Catch 22: What does it mean?
A Christmas television programme several years back was a documentary of events on Christmas Eve 1944, the last Christmas of World War II. It recounted, among other stories, the bombing of a small village in northern Germany which, until then, had been almost untouched by the war. The story was told by three now elderly offspring of a prosperous farmer, children at the time, whose house was demolished in the air raid. They had survived by sheltering in the root cellar, but a refugee family of mother and two children who shared their house all died in the bombing. The survivors mourned them still, and wondered at the senselessness of the bombing of a tiny community, of no importance in the war. It was then revealed that the bombs, dropped by American planes, had been intended for a strategic target further on.
It was only a few days after seeing this documentary that I began re-reading Catch 22 after an interval of more than forty years, and was brought up hard by its “anti-war” hero’s boast that he no longer cared where he dropped his bombs, his one objective being to avoid being shot at. This juxtaposition, serendipitous or unfortunate, sounded a warning knell and cast a sinister pall over what has been readily accepted as a light-hearted comedy of the absurd, with the serious substratum of an anti-war message. Yossarian’s manic rejection of the obligations forced on him by war service now had attached to it, in my reading, its long repercussions for his unknown “others”.
Catch 22, like Lolita, was one of a clutch of morally transforming books of the 1960s. It both expressed and sustained what became the anti-war and anti-bureaucracy philosophy of the “flower people” and the anti-Vietnam War protesters, and of sixties and seventies youth generally. Yossarian’s, the anti-hero’s, position, for most of the novel, is in marked contrast to that of most earlier heroes of fact or fiction, and was well-suited to the developing ethos of the “me-generation”. Blatantly stated, it elevates personal survival – self-interest at its most basic and therefore most telling and forgivable level – above obligations to others, either as individuals or as society in general. The book was fed to Australian teenagers as high school curriculum for several decades, and scored (probably as a result) as one of “Australia’s 10 favourite books” in an ABC survey (more accurately, the 10 favourite among the ABC’s left-leaning intelligentsia). It is unlikely that Yossarian’s views have been presented to the book’s youthful readers across the years as, arguably, those of a mind collapsed under stress.
In a dispassionate reading, Catch 22 could, for much of its course, be a psychological examination of shell-shock – its causes and symptoms; sympathetic, but not a document of moral approbation and argument for the greater sanity and social worth of Yossarian’s mental and moral characteristics. Understanding and sympathy for the condition of shell-shock was already achieved as a result of World War I, so the book is not pioneering in this respect, but it is exceptional as an anatomy of the condition, and as an exposition of the difficulty, in administrative terms, of distinguishing between innate and pathological cowardice. In this view, its plan is a slow revelation, by the clever manipulation of time sequence, of its aetiology in one man, Yossarian. The novel’s method or argument is, with some justification, to treat his shocked state of mind as sane and normal, and that of the unshocked as mad and irrational. Sixties readers, who understood the novel as an anti-war dissertation, with a moral stance that justified to the point of admiration what traditionally would be considered cowardice, even criminal cowardice, did not notice the hesitations Hellyer maintains with regard to Yossarian’s shell-shocked world vision, and their interpretation of the author’s intentions cannot really be sustained.
The moral justification for putting personal good above social good is explicitly argued, from time to time, between Yossarian and others of his company, but in contrast to most literature in the modern Western, and therefore Christian, tradition, sense and sanity as background to the argument are placed on the side of self-interest, as against the common good or social project, and this placement is made plausible by painting the social world as both vicious and absurd. Other writers, of course, have taken this line – the Marquis de Sade, for instance, whose philosophy influenced the infamous Moors murderers in 1960s Britain, Nietsche whose conception of the Superman was used to justify fascism, while Richard Dawkins of The Selfish Gene brings up the modish 20th century rearguard.
Morally, Yossarian stands, almost alone in the novel, between two contrasting groups of characters – the decent men lit by social conscience, like Clevinger, and the conscienceless exploiters of situations for their own benefit, like Milo Minderbinder. We recognize these two types of humanity in normal life, but in the wartime situation of the novel their characteristics are exaggerated for better and for worse, respectively. These are the two types to whom Dawkins, also, gives salience in his game theory of Selfish Genes – the honest players and the cheats.
Clevinger, the “hero” pilot who always flies straight in to drop his bombs, without evasive action, and is lost in a cloud (Christ-like?), is the primary counterpoint to Yossarian. He argues with Yossarian about the greater obligations of winning the war, greater than obligations to oneself and one’s immediate fellows – obligations to those who will suffer if it is lost – but without mentioning self-sacrifice or personal heroism. Clevinger argues that morality is responsibility, but this is made to sound rarified stuff beside Yossarian’s simple and factual counterpoint of, “They are trying to kill me,” which is, indeed true, although not in a personal sense. A decade earlier Orwell prefigured this mantra in his essay “England Your England”:
‘As I write, highly civilized human beings are flying overhead, trying to kill me.
They do not feel any enmity against me as an individual, nor I against them. They are “only doing their duty”, as the saying goes.’
But unlike Yossarian, Orwell does not use this tragedy as a case for moral exit. Also of the Clevinger group are Captains Piltchard and Uren, men who adhere to the moral standards of the soldier, but unlike Clevinger have no theory of their heroism. They are so entirely non-flamboyant as to consider themselves almost mundane in their ability to relish danger, and they are mildly scorned as unimaginative by the disenchanted Yossarian.
Hellyer makes the actions and attitudes of the traditionally good and heroic appear ludicrous by setting them in the context of the self-seeking, hypocrisy, and corruption of his wonderfully funny depiction, absurd with a ring of truth, of airforce bureaucracy and individual capitalist enterprise. Milo, the trader in all stocks and merchandise, is the capitalist par excellence, the supreme economic rationalist, who can stretch his argument of trickle-down benefit (“Everyone is a member of the syndicate, and everybody has a share”) even to the bombing of his own squadron. In the same camp are officers at various levels whose principles stretch no further than ensuring the maximum chances for their own promotion. Yossarian is clearly not of this camp, and to begin with we are inclined to think of him as a lost sheep from the moral fold, who has seen, like Dawkins, that its members are doomed to be losers, but will not join the cheats who are in control. It is the shock of the revelation of “Snowdon’s secret” that has cast him out of the game.
However, as the novel proceeds we realize that Yossarian has always been in a moral no-man‘s land, a non-believer in either group. He was already playing sick and escaping to hospital while in training, well before the shell-shock experiences of Bologna and Avignon. Yossarian, before he was a coward, was the clowning rebel, the type who thinks it smart to mock society’s traditional values, the creature of bohemia and what used to be called free-thinking. Of similar character is the boy in an American short story (probably autobiographical, but I‘ve forgotten the author), working in a car-parking lot before going to college, who joked on hearing of Kennedy‘s assassination, and was taken aback when his uneducated companion African American attendant, who had previously let his iconoclastic chatter pass unremarked, turned on him with scorn, saying, ‘Don‘t you take anything seriously?’
The mystery of Snowdon’s secret is maintained for most of the novel as a substitute for genuine plot, and gives the impression of being the primary cause of Yossarian‘s moral collapse; but as the time line becomes clearer it appears that that experience was over Avignon, and even before that trauma Yossarian had forced a premature turning back from a mission to Bologna by deliberately pulling out the intercom to the pilot. Snowdon’s secret is an excuse, albeit revelatory, whose real meaning crystalizes for Yossarian only at the end of the novel, at the same time as we learn what the secret is.
Yossarian came to the war with the nihilism of the disaffected mid-twentieth century intellectual. It is not just a temporary anomie caused by shell shock. His amorality is a deep and dangerous trait, a model lethal to the sustaining role of society in human affairs. The religious nihilism of the nineteenth century was paved with a social commitment to freedom and individuality which, it was believed, would replace the chains of religion and social constraints, and create a better, happier society. Yossarian’s nihilism is unredeemed, and openly expresses a sole commitment to self at its starkest level – to hedonism and its necessary corollary, staying alive. It lacks even the mixed, deluding avowals of Milo’s capitalism. Wilde, in Dorian Gray, mythologizes the evil of this moral bankruptcy, but Hellyer allows it to be read as funny and clever, in a way that Wilde’s tale simply cannot. This was a philosophy that needed only to be expressed in order to be adopted by a young generation deracinated from class and culture by mass education and migration.
Having made the case for moral detachment in the context of a vicious society, Hellyer finally half about-turns, and contradicts the messages that its over-identifying readers have embraced. In the last two chapters the moral position changes. After a book’s length of bridling at the constant increase in the number of tours of duty imposed before being given leave, Yossarian refuses the deal offered him of returning home with a phoney award of honours. At this point, he finally reveals Snowden’s secret. Attempting to deal with Snowden’s leg wounds, he had found that in fact his guts had been shot away, and was overwhelmed by this confrontation with our undeniably carnal dependency. Conjointly, these events reorientate Yossarian and enable him to find a resolution for his anomic predicament.
The final significance of Snowden’s secret is not to say that we are only matter, only blood and guts, but that if we lose spirit that is all we are, and so we must not lose spirit, as Yossarian almost deliberately has. He realizes this when he reviews the Snowden incident, instigated by the spectre, mean-faced, who says to him, “We’ve got your pal”. This coincides with his decision not to accept the “deal”. He must escape, but must keep his soul intact.
We realize then that, underneath his reiterated cynicism, Yossarian is actually committed to the reasonableness which bureaucracy is meant to impose. His team have done their fair share of missions and should be relieved, not exploited in the service of Colonel Cathcart’s ambition; and the wounded should receive the morphine supplied for their needs, not be denied it as a result of Milo’s trading activities. It is individuals, not the system, that have made these well-meant provisions null and void. What can their victims do? Staying in the system and trying not to cooperate doesn’t work – the corrupters of the system are too powerful and too devious; and playing their game to achieve personal justice is “odious”, dishonourable. The only answer is to run away, like Orr – plan carefully and get out. You cannot win, inside, but you may escape. Just as Huxley’s Brave New World has a primitive zone where misfits can be human, Orr can find his way to a non-war-zone.
Yossarian’s solution is not heroic – heroes combat, not escape, and martyrs endure; but it is realistic, and it allows Yossarian at last to find that he believes in something. It at least rescues him from the state of moral passivity in which he has laboured for most of the book. In that condition he angrily blamed society for the pitifulness of a boy in a thin shirt and bare feet, but did not consider giving him his own warm coat. Redeemed, he determines not just to escape himself, but to rescue Nately’s whore’s kid sister.
Catch 22 is not really, in its fundamental ethics, primarily concerned to be anti-war, or anti-bureaucracy as such, but is rather, anti-totalitarian-bureaucracy. The state of war creates totalitarianism within democratic countries, and it is totalitarianism, as compared with democracy, that allows individuals to corrupt bureaucratic systems that are meant to be benign. It is thus ironic that it was seized on so enthusiastically by neo-Marxists as a denunciation of their own democratic, albeit capitalist, system. The author’s intentions apart, and they are sufficiently veiled to make this a complex novel rather than a logic-driven dissertation, Catch 22 cannot possibly, despite Milo, serve as a critique of capitalist societies – its mise en scene is entirely totalitarian.