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.

4 thoughts on “Catch 22: Chapters 1-5”

  1. Do you think Heller conceives of Catch-22 as a purely military invention, or does he extend its provenance to other institutions as well?

    There’s a sociological literature on “greedy institutions” (I think that’s the term, anyway) that may be relevant. Or not.

  2. Oh, I definitely think he extends it to other institutions, even to life in general.

    Major Major’s whole life is a Catch-22 inflicted by a father with a twisted sense of humor. My favorite line in the whole novel may well be the line about Major Major which says “Because he needed a friend so desperately, he never found one.”

    In every class where we read this novel there seemed to be students who needed just one true friend but were rejected because they weren’t popular.

  3. Sure enough, my library branch doesn’t have. I’ve placed an order and will try to catch up when it arrives.

    But this is a book that I found disturbing, and your favorite line is one part of it, Loren.

    Good for us to be disturbed, eh?

Comments are closed.