Catch 22: Chapters 1-5

If you’re confused at the end of Chapter 5, don’t despair because there are so many loose ends in these chapters that no one could possibly understand them until later in the book. In fact, Heller seems to want readers to question “reality.” Unlike Yossarian, we aren’t living in the hospital; we’re part of the same insane world that threatens Yossarian.

Although Yossarian may appear to be insane, he begins to state his case when he thinks:

Insanity is contagious. This is the only sane ward in the whole hospital. Everybody is crazy but us. This is probably the only sane ward in the whole world, for that matter.

Virtually everything in the first five chapters seems devoted to proving this statement, and it’s not easy to prove because everything we’ve been taught by society would seem to argue to the contrary.

For instance, on first acquaintance most of us would probably like Appleby:

Everything Appleby did, he did well. Appleby was a fair-haired boy from Iowa who believed in God, Motherhood and the American Way of Life, without ever thinking about any of them, and everybody who knew him liked him.

After all, what’s not to believe in? When Yossarian growls “I hate the son of a bitch,” there seems to be little reason to agree with Yossarian. It seems like little more than sour grapes on Yossarian’s part.

Yossarian certainly doesn’t fit the model of the ideal airman. Unfortunately, I suspect I would have preferred to have Havermeyer in my unit in Vietnam than Yossarian. After all:

Havermeyer was a lead bombardier who never missed. Yossarian was a lead bombardier who had been demoted because he no longer gave a damn whether he missed or not. He had decided to live forever or die in the attempt, and his only mission each time he went up was to come down alive.

Who wouldn’t want a man who actually completes his mission over one who only worried about staying alive. That sounds more like the definition of a coward than a hero. In fact, it’s probably not until we discover Havermeyer shooting mice in the middle of the night that we begin to have our doubts:

Havermeyer had grown very proficient at shooting field mice at night with the gun he had stolen from the dead man in Yossarian’s tent. His bait was a bar of candy and he would presight in the darkness as he sat waiting for the nibble with a finger of his other band inside a loop of the line he had run from the frame of his mosquito net to the chain of the unfrosted light bulb overhead. The line was taut as a banjo string, and the merest tug would snap it on and blind the shivering quarry in a blaze of light. Havermeyer would chortle exultantly as he watched the tiny mammal freeze and roll its terrified eyes about in frantic search of the intruder. Havermeyer would wait until the eyes fell upon his own and then he laughed aloud and pulled the trigger at the same time, showering the rank, furry body all over the tent with a reverberating crash and dispatching its soul back to his or her Creator.

Now I’m not saying that this isn’t precisely the kind of man I wanted in combat with me, but there’s obviously also something severely twisted about Havermeyer. He’s such an efficient killing machine that he’s lost touch with his own humanity.

Unfortunately, Havermeyer isn’t the only thing twisted beyond recognition by war. Regulations supposedly written to bring order and justice to the military have become equally twisted:

“Sure there’s a catch,” Doc Daneeka replied. “Catch-22. Anyone who wants to get out of combat duty isn’t really crazy.”

There was only one catch and that was Catch-22, which specified that a concern for one’s own safety in the face of dangers that were real and immediate was the process of a rational mind. Orr was crazy and could be grounded. All he had to do was ask; and as soon as he did, he would no longer be crazy and would have to fly more missions. Orr would be crazy to fly more missions and sane if he didn’t, but if he was sane he had to fly them. If he flew them he was crazy and didn’t have to; but if he didn’t want to he was sane and he had to. Yossarian was moved very deeply by the absolute simplicity of this clause of Catch-22 and let out a respectful whistle.

I’m sure most soldiers who have fought in a war would identify with this concept, though I’m assuming it never really existed. Most of us didn’t want to fight, knew that it was “crazy” to charge a gun position, knew it was crazy to crawl down a booby-trapped tunnel, but still didn’t feel that we had any choice. Our own ideas of what it meant to “be a man” created our dilemmas. We were damned if we did, and damned if we didn’t. We had created a Catch-22 in our own minds. Of course, it’s one thing to create your own Catch-22 and something very different for your government to create one, which is what it makes it so insidious here, especially when the doctor, the symbol of healing, is the one going along with it.

A Personal Introduction to Catch-22

I first encountered Catch-22
while on duty in Vietnam. A college friend “without-a-clue” (actually probably my best friend in life though I haven’t seen him for several years) sent it to me because he found it both enlightening and funny. Unfortunately, I found it neither. Caught in the middle of my own catch-22, I had no desire to truly see my situation. After reading the first fifty pages, I discarded the book and turned to the schmaltzy writings of some Muslim mystic-poet long since forgotten. What I needed in Vietnam wasn’t a dose of reality but rather pure escapist literature that allowed me to avoid looking at the harsh reality of a badly-fought war fought for, at best, questionable reasons.

It wasn’t until years later that I again encountered this novel on the reading list for my Master’s Degree Program and, though it wasn’t covered in a course, it was required reading for the written and oral exams. Luckily I had put enough distance between Vietnam and myself that I could look at the novel with a new perspective, and it became one of my favorite 20th century novels. Later, I chose to teach it in my Honors American Studies class as representative of a “modern classic,” and as my sole attempt to deal with the effects Vietnam had had on our country.

That said, it’s obviously not an easy novel to read. Some people are put off by its lack of a straightforward, narrative. This lack of narrative structure isn’t made any easier by the misleading titles that suggest each chapter is a devoted to a particular character, when in reality the character may not appear until the very end of the chapter and turn out to be merely a minor part of the chapter bearing their name, only to become a major character in a later chapter bearing the name of an entirely different character.

Anyone who has made it through Joyce or Faulkner, though, should find Heller’s novel relatively easy to follow. In fact, it seems to me that Hellers’ method of telling a story is probably more “realistic” than the common literary technique of merely retelling a person’s whole life directly. This, not straightforward narrative, is how we learn about people in real life, as bloggers well know. Most of us are introduced to people indirectly, either through comments made on a site visited by both or through references made on another site. Even when do read a blogger’s site we learn very little about them directly. Instead, we begin to understand them little by little as they reveal themselves through their commentary on other issues. Readers who are willing to trust this kind of self-revelation will find that Catch 22
is a very perceptive novel that isn’t all that difficult to follow.

Some readers may find its strange mixture of humor and harsh reality both confusing and repulsive. I must admit, that I found the movie version a bit more violent than I liked. That violence is also in the novel, but for those like myself who lack imagination, the violence is mitigated by the words themselves. It’s one thing to visually experience violence, something quite different to read about it. In this novel, words are a much-needed mitigating factor.

I suspect it also helps if you appreciate “military humor,” that dark, ironic sense of humor that makes it possible to get through the impossible. I found it embarassing to read the book while students read it because they were always startled when I would break out laughing. Unfortunately, they seldom laughed while reading it, though I did have a few break into tears while reading it. Those readers old enough to fondly remember the series Get Smart
, or so lacking a life that they’ve followed it in re-runs, will appreciate the humor in this novel if they found lines like “Would you believe”” both funny and apt. This kind of humor makes it possible to laugh when you really want to cry out in rage or despair. This sense of humor is so ingrained in me that, as a hiking friend noted, I resort to such humor when I find myself in dire straights, facing undesirable alternatives.

I doubt that many patriotic supporters of the Great SUV-Wars will appreciate Heller’s humor, though. Heller is a true radical, one who sees with laser-like vision through the patently false patriotism that demands the ultimate sacrifice for some while generously rewarding those willing to cash in on other people’s idealism.