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Joseph Heller's Catch-22

Snowden’s Secret

In the end it’s hard to tell whether it’s Snowden’s or Nately’s death that finally inspires Yossarian to defy Cathcart, but it’s certainly Snowden’s death that haunts the novel:

There were too many dangers for Yossarian to keep track of. There were bartenders, bricklayers and bus conductors all over the world who wanted him dead, landlords and tenants, traitors and patriots, lynchers, leeches and lackeys, and they were all out to bump him off. That was the secret Snowden had spilled to him on the mission to Avignon-they were out to get him; and Snowden had spilled it all over the back of the plane.

There’s no doubt that death haunts Yossarian, but why wouldn’t it when dying is the only way out of war. Send people out on enough missions, and they’re bound to die. Fortunately, though, Snowden reveals more to Yossarian than just the inevitability of death:

Yossarian was cold, too, and shivering uncontrollably. He felt goose pimples clacking all over him as he gazed down despondently at the grim secret Snowden had spilled all over the messy floor. It was easy to read the message in his entrails. Man was matter, that was Snowden’s secret. Drop him out a window and he’ll fall. Set fire to him and he’ll burn. Bury him and he’ll rot like other kinds of garbage. The spirit gone, man is garbage. That was Snowden’s secret. Ripeness was all.

It is the human spirit, not mere existence, which gives life meaning.
Of course, despite this earlier realization, Yossarian still seems to accept Cathcart’s proposal:

“You see Yossarian, we’re going to put you on easy street. We’re going to promote you to major even give you another medal. Captain Flume is already working on glowing press releases describing your valor over Ferrara, your deep and abiding loyalty to your outfit and your consummate dedication to duty. Those phrases are all actual quotations, by the way. We’re going to glorify you and send you home a hero, recalled by the Pentagon for morale and public relations purposes. You’ll live like a millionaire. Everyone will lionize you. You’ll have parades in your honor and make speeches to raise money for war bonds. A whole world of luxury awaits you once you become our pal. Isn’t it lovely?

Now, most of us, despite our distaste for it, would probably accept this offer too because, frankly, it would allow us to walk away alive and still remain citizens of our country. Certainly that’s why Yossarian accepts it until:

Yossarian waved goodbye fondly to his new pals and sauntered out onto the balcony corridor, almost bursting into song the instant he was alone. He was home free; he had pulled it off; his act of rebellion had succeeded;he was safe, and he had nothing to be ashamed of to anyone. He started to the staircase with a jaunty and exhilarated air. When Yossarian returned the salute, the private in green fatigues turned suddenly into Nately’s whore and lunged at him murderously with a bone-handled kitchen knife that caught him in the side below his upraised arm.

In this topsy-turvy world, Nately’s whore, strangely enough, seems to represent Yossarian’s conscience. Every time he gets comfortable with a compromise, Nately’s whore shows up to haunt him, which, of course, also explains why he walks backward all the time. Rather than returning to the states when he could, Nately stayed and died because he loved the whore who seemed to disdain him until his death. By selling out to Catchcart and his friends, Yossarian would be betraying not only Nately but all those other pilots who secretly wished him well in his attempts to stand up to Cathcart.
Of course, in the end, it may well be that it was actually the news that Orr had reached Sweden that inspired Yossarian to turn down Cathcart and flee to Sweden instead. Once he found it really was possible to escape Catch-22, Yossarian seems willing to stand up to Cathcart and Milo because:

When I look up, I see people cashing in. I don’t see heaven or saints or angels. I see people cashing in on every decent moral impulse and every human tragedy.

Despite what most of my ex-students thought, despite what the conservative hawks would have you believe , Yossarian, like Atticus in To Kill a Mockingbird, is a true hero (if a fictional character can ever be a “true” anything) because he stands up for what he knows is right even though he knows he cannot win. In a postmodern world, perhaps that is all we can hope for. If we settle for less, we are victims of the most insidious Catch-22 of all, the Catch- 22 that exists in our minds.

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Joseph Heller's Catch-22

Milo’s Ultimate Betrayal

Considering that Yossarian is the only person that Milo trusts and his only “friend” throughout the story, it always seemed shocking to me how willing Milo is to betray Yossarian to Cathcart in order to earn combat medals:

Yossarian?” “A tremor of deep concern passed over Milo’s simple, homespun features, and he scratched the corner of his reddish-brown mustache thoughtfully.
“Yeah, Yossarian. I hear he’s going around saying that he’s finished his missions and the wars over for him. Well, maybe he has finished his missions. But he hasn’t finished your missions, has he? Ha! Ha! Has he got a surprise coming to him!”
“Sir, Yossarian is a friend of mine,” Milo objected. “I’d hate to be responsible for doing anything that would put him back in combat. I owe a lot to Yossarian. Isn’t there any way we could make an exception of him?
“Oh, no, Milo.” Colonel Cathcart clucked sententiously, shocked by the suggestion. “We must never play favorites. We must always treat every man alike.”
“I’d give everything I own to Yossarian,” Milo persevered gamely in Yossarian’s behalf. “But since I don’t own everything, I cant give everything to him, can I? So he’ll just have to take his chances with the rest of the men, won’t he?”

It might be easier to understand Milo’s betrayal if he could make a profit on it, but apparently it is his personal ambition and not just greed that drives him. That does put Milo in the same camp as Colonel Cathcart and Colonel Korn, clearly showing that greed, including the thirst for power is, the corrupting force in the novel.

Ultimately, it is Milo’s betrayal that drives Yossarian to go AWOL. Ironically, Milo complains that Yossarian is putting him in a bad position:

He was placing Milo in a very uncomfortable position, too. Yossarian nodded again. The men were starting to grumble. It wasn’t fair for Yossarian to think only of his own safety while men like Milo, Colonel Cathcart, Colonel Korn, and ex-P.F.C. Wintergreen were willing to do everything they could to win the war. The men with seventy missions were starting to grumble because they had to fly eighty, and there was a danger some of them might put on guns and begin walking around backward, too. Morale was deteriorating and it was all Yossarian’s fault. The country was in peril; he was jeopardizing his traditional rights of freedom and independence by daring to exercise them

.

How unfortunate that Yossarian is making Milo uncomfortable. Of course, it’s Yossarian’s fault that morale is deteriorating. Talk about d”j” vu. Do you think that conservatives who criticize those opposing the Iraq war would understand the true meaning of the last line here, or would they read it literally? Let me guess. It’s surprising they even let us vote in such dangerous times.

When Yossarian discovers that the prostitutes have been driven out of their house by the M.P.’s, he finally suspects that Catch-22 doesn’t really exist except in the minds of its victims:

Yossarian left money in the old woman’s lap”it was odd how many wrongs leaving money seemed to right”and strode out of the apartment, cursing Catch-22 vehemently as he descended the stairs, even though he knew there was no such thing, Catch-22 did not exist, he was positive of that, but it made no difference. What did matter was that everyone thought it existed, and that was much worse, for there was no object or text to ridicule or refute, to accuse, criticize, attack, amend, hate, revile, spit at, rip to shreds, trample upon or burn up.

While leaving money may help to ameliorate wrongs, it really doesn’t resolve the problem, does it? More importantly, though, this seems to suggest that it’s not money, per se, that is the source of the problem. We see that greed destroys man’s values quite clearly Milo’s abandons Yossarian:

“Milo!” Yossarian yelled and bounded forward impulsively to intercept him. “Milo, you’ve got to help me.”
“Illegal tobacco,” Milo explained to him with a look of epileptic lust, struggling doggedly to get by. “Let me go. I’ve got to smuggle illegal tobacco.”
“Stay here and help me find her,” pleaded Yossarian. You can smuggle illegal tobacco tomorrow.”

This “epileptic lust” defeats even Milo’s best attempts to do the “right thing.” If he would abandon his best friend, how can we expect anything more from him?

Milo’s Judas-like betrayal directly leads into Yossarians dark vision of the “eternal city:”

Yossarian quickened his pace to get away, almost ran. The night was filled with horrors, and he thought he knew how Christ must have felt as he walked through the world, like a psychiatrist through a ward full of nuts, like a victim through a prison full of thieves. What a welcome sight a leper must have been.
As if the stark poverty wasn’t enough, Yossarian also realizes that these victims of war, the most vulnerable of the population, continue to be exploited by those in authority:

Yossarian smiled wryly at the futile and ridiculous cry for aid, then saw with a start that the words were ambiguous, realized with alarm that they were not, perhaps, intended as a call for police but as a heroic warning from the grave by a doomed friend to everyone who was not a policeman with a club and a gun and a mob of other policemen with clubs and guns to back him up. “Help! Police!” The man had cried, and he could have been shouting about danger.

This Dark Night of the Soul, with its realistic, yet fantastic, portrayal of a city and country destroyed by war leads directly to Yossarian’s decision to finally stand up for what he believes in.