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.

Joseph Heller. Click image to expand.
Joseph Heller

I still fondly remember the day my father told me, "Hey, I just got a letter from Joseph Heller."

Now, my father wasn't a big reader and rarely wrote letters, much less to authors. But when I went through a phase in high school of constantly carrying Catch-22 around and quoting from it and writing things like, "There was only one catch and that was catch-22" in magic marker on phone booths in the supermarket parking lot where I worked as a shopping cart retriever (superdistinguished summer job!), my father asked to borrow my copy and, to my surprise, became an instant fan.

I guess it shouldn't have been so surprising. He had served as a wartime second lieutenant and was fond of quoting to me and my sister such profound military maxims as, "There's a right way, a wrong way and the army way." (Which meant: Do things my way, right or wrong.)

And I think he was impressed when I stumped him with what I would later come to think of as Joseph Heller's hilarious refutation of Kant's Categorical Imperative.

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There's a scene in the World War II novel when some officer or other reproves the novel's anti-hero, Capt. Yossarian, for trying to escape another of the ever-escalating number of dangerous bombing missions he's ordered to fly.

"Suppose everybody on our side felt that way," the officer demands, echoing Kant's imperative—that one should decide how to act by envisioning the consequences if everyone else acted that way. It's a maxim much beloved by parents. Mine, anyway.

So, if everybody else acted that way? "Then I'd certainly be a damned fool to feel any other way," Yossarian says.

Beautiful! It was one of the reasons I fell madly in love with the novel. Almost the way Yossarian says he fell for the chaplain in the first lines of the book. (Heller said he found a way to start writing Catch-22 when he heard in his head a version of the first lines: "It was love at first sight. The first time Yossarian saw the chaplain he fell madly in love with him.") It's one of the novel's amazing achievements that it may be the darkest, most profoundly negative vision of existence in modern fiction, yet it leaves you with a feeling of mad love for its crazy beauty.

Anyway my father was moved enough by his love of the novel to write a letter to Heller telling him how perfectly he had captured the absurdity of military life ("the army way") and how much it had moved him that someone understood. And it moved me that we could share this literary affection. So I was even more affected that Heller would take the time—a year after publication, just when Catch-22 was taking off and becoming the multimillion-copy best-seller it would be—to write a letter to my father thanking him for sharing his experience with the war and the military mind.

Every time I recall that, I think about the way reading Catch-22 changed my life. Maybe not for the better. Sometimes I think the book predisposed me to tangle with authority, and made me think that all authority was a joke founded upon pretense. (It's not?) But even though the book shaped me from a young age, the way I think about it changed, somewhat abruptly, about a dozen years ago.

If you remember the novel, you'll remember the chapter in the middle of the book about the soldier who "sees everything twice." (If you haven't read it, you really should get yourself a copy, and now is an optimal moment: The book is 50 years old; a biography of Heller and a memoir by his daughter are both just hitting bookstore shelves; and there's a 50th anniversary edition already in stores with an affectionate and perceptive introduction by Christopher Buckley, who became a close friend of Heller's later in his life.)

Curiously enough it was something Christopher's father, William F. Buckley Jr., published in his magazine the National Review some years ago that caused me to rethink why I like Catch-22— led me, in effect, to see Catch-22 twice. And even more curious than that was the fact that what Buckley pere had published was an attack on the novel by Norman Podhoretz, who had something of a negative obsession with the book.

Before I seek to explain my second sight (my new vision) I should probably mention that Simon & Schuster, which is publishing the 50th-anniversary edition, also published my most recent book—about what you might call the catch-22 of nuclear deterrence.

Most people see Catch-22 as an "anti-war novel." But I'm not sure that's exactly right, or that it goes far enough.

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