the flowers were to sprinkle upon our liberators... ".
For all the big talk about patriotism, it really boils down to the survival of the fittest, each man for himself, the devil take the hindmost. Yossarian sees the absurdity of it all in the end. "I've flown seventy goddam combat missions. Don't talk to me about saving my country. I've been fighting all along to save my country. Now I'm going to fight a little to save myself. The country's not in danger any more, but I am."
"The war's not over yet. The Germans are driving toward Antwerp."
"The Germans will be beaten in a few months. And Japan will be beaten a few months after that. If I were to give up my life now, it wouldn't be for my country. It would be for Cathcart and Korn. So I'm turning my bombsight in for the duration. From now on I'm thinking only of me."
In Catch-22 we are taken to the limits of what war does to ordinary human beings. Indeed, everything in this novel is, in the true sense, essential. It states the problem of the absurd in its entirety.
Catch-22, Joseph Heller, first published 1961, Vintage paperback, £3.15
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