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The Book Club

Joseph Heller’s Catch-22

1. Catch-22. “Yossarian left money in the old woman’s lap … 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, criticise, attack, amend, hate, revile, spit at, rip to shreds, trample upon or burn up”. Based on the plot developments following the anti-hero Yossarian – narrated in from a third-person perspective – the sections below will explore some of the more prominent themes highlighted by Joseph Heller.

2. The bureaucracy and ineffectiveness of the military administration. As opposed to the popular belief and perception that glories army officers as war heroes and noble men who are constantly fighting for the bigger cause, Heller describes a squadron that is internally dysfunctional and inefficient; even though most assigned missions are completed. The generals and colonels are either concerned with their personal concerns – from desires to get promoted to the need to wield greater power and influence amongst their men – or simply unaware or uninformed of the greater national need. The superiors have no qualms volunteering their men for dangerous, life-threatening missions so as to advance their prestige and careers. These selfish concerns blind them to the needs and sentiments of their subordinates, which is epitomised in the never-ceasing increases in the required number of missions before the pilots are allowed to return home.

3. Irony of the absolute hold on power. Because of the rank and hierarchy reinforced in the military, men are subjugated to their superiors, and will hardly be listened to even if the former make valid points with regard to the execution of plans or assorted administrative details. In the later part of the novel, even though the Allied is assured of victory, and the pilots know that their flights are virtually inconsequential, their superiors are deaf to any alternatives proposed; and continue with the combat missions as one after another Yossarian’s counterparts die, except for Orr. The extent of the ridiculousness of situations is highlighted in the various “trials” conducted to determine whether individuals are guilty; with propositions and assertions that simply defy logic.

4. Doc Daneeka exemplifying the aforementioned. “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”.

5. Contemplating death. Yossarian’s rationality amongst individuals who have seemingly lost the plot makes him seem, on the contrary, insane. Logically, every human being strives to live and stay alive; but throughout the novel Yossarian becomes more worried about his commanders than the bombers who are trying to shoot him down in the air. The greater bureaucracy trivialises death, with the careless treatment of Mudd, little concern to verify with an individual has genuinely perished in mission, and the insincere, generic letters sent to the grieving families; after all, a death is merely a strike off the nominal roll. Yossarian’s counterparts are consistently fighting the front, generally because they have bought into the propaganda, and genuinely believe that they are fighting and dying for their country (probably because they have no choice at all). Major Danby asks Yossarian “but suppose everybody on our side felt that way” when Yossarian adopts the ‘why me’ attitude; thereafter Yossarian explains “then I’d certainly be a damned fool to feel any other way. Wouldn’t I”?

6. Milo’s selfish, pragmatic pursuit of profits. Yossarian aptly sums up the sentiments experienced by the reader when he comments that “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 impulse and human tragedy” towards the end of the novel. In the middle of the war, Milo is portrayed as being concerned with nothing else but methodologies to maximise his budget to continued earning money from trading and selling. He has created a complex goods exchange and sale system that sees him facilitating missions for both sides of the war – the Germans the Americans – which culminates in the ridiculous, organised bombing of his own base. As a private entrepreneur economic machineries take precedence, as Milo has no qualms with employing German pilots to fly his goods and produce. His conversation with Colonel Cathcart towards the end is most telling, as he is conveniently excused from flying at all, and has other men taking over his duties for him; even though Milo would be in line to take all the credit for their contributions.

7. Yossarian’s perspectives on life and death. “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”.

8. Are you with us, or against us? As the anti-hero of the text, Yossarian is constantly presented with the dilemma of whether he should independently stick to his ideals, or conform and join the collective group. Most of the time, he chooses to do the “right” thing in the reader’s point of the view, such as the decision to defer – in every way possible, with the sabotages to the food and bomb-line – flying needless, dangerous missions. In the end, when presented with the option to return home on the false pretext as a war hero on the terms of cooperating with the bureaucracy, Yossarian chooses to do otherwise, and seeks to head to Sweden after hearing of Orr’s miraculous escape.

9. The soldier in white. The sad fact about war is that men are treated as soldiers, as replaceable individuals with negligible character or individualisation; the assumption that the two soldiers in complete white bandages are the same person exemplifies this.

10. Doing superficial things that yielded no tangible benefits. “To Yossarian, the idea of pennants as prizes was absurd. No money went with them, no class privileges. Like Olympic medals and tennis trophies, all they signified was that the owner had done something of no benefit to anyone more capably than everyone else”.

About guanyinmiao

A man of knowledge lives by acting, not by thinking about acting. Carlos Castaneda.

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