The circularity of Catch-22

Mini Anthikad Chhibber

The circularity of Catch-22
How Joseph Heller’s iconic anti-war book lent an eternal phrase to the lexicon BIBLIOGRAPHY It was love at first sight… for Yossarian and several readers including yours truly. Joseph Heller (1923-1999) thought of the opening lines of Cat...
How Joseph Heller’s iconic anti-war book lent an eternal phrase to the lexicon

It was love at first sight… for Yossarian and several readers including yours truly. Joseph Heller (1923-1999) thought of the opening lines of Catch-22 (1961) at home one fine morning in 1953. The violently anti-war novel has been consistently listed as one of the greatest novels of the 20th century.

To think a novel that lent a phrase to the lexicon, a novel that was at once so savagely satirical and heartbreakingly tragic, had such an everyday beginning, boggles the mind. Heller draws on his experiences as a 21-year-old B-25 bombardier in Italy during the Second World War, to tell the adventures of a 28-year-old bombardier, Captain Yossarian.

As part of the Army Air Corps stationed on the island of Pianosa, Yossarian’s attempts to get home safely are stymied by Catch-22. The circular argument meant only an insane person would agree to fly more missions in order to be grounded. However, asking to be grounded signifies a fear for one’s life, which is a product of a sane mind and hence fit to fly more missions. Like Yossarian, one can only whistle at the devious simplicity of it.

The circularity of Catch-22 is echoed in its structure, which for all its apparent chaotic haphazardness, is meticulously put together, with each pass of an event (reminiscent of the many bomb-runs made by Yossarian and company) uncovering more details from a different perspective.

The unfortunate Snowden who spilled his secret on the aircraft floor even as Yossarian helplessly tried to comfort him with what was finally an ineffectual “there, there” is foreshadowed right in the beginning of the book with Yossarian wondering where are the Snowdens of yesteryear helpfully translating the phrase into French.

The absurdity of war

The book, Heller’s debut, starts off lightly underlying the absurdity of war and military bureaucracy. Yossarian is in the hospital, being just short of jaundice and declaring war on all articles, street names or salutations in the letters he has to censor as Washington Irving or Irving Washington. Yossarian, like the rest of the ward, takes a hearty dislike for the well-meaning Texan and wonders why the Soldier in White needs to be the medium for the two bottles of liquid being pumped in and out of him!

Yossarian’s world is filled with quirky characters from his tent mate, the “evil-eyed mechanically-aptituded” Orr who walked around with crab apples in his mouth to Appleby who cannot see too well because of the flies in his eyes. There is McWatt with his catchphrase “oh well what the hell” as he makes dangerously low passes, Harvard man Clevinger “with lots of education and zero brains”, Chief White Halfoat, whose family is a human divining rod for oil companies, the traumatised Hungry Joe whose nightmares only stop when the number of missions are increased, the unfortunately named Major Major Major Major and the commercially astute Milo Minderbender.

The book has sections going back in time to Yossarian’s training, the Great Big Siege of Bologna and the growth of Milo’s financial empire, whose crowning achievement is bombing the airstrip at Pianosa because he gets a better deal from the enemy.

The final segment of the book returns to 1944 but is much darker, with the spilling of Snowden’s secret, and the death of most of Yossarian’s friends and comrades. His surreal walk through a bombed-out Rome in the ironically-named chapter, The Eternal City, is an uneasy cavalcade of haunting images.

Heller’s other works

Heller set the novel during WWII and has been quoted as saying Catch-22 was a criticism of the 1950s — the Korean War and burgeoning commercialism. He included anachronistic details in the novel such as a malfunctioning IBM computer that shanghaied a zoologist into the war effort. Catch-22 was wholeheartedly embraced by the flower power generation as a damning indictment of the Vietnam War.

Heller followed up Catch-22 with Something Happened (1974), which drew on his ad agency days, Good as Gold (1979) about failed writer Julius Gold who has a chance at politics, God Knows (1984) about King David’s difficult relationship with God, Picture This (1988) a magic swirling trip through history and the art world on the back of Rembrandt’s painting Aristotle Contemplating a Bust of Homer and his final book, Portrait of an Artist, as an Old Man, published after his death due to a heart attack in 1999.

Heller also wrote a sequel to Catch-22, Closing Time (1994), which deals with a 68-year-old Yossarian going strong on his mission of living forever or die trying. Milo is up to his usual tricks including selling a stealth aircraft to the government that is so secret that it is invisible! There is also the tail gunner Sammy Singer who kept fainting in the airplane as Snowden lay whimpering on the floor about being cold.

Sixty years on, Yossarian’s take on the horror and absurdity of war, strikes a chord with another Snowden spilling secrets and the order to play the National Anthem in theatres reminiscent of the Glorious Loyalty Oath Crusade, which Major _ De Coverley put a stop with the roar of “Gimme eat!”

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