Major Major Major Problems

In some ways Heller’s long digression on Major Major’s life seems to interrupt the development of the novel, but, in fact, it effectively shows that “Catch-22” is not limited to military life. Although Major Major is certainly a co-conspirator in the Col. Cathcart’s scheme to keep his pilots flying missions at all cost, Major Major seems to be such a willing victim because he has been a victim his whole life:

Major Major had been born too late and too mediocre. Some men are born mediocre, some men achieve mediocrity, and some men have mediocrity thrust upon them. With Major Major it had been all three. Even among men lacking all distinction he inevitably stood out as a man lacking more distinction than all the rest, and people who met him were always impressed by how unimpressive he was.

From the very beginning, life seemed to conspire to make Major Major a victim, beginning with a self-centered, hypocritical father whose “sense-of-humor” doomed him to be the butt of others:

Major Major’s father was a sober God-fearing man whose idea of a good joke was to lie about his age. He was a long-limbed farmer, a God-fearing, freedom-loving, law-abiding rugged individualist who held that federal aid to anyone but farmers was creeping socialism. He advocated thrift and hard work and disapproved of loose women who turned him down. His speciality was alfalfa, and he made a good thing out of not growing any.

(My students could never quite figure out why I had trouble reading this passage without at least snickering, but that’s probably because they didn’t have a father-in-law who earned considerable subsidies for raising wheat to sell to Japan, but who constantly harped against the clients his daughter and I served as welfare workers.)

The father’s greatest joke, of course, is the one played on his wife and his son. The fact that it was a particularly brutal one seemed to give him great satisfaction. Heller doesn’t have to fill in the rest of the details of Major’s childhood for the reader to imagine what his childhood must have been like. While I pray it was an exaggeration that his classmates would no longer play with him when they learned that he wasn’t really who he said he was, it seems all too believable that the shock and feelings of loss of identity would isolate him:

Nobody would have anything to do with him. He began to drop things and to trip. He had a shy and hopeful manner in each new contact, and he was always disappointed. Because he needed a friend so desperately, he never found one.

To my mind this is single most frightening example of Catch-22 in the entire book, because, as a teacher and parent, I have seen too many children devastated by being shunned by their peers. I even heard misguided parents tell their children not to play with another child because he was “weird.” It’s hard to imagine a better example of a self-fulfilling prophesy, the moral equivalent of a parent constantly telling their child they’re “no good.”

The harder he tried to overcome his feelings of inadequacy and gain favor with adults, the more they seemed to dislike him:

He never once took the name of the Lord his God in vain, committed adultery or coveted his neighbor’s ass. In fact, he loved his neighbor and never even bore false witness against him. Major Major’s elders disliked him because he was such a flagrant nonconformist.

Ever noticed it’s not “cool” to be “square?” Of course, it seems a bit strange that someone who does what he’s been taught is right can somehow be considered “square.” Reminds me a little of my unfortunate friend Lieutenant Maiden who didn’t drink and who was often ridiculed by the other 2nd lieutenants who somehow felt the truest test of manhood was to spend the night drinking and still be able to get up in the morning and lead PT with a hangover. I thought it was stupid to make fun of him, but I did my best to keep up with the drinking and never missed my turn in leading PT, no matter how bad I felt.

Little surprise, then, that Major Major finally discovers that lying is better than telling the truth:

Major Major had lied, and it was good. He was not really surprised that it was good, for he had observed that people who did lie were, on the whole, more resourceful and ambitious and successful than people who did not lie. Had he told the truth to the second C.I.D. man, he would have found himself in trouble. Instead he had lied, and he was free to continue his work.

It makes little sense to really expect people to tell the truth when society constantly rewards those who are less than truthful. If truth is really so highly valued, after all, why would we pay millions of dollars to those who produce those most skillful lies known as commercials, those sanctified lies that drive the economy. For that matter, why do we inevitably seem to elect leaders who can lie better than their opponents, and then somehow expect them to tell the truth after they’re elected?

Of course, after he has learned to lie, it’s a small step for this most honest of men to give in to greed and all the benefits awaiting those who take advantage of their position and power. Thus, though at first Major Major tells Milo Minderbinder that he wants to be served the same things his men were served, he’s seduced by the benefits of his office:

For dinner that night Milo served him broiled Maine lobster with excellent Roquefort salad and two frozen eclairs. Major Major was annoyed. If he sent it back, though, it would only go to waste or to somebody else, and Major Major had a weakness for broiled lobster. He ate with a guilty conscience. The next day for lunch there was terrapin Maryland with a whole quart of Dom Perignon 1937, and Major Major gulped it down without a thought.

Little wonder, then, at the end of the chapter that Major Major tells Yossarian, “I’m sorry” but there’s nothing I can do” when Yossarian asks for Major Major’s help in getting out of flying any more of Cathcart’s missions.

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