December 3rd, 2007
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.