Catch 22

Joseph Heller

This 20th Century 1961 classic-fictional account of WWII up close will always be timely, because it deals with a universally timeless subject: war. It was written by Joseph Heller, a Jewish-American born in Brooklyn, a bombardier in WWII (who flew over 60 missions), a Fulbright scholar at Oxford, and a sometimes English teacher (at Yale and other universities) and writer of short stories, and, later, the author of Catch 22, which took him a decade to complete. Although not published until 1961, Catch 22 froze WWII in time immemorially. A satire on the absurdity of war that unveiled the zeitgeist of a world awash in a war, it gave us an encyclopaedia of the mental atmosphere of that era and an introspection of the horror of battle and its evisceration of the minds of soldiers. This frightening commentary on the unspeakable mental horrors of war, it demands to be read by all, in the hopes that common sense and sanity will someday lead mankind away from war to peace. To understand war and its myriad efficacies, read this Must Read.

Catch 22 didn’t deal with the struggle against the enemy, but, rather, with introspection of the human-mind to rival Dostoyevsky, it dealt with the individual’s struggle against conformity and death. It proved, if proof were needed, that wars are senseless farces that never end (as new ones are forever tacked onto the last one), that simply plumb new depths of barbarism, the nadir of which, in the case of WWII, was the Holocaust. Catch presents a vivid, moving, satirical energy, a distinctive rage, a pained moral aspiration. It confronts the eternal issue of government’s conscription of their hapless citizens and sending them into battle, to die to sustain the military-industrial-governmental combine that feeds off endless conflicts – as Eisenhower forewarned. Heller proves what most mothers know: Wars are the symbol of absurdity, the dark force creating tragedies that become the central theme of all ages; politicians support wars, as their power and donations increase, and few voters will “change horses in the middle of a stream”, to recall a cliché.

So, what’s “the catch”? The term “catch 22” emanates from a bureaucratic absurdity: Air Force Rule 22, which stated that, to be exempted from combat, one had to be insane; however, to apply for that exemption, one had to be sufficiently sane to know that one was insane -- a “catch” that precluded anyone from taking advantage of Rule 22.

The plot of Catch revolves around a WWII bomber squadron in the Italian Theatre, and may present the most unforgettable image of warfare in all of literature. All of it is seen through the pained eyes of the terrified Yossarian, who revolted from his conscription in endless ways, some pathetic, desperate attempts to avoid his certain death, and other tragically comic, farcical tactics to avoid battle. After flying 70 some missions, he defeats Rule 22 in the only way that he can: desertion. The question, “Who is Yossarian,” recalls the question that a critic once put to Flaubert, “Who is Madame. Bovary”, to which Flaubert replied, “She is me!” So, too, is Yossarian “me” and “everyman”, the “Arjuna” from the beloved Hindu-scripture. Bhagavad Gita.

Dostoyevsky had to be Heller’s template, as he raised such deeply disturbing issues: ruminations on the eternal paradoxes and enigmas of life and death, of being and nothingness, and it plaintively and unabashedly laments the seeming absence of divine intention, oversight or historical destiny to our planet and universe, other than the caprice of gravity, black holes and endless other universal, entropic forces.

A larger “catch 22” thus emerged: the “catch” is all of war, the universe, and life, itself.

Critics (i.e., “pro-war patriots”) panned Catch as full of sour jokes, dirty words, loose construction, dark satire, an archaic and mocking, “gallows humour”. Wrong! Yes, he had abundant “soldier talk” and street-slang of the 1940’s. but it also gives us gripping, epithetical prose that exposes war from the inside out and the humour in military folly; it forces us to laugh out loud on one page and cry on the next. Indeed, the chapter on “the soldier who sees everything twice” gives us literary comedy of the highest order.

Being anti-war, hence anti-government, it never made a best seller list or won an award, but it has become a cult favourite, selling over 20M copies by 2000; and, as long as wars persist, Catch will be timely, the book by which wars are judged, a subliminal call for pacifism, conscientious objection, rejection of military conscription -- and in the classic section of most book stores. If you would understand war, you must read this masterpiece.