Joseph Heller’s Catch-22

For some years now, my dad has been telling me that I should read Joseph Heller’s Catch-22.  I picked up a copy in an Atlanta bookstore before flying down to Honduras a few weeks ago.  This resulted in countless moments of nearly hysterical laughter between my dad, my brother Condy, and myself as we read selections to one another in the mission home.

Catch-22 is a simultaneously hilarious, offensive, compelling, provocative, and, regrettably, unnecessarily crude novel about a group of American Army bombardiers stationed on the island of Pianosa off the coast of Italy in WWII.  Heller wrote the novel in 1961.  It quickly became a controversial modern classic that spawned a famous movie by the same name.  It also became a favorite of the 60’s anti-war movement, as t-shirts and bumper stickers with “Yossarian Lives!” began springing up here and there among movement types who found its message inspiring.

Yossarian is the anti-hero of the book.  A self-absorbed bombardier who is increasingly overwhelmed by the reality of war and fears of his own death, Yossarian becomes the vehicle through which Heller, and, presumably, a generation channeled their own angst at the absurdity of modern warfare.

Yet the book isn’t really just about Yossarian.  The chapters are essentially character studies that explore the various lives of the men stationed on Pianosa.  The chaplain with wavering faith figures prominently.  There’s Milo, the capitalist-run-amuck, Major Major Major Major, the ill-named recluse who is given the title of Major simply because of his father’s decision to make the same word his first, middle, and last name.  There’s Lieutenant Scheisskopf, who is obsessed with marching in parades, General Dreedle, a crazy old man who orders Major Danby carried out and shot for ogling his attractive young nurse, Nately, who is naively in love with a prostitute in Rome and does not seem to realize what she is, and a whole host of fascinating, bewildering, and hysterical characters whose stories interweave into a great big glorious mess of a novel that will stay with you for a long, long time.

The book became a favorite of the anti-war movement in the 60’s primarily because of its brilliant and scathing depiction of war as an insane thing that makes all men associated with it insane.  Yossarian seems more aware of this than anybody and tries desperately to out-insanity the insanity so that he can get sent home.  Yet, the more insane he acts and becomes the more he fits in.  So he intentionally drops his bombs in the ocean instead of hitting an innocent village full of people and he’s given a medal so that his superiors won’t look bad.  He shows up naked for the medal ceremony and the General refuses to take offense.  With Edenic imagery just beneath the surface, Heller has him sit naked in a tree during the funeral for one of the men, and the site of him merely causes those who see him to feel frightened and introspective.  But he is never sent home.

Yet Heller does not illustrate the insanity of war through merely comical means.  When Aarfy rapes a girl in Rome and throws her to her death out of a window, he is confronted by Yossarian, who is stricken by horror at the scene.  Aarfy chillingly responds, “But I only raped her once.”  When Yossarian counters that Aarfy actually murdered somebody and that the police, who are even then coming into the building to arrest him, are going to hall him off for life, Aarfy responds by noting that they wouldn’t send them over the ocean to kill thousands of men only to care about one little Italian girl.  Yossarian’s horror, and ours, is compounded and confirmed when the military police charge into the room and arrest not Aarfy for murder, but Yossarian for being AWOL in Rome!  It is one of the most poignant, disturbing, and powerful scenes in the book, and it shockingly confirms Aarfy’s theory.  Simultaneously, Heller is able to say to us that war dehumanizes all life and all people.

There is much in the book about God.  One senses that Heller has a keen sense of the evil in the world and levels it as an accusation against God.  One of the most frightening scenes is when Yossarian, in the name of atheism, rails against the person of God.

     “And don’t tell me God works in mysterious ways,” Yossarian continued, hurtling on over her objection.  “There’s nothing so mysterious about it.  He’s not working at all.  He’s playing.  Or else He’s forgotten all about us.  That’s the kind of God you people talk about – a country bumpkin, a clumsy, bungling, brainless, conceited, uncouth hayseed.  Good God, how much reverence can you have for a Supreme Being who finds it necessary to include such phenomena as phlegm and tooth decay in His divine system of creation?  What in the world was running through that warped, evil, scatological mind of His when He robbed old people of the power to control their bowel movements?  Why in the world did He ever create pain?”
“Pain?” Lieutenant Scheisskopf’s wife pounced upon the word victoriously.  “Pain is a useful symptom.  Pain is a warning to us of bodily dangers.”
“And who created the dangers?” Yossarian demanded.  He laughed caustically.  “Oh, He was really being charitable to us when He gave us pain!  Why couldn’t He have used a doorbell instead to notify us, or one of His celestial choirs?  Or a system of blue-and-red neon tubes right in the middle of each person’s forehead.  Any jukebox manufacturer worth his salt could have done that.  Why couldn’t He?”
“People would certainly look silly walking around with red neon tubes in the middle of their foreheads.”
“They certainly look beautiful now writhing in agony or stupefied with morphine, don’t they?  What a colossal, immortal blunderer!  When you consider the opportunity and power He had to really do a job, and then look at the stupid, ugly little mess He made of it instead, His sheer incompetence is almost staggering.  It’s obvious He never met a payroll.  Why, no self-respecting businessman would hire a bungler like Him as even a shipping clerk!”
Lieutenant Scheisskopf’s wife had turned ashen in disbelief  and was ogling him with alarm.  “You’d better not talk that way about Him, honey,” she warned him reprovingly in a low and hostile voice.  “He might punish you.”
“Isn’t He punishing me enough?”  Yossarian snorted resentfully.  “You know, we mustn’t let Him get away with it.  Oh, no, we certainly mustn’t let Him get away scot free for all the sorrow He’s caused us.  Someday I’m going to make Him pay.  I know when.  On the Judgment Day.  Yes, That’s the day I’ll be close enough to reach and grab that little yokel by His neck and –“
“Stop it!  Stop it!” Lieutenant Scheisskopf’s wife screamed suddenly, and began beating him ineffectually about the head with both fists.  “Stop it!”
…”What the h— are you getting so upset about?” he asked her bewilderedly in a tone of contrite amusement.  “I thought you didn’t believe in God.”
“I don’t,” she sobbed, bursting violently into tears.  “But the God I don’t believe in is a good God, a just God, a merciful God.  He’s not the mean and stupid God you make Him out to be.”
Yossarian laughed and turned her arms loose.  “Let’s have a little more religious freedom between us,” he proposed obligingly.  “You don’t believe in the God you want to, and I won’t believe in the God I want to.  Is that a deal?”

And yet, his railing proves that he is really no atheist.  Rather, he is outraged at the God of Christianity.  I could not help, though, but think of C.S. Lewis’ question about those who rail at God for the evil in the world.  Who exactly is it that gave us this sense of good and evil, this standard that we feel has been violated, and why are we outraged at the violation of it?

I was particularly struck by the chaplain, who emerges as a major character in the book.  Through him, Heller is able to make numerous statements about God.  The chaplain, for instance, is described as a man with a “lifelong trust…in the wisdom and justice of an immortal, omnipotent, omniscient, humane, universal, anthropomorphic, English-speaking, Anglo-Saxon, pro-American God…”  One senses here Heller’s outrage at the Americanization of God, without which (it could be argued) American militarism cannot proceed.

Catch22everymanslibraryclassicsFurthermore, we find the colonel questioning the chaplain about allowing enlisted men into the prayer meetings with the officers:

     “…And what’s with all this about enlisted men?  Just how the h— do they get into this act?”
The chaplain felt his face flush.  “I’m sorry, sir.  I just assumed you would want the enlisted men to be present, since they would be going along on the same mission.”
“Well, I don’t.  They’ve got a God and a chaplain of their own, haven’t they?”
“No, sir.”
“What are you talking about?  You mean they pray to the same God we do?”
“Yes, sir.”
“And He listens?”
“I think so, sir”
“Well, I’ll be d—–,” remarked the colonel, and he snorted to himself in quizzical amusement.

Earlier in his conversation with the colonel, we find this:

“Now, I want you to give a lot of thought to the kind of prayers we’re going to say.  I don’t want anything heavy or sad.  I’d like you to keep it light and snappy, something that will send the boys out feeling pretty good.  Do you know what I mean?  I don’t want any of this Kingdom of God or Valley of Death stuff.  That’s all too negative.  What are you making such a sour face for?”

“I’m sorry, sir,” the chaplain stammered.  “I happened to be thinking of the Twenty-third Psalm just as you said that.”

“How does that one go?”

“That’s the one you were just referring to, sir.  ‘The Lord is my shepherd; I –‘”

“That’s the one I was just referring to.  It’s out.  What else have you got?”

“Save me, O God; for the waters are coming in unto – “

“No waters,” the colonel decided, blowing ruggedly into his cigarette holder after flipping the butt down into his combed-brass ash tray.  “Why don’t we try something musical?  How about the harps on the willows?”

“That has the rivers of Babylon in it, sir,” the chaplain replied, “…there we sat down, yea, we wept, when we remembered Zion.”

“Zion?  Let’s forget about that one right now.  I’d like to know how that one even got in there.  Haven’t you got anything humorous that stays away from waters and valleys and God?  I’d like to keep away from the subject of religion altogether if we can.”

The chaplain was apologetic.  “I’m sorry, sir, but just about all the prayers I know are rather somber in tone and make at least some passing reference to God.”

“Then let’s get some new ones.  The men are already doing enough [complaining] about the missions I send them on without our rubbing it in with any sermons about God or death or Paradise.  Why can’t we take a more positive approach?  Why can’t we all pray for something too, like a tighter bomb pattern, for example?  Couldn’t we pray for a tighter bomb pattern?”

“Well, yes, sir, I suppose so,” the chaplain answered hesitantly.  “You wouldn’t even need me if that’s all you wanted to do.  You could do that yourself.”

“I know I could,” the colonel responded tartly.  “But what do you think you’re here for?  I could shop for my own food, too, but that’s Milo’s job…Your job is to lead us in prayers, and from now on you’re going to lead us in a prayer for a tighter bomb pattern before every mission.  Is that clear?  I think a tighter bomb pattern is something really worth praying for.”

One can find here an indictment of a culture’s shallow and ultimately atheistic invocation of God for that culture’s own means and ends.  And yet I couldn’t help but think here of the Church.  How often do our anthropocentric prayers fly on wings of doubt and disinterest in God?  How often is it the case that we don’t even need God for the inept things we pretend to bring to Him in prayer.

Whatever Heller thinks of God, it is clear that he is grappling with the reality of evil in this book.  The hilarity of the comic elements in this book make the discussion of evil that much more chilling.  In this regard, there can be no doubt that the chapter (significantly) entitled “The Eternal City,” when Yossarian walks through the streets of Rome and witnesses as a mute and numb specter one horrendous scene of violence and excess after another, is the most powerful chapter in the novel.

Here, Rome is depicted as an almost apocalyptic wasteland of filth and degradation.  Yossarian walks through the ruins like a zombie.  For once, he has no wit, no funny lines, and he is almost tangential to the chapter itself.  In this chapter, Heller drives home his point.  War makes us evil.  Or perhaps, we wage war because we are evil.  Or further still, war reveals the evil that we have lurking in our hearts.

Tellingly, we find the one respectful religious statement of the whole book in this chapter, and it is when Yossarian thinks about Jesus while witnessing these horrid scenes:

“The night was filled with horror, 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!”

It is a heartbreaking sentiment…and yet, encouraging.  For Heller, whether unintentionally or by design, has positioned the thought of Christ right in the middle of the most honest chapter in the whole book.  And he is right.  This is where we should find Christ: walking in the ruins of depraved humanity.

The book ultimately ends with escape, but for me it ends with Yossarian’s brief reflection on Christ, and the powerful truth that underlies his curiosity.  Christ indeed did walk among the insanity and evil of the world…and yet He did more, much more.

I don’t know what to tell you about this book.  It is not for everybody (and should not be for everybody), but if you would like to read a brilliant, often hilarious, but ultimately sobering depiction of one man’s honest attempt to come to terms with the nature of man, you can’t do better than Catch-22.

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