Catch 22

Catch 22 by Joseph Heller has been an enormously influential book for my understanding, enjoyment and appreciation of the postmodern novel. Its use of temporal distortion, satire and black humour are cleverly used to highlight Heller??™s purpose which is to protest the modern social order. It is this temporal distortion and excessive use of repetition which has caused my interest in the development of postmodern techniques and ideas to be engaged.
Critics of the text argue that it is apparently formless. Norman Mailer has said that ???one could take one hundred pages from the middle of Catch 22 and not even the author would be certain they were gone.??™ Heller of course defends this apparent lack of structure claiming it to be ???constructed almost meticulously??™: he has deliberately given the book an appearance of formlessness in order to best get his ideas across. The apparent chaos of the repetitions and temporal distortions reflect the lack of communication and the failure of the modern bureaucratic state to take moral responsibility for its collective actions ??“ the result of which is injustice, hypocrisy and a nightmarish brutality and loss of individuality.
When the novel opens and Yossarian is in hospital, all the important raids have actually occurred ??“ Ferrara, Orvieto, Bologna and Avignon. This means that Yossarian has already flown over the bridge at Ferrara twice; that Milo Minderbinder has already established M &M Enterprises; that Snowden has already died over Avignon and that Yossarian has already stood naked in formation to receive a medal for his heroism at Ferrara. These episodes are relayed through the technique of temporal distortion: in a jumbled series of flashbacks we are given glimpses of past events in an absurdly funny manner. The satirical tone with which bizarre incidents are first related in the novel are hilarious: the CID attempts to locate Washington Irving, Major Major??™s use of disguise to be accepted and his refusal to meet with any of the men, the continual upping of the number of missions to be flown, the in-fighting between Generals Peckem and Dreedle resulting in the brainless Scheisskopf??™s promotion ??“ all expose our compliance and acceptance of this bureaucratic system. We laugh at what is occurring appreciating Heller??™s cynicism of the system and those who run it but without seriously questioning the effect this system has on the individual.
However, when the flashbacks begin to be repeated in more and more detail the grotesque blackness of the humour starts to become more pronounced and we begin to feel uncomfortable with the casualness with which we originally laughed. Catch 22 darkens as the novel progresses but the darker incidents are in fact the same as the earlier lighter ones. The effect of this pastiche of repetitions is to cause us to re-evaluate the incident and make a judgement about what has occurred. This is obviously what Heller intends. An example of this involves the soldier in white. At the beginning of the novel the soldier in white dies but his death is surrounded by very comic occurrences: Yossarian??™s espousal of love for the Chaplain, soldiers feigning illness to not go on missions and the Texan??™s extremist political views and patriotism. When the soldier in white re-appears to die again in Chapter 17 there is a much more philosophical assessment of his predicament: the soldier in white essentially becomes a symbol of all the civilians who have been dragged into this war and who lose their identity and life in a bureaucratic operation over which they have no say. When the soldier in white re-appears in Chapter 34 there is no humour at all: he has become more than a symbol ??“ he is a dark omen of all those who stay in this war ??“ an empty man who is fed his own waste. Dunbar realises this, screaming that ???the case is empty??™; he can no longer ignore what is going on so the hospital orderlies who themselves seem to have become more brutal, ???disappear??™ him.
A similar repetition to the soldier in white is the death of Snowden. Yossarian asks in a humorous tone at an educational lecture at the beginning of the novel ???where are the Snowden??™s of yesteryear??™ Even when we first learn that Snowden is injured during the Avignon raid we are unsure that he is dying. Snowden dies all through the text ??“ possibly 9 or 10 times – in increasing degrees of blackness until the ultimate horror where he ???spills his grim secret all over the messy floor??™ without any morphine.
Another important repetition is of course the phrase ???Catch 22??™ itself. The regulation is introduced to us very early in the text: ???Catch 22 required that each censored letter bear the censoring officer??™s name??™ ??“ a seemingly harmless piece of officialdom. Other references to Catch 22 follow in different contexts but they are all really variants on a theme: Doc Daneeka explains that ???anyone who wants to get out of combat duty isn??™t really crazy??™; he further elaborates ???Catch 22 says you??™ve always got to do what your commanding officer tells you to??™ ??“ even if that Commanding officer is Scheisskopf; Major Major must be a communist because he hasn??™t signed the Loyalty Oath but he is not given the opportunity by Captain Black to sign it. These Catch 22s are humorous but get progressively blacker until we get the last Catch 22 from the old woman outside the brothel in Rome: the officials ???have a right to do anything we can??™t stop them from doing.??™ Catch 22 means whatever those in authority or power want it to mean. Yossarian realises then that the Catch 22 law is merely an instrument of the strong to use against the weak, of the military to force soldiers to do whatever they want for whatever purposes.
It is after this that Yossarian decides to desert. He now finds the bureaucratic immorality of Catch 22 completely unacceptable: he can no longer good humouredly tolerate Milo??™s business transactions, nor can he accept General Cathcart??™s offer to be sent home as a live war hero. Instead he decides to be a moral example to the other men. He finally rejects his own belief that he can do nothing about the madness and the world of Pianosa: he can desert and cease to be part of that world ??“ he doesn??™t have to play by other people??™s rules, he can ???have the courage to defy??™.
Heller??™s ability to juxtapose the humorous with the disastrous causes us to laugh but then re-evaluate what we are laughing at. Satire, black humour, temporal distortion and the use of repetition allows this to successfully occur not only for Yossarian but also for us the reader. After initially laughing at, tolerating and even being complicit with the bureaucracy presented to us we are forced to reflect that the funny is really not so funny and that modern society can in fact be crippling rather than empowering. The novel Catch 22 has been very inspirational to me and given me insights into new techniques with which to explore my own postmodernist writing and an enthusiasm to read more postmodern texts.