“What a lousy earth! He wondered how many people were destitute that same night even in his own prosperous country, how many homes were shanties, how many husbands were drunk and wives socked, and how many children were bullied, abused, or abandoned. How many families hungered for food they could not afford to buy? How many hearts were broken? How many suicides would take place that same night, how many people would go insane? How many cockroaches and landlords would triumph? How many winners were losers, successes failures, and rich men poor men? How many wiseguys were stupid? How many happy endings were unhappy endings? How many honest men were liars, brave men cowards, loyal men traitors, how many sainted men were corrupt, how many people in positions of trust had sold their souls to bodyguards, how many had never had souls? How many straight-and-narrow paths were crooked paths? How many best families were worst families and how many good people were bad people? When you added them all up and subtracted, you might be left with only the children, and perhaps with Albert Einstein and an old violinist and sculptor somewhere.”
The military machine is one of capitalism`s ugliest children. Why do I say that? Well, because of the business opportunities that entrepreneurs see in waging war; not for the good of a nation of people who wish to believe they are engaging in a just enterprise to salve their conscience, but to see military aggression as a means of making a tidy personal profit.
Catch 22 seems to be one of those books which everyone knows about, but few have actually girded up their loins sufficiently to tackle it`s 500 pages. It`s a bit like the Bible in popular culture; you`ve heard, or seen fragments of the great work from time to time, better never ploughed the entire field from beginning to end. Well, the field that Joseph Heller sowed with such diligence some 50+ years ago, bestowed upon those who love the written word, a bounteous crop of everlasting joy in it`s absurdist humour, which crackled and popped it`s way into the American post-war novel.
War is merely a clothes line on which Heller hangs his searing, remorseless satire of sublime incompetent bureaucratic idiocy, and pure military insanity, where the American Air Force is paid to bomb it`s own base as part of shady business deal with the supposed “enemy” in order to preserve profit margins. The bomber base situated on a small Mediterranean island, is run by Colonel Cathcart; he`s a man who loves to accumulate medals at someone else`s expense, by sending his mentally frazzled crew men on an open ended bombing mission to impress his superiors.
Our hero, Yossarian, has flown 50, and wants out. But he`s thwarted by a catch, Catch 22, a clause which certifies that pilots don`t have to fly if they are certified as insane, but that being driven mad by fear is a fundamentally rational reaction……………
“There was only one catch, and that was Catch 22, that specified that a concern for one`s 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 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 had to. Yossarian was moved very deeply by the absolute simplicity of this clause of Catch 22 and let out a respectful whistle.”
The result, is that no one can leave the roller coaster. The gloriously, all enveloping insane logic of the situation slowly unfolds as the book progresses; the paradox which perches like a smug, bloated bull frog on it`s lily pad, is that insanity is sanity, and resistance is futile. Yossarian openly pleads for human survival; he`s seen through the self justifying murky fabrication of war and religion, and comes to the conclusion that he`s eternally trapped in a madhouse where the lunatics are in charge………………..
“You`re antagonistic to the idea of being robbed, exploited, degraded, humiliated or deceived. Misery depresses you. Ignorance depresses you. Persecution depresses you. Violence depresses you. Slums depress you. Greed depresses you. Crime depresses you. Corruption depresses you. You know, it wouldn`t surprise me if you`re a manic-depressive!”
Even the base psychiatrist has bought into the lunacy which surrounds Yossarian. Madness runs through every exchange: the hollow foolishness of war, and the jobsworth, bureaucratic mindset becomes an exhilarating project for Heller to strip bare in all their universal, mad folly. On a rare trip to Rome away from the madhouse, Yossarian is depressed even further to witness the decay of human behaviour all around him; it`s a truly shocking, worrying, and haunting moment.
“Men went mad and were rewarded with medals. All over the world, boys on every side of the bomb line were laying down their lives for what they had been told was their country, and no one seemed to mind, least of all the boys who were laying down their young lives.There was no end in sight.”
The book is pervaded with a loopy, off-kilter sense of humour which is wonderfully exemplified in the names so many of the characters proudly boast. There is Colonel Korn, and Lieutenant Mudd ( of whom we are constantly reminded “…his name is Mudd”); and Major Major Major, who`s name not only continues to grow exponentially as the book progresses, but has a job as “safe as houses” because the Air Force refuses to promote, or demote him in case it were to lose it`s only Major Major. The whole book exists within an hallucinogenic Alice in Wonderland world which seems to be fueled by the magic mushroom of absurdist humour. It plays on idioms and implied actions which are hurled back at the misled reader with the power of a verbal hydrogen bomb.
“Sure, that`s what I mean,” Doc Daneeka said. ” A little grease is what makes this world go round. One hand washes the other. Know what I mean? You scratch my back, I`l scratch yours.”
Yossarian knew what he meant.
“That`s not what I meant,” said Doc Daneeka, as Yossarian began scratching his back.
Heller delights in repetition, and nothing is allowed to reside in any way to mean something; everything has an echo which mocks itself, resulting in an absurd, merciless, comedic carousel which leaves us with the horrible suspicion that nothing out there really means anything; there lurks a disturbing emptiness at the heart of things. The novel`s comedic surface gloss is repeatedly punctured by the dark, underlying source of it`s comedy; Yossarian`s traumatic memories of a bombing mission which went wrong, when a young crew mate was disemboweled and bled to death. Finally, Yossarian allows the trauma to wash over and cleanse his troubled soul, and mercilessly reveals to him the savage lack of meaning; the comedy has simply been a vehicle on which stupefied, horror struck humanity has hitched a lift on it`s one way ticket to the hell of madness. What goes round, comes round, and the whole thing starts over again……………..