Catch-22: The awful truth people miss about Heller's great novel.

Scrutinizing culture.
Aug. 2 2011 12:57 PM

Seeing Catch-22 Twice

The awful truth people miss about Heller's great novel.

(Continued from Page 2)

This dodge has been wearing thin, which is all the more reason Yossarian is impressed by the scam invented by a fellow airman in his ward. The guy suddenly sits up and shouts, "I see everything twice!"

Chaos follows. "A nurse screamed and an orderly fainted," Heller writes, "Doctors came running up from every direction with needles, lights, tubes, rubber mallets and oscillating metal tines. They rolled up complicated instruments. ..."

It's in keeping with the novel's trademark absurdist genius that everyone seems to take terribly seriously the condition of "seeing everything twice" even though, if you stop and try to think what that means, it makes no logical sense at all. (It's not double vision.) And yet it seems incredibly suggestive, whatever it is. Perhaps a distant reference to Marx's version of Hegel in The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Napoleon:Everything in history happens twice: First time as tragedy, second time as farce. Not a bad definition of Catch-22's literary genre: tragedy/farce.

The doctors struggle to decide which specialist should get to treat this unique but inexplicable syndrome and the airman gets to stay in the hospital. Before long Yossarian tries this gambit himself:

"The leader of this team of doctors was a dignified, solicitous gentleman who held up one finger directly in front of Yossarian and demanded, 'How many fingers do you see?' "

"Two," said Yossarian.

"How many fingers do you see now?" asked the doctor, holding up two.

"Two" said Yossarian.

"And how many now?" asked the doctor, holding up none.

"Two"" said Yossarian.

"The doctor's face wreathed with a smile. 'By Jove he's right,' he declared jubilantly. 'He does see everything twice.' "

"They rolled Yossarian away on a stretcher ... and quarantined everyone else in the ward for another fourteen days."

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I always loved this scene for its Marx Bros. refusal of logic and the fact that everyone accepts it as logically possible. And I think the scene is a key analog to another instance of the genre of black humor/aburdism that was so influential in American culture of the latter half of the 20th century. I have a strong feeling the awareness of the "seeing everything twice" line crept into Bob Dylan's absurdist "Stuck Inside of Mobile (With the Memphis Blues Again)". In those lines Dylan sings: "An' here I sit so patiently/Waiting to find out what price/You have to pay to get out of/going though all these things twice." It's no fun going from tragedy to farce.

But for me, the high point of the "I see everything twice" chapter, perhaps the thematic high point of the book, is Yossarian's astonishingly scathing denunciation of God.

It comes between the first time he sees the soldier who sees everything twice and his decision to pretend that he does, too.

This is the key theodicy (or anti-theodicy) passage that makes Catch-22 in its own way a religious (or anti-religious) novel. It grows out of an argument Yossarian recounts having the following year (time schemes are not rigidly adhered to in Catch-22), an argument with the wife of his commanding officer Lt. Scheisskopf. (Occasionally, subtlety isn't either.)

It's Thanksgiving Day and she's reproving Yossarian for not being thankful, and he says, "I bet I can name two things to be miserable about for every one you can name to be thankful for."

Among her responses: "Be thankful you're healthy."

"Be bitter you're not going to stay that way," he says.

"Be glad you're even alive," she says.

"Be furious you're going to die," he counters.

They continue until Yossarian launches into a pagelong denunciation of God that I think is the blasphemous heart of the book:

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