Catch-22: Analysis

Warning: spoilers and politics.

When describing the prose and plot of Catch-22, it’s nearly impossible to avoid the word “circular.” Circular writing, circular reasoning, circular logic. Things are because they are because they are.

At first I though Heller was just using this style for humorous effect, much as my grandfather’s letter did. But, reading on, it became clear that recursion was more than just a gimmick, it was the central theme of the novel.

And so the titular Catch-22, which states that you can only get discharge from the military if you are insane, but the mere act of asking for a discharge proves your sanity (after all, what sane man wouldn’t want to get out of war?). And so Colonel Cathcart, a terrible leader because he spends so much of his time angling to get mentioned in The Saturday Evening Post as a great leader. And so Milo, who runs a syndicate, in which “everyone has a share,” that mostly consists of his using the money of the syndicate’s members to buy foodstuffs and then selling them to the members at a profit. Parts of the novel reminded me of nothing so much as that party trick, where a dozen people stand in a circle and then everyone simultaneously sits on the knees of the person behind them. Everyone is propped up by everyone else, just the events in Catch-22 all lent support to each other even though none would be able to stand on it’s own.

At a deeper level, all this highlights the cyclic nature of war. Once a nation marches down the path to conflict, it almost inevitably finds itself locked into a positive feedback loop, with every event–good or bad–only amplifying the case for further aggression. Retaliation begets retaliation begets retaliation; a stronger power oppresses a weaker one for so long that they dare not stop, knowing that the aggrieved, given the chance, would rise up in (justifiable) anger.

To see war’s perverse ability to self-perpetuate, you need look no further than the Israel / Palestine conflict. Or this Tom Toles cartoon.

Driving home from work today, I heard an NPR piece on an upcoming supreme court case about Guantanamo Bay. Honestly, this story could have been written by Heller himself. David Rivkin, a lawyer who worked for the first President Bush, described the prison as “a gigantic al-Qaida training cell.” In other words, even those who who were wrongly detained, and originally harbored no ill-will toward the US, might join the terrorists when released. Second, as detainee lawyer David Remes puts it, “one of the cruel ironies of the whole Guantanamo situation [is that] we bring them to Guantanamo, we call them dangerous terrorists, we call them the worst of the worst, and then we expect their home countries to take them back.” Were we to throw open the gates, these guys would have nowhere to do. And so, the very problems that Guantanamo are logically cited as reasons to keep it running. And justifiably so, as they are perfectly logical–just as it would is perfectly logical for those who were mistakenly put into Guantanamo to now hate the nation that put them there. Round and round we go.

* * *

At first I wasn’t sure what to make of the ending. Yossarian is given the opportunity to go home, provided that he “like” his superior officers. It’s the chance he’s been waiting the whole book for. And yet, in the end, he declines, and instead deserts, heading off to Sweden. What’s the point? It’s dereliction of duty either way–why wouldn’t he take the route that wouldn’t get him in trouble?

But it’s the very illogic of his decision that makes it significant. Like Alexander slicing the Gordian Knot, it’s as if Yossarian realized that the only solution to the problem of Catch-22 was to sidestep it entirely. To accept Colonel Korn & Cathcart’s bargain would is to remain in the feedback loop; the only escape is to gather enough momentum to get flung free of the cycle entirely. And so he–of all the soldiers in the novel–opts to abandon rationality and free himself from the hamster wheel of war.

* * *

Good book. I enjoyed it, but will strive to complete the novel in two weeks or less in the future if I ever opt for a reread. I’m a little unsure as it’s status as one of the “Great Novels”–I’d recommend it, to be sure, but don’t know if I’d rate it up there with, say, 1984. I’ve certainly read some contemporary books that I thought were superior, such as The Hours (just to pluck one out of the hat). And I wouldn’t have complained if Heller had excised 100 pages out of there, somewhere–seems like it could have been done without too much difficulty.

* * *

13 comments.

  1. Excellent analysis, though it never does me any good to be reminded of the unbelievable absurdity of the current US administration. Though I guess now I can expand my criticisms of Bush/Cheney to include “Hellerian” as well as “Orwellian”.

    Unfortunately, it also makes me feel like there’s something distinctly missing in a book-club-on-the-blogs. I’d have loved to hear your analysis in a group that could respond and expand. Reading/posting comments doesn’t really seem to do it for me. I suppose this might even make me think there are some things that work better offline.

    Naw.

  2. Excellent analysis, though it never does me any good to be reminded of the unbelievable absurdity of the current US administration. Though I guess now I can expand my criticisms of Bush/Cheney to include “Hellerian” as well as “Orwellian”.

    Unfortunately, it also makes me feel like there’s something distinctly missing in a book-club-on-the-blogs. I’d have loved to hear your analysis in a group that could respond and expand. Reading/posting comments doesn’t really seem to do it for me. I suppose this might even make me think there are some things that work better offline.

    Naw.

  3. Excellent analysis, though it never does me any good to be reminded of the unbelievable absurdity of the current US administration. Though I guess now I can expand my criticisms of Bush/Cheney to include “Hellerian” as well as “Orwellian”.

    Unfortunately, it also makes me feel like there’s something distinctly missing in a book-club-on-the-blogs. I’d have loved to hear your analysis in a group that could respond and expand. Reading/posting comments doesn’t really seem to do it for me. I suppose this might even make me think there are some things that work better offline.

    Naw.

  4. I guess Dug beat me to the circularity/repetition joke.
    I think this book was far superior to 1984, which I never liked.
    I would not remove a single sentence.

  5. I managed to complete the book ahead of schedule, which is a real feather in my cap!

    But then my comment here lacks the depth of analysis of the post above so that’s a black eye.

  6. I loved 1984. Catch 22, not so much.

    I got a call yesterday that the movie is in at the library for pick-up. I know, I know, Junior warned me but I can’t not watch it now.

  7. There is a wonderful protest song (what happended to those?) by the incomparable Divine Comedy here – http://youtube.com/watch?v=TPTowHCETgg or just enter keywords ‘divine comedy guantanamo’.

    Imagine this one actually being released? I cant personally.

  8. Although I didn’t read along, as I read the book two months ago, I enjoyed following your progress through it and comments on it.

  9. heathersway, for what it’s worth, I really enjoyed the movie. Lot of great actors in it as well. Just wish I had finished reading the book before watching the movie since the sequence of events is changed slightly.

  10. hurry up and finish the book already. i hate catch 22, but love your blog and want things to get back to ‘normal’ (whatever that means)

  11. Bah. I feel like I have been duped–everyone kept saying in the comments here that we should persevere to the end–all would become clear and a plot would eventually emerge. But the ending fizzles out and I’m just left feeling weary and unfulfilled after reading hundreds of pages about insane people acting incredibly badly. I think the point that “war is hell” could have been made more clearly in fewer pages.

  12. I just finished reading “Catch 22″ again, having started a bit later than this group. I’ve read it twice before. It is a frustrating work, coming back to the same events from slightly different perspectives and never quite resolving some plot points. (Just why was Nately’s whore so mad at Yossarian anyway?)

    Still, there are scenes and moods/situations from the novel that have stuck with me over the years, more so than with many other books. Yossarian and Dunbar in the hospital; McWatt buzzing the raft a bit too low; Orr’s obtuseness and our new perspective of him by the end; Snowden; Yossarian’s troubles with Nately’s whole; Milo’s odd business model; etc. The novel’s a mess, but it’s hard to forget.

  13. Ha, only a month later and I’m done! Great book, despite of the fact that some other ones are “more interesting”. Certain elements (quotes, situations, attitudes) I recognized along the way as archetypical, or, in other words, as part of the cultural background that is simply there. Some other things I will have with me from now on (read: they became the cultural background). That’s the difference between a great book and an interesting book: the great book is important, it’s a landmark in one’s perspective, it changes the reader. This one is most certainly a great book (as well as 1984, although I don’t understand why people compare the two).

    Thanks for your posts, they are, as usual, top notch. I wonder what’s gonna be the next book. Not Ulisses I hope… Maybe Iliad instead? and Odyssey thrown in for good measure?