What do you get when you mix the surreal, atmospheric absurdism of Kafka’s best known works with the darkly comedic anti-war satire of Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse-Five? I would say that you get something very close to a book published about 40 years after Kafka’s death, and about 10 years before the publication of Vonnegut’s novel: Catch-22 by Joseph Heller.
I would make it no secret that Catch-22 is one of my personal favorite novels. It is a novel that represents a masterclass in the modernist and postmodernist technique of melding high culture and low culture, as well as tragedy and comedy. This article explores the dominant philosophy and masterful presentation of Heller’s most successful novel.
The nature of this article is such that it requires spoiling basic plot details of Catch-22, so you should only continue reading after this paragraph if you either do not mind spoilers or have already read the book.
Heller focuses Catch-22 on the absurdity of war and the bureaucratic and economic presence therein; war is portrayed as a thing of unnecessary risk to human life for ridiculous reasons. Through details such as the eponymous phantom protocol catch-22 and the death-in-writing of Doc Daneeka, it becomes clear that bureaucracy is valued beyond all reasonable use in war. And through several of the book’s subplots, notably that concerning Milo Minderbinder’s war profiteering, it becomes clear that economic success far outweighs ethical or patriotic motivation to engage in war. Indeed, this is an account of World War II in Europe with such an emphasis on perverse motivations for fighting that it features no German soldiers except for a group of pilots hired by Milo.
The main focus of Catch-22, Captain John Yossarian, begins the war fairly confident in his actions. His boldness results in the death of others as well as in his being awarded the medal of honor. His mental state begins declining, however, after he watches helplessly while a man on one of his planes, Snowden, bleeds out graphically due to a gaping wound in his mid-section.
Thereafter, Yossarian concludes that he must somehow either stop flying missions or leave the war entirely. The two main factors working against him in this hope are Colonel Cathcart and catch-22. Every time Yossarian nears the number of missions required to be sent home, Cathcart decides that it would look good to his superiors to increase that number by five or ten. The only other viable means of escape would be medical grounding, but with injuries and illnesses such grounding is only temporary, and with psychological problems one runs into catch-22. At this time, catch-22 is explained as a questionable protocol which states that asking to be grounded due to insanity indicates that one is of their right mind and not to be grounded.
The idea of the protocol catch-22 becomes fuzzier and fuzzier as the book progresses, until its authority is more felt than believed. The phrase has become ingrained in our society, and even if it has been diluted to mean any intractable situation, its roots in tangled inhuman bureaucracy are as relevant as ever. The adaptable protocol of catch-22 is a potent symbol for bureaucratic procedures; its power may not be real, but it can exercise fake power just as effectively as real power as long as that power is believed in.
Yossarian becomes progressively more despairing of his situation and resorts to falsifying a ‘bomb line’ and faking technical difficulties to avoid a particularly dangerous run to a target called Bologna. His fears and paranoia only worsen as he must contend with the many other characters present. All of them affect him negatively; some of them do so by directly worsening his condition (Colonel Cathcart, Captain Black, Major Major Major Major), some by showing total disregard for human life (Milo Minderbinder, Captain Aardvark, Havermayer), some by vanishing under mysterious circumstances (Clevinger, Dunbar, Orr), and some by simply dying (Snowden, Mudd, Nately, Dobbs, Hungry Joe, Kid Sampson, McWatt).
As the novel nears an end, the tone darkens dramatically with a chapter about Yossarian walking through a ruined Rome and witnessing a number of atrocities which he is unable to prevent, including an obvious allusion to one of Raskolnikov’s dreams in Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment. At last he returns to the room of the enlisted men, where Aarfy has raped and murdered a maid. The authorities arrive and arrest Yossarian for being in Rome without authorization, not even looking at Aarfy.
The maid, Michaela, who exists only in the scene wherein she is raped and murdered by Aarfy, stands in for purity and innocence in the ruined city. The calloused architects of war have made a mockery of and destroyed these concepts with impunity, just as Aarfy has done to the virgin.
Yossarian decides that he will never fly another mission, no matter the repercussions. Cathcart and Black see the rebellious effect that this is having on the other men and offer Yossarian an out. If he will agree to pretend that he is their friend, they will discharge him. He agrees, but is immediately hospitalized after being stabbed by a prostitute. In the hospital, Yossarian learns that Cathcart and Black have claimed that he sustained the injury in their defense. He also learns that Orr did not disappear, in fact, but escaped in a life raft to Sweden. Yossarian is suddenly struck with the notion that he too must go AWOL and make for Sweden, so he sets off.
Despite the severe seriousness of many of Catch-22’s thematic elements, Heller packs his satire with humor; often this humor stems from circular dialogue and circular logic, while at other times it stems from the perversion of lines from great works of literature—messing with Eliot, Shakespeare, and others. Twisted syntax is also a large part of Heller’s style; he exploits it to juxtapose seemingly contradictory sentiments for emphasis or mockery. The transitions between almost unrelated events is similarly formatted, with free association tying together nonlinear events as well as chapters.
The overall effect of Catch-22‘s narrative, told non-chronologically via free association and veering from densely packed comedy into dark and serious tragedy, is that the reader smiles with a pit in their stomach. The joy is tinged oddly by the sadness, which makes the mechanized and economically motivated conflict seem that much more unnatural. Unlike in Voltaire’s Candide (where the tragedy is always excessive, and played for laughs), the height of Catch-22‘s comedy brutally emphasizes the depth and realism of the horror, all while infusing that horror with the absurdity of the Kafkaesque justifications from which it arises.
Catch-22 is Joseph Heller’s masterpiece, and it is a work which can as easily make you laugh as make you recoil; it’s as humorously stern as Kafka, and as sternly humorous as Vonnegut. Some people I’ve encountered in my work with literature have been dismissive of any book with a sense of humor, but with the editorial board of Modern Library ranking Catch-22 number seven on their list of the greatest English language novels of the twentieth century, this is one work that I don’t have to spend any time defending.
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