Thursday, April 01, 2010

Catch-22


Catch-22 by Joseph Heller
"It was love at first sight." The opening line of Catch-22 does not deal with traditional love but the relief of a momentary reprieve from the insanity of war in a hospital bed. Joseph Heller's main character Bombadier Yossarian's love is really relief, relief at being relatively safe in a military hospital in western Italy during WWII.

At the crowded hospital in Pianosa, Yossarian is temporarily no longer running dive-bomb missions over the murderous flak-filled skies of war-torn Europe. After flying 44 missions, and eluding death time after time, Yossarian believes that his number will very shortly, be up. His state of mind decays as he is surrounded by the dead and dying. This mentality is reflected on pages 170-171:

"There were too many dangers for Yossarian to keep track of... There were lymph glands that might do him in. There were kidneys, nerve sheaths and corpuscles. There were tumors of the brain. There was Hodgkins disease, leukemia, amyotrophic lateral sclerosis. There were fertile red meadows of epithelial tissue to catch and coddle a cancer cell. There were diseases of the skin, diseases of the bone, diseases of the neck, diseases of the chest, diseases of the crotch. There were even diseases of the feet. There were billions of conscientious body cells oxidating day and night like dumb animals at their complicated job of keeping him alive and healthy, and everyone was a potential traitor or foe. There were so many diseases it took a truly diseased mind to even think about them..."

The book's title and premise, Catch-22, is a term defined a number of ways by many men in the course of Joseph Heller's seminal book from 1955. Each time, Catch-22 is referred to as an irrational policy for legalized craziness - a way to make sure that no combat pilot can be grounded for being crazy - especially when they are crazy.

A fellow airman, suffering from Post-Traumatic Stress, is described as "babbling incoherently when they fished him out of the dank bottom of the slit trench, babbling of snakes, rats and spiders. The others flashed their searchlights down just to make sure. There was nothing inside but a few inches of stagnant rain water." Following the hallucinations and panic attack, the airman, absurdly named Hungry Joe, is almost immediately re-assigned air combat duty by his superiors.


Bombadier Yossarian at his combat station in the film adaptation.


Heller's own experiences as a B-52 bombadier relate with a painfull, crisp clarity the effects of war on the male psyche. From crisises to women to death all made more crucial in wartime, Heller addresses each subject with clinically detached scorn. Heller relates the full story of Bombadier Yossarian's air squadron yet never loses the biting edge of cynical disregard for warmongers on each side of WWII.

Heller presents War as institutionalized insanity - a world at war being enough to drive anyone who lives in it completely crazy. Bombadier Yossarian, although high-strung and violent, is the lone sane man in a world gone completely crazy with war. The only place Yossarian feels safe at is a military hospital in western Italy. At this hospital, Yossarian is surrounded by war-jangled men who've come down with sudden cases of sanity in the face of a fiery death. They each argue the meaning of Catch-22 while trying to find a way to survive the war.

These men begin to act as crazy and incompetent as their commanding officers after running dozens of combat missions over Europe. Some are genuinely suffering from Post-Traumatic Stress but all of them will return to flight duty. According to one man's definition of Catch-22: "Anyone who wants to get out of combat duty is not really crazy." (Doc Daneeka's definition appears on pg.54).

The grim reality of turning men into sketchy, rattled headcases unfolds as good but luckless men die within Yossarian's shattered view as per airman Kraft who dies in his second hour of active combat service:

"Kraft was a skinny, harmless kid from Pennsylvania who only wanted to be liked, and was destined to be disappointed in even so humble and degrading ambition. Instead of being liked he was dead, a bleeding cinder..."

This kind of re-occurring anonymous death becomes a daily event. In time, it only registers with a sick thump in the stomach.

Much as has written about Heller's masterpiece with varying degrees of accuracy. This Blob believes that this book is on the level with a long-form Kurt Vonnegut book (Slaughterhouse Five minus the sci-fi elements). However, Catch-22 is not just a toungue-in-cheek parody - it's a tragedy. The tragedy is made more real because it's based in the reality of blind bureaucracy driving human cattle to their inevitable doom.



References:
Wikipedia, Catch-22
Wikipedia, Catch-22 Logic

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