Seeing Catch-22 Twice
The awful truth people miss about Heller's great novel.
"And don't tell me God works in mysterious ways," Yossarian continued, hurtling over her objections. "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? ... Oh, He was really being charitable to us when He gave us pain! [to warn us of danger] 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? ... 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. ..."
Wow! It's a tour de force of anti-Deism. People speak too narrowly when they talk of Catch-22 as a satire of humanity. It's that, yes, and there are few better. But it's really a vicious satiric attack on God, as much as his poorly made creatures. This denunciation of God comes from the heart—Yossarian's, anyway—and transcends any denunciation of the evil of war. It's about the evil of existence itself and the creator of that existence and that evil.
I actually think that the importance of this passage dwarfs the obviousness of the passage about Snowden's death, which critics tirelessly tell us is the supreme moment of the novel. Yossarian's supposedly shocking discovery of mortality just does not live up to the metaphysical venom of this novel. OK, it's horrible to have someone's guts spill into your hands, but give me a break, he's been through war, he's seen death.
But the passage in the "I see everything twice" chapter is far more caustic, scathing, and deeply shocking and disturbing. Because it's not saying "death is bad." It's saying life is bad, existence is horrible. Why, in fact, get all upset about leaving the shambles of existence this deranged "country bumpkin" Creator has bequeathed us?
Once you get this you see Catch-22 twice or maybe for the first time.
I still love the book the way I used to, I still find it funnier than almost any other piece of literature. But there is a hidden "what's so funny here, anyway" aspect to the book as well, once you get beyond the war-is-hell and the officers-are-idiots. Life is hell. What kind of God created a world in which we'd have a Hitler to fight in the first place? Oh, it's a test, you say? Give me a spinal tap (in fact, give me Spinal Tap) instead.
Indeed, thinking about it in this way I wonder if both my father and I were touched by the same intuition that the novel is both tragedy and farce with a bleak vision of existence that encompasses far more than mere military madness.
And rereading the "everything twice" chapter for maybe the 10th time I had another intuition, perhaps a bit far-fetched: I think this passage is so fundamental I'd speculate that the choice of Catch-22 to replace Catch-18 can perhaps be linked to the "I see everything twice" chapter. Maybe it was unconscious, but think of the number 22: It's seeing two, twice. I rest my case.
Ron Rosenbaum is the author of The Shakespeare Wars and Explaining Hitler. His latest book is How the End Begins: The Road to a Nuclear World War III.
Photograph of Joseph Heller by Jerry Bauer.